Everyone said Ramla didn’t speak because of what happened the night she was born. She neither spoke to nor made eye contact with another human being for the first five years of her life. People said she must have been touched by a duppy or a spirit, which stayed with her, swallowed her voice, and made her misbehave as she grew.
It wasn’t that Ramla couldn’t speak. It was that she was far too busy to waste her time and energy on idle chatter. She was busy examining patterns in the world around her: the way the night air buzzed with energy during a full moon, for instance. She liked to go outside and stare up at the sky, her mouth open, head back. As young as two years old, she disappeared from the third-floor apartment, prompting wide-scale panic. Her family often found her down the block, sitting on someone’s stoop, where she could get a good view of the night sky, her tiny Mary Janes lined neatly together, her hands clasped between her knees. She was waiting for something; she didn’t know what it was or when it would happen, but out there under the full moon, she felt closer to it, whatever it was. She escaped whenever she could, waiting for the something to appear. There were punishments and spankings; her mother put multiple locks high up on the apartment door, but somehow, she always got out.
Sometimes she was so enthralled with the ways in which people’s voices changed and their eyes shifted when they weren’t quite telling the truth that it never occurred to her to respond when they spoke to her. She was too busy noticing. She noticed the difference between the lies told at Christmas about Santa Claus and the stories her grandmother, Ma Nora, told her about Anancy, the half-man, half-spider ginal or trickster, who lived in the African forest, manipulating his fellow animals for his own gain.
Ramla knew animals didn’t talk, but there was something about the Anancy stories that appealed to her. Maybe it was Anancy’s cunning, or it was the way the stories showed human nature in a raw and undisguised way. Maybe it was that Ma Nora told Ramla these were the same stories her own mother used to tell her while they sat shelling peas on the tiny verandah of their wooden house up in the hills of Hanover, Jamaica. These stories felt more real than all the books Ramla’s mother tried to read her at night; stories about Dick and Jane, their white lives, and their white dog, Spot. Those stories weren’t real to Ramla, and she often closed her eyes and pretended to fall asleep so her mother would kiss her forehead and put the books away.
Ma Nora, wrapped up in a blanket against the damp cold of their dark apartment in the winter, or fanning herself vigorously in the stifling heat of summer, told Ramla Anancy stories from memory. As she talked, her brown eyes became dreamy in her dark, lined face, as though she could see the story she was describing. Her colorfully wrapped head leaned against the back of the dark green easy chair, her long skirts hiding the white stuffing spilling out of the cushions. Ma Nora was the only member of the family unbothered by Ramla’s silence and preoccupation.
“Leave di pickney alone,” Ma Nora said to Ramla’s parents. “She a go talk when she ready.”
“But, Mama, you nuh think sey duppy tek her?” Ramla’s mother, Isis, asked often. “That day when she born –”
“That day when she born was a perfect day,” Ma Nora replied. “Dis pickney special.”
Each time, Isis sighed and walked away, her face creased with worry. Ma Nora would smile at Ramla and wink. Ma Nora was the only one Ramla looked at, especially in her earlier years, before she learned how to smile just to make her parents leave her alone.
Ramla was born on March 20, 1935. That night Harlem erupted over rumors of the killing of a young Black boy at the hands of police and a white shop owner. People said the riots weren’t really about the death of the young boy, but that it was the final straw. The boy had been caught stealing a penknife in Kress department store and arrested, according to the whispers running through the city that night. When a throng of angry Black residents grew outside the store, the police used their batons liberally to disperse the crowd. The boy was later found at home unharmed but it hadn’t been about him at all.
When Ramla’s mother went into labor, there were no taxis to take her to Harlem Hospital. Crowds of rioters ran up and down the streets, smashing store windows and setting fires. As Isis lay balled up in her bed, writhing from contraction after contraction, her husband, Solomon, went outside to find a taxi, or someone with a car who could give them a ride. But even if he had found a car, they would not have been able to drive to the hospital. The streets were chaotic, and the police beat every Black person they caught.
Solomon returned to the walk-up apartment and paced the floor, clenching and unclenching his right hand, his empty left sleeve turned up and pinned at the neck, as his mother tended to his screaming wife. When he realized he would not be able to take Isis to the hospital he went out several times looking for a midwife.
Finally, one of the times he returned, a short Indian woman came with him. She wore layers of brightly colored fabric, wrapped around her body, her long, black hair slicked into a smooth plait to her waist. She didn’t speak English but pointed to her chest and introduced herself as Ramilah. She nodded to Ma Nora as she unwrapped her layers of fabric. Ma Nora nodded back and stepped aside without a word.
Solomon led Ramilah into the bedroom, where Isis lay weak and panting, her hair soaked and knotted from rolling around in the bed. Ma Nora told Ramla that when Isis saw the small Indian woman, her eyes opened wide and she screamed out, “Lawd, God! Yuh come fi mi!”
Later, Isis would say that she hadn’t seen Ramilah at all, but that she saw a tall Black woman, her face shining so brightly Isis couldn’t see her features. Her head touched the ceiling, and she stretched out her arms to Isis, as if to tell her to come. Isis, believing she was dying, called out to the spirit to take her. When Ramilah stepped close to tend to her, Isis said the Black woman’s face continued to be obscured by a bright light, but that Isis knew she was good and kind, and there to help.
Ma Nora and Solomon watched as Ramilah delivered the baby girl, speaking soothingly to Isis in another language. But Isis reported that Ramilah spoke to her in Jamaican patois, telling her when to push, when to breathe, encouraging her, telling her she was doing a good job. When the baby came, as Ramilah wrapped the baby and handed her to Isis, Ramilah said, “Prophet child, spirit child.” But neither Ma Nora nor Solomon heard this.
After the baby was latched onto Isis’ breast and suckling happily, Ramilah stood back and watched, seeming in deep thought. She turned to Solomon and nodded. She wrapped herself up in her cloths as Solomon tried to give her money. He had saved up for the birth of his child and it wasn’t much, but he was proud to have something to give. Ma Nora told Ramla the Indian woman pushed Solomon’s hand and the money away, walking to the door.
Before she left the house, she stood for a moment, looking through the small apartment into the bedroom, staring at the mother and child. She nodded again to Ma Nora and Solomon and walked out the door. Solomon asked around the neighborhood after the riots, trying to find Ramilah again to pay her, but no one knew who he was talking about.
Solomon insisted on naming his daughter Ramilah, but they didn’t know how to pronounce the name properly, didn’t know how to spell it, and when the birth certificate came back with the spelling R-a-m-l-a, they accepted it gratefully, and told the story of the duppy who appeared and delivered the child.
Ramla listened to these accounts of her birth with great interest. Each time the story was told she filed away another small detail about what Ramilah was wearing, how she looked at the mother and child, how Isis described the tall Black woman.
Ramla stored away a lot of details about other things, listening to her parents whisper in bed from her small cot in their room.
“Why do they let us go and study nursing if they won’t hire Black nurses?” Isis whispered; her voice thick with tears. “Why take the money for the classes and then refuse to hire us? Our money was good enough for the class.”
“I don’t know.” Solomon sighed. “Maybe we should go home.”
“And do what?” Isis’ voice was urgent. “How will you work? Not on the sugar plantation.”
Solomon sighed again. “I know I can still cut cane, but –.”
“If they had just paid you for your arm…”
“—they won’t even let me try.”
They shuffled in the bed, and Ramla knew her mother had put her head on Solomon’s chest. Isis sobbed quietly.
“We have to pay the money back for the classes,” Solomon whispered. “The porter job doesn’t pay enough. I have to get a night job too.”
“Where?” Isis’ whisper sounded like a wail. “They won’t give you anything with one arm.”
“Not with one arm,” Isis insisted.
Ramla didn’t care for toys and turned her nose up at the brown fabric dolls her mother made for her, uninterested in plaiting the long hair made from black yarn like the other little girls did. She barely ate, and Isis and Ma Nora spent hours making meals they thought she would like and trying to tempt her to eat. Instead, she liked to sit and stare into space, nodding from time to time as if she were listening to a very interesting conversation. In fact, she was having many conversations; just not with anyone in her home. She didn’t tell Ma Nora that she spoke regularly with the tall, Black woman who delivered her, that this woman was an ancestor from generations ago, that she instructed Ramla to call her Nanny, and that she told stories of a place in Jamaica called Maroon Town where Black people went to be free.
“You will lead our people to freedom one day,” Nanny told her.
“What people?” Ramla asked, her eyes closed, barely moving her lips.
“People who want to be free,” Nanny replied, nodding. Ramla saw Nanny inside her eyelids. “People who want to resist.”
“Resist what this country wants to make Black people.”
Ramla didn’t know what Nanny meant, but she knew it was important. It was the something that would become clear to her, so she didn’t ask any more questions.
Once when she was five or six, Isis and Solomon were having a discussion about family “back home,” and Ramla blurted out, “How far away is Maroon Town from there?”
Isis and Solomon stared at Ramla, first because they had only heard her speak twice before, and second because they had no idea she knew anything about the Maroons.
“How do you know about that?” Solomon asked. “Who told you about the Maroons?”
Ramla shrugged and returned to staring silently into space, ignoring their questions until they gave up asking.
In the summer of Ramla’s eighth year, Harlem erupted again, this time because of the shooting of a Black soldier by a white police officer. Ramla watched from her apartment window overlooking West 145th Street as crowds of Black men marched up and down the street, chanting, throwing bricks into windows and engaging in scuffles with police. Isis and Solomon worked all day, and Ma Nora wrung her hands in worry about them being out on the street during the riot.
Ramla stood at the window and watched from early in the morning. When Ma Nora called her to eat lunch she obliged and returned to the window as soon as she was finished. She was particularly interested in one man, wearing black suspenders holding up baggy black pants into which was tucked a light blue shirt. He carried a red brick in each hand but seemed uninterested in throwing the bricks into store windows like the others. Instead, he marched up and down the block gesturing wildly and yelling, his mouth opening like a wide, dark, gaping wound in his face, his forehead and eyes creased into a fierce glare. Ramla couldn’t hear what he was saying, but she felt his rage. Something in her connected with him and his rage: the something she was waiting for.
With Ramla’s eyes fixed on him, Nanny spoke to her. “Call him, child,” she said.
Ramla opened her mouth and said, “Arthur. Art.”
The man stopped suddenly, looking around.
“Again,” Nanny said.
“Art,” Ramla said. She felt Nanny’s presence behind her, looming tall over her right shoulder, although she knew if she turned around to look there would be no-one.
“What’s that, child?” Ma Nora said, walking into the living room, from the shared bathroom down the hall, carrying a kettle.
Ramla glanced around at Ma Nora and turned back to the window without a word. Ma Nora nodded, understanding that Ramla was talking to someone else, and walked over to put the kettle on the hotplate.
Ramla’s attention returned to the man on the street. He stood on the opposite side of the street, in the middle of the sidewalk, staring up at her. Their eyes met, although Ramla wasn’t sure if he could actually see her.
“Go,” Nanny said.
Ramla stepped back from the window, slipped her shoes on and walked towards the door, just as the kettle began to scream.
“Where—?” Ma Nora turned from the hot plate, the boiling kettle in her hand, just barely lifted off the hot surface, still sounding its piercing whistle.
Ramla turned, her hand on the handle and looked at Ma Nora.
Ma Nora stopped speaking and nodded at Ramla. Ramla opened the door and slipped out, running down the two flights of stairs identifying, as she always did, the smells of Sunday dinner coming from the apartments on each floor. Miss Lucille was cooking rice and peas and curried chicken. Ms. Ana was cooking arroz con pollo. Old Mother Simpson was cooking stew peas and rice, with too much coconut milk.
When Ramla stepped out onto the street she paused to allow her eyes to adjust to the bright sunlight. She shaded her eyes with her hand and looked across the street at the man. He threw his bricks to the ground and beckoned to her to come. She stepped forward, and a woman in a cornflower blue dress with tiny white flowers bumped into her as she ran past holding a toaster.
“Sorry!” the woman gasped, one gloved hand clutching the toaster to her chest, the other stretched out trying to stop Ramla from falling. “Sorry!” she yelled over her shoulder again as she ran off.
Ramla crossed the street towards Art, who held his hand out to her. She took his hand and they walked, skirting the people running back and forth. They stepped around two white police officers beating a Black man on the ground with their batons. The man covered his head from their blows, screaming, the collar of his shirt soaked with blood.
The August heat rose up from the sidewalk in waves that Ramla felt through her thin shoes. On one corner a fire hydrant spewed streams of water into the street, flooding the sidewalk. The water felt cool and soothing as it soaked through her shoes and white ankle socks, squelching between her toes.
They walked for blocks, each seeming to know where they were going. They passed paddy wagons being loaded with men and women, all sitting staring blankly ahead, as if they had no idea how they got there. A couple of times Art had to yank Ramla’s hand to prevent her from being run over by fleeing rioters or pursuing policemen. She took it all in calmly, aware only of the energy in the air, like the low, persistent buzzing sound they heard from the last hotplate Isis bought, right before it broke. It took Solomon days to figure out that the sound was coming from the hotplate, and they had to endure the sound for weeks more while Isis and Solomon saved up for a new one.
At the corner of Lenox Avenue and West 145th Street they turned to walk down a set of steps into the basement of a church. The cool dimness of the basement was welcoming after the blazing heat of the street, and Ramla breathed in the smell of old wood and stale food, raising her chin to sniff at the air.
They entered a large hall with a low ceiling, filled with Black people of all ages. They sat around in wooden folding chairs and stood leaning against the wall in groups talking. Kids chased each other around the room, darting between the adults, tagging each other and running away. Art released Ramla’s hand as they entered. He led her toward a group of people standing near an old stage with thick velvet curtains.
One of the women broke away from the group and walked toward them, her arms open. She was tall and dark skinned, towering a full head and shoulders above others in the room.
“Ramla, my daughter,” she said, beaming widely.
Ramla stopped suddenly. She frowned in confusion. “Nanny?” she asked tentatively.
The tall woman laughed, throwing back her head revealing two perfectly even rows of white teeth, with one gold tooth on the right side. “No. I’m not Nanny, but she led you here.” Her voice was deep, rich, and lilting, a little like Ma Nora’s. She reached out and took Ramla’s hand.
“Come. Come and learn your destiny.”
By the time Art walked Ramla home it was dark. Although the streets were mostly empty because of the curfew Mayor LaGuardia had issued that day, the police paid no attention to the man and child walking hand in hand.
Art released Ramla’s hand when she got to her door, and she entered the building without looking back, without saying goodbye. As she climbed the two flights of stairs, she noticed that Old Mother Simpson had burned the stew peas. She thought of Isis’ comments about how the old woman’s children needed to come take care of her, and that they would someday regret their neglect of her. She could tell from the music coming from Miss Lucille’s apartment that she had a gentleman caller. Ma Nora would have something to say about that.
As she climbed, she felt something she had never felt before, but she didn’t know what to call it. Her breath came fast and hard, her skin prickled, especially around her scalp, and she couldn’t stop smiling. The door to her apartment stood open, and Isis, Solomon, and Ma Nora sat silently in the living room, staring at each other. Solomon and Isis jumped to their feet when they saw her, their eyes wide. Ma Nora leaned back in her chair, stared at the ceiling, and exhaled.
“Hello, Mama, Papa. Hello, Ma Nora,” Ramla said brightly. “I’m so sorry I am late. Please forgive me. What’s for dinner? I’m starving.”
First published in the Dillydoun Review, December, 2020.