Goatwater is a column which explores the mystifying, joyous and liberating concept of Carnival through the New York born and raised, Caribbean-American perspective of poet and artist Tiffany Osedra Miller.
What is the role of The Ancestor in storytelling? In life?
Many March of the Starfishes ago, I turned the radio to Bobby Vinton singing Mr. Lonely and I sang along, substituting Mr. for Miss. Afterwards, Joanie Somers sang her version of Carnival, while I danced in my chiffon nightgown, passionately singing into a lint brush, yearning to know what to do with all of this loss, I had endured.
Several disembodied voices began to speak to me and gently chide me for my self-pity:
Here is what the voices had to say:
- Don’t you dare ask what you can do for carnival. Ask what carnival can do for you.
- When you push the boundaries of the physical world, you will find that these boundaries are nothing more than sequins or tinsel.
- You have already drawn and written every bit of your experience into a microcosmic sketchbook with a graphite pencil.
- Your experience is merely penciled in! And therefore, can be edited, even erased. Just not completely. Your existence, however, is an unalterable thing.
- Therefore, what you don’t understand must be decoded through the art of allowing the formation of your Personal Myth.
- You are like the starfish in that what is lost can be regained.
- You have a dream.
- You have a dream.
These were the voices of my ancestors.
What follows is a version of the Personal Myth, they inspired:
An Ancestor, Persists
Recently, in an American city, an elevated train stopped abruptly, its brakes screeching loudly, like the whine of Caribbean-Carnival, hot-cats in heat.
The seated passengers and straphangers bumped and fell against each other. Then they bumped against each other again. The train settled on the track and all was silent until someone turned their boom box radio to WKR-Calypso, where a song called, Carnival Train by the Antiguan Calypso Band, Burning Flames, was playing. All uh-board! All uh-board! They sang.
Hardened, overworked faces relaxed. Limbs loosened, hips parted, butts that had become like bricks, once again, commenced to bounce. It had been a long, rough winter.
In each train car, strangers danced close together, front side to backside, as though they were attending Crop-Over, Mardi Gras or Junkanoo. All passengers were immigrants from tropical islands they sorely missed.
The reason the train stopped so suddenly, the train operator announced over loudspeaker,
was that a stilt walker, or as they say in some parts of the Caribbean, a Moko Jumbie, or perhaps an actual giant, had brazenly straddled the elevated train tracks, daring the oncoming train, to stop or go.
A gorgeous distraction this stilt water is, the train operator said. Her face glows behind a veil. Her long legs or stilts, are covered by a dream coat, embroidered with images from Bunny Wailer’s precious song, Dreamland, a place where he now resides.
I, a passenger on the train, intuitively recognized the identity of the giant Moko Jumbie.
It had been so long since I had seen my mother.
Yes, I was on the carnival train, dancing with a stranger who city life had made so fragile that he nearly turned to glass. Our dancing close, had begun to finally flesh him out.
This was the compromising position the train operator found me in after he searched for me, specifically, throughout the train.
He confirmed for me that the Moko Jumbie, was, indeed, my mother, and that, she, after all these years, of being gone, had declared that she wanted to see me.
Daughter, my second pickney, do release your pride,
I hear you need assurance and guidance
Mommy only wants to guide.
Please, go and talk to her, the train operator implored, or she won’t move, and as you can see, she is holding up the train and will not be ignored.
No one else on the train seemed to mind, however, as an Auntie and she handsome Raw Honey who both owned an eatery and a bakery had already served the rum punch, the goat water and the Johnny Cakes.
Carnival can do that. Carnival can do many things but I wasn’t sure I wanted Carnival to coerce me to see this member of my family. My mother, a giant Moko Jumbie. She, too big to bend and hug me. When she was human, she was just so tiny and lovely.
So, surrounded by dancing revelers and graffiti, I drank rum, ate Johnny cakes and shook my waist, too. God and Reader forgive me, though I missed my mother so deeply, I couldn’t bear to see her again, only to have her go away once more.
Then, as though the train had suddenly turned into an open road, I ran in the opposite direction, pushing aside ribald riders, turned revelers.
The back door opened, mercifully and I fell not onto the city but into the tropical sea and though I couldn’t swim, I swam until the starfishes lit up and marched along the horizon line. At first, one by one. Then, two by two. A soft splash behind me as I heard my mother’s sweet, tamarind-tinged voice –
First, a brief reverie:
Once, in a dollar cab in the country, on my way back to the city, Roberta Flack, on the radio, sang the first time ever I saw your face and I wept as I thought of my mother who, at the time, was still very much alive –
Back to the mythology:
There in the sea, with her tamarind-tinged voice singing so sweetly to me, as though I were still in Nursery, I recalled the first time ever I saw my mother’s face. I, indeed, thought the sun rose in her eyes –
And unwilling to turn around
to honor my dear, sweet mother’s wish
I swam further and further away from her
to march with the starfish