The people on the hill liked to say that God’s smile was the sun shining down on them. In the late afternoon, before scarlet ibis bloodied the view of sunset, light flooded the stained-glass windows of Bird Hill Church of God in Christ, illuminating the renderings of black saints from Jesus to Absalom Jones. When there wasn’t prayer meeting, choir rehearsal, Bible study, or Girl Guides, the church was empty except for its caretaker, Mr. Jeremiah. It was his job to chase the children away from the cemetery that sloped down behind the church, his responsibility to shoo them from their perches on graves that dotted the backside of the hill the area was named for. Despite his best intentions, Mr. Jeremiah’s noontime and midnight devotionals at the rum shop brought on long slumbers, when children found freedom to do as they liked among the dead.
Dionne Braithwaite was two weeks fresh from Brooklyn, and Barbados’s fierce sun had already transformed her skin from its New York shade of caramel to a brick red. She was wearing foundation that was too light for her skin now. It came off in smears on the white handkerchiefs she stole from her grandmother’s chest of drawers, but she wore it anyway, because makeup was her tether to the life she’d left back home.
Dionne was sixteen going on a bitter, if beautiful, forty-five. Although she thought herself above the things the children on Bird Hill did, she liked the hiding place the graveyard behind the church provided.
Dionne’s younger sister, Phaedra, played tag among the miniature graves of children, all casualties of the 1955 cholera outbreak. Nineteen girls and one boy had died before the hill folks abandoned their suspicion of the world in general and doctors in particular to seek help from “outside people.” This was just one of the stories that Dionne and Phaedra’s mother summoned as evidence for why she left the hill the first chance she got.
Phaedra and her sister arrived from Brooklyn at the beginning of the summer. Phaedra was small for her ten years. Her skin had darkened to a deep cacao from running in the sun all day in spite of her grandmother’s protests. She wore her hair in a French braid, its length tucked away from the girls who threatened her after reading about Samson and Delilah in Sunday school. Glimpses of Phaedra’s future beauty peeked out from behind her pink heart-shaped glasses, which were held together with scotch tape.
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