‘Nasmina's Black Box’, Jennifer Marie Brissett

Illustrations © 2009 Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein

 [ Nasmina, © 2009 Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein ] Her name was Nasmina. Her mother combed her hair and braided it into a multitude of plaits that jutted off her head every which way. The ends were finished with pastel colored clips, making her look like a short brown court jester—especially when she jumped up and down, which she often did when she was excited about something.

Nasmina was the daughter of a great fixer. Her Dada could fix just about anything that broke down, from toasters to computers. And in the heat and humidity of the Caribbean island where her family lived, all machines would fail sooner or later. Nasmina’s father wasn’t just some simple tinker. In many countries he would have been considered an inventor, or even a genius, but there on a small island where the surf greets the sand in washes of salt and white spray, he was just called a fixer. He was very well respected in the village. The villagers knew his value and treated him well. Life for Nasmina and her family was humble on the island. And that was just fine by her Dada.

In the month that Nasmina turned six she was finally allowed to go inside her father’s workshop. It had long been a forbidden place for her, since her fingers were known to be much too eager to touch things that weren’t hers. After much begging and pleading, she finally convinced her Dada of her restraint and he allowed her into this most secret and magical of places. So many wonders existed in that shack. Wonders that, she was told, were never to be talked about with anyone. This was very important, her father said, and he made her swear to keep her lips still about all she had seen. She swore and crossed her heart.

It was a small shack that he built in the backyard near the entrance of the old rainforest that lay just beyond their property. Even though there were only three walls to the shack, the workshop was cool inside as her father had invented an air conditioner that didn’t need to have the room enclosed. During the day the shack was open towards the rainforest and at night her Dada and her brother Jessem dragged the corrugated tin sheet that leaned against the side of the shack to cover the opening.

The cool ocean air permeated every aspect of life on the island. It drifted high and low and spun around and around, caressing the skin and making brightly colored dresses on stocky women wave. This was the same breeze that blew through the workshop as Nasmina was given the grand tour. In that shop her Dada had turned cans and the contents of an old radio into a mobile radiation emitter to catch fish. With parts from a broken TV and an old computer, he had made a unit that displayed a life form that her Dada said existed outside of our dimensional space, though he had to admit he wasn’t quite sure whether it was a creature from the past or the future. Her brother leaned against a table as his little sister gasped at their father’s work. Jessem was lucky. He had been apprenticing with his father for almost two years. In that time Jessem had grown to be a bit taller than their father and was showing signs that he shared more than just their father’s smile, but his brilliance as well. He was well pleased that his little sister could finally see their workspace. It was like letting a little elf in on a delicious secret.

Her Dada had even made a satellite receiver with which he secretly monitored the government’s communication. It’s important to watch “di president and di Tontons,” he said, then he made a face of disgust.

“What are Tontons?” Nasmina asked.

“Tontons are demons that live in the city,” her brother answered. “They have goat-like horns that turn about their ears and walk hunched over on hooved feet.” Jessem bent his back and demonstrated.

Nasmina narrowed her eyes and folded her arms across her chest. She knew that Jessem sometimes liked to tell her tall tales.

“It’s true, Nasmina,” Jessem said. “The Tontons are very dangerous. They are terrible, terrible, and you should run if ever you see one.”

“Jessem, stop,” their father said, seeing how frightened his little girl had become. “They only stay in the city,” he said to Nasmina. “They would never come here.”

“They don’t like us,” Jessem said.

“Why don’t they like us?” Nasmina said.

“Di president and his people think we are different,” her Dada said. “We, here on di countryside, come from different roots, different ancestors. But fi we be di same, Nassie. Don’t let no one tell you no different. We di same people. We all human beings.”

Nasmina and her brother shared a bedroom. Jessem kept a desk in the corner that Nasmina did not go near, knowing that her brother kept his secrets there, though in the past she had been known to take a peek or two.

“Little Shadow,” her brother called (that was his name for her), “I want to show you something.” He turned around from his desk. Jessem held out a small black box. “Now that you are old enough to go into Dada’s workshop you are also old enough to see this.” He opened the box and it was filled with connected wires, gears, and little glowing red, green, and yellow lights.

“This is my special project. Not even Dada knows about it.”

“What does it do?”

“It makes things invisible.”

Nasmina scrunched her face. “You are lying to me. Dada says not to tell lies.”

“I am not lying!” he said. His face was serious and hurt (with a slight smile). Nasmina couldn’t tell if he was just playing or telling the truth.

“Here, hold it and turn the switch.” He gave it to her. It was slightly heavy in her hands and warm. She could feel the gears moving inside after she turned the switch.

“Is it working?” Nasmina asked.

“No,” he said with disappointment. “I can still see you. You only faded a little. I had it working for a while on smaller things. It’s no good for things as big as you. I need to work on it some more.”

“You will get it working,” Nasmina said encouragingly. She felt guilty for having doubted him.

“Maybe,” he said. “The problem is the batteries. They always run out before I have time to figure out what is wrong with it.”

“I can get you batteries.”

“Little Shadow, these are no ordinary batteries. I make them myself out of a metal I found. I need to find some more. The place where I get it from has very little left.” He reached into the top drawer of his desk and pulled out a strip of the metal that was the heart of this homemade battery. It was copper-colored with a bluish tint and tiny flecks within the material sparkled as they caught the light.

“Have you ever seen this material?”

“All the time,” Nasmina almost lied. It’s not like she hadn’t seen the material somewhere before. She just couldn’t remember where that somewhere was. She made her face firm and confident so as not to reveal her uncertainty. Her brother looked skeptical.

“I’m going to make a battery right now. Want to see?” Nasmina jumped in the affirmative, bouncing up and down so that her barrettes clicked together.

She watched her brother as he dropped metal shards into a small thick metal bowl. He set a small burner aflame underneath the bowl and waited minutes as his metal turned into a golden goo. Nasmina held her arms tightly behind her back and craned her neck to peek over her brother’s shoulder while he worked. With a thick potholder glove he poured out the liquid metal batter into a handmade mold to form his battery.

Nasmina felt proud to be a part of the great invention that her brother was making. His black box sat open on his desk with wires and things pulled out of it. Jessem left his battery to cool and reached into his desk drawer to take out a notepad and began to write. He wrote on the notepad what looked like squiggles with numbers and symbols that Nasmina couldn’t read or understand. Then he turned to a fresh page and began to sketch. Nasmina watched as he made a stick figure with spindly antennae coming out of the head.

“Little Shadow, this is you.”

“No, it’s not!” she giggled and punched his arm.

“Yes, this is you,” he laughed and continued to draw. He put arms and hands on the figure and drew a box in its hands. Then he sketched a wide circle around the figure.

“This is how my box will work. It creates a distortion field around itself that will cause light to pass through so that everything within a radius will seem invisible. It will be a very useful tool one day. That is, if I can get it to work.”

“How do you find the box when it’s invisible?”

“I try to remember where it is and feel around for it. Besides, the battery usually runs down before too long and it reappears.”

“Is Dada helping you?”

“No. This is my own project. I want to surprise him with a working prototype. So don’t tell him about it.” But the real reason Jessem didn’t want his Dada to know about the box was because he wasn’t sure that it would ever work. He wanted to make his Dada proud or maybe, truthfully, he wanted to make him jealous. Dada was a very smart man and Jessem wanted to show him that he was clever, too.

Their Dada was completely self-taught. There were books all over the house that Dada had read, but mostly he learned from doing things and figuring things out. He had gone overseas once in his youth and came back within a few years proclaiming that “a’foreign” had nothing to teach him. His new bride back then—Mumma now—always thought that he had some bad dark experience out there that he was never willing to talk about. They settled in a tiny house on a parcel of land far on the outskirts of their hometown, intending to live out their lives quietly. The shack of wonders seemed to be enough for their Dada. It wasn’t for Jessem.

“One day, Little Shadow, I want to go a’foreign and learn in one of the great universities.”

“Dada says that they have nothing to teach.”

Jessem smiled. “We will see.”

For many months Nasmina stood guard to the entry of her Dada’s workshop. She did her job diligently, accepting the orders of desired customers and turning away those people who only sought to waste her Dada’s time. (Especially that chatty-chatty woman from down the road, who Nasmina was told to always say that her father was very busy.) She was always polite, but firm with adults despite being a six-year-old.

Nasmina sat on a grassy hill that you had to cross in order to reach her home. The grass had grown tall enough to reach the back part of her shins. Yellow wildflowers surrounded her on all sides of the hill. Nasmina liked to pick the flowers there and count their petals. She would count petals and wait for the customers to come. Nasmina held her knees folded close and hugged her legs and tried to remember where she saw her brother’s strange metal. Was it on the beach? Nasmina thought hard, picturing all the places along the beach where she was sure to go. No, it wasn’t there where she had seen the metal. Was it in the marketplace? She thought of all the stalls and the big women who spread their baskets of fruits and vegetables on the long tables to sell. Her auntie had a stall there and sometimes Nasmina would visit and taste the sweet, sweet mangos from her table. No, not there. Then where? Where did she see that metal?

Then one day Nasmina remembered. It was by the old green forest. She used to like to visit this place before her mother found out and told her the story about children disappearing in the forest never to be seen again. There was a small river that ran by a tuft of trees whose water was clear and tasted light and refreshing like melon juice. It was at the place where the water came bubbling out of the rocks that she saw this metal. Not much of it but there would be enough to satisfy her brother’s needs for a while. She made up her mind that as soon as she had the chance she would go into the old forest and find the metal for her brother.

At high noon, when the sun sat firmly in the sky above, it became very hot. That was the time when Nasmina could come inside the shack to escape the mid-afternoon heat. There her Dada’s many clocks would each click-clack and chime in their own unique way, ringing in noonday. The feed from the government receiver droned on about the cost of bananas and the foreign exchange rate while Jessem was hard at work on a watch repair job and Dada worked on a circuit board. Nasmina sat near her Dada to watch his nimble fingers twist a wire and solder a lead. He blew on the new connection gently to help it to cool and solidify. Then he placed the prongs from a scope to the wires he had connected to the circuit and observed the signal wave it created on the scope’s screen. He touched a screwdriver to turn a pin on the circuit, which made the wave on the screen grow. Nasmina’s big eyes widened even more as she observed the signal wave changed by her father’s slightest move. He made the signal wave peak and trough so high and so low that the wave appeared like vertical lines. Then when he turned the pin all the way down the wave became a flat undulating line.

The announcer who had been speaking in a monotone over the airwaves stopped in mid-sentence and was interrupted by a rushed voice. Then silence. The sudden lack of mundane chatter sent a cold shiver across Nasmina’s forearm.

“Dada?” Nasmina asked.

“Shh!” her father said and put up his had for her to be still. They waited for the next words from the announcer that never came. The national anthem played instead and so it remained.

“What does this mean, Dada?” Jessem asked.

“I don’t know. You two, please go inside. I will call for you later.”

His children did as their father asked, but wondered and worried. Dada called for Jessem later as the rain began to fall. Nasmina watched them through an open window working in the backyard behind the shack. They spent an hour or more digging in the earth even as the rain came down in sheets of white. Nasmina saw them go back and forth from the shack, bringing out their father’s best inventions and burying them in the hole they dug. Jessem and father came inside wet and covered with mud on their clothes and hands. No one said anything. The men washed up for dinner in silence. Mumma had made her best stewed chicken, and rice and peas with gravy. It was Nasmina’s favorite dish. She only picked at it. Mumma would normally trouble Nasmina to not waste food, but tonight she said nothing and waited for Dada to speak.

The rain eased and fell now only in modest drip-drips that bounced off the corrugated tin roof, making a gentle rhythmic ting. It sounded like a sad song made on purpose for the occasion.

After listening to several bars of the tune, Mumma finally asked, “What is happening?”

Dada could not dismiss her like he did the children. He finally answered, “Di Tontons are on di move.”

“Di Tontons? Will they come here?” Mumma asked.

“I don’t know,” Dada said. “Tomorrow I will try to find out more.”

Nasmina dreamed that night. In a dream Nasmina saw herself. She was herself and then she was outside herself. She was her, yet someone else. She spoke to herself in conversation, giving advice and then warning. The words were hard to hear for their truth and then hard to remember as they began to fade. In this dream Nasmina was walking down her hill. Then, as it is in dreams, she was suddenly all the way back in her home just outside the green forest. She saw herself not as the little girl that she was, but as someone else who wore her favorite flowered shirt and her most comfortable knee-length denim shorts, the ones that were like her brother’s.

The dark forest gave Nasmina shivers. She saw what she thought was a Tonton among the trees. It had curled, twisted horns that turned about its ears, flaring nostrils, and eyes a red burning flame. Then the image faded away, as did her fear. She had to go inside, for her brother’s sake. Her heart beat fast as she got closer and closer to the rainforest that stood menacingly deep and dark as an open grave against the blue Caribbean sky. Nasmina looked around carefully to make sure that her Mumma would not see her and then she entered.

She walked along a familiar path. It was just as she had remembered it (because in dreams everything is familiar). She approached a babbling brook and followed it until she got to the place where the water came bubbling out of the rocks. And there she saw the flecks of the blue-green metal loosely embedded in the rocks at the bottom of the water. She scooped some into her hand. Then she was out in the sunlight with her brother’s metal in her hand. Her brother would be so pleased. She shook with glee. She shook and shook and shook ...

“Nasmina, wake up,” her brother hurriedly whispered as he shook her by the arms.

He covered her mouth so that she could not make a sound. The moon shined brightly through the window of their shared bedroom as if it were the sun. It was full and heavy against the dark blue night.

“You must be very quiet,” he said. “There are Tontons in the yard.”

Jessem picked up his sister and placed her in the bottom of the closet among his shoes.

“Take this,” Jessem whispered and handed her his black box. “Hold this for me and do not let it go. No one will see you. You must stay very quiet, Little Shadow. They cannot see you, but they can hear you.”

She nodded with her eyes wide like white orbs in the blackness of the closet.

“Stay in here, Nasmina, and don’t come out until I come and get you.”

She was surrounded by her brother’s clothes. They smelled of him. His shoes rested uncomfortably against her bare uncovered legs. He shut the door and all was black. Nasmina heard voices. Her Mumma and Dada spoke. Something tumbled. Then a slap. The voices were loud then distant. The closet door suddenly opened. A dark man stood before her and looked right at her. He held a gun. It was big like in the movies. He stared into the closet for a heartbeat more. In that moment Nasmina was not sure if her brother’s box really worked. Then the Tonton shut the door as if he had seen nothing but the dark and stomped away. The slam of car doors. The sound of a vehicle leaving. All was so quiet then. The Tontons looked nothing like what her brother said. They were just men. Evil men with guns.

Nasmina stayed in the closet. She was silent and still and watched the moonlight turn to day through the crack where the edge of the door almost met the wall. She waited and waited for her brother to return. She waited as her bowels ached with the urge to go to the bathroom. It was so quiet. She feared to leave her hiding place. Then she remembered that she held her brother’s black box. No one would see her if she left the closet. She could go to the bathroom and no one would know.

She timidly opened the door and looked around. There was no one. She crept out of her bedroom and into the hall. Still no one. She made her way to the bathroom where she relieved herself. She did so as quietly as possible and left the toilet unflushed so as not to make a sound. She knew her Mumma would chastise her for this later. She would explain that she was just scared. Her Mumma would be mad for a while, but she would understand.

Nasmina held her black box and walked around the house. “Where did everybody go?” she asked herself. Outside was all quiet, even the birds. The sky was gray-blue and the sun struggled to peek through and couldn’t. It’s hard for the sun to shine after a storm. Nasmina decided to go to town to find her auntie. She could stay with her until her Mumma and Dada and Jessem came home. That’s what her Mumma always told her to do if ever she was lost. Go to auntie’s stall in the marketplace and wait for Mumma to come get her.

She made her way down the road to town holding her brother’s black box. Nasmina knew the way. She had walked it many times with Mumma and sometimes with Jessem. There were bushes and trees that lined the road. She thought she saw something in the bushes. Something wrong. She didn’t stop to look. Nasmina kept walking, silent as a lamb and as quick as a thrush. She passed the beach, which was on her way. There were people sleeping on the beach. Lots of people. It was strange. They were unmoving but for their clothes which waved about in the breeze. Nasmina approached a man. He was still and covered in brown sauce. His eyes were closed and he had a deep cut on his side so that Nasmina could see his pink insides. She stepped back. She felt cold. She knew he was dead. They were all dead. Nasmina looked all around and pulled her brother’s box to her chest. Then she ran as fast as she could. She ran and ran and didn’t stop.

The market was silent. It was never silent. The fruits and vegetables were all mashed up. The stalls and tables were turned over and strewn about the street. There were people lying with their exposed limbs in brown sauce. She didn’t want to find her auntie’s stall anymore. Nasmina wanted to go to the church. She would find the priest. He would know where Mumma and Dada and Jessem were. He would know what to do.

When she got to the church she pushed the front door open. The heavy door closed behind her. The church was full with people in and about the pews. Brown sauce was everywhere. Stillness. Nasmina walked on the side aisle of the church near the multicolored window. She knew these people. These were her people.

The church door opened and a Tonton came in. He wore a green uniform with a red beret. He carried in his hand a machete like her father had for cutting down the sugarcane that grew near their backyard. He sauntered about looking at the dead people. Then he saw Nasmina. Her body stiffened and she held tighter to the black box. The Tonton’s jaw went slack in surprise. Then he slowly swung his machete onto his shoulder and backed out of the church.

Nasmina’s throat was dry. She felt an itch on her face. She scratched at it and found that it was a tear from her eye. She wiped her cheek with the back of her hand and looked around. Something snapped in her mind. She didn’t want to be in the church anymore. Silently she crept to the church door and opened it a crack. Outside she could see the priest talking to the Tonton. They spoke quietly and then they laughed together as if one had told a joke. The priest’s long lean fingers gestured as he spoke, like they did during services. Nasmina watched them for a while, then the priest said goodbye, got into his car, and drove away.

 [ Church, © 2009 Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein ] Nasmina felt the hum and warmth of the black box in her hands. The batteries would run low soon and she would be seen. She needed to go to the place where she could find the metal for her brother’s battery. Maybe that was where her family went. To the green rainforest where the trees grew tall like the pillars of a great cathedral. To the place where the sun was blocked out by large green leaves. She could find the brook and follow it to the deepest part of the forest.

She opened the door of the church and walked out. The Tonton turned and held his machete. His face twisted, but he didn’t move. Nasmina held tight to her black box and turned towards the road. She was going to the rainforest to find the babbling brook where the flecks of blue-yellow metal sit under the water that comes out of the rocks. To the heart of the forest where no one else knew where she could be found.

© 2009 Jennifer Marie Brissett

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