Mrs. Maingot used to say that Roman Bartholomew could crawl under a snake's belly on stilts. Even then, I knew this was true. It was clear from the beginning that he couldn't be trusted. Like that time we came from church and the house was close to burning down because he had fallen asleep with a cigarette. There was an orange line creeping along the floor at the exact moment we walked through the door. Aunt Tassi threw up her hands and shouted his name so loud, RO–MAN! I thought the whole village would hear. I ran for a bucket of water and Vera and Violet both started to scream so I told them to shut up and fetch more water but they were fixed to the ground like two posts. After the fire was gone and there were black streaks on the floor and on the wall, Roman made as if to cry. Suddenly Aunt Tassi was putting her arms around him and telling him not to fret. And then she opened up her purse and gave him a dollar and off he went to Jimmy's bar at the end of the road to quieten down and make himself feel better, because these things happen, Aunt Tassi said. Sometimes it's the devil who's to blame. But Roman was the devil. Since I was eight years old, he came around me, restless and pacing like a hungry dog. If I was doing my homework, he came into my room. He flicked the ribbons in my hair or he bent down and blew on the top of my head. Once he ran his fingertip down the back of my neck. I sat still as though I was made of stone. More often than not he stood in my doorway and stared and I pretended he wasn't there. It was easier to allow him to do this than not to do this and "cause trouble," as he put it, because no one would take any notice. You are nothing, he said one day, when I threatened to tell my aunt. You have nobody but Tassi, and Tassi need me like a plant need water, so who you think she will believe? I already tell her how you lie.
Tears streamed down my face. I said, "I will go to England and find my father. You can all go to hell!" Then I ran from the house and cut through the back where sunlight could not reach and made my way through the bush to the river. There were large stones there and they were warm and gray, especially on the other side. A big log that was once the trunk of a mahogany tree stretched from one side of the river to the other and I started to cross it. The water was not deep but there was a whirlpool and I slipped and fell. My arms went up and I became stiff and straight like a pencil and the water pulled me down and spun me around and I was sure that I would die. Everything was cloudy and blurred and the bottom of the river must have been stirred up because I could see gritty bits of it. I could feel it in my eyes and up my nose. Two boys fishing saw me fall. They ran to the bank and braced themselves between the rocks and hauled me out by my hair which they said afterward was like thick seaweed. When Aunt Tassi heard what had happened, she said she would never let me go to the river by myself and what in God's name was I doing there. Our wooden house stood up on stilts. There were two bedrooms, a small kitchen, a living room, and a tiny spare room that you could just about fit a bed in. I shared one room with my cousins. Around my bed was an invisible line which, when crossed, meant something very bad would happen to them. It was the same invisible line that ran around my books, my clothes, my shampoo, and my lavender toilet water. If Vera or Violet took something without first asking permission, I frightened them with stories of jumbies and La Diablesse and the terrible Soucouyant who would come and steal their skin in the night. I told them about the douens, the spirits with no faces and small feet turned backward, who would learn their names and call them away into the forest. Any mention of douens and my cousins would shiver with fear.