Keith Jardim
Keith Jardim is from Port of Spain, Trinidad. Jardim’s first book Near Open Water: Stories was a semifinalist for the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature; later that year, it appeared on World Literature Today’s Nota Bene List. His new collection of stories, Dreams of the Jungle and Sea, is due in late 2024. He is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at American University of Iraq, Baghdad.

An excerpt from a memoir, this piece illustrates a few examples of globalized history, on landscape and people, in northern Trinidad, circa 1990s. The situation remains much the same today.

Two Brief Encounters and a View from Above Port-of-Spain, Trinidad

There were fires on the mountains that afternoon. An easy wind sent smoke and dust down to the city, down to where new high-rises, scattered and colourless near the harbour, looked both fragmented and monolithic in the haze. I walked partway along a well-worn track, up and away from the old British fort where I’d parked, through ash and smoke. The flames were robust and tall in the breeze lower down the slope; and above them, roasting air like a wild stream rushed to the sky – flecks of ash dashing upwards.

A man I’d seen a few times before in the distance and whose shack on the hill wasn’t far from the fire, greeted me. He said people on the other side of the mountain start fires every dry season. I asked why, though I’d lived on the island most of my life and heard a variety of reasons for them.

“Is so it is,” he said.

I told him I wrote for The Island Times, and wanted to interview him, but he said no, even if I didn’t use his name, Jerlani Rathbone. He was in his mid-sixties and fit, twice my age. He wore a floppy hat, old ash-grey rubber boots, a discolored shirt tied at his waist, and baggy shorts. He smelled of smoke and dust, sweat. His beard was long, the sideburns thick and joining the beard. He reminded me of Papa Bois, the legendary old man of the forest who keeps watch over the animals, like the Old World’s Pan.

"I see you regular,” he said.

"Yes. I walk up here a few afternoons a month.” I gestured to the hazy south. “Nice views, when you can see them.”

The man smiled, his teeth were white and even.

“You study abroad?”


“I hear about there. Long ago. Is a city by the sea like this one, not so?” and he jutted his chin at the sprawling concrete and steel buildings below, their real colours still indeterminate from this distance; only a uniform blend of grey and ocher, whose shades continued to shift in the smoke and haze, defined them.

He was pensive and, like Papa Bois, he held a staff. I thought of asking him what had brought him here, to live off the land, to give up the city. Instead, I asked him if he had family.

“In South.”

He pointed with his staff, to the blue-grey haze now gathering over the central plain; beyond was another set of mountains, lower than the ones we were on and barely visible; and beyond these, and imperceptible now as the smoke and dust thickened over the northern and central mountain ranges, was the main southern city of the island. A hint of evening was in the sky.

“This place will always have a season of fire.”

“Sometimes, I think people want to burn the whole island,” I said.

Rathbone, still gazing out at the plain beyond the capital city, nodded. “Is like they want to destroy. Just like in Venezuela.” He pointed this time to the west, where South America is.

Then he said: “Night coming sooner than normal, with all the smoke. It will be a weak moon.”

I remembered an island legend. Douens, the spirits of un-baptized children, would soon come out to play; they loved full moon nights. Small and fast, neither male nor female, douens wore large straw hats, were faceless and fed off kitchen gardens. Their feet pointed backwards, they had long rope-like hair and lured children into the forest, losing them forever in the jungle dusks. How could I write about fire? Maybe douens? I wondered. Something light, a bit silly maybe, what people wanted now. (Douens had always intrigued me; as a child, I’d wanted to meet one.) The crime and violence, the blatant corruption had taken a withering toll on the island’s people.

We were silent for a while, looking at the fire. I began to feel awkward, was thinking of moving off when a great crackling roared above and from behind the hill overlooking Rathbone’s shack. A massive tongue of orange flame leapt up over the trees like a dragon coming up from deep within the earth, ravenous for destruction. It was a fair distance away and the wind was pushing it to the north. I asked him about it. He said that fire was, originally, part of the one right before us now preventing my hike higher up into the hills; that the entire other side of the mountain was burnt. I thought, Scorched. We watched for a while longer, until the wind changed, until the fire closer to us fell off, flickering on the sides of the track. Then I said good night and left Rathbone watching the fire.

I began walking down the hill to the car park at the fort, an amber dusk seeming to lift off the land due to the haze above obscuring sunlight and the rising moon. Fire, I thought, is as old as religion. The Papa Bois man on the hill would keep watch; guardian of the mountain, the evening, he would do his best to prevent the burning of his gardens and home. It was his main occupation for this time of year. But why had he gone there? Poverty wasn’t the only reason such men returned to life on the land, to fire and nature gods. I felt the reason for returning to the land was something sadder, much sadder than I could have imagined or known in my youth. It was a kind of surrender, I thought, to an ancient yearning for an ancient land.

Dust as fine as powder rose around my sneakers. I could just see the end of the hill I was descending, the open circular area at the bottom, and the short, paved hill to the fort’s gate. The smoke veiled everything behind the open gate; but off to the left, far below, I saw the city again, partly fading, partly visible as if drifting through air.

I went up the short hill to the fort’s open gate and entered the small car park. There were no other cars except mine. Smoke – the scent of burning wood, earth, ash, and of something toxic – filled my lungs. The whole island seemed to be a battlefield, and no one in power cared. I was about to get into the car when I noticed the fort watchman, a short, thin-limbed man of Indian background, above me on the first tier of earth overlooking the car park, frowning as he watched the fires on the sides of the hill I had walked down.

He raised his hands, palms up, arms extending outward as if he were about to utter a benediction.

“Jesus Christ, look at this mountain,” he said. “Whole week this place burning like hell on earth, and I can’t get the fire brigade to come. Call them every day five times, at least – and nothing!” He slapped his hands on the sides of his legs, his face distraught, and looked at me.

I’ll call if you want… try to.”

The watchman shrugged his shoulders. “Well, Boss, if you want. A white man like you might have better luck. But I don’t think any of them in town go drive up here any time soon. Tell me, you see a black fellah up the hill?"

I said yes.

“Boss, you think he mad?”

“No. Maybe just a bit odd. Seemed educated.”

The watchman nodded, smiling doubtfully. “If you go up there again, keep an eye out. I getting some reports, but maybe is nothing.” “No problem. I’ll see what I can do about the firemen.”

“Please, man. I praying for rain every night and day, and not a damn thing happening. Fire brigade and God letting we all go to hell!”

I asked him if he could help with my story about the fires, and he agreed. I said I would be back in a few days. It was late now. He said his name was Beharry, was glad to help, and turned away, muttering about an oxygen mask.