Dreams and Visions

She jumped and screamed and, as she did, a face came towards her: no eyes, no nose, no mouth. She screamed again and rushed to the bedroom door. Something touched her back…

Things…no not a thing of the night, but Stephen, her husband. She had been screaming.  It was the second time this week. The dreams were getting worse and the sleep walking too. What was it tonight, Stephen thought: A white man with a whip? The disfigured ghost of a black friend. Empty clothes walking. The light-skinned woman walking through fields drenched with blood or the dark-skinned boy with the nappy head and long, dirty fingernails – a hole in his chest. The chained-up women who scream from the bottom of the Atlantic. Or the dusty old black man who rocks backwards and forwards eyelessly reading.

Since being married Rita and Stephen’s lives had changed, not in the way marriage changed other people’s lives, but in a way they could not have foretold. Stephen William Gayle was born in Jamaica. His father had been an Anglican vicar. Stephen dreamt of coming to England, to study archaeology, a rare profession for a Black man at the time. He was  accepted by the University of Sheffield and started his education in 1992. He never left Sheffield nor the University, his specialism archaeology of trees. He then fell in love with the Sheffield-born writer, Rita Sutton, at the end of the 1990s. He had attended one of her readings, and loved her knowledge of Black history which she wove into her storytelling. After a courtship of over two decades, they married.

On their honeymoon, Stephen and Rita visited Clarendon parish, Jamaica. His childhood home stood on the land of the oldest church – St Peter’s. He guided Rita around the area, pleased that his favourite tree, which he climbed as a boy, still stood sturdy and tall with branches reaching up in prayer. As they walked around it, touching the ancient, weathered trunk, a tiny part of the tree pricked or perhaps got stuck in Rita’s finger, although they couldn’t find the splinter.

Though this is Stephen and Rita’s story, the origins of it begin in 1730 – the time of the Maroon wars; an old slave woman, owned by the Sutton Plantation, was convicted of treason. Sir Mark Sutton, the owner of the plantation, accused the woman of sending messages to the Maroons by climbing the tree at the centre of the estate, every full moon. The Maroons, descendants of Africans, had freed themselves from slavery. But, although the slaves supported them, they could not help imagining that the old woman was in cahoots with the devil. One of Master Sutton’s fair-skinned favourites even testified that the old woman was copulating with the devil. After this, the old woman was hanged from the tree where all her nefarious acts had supposedly taken place. Most people hanging would fight and thrash around; but not this old woman. She acted as if it was just another inconvenience to be endured. Before she died, she shouted: ‘I live, I die, I live again.’ Afterwards, Sir Mark felt uncomfortable, and told the vicar about his worries. ‘You did the right thing,’ were the vicar’s words. ‘She was a dangerous woman.’ That evening, the night of the full moon they went for a walk…As they were returning to the Great House, Sir Mark, agitated, shouted out: ‘What is that moving near the tree? Look!’ The vicar saw the moving shape for just a moment, but thought that it must be a dog. A four-legged creature, it was much too big for a cat. ‘I must be tired,’ he thought. ‘Did the animal take on the shape of a woman? Impossible.’ He said nothing.

‘What is that moving near the tree?’ The words ran through Rita’s mind, as she woke. She sat in the dark, next to the snoring Stephen, tired, weary; but reluctant to sleep again. Her dreams had become too vivid.

The next morning, Sir Mark’s Senior House Slave was surprised not to find him downstairs at his usual time of six o’clock. She climbed up to his bedroom, and found the door locked. She knocked several times. No answer. She unlocked the door and entered, to find Sir Mark’s body on the bed, dead and completely black. There were no marks on him and everything looked as usual, except that the window was wide open. The doctor came but could offer no explanation for the death.

Hearing the news, the vicar rushed to the Plantation, and entering Sir Mark’s room noticed that the Bible was open next to the dead man. Daniel chapter 5:27: ‘TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.’  

The room remained locked for the next forty years. Until Sir Richard Sutton, Sir Mark’s grandson, came to live at the plantation. His behaviour was deemed wild and wicked by the slaves. One day he decided to make the church bigger with fine new seats made from the oldest tree on the plantation. It was known as The Blood Tree by the slaves, who saw it as sacred, a place where their ancestors’ blood had been shed. Even newly enslaved people would gravitate towards it. They felt their blood run through it and became agitated by the decision to fell it, perceiving it as another act of defilement by people they called the ‘soulless ones.’

White workmen were enlisted to do the work and the slaves watched smiling as they tried to chop down the tree with axes, then with a big industrial saw that broke immediately.

That night Sir Richard slept badly. The wind made his fire smoke and the curtains move. His room faced the old tree. The next morning, he decided that he would choose a better room, so he made a tour of the house, finding something wrong with each room. Finally, he came to his grandfather’s old room. The House Keeper, now elderly, warned him not to enter, ‘It’s a bad room, Massa. Terrible…’ 

He did not listen but unlocked the door and walked straight in. ‘See? Nothing unusual here!’ he said, opening the window. As he did so, a dark shadow was reflected behind him, captured by the glass. He turned, thinking it was Berniece, but she was nowhere in sight. She had scuttled off. Then reappeared with a visitor, a good looking grey-eyed young man. Sir Richard was in the bedroom still, looking at the paintings and books.

 ‘I must apologise for interrupting you, Sir Richard,’ said the stranger, ‘but allow me to introduce myself. My name is William Gayle. My great grandfather was the vicar in your grandfather’s time. I have found some papers that might interest you.’

‘Berniece, please bring some coffee to the library, and then move my clothes into this room.’

While they were drinking coffee, Sir Richard looked at the papers. Among them he found notes made by the old vicar on the day of Sir Mark’s mysterious death. ‘Well, well,’ said Sir Richard, laughing quietly. ‘How interesting! My grandfather’s Bible clearly disapproved of him. It was open at these words: ‘TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.’

‘Do you still have that Bible?’ asked Gayle, ‘I’d like to see it.’

‘Yes, here it is. Rather dusty, I’m afraid. Let’s see what it has to tell me.’ Opening the book, his eyes fell on the words, ‘TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.’ Laughing, he tried again. ‘Deuteronomy 20:19: When you besiege a city a long time, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them.’ Again: ‘Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.’ Sir Richard laughed more heartily than before, but Gayle did not laugh. He ate his cake and drank his coffee without a sound.

 That night, a shadow passed over Sir Richard’s bed, and the next morning they found his body, like his grandfather’s, dead and completely black.

When Gayle heard the news, he hurried to the plantation where next to the body he found a Bible opened at Deuteronomy 20:19: ‘When you besiege a city a long time, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?’

Rita woke with a jolt, looking for a Bible. It opened at Genesis 18:4: ‘Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.’ She now understood the dreams that had plagued her. The tree was guiding her back to the ancestors.

Beverley Thomas is a second year PhD student in the School of English at the University of Sheffield, funded by the AHRC. She is doing a creative writing doctorate, a collection of nine short stories called Loose Connections, with critical commentary. The stories tackle themes such as trauma, family secrets, slavery, the supernatural, the mystical and Afro-futurism.