Hanged/drawn/quartered, or, imagining my great-grandmothers’ hands on a Sunday morning, in four parts

jade guthrie

I. Sybil (Sue-Ho)

My great-grandmother Sybil hands each of her children £2 and watches them skip down the road, newly armed with the pocket money to spend on sweets and comic books to entertain themselves with for the afternoon. Sunday was the one day of the week Sybil allowed herself a little bit of slownessit was the only day the shop at 14 Strand Street was closed, like most businesses in Montego Bay. 

Sybil, or Sue-Ho to her Chinese friends, spends Sunday mornings rearranging tables and chairs in the shop to make space for an afternoon of Mahjong. She is a Buddhist-turned-Christian, and on Sunday mornings, she hums along to the hymns playing on the radio as she prepares for her guests’ arrivalpraising “massa god” under her breath. 

Once the room begins to fill with people, though, the hymns are buried under choruses of laughter, clacking tiles, and women belting Chinese opera songs. These Sundays stir up memories of a before-timea time in which Sue-Ho did not know massa god, a time in a now-seemingly-distant homeland. 

She sits at one of the tables and begins to draw tiles, running her fingers over the cold smoothness of their backs. She pairs them up, carefully stacking one atop another and placing them side-by-side in a protective wall. She grips the two book-end pairs and squeezes inward, then pushes her wall of tile-soldiers into the middle of the table, meeting the other three players to form a fence.  

Selected as dealer, she begins to break the walls down tile-by-tile. For a momentas she picks up a tile, forcing a gap of light into the 18×18 tile corral at the center of the tablemaybe she thinks about her eldest granddaughter. The 外孫女 she had prayed for to be released from prison in the homeland she longed for, the one who had landed on the shores of British Hong Kong on her second attempt to swim to “freedom.” 

Or, maybe she is thinking of her youngest childrenthe ones running full-speed down Strand Street. And I am thinking about how the only homeland they have ever known is Strand Street/gospel music on the radio/freshly baked easter bun/plantain sizzling in the pan/the shuffle of mahjong tiles


II. Miss Jen

In Chigwell, my great-grandma Jen nestles a thick-skinned breadfruit into the open fire. She is unflinching as the flames lick her rough and calloused fingers, while she adjusts the spherical fruit just so on top of the coals.  

Her husband, Stephen, had brought the fruit in from the bush the night before. He had tended to the breadfruit tree for years. Over time, he had learned how to carefully twist and snap each stem, gently pulling the fruit from the branch with every ripening. His hands had become intimately familiar with each groove and knot in the tree’s bark, intimately familiar with the ground it was rooted in, intimately familiar with the earth of this land known as Jamaica. This closeness with the land ran deep in his boneshe was born with palms dyed red by the soil worked by generations of fathers and grandfathers who came before him. 

While the breadfruit roasts, Jen finishes off the ackee and saltfish she’s cooking down on the stove. She calls out to her children, summoning them back from their adventures in the bush. Once everyone has gathered, Jen begins to portion out generous servings from the well-loved dutch pot. I consider the movement of my own hands, twinning hers, and her own mother’s, and so-on. 

She scoops the breadfruit out of the fire and slices the fruit into wedges. While the wedges are still steaming, she uses her fingers to peel the flesh away from the charred skin, dividing the pieces of starchy fruit up between the two of them.

As the piles of food on her kids’ plates shrink, she scoops out more ackee and saltfish, making sure that their plates are never empty. She looks at her son and asks, “how yuh get so mawga?” Peeling more breadfruit and handing it to him, she says, “nyam some more.” He takes the wedge from his mother’s hand and shoves the hot breadfruit into his mouth, knowing better than to shrink away from his mother’s offeringknowing that “nyam some more” is a direct translation of “I love you.” 

And when I share out food today to my own kin, my chosen family, my loved ones, my voice echoes hers, because what is our commitment as relations if not to continue to braid the threads so lovingly woven together by our ancestors?

III. Nellie Mae

My great-nanny Nellie Mae stands in the kitchen, scraping the dough out of the Pyrex mixing bowl onto the floured counter. She sprinkles some flour onto the palms of her hands and begins to knead. She pulls the dough toward her, folding it onto itself, and then leans forward on her toes, pushing the heels of her palms down and ahead into the dough with as much weight as she can collect. A well-choreographed dance routine, she repeats this set of moves rhythmically until the dough is smooth and supple. 

Next to her, the berries are gurgling and spluttering in the copper jam pot. The fruit had been cooking for a couple hours now, splitting open and spilling their guts into the pot, staining the sides of it a deep crimson. She had gone into the field nearby earlier that morning and picked the blueberries herselfforaging only enough fruit to make this pot of jelly for the doughnuts. Dressed in a long skirt, the twigs scraped against her bare ankles as she tip-toed through the field. Plucking the berries from the branches, with fingertips that looked almost blood-stained, she lifted her head to survey the field. 

When Nellie Mae’s own grandmother was a child, the field would ripen into a sea of garneta lush red quilt of wild blueberry bush cast over the landin the early autumn months. In her mother tongue, pgwiman: blueberry. As the years went on, the quilt had been worn down, holes and rips torn and seared into itleaving just a few clusters of the red branches peppered across the fabric. 

This past summer, those same fields were devastated by the wildfires that ripped across Mi’kma’ki. I think about the wildfires that colonialism has unleashed across my own bloodlines. About how those fires have singed our tongues, set relationships alight, ashened our histories, devastated the lands we are connected to.1

IV. Amy Florence

The church on Bell’s Island was bigmuch bigger than the one that had stood in its place when Amy Florence was just a girl. After the fire, they had built this one. As far as she knew, there had always been a church here. I wonder if she ever thought about what might have stood, lived, breathed there before.

The silhouette of the new church could be mapped out by tracing the lines of a child’s ‘this is the church, this is the steeple’ shadow-puppetry. Before rounding the corner to join her children inside, she steps backdrawing the curtains of her view widerto consider the building. She appreciated the white-painted wood sidingwhich the salt air had begun to chip away atand the soaring arched windows and the steeply-pitched intricate roof, but what she loved most were the three yellow stripes painted thick across the face of the building. This side of the church was facing Wolfe Gut, the narrow arm of the Atlantic that local sailors would return to the island throughthe stripes, a beacon summoning them home. 

Amy Florence traces her fingers along the paneling. She thinks if only she could make herself a few feet taller, she could reach up and touch the lowest-hanging stripe with both hands. She wishes she could peel it away from the wood and wave it around off the top of the hill like a yellow ribbon, fashioning it into a make-shift lasso that she could hurl into the channel, reeling John’s ship into shore.  

Then, she turns the corner and walks through the arched doorway of the church, finds a spot among the rows of pews next to her son, and kneelsgently pressing her hands together in prayer instead.

I think often about how the king and his church brought all of my great-grandmothers to their knees, eventually. Some with willingness, with gratitude; others, forced to kneel in supplication through violence, through theft, through displacement.

I press my finger down onto the page and drag it upwardstracing the lines connecting Amy Florence’s name to her mother and father’s names, and upwards again, to another generation, and again, and again. I lift my finger when I reach a pair of names belonging to two German settlersancestors who arrived in the mid-1700s2 after being invited to occupy this “new” land in the name of the empire. It is a difficult thing to contend with: that the moves that provided some of my ancestors with some warmth and small comforts in their lives (albeit, not many), are the same ones that wrung the last drops of sweetness out of the lives of my others.

Hanged: being suspended by a rope around the neck until deador, in the case of being hanged, drawn, and quartered, hanged until you’ve reached the very edge of death and are pulled back from the brink just in time. I imagine the rope snaking around my neckthe same kind my grandfather used to tie an anchor hitch on the ships he worked on. Gasping for air, I am choking on the names of my ancestors in the mother-tongues I don’t recognize, coughing up the soil of the earth their hands worked, the dust of the homes they razed to the ground.

Drawn: to be disemboweledpulling a thing out of something else. I begin to peel my four corners away from one another, ripping myself apart at the seams, reaching inwards and pulling out the raw and bloody thing. I’m as desperate as everyone else to know what’s at the core so that I have an answer to spit out the next time someone asks me “what are you?”

Quartered: four horses pulling each limb in different directions, splitting the body into four. I splay myself on the cold metal table, shut my eyes, and ready myself to be quadrisected. But they can’t figure out where to make the incisions, no ‘cut here’ linesthere is no way to divide my body into neat portions. Quartering was referred to as the third and final death. 

I’ve heard that the final death happens when we forget our ancestors. Perhaps it is because of a refusal to forget, a knowing that I am more than the sum of all parts, that my body rejects dissection. 


Last spring, I sliced the tip of my thumb wide open on a mandolin as I prepared food for a Mothers’ Day breakfast. I looked down at my hand and examined the cutit took only seconds for the blood to begin to rush to the surface of the skin and begin to pour out. I had never seen so much of my own blood before. I examined the deep, dark, thick redness of it for a minute before my guts twisted up inside me and made me feel sick to my stomach. The sight of it made my legs go out from under me, as I laid on the cool of the bathroom tiles while my partner so lovingly tried to stymie the bleed. 

I think about blood often. I mostly think about bloodlines and the so-called “math” of bloodI have thought about this my entire life. I think about all of the words that might have been used to describe me at some point having to do with my own blood mathhalf-breed, mulatto, quadroon, half-blood, cross-breed, demisangeach one connoting a less-than-one-whole-ness having to do with my insides.

While she tended to my hand, I closed my eyes hard, trying to calm myself down. I couldn’t hear anything because of the shock, couldn’t see anything other than the blood, and couldn’t think about anything other than “why does it look like that?” I had thought it would be lighter, pinker, more faded. I didn’t think it would be so syrupya kind of treacle leaking out of my open wound. After all these years, one generation after another generation after another, I thought it would be all thinned out and watered down.

But that wasn’t the casethe thick stuff seeping out of me was the deep color of the red soil of St. Elizabeth, lips after drinking sorrel at Christmas, sheep’s-nose apples at their ripest and juiciest, a steaming bowl of red bean soup, tannin-steeped Mersey tea flowing through the waterways of Kespukwitk, blueberry jam.

On a recent trip to Memphis, I learned about an 1865 earthquake that shook the earth so violently it kicked up the riverbed dirt, turned the streaming water of the Mississippi a deep red, and caused the river to run backwards into itself. Watching the river turn bloody and run backwards, the god-fearing people of Tennessee thought that the world was ending, that the apocalypse had come.

I am the earthquake, and the river. The blood in my veins runs backwards toward my ancestors. It flows in freshwater currents, through oceans, across so-called borders.

But am I not also the apocalypse? A vision of an ending world? I may very well be my ancestors’ wildest dreams, but I am also deeply afraid that I might be some of their worst nightmares. A personification of impurity, of pollutionthe dreaded product of us-es breeding with not-us-es, of less-than-us-es stealing our daughters. 

Then again, perhaps we are not only the end of this world, but also the beginning of a new one. In my dream, both of my grandmothers are collecting jellyfish with sticks, dragging them onto the wet sand as the tide recedes, and watching them melt away. I think that maybe if they both looked up at the right time, they might be able to see each othereach of them perched off of what feels like the end of the only worlds they know.

I am at the edge of each of their lands, and I unseam myself. Nothing but saltwater spills out into the ocean between them, and I become the thing that connects them.

1. Controlled burning as a traditional earthwork practice is a shared one across many Indigenous Communities. The L’nuk (Mi’kmaq) have long-used small-scale burns as a way to support the growth of the abundance of wild blueberries strewn across Mi’kma’kienriching the soil they grow in, feeding their underground networks of rhizomes and fungus, and staving off critters. The land had been stewarded, cared for, and tended to for so many years with flamesby communities who understood their own embeddedness within these ecosystems, by peoples who respected the sacredness of the fire. 

After the arrival of the settlers, Mi’kmaq Communities were forcibly pushed out of their traditional lands, with colonizers from Britain and other parts of Europe beginning to take over and occupy these lands instead. With this, the wildfires cameand never stopped: In 1783, however, a great number of refugees and discharged soldiers came into the country and many new settlements were formed. The following year no rain fell in June, the latter part of May and the first ten days of July. Fires were kindled in the clearings by the new settlers, and it is reported that within a fortnight two thirds of the province were burnt over.” Attempts by settlers to exert power over the land is what has forced the world to burn down around us.

2. In the early 1750s, a wave of Protestant German settlers arrived in Mi’kma’kithey were farmers and tradesfolk recruited by Britain to challenge France’s occupation of so-called “Acadia.” A number of these settlers migrated to the south shore, establishing what is now known as “Lunenburg,” and within a generation, their descendants learned how to sail, build ships, and fish. These early settlers arrived around the same time that Governor Cornwallis made his ‘Scalping Proclamation,’ offering to pay a bounty to “anyone who killed a Mi’kmaq adult or child in a bid to drive them off mainland Nova Scotia.”

jade guthrie is a queer, mixed-race (Jamaican, Chinese, mixed European, and Mi’kmaw roots) educator, community organizer, and sometimes-writer born and raised in Treaty 13 Territory (Toronto, Canada). Her words have been published online in Rookie Magazine and rabble, and heard on podcasts like the Toronto Star’s This Matters and Canadaland.

You can find jade on Instagram @jadelovesnachos

Artwork: “Beatrice Dominguez” by MariaTeresa Ortiz-Naretto

Cold wax and oil on canvas

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