From her second-floor front verandah, Cheryl Collins watched the commotion outside the People’s Temple Georgetown House, two houses down across the street. Two Guyana Defense Force army jeeps blocked the driveway. She called out to her teenage daughter in the adjoining sitting room.

“Dawn, come see this! Something happen at the PT house.”

Dawn joined her mother. The Temple’s two-story yellow concrete house glowed against the graying evening sky.

“The Jonestown basketball team is in Georgetown for a tournament,” said Dawn.

“Where’s your brother?”

“He’s next door at Ricky’s house.”

“Go get him. If I know Bobby, he and his friends are in the thick of things. If there’s any trouble—”

“Bobby’s running this way, Mom.”

Ten-year-old Bobby reached the concrete bridge over the gutter in front of their gate.

“Bobby, it’s time to come upstairs,” shouted Dawn.

Bobby opened the cast-iron gate. He disappeared under the bottom-house. Dawn headed towards the kitchen to open the backdoor.

“Mom, come quick-quick! Something’s wrong with Bobby!”

Cheryl rushed indoors. Her heart raced. She met them in the dining room. “What happen, Bobby?”

They led Bobby to the settee in the sitting room. Cheryl examined her son. His full, smooth-skinned, black cheeks were wet with tears, his lips trembled, his chest heaved. She could see no visible cuts or bruises.

“You hurt yourself, Bobby?”

“Say something!” Dawn grabbed Bobby’s shoulders and shook him.

“Mark dead.” He gulped for air. “Mark dead.”

“Auntie Shirley’s son at the PT house?” said Cheryl.

Bobby nodded.

“You saw his dead body?” said Dawn.

Bobby shook his head. “Mommy, I got bad-feelings.”

Before Cheryl could get him to the bathroom, Bobby spewed bile on the polished floorboards of the dining room.

“Dawn, wipe the floor while I bathe off your brother.”

Dawn tiptoed over the mess and hurried to the kitchen for the mop.

Wrapped and shivering in a towel, Bobby went to his room to get dressed. Cheryl headed for the kitchen to brew a pot of sweet broom bush tea. When she entered his bedroom with the cup of warm tea, Dawn was already with him.

“Drink this, Bobby. You’re going to feel better.”

Bobby sipped the sweet-smelling tea. “The soldiers say they all dead.”

“What are you talking ‘bout?” said Dawn, seated beside him on the bed.

“They all dead.”

Cheryl took the empty cup from her son. “They who, Bobby?”

“Mark. Diane. Christine. Auntie Shirley.” “Diane?” said Dawn.

“Stop telling tales, Bobby!”

“True to God!” Bobby blessed himself. “Tall Boy, Father Jim’s son, say is true. The bodies in the upstairs bathroom.”

“Oh gosh!” Cheryl sat down beside Bobby. Blood drained from her head. “Why would anyone want to kill Shirley and her children? They never trouble anybody.”

Dawn collapsed on the bed. Bobby held onto her. “Don’t die too, Dawn!” He shook with sobs.

“Bobby. Calm down. Your sister only fainted. Fan her while I get the smelling salts.”

Dawn jerked to consciousness when Cheryl put the salts near her nostrils. Bobby clung to his sister.

Cheryl went to the kitchen for two more cups of sweet broom tea. She gave a cup to Dawn.

Cheryl sat on the bed with her children and sipped her tea, good for calming the nerves. She needed to stay calm. What Bobby told them must be true: The army would only be involved for something very serious.

“The PT house is always full-a people,” said Cheryl. “How come some killer got in?” Concerned about their safety, she turned to Dawn. “You latch the backdoor?”

“Yes, Mom.” Dawn sat cross-legged on the bed with Bobby snuggled under her left arm. He had stopped crying.

Lamaha Gardens was a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of Georgetown. Chickens disappeared now and again. Friends, a block down, lost a goat last month. Cows sometimes strayed to the back dam. But the violence infecting the capital and coastal townships had bypassed them. Until now.

Where was Stanley when she needed him? Her husband had left after lunch for the Bourda Cricket Club. He’d been due back since five. She looked down at her sleeping son, cuddled up with his sister. She fingered his afro-style hair: like his idol, Michael Jackson. Her children did not get her wavy hair and sapodilla-brown skin. Her black blood mixed with Stanley’s black blood had been stronger than the East Indian blood flowing through her veins.

“Mom, what’s going to happen now?”

Cheryl gazed at her fifteen-year-old daughter. Her black face had turned to a slate color. “I don’t know, Sweetheart. Maybe your father knows something.” Cheryl leaned against the bed-head. Her heart tightened into a cricket ball. Shirley and her family had become a part of their lives. Their sudden death was difficult to digest.

When the American Church group moved into Lamaha Gardens around Easter last year, Cheryl had first viewed them as CIA spies. In a dictatorship socialist country, you could never be too careful when dealing with foreigners.

Waves of newcomers from the United States stuffed the spacious PT house. All colors and ages, but mostly black, like a large part of Guyana’s population. The eyes of the older folk danced with hope. The young people bounced with the thrill of adventure. The little ones learned to catch tadpoles in the swampy empty lots.

Newcomers stayed only for short spells in Georgetown before leaving for the People’s Temple Jonestown settlement: a 150-mile trip by boat into Guyana’s jungle. Their leader, Reverend Jim Jones, had created a tropical paradise for them. Cheryl feared for them. Guyana’s Northwest Region was not for those accustomed to the comforts of city life. Walls of dense forest, a sticky furnace, frequent rains and mud, strange noises and creatures, and isolation awaited them.

Shirley had formed part of the PT public relations staff. A fanatic follower of Reverend Jim Jones. Never hesitating to defend him against attack from his enemies. What had she said or done to deserve this? Why the children? Mark was only eight. Christine eleven. A lifetime ahead of them. Diane—

“Diane was like a big sister to me, Mom.”

Cheryl startled at the sound of Dawn’s voice.

“I know, Sweetheart. I’m sorry.”

“She was going to take me to Jonestown during the Christmas holidays.”


“The PT boat, Cudjoe, would take us to Port Kaituma. Then a PT truck would drive us to Jonestown. It’s a seven-mile muddy road.” Dawn gnawed the cuticles of her right forefinger. “She was excited about showing me the work they had done.”

Cheryl was proud of the volunteer work Dawn did with Diane and other PT members. As members of Guyana’s National Relief Committee, the People’s Temple helped fire and flood victims. But Dawn had been spending too much time with Diane. The 19-year-old girl was too old for her. Cheryl worried about Dawn’s infatuation with Jim Jones and the People’s Temple.

Dawn had not been near the PT house today. Thank God. Diane had spent the day at the PT house with her father. He had come all the way from California to visit her. Did he know that his daughter now lay lifeless in a bathroom? To be so close yet not be able to protect your child.

Why was Jim Jones here with his People’s Temple? Why had they settled in a remote jungle region? In this land behind God’s back? There was talk about harassment of their Church in the States. Why were members tight-lipped about life in the commune? Secrecy spelled trouble.

Pressing Dawn for information was useless. She became more aggressive, more distant. She’s asserting her independence, her cousin and best friend, Chitra, had told her. Just a phase. Cheryl prayed this phase would soon pass.

“Why did she have to die, Mom?”

“Only God can answer you, Sweetheart."

The phone rang in the dining room.

“I’ll get it. It must be your father.”

Stanley Collins was a lean, six-foot, black man. Always well dressed. Good smell. His good looks and sweet-talk attracted women like flies to sugar syrup. She got stuck. She thought she had everything needed to deter the flies. But one woman didn’t satisfy her man. Fights over other women spattered their sixteen-year marriage.

His two-year affair with the sister of a government minister unfolded in April. His deception splintered whatever love still lingered. She had moved out, but her mother-in-law intervened. Think about your children, she had said. Her father reasoned with Stanley. He broke up with his outside-woman. She returned home for her children’s sake. They declared a truce.

Cheryl picked up the phone. It was Stanley’s father.

“Hello, Major. Have you seen Stanley? There’s been a tragedy at the People’s Temple House.”

“Stanley’s on his way home. He’ll brief you. Are you and the children alright?”

“Yeah, we’re alright.”

“Don’t let them go outside.”

Her father-in-law had hung up.

Major General William Collins of the Guyana Defense Force was a man of few words. What secrets did he guard for their Comrade Leader, the Prime Minister of the Cooperative Socialist Republic of Guyana?

Cheryl returned to Bobby’s bedroom.

Where was Stanley?

A car engine idled at their gate. The iron gate clanged. The engine died under their ten-foot-high house on stilts. Stanley was home.

Cheryl followed Dawn to the sitting room.

“Are you okay, Princess?” said Stanley, locking the front door. “Where’s Bobby?”

“He’s sleeping. He threw up. Is it true, Dad? Auntie Shirley and her children are dead?”

Stanley hugged his daughter. “It’s true. I’m sorry, Princess.”

He kissed Cheryl on her cheeks. “Sorry to be late. I was at Pops’.”

“I know. He called. I’ll heat up supper.”

Stanley didn’t like being bombarded with questions before he had his supper. Cheryl let him bathe and change into house clothes. She warmed up the food: yam soufflé, pumpkin fritters, and meatballs with brown sauce. Dawn set the table and carried the dishes with food from the kitchen. Cheryl decided not to wake Bobby.

“Dad, what’s happening at the PT house?”

“Let your father finish eating, Sweetheart.”

Dawn brooded and nibbled at her food. Cheryl told Stanley about Bobby’s reaction to Mark’s death.

After supper, they cleared the table, refrigerated the leftovers, and washed up. In the sitting room, Stanley put on his favorite Brook Benton record album.

Cheryl and Dawn joined Stanley on the verandah. Mosquitoes attacked their exposed skin in the cool night air. Brook sang, “Rainy Night in Georgia.” It was after eight. Movement at the PT house had intensified. The house blazed with lights. Guyana Defense Force soldiers remained on guard.

“Is serious, nuh?” said Cheryl.

“Yep,” said Stanley. “Shirley knifed her children, then slit her own throat.” He hugged his daughter. “I’m sorry, Princess.”

“Shirley? Don’t talk nonsense, man!”

Dawn pulled away from her father. “Auntie Shirley would never do that. Why you making up such lies, Dad?”

“Dawn! That’s not the way to talk to your father!”

“Dad never liked Auntie Shirley.”

“Jim Jones radioed the orders for the murders and suicide from Jonestown,” said Stanley. “I warned you about mixing with those crazy Americans.”

Cheryl gripped the edge of the verandah. Everything swirled around her. Why would Jim Jones do such a crazy thing? Had he gone mad from jungle fever? She could never kill her own flesh and blood. Her children were her life, a blessing from God. Shirley also doted on her children. Why would she kill them?

“Noooo! It’s a lie!”

Dawn’s outburst jolted Cheryl.

“Father Jim would never do that! He loves children!” Dawn looked ready to pounce on her father.

“Dawn! Stop talking back! Listen to your father!”

“I don’t wanna hear. Dad hates Father Jim.” She turned on her mother. “You don’t like him either.”

“He’s a con man,” said Stanley. “There are things you’re too young to know.”

“You-all don’t like him ‘cause he’s white,” said Dawn.

“What’s his color got to do with this?” said Stanley.

“Father Jim is not racist like you-all. In Jonestown, black people and white people live and work happy together. That’s why I’m moving to Jonestown when I reach eighteen. You-all can’t stop me.”

Dawn stomped off. Stanley went after her. Brook Benton sang, “Born under a Bad Sign.”

Cheryl didn’t understand her daughter anymore. She wished that her mother-in-law were there. She alone knew how to handle Dawn when she got into one of her tantrums.

She didn’t like the Reverend Jim Jones. He was a fake. Besides, she didn’t trust men who hid behind dark glasses. From the little she had gleaned over the past four years, Jim Jones was intelligent, cunning, and deceptive. A sly mongoose.

Four years ago—before he disappeared into Guyana’s tropical rainforest—Jim Jones’ fake healing service was talk-of-the-town. Out of curiosity, she and her mother-in-law had attended the service to see the so-called healer. A modern-day prophet. The crowd crammed into their National Shrine—a church built in 1861 by Portuguese immigrants. They were lucky to get seats.

The Reverend appeared to loud cheers. He wore a white sharkskin suit, black shirt, white tie, and dark glasses. Not a strand of his sleek black hair slipped out-of-place. The white man had looks and charisma.

His divinations and healings were all theatrics. News spread of the big hoax. But this did not stop Jim Jones from registering his Church in Guyana. His Church even gained membership to the Guyana Council of Churches. The church leader had influence in high places.

Did Jim Jones even wield total power over the life and death of his followers? Cheryl shuddered at the thought of Dawn spending the Christmas holidays with such a monster. Jonestown was over 150 miles away in dense jungle. No roads to get there. No way out except by air and steamer.

Cheryl killed a blood-sucking mosquito on her left arm. She watched the movement at the PT house. A taxi dropped off a white male. It crawled past their house on the dark narrow unpaved street. A small airplane flew low overhead.

“She’s locked herself in her bedroom,” said Stanley, returning to the verandah. “They get a little schooling and they think they know everything.”

“She’s upset about Diane.”

“That’s the only reason I’m going to ignore your daughter’s silly accusations.”

“My daughter? I didn’t make her alone.”

“You encourage her. You let her have her own-way. You and your bosom-friend, Chitra, fill her head with foolish ideas. I could lose my chance to get the Mayor’s seat in the coming election.”

“Our daughter is facing a crisis and all you can think of is losing the Mayor’s seat?”

Cheryl moved towards the door, but Stanley grabbed her arm. She pulled away.

“You manhandling me now? Is not enough Chitra stop coming to my house because of you?”

“Listen, woman! There’s more to this People’s Temple affair. It could jeopardize Guyana’s relationship with the United States.”

Cheryl stood in the doorway of the verandah. She placed her hands on her hips. “I’m all ears.”

“Around five this afternoon, armed men from Jonestown attacked an American Congressman and his delegation at the Port Kaituma airstrip.”

“An American Congressman is here in Guyana? How come we don’t hear these things?”

“It wasn’t an official visit. He came to check up on Jonestown.”

“Isn’t that the job of the American Ambassador?”

“Would you let me talk?”

Cheryl pouted and folded her arms.

“The Congressman received complaints about Jones. Relatives in California claim he orders beatings and lock up troublemakers in a box in the ground. They also say he uses drugs to keep others in line.”

“What happened at the airstrip?”

“Jones’ gunmen disabled the Guyana Airways aircraft. A twenty-seater. The pilot radioed Timehri Airport for help. They called the Prime Minister and he summoned the American Ambassador.”

“Something’s definitely wrong at Jonestown.”

“Pops doesn’t know yet if anyone was killed or how many injured. The Congressman had chartered an extra six-seat Cessna plane to bring out the people who wanted to leave. That plane got away.”

“Some people left Jonestown? Then the Congressman’s visit was not in vain.”

“An army unit is preparing to go into Jonestown early in the morning. They’re traveling by train from Matthews Ridge, thirty miles away.”

“By train? Can’t they fly in?”

“Jones’ gunmen could be waiting in the dark to gun down the plane.”

“Our government should never have allowed Jones to settle in the bush. This is what you get when government officials sell their souls to the devil. And for what? Free foreign liquor and white women.”

“Watch your mouth, woman. The wrong people could take offense.”

“Your own mother told me our ambassador to Washington flaunts the PT white cutie public relations woman in diplomatic circles. You want to hear who else your mother say sleeping with the white Temple women?”

Stanley advanced towards her. Cheryl stood her ground.

“Is funny how your mother didn’t know about your sweet-woman.”

They faced each other. Eye to eye.

“I can’t take any more of this rass. I ended my affair. I’ve done everything a man can do to make it up to you. But that’s not enough for you: You want to run my blood to water.”

His voice was low and steady. His words stabbed the air.

The hot air of his breath reddened her cheeks. He stepped backwards, punching the air with his forefingers.

“I want a divorce. You can keep your daughter. Bobby stays with me.”

He pushed past her into the house.

She had known this day would come. Stanley was set on achieving his political ambitions. His betrayal had gouged a hole in her heart that could not heal. She wasn’t a forgiving wife like her mother-in-law. She was her mother’s daughter.

Cheryl locked the verandah door. Brook Benton sang in his silky-smooth baritone: “Where do I go from here?”

She slept in Bobby’s bed.

On Sunday morning, Stanley left home around ten for his parents’ house in Queenstown. Cheryl stayed home. Dawn remained in her room. Bobby went next door to Ricky’s house. He had promised not to go near the PT house.

Cheryl wished she could take away Dawn’s pain. She felt helpless—not knowing how to reach her. She tapped on the door of Dawn’s room. “Dawn? Is after ten. You want anything to eat?”

“I’m not hungry, Mom.”

“Want some coconut water? It got the soft white jelly you like.”

“No, thanks.”

“It’s in the fridge when you’re ready.”

Cheryl retreated to the kitchen. Dejected. She turned on the radio. The preacher on the Sunday Church broadcast proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus: “False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert, I have already told you everything.”

Cheryl tuned the radio to the next station. A church choir sung “Amazing Grace.” Cheryl turned off the radio. No news yet about the deaths or the shooting in Port Kaituma. Would this be another government cover-up?

Strife and deprivations stalked them these last twelve years since gaining independence. They had become a cooperative socialist republic with a puppet president. The sugar and bauxite industries were theirs to squander and mismanage. Their efforts “to feed, house, and clothe” themselves left them with empty shelves in the stores and supermarkets. Imports were a luxury their country could no longer afford.

She and Stanley held good jobs. He was a council member at the Georgetown City Hall. She was a senior loans officer at the government-owned mortgage society. But their jobs came with a price. Loyalty to the party was a noose around her neck. They couldn’t criticize the black government. They couldn’t think of missing party functions and rallies.

Opposition meant beatings and death. The thugs went unpunished. Whom would they kill next? She loved her country. Her roots were here. Their ancestors had come from Africa, India, China, and Europe. The British colonists had thrown them together to satiate their lust for sugar.

While Jim Jones carved out his Paradise in Guyana’s jungle, Guyanese fled overseas for safety and freedom. The brain drain crippled their fledging nation. Their Comrade Leader was forging a nation to march to his drumbeat.

Cheryl washed the breakfast dishes. She opened the refrigerator for some cold water to find that it needed cleaning. She filled her glass and closed the door. She wanted to cry, to scream, to get on a plane to her mother in New York. She decided to call Chitra—her East Indian first cousin and childhood best friend.

“Hi, girl. Is what you doing?” said Chitra in creolized English.

“I’m here.”

“Is where Sweet Boy?”

“At his mother’s house.” Cheryl sighed.

“Is what happen, girl? You and yuh husband fighting again?”

“Stupse.” She sucked her teeth. “Is a long story.”

“You want me to come over?”

“If Ram let you.” East Indian music blared in the background. Cheryl heard Ram’s voice.

“Ram say hello. My brother going give me a drop to yuh house.”

Chitra and Ramesh Gopaul lived a ten-minute drive away in Prashad Nagar. Ramesh lectured in sociology at the university. Chitra was a history teacher at the East Indian high school.

Chitra was the daughter of Cheryl’s uncle, on her East Indian mother’s side. The two women were both thirty-six, born just three months apart. Cheryl was an inch taller than Chitra. They shared the same oval-shaped faces and small mouths. The way they pouted when angry, the way they tilted their heads when talking, the way they walked with firm steps mimicked the other.

They grew up together in Triumph Village among the sugarcane and rice fields on the East Coast Demerara. Cheryl was thirteen when she moved with her parents to Georgetown. Her black father, a government probation officer, had moved up in the world. Without a high school in Triumph, Chitra attended high school with Cheryl in Georgetown. To avoid making two trips daily with the East Coast train, Chitra had stayed with Cheryl’s family during the school week and returned to her home in Triumph at weekends and during school holidays.

Alone together, the cousins always spoke in creolized English. It bonded them with a shared past, shared dreams, shared secrets.

“Girl, like the PT house catching hell,” said Chitra, when Cheryl opened the backdoor to let her in.

The women hugged.

Cheryl poured Chitra a glass of coconut water. Seated together at the kitchen table, Cheryl told Chitra about events at the PT house and Dawn’s outburst.

“Girl, this world getting more and more crazy every day,” said Chitra. “Shirley could-a spare the children.”

“I can’t understand how she could do that. Must be outta love. She didn’t want them to punish without her. Dawn taking it real bad.”

“You think Dawn know something she not telling you-all?” said Chitra.

“Is possible. She been very secretive these last few weeks.”

“Want me to talk to her?”

“You could try. She might talk to you.”

Cheryl stood in the bathroom area while Chitra knocked on Dawn’s bedroom door.

“Dawn? Is Auntie Chitra. Your mother told me about Diane. You wanna talk about it?”

“No, Auntie.”

“I brought curry lamb and dhal pouri. You want some while it still warm?”

“I’m not hungry, Auntie.”

“Aw-right. Whenever you ready, it on the kitchen table.”

Cheryl and Chitra went downstairs in the backyard where they could talk in private. They sat down on the wooden bench encircling the trunk of the mango tree. The tree shaded them from the ninety-degree heat.

“Girl, yuh kitchen garden looking good,” said Chitra.

“Bobby help me with the weeding. He pick a lotta bora, ochro, and wiri-wiri pepper yesterday. I going pack some for you to carry home.”

Cheryl told Chitra about her fight with Stanley last night. “He got the nerve to ask for a divorce.”

“You should be glad. You been threatening for years to leave him.”

“He make it look like I do him wrong. I never had no sweet-man.”

Cheryl kicked a dry mango seed lying near her foot. When Stanley started studying at the university, she got a job to make up for their loss in income. She continued to take care of the children and the household chores. You make sacrifices for your man to become a better man only to lose him to another woman. She hadn’t learned from her mother’s mistake.

“Girl, just be glad you won’t have to worry no more about who he sleeping with.”

“He wanna separate our children.”

“Them two so close, they gonna punish. What you going do?”

“I don’t know yet. If push come to shove, I going get his mother and my father to put some sense in his head.”

“He still serious ‘bout running for mayor?”

“Huh. He very serious, girl.” Cheryl shook her right foot. “His sweet-woman must-a put the idea in his head. He think I stupidy. She just waiting on the side-line ‘til I get out the way.”

“I sorry to see you-all end up this way.” Chitra rested her hand on Cheryl’s thigh. “We had good times together. Then he go wrap up with the ruling party. Me and Ram don’t feel welcome in yuh house no more.”

“I know, girl. I don’t blame you-all. Stanley can’t see East Indians and black people gotta come together. He can’t see our Comrade Leader driving we country to national suicide.”

Cheryl scraped a hole in the earth with her right foot. She and her husband no longer shared the same goals and dreams. He alienated her from her East Indian roots. He didn’t love her. Not anymore. She was an obstacle to his ambitions. Did he still care about their children? She was not sure. She wasn’t sure of anything anymore.

“I agree with you there,” said Chitra. “We country going from bad to worse. But the black people still believe in our Comrade Leader. He got sugar tongue. The black people eat out his hand when he open his mouth.”

“Dad mother believed in him. She thought God send him to free black people. She work her tail off for his election, selling black-pudding outside Astor Cinema. When she pass away, he didn’t even show his face at her funeral.”

“Ram say power like rum: The more you drink um, the more you want um.”

“You can say that again. Power gone to his head. He brainwashing our children in school. He control the newspapers and the radio stations. He even controlling what we eat. We only know what he want we to know.”

“Ram say the new Working People’s Party stand a chance to win the next elections,” said Chitra.

“Ram dreaming. The government going rig the elections again. You-all ain’t hear how the People’s Temple help them win the June Referendum? Now they going make a new constitution and stay in power.”

“This time going be different,” said Chitra, lowering her voice. “The Working People’s Party got lotta support from blacks, East Indians, and other ethnic groups.”

“Don’t count on it, girl. Our Comrade Leader is another slippery sly mongoose like the Reverend Jim Jones.”

They both heard something fall on the kitchen floor upstairs.

“Sound like our rebel raiding the kitchen,” said Chitra. “I know she couldn’t resist meh dhal pouri.”

“We betta go eat before she eat out all.”

The two women started up the backstairs. When they entered the kitchen, the house was still. A dhal pouri was missing and a curry-stained ladle lay in the sink. Dawn was nowhere in sight.

Chitra left around two. Stanley didn’t return home until after eight that night. Tipsy. In no mood for conversation. Cheryl would have to wait until tomorrow for news about the shooting in Port Kaituma.

Monday morning. Back to work and school. Stanley maneuvered their dark green, Russian-made, Lada car between hire-cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and donkey carts. Litter and overgrown grass soiled the tree-lined, main streets of their former garden city.

No one spoke. The air was stagnant and heavy. Bobby hugged and kissed Cheryl before getting out of the car. Dawn walked off without a goodbye.

“You didn’t tell me what happened at Port Kaituma,” said Cheryl when they were alone.

“The army contingent got there early yesterday morning.”

“Any news about the Congressman and his party?”

“He and four others are dead. Ten people are injured. Half of them are in serious condition. The American Embassy official who went with them was also hurt.”

Cheryl’s mouth dropped open.

“Rescue planes flew in to evacuate them. The dead, wounded, and most of the survivors were transferred to a U.S. Air Force medical evacuation aircraft at Timehri Airport.”

“Our Comrade Leader has a problem on his hands. Jim Jones can’t go around killing people in our country.”

“Jim Jones is dead, Cheryl.”

“What?” She jerked her head to look at Stanley. “He had a shoot-out with the soldiers?”

“He and his followers killed themselves. The defectors said Jones planned the mass suicide when he learned of the Congressman’s visit. He called it revolutionary suicide.”

Cheryl felt her blood drain to her feet. These things only happened in movies.

“Revolutionary suicide? Against what?”

“How am I supposed to know? Jones was a madman.”

“Didn’t your father tell you?”

“My father doesn’t tell me everything.”

“Another state secret?”

Stanley honked the horn.

“Why do you always have to make insinuations about my father?”

“What did I say wrong this time?”

“It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it.” Stanley banged the horn again.

“Stanley! You nearly knocked the man off his bike!”

“It’s not my fault. He should pay attention to the traffic.”

Cheryl released her hold on the dashboard. She sat back in the seat. Why was she so agitated? She was not thinking straight. Too much happening. Too fast. Parents killing their children. Mass suicide.

What had gone wrong with the world? Why did these people choose death? Life was tough. She knew that. But there was always hope for a better tomorrow. Wasn’t there? She had to hold on to that hope. Their lives were a constant struggle. Her marriage of sixteen years was crumbling. Her daughter stopped talking with her.

Stanley pulled over in front of the mortgage society building where she worked. She stumbled out of the car. She made it to her desk without falling off her heels. Her three colleagues didn’t see her enter the open office space. They were huddled together, sharing their latest weekend gossip.

“What all the susu about?” she said, sitting down at her desk. She put away her handbag.

“You haven’t seen today’s papers?” said Gavin, a junior loans officer. A father with four mouths to feed. Cheryl suspected he was a government informer.

“A massacre at the People’s Temple Agricultural Project in the Northwest Region,” added Patricia, a young office clerk. “Called Jonestown. I never see anything like this in all my born days.”

“I didn’t get a chance to see the papers,” said Cheryl.

“To think something like this can happen in our own country,” said Vishnu, their records clerk.

“Did the papers say how many are dead?” said Cheryl.

“Over three hundred,” said Gavin. “Is a crying shame, comrade.”

Patricia handed the newspapers to Cheryl. The headline, JONESTOWN MASSACRE, punched her in the face. The photo of human bodies, lying facedown, squeezed the blood out of her heart.

“Since when we start letting Americans settle in the Interior?” said Vishnu.

“I can’t say, comrade,” said Gavin. “The papers say Jonestown was some kind of agricultural project.”

“They’re a church mission,” said Patricia. “My mother used to listen now-and-again to their radio program. I think it was on once a week.”

“What they talk about on this program?” said Vishnu.

“Mostly propaganda about socialism. The evils of capitalism. The threat of nuclear war. That sort-a thing,” said Patricia.

“American socialists?” said Gavin.

“Sounds like there’s more to this story than they telling us,” said Vishnu. “Could be the secret service bumped them off.”

Cheryl’s hands trembled as she turned the pages to the centerfold. She struggled to focus. Bodies littered the forest clearing like washing put out to dry in the sun. Her eyes fixated on a group with a small child smothered between them. She tried to blink away the tears. A teardrop escaped. She wiped it away with her hand.

“You okay Comrade Collins?” said Gavin.

“Just shaken by the photos,” said Cheryl. “It’s overwhelming. Did they say how they died?”

“Flavor-Aid poisoned with cyanide,” said Gavin. “Our soldiers found a vat with purple-colored drink. Packets of Flavor-Aid. Lots of plastic cups and syringes.”

“This doesn’t make sense,” said Cheryl.

“Is a tragedy,” said Vishnu.

“It’s a day of mourning for our black American comrades,” said Gavin.

Guyana must have seemed a perfect refuge for the Temple’s black majority. But there had been no one to protect them from their revered Father, the Reverend Jim Jones. Trapped in their remote jungle settlement, there had been no means of escape from his tyranny.

How was Dawn taking the news? Her plans for joining the People’s Temple lay in the muddy earth with the lifeless bodies. Would she recover from this blow?

Around eleven, the headmistress at Dawn’s high school called Cheryl at work. Dawn had collapsed in the classroom. Cheryl called Stanley. He sent a City Council driver to pick her up. He drove her to Dawn’s school, then dropped them home. Cheryl stayed home with Dawn. When her mother-in-law joined them, she brewed one of her bush teas to sedate Dawn.

Cheryl was mad at herself, mad at Jim Jones, mad at the world. Stanley was right. This was all her fault. She should never have allowed her daughter to mix with the foreigners. They had filled Dawn’s head with fairy tales of a utopia run by a madman.

Over the following days, Dawn refused to eat. She spent her days coiled up in bed. Her grandmother brooded over her. She sustained her with bush teas and chicken broth. Nothing they said to Dawn made an impression. Her thoughts roamed in fields of gray. Bobby stayed with her in the evenings. He slept in her bed with his arms wrapped around her.

Dawn wilted. Cheryl despaired.

“If she’s not better by Friday, we’re going to need medical help,” said Stanley, after supper on Tuesday night.

“You’re right,” said Cheryl. She looked away. She couldn’t let him see her desperation.

On Wednesday, her mother called from New York. She was living in the States since 1965 following the pre-independence racial disturbances between East Indians and blacks. As an East Indian, she had no longer felt safe in Guyana. Cheryl was already married by then. Dawn was three.

“I was worried sick about you-all,” said her mother. “I’ve been calling since Monday. Your phone not working?”

“Too many overseas calls must have overloaded the lines.”

“The news about the shooting of the Congressman at Port Kaituma and the Jonestown massacre on all the TV stations,” said her mother.

Guyana had no television.

“Mom, stop worrying. You forget my father-in-law is top brass in the army?”

Her mother sucked her teeth.

“I posted your immigration papers. You gotta decide what you’re going to do. Think about your children. You can’t let your husband hold you back. Look what happened to me. You sacrifice yourself for them and they still leave you for another woman.”

“I’ll think about it, Mom.”

“How’s your father? He’s still with that young radio announcer?”

“He’s doing good. His wife’s not so young anymore. She turned forty-four last month.”

“He’s looking out for you-all?”

“He drops by once a week to see how we’re doing.”

“That’s good to know. You could never do wrong where he was concerned.”

“You take care of yourself, Mom. I don’t want your blood pressure shooting up again."

“You take care, too. And take care of my grandchildren. Think about what I said.”

“I will, Mom.”

Her mother was right. Her father had always defended her whenever her mother was ready to dish out lashes. She knew she could always count on him. Stanley respected him. That was important.

She would have to tell her mother and father that Stanley had asked for a divorce. But not now. She felt trapped in a pressure cooker with no release.

News trickled out from Jonestown. Guyanese soldiers labored in the ninety-degree humid heat to count and bag the fast-decaying corpses. Bodies multiplied. Smaller bodies hidden under larger ones. Some had ingested the poison. Others had died from gunshot wounds. Many had syringe marks in their backs or under their armpits.

The final count mounted to 913. Among them were 276 children. A few escaped through a stroke of fate and cunning. The basketball team and others in Georgetown survived to live with the horror of those last hours of their loved ones.

Hungry reporters alighted on Georgetown like carrion crows. Unwanted publicity for a rogue state. But the rogue star was Jim Jones and his People’s Temple. Their Comrade Leader evaded scrutiny.

Dawn shriveled up like a dead hibiscus flower. Cheryl struggled to stay afloat as she sunk in grief. On Friday afternoon, she left work at four to visit her mother-in-law.

“She’s pining for someone," her mother-in-law said. "And it’s not Diane.”

Cheryl almost choked on the coconut bun. “Did she tell you that?”

“No. I know. I’m never wrong about these things.”

Cheryl stared at the glass of red sorrel drink in her hand. She was Dawn’s age when she had met her first love. Was Dawn seeing a PT boy?

“Jim Jones would never have allowed it,” said Cheryl.

“Young people in love don’t care about rules.”

Bobby appeared in the half-open kitchen doorway. He unlatched the bottom-door and let himself in.

“You’ve finished playing already, Bobby?” said Cheryl.

“I’m going to see my sister.”

“What’s in that envelope in your pants pocket?” said Cheryl.

Bobby stood near his grandmother on the other side of the kitchen table.

“Tall Boy at the PT house asked me to give it to Dawn.”

Before Cheryl could question him further, Bobby darted inside. She grabbed him by his pants on his way out.

“What’s in the envelope, Bobby?”

“I don’t know Mommy. Tall Boy didn’t tell me. Dawn gets vex with me when I open her letters.”

Cheryl released her hold on his pants. Bobby shot out the backdoor.

“Those two are closer than we think,” said her mother-in-law. “That Lil Devil knows more than he’s letting on.”

“You forget Dawn helped me raise him when I started to work? She’s more than a big sister to him.”

A death howl pierced the air. Cheryl and her mother-in-law rushed to Dawn’s bedroom. Dawn sat in the middle of crumpled sheets, clutching a sheet of yellow paper. Cheryl held on to her daughter’s shaking frame as she released the torrent of her grief.

Her mother-in-law freed the sheet of paper from Dawn’s hand. She read the letter.

“My beloved and beautiful Dawn, if you’re reading this letter, you already know that I chose to step-over with my family to a better world. We didn’t want it to end this way. Don’t grieve for me. Just remember what we were able to achieve in a world driven by racial prejudice, inequality, injustice and greed. When your time comes, I’ll be waiting for you. I love you. Michael.”

Cheryl kissed her daughter on the head and pulled her tighter. “Oh, Dawn, I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you tell us about Michael?”

It was a stupid question. She and Stanley would never have approved of their relationship. Dawn knew that. Cheryl’s children had come from her, but she couldn’t control their destinies. Michael, whoever he was, had touched her daughter’s life in some special way. First love stirred up deep, strong emotions. She could only pray that someday Dawn would heal. She would be with her every step of the way.

Jim Jones, that sly mongoose, had fed on the frailties and dreams of his followers. Was it too late to save her daughter?

Saturday, December 16. Almost a month since the day Jim Jones and his People’s Temple had turned their lives inside-out.

Cheryl had agreed with Stanley to keep quiet about their plans for divorce until Dawn’s full recovery. To cheer Dawn up, Stanley allowed Chitra’s two teenage sons to visit her. Hearing her chat with her cousins dissipated the acid cloud enveloping their family.

The Christmas rains arrived with vengeance. Heavy gray clouds released their load on the city, filling the gutter in front of their house and drainage canals across Georgetown. Flooding during the rainy season was a constant threat. Georgetown lay below sea level. The granite Georgetown Seawall protected them from the battering high tides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Today, sunshine broke through the puffy clouds driven inland by the northeast trade winds. A perfect day to decorate their Christmas tree. Stanley had set up the tree on the verandah. Cheryl sent Bobby over to his friend’s house. He always managed to break something. She heard Dawn stirring in the kitchen. Dawn was pulling herself together. Thank God.

The People’s Temple House stood lifeless. Pangs of nostalgia and loss flashed inside her. The precious moments in life were as transitory as the clouds passing overhead.

“I miss them,” said Dawn.

Cheryl turned to face her daughter, standing in the doorway of the verandah.

“Me, too. Lamaha Gardens isn’t the same without them. They livened up our neighborhood.”

“You need help, Mom?”

“Yeah. You could help me untangle this string of lights.”

They worked together in silence.

“Mom, will the pain ever go away?”

“It takes time, but it goes away. You learn to live with it. You learn to treasure each good moment that comes your way.”

They secured the string of lights along the outer edge of the verandah.

“Mike was different from the other boys I know. My dark-skin didn’t bother him. We talked about making a difference in the world. Things that really matter. His blue eyes would light up. I’d never seen the like.”

Dawn gave her a half-smile.

They plugged in the lights and checked the tiny colored bulbs. They moved along the string, tightening the loose bulbs.

“How did you two meet?”

“He was part of the Temple band. He played the saxophone. They were popular at fundraising events. Whenever they came to Georgetown, Diane and I never missed a show.”

Dawn’s expression turned melancholy. She fell silent. They weaved two strings of lights among the branches of the tree.

“When my first-love went away to study in England, I was a mess. We used to write each other every week. I lived to receive his letters. I saved them in shoeboxes under my bed. Then, after 79 weeks, the letters stopped coming.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know. I never saw or heard from him again. Years later, your Auntie Chitra helped me to burn his letters.”

“You ever miss him?”

“Nah. Now and again when I hear one of our favorite songs, I think of him.” Cheryl looked at her daughter. “I’ve got you and Bobby. I can’t ask for more.”

“What about Dad?”

Cheryl plugged in the Christmas tree lights. A green bulb in the front did not light up. “Your father and I had many, many good years together. Things not the same anymore.”

“Because of that other woman?”


Cheryl climbed on a wooden stool to hang the star on top of the seven-foot tree. Dawn handed her the glass ornaments one at a time.

“Diane didn’t talk much ‘bout her father. Auntie Shirley got worked up just at the sound of his name. When he came to Georgetown with the congressman, she wouldn’t even let him see Diane.”

“Did Diane want to see her father?”

“It didn’t matter one way or the other to her. She was strange that way. Then Auntie Shirley changed her mind. She let him spend that last Saturday at the PT house.”

“It must’ve been hard for him to lose her like that. Just a little while after he had left her.”

Dawn wound strings of silver tinsel around the artificial green tree.

Cheryl stood back, leaning against the verandah wall. “The tree looks beautiful.”

Dawn agreed.

They packed away the wrapping paper and boxes. Cheryl took the three cartons to the washing and storage-room downstairs. She left Dawn to sweep the verandah floor.

Back upstairs, Cheryl joined Dawn at the kitchen table for a cold glass of sorrel drink and slices of pineapple.

“Mom, I’m sorry for not listening to you and Dad.”

“We all make mistakes. Jim Jones fooled a lotta smart and well-educated people. This world full-a sly mongooses posing as house mice. If you don’t watch out, they take your house, all your money, your husband, your child. Even your soul.”

Cheryl grimaced as she chewed the tart pineapple.

“Did Diane or Auntie Shirley ever mention the ‘white nights’? You know… Jones’ rehearsals for their so-called revolutionary suicide?”

“Of course not, Mom. One time, I overheard Auntie Shirley say there was going to be trouble. That’s all.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Some woman who had left was trying to take away her son from Father Jim. He refused to give him up.”

“Why didn’t you say something to me or your father?”

“It didn’t seem unusual, Mom. When parents separate they always fight over the children.”

Cheryl’s heart jolted. Did Dawn know about their divorce plans?

“Sorry, Dawn. How were you to know it would end the way it did?”

Cheryl gulped down the last of her sorrel drink. The Guyanese people were no different from the people at Jonestown. They were in the hands of a dictator. They faced their own kind of ‘white nights.’

She gazed at the empty glass in her hands. She knew she had to leave Guyana. She had to save herself and her children.

“You okay, Mom?”

Cheryl looked up at her daughter. “Just thinking about the whole situation. Our government protected Jim Jones. But look how they washed their hands clean by handing over the bodies...without any investigation. Our country is going to end up with a bad name.”

“They did the right thing in handing over the bodies. I’m sure Mike and the others would’ve wanted to be buried near their family in the States.”

“Perhaps. The American government gotta take a lotta blame too. Instead of keeping an eye on Jones, they busy worry themselves ‘bout preventing the Communist Party from running this country. They end up neglecting their own kind.”

“It’s no point worrying about who is to blame, Mom. I just want to remember the good things I learned from Mike. He really liked being part of the People’s Temple. He was a seventeen-year-old drug-addict when he joined the Church two years ago. They gave him direction and purpose in life. He had a family he could count on. They could count on him, too. He said his new black family taught him to forgive. That’s when he was able to heal and to change. He loved Father Jim.”

“You’re right. Let’s remember the good things. Mike had you in his thoughts during his last moments.”

Mike didn’t abandon his family. He was prepared to die with them and leave his love behind.

Dawn got up, circled the kitchen table, and hugged her mother from behind. Cheryl held onto her daughter’s arms.

“Dawn, I’m so glad you had a chance to know someone like Mike.”

“Me, too, Mom. He was a special person.”

They clung to each other.

“Let’s cook lunch, Mom. It’s a long time since we had mettagee. Bobby loves mettagee.”

“It’s a lotta work to prepare.”

“I’ll peel the potatoes, eddoes, yam, and sweet cassava,” said Dawn.

“Okay. Then I’ll grate the coconut to make the coconut milk.”

“We can’t have mettagee without dumplings, Mom.”

“You’re right. Better to mix the dumpling dough first. Your father and brother are going to be happy.”

Cheryl’s heart glowed like the star at the top of their Christmas tree. This was a new Dawn—wiser, understanding, and more loving. Her wounds were beginning to heal. Hope rekindled.

She couldn’t choose death like Shirley and other members of the People’s Temple. If saving herself and her children meant leaving her beloved country, she was prepared to do so. Saying goodbye to her father, Chitra, and many others who were a part of her life wouldn’t be easy. Everything came with a price tag.

She had survived these past twelve years under a dictator. She would survive in the cold north. Concerns for her children’s safety and future propelled her. She would not be alone. In New York, her mother would be there to show them the way.

Just one more chunk of coconut for her to grate. She glanced across the kitchen table at her daughter engrossed in removing the bark-like skin of the sweet cassava. Life had its precious moments. This was one of them.

CNN's presentation, "Escape from Jonestown," televised in November 2008 on the thirtieth anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, was the first time I had seen the recorded live images of the massacre that has smeared my native land with blood. In January 2009, to rid myself of the ghosts of Jonestown that haunted me, I decided to tell our side of the story.

Captioned photo: People's Temple Headquarters, Lamaha Gardens, Georgetown, Guyana.

First published in the now defunct New York-based magazine Guyana Journal November 2009 Issue.