The Ventriloquist's Tale

The Ventriloquist's Tale

by Pauline Melville

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781408849316
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 06/23/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Pauline Melville's first book, Shape-shifter, a collection of short stories, won the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Macmillan Silver Pen Award and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for best first book. The Ventriloquist's Tale is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The boy who brought the banana fish brought the news. The gate had long fallen down and he stood where the two gate-posts framed the empty red savannah. A hot wind blew. Stuffed in the bottom of his pocket was a catastrophe in the form of a note. The boy did not know or care much what it said. The fish was his overriding concern. He wiped the dust from it and waited. The sun scorched down. Heat bounced off the red earth. For a long time he stood with the great fish in his arms, frightened to come nearer because of the dogs. The place seemed deserted.

    Eventually, an old lady with silver hair down to her shoulders came to the open door. She pushed her way past a tangle of derelict bicycles and an old rocking chair and shaded her eyes in order to see who was there. The boy knew the woman slightly. No one around those parts could guess how old Auntie Wifreda was.

    When anyone asked her, she just shrugged amiably and said: 'I don't know. If I was a horse, they'd shoot me.'

    She disappeared back inside and a stocky, well-proportioned, black-haired man with pale skin came out, cleaning a hunting knife on the side of his jeans. Chofy McKinnon brought the dogs under control and then beckoned the boy into the house and walked off in the direction of the creek.

    He had just quarrelled with his wife and wanted to stay out of the house until he regained control of himself.

    The argument, originally about their son's future, spiralled inevitably into the row about whether they should move nearer to Marietta's parents. Her parents looked after their few cattle on the south side of the Kanaku Mountains. She had always resented the fact that when they married he had not moved with her to be near her parents, as was the custom amongst savannah Indians. Instead, she had moved in with him and his Auntie Wifreda. It still felt wrong-sided to her. Besides, the north savannahs were Macusi territory. They were Wapisiana from the south. That made her uneasy too.

    Marietta insisted that her parents were too old and tired to tend cattle any longer. He did not like her mother and refused to move nearer them in order to help. The fight had ended with her flustered and him in one of his cold furies.

    Chofy stood by the creek. He disliked confrontation. In arguments, he became icily polite and blank. Given the choice, he preferred to melt into the background whenever there was contention.

    Since he'd reached forty, he had understood that this was his life. It was not going to change or improve. Mostly, he accepted it. He belonged in the savannahs. His existence was tied into the landscape and the seasons, rainy or dry. Like many others, he resented the increasing number of alien coastlanders and Brazilians who were invading the region to settle there. But recently he had felt a small worm of dissatisfaction with his own life. It gnawed away just under his rib-cage. It made him want to get away. Usually, when he had that sort of feeling, he took off into the bush for a while. But this time the restlessness made him feel like striking out for somewhere new, even though it was accompanied by a warning reminder, somewhere at the bottom of his stomach, that any change was the beginning of disintegration.

    However, the ceaseless effort required to scratch a living from the place exhausted him.

    He slashed half-heartedly at a snake-whip bush with his knife and then was forced to walk further downstream because he had accidentally disturbed a nest of marabunta hornets on the trunk of a neighbouring tree. He ducked through the tangle of foliage at the creek's edge to avoid the few hornets that buzzed angrily after him and grinned wryly to himself in acknowledgement of the fact that, in this place, even the smallest moves were made only as a response to disaster. Bad luck -- usually wished on you by some enemy -- was the most common trigger for change.

    Somewhere further upstream, a waam beetle whirr-whirred with increasing intensity and volume, sounding like a miniature chain-saw. That meant the rains were coming. He looked to see if the level of the creek was rising. The rains would begin with drizzle and showers, winds and isolated storms. Then the frogs would start to sing and rising headwaters fill the tributaries and streams. At the height of the rainy season, the creek could rise thirty feet in a night.

Inside the house was dark and cool. The boy came right into the part that was used as a kitchen. Marietta was splashing water from the rinsing bucket over the plastic plates, her face still flushed from the argument. The only light came from the wide opening in the wall which looked on to the land at the back. The boy laid the fish down on the table.

    As Marietta washed the wares, she scraped any leftovers out of this opening in the wall and the fowls flapped and screeched and rushed to get them. Outside, the light dazzled and struck at the metal post which supported the washing-line. Marietta turned round, wiping her hands on her skirt, and came over to examine the great creature that the boy had laid on the table. Its flesh gleamed yellow with black stripey markings and it had an orange tail.

    'Do you want to drink water?' She spoke to the boy in Wapisiana. He nodded and went to the big earthenware jar, lifted the dipper and gulped down some cool water. As he glanced to one side he saw the figure of Auntie Wifreda in another room, lying sideways in her hammock, her silver hair spread over one shoulder. Three jaguar skulls rested on a beam over her head, alongside other knick-knacks and a hanging sifter decorated with feathers. She was surrounded by dust-layered shelves crammed with cartons, old tins, tissue boxes, jars, one or two old Marmite bottles and general, useful junk.

    He peeked around. Behind Auntie Wifreda, the back door was open. Clothes were mostly washed in the creek but sometimes they were scrubbed outside and chickweed had run wild in places where the water had spilled. Auntie Wifreda's garden consisted of two rusted kerosene drums with a plank balanced on them. The plants grew in a row of old tins, bowls and chipped ceramic pots. There were plants to clean out the stomach, plants to stop girls getting pregnant, plants to keep angry people away from the house, plants to make a man hard, plants to make a man soft.

    Through a door to the left, he could see three empty hammocks, their nets twined round them, and a single bed with no mattress, only its springs showing. Rolls of stiffened deer- and cow-hides leaned against the wall giving the place its musty, animal smell.

    There were no ceilings. The inside walls were plank-wood and reached halfway to the roof leaving the whole top of the house open. Beams and poles of bloodwood and silverballi reached all the way up to the eaves of the dry and dusty palm thatch.

    Behind every door was a set of bow and arrows to repel invaders. By the front door stood Chofy McKinnon's shotgun, next to the cylindrical palm container which held his hunting knives. Nibi hats hung on nails on the wall and some old photos, curling at the edges, were stuck up there.

    From somewhere outside in a mango tree, one of the family's pet parrots was calling plaintively in Portuguese: 'Louro. Louro.'

    While the boy drank, Marietta inspected the fish. It weighed about twelve pounds -- too big to have been caught in a creek. It must have been caught in the Rupununi or the Takatu. The fish was still firm and fresh even though the boy had walked for miles with it. Marietta measured off a portion, nearly a third, including the head, and cut it off. She collected up several bags of sorrel and gave it to him in exchange for the fish.

    The boy went outside to rest under the guava tree where some half-eaten fruit lay on the ground. He looked up. Parakeets clustered in the branches overhead. Out of habit, he picked up a stone and threw it into the tree to keep the birds off the fruit.

    Inside the house, Marietta put the portions of fish in a bucket of water with a cloth over it to keep off the flies and returned to throwing lukewarm water over the plates with a wooden dipper.

Marietta was a vibrant, vigorous woman who never stopped working. Two buckets of water stood in front of her, one for washing and one for rinsing. AS she busied herself with the dishes, her stocky, robust figure bent from one to the other. Two of her bottom front teeth were missing which never prevented her from smiling. Her complexion was a dark ruddy brown. She wore her black hair in a loose plait. Quite often she sang around the house, but now she was hardly aware of what she was doing. She was upset by the argument. They had been rowing like this for months.

    Even before this last quarrel, Chofy had been going through a patch of moodiness that worried her. She did not know what to do about it. For a while he had stopped shaving. He stared out of the window for hours. He fingered his chin and smiled to himself. Once, he hurriedly shut a drawer when she came into the room, as if he were hiding something from her. She had gone and looked in the drawer later when he was scraping hides down by the creek. What she found puzzled her. It was a clipping from an old Time magazine that someone must have lent him. The photo showed millionaire Claus von Bulow and his wife attending a movie premiere in New York. Mrs von Bulow wore a low-cut, clinging, shimmering, white evening dress. Marietta slipped the old clipping back in the drawer.

    After dark, by the light of the kerosene lamp, Chofy occupied himself by carving, obsessively and meticulously, the precise pattern of a turtle-shell on to the fiat stones he had picked up from the savannahs. Or he would whittle perfect orbs from wood, in the way his father had taught him. One night he went hunting and shot two deer. He was happier then, for a couple of days.

    Despite the customary distrust of in-laws, Marietta finally came round to consulting Auntie Wifreda about the problem. In the mornings, after she had bathed in the creek, she would stand in Auntie Wifreda's room, hair still wet, towel wrapped round her sturdy body, and recount her dreams.

    'I dreamed there was this brash, new, white Land Rover with bright lights on top. It was coming this way. At the side of the road there were little stalls, snackettes. A lady with a baby came up to me and said her husband wanted to talk with me. I get frighten. I get the feeling that the men in the Land Rover want to steal me away. I said: "I don't want to go. I married to Chofy." And then a plane arrive on the airstrip with a dead person in it.'

    Auntie Wifreda noticed that many of these dreams had someone dead or sick in them.

    'There were some steps near the river and I was selling something next to them. Chofy was nearby. I saw him sit down and then suddenly lie flat on the ground. "I will get a pillow," I said and ran home. There were some white people picking ripe yellow mangoes alongside some negroes and East Indians.'

    And then another time.

    'There were more steps, steep and narrow. I climbed them and halfway up I became frighten because I saw him drunk at the top. I went to fetch water. He disappeared. Then I saw him lying by a small fence. A woman stood by and I said: "I will chop you like a tree," and the woman turned into wood and I chopped her into tiny pieces.'

    Auntie Wifreda frowned and hoped that Chofy was not going to turn out like her brother Danny and succumb to bouts of bush fever. Rupununi fever, they called it.

    When Chofy's Uncle Danny was alive, he was notorious for being an isolate, despite his various marriages and children. There would be times when Danny drank heavily before disappearing to live in the bush on his own for long periods of time. The most vivid memory she had of Danny was of him on his death-bed, his bronze face and black eyes impassive as he deliberately lied to the priest with his last words and his last breath. The shock of it remained with her. Auntie Wifreda could see his face in front of her when she came to with a start and realised that Marietta was still speaking.

    'I will just have to wait till Chofy catch himself back,' said Marietta, her face full of frank misery.

    Meanwhile, Marietta moved out of their bedroom and slung her hammock in the other room that was dusty and smelled of old deer-hides. They had not slept together for months.

A movement behind the monkey-cup tree on the other side of the creek caught Chofy's eye.

    'Why you aren't at school?' shouted Chofy.

    Eight-year-old Bla-Bla emerged reluctantly from behind the bush holding his arrows and bow. His short black hair stood up like iron filings under a magnet. His face was stricken with horror and his mouth already filling with lies to tell his father.

    'School finish. No teacher,' said Bla-Bla, running surefooted towards his father, balancing easily along the tacouba that bridged the creek.

    'Come here, Manicole-Leaf Head.' Chofy grabbed him and tried to quell an unruly spike of hair. Bla-Bla twisted away.

    'Get the barrow and fetch firewood,' yelled Chofy after his son who was skirting the house and running towards the barracong. 'I am going to check on that school, you know. This keeps happening.'

Bla-Bla, red in the face from manhandling the barrow over the rough ground, finished collecting firewood and dumped the load by the outside stove. He whistled to the banana-fish boy and in single file they walked to the creek and scrambled down the steep red scree to stand by the water. They decided to look for awara nuts to make tops.

    On each bank, tall grey stems of moco-moco plants, with green, heart-shaped leaves, formed a sort of wattle fence. The trail led down to the clearing at the edge of the creek where people bathed and washed clothes. The creek was murky, too murky to see fish. The water had muddied where someone had been earlier and thrown in a heap of rotten cassava that stunk out the place.

    'A little girl did drown here,' said Bla-Bla, pointing out the spot with a stick.

    'Was it a numb-fish got her?'

    'No. She did get caught in tree roots. They carry her up to the house and put her on the shelf in Koko Wifreda's room.'

    The other boy imagined the body of the little girl on the dusty shelf with the Marmite jars and decided not to go back in that room.

    They collected two suitable nuts from a nearby awara tree, scooped out the centre with a knife and sat by the creek to whittle them. Bla-Bla whittled his in the shape of a fish and the other boy chose the shape of a leaf. They worked in comradely silence, heads bent, making four openings in each top so that it would make that strange humming noise with a dying fall. Then they went back to the house and tied a piece of cloth over one of Marietta's huge pots, leaving a dip in the middle to prevent the tops spinning out. They carried the pot outside and set about competing ferociously to knock each other's top out of the ring.

    When the banana-fish boy thought it was time to leave, he went to pick up his sorrel and tell Marietta he was going, averting his eyes from Auntie Wifreda's room in case he saw any sign of the dead girl. Just before he left, he delved into the pocket of his torn pants and handed over the note that he had brought from Marietta's parents.

    Marietta frowned as she tried to decipher the barely legible scrawl on the letter. It was from her father. It said that the cattle had been attacked by a plague of vampire bats.

That same night, Marietta heard the squeak of a bullock cart and a faint 'He-hey' from outside.

    She lit a speak-easy lamp. Her father stood in front of them, his eyes troubled, his black hair shining in the lamplight and his face creased with worry. He had travelled thirty miles. There was nothing they could do. The cattle had been bitten all over. The evening sky had suddenly turned dark as the horde of bats wheeled out of the Kanaku Mountains. The creatures attached themselves like small, black, inside-out umbrellas on to the cattle. Nine calves were killed, drained of blood. He and some other men had stayed awake for two nights, trying to fight off the bats and stop them attacking more cattle and horses. Many of the surviving cows were now showing signs of rabies. Two days after the bats had come, a whole set of owls had arrived and feasted on the bats.

    Marietta provided her father with a glass of lemonade and a piece of cassava bread. He would leave and go back at first light. She managed to resist saying 'What did I tell you?' to Chofy, for several hours. And then, just before she went to bed, she said it.

    For the rest of the night, even after the light had gone out, Chofy sat at the kitchen table, his head in his hands and his mind in turmoil. Although they had a small cassava garden three miles away, and he was good at both hunting and fishing, they relied on the cattle when they needed cash. When he was a young boy growing up, money had rarely been used. Everything was done by exchange of gifts. But these days cash was increasingly necessary.

    The next morning he rode back to Potarinau with his father-in-law to inspect the damage. Together, they manoeuvred the bullock cart over the Sawariwau crossing. As they approached the corral from the top of the hill, Chofy's heart sank. It was a disaster. He could see from there that the corral was half empty under the blue sky. They had owned thirty head of cattle. Only a handful of the white cows was left, some staggering, stiff-legged, and more than one foaming at the mouth. A horse swayed on the road ahead of them. Already weak, its barrel-chested ribs showing like basket-work, the creature dropped on to its knees. Vultures wheeled overhead. Chofy felt sick at the sight.

    He walked silently behind his father-in-law to the house. Chofy ducked into the entrance. The tiny room opened out into another, equally small. Chofy stepped over the wooden bar in the doorway that separated the two rooms. The bar was to keep out floods during the rainy season. There were no objects in the house except an empty table and a bench. Everything inside was ash-grey from woodsmoke. The only colour in the small dwelling came from the richly gleaming brown and black feathers of a powis bird hanging from a nail on a housepost. The interior smelled of woodsmoke. Marietta's mother sat at the table.

    'We're waiting for someone to come with DDT and spray. They told us a man would come.' She gestured around the house to explain why their few possessions were stacked outside. 'There was nothing we could do about the cattle.' Chofy sensed an element of smugness in the apologetic tone.

    He felt, bitterly as usual, that Marietta's elderly mother took some obscure pleasure in his failure.

The morning after he returned, Marietta and Chofy sat at the table and discussed the situation, their most recent quarrel lost in the wake of events. Chofy lapsed into silent thought as he spooned down the lumpy cassava porridge and weighed up various courses of action. Auntie Wifreda pottered about looking for a line and hook to go fishing.

    'Tamukang playing his flute,' said Auntie Wifreda, at the sound of the wind.

    'Who's Tamukang?' enquired Bla-Bla as he scrabbled for his school notebook.

    'He plays for Brazil,' Marietta joked. 'No. No. Not really. He's the Master of Fish. He's in the stars. I'll show you one night.'

    It was April and the house was wrapped in wind. The winds had loosened and shaken themselves out, moaning over the plains. Now they blustered around the savannah with easy strength, testing the resistance of the houses with small, teasing sallies. Because of the openness of the structure, the breeze blew inside the house as well as outside. The wind rummaged playfully in and out of the rooms. It fanned Chofy's cheeks and parted his hair with impudent familiarity.

    The gusting air unsettled him, as if they might all float away on it. He cursed as it lifted one of the pieces of cassava bread from the table. The airy draughts felt to him like the undoing of everything, the unfastening of ties, a harbinger of chaos. Marietta snatched at the wafer of bread.

    Chofy looked dour and spoke firmly, as if by sounding decisive, he might be capable of anchoring the family to the earth.

    'I'll go to Georgetown and try to dig up a job somewhere. Mining maybe. Or logging. Perhaps I'll have to find something in Georgetown itself. I'll send money back and we'll build up the herd again. Can you manage the farm?'

    They lived on the outskirts of Moco-moco village, some distance from any other houses. Moco-moco was one of the last villages before the foothills on the northern side of the Kanaku Mountains. Many of the houses were scattered up to several hours' walk from one another. There were no immediate neighbours to help. Their cassava farm or garden was planted on a bush-island three miles' walk away beside the river.

    Despite his recent feelings of dissatisfaction, now that he was being forced to leave, Chofy felt unhappy. The idea of town filled him with dread. The wind in the house seemed to be an airy omen of disarray. It seemed to be laughing at him, even playing with him. As he spoke, his words sounded hollow, no defence against winds this could scatter human plans in any direction.

    He pushed his plate away abruptly and went to collect up his hunting knives. Through the window he caught sight of five small figures, headed by Bla-Bla, running pell-mell across the savannah towards a clump of mango trees in the opposite direction from the school.

    'There goes the Mango Truancy Squad,' he said grimly.

    The tension in his shoulders signalled to Marietta that he was subsiding into one of his sulks.

    'You must beat him,' she said. 'When I was young, if we were lazy, they used to slap mucru squares on our back, especially woven so that the head of the ant came out one end and the sting the other. They'd slap the stinging end on us and hold it there. Or put pepper in our eyes. He'd soon learn.'

    Chofy ignored her and stalked outside. Grudgingly, he unpinned one of the deer-hides that was drying on the side of the house, as if he resented paying it attention. Then he went the two hundred yards down to the creek where he had left the other hides to soak. Two men who had come to help sat on the bank waiting for him. One deerskin was already softened, treated with white lime to remove some of the hair. The hides that had been scraped clean were in the barracong, soaking in a tub of water with mari-mari bark until they turned brown.

    He flung the softened deerskin over the trunk of a tree in the water and handed the other men a knife each. Then they waded in to scrape the rest of the hair off with the hunting knives.

    By the afternoon, the combination of standing up to his waist in water, the heat, the smell of the hide, the other men's jokes and the arm-breaking physical work had made him temporarily forget his uneasiness about the future.

The men were still down at the creek when Marietta noticed that the air inside the house suddenly smelt damp. Then everything went dark. As the storm broke overhead, she ran about the house collecting pails, pans, buckets, calabashes, gourds, anything that could be placed on the earth floor at the points where the rains came through the thatch. The first bolt of lightning struck an old defunct electricity post near the house, relic of some long-forgotten scheme to bring electricity to the area. It brought down the wires in a smoking tangle.

    Auntie Wifreda, clutching a cloth to her head, pushed her way through the pelting rain towards her row of plants at the back of the house. Bla-Bla was running home from the direction of the school. Lightning skittered down to the ground just in front of him.

    'Lightning juk me in the foot. I saw blood,' gasped Bla-Bla to Marietta who was flying past him to get in the washing from the line. He tried to examine his foot, water pouring from his head on to his shoulders.

    'You must cover you head,' shouted Auntie Wifreda who was waddling over to rescue her plants from the onslaught of the rain. 'Lightning don' like we hair. There's too much iron about the place. Lightning gettin' vex. 'E don' like wires and all this.' She snatched up two pots that contained seedlings and took them inside.

    Under the dishwater sky, Chofy and the other men struggled to carry the sodden skins up from the creek. They dumped them outside and came in the house. Chofy immediately, without a word, went out again and climbed up on to the roof to make sure the falling electricity post had not damaged the thatch.

    In the distance he saw lightning zigzagging along the Kanaku Mountains from the peak of Darukaban to the peak of Shiriri.

    Marietta took the fish out of the pan, put a cloth over her head and went to clear leaves from the trench round the house. Brown water gurgled and gushed past the back door.

    'Bla-Bla. Tomorrow you must help clear the trench and dig another one round the barracong,' she said as she came back inside, drenched, holding her soaking dress away from her breasts.

    She called to Chofy: 'Chofy. Come, let us drink tea.'

    Chofy came in, wiping his head and his hands on a rag. The four of them sat with the other two workers at the table. Thunder crashed outside. Spindles of rain twisted through the holes in the thatch and spattered on the floor.

    'This is not a roof,' said Marietta ruefully, looking up at the thatch. 'This is a strainer we livin' under.'

The fact that the rainy season was beginning hastened the decision. It was agreed that Chofy should stay for the planting which had to be done before the rains set in properly. Then he would leave for Georgetown straight away in case flooding made the journey impossible.

    He would take Auntie Wifreda with him for the long-overdue cataract operation on her eyes. Although he grumbled about taking her, secretly he was grateful to have company. Every time he thought of leaving, he experienced a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. The priest at Lethem had told them there was a Catholic home for the elderly where she could stay for nothing while she attended the hospital. He would have to find lodgings for himself.

    The night before he left, Marietta had just gone to lie in her hammock when she heard his voice calling from the other room.

    'Where is my darling?'

    'I am here, Chofy, and I love you,' she called back in the night. Then she made her way, rather shyly, through the palpable darkness to join him on the bed which consisted of an old mattress resting on some boxes and crates, and they made love for the first time for months, feeling rusty and out of practice, a little embarrassed and happy.

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The Ventriloquist's Tale 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
lauralkeet on LibraryThing 19 days ago
Not only do we Indians know how to make ourselves attractive. We are also brilliant at divining what you would like to hear and saying it, so you can never be really sure what we think. ... Ventriloquism at its zenith. (p. 354)Pauline Melville's debut novel is a multi-generational story of Amerindian people in Guyana. One thread in this novel focuses on Chofy McKinnon, a young man who leaves his rural village for the city of Georgetown, to find work that will support his wife and young son. In Georgetown he falls passionately for Rosa, a European woman visiting the country to conduct research. Chofy feels out of place in Georgetown, and escapes from his discomfort by spending most of his free time with Rosa in her bedroom.Partway through Chofy's story, the reader is transported back in time to the early 1900s, when Chofy's Scottish grandfather first settled in the village, married two sisters, and fathered several children. Most of the novel centers on two of McKinnon senior's children: Beatrice and Danny, and on an English priest who traversed the country baptizing children and converting adults. The story itself was interesting, if somewhat predictable, but Melville's descriptive prose brought the country and its native people to life. The imagery was so vivid; I often felt as if I were right there, experiencing the scenery, the heat, and the heavy rains. This was an excellent choice for my "Reading Globally" journey.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a page turner, not in the sense of tight pack action or suspense. This novel afords the reader with beautiful pictures while at the same time telling of ill fated lovers. I felt immensely heated to the erotic and sensual. While at the same time I felt a need to protect myself from the future tragedy about to unfold. Bravo Ms. Melville. I was immensely entertained. Please give us more of your talent.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Pauline Mehlville tells this story like no on ever could. She explores South American culture mixed with the influences of the developed worlds (Europe, Canada, etc.). She shows what an influence the Guinea savannahs can be on people from developed countries, and change their lives forever.