A boy is killed on a government minister’s orders as part of his mission to clean up the country and others made complicit must explore their consciences; a youth gets ready to play his role in the country’s lucrative kidnap business; a sister tries to make peace with the parents of the white American girl her brother has murdered; a gangster makes his posthumous lament. Trinidad in all its social tumult is ever present in these stories, which range across the country’s different ethnic communities, across rural and urban settings, from locals and expatriates to the moneyed elite and the poor scrabbling for survival. What ties the collection together is Sharon Millar’s achievement of a distinctively personal voice: cool, unsentimental and empathetic. If irony is the only way to inscribe contemporary Trinidad, there is also room for both generous humor and the possibility of redemption.
|Publisher:||Peepal Tree Press Ltd.|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Sharon Millar is the recipient of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the Small Axe Short Fiction Prize. Her work has appeared in Granta Online, the Manchester Review, and Small Axe, and was also featured in the anthology Pepperpot: The Best New Stories from the Caribbean.
Read an Excerpt
The Whale House and Other Stories
By Sharon Millar
Peepal Tree Press LtdCopyright © 2015 Sharon Millar
All rights reserved.
THE DRAGONFLY'S TAIL
Weeks before Christmas, in the hills of the Northern range, a boy disappears from home. He is seventeen years old. His mother, Carmelita Nunes, calls on the Orisha gods and prays to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. Her son is not yet a man and she knows that makes him both more dangerous and more vulnerable. On the first day of his absence, she draws a thick black line through the almanac hanging on the kitchen wall. On the third day, a black Friday, she dresses in her best clothes and calls a taxi. When she passes through the village, sitting in the back seat, some people raise their hands in gentle waves while others stare, their arms still. The village had lost hunting dogs and caged parrots, but never a boy. Even the ageing white French Creole, who has never spoken to her, and old man Lum Fatt, who still dreams of China, come to see her drive down the winding road towards the police station.
Carmelita was not naïve, but weeks before when her two other children had come to the house to talk about Daniel she'd turned her head and raised the volume on the radio. First Oriana had come and then Johnny. It was only after Daniel had raised his hand to her, the hand moving from his side with lightning violence, that there was talk of sending him to Johnny in town. Send him, Oriana had said, send him so that Johnny could teach him about respect. He'd stayed with Johnny and his wife for less than two days. Oh God, Carmelita thought, after Johnny called to say Daniel was heading home.
"You can't talk some sense into him?" Her voice echoed down the telephone wire.
"I have Lilla to think of, Ma. She's afraid of him."
Most of the young boys make their money growing weed in the forest, ducking and hiding from the police helicopters that swooped like clumsy dragonflies before chop-chopping their way back to the city. That's all it was, she thought, nothing the other boys aren't doing.
To keep him at home, Carmelita showed him how to curry birds: chickens, ducks, pigeons. Cutting, chopping, frying, stewing. She held a plucked duck over the open fire, singeing the skin; cut the fat gland off the end of a chicken, and killed a pigeon quietly without breaking its tiny bones. She showed him how to add pimento pepper and ground ginger as her mother had taught her.
"South boys work in oil and town boys work in banks," said Daniel as he watched her cook, "but what happen to the village boys from the north?" He spoke to the duck, sitting cold and pimple-skinned on the counter, not to her.
"You think any tomato or christophene could ever compete with that black gold. Those south boys born into that. It come like they own that fountain of oil. And town boys only eating sushi and managing money market."
The duck was now in the pot, its skin sizzling and browning, mixing with the seasoning, flooding the kitchen with such a good scent that it was as if he were saying something that she wanted to hear, something happy. When she looked up from the pot, his topaz eyes were on her, baleful and sly. She tamped down the doubt that she'd grown this child. Looking away, he shook his head, a quick movement, like a dog trying to get water out of his ear.
Later, he told her that sometimes they worked from a small base on Chachachacare, the abandoned island that once housed nuns and lepers – he'd seen women, dark silhouettes on the pirogues. They'll kill me if they know I talk, he told her later that night. They tell me so all the time.
"Who is 'they', Daniel?" she asked. "Who is 'they'?
But he was too busy eating his duck to answer her.
That night she looked up the word sushi in the dictionary, but it was not listed in her old pocket version. But she did find the word cocaine.
It is only after they pass the large immortelle tree, the big taxi juddering into first gear on the hairpin turn, that Carmelita allows herself to breathe. Now she is out of view, she can stop feeling shame. No doubt the villagers will have milled around in the road after she left, looking for the silvery flashes of the big Chevrolet as it rounded the corners of the hill.
Mr. Ali is only called up to the village in emergencies. Right next to her on the backseat is the faint brown stain from when Myrtle nearly sliced off her finger and Carmelita had to hold her hand up over her head while Mr. Ali barrelled down the hill. Myrtle is a good friend, thirty years of looking at each other across a hedge, day and night, and minding each other's children made them like family. Myrtle had come over last night to tell her the village talk.
"People saying that Dan cross Chale Jamiah," she said. "Is one of two things happen to him, Carmelita. Either Jamiah's people pick him up or the police hold him. The only thing we could do is pray."
Carmelita had run this conversation over and over in her mind all night. She'd played it like a movie, each word an image. Everyone knew Chale Jamiah grew tomatoes. No one dared to say that tomatoes couldn't build that big house in town; there was even talk that he'd bought an oil rig. You could sell tomatoes from morning to night but even the simplest child could do the math. Tomatoes didn't buy oil rigs. He was a big whistler as well. They said he could whistle any tune. A nice looking man who whistled and grew tomatoes, she'd met Jamiah once years ago when he'd come to the house to pay his respects after Frank had died. Farmer to farmer, he'd said, and she hadn't thought any more of it.
When Frank collapsed in the lettuce bed at the side of the house, Carmelita was soaping baby Daniel's head, shielding his golden eyes, he chittering in the lukewarm water of his kitchen sink bath, little happy chirrups of contentment as the water poured over his head. She'd run to go to Frank leaving Daniel in the water, wailing and slippery. By the time Mr. Ali made it up the hill, Myrtle had covered Frank's face with a flowered sheet. After this Carmelita began to pray, imagining her prayers carrying the soul of her husband. She'd picked roses for Mother Mary while keeping her eyes open for five-toed hens to woo the Orisha gods. On some nights she'd burned incense for Ganesh who shared a shrine with Jesus under the hog plum tree. She wasn't taking chances with Frank's soul.
In the town below, Mr. Ali let her out into a river of heated bodies – people swimming like guabines on the pavements. On the main boulevard, Guyanese and various small island immigrants hock their wares. Cheap panties and pirated DVDs, strung side by side on collapsible display racks, hover above dirty drain water. At the police station, she looks for Corporal Beaubrun, a distant cousin.
He's in the middle of breakfast, smoked herring and bake on his desk. Wiping his hands on the seat of his pants, he comes towards her. He's a good-looking boy. Tall and dark with a square head and a nose carved like an answer to his heavy brow. At the counter he takes his time pulling his pen out of his pocket.
"I hear you having some trouble with your last one," he says.
"He misses a father's hand."
"How long has he been gone?"
"Since Wednesday morning. He said he was coming down here to do some business."
"He wasn't in school?"
She shakes her head.
"He has a woman?"
"No." Oh God is this man so dense that he does not understand what she is asking of him. "It might be too late when you all finally decide to look for him," she says carefully.
"You know something you not telling me?"
"No, just worried."
He shuffles a few papers on his desk.
"How long we know each other?" he asks.
"Since primary school, you know that. What's that got to do with this?"
"Sit tight and he will come home. The more trouble you make ..."
"To look for a missing child is to make trouble?"
He places the cap back on his pen and glances at his breakfast.
"Come," he says. "Come and talk outside. I'll walk you out." They leave the station, his hand lightly on her elbow.
"Has he ever told you who he works for?"
He tells her the boys are recruited from villages all over the island. They are well paid to do what they consider easy work. These rural boys know the terrain, the trails through the hills and are handy with their homemade pipe-guns. They are routinely moved around the island to fill gaps in an army of small-time criminals. If Daniel was ambitious and bright, could he be involved in this?
Carmelita hesitates before answering. What can she say without implicating her son in wrongdoing? Can she believe her youngest son knows right from wrong? Has she been too indulgent with him? She shrugs her shoulders,
"Maybe. I can't say for sure."
Beaubrun sighs and pulls a handkerchief out of his back pocket to wipe his brow.
"I'll call you if I hear anything. I'll make some enquiries."
All day she walks. She passes the old cathedral, cavernous and violet, which stands next to De Freitas Dry Goods with its bags of coffee, cocoa and nutmeg, pigtail buckets, and piles of blue soap. At the end of the street, Chan's Laundry puffs little blasts of starchy steam onto the pavement. In this part of town, blue-bitch stone faces the fronts of the buildings, the corners laid with old ship's ballast. Her father laid blue-bitch all his life – that hard beautiful stone pulled from the earth below the village – a solid, honest life, he always told his children. Work from the land.
She has a picture of Daniel in her hand, holding it up towards the faces of strangers who sidestep her. When the sun begins throwing long shadows, Carmelita veers off the main street, crossing the river that leads to the other side of town. On this side, drinking men spill out from shanty bars with their nasty, stale urine and rum-sweat smells. Alleys dribble off the main road, wildness taking over. Behind the derelict government housing, the grid- order of the town disappears into indeterminate ends, twisted mazes of collapsing galvanize sheets and open latrines. Here and there golden marigolds grow in discarded truck tires. Further on are the monstrous yards of the scrap iron vendors, rumoured to be the front offices of bustling rent-a-gun operations. Surely someone here must know him. Recognize his face. Tell her something that the police could not.
Down an alley, in the dim light between the buildings, two women sit on an overturned Coca Cola case with a makeshift table between them. One, a coarse-skinned Indian woman is picking out seeds and leaves from a pile of weed, separating it into neat heaps. The second one looks up as Carmelita approaches, her hand motionless over the line of weed on the cigarillo paper. Both women shift at the same time, perfectly synchronised, blocking her view of the table.
"How do you do business?" she whispers. Is it like chicken, she wonders, that you buy by the pound?
The older woman holds up a finger to Carmelita. Wait, she is clearly saying. Don't come any closer. She rises heavily, wearily, rubbing her back as she comes towards Carmelita.
"Do you know him?" Carmelita shows her the picture.
"How much you want?"
"Just give me a twenty."
The woman takes the photograph from Carmelita.
"Why you looking for this boy?"
"I'm his mother. He's missing."
"Everybody down here know Daniel." The woman makes the sign of the cross before bagging the joint.
"When last you saw him?"
Before the end of the street, she's thrown the joint into a clump of bushes.
When the sun cools she walks home. She stays off the pitch, still radiating the day's heat, walking in the grass at the side of the road, her breath loud in her ears as she climbs and climbs up to her village. Halfway up, her feet stinging from the tiny pebbles on the road, she stops. The plateau overlooks the Gulf of Paria, a big, broody expanse of water. People say that this was where the cocaine crosses, coming from Venezuela. Across the bay, South America is just visible in the dying light. The scarlet ibis are flying home. They fly across the indigo water heading inland towards the swamp. Years before she'd taken Daniel to see the pink birds roost. The birds had landed in rosy blurs, whole ibis families staining the mangroves red.
"Mama, how do they know to come here every night?" he'd asked.
They come, she'd told him, because this is where they sleep. Even the littlest bird knows he must come home to his mama.
When she'd caught her breath, she began walking again.
"Don't cry," says Myrtle, the next morning when she brings Carmelita the newspapers and a ball of cocoa. "Daniel too beautiful to die. He'll be alright. Don't cry, Carmelita."
A lagniappe child, the villagers said when her stomach began to rise like bread with Daniel. She was forty-four then. A change-of- life baby will break your heart, the old midwife told her. Two months before his due date Daniel was born in a tropical storm. He was her smallest baby but she'd had the worst time with him. She had all the others at the hospital but Daniel was born in her bed, bloody and breathless. Against her thigh, his skull was no larger than a monkey's, his skin translucent under the hurricane lanterns. The midwife wrapped him in a blanket and placed him in the drawer of a dresser. Carmelita had softened the edges of the drawer with cotton padding laid over sweet-smelling vetiver sprigs. For the first month of his life he wore a bracelet of black beads on his tiny wrist to ward off maljeaux while she prayed to keep the breath in his body. The baby had nothing of her flat, wide face and hairless sapodilla skin, or his father's smooth cocoa complexion. He was thin-faced with marmalade eyes, an amber-eyed throwback, a beautiful changeling child.
Father Duncan comes right behind Myrtle early on Saturday morning. Daniel has been gone three mornings. Four nights her son has slept somewhere else and she has no idea where. The night before, she'd not slept well, her feet aching from the long walk up the hill, and she rose twice in the night to the sound of a baby's cry. But each time it was only the big jumbie bird, roosting in the mango vert tree up behind the house. By time she waved Myrtle out the gate and turned to go back inside, Father Duncan is already striding up her path, as if tragedy has made him lose his manners, his crucifix glinting in the sun, his great head bobbing above the scarlet flowers of the hibiscus hedge. She has to hide Ganesh, snatching him from beside Jesus, pushing his elephant head deep in the compost heap. But in the end, she is happy the priest has come and they say the rosary together, pausing after each decade to allow the words to drift up to Mary's ears.
Beaubrun telephones on Monday morning.
"A body of a young boy was picked up by the Caura River.
They've sent him to the mortuary in town. That's all I know."
Her heart beats a galloping staccato that rushes in her ears and brings black spots before her eyes. The telephone falls from her hand and hits the statue of Mary, knocking the mother of God off her pedestal and narrowly missing the Sacred Heart with the bloody heart of Jesus popping out of his chest. Carmelita opens her mouth and bawls.
Afterwards she remembers that the village poured through her door like red ants, laying their hands on her, but even the softest touch bit and stung her skin and made her scream. It was only when old Dr. Chin arrived in his Honda CRV to stick a needle into her arm that Carmelita stopped screaming.
On Tuesday morning she packs a small bag to go to the mortuary. In it is a rosary, a bottle of holy water, a clean shirt and an ironed pair of pants for Daniel. Mr. Ali comes when she calls, holding her elbow as she walks to the car as if she is an old woman.
"You don't have to go with Mr. Ali, Ma," Johnny had said, "I'll take you."
But she had told him no. This was about her and Daniel.
The old colonial-built hospital is filled with airy rooms that filter the trade winds; the view through the jalousies looks down on vendors selling colas and fruit drinks at the entrance. At the back of the hospital, the mortuary stares at Carmelita, its closed windows giving it a stupid, blind appearance. Inside, a small Indian woman listens to Carmelita's story before picking up the telephone. As she speaks, a small extra finger swings gently from the side of her left hand. This infant finger with its own half-moon nail causes a somersaulting in Carmelita's stomach, a clenching in her womb. Across the room a wooden door bears the nameplate: Dr. Andrew Olivierre, Chief Pathologist. She takes a seat on a wooden bench across from this door.
"You can go in now," says the secretary.
Dr. Olivierre comes to meet as she walks through the door, holding out his hand and smiling pleasantly.
"I'm sorry," he says. "There has been a mistake. I'm so sorry, Mrs. Nunes."
"Excuse me?" Carmelita is confused. "The police sent me."
"We've seen this happen. People come in thinking they will find missing people here. But your son is not here."
They sit in silence for a moment or two. There is a picture of a pretty woman with three children on his desk. The woman looks like her daughter Oriana, same dark hair and wide mouth. The doctor has two sons and a daughter. The boy looks a little younger than Daniel and there is a baby in the woman's arms. The doctor flips his pen between his fingers and snaps it open and shut with sharp clicking noises.
"How you lose someone?" she asks the room. "A boy is not a handbag. Or a scrap of paper that fly off a table and disappear in the breeze; a boy is not something you could lose so."
Excerpted from The Whale House and Other Stories by Sharon Millar. Copyright © 2015 Sharon Millar. Excerpted by permission of Peepal Tree Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsThe Dragonfly's Tail,
The Whale House,
Making Guava Jelly,
Brian and Miss Zanana,