Read Black Cake: A Novel Online
Authors: Charmaine Wilkerson
yron and Mr. Mitch are
slouched on the living room furniture, scrolling through their respective smartphones and waiting for Benny to come back into the room. Byron is pretending he hasn’t just had a huge argument with his sister, and Mr. Mitch is pretending he hasn’t just heard it.
Byron’s phone rings and he sees it’s Lynette again. This time, he answers.
“Lynette, how are you?”
“No, how are
? I’m so sorry about your mom, Byron.”
Weird, this super-polite conversation after three months of radio silence between them, after the way they left each other. No, correct that. After the way Lynette left Byron. But now that he hears her voice, he’s glad she’s made the effort. His ma really did like her. Lynette says she’ll be at the funeral service tomorrow.
“Maybe we could talk, afterward?” Lynette says. “Could we do that? Sit down somewhere together?”
“Sure, if you want,” Byron says.
“Yes,” says Lynette. “I do. Actually, there’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.”
Oh, there we go. So she does need something from him, after all.
Lynette, Lynette, Lynette.
It used to be easy to talk to her. But that was the old Lynette, before they’d fought and she walked out on him. Byron wishes he had
someone like the old Lynette to talk to right now. He’d tell her about his mother’s recording, about the black cake tucked away in the freezer. The old Lynette would laugh at the cake. She would say,
That’s just like your mom, Byron.
And she would have Byron chuckling, too, right now, despite this cavern of loss in his rib cage.
His mother and her black cake was what had gotten Benny into baking to begin with. He didn’t see why his parents were so surprised when she started talking about wanting to go to Europe to take culinary classes. Though, sure, they were all pretty stunned when, sometime before that, Benny quit college and refused to talk about it.
“It just didn’t feel right,” was all she would say. “I need to try a different way.”
“Give her some time,” Byron said to his parents. When Benny said something about the diaspora of food and the recipes that intrigued her, Byron picked up on this. He suggested Benny go back to college and do something related, like a major in anthropology. But Benny just shook her head no. Then off she went, and when she came back, she decided to study art. How the heck was Benny going to support herself, Byron wanted to know.
There was a time when Benny would have debated the idea with him, at least, but something had shifted in her, something had gone brittle. She only seemed like she was still his kid sister when she was in the kitchen with Ma.
His mother used to say she would make a black cake for Byron and Benny when each of them got married, but neither of them had. Ma’s cake was a work of art, Byron had to admit. That moist, loamy mouthful, the tang of spirits behind the nose. But Byron had never shared his parents’ emotional attachment to the recipe.
his ma used to say. But whose tradition, exactly? Black cake was essentially a plum pudding handed down to the Caribbeans by colonizers from a cold country. Why claim the recipes of the exploiters as your own?
Tradition? How about coconut gizzada? How about mango ice cream? How about jerk pork, rice and peas, Scotch bonnet peppers, coconut milk, yellow plantains, and all those flavors that Byron had
come to enjoy, thanks to his mother’s cooking? Now, that was what he called island food. But no, these had never been enough for his ma. More than any other recipe, it was the black cake that brought that creamy tone to his mother’s voice. That shine to her eye.
When Dad died, Ma buried what was left of their anniversary black cake with him, but she still kept a jar of the fruits soaking in rum and port in the lower kitchen cupboard. There was always Christmas to think of. She used to wait to make black cake every winter with Benny, even after Benny had moved out to live on her own. But after Benny walked out on them that Thanksgiving Day, Ma never made the cake again. Or so Byron had thought.
Now he knows that his mother did make at least one other cake.
he pendulum has swung. After
a few tense hours, Byron and Benny are now being extremely polite to each other, their earlier hostility doused by the strain of hearing their mother’s story.
“Do you know this guy?” Byron says to Benny, flicking his chopsticks toward the television screen. “Ma was really into him.” They are watching images of a Frenchman who’s been forced to abandon his swim across the Pacific due to bad weather.
“Yeah, I’ve read about him,” Benny says. “She was into all of that stuff.”
Benny and Mr. Mitch are nodding. They have ordered Thai takeout, having stopped listening to Ma’s recording after the umpteenth knock on the door by neighbors who’d seen the lights on. Earlier, Byron took one look at the grief casseroles in the fridge that visitors had brought over and decided that he just couldn’t go there. For the first time all day, he and Benny were in agreement on something.
“It’s the thought that counts,” Benny said, as they stood side by side, eyeing the long, rectangular dishes with their sauce-topped contents. “The fact that they went to the trouble to make these and bring them over, that’s what really matters, right?”
“And we appreciate that, don’t we?”
“We do,” Byron said. “Let’s serve them tomorrow after the funeral.” Byron started scrolling through the numbers on his smartphone
for the name of his mother’s favorite takeout. But now, as they sit around the kitchen table, they’re all stabbing at their dishes without actually eating anything.
It’s too late in the evening now for anyone else to come by the house. After this break, they’ve agreed, no cellphones, until they get further along in their mother’s recording. There’s no way they’ll hear the entire thing before the funeral tomorrow, though. They’re just too tired. Strange, Byron thinks, how it can be hard to keep your eyes open at a time like this, even when the most important person in your life is gone, even when you hear your mother’s voice telling you that much of what you grew up believing about your family was a lie.
It really is a pity about that Frenchman. Byron had been following his swim, too, especially the science aspect, the collection of samples, the campaign to improve ocean health. But his mother was into the pure challenge of it, man versus water. Ma had been tracking the swim on the Web every day. You would have thought that she was the one in the escort boat, marking the direction, keeping an eye out for sharks, handing out bananas. Byron could almost feel her heart rate ticking
up, up, up,
as she looked at the screen.
For sure, his mother would have been watching, too, for news of the American who is fixing to land his mini-submarine on five of the deepest points of the seafloor. That series of expeditions will be sending information to ocean-mapping scientists like Byron. But Ma would not have been as impressed by this project. It was the direct interaction between the human body and the elements that always had fascinated her most.
He was intrigued by the look on his mother’s face as she peered at the French guy’s website, the same look she’d get whenever she stood at the breakers looking out over the sea. Is that what he looked like, Byron wondered, right before he slammed his board down on the water? It was his mother who had taught him how to surf, how to find his center, how to look ahead for that window of opportunity. It was his mother who had taught him how to focus his hunger, how to be one with himself.
And it was his father who had shown Byron what a man could look like once he had accomplished all of that. Byron’s parents were exceptional people. He doesn’t think he’ll ever feel as bold as his mother was or as secure in his actions as his father.
Now they’re interviewing other distance swimmers, including Etta Pringle, the
of them all, the black woman who’s done all the most famous crossings. Byron knows they should get back to listening to his mother’s recording, but Etta Pringle has an accent just like his mother’s. Very British-sounding kind of West Indian. Old-school. Last winter, when his mother’s leg was broken after that so-called accident of hers, Byron took her to see Pringle speak at the convention center.
“Distance swimming is like a lot of things in life,” Pringle told the audience that day. “There is no substitute for preparation, for training, for putting in the miles to build strength and endurance. But none of these elements really matter if you’re not in the right frame of mind.”
The marathon swimmer tapped the side of her head with a finger, then nodded as she looked around the room. She stopped and squinted when she saw Byron’s mother. Yep, island people. They can spot each other a mile away. Satisfied that his mother was properly settled in, Byron slipped outside to take a work call. One thing led to another and by the time he was done, he’d missed the talk entirely.
When Byron walked back into the auditorium, he saw the speaker hugging his mother, laughing with her, then being ushered out of another exit at the far end of the hall by a small cadre of assistants. Only his mother and a few other stragglers remained in the lobby. She was stabbing at the floor with her crutches, moving quickly toward him.
“Was it good?” Byron asked.
“It was good,” his mother said, her face pulled wide by a smile.
“What did she say?”
“She was happy that I’d come to the event.”
Byron chuckled. “No, Ma, I meant, what did Etta Pringle say about the swimming? What did she say was the right frame of mind?”
“She said that you had to love the sea more than you feared it. You
had to love the swimming so much that you would do anything to keep on going.” His mother looked out the car window. “Just like life, you know?”
Byron is thinking, now, of the girls in his mother’s audio recording. The swimmers. How, exactly, did Ma come to know them? What happened to them? And what was so terrible about those times that she had to wait until the very end of her life to tell her children the truth?
efore Covey’s mother disappeared, she
and Pearl had amassed a long list of clients. Pearl’s black cake was widely acknowledged to be the best in town, though it riled some people to admit it. As far as they were concerned, Pearl was too uppity for a domestic with skin as black as hers. Pearl had a perfect partner in Covey’s mother, who could make icing flowers that were second to none. Again, some of the ladies from the town’s upper crust felt awkward about this. Covey’s mother had shown poor judgment by having a child with that Chinaman.
Covey had heard people saying these things because no one ever thought young children had ears. The teachers in the corridor at school. The shoppers at the market by the carrots and potatoes. She’d heard them say that Mathilda Brown was so beautiful to look at that she could have married up. At the very least, she could have done better than Johnny “Lin” Lyncook. That man was always off at the cockfights and they knew no good could come of it. It was a mystery to them how he remained so popular among some of the more decent fellows around town.
Still, there were more important considerations, such as the satisfaction of having a black cake worthy of applause wheeled into the
reception hall at your daughter’s wedding lunch. A cake that would be discussed for years to come. Covey’s mother could turn sugar into delicately colored periwinkle blooms or, for the more daring brides, hibiscus flowers and orchids in bright reds, deep purples, and golden yellows. And Pearl could make a person close their eyes at merely the thought of her cakes.
Mathilda and Pearl pocketed and divided up their cake profits and gained a few well-placed admirers in the process, women with the right surnames and enough funds to get things done. Some of whom, over time, had come to understand the misfortunes that could befall a woman with fewer material resources.
One day, those alliances would come to bear fruit and change the course of Covey’s life. But until then, Covey had no idea that her mummy would leave the island with the help of a former customer. She did not know that Pearl would remain in her father’s employ, in part, to keep an eye on her. Covey was too young to understand what it meant to be a mother, what it must have taken for Mathilda to leave. She only knew that black cake meant sisterhood and a kitchen full of laughter.
n the spring of 1965,
Covey’s life veered onto the path that would eventually connect her to Eleanor Bennett. The kitchen floor was littered with tamarind pods that day. They crackled underfoot as her father approached.
“Mmm, tamarind balls,” her pa said, reaching into the bowl and pinching a bit of pulp as Covey kneaded it together with sugar. Pearl, described by some as the best cook in the parish, had taught Covey to mix in a touch of Scotch bonnet pepper and a few drops of rum before separating the pulp into balls, though Covey’s favorite way of eating tamarind was still fresh out of the pod, scooped up off the dirt floor under the tree, cracked open, pulled away from the stringy bits and dipped right into a bowl of sugar before being popped fully into the mouth, the tartness of the fruit drawing her face tight.
Covey batted away her father’s hand. As he laughed, she noted a solicitous tone to his voice, a tone that rode up her back and stiffened it into a wall of resistance. When Covey’s father mentioned Clarence Henry, she knew it meant trouble.
“Little Man?” Covey said. “What business does that delinquent have coming to our house?”
“Clarence Henry,” Lin said, insisting on using the man’s formal name instead of the nickname he’d earned for his massive shoulders, “is coming around to see you.”
“To see me? What for?”
“I think he’s coming to court you.”
Covey let out a sharp laugh. “
me?” She didn’t know which sounded more ludicrous, the idea that Little Man would be so genteel as to court anyone or the idea that she was expected to entertain a visit from a gangster and bully of a man who was nearly as old as her father. From what Covey had heard, Little Man wasn’t the type of person who should be welcome in anyone’s home, not even on a Sunday.
And what mek dat man tink
“Patois!” That’s all her father ever had to say to stop her from slipping into the dialect, which had always been off-limits to her.
She began again. “Where did that man get the idea that he could come around to court me, when you don’t even think I’m old enough to go down to the beach with my friends?”
“I never said you couldn’t go down to the beach, I said you shouldn’t go swimming out in the blasted sea alone in the middle of a bloody hurricane.” Swearing, on the other hand, was not off-limits to her father.
“It wasn’t really a hurricane, Pa.”
“No, of course not, just a deadly little storm.”
“Plus, I wasn’t on my own.”
“I was there, too, remember? I saw how you
were not on your own.
I saw how you had to pull the so-called
to safety. What a joke.” Her father put his hands on his hips. “And, anyway, that is neither here nor there, young lady. Clarence Henry is coming around this afternoon, so you’d better go and get yourself cleaned up.”
“Clarence Henry can come around to court
Pa, I will not be here.”
“Oh, yes, you will, Coventina.” Her father raised his voice in that way he often did when he’d been at the drink, but there was a softness around the eyes, a kind of question. No, a kind of pleading that turned her skin cold.
“What did you do, Pa? What did you do?”
“Covey, just do this for your pa, won’t you?” he said, more softly, now. “Just humor the man. It’s Sunday. Let him come around and have
a cool glass. I did some business with him and he expressed an interest in—”
Covey slammed her hand down on the kitchen counter next to the small tower of sweets that had been forming on a piece of parchment paper. A couple of tamarind balls tumbled off the counter onto the floor.
“You did business with Little Man?” she said. “What kind of
Pa? Gambling business? You don’t owe him money, do you?” Covey’s father didn’t respond, but the shift in his face made it clear enough. Covey turned and walked away, flattening an errant tamarind ball underfoot. She could see now why her mother had left her father. She just couldn’t see how Mummy could have left her, too.
She didn’t turn around when her father shouted her name, but she was trembling. She thought of Little Man’s reputation as a ruthless moneylender, as someone whose threats could have deadly consequences. Covey’s hands were still shaking as she pulled open the door of the wardrobe in her bedroom, as she tried to pull up the zipper of the dress she’d chosen.
Covey wanted to slip out of the house but if she did so, it could mean big trouble for her father. If she even said the wrong thing to Little Man, it could mean trouble. Later, she kept these thoughts firmly pinned to the front of her head as she showed Little Man Henry into the front room and he leaned back against the settee, closing his fingers around a tamarind ball.
“Delicious, Coventina,” Little Man said, settling his gaze in the dip below her collarbone before sliding it down past her waist. “You’re turning out to be quite an accomplished young lady, in addition to being very beautiful.”
Coventina bit into a tamarind ball to camouflage the expression that she knew must be crossing her face right then. She thought of her mother, who surely would not have hidden her disdain. No, her mummy would have put her hands on her hips and cut her eyes so sharply at
Little Man that he would have stood up and slinked toward the front door, as her pa had on more than one occasion. But her mother was not here. Just when Covey needed her most.
Covey thought of the knives that Pearl kept in a lower drawer of the kitchen, the biggest, sharpest ones reserved for cleaving meat and stripping sugar cane. One day, she would regret not having kept one of those knives with her.