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Authors: Charmaine Wilkerson

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BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
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The Price
 

L
in wasn’t sure at what
point, exactly, his destiny had put him on the path toward Little Man. He was already in trouble when the first rumblings of that anti-Chinese fuss caused the fire at one of his shops. When the cockfights weren’t going so well, Lin had wagered goods from his store, figuring he’d win back the value, but his debts kept accumulating.

Things got worse when his woman left him and, still, he made sure their child never went without new school uniforms, which she outgrew at a nerve-racking pace. On this much Lin and Mathilda had always agreed. Covey was going to get a good education, never mind that she was a girl.

In the end, Lin’s finances were so bad that he’d had to turn to Little Man Henry. Lin should have known better. He should have known it was only a matter of time before Little Man would come to extract his price. Because as far as Lin had been able to observe, that was what most men in this world were about, the price you were expected to pay. And the person who would suffer the most would be his daughter, the only thing of value that he had left. Because the day was fast approaching when Lin would have to ask himself,
What are you willing to do?

Covey
 

T
he Wailers were all over
the radio that spring, and a bit of dance music could go a long way to making Covey feel better, even in times like these. Pearl had left for the day and Covey turned up the radio and shuffled to the music, holding her hair off her neck to cool her damp skin. Her back was turned to the kitchen door when Little Man walked into the house.

Since the fire, her father had warned her more than once to lock the front door when she was on her own, but Little Man had used the back way. Pearl must have left the gate open on her way out. And Little Man walked in without so much as rapping on the doorjamb.

Little Man had been showing up every Sunday for several weeks now, and during that time, her father’s fire-damaged shop had been fully refurbished. The connection between the two seemed evident to Covey. All the more alarming because her father hinted that Little Man was interested in what he called
a closer relationship
with Covey.

Whenever her pa raised the subject of Little Man, Covey would walk out of the room. Her pa would come to his senses, she thought, and surely, Little Man would come to realize that it was a preposterous idea to spend time with her. Yet here he was, all the same, walking unannounced into her family’s kitchen at the height of a weekday afternoon, like he owned the place.

“The Wailers,” Little Man said. “Good tune.”

“My father is not here,” Covey said.

“I know,” Little Man said. “That’s why I’m here.” He stepped toward Covey. “Aren’t you glad that I’m here?”

Covey held her breath. Little Man was now close enough for her to smell his too-sweet aftershave. Little Man was now close enough for her to feel his breath on her forehead.

“We could get to know each other a little better,” Little Man said. He tried to kiss Covey but she turned her face to the side. When Little Man leaned in again, she pushed him away but this time, he grabbed her wrists and held them back against the wall, his grip so tight that she thought her bones might snap under the pressure. At school, Covey had learned about a kind of toad in Asia that could twist itself up and make itself look dead, to ward off its predators. She held still and focused her mind on that one thing now, the toad’s red underbelly exposed, its fiery surface crisscrossed by black markings, its body filled with venom, just in case.

She kept her face turned to the side, her jaw tight, her eyes narrowed, trying to look fierce, but she was certain that Little Man could hear the pounding of her heart in her chest. It was a well-known secret that he had forced himself on girls before. She thought of the kitchen drawer with the knives. It was too far away to be of any use.

“So, you’re a shy girl, are you? Or are you just pretending?” Little Man lowered his voice. “I wonder, are you this modest when you go down to the beach with that Grant boy?”

So this was what people meant when they said your blood ran cold. Covey didn’t think anyone knew about her and Gibbs, except for Bunny and Pearl, who’d eventually found out. But Pearl once said that Little Man and his brother had people in every cove and village of the parish who owed them something. And when you owed something to someone dangerous, you were willing to spy for them. You might even be willing to hurt someone else, if it kept your own family from being harmed. The important thing was to keep the Henry brothers from taking note of you. But Little Man had already taken note of Gibbs. The mere sound of his name on Little Man’s lips was enough for Covey to understand that Gibbs might be vulnerable.

“What yu doing wasting yu time wit dat boy, eh?”
Little Man hissed,
releasing her wrists. He stepped back but hearing Gibbs’s name had left Covey’s legs so weak, she didn’t dare to move.

“You think Gilbert Grant is going to help your father to get out of debt, Coventina? You think Gilbert Grant, more interested in university than going out and earning himself a decent living, could ever come up with the kind of money your father needs to keep someone from cutting him open with a cutlass?”

“My pa…,” Covey began.

“Your pa,” Little Man said, “is a gambling man who couldn’t even keep his woman at home. Couldn’t even keep the titles to his stores. Did you know that, Coventina? Did you know those shops don’t even belong to your pa anymore? Oh, no? Well, it’s true. They belong to me. And if you don’t want your father to lose this house and don’t want to find yourself living in a shack, or worse, then you will watch your manners around me, young lady.”

Little Man turned away and stalked out of the kitchen without another word. The next evening, when her father told her that Little Man had asked for her hand in marriage, Covey couldn’t even muster her anger. She only whispered, “No, Pa, please, Pa.” This was a strange, new feeling for Covey, this feeling that had stolen her voice.

She sat alone in her room for how long, she wasn’t sure. She stepped outside and listened to the buzzes and clicks of the garden, to the sound of her father’s snuffle spilling from his bedroom window. She breathed in the moisture that was starting to settle on the leaves, that was turning the ripened fruit to rot. She slapped away a bug, wiped away a tear. Everything was the same, but nothing was the same. She wanted to find Gibbs and tell him, but she knew she couldn’t. Not now. Though he would hear about it soon enough.

The stunned feeling was starting to wear off. From below that came something that felt like thunder in the distance, like a howling wind coming off the sea, like a wild animal approaching. And now she was that animal, and she was unlatching the gate and running into the street, tears wetting her face, wetting her neck, wetting her shirt. She was running up the road, her voice coming out of her like a growl.

Covey and Gibbs
 

C
ovey didn’t know how she
was going to tell Gibbs about Little Man, but Gibbs had already heard. Covey was leaving school with Bunny the next day when she saw Gibbs hurrying toward her from across the road that ran between the high school and the bluffs.

“Is it true?” Gibbs said loudly.

“Shhh,” Covey said, looking straight ahead and walking fast down the road.

“Well, is it true?” Gibbs said, lowering his voice. “Is it true what dem saying about you and Little Man?”

“Wait, wait,” Covey said. They walked for a while with Bunny, both closed-mouthed, until Bunny finally said
likkle more
and kept going straight while Covey and Gibbs doubled back on a road that led down to the beach.

“When were you going to tell me about you and Little Man?”

“There is no
me and Little Man,
Gibbs, this is all my father’s doing. They have this idea in their heads that I am supposed to marry Little Man, but of course I’m not going to marry him.”

“If Little Man wants to marry someone, he will marry them.”

“But it’s ridiculous, don’t you see? My pa will realize that soon enough. And Little Man? Can you imagine him, married? He’ll forget about it, he’s just showing what a big man he is, that he can get whatever he wants. I am not going to marry that man, Gibbs.” Covey
wrapped her arms around Gibbs. “But please,” she said. “I need you to be calm for me. We need to let some time go by.”

“Time? What time?” Gibbs said. “I’m leaving for England in two weeks. What is going to happen to you?”

Gibbs held Covey’s face in both of his hands. This was not the life that Covey had imagined for herself only days earlier. Covey had hoped to follow Gibbs the following year once she’d worked out her school papers and sponsorship and a ticket for the transatlantic crossing. She had planned to move to England to be with Gibbs. She had planned to marry Gibbs, attend university like Gibbs. Have children with Gibbs.

“Covey, please, come with me now.”

“What, to England? But I’m not ready.”

“Then I’ll wait for you. We’ll go together.”

Covey gasped. That wouldn’t do. She needed to get Gibbs away from Little Man.

“No, you can’t stay. Your studies…”

“There’s no other way, can’t you see?” Gibbs had said.

But Covey managed to convince Gibbs that she was right. Gibbs would leave and, Covey promised, she would make her plans for her own departure.

“Don’t worry,” Covey told him on their last day together, even though Covey herself was beginning to worry. They were treading water in their secret place, that stretch of coast where they went when they wanted to swim alone together. As Covey clung to Gibbs, as she felt his saltwater mouth on hers, she thought back to the way Little Man had pronounced Gibbs’s name on the day that he had cornered her in the kitchen. He had said
Gilbert Grant
like a curse, like a warning, like an ultimatum.

Matrimony
 

M
ore than four thousand years
after the first marriages were recorded between men and women in Mesopotamia, plans were under way for a similar ceremony in August 1965 on the north coast of a small West Indian island. In keeping with tradition, Coventina Lyncook was to be bound to Clarence Henry, not only for Henry’s personal benefit but also for the greater social good. In Covey’s case, the wedding would result in the easing of the financial obligations that her father held toward Little Man.

Covey stood on a low stool in a dressmaker’s shop in town, feeling the wedding dress being pinched here and there by pins, not fully believing that her marriage to Little Man Henry would really take place. Covey, who had been brought here by Little Man’s mother, had chosen the ugliest dress she could find, a monstrosity of puffs and fluffs, hoping to consume as much of the woman’s money and patience as possible.

Surely, Covey’s father would figure out something. There had to be an alternative, she thought. In the meantime, she refused to speak to her pa. She eyed herself in the dressmaker’s mirror and considered whether, in a worst-case scenario, one of the knives Pearl used in the kitchen could be concealed in the many folds of the wedding dress. If it came to that, would she have the courage to use it? What would she be willing to do?

And what would she do after that?

Covey kept believing that her father would work things out with
Little Man, that there would be a last-minute reprieve. Things would settle down, she and Bunny could do that harbor race, and Covey would travel to meet Gibbs the following year. But Little Man would have to back down first.

It wasn’t until two days before the ceremony, when Pearl went to the hotel to start work on the wedding cake, that Covey’s marriage to Little Man seemed inevitable. Covey, still ignorant of the delicate mechanics of having to work for a living, was furious with Pearl. How could she agree to make a cake for a wedding that was taking place against Covey’s will? When Pearl came with Bunny to see Covey right before the ceremony, Covey couldn’t look Pearl in the face. She merely turned her cheek to accept a kiss.

Bunny held Covey tight, rocking her from side to side, then walked her into the hallway where her father waited. As Covey’s father lifted his bent arm to support her gloved hand, Covey felt her mind unhitch itself from her body and drift, just as it did during her longer swims, when she could see the stroke of her arms from above, the drift of the current, the distance from her destination.

In the wedding hall now, Covey floated above the rows of guests, their dark blazers and sculpted hats. She hovered above the circle of bare scalp at the center of Little Man’s head, then streamed past the floral arrangements and through the plate-glass window, heading northeast toward the Atlantic Ocean, reaching out for Gibbs on the far, far side.

Then Little Man was pressing his mouth against Covey’s lips and she tumbled back into her body. The guests were applauding. The rest was a blur. There was a lunch, a speech or two. Her father, looking slack faced, stood and raised a glass in the couple’s direction, said a few words. Then Covey found herself standing in the center of the reception hall, watching Pearl’s black cake being wheeled into the room from the hotel kitchen. Covey felt Little Man place his fingers at the side of her waist, and her heart squeezed itself into a tiny ball of steel.

Black Cake
 

W
hat happened next had already
been set in motion two days before the wedding reception. On that Thursday, Pearl turned up the fire under the heavy-bottomed pot and opened a sack of cane sugar. She sank a measuring spoon deep into the well of brown crystals, releasing the smell of earth and molasses. It was the finest raw sugar produced on the island but it was about to be wasted, along with eight hours of labor, to make a wedding cake for what would be a sham of a marriage.

Sacrilegious.

In keeping with tradition, the bride and groom were meant to save a portion of the rum cake to mark their first anniversary. A few modern couples who’d married for love and owned electric freezers were now keeping pieces of their cakes for longer periods, slicing off a bit to celebrate each passing year. But this marriage, Pearl thought, would not be worthy of such an honor. For Pearl, Covey’s wedding day would be a day of mourning and 1965 would be a year of bitter farewells.

Pearl had known Covey since she was born, when Covey’s parents hired her through a friend. She had come to work for them on the north coast, taking time off only to have her two boys. Hard to believe that before coming here, Pearl had never left the capital city. She had grown up hearing of this area’s famous lagoon, everyone had, but not even the prettiest southern beaches had prepared her for such beauty. That seemingly bottomless pool of water with its shifting colors. The
beaches nearby with their aquamarine coves, ringed by thick vegetation. The sands that lit up at night with tiny, glowing creatures.

Pearl grew to love this part of the island, grew to love a local man, and grew to care for Coventina almost as much as her own children. And Covey’s mother—Miss Mathilda, as she used to call her in front of other people—had given Pearl something that she hadn’t been counting on. A friendship.

Pearl didn’t blame Mathilda for running away from Covey’s father. Their home had been filled with regrets. What she couldn’t understand was how Mathilda could have stayed away from her own child for so long. She had promised to send for Covey, she had left money with Pearl to make the arrangements.
When the time comes,
Mathilda had said. But the time had never come.

Six years had passed since Covey’s mother had left and Pearl had not heard from her for the last four. Covey didn’t know this, of course. She’d never told Covey that they had been in contact after her mother’s departure. And Pearl had decided that she would never let Covey know. She hated to think that something serious might have happened to Mathilda, but it was worse to imagine that Mathilda might have, for some reason, changed her mind.

Pearl had tried to make up for some of the maternal care that Covey was lacking, but she knew it wasn’t the same. She made sure Covey kept herself clean and ate plenty of food. And before going home every afternoon, she would wrap her arms around Covey and give her a tight squeeze, even when the girl had grown taller than Pearl. But this whole wedding business had changed things between them.

At seventeen, Covey was all grown up, turning heads everywhere she went, though she didn’t seem to notice. All she seemed to care about was the Grant boy and Bunny and the swimming. Always, the swimming. But Little Man had put a stop to all that. He came by the house almost every afternoon now, his voice all cheerful-like but eyes like stone.

Covey had a habit, when she was feeling low, of slinking into the kitchen, slumping onto the stool, and saying Pearl’s name in the way
that she had since she was little.
Peaaarrrl.
But as the day of the wedding approached, Pearl watched as Covey slipped away from her. She stopped coming into the kitchen. Only spoke when she was spoken to. This wounded Pearl’s heart, though she could see why it was happening.

Earlier in the week, Covey had walked into the kitchen and found Pearl gathering supplies for the wedding cake.

“What is this?” Covey said, when she saw what Pearl was doing. Before Pearl could answer, Covey stalked out of the room and as quickly as that, their relationship had changed. Pearl understood that Covey felt betrayed. By Pearl, by her father, by people who should have been protecting her from such a fate. But how, exactly, could Pearl have done anything to stop this?

Baking could always soothe what ailed her. Pearl dropped spoonfuls of sugar into the pot and breathed in deeply. The scent took her back to the hot afternoons of her childhood, to the smell of fresh cane stalks being sliced open and stripped, to the sweet juices that slipped into her mouth as she chewed on the cane fiber, to the orange-blossomed shade of a ponciana tree. Pearl had shared this special treat with Covey when she was little, just as she later did with her own two boys.

Now Covey wanted Pearl to follow her to her new home, but the groom-to-be was against it. Little Man’s undisguised hostility toward Pearl made it easier for her to decide on her next move. Right after the wedding, Pearl would leave the employ of Covey’s father. She was always getting offers from important men’s wives. But Pearl preferred to go to one of the resort villas up in the hills, where the wages would be good and the guests would never stay long enough for her to get mixed up in their lives.

Only one question remained. How could Pearl help Covey get free of Little Man?

That beast.

The sugar began to darken and smoke as Pearl stirred. When it was almost black, she took a small pot of boiling water and poured its contents onto the sugar, turning her face away as the mixture sizzled and
splattered. She would add the blacking to the batter to darken it, but only after she had whipped the butter, added the eggs, flour, spices, and, finally, the mixture of fruits that had been soaking for weeks in dark rum and port. This cake would be a work of art.

As Pearl cracked the eggs and beat them into the batter, she wondered if there was a way to poison a portion of the cake without putting Covey or the wedding guests in danger. She had something she could use, something that would take effect quickly, something that she had shoved into the pocket of her apron on impulse. Pearl opened the jars of marinated fruit and let the alcohol tickle her nostrils. She poured and stirred and scraped and stirred again. By the time she had put the first couple of pans of batter in the oven, she was despondent. She was no longer certain of what to do.

Surely, few of the wedding guests would be sorry to see Little Man Henry go to the devil, but you couldn’t attack such a powerful man without courting trouble. Even if Pearl were to come up with a way to poison only Little Man’s piece of cake, there would be an obligatory show of indignation among the citizens and police, and the evidence would point straight to Pearl.

Pearl pulled the bottle of poison out of her pocket and turned it back and forth, studying the label. No, Pearl had no intention of ending up in prison. She couldn’t do that to her children or to her late husband’s memory. And she was no longer convinced that it would resolve Covey’s problems. It would not be beyond Little Man’s family to force Covey into a marriage with his brother, should Little Man meet a sudden demise. Pearl slipped the bottle back into her pocket.

She needed to think. Pearl knew how people saw her. Few people suspected a woman like Pearl of having the means or cunning to take care of certain things. There were advantages to being looked down upon by certain people. It was precisely for this reason that Pearl felt confident that she would find a way to help Covey. This train of thought calmed her nerves. That, and a few words of prayer to the Lord to deliver her from this fire.

On the morning of the wedding, Pearl topped the cake with a
cluster of icing flowers, delicate periwinkles that would dazzle the guests and which would spell out a code that only Covey could decipher. Pearl had adjusted the coloring to give the flowers a lilac tone. The top tier of the cake, laden with the flowers, was the section that would go home with the bride and groom. Despite her distress, Covey would smile when she saw them, Pearl was sure of it. Covey had never liked lilac. Just like her mother before her. Covey would understand what Pearl was trying to say.

Pearl reached into her apron pocket for the small bottle that she’d been carrying around for three days and put it on the counter. She began to spoon more icing from a mixing bowl into the piping bag. Just then she heard a
psst
and turned to find Bunny looking in from the kitchen doorway. Pearl pushed the bottle behind the bowl and waved at Bunny to come in.

“Well, look at you,” Pearl said.

Bunny spun around to show the pale swirl of the dress that she’d put on for Covey’s wedding. She tipped her feet from side to side. Her shoes had been dyed to match. Then Bunny’s smile disappeared. She walked over to Pearl, leaned against the kitchen counter, and hung her head.

“I know, Bunny, I know,” Pearl said. She jutted her chin out toward the cake. “But look.”

“It’s lovely, Pearl,” Bunny said, sounding on the verge of tears. Then she twisted up her face. “But the flowers, they’re lilac colored.”

“Yes, they are,” Pearl said, nodding proudly.

“But Covey hates that color.”

“Yes, she does,” Pearl said. She put her hands on her hips and waited for Bunny to make the connection.

Finally, Bunny smiled and nodded slowly. She straightened up and reached into the mixing bowl, swiping a bit of icing from the side with her finger. Bunny licked at the icing then reached toward the bowl again.

“No, go on, now,” Pearl said. “I still have to finish up. I’ll see you out there.”

“All right, later,” Bunny said, wiping her hands on a dishrag.

“Walk good,” Pearl said, as she crouched down and reached under the counter for more confectioner’s sugar. When she stood up again, Bunny was already crossing the next room.

On the afternoon of the wedding, the black cake was wheeled into the reception hall under a veil of white lace. There was the traditional moment of silence as four attendees lifted the veil. The guests cheered and applauded Pearl’s latest creation, but Covey just stood there, staring at the cake, her face blank. It was as if the girl wasn’t even in the room. It took her a few moments before her face began to change. First, she looked confused, just as Bunny had. She looked up at Pearl and back at the cake, and then her face softened. Finally, Covey understood what she was looking at. It was small consolation, but it was something.

No one was more shocked than Pearl by the suddenness of what transpired soon after. At about four o’clock that afternoon, Clarence “Little Man” Henry, aged thirty-eight, ruthless moneylender and occasional murderer, stood up from the table where he and his new bride, Coventina “Dolphin” Lyncook, nearly eighteen, had been finishing their plates of rum cake, stumbled backward over his chair, and dropped dead on the white tile floor.

Pearl hurried across the room, trying to get to Covey. But when she reached the other side, Covey was gone.

BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
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