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Authors: Charmaine Wilkerson

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BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
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ister? What does this mean?
What happened to her? She and Byron are both talking at once, asking the same questions in different ways, asking, in essence,
How could this be?

Mr. Mitch is shaking his head, insisting that Benny and Byron listen to the entire recording first, as their mother requested. He juts his chin toward his laptop. Benny looks at her brother’s face, his large, dark eyes, so much like Daddy’s, so much like her own, and thinks back to all those moments with her brother, running along the beach together, making faces at each other across the dinner table, Benny sitting bowed over her math homework with Byron next to her, talking her through the exercises. All those times, they were missing a sister?

How is it possible they didn’t know this? Benny’s ma and dad had been married forever and Benny’s dad once told her that he and Ma had hoped for more babies, but there had been only Byron, at first. Then Benny came along years later, surprising her parents and delighting them with her chunky little body and her goofy smile.

“We could see that you had your ma’s smile from the very start, just like your brother,” Benny’s dad told her, pinching her chin. Her mouth was the only thing that Benny’s father hadn’t passed down to her. That, and her pale skin.

Benny had always thought of her parents as being made for each other. Her parents would have had a lot in common, both being from the Caribbean, both orphaned, both having immigrated to Britain
before moving to the United States together. But it might not have mattered, it was love at first sight, they’d always said that, and some people were meant to find each other, no matter what.

“Your mother thought I was so good-looking,” Dad used to joke, “that she fainted on the spot.” Everyone had heard the story. One day in London, Bert Bennett saw Eleanor Douglas drop to the ground and went over to help her and, as they say, the rest is history. Sometimes, when Daddy told that story, he would lean in and tap Ma on the nose with his own, just like that. A nose kiss. Does anyone ever fall in love that way anymore? Without hesitation, without terror? Or is everyone else like Benny?

And does every couple keep secrets this big from their own children?

B and B, I know, I need to explain why you never knew any of this. But it won’t make any sense if I don’t start at the beginning. This isn’t only about your sister. There are other people involved, so just bear with me. Everything goes back to the island and what happened there more than fifty years ago. The first thing you need to know about is a girl named Covey.

Covey was born in a town that bordered on the sea, a deep, rolling, blue thing that paled to turquoise as it neared the land. And the bigger Covey got, the harder it was for her to stay away from the water. When she was little, her father used to stand her on his shoulders in the swimming pool and launch her into the deep end. But it was her mother who taught her how to ride the waves, and this is what determined her fate.

Now, I know you may be thinking of those nice, Caribbean beaches with calm waters where you can look down and see the fish swimming around your ankles. Yes, they had those, too, but where Covey grew up, it was surfing country and there were beaches where, if you didn’t know how to handle yourself, the waves would pull you under. Her mother’s favorite spot was like that. It was no place for a child, that’s what Covey’s father used to say, but her mummy took her there anyway. So Covey grew up strong. And she would need that strength when things began to fall apart.


ven toward the end, there
was something about that moment that always made the women laugh.

Twist, twist, twist.

These were Covey’s favorite days, when she was done with school and could kick off her saddle shoes and sit in the kitchen with the women, the radio dial turned up to calypso and rockabilly, the aroma rushing to their heads as they twisted open the jar of fruits soaking in rum and port. The grassy breeze mixing with salt air, slipping through the louvers to cool their sweaty necks. The whispered gossip, the pips of laughter.

Covey’s mother and Pearl, the family helper, had a small but popular cake business going. Most people they knew had common-law marriages, Covey’s own parents included, but a formal arrangement was more respected, and someone with money was always planning a wedding. On such occasions, a black cake was indispensable. And that’s where Mummy and Pearl came in.

Mummy always laughed when she was making black cake. And there was always some point at which she would not be able to resist the pull of the music on the radio.

“Come, Pearl,” she would say, but Pearl was not much into the dancing. Pearl would give that closed-mouth smile of hers and bob her head to the music while Mummy raised a batter-covered spatula in the air and waved it to the beat, stepping toward Covey and then skipping
back and grabbing Covey’s hand.
Cuh-vee, Cuh-vee, Cuh-vee,
she would sing to the music. She would pull Covey into a kind of shuffle, giving off a smell of granulated sugar and butter and hair pomade as the two of them spun into the dining room and toward the living room.

Pearl liked to act stern-like with Mummy. “Miss Mathilda,” she would say, sounding more like she was scolding Covey than talking to her employer. “These cakes are not going to
themselves, you know?”

There was a time, when Covey was little, when Mummy used to dance with Pa out in the backyard. It was always on a night when the power had gone out and they had lined up candles in glass jars along the edge of the patio and taken the transistor radio outside. Mummy would step in close and run her hands up and down Pa’s back. At some point, Mummy and Pa would each take one of Covey’s hands and dance with her. Sometimes Pa would lift Covey up into his arms and dip her this way and that and Mummy would laugh.

In those last months before she disappeared, Mummy rarely laughed at all. Her face would grow still whenever Covey’s pa passed by. It was one of those grown-up things that Covey would not understand until much later. Like the weight of Mummy’s kiss in the middle of the night.

Covey felt the kiss in her sleep. Then another. Then a hand along her hairline. A hint of rose perfume and her mother’s salty-forehead scent. Then it was daylight, Sunday morning. Her mother must have let her sleep late. She waited. No Mummy. She got up and went to the kitchen. No Mummy.

Twelve hours later, no Mummy. Pearl left supper, as usual. Pa came home tipsy, as usual.

Two days later, no Mummy. The police came to the house, nodding as her pa talked. Yes, they said, they’d see what they could do.

One week later, Pa took Covey’s hand in his and wiped the tears from her face. He said her ma would be back soon, she’d see. Pa was tipsier than usual. Pearl hugged Covey extra tight.

One month later, no Mummy.

One year later.

Five years later.

Pa spent more time than ever at the cockfights. He kept a bottle behind a carton at one of his shops, Covey had seen it. Pearl still gave Covey a hug before leaving for home. Covey still woke up in the middle of the night, sniffing at the air for the scent of roses and salt.


t took six years for
Johnny “Lin” Lyncook to admit to himself that his woman would not be coming back home, not even for their daughter. He sat in the backyard with a bottle of beer, watching a lizard snap-snap at insects too small to be seen, thinking about what a struggle it had been to keep things going, with or without Mathilda. It had always been a struggle for Lin, as for his parents before him, and for all those countrymen who had crossed the oceans in previous generations.

liked to tell his boys the story of how some of their people took their degrading start in the Americas and turned it on its head. Back in 1854, he told them, some of the men working on the Panama railroad got so sick they vomited a blackish bile and their eyes turned yellow. Many of the Chinese laborers who’d been brought over to work on the railroad project demanded to be sent away to a safer place. Some of them ended up on the island. Already weakened by hard labor and illness, few of them would survive for long. One of those who did make it went on to open a wholesale supply store, setting a precedent that encouraged other Chinese immigrants to do the same.

And then came the Lin family. A new century, a window of opportunity. Or so they’d hoped. Lin’s father came over from Guangzhou as a cook and somewhere in there, his documents started listing him as
He worked off his contract, sent for his wife and their young son, Jian, soon to be called Johnny, and joined the ranks of the local shop owners. When he finally opened that first store, he put a sign
above the shop,
Lin’s Dry Goods & Sundries,
and folks soon took to calling him Mister Lin and his eldest son simply Lin. Later, there would be another store and other sons with English names. But getting to that point turned out to be a hard path to follow.

Fish tea. That was all they’d had to eat, most days, when Lin was still a pickney. Lin’s mother would make the broth with a fish head and serve it with a bit of scallion and a Scotch bonnet pepper for as many days as she could. It was years before Lin realized that other families on the island made the broth with actual pieces of fish meat, with green bananas, and maybe even shrimps. By that time, his parents could afford other things. The family’s shops were finally making a profit. His father would cure pork and hang slabs of it on hooks around the veranda and the boys would sit in the yard and watch the pieces twisting in the breeze.

But that was later.

In the early years, only Lin’s arithmetic lessons kept his mind off his stomach. Teachers said the boy had a gift. But Lin already sensed that it wasn’t enough to be good with numbers, you had to be willing to defy their logic to succeed in this world. You had to be willing to take a chance. Even as a boy, he could watch the men play Sue Fah and guess at the odds. In high school, he started betting on horses. Then he discovered the cockfights and held his first fistful of dollars. Breathed in the smell of paper money mixed with dust and blood. Breathed in his first real chance at a future.

Lin learned that you could improve the odds of winning by keeping tabs on how a man bred his birds, on which supplements he gave them. The extra cash helped to modernize his father’s stores, helped his parents to buy a house with tamarind and breadfruit trees. It was a good thing, too. In all, Mamma Lin had given birth to four boys but there were only two of them left after the tuberculosis, and only Lin had remained in town.

Lin had always been loyal to his family. This was the way he’d been raised. When the betting brought in good money, he always gave something extra to his brothers’ widows and children. And when
Covey was born, he hired a helper, Pearl, the best cook in the parish, because that was what Covey’s mother wanted. But then the money stopped coming in.

In time, the breeders of gamecocks found steroids that could plump up a bird, but they also made an animal harder to handle, especially when it was fitted with blades. One owner up in the next parish died after his own bird slashed through his arm. No one even saw when it happened, only saw the life flying out of the man’s wrist in a spray of red.

Lin had been counting on that bird to win big. Instead, the slashing incident triggered a long losing streak, during which time Lin’s woman grew louder, more argumentative, then quieter, then altogether silent. One day, she simply disappeared, leaving behind a brief note and their twelve-year-old daughter, who kept trailing Lin around the house, gazing up at him with her mother’s round eyes.

Lin suspected Mathilda had left him under the influence of all that
business that was going on in the streets, though she used to complain because Lin wouldn’t give her a formal marriage. That, and because he kept going to the cockfights.

“You don’t like the betting?” Lin asked her one time. “Where do you think I get the money to keep the shops going? Half of our customers are buying on credit, which they will never pay off, by the way. Am I supposed to let them go without? And where do you think this house came from? You
tink all dat money fall out a de sky
?” The woman’s face took on that vexed look she used whenever Lin spoke patois around their daughter.

No, Mathilda had never appreciated her good fortune. Some of the merchants had wives on the far side of the ocean or women on the other side of town, but not Lin. Still, she was the kind of woman a man tried to tolerate. All that skin billowing out of the top of her shirt. The way she would march their daughter straight into the waves without hesitation, aggravating Lin and exciting him at the same time.

In the tired but hopeful years after the end of World War II, a lot of the fellows who came back to the island after serving in the Royal Air
Force and such would talk of nothing but going back to Britain. Some of the Chinese lads from the capital were leaving the island for Florida. But Lin didn’t want to immigrate again, he wanted to improve his lot right where he was. Mathilda, two years younger than Lin, said she liked his attitude. When they were alone, she would run her hand over the top of his head and say that she liked that funny hair of his, black and straight and coarse as a brush.

Lin could have married someone else. Lin’s mother had been fussing with him to take up with the “right sort” of girl, one of the new ones who had come over from China. Someone who would know the proper way to clean the house for the Chinese New Year. Someone who would know how to prepare the small envelopes of Fung Bow for the children. Someone who knew what to cook for good luck, whose presence would make the family proud when important people came to visit for the holiday feast.

And he knew that Mathilda would not have sat idling for long. All she had to do to find someone who was better off was to train her eyes on some hotel owner farther up the coast or even one of those movie stars who had managed to get rich despite lounging on the beach half the time. But then Mathilda told him she was pregnant and he understood that this was what he wanted. To live with Mathilda and their child.

Love was a mystifying thing and the way it could corrode, doubly so. Yes, Lin needed to accept the fact that it was just him and his daughter now. They had been abandoned.

Within three years, Covey’s shoulders and chest had puffed up and she was taller and swimming faster than any girl and most boys in the parish. Her eyes took on an edge that Lin recognized as his own. This girl was like him. It wasn’t just a matter of talent. She wasn’t just having fun. She was driven to win.

Covey kept winning, but Lin kept losing. The funny thing was, Lin knew better. He knew better than to gamble without taking a break. He knew better than to spend all that cash on liquor. Lin never forgot a number, had entire armies of them in his head, but he couldn’t for the
life of him remember the date on which he stopped being able to stop himself.

At some point, Lin began to think, again, about the men who had moved away. He considered selling what was left of his belongings and going back to China.

“What China?” his one remaining brother said. “
Yu belong to dis island now.
What China?”

Then there was Covey. Lin knew he couldn’t take her with him, not with her mother’s brown face and long nose and her English talking. Probably, he hadn’t said more than a word or two to Covey in Hakka since she was still in nappies. She would never find herself a husband over there.
He was wasting his time, he knew, fretting over a girl-child who was already getting fresh with him. Talking back in that modern way, instead of doing as she was told. He suspected that Covey was already a lost cause. Still, he stayed.

BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
9.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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