Read Black Cake: A Novel Online
Authors: Charmaine Wilkerson
ntil the bay became famous,
they had it all to themselves.
Pull, pull, pull.
No self-respecting islander would go out there on a weekday without a boat or surfboard, only Covey and her friend Bunny.
Pull, pull, pull.
From time to time, the movie stars and writers who kept homes farther up the coast would come by with their glamorous friends and stretch out on the sand, but most afternoons, the beach was deserted when the girls arrived.
Pull, pull, pull.
On Sundays, Covey and Bunny behaved like the other fifteen-year-old girls, strolling along the shore in their matching two-piece swimsuits, poking sticks into beached jellyfish, burying each other up to their necks in sand, eating fresh snapper and cassava cakes cooked on an open fire by Fishie and his wife, and washing off their fingers in the breakers afterward.
Fishie was an institution around there. He’d been selling lunches made with his freshly caught fish since Covey’s and Bunny’s own fathers had been young boys. He’d seen Bunny’s father go to war for Britain and come back across the oceans to raise his two children, unlike some of the others who’d turned right around and gone back to England or Wales or what-have-you. He’d seen Covey’s pa grow from a
skinny likkle ting,
as he’d told Covey more than once with a chuckle,
skinny big ting.
And now, these boys were men, holding court around Fishie with bottles in their hands and arguing about the island’s independence from British rule.
Some weekends, when Covey’s pa wasn’t full of drink, he would drive the girls and their friends up the coast to the falls. They’d run under the cascade, yelping from the cold rush of the water.
Look at me, Pa!
Covey would shout.
Look at me!
It was a good day when she could get him to throw back his head in laughter and slap the side of his thigh. It was a good day when she could feel that she was still more important to Pa than a bunch of smelly roosters fighting to the death.
Then on weekdays, Covey and Bunny would pull on their swim caps and Covey would revert to her truest self.
Covey was in the water at the swim club when she first saw Bunny. Covey had been treading water, going over the lines of a passage she’d memorized to recite at school. Just then, Pa’s friend Uncle Leonard walked in with his daughter, Bunny.
Uncle Leonard let go of the girl’s arm and gave her a slight shove toward the instructor.
Just concentrate, Bunny,
he said, then walked away as Bunny took a few awkward steps forward. Covey had never seen her before, they went to different primary schools, but she had seen Uncle Leonard pull up to the house in his white van to pick up Pa. Back then, Mummy was still around and she’d heard Mummy kiss her teeth and mumble under her breath every time he and Pa drove off to the cockfights.
At the pool, Bunny did everything the instructor said with a worried look on her moon-shaped face. She didn’t have any of the basics but she caught on fast. Then one day, Bunny’s mother came to watch and she smiled. Covey and the other kids looked over at one another in surprise. Bunny had the brightest smile that any of them had ever seen on a girl. Not even Covey’s mother had teeth like that. As time went by, Covey saw that, apart from the smile, Bunny had something else. Once she started swimming, she never seemed to get tired.
Bunny started walking back with Covey to Covey’s house after swim club. The two of them would sit side by side at the table in the
kitchen, legs swinging, tummies growling, as they waited for Pearl to slip them a piece of fried breadfruit or a hot, chewy dumpling while preparing the evening’s supper. If there was still some daylight left, they would run into the backyard to catch lizards and climb the enormous old almond tree, until Mummy called to them to come down.
Then Covey told Bunny she wanted to start training in the bay.
“But why?” Bunny said. “We have the pool.”
“You’ll see,” Covey said, and looked in the direction of the coast.
“But is it safe?”
Covey hesitated, but she could tell, from the gleam in Bunny’s eyes, that she didn’t really need to answer.
Their longest swims took place when their fathers were gone to the cockfights. Covey and Bunny would beg rides from the neighbor boys and head farther down the coast. While their fathers were wiping flecks of blood from their dollar bills, the girls were already on the sand, kicking off their shoes and stepping out of their dresses and plunging headfirst into the sapphire waves.
With Bunny, Covey no longer felt like an only child. She felt as though she’d found a sister on land and in the water. Covey was the faster swimmer of the two girls but Bunny could go forever, and she could navigate the straightest line in open water of all the swimmers Covey knew. If Covey moved like a dolphin, then Bunny was like one of those giant turtles you heard about that were capable of crossing the world without losing their way.
People liked to tease Covey about the swimming. She was like lightning, some of them said. But with Bunny, they often grew quiet. Word had gotten around town. Bunny was the stuff of reverence. Bunny was a
But then they turned sixteen and things began to change. People started calling them
Covey knew what some people thought about young ladies. That they ought to have more
for the sea and what it could do. That they ought to stop courting danger by going out into the bay.
“It’s not natural,” her pa said. When Covey was still small, Covey’s father placed a couple of fortunate bets and told her he would use the
money to enroll her in the swim club. Pa kept paying the fees even when he said there was nothing left for other expenses and, over the years, Covey made good on his investment by lining her bedroom shelf with swimming medals. Then Covey decided it wasn’t enough.
Because her pa was wrong, there was nothing more natural for Covey than swimming in the sea. And as long as she had Bunny, Covey felt that she could keep doing what she loved best.
“The harbor race,” Covey said to Bunny. “Let’s do it. Let’s see if we can get sponsorship to go to the capital.”
“The harbor race?” Bunny said. “You know I don’t like to race.”
“But we could win.”
could win, Covey.”
“But you could finish in the top three, I’m sure of it. It’s a good, long swim, the kind you like. Plus, some of those big-time racers from the other islands wouldn’t have the courage to come here.”
Their island was one of the smaller countries on Earth, but it had one of the world’s largest natural harbors. There were always rumors going around of what might be lurking in its waters.
Everyone on the island had a shark story. Sharks that left nothing but a man’s torso to wash ashore. Sharks that lunged when someone threw a dead dog off a cliff. Sharks seen circling a sandbar off the southern coast. But in her entire life, Covey had never seen so much as a shark fin in the water. Barracudas, yes. But she wondered if shark sightings weren’t like ghost stories, tales that you didn’t quite believe, but that left you feeling afraid all the same.
Covey would convince Bunny to enter that harbor race, she was sure of it.
“They would have boats tracking us, right?” Bunny asked.
“Right,” Covey said. “Listen, I’ll admit I get a little nervous, thinking about it. But we swim out here, so why can’t we swim there? Are you thinking you might not want to go?”
Bunny shook her head.
“Then don’t think about it, just come with me.”
Covey couldn’t imagine not going. Couldn’t imagine not feeling
the froth bubble away from her skin as her arm came out of the water, the blue-green world below growing black with depth, the bright sky above, and even the salt burning her mouth. She dreamed of being invited to compete abroad. She knew it was unlikely, but it could be her ticket away from this island. Because, yes, Covey intended to leave this town someday, even if her mother never came back to get her.
“But your pa,” Bunny said. “What if he doesn’t agree?”
“I’ll think about that later,” Covey said.
Three afternoons a week, Covey pulled through the waves, pulled through her fear of sharks, pulled against lactic acid, and breathed in gulps of her future as a champion. Three afternoons a week, Bunny smeared grease on her face, pulled through the jellyfish stings, and studied a map of the island’s big harbor. Because wherever Covey went, Bunny wanted to follow.
n those days, there were
boys who would hack into the hulls of discarded fishing boats, shape them into flat boards, and ride the waves. Some of them went body boarding and surfing on pieces of refrigerator foam. They’d trim the polyurethane and laminate it with resin and fiberglass. They would laugh as they jumped off their boards and ran back to the sand. By the time factory-made surfboards came to Covey’s hometown, she was ready to try her luck at the sport.
Covey turned out to be a natural. She didn’t have a surfboard of her own, but Gibbs Grant did. Covey had just turned sixteen when Gibbs joined the swim club. He was one of the older boys, but fairly new in town. His family had moved to be near relatives after a mining company bought his father’s land. Covey had heard about the Grant boy but when she first saw him step out of the changing room and into the pool area, she was sure that their paths had never crossed. She was certain of it because she would have noticed if they had.
Covey had reached that age where the boys had stopped pulling at her hair. She had reached that stage where boys whispered as she walked by, hissed at her from cars, stood too close to her at parties, embarrassed her, repelled her, and sometimes, made her daydream. But none of them had done what this new boy did when he walked into the club that day.
As Gibbs moved toward the border of the pool, Covey took one look at him and felt as if this boy, looking right back at her with those
eyes of his, had just shot out his arm and given her a push, sending her falling, falling, falling backward into the deep end.
Later, he said, “I see why dem call you Dolphin.”
“Oh, yes?” Covey said.
She shrugged and looked down at her feet. As usual, her toes were puckered from all that time in the water. She pretended to find this interesting.
“The boys say you’ve been swimming out in the bay.”
“Yeah, Bunny and I.”
“Just you two?”
“Mostly just us, but not always.”
“You think I could come out there and swim with you sometime?”
“If you’re good enough,” Covey said, smiling up at him.
“I’m good enough,” Gibbs said, grinning.
Gibbs joined them in the bay the very next week. One day he brought a surfboard. Covey wanted to try it immediately but Bunny scrunched up her nose. It was this interest in surfing that gave Gibbs and Covey their first excuse to see each other without their swim club friends, or their schoolmates, or the inquisitive eyes of their parents.
The first time Covey and Gibbs followed a path down through the brush and into the cove where the surfers went, they found a trio of Rasta men on the beach. The oldest of them waded into the water and the next thing Covey knew, he was up on the board, a thing to behold, his graying dreads flying as he came up the face of a wave and cut back in the other direction.
When it was Covey’s turn to use Gibbs’s board, the men stared openly at her, following her as she crossed the narrow band of sand, pushed her way into the breakers, and hoisted her trunk onto the board. For the rest of her life, Covey would remember the feeling that came over her the first time she stood up on the surfboard. She would remember hearing Gibbs whoop before she fell and wondering if the elation of that moment was only from the surfing or if it was from knowing, too, that Gibbs was there, watching her.
Covey would remember, too, her sense of satisfaction when, the next time they saw the surfing Rastas, the older men merely dipped their chins in greeting, then carried on with what they were doing.
Covey hadn’t said anything to Bunny about going surfing with Gibbs. She would have to say something eventually and Bunny would say
and smile, but Covey knew that Bunny would be jealous. She sensed it from the way Bunny eyed Gibbs whenever she thought Covey wasn’t looking. She knew from the way Bunny touched Covey’s face as she helped Covey adjust her swim cap, from the way she rested her head in Covey’s lap when they lolled on the beach after swimming, waiting for the sun to bake their suits dry. She didn’t want Bunny to feel bad. Bunny was her best friend. For Covey, this meant everything. But for Bunny, it wasn’t quite enough.
“Boss!” Gibbs shouted when Covey came running out of the waves after standing up that first time.
“You have a true talent, Dolphin Girl,” Gibbs said later, as they sat on a towel with a pineapple that Gibbs had bought from a higgler woman.
“Oh, what are you doing?” Covey said.
“What?” said Gibbs. He was holding the pineapple on his thigh with one hand and digging into the side of the fruit with a knife.
“You trying to kill that pineapple? What are you cutting it that way for? Here, pass that to me.” Covey took the pineapple and set it, crown up, on the towel. “And you say you come from the country? I don’t believe it.”
“Well, it’s just a penknife, it’s not big enough.”
“Which is your first problem right there.”
“What? Am I supposed to be roaming the coast with a big old knife, just in case I run into a pineapple?”
Covey kissed her teeth, and then they both laughed and Gibbs let himself fall back on the sand. Covey tried not to stare at his trunk, gleaming in the sun. She held the pineapple in place and began to shave off the skin, bit by bit, exposing the yellow flesh covered with dark eyes. Then she cut diagonally into the side of the fruit, digging out the
spots, one or two at a time. With Gibbs’s small knife, it was going to take a while. And Covey was glad.
“So,” Gibbs said. “What are you going to do when you finish school? You want to teach swimming like Bunny?”
“Well, first, I want to win that harbor race and, yes, I want to keep swimming. But I want to go to university. See if maybe I can go to England. Maybe I could do something with numbers. I’m good with numbers, like my pa.”
Covey saw a look pass over Gibbs’s face. She could imagine what he was thinking. What most people thought about her father. “And you?” Covey asked.
“I’m definitely going to London next year. I’m going to study law,” Gibbs said. Covey felt her heart thudding. They could both end up in Britain.
“Law?” Covey said. “You mean, like criminals and such?”
“I was thinking more of people’s rights. You know, people whose rights are denied. Like my family’s.”
“Why, what happened?”
“My father. He had a farm, you know this. But it was taken away. That’s why we had to move.”
“I thought some big company bought your father’s land?”
“That’s what they called it, anyhow. It’s not like he had a choice. They paid what they wanted to pay. Then they made us all move. The whole village.”
Covey looked at Gibbs silently. She didn’t know that such a thing could happen.
Gibbs took a chunk of pineapple from Covey.
“If you go to London, do you think you would come back?”
Each time they met alone, Gibbs insisted that leaving the island was the key to his future. The rest, he’d have to see. At some point, he stopped talking about his future only, and started talking about a life together with Covey.
he started saying.
Gibbs, who had shoulders as broad and brown as a guango tree.
Gibbs, whose arms around Covey’s waist burned her with a warmth that ran down through her middle.
Covey’s father had forbidden her to stay out with boys alone, but Covey and Gibbs kept finding excuses. The swim club, the debate team, and in the summer, the recitals to practice for Independence Day. They lived in a town surrounded by quiet coves and lush tree cover. It was easy enough for a pair of teenagers to find places to steal time together and, like each generation before them, they were emboldened by adolescent love.
Covey and Gibbs, holding hands down by the breakers.
Covey and Gibbs, kissing in the hollow of a sea cave.
Covey and Gibbs, clinging and probing and whispering promises.