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Authors: Charmaine Wilkerson

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BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
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Lin
 

T
hings hadn’t been easy with
Covey. That she was a girl-child was bad enough. That she had grown to inherit her mother’s eyes and bust and teeth had become a problem. The local men were already taking notice of her looks, not to mention the wife of one of Lin’s suppliers who, everyone knew, was
that way.
But the worst part of it all was the disrespect his daughter had begun to show him.

When Covey was old enough to understand that her mother wouldn’t be coming home, she started acting up, started getting home late from school. Lately, she’d been telling Lin that she was studying with a friend after class, or training extra hours at the swim club, but he could see that the girl had been up to something. She would walk into the house with that look on her face and Lin knew that there had to be a boy. But Covey denied it.

One afternoon, Lin ran out of patience and grabbed Covey by the hair. That was when he realized what had been going on.

“What is this?” Lin said.

Covey’s ponytail was stiff with salt. She’d been swimming in the sea after school again. Lin had forbidden it and, still, his fool of a daughter had been going out there in the afternoons. And lying to him about it.

“Are you mad?” Lin said. “Haven’t we talked about this before? Do you know what can happen to you if you go out there alone?”

“Nothing is going to happen to me,” Covey said, picking up a mango and running the point of a paring knife along its skin.

“And right you are, Coventina. Nothing is going to happen to you because you will not be going out there again.”

Covey cut her eyes at him and turned away. Back in Lin’s day, a girl would never have given her own father an insolent look of that sort. Nowadays, there was all manner of loose behavior going around. The previous week, Covey had sewn herself a new skirt, or Lin should say, a new strip of cloth, halfway up her backside. All the girls were wearing them, Covey had said. Lin put a stop to that business right away, made her let out the hem. But this was what the world was coming to.

“Anyway, you can’t stop me,” Covey said, slicing a piece of mango away from the seed and swallowing it whole.

That was it. Lin pulled his belt out of his trousers, brandished the leather strap, and taught Covey a lesson. Or so he hoped. Covey was fearless. And a fearless girl, without a mother or husband to keep her in check, was a dangerous thing.

Storm
 

I
n September 1963, the crew
of a jetliner flying from Portugal to Surinam noticed an area of significant disturbance off the west coast of Africa. This was followed by reports from ships traveling east of the Lesser Antilles. By the time the first advisory for Hurricane Flora was issued to the general public, the storm was moving in on Trinidad and Tobago and beginning its deadly march up through the Caribbean.

Back then, no one in Covey’s town knew that a hurricane was coming until it was almost fully upon them, though islanders knew that this was the season for big storms. Merely being sideswiped by a tropical storm was enough to destroy crops, knock out communications, and claim lives.

On Saturday, October 5, 1963, three teenagers were swimming across Long Bay, while two others followed them in a small boat. None of them wanted to admit to the others how worried they were. The tropical storm had come in faster than they’d expected and the boat had already capsized once.

Two miles inland, Lin was herding chickens into the garage. The chicken coop was already buckling in the wind and Covey was nowhere to be seen. The schools were closed and the roads were filling with muddy water. Lin had told the girl to get back from Bunny’s house by lunchtime. The phone rang. It was Bunny’s father, Leonard.

“Lin, we have too much water up our way. Could you drive Bunny to the halfway corner? I’ll come and get her on foot.”

“Bunny?” Lin said. “Bunny isn’t here. She’s not at home?”

“No. I thought she and Covey were with you,” Leonard said.

“Oh, shit.”

“Oh, Christ Almighty.”

Lin picked up Leonard at the halfway corner and they headed toward the shore. Thankfully, most roads were empty. Stores and such had been shut in anticipation of the storm, but the flooding slowed them down.

“What if they’re not there?” Lin said, as they pulled parallel to the sand.

“Where else would they be?” Leonard said. “That daughter of yours…”

“Daughter of
mine
? What about Bunny?”

“Bunny goes where Covey goes. You know the influence Covey has over her.”

Lin kept his mouth shut. There were things that one father avoided saying to another, things that could ruin a friendship.

Lin spotted a cooler and shoes on the sand, clothes of various colors blowing about. He and Leonard ran down to the water, already soaked to the skin. Lin peered through sheets of rain and saw a canoe being buffeted by the waves. Three swimmers were in the water ahead of the boat, flicking their arms through the spray. He recognized Covey’s yellow swim cap.

Lin switched on his torch and signaled to the group. There was nothing else that Lin could do at this point, just hold his breath. This was the worst trick that nature could play on you, really, to make you a father, to fill your chest with that kind of fear for a child. He and Leonard shouted as a high wave capsized the boat and scattered everyone.

After the wave retreated, Lin counted five heads. There was Covey, with her yellow cap, trying to grab hold of the canoe. They had almost reached the shore but if they didn’t move fast, the next big wave would turn that boat into a missile.

Thank goodness she was a powerful girl, that Covey. The sight of his daughter’s legs emerging from the water filled Lin with pride and a sense of relief so strong it stung his eyes and nose. Then came the fury. At sixteen, Covey was already as tall as he was but Lin grabbed her by the arm like a pickney and pulled her toward the car.

“Go on, get in,” Lin said. He looked over his shoulder at the Grant boy, the oldest of the group. Way too handsome for his own good.

“You, Gibbs Grant,” Lin said, “you should know better.”

“Yes, sir,” Gibbs said, and lowered his head. The way Covey was looking at that boy made Lin’s stomach burn.

“Yes, sir?” Lin said. “Yes,
sir
? That is all you have to say for yourself? You are the eldest one here, you should have taken responsibility.”

“No, Pa,” Covey shouted, “I was the one who said we should come here.”

“You, young lady, be quiet.”

Gibbs looked over at Covey, then back at Lin, head high. “You are right, Mister Lin, I take full responsibility.” And in that instant, Lin saw it all, in the set of Gibbs’s neck and shoulders, in the gleam of his large eyes, saw everything that a boy like this could become to his daughter. Bloody hell, he thought.

That weekend, Hurricane Flora caused twelve million dollars in damage and killed a dozen people on the island. Covey was forbidden to see Gibbs, and she and Bunny were grounded for a month, swim club included. But Covey was already in love with Gibbs, and Bunny was already in love with Covey, and they were too young, still, to imagine that anything could keep them away from one another for very long.

Burning
 

A
year after the big storm,
Covey was pulled out of her sleep by the sound of someone banging on the front door of the house and shouting
Lin! Lin!
She stepped out into the hallway in time to see her father shoving his feet into his sandals and dashing through the door.

Covey followed her pa outside as he hurried down the driveway, brushing past the bougainvillea and out into the street. At the end of the road lay the small cluster of businesses that included one of his stores. In the daytime, Covey would have been able to see the intersection in the distance, but now there was only an orange glow against the night sky.

“Go home, Covey!” her father said when he saw her. “Go on, and lock the doors behind you.” The thought of locking the doors to their home came as a shock. It was something that Covey, at seventeen, had never done. Not even with the political business farther up the coast, the killings the previous year. There had never been any need.

“But, Pa,” Covey said, coughing. A hint of smoke scraped at her throat. Her father put his hands on her shoulders and turned her around.

“Don’t talk back to me,” he said, “just go on. And look at you. In your night clothes, no less. Go cover yourself up.”

Covey ran back to the house, keeping her arms folded over her pajama top to cover the bounce of her breasts. Before leaving, she’d seen
enough to understand that her father’s stores were probably burning along with other businesses on that stretch of road. Just as Covey turned into her front yard, two women passed her on the street. One of them was saying that a
chiney
shopkeeper had roughed up one of his workers, that’s why somebody had set fire to the shops.

“The woman asked for her wages and ’im
mash up her face,
” she said.

The other woman kissed her teeth.

Chiney? They didn’t mean Covey’s father, did they? Most of the stores in the parish were owned by Chinese islanders, so Covey supposed it could have been any one of them. But not her pa. Everyone knew her father was prone to the gambling and drinking. But beating up an employee? That didn’t sound like Johnny “Lin” Lyncook. Her pa? Her father had pulled a belt strap on her once but he hadn’t actually hit her. He’d seemed so certain that the menace of it would be enough. His bark had always been greater than his bite.

As Covey reached the house, she saw Gibbs and his father running toward the fire. Gibbs hurried across the street to her.

“Gibbs!” his father yelled, pointing at the fire. Gibbs’s father had opened a shop with his wife’s cousin and he looked worried.

“I’m sorry, my father…,” Gibbs said.

“I know, I know.”

“Can you meet me tomorrow?” Gibbs said. “Try to meet me. The usual place.”

Covey nodded, tears building up in her eyes as she opened the gate to her house. But she didn’t have to wait until the next day. An hour later, Gibbs was back, rapping a stone against the gate until Covey looked out the window and ran out to let him in. Holding hands, they ran through the side garden to the back of the house.

“You mustn’t let my father see you.”

“I don’t think your father is coming back anytime soon, Covey.”

Covey felt her body go heavy. She rested her head on Gibbs’s shoulder. “And your dad?”

“He’s all right, the store’s all right, he’s just helping out.”

They fell silent, kissing and touching until she pushed him away.

“You’d better go before someone sees us.”

“You’re right,” Gibbs said, leaning into her one more time, then pulling away.

After that, Covey was alone in the house until after dawn, waiting and worrying. Lately, Covey had spent most of her time steering clear of her father, dreaming of the day when she and Gibbs could get away from the island together, but on this night, she only wanted to see her pa walk through the front door. Her mother had left, but her father had stayed. Her grandparents had passed on, her uncle and aunts and cousins had moved away, but her pa was still there. That selfish, bad-tempered, narrow-minded man was all that remained of her family.

In the light of day, some of the men from the neighborhood helped Covey’s father and the other merchants pick through the mess. Four shops had caught fire, in all, including one of her pa’s two stores. No one knew who had set the blaze. Or, at least, no one was saying. They all came back to her father’s backyard, shirts and Bermudas covered in soot, her father walking with one foot bare and a broken sandal in his hand. Covey ran to the washroom to wipe away her tears.

The men rinsed their hands and faces with water from the garden hose and settled into chairs, or perched themselves on the veranda steps. Pearl and Covey brought them glasses of ice water and plates of chicken and rice and peas, the scents of coconut milk and garlic mingling with the distant smell of burnt wood and metal. Covey’s father was muttering to another shopkeeper about the man who had reportedly beaten up his employee.

“Is not the first time him rough up somebody,”
her pa said.
“Dat man only causing trouble for the lot of us.”
Covey’s mummy would have glared at her pa for slipping into patois that way, but Covey’s mummy hadn’t been home in five years.

Hadn’t telephoned.

Hadn’t written a letter.

Hadn’t come back for Covey.

“And this won’t be the end of it, either, Lin,” the other shopkeeper said.

Covey wanted to hear more, but Pearl called her into the house. If you wanted to know what was going on around town, you either hung around the men in the backyard or, once your body had sprouted points and curves and you were no longer permitted to linger, you sought out the women in the kitchen, especially on laundry days. There was usually a lull in the afternoon after school, when the white clothes had been laid out on the patio to bleach in the sun and Pearl had time for a piece of fruit and a chat with other helpers from up the way.

Like everyone in town, Covey had heard complaints about Chinese merchants who didn’t pay their employees their due or who had made advances toward the women. But they weren’t the only ones doling out mistreatment. Covey knew this because the women had always passed stories of such difficulties among themselves. This was the kind of thing that happened to them or to someone they knew all the time, wherever they worked, or shopped, or went to school. No difference if they were dealing with
chiney
or
blacka
or
dundus.

Pearl said the human being was born to be a
ginnal
and it was a rare person who didn’t take advantage of a weaker one, or pretend to be the friend of a stronger one just to reap the benefits. But even Pearl said Covey’s father wasn’t a real rat, not like some of those others. Take Little Man Henry and all his badness, for instance. Little Man, Pearl said, had taken his delinquent behavior well beyond the limits of their parish.

According to Pearl, it was common knowledge that Little Man was
tekkin’
money from the politicians to help stir up violence on the west end of the island. But that was not the worst of it. Little Man was capable of murder. More than one unlucky soul who had benefited from Little Man’s so-called generosity had turned up dead after failing to pay him back. Others had limped home, all mashed up and not telling.

“Where money is involved,” Pearl said, “not everything from above is a blessing.”

The word was, Pearl said, that the woman whose body had been found farther up the coast a while back was a
gyal
from another town who had refused Little Man’s advances. Of all the Little Man gossip, this was the story that sent a thick vein of dread running through Covey. That a man would cause so much hurt to someone who had done so little. It was said his brother was no better. It was said that the Henrys both profited from and caused the misfortune of others all too willingly.

Perhaps Covey or Pearl should have imagined that soon, Little Man would be getting himself involved in Johnny Lyncook’s affairs. But they didn’t.

It would be a while before Covey realized that the fire had marked the beginning of the end. The pullback before the wave of her father’s debts engulfed them both. Most of the goods in her pa’s store were lost. The rest was too smoky to be sold. On the day after the blaze, she overheard Pearl telling the helper from next door that she didn’t think Mister Lin should have to be ruined because of someone else’s bad deeds. Mister Lin, Pearl said, was perfectly capable of ruining things for himself.

BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
6.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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