From the daring at first to the job done without discovery, the raid on Dosaro’s was risky, though well worth the spoils. For Uxann, the plump, perfectly ripened guanábana, their scent pulling butterflies seeking nectar; for her, the prize was the taste of them. The wet of her tongue to the fruit’s creamy meat, a mix dissolving aroma into memory, a spark giving back food its life … this was the delight she craved, which just thinking of surged a gush in her mouth.
For a halfmile stretch along the road to school, the fruit orchard tempted from behind a six-foot-high, stave and wire barricade. There was a watchman: the mingy owner, who, anytime he caught a vaps to, patrolled the orchard himself. A mean, close man who stalked tiptoe with bull-pistle in hand, and had caught and whipped a few. A wicked man who’d sometimes bear a hair-trigger shotgun that itched for a notch. But nothing he did could fence the scents on the air, and several students were canny enough to get in and out with whatever. That chubby Uxann was champ at this was her secret.
Walking the route five days a week, she had swallowed her spit while watching and waiting. Then, dawdling home one afternoon, she saw what she thought was a stave askew. Five further schooldays, because of weather or company going home, she waited to check. And it was so. With a pull and a shift, she had a way in. She told her best friend and cousin, Keah.
Now, Uxann stood on the grassy edge of the dirt road, her arms crossed tightly over her broad chest, feeling stubborn and stupid about it. But determined not to give in, she watched Keah return through the tall grass that bordered Dosaro’s grove.
Keah lightly jumped the two-foot flood drain, disturbing a swirl of buzzing things. As she scrambled up to the roadway, the insects resettled and disappeared in the stagnant mess. Keah dusted her hands on her skirt, clinking the glinting silver bracelets over her wrists. “God! What a relief!” she exclaimed. “Been holding that in since recess.”
Despite herself, Uxann asked, “So what prevent you recess-time?”
Keah giggled smugly. “You know,” she said.
Uxann did know: Preddy. These days it was with him Keah used up all her recess, squeezing together into whatever half-private corner they could find on the schoolgrounds. Last month she was same way with Raimau. Last term it was Sharry.
Keah said, “Anyhow, we figured that maybe it’d be better if you watchman, and we go pick. You have cleaner ears, and so on, yu’know …”
Uxann listened grimly.
“… then afterwards, we share up equal-equal.”
Uxann kept her eyes straight on Keah’s face, and remained silent.
Sucking her teeth, Keah said, “So why you so vex already? I ’ent even finish yet.”
“I not vex. I just waiting,” said Uxann. She jerked her fierce stare away, unable to stand the smugness behind Keah’s thin, earnest face. Pretty, too. Her soft, rich cocoa-brown prettyface smooth-talking like butter wouldn’t melt in the mouth, with her deceitfulness sparking the smiling eyes.
“Uxann,” she coaxed, “we must have a watchman. Suppose Dosaro come by and catch we, eh? We have to have a watchman. And you true-true sharper-eyed than me. You know that. And whatever me and Preddy get, we go share with you.” As she finished, she cast quick eyes to the curve down the road from which Preddy would show.
Uxann gritted her teeth harder, and glared away in rage. So now she had clean ears, huh? And nothing between them, too, they must think. So she had to watchman because she could see and hear sharp. Didn’t they think her brain was sharp, too? At least sharp enough to figure why they wanted her standing like a statue by the roadside, while Keah and Preddy Dassen went alone in old Dosaro’s orange grove.
Steady-eyed, curtaining off her intuitions, she asked, “Who is this we? And what it is you and Preddy want me watchman? How come he here at all? This was we plan. Alone. Nobody help me find this guanábana tree, or this hole in, yu’know.”
Keah’s eyes fell. “Uxann, don’t make it so hard, nuh.” Then, eyes darting up, defiant and spiting, she went on, “And why you have to bring up Preddy for everything so, huh? You jealous, or what?”
It was this swift contempt that cowed Uxann, that herded her to escape into indifference, behind a face placid as butter. “No! I don’t care,” she said. “I’ll watch if you want.”
“Well, okay then, that’d be for the best. And you know I wouldn’t try to fool you.” Then she walked off to the bend in the road where Preddy would appear, bracelets a-clink as she tossed back a strayed left braid.
Uxann remained where she was, face unrevealing. Yet in the dark quiet of her mind, her outrage barred compliance. It was open knowledge that the next due traffic was the Valpariso bus at five o’clock. There was nothing to watch, and they knew it. Knew that she did, too. Yet they were so careless at slighting her. So bold, it cramped her throat and made her shudder. She would get Keah back for this, she swore. Even as her hurt sprung in her eyes and she whimpered to herself, “They never ever want me around …”
She looked at Keah, waiting 15 yards away—tense, the sunlight catching the glaze of sweat at her neck. All of a sudden, the sight of her was sour, and Uxann wanted to be away. To leave them to their business and raid Dosaro’s another time—by herself.
But to deceive them better, she decided to wait until Preddy came and they’d stolen into the fruit grove, believing they had her playing watchdog to their rendezvous.
As soon as they’d gone through the hole in the fence, Uxann walked off for home. To kill the extra time she had, she decided on a track through the woods. She knew where there was a bird setting on a clutch of two speckled brown eggs. Several times already she had climbed the low tree and inspected the nest. She’d never seen the mother, but always aware of the anxiety spying from nearby, she was careful as she snuggled the warm globes to her eyelids and cheeks. But although handling the eggs was great, Uxann yearned to discover and observe the distressed mother. Her chance might be this time: a thought pulling her swiftly through the murmuring forest.
Freed from the sense of eyes on her, Uxann relaxed into herself. Her short-stepped mimsing gave way to a loose stride, balanced on the balls of her feet, light on the leafy forest-track. And because not always sight gave secrets, she kept her passage nearly soundless, and listened to the forest be alive. Heard its breathy leaves whisper. Heard private talk in whistles and tweets and chirps and squawks of tensions and territories, and rituals and harmonies.
With each stride, her bookbag, slung across her right shoulder, beat on her left hip solidly, in rhythm with her breathing, her heartbeat, the vital pulse of the forest. Just her movement, her rustling through the great, quiet place, comforted. Here in the forest she felt at home, native like a wild thing. Here her plumpness fitted. When she jumped, there was no threatening thump—the natural trace had spring enough to absorb her solid presence. She didn’t have to think light, or prim and tight. She could move bold here, could prance and spring, undam the cramp she lived under others’ eyes. Let go to how she was: big and floppy, muscled slack and jouncy. She hummed the chorus of the popular caiso, pausing to dance a dip step natural to the melody. She didn’t feel clumsy at all, but lighthearted close to gladness that she was big, and she could move so well.
At the stream beyond which the nest waited, she paused to catch her breath; stealth was important here. She rested against a large boulder and scouted a path of stones to hop across. Satisfied with one, she skipped to the first raised flat one and squatted down, cupping a handful of the gurgling water to her face, lip-sipping some before letting most splash back to the stream. Again and again she repeated the soothing cooling, until gradually a complete peacefulness took her, and ceased the background rustle of breezed leaves, and stilled the chaos of birdcalling, and the whole world paused as if an angel floated by. With Uxann caught poised, hands reaching forward to the water, worship shivering through her.
After the while she was released, and blinking about her, slowly returned to the forest and its sounds. Contented and drained, she decided against bothering the bird, and turned to retrace her steps to the track for home.
The distance shrunk in her daze of thoughts, with some surprise Uxann found herself at the end of her shortcut and out of the woods. A hundred yards more, through an abandoned pasture, and she was at the vegetable garden she and Paps cultivated back of their house. She wandered through the neat beds, straightening the tomatoes’ supports here, molding a lettuce or cauliflower there. A tiny spot of yellow caught her eye among the sprouting corn. It was a bursting zinnia pod; almost no plant at all, but a green bud giving way to the push of the gold petals underneath. A bold, bright blossom that competed with the sunlight. Sprung up out of place, though. Uxann bent close to pull the fresh speck.
A loud cackling erupted from the backyard: a hen, either alarmed or exclaiming she had laid an egg. Uxann straightened up and started for the ruckus. Noisy fowl is quiet dinnertime, she heard Paps repeat in her head, and thought of Mr. Mongoose, close in the bush out there, patiently listening to his dinnerbell. She followed the excited clucking to a skinny, speckled brown hen, and found in a banana stool the nest with three eggs in it, one warm.
“Oh-ho!” she murmured to herself, “an evening layer.” And with a smile at thwarting Mr. Mongoose’s mealtime, she hitched up her skirt to a pouch and took them all.
Returned to the backyard garden, a copse of laden pigeon peas set her thinking dinner and, planning as she went along, Uxann decided to cook Paps an extra favorite this evening. She plucked some knobby, fat purpling pods: Seyeh loved them boiled down in coconut milk. And there was still a piece of smoked manicou from his last upriver hunt. Yes, stew it all up, and give Seyeh a treat, she would. Since he certainly loved her stir of the pots. Content with her plans, Uxann headed for the outside kitchen back of the house.
She put the food in a washpan and set to lighting the fires: in the coalpot, a slow one for the manicou stew, and in the fireside, a searing hardwood flame. While the fires caught, she went to change into home clothes. But one step in the house she stopped short, hearing the hoarse, hearty, half-whispered banter, the coupled laughter. End-of-fortnight sounds. It was payday, and Paps was home and drunk early with female company. With all the afternoon’s excitements it had slipped her mind. She could forget about him being any part of her cooking plans tonight.
Uxann bit her bottom lip hard to contain her disappointment, but couldn’t restrain the sudden wet rush at her eyes. So, sniffles and blinks, she turned to her room, swallowing the choke that heated her neck.
By sunset the meal was done and she had eaten a solitary dinner. After washing up, she went down the backyard to check the animals. A pass by the sty showed the pigs rooting and snorting around as usual. From farther down the yard came the occasional goat-bleat as they settled down in their regular spot under the calabash tree. Most of the fowl had found comfortable crooks among the cocoa-tree branches. A squawking leghorn pullet and a clean-necked cockerel were flying up seeking late accommodation. And, as was their habit end of day, the two zebus—her destination—stood outside their stall after wandering home.
Uxann liked caring for the big, hump-backed cows, Boobee and Zug. Despite their size and strength, their always drooling mouths and timid eyes gave them a shy, helpless look. And the smell of them, too—solid, funky, of sweat and grass and corn. Uxann heaped the nightly rations in their feed buckets, filled the water trough. On her way back to the house, the evening showers began.
Waking, Uxann sat up quickly, staring at the moonlight like a liquid beam streaming into her room through the window: the beautiful light a surprise as she recalled the roar of rain that had soothed her to sleep. A low, sad bawl rose in the night—a zebu’s moan, muffled, miserable—and Uxann realized it was not the moonlight had awoken her.
She knew the problem. The stupid zebu, frightened by the lightning, had blundered out of the yardpen. Had probably taken all of that storm; her moan sounded wet and long-suffering enough. Uxann half-listened for sounds of Paps moving to the situation, but, with last evening in mind, she didn’t expect him. The zebu moaned again. Uxann sighed and got out of bed.
Skirts of her nightdress gathered up and knotted to pantaloons, her feet in Paps’s tall-top rubber boots, Uxann opened the kitchen door to the brilliant moonlight. It was after midnight, the Scorpion’s tail high in the sky. A light cool breeze rippled through the trees, making the fresh-washed leaves sparkle. The night smelled clean, crisp, sweet. She shuffled out in the big boots to find the poor lost beast.
The cow had not blundered. She had stolen out and plundered the feedhouse, and couldn’t return to the yardpen because the gate had swung shut. Probably seeking shelter, the greedy brute had jammed herself under the brief overhang of the feedhouse roof. There Uxann found her—it was Boobee—with corn grains sticking among her dribbly guilty whiskers, and trembling so badly that her shivers made the wooden shack rattle. There was nothing to prevent her from moving; still the zebu just stood there, squeezing against the shed, looming cold and sheepish.
Uxann couldn’t stay vexed at the sorry sight. Hands flat against the zebu’s bulging belly and rump, she pushed hard, leaning into it, more stubborn than the cow, until the beast budged and started off walking stiffly, swinging her head, reluctant as a sad man to the gallows.
Back in the stall, the cow was still cold, shivering pale steam into the moonlight. Uxann searched the dim corners for something to warm her. A lump of loosely folded cloth, suggesting cozy homes for scratchy crawlers like scorpions and centipedes, turned out to be an old canvas hammock. Gritting teeth against the danger of poisonous stings, she carefully picked it up and shook it briefly, then tossed it over Boobee’s trembling back.
It fell unevenly, so she went around the other side to make adjustments. Reaching up to pull the cover, her body jammed against Boobee’s shivering belly. A rude, heady steam from the tremors filled her nose. It was warm, almost hot, carrying a pungent smell that gave her pause from a thrill, made her mouth spring. And without thinking, she pressed her face into the zebu’s moist hide, burrowing her nose and mouth through the coarse pelt until she could smell its damp spicy taint and taste the salty steam.
Some sound from the yard’s night, and Uxann was swiftly searching about with guilty eyes. But the silvery moonlight remained bland and empty of betrayal. So she went back around to the other side of the cow, where she was concealed by its bulk. And there, heart beating fast, she stooped to pursue her craving. Bending under Boobee’s belly to the udders, she sucked a long, swollen teat into her mouth.
Grunting low and contented, the cow shifted her hind legs slightly, accommodating Uxann as she rolled the turgid teat in her mouth, suckling and pulling until, past an initial bitterness, there burst a vital spurt. A sweet warm stream she slavered at and slurped and barely paused to lick her lips. The milk, her guilt, the rain-cleaned moonlight, the quivering beast above her—all of the moment gaining a flavour more savory. Like salt to good pepper, it made the hot spicy.
Even before she got to the backyard fence on her way home from school, Uxann heard the dogs. From the garden she saw them tied up under the breadfruit tree, barking and yelping with too much enthusiasm for any animal chained. A gruff echo after was their masters’ voices from the frontyard. As she headed for her room, she yelled, “Ah home, Paps.”
Changed into her house clothes, she found him in the kitchen. With a big grin, he said, “Sharpen yuh teeth, Girl Chile, an’ loosen yuh appetite. Is quail tomorrow.” His eyes sparked excitement.
Uxann clapped delightedly. “In truth, Paps? In truth? Oh, gosh,” she cried, rushing to him and clasping his arm close. Paps stiffened slightly, and she let go in a moment; however happy the time, he wasn’t a one much for hugging. So, to contain the pressure of her pleasure, she drew a cup of rain water from the earthen pitcher by the sink, and drank it down slowly.
Paps was reaching up tippy-toes to the upper shelves, his hands exploring. “Yuh remember where I put the shells, the buckshot?”
“Uh-huh, Paps. Is me who put them away, and is not up there.” She had safed the shells in a tight-covered, one-pound biscuit pan. She took the can from under the sink and handed it to him.
“Girl, I don’t know what I’d do without you,” he said.
“You’d manage, Paps,” she said, although that didn’t represent her gratified happiness.
He went to his room for the gun, and was soon leading the hunting party out of the frontyard. “Girl Chile, wish me luck, or we eating breadfruit tomorrow,” he called.
“Good luck, Paps,” she called back. “Aim before you fire.” And smiled the smug at hearing the banter and laughter she roused.
By half-past five she was done with eating and homework and washing-up and everything. And the house was getting close around her. Especially since, off and on with the breeze, she could hear the activity down by the roadside standpipe: yells, clangs of empty buckets careless to the ground, boisterous laughter.
Sounds toting water for the night. Cries of young folks’ fun. Noise she wanted part of. Except that with her in-house running water, she had no reason. And although Paps hadn’t actually banned her, he didn’t like her there. Was infradig, he said.
But Paps was gone hunting, having his good time. And the house was so quiet, and close, and lonely. And if he asked, she could always create a reason: needed to clear up a school question; decided to stretch her legs; heard voices in her head. So, armed with mad plan, she broke out.
At first, because of the gloaming, she couldn’t make out who was who. It was many, though; girls grouped near the standpipe itself, and boys clumped in twos and threes across the road. As she got close and was recognized, there was a little hush and whispering. Some surprised one burst out, “Look who’s coming.”
By then she’d made out Eralee and Keah, and made for them hopefully. And it was all right. Eralee came towards her with smile and frown. “What you doing here, girl?” she asked, so bold, so open, Uxann at once felt welcome.
“Allyou so scandalous out here, I sneak out to see,” she said.
“And yuh father gone hunting so you could.” This from Roonee, who, arms akimbo, was snaking her head eyeing like a Miss Know-it-all.
Uxann smiled sheepishly and shrugged.
“She father gone too,” provided Keah. “That’s why she know, and that’s why she here so long.” A private olive branch offer; Uxann met Keah’s eyes without a clash.
“That’s not why I here,” Roonee said with a giggle. “That’show I here.”
Someone suggested, “Why you here is across the road with eyes falling out he head for you.”
This brought on a burst of knowing giggles, everyone suddenly searching through the boys clustered across the road, and sharing their discoveries in whispers.
On their side, the dusk-hid boys, eyes white in shadow faces, were finding courage and trying tactics. One fellow was earnestly persuading another—a smaller boy, a brother, maybe. After a while, the little boy drifted over and approached a girl. Among the others, a space of quiet opened for him as he went to his target and whispered into her ear. Not a word; just a proud toss of head, a look of disdain. That was all her reply. The little fellow, though, skipped back across the road as if happily rewarded.
None of these boys—Seyeh’s future workers—would bother her, the overseer’s daughter, she convinced herself. So from a face of placid nonchalance, Uxann watched the boldness build. Keeping her largeness unobtrusive, she could feel excitement passing around like a mist, could almost absorb the intrigue through her skin. By now, in the deep dark under the roadside trees 15 feet off, a body—or bodies—might disappear. On both sides the groups must’ve known this, for now the messaging back and forth became more personal. In the group Uxann made a foursome, a tall bony boy, softly in honey tones, was asking Eralee to walk privately with him: down by the river, through the woods after school. With lower-eyed looks and simpering smiles, she promised only maybes.
Eventually, as the numbers dwindled, the questing died and Uxann reluctantly said her good-byes. She slunk away, quick into the gloom, awkward with the fact no boy had looked her way. Just at vision’s limit, near the turn into her front gate, a pleading grunt and a snicker, then a bulkiness in the semi-dark detached abruptly: a couple parting to opposite paths. Uxann stopped and kept her distance until they were well gone. They brought to mind that she had not seen Keah leave, or with whom, so glazed-eyed she had been at hiding her self.
Leaving the scene, having been some part of it, she was almost relieved. She was like others, headed home, some disappointed, others wistful, a few with priceless rewards. For it was whispered that, out of others’ minding, some rendezvous were made and met. Although she’d never speak on it, one Uxann knew of from the horse’s mouth. As best friends, Keah had sometimes confided.
A mighty snoring met her as she returned through the kitchen door, which wasn’t the reason her feet turned to his room. She opened the door slowly to see him—on his back, slack-jawed, sleep roaring furious from the gape of his mouth.
Softly she prowled about the unfamiliar room, pulled here and there by envy and despair. Women had sat on that chair, pulled it to the little table, opened its drawer. Or handled his water jug, drunk from his glass. All intimacies she, Uxann, his flesh and blood, had been denied. All insults that’d lessened her. She looked back at him in the dimness, there a snore, and a tumult seized her: a yen to cause him discomfort, to make him wake up morning come unslept and sore, in some way make him share her distress.
Skidding her eyes from the ugly humor, she glimpsed a barely remembered trunk in the far corner from the bed. Bold in the rush, she swung open the lid and poked through, turning about the musty-smelling stuff in it—rough cloth, stacked papers, folders, and, near the bottom, some fabric that was smooth and soft. She pulled it out: a dress, red even in the vague light. It was satin or silk. Measured against her body, it was far too small. She held it to her face, liking the slippery, flimsy cool. There was a scent to it, too, a persistent hint of fragrance beyond the fusty trunk smell. She breathed in deeply through nose and mouth, trying to filter more of the aroma into her, to capture it. And suddenly a memory rushed forward: Outside was pelting rain and thunder and lightning and screams telling trouble and torment. Inside the house—their first one, the two-room, dirt-floor, mud-walled, regular village house—inside was only ugly tension. At the window, toddler-she had flapped the corner of a dingy curtain, and was peeping at the woman outside. A woman naked in the rain. A woman weeping and pleading, long wet hair snarled black about her face and shoulders, trying to cover her fancy with her hands. It was her mother—her naked mother shamed and cowering in the pelting rain. Her mother’s eyes begging the house. Shaking her head like she bazodie. Her mouth sagged and drooling, bawling like a cow. And at the door of the house was Paps, cutlass in hand, barring the way, closing off shelter, with his face hard, his eyes shining like the clean edge of the threatening steel he stood firm-planted with.
Clear through the memory, Uxann felt his harsh determination. Never would he forgive the woman, her mother. Never he’d let her back in.
Her own shudder and the wet of her tears on the slippery cloth brought her back. Quieting her sniffles, she refolded and replaced the dress in the trunk. Where was her mother now? This dress was probably all Uxann had of her. And he had it closed away in his smelly trunk. Bitterness crept her over to look close at Seyeh, now scrunched up like a sick puppy at a nipple: Mr. Hard Bad Man who put out her mother.
She sat on the edge of the bed and, with reckless spite, smacked the back of his head. He grunted briefly, but hadn’t felt it good enough. She smacked his head even harder. He grunted, rolled over, and curled up on the other side. As she was about to smack him again, something spotted black sticking out from under the pillow narrowed her eye. She drew it out and held it closer: It was Keah’s other blue polka-dot ribbon.
New rage flared. So the beast in heat had her stuff everywhere, like she was living in the house! Uxann flung the ribbon away and scrubbed her hand against her nightdress. Maybe while she was in school, both of them were here doing it every day. Suddenly suspicious, she went and pulled open the table drawer. The bottle of rum there was more than half empty. And it all added up. What she had noticed of Keah’s breath lately was a rum breath. Seyeh was turning her into a drinker, although she didn’t carry the same scent as he; hers was sweeter, more like old molasses. Curious, Uxann uncorked the bottle, whiffed, then took a swig. It was raw in her mouth, and when she swallowed it away it burned even more. It tasted terrible, wasn’t pleasant at all. She took another tentative sip, a sealer that she’d never crave rum, then corked the bottle and replaced it. So this was what his life was, eh? she mused, studying him lying there wheezing like a old billygoat. After preaching how she too hot, here he was making Keah into a rummy like him, so he could bull her. He was another dribbling dog, tongue hanging out, just like all those boys in school who trailed after Keah, always trying for a chance to rub up against her skinny body and do it.
She climbed up on the bed in a fury, grabbed hold of his arm and pinched, hard. Paps groaned and weakly pulled away. She pinched again, nearer the shoulder, her fingers slipping off the drum-tight skin. It got through some, though, for he brushed his hand at her, and gathered and shifted himself onto his back, the slack jaw lending him a foolish, surprised look. She wished in spite that his workers should see him so. Same time a dizziness took her. Same time it occurred to her that he was so drunk to the world, she could do anything to him. Partly to steady herself, partly so she could look down on his stupid face, Uxann straddled Seyeh’s belly. Then she slapped his face. He groaned and tossed his head to the other side, and brought his arm up to ward away attack. “Not now, Keah,” he mumbled. “Ah tired, doux-doux. Not now.”
A pang of jealousy, of anguish overwhelmed her. Drunk or sober, sleep or wake, all he could think about was doing it with Keah—skinny, pretty Keah! Blood and madness rushed to her head, swirling purple, raw, mighty. Passion, ugly and vengeful, caught her up, wrenching anxiety from her, twisting tears out as once again she swooned. “Paps … Keah? …” she whimpered, stretching herself full over Seyeh, hugging on him, holding tight for longing.
In the middle of the night she woke up startled, reaching about, feeling the wrongness of the bed. She touched him aside her, and it all rushed back. Bringing Paps to bed. Prowling the room. The dress. The rum. Her rage. Shamefaced, she recalled slapping him about. Then after that was swoon. Her mouth sour and dry as ashes, trembling at how terrible she had been, she slid off the bed, pulling down her nightshift, which had worked up to her navel. There was a slickness high between her legs. Investigating, her hand touched wet at her fancy. She wiped at it with her shift, and turned to flee the room, nearly stumbling over the coverlet on the floor. As she threw the cover over Paps, sleeping curled up as if cold, she cringed at the sight of his thing hanging limp out of his shorts. Then shyly, walking a heel-to-toe roll not to creak the floor boards, she escaped his room, closed the door, and sneaked back to her own.