From Soucouyant, published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2007. Soucouyant was long-listed for the Giller prize and short-listed for the Governor General’s Award. David Chariandy lives in Vancouver.
They met in a city that doesn’t exist anymore. A city that perhaps never really existed, though you’ll sometimes hear people talking about it. A city where people cared for each other and children were allowed to play outside unattended. A city before the new dark-skinned troubles and the new dark-skinned excitements. A city where rice and pasta were still considered “ethnic foods,” and one of the few places where a newcomer might have a chance of getting her hands on breadfruit or fresh coconut or the sunny heft of a mango was at the Kensington Market.
It was early one morning at the height of summer. Adele was walking through the congested lanes of the market, and she had passed vendors calling out to her from behind arrangements of plantain or dried shrimp or okra. She had glimpsed under a rude canvas tent three live chickens and a goat, their freshness unchallengeable. She felt alive in this place, attuned at once to dozens of different voices and smells, but she didn’t notice him at first, the dark young man in short pants, on a bicycle and carrying a massive satchel of flyers and newspapers across his back. He peddled recklessly near, a blur of khaki and pumping knees, a waft of something discomfortingly familiar. She wheeled to look back at the young man cycling away down the congested street, his satchel swaying with each near avoidance of crates and small children, his calf muscles black-brown and pulsing with liquid energy.
“Coolie fool!” she shouted. “You almost run me down!”
He stopped and turned around. They didn’t know each other, but there was history between them all the same. There were mildewed explanations for why they shouldn’t ever get along. An African and South Asian, both born in the Caribbean and the descendants of slaves and indentured workers, they had each been raised to believe that only the other had ruined the great fortune that they should have enjoyed in the New World. They had been raised to detect, from a nervous distance, the smell that accompanied the other. Something oily that saturated their skins, something sweet-rotten and dreaded that arose from past labours and traumas and couldn’t ever seem to be washed away.
“Sorry, sister,” answered the man on the bike.
“Who the hell you calling sister!?”
Adele watches now as the young man begins his dismount by swinging a leg over the seat of his still moving bicycle. He sails on one foot for a couple dozen feet before stepping off, parking, and walking to a stall in one fluid gesture. She watches him tug a paper from his satchel without looking and pass it to a vendor with an enormous brown moustache. The vendor immediately rolls the paper into a tight stick and uses it to conduct his banter. How long has it been, the vendor asks, gesturing about. What kind of trash is this and why isn’t it ever on time? If it’s trash, it should at least be on time. He says the word “trash” in a pleased way, as if he has just learned the word, and the young man smiles as if the whole encounter is perfectly ordinary. He moves to another stall and then another, handing out more papers, and she sees, now, that they are in many different languages. One vendor, an old Asian woman, unsmilingly receives a paper in what looks to be Chinese characters and then carefully counts out four Scotch bonnet peppers into the man’s hand, which he slips into his pocket.
Scotch bonnet peppers! How on earth, she thinks, burning with jealousy.
The man notices that she’s still looking at him. He seems to think that she’s admiring him. He seems, quite foolishly, to think that this could ever be the case. He finishes handing papers to vendors on this block, and steps back onto his bike, balancing smartly on two wheels as he swings his leg over. He does a tight circle in the congested street, narrowly missing a box of okras before heading back her way. A world of news in his satchel, the burnt chocolate darkness of his shins. It’s been so long since she’s seen anyone with such skin. Like wet earth. Like molasses.
About twenty yards in front of her and nearing fast, he lifts his finger to be sure of her attention. He lifts his hand off the handlebars and stands up on the pedals. His hands stretch outward for balance, waver for a couple of moments, then become perfectly still. He glides like this for seconds down the congested street, his eyes long-focused in concentration, past a dozen transactions in almost as many languages and dialects. A tightrope act in the bustle around him.
This seduction might not have worked at all, but fate intervenes. A self-liberated chicken darts unexpectedly in front of him. There’s a tussle of feathers and a fall as spectacular as any Charlie Chaplin could ever attempt. The man bounces up to reassure everyone on the street.
“Is only a pothole,” he says. “Is nothing. I alright.”
There is no pothole. Nobody on the street seems to notice or care. There’s a chicken feather plastered upon his wet forehead. She falls in love precisely then.
She likes his skin drawn tight over his cheekbones and the slim bones of his wrists. She likes his chest so completely hairless even though he’s embarrassed about this. She likes the musky perfume that his hair seems to exude. Is that you, she asks. No, is only hair oil, he explains. Dax.
“Say something to me in your own language?” she asks.
“You mean English?”
“No. Say something in your mother’s language.”
“What you mean, girl? She only speaking English too.”
He came to this city from Trinidad, and he is one of the first to take advantage of the new Immigration Act allowing coloured people into the country in greater numbers. He arrived hoping to find some job in carpentry or construction, and he has a lot of experience, but businesses and unions are both suspicious about his skills. He doesn’t care, though. He has his job distributing newspapers, and he is still intoxicated with possibility. He throws himself into the lights and vast energies of the city. He spends foolishly at restaurants, and he acts recklessly and with little foresight. He drinks the finger-bowl of lemon water at the Swiss Chalet. He treats horseradish like mashed potatoes during his first roast-beef dinner, bringing a first and massive forkful of the condiment to his mouth and shrugging off the waiter’s warning about the heat. Like white people could tell him something about heat . . .
“I can’t breathe,” he manages to whisper to Adele after ten seconds of silence.
“Please,” she whispers. “Set you face properly and put you hands away from you nose. You embarrassing me . . .”
“I serious,” he whispers, still standing. “I can’t breathe. Girl . . . I going to die . . .”
He buys himself a white rhinestone-embroidered cowboy suit and drags Adele to country music taverns and bars, places she wouldn’t before have dreamt of entering. He doesn’t seem to notice the people either staring icily or laughing. He waves back smiling, oblivious. He’s so innocent, she thinks, an involuntary smile on her face. He’s such a glorious fool.
In one wedding picture, he’s sitting at a table in the basement of the church with the Czarna Madonna. He’s beaming at the camera and cradling a bottle of horseradish like a newborn. She looks embarrassed, or like she’s got indigestion, or like she’s trying to stifle a laugh.
“Roger,” she says aloud to herself. “He name is Roger.”
They are here now, and they have almost no interest in their respective pasts. Without actually discussing the matter, they agree never to wax nostalgically. But they do see old films together. While growing up in the Caribbean, each received their first tastes of escape through these films. Each studied flickering images for phrases, gestures, and postures of possibility. Bogart’s smoky manhood. Dietrich’s cold beauty. People who went overseas to strange lands and lived adventures during world crises, beautiful people who deserved our admiration and sympathy. Now, in a North America they had each inhabited long before arriving, they watch Casablanca and Morocco in a new light. In an old rep theatre, amidst the rows of empty seats, silent and this time unmoved, they watch something of themselves too. Their own desires, now spectral and grainy on the screen. Distant fictions.