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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Popisho

A Novel

Leone Ross

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1


On the first anniversary of his wife’s death, Xavier Redchoose got up before light and went downstairs to salt the cod. He sat in his kitchen, green notebook in hand, rubbing his left thumb along the stained pages, waiting for delivery. Through the restaurant window, he could see the golden stalk of a fading moon. Around him, the Torn Poem was silent, except for the morning wind, making the front doors shiver.

It was going to be a trying day, of that he was sure.

The local fisherman arrived promptly, his adolescent son trailing behind him, father genuflecting, son’s eyes downcast and fixed on the backs of their silver-blue catch. It was this same boy who had found Xavier’s wife floating in the sea, limbs tentacled, and carried her corpse onto the beach. He said Nya’s dead voice sounded like rotting pineapple: sweet and grating as she tapped his chest.

You can put me down now, boy. It gone bad, already.

The fisherman’s son watched her walk down the sand until he couldn’t see her anymore.

Why you never hold her there? snapped Xavier. Call for me? Something.

I never know how, the boy whined.

Take me two day to get him up here to tell you, macaenus! the father said. Damn fool go hide in a bush!

When people died alone, without proper burial rites, the carcass wandered for years, rudderless, rotting and shrinking. They had all seen these ghosts, rebuilding their bodies with bits of rubbish, hanging on, half-maddened. People who died alone: heart attack, stroke, old age, sleep-and-dream-and-dead. Fall and lick your head on a rock. Poverty. Murder. Suicide. Drowning. People whispered behind their hands. All of them dead of the same thing, you know. Loneliness.

It hurt Xavier, to think of his fierce wife, so.

* * *

Xavier paid for the fish – two thick bellies and a sack of velvety cod livers – and watched the youth’s trembling mouth as he hoisted it onto the kitchen table. He didn’t forgive the boy. How hard was it to restrain a dead woman, when so much was at stake?

‘Blessings, macaenus,’ said the fisherman. He patted the cod. ‘Walk good today, you hear?’

Xavier nodded.

He leaned against the kitchen door, listening to them make their way back through his cliff-top garden, imagining every plant they passed: his pearly bougainvillea; the night-blooming cereus clambering up the mango tree; his pawpaws and twin almond trees; his hot pepper, pumpkins and white roses. He liked flowering plants between the herbs; they attracted the right kind of insect. Down the sheer steps they went, calling softly to each other: mind how you go. He liked the fisherman’s voice. It reminded him of being young. Before you got so very speaky-spokey, macaenus, his brother Io liked to say, grinning all over his face. Xavier sucked his teeth. He wasn’t too fancy, whatever his elder brother said. He still knew how to curse a man in the language of their ancestors.

He rubbed his palm-heel across his jaw. His beard needed trimming.

Chse, Io’s seven-year-old daughter, would be in here soon, demanding breakfast from him. She was an early riser, too. In the months just after Nya died, Chse was the only person who dared come to his room without invitation, jumping into his hammock and swinging her legs. She told him he looked far too tall, and why didn’t he do something about it, and when the room smelled – ooh, so bad! – she’d stretched her arm to open the window and turned his face towards the sunshine.

You going out today, Uncle?

Not today, Chse.

She pulled his nose until he gave in and tossed her, giggling, into the air.

Don’t drop me, Uncle Speaky-Spokey!

* * *

Xavier took a deep breath and stepped out into his yard. The dark garden poured out in front of him, and beyond that, the islands of Popisho. The Torn Poem was perfectly located on Battisient: right inside the capital Pretty Town but still private, on the cliff above the harbour. Up here, he could see his diners snaking across the sand towards him, then away afterwards, a silvery line of nourished people stretching back to the sea, like foam.

After he fed them, some swam, some danced.

An orange sliver climbed the horizon, no more than the peeping eye of an egg. He closed his eyes and began turning a single, slow circle, back straight, arms out and palms up. Beaches east and west, at the end of his fingertips; the old-gold bay and its harnessed fishing boats splintered across the soft water; the tall, thin schoolhouse; Bend Down Market; the solemn chiming Temple – why, his finger might just touch it; one of the toy factories, painted ugly green, like something you found up your nose after a bad cold; squat, creamy cottages spiralling into the hills, lit by front-yard cook-fires at night. Sometimes he visited the owners and offered them fire-dye in particular colours, so that his diners could admire the light. Yes, macaenus, they said, smiling at his quiet face. Of course, for you, and the gods that chose you.

He stopped circling and opened his eyes. Battisient’s sister island, Dukuyaie, glimmered in the distance, its thick hide grainy in the dawn. You could see the Dead Islands if you looked north and squinted: like a spray of wet, blue pebbles. It had been so long since he’d walked them.

The world was stirring awake again, and he had a list of things to do today in his green notebook.

1. Fish delivery

2. Fuckery

* * *

They didn’t have Nya’s body to bathe or bind, so he had prepared a ceremony by the ocean. He stood, linking arms with his mother-in-law, their family and friends crowded around them, silent obeah women in golden robes scattering herbs and making rum libation in the water. Tragic, people muttered, too loud for his liking. She was never a strong swimmer.

She going come to you Xav, Mamma Suth said, standing composed in his day room, patting his shoulder. You know they haunt the one they love the most. He kissed her forehead. Her eyes were dry. She’d screamed when she heard her one-child was dead, and pitched herself backward, only caught by her husband, who wrapped his arms around her waist, clutched her belly and shook it fiercely.

She will want her mother, Xavier murmured. But they both knew she was right. Nya would come back to him, looking freedom. And the only way to free a ghost was to … dispense with whatever was left.

He was ready to do what was necessary. What the fisherman’s son couldn’t do.

After the funeral he’d changed into work clothes and begun preparations for evening service. He hadn’t neglected a single one. Even in those early months when he slept whole days, his back to Nya’s empty hammock, he had still gotten up and staggered into the kitchen when the sun went down, eyes slitted, hoisting slabs of goat and coney on his shoulder, eating crusts and vegetable ends, needing to break bone and use his knives.

His sous-chef Moue came into the kitchen in her funeral whites to ask what he was doing.

Xavier paused over the sputtering pans, noticing absently that his hands were shaking.

It wouldn’t surprise Nya, he said.

No, macaenus. Moue didn’t blink. But I not talking surprise. I talking decency. She was a reticent woman, but she’d been very fond of his wife.

Xavier sucked his teeth and turned back to his stove. Moue sucked hers right back and turned on her heel. He’d tried out eleven cooks before he found her, with her sensitive nose and her crochet-bump hair – such a little-girl hairstyle! The way she skimmed the stockpot was like conducting a choir. But she didn’t come back that evening, and he was left with the pot-washer and one of the waitresses, roped in to brush mushrooms and slide the cakes out, to follow behind him wiping plates and moving wrong. The waitress burnt herself twice and actually complained about it. Did she not know that chefs’ backs were worn and flayed things? His hands were criss-crossed with scars from twisting sinew and boiling syrup and someone in the kitchen walking into him with scalding gravy; scars from pig bristles and fish scales; from being tired; from picking up a hot pan, roaring: What, nobody never hear me when I said dust down the handles with flour so everybody can see they hot, raaaaaaaaaass!

The memory of Moue’s disapproval still irritated him. He expected his second to understand her duty. He had a scant twenty years to cook a meal for every single adult man and woman on Popisho. To delight a whole nation with his food. It was an entire life’s work, training for it, then doing it. Finding his own replacement, his acolyte, and training them to begin again. Failure was inconceivable. Only one macaenus before him had ever failed and that was because he’d died.

Nya’s death reminded him that nothing was promised.

* * *

As the weeks passed, he became consumed with the idea that he’d be out when Nya returned. At market when she came looking for him in the shelter of their bedroom; in Temple with Chse while Nya waited in the garden. Out, out, out, while she rotted and searched for him. Asleep when she arrived; that seemed the cruellest possibility of all.

Did ghosts cry? No matter. He had to stay inside and wait.

Flex his hands and shoulders.

Do it quick, I beg you, Mamma Suth had said.

Months then, not a toe outside the Torn Poem, not even to soothe the garden. Sitting in his bedroom all day or circling through the building late at night, he’d felt his own potential madness. He found old notes she’d left for him before she died, slipped down the back of the stove, unread and oily, or caught under a plant: meet me here, Xav, and why don’t we go…? and he stood holding them, whispering: wife, wife. The word turned into a crimson shadow and blew through a crack in the wall, down the sea-cliff and into a neighbour’s house, where it made the children gag and paw at their mouths.

But in all of a year, Nya never find her way back home.

* * *

Io arrived at the front door two weeks after the funeral, all his corroches stuffed into three battered valises and a yellow chicken under each arm. He had his own calamities: an accident on a building site the year before had left him twisted and limping; the convalescence ruined his marriage.

Xavier grunted, let him in and went back to his room to wait for Nya.

Io declared himself Grand Concierge, in charge of all comings and goings at the Torn Poem, and promptly began a lunch-hour catering business. Simple chicken dumplings and coconut water. He nailed a sign at the bottom of the cliff.

You only get macaenus food

once a lifetime

But you can buy dumpling here every day!

The venture was an immediate success: three days of neat, warm packages passed briskly through the kitchen window; scrupulous cleanliness; extra work for the Torn Poem staff; union wages; everything cleaned up tight, so the macaenus didn’t have to stress when he came downstairs.

Every day!

Xavier didn’t notice the brazen campaign until Moue pointed out the large and outraged group of citizens arriving with a petition for the removal of the sign. Irritably, he sent a message for them not to be so sensitive and watched the crowd dispersing from his bedroom window, all lip-biting and head-hanging. He understood their loyalty to him; he also understood Io’s sense of humour – his brother was a true egalitarian. Xavier suspected Io didn’t believe in any god, much less the idea his baby brother had been chosen by them. What Io knew how to do was work hard and go on long, halting walks.

Want to walk, Xav?

No, he wasn’t ready.

Macaenus better wear red drawers. He’d overheard the waitresses. ’Case she come back for him dicky.

After service, when the night was deep and their backs were raw and Chse put to bed, the brothers sat together on the veranda and Io knew when to be quiet and when to talk, swapping low, funny, outrageous stories of the day, each absentmindedly trying to outdo the other. If you passed by, you’d have heard nothing more than grunts and half-sentences, in that way of people who have known each other for years.

Except recently, Xavier saw the restlessness in his brother’s eyes.

* * *

Everything but Nya had arrived that year: fresh milk from the goat-man; pomegranate season; a woman trying to sell him hand-carved buttons for his robes; another with one breast bigger than the other who wept at the door to think of him widowed, Moue shooing her with a dish-rag; Chse’s constant band of playmates; and the Governor’s letter, nearly three months ago, printed on thick, expensive, imported paper.

It was that letter started off the particular fuckery scribbled down in Xavier’s green notebook. Sent from the home of Governor Bertrand Intiasar and His Wife, the letter informed Xavier Laurence Redchoose – four hundred and thirteenth macaenus – of the recent and glorious engagement of their one-daughter, Sonteine Melody Ignoble Intiasar, to Dandu Abraham Brenteninton.

It also said the Governor would be delighted to welcome the macaenus into their home to cook a traditional wedding-night meal for the newlyweds.

Xavier snorted and ripped the thing in half. Wedding-night feasts were a common thing, said to confer good fortune and sweet life on happy couples, along with various other long and complicated steps and blessings. But Bertie Intiasar knew better than to ask him to do it. Send a letter indeed!

He hated letters.

* * *

His first meeting with the Governor had been in this same kitchen, ten years ago, Ascension Day, the day he took up his title, the garden stuffed with people for the ceremony. He and Nya had been in residence for less than a week; the restaurant didn’t even have a name yet.

Xavier hovered in the kitchen, waiting for an obeah woman to come and present him formally to local dignitaries, and make him do something – wave? – at the crowds packing the beach below. He had been expecting the Governor of course, as guest of honour, but he didn’t like the way the man bounced in. Intiasar was surprisingly sweet-faced; everybody knew he’d spent time in foreign, off-island; it charmed far too many.

Don’t bleed me dry and don’t cause no scandal, that was the first thing Intiasar said, leaning against the good-good stove and eyeing the garlic bulbs. Not even a good afternoon, to rass. And when time come to cheat on that pretty wife, keep it quiet. The men will appreciate it, but the women won’t.

Xavier regarded him patiently. Things had become slack with macaenus in recent years. Bad reputations. Too many parties for attention and clout. It wasted time, lacked dignity and made poor people nervous to come and eat, ’sake they never have the right party frock. His place was going to be different, but only a fool told a powerful fool he was a fool.

I only have one thing I want, Xavier said.

And what is that?

A randomised guest list. No one skips my line. No special treatment.

The Governor looked amused.

Aren’t you a self-righteous creature.

Not even you.

Intiasar put a hand on his own cheek, a curiously feminine gesture. You mean I going have to wait my turn to eat from your hand? My beating heart.

He knew the Governor would need dishes bursting with vegetables when his time came, and moisture: gravy, goat’s milk, syrup, ice water, sap, marrow, rum.

Alright. I have to respect any man who fucked Des’ree De Bernard-Mas and lived.

His master-teacher. First woman macaenus. Sitting outside with the other guests of honour, her nipples visible through her soft green robe. Incorrigible woman. Nya had looked sour, ushered in next to Des’ree. They had met before. He had hoped it was nothing more than the sunshine slamming into her face.

Des’ree would have told him to punch this fool, quick o’clock.

And ascend, boy. Hurry up.

She wouldn’t have liked sitting next to Nya, either.

* * *

Three days after he threw away the Governor’s letter, Xavier was making bread in the kitchen when Salmonie Adolphus Barnes burst in, Io one rickety step behind him. Salmonie was a well-preserved man in his late seventies, with a huge red nose like a half-capsicum. He identified himself as Governor Intiasar’s houseboy and began to read from a series of papers in a loud and self-important voice.

Xavier attended to his bread. He needed to add pimento berries and goat’s cheese at the right time and in the right amount, which was an act of love, and therefore concentration.

What a blessed duty, bleated Salmonie. To speak of the most romantic meal in the world! Seven dishes, as predicted auspicious for the couple. I am sure we could find Temple tales foretelling this special meal, macaenus!

Xavier ignored him.

Naturally, explained Salmonie, the macaenus would be paid well, much in excess of his annual stipend. Someone going come and take your measurements, sah, so luxurious robes can be made for the occasion.

Not for this macaenus, said Xavier. His temper was gathering at the edge of his left eye.

Salmonie jumped as Moue swept past him with a sizzling pan of pink and purple octopus. Xavier nodded at three tentacles.

Five seconds more on two, and seven on the other.

Moue whisked the pan away.

The capsicum nose twitched. Salmonie looked beseechingly at Io, who was sitting in the corner on top of a very large upturned cook-pot.

Io gazed back. Vivid blue butterflies rustled in the milkweed bush outside the open window.

Salmonie began reading again. The Governor was enchanted that the holy macaenus had agreed to do a traditional walkround on the day before the wedding! Give the ordinary people a chance to choose the wedding-night feast ingredients.

What? roared Xavier. What you said about ingredients?

Io shook his head.

Salmonie spluttered. You know what a walkround is, macaenus! You journey through Popisho and buy food and recipes from the masses and from that you make a menu—

I know walkround!

Then you should be pleased the Governor choose to honour the tradition! Salmonie reached through the window and tried to catch an aqua butterfly. He missed, sucked his teeth and chuckled nervously. Governor Intiasar has decided the food for his daughter must come from the land and the people. He not interested in any elitist meal. He looked pleased with himself for saying so.

Get out of my place, said Xavier.

Your … The old man’s chin wobbled. What-what?

Xavier tasted the cheese carefully, scattered a handful onto his dough and added hot pepper from his left palm.

Get out of my place before I kill you dead until you die.

Your – your – this place was purchased for you by the government of the islands of Popisho. By the people who pay taxes!

Tell him no-one-skips-my-line.

You – but – I—

Get out!

The man scuttled away, glancing at the sharp knives hanging on the blue kitchen wall, forgetting his papers on the table.

Xavier passed his hands over the bread. Moue broke chicken joints, crack-crack, and plunged pieces into three different marinades. Io unfolded himself and picked up Salmonie’s notes.

Xavier tasted again.

Fool, he said conversationally.

Crick-crack.

Io tapped the papers.

He right, you know.

Crack.

It used to be part of a macaenus duty to walkround for all kind of rich wedding and celebration. The people’s contribution increase the chance of the young wife breeding. Io laughed. Ah, the fecundity of peasants! You been getting off light, Xavier Redchoose.

Xavier didn’t like people telling him things he already knew. Des’ree had dishonoured the walkround enough for one generation.

I told him ten years ago I wasn’t working for no rich people, he snapped. Why he bothering me now?

Nothing more than election he trying to win.

Crack.

Xavier oiled the dough and placed it on a baking tray. The smell of the bread would greet diners at the door and make them think of their mothers and aunties. Old tricks. Food, it was nostalgia.

Hm, said Io. I wonder why he trying so hard.

Moue grunted. Somebody coming for him. Twenty-odd years far too long for any man to be in power, but people don’t like try nothing new and clean.

That would be one hell of a change. Io squinted. You going do this foolishness, Xav?

Xavier sagged. Intiasar hadn’t put his mouth in macaenus duty once, not for all this time; many would say he’d gotten off lucky. A rebellion would look petty. People wanted the most romantic meal in the world.

Since you taking his money an’ thing, said Io.

He’d turned to retort, but his brother was gone, and all he could hear was chuckling down the hall.

* * *

So the next morning, when Moue ran out of tomatoes, Xavier had surprised them both by putting his knife down and stepping outside for the first time in seven months. Shuffling towards the tomato vines, skin throbbing in the sun, marvelling at what seemed like the garden’s new-green loveliness, he’d felt breathless and overwhelmed, as if peeled. He stroked a sandy almond tree. He’d seen Moue drying the leftover almond kernels, feeding them to the chickens and the staring school children loitering on the beach. Applying aloe to Chse’s fingernails, to stop her biting them.

Moue was one of many who stood for him while he broke.

When he got back, she snatched the warm fruit from his hands, her eyes wet.

About time, she said. Don’t stop now. Go down to the damn beach.

He felt as if his ankles were tied together, heart shrieking, perspiring ferociously, clambering towards the pink sand. He managed twenty minutes, the heat too bright on the back of his hands, astonished to be trailing through a gossamer sea he’d almost forgotten, when a man passed by, lugging a bundle of brilliant tie-dyed cloth. The colour so reminded Xavier of Nya’s favourite robe, he had to sit down in the shallows and pant.

* * *

He forced himself out every day now; had done, for nearly a fortnight. Men whispered, excited at his return. Women flirted shamelessly; he didn’t see them. The walks were longer each time, wading to his thighs in the sea, gulping the air and contemplating the old harbour where the local canoes had once delivered Leo Brenteninton’s toys. He remembered running down there as a young boy, pushing like the others to catch a glimpse of the unloading, scooting back to his parents to beg a few coins. The government put a stop to all that. These days, it was a vast operation: hundreds, even thousands of toys, the gossips said, straight from the factories, over to a big warehouse on the Dead Islands and the foreign ships swooped in three times a year to empty it. Some people didn’t remember it being any other way.

Had Intiasar never run to the shore and towards the boats, when he was small?

You going be alright, Io murmured each time Xavier staggered back to the Torn Poem, swallowing mouthfuls of thick, panicked spittle, rearranging his sweaty clothing.

Xavier attempted a laugh; coughed instead.

Absolutely, said Io firmly. You soon see. And when you go walkround next week, I come with you.

And still, Nya had not arrived.

Wah, the gossips said. Macaenus come back to us, but he wife still heavy ’pon him.

* * *

Dawn was due.

Xavier walked out of the garden and back towards the restaurant in the new light. The cod was calling: salt grains gathered in the lines of his palms. A thin stream of music echoed out towards the water. Three radio stations were playing the national anthem, seconds behind each other.

He only listened to the radio when he had to, but it was hard to avoid. There was one in every house and on every street corner, blaring noise and gossip; merry but dull interviews with local musicians; maddeningly obsequious chats with government officials, thanking the gods for this year’s crop and that year’s blessed Temple chorus. They used to try to get him on, these people, but his permanent answer was no; was he to be reduced to a recipe, asked what inspired him? How to answer these questions?

He knew he was being impatient: people did try to be honest and brave. They called up to complain about the way that things were all the time; old-timers rang to showcase their clever grandchildren. This child can talk, boy. Listen him! How many egg you give me for twenty word out of this child mouth? Fresh, mind you! Fresh! But discussions inevitably devolved. He could hear the exact moment an argument frayed, when it became about feelings, still pretending to be facts.

Argument was in his people’s blood, their history; they should do better than this.

Popisho

o islands we adore

every day and more

* * *

In the kitchen, he placed his hands on the fish. Salt thickened under his clean fingernails, sifting down his wrists and filtering out onto the fish belly. He closed his eyes. Too much: he must concentrate, to slow the flow. Take his time. He’d weight the flesh with a smooth, flat stone and leave it in the sun and wind behind the restaurant.

One whole cod side covered. Saltfish, like his ancestors made it, to preserve scarce protein sources. Salt grains falling from his hands, thick on the work surface, falling onto the floor, making it white, falling onto his bare feet. He flipped the fish.

Behind him, a crackling sound.

A tipping-tapping, creaking.

The hairs on his neck, prickling.

Xavier?

A wet sound, like something dragging its teats across the floor.

O, Xavier, come see me, nah.

He whipped around, fists salt-encrusted, crouched and panting. The fish slipped, hung, half on, half off the table. He gulped air; hiccuped violently.

The kitchen echoed back at him, empty.

Beneath his bare feet, he could feel the stones warming with the imminent heat of the day.

Xavier Redchoose sat down on his kitchen floor, closed his eyes and let his hands dangle.

He didn’t miss his wife at all. He thought of her, often. But it was hardly the same thing.

* * *

Everyone in Popisho was born with a little something-something, boy, a little something extra. The local name was cors. Magic, but more than magic. A gift, nah? Yes. From the gods: a thing so inexpressibly your own.

The Council of the Obeah Fatidique was made up only of women, who existed solely to curate magic. The gods made no mistakes, but they were notoriously mischievous, and their messages could be confusing. Obeah women were ancient, even when young, and they smelled conception, an instinct passed on through centuries. Some women only realised they breeding when a local obeah woman hintfully invited herself for supper; this same golden-robed woman might have come to their family for generations, mother after mother; would have identified their own cors, when they were small.

No one watched a pregnancy like an obeah woman: counting new hairs on the back of the hand; walking curious fingers up the thigh to new port wine stains; commiseration with early leaking nipples; bringing perfumed fruit for that metallic taste in the mouth; reassurance when orgasms turned the belly a pointy shape; melasma on the cheekbones. And oh! when that baby push out and navel string was cut, the hunt was on for cors.

Some kinds of magic were immediately obvious – multiple limbs and prodigious strength, an extra row of teeth or the kind of height you could use for a ladder. Other babies arrived with subtler gifts, to be deciphered slowly: permanently pleasant breath, hair like thick silk with never a tangle, the balance of a cat, or look, my child can turn coconut water into any other taste you want! Xavier’s old friend Entaly had musical earlobes and three buttock-cheeks. Moue got tipsy on butterflies one night and told Xavier her cors – a row of extra taste buds, and try as she might, she was immune to the nefarious effects of liquor. Xavier wondered which look-close obeah woman had found that on her.

Mental accoutrement was rarer, but it happened – the ability to tell the future; time-juggling triplets; toddlers moving objects with a careless thought or setting angry fires. All this mind-cors made good money, but parents had to use extra discipline in the rearing. One act of youthful rebellion could be unfortunate – a girl down Dukuyaie killed her mother with a spiteful thought after the mother banned her from dancing with her belly-skin out-of-doors. Thank the gods, her sister was standing right there with her cors to restart a heart like a putt-putt engine.

New mothers wept when the process was over and the cors named and the golden robe didn’t whisper through their rooms so regular. But Temple was open all day and all night, and the sound of obeah women singing was as perennial as birdsong.

* * *

It took the obeah women a long time to work out that Xavier could flavour food through the palms of his hands. At first he’d displayed no magic at all, despite everybody turning him over multiple times and peering into his orifices; much to his mother’s anxiety. His mother Treiya Redchoose was the pragmatic daughter of a clumsy fisherman and could calm storms at sea. No stranger to poverty, she wanted useful cors for her sons, more than most mothers.

Io’s gift wasn’t too shabby: he could change the colour of things with just a touch, and he was very strong indeed. By the time Xavier was born, his brother was already charging a few coins here and there, sprucing up the walls of people’s houses, refreshing the faded robes brought over by their mothers’ friends, and hoisting machinery, sugar barrels and shark carcasses. Their father, Pewter, was the proud owner of a long black-and-silver prehensile tail that fluffed up when he spotted injustice. He used it to build schools and temples and to climb scaffolding without a ladder.

When Xavier was nine, and still not showing a single sign of magic in any part of him, Pewter was underpaid by a crooked employer. Pewter whipped the man with his tail and then his fists until the fool bawled out. No matter the injustice, Pewter developed a bad reputation and work dried up. Treiya fretted about feeding her sons and let her husband know about it. Io missed school, changing the colour of putt-putts, old shoes and flower arrangements for anyone who could pay him. Treiya said her children needed education. No, said Pewter. They need to be men. Treiya sucked her teeth loudly and went to work long hours with the fishermen at the local beach. Pewter had no regular work, but he still expected supper.

I tired, said Treiya. Come here, Xav, let me show you.

So Xavier took over the family cooking. He surprised himself by easily mimicking Treiya’s movements over the fire, using the limited cupboard as she instructed, and enjoyed tending her modest but very well-kept garden. Pewter muttered about it being a woman’s work, but he sure did suck the bones in the fried chicken-back, make a pile of bone dust in the corner of the plate, and hug Xavier under his armpit. It was Pewter, belching contentedly, who first asked if anybody else notice that the fish have plenty flavour even when no hot pepper not in the house and wah, you don’t notice the honey jar never finish…?

He fell silent. The whole family sat up and stared. Xavier looked back solemnly. Io beamed and Treiya took a breath.

Go fetch that damn obeah woman, Treiya said to Io.

When she arrived, the obeah woman seized Xavier’s wrists.

You never notice?

What? said Xavier. The flavouring thing happened like any other bodily function. You didn’t report spitting or defecation to the obeah woman. It felt … private.

Oh my gods, said Treiya.

The obeah woman sorted through their pantry, taking out a pack of Treiya’s precious corn flour and sending an obliging Io to buy some very cold butter.

Quick-bread? asked Xavier.

The obeah woman smiled and nodded, cutting butter into lumps. She let Xavier rub it into the flour. Don’t add no salt, now. He had to think about that hard, to stop the cors. When the dough was done, the obeah woman rolled it out and cut five rounds. She greased a skillet, ignoring Treiya’s sighs at her temerity, just come take over people kitchen.

Alright, boy. Give me five different flavour.

Xavier hesitated then passed his left hand over the first quick-bread. Everybody squinted as the corners of his already brown hands became browner.

Cinnamon, Xavier said and chose another round. Cardamom, that big seed one. Um. He liked the sudden smiling in the obeah woman’s eyes.

The whole family gawped at him from the dining table.

Do crab, Xav, called Io.

Xavier snorted. I can’t do animals. What might an obeah woman like eating? Ginger, lime and sugar.

Well, kiss my neck, exclaimed Pewter.

Hot Jack pepper. He felt confident now. There was only one more piece of dough, so it needed to be good. Cocoa seed and mint leaves.

The obeah woman shook her head. Family sometimes spotted cors before the Obeah Fatidique; however it happened, it was wonderful to see magic reveal itself.

Look at the light in your face, she said.

Xavier said he could put garlic in a chicken’s bottom if she wanted him to, which was quite rude but also witty, because everybody knew that people who ate chicken bottoms talked too much. Io dissolved into laughter. The obeah woman cuffed Xavier playfully.

You going make an excellent husband for some lucky woman, she said. Cooking-cors rare as hell in a man.

Treiya snatched back her skillet and fried up the quick-bread. They ate the five rounds warm, murmuring at the clear, delicious flavours, but not before Io made each piece a different colour, so they’d remember which was which. Everyone seemed pleased, Pewter rubbing his son’s back and saying it was he seen it first you know, yes, baba! and his mother, her cheeks all swollen with pride.

Looking very thoughtful indeed.


Copyright © 2021 by Leone Ross