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Edition 59

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Fiction

Little grasshopper

CAROLINA

THEY USED HIS face on the Facebook profile. When he sent me a friend request, I accepted because he was young, like me, and very guapo. He was the bait.

Who thought things like this could happen? It took six months to win me over on FB. His friend request said he was a Trinidadian. I didn’t think to wonder how he’d found me. In his profile pic, he sat smiling into the camera, a dog at his knee. He was my age, sixteen. Every night, after Mami and Papi went to bed, we talked until late. He described Trinidad. So different to Caracas and our condo on the twelfth floor. All the talk in our house was about this new President Maduro. Riots, violence, lack of foreign exchange. Blah blah blah. No one was paying attention to my new online friend.

Daniel made Trinidad seem like paradise. Mountains like blue mist in the distance. When he said he was coming to Caracas to meet me, I lied to Mami that I’d be sleeping at Ana Maria’s house. I swore Ana Maria to secrecy.

The plaza was busy on a Friday night. He came towards me. He was wearing a blue shirt and jeans and was more guapo than his picture. There were little swoops in my stomach. He’d come all this way to see me. I can’t remember what happened after I first saw him. There he was in front of me, smiling. There were bright lights and people everywhere.

 

WHEN I BLINKED again, I was blindfolded in a boat. I was dreaming. I knew I was. I was dreaming the rush of sea below the boards that pressed into my back. But then I heard Daniel’s voice. He spoke in Spanish and I listened to him describe how he had drugged me. How he made it seem as if I’d fainted. He told everyone nearby that I was his sister and he would get me home. Malparido. Eres un idiota malparido. You shouldn’t live after what you have done. I wanted to say this to him but my tongue was like molasses in my mouth.

Slavery belonged in history books and didn’t happen to young girls who had a mother and a father and a nice home. My hands were tied, they chafed in the water that spilled from the bait well. In the days after, I’d bleed, the marks like stigmata. The clothes I’d chosen with such care were covered in vomit and sea water. When Daniel came towards me with water, I spat at him. But soon I was too sick even to spit. He wiped my face with a damp cloth and gave me water.

‘Pendejo,’ I whispered. ‘Charlero.’ Liar.

There were three other girls, the cocaine, a litter of Persian kittens and a stack of guns. They didn’t think I could see all of this because I
was blindfolded but the cloth slipped when Daniel wiped my face. I only started to cry when they threw the two smallest girls overboard. They’d stopped breathing. The girls were very young, maybe eight and ten. When they woke, they cried, the tired frightened wails of children.

‘Put them back to sleep,’ said one man.

‘No,’ answered another. ‘It’s too risky.’

I couldn’t see the men but I could hear them above the roar of the engines. Soon the wails died down and then there was no more breathing. Too much sedative. The man in charge was very angry and everyone became quiet while they shook the little bodies, each thud sounding like a fish hitting the side of the boat. While I floated above myself, I heard the little ones being dragged like heavy dolls.

‘Hijo de puta.’ It sounded as if the man was sad. ‘Hijo de puta.’

To stop myself from thinking of the girls, their hair spreading like oil on the surface of the water, I thought of kittens being taken away from their mother. They were only mewling little things. Then I counted my breaths. One in and one out. The other girl, Lourdes, was from Caracas as well. We clung together, breathing and not speaking of the little girls who had disappeared under the waves.

I was more alert when we landed in Trinidad. We’d come across the Gulf of Tears, I heard one man say. The Gulf of Whales, the Gulf of Paria. I imagined a body of water, rising on a moon tide of the tears of girls. Had so many of us wept an ocean? The old leper colony was abandoned. We slept on blankets in a vandalised convent overlooking the bay. And when we woke they brought food and drink for us. This was my first sight of Trinidad. Everything was ruined, but so beautiful. We followed Daniel to the other side of the island, hiking along old trails. He had strung a rope between us so that we could not escape. He kept me first in line, close to him even though I still spat at him. We passed through a cemetery with black crosses.

‘These are the French nuns who sacrificed their lives to save the lepers,’ he said in Spanish. ‘You must make the sign of the cross as we walk by or they will possess your souls.’

We were afraid of being possessed by the dead, as if it were worse than being possessed by the living. Vervain grew wild between the graves, little pockets of lavender. There was a vase of black roses on one of the graves and Lourdes and I cried when we saw them. It was like witnessing our own funerals.

‘Callate.’ Here was Daniel telling us to shut up like he was a big man. By now, we’d seen enough to know he was a small player. No more than bait. But I still hated him. I wondered how much he was paid to catch me. Behind us we could hear the kittens mewling in their basket and I hoped they would live.

We waited until night fell and the sea grew still and calm. I hadn’t seen stars in a very long time because I lived in the city. They were so bright, little pinpoints of light puncturing the black sky until you thought the whole thing would collapse and smother you. After a while, I couldn’t bear to look and hid my face in my arm.

A big boat pulled around to the back of the island and the men loaded us, passing us from hand to hand. When it was Daniel’s turn to lift me, I turned my head so I didn’t have to see his face.

They moved us to a camp in the hills above Port of Spain and let us keep one of the kittens. There, we met the woman who would care for us. Her name was Stella and she reminded me of my Abuela Marita. It was hard not to like her because she fought for us when the men worked us too hard.

Three months later, our kitten was growing strong. Lolita, we called her, passing her from hand to hand and feeding her from our plates. Stella told us Lolita would help us stop crying. One day, she arrived with two litters of kittens. Now each of us had one. She told us that they would help us remember how to love. When we were not working, we found an old cart behind the house and converted it into a small stroller. Then we took turns walking our ‘babies’. This made me feel a little less homesick.

There were twelve of us girls at the camp, plus Stella. Three of us were Venezuelan, four were from Colombia and the youngest five were from the Dominican Republic. One was so young, I wasn’t sure she’d seen her first blood yet. She still sucked her thumb when she slept. Whoever picked us had an eye. We were all pretty. All shades and colours. Black and white. Blonde and dark haired. All que beuna. It was not too bad really, except when they put us to lie down in the backseat of cars and transported us around the country. I did ballet for a long time at home so I was always the dancer but, of course, we had to do lots of other things as well.

Once a week a doctor came from Port of Spain and examined us. There were twelve beds with stirrups to place your feet. Not the kind of stirrups that you use when you ride horses. No, these were upside down stirrups so that the doctor could spread you wide and shine a torch into your darkness as if he was looking for your soul. The doctor made sure that we were healthy and that we all took our pill. All of us took a pill except for the one who still sucked her thumb, but she still had to lie in the stirrups as well. If I turned my head and squinted, the rows of knees spreading away from me blurred into the tops of hills making their way back to the Andes. I learned to relax and imagine that I was hopping from knee to knee all the way back to my home.

 

STELLA

I DIDN’T HIT the boy just so. It was a long time coming. Too many times coming into my kitchen with his swagger and puffed up little chest. I had to remind him more than once that his pee was not even frothing when it hit the ground. That he was still growing hair on his chest. But I was watching him grow. I watched Daniel for a well over a year. I knew his mother. Good country people. She tried hard to keep him on track, keep him out of trouble.

‘Why?’ I asked Chale one night. Chale and I had known each other since the early days. The days when we first started working for Rosa and the man in the Ortoire delta. Back then, in the ’80s, it was just coke. Maybe a few girls brought in for special parties now and then. But now? This was something different. First, they bought the dogs over on the boats. Those had sold as fast as they hit the ground. The girls had always come in one by one, but this was the biggest batch we’d ever had. And we couldn’t fill the demand.

‘It’s not right,’ I said to Chale. ‘These are little girls.’

He shrugged and I knew the instructions were coming from higher.

‘Girl, you think I have the stomach for this?’ He shook his head and pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes. When he pulled his hands away, his eyes were bloodshot and red. ‘This thing bigger than the both of us.’

But it was Daniel who bothered me. The girls I could help in some way. Not Daniel. He started hanging around after his father died. Daniel’s father was a good man. Frank. We all knew him well. He helped Chale grow the tomatoes to kick off the farm. Organic produce. It would become Chale’s most lucrative laundering operation. He never forgot Frank’s help. When Frank died, Chale heard Daniel was hanging around the small drug block in the village. Giving his mother hell was what we heard. That’s when Chale sent for Daniel.

‘You need to watch that boy,’ I told Chale. ‘Watch him close. With his looks and that brain, he’s going to want more.’

Chale shrugged. He had bigger things on his plate.

But I was watching Daniel. I was there the night they brought Lourdes and Carolina over from the mainland. Lourdes was pretty with her porcelain skin and beautiful breasts, but Caro was special. We’d never had a beauty like her. Sometimes it was hard to believe she was a child like the rest of them. When she walked past the men on the compound, I had to clap my hands to let them know I was watching.

‘That one,’ I told them. ‘That one is special. You touch any of them, I kill you. But this one, you touch her and we will skin you alive.’

Caro still threw herself on me like a toddler. She leaned on me while I cooked. When she hugged me before bed, she held on to me like a child, bringing her body close and throwing both arms around my neck. I couldn’t bear to think of the men who touched her. After she returned from each trip, I searched her face and body for signs of the men. Even when I helped her bathe and showed her how to raise her leg on the edge of the shower so that she could clean herself deep inside, even through all of that, she still smiled as if nothing of the scum of men could stick on her.

In the afternoons, when she found me in the kitchen and draped herself on me, I peeled her off.

‘You are a big girl. Stop that stupidness.’

But I loved it.

When she arrived, I watched Daniel with her. She spat at him whenever he approached her. But he worked her. He brought her little gifts from home. Once, a perfect avocado. Once, a baby squirrel. Was he sorry for what he’d done? I didn’t think so. But on the hot afternoons when I lay resting, preparing for the long evenings ahead, I sensed what was ahead.

He came into my kitchen that afternoon. Before I turned away from the stove, I could tell he knew that Chale was not there. Perhaps he’d turned seventeen that week. But when I turned to face him I could see the challenge in his face. He was a beautiful boy. Unusual eyes. Eyes the colour of gold, Chale said. He’d come in, pumped up. Playing man. Demanding his food. Shouting at me. I said to myself, Girl, if you don’t put this little boy in his place right now, you will never control him again.

‘Come, Daniel, come,’ I called, and he came. ‘You speak to your mother so?’

He paused for a second. ‘When I tell my mother jump, she asks how high on the way up.’

I knew his mother. I remembered how she’d laboured to have this last child. And then lost her husband.

I raised my hand, the pot spoon dripping with chicken-stew gravy, and hit him full across the face, splitting his lip. I was still bigger than him. For now, I could hold him on the ground if I had to.

‘Little boy,’ I said, ‘If you ever disrespect me again, I will cut your arse until it bleeds. And then I will kill you. Know your place.’

For a second, I thought I’d overstepped, thought I’d waited too late. Chale should have dealt with it years before. But he stood before me, his eyes filling, his face crumpling.

‘Sorry Aunty. I real sorry. Don’t tell Chale.’

It was only then that I saw Caro, standing in the shadow of the kitchen, watching.

The next week, I saw them walking together. Not far away from the house. In my mind, I measured the distance between the forest edge and the house. To the left of the house, there was an abandoned Volkswagen. The weather had beaten away everything but the rusted frame and the empty sockets of the front seats. Sometimes Daniel liked to sit there and smoke. Perhaps he liked to pretend he was driving away. I watched Caro go with him. She sat next to him while he smoked. I could see her pulling her hair away from her face, blowing the hot air away from around her head. She tied a cloth around her head like a scarf. He turned to her and smiled.

Later that night I asked her about Daniel. Had she forgiven him?

‘He is like us, Stella. He does what they tell him.’

‘You need to watch those two,’ I said to Chale. Did he listen?

 

ON THE NIGHTS that the girls rested, I told them stories. They brought pillows and blankets out onto the big veranda and the cats fanned out around them, feline eyes glowing in the dark. On the best nights, it rained heavily and we listened to it fall and cocoon us. When they were like this, I felt I could keep them safe.

I told them about soucouyants.

‘What?’ They shrieked as if they were more afraid of a woman who sheds her skin and turns into a ball of fire than they are of the men who run their lives.

‘Do you want to hear a story about a soucouyant called Ilyeana?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ they chorused, excited as preschoolers.

‘Well, this is the tale of Ilyeana, who was a young girl just like you, but she was different. She was a soucouyant.’

‘How do you become a soucouyant?’ Caro asked.

‘You must be born with the power to shed your skin. But some women learn other skills and that makes them just as powerful as soucouyants.’

Caro sat up and hugged her knees. Like Daniel, I could tell when she was thinking.

‘What, my love?’ I asked.

‘I wish with all my heart that I could shed my skin, turn into a ball of fire and drink the blood of the bad men before burning them away.’

‘But haven’t we already shed our skin by being here?’ said Mariana. She was the eldest. At twenty she carried herself with the weariness of a much older woman. ‘This is not our skin we live in. I left my skin in Colombia. We’ve all grown new skins, like snakes.’

‘Soon you will all learn how to live in your new skins,’ I told them. ‘But for now, listen to the tale of Ilyeana.’

When the young soucouyant first realised there was a baby growing in her, she held the thought in her head tightly, boxing it in the same way you might wrap a pastele: fold one side over and seal before folding the other side. It was important the secret stay within its boundaries.

The skin came down through the mothers. Even soucouyants thought dry wombs were responsible for the hunger for young blood, newborn blood, the soft veins of beautiful men. But Ilyeana was special. By thirteen she was shedding her skin, ravenous for both the men and blood. Even the skin had never seen anything like it.

She knew she was having a baby because she had friends who told her what happened when you were sixteen and stopped bleeding once a month. The pharmacist gave her the test and told her to pee on it with her morning stream. She woke in the night, worried, but she was sure that once she shed her skin, the little heartbeat would be burned up in her ball of fire. But when she tried to shed her skin that first night, she laboured on her bed until she passed a tiny clot. It was only then that she remembered the man and the raising of hips. When she finally shed her skin, it wrapped itself, still warm and damp, around the tiny pulsing sac.

‘Okay, my little soucouyants. That’s enough for tonight.’

‘No,’ they begged. ‘More, more.’

‘Next time,’ I said.

 

CAROLINA

DANIEL SAID WE were in the foothills of the Northern Range, an extension of the Andean ridge. Daniel worked for El Jefe Grande, Chale. Lots of important people came to see Chale. When this happened, we wore short skirts and served coffee and the cakes that Stella made for the visitors. Some of the girls said the men were from the government but I couldn’t believe that. When I asked one day: Do you think we could ask them to send a letter for us?, Mariana slapped me very hard. After I told Daniel she’d slapped me, she was the one sent to the big stag party down the islands. She came back seasick and stinking of sunblock and men. Chale’s other visitors were rich businessmen. Some liked girls, but sometimes they wanted to order a Siberian husky or a Siamese cat from the mainland.

I was the one that had the ideas. Dreams really. I thought Daniel could get just as rich as Chale and then we would be free. I forgave him. Now I only remembered the boy he’d been on Facebook. The day Stella had split his lip, I followed him behind the house where he stood with his hands pressed straight against the wall, bleeding and crying, the snot running down his face. I saw then that he was just like us. Daniel was very good at his job. He was good on the boats, good with the girls and the animals, and Chale loved him. Chale trusted Daniel so much that he allowed him to take me for walks off the compound. I’d had one boyfriend in Venezuela when I was fourteen, but I hadn’t had much experience with boys until I came to Trinidad. Now I had too much experience. But when I was with Daniel, I forgot all that and felt like a normal girl.

I started the trouble. There was an important man who liked me. Every Tuesday afternoon, he sent a big car for me and had me taken up a back elevator into a room at the Hyatt. I knew he was a very important man and that Chale must have collected a lot of money for these visits because all day on Monday the girls fussed over me. They painted my nails and curled my hair. I was as hairless as a newborn mouse by the time they finished their waxing and tweezing. Every Tuesday afternoon, he laid me out like a doll and examined me from head to toe. Then he drew the blinds and climbed into bed next to me. It was not as humiliating as the doctor with the torch, but sometimes I still cried. After he was done with me, he let me order whatever I wanted from room service. I tried to eat the money that would never come to me. Lobster, steak, sushi.

I couldn’t speak very well, but I was a good listener. I lay on the bed Tuesday after Tuesday, eating everything expensive on the menu and listening to the man talk in his booming voice on the phone. He was buying cocaine too. That was okay. All the men around me were always buying or selling cocaine. But this one was different. He was using the government’s money to buy it. And I told Daniel.

‘You’re smart,’ I said. ‘Maybe you can cut a deal with the suppliers. They know you already. How do you think Chale started? He must have had to take risks as well.’

When I said things like this, I remembered my mami and my papi. Even if I could make my way back to them, would they know me? Would they know this new Caro? In my mind, their Caro was gone. Burnt up.

Sometimes, late at night, the rain came down in a heavy rush and the frogs screamed and screamed. This was the sound of home. These were the nights I cried for Mami, even if she wouldn’t recognise me. When any of us cried, Stella took us for a walk. Once, I saw her rocking the little Dominicano like a baby. When I walked by I could see she was crying. Stella, not the Dominicano.

‘So how does it work? This whole thing?’ Sometimes the men tried to ask me where I came from. How I came to be here.

‘No entiendo,’ I said. ‘I don’t understand.’ But I knew exactly what they were asking. They were asking, ‘Are you really a slave? How can that be?’

Once we got a new girl. A Ukrainian. She came in a crate like a dog and she was very sick. Chale was angry and threw his cell phone across the room. She didn’t stay with us long and they never even got a table with stirrups for her. One day, when we woke up, she was gone.

When we weren’t working, we brushed each other’s hair and made facial masks from the mangoes and avocadoes that dropped like men on the roof at night. I wondered what would happen to us when we were no longer young and pretty, and that is when I started to think of the future.

Stella made nice things like fudge for us and she waited up for us when we came in late. Sometimes she came into the bathroom with us, even if it was long after midnight. There she helped us undress with hands like a mother, examined us for signs of hurt and helped us wash the stink of men off our bodies. I trusted her.

 

DANIEL KNOCKED AT the dormitory window the next morning and called me. The light outside was just forming, the trees shaping themselves before my eyes as the dome of night lifted.

‘Come,’ he whispered.

I woke Stella to tell her I was going to look for fresh chadon beni for the morning meal and then I slipped out the side door.

‘I’m in a lot of trouble, Caro. Big big trouble.’

I didn’t answer because I suspected what had happened.

‘Does Chale know?’

‘I think so. I think he will hand me to the police or he will kill me himself.’

I was thinking hard hard hard. Trying to shed my skin so that I could turn myself into a ball of fire and take us both away.

‘It backfired. How was I to know that Chale was working with him? The man is a government minister. The minister of national security. He was working with Chale all along. Now Chale knows I tried to cut a deal without him. They are going to kill me, Caro.’

I remembered an old trick my mother taught me when I was little. When you need good luck, catch green grasshoppers. I went back into the house. Stella had given me my own blanket when I had dengue. I did not share it. I took it off my bed, collected two spoons of white sugar from the kitchen and made my way back out of the house. I placed the blanket in a clearing in the forest, stretching the four corners before sprinkling a light rain of sugar. The old car in the tall grass kept us hidden from the house. We sat in the car with no doors and waited for the grasshoppers. When we caught the first one, it struggled to fly, caught in the fibres of the blanket. We caught five in all before they came for Daniel. Robbie was the one Chale sent.

‘Robbie,’ said Daniel, looking out at him from the rusted Volkswagen. ‘Please, Robbie.’

‘Little boy, your luck run out.’ Robbie was calm.

Daniel was golden in the morning sun. When he turned to look at me, the sun caught his amber eyes and lit them on fire.

‘Carolina,’ said Robbie. ‘Don’t get mix up in this. Go back to the house.’

But it was my idea. My idea to bypass Chale and go straight to the government. I talked him into it.

‘It’s my fault.’

‘Carolina, don’t make me sin my soul twice today.’

‘If you don’t take me as well, I will tell Chale you were part of it.’

Some part of me still believed that I could save us. That I would shed my skin at any moment and burn Robbie to the ground.

‘No Caro,’ said Daniel.

‘If she want to play big woman and meddle in big people business, let her come see. Let her come and learn. Two of you playing the ass and don’t understand this is not a game. Danny boy, you overplay your hand. And little missy here will never forget this lesson.’

Standing in front of us, he called Chale.

‘I have him. Carolina is here too. What to do?’

I couldn’t hear Chale’s words but I heard the tone and I remembered the day he threw his phone across the room because of the Ukrainian.

‘All right, I will bring her.’

‘Just let me tell Stella I’m leaving.’

But he’d already tied and blindfolded Daniel and there was a rag in my mouth before I could say anything else.

 

STELLA

ROBBIE DIDN’T BRING Caro back for four days. When they carried her in to me, she held out her hands and cried, ‘Stella, Stella,’ as if I were her mother.

Oh God, they nearly kill that child. I tried not to have favourites because you could lose these girls anytime. Anything could happen. I myself didn’t know if they would bring her back. I gave her two sleeping pills, bathed her with carbolic soap and washed her hair twice, but she still smelt of fire. I lay in bed with her until she slept. When I came out, all the other girls were silent. In the kitchen, Robbie was drinking a Stag. He finished the beer in three gulps. Is long time I know Robbie. Years and years. And I know he is a good man. Even Chale, he might have his ways, but if this is the business you find yourself in, these are the men you want to be working with.

‘Where you all had her hole up?’

‘Cierro del Aripo.’

‘What you do the girl Robbie? I know you not in this rape scene. What you two do this girl to have her looking so?’

‘We made her watch.’ He was in the fridge pulling out another Stag. I remembered the tag line of the Stag jingle: STAG, A MAN’S BEER.

‘So you feeling like a big man now?’

‘They nearly pull the whole operation down.’ He was rubbing his forehead over and over and I could see where his hairline had begun to recede. ‘I never see Chale so vexed. Blue mad. But when he had to do it, the man cry like a baby. And you know Daniel never talked. Never said which supplier had agreed to deal with him.’

I stood and swayed. I had to hold onto the doorframe for support.

‘He kill the boy.’

‘Stella, he torture the boy. I didn’t think he had it in him. He cry the whole time. I cry. The girl cry. The only one who never cry was Daniel. You know the man pull every tooth in the boy head out?’

I walked to the big sash window in the kitchen and stuck my head out, drinking air to breathe. And then I vomited.

When I turned, Robbie was behind me with a wet towel.

‘Where does your wife think you are, Mr Big Shot Executive Banker?’

‘On a business trip in Miami.’

I turned to vomit out the window again.

‘Stella, this is a hard life. Some people say this is the new plantation business. The new slavery. Cocaine is the master we all working for. And who is dying? Same little black boys who was dropping in the fields two centuries ago. We thought we could keep it clean but once you’re a traitor in this business, you have to die.’

I had really wanted Caro to be my little Ilyeana. Even I had thought she could burn her way to freedom. My Caro hugging me tight in the kitchen. Eyes bright bright. I used to wonder how her mother survived losing her. That was why the stink minister of security had to have his nasty paws over her all the time. These fucking men.

When they brought her back to me, she was grey. Grey as if someone had sprinkled her with ashes. Even her mouth smelt of ash. She was burning up with fever, her eyes shut from crying. She really loved Daniel. I told Chale to watch them. I watched them from a distance. I saw this coming but even I could not imagine how bad it would get. I remembered the day I hit Daniel with the pot spoon and split his lip. He cried that day. I know. Carolina had told me. Chale would never kill her. She was too valuable a commodity. Big Chale in his big fancy truck with his night-rider lights and his proper wife in town. I wanted to be sick again.

‘Where is the boy now?’

‘We handed his body over to the police. He’s at the morgue now.’

‘And Caro?’

‘Chale says she will have to double her work to pay him back for the humiliation. She’s lucky he didn’t kill her. Let her be a lesson to the others.’

I left him then. I climbed the stairs and got into bed with Caro. She was lying on her stomach and, even though she was asleep, the tears still came down her face.

There is a magic that we women can do when we are pushed too far and I knew I could give her the gift. She hadn’t taken her pill for three months now. She asked me for condoms. Said she was afraid of catching something and that the pill made her put on weight. She was so good the customers would never know. I’ll never say you helped me Stella, I promise. The doctor trusted me to give them the pills. But when Caro asked, I began flushing her pills, even though I still ticked her name on the chart I kept in my office to show the doctor. I gave her the condoms. The thought of men spilling in her made me ill. I noticed the little belly when I bathed her. Oh God. Child, what have you gone and done? This would call for a special kind of magic. I began whispering in her ear.

There are not many things that can be said about young soucuoyants because there are not many of them. Ilyeana’s mother and grandmother still shed, so when Ilyeana first shed her skin in a heap on the kitchen floor at midnight on a Sunday, they had the presence of mind to gather up the skin and keep it moist in the jar that was also used to make garlic pork at Christmas. By the time they’d gathered the skin, she was out the door, a rolling ball of fire and bloodlust. The next day they sat her down and warned of the dangers of salt and of leaving her skin unprotected. But, because they knew little of the ways and the appetites of young soucouyants, they did not know what else to tell her.

Sometimes Ilyeana sat in an old car with the boy she loved. On these nights, she felt like any other sixteen year old, happy to look at the wide sky freckled with stars like balls of fire. Growing a baby made her want the boy more than she’d ever wanted anything. Once she’d been caught by surprise by the boy on the blanket under the stars and in a shuddering moment had lost her skin. There’d been no one to warn her, but when the skin felt the deep swells of pleasure pushing the beating heart out of her, it gathered itself around the thin-skinned cocoon. And her fire never touched the boy. The boy lived. He sees his baby. He does.

Afterward, the villagers from Mayaro told the newspapers that the ball of fire had streaked the horizon, dodging the oil rigs and their flares of burning natural gas. Ilyeana had become a tropical aurora borealis that caused the old people to pull out their rosaries and the priests to shiver in their beds.

At dawn, she slipped into her skin, the baby safe again in her mother’s warm body. Today Ilyeana lives in a small house in Mayaro where she can watch the ocean and the oil rigs flare at night. She still dreams of the boy with golden eyes. Her little girl goes to the village school, and Ilyeana watches her carefully for signs. Sometimes men call, but Ilyeana is careful because she does not trust her lust for blood. But sometimes, on moonless nights, she walks to the beach where she dreams she meets the boy. But that is not often.

It was after two when I finished my story, kissed her cheek, covered her with a new blanket like the time she was so sick with dengue. Vaya con Dios, my Caro.

By the time Chale arrived next morning, his tyres peeling in on the wet asphalt, she was gone. Her bed empty. I could smell the burning, but Chale said that was just the rubber on his tyres.

Many years later, I visited Mayaro. There, in the breeze of the south-west coast, I met a woman with golden eyes.

‘I once knew your mother,’ I said to her. ‘What was her name? I’ve forgotten it now.’

‘Ilyeana,’ she said. ‘My mother’s name is Ilyeana.’


From Griffith Review Edition 59: Commonwealth Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review