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From 'Midnight Robber'.

Quashee and lone? Antonio felt jealousy turning like a worm in his belly. He didn't like the weight of the cuckold's horns settling on his brow. His mind was so worked up, he barely remembered to pay Beata. He got down from the cab and would have walked away, but she hauled it into his road and stood there sweaty and grimy, blocking his path. She poked a bit of betel out from between two teeth with a black-rimmed nail. Flicked it away. Smiled redly at him. He threw some cash at her. She caught it, inspected the coin insolently and tucked it into her bubby-band. "Walk good, Compere. Remember what I say."

He was sure he could still smell the sweat of her even though she had jogged off. He opened the white picket gates and walked up the long path toward the Mayor house.

This day, Antonio couldn't take no pleasure in his big, stoosh home, oui? He didn't even self notice the tasteful mandala of rock that his Garden had built around the flag pole near the entrance when he first took office. The pale pink rockstone quarried from Shak-Shak Bay didn't give him no joy. The sound of the Cockpit County flag cracking in the light breeze didn't satisfy him. His eye passed right over the spouting fountain with the lilies floating in it and the statue of Mami Wata in the middle, arching her proud back to hold her split fishtail in her own two hands. The trinkling sound of the fountain didn't soothe his soul. Is the first time he didn't notice the perfection of his grounds: every tree healthy, every blade of grass green and fat and juicy. He didn't remark on the snowcone colors of the high bougainvillaea hedge. He didn't feel his chest swell with pride to see the marble walls of the Mayor house gleaming white in the sun.

Quashee and Ione? For true?

On the way, Antonio found Tan-Tan playing all by herself up in the julie-mango tree in the front yard. Her minder was only scurrying around the tree, chicle body vibrating for anxious; green crystal eyes tracking, tracking, as it tried to make sure Tan-Tan was all right. "Mistress," it was whining, "you don't want to come down? You know Nursie say you mustn't climb trees. You might fall, you know. Fall, yes, and Nursie go be vex with me. Come down, nuh? Come down, and I go tell you the story of Granny Nanny, queen of the Maroons."

Tan-Tan shouted back, "Later, all right? I busy now."

Antonio felt liquid with love all over again for his doux-doux darling girl, his one pureness. Just so Ione had been as a young thing, climbing trees her parents had banned her from. Antonio loved his Tan-Tan more than songs could sing. When she was first born, he was forever going to watch at her sleeping in her bassinet. With the back of his hand he used to stroke the little face with the cocoa-butter skin soft like fowl breast feathers, and plant gentle butterfly kisses on the two closed-up eyes. Even in her sleep, little Tan-Tan would smile to feel her daddy near. And Antonio's heart would swell with joy for the beautiful thing he had made, this one daughter, this chocolate girl. "My Tan-Tan. Sweet Tan-Tan. Pretty just like your mother." When she woke she would yawn big, opening her tiny fists to flash little palms at him, pink like the shrimp in Shak-Shak Bay. Then she would see him, and smile at him with her mother's smile. He could never hold her long enough, never touch her too much.

Antonio called out to his child in the tree: "Don't tease the minder, doux-doux. What you doing up there?"

Tan-Tan screwed up her eyes and shaded them with one hand. Then: "It ain't have no doux-doux here," the pickney-girl answered back, flashing a big smile at her daddy. Sweet, facety child. "Me is Robber Queen, yes? This foliage is my subject, and nobody could object to my rule." Tan-Tan had become fascinated with the Midnight Robber. Her favorite game was to play Carnival Robber King. She had a talent for the patter. "Why you home so early, Daddy?"

In spite of his worries, Antonio smiled to see his daughter looking so pretty. His sweetness, his doux-doux darling could give him any kinda back-talk, oui? "I just come to see your mother. You know where she is?"

"She and uncle taking tea in the parlor, Daddy. Them tell me I mus'n't come inside till they call me. I could go in now?"

"Not right now, darling. You stay up there; I go come and get you soon."

Antonio dragged his feet toward the parlor, the way a condemned man might walk to a hanging tree. As he reached inside the detection field, the house eshu clicked on quiet-quiet inside his ear. "You reach, Master," it said. "Straighten your shirt. Your collar get rumple. You want me announce you?"

"No. Is a surprise. Silence."

"Yes, Master Antonio." The eshu's voice sounded like it had a mocking smile in it. Like even self Antonio's house was laughing at him? Where Ione?

When Antonio stood outside the door, he could hear his wife inside laughing, laughing bright like the yellow poui flower, and the sound of a deep, low voice intertwined with the laugh. Antonio opened the parlor door.

Years after, Antonio still wouldn't tell nobody what he saw in the parlor that day. "Rasscloth!" he would swear. "Some things, a man can't stand to describe!"

Mayor Antonio, the most powerful man in the whole county, opened up his own parlor door that afternoon to behold his wife lounging off on the settee with her petticoat hitched up around her hips, and both feet wrapped around Quashee's waist.

Antonio stood there for a while, his eyes burning. He knew then that whenever he shut them from now on, he would see that pretty white lace petticoat spread out all over the settee; Quashee's porkpie hat on Ione's head; the teasing, happy smile on her face; and Quashee's bare behind pushing and pushing between Ione's sprawled-open knees.

Antonio never noticed that Tan-Tan had followed him to the parlor door. She stood there beside him, eyes staring, mouth hanging open. She must have cried out or something, because all of a sudden Ione looked over Quashee's shoulder to see the two of them in the doorway. She screamed: "Oh, God, Antonio; is you?"

Soft-soft, Antonio closed the parlor door back. He turned and walked out his yard. Tan-Tan ran after him, screaming, "Daddy! Daddy! Come back!" but he never even self said goodbye to his one daughter.

Little after Antonio had left, Ione came running alone out the house, her hair flying loose and her dress buttoned up wrong. She found Tan-Tan by the gate, crying for her daddy. Ione gave Tan-Tan a slap for making so much noise and attracting the attention of bad-minded neighbors. She bustled Tan-Tan inside the house, arid the two of them settled down to wait for Antonio to come back.

But is like Antonio had taken up permanent residence in his office. Ione took Tan-Tan out of the pickney creche where she went in the mornings to be schooled. Said she wanted some company in the house, the eshu would give Tan-Tan her lessons. So Antonio couldn't come and visit Tan-Tan during siesta like he used to. He had to call home on the four-eye to talk to her. He would ask her how her lessons with the eshu were going. He would tell her to mind not to give Nursie or the minder any trouble, but he never asked after lone. And when Tan-Tan asked when he was coming back, he'd get quiet for a second then say. "Me nah know, darling."

Well, darling, you know Cockpit County tongues start to wag. Kaiso, Mama; tell the tale! This one whisper to that one how he hear from a woman down Lagahoo way who is the offside sister of Nursie living in the Mayor ho use how Ione send Quashee away, how she spend every day and night weeping for Antonio, and she won't even self get out of bed and change out of she nightgown come morning. Another one tell a next one how he pass by Old Man Warren house one afternoon, and see he and Antonio sitting out on the porch in the hot hot sun, old-talking and making plans over a big pitcher of rum and coconut water. In the middle of the day, oui, when sensible people taking siesta!

All the way in Liguanea town, people hear the story. They have it to say how even the calypsonian Mama Choonks hear what happen, and she writing a rapso about it, and boasting that she going to come in Road March Queen again this year, when she bust some style 'pon the crowd with she new tune "Workee in the Parlor." And Sylvia the engineer tell she daughter husband that somebody else whisper to she how he see Quashee in the fight yard every day, practicing cut and jab with he machete. But eh-eh! If Antonio going to call Quashee out to duel come Jour Ouvert morning, ain't Antonio shoulda been practicing too?

What you say, doux-doux? You thought this was Tan-Tan story?

You right. My mind get so work up with all that Antonio had to suffer, that I forget about poor Tan-Tan.

In fact it seemed like nobody wanted to pay any mind to Tan-Tan no more. People in her house would stop talking when Tan-Tan went into a room, even old Nursie. Ione was spending all her days locked up in her room in conference with Obi Mami-Bo, the witch woman. It looked like Antonio wasn't coming back at all at all.

But truth to tell, Tan-Tan wasn't so lonely, oui. She was used to staying out of Ione's way, and playing Robber Queen and jacks with just the fretful minder for company. She liked leaning against the minder's yielding chicle, humming along with the nursery rhymes it would sing to her. She had nearly outgrown the minder now, yes, but it did its level best to keep up with her. Tan-Tan used to play so hard, it come in like work.

"Minder, you see where my jacks gone? I could find the ball, but not the jacks. You think I left them under the settee yesterday?"

"Maybe, Mistress. Make I look." And the old construct would flatten its body as best it could and squeeze itself into tight places to retrieve the jacks Tan-Tan was always losing.

Or, "Minder, let we play some old-time story, nuh? I go be Granny Nanny, Queen of the Maroons, and you have to be the planter boss."

So the minder would access the Nanny history from the Web and try to adapt it to Tan-Tan's notions of how the story went.

Tan-Tan had a way to make up tales to pass the time, and like how time was hanging heavy on her hands nowadays, she started to imagine how sweet it would be when her daddy would come to take her away from this boring old place where everybody was sad all the time, their faces hanging down like jackass when he sick. She was going to go and live with Daddy in the Mayor office, and them would play Robber King and Queen in the evenings when Daddy finish work, and Daddy would tickle her and rub her tummy and tell how she come in pretty, just like her mother. And come Carnival time, them would ride down to town together in the big black limousine to see the Big Parade with masqueraders-them in their duppy and mako jumbie costumes, dancing in the streets.

Finally, it was Jonkanoo season, the year-end time when all of Toussaint would celebrate the landing of the Marryshow Corporation nation ships that had brought their ancestors to this planet two centuries before. Time to give thanks to Granny Nanny for the Leaving Times, for her care, for life in this land, free from downpression and botheration. Time to remember the way their forefathers had toiled and sweated together: Taino Carib and Arawak; African; Asian; Indian; even the Euro, though some wasn't too happy to acknowledge them-there bloodlines. All the bloods flowing into one river, making a new home on a new planet. Come Jonkanoo week, tout monde would find themselves home with family to drink red sorrel and eat black cake and read from Marryshow's Mythic Revelations of a New Garveyite: Sing Freedom Come.

But Antonio still wouldn't come home.

This Jonkanoo season was the first time that Tan-Tan would get to sing Parang with the Cockpit County Jubilante Mummers. She and eshu had practiced the soprano line for "Sereno, Sereno" so till she had been singing it in her sleep and all. And she had done so well in rehearsals that the Mummers had decided to let Tan-Tan sing the solo in "Sweet Chariot." Tan-Tan was so excited, she didn't know what to do with herself. Daddy was going to be so proud!

Jonkanoo night, Nursie dressed her up in her lacy frock to go from house to house with the Mummers. Nursie finished locksing Tan-Tan's hair, and took a step back to admire her. "Nanny bless, doux-doux, you looking nice, you know? You make me think of my Aislin when she was just a little pickney-girl. Just so she did love fancy frock, and she hair did thick and curly, just like yours."

"Aislin?" Tan-Tan dragged her eyes from her own face in the mirror eshu had made of the wall. She had been trying to read her daddy's features there. "You have a daughter, Nursie?"

Nursie frowned sadly. She looked down at her feet and shook her head. "Never mind, doux-doux; is more than twelve years now she climb the Half-Way Tree and gone for good. Let we not speak of the departed." She sucked her teeth, her face collapsing into an expression of old sorrow and frustration. "Aislin shoulda had more sense than to get mix-up in Antonio business. I just grateful your daddy see fit to make this lonely old woman part of he household afterwards."

And all Tan-Tan could do, Nursie wouldn't talk about it any more after that. Tan-Tan just shrugged her shoulders. Is so it go; Toussaint people didn't talk too much about the criminals they had exiled to New Half-Way Tree. Too besides, Tan-Tan was too nervous to listen to Old Nursie's horse-dead-and-cow-fat story tonight. First Parang! Nursie had had all the ruffles on Tan-Tan's frock starched and her aoutchicongs, her tennis shoes-them, whitened till they gleamed.

Tan-Tan's bedroom door chimed, the one that led outside to the garden. She had a visitor, just like big people!

"You answer it, doux-doux," said Nursie.

"Eshu, is who there?" asked Tan-Tan, as she'd heard her parents do.

"Is Ben, young Mistress," the eshu said through the wall. "He bring a present for you."

A present! She looked at Nursie, who smiled and nodded. "Let he in," said Tan-Tan.

The door opened to admit the artisan who gave her father the benefit of his skill by programming and supervising Garden. As ever, he was barefoot, console touchpen tucked behind one ear and wearing by choice a mud-stained pair of khaki shorts and a grubby shirt-jac whose pockets held shadowy bulges like babies' diapers. Weeds hung out of the bulgy pockets. He had an enormous bouquet of fresh-cut ginger lilies in one hand. The red blooms stretched on long thumb-thick green stalks. Tan-Tan gasped at the present that Ben was balancing carefully in his other hand.

Nursie chided, "Ben, is how long now you wearing those disgraceful clothes, eh? And you can't even put on a pair of shoes to come into the house?"

But Ben just winked at her and presented her with the lilies. She giggled girlishly and buried her nose in the blossoms. Finally he seemed to notice Tan-Tan gazing at the present. He smiled and held it out to her: a Jonkanoo hat. It was made from rattan woven in the torus shape of a nation ship. "I design it myself," Ben told her. "I get Garden to make it for you. Grow it into this shape right on the vine."

"Oh, what a way it pretty, Ben!" The hat even had little portholes all round it and the words "Marryshow Corporation: Black Star Line II" etched into a flat blade of dried vine in its side.

"Look through the portholes."

Tan-Tan had to close one eye to see through one of the holes. "I see little people! Sleeping in they bunk beds, and a little creche with a teacher and some pickney, and I see the bridge with the captain and all the crew!"

"Is so we people reach here on Toussaint, child. And look ... "Ben pulled six candles out of his pocket and wedged them into pockets woven all along the ring of the ship.

"Try it on, let me see."

Careful-careful, Tan-Tan slid the hat onto her head. It fit exactly.

"When you ready to go," Ben said, "ask Mistress lone to light the candle-them for you. Then you going to be playing Jonkanoo for real!"

Nursie fretted, "I don't like this little girl walking around with them open flame 'pon she head like that, you know? You couldn't use peeny-wallie bulb like everybody else, eh? Suppose the whole thing catch fire?"

"Ain't lone go be right there with Tan-Tan?" Ben reassured her. "She could look after she own pickney. This is the right way to play Jonkanoo, the old-time way. Long time, that hat woulda be make in the shape of a sea ship, not a rocket ship, and them black people inside woulda been lying pack-up head to toe in they own shit, with chains round them ankles. Let the child remember how black people make this crossing as free people this time."

Tan-Tan squinched up her face at the nasty story. Creche teacher had sung them that same tale. Vashti and Crab-Back Joey had gotten scared. Tan-Tan too. For nights after she'd dreamt of being shut up in a tiny space, unable to move. Eshu had had to calm her when she woke bawling.

Nursie shut Ben up quick: "Shush now, don't frighten the child with your old-time story."

"All right. Time for me to get dressed, anyway. Fete tonight! Me and Rozena going to dance till 'fore day morning, oui." Ben knelt down and smiled into Tan-Tan's eyes. "When you wear that hat, you carry yourself straight and tall, you hear? You go be Parang Queen-self tonight!"

Nalo Hopkinson lives in Toronto and is the author of Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), a novel set in the twenty-first century which won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest and the Locus Award, First Novel Category. Printed here for the first time is a selection from her forth-coming novel Midnight Robber.
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Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Excerpt
Date:Dec 22, 1999
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