Thursday, August 16, 2007

Story: 'The Coin'

Well, I think I've held off long enough. Here is "The Coin", published in Tesseracts 9, New Canadian Speculative Fiction, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Geoff Ryman. (This is a slightly revised version.)

The first short story I had written in years, "The Coin" dropped out of my pocket while I sat with Rhea Rose in the hotel lobby at VCon in 2003. It arose in homage to a little boy I had befriended in Haiti not so long before.

The Coin

Likner walked away from the girl who had brought the message from his mother. They hadn't talked long, but she had carefully taken the red cuvette of mangoes from her head and
given him two, then lifted the heavy load back onto the curl of cloth that rested on her braided hair.

The message said that his baby sister had died. He had seen her only once—she’d been so tiny. She had lived with their mother and Likner's other sisters on the steep mountainside
on the road to Vertierres. It might be a good idea, he thought, to visit his mother soon. Maybe he could find a coconut for her. But the idea made him feel leaden. He pushed it out of his mind, and headed for the boulevard, nipping the top of the first mango and peeling it with his teeth.

Likner followed the narrow street to the boulevard by the sea where the sun, hot since rising, climbed above the barely moving water of the bay. Here the sea bumped gently against a long concrete wall instead of washing over a beach, and the road that followed the wall was surprisingly smooth. The occasional rusted taxis and big 4x4s could race on it unhindered by potholes and cracks, by market stalls or crowds of people.

He started off toward downtown. His gaze shifted from the sea and low mountains to the tiny makeshift fishing boats, and back to the road he travelled. Here and there, small groups of people sat on broken benches or dangled their legs over the seawall, talking low among themselves. On the other side of the road were the houses of the people who owned the 4x4s. He scanned the tall palms in their yards for their great pale fruit.

He passed a littered beach, the empty tourist market, and then the docks. As he came abreast with a pair of rusted freighters standing in the oily water of the bay, he could see a little clutch of boys down the street by the bakery. He had expected to find them there. It was nearly Karnaval and they were dressing up as zenglendoes to “rob" the patrons at Bagay La. He watched as they huddled around the door, waiting for customers to come back out.

At seven, Likner was the youngest of these boys living on the streets of Okap, but he had been with them for more than a year and they accepted him without question. Like him, they wore shorts and dirty T-shirts that hung like dresses, and nothing on their feet. But they had also smeared their skin with motor oil, and cobbled together fake knives and guns.

In other places in the city, grown men dressed as soldiers walked with the musicians who carried the noisy homemade instruments of the rara band. They were stopping traffic at busy corners and demanding coins to let the vehicles pass. The boys knew the methods well. They crowded around a handful of blans who were coming out of the door, those wealthy foreigners come to save their souls and tell them how to live.

Likner hung back watching as the others brandished their weapons menacingly, smiling beneath the ferocity of their scowls. Two missionaries brushed past them with wry grins and flip remarks in Creole. A third, a pale white woman, followed. The boys closed ranks around her and held out oily hands. She shook her head and said something incomprehensible that wasn’t Creole, didn’t sound like French, might have been English. Bouki grinned and made as if to smear her clothes with oil if she didn’t hand something over. She winked and moved forward. They let her by.

The blan was sitting on the low wall beside the sea. The water made impatient little pushes at the concrete, urging bits of garbage back toward the shore. Down the block the beach rose up from the silky ocean waters. It was littered with plastic bags and old, rough-made chairs, well-stripped car frames and a blend of mango pits, coconut husks, and shreds of sugar cane fibre that gave off all together a thick dank smell of rot. Bouki and Benji were already with the blan, working her. Likner walked up slowly. She was shaking her head. Turning her pockets inside out. Benji snorted. Sure she had no money. His closed face locked and he turned away. Bouki shrugged and moved off, unconcerned.

He grinned at Likner and bent to scoop a little rock. Knowing Bouki’s games, Likner ducked as it sailed toward him, grabbed a bigger one and rushed forward for a revenge throw. The woman grabbed his wrist as he went hurtling by. Bouki smacked him hard and skipped away. The woman held Likner until his struggling ceased, then set him down and waited. He turned and stared.

Likner never really expected much. Half the time he didn't even ask for money. He never pushed the blans like the other boys. He didn't dream someone would take him home, to Canada or the States or France, give him money to go to school or buy a house for his mama. But even he couldn't escape a little skipping in his heart, a little difficulty with his breath when she looked at him and smiled. Because you never know, do you? You never really know.

Yesterday he'd thought that she was white-blonde, with gem-blue eyes and skin like shaved ice. Today he saw her hair was a light brown, and the blue eyes were tinged with green. She looked at him for a long time, steadily. He decided to try.

"Ba m senk goud," he told her. She cocked her head. "Give me one dolla," he said in English. She understood.

Bouki and Benji were gone. She reached into her pocket, one she had turned inside out earlier, and pulled out a large, dull coin. She put it in his hand, closed his fingers around it, looked into his eyes. She pointed to the coin, pointed to his pocket, closed her fist. "Don't lose it," she was telling him. Then she stood up, gave him a little pinch on the nose, and walked away.

He stared at the coin, empty of feeling. It wasn't Haitian. Or American. He squinted. He couldn't read, but he knew them all. It wasn't Canadian or Belgian or French. He could barely make out the shape of a woman—an American, he thought, by her face and hair—and on the other side … perhaps a fish.

He heard a shout and looked in the direction she had gone. Ezo and Bouki and Ti Patrik, sparring and yelling as they wandered up the street. The blan was nowhere to be seen.

The coin was a disappointment. He looked at it numbly. He surprised himself with what he did next, without even thinking. He tossed it over the wall and into the muttering sea. The water swallowed it and it left his thoughts. Bending, he scooped up a nicely weighted stone. Straightened and aimed at Bouki's shaved head.

Likner sat on the darkened stoop across from the Merci Jesu Bar and Grill. People stood lined up waiting for manyòk juice and white bread with spicy peanut butter. A couple of the boys stood by the doorway, available for handouts. Likner felt a presence at his elbow and turned. It was the blan. Her dark hair was pulled back from her face in a tight bun. How could he not have noticed before that she was a grimèl? Though her skin was not dark, the Haitian features were unmistakeable. She smiled at him, as if he had been very naughty. She held out the coin.

"Pa perdi li," she said in Creole. Don't lose it. She nodded sharply and he stuffed it in his pocket without a word. One of the boys noticed her there and came over to talk. She winked at Likner, smiled at him, and walked away listening to the other boy.

That night, when Likner was alone, he looked at the coin again. The woman's features were a little clearer. She had her eyes raised and her hands as well, her head twisted a little to one side, as if she was dancing. He turned it over. The fish was very long. It arced as though diving into the sea.

He walked along the boulevard, considering. What could he buy with this? Nothing. What could he trade it for? Not much. His business sense said to trade it. His gut said to hell with it. To hell with the big shot blans and their money. To hell with their promises. He took it out again, glanced up the long, dark street. Three men laughed and talked loudly a few steps away. One lone man leaned against the seawall half a block in front of him. The man filled up his lungs and sang horridly into the gentle breeze that came in off the sea. Likner thought of offering him the coin. But no. Instead, he turned to the sea again. He aimed it far out in the water, where it was deep, where the woman would not see it and fetch it back. And he threw it in.

Likner woke to the sound of gentle breathing. He lay on the sidewalk in a little cluster of boys. Jean Denis' long arm was resting on his face. The moon had left the sky. He sat up, let his legs dangle over the wall that faced the water, and stuffed his hands into his pockets. Something hard was in there. He pulled it out. The coin. Only now the woman was changed. He stiffened. She was the mambo dancing before they poisoned the owners and burned the plantations and started the revolution. He knew that it was her. He turned it over and there was La Sirene, rising in all her scaled majesty from her element, the sea.

Don't lose it, she had said. It wasn't a Visa. It wasn't a schoolbag. It wasn't even a hunk of bread. But anyone would know it was a wanga, though whose, or why he had it, or what magic it was meant to do, he didn't know. He leapt up and hurled it as far, as far as it would go and turned to race away from the sea.

He stopped. For a second he thought the moon had fallen from the sky and hovered in front of his face. He blinked. It was her, holding the coin up in her dark brown hand, a little smile playing on her face. Her black hair stood stiffly out on every side.

"It was an orphanage," she said in perfect Creole. Where was she getting these words? "With a school and uniforms and a library that actually has books." He stepped to one side, hoping to get around her. "It was a boat. Forty people and high seas and nothing to eat, nothing to drink. Do you think they'll reach America? Do you think they'll let them land? Do you think that they'll be welcome if they manage to sneak ashore?" He made a break. She nabbed him easily and held him while he wriggled.

"Good," she said. She pinned him down. Some of the other boys were starting to rouse. The ocean slapped the wall and spattered them with spray. "It was a marine. He strafed the fighters in the hills and made their families build the roads. He killed their pigs." Her teeth clicked together as she sank against the curb, her black fingers tight around him still. "It was an houngan, a strong one. What do you think an houngan can do? Draw vevers of flour on the dirt for the spirits and dance possessed all night? Anything else? Can he do anything? Is he worshipping devils like the missionaries say? Is he always drunk? "

Her legs twined around each other and fused into a long, scaled tail. She released his arm and bellied over the waking boys, paused for a second on the wall and blinked great green eyes at him. "It was a poet. He sketched his words in Creole, dipped his pen in his blood, wrote with the loops of his intestines. Did you hear him scream? Did you hear him laugh with joy?

"It was a wish, Likner. Would you like to learn to see with eyes like mine? Would you like to find your own?" She blinked her great green eyes at him. So green, they were nearly coal. "It was a dream. Do you dream, Likner? Would you like to give that up?"

She dove over the side and disappeared in the inky water with a hearty splash. “Come on," he heard in his mind. "Follow and see. See if your arm can bend this wave."

One by one, the boys sat up stiffly, looking confusedly around them. Likner watched the water shifting where she had disappeared, heard it tapping at the wall. Tentatively, he put his hand back in his pocket. Met something small, round, hard. Just for now, he decided not to look.

Pen nan boutèy, diven nan panye

Bread in the bottle, wine in the basket

copyright June 2005

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