PodCastle 555: Candied Sweets, Cornbread, and Black-Eyed Peas
Previous PodCastle episodes in this series:
PodCastle 387: The Half Dark Promise
Candied Sweets, Cornbread, and Black-eyed Peas
By Malon Edwards
No one wanted to come out of their houses. Not at first.
They could see my father’s blood soaking the cobblestones. They could see it dripping from the machete in my hand. They didn’t want to come bab pou bab — face-to-face — with Gran Dyab La, the wicked little girl who had just disemboweled her own father.
I wouldn’t either, if I were them.
(Vrèman vre, I’m not really the Great Devil Child. Se pou tout bon wi. If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’. I just swing my machete like her.)
These people knew that. I had lived on Oglesby Avenue next to them for the last three years, since I was eight years old. Since Papa and I followed Manmi here to La Petite de Haïti in Chicago. Since Papa and I no longer called La Petite de Haïti in Miami home.
I had been nothing but kind to them. I had been nothing but polite to them. I had been nothing but respectful to them. My mama raised me right.
But even that didn’t make them come out of their houses.
I could understand if Papa had been out there. Wearing the softening shadows of the fading half dark. Long, sharp, hungry teeth slobbering all over the place.
I could even understand if Papa was still lying in the street. Me standing over him. Guts steaming on the cobblestones. Blood searching for the gutters.
But the half dark had lifted. The Sack Man, papa mwen, my wonderful and horrible father — Eater of Children — was gone.
All that was left was me. All that was left was efreyan.
(I saw what I did. I was there when I did it. I’d be afraid of me, too.)
I was scarier than the Shadow Man. Even though he had stalked timoun yo in the half dark on the way home from school.
I was scarier than the Sack Man. Even though he had snatched timoun yo into his gunny sack just steps from their front doors.
I would replace the nightmares of all the timoun yo on this street. Instead of having terrible dreams about the Sack Man or the Shadow Man stalking and eating them, they would have terrible dreams of me. Standing over my father. Tonton Macoute in hand.
They would tell their friends on Yates Avenue about their terrible dreams. And those friends would tell their friends on Bensley. And those friends would tell their friends on Calhoon. And those friends would tell their friends on Hoxie.
And I would become a lougawou. The boogeyman. The monster in the closet hiding behind the clothes. The monster under the bed ready to grab feet and ankles.
I didn’t like that. I had to change that.
The first person who came out of their house was a little girl. She didn’t see me as a lougawou. She didn’t see me as the boogeyman. She didn’t see me as the monster in the closet or the monster under the bed. Annefè, she saw herself in me.
She was about three and a half years old. Maybe four. Ti fi a te adorab. She had afro puffs, just like mine.
She walked over to me. She took my right hand. She looked up at me.
She had to crane her neck way back. I must have looked like a grown up to her, even though I was only eleven and three quarters years old. I was taller than all of the girls and most of the boys in my Covey Four class back then. I’m taller than all of the girls and all of the boys in my Covey Four class now.
“Ki non ou?” she had asked me.
“Michaëlle-Isabelle,” I’d told her.
“Mwen te tande pale de ou menm,” she had told me. She had said this with a sing-song lilt in her voice and a lovely smile, as if what she’d heard about me was a secret.
With my left hand, I slipped Tonton Macoute, my machete, behind my head into its sheath sewn onto the outside of my backpack and crouched down. I wanted to look dirèkteman into this little girl’s big, beautiful dark brown eyes.
“What did you hear about me?” I asked her. I couldn’t help but smile as I did. She was all kinds of precious.
“I heard you sent away the half dark. Fwa sa a li ale pou tout bon. Pou tout tan.”
“Forever, hm?” I asked her. My tone was playful. It held a hint of a tease. But only a hint.
This little girl was shrewd. Perceptive. Discerning. She had to be.
She was out here all alone. With me. Without her parents. She would have known if I was talking down to her. She would have known if I was dismissing her tiny convictions.
“Wi,” she had answered, and her smile was so lovely that I wanted to bite her baby-fat cheeks and eat her dimples.
(Maybe that was the Papa part of me. He was the Sack Man, alafen. And the Shadow Man, vrèman vre, but we’re not talking about that lowdown, dirty, no-good sneak right now. Li ban m kè sote on my way home from school today. I thought I was going to die from fright. Right here. Right on this street. Right in the half dark. I won’t forget that. I’m still mad at him for that.)
“Who told you that?” I asked her.
“Manman mwen ak papa mwen.” The little girl pointed to her house two doors down. The curtains in the front window twitched.
“Yo gen rezon. I calmed the half dark. I sent her away.”
“Will she come back?” The little girl asked me.
I didn’t answer her. That wasn’t my answer to give.
More people came out of their houses when they saw the little girl’s manman ak papa sweep her up in their arms and plant kisses on her baby-fat cheeks. I supposed her manman ak papa were relieved I didn’t slice their little girl in half with Tonton Macoute.
They knew I could. My father’s blood was still on the cobblestones. Trickling into the gutter. It was awkward.
I gave them some space to let them have their moment. As they cuddled and kissed and smushed their adorab little girl, I just stood there, shifting from foot to foot. Their display of love and joy and kè kontan went on for some time. They were heart happy. I didn’t want to interrupt that. I didn’t want to spoil that.
But I had to go. I had to find manman mwen. She had taken papa mwen somewhere. To hide him. To heal him. To let him start again in another part of this city where the pickings were ripe for the Eater of Children. It was what he did. It was what she did.
I didn’t know where they were. But I knew he was still alive. I could feel it. I had to do something about it.
As I turned to leave, the little girl’s mother pulled me to her. Her arms were muscular. Her embrace was warm. Her words were needed.
“Mèsi,” she told me. I could feel her tears on my cheek. “Mèsi anpil.”
“Padekwa,” I whispered.
The little girl’s mother could feel my tears on her cheek. I couldn’t remember the last time my mother hugged me. I couldn’t remember the last time any mother hugged me. I couldn’t remember the last time any woman hugged me.
The little girl shifted on her mother’s hip, leaned across her, and hugged my neck with her skinny little arms.
“Mèsi! Mèsi!” she told me. She could feel my tears on her baby-fat cheek. It was so soft. It was so pliant. It was so close. I really did want to eat her dimples.
But instead, I laughed. I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed.
“Ki non ou, ti boubou?” I asked her.
“Mwen rele Michaëlle-Annabelle,” she told me, chin raised.
I wanted to tell her that was a beautiful name for a beautiful little girl, but more people had come out of their houses. They came over to us. Some of the women gave me hugs. They could see I needed them. They could see I wanted them.
Some of the women pressed sweetmeats wrapped in wax paper into my hands. They could see I needed them. They could see I wanted them. Sugar plums. Sugar-coated almonds. Peanut brittle. Pain patate.
Some of the men pressed my hands with both of theirs; large, gnarled knuckles ashy but gentle. They introduced me to their daughters and the heirloom machetes they had just given their ti fi cheri until they could commission new, shiny custom-made ones from the blacksmith. Their names were Carmelite and La Verite, Nadège and Nadiyo, Tiya and Tifiyèt, Zette and Timizè.
None of those machetes was as special as Tonton Macoute. Except for maybe Timizè. There is nothing wrong with giving a Little Misery by blade to the Shadow Man, the Sack Man, the Pogo, or whatever else is lurking in the dark on the streets of Chicago.
I didn’ notice the food. Not at first.
There were so many people who wanted to thank me and tell me how I inspired their daughters that five of the wooden picnic tables had already been set up in the middle of the street before I realized what was going on. They were having an impromptu block party.
I wasn’t all that surprised. I had just banished the half dark from the South Side of Chicago. People wanted to celebrate. People wanted to eat. People wanted to dance to music in the street under the night sky as the gas lamps kept the full dark at bay and our fears in check.
We hadn’t done that since Ol’ Heck was a pup and now he’s a grown dog, as manman mwen would say.
“Chile, you sound more and more like your mama every day.”
I hadn’t realized I said that out loud.
“You shole is right, Ms. Elaine. An’ she look jus’ like her daddy, with them Duverneau eyes. All his people got them.”
“You ain’t never lied, Ms. Irene. An’ look how tall she is now. She got that height from her mama.”
“An’ her daddy, Ms. Savannah Mae. Don’t fo’get ’bout that tall drink of dark water.”
Ms. Irene shook her smooth, dark, bald head. “Girl, you better shut yo’ mouth talkin’ like that in front of chirren.”
Ms. Savannah Mae kissed her teeth. Tchuip. “Listen to Ms. Elaine talkin’ ’bout this chile’s daddy like she jus’ came to town, thirsty as all get out, ’cause it’s a ten-mile walk on a dusty dirt road ‘tween here an’ the next town over where them nice Christians ran her out wit only a church lady hat an’ a burlap suitcase to her name.”
Ms. Elaine kissed her teeth back at Ms. Savannah Mae. Tchuip. “It ain’t like you both wasn’t thinkin’ the same thing.”
Ms. Savannah Mae leaned over to Ms. Irene and stage whispered: “That fast skirt over there need to get back to church an’ get right wit God.”
Ms. Irene raised her hand, closed her eyes, and bowed her head as if she were in church and the Sunday morning service was just getting good. “Preach, Sister Reverend! Save this heathen heifer!”
“Now, Ms. Savannah Mae,” Ms. Elaine began, “we three know the moment any of us walk into a church—”
“—God gon’ strike us down dead on the spot for our sins of gossip an’ lust!” Ms. Irene finished, and all three women cackled like that was the funniest joke in the world.
I looked at all three women for a moment each, with their smooth, dark beautiful skin and their smooth, dark beautiful bald heads. I frowned. “Who are you?” I asked them.
“Who do you think we are?” Ms. Irene asked me, wiping her tears from laughing so hard.
My brow furrowed. My frown deepened. “You seem very familiar to me, but I can’t place you. None of you.”
“Chile, you better eat befo’ this good food get cold,” Ms. Elaine told me.
Ms. Savannah Mae took me by the elbow and led me over to six picnic tables pushed together end-to-end, covered with red and white checked tablecloths. “Look at this here spread: macaroni and cheese, glazed ham, coleslaw, collard greens (I eat mine’s wit candied sweets, which over there), cornbread (I made it myself), black-eyed peas, chit’lins (the hot sauce over there), mashed potatoes an’ gravy—”
“—an’ then, chile,” Ms. Elaine said, at my other elbow, “when you ready, you can have some dessert: peach cobbler, sweet potato pie—”
“I’m not a child.”
Everything stopped. Everything except the music. No one moved. No one spoke. Everyone just looked at me. It was the longest ten seconds of my life.
“Let me fix you a plate, chouchou mwen,” Ms. Irene said finally, and grabbed a heavy-duty paper plate that could withstand all of that koupe dwèt food. Everyone started eating and talking again.
“Listen,” Ms. Irene said, as she scooped food onto the plate for me, “we know you ain’t a child no mo’. Not after the way you sliced the Pogo’s face an’ that Bobby Brightsmith tentacle right off it, who we know you hidin’ in yo’ backpack right now so he won’t scare all these nice people back into they houses—”
“—an'”, Ms. Savannah Mae cut in, “we know you ain’t a child no mo’ after jus’ seein’ you slice yo’ daddy’s belly open so he wouldn’t eat you, his beautiful baby girl.”
“So, chouchou mwen,” Ms. Elaine said to me, “we all the way there wit you on that. Like the Bible say, ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became woman, I put away childish things.’ We know you don’t think like a child no mo’. An’ we know you don’t speak like a child no mo’, either.”
“An’ that saddens us.” Ms. Irene looked around at everyone enjoying the good food. “All of us.”
As we sat down at a table with Michaëlle-Annabelle and her manman ak papa, I looked at Ms. Irene and said: “You still haven’t told me who you are.”
Michaëlle-Annabelle smiled at me. I still wanted to eat her dimples.
Ms. Savannah Mae frowned. Not a deep one. Not as a rebuke. Yon ti kras. Just a little bit. “We gon’ tell you, chouchou mwen, but we ain’t got time fo’ no questions. You gotta eat. You need your strength.”
I started with the macaroni and cheese. Se te koupe dwèt. Non, it was better than delicious. It was ambrosia.
Ms. Elaine started with the story. “We the Three Whispers. It’s our business to know e’rybody’s business.”
“But don’t take that the wrong way,” Ms. Irene continued. “We nosy, but we ain’t malicious. We ain’t tryin’ to do nobody bad. We jus’ tell you what you need to know when you need to know it.”
“An’,” Ms. Savannah Mae added, “we tell you what you need to do when you need to do it.”
Somehow, I knew Ms. Irene and Ms. Savannah Mae wasn’t just talking about me, but the collective ‘you.’ Everyone on this block. Everyone on the South Side. Everyone in the Sovereign State of Chicago, even.
“But how do you know what you need to tell me and what I need to do?” I asked them.
Ms. Savannah Mae gave me the nicest cut-eye I had ever seen. “What we say ’bout askin’ us questions, chouchou mwen?” Her tone was soft, but her eyes weren’t playful. She had been serye.
Ms. Elaine tut-tutted Ms. Savannah Mae. “Leave her alone, Sister Whisper. Kaëlle jus’ curious.”
“Well, Kaëlle better keep eatin’,” Ms. Savannah Mae said, and crossed her long, dark, lovely arms, “’cause she ain’t got much time an’ she gon’ need her strength when they get here.” She nodded at what little macaroni and cheese I had left.
My fork paused in front of my open mouth. “That’s the second time one of you said that.”
“An’ it gon’ be the last time you hear anybody say anything at all, if you keep talkin’ an’ stop eatin’,” Ms. Elaine said. She watched me finish my macaroni and cheese, and then said, her voice soft and reverent: “Bèl Flè made us.”
“Bèl Flè is a myth,” I said, moving on to my greens and candied sweets.
Ms. Savannah Mae kissed her teeth again. Tchuip. “Girl, you better shut yo’ mouth an’ stop talkin’ that blasphemy. Bèl Flè shaped us from her rich, dark pure soil.”
Ms. Irene smiled at me. A kind one. A respectful one. “Bèl Flè is very real. She rebuilt Chicago after the war, layer by layer, all wit the purified soil from the coal dust boiler in her chest.”
“She ain’t tellin’ no lies, chouchou mwen,” Ms. Savannah Mae said. “Bèl Flè then spread that rich, dark soil on top of all the nuclear ash. An’ when it settled, when it wasn’t gon’ blow away into Lake Michigan — or Iowa — she put a bit of copper an’ uranium an’ gold — an’ even diamonds — an’ e’ry other precious metal she could think of far beneath that life-givin’ dirt surface.”
“An’ from those metals,” Ms. Elaine said, her tone and her eyes bright, “she forged three steam clock hearts, very much like the one you have in your chest right now, an’ put them in our chests.”
Ms. Irene finished the tale. “But befo’ she left Chicago to bring life back to the rest of this war-ravaged country, she shaped the Clockmaker, taught him how to build steam clock hearts an’ clockwork machines, an’ then told him to populate Chicago again.”
I ate a forkful of black-eyed peas and a bite of Ms. Savannah Mae’s cornbread. It was fluffy. It was delicious. “That’s a fairy tale they told us in kindergarten.”
Ms. Irene crossed her long, dark, lovely arms and rocked side-to-side. “That’s ’cause fairy tales the only way you young’uns gon’ remember y’all’s cultural history.”
“You ain’t never lied,” Ms. Elaine said, and also crossed her long, dark, lovely arms and rocked side-to-side.
Ms. Savannah Mae leaned over toward me, put her mouth behind the back of her hand, and pretended to say under her breath: “Unless Ms. Savannah Mae’s lips are movin’ or she complimentin’ you.”
All three women stopped talking. All three women looked at each other. No words were spoken. No cut-eye was given. And then, all three women cackled. Loud, long, and lusty.
“Are you like the Three Fates, or something?” I asked them.
“Them heifers can’t do what we do,” Ms. Savannah Mae shot back, and they all cackled again.
Ms. Irene put a saucer of peach cobbler in front of me. “Eat up, baby girl. You almost finished, which is good. Them coyomorants gon’ be here soon. An’ they ain’t no joke.”
“You ain’t said nothin’ but a word,” Ms. Elaine murmured.
I ate a forkful of peach cobbler. It was good. Sweet and tart. But I wanted some more candied sweets.
“What’s a coyomorant?” I asked Ms. Elaine.
“The Devil on a Sunday mornin’,” she answered.
Ms. Irene had given me an explanation that made more sense. “A sleek an’ powerful clockwork machine that’s a hybrid of a coyote an’ a cormorant, built from some of those precious metals Bèl Flè put in the ground. It even got wings. Your brother, the Pogo, convinced the Clockmaker to build them.”
“Convinced my ass.” Ms. Savannah Mae kissed her teeth. Tchuip. “That awful so-an’-so brother of yours tol’ the Clockmaker if he built those coyomorants, then he’d gift him the Sack Man, trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey, to do wit whatever he wanted.”
“An’, of course, the Clockmaker agreed,” Ms. Irene said, arms folded, rocking side-to-side again. “The Sack Man ate the Clockmaker’s chirren, jus’ like he ate most of the chirren in Chicago. Both of them beautiful l’l girls.”
“See, that’s how you know them coyomorants nasty,” Ms. Savannah Mae said, her lip curled with loathing. “That’s how you know they vile. A grievin’ father made them wit revenge an’ hatred an’ anger in his heart. So you gotta be ready. You gotta be strong. Them coyomorants gon’ strike as soon as you make a mistake. An’ if you do, that’s gon’ be yo’ last one.”
Ms. Elaine nudged Ms. Savannah Mae with her elbow. “Now, why you gon’ say somethin’ like that? You wanna’ scare this dear heart right befo’ the biggest battle of her life?”
“M pa pè,” I told Ms. Elaine.
“We know you ain’t, chouchou mwen,” Ms. Irene said, and patted my hand. “E’rything gon’ be all right. That’s why we here.”
“But Ms. Savannah Mae really isn’t scaring me,” I said, my voice firm. Sometimes, when grown folk are talking, we young ones had to repeat ourselves to be heard.
I sho’ hope not,” Ms. Savannah Mae said, “‘Cause they here.”
You didn’t see them. Not at first. No one did. Not even me.
We didn’t see them because they had stalked us from the dark spaces between the houses. We didn’t hear them because the piano and the trombones and the trumpets the saxophones and the bass and the drums made their approach stealthy.
We should have seen the glint of the gas lamps on their midnight blue metal skin. We should have heard their claws sparking on the cobblestones. But even if we did, we wouldn’t have had enough time to run.
You were the first person I thought of when I heard the screams. The musicians and the people dancing were the easiest targets. Joy had closed their eyes, spun their bodies, licked their fingers, and freed their souls.
Your manman snatched you up as I stood. Your papa flipped the picnic table as I slid Tonton Macoute out of its sheath. You were safe. For now. I had something between me and the coyomorants. For now.
But there were so many of them. They were sleek. They were powerful. They were fast. They were ruthless.
People were dying all around me. People were running in every direction all around me. Even the Three Whispers. Your manman ak papa ran straight to your house. I ran straight to the coyomorants.
Two of the coyomorants had just knocked down the trumpet players. Their beaks were bloody. Their claws were bloody.
I stepped into Form of the Iron Butterfly, just as Papa had taught me so long ago, and dropped four, quick vicious chops onto the backs of both coyomorants. Two sets of wings tinkled on to the cobblestones. They had looked too frail for flight, anyway.
The two coyomorants snarled and whipped around at me, quick as snakes, with a claw strike each. I was shocked by their speed, even though the Three Whispers had warned me. I parried one strike and spun away from the other. My footwork was clumsy. I gasped when the second claw scored my left shoulder blade. I could feel the blood flowing down my back.
I tried to put some distance between me and the two coyomorants and moved back. I stumbled. The cobblestones were trè uneven there.
One of the coyomorants pounced to take advantage, and I parried its claw as I fell onto my back.
Michaëlle-Annabelle gasps again.
My breath was knocked out of me. The coyomorant went over the top of me.
Predispozisyon — trained instinct from hours upon hours of working with Papa — saved me. I deflected a rake of the coyomorant’s claw with Tonton Macoute positioned to protect my face and my neck, and then kicked the machine off me with my Preacher boots. The ones I’m wearing right now.
Michaëlle-Annabelle looks down at my boots and then back up at my face. Her big, beautiful dark brown eyes are wide. Her mouth is open in a small silent O.
My kick sent the coyomorant flying into the other one. Jagged shards of midnight blue metal went flying end over end in every direction from the crash of metal bodies.
Both coyomorants struggled to move. Both coyomorants struggled to get up. Both coyomorants struggled come at me again.
They wanted to rip my throat out with the three long, sharp metal claws on their front paws. But they couldn’t. Their sinuous, flexible spines, which gave them their speed and quickness, had been broken. The red lights in their eyes winked out.
Yo te mouri. Truly dead.
“Wi!” Michaëlle-Annabelle cheers.
That gave me some time to get my wind back. But not much. Six of the coyomorants had seen what happened to their sisters. Their head crests flared from the sides of their faces when they looked at me.
They were trying to entimide me. It didn’t work. They wanted to avenge their sisters’ deaths. I wasn’t going to let them. I wanted to live.
I got back on my feet and took a deep breath before I stepped into Form of the Rising Butterfly. I wanted to be calm. I wanted to be swift. I wanted to match vitès avèk vitès.
The coyomorants sprinted toward me from across the street. I kept my form and calmly advanced, Tonton Macoute raised to strike. Just before they reached me, two broke off to flank me on each side. I slowed my advance. I stayed in form.
This wasn’t going to be fasil.
I struck first. The four coyomorants in front of me were surprised. I smiled.
Three quick Rising Butterfly strikes separated three of the coyomorants’ heads from their bodies. The coyomorants were built by the Clockmaker for speed and agility, not strength. Papa trained me for speed. But Papa also trained me for strength.
I stepped into Form of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing and unleashed brutal savagery on the last coyomorant in front of me. It didn’t stand a chance. It didn’t look like a coyomorant when I was finished with it.
In my peripheral vision, I could see the flanking coyomorants pounce. I stepped into Form of the Monarch. I needed the confidence from that form. This was going to hurt. And it did.
The two coyomorants swiped and slashed and raked and sliced. I parried and deflected most of their blows. But not all of them.
Their claws found my ribs and my forearms and my thighs and my lower back. But I did not fall. I did not drop Tonton Macoute.
But I was getting tired. I knew I couldn’t last much longer.
Michaëlle-Annabelle’s bottom lip quivers. Tears stand in her large, lovely dark brown eyes.
So I stepped into Form of the Viceroy. I feinted left and then right. Both coyomorants flinched back to avoid Tonton Macoute. Enpi, with a smooth spin that flowed into Form of the Rising Butterfly again, I sliced left and then right. Heads rolled.
I could hardly catch my breath. My chest was heaving. I wanted to collapse.
And when I saw that all of the adults had come back outside with their pipes and their hoes and their rakes and their machetes to help me fight the rest of the coyomorants, I did collapse. Mwen te fatige.
“And so are you,” I say to Michaëlle-Annabelle, wiping the spilled tears from her baby-fat cheeks and tucking the covers under chin.
She yawns. “Tell me the story ankò, but this time all in Kreyòl.” Her voice is sleepy.
“Aw, ti boubou, I have to go. I have to find manman mwen ak papa mwen.”
“Silvouplè, Michaëlle-Isabelle,” she begs.
“Dakò. But I will tell it in Kreyòl ak Anglais again because y manman ak y papa told me you need to practice your Anglais.”
“Mèsi!” Michaëlle-Annabelle murmurs, and takes my hand into hers.
“No one wanted to come out of their houses. Not at first,” I start all over again, but I don’t get any further than that because Michaëlle-Annabelle is fast asleep.
About the Author
Malon Edwards was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, but now lives in the Greater Toronto Area, where he was lured by his beautiful Canadian wife. Many of his short stories are set in an alternate Chicago and feature people of color. Malon serves as Grants Administrator for the Speculative Literature Foundation, which provides a number of grants for writers of speculative literature.
About the Narrator
Mandaly Louis-Charles has been running the Haitian Creole Blog for five years now and is an advocate for the Creole language. The blog promotes the Haitian Creole language to foreigners and natives. The blog’s Twitter page @creolelingo publishes daily Haitian Creole words and terms for native and foreigners.
Mandaly just completed a project creating the first ever Creole alphabet song and animated video for the Creole language as the alphabet is unknown to most Haitians at this time. This successful project was done in collaboration with MIT linguistic professor Michel Degraff. Info on the alphabet Creole song may be found on the blog here.