Set in 1942 on the imagined island of San Carlos—a cultural cocktail of Trinidad, Cuba, and Jamaica—this is the story of Estrella Thompson, a headstrong fourteen-year-old girl who’s forced to fend for herself when she’s banished from the isolated fishing village where she’s lived all her life.
“The Caribbean tragi-comedy of class and colour finds a richly eloquent voice in this pin-sharp innocent abroad.” —The Independent
“[Channer] writes with rare transparency, as though this story of a 14-year-old outcast welled up from the depths of the collective unconscious . . . a jewel of a book.” —Booklist
“A picaresque set on the fictional Caribbean island of San Carlos in 1942, Channer’s rewarding and tense novella follows the journey of fishing village outcast Estrella Thompson, a precocious 14-year-old with a woman’s body who seeks shoes, employment and acceptance.” —Publishers Weekly
“There’s something timeless about Estrella’s yearning for a better life . . . a fairy-tale novella of betrayal and hope.” —Kirkus Reviews
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They were sitting on old buckets, scaling fish beneath an almond tree, when someone pointed to the water and they all began to shout.
They were hardy children who'd been raised in isolation on a crescent beach below a cliff, and had experienced many horrors — drownings, stabbings, births, and storms. But when they saw a one-eyed monster rising from the deep, they dropped their tools and dashed off in a blur of skirts and faded tunics to the clump of shacks in which they lived, raising clouds of sand as white as salt.
The eldest girl, Estrella Thompson, would be fifteen soon, and thought herself mature. She'd recently begun to read, which had created an awareness of a universe beyond San Carlos. So, unlike her friends, she was interested in the war.
The war was taking place in Europe, a place she'd only heard about the year before. Poland. Antwerp. Riga. Spain. The names were sparkling gems of sound that shimmered with a range of possibilities that went beyond the dreams of all her neighbors in the cove. So on the rare occasions that she'd had the chance to travel into town, she'd steal away to loiter in the little shops in Woodley, the district of the artisans adjacent to the port. There, she'd listen to the intonations of the BBC announcer on the redifusion box and be transported like a person who'd gone to see a medium for a glimpse of life across the void into the other world.
On these nights more than others, as she curled up in the hammock she shared with other girls beneath a shed beside her old grandmother's hut, Estrella would gaze outside the window as she fingered old newspapers and her cache of stolen books, dreaming of the day when she'd be rescued from this place where nothing happened.
So while the others ran, she hid behind the almond tree and watched in fearful fascination as the creature loomed.
It wasn't until the mask had been removed that Estrella, who'd never been to school or traveled much on her tiny island, understood that what she thought had been a monster was a human being — a scuba diver in a rubber suit.
She stepped out from behind the tree and walked toward him in her old blue frock with eyelet lace around the hem, hips moving widely underneath the faded fabric, giving insight to the marvel of her shape. She was tall and big-boned with mannish shoulders and a long face with sharp cheeks. Her eyes were bright and slanted, and although her skin was darker than a Coke, she had a length of wavy hair.
"What are you wearing?" she asked in English, which she rarely had the need to use, since everyone around her spoke Sancoche.
"It lets me breathe beneath the water."
They talked for several minutes, during which he explained some of his duties; then he disappeared below the surf.
In Sancoche, her native dialect, Estrella kept repeating as the ripples disappeared, "I never even thought to dream of seeing a thing like that."CHAPTER 2
"You can go on with you stupidness."
Two days had passed, and Tucker Ross had heard the story many times from many people, but most often from the girl, his granddaughter by the common law.
"Big Tuck," she said, insistently, "is true."
He fanned as if her words were buzzing insects.
"A man can't breathe underwater no matter what he put on his body or his head, Estrella. I really think is a mermaid you see. It have different kinds, you know. And I heard it have some that look like man, in truth."
They'd just completed dinner, and Estrella, who'd replayed her visitation many times, had told the story once again, with every detail in its place — the fellow was a blue-eyed Yankee soldier, and he'd told her he was part of something called "man hoovers," which meant he and some other men were practicing a thing they had to do. And the thing they had to practice was to stick a thing like dynamite on German boats below the waterline and blow them up.
The night was hot, and she was sitting on a woven mat beneath the hut in which she lived with Big Tuck and her grandmother, Roselyn — a dark, thick-featured woman with a golden tooth that twinkled when she talked.
Roselyn had arrived in San Carlos in the 1920s from Havana, but she wasn't Cuban. She was a Trinidadian who'd gone to work in Cuba as a waistress in the early 1900s, brooding as she served her body to the Yankee soldiers stationed on the island to secure it in the nom de guerre of freedom — whose baptismal name is profit — after the Spanish-American War.
If she could, she would've returned to Trinidad; but word had traveled to her mother that she was a prostitute; and her mother, who for years had kept Roselyn's children, sent a message that she'd bought a special cricket bat to beat them nasty ways out of her dirty, worthless daughter if she ever came to Trinidad again.
When Roselyn moved to San Carlos, she'd left a daughter behind, a daughter born in Havana ... father unknown. Years later, when this daughter died in labor, Roselyn went to Cuba for her newborn child.
Almost dead at birth, that child, Estrella Thompson, grew up to be advanced beyond her years.
Like the other dwellings in the camp, the hut was roofed in thatch and set at shoulder height on wooden stilts. On the hottest evenings, Estrella and her family would eat below it on the shaded sand, which had been shielded from the heat.
"Is not stupidness," she offered in the rumbling cadence of Sancoche. "It have a lot o' things going on in this world we ain't know 'bout up here down this coast. Even in town things going on. Is only we don't know nothing. All we know is fish. Catch fish. Scale fish. Eat fish. Fry fish."
Big Tuck sat with his belly pressing on his dark brown shirt. He was squat and hairy, with skin the orange-brown of rum; and his chest and arms were bulky still from rowing boats and pulling nets for almost all his eighty years.
"I ain't disbelieve you when you say you see what you say you see," he told her in a silly voice that made her younger cousins giggle and her old grandmother laugh. "But all I know is that a man can't breathe underwater no matter what he put on. I ain't have to go to no school to know that."
"You know from the other day she start to read she getting different," Roselyn said with a gentle tease. "She start to know everything — even things that nobody ain't suppose to know until they dead. Because is only when you dead you can see certain things. I ain't think it was a mermaid at all. I think she dead in truth and see a ghost."
"When she tell me that she teach herself to read, I frighten," said Big Tuck with admiration. He tapped Estrella's leg and handed her a cigarillo and his flask of rum.
"Tuck, she's a child, you know. She ain't suppose to drink no rum. It ain't have any beer?"
"Rose, you ain't see she's a woman? Leave the blasted child alone."
"Tuck," implored Estrella, smiling at him warmly, as she smoked and took a swig. "Look how long I tell you send me to school. But you only want keep me here to fish."
"Estrella," he replied, easing Roselyn from his lap and taking on a more attentive pose, "if you was in town right now, and the boss man come and ask you what kind o' work you want to do, what you would tell him, in truth?"
"I ain't know what kind o' work there is," Estrella answered promptly. "But I could work in a shop or in the bank. As long as you could count, you could do them kind o' things. How hard them work could be more than selling fish? Things is things. If you could sell one thing you could sell another thing, as long as you know how it measure, and how much a measure is the price. And most things they sell in these shops ain't have to measure. They just sell off a shelf one by one. All I would have to do is put them in a bag, make sure I give the right change, and don't insult nobody, which to me might be the hardest part, because in truth it have some people who will agitate you nerves."
"Is where you getting these thoughts?" her grandmother asked. A tone of slight concern had seeped into her voice.
"I have it in my head long time to do something, Grandma. But I just ain't get the chance to even know what I could do. How I going to know? Who going tell me? Them people here?" She gestured broadly. "I ask the fellow that was doing man hoovers what I could do if I leave here, and he tell me I could do anything if I only put my mind."
"So," her grandmother said, "you let a stranger tell you what to do with you life?"
"You know it have a lot o' educated dunces in this world," Big Tuck pointed out. "Take Rawle boy. They send he away to university in the mother country and I hear he ain't pass no exam. I hear is bare zero he getting up at the place there ..." He paused to find the word. "Camron or Campton or Cam Ditch or some rass. That and Oxfam is the two biggest school they have in England they say. What kind o' man get opportunity like that and come back with two long hand and no qualification ... no doctor ... no engineer ... no barrister? That is why I keep myself right here. Rawle ain't know the white man school hard like brick or he wouldn't gone and fail. And he a white man too. Me? I stick with what I know. The fish in my blood. And Estrella, it in your blood too. If you let that go is death."
"If I stay here and don't do nothing with myself then that would kill me worse," she blurted, adding childish frills along her intonation. For although Big Tuck was funny, he was quick to take offense. And when he was upset he could be cruel.
They ain't understanding what I trying to say, Estrella thought. But maybe I should keep it to myself.
She'd not been led to reading by a great ambition — that was something reading had produced. But this wasn't easy to explain.
A year before, in 1941, on a market trip to the capital, Seville, she'd wandered off while running errands, and had taken up a spot across the street from La Sala de Amor to watch the cars arriving with the idle wives of businessmen and English civil servants.
La Sala, as Carlitos knew it, was the first of many mansions on the Queensway to be sold for business use. It was large and white, with thick limestone columns; and between the columns ran a lacy banister whose loops and swirls in black conferred a lingerie allure to anyone who dined on the veranda, basking in the currents driven by the celebrated fan, an engineering marvel that was bolted to the ceiling and whose giant wings, which had been woven in the previous century from a fiber that grew only in the Yucatán, made slow, gigantic swoops.
The Queens, as people called it, was an upward-sloping mile that started at a square beside the harbor and ended at the governor's imposing gate.
In Spanish times it had been known as the Paseo, and was the site of much parading by the rich. In its center was a flowered median lined with rows of royal palms, curving trails with benches made of heavy wood, and gas-illuminated globes that seeped a misty sentimental light.
That day, as she watched the wives arriving for their lunch, Estrella recognized a chauffeur as a man who often bought fish from her grandmother, and she tried to make a sale.
"Oyi!" she shouted from a bench beneath a tree. "It have some good jack and parrot today. Nice bonito too. I save up some for you. When you finish you should come."
With his finger quickly brought across his lip, the man, whose job was marked by nothing more official than a visor, tossed his head, inviting her to cross the street. There, he introduced her to another driver as "the smartest little girl you'll ever meet."
"What kind o' woman you calling little girl?" the man replied. He wore a pith helmet and an ivory jacket with a scarlet sash.
"She overgrow," the man she knew remarked. "Overgrow and overripe."
"Is the fish she eating make her bottom juicy so?"
While the drivers talked about her as if she wasn't there, Estrella watched the people on the grand veranda, dreaming, and by accident observed something designed to be unseen.
When a husband moved across the veranda to greet a friend who'd just arrived, a waiter slipped his wife a note that had been scribbled by another man, a quiet diner seated by himself across the aisle.
The reaction to the written word was something that the girl had never seen. The lady's face, which before the note had been as plain and inexpressive as an egg, began to crackle with a smile.
It was a smile that wasn't triggered by the mouth, that only ended there, that looked as if it had begun somewhere inside the woman's liquid core. And that was when Estrella knew that writing was an elemental force, like hurricanes and floods, and began to visualize the stream of words she'd like to share with someone she loved.
That very day, she stole the first of many books, a language primer slid beneath the skirt along an aisle in McSweeney's, followed by a lesson here and there in phonics for a penny, which she took on credit from an eight-year-old girl who worked behind the counter in her father's Chinese shop.
However, in the weeks that followed her encounter with the diver, Estrella's greatest problem wasn't books. It was the Star.
Before she'd begun to read, the daily paper was a thing — a thing a mother used to line the box she turned into a cradle; a thing a child would fold to make a hat when it would rain; a thing that everybody used to wipe their bottoms; a yellow thing you picked out of the garbage when you went to town; a thing for everyone to use.
But in the weeks that followed her encounter, Estrella had begun to keep some papers for herself.
Because no one believed her story, she began to read the papers with the single-minded effort of a lawyer on the quest for vindicating proof. And to her family and neighbors, it appeared as if she'd pulled away.
It unsettled them to watch her reading ... smiling to herself ... whispering fancy words ... her finger pointing all the time ... her head bowed like she praying to the damn rass thing.
If you play you drum or pluck you cuatro when the gal was reading one, she'd walk away. What kind o' thing is that? And when she come back after she done walk away and you ask her what it really have inside that thing, she only want to tell you things 'bout other places — like where we from ain't place.
So although they were amazed that one of them had learned to read, they also felt as if the girl had put them under siege, a sense that if they didn't act, then history would remember them as people who'd watched and waited while their way of life was slowly laid to waste.
As days turned into weeks, Estrella found herself preparing fish beneath the almond tree alone. People whispered. When they had too much to drink sometimes, they'd lob their blazing words.
Is them things you reading in them papers have you head so tie up. You think we born big so we ain't know how children can be devious? If is you dead mother telling you things to come and confuse us, well, is a good thing she gone.
Intimidated by their parents and confused, the children who'd been with Estrella when the diver waded from the surf began to doubt what they'd seen. Pressured by his parents, a boy began to spread the rumor that Estrella had confided that the story was a hoax. Two girls swore on a Bible that they'd seen a mermaid flopping on the shore, long hair, gold comb, and all. But most of them just shook their heads when asked and mumbled that they didn't know, that yes, they were there, but didn't see, that so much time had passed.
Through all of this, Estrella found a way to manage. But when her younger cousins, candid children, told her that it might be better if she went away, she left the hammock where she slept with them and made a bed inside the broken body of an old canoe left rotting just outside a cave, fifty yards beyond the almond tree.
While this was happening in San Carlos, a tepid winter in the North Atlantic caused a shift in ocean streams all around the world, and the swimming patterns of the fish in the West Indies were disrupted for six weeks.
Each island had its range of local explanations. But in this corner of this island, there was only one. And after forty days of empty nets, the elders called a meeting on a desert cay.
"Big Tuck," the meeting started, "there's a problem in you house, and as a man you have to fix it."
They were sitting in a circle by a sea grape tree whose twisted branches formed a dome.
"Is not you flesh," they argued when he told them that he couldn't do what they were asking. "Everybody else who live here in some way or other is blood. The fish in we blood and it not in hers. And you is the very one that say she look you in you face and tell you right in front o' Rose that if she stay here she going dead."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Girl with the Golden Shoes"
Copyright © 2007 Colin Channer.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
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