Read The Penalty Online

Authors: Mal Peet

The Penalty (8 page)

Faustino finished his beer, then went inside and took a long shower. When he returned to the balcony the Church of the Vulture was a silhouette against a dirty sky smudged with stars. From somewhere, the lilt of reggae and a whiff of sewage. From the street below, voices and laughter. He lit a cigarette and looked down.

A game of football was in progress under the sour yellow light of the street lamps. Twenty kids, maybe, and a handful of smashed-looking adult spectators squatting with their backs against the wall, sharing beers and joints. One of the players was a skinny kid with his hair shaved close to his scalp, and he was taking the whole thing very seriously. His voice rose above the others; rose all the way to Faustino.

“Cross!”
he yelled.
“Jesus, man! Why dincha cross? I was unmarked, man!”

And then he was off again, hurtling back into the dimness between one lamp and the next, ferocious in his pursuit of a much bigger boy.

There were, Faustino concluded, two ways of looking at what had happened to Max Salez.

One: he had been brutishly assassinated while doing what good journalists – proper journalists – should be doing. Fearlessly shining the flickering torch of truth into the dark corners where the rats of criminality lurked and scrabbled. Two: he was a clueless prat who’d got too close to the action and paid the price for it. But in fact it didn’t really make much difference which view you took. Because no matter what the sad bastard had been doing, he hadn’t deserved to get dumped into the liquid filth of San Juan’s harbour with a goat-slitter shoved into his vital organs. Faustino surprised himself by feeling something like righteous indignation. People ought not to be able to murder journalists and get away with it. It wasn’t like they were dope dealers or pimps.

So what should he, Faustino, do? Well, clearly he should stick it out in San Juan, try to ensure that Max’s murder wasn’t conveniently buried in some police file and forgotten. He owed the poor fool that much. (And on the subject of burying, who in God’s name would put Max in the ground? Who would be at the funeral? Who would
organize
the funeral? It was somehow hard to imagine that he had parents, brothers, sisters, friends. Faustino hurriedly retreated from this line of thought.)

Then there was the Brujito story. Such a
good
story; and there it was, dangling right in front of Faustino’s nose. It should be taken, written, finished. As a fitting epitaph for Maximo Salez, as much as anything else. What’s more, Max’s death – if it was connected with the case – made it even better. And despite what that shifty so-and-so Bakula had said, Faustino was pretty sure there
was
a connection. Max had known something, something he’d not wanted to tell Faustino. Something he’d got from the cops, presumably; and following it up had earned him a knife in the chest.

Yes, there were good reasons for staying in San Juan. The cowardly alternative was to scuttle for safety, to get the hell out while he was still in one piece.

There was no real choice.

He went inside and called the airport. There was a two forty-five flight the following afternoon. He booked himself on it, then closed the doors onto the balcony. The last thing he heard was a mixed chorus of jeers and cheers, and the skinny kid shouting,
“Aw, man! It was there for the taking! The hell were you doing?”

Faustino got dressed and went downstairs. At reception he asked the girl to make up his bill ready for the morning. Then he walked the two blocks to the main road, where he hailed a taxi and told the driver to drop him off at a place on North Beach called Jaquito’s. There he ate the seafood special, which was ordinary, and drank too much. He developed a sudden need for company, and as a result had a blurry misunderstanding with a Spanish-looking guy whose girlfriend he’d been chatting up at the bar. For some reason the cabby who drove him back to the hotel just before midnight announced that he’d been an alcoholic until he’d been embraced by the irresistible love of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He gave Faustino a business card which showed a taxi driving towards a vast crucifix that radiated beams like a lighthouse. In return, Faustino gave him the smallest tip in the history of cabbying.

When he’d got the door to his room open, Faustino’s foot skidded on something that lay on the polished veneer floor. Cursing, he reached out to steady himself and by chance his hand landed on the main light switch.

The thing that had almost put him on his back was an envelope. Both it and the single sheet of paper inside were printed with the name of the hotel. The note read:

Meet me in the cathedral 10 a.m.
E. Bakula.

Three: Blessing

I
DIDN’T GO
to the cane fields. I was put to work in the sugar mill, in the crushing yard. Unloading the cane from the ox wagons, feeding it to the presses, cleaning the runnels the juice ran down, fetching the mush over to the rum house. I kept quiet. I watched, I learned. I didn’t let myself die inside, like some of the others. The ones who had gone ghost. I built a shrine in my head. My father was in there, making a cup of his hands for his own blood. The faces from the death ship were in there, and the bodies rolling in the sea like logs. Abela was in there. And the walls and the roof of the shrine were the teachings of the pai.

The boss of the mill was an old man with one eye that was blind and milky. He liked me for my steadiness. He had been born on the plantation, and knew the white man’s language, which he taught me. He also told me about the white men’s Worship, about their god who was murdered. He thought that was why they loved death so much and took it with them everywhere.

In the three years I was in the mill, I saw Colonel d’Oliviera no more than six times. The first was the morning after we got off the boat. I stood with the other four men he had bought and he came and looked at us. He was not young and not old. He was the first person I had seen who had eyes the colour of the sea. He spoke harshly to Morro, about Abela, I think, and also about the damage to my lip. Morro kept quiet, staring at the ground, but I could smell his rage. Always after that, when Morro saw me, he would watch me with his hot eyes, looking for some reason to whip me. I never gave him a reason, and that fed his hatred.

One day at the beginning of my fourth year, the colonel came to the mill. He came with a tall black woman, a very proud-looking one wearing a blue turban and a white dress that she hitched up off the ground to keep clean. I didn’t know it then, but it was Ma Rosa, who was in charge of the colonel’s house. I watched from the corner of my eye while they talked with the boss. Then the boss brought them over to where I was. Ma Rosa stood in front of me, looking me up and down. She asked me some questions, but she was also asking other questions with her eyes. She looked into me. After some silence she nodded and spoke to the colonel. Then they went away.

The boss said to me, “You save now, or in shit. I don’t know which.”

Next day, I started work up at the house.

Time passed, years unfolded, full of things and the names of things.
Saw, wedge, hatchet. Spade, rake, hoe. Charcoal, bellows, anvil, saddle, stirrup; whip
I already knew.
Griddle, kettle, saucepan, jug, flour, pepper. Carpet, chandelier. Goblet, spoon, plate, napkin, tureen.

One day, there was a big fuss. Ma Rosa roamed among us like a fierce animal. In the afternoon three boats arrived, and more white people than I had seen since San Juan were carried up the hill. Women as well as men. Meat was roasted in a pit behind the house. I hoped the smell of it wouldn’t be unkind enough to drift over to the cabins where we lived.

When the sun was falling I had to take the slops down to the pigs. When I returned, there was a girl leaning against the wall of the back kitchen looking at the sky and fanning her face with a big leaf. I’d never seen her before, even though she was dressed in house clothes. She had eyes that could smile, and they smiled at me.

Later, when the colonel’s guests had eaten and we’d had the leavings, which were good, there was a revel. There were candles in glass bowls all along the veranda where the whites sat, flapping their hands at the yellow moths that filled the air. A slave band played, the drummers and a kora player and an old man who played a fiddle holding it against his hip. Behind them all the slaves sat in a big half-circle, and there were tall torches stuck in the ground. Round the edge of the light, Morro and the white gang bosses stood with their guns in their arms and whips in their belts, watching, scratching their crotches.

I was one who brought drinks and fruit and manioc cakes to the white people, and the girl was another. One time I went to the kitchen with a tray and she was there, ladling punch into cups. She stopped when she saw me and stood straight and still. Half her face was gold in the candlelight.

Yes, I remember this.

I asked her name.

She said, “White name Dolores.”

I said, “True name?”

She said, “Asuntula.”

It was not a name among my people. I had trouble saying it, and she made a little laugh, hiding her mouth behind her hand.

Then she said, “It mean Blessing.”

A magic thing happened next. She reached out and ran her finger softly along my lip, pausing where the kink in it was. The first time, in that life, anyone touched me gently. Inside I felt like trees move in the wind.

She said, “I know your name. Ma Rosa tell me.”

“Why she tell you?”

“Because I ask her,” she said.

Then she took up the tray of cups and carried them to the door.

I said, “I’ll call you Blessing.”

She stopped and half turned and dipped her head just a little; then she was gone.

When the band rested, two kegs of watered-down rum were brought round to the front of the house. All the slaves lined up and had one drink, all using the same two cups, drinking and passing the cup on to the next. Then the colonel stood up and said to his guests, “Now the Negroes will entertain us with their African dances.”

And they were Worship dances. The women and girls dipped and swayed themselves in a big circle then in smaller circles while the men stood tall, stepping then bending. But there was confusion because we were not all one people, and sometimes the drumming stumbled, and the calls were different languages. Most of all, there was no power in the dancing because our ancestors were far, far away. And because the whites were watching, and because Morro and his men were a circle of death around us.

I saw how big my task would be.

 

A
YEAR AND
a half later, me and Blessing were married at the end of the dry season, when the cane-cutting was almost finished. It was the afternoon of the half-day rest, and the air was heavy under the hot white sky. We were one of four couples married that day. A white priest came upriver and did us as a job lot. We stood in the colonel’s part-built church, where the roof timbers cast prison-house shadows. The priest was a short fat man who wore a little black hat and a black robe with a white one over it. His face was melting. His slave stood next to him, holding up a wooden cross with their dead god nailed to it. We were married in a language none of us understood. It did not take long.

When the whites had gone into the house we held our true ceremonies in the shadowy grove behind the cabins. Ma Rosa had woven eight strong cords of cotton. Each couple held cords in their right hands, and because we had no pai, Ma Rosa tied the knots herself. Then Blessing’s mother and another mother held a long stick and we stepped over it, two by two. This was not a custom among my people and I felt foolish doing it; Blessing laughed at the look on my face. We ate corn roasted on the fire and a dish of meat that was the colonel’s gift. We drank a fruit and rum drink the mill boss had brewed for us. The musicians played, and we danced our different wedding dances as best we could. The children ran wild, and I saw Blessing’s eyes following them.

The sun slid behind the trees, a thin disc white as bone. With the darkness came a light rain, hardly more than a mist, that drifted across the grove like thin curtains.

There was a small cabin that was now ours. When we were inside, I saw that Blessing’s family had prepared it for us. Two wicks burned in dishes of oil, and the yellow light showed me that our rough bed was covered with a sheet of many colours and patterns that the house girls had sewn. A small bunch of flowers with petals like creamy flesh speckled with blood lay on the sheet. And on the floor around the bed was a line of white pebbles. I looked down at them and then looked at Blessing with a question in my eyes. She smiled and stood with her back to the bed. Her white dress was damp from the rain, and where it stuck to her I could see the beautiful shapeliness of her body. Then sideways with her foot she made a gap in the line of pebbles and said, “Wall is broke, my husband. Come through.”

So I reached out and touched her.

Then the door smashed open and evil came in.

The instant I was seized I smelled Morro’s stink. One of the lamps died. Blessing tried to get through the door but Morro pushed her back. Two men had me by the arms and throat and a filthy hand covered my mouth. My legs were kicked from under me and then I was outside in the rain and the darkness that had been a world away. I fought and tried to bite, then something like lightning struck my head. A dark hole opened in front of me and slowly I fell into it, and as I fell I heard Blessing scream.

Then the scream and everything else was far above me and then gone.

When I came back to life I tried to get onto my knees but one of the overseers pushed me down again with his foot. I curled up in the wet dust close to the dying fire and sickness filled my body and my mind.

Some time passed and then I heard Morro call. The overseers went away, leaving their laughter and their pipe smoke hanging in the air.

The cabin door was leaning broken. I held on to the doorpost to keep from falling. Inside, Blessing was huddled in a corner, covering her nakedness with the white dress. Her face was turned away from me, her eyes tight shut, and when I spoke her name she did not move. The flowers were crushed in the twists of the wedding sheet.

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