The beast in the folds of Harry’s gut had no heart and it did not need one for his was strong enough to keep them both alive. It had neither heart nor mind nor eyes to see; it was only lips and teeth and fingers like needles that slipped inside his tongue and his bowels and even those places he did not know he had. Those unfilled hollows made its gums throb with an emptiness that might have been desire.
That night a man came to the house whose face Harry remembered from the dimness of a childhood memory. His thinning hair was combed forward over the shining dome of his skull, and the line of a moustache traced the contours of his upper lip. He sweated with an unnatural persistence from the pock-like pores on his cheeks.
“You remember your Uncle Amir,” Father said, a statement.
Harry’s eyes flickered over to Mother, who stood just behind Father, her arms crossed over her stomach. The way she sucked her tongue over her front teeth told Harry all he needed to know: this man was no brother of hers.
Uncle Amir smiled. His teeth were too large for his mouth; when the smile faded, his lips still didn’t cover the thick, yellowed ends.
“It’s good to see you again, Harry. It’s been a while.”
His English was excellent, almost unmarked. He reached a hand out, and Harry took it.
“Dinner must nearly be ready,” Mother said, pulling away. “Come, Amir. Majid’s been cooking all afternoon.”
The dining room was at the end of the hallway, behind a heavy hardwood door. The table was set for four. White candles balanced in pewter holders; Mother’s best plates—white and blue chinoiserie shipped all the way from London—sat perfectly centered before each empty chair. The tablecloth had begun to yellow—because of the humidity of Guyana’s summers, Father would always say, jovially cursing the tropics.
Father sat at the head of the table, striking up a conversation with Uncle Amir, and Amir immediately took the chair to his right. Harry cursed inwardly; this meant he would need to sit next to Mother.
Father took the white linen from under the fork and knife, shook it open, and placed it neatly on his lap. Everyone else did the same.
The cook, Majid, burst in from the kitchen, shouldering the door open, dinner balanced on the trays in his upturned palms. Harry had been listening to Father talk about work—a tedious monologue about the rising price of equipment for the mill, which had Uncle Amir nodding in vigorous assent at the end of every sentence—but his attention drained away as soon as Majid laid the plates on the jaundiced tablecloth.
It was a richer meal than what they had most weekdays: two large tilapia, one leaned against the other, their meaty sides slit open and stuffed with lemon wedges and sorrel; plantain baked until its edges had crisped, caramel-brown; a steaming bowl of channa spiced with cumin and ginger and topped with rings of sautéed onion—
—and back he came with still more plates: a pie of beef and goat (Majid’s poor facsimile of Father’s favorite: steak and kidney pie); okra roughly chopped and fried in ghee—oh, he could smell the fat!; and mango, sliced thin, spread like an orchid in bloom.
Harry reached a fork out to the tilapia, and Mother swatted his hand away.
“We have to say grace,” she scolded. Then, raising her eyes to Uncle Amir: “Would you mind?”
Uncle Amir recited a short, elegant grace, thanking Father for giving him and the others at the mill such fulfilling work. Father nodded thoughtfully, and the meal began.
Harry went at once for the fish, taking a whole tilapia for himself. He cut it open just down the middle, pulling away that sweet, flaky meat with his fork before lifting out the spine and troublesome ribs—he’d come back for those later. He scarfed down the fish skin and all, gratefully swallowing and immediately returning for more. The beast rumbled pleasantly in his stomach, its jaws receiving the food Harry chewed for it, its snakelike throat slicked by Harry’s saliva. He returned to the tilapia’s charred head and used the point of his knife to carve out its fleshy cheeks. He especially loved the salt, the sweetness, and the softness of the cheeks—next, the eyes.
He only slowed when he noticed, after a few more throatfuls of fish, that Mother was pinching him under the table. She had dug her fingers into the skin just below where his shorts cut off, twisting the fat on his thigh.
“Harold,” she hissed, mouth drawn. “You’re eating like an animal again.”
Harry put his fork down, pulled his leg away, and wiped his mouth with the napkin. He ignored the heat of her stare, the nettle of her prying, meddling eyes, and focused on his plate.
“That’s settled then!” Father broke away from a conversation with Uncle Amir that Harry hadn’t been listening to. “Harry, my boy, you’re coming to see the mill tomorrow. How about that?”
Harry lifted a slice of the pie off of the serving dish.
He ate a heaping forkful of the pie. It was wonderful: the goat was soft, savory, fatty; the salt and animal juices and hot water crust all came together on his tongue. The beast pushed up, stretching open the base of his esophagus, unfurling its own eager tongue.
Mother put her fork down as she watched, then pushed her full plate away.
“You’ll be lucky to have your Father’s job one day,” Uncle Amir said, wiping his moustache with the crisp edge of his napkin. “You have a few years yet, but it’s never too early to get started at the family business.” He gave an ostentatious wink.
Mother excused herself, saying she was beginning to feel nauseous, and Majid came to clear the plates. As he did, heaping dirty silverware on top of plates balanced expertly up his arms, Uncle Amir came and sat next to Harry.
“I have something for you,” he said. “Something you might like too, Reginald.”
Father leaned in, his curiosity piqued. Harry swallowed a mouthful of plantain.
Uncle Amir removed a thin magazine from his briefcase and placed it on the table in front of Harry. It was an old copy of The Cricketer. A player posed heroically on the cover, his bat pitched at a perfect angle, his eyes on an unseen ball spinning into the distance. Beneath the picture it said: FRANK DE CAIRES DOES IT AGAIN!
“Good lord.” Father reached for the magazine. “This was your mother’s, Harry. She had a dozen of these, back when we were together. She loved this man. Worshipped him. What was his name?”—he spoke it slowly, savoring the syllables— “I never thought I’d see this again. Do you know, Amir, did Bibi ever get to see him play?”
“Oh, sure! Mommy them went to Bourda whenever they could.” For the first time since he’d come, Amir’s accent slipped through. He corrected himself: “I remember it fondly.”
Father passed the magazine back, and Harry took it gently. He didn’t care much for cricket—sacrilege, if you were to ask the other boys at school—but he knew his mother had, and that was enough.
“Thank you,” he said, glancing up to Uncle Amir.
“Well,” Father said, pushing himself up from the table and giving a mighty stretch, “your Uncle and I have some things to talk through. You should get to bed, my boy. We’ll have a long day tomorrow.”
Harry was in no way looking forward to a long day at the sugar mill, but he gave Father a quick smile, thanked Uncle Amir again, and closed the dining room door behind himself.
The beast flexed its long fingers, pushing a little deeper into the warmth of Harry’s groin, and settled its tongue against the lining of his stomach. There were whole hours when Harry would forget the beast was there at all, hours when he could let his mind wonder at a life that was not consumed by its needs. But it would pop another vein, gorge itself on his blood, his bile, his mucus—and then heal his broken body. He suffered it all without so much as a bruise.
Instead of getting to bed, he eased open the kitchen’s side door. Majid was still there. He had his apron on while he washed grease out of dishes, his face buried in a cloud of steam rising from the sink.
“Oh!” He started when he heard the door close behind Harry. The dishes clattered back into the sink. “You scare me, boy!”
“I’m sorry, Majid. I’m just looking for a little food, if you have any left,” Harry said, playing at coyness as best he could. “Sometimes I’ll just get a little peckish at night.”
“You not eat?” the cook replied testily, cracking open the icebox. “Look how skinny you are, boy.”
“I ate. I’m just still hungry.”
Majid wrapped yesterday’s roti and a hunk of leftover tilapia in paper towels, then put it all on a small plate. Harry took the plate, and the cook returned to the dishes in the sink.
Food in hand, he headed upstairs. Father and Uncle Amir had retreated to the drawing room. He watched for a moment as their shadows moved behind the door’s frosted glass inlay; their voices were pleasant, muffled baritones.
He padded along the hallway at the top of the stairs as softly as he could. The door to Mother and Father’s room was just ajar and the lights were off. The hallway grew darker the further he went along, until he came to his room at the very end. He pulled the door just shut behind himself, slow, then switched the lamp on.
The room had been his for the twelve years he’d lived in this house, but it had been Mother’s collecting room before then. She had a fascination with the tropic wildlife, a real “naturalist’s eye,” as Father said. She trapped insects—damselflies, dragonflies, orange-spotted butterflies, blister beetles, darkling beetles, velvet ants, boring weevils—and pinned them to huge sheets of Styrofoam leaned against the walls. She’d refused to relocate the collection when Harry moved in, so he’d grown up with them here. Year after year, the bugs’ hollow carcasses would be eaten away by mites, but there was an infinite number of insects in the jungle and Mother never tired of finding more.
Harry was allowed the two bottom drawers of the dresser in his room; all the others were filled with longhorn beetles and boxes of pins. In the very bottom drawer, tucked in a corner behind his always freshly-starched school uniforms, he kept the few things he had that reminded him of his birthmother: a fishing hook, a photo of her in front of her old house, and now, The Cricketer. On his knees, he took out the photo. She wasn’t especially beautiful. Her skin was dark—at least, because of Father, Harry was light enough to pass as British—and, like Uncle Amir’s, her front teeth stuck out when she smiled. But his only memories of life with her were golden, sweet things—memories that didn’t include the beast.
“This is disgusting, you know.”
Mother stood in the doorway. Harry shoved the picture back into the drawer, slid it shut. She stepped into the room, blocking the lamplight, and reached a finger down to the plate of food. She flicked the corners of the paper towel apart, revealing the heaping roti and half-eaten fish.
“What’re you going to do with all this?” She adjusted the bow at the neck of her powder blue nightgown, pulling it breathlessly tight.
“I get hungry at night.”
“You should be eating downstairs. With a fork and knife. At a table.” She crinkled her nose at the lukewarm tilapia, covered it again. “I’ll tell Majid not to let you upstairs with food anymore.”
She left, and Harry closed the door tightly this time. Even cold, the roti smelled of garlic and mustard oil—he had to stop himself from reaching out. He was hungry now, but the beast would be much hungrier before the night was over.
He turned the light out and laid on top of his sheets. He listened until Majid finished in the kitchen, Uncle Amir said goodbye, and Father had come upstairs and eased the bedroom door shut behind himself and the house was entirely silent, entirely still.
Harry packed the food into his schoolbag, slung it over his shoulder, and made his way downstairs. He knew just which floorboards would groan under his weight, just which stairs would squeal in the early morning’s dusty quiet. He never left through the front door—the clunk of the deadbolt as it slid open would wake Mother from her shallow sleep—so he padded down the hall, to the kitchen. Majid was long gone by now, back in his home with wife at the far end of town. The kitchen had a door that opened onto the backyard so Majid could take garbage out unseen by Harry’s parents. Harry gently opened this door, left it unlocked, and slipped into the warm night.
The waxing moon split the world into pale greys and slanting darkness. No light came from the queer, square houses of the compound, but even in the dark Harry knew his way across the lawns and to the break in the wooden fence that separated British families from the town itself.
The beast lurched as soon as he stepped onto the street and the fence hid the compound from view. Harry expected this, though. He feared, sometimes, that the beast knew his mind as well as his body; he stayed up some nights imaging that if it pressed its long tongue to curve of his brain it could taste his intentions in the sparking of his synapses.
The beast settled, pressing its weight into his bowels, and Harry walked on.
Provenance was a long city, a strand of streets and homes clinging to the hem of the Demerara’s silty waters. He walked to the river’s edge, turning off of the paved roads and onto smaller, muddy paths, and continued west. The city changed the further out he went. The British Officers’ groomed, orderly houses gave way to smaller homes: squat, wooden constructions, balanced on stilts, that overlooked the swollen river and the jungle beyond.
He finally had to stop just before he reached the docks. He could stand a little pain from the beast: a clip of its teeth, a prick of its fingers. But it grew more incensed the further out he went, sinking its fingertips into the knobs of his spine and drawing its teeth over the tendons holding his kneecaps to their muscles. He fell heavily onto his hands and knees, his breathing labored.
He slid the backpack off and took out the tilapia and roti. He ripped off a chunk of the roti and crammed it into his mouth, barely chewing before choking it down and readying another fistful. He felt the beast heave upward out of his stomach and reach its greedy jaws to the base of his esophagus. It downed the food heartily, thoughtlessly. Harry ate and ate until there was only a thin layer of roti remaining and the beast had settled back into his intestines, gorged for a time.
He came to a narrow pier at the end of the street. It rocked gently with the current, the water sloshing beneath. A girl, Alice, stood at the far end. She raised a hand to wave; Harry smiled and waved back.
“Wasn’t sure you’d make it,” she said when he got to the pier’s end. She sat back down, dangling her bare feet over the edge.
“Every Friday.” He took a seat beside her and scrounged a lighter out of his backpack. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
Alice slipped two loose cigarettes out of her jeans pocket. She was an Arawak, one of the people who lived in the jungles before the blacks and coolies were brought by the British, and before the British, too. She lived on the other side of the river with her brothers, who fished the Demerara by night.
She put a cigarette between her lips, and Harry fumbled with his lighter, rubbing his thumb raw against the wheel.
He didn’t care much for girls at school—another failing in the eyes of his cricket-obsessed classmates—but Alice was different. He wasn’t sure that what he felt for her was sexual: she was older than him, and boyish, too, with her close-cropped hair, square face, and jeans. She smoked with a practiced, world-weary ease, and when he first told her that he’d never even lit a cigarette before she did not laugh or condescend; she simply showed him how.
Harry finally got a steady flame from the lighter and he lit the cig, breathing in deeply. He let the smoke settle in his chest for as long he could stand. The beast was quiet while the tobacco lingered in his throat and pricked his gums; for the time it took for the cigarette to burn itself low, Harry could try to forget that his body was not his own.
“My father’s taking me to the mill tomorrow,” Harry said after a while. “He wants me to be ready to work with him when I’m done school.”
“Is that what you want to do?” she asked.
“I haven’t really thought about it.”
Swarms of gnats hung low over the river, rising and falling as if touched by the breath of an unseen giant. A fish broke from the water, leaping high in a flash of silver, its sinuous body curved with the effort of flight. When it fell it hit the river with a crack like a gunshot.
“It’s not such a raw deal,” Alice said, tilting her head to look at him. “You’ll have all the money you’d need, and a job lined up. Better than fishing this river for money. Better than cutting cane.”
“You know,” Harry said, regretting he’d brought up the mill at all, “I’ve never been on the other side of the river. At least not since my mother died. It’s so long ago, I don’t remember.”
Alice laughed her dry laugh. A cloud covered the moon, and for a moment the only light came from the reddened ends of their cigarettes.
“I’m not sure you’d like it. It’s not like Provenance. No shops, no bakeries, no buses to take you to school.”
She pulled her feet out of the water and positioned herself closer to Harry, her elbow on the pier and the back of her head cupped in her hand. She looked up at him, and smoke drifted lazily from between her lips. Her eyes flickered upward, made contact with his. The urge to lean down and touch her—to just kiss her—overtook him suddenly, and he slid his hand along the pier’s pulpy wood, closer to hers.
The thought must have occurred to the beast, too, for it rumbled awake out of its nicotine-coated sleep. Its fingers pried clumsily at the bottom of his esophagus; its tongue slithered up, soft and wet.
Harry let it rise in his throat. He felt a warmth spread through his chest, a confidence he’d never before possessed; he felt he could lean down now and kiss her on the lips and it wouldn’t change their friendship, wouldn’t change that at all, it would only—
A motor rumbled downriver. Alice sat up, pulling herself away, and the dream collapsed. The beast slithered back, dragging any confidence Harry might have felt down with it. Alice took a last, long pull, then stubbed out the cigarette on the pier.
“Sounds like my brothers are almost back. You’d better get going.”
“Yeah,” Harry said, giving a small, false smile. He felt the heat of his face going red; he couldn’t let her see the shame that filled hollow where the beast had been. “Time to get home, anyway. Thanks for the smoke.”
He put his lighter back in the bag, waved goodbye, and started back down the pier.
The beast had been with him from the time before he was. It found its skin off the stone-cradled coast of Baleswar and took teeth from the mouths of sightless catfish slicked in the muds of the Hooghly; it found fingers in the splintered iron wreck of a sunken steamer—those half-eaten Company men suspended in the deep watched, unseeing—and then pushed onward, upstream, to break the surface off Kolkata’s restless, sweat-streaked banks. Its lips—what practiced, deceitful lips—it pinched from a gora in a white cotton shirt and crisp straw boater, bent at the waist over the rail of a ferryboat, his clean-shaven face so close they all but kissed as it rose to meet him.
On the banks it found a Bengali farmer, a devout Muslim and a newlywed, too, and it buried itself deep inside him. It stayed with him for a year, in guileless sleep, until the man and his wife sailed that unbordered ocean to a place they knew nothing of, a world they could hardly imagine but was richly described by their sahibs and Her Majesty’s Officers.
One night when the ocean churned and the ship’s passengers cowered in darkness, all lanterns gone out, the merchant lay with his wife. The beast slicked itself inside the man’s heavy cock and spread itself inside his wife and when, at last, they emerged from the belly of that ship and stepped onto Georgetown’s streets, the beast lived inside yet another: a child who would be born to this unknown country, this ancient jungle.
Father had a motorcycle that had been brought by ship from London; a sleek, chrome-buffed Norton Manx painted a royal oxblood and fitted with all the most fashionable accoutrements. Though the sugar mill was only just over a mile from the house, Father still drove the bike there and back every day.
“She’s got enough space for the both of us,” he assured Harry as they readied themselves the following morning. “Just be certain to hold onto me good and tight—they need to have another go at paving this road.”
They puttered down the main road slowly, Father steering around rain-filled potholes but still managing to hit bumps and stones that jarred them both. The other Officers’ homes spun by, just beyond the wooden fence, and when they had passed the compound he took a turn that put them on a dirt road that traced the edge of the river. Indian and Arawak fishermen worked the banks, hauling crab pots out of the water, throwing nets, dragging buckets out of their mud-streaked boats that writhed with the morning’s catches: eel, chiclid, bushymouth catfish, snook, croakers, and lungfish as long as Harry’s arm.
This flew by them, too, and soon they were past all the houses, past the docks. Harry knew they were close when they came to the prison: a building as uncannily tall as it was narrow, set back from the road, with rows and rows of blacked-out windows. A hundred years past, maybe more, it had been one of the colony’s first sugar refineries; its thick walls and iron-barred doors made it a prime candidate when the British decided the city needed holding cells.
Father’s mill was just back from the prison, over the railroad tracks. It was, from what Harry could see beyond the stepped fence running the perimeter, like a small city itself. Several small, shack-like buildings encircled a three-story, whitewashed structure with a slanted roof. They crossed the fence, and Father slowed the motorcycle.
The mill was already busy. Sweating men—Indian and black alike—heaved six- and eight-foot bundles of sugarcane out of the backs of trucks parked in the lot. They pressed the cane along what looked like a low gate that was banded together by a long iron bar along its top. The bottom of the gate swung inward, and the loose cane fell onto a conveyor that rolled it into the mill. Men stood on the other side of the low gate, huge bamboo rakes in hand, pulling the cane down onto the conveyor belt.
“Come,” Father said after he’d parked in front of the mill. The motorbike’s polished, red chassis seemed alien amidst the white-and-brown tedium of the cane workers. “Let’s find Uncle Amir.”
The interior of the mill was darker and noisier than Harry had expected. The conveyor belt carried the sugarcane into a central chamber filled with machines whose purposes he could hardly guess at: steel-sided shredders with rows of spinning teeth, thick pipes that ran the walls and hissed with steam, and vats filled with dark, boiling liquids. Men with heavy gloves moved like ants in an underground colony: each knowing exactly where he was going, but none saying a word to the others.
“He should be up here,” Father said, shouldering open a door labeled Management Only. They climbed a steep flight of stairs that doubled back on itself and opened into a small room with a glass wall. The whole mill was visible beyond the glass, much as fish could be watched in a child’s aquarium.
“Harry! So glad you came today.” Uncle Amir stood from behind a small oak desk, came over to shake his hands. “I haven’t seen you in so long, and now we get to see each other twice in one week! What grand luck. Would you like milk tea?”
Harry shook his head, but Father insisted on tea for the three of them.
While Amir boiled water, Father enumerated the job’s various daily tasks—invoices, vendor inquiries, customer relations, and management. “It’s tough keeping the coolies on track and making sure production is where the bosses need it to be. So much slips through the cracks. Right?” he asked, looking to Uncle Amir.
“Right,” he said with a nod as he poured tea from a steaming pot.
Father sat Harry down at a chair with a stack of invoices—”clerical work keeps the mind organized, son”—and retreated to his own desk to answer the ringing rotary phone.
Harry’s concentration left him after alphabetizing the first six. He sat beside the only window in the room that looked outside. The view was bleak—mostly men hauling cane from the trucks, staggering with the weight—but the window had a small, wooden ledge and on the ledge was a dead caterpillar. It was an enormous, bloated, juicy creature that had only recently died. He peered closer: he recognized the markings. Mother had several moths in her collection with the same rows of dots on the wings, the same shallow—
—Harry blinked. The caterpillar was dead, clearly dead, yet could have sworn he’d seen its skin ripple. Just a slight protuberance, as if some small heart, deep inside, beat once.
His stomach turned at the thought, though the beast inside him didn’t move. In fact, despite being so far from the compound, the beast had hardly protested at all. It purred complacently—contentedly, even—from the thin lining of his intestines; he could barely tell it was there.
Somewhere inside the mill, men started yelling. This was followed by the sound of metal shrieking against metal and a long hiss of steam.
“Amir?” Father said.
Uncle Amir looked up from his paperwork, keeping his gaze away from the window onto the workers.
“Amir,” Father repeated, hanging up the phone. “Would you go look into that?”
Uncle Amir feigned surprise. “Oh yes! Yes, of course. I’ll—I’ll just be back.” He nearly tripped over himself getting down the stairs.
Father gave a pained sigh and, when Harry didn’t inquire as to the reason for the sigh, he elaborated: “He’s been having trouble with the men. He’s usually so good with them, but this blasted People’s Progressive Party is driving them apart. Amir’s a reasonable man—he understands the benefits of us being here, running things. All coolies are not as reasonable as your Uncle, Harry. That’s a good first lesson.”
The caterpillar’s skin had started moving again. First, one pulse—a single, small heartbeat—but then it came again, more strongly, pushing up against the necrotic flesh, distending it. The caterpillar’s skin tore with the pressure, and a small mouth emerged from inside: two black mandibles, sharp as sickles. A pin-waisted wasp pulled itself free, its wings slicked with the caterpillar’s viscera.
Another wasp crawled up through the hole, and the caterpillar’s body began to boil: ten more heads pushed up into the dead skin, biting hole after hole until the caterpillar was nothing more than a heap of dislocated parts, a first meal for a host of sickly-orange wasps with legs sharp as needles.
“Reginald!” Uncle Amir called from the bottom of the stairwell. “Might you—might you come down, please?”
“What’s the trouble?” Father asked from his desk. The shouting from the men downstairs grew louder as Uncle Amir kept the door propped open.
“You should bring the boy with you!” Amir yelled, and then they heard the door slam shut.
Harry pulled himself away from the caterpillar—there were just two wasps left, now; the others had taken off into the midday heat—and he followed Father downstairs.
The mill’s workfloor was chaotic: workers ran back and forth, some with pails of water from spigots outside, others with burlap tarps. The far end of the chamber was starting to fill with black smoke, and the room reeked of burning timber. One of the workers, a tall, broad black man, was yelling at Uncle Amir. His accent was too heavy for Harry to understand much of what he was saying.
Father stood paralyzed at Harry’s side. He gripped the back of Harry’s neck in his hand, squeezing just too tight.
“Should you see what’s wrong?” Harry asked.
“I—I think we should just—”
Uncle Amir jogged over. “It’s one of the processors, Reginald,” he said, his voice hoarse with inhaled smoke. “It’s lit the cane chips somehow. You should get him out of here.”
“Are you sure? I could stay if there’s anything—”
“It’s under control,” Amir retorted. He turned to go back to his men.
Father took Harry by the hand and they started out of the facility. Harry turned just before they got out, though, to see the workfloor one last time. His gaze slid from the billowing smoke to the black worker, who was standing there, watching them go. His face dripped with sweat and was streaked darkly with ash and his eyes went wide and wild with such fear, such rage, that Harry had to turn his face away.
The fires were put out, and the mill and all the cane workers survived. The mill would need some time for repairs, Father explained, but it would be back in no time at all. The fire started due to faulty machinery. All of the processors were years too old, but that wasn’t his fault, he was careful to say, that was something Amir should have told him about long before it had gotten this far.
He spoke with the bluff of bravery, but he was clearly shaken by the incident. He kept to the drawing room, fingertips stained from the endless chain of cigarettes passing through them. He came out for short, silent meals with Harry and Mother, then excused himself.
The image of the mill worker had stayed with Harry, too: he had never seen such terror carved into one man’s face. Father’s immediate retreat from the mill filled him with embarrassment, but he couldn’t bring himself to talk to Father about it, or to be there when Mother found out what had happened.
So he stayed away from the compound. Later in the week, after a day spent in too-hot classrooms thinking about his mother and her love of Frank de Caires, he found himself wandering back toward the Demerara, picking his way along a road he’d walked many times when he was a child. His mother’s house had been down this way, he thought. He had few memories of the place—he’d been so young when Father took him away to live at the compound—but there were still feelings that stayed: the croaking calls of toucans with beaks the color of ripened papaya; the static joy of hearing cricket games in countries across an ocean, broadcast over transistor radio; his mother coming home from work, her apron curry-stained, her smile wider than the river.
As it always did, the beast grew restless. It smelled the river’s sucking mud and the jackfruit trees in bloom; it tasted the brick-red dirt he kicked up from the road and the winds that brought clouds from the west blue with rain. But Harry had pilfered the kitchen before he left for school, taking what little Majid had left after breakfast: a pine tart and a tennis roll. He took a starchy bite out of a tart, and the beast quieted itself.
He came upon a house he thought he remembered. It was a split-level with wide, screenless windows, a green-tiled roof, and small yard full of mango trees. Two boys, one his age and one much younger, played with a ball and cricket bat in the front yard. Harry thought he recognized the older boy. He watched them play for a while, and, when the younger boy went to fetch the ball after a particularly enthusiastic hit, the older boy came over.
“I remember you,” he said, to Harry’s surprise. “You’re Harold, right?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry, I don’t remember . . . ”
“We grew up down the street. You’re Auntie Bibi’s kid, yeah?”
“That’s right,” Harry said. He flushed with the embarrassment of not remembering anything about this boy.
“Yeah, I remember. You always looked white. You know, like your father.”
Harry, opened his mouth, unsure of what to say.
“Well, I’m Bobby,” the boy continued, rapid fire. “Want a turn with the bat?”
He offered it over. Harry paused, startled. He wasn’t any good at cricket, and he had very little food left for the beast. It had started its rumblings again; slipping itself around the pit of his stomach, prodding those tender walls with its tongue.
“It’s gonna rain soon,” Bobby said, gesturing with his full eyebrows to the changing sky. “Might as well get a few hits in while you can.”
Harry took the bat, and walked to meet Bobby’s little brother.
He played for fifteen awkward minutes, missing more throws than he should have and failing to catch any of the balls that came his way. The other boys were good sports, though, and Harry found himself laughing more than he had in a long while.
Then, while he stood between the mango trees, watching the younger brother, Abed, pitch to his brother, Harry saw a man coming down the road. He came from the direction of the prison and the mill, dressed in a fine suit and a starched shirt. He walked haltingly, swinging long arms and drunkenly swaying.
The boys stopped their game; the ball went rolling through the grass, into the thickets beyond.
“Do you know who it is?” Harry asked.
“No, I can’t quite—”
The man staggered closer, and Harry saw that there was something wrong with his face. Half was swollen, his left eye nearly shut, and his lips were distended and purpled. Blood had run down his forehead and dried over his eyebrows, caking them.
He came near enough that all three boys could make out the rest of his face: his thin moustache, his teeth so thick his lips could hardly cover them.
They all went running.
“Uncle Amir!” Bobby called as they neared.
He looked at them but there was no recognition in his eyes, no light behind them at all. He half-fell into Bobby’s arms, and the boy couldn’t hold his weight so they collapsed together into the dirt.
“Run and get Bhauji,” Bobby said to his brother. “Run!”
The boy took off like a shot for the houses far down the road.
“And you, go and get the ferryman’s wife. She’s a nurse,” Bobby said.
Harry balked; his heart stuttered in his throat.
“I don’t know who that is.”
Bobby looked up. He had taken the corner of his shirt, wet it with his tongue, and was wiping blood off of Uncle Amir’s face. Uncle Amir’s one open eye closed.
“Down this road. Left at the fish market, left at the baker—”
Harry was nodding but he was hardly listening. The beast had grown hungrier still; it pulled at the inside of his guts with its practiced fingers; it licked at the base of his throat so he had to swallow, and swallow, and swallow—
“Shit, man,” Bobby said. “I’ll go. You stay here with him!”
Bobby ran in the opposite direction, puffs of dust rising behind him.
Harry got to his knees beside Uncle Amir. He had never felt a hunger like this before; it opened his mouth for him, wet his tongue. A long line of spit trailed from the corner of Uncle Amir’s mouth; as it moved down his cheek it crossed a line of dry blood. The beast hummed inside Harry, it pressed lips to the back of his frantic mind.
Harry leaned down. His nose brushed Uncle Amir’s cheek and his lips touched the line of spit and the flaking blood. Oh, what sweetness, what sugar! His tongue lapped out of his mouth and he soaked in the rest of Uncle Amir’s spittle and blood. He licked the face clean of dirt and sweat and the beast rejoiced with the flavors: the salt, the tang, the sticky sweet!
Harry pulled back. He was filled with the desire to take a bite— the man’s cheek was so full, so fatty. The beast asked, then begged. Then it didn’t beg, it demanded. Pain ripped through his bowels like the sting of spider-killing wasp boring through his intestines. He leaned forward at once, opening his mouth—
—and pulled back. He couldn’t feed the beast, if this was what it needed. He couldn’t, and yet no tennis roll had ever look as soft and as perfectly firm as Amir’s licked-clean cheek. It was plump as a quail’s breast, and it smelled like ghee. He leaned in once more and fitted his teeth into the thin, soft flesh just above Amir’s jaw. He pressed in, his crushed nose breathing in the savory warmth of his Uncle’s skin: the scent of freshly fried pholourie. Amir’s blood seeped into his mouth, washed in along his gums.
Harry pulled away from his Uncle’s face and wiped the blood off his lips. Abed came hurtling back down the road with Bhauji. She was a small woman who wore a purple-flowered headscarf that flapped at the nape of her neck as she hurried to keep pace. She was out of breath from running, and her words came through in spit-racked sobs:
“He done vex those mill men now!”
She dropped to the ground. Amir seemed to be coming to himself again; his right eye blinked open when he heard her say his name.
“Come here, boy,” Bhauji said to Harry.
“Come on!” Abed implored. He pulled at his Uncle’s hand, trying to get him to sit up. “Help us get him up!”
But Harry could go no nearer. It was not the pain that stopped him, not the beast’s razor-toothed insistence that he return to the man’s broken body. It was the shame. It was the taste of Amir’s sweat and blood and spit still lingering in his mouth and the pleasure that came of tasting it. He couldn’t tell if it was the beast’s pleasure or his own.
“I’m sorry,” Harry said, backing away. “I’m so sorry.”
He started running in the direction Bobby had gone to look for the nurse. The storm was all above them now; the rain started with slow but heavy drops that cratered the dirt road. It started coming faster, harder, and he turned and was running along the river, back to the piers. He didn’t think about where he was going; the beast kept him from that. It had started growing inside him, swelling his small stomach, pushing into the surrounding blood vessels and yellow fat. It crowded his lungs and his breaths brought less and less relief with each step but he still kept running until he came to a pier where some fishermen were untying their boat, readying to set off.
“Hey!” Harry called, but his voice was lost as the rain crescendoed. He knew one of those fishermen—they were Arawak, and one was Alice’s eldest brother. He ran to the end of the pier. “Hey!”
But the men were already pushing off, their boat’s small motor kicking into life.
Harry looked back. Provenance was behind him: the nurse and the ferryman he didn’t know; Abed and Bobby and Bhauji, who he hardly even recognized; Amir, broken, bleeding. Beyond them was the compound, where Father and Mother were probably starting to worry, if they’d even noticed he was gone.
Harry heeled his shoes off, took off his pants, and jumped into the Demerara.
The beast howled. It ripped at soft, pink tissue; it sunk its teeth into flexing muscle; it wrapped its long tongue around his spongy lungs and squeezed. It did not stop to heal him.
Harry swam with the current. He tasted the blood that was coming up from his throat, but he could not see it as it mixed with the murk-brown water that filled his mouth. He couldn’t see where he was going for all the rain—it was driving now, cutting—but he knew the Arawak were somewhere downriver.
He swam until he couldn’t anymore, until the pain shuttered his vision blue and black. His muscles burned and his knotted stomach cramped and distended in ways he had never felt before. The water was starting to come over his head now; the silt stung his eyes and he felt himself begin to go under. So he turned onto his back and simply floated. The rain filled his mouth, and washed his dark blood out toward the sea.
A light broke the beat of the rain. The curved bottom of a boat came into view, and an Arawak man bent over the edge and reached a hand down. Harry took it; the boat tipped and righted as he scrambled on board and the hands of six and eight men pulled at his sodden clothes, his chilled skin.
The men spoke amongst themselves in their native tongue, and then—
“Where you from, boy? Where is your home?”
Here, in the middle of the river, Harry approached a place beyond pain. He wiped the blood and snot off his lips, and swallowed his senseless, ocean-deep craving.
“Please,” he said, “please let me come with you.” Then, louder, so the rain would not silence him: “I don’t have a home.”
The rainy season will come to an end, as it must: the rivers recede, the land dries, and the lungfish bury themselves. They open their gasping mouths and tunnel into the cool mud where the sun will not touch their earthbrown skins. They sleep these long months curled tight, swaddled in a film of their own dried mucus, their lithe bodies slowly decaying as their muscles and fat are consumed to nourish what little is left to nourish.
Some will die like this.
But the rains come again—with a brutal crack like the sky cleft open—and the land returns to itself: the rivers swell, the swamps fill, and the dirt is gorged, sated. The lungfish wake as their cauls dissolve, and they thrash themselves free of the clay. As they writhe their slick bodies across the storm-soaked land they are so consumed by hunger, by the nerve-deep need to return to the water, they will not remember that they had ever lived before.