Following is an excerpt from Lauren Francis-Sharma’s debut novel ‘Til the Well Runs Dry, released this week by Henry Holt and Company.
The cardboard box trembled. The panicked squeals from inside it grew louder as I hurried through the overgrown grass.
The school day was half over. Children were noisily filling the road across from me, unbuttoning their stifling uniforms in the heat of the lunch hour, scrambling home. I’d long ago stopped wondering what they thought of me. I didn’t want to feel the pang of loss for that old, simpler life.
I crouched to peek inside the box.
A wild opossum, a manicou, clawed at the corners. For an amateur hunter, a manicou was a big prize—a delicacy that could stretch for days—but distaste for finishing the job held me back.
“Can’t be lucky if you’s a coward,” my mother had always said.
Over at the right side of the yard, under the purpleheart tree, the boys were digging rusty spoons into the hot earth, hoping the bitter mounds of caked black dirt they piled onto their warped utensils would magically turn into warm slices of coconut bread. They hadn’t noticed me yet, off to the left, watching our dinner plan its escape.
I ran to the underside of the house, finding the hammer my father had used to repair the base of my mother’s sewing table before she died and long before the neighbors sent him away from the village. Returning to the trap, I steeled myself and reached inside.
I snatched the manicou’s small furry neck. Its rigid body thrashed across the damp floor of the box, its slanty, black, rat-like eyes looked up at me, wide and frantic. The manicou’s pulse quickened against my fingertips. It was putting up an honorable fight. But it could change nothing about its fate. The same was true of me.
I wouldn’t look into the darkened box again. Instead, I squeezed its coarse fur and its next layer of squishy flesh, harder and harder, pushing its flailing body down into the peeling bottom of the box. I slid out the hammer I had wedged between my thighs and with half-closed eyes, I smashed its skull over and over until, finally, the throbbing between my shaking, bloodied fingers came to an end.
* * *
The boys sat side by side on the cool slab floor. I spooned the boiled manicou from the pot and scraped away the spiky fur with the knife I’d sharpened on a yard stone. The slightness of its body in my palms made me feel sickly. I swallowed thick bile before making a delicate cut down the middle of the manicou’s spine, pulling back its slick skin to expose the soft, pink-grey meat.
The boys moved onto their knees and watched through eager brown eyes as I sliced the meat into inch-wide strips, layering it with seasonings. Lemon juice, salt, black pepper, fresh chunks of garlic, onion. I lifted the bowl to their noses, letting them smell the flavors seeping into the meat before I tossed the tender, sticky pieces with my fingers. I never tired of seeing their awe at my performing the simplest tasks. I loved them for being with me when there was no one else left.
I nudged them aside and relit the coal pot. The shimmery flames smacked the pot’s rusty bottom. The boys drooled. I passed my shirt over their mouths and tried to shoo them away, but they refused. The sugar melted into the hot oil, turning silvery black. I slid the damp cuts into the searing pot. The smoke swallowed us. The coconut milk whitened the pieces, offering a promising sizzle.
My plan that afternoon was to feed the boys early and get them to my neighbor, Carol Ann, so I could leave on time for my appointment with Mrs. Duncan in Tunapuna. I wanted to avoid the after-school ruckus and the judgmental eyes. But it took a few hours for the tough meat to soften and stew, and then the boys took their time, massaging each bite between their small teeth.
“Eat up,” I said.
I wiped their faces, cleaned their ears, then set aside slivers for each of the next four days. Rice, bread, cassava, breadfruit—any one of those would accompany the leftover meat and gravy quite nicely.
I hurried the boys to Carol Ann’s, where they both pressed their backs against her door and began to cry.
“Come. Let her go,” Carol Ann said, yanking at their shirtsleeves.
Being a seamstress required house calls. And living way out in Blanchisseuse, where roads were often blocked by landslides, for weeks or even months, I could never be sure when I would make it back. Carol Ann, a client whose taste didn’t match her budget, had been kind enough, on occasion, to mind them for me, though I long suspected by the way she chewed the inside of her cheek that she’d rather repay her debt to me any other way.
* * *
In Tunapuna, I delivered four drop-waist dresses before arriving at the top of Mrs. Duncan’s road. Although Mrs. Duncan had been my mother’s most loyal customer and likely wouldn’t have cared that I was ten minutes late, I despised the tardiness. I was sixteen years old. It was difficult getting customers to trust me. Sticking to my word, keeping my mother’s past clients happy, kept food on the table.
I walked briskly with the sun disappearing behind a sky half-full of dust-colored clouds. I smiled at two ladies who stood near the road chatting with metal spoons in their hands. The thick scents of their aromatic foods boiling outside in heavy pots reminded me that I hadn’t eaten enough.
I tapped on Mrs. Duncan’s door. I had scrubbed my fingers with vinegar and lemon juice before leaving home, but as they gripped Mrs. Duncan’s dress box, I could still smell the musky manicou fur.
“Eh, who knockin’ the door?” came the deep bass voice of Inspector Duncan, Mrs. Duncan’s husband.
I could hear Mrs. Duncan sucking her teeth for a long cheups. “Take two steps and open the door, David.”
“Boy, you smart to stay to yourself,” Inspector Duncan joked to someone. “Get married and from the day you bring she home, you only gettin’ lip.”
Thunderous footfalls grew close. I wiped thumb-size drops of rain from my face. I had to get out of Tunapuna within the hour or I wouldn’t make it back to Blanchisseuse in a rainstorm without flapping all the day’s money at some taxi driver who’d complain that “Nobody in dey right mind would leave Blanchisseuse one day and expect to go back de same day.”
Inspector Duncan finally opened the door, gulping the last of what smelled like a spicy puncheon rum. “Good afternoon.” His hands were each the length of a newborn baby. His face sank into pillowy, purple-black, shiny skin that covered a head the size of a small boulder.
“Good afternoon,” I said.
I smiled but could say nothing else. My face had reddened at the sight of the East Indian man sitting on the floral-printed couch, cradling a glass, staring at me.
He was quite handsome, I’ll admit. But he was old. Probably twenty-two or twenty-three. His skin, a deep-fried, golden brown and smooth like velvet pile. The outline of his lips like a bow tie. His nose, downward sloping and strong, with a black mole at its tip. His midnight-black shoes shone like marble, and his shirt, lightly starched, caressed his small muscular frame.
I tried to release his gaze, but his large, dark eyes attached themselves to me. Eyes like a black, hot night. Eyes that made me want to crawl into something small and cool and shadowy.
“Jennifer!” Inspector Duncan called. “The young lady … uh … Ma-Marcia … is here with your dress. Come back in here!”
Mrs. Duncan shrieked with delight, wiping her hands on a red and white cotton apron I’d given her as a gift. When she smiled, her cheeks grew into small, firm circles. “Oh, my dressmaker! Come, chile.” She sweetly scooted her husband aside. “Don’t mind them two old fellas. They don’t teach manners in the police force.”
Again, I tried to shake off the Indian fella’s gaze. Staring straight at him and making sure not to be detected by the Duncans, I rolled my eyes to the top of my head.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Duncan,” I said, patting her hand.
“This chile is always so polite,” she said.
The fitting took only fifteen minutes, but by the time we returned to the parlor, Inspector Duncan’s patience with his wife had worn thin. “Jennifer?” he said, with a hard cheups. “Where’s the food? We’re hungry.”
I was pretty certain their conversation would wind up in a fight. I mumbled, “Good night,” closing the door behind me. The Indian fella sat, huddled in his corner seat, watching me leave.
If I had any luck I’d catch the last bus and make it back to Blanchisseuse before midnight. If I didn’t, I would have to beg Mrs. Duncan to let me stay the night and run off early the next morning so as not to leave Carol Ann in a pinch past lunchtime.
It was raining harder. I scrambled toward the bus stop where a quiet crowd had already gathered. Footsteps crunched on the gravel behind me. I heard someone say “Hello,” breathlessly, at my back. I didn’t bother to turn around.
“Sorry,” the voice said, moving closer. “I said ‘hello.’”
Finally, I turned. The Indian fella from the Duncans’ couch. Had he left before Mrs. Duncan’s dinner was served?
“Hello.” The wetness on my bare arms left me so chilly, even my voice shook.
“We just met at the Duncan house up the street there,” he said.
The bulging, bright headlights of the bus caught my attention. I didn’t have time for that fella’s gibberish. “We didn’t meet,” I said.
The bus forced its way through new puddles, and I squeezed between two skinny fellas in the middle of the line. Tapping my wet sandals against the muddied walk, I climbed the steps, positioned myself in the first empty seat I could find, and never once looked back.
Lauren Francis-Sharma was born in New York and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. After graduating from Baltimore Polytechnic High School with no hopes of ever becoming an engineer, Lauren graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan Law School, distinguishing herself as a lover of baggy sweatshirts and bottles of Snapple. She practiced law in New York, D.C. and Maryland before giving what was left of herself to raising her two children. After several months of building her stamina with Sudoku puzzle all-nighters, she began to write ’Til the Well Runs Dry, a novel set largely in Trinidad and loosely based on her grandmother’s story. Lauren lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.