From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

COSMIC POWERS

Fiction

The Glass Bottle Trick

The Glass Bottle Trick by Nalo Hopkinson (illustration by Ashley Stewart)

The air was full of storms, but they refused to break. In the wicker rocking chair on the front verandah, Beatrice flexed her bare feet against the wooden slat floor, rocking slowly back and forth. Another sweltering rainy season afternoon. The arid heat felt as though all the oxygen had boiled out of the parched air to hang as looming rainclouds, waiting.

Oh, but she loved it like this. The hotter the day, the slower she would move, basking. She stretched her arms and legs out to better feel the luxuriant warmth, then guiltily sat up straight again. Samuel would scold if he ever saw her slouching like that. Stuffy Sammy. She smiled fondly, admiring the lacy patterns the sunlight threw on the floor as it filtered through the white gingerbread fretwork that trimmed the roof of their house.

“Anything more today, Mistress Powell? I finish doing the dishes.” Gloria had come out of the house and was standing in front of her, wiping her chapped hands on her apron.

Beatrice felt the shyness come over her as it always did when she thought of giving the older woman orders. Gloria was older than Beatrice’s mother. “Ah . . . no, I think that’s everything, Gloria . . .”

Gloria quirked an eyebrow, crinkling her face like running a fork through molasses.

Beatrice gave an abortive, shamefaced “huh” of a laugh. Gloria had known from the start, she’d had so many babies of her own. She’d been mad to run to Samuel with the news from since. But yesterday, Beatrice had already decided to tell Samuel. Well, almost decided. She felt irritated, like a child whose tricks have been found out. She swallowed the feeling. “I think you right, Gloria,” she said, fighting for some dignity before the older woman. “Maybe . . . maybe I cook him a special meal, feed him up nice, then tell him.”

“Well, I say is time and past time you make him know. A pickney is a blessing to a family.”

“For true,” Beatrice agreed, making her voice sound as certain as she could.

“Later, then, Mistress Powell.” Giving herself the afternoon off, not even a by-your-leave, Gloria headed off to the maid’s room at the back of the house to change into her street clothes. A few minutes later, she let herself out the garden gate.

• • • •

“That seems like a tough book for a young lady of such tender years.”

“Excuse me?” Beatrice threw a defensive cutting glare at the older man. He’d caught her off guard, though she’d seen his eyes following her ever since she entered the bookstore. “You have something to say to me?” She curled the Gray’s Anatomy possessively into the crook of her arm, price sticker hidden against her body. Two more months of saving before she could afford it.

He looked shyly at her. “Sorry if I offended, Miss,” he said. “My name is Samuel.”

Would be handsome, if he’d chill out a bit. Beatrice’s wariness thawed a little. Middle of the sun-hot day, and he wearing black wool jacket and pants. His crisp white cotton shirt was buttoned right up, held in place by a tasteful, unimaginative tie. So proper, Jesus. He wasn’t that much older than she.

“Is just . . . you’re so pretty, and it’s the only thing I could think of to say to get you to speak to me.”

Beatrice softened more at that, smiled for him and played with the collar of her blouse. He didn’t seem too bad, if you could look beyond the stocious, starchy behaviour.

• • • •

Beatrice doubtfully patted the slight swelling of her belly. Four months. She was shy to give Samuel her news, but she was starting to show. Silly to put it off, yes? Today she was going to make her husband very happy; break that thin shell of mourning that still insulated him from her. He never said so, but Beatrice knew that he still thought of the wife he’d lost, and tragically, the one before that. She wished she could make him warm up to life again.

Sunlight was flickering through the leaves of the guava tree in the front yard. Beatrice inhaled the sweet smell of the sun-warmed fruit. The tree’s branches hung heavy with the pale yellow globes, smooth and round as eggs. The sun reflected off the two blue bottles suspended in the tree, sending cobalt light dancing through the leaves.

When Beatrice first came to Sammy’s house, she’d been puzzled by the two bottles that were jammed onto branches of the guava tree.

“Is just my superstitiousness, darling,” he’d told her. “You never heard the old people say that if someone dies, you must put a bottle in a tree to hold their spirit, otherwise it will come back as a duppy and haunt you? A blue bottle. To keep the duppy cool, so it won’t come at you in hot anger for being dead.”

Beatrice had heard something of the sort, but it was strange to think of her Sammy as a superstitious man. He was too controlled and logical for that. Well, grief makes somebody act in strange ways. Maybe the bottles gave him some comfort, made him feel that he’d kept some essence of his poor wives near him.

• • • •

“That Samuel is nice. Respectable, hard-working. Not like all them other ragamuffins you always going out with.” Mummy picked up the butcher knife and began expertly slicing the goat meat into cubes for the curry.

Beatrice watched the red lumps of flesh part under the knife. Crimson liquid leaked onto the cutting board. She sighed, “But, Mummy, Samuel so boring! Michael and Clifton know how to have fun. All Samuel want to do is go for country drives. Always taking me away from other people.”

“You should be studying your books, not having fun,” her mother replied crossly.

Beatrice pleaded, “You well know I could do both, Mummy.” Her mother just grunted.

Is only truth Beatrice was talking. Plenty men were always courting her, they flocked to her like birds, eager to take her dancing or out for a drink. But somehow she kept her marks up, even though it often meant studying right through the night, her head pounding and belly queasy from hangover while some man snored in the bed beside her. Mummy would kill her if she didn’t get straight A’s for medical school. “You going have to look after yourself, Beatrice. Man not going do it for you. Them get their little piece of sweetness and then them bruk away.”

“Two patty and a King Cola, please.” The guy who’d given the order had a broad chest that tapered to a slim waist. Good face to look at, too. Beatrice smiled sweetly at him, made shift to gently brush his palm with her fingertips as she handed him the change.

• • • •

A bird screeched from the guava tree, a tiny kiskedee, crying angrily, “Dit, dit, qu’est-ce qu’il dit!” A small snake was coiled around one of the upper branches, just withdrawing its head from the bird’s nest. Its jaws were distended with the egg it had stolen. It swallowed the egg whole, throat bulging hugely with its meal. The bird hovered around the snake’s head, giving its pitiful wail of, “Say, say, what’s he saying!”

“Get away!” Beatrice shouted at the snake. It looked in the direction of the sound, but didn’t back off. The gulping motion of its body as it forced the egg farther down its own throat made Beatrice shudder. Then, oblivious to the fluttering of the parent bird, it arched its head over the nest again. Beatrice pushed herself to her feet and ran into the yard. “Hsst! Shoo! Come away from there!” But the snake took a second egg.

Sammy kept a long pole with a hook at one end leaned against the guava tree for pulling down the fruit. Beatrice grabbed up the pole, started jooking it at the branches as close to the bird and nest as she dared.

“Leave them, you brute! Leave!” The pole connected with some of the boughs. The two bottles in the tree fell to the ground and shattered with a crash. A hot breeze sprang up. The snake slithered away quickly, two eggs bulging in its throat. The bird flew off, sobbing to itself.

Nothing she could do now. When Samuel came home, he would hunt the nasty snake down for her and kill it. She leaned the pole back against the tree.

The light breeze should have brought some coolness, but really it only made the day warmer. Two little dust devils danced briefly around Beatrice. They swirled across the yard, swung up into the air, and dashed themselves to powder against the shuttered window of the third bedroom.

Beatrice got her sandals from the verandah. Sammy wouldn’t like it if she stepped on broken glass. She picked up the broom that was leaned against the house and began to sweep up the shards of bottle. She hoped Samuel wouldn’t be too angry with her. He wasn’t a man to cross, could be as stern as a father if he had a mind to.

That was mostly what she remembered about Daddy, his temper―quick to show and just as quick to go. So was he; had left his family before Beatrice turned five. The one cherished memory she had of him was of being swung back and forth through the air, her two small hands clasped in one big hand of his, her feet held tight in another. Safe. And as he swung her through the air, her daddy had been chanting words from an old-time story:

Yung-Kyung-Pyung, what a pretty basket!
Margaret Powell Alone, what a pretty basket!
Eggie-law, what a pretty basket!

Then he had held her tight to his chest, forcing the air from her lungs in a breathless giggle. The dressing-down Mummy had given him for that game! “You want to drop the child and crack her head open on the hard ground? Ee? Why you can’t be more responsible?”

“Responsible?” he’d snapped. “Is who working like dog sunup to sundown to put food in oonuh belly?” He’d set Beatrice down, her feet hitting the ground with a jar. She’d started to cry, but he’d just pushed her towards her mother and stormed out of the room. One more volley in the constant battle between them. After he’d left them Mummy had opened the little food shop in town to make ends meet. In the evenings, Beatrice would rub lotion into her mother’s chapped, work-wrinkled hands. “See how that man make us come down in the world?” Mummy would grumble. “Look at what I come to.”

Privately, Beatrice thought that maybe all Daddy had needed was a little patience. Mummy was too harsh, much as Beatrice loved her. To please her, Beatrice had studied hard all through high school: physics, chemistry, biology, describing the results of her lab experiments in her copybook in her cramped, resigned handwriting. Her mother greeted every A with a non-committal grunt and anything less with a lecture. Beatrice would smile airily, seal the hurt away, pretend the approval meant nothing to her. She still worked hard, but she kept some time for play of her own. Rounders, netball, and later, boys. All those boys, wanting a chance for a little sweetness with a light-skin browning like her. Beatrice had discovered her appeal quickly.

• • • •

“Leggo beast . . .” Loose woman. The hissed words came from a knot of girls that slouched past Beatrice as she sat on the library steps, waiting for Clifton to come and pick her up. She willed her ears shut, smothered the sting of the words. But she knew some of those girls. Marguerita, Deborah. They used to be friends of hers. Though she sat up proudly, she found her fingers tugging self-consciously at the hem of her short white skirt. She put the big physics textbook in her lap, where it gave her thighs a little more coverage.

The farting vroom of Clifton’s motorcycle interrupted her thoughts. Grinning, he stewed the bike to a dramatic halt in front of her. “Study time done now, darling. Time to play.”

He looked good this evening, as he always did. Tight white shirt, jeans that showed off the bulges of his thighs. The crinkle of the thin gold chain at his neck set off his dark brown skin. Beatrice stood, tucked the physics text under her arm, smoothed the skirt over her hips. Clifton’s eyes followed the movement of her hands. See, it didn’t take much to make people treat you nice. She smiled at him.

• • • •

Samuel would still show up hopefully every so often to ask her to accompany him on a drive through the country. He was so much older than all her other suitors. And dry? Country drives, Lord! She went out with him a few times; he was so persistent and she couldn’t figure out how to tell him no. He didn’t seem to get her hints that really she should be studying. Truth to tell, though, she started to find his quiet, undemanding presence soothing. His eggshell-white BMW took the graveled country roads so quietly that she could hear the kiskedee birds in the mango trees, chanting their query: “Dit, dit, qu’est-ce qu’il dit?”

One day, Samuel brought her a gift.

“These are for you and your family,” he said shyly, handing her a wrinkled paper bag. “I know your mother likes them.” Inside were three plump eggplants from his kitchen garden, raised by his own hands. Beatrice took the humble gift out of the bag. The skins of the eggplants had a taut, blue sheen to them. Later she would realise that that was when she’d begun to love Samuel. He was stable, solid, responsible. He would make Mummy and her happy.

Beatrice gave in more to Samuel’s diffident wooing. He was cultured and well-spoken. He had been abroad, talked of exotic sports: ice hockey, downhill skiing. He took her to fancy restaurants she’d only heard of, that her other, young, unestablished boyfriends would never have been able to afford, and would probably only have embarrassed her if they had taken her. Samuel had polish. But he was humble, too, like the way he grew his own vegetables, or the self-deprecating tone in which he spoke of himself. He was always punctual, always courteous to her and her mother. Beatrice could count on him for little things, like picking her up after class, or driving her mother to the hairdresser’s. With the other men, she always had to be on guard: pouting until they took her somewhere else for dinner, not another free meal in her mother’s restaurant, wheedling them into using the condoms. She always had to hold some thing of herself shut away. With Samuel, Beatrice relaxed into trust.

• • • •

“Beatrice, come! Come quick, nuh!”

Beatrice ran in from the backyard at the sound of her mother’s voice. Had something happened to Mummy?

Her mother was sitting at the kitchen table, knife still poised to crack an egg into the bowl for the pound cake she was making to take to the shop. She was staring in open-mouthed delight at Samuel, who was fretfully twisting the long stems on a bouquet of blood-red roses. “Lord, Beatrice; Samuel say he want to marry you!”

Beatrice looked to Sammy for verification. “Samuel,” she asked unbelievingly, “what you saying? Is true?”

He nodded yes. “True, Beatrice.”

Something gave way in Beatrice’s chest, gently as a long-held breath. Her heart had been trapped in glass, and he’d freed it.

• • • •

They’d been married two months later. Mummy was retired now; Samuel had bought her a little house in the suburbs, and he paid for the maid to come in three times a week. In the excitement of planning for the wedding, Beatrice had let her studying slip. To her dismay she finished her final year of university with barely a C average.

“Never mind, sweetness,” Samuel told her. “I didn’t like the idea of you studying, anyway. Is for children. You’re a big woman now.” Mummy had agreed with him too, said she didn’t need all that now. She tried to argue with them, but Samuel was very clear about his wishes, and she’d stopped, not wanting anything to cause friction between them just yet. Despite his genteel manner, Samuel had just a bit of a temper. No point in crossing him, it took so little to make him happy, and he was her love, the one man she’d found in whom she could have faith.

Too besides, she was learning how to be the lady of the house, trying to use the right mix of authority and jocularity with Gloria, the maid, and Cleitis, the yardboy who came twice a month to do the mowing and the weeding. Odd to be giving orders to people when she was used to being the one taking orders, in Mummy’s shop. It made her feel uncomfortable to tell people to do her work for her. Mummy said she should get used to it, it was her right now.

The sky rumbled with thunder. Still no rain. The warmth of the day was nice, but you could have too much of a good thing. Beatrice opened her mouth, gasping a little, trying to pull more air into her lungs. She was a little short of breath nowadays as the baby pressed on her diaphragm. She knew she could go inside for relief from the heat, but Samuel kept the air-conditioning on high, so cold that they could keep the butter in its dish on the kitchen counter. It never went rancid. Even insects refused to come inside. Sometimes Beatrice felt as though the house were really somewhere else, not the tropics. She had been used to waging constant war against ants and cockroaches, but not in Samuel’s house. The cold in it made Beatrice shiver, dried her eyes out until they felt like boiled eggs sitting in their sockets. She went outside as often as possible, even though Samuel didn’t like her to spend too much time in the sun. He said he feared that cancer would mar her soft skin, that he didn’t want to lose another wife. But Beatrice knew he just didn’t want her to get too brown. When the sun touched her, it brought out the sepia and cinnamon in her blood, overpowered the milk and honey, and he could no longer pretend she was white. He loved her skin pale. “Look how you gleam in the moonlight,” he’d say to her when he made gentle, almost supplicating love to her at night in the four-poster bed. His hand would slide over her flesh, cup her breasts with an air of reverence. The look in his eyes was so close to worship that it sometimes frightened her. To be loved so much! He would whisper to her, “Beauty. Pale Beauty, to my Beast,” then blow a cool breath over the delicate membranes of her ear, making her shiver in delight. For her part, she loved to look at him, his molasses-dark skin, his broad chest, the way the planes of flat muscle slid across it. She imagined tectonic plates shifting in the earth. She loved the bluish-black cast the moonlight lent him. Once, gazing up at him as he loomed above her, body working against and in hers, she had seen the moonlight playing glints of deepest blue in his trim beard.

“Black Beauty,” she had joked softly, reaching to pull his face closer for a kiss. At the words, he had lurched up off her to sit on the edge of the bed, pulling a sheet over him to hide his nakedness. Beatrice watched him, confused, feeling their blended sweat cooling along her body.

“Never call me that, please, Beatrice,” he said softly. “You don’t have to draw attention to my colour. I’m not a handsome man, and I know it. Black and ugly as my mother made me.”

“But, Samuel . . . !”

“No.”

Shadows lay between them on the bed. He wouldn’t touch her again that night.

Beatrice sometimes wondered why Samuel hadn’t married a white woman. She thought she knew the reason, though. She had seen the way that Samuel behaved around white people. He smiled too broadly, he simpered, he made silly jokes. It pained her to see it, and she could tell from the desperate look in his eyes that it hurt him too. For all his love of creamy white skin, Samuel probably couldn’t have brought himself to approach a white woman the way he’d courted her.

The broken glass was in a neat pile under the guava tree. Time to make Samuel’s dinner now. She went up the verandah stairs to the front door, stopping to wipe her sandals on the coir mat just outside the door. Samuel hated dust. As she opened the door, she felt another gust of warm wind at her back, blowing past her into the cool house. Quickly, she stepped inside and closed the door, so that the interior would stay as cool as Sammy liked it. The insulated door shut behind her with a hollow sound. It was air-tight. None of the windows in the house could be opened. She had asked Samuel, “Why you want to live in a box like this, sweetheart? The fresh air good for you.”

“I don’t like the heat, Beatrice. I don’t like baking like meat in the sun. The sealed windows keep the conditioned air in.” She hadn’t argued.

She walked through the elegant, formal living room to the kitchen. She found the heavy imported furnishings cold and stuffy, but Samuel liked them.

In the kitchen she set water to boil and hunted a bit―where did Gloria keep it?―until she found the Dutch pot. She put it on the burner to toast the fragrant coriander seeds that would flavour the curry. She put on water to boil, stood staring at the steam rising from the pots. Dinner was going to be special tonight. Curried eggs, Samuel’s favourite. The eggs in their cardboard case put Beatrice in mind of a trick she’d learned in physics class, for getting an egg unbroken into a narrow-mouthed bottle. You had to boil the egg hard and peel it, then stand a lit candle in the bottle. If you put the narrow end of the egg into the mouth of the bottle, it made a seal, and when the candle had burnt up all the air in the bottle, the vacuum it created would suck the egg in, whole. Beatrice had been the only one in her class patient enough to make the trick work. Patience was all her husband needed. Poor, mysterious Samuel had lost two wives in this isolated country home. He’d been rattling about in the airless house like the egg in the bottle. He kept to himself. The closest neighbours were miles away, and he didn’t even know their names.

She was going to change all that, though. Invite her mother to stay for a while, maybe have a dinner party for the distant neighbours. Before her pregnancy made her too lethargic to do much.

A baby would complete their family. Samuel would be pleased, he would. She remembered him joking that no woman should have to give birth to his ugly black babies, but she would show him how beautiful their children would be, little brown bodies new as the earth after the rain. She would show him how to love himself in them.

It was hot in the kitchen. Perhaps the heat from the stove? Beatrice went out into the living room, wandered through the guest bedroom, the master bedroom, both bathrooms. The whole house was warmer than she’d ever felt it. Then she realised she could hear sounds coming from the outside, the cicadas singing loudly for rain. There was no whisper of cool air through the vents in the house. The air conditioner wasn’t running.

Beatrice began to feel worried. Samuel liked it cold. She had planned tonight to be a special night for the two of them, but he wouldn’t react well if everything wasn’t to his liking. He’d raised his voice at her a few times. Once or twice he had stopped in the middle of an argument, one hand pulled back as if to strike, to take deep breaths, battling for self-control. His dark face would flush almost blue-black as he fought his rage down. Those times she’d stayed out of his way until he was calm again.

What could be wrong with the air conditioner? Maybe it had just come unplugged? Beatrice wasn’t even sure where the controls were. Gloria and Samuel took care of everything around the house. She made another circuit through her home, looking for the main controls. Nothing. Puzzled, she went back into the living room. It was becoming thick and close as a womb inside their closed-up home.

There was only one room left to search. The locked third bedroom. Samuel had told her that both his wives had died in there, first one, then the other. He had given her the keys to every room in the house, but requested that she never open that particular door.

“I feel like it’s bad luck, love. I know I’m just being superstitious, but I hope I can trust you to honour my wishes in this.” She had, not wanting to cause him any anguish. But where else could the control panel be? It was getting so hot!

As she reached into her pocket for the keys she always carried with her, she realised she was still holding a raw egg in her hand. She’d forgotten to put it into the pot when the heat in the house had made her curious. She managed a little smile. The hormones flushing her body were making her so absent-minded Samuel would tease her, until she told him why. Every thing would be all right.

Beatrice put the egg into her other hand, got the keys out of her pocket, opened the door.

A wall of icy, dead air hit her body. It was freezing cold in the room. Her exhaled breath floated away from her in a long, misty curl. Frowning, she took a step inside and her eyes saw before her brain could understand, and when it did, the egg fell from her hands to smash open on the floor at her feet. Two women’s bodies lay side by side on the double bed. Frozen mouths gaped open; frozen, gutted bellies, too. A fine sheen of ice crystals glazed their skin, which like her was barely brown, but laved in gelid, rime-covered blood that had solidified ruby red. Beatrice whimpered.

• • • •

“But Miss,” Beatrice asked her teacher, “how the egg going to come back out the bottle again?”

“How do you think, Beatrice? There’s only one way; you have to break the bottle.”

• • • •

This was how Samuel punished the ones who had tried to bring his babies into the world, his beautiful black babies. For each woman had had the muscled sac of her womb removed and placed on her belly, hacked open to reveal the purplish mass of her placenta. Beatrice knew that if she were to dissect the thawing tissue, she’d find a tiny foetus in each one. The dead women had been pregnant too.

A movement at her feet caught her eyes. She tore her gaze away from the bodies long enough to glance down. Writhing in the fast congealing yolk was a pin-feathered embryo. A rooster must have been at Mister Herbert’s hens. She put her hands on her belly to still the sympathetic twitching of her womb. Her eyes were drawn back to the horror on the beds. Another whimper escaped her lips.

A sound like a sigh whispered in through the door she’d left open. A current of hot air seared past her cheek, making a plume of fog as it entered the room. The fog split into two, settled over the heads of each woman, began to take on definition. Each misty column had a face, contorted in rage. The faces were those of the bodies on the bed. One of the duppy women leaned over her own corpse. She lapped like a cat at the blood thawing on its breast. She became a little more solid for having drunk of her own life blood. The other duppy stooped to do the same. The two duppy women each had a belly slightly swollen with the pregnancies for which Samuel had killed them. Beatrice had broken the bottles that had confined the duppy wives, their bodies held in stasis because their spirits were trapped. She’d freed them. She’d let them into the house. Now there was nothing to cool their fury. The heat of it was warming the room up quickly.

The duppy wives held their bellies and glared at her, anger flaring hot behind their eyes. Beatrice backed away from the beds. “I didn’t know,” she said to the wives. “Don’t vex with me. I didn’t know what it is Samuel do to you.”

Was that understanding on their faces, or were they beyond compassion?

“I making baby for him too. Have mercy on the baby, at least?”

Beatrice heard the snik of the front door opening. Samuel was home. He would have seen the broken bottles, would feel the warmth of the house. Beatrice felt that initial calm of the prey that realises it has no choice but to turn and face the beast that is pursuing it. She wondered if Samuel would be able to read the truth hidden in her body, like the egg in the bottle.

“Is not me you should be vex with,” she pleaded with the duppy wives. She took a deep breath and spoke the words that broke her heart. “Is . . . is Samuel who do this.”

She could hear Samuel moving around in the house, the angry rumbling of his voice like the thunder before the storm. The words were muffled, but she could hear the anger in his tone. She called out, “What you saying, Samuel?”

She stepped out of the meat locker and quietly pulled the door in, but left it open slightly so the duppy wives could come out when they were ready.

Then with a welcoming smile, she went to greet her husband. She would stall him as long as she could from entering the third bedroom. Most of the blood in the wives’ bodies would be clotted, but maybe it was only important that it be warm. She hoped that enough of it would thaw soon for the duppies to drink until they were fully real.

When they had fed, would they come and save her, or would they take revenge on her, their usurper, as well as on Samuel?

Eggie-Law, what a pretty basket.

© 2000 by Nalo Hopkinson.
Originally published in Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root,
edited by Nalo Hopkinson.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
Art © 2014 by Ashley Stewart.

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Nalo Hopkinson

Nalo HopkinsonNalo Hopkinson was born in Jamaica, and grew up in Guyana, Trinidad, and Canada. Her debut novel, Brown Girl in the Ring was the winning entry in the Warner Aspect First Novel contest, and led to her winning the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She has since published many acclaimed novels and short stories as well as numerous essays. She currently teaches writing at the University of California, Riverside. Her latest novel is Sister Mine.