First Prize, Fiction:
Alexia Arthurs Media Studies, Hunter College
The Fishmonger’s Daughter
We call her “Teacher,” but whisper “Mrs. White” when she says that someone’s tomatoes are too small and not the ruby red she was hoping for. That the meat vendor’s chicken feet to make soup don’t look fresh, and that someone else’s mangoes good for squeezing into juice with passion fruit, are priced too high. Because she is light with naturally straight hair, twisted and curled up and over like a conch shell, like a white woman’s hair, she is pretty.
She comes every friday afternoon when classes let out at the private high school she teaches at. It’s two streets over from the market. Past the man selling jerk chicken, the smoke soaking into my clothes when I stop to buy a piece or get too close. Past the schoolboys playing cricket in the yard where the church used to be, until it burnt down years earlier and no one thought to build it back.
I asked what she taught once.
“Culinary Arts,” she said.
And because I looked confused, she added, “It’s what they call cooking.”
I never understand women like her, who even at the end of the day smell like sweetness, like vanilla, lavender, and what else I don’t know. I asked her about it once, and she said the name of some perfume I can’t remember now, except that it didn’t sound the same way leaving my lips as it did hers.
But it's her dresses that impress me most. They remind me of a hummingbird I once dreamed I saw at the front of our house, it’s beak sucking nectar out of a red hibiscus flower. Green feathers the color of nothing I’d ever seen, not dull, not tainted grey, until I got too close and it flew away.
Once she wore a dress made out of a sunflower print. She wore a sunflower pinned in her hair too, and I overheard her telling the woman selling the day’s sweetest guineps that one of her students picked the flower and presented it as a gift.
Another time she wore a blue dress with little daisies made out of a gauzy material. While she examined the goatfish, asking my father about the freshness and when he caught them and other questions I didn’t hear, I touched her dress to see if the flowers felt as soft as they looked. I meant to be careful so that she wouldn’t notice, but she looked at me then, her face in a curious smile, and my hand moved quickly from her.
My father hadn’t noticed because at that very same moment he turned to spit. Later, when the sun came down and we were packed and ready to leave, I walked around to my side of the truck and stepped in it—a big green glob because he had a cold, always had a cold—that was hidden between the spades of grass, a little patch in the market mud. I cursed him in my mind, but for once I was grateful that he is disgusting, shameless; always coughing up his insides so that the rest of us could hear it, or worse, see it.
But earlier that day after he spat my father called to her, so that she looked from me to him and smiled.
“You have a child for a twin,” she said.
And my father smiled because everyone was always telling him this.
Then she bought four goatfish to fry for her husband and she explained to my father what she explained every Friday, that she didn’t eat fish, couldn’t, it tasted too “fishy.”
“But is fish,” he said, laughing, all teeth. “Whe you espect it fi taste like?
One Friday I don’t expect her because the rain is falling so hard that my father and I take turns sitting inside the truck and standing outside, one umbrella in hand, to wait for customers who won’t or can’t come.
It’s my turn to wait outside, so I stand there sliding the ring on my left thumb, the one Aunt Nicey sent me from the states, up and down, up and down.
I look up and the teacher is walking towards me, and I think that somehow she wears even today well. She comes toward me in a raincoat, a huge raven umbrella with a wooden handle, and boots, but not tough like mine for the mud and for hauling crates of fish, but dainty, little pink polka dots on blue peaking under a long dress that almost touches the floor.
She buys the regular: four goatfish for her husband. She will fry two for his dinner on Saturday, and two for his dinner on Sunday. She reminds me of this and that she doesn’t eat fish.
But I can’t imagine a woman like her scaling fish, getting her pretty hands to smell that raw smell.
“You wan mi fi scale de fish dem fi you?” I ask.
“Thank you, but no,” she says. “I like to scale them.”
“You know what’s even funnier?” she continues, smiling.
I don’t know what’s funnier, so I don’t say anything, just shake my head and listen.
“I even like the smell,” she says, laughing, all teeth.
“My husband thinks I’m crazy, but even though I won’t eat it, I like how the fish smells, how the scales glisten—it’s so pretty.”
She leaves then, and I think about that if she were me, if she had a fisherman father, who smells like fish, who looks like a fish, all slimy and scaly, she wouldn’t like the smell so. And how I have to go to the market with him every day after my classes. And how it feels to stand next to him, to look like him, so that everyone knows I’m his, when what I really want is to look like a hummingbird.
Father’s face is all these bumps, heavy and dark, and that would have been okay, except that they are raised out of his face, like something is calling them from him, so that they sag heavily.
And what’s worse is that he has no shame, going everywhere and anywhere, like he isn’t painful to look at. And he jokes and creates a spectacle whenever anyone asks him how come. An elaborate story about an Obia Man and I leave the room. I’m holding enough shame for him and me since he doesn’t have the sense to have any.
I wonder about my mother and if she had shame or not and decided that she didn’t, couldn’t, not to have had a child with my father. But then when I was two, maybe she caught on and woke up next to a man who disgusted her. Maybe that’s why she left for the states promising and then we’d never hear from her, only to hear that she’d married for a green card and had two boys or two girls, the person who told us—who father called Nosy Nancy—wasn’t sure which.
Teacher misses one friday. She never comes, not that friday nor the next nor the next. I wonder what she’s serving her husband instead, or if she found someone who sells fresher fish than my father could provide. On the third Friday evening when we’re packing up to go home, I finally ask father about her.
“Wha oman?” he asks.
“Di one weh teach Culinary a di expensive school,” I say.
“Culinary, a suh it name? But up to now mi still can’t guess a who ya chat bout.”
“Memba di lady weh love fi buy di goat fish every Friday?”
“Oh a she ya chat bout, whitey, poor thing, dem need fi tek her go a bellvue cause she na too right inna her head part. You neva hear a whapen to she?”
I didn’t hear anything, so I shake my head no.
“Lawd mek mi tell you a wha gwan, mad gal tek a boat down a bay and go far outinna di water like seh she a fish and wen di rest a di fisher man dem look ana she dat bout she a jump inna di water and want cum commit suicide. Mi hear seh a di man dem round a bay have fi swim in and tek her up before di fool drown.”
I remember hearing chatter about someone almost drowning in the sea last week. But I shake my head no. It can’t be the same person.
“Boy mi can’t believe weh some people a do. Dis woman usually come and buy di fish every friday. Mi should a know seh something neva did right with she cause she dress like old slave inna dis hot weather she have on long dress weh catch di woman to di ground. But mi wonder y she do it. Mi tink a true her husband did a gi her bun mek she go mad now. And true dat mi hear seh di school have fi fire her cause she just a fret ova dis man. Ow you coulda miss all dat?”
Last night I dreamed again of the hummingbird, its feathers that deep deep green. This time I got even closer before it flew away.
The morning after and I’m home sick, but only pretending because earlier this week two of my classmates came into the market and saw me with my father.
“Dat was yuh fadah?” one asked, the day after in school. And it was the way that she asked that made me put my head on my desk and quietly cry so that Mrs. Thomas sent me home early because I said I wasn’t feeling well.
Later this evening when my father comes home, I smell him first. That fish smell that smells like nothing else, I could be anywhere in the world and know that smell. And it embarrasses me, but on nights like tonight when it’s late and I don’t like being home alone when it’s dark, it’s not too bad. Father boils me a piece of ginger and adds lots of sugar like how he knows I like my tea. He brings it to me in one hand and in the other hand he carries something wrapped in newspaper.
“Look,” he says, giving me the tea as I sit up, then sitting on my bed beside me and unwrapping the newspaper.
And it’s a hummingbird, all crumpled, and even smaller than I thought they were. My first time seeing one up close and it’s not even alive. I touch those green feathers. And father tells me that he found it under the hibiscus tree this morning and thought of me.