Curry Duck

SHARON MILLAR

2018

The ceremony at the Shore of Peace was beautiful. Lucy hoped Grace was free now. When the fire had stopped flaring and there was not much that could be distinguished between pyre and the shape under the white shroud, the family left.

They made their way back to Port of Spain, driving convoy style up the Churchill Roosevelt highway. Not long after San Fernando, the northern range came into view, the large peaks blue against the dying day. Grace would never see this again. At each traffic light, the hawkers tried to sell Lucy limes and pimentos. Come mama. Give me a sale. But it was the clay vendors that caught her eye. Some selling round receptacles with neat lids, a few swans and elephants. Lucy knew that she should stop and buy a few of the round ones. Tomorrow, at dawn, when she was sure the last of the fire had burned itself out, she would drive back to collect the remains of her mother. She would scour the place, looking for every scrap that had not burned. Surely Grace would need more than just one clay jar. All of Grace in one jar. Imagine that. So many times, they had driven this highway, stopping to buy clay vessels. Grace had loved them. She had used them to showcase her prize heliconias at her famous dinner parties.

Lucy was the first back. People would be coming throughout the evening to pay their respects. While there’d be no alcohol, Kamla ensured there would be food to feed everyone. There in the dining room was Kamla’s back, bent in concentration. She was arranging allamanda flowers, yellow petals floating in bowls of water. Her mother-in-law was old now, her spine bumping up under her skin, her shoulders stooped. But she still managed the house like a young woman.  How old was she now? Maybe eighty? Grace had made it to seventy-eight.

Lucy heard the slamming of car doors and looked around for Raj. The children had driven with him. Even the baby, Lucy’s favorite. Lucy still thought of her youngest as a baby when Mara was a grown woman of twenty-five. In Lucy’s mind, Mara was still a milky infant, but she was now the same age Lucy was when she’d met Raj. She’d nursed Mara far longer than the other two, much to Grace’s horror.

At fifty-six, Raj was still handsome. Could still make her feel young. He’d aged better than she had. Her French Creole skin let her down in the end. The same white skin that Grace was so proud of. Porcelain as a teenager. Raj was dressed all in white. They all were. She was still proud to be by his side. He had thickened with age, but his features remained fine. He had grown into his prime. His age showed in a single cowlick of rogue white that leapt from his temple in an unmanly sweep. The rest of his head was as thick and black as when they first met. Kamla also had the stripe. It marked them as kin even at a distance. Kamla’s other children had gone the way of salt and pepper.

Lucy was her parents’ only one. A gold bead. The last of a long line of De Fleurs. A bit of a shame, her being a girl and all of that. The line coming to an abrupt end. After almost five hundred years in the region. Oh! they said. The things her ancestors had done. How they had developed the land. Set it all up. And now it would all end with her. It was quite tragic. This was the gist of the things she’d overheard at her mother’s bridge parties when she was a teenager coming in and out the house. Grace tried to teach her how to manage white skin in the tropics. She wasn’t like other women in the white community who’d tanned their skin to leather as teenagers and now spent their lives attending to this and that skin cancer. And yet it was Grace, with her alabaster skin, who had succumbed to deadly melanoma. Well, you’re in good company, Lucy told her once, trying in those early days to make things light. It seemed necessary to get through the endless rounds of doctors and scans, the chemo. Bob Marley had one under his big toe, she told Grace. At least your own had the sense to appear where we could see it. A small purple and ivory dot on her flawless collarbone. When it came down to it, rogue melanin killed Grace. Even now, she could hear her mother’s voice. ‘Darling, we’ve been in the Caribbean for over five hundred years, don’t you think we’ve figured out that only mad dogs and Englishmen venture out at midday.’ They could always spot the new foreigners with their flushed, mosquito-bitten skin running around the Savannah at midday in the height of the day’s heat. Damn asses, Grace used to say. They will learn.

Kamla was moving from kitchen to table, the staff helping her with hot dishes. Many of Grace’s new favorites. Roasted baigan, tomato choka; the pumpkin done just so with a hint of sugar and geera. The last dish was in Kamla’s hands – fat dumplings covered in a silky curry. Each dumpling a soft pillow of stripped curry duck. The dish Grace created for the anniversary party all those years ago. Now Lucy cried for the first time. Tears for what she was not yet sure. So many years ago. The anniversary party that no one discussed. But the dish had been adopted. And here it was for the final soirée.

1992

On the morning of Lucy and Raj’s anniversary party, the duck arrived with the Boodram’s driver. Passing the living room, Lucy overheard Grace on the phone with Raj’s mother. What was she meant to do with the duck? Curry won’t go with roast vegetables. Or baked fish. Or chicken divan. Would you mind if I saved the duck for another time? I can freeze it.

Lucy flushed as if the insult was meant for her ears only. She grew hot, then cold. The insult, launched and oblivious, travelled down the telephone line like a tiny bomb to do damage she could only imagine. It was always this way with her mother. These emotional blind spots that made her very presence unpredictable. There were ugly terms never used in her home. Grace was subtler than that. When Lucy announced her engagement, a friend said, ‘you must know what happens when you break the rules. Are you prepared?’ The first time she had dinner at the Boodrams, Raj’s mother said, ‘call me Kamla.’ A gracious woman, when she was preparing a small celebration for the couple, she’d been careful to ask Lucy about Grace’s dietary preferences. All of this ran through Lucy’s head as she listened to her mother. What had she said to Kamla? ‘Oh, she eats anything,’ she’d said, warily, trying hard to be polite. This was not true. Her mother was a notoriously difficult eater, priding herself on having a sophisticated palate. Complicated soufflés and cheese sauces that had come down unchanged and un-creolised from her original French ancestors. The ancestors who had come from Grenada but had been in Martinique before and had owned castles in France. Yes, castles. Once Lucy overheard Grace: ‘I’ve tried to cultivate her palate but what can you do? Lucille would live on stewed chicken and eddoes if she could.’ She blamed her husband’s non-French blood. ‘Where else could it have come from? What to do? The least I can do is teach her how to make a butter-lime sauce with the eddoes. Some husband will thank me in the future.’

When Grace replaced the phone in its cradle, Lucy moved away quietly. When Grace arrived in the kitchen, Lucy was already at the breakfast table polishing her nails. First, she shaped the nails with a rough-edged file, carefully moving in one direction around each nail until it was perfect. A pink oval on the end of a long finger. She would not ask her mother about the duck. She would stay away from it. She would concentrate on her nails. She thought of her future with Raj. To keep her mind busy, she packed their future in compartments not unlike the Tupperware containers in her mother’s fridge. She’d trained her mind not to think of words and phrases she’d heard all her life. PLU. People Like Us. The code for who was allowed in. Coolies were not PLU. She’d never heard this word, or others, said in such a crude way in her own home. Not from the lips of her parents but still their ugliness permeated the atmosphere in which she grew. Unspoken it crept under doors and seeped into their closest domestic spaces. Not PLU. Code that kept you safe from all that meant to harm you. To keep such thoughts away, she did random things like set up folders for her new life. As if containment meant protection. She’d already set up a folder titled ‘1994 home tips’. Grace had tried to convince her to take some of the family antiques, but Lucy was not interested. In her wedding compartment, she imagined the days as sparkly and silvery. One day for the Hindu ceremony, one for the Christian one. In her real life, she was practical, a no-nonsense beauty, a true strawberry blonde with little time for frivolity but in this new life with Raj, there was another side emerging. A doppelganger of sorts, a rogue twin. It was the old Lucy who cracked and asked the question.

‘What about the duck, Mummy?’

Lucy was prepared when Grace tried to distract her. At first, Grace did not answer. Lucy was about to repeat the question when her mother asked, ‘Do you want to wear the turquoise sari with the silver thread or a black cold shoulder dress to the engagement party?’ She, Grace, thought the sari might be a nice change. Her mother had agreed to be compliant in matters such as dress. But Grace chose the black cold shoulder dress months ago. Now here she was recommending the sari that Kamla had given Lucy. Lucy was not fooled. It had come down to this. A cheap bargaining of a sari over a duck. Lucy looked at her mother. Grace stood with one hand on her hip, the other held a cookbook the distance of her fully extended arm. She refused to look at Lucy. The duck sat, a silent witness in its lightly sweating container, on the counter. Lucy kept her eyes on her mother for a long time before she sighed and turned her attention back to her nails. A bridal magazine with its baby’s breath bouquets lay open in front of her. She turned the pages slowly, pausing to blow on her wet nails. She thought of her future babies. She would walk them at dusk to lull them to sleep, baby’s breath wrapped around their prams and soursop leaves under their pillows. She assumed all brides-to-be had these thoughts.

When she could stand it no more, Lucy looked up from the magazine.

‘Mummy, I think you should just curry the duck.’

‘Lucille, when the Boodrams had their party for you two, I didn’t rush over there with a roast beef . . .’

‘You know they’re Hindu. Of course, you wouldn’t go with beef. And if you’d called and said you were bringing something, I’m sure Kamla would have been very gracious.

Aren’t you always going on about being gracious?’

‘Since when are you calling her Kamla? I thought she was Mrs. Boodram to you.’

‘What is WRONG with you? She is going to be my mother-in-law. Just because Raj has to call you MRS. De Fleur.’

‘Well, we’ve always been different.’

‘Oh, stop. You need to stop.’ Lucy was pulling at her eyelashes, an old childhood habit that she hadn’t done in years.

‘But the point is, I did not rush over there and complicate Kamla Boodram’s menu. I ate what was put in front of me, even if I could not abide it. And curry is not going to go with everything else. The flavour is too strong.’

The two women held their heads in the same way, squaring off. The tilt of head and slightly elongated necks signaled an oncoming battle. Were her father in the room, he would have folded his paper and left. Lucy could not believe that after all the navigating over venues and dresses and codes of conduct, it is going to fall apart over a duck.

‘Okay,’ said Grace. ‘I have a solution. We’ll serve the duck at the children’s table. I can pull some paratha out of the freezer and have Violet do curry pumpkin. That way they can eat it with their hands. Problem solved.’

‘Are you mad, Mummy?? Have you gone completely mad? Do you want to put an end to my marriage before it even starts? You are going to put THE CURRY on the CHILDREN’S table? Oh God!’ Lucy’s face was hot and red as she stared open-mouthed at her mother. A flush rose out her blouse and crept in red blotches up her neck.

‘Surely you can see why I can’t serve curry duck tonight, Lucille,’ her voice icy. ‘Perhaps you have forgotten that you were not raised by wolves, but I certainly have not.’

In a very un-Grace-like move, she slammed the recipe book on the counter. ‘Blasted people and their damn curry.’

Lucy got up. Behind her, the chair clattered to the ground.

Years later Lucy would find Grace’s diary. Days after the duck fight, Grace had written, the careful letters penned as innocently as a grocery list, that she’d shocked herself.  Grace had shocked herself, she’d written in that long-ago diary. I don’t know what came over me. This was just one of the sentences Lucy read years later. Of course, Grace knew the Boodrams ate well. Lucy had told her. The curry was a token gesture. A subtle claiming. But she’d said it. Showed her hand to Lucy. She didn’t want the curry on her table. It had seemed somehow, somehow . . . lesser. Her face had burned with shame. This is another of the sentences Lucy read. In the future, this line will remind Lucy of her mother’s tendency to hyperbole. At this future date, Grace is ill, and everything has changed. But still Lucy was sorry when she read the journal, because, even on that day back in 1992, she’d understood. She had a name for what had been bubbling along like a violent nausea.

On the weekends leading up to the engagement, Lucy spent weekends at Raj’s apartment. He lived in the penthouse of a new high-rise complex in the western suburbs of the city. Her parents were not happy. Lucy packed her bag every Friday and kissed them goodbye. She’d done this before with other boyfriends, so what could they say? The buildings in the complex were shaped like ships and each master bedroom had a porthole for a window. Lucy heard what the PLUs said about the new apartments. Emperor’s new clothes, they’d sniffed. But Lucy knew something of these things. They would be sorry when the market quadrupled in years to come. When they lay in bed on a Friday night, the lights of the city spangled the Gulf along the western coast. She took over a medicine cabinet, filled it with an abundance of such female-ness that Raj accused her of marking territory like a cat. His bathroom, once a room with manly lines of glass and marble, became softer with each passing month, growing appendages of bath salts, candles, face masks, tampons, panties, nighties. From the edge of the jacuzzi in the bathroom, Lucy saw all the way to Venezuela. When the lights were dim, and the windows reflected the mountains back to themselves, Lucy’s reflection projected like an extraordinary decal. Once she called Raj to see. Look at me, I’m staining Venezuela. He kneeled by her naked side and kissed her hard.

When Lucy woke, hours after the fight with her mother, she smelled curry. A good one at that, she could tell. Just enough geera for the bottom note. She made her way downstairs, her face swollen, her mouth sullen. Grace was in the kitchen stirring a pot. 

‘Come and help. People will be here in less than two hours. I spoke to Kamla and we agreed that it might be nice to try the duck like this.’ Grace still couldn’t look Lucy in the face.

‘I’ve stuffed the dumplings with the duck. Taste the curry sauce.’

Lucy was silent for a few seconds before moving towards her mother.

‘You spoke to Kamla? You called her?’

‘Yes. Curry duck and dumplings. She thought it was a wonderful idea. I’m stuffing the dumplings with the curry duck. See?  I’m stripping the meat off the bone and I’m packing the duck into the dumplings. We can serve them as appetizers.’

Lucy tasted one of the dumplings. It was delicious. They had both won. While Lucy chewed, a blush rose up her mother’s neck.

On the evening, there was no heaviness in the air. Lucy was spectacular in her sari. A happy joyous memory in the making. The tables were on the lawn, each decorated with its own tiny lantern and a sprig of lantana and asparagus fern. Grace rarely drank, but that night she glittered and smiled and drank the champagne like juice. After dinner had been served and the dishes cleared, everyone leaned back in their chairs, smiling and benevolent. No one expected a speech.

The light ting halted conversations as far as the end of the garden. Lucy’s father looked alarmed, catching Lucy’s eye as she headed towards Grace. Lucy shrugged, raising her shoulders and pursing her mouth. We will see, she seemed to say.

 ‘I am driven,’ Grace began, ‘to say how happy we are to celebrate this wonderful occasion. Lucy and Raj, would you like to stand here so we can see you?’

‘We’re here, Mummy.’

‘I am driven to honour the occasion,’ Grace continued, repeating the same odd word.

Driven. She stood straight, her shoulders back, tapping the tines of her fork lightly on the stem of her glass.

‘My father’s family have been in the Caribbean for over 500 years. Most of you think I am fully French but some of my British ancestors are buried in Barbados. A large vault in the ground.’

Lucy’s hands were icy.

Here the crowd sat up. Interested. This was different.

‘Every few years, there is a curious phenomenon.’ Grace stumbled a bit on this word, her n’s and m’s jumbling in her champagne voice.

‘Every century or so, something disrupts the coffins. Pulls them out of their underground slots and flings them around. Upside down coffins. All lead lined and heavy as hell. But still, there it is. The whole vault in turmoil. They’ve had to seal the coffins shut. Can you imagine? Some say it’s the shifting of the coral in Barbados, others say . . . well others say all sorts of things. Family lore has it that it only happens when the ancestors are angry. Like the time, my great-grandfather defied tradition and sold land to the enemies on the West coast. But what to do. Everyone can’t be pleased all the time.’

By this time, Lucy had her by the arm and was pulling her back. The next day there would be lavender bruises like fingerprints. Gradually people resumed their conversation after the stunned silence. Afterwards the dishes were cleared, the coffee served, the guests kissed, and seen to their cars. When the last one was gone, Lucy sat in the garden and wept while her father took her mother upstairs. Raj silent beside her.

‘What was she trying to say?’ Raj asked. ‘Did she make it up?’

‘No, I’ve heard the story before. It’s family lore. An odd anecdote. She used to like to tell me it was when my ancestors were angry. Why? Why would she talk about that?’

Raj was silent. He breathed deeply and looked away.

The next day Grace said she did not know what they were speaking of, she had given no such speech.  For the most part she liked Raj. What was there not to like? She pretended not to notice the bruises.

The afternoon Lucy met Raj, she’d fallen badly on the steps, her heel catching on an uneven piece of concrete. She broke her ankle in a clean snap.  He’d reached her first, cradling her swelling foot on his thigh while he eased her shoe off. Then he instructed her to lie flat on the stairs of the big building on Independence Square, his briefcase with his new share certificates under her head. She couldn’t stop crying. ‘People will see my panties,’ she whispered through her tears, aware of the growing crowd. He’d even come with her in the ambulance. Once as a child, she’d jumped from the top of the guava tree. It had been an impulsive decision. Some childish vapse made her sure she could fly, shocking her from solid branch to air that smashed her to the ground, breaking both wrists. She healed well but each wrist now had a mild bend that suggested a capacity for acrobatics. She told him this story on the way to the hospital. They got engaged less than a year later.

After they had been together for a few months, Lucy and Raj took the parents to dinner. Everyone agreed on Chinese food. It was not that the evening went badly. On the contrary, the two older couples chatted easily. There were many mutual friends to discuss. The performance of the economy. The concerns of foreign exchange. Would the dollar devalue again? Everyone stayed within the safe perimetres of financial crises. Mrs. Boodram was more sophisticated than Grace. Lucy recognized this instantly and knew her mother did as well. There would be no playing of the French Creole card at this table. Mrs. Boodram came from a long line of intellectuals. And Mr. Boodram was a well-respected businessman. The Boodrams had been in oil for generations. Kamla Boodram was a beauty, dressed in the trademark linen of the city’s top designer, a line of faggoting running down her sleeves. Grace was bare-armed and cool in a flowered top. She’d had her hair blow-dried for the occasion. Grace said nothing of castles or soufflés or learning French at school. But still Lucy got very drunk and threw up in Raj’s car on the way home.

‘Why?’ he asked. ‘It went well. Why did you drink so much?’

What could she say? Could she tell him that she’d recognized the signs of power brokerage playing out at a level that she had yet to witness in her job. She’d watched as the parents brokered for power in genes, money, social rank, and a subtle skirting of the thing that no one would ever talk about. Did the Boodrams want Raj marrying a white girl? And did the De Fleurs want their daughter marrying an Indian boy?

At the dinner table, Lucy had taken note of each comment. While she listened, she drank two bottles of wine. That night, Lucy dreamed a liquid and languid dream. Raj stroking the fine hairs of her pubis, curling them in tandem. Burnt marmalade, he said to her in the dream. That’s what you taste like. Burnt marmalade and cream.

For beyond the parents, as far removed from the parents as one could get, were the matters of the body. Desire like mercury, flexibility needing no consent. Helpless mating belonged to her and Raj. And to them alone. She was jealous when others ventured into their territory. Years later, after their first child nearly split her in half, after she’d pushed pounds of living flesh out of her body, she would look into the faces of other mothers. Had they also lived through the bucking of birth, their bodies ripping and shearing in places that had once been private, secretly and voraciously owned before population by husbands and children. But in those early days, her body was still a mystery to be discovered.

2018

People came through the house to pay their respects all evening. Lucy, long accustomed to navigating two worlds, moved between her mother’s older friends and the core circle of family who had cared for Grace in her final days. It was more difficult with Grace’s longtime friends. They couldn’t understand it. Why had there been no ceremony? Why only the pyre on open concrete? One whispered quietly to Lucy. You know the Catholic Church doesn’t condone . . . Here the woman paused and took a long breath. The soul. Lucy understood it was the state of her mother’s soul at the heart of the discussion. She thought about this for some time. The soul of her mother. If there was such a thing. All those years Grace spent on her knees, eyes bent in supplication to an altar. Would it matter now? Many out-of-touch friends wanted to know how Grace had come to be here. Not overt in their questioning, but Lucy understood. There had, after all, been friction all along. Others wanted to know – had she actually converted? Had she gone to heaven as a Hindu?

Why not the crematorium? Why not a service before? It was not that people were so rude as to ask her these things directly, but she picked up snippets of conversation, overheard remarks, the general feeling of shock and disapproval. Lucy said nothing.

Lucy was not there for her mother’s last breath. Kamla had called her at first light.

She’s gone. Peacefully.

Lucy could not talk, even now, of her shame. Even after Lucy’s last child was born, Grace had not relented. She held to a lost lifestyle with frightening tenacity, struggling to keep up the house after Lucy’s father died with nothing in the bank. Only once had Lucy seen her break. She’d come to visit her mother late one evening. The bridge tables were still out, the remnants of tea still evident in dirty plates and cups. But the room was bare of furniture. One chair and the dining room table. Not a painting on the wall.

‘Mummy . . .’

‘You don’t understand. To break away is to be excommunicated. You don’t know this society like I do. What give it up to live in a poky apartment in a rundown neighbourhood? We just can’t do that. Don’t you understand? We don’t have that option. We never have.’

‘But there is no money . . .’

Out in the garden, the Spanish cedar released seeds into the dusk. Transparent disks softly twirling in the violet light.

‘Look,’ said her mother, ‘look.’

Together they walked out into the evening air. The air was suddenly full of them, softly spinning and incandescent in the dying sky.

‘Souls on their way to heaven,’ said Grace. ‘My mother always said that.’

Less than a year later, the bank foreclosed on the house and Grace had melanoma. Raj wouldn’t have her under his roof but Kamla said she must come to her. The grandchildren must never know the things that had been said. Bring her to me. Lucy remained silent. By this time, she’d read mother’s diaries. Atonement came in extraordinary ways. Grace had few visitors. Not many things frightened people like the stench of cancer. On the mornings she was able, Grace sat on the front porch in the morning sun, but she was always cold and had to have a blanket. Every morning, Kamla began her day performing Pooja. Her daily prayers. She told Lucy she had explained to Grace the meaning of the flags flying next to the small temple where she performed her rites. Jhandis. Each colour a particular god, our deities. But even towards the end, on very good days, she sat in the kitchen and supervised the making of cheese soufflés. Just for old time sake. For my mother, she said to Kamla. So she knows I won’t forget. I owe it to them. What to do, Kamla said to Lucy, she’s dying. Now is not the time to talk of these things.

It was Lucy that decided that Grace would be buried under a flat open sky on an open pyre. The body wrapped in white, the camphor packed to get the fire going. Cleansing fire.

When she had arrived at Kamla’s house, her mother’s body was still warm. So small and quiet in death. She’d left a note. Please no coffin.

Lucy went to the Shore of Peace the morning after the cremation. There she gathered four clay receptacles of Grace. Now and then, there was a small fragment of bone, hard to say human or otherwise, but she collected everything to be certain.

The next weekend, the family gathered to scatter Grace deep in the Maracas valley. After it was over, Lucy buried the four receptacles at the base of an old Spanish cedar. Around her, the air was full of spinning seeds.


Sharon Millar was born and lives in Trinidad. She is the winner of the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the 2012 Small Axe Short Fiction Award. Her first collection The Whale House and other stories (Peepal Tree Press 2015) was long-listed for the 2016 OCM Bocas Prize. Her work has been anthologized in Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Akashic Books and Peepal Tree Press), WomanSpeak, A Journal of Writing and Art by Caribbean Women,Volume 8, 2016 (edited by Lynn Sweeting), Trinidad Noir 2 (Akashic Books 2017), Griffith Review Edition 59: New Commonwealth Now (2018), and in the forthcoming anthology Thicker Than Water, (Peekash Press 2018). She is currently at work on her second collection of short stories and her first novel.

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