By Priya Sridhar
Five months before little Benedicte’s family was supposed to move to America, an earthquake hit Haiti. It destroyed his family’s house in the city, along with hundreds of other houses. Benny was five when the earthquake tore their lives apart. A wooden beam fell, struck his skull, injured his eye and knocked him out for five days.
His sister Ada had escaped injury, but Mama and Papa had vanished after the earthquake. It was a stroke of luck that some of the nurses who helped Ada and Benny knew his Aunt Julia. Aunt Julia and Uncle Paul lived in the States and they wanted to help.
It was another stroke of luck that Aunt Julia and Uncle Paul lived in Miami, because Miami had the best eye hospital in the country and Aunt Julia knew people there.
Aunt Julia, a large and gorgeous pear-shaped woman with red hair, had married Benny’s Uncle Paul ten years back; the two lived in a small Miami suburb. Uncle Paul ran a seafood cafe while Aunt Julia worked in a public nursing clinic.
She and Ada got along splendidly, talking late into the night. Ada was ten years old and she had gotten top marks in English, a second language since at home they had spoken French all the time. She worked hard, because Mama and Papa had saved up their hard earned dollars to buy her a clean uniform and all her books.
Benny was different. He wet his bed at night and wouldn’t sleep near the walls; for fear that they would crash on him. He still had memories of broken wood in his eye. Uncle Paul moved Benny’s bed to the center of the room, and it became routine for Aunt Julia to wash the sheets daily.
Benny had nightmares about the house collapsing and about losing his other eye and he seemed to need rest all the time. Aunt Julia set him up with surgeries, a glass eye and a therapy routine to help him cope with the trauma. Benny did not cope, however.
“I want to go home,” he told his aunt in impeccable French. “I want Mama and Papa.”
Aunt Julia had to explain to Benny, sitting him on her knee, that his parents would come to the States after they had saved up enough money; Aunt Julia was an accomplished fibber. For now, though, they wanted the children to recover while they could and start a new life.
These words made the future look hopeful, so Benny in his soft, babyish French promised to start a new life. He didn’t really know what that meant, since he thought his life had started when he was born.
In Miami, like in Haiti, the summer afternoons were hot. Benny, instead of wandering, would stay in the backyard and read his comics under Ada’s watchful eye. Ada would read Little House on the Prairie. Aunt Julia made them read a book from the library each week; Benny got adventure books and Tintin comic collections in French. He liked reading about Tintin. It was reading one of these that led him to meet Shango.
That day was a sticky hot day. Benny had eaten leftover tilapia for lunch and smelled of fried fish. He was reading about Tintin and his little white dog, lying in a tunnel in the grass. Then he heard a crackling sound and felt a pair of eyes on him.
He looked up. A black cat with suspicious eyes surveyed him. It had white stripes along its back and small paws. Its banded tail was batting back and forth, the tip crackling with little electric sprites. A collar with strange symbols graced its neck, but it looked like a fancy lady’s necklace. Yellow dots flecked its eye.
Ada wasn’t watching; she hadn’t heard the crackling. That was good, because Ada didn’t like cats. Benny had the chance to say ‘hello’ to the cat.
The cat had a dead animal in its mouth; it looked like a squirrel. The cat made a purring sound before circling Benny. He held still, waiting for the cat to make a decision.
Then Ada looked up. The cat vanished in a flash, sprinting to the next yard. By the time Ada ran to Benny, the feline had hopped on top of a cheap plastic flamingo.
“What was that?” She asked.
Benny rubbed his glass eye. It felt like the sprites from the cat’s tail had entered the glass, electrifying him. A strange word, in a made-up language perhaps, entered his mind: Shango.
“A squirrel,” he answered in French. It wasn’t a complete lie, he told himself. There had been a squirrel.
Ada made a face at him. She was wearing a red sundress and matching socks. Benny reached a hand into his hair and realized it was sticking up on one end.
“You’re going to have to learn English one day,” Ada said in French. “Then people will understand you better. What are you going to do about school?”
Benny shrugged. He hadn’t even thought of school or if he would be going. In Haiti, Mama talked about saving money for Benny’s books and uniform. Here, in Miami, Aunt Julia talked about kindergarten, words that Benny did not understand. Benny understood that he had lost his eye and home. He did not know why school mattered.
After that first meeting, the cat made its presence known. Dead squirrels piled up near Benny’s favorite reading spot outside under the shady tree, charred from head to toe. The sprites from the fur would enter Benny’s glass eye and dance through his head. They made him see different worlds, with blue giants and men with large axes and big helmets. He called the cat Shango, though he had no idea why.
Aunt Julia fussed about the squirrels, so Benny took to burying them. He would sneak out bits of raw fish from the fridge and leave them for Shango. He saw the cat gobbling down the fish once or twice, but not without electrocuting them with its tail.
At some point, Shango expected him to bring fish. In the morning Benny would hear a strange yowling in his dreams, accompanied by floating, glowing sparkles in the corner of his eye, and when he woke up he felt the need to go outside.
The cat would lie on his back on the driveway, mouth open for a nibble of raw snapper. Benny would mumble a greeting for Shango, trundle back inside, and return with the restaurant leftovers. He liked the message because his dreams were usually nightmares of Aunt Julia’s house collapsing in.
This couldn’t last; Benny was young, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew that Uncle Paul at some point would notice the missing meat. He had to find fish another way to feed his new friend.
In Haiti, Benny would sometimes fish with Papa in the early morning for the fun of it. They weren’t like the men with their large nets, who often worked long hours to secure their catch. They would trundle to the nearby bay, hide with their poles, and wait for a bite. In the States, Benny didn’t have a pole, and he didn’t have Papa. Nevertheless, Uncle Paul had an extra pole in the garage.
Early the next morning, Benny woke and pretended that he was at home. This time his nightmares had kept away, so he hadn’t wet his bed. He rubbed his glass eye, dressed in a white shirt and tight blue shorts and put on his sneakers. A set of goggles went over his head and tied at the back. He wore no socks, because socks made his ankles itch.
Shango was waiting in the driveway, as usual. The cat’s ears perked up at sight of Bennycarrying the pole over his shoulder.
“We’re going to find fresh fish,” Benny said, in careful English. He had been practicing with Ada, since it made her less cranky. Sometimes Benny wondered if Ada remembered a thing about the earthquake, or if she pretended to not remember.
They walked for a bit; it was seven in the morning, so the road was empty. The pole flopped and dragged behind him because it was so heavy. The cat seemed to know where he was going, so Benny trusted Shango. He kept to the grass and sidewalk. Eventually, they came to a cluster of mangroves by a canal, where the trees had a small opening onto the water.
The mangroves smelled strongly of salt, and dirt gathered beneath their roots. Benny saw little crabs and sand fleas, and even baby fish. Shango jumped into the water, and came back with a small, wriggling fish in his mouth. Benny understood and immediately attached it to the hook on his line. He felt sorry for the fish but sensed he had no choice in the matter.
They moved past the mangroves, and to where there was a larger open space of grass and rocks. Benny looked down, and saw that the water was deep. He also saw large fish, larger than the wriggling one on his hook. Benny set the pole up in front of him, undid the line so that it dangled, and lowered the lure and hook beneath the small waves washing in.
Shango curled up around his knees, and watched the line bob in the water. He was warm and furry, even as his tail crackled. His eyes followed every large, complacent fish.
Regular fishing took hours, even a day at the most, and Benny knew that one had to have a boat to properly get fish in the deep water. Yet no sooner had Benny gotten a firm grip on the pole than he felt a tug. A pretty big tug. Remembering the time he had lost a fishing pole on his fourth birthday, Benny pulled back as fast as he could, and tugged. Shango shot up, hair bristling, and stared at the water frothing with white foam and splashes. The line was tight, as if it were a harp string that demanded to be plucked.
Benny cried out in surprise, because whatever he had caught was strong. Shango leaped down onto the rocks that met with the water, and pounced on the wriggling thing. Benny cried out, as he saw the cat go toe to toe and lash out with its tail. He saw electricity sparkling out, and for a moment he almost thought an epic battle was going on when he closed his good eye; his glass eye, despite having no sight, showed him a man wrestling with a large shark, smacking it in the nose.
Benny strained at the pole, struggling not to lose it. He didn’t want Uncle Paul to get angry if he lost the only fishing pole in the house. Angry yowls came from the water, as did little electric sprites and lots of splashing. Benny held on, feeling electricity in his white fingertips.
Then it was over, when the cat bit into the fish’s throat and clamped down. The wriggling thing went limp with a snap. Shango, despite the water in his fur, gave a smug meow and clambered onto the rocks with his prey in his mouth. He jabbed his tail at the fishing line. Benny gave a sigh of relief as he wound in the line and saw that it and the hook were intact. Now Uncle Paul wouldn’t be angry.
He whipped around. Speak of the devil, Uncle Paul was there, watching the cat climb delicately back onto the grass and rocks. He had been watching the whole time.
“How, how . . .” Benny started.
“That cat’s been around,” Uncle Paul said, in French. “I woke up early and saw your bed was empty. He likes hanging out around here, though he could never catch the fish in the water. So I came here, and saw you doing the cat a favor. Maybe I can hire you to catch fish for my restaurant. You need a smaller pole, though.”
Benny managed a smile. Uncle Paul took the pole and carefully put away the hook, detaching it after wiping it. He didn’t look mad.
Shango came to them and dropped the smoking fish in front of Benny. He looked at Uncle Paul with feigned innocence, tail crackling.
“I’ve never seen a fish like that before,” Uncle Paul said, crouching to peer at it.
Benny studied the fish. It was huge compared to Shango, blue, and had a snout like a crocodile. The dead eyes scared him, for they were filled with hatred and hunger. Its underside was charred black from the electric shocks, but the tail looked like it had a sharp edge that could cut through bone.
“Keep it,” Benny told the cat in slow English. “For you.”
Shango brightened, and picked up the fish with his tiny mouth. Shango was so smug.
“I looked up his name for you,” Uncle Paul said, switching to French. “Shango is one of our old gods. He was a charming warrior who had power over thunder and lightning.”
“What’s a god?” Benny asked.
“A powerful spirit. Those who rule over us and decide how we live, or how we die. And when we live, we must be thankful that we were spared, while mourning the dead and missing.”
“Like Papa. Papa’s missing.” The minute Benny said this, he knew it was true.
“Yes.” Uncle Paul looked sad. “Your papa’s missing. Because the gods willed it.”
Benny had never noticed before how Uncle Paul was similar to Papa, except Uncle Paul had thicker lines around his face and more weight in his eyes. He carried more thoughts in his head than Benny did, more sadness and worry when appearing so strong.
“How do you keep it in?” Benny asked. “Being sad.”
“It’s not easy,” Uncle Paul said. “I miss your papa, and some days I wish I had stayed in Haiti. But on those days, I do two things: I chop vegetables for the restaurant, and I talk to your aunt.”
Benny waited, and his uncle knelt so they were at eye level.
“Vegetables take time to chop, they need all of your attention, I don’t have the time to be thinking sad things. With Julia, she reminds me of the good I do by being alive. If I had stayed in Haiti, you and Ada wouldn’t be here now. You wouldn’t be feeding Shango.”
Benny considered this. Shango had also paused to listen, rapt in this tale.
“I want to help Shango catch more fish,” Benny said, thinking about that. “He’s . . . .”
“He’s friendly to you,” Uncle Paul finished. “He likes you.”
“Only if you let me watch. And if you do well in school, in the fall.”
Benny made a face, and Uncle Paul laughed. He slung the fishing pole over his shoulder.
“Come on, Benedicte. Let’s get some breakfast.”
They walked to the car, slowly. Shango watched the boy go before starting on the fish, while lying in the sun. Then the cat lay down with a satisfied purr.