Hungry Ghosts

Kevin Jared Hosein

February 7, 2023 
The following is from Kevin Jared Hosein's Hungry Ghosts. Hosein is the winner of the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the author of three books that have been published in the Caribbean, including The Repenters, which was short-listed for the Bocas Prize and long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award. He is a science teacher and lives in Trinidad and Tobago.

Hans stopped before a two-storey building with a wide blue awning, the front fitted with immaculate glass. On one of the panes was the name of the store fitted into a bold half-moon: SALLOUM’S BAZAAR. The store had opened only a week ago and was supposed to be the new cornerstone of imported goods.

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Despite the boding of grim weather, there were some people mulling around inside. The unfamiliar ding of the cash register gave Tarak a small startle. Standing sleek behind the register was a pretty pearl-fleshed woman, hair fashioned into a neat ponytail. Displayed behind the glass were bath towels curled up like sugar-frosted cinnamon rolls, large jugs of polychromatic confectioneries, ladies’ hats snug on faceless plastic heads, decorative boxes with little animals painted on the sides. A stack of magazines. Not the latest issues, but at least they weren’t three years behind like the ones selling in the tumbledown kiosk in Tully Settlement. And at least they weren’t kinked and rolled up like they’d once been used to swat insects.

Every month, heeding a suggestion from Robinson, Hans would buy one for his son. Whatever he could pick up that seemed suitable for a boy – National Geographic, Picture Play, Life, Look. Krishna’s favourite was Popular Mechanics, but they rarely ever had that one at the kiosk. But there it was in this store, sitting proud and mint, top of the rack.

‘We have money for Popular Mechanics, pa?’

‘Your ma say you have enough books for now. She want you to finish the ones you have.’

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‘I read them out, pa. And read them over.’

Gave his son a smile. ‘We gon get that Popular Mechanics then.’ Hans turned to his nephew. ‘What you want from in there, Tarak?’

Tarak chuckled. He wasn’t expecting anything – he’d just come for the walk. He shyly pointed at the candy jars.

From the doorstep, Hans smiled at the pretty cashier, rubbing his hands together as if a hot meal had been placed before him. The woman’s face fell as she signalled to a young lanky man in suspenders. A patchy beard but his hair slicked into a smooth dome. He’d been stacking tins of pomade into a tiny pyramid. The man came to the door, held up an authorial hand to the two and shook his head.

‘Somethin wrong, mister?’ Hans asked.

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The man folded his scrawny arms, his eyes on Hans’s tattered work boots, scrunching his nose as if he just smelled a fart. ‘Only one of you.’ He looked to be in his twenties, several years younger than Hans.

Hans thought about the sentence for a while. ‘Only one of we could come in?’

‘I only have one pair of eyes,’ said the man with a nod.

Krishna craned his neck to observe the patrons inside. There were at least two mothers with their children. Scowling at the man, he asked, ‘What you sayin here, mister?’

Tarak hunched over, stayed quiet.

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The man kept eye contact with Hans. ‘The boys stay outside.’

Hans nodded. ‘Yessir.’

‘So, what bout them in there?’ Krishna pointed to the children in the store.

‘Quiet,’ said Hans, his palm on the boy’s back.

The man kept his gaze on Hans. ‘We’ve had bad experiences and I only have one pair of eyes.’

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‘Bad experiences with what? We have money. We aint stealin nothin from your stupid store,’ Krishna said to the man. Turned to his father,‘Tell him somethin, pa. Call him a jackass.’

Hans covered the boy’s mouth. Tarak gently pulled his cousin closer to him.

The man sneered. ‘This is a family store. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to—’

‘Hold on, hold on, sir.’ Hans held up his hand, put on a smile for the man. ‘I come to get one thing from the hardware and that’s it, sir. I have the money.’ He pulled some bills out of his pocket. ‘See?’

‘But pa—!’

‘Hush, I say!’ He lightly smacked the boy on the back of his head.

The man thought about it for a few seconds. ‘OK. Go ahead.’ Then pointed to Krishna. ‘But this one says another word, I’m phoning the police.’

‘Yessir. In and out.’ Gave Krishna a stern glance.

‘Don’t forget the Popular Mechanics, pa.’ But he wasn’t sure if his father had heard.

Tarak led Krishna to the sidewalk, where they both sat. Tarak slung his arm around his cousin’s back. A whorled-up pothound sat on the other side of the street, quietly growling at them every time they made eye contact. Krishna kept his eyes upturned.The crosshatching of power lines sliced through the sky.

‘They aint have no right,’ said Krishna. ‘This place should burn down.’

‘It more likely to flood out with the rain comin tonight.’ Tarak let out a small titter, rubbed his cousin’s shoulders. ‘Don’t worry bout them, boy.’

Visible in the distance was the church, a monolith so tall that it was visible from any walk. The rictus of Christ more like an adjudicating scowl than a pained grimace. The chorus of some Friday evening rehearsal warming the still air like birdsong. Suddenly, the sound of a bell. A lady in the store commented to a clerk, Hear that? Look like Miss Betsy finally pass on, God rest that old woman soul. Krishna wondered if the bell tolled for all souls – or only for the ones that’d been baptised.

As Hans browsed the confectionery jars, the young man in suspenders loomed behind him. When he moved to reach his hand inside, the man nervously tapped his shoulder and asked him how many candies he was buying.‘Four,’ said Hans, reaching in again.The clerk slapped his wrist like a nervous schoolteacher. Krishna felt ashamed to see his father go through this.The clerk then reached in himself and gave Hans a random four – the children inside got to choose which ones they wanted.When his father went up to the cashier, Tarak noticed that he’d forgotten to pick up the copy of Popular Mechanics.When he told Krishna about it, the boy told him to leave it be. He didn’t want any damn thing from that damn store anyway. Even gave Tarak his share of the candy.

A single flick of rain slid down Krishna’s brow. He remembered a story of a drowned child from Bell Village, about two years back. Drowned in a gully that was lucky to be fed a trickle of water. That season, the rains transformed that gully into a rapid. He heard that when they found the boy, he had worms in his mouth, chiggers crawling out of his feet. He didn’t know the boy but perhaps he had it coming, was his thought. Most people from this village did. And a church bell can only toll so many times before it finally cracks.


Excerpt from Hungry Ghosts by Kevin Jared Hosein. Copyright © 2023 by Kevin Jared Hosein. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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