Tara Sullivan The Bitter Side of Sweet

ISBN 13: 9781515951131

The Bitter Side of Sweet

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9781515951131: The Bitter Side of Sweet

Fifteen-year-old Amadou counts the things that matter. For two years what has mattered are the number of cacao pods he and his younger brother, Seydou, can chop down in a day. This number is very important. The higher the number the safer they are because the bosses won't beat them. The higher the number the closer they are to paying off their debt and returning home to Moke and Auntie. Maybe. The problem is, Amadou doesn't know how much he and Seydou owe, and the bosses won't tell him. The boys only wanted to make some money during the dry season to help their impoverished family. Instead they were tricked into forced labor on a plantation in the Ivory Coast. With no hope of escape, all they can do is try their best to stay alive-until Khadija comes into their lives. She's the first girl who's ever come to camp, and she's a wild thing. She fights bravely every day, attempting escape again and again, reminding Amadou what it means to be free. But finally, the bosses break her, and what happens next to the brother he has always tried to protect almost breaks Amadou. The old impulse to run is suddenly awakened. The three band together as family and try just once more to escape.

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About the Author:

Tara Sullivan is the author of the award-winning and critically acclaimed novel Golden Boy. She holds a BA in Spanish literature and cognitive science from the University of Virginia, and an MA in Latin American studies and an MPA in nonprofit management from Indiana University. Tara lives with her family in Massachusetts.

J. D. Jackson is a theater professor, aspiring stage director, and award-winning audiobook narrator. A classically trained actor, his television and film credits include roles on House, ER, and Law & Order. J. D. was named one of AudioFile magazine's Best Voices of the Year for 2012 and 2013.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2016 Tara Sullivan

 

1.

I count the things that matter.

Chop, twist, toss, check. Chop, twist, toss, check. Two more pods make twenty-five total.

Neither Seydou nor I have eaten anything since breakfast, but Moussa is working too close for us to be able to sneak one of the cacao pods out of the sack. I take a moment to wipe the sweat off my forehead. You’d think it would be cooler up here, but some days there isn’t a breeze even halfway up a tree.

I scrub at my face with my wrist and look out over our work area. Moussa is collecting pods off to our right, though he’ll leave in a second to make another sweep to be sure everyone’s still here. The other boys on crew with us today are just smudges of noise through the green. Directly below me, Seydou scrambles around as quickly as he can, picking up the pods I’ve cut and putting them in our sacks. They’re lying worryingly flat right now.

Only twenty-five pods. Our sacks need to be full, at least forty or forty-five each, so I can get Seydou out of a beating. Really full if I want to get out of one too. The bosses usually look the other way when I give Seydou lighter work since he’s only eight, but that kindness only goes so far. We still need to bring in about the same as the other boys.

I slide to the ground and push the sack onto my shoulder. The bunched bag digs in, pressing through the bruises there, but I don’t let Seydou carry things that are too heavy if I can avoid it. Instead, he carries the machetes.

“Moussa! We’re finding new trees!” I call out.

Awó! ” he shouts, looking to see which direction we’re going. In a few minutes he’ll wander over to check on us. I try not to let it bother me.

Seydou and I walk past tree after tree. They taunt us with their clustered pods, all the wrong size, none of them ripe enough to cut. I don’t count how many trees we pass because I don’t count the things that don’t matter.

I don’t count unripe pods. I don’t count how many times I’ve been hit for being under quota. I don’t count how many days it’s been since I’ve given up hope of going home.

In the next grove I heave the sack onto the ground and shake out my arms. Seydou stumbles a little as he shuffles up behind me. His thin shoulders slump. I can see how tired he is and it makes me mad, because I can’t do anything about it. More than seventy pods to go and it’s already late morning.

“Give me my machete.”

He scowls at my tone, his thin eyebrows scrunching down in his round face, making him look like a cranky old man, but he hands it to me even so. Then he heads straight to the nearest tree with low pods and gets to work, a frown line still between his eyes.

I clench my machete between my teeth and pull myself up a smooth trunk with my bare feet and hands, counting the shiny pods that are the right size for cutting. When I get high enough to reach some purple-red ones, I knot my legs around the trunk, grab one in my left hand, and hack at the tough stem that holds it to the tree.

One strong chop and with a twist it comes off, surprisingly light in my hand for its size. Twenty-six.

I turn to toss it to the ground and check on Seydou. I notice that he’s still trying to saw through the stem of his first pod. His skinny little body is sagging from exhaustion and his blade keeps slipping. I want to scream at him to be more careful. In- stead, I slip down the tree and don’t add the pod to my sack.

“Come on,” I say, walking to him. “Let’s take a quick break before Moussa gets too close again. Then we’ll get to work. How does that sound?”

“I can keep working.” He straightens and glares at me as if

I’ve just called him a baby in front of the whole camp.

I grind my teeth in frustration but keep my face smooth. Tremors of exhaustion are making his blade wave slightly in the air as he argues with me.

“I need a break,” I lie, and sit deliberately in front of him. Balancing the pod I just cut in one hand, I aim the machete and swing. One, two hits, and it cracks. I wedge the pod open with the blade until the whole thing splits in two. Inside the thick rind, the seeds are packed together in a tube, each in a squishy skin. I drop my machete, scoop the seed-mess out with my fingers, and shove some of it in my mouth. Then I hold out the other half to Seydou.

“Eat.”

“Okay,” he says, and slides down beside me, resting against the tree.

While I chew on the slimy, crunchy cacao seeds, I look for a place where the leaf litter is deep, to hide the empty husk. There’s no way I want Moussa catching us eating the crop, but all of us boys do it when we can. We don’t get fed much and chewing the seeds makes you feel better and gives you enough energy to keep working.

Seydou chews his handful, a little at a time. I’ll let him finish it before I make him get to work again, but I get up. I need a new twenty-sixth pod and the day is only getting shorter.

I’m halfway up the next tree, my hand already wrapped around it, when the unusual sound of a motor surprises me. Giving in to curiosity, I climb higher until I can see out over the treetops. The growing groves and the wild bush beyond them stretch like a green sea in every direction. There are little pock- marks of brown in it—the clearing where the bosses have their house, the clearing where we husk the pods, ferment and dry the seeds, eat and sleep—and a long tan-colored scar pulling across it: the track that the pisteurs use to come here and collect the seeds we’ve harvested.

And along that track, a plume of dust announces that a car is coming to the camp.

I slide down the tree as quickly as I can. Seydou looks up in alarm, his hand halfway to his mouth with the last few seeds.

“What is it?”

“A car. There’s someone coming.”

Seydou finishes and wipes his hands on his pants. He wrinkles his nose, thinking. “It’s too early for the pisteurs yet,” he says. “I thought Moussa said they’re not coming until next week.”

That’s what I had been thinking too. “More boys?”

I shrug.

Not many people come all the way out here to the middle of nowhere, Ivory Coast. There are the pisteurs, and every now and again someone else, someone delivering fertilizer or insecticide or food for the bosses. But usually, when a car comes by in the middle of the day, it’s because they’re delivering more boys to work.

Over two years ago it was Seydou and I who were part of that batch, leaving Moke and Auntie, thinking we’d be home after a season of work; Seydou and I who were about to get dumped at the cacao camp and learn that we now had to work all day, week after week, season after season, never getting paid. I rub my bruises and wonder what poor boys are currently peer- ing out the bug-spattered windshield for their first glimpse of their new work site.

“We’ll find out soon enough,” I say. But Seydou darts past me and shimmies up the tree I was just in to see for himself. I wait for him at the bottom, considering.

“I wish we could see them.” His whine filters through the leaves to me.

“Wishing doesn’t make it so,” I remind him, moving to the next tree. Moke used to say that to us all the time when we complained at home. And he’s right. I’ve wished for a lot of things: first, to make my family proud by earning a lot of money; then, that my family would come find us; finally, simply that my family would know what had happened to us before we died here. “Wishing doesn’t make it so,” I mumble to myself again, and start up the tree.

I’m cutting through the next stem when the shrill double blast of a whistle makes me jump. Moussa wants us. For a moment I sit there, straddling the branch, cradling my new twenty- sixth pod against my chest. A distraction is the last thing I need.

No, I correct myself. The last thing you need is to get Moussa angry.

I drop the pod to the ground and slither down the trunk until I’m standing at the base. I shove the pod into my sack. When I hear the swish of Seydou’s bare feet on the tree, I grab the sacks, and we trot to where Moussa is waiting for us.

We’re the first ones there. Curious, I walk to where Moussa is standing. Tall and broad, Moussa is the oldest of the three brothers who run the farm. His face is handsome, though he has deep lines on his forehead from worrying. At fifteen, I’m one of the oldest boys in the camp. Even so, I have to tilt my head to look him in the eye.

Seydou tucks himself behind me a bit as we stand there waiting for the other boys to join us. He won’t talk to the bosses if he can avoid it. Seydou is the youngest at the camp by far. I grimace as the old guilt twists in my stomach. It’s a number that matters, but in all the wrong ways.

I turn my attention back to Moussa. I look at his face carefully, gauging whether he might be angry. His stance is relaxed; there are no muscles bunched at the corners of his jaw; his hands hang loosely by his sides. I take a chance. “I didn’t know we were expecting new boys,” I say.

Moussa’s eyes cut to me. I try not to flinch. Then he looks away and shrugs.

“Neither did I.” He pulls a whistle from inside his shirt and blows it again. “Help me get my things.”

Seydou scrambles to get Moussa’s tools and I put the rest of his pods in his sack. Yussuf, Abdraman, and Konaté arrive just as we hear a blaring sound from the direction of the clearing, like someone is leaning on a horn, then two quick honks.

Moussa grabs his sack from me and leads the way.

I fall into line with Seydou and the other boys and follow Moussa. It’s not like he would trust us to work in the field alone while he took care of business. I grind my teeth in frustration at the thought of daylight slipping away.

Aw ka kene?” says a voice beside us.

“Oh, we’re fine,” Seydou answers. “But, Yussuf ! We think there might be some new boys from Mali coming to the camp! What do you think?” My crazy cricket of a brother is bouncing on the balls of his feet as he walks, excited to be able to share a secret.

Yussuf smiles indulgently at Seydou, his thick eyebrows almost comical on his thin face. I’ve never been too friendly with the other boys. It just hurts too much to care, and all of my caring is used up with Seydou. If I had to, though, I would trust Yussuf above the others. He smiles a lot like he means it. In a place like this, that’s rare.

Awó, ” Yussuf whispers. “You’re probably right. More mouths at the stew pot, hmm?”

We all go back to walking in silence. How little food we get is never something to laugh about.

When we get to the edge of the clearing where we live, Moussa walks straight to the Jeep to talk to the driver, a bulky man in khaki pants and a sweat-stained shirt. The five of us don’t really know what to do with ourselves, so we stop a little ways away. Always glad for a break, we sink to the ground and wait to be told what to do. Seydou stands on his tiptoes trying to see in the windshield, but there’s a glare. With a huff of frustration, he settles beside me.

Only a few moments behind us, the other two bosses and their crews trickle in, one after another from the areas they were harvesting, until pretty much everyone is here. The three bosses, Moussa, Ismail, and Salif, stand in a loose ring, talking with the man from the Jeep. The boys float over to join our crew.

 

I’m contemplating whether or not this would be a good chance to sneak in a nap, when the driver pulls a struggling kid out of the Jeep. Instantly, the thought of napping, along with all others, is jolted out of my head. I hear a low whistle of astonishment from Yussuf.

“Is that a girl ?” whispers Seydou.

I nod, still trying to wrap my head around this. First of all, girls never come to the farm. Second, I’ve never seen or heard of one kid being brought alone, ever. Seydou and I had to wait a while in the halfway house in Mali before we crossed the border because it was just too expensive to move us until the drivers had enough kids to make the trip worth it for them. What on earth are they doing, bringing only one kid, and a girl at that? None of the girls at the Sikasso halfway house came with us to the farms. They were all driven somewhere else.

I watch, fascinated. You can tell the kid is a girl because of the plain blue cotton dress she wears, but the thing that the big man pulls out of the Jeep is more like a wild animal than any girl I’ve ever met. She whips around in his hands, thrashing her head from side to side. Her arms are tied behind her, so when he drags her out, she hits the hard-packed ground with a thud. In a heartbeat, she’s on her feet and running for the trees.

Biting off a curse, the big man in khakis is after her. He catches her by her wrist and yanks her sideways. She loses her balance and falls, crying out. The big man sinks a knee into her spine. She lets loose a stream of curses that would curl a man’s hair and doesn’t even stop when he slaps the side of her head. He hauls her to her feet and pushes her before the bosses.

Moussa looks wary. I agree. This girl’s crazy.

I notice I’m standing and that I’ve taken a few steps toward them without realizing it. Moussa crosses his wiry arms, and the four of them begin a heated conversation.

I try to think like the bosses: Would I take her on? Given her height, she’s probably a little younger than me, maybe thirteen or fourteen, but she’s not as skinny as most of the girls I knew at home. Maybe the drought is over if people have food to spare on girls.

I pull my thoughts away from home and pretend I’m helping them decide to take her on or not. She looks healthy and strong enough to work, but I wouldn’t trust that wildcat.

Yussuf and Seydou and the others are whispering among themselves, wondering where she came from, why the middlemen in Sikasso would be willing to transport only one kid, and what it might mean to have a girl in the camp. I’m just about to sit, joining the other boys, when the girl’s eyes snap off the ground and lock into mine. I take a step away. Wide and dark in her oval face, her eyes are asking for help. But I have enough to worry about with Seydou and myself. I have no more help left to give. And so I look away. When I glance at her again, her eyes have turned hard.

There’s nothing I could do anyway, I remind myself.

As I sink into the rough circle we’ve formed, I’m distracted by the pity in Yussuf ’s eyes. I wonder whether he has sisters at home.

The thought takes me by surprise. After two years working with Yussuf, I have no idea who he left behind. I don’t usually wonder about people’s pasts. Thinking about someone else’s past only makes me remember mine, and that’s too much to bear.

“I wish we could get back to work,” I hear myself say. “Wishing doesn’t make it so,” Seydou parrots.

I’m annoyed to have him sass me like that in front of the other boys, but Yussuf laughs, so I let it drop....

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Tara Sullivan
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ISBN 10: 1515951138 ISBN 13: 9781515951131
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Book Description Tantor Media, Inc, United States, 2016. CD-Audio. Book Condition: New. Unabridged edition. Language: English . Brand New. Fifteen-year-old Amadou counts the things that matter. For two years what has mattered are the number of cacao pods he and his younger brother, Seydou, can chop down in a day. This number is very important. The higher the number the safer they are because the bosses won t beat them. The higher the number the closer they are to paying off their debt and returning home to Moke and Auntie. Maybe. The problem is, Amadou doesn t know how much he and Seydou owe, and the bosses won t tell him. The boys only wanted to make some money during the dry season to help their impoverished family. Instead they were tricked into forced labor on a plantation in the Ivory Coast. With no hope of escape, all they can do is try their best to stay alive-until Khadija comes into their lives. She s the first girl who s ever come to camp, and she s a wild thing. She fights bravely every day, attempting escape again and again, reminding Amadou what it means to be free. But finally, the bosses break her, and what happens next to the brother he has always tried to protect almost breaks Amadou. The old impulse to run is suddenly awakened. The three band together as family and try just once more to escape. Bookseller Inventory # AAC9781515951131

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Tara Sullivan
Published by Tantor Media, Inc, United States (2016)
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Book Description Tantor Media, Inc, United States, 2016. CD-Audio. Book Condition: New. Unabridged edition. Language: English . Brand New. Fifteen-year-old Amadou counts the things that matter. For two years what has mattered are the number of cacao pods he and his younger brother, Seydou, can chop down in a day. This number is very important. The higher the number the safer they are because the bosses won t beat them. The higher the number the closer they are to paying off their debt and returning home to Moke and Auntie. Maybe. The problem is, Amadou doesn t know how much he and Seydou owe, and the bosses won t tell him. The boys only wanted to make some money during the dry season to help their impoverished family. Instead they were tricked into forced labor on a plantation in the Ivory Coast. With no hope of escape, all they can do is try their best to stay alive-until Khadija comes into their lives. She s the first girl who s ever come to camp, and she s a wild thing. She fights bravely every day, attempting escape again and again, reminding Amadou what it means to be free. But finally, the bosses break her, and what happens next to the brother he has always tried to protect almost breaks Amadou. The old impulse to run is suddenly awakened. The three band together as family and try just once more to escape. Bookseller Inventory # AAC9781515951131

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Sullivan, Tara/ Jackson, J. D. (Narrator)
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