Barbecue, Daughter of the Mangrove—the Cycle of Struggles (excerpt)

October 2023

An excerpt translated from the French by Corine Labridy with permission from the author, Christophe Gros-Dubois, and the magazine Zist, where the complete story was originally published.

The fire ravaged the sugarcane fields, filling the air with the sickening smell of gasoline. It was late afternoon and the flames rose high in the yellow, almost orange, cloudless sky. A barking chorus boomed like the trumpets of the apocalypse heralding an imminent slaughter. The dogs—mastiffs imported from the neighboring island of Dominica—made their way through the rows of sugarcane that had been spared by the fire. A short-haired cannonball sped toward its target, a voluptuous black woman named Barbecue Sauce. Barbecue had dragged herself for nearly three kilometers before caving under the pain. Her calf had been ripped apart. The fangs had torn the muscle to a pulp, rapping on the bone. An impossible goal began to flicker in her pain-shattered mind. To reach the beach, even if it meant dropping off the cliff. To dive into the crystal-clear waters and to drift off to the mangrove. She longed to bury herself there, in the darkness of the leaves, in the loose earth, among the crabs and the parasites. She longed to disappear to be reborn. But if her body yearned to survive, her spirit was hell-bent on the apocalypse. She wanted to spread the fire of her rage and to blow up the world in its entirety. Barbecue moved through the vegetation, propelled by an infinite fuel—the drive to destroy.

Behind her, the sound of an all-too-familiar stomping. The dog emerged from the mud and rushes, muzzle forward, tail raised like an exclamation point. Streamlined like a torpedo, it weighed about eighty pounds—a growing hound, a well-fed, nasty hound, trained to kill. It pounced, jaws wide open, in a splash of drool.

Mastiffs go for three choice parts: the calf, the skull and, of course, the testicles. All runaways know that. Those who come back will do so with one less part. The most damaged ones lose everything, except their lives and the privilege of returning to their rundown shacks. For the women, the punishment is just as painful. The dogs take their tributes. They crunch in the cheeks and the nose, slicing the skin. Their victims are dragged through the city and exposed under the blazing sun, on the main square, preferably on market days.

The image of these women with their faces bathed in blood, baked by the midday sun, scorches every mind with a branding iron. Farewell marriage and child. The men of the island don’t want these chewed up women. They nickname them the mastiff’s wives, a way of saying once bitten, twice fucked. Who would want to go after a dog? With these scars, all that the survivors can hope for is a bum, a mutt without work or family, ravaged by alcohol. They’ll choose among the madmen that even the madhouse won’t take. These women, traumatized by the violence of the punishment, will take these worthless men and consider themselves lucky not to end up alone. But two mutilated lovers don’t add up to a couple that stands up. The strength of the torturers is that they strike the victim with a life sentence.

Barbecue stepped aside, dodged the lunge, and the animal rolled in the dust. A bullet burst the side of the mastiff, a slew of red and bluish viscera sprayed the young shoots of sugarcane spared by harvest. Barbecue, her .45 in hand, caught her breath. She checked the magazine of her gun: she had only one bullet left. Beyond the sugarcane stalks, the crackle of walkie-talkies mingled with the cricket chirps. An unusual heat rose from the vegetation. The dying animal, glassy-eyed, began to whine. Its drooling tongue sought the wound in a mad hope of healing. It died, its lips smeared with its own blood, curled up, its pounds of muscle sagging and already limp.

Barbecue slid down the cliff, one hand holding on to her bakoua. If at that moment someone had asked her why she was so attached to that straw hat, a hat so trampled and torn, when she was being chased by dogs and men armed with flamethrowers, she would have shrugged. Does a cowboy abandon his Stetson? She was hurtling down the cliff. The nettles snagged her wound, the gravel grated her face and scraped her hands. Above her, the cries of rage from her hunters ripped through the air. At her feet, Salines Beach was teeming with people.

It was six o’clock, the sacred hour of ti-punch-accras and slow carnal dances. Life in the tropics at its best, the package sold by travel agencies to wealthy white customers wishing to stay in luxury hotels, far from local tribulations and everyday troubles. Some vacationers were shaking the sand off their towels. Others were leaning on the bar, still in their bathing suits, now dry from their last swim. Perched on uncomfortable stools, lone women awaited the local fauna—guys with muscles drawn by agricultural work. The Europeans, with the arrogance we know them for, gawked at these men shamelessly, weighing their taut black flesh. They guessed their qualities from their swagger. Island girls, their hair smeared with shea butter, braided, and styled, let themselves be charmed by cruise ship guests from Europe and the Americas for a weekend of sweet treats. This gaggle, all plump and golden, was warming up for the night’s delights.

When a spray of fire set a dwarf coconut tree ablaze with a dull crackle, the vacationers screamed in panic. The sight of a bloodied woman, running down the hill, pursued by a man armed with a flamethrower filled them with terror. They ran to the hotel grounds for cover or plunged into the water toward the coral reef, away from the carnage that was surely brewing.

The beach emptied as fast as one swallows a kolaj. All that was left were the vestiges of a party: colorful napkins and umbrellas, empty plastic bags and beer packs strewn across the blond sand. Barbecue arrived in this desolate universe, pistol in hand. In front of her, the pack scattered: a dozen hateful men, with their drooling dogs howling to death at the end of their leashes. She recognized Papa Moustache’s family and dependents.

She was surrounded and she felt death pulling her in. A voice rang out from the depths of limbo, from the core of this ancestral land trodden by generations of black women and men. It said: “Attack the youngest and then climb the family tree, cut as many branches as you can!” Barbecue pressed her bakoua on her head. The top of her face disappeared in the shadow. She drew the machete that dangled from her belt. The steel glinted, hit by a ray of sunlight.

The single bullet of her pistol shattered the skull of a seventeen-year-old boy. His lanky body made a dull sound as he fell, arms outstretched, into the sand. The juices rushed out of his skull to feed the tiny crabs that swarmed under his feet. In their rush to fire, two men killed each other. A bullet hit Barbecue in the chest, plunging through her breast and piercing a lung. Another scalped her entirely but gave her the necessary rage to bring down her blade. She cut off one limb, then another, leaving two screamers on the ground. She drove her point into the loins of a third and burst the heart of a fourth. A rain of steel finished her off and she fell to pieces, belly in the air and eyes rolling back. Death disarticulates bodies, makes them grotesque, unpresentable. Barbecue’s final comfort was to glimpse her last sunset and to feel the coolness of the waves on her black skin.

Once the stupefaction had passed, the men gathered their dead and their wounded. They dragged Barbecue by her ankles. The sand clumped around her limbs, and she became a quartz woman, draped in a mortuary cloak fit for a queen. She ended up dismembered in a nearby field. Crows feasted, crabs and mongooses finished off the meal. By the time night fell, there was almost nothing left of her. The hours passed . . . The darkness of the night completely shrouded the landscape when, on Salines Beach, a figure emerged from the water, with infinite caution. The form crawled slowly and in rhythm, toward the scene of the massacre. Teddy grabbed the cutlass left in the sand. He gauged the weight of the weapon; the carved mahogany hilt gave him a feeling of softness to the touch. He straightened up and, without fear of being seen, stuck the abandoned pierced bakoua on his head. His silhouette, illuminated by a quarter-moon, stood out against the sand. He puffed out his chest and slipped the machete into his large belt. It was now his turn to give a third wind to the fight, to carry high the hope of this woman named Barbecue Sauce.

He turned on his heels and disappeared into the mangroves.


I would like to thank Nathan H. Dize for sharing my enthusiasm about this short story and for always generously offering translation advice.

Corine Labridy is a native Guadeloupean and an assistant professor of French and francophone studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She specializes in French Caribbean and continental Black cultures, and her current research focuses on laughter as a counteruniversalist critique.

Christophe Gros-Dubois is a former journalist turned novelist and filmmaker. His first novel, Punchlines, published in 2009, was shortlisted for the Senghor Prize that year. In 2018, he directed Back-Up!, a thriller that addresses the all-too-pertinent topic of police brutality against Black youth in France. He is the author, most recently, of Paradis année zéro (Moutons électriques, 2021). The fast-paced postapocalyptic narrative takes place in an alternative present in the United States, where an unexplained natural phenomenon turns White affluent neighborhoods to dust, sparing poor Black areas—Black women must rise to protect their loved ones and rebuild the country. Often brutal, at times pornographic, Gros-Dubois’s prose shines a ruthless light on today’s world.