Brown Girl in the Ring


By Nalo Hopkinson

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In this “impressive debut” from award-winning speculative fiction author Nalo Hopkinson, a young woman must solve the tragic mystery surrounding her family and bargain with the gods to save her city and herself. (The Washington Post)

The rich and privileged have fled the city, barricaded it behind roadblocks, and left it to crumble. The inner city has had to rediscover old ways — farming, barter, herb lore. But now the monied need a harvest of bodies, and so they prey upon the helpless of the streets. With nowhere to turn, a young woman must open herself to ancient truths, eternal powers, and the tragic mystery surrounding her mother and grandmother. She must bargain with gods, and give birth to new legends.


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Give the Devil a child for dinner,
One, two, three little children!

—Derek Walcott, Ti-Jean and His Brothers

As soon as he entered the room, Baines blurted out, "We want you to find us a viable human heart, fast."

"Bloodfire!" Rudy cursed, surprised. "Is what you a-say?" He stared at the scared-looking man from the Angel of Mercy transplant hospital up by the Burn. Douglas Baines had obviously never ventured into Rudy's neighbourhood before. The pudgy man had shown up in a cheap, off-the-rack bulletproof that dragged along the floor, his barrel chest straining at its buttons. He looked foolish, and he looked like he knew it.

Rudy watched Baines give Melba the bulletproof. Underneath it he was wearing a poorly made jacket and a cheap white shirt. Rudy picked at a nonexistent bit of fluff on the sleeve of his own tailor-fitted wool suit. His ostentatious lack of protection against attack carried its own message. He was guarded in other ways. "Sit down, man." With his chin, Rudy indicated the hard plastic chair on the other side of his desk. His own chair was a plush upholstered leather, the colour of mahogany.

Baines sat, fiddling nervously with the case of his palm-book. "We need a heart," he repeated. "For, ah, an experiment. We're hoping that your people can help us locate one."

Something didn't sound quite right to Rudy. "And how come oonuh nah use a swine heart? Ain't is that you have all them pig farms for?"

"Yes, well, of course the Porcine Organ Harvest Program has revolutionized human transplant technology…."

Eh-heh. He talking all official. The way he using all them ten-dollar words, this one go be big. Rudy leaned his elbows on his desk and steepled his fingers, making the gold ring on his thumb flash. "I hearing you."

"Well, ah, I'm afraid that porcine material just won't do in this case. Ethics, you know?"

As he heard that spluttered word "ethics," Rudy was suddenly sure that he knew what this was all about. The man was spouting someone else's party line. Rudy smiled triumphantly at Baines. "Is Uttley, ain't? Oonuh need a heart transplant for she, and she nah let you put no trenton in she body?"



Baines looked troubled, then gave a resigned shrug and said, "Fuck, I hate this. I just want to do my job, you know?"

Rudy gazed calmly at the man. As he expected, his silence seemed to fluster Baines even more. Baines babbled, "This is all on the q.t., you understand?"


"Well, yeah, it's Premier Uttley all right. She's demanded a human donor. Says the porcine organ farms are immoral. You know the line: human organ transplant should be about people helping people, not about preying on helpless creatures, yadda, yadda, yadda. Says she's confident that if she's meant to have a new heart, it'll come from the human population. Fat chance, when almost no one in the world runs human volunteer donor programs any more. But her position is pulling in the voter support. Polls are tipping in her favour since she started up this 'God's creatures' thing. She might actually get voted back in next year." Baines pursed his lips, shook his head. "And it looks like she's not leaving a lot to chance, either." More softly he said, "Somebody's quietly going to a lot of trouble to have the hospitals procure a human heart for her. It might bring Angel of Mercy good business if we're the ones to pull it off. It could put us back on the map."

Rudy put on his bored face. "And what that have to do with we? Posse ain't business with politics. Is we a-rule things here now." It was true. Government had abandoned the city core of Metropolitan Toronto, and that was fine with Rudy.

Imagine a cartwheel half-mired in muddy water, its hub just clearing the surface. The spokes are the satellite cities that form Metropolitan Toronto: Etobicoke and York to the west; North York in the north; Scarborough and East York to the east. The Toronto city core is the hub. The mud itself is vast Lake Ontario, which cuts Toronto off at its southern border. In fact, when water-rich Toronto was founded, it was nicknamed Muddy York, evoking the condition of its unpaved streets in springtime. Now imagine the hub of that wheel as being rusted through and through. When Toronto's economic base collapsed, investors, commerce, and government withdrew into the suburb cities, leaving the rotten core to decay. Those who stayed were the ones who couldn't or wouldn't leave. The street people. The poor people. The ones who didn't see the writing on the wall, or who were too stubborn to give up their homes. Or who saw the decline of authority as an opportunity. As the police force left, it sparked large-scale chaos in the city core: the Riots. The satellite cities quickly raised roadblocks at their borders to keep Toronto out. The only unguarded exit from the city core was now over water, by boat or prop plane from the Toronto Island mini-airport to the American side of Niagara Falls. In the twelve years since the Riots, repeated efforts to reclaim and rebuild the core were failing: fear of vandalism and violence was keeping 'burb people out. Rudy ruled with his posse now, and he couldn't have cared less about Premier Uttley's reelection platform.

"We'll pay for the assistance." Baines named a figure.

Rudy was immediately interested, but he didn't reply for a moment. He pretended to be considering. Let the hospital's procurement officer sweat it out a little more.

Baines stammered, "I, um, I mean, it's not like it's illegal or anything. No laws about human organ donation on the books any more, right? No need, when you can just phone up the farm and order a liver, size three, tailored to fit."


"This is a tough city, right? You people see a lot of terminal injuries?"

Seen, Rudy agreed wordlessly. Half the time, is we cause them. That amused him. Baines was just coming directly to the source.

"We're only asking that you call us when that happens," Baines continued. "We'll do the rest. Head wounds are the best. Don't want too much trauma to the chest cavity. If any one of them has a heart that's compatible for the Premier, we'll pay you a bonus."

No. That nah go work, just having them come and pick it up easy so. Nah go push the price high enough. Rudy took his time thinking it through, figuring out all the angles.

Baines tensely tapped ash from his cigarette into the ashtray on Rudy's desk.

"Melba," Rudy said softly to the haggard, blank-eyed woman who had been dusting around the office, "wipe out the ashtray."

Moving slowly, eyes irising in and out of focus, Melba took the ashtray from under Baines's hands, wiped it clean with her dustcloth, and stood holding it, staring into its empty bowl.

"Thank you," Baines said, smiling nervously at her. She didn't respond.

"Put it back on the table now," Rudy instructed her. She obeyed. She was getting too thin. He'd have to tell the boys to remind her to eat more often.

"Keep on dusting, Melba."

Melba walked woodenly over to a marble coffee table she'd already cleaned three times and resumed meticulously wiping her dustcloth over and over its surface in slow circles. Baines gulped. Rudy smiled at that. The man couldn't even begin to suspect what he was dealing with. All right. He knew how this was going to go. He said to Baines, "Once my boys find the body, oonuh have to reach fast, right? Before the person heart stop beating?"

"Well, yes, but—"

"And what if is in one of them streets that full up of garbage, or oonuh get swarmed by a kid gang? Any delay and you go lose your donor."

"Oh. You might be right." Baines frowned at him worriedly. "This is too important to take a chance."

"Well, Mister B., I think today is oonuh lucky day. We have just the fella to set the donor up right for you, keep the heart beating till you reach."

"You do? Who? It needs someone with the right training to put the body on ice."

"Let we just say, a ex–medical professional. A nurse." Rudy was pleased that he'd thought of this. Tony was going to be useful to him after all. "The man know him business," he said unctuously. "Him was a good worker. Just him misfortune that him couldn't resist the temptation of buff, you know? His employers do right to let he go. He does do one-one little job for we now, helping out, you know? While he try to kick the habit."

"Well, maybe… yeah, I guess he could do it. We could supply him with a call button that would bring an ambulance on the double. Yeah, that'd work. He could certainly test the blood type." Baines continued to mutter to himself, ticking items off on his fingers. "And we could give him the fortified Ringer's Lactate, laser pen to seal off any bleeders, portable CP bypass machine…"

"Good. I glad you agree. For me think say we could help oonuh."

"Excellent. Let me—"

"But all like how we taking such a risk, me want you to increase that bonus figure, seen? Say, another ten percent?"

Baines sighed. "Done."

So easy! Briefly Rudy wondered if he should have held out for more. Well, that's how dealing went. Some days you wouldn't win as much as others.

"Okay," Baines said, looking as though he had a bad taste in his mouth, "don't forget, we only want the flatliners that are in pretty good condition. Healthy, well, before they died, that is; not too much deep tissue trauma. And tell your man we're particularly interested in anyone who's very small framed and has blood type AB positive."

"Somebody small? Oonuh could use a child? Like a youth, say?"

"Teen or preteen? Well, yes, we could, come to that. None of the street kids, though. Most of them have had buff-addicted mothers."

Pity. No one would have noticed a few more of the rats going missing.

Baines opened up his palmbook and tapped at the keys. "I'm requisitioning the equipment you people will need." He scribbled on a business card, swiped the card through the slot in his palmbook, then gave it to Rudy. "Tell your man to bring this when he comes over to the hospital to pick up the equipment. Today, mind. Before four." Then he stood, shook Rudy's hand as though he were palping rotting carrion. "We'll be in touch."

He picked up his bulletproof from the chair where Melba had draped it. The view off the observation deck caught his eye, and he went over to the window. "God, we're a long way up, aren't we?"


"You know, I never visited this place back before the Riots. Funny how you can live all your life in a city and never visit its main attractions, eh?"

Rudy didn't answer. Man needed to leave his office now, let him get on with his business.

Baines blushed, pulled up the hood of the bulletproof, adjusted its clear Shattertite beak so that it jutted out to protect his face. It was the trademark uniform of the Angel of Mercy Hospital. On the street, they were called the Vultures. The price for established medical care was so high that only the desperately ill would call for help. If you saw a Vulture making a house call, it meant that someone was near death.

Rudy escorted Baines to the door, watched Jay go with him to the elevator. He nodded in satisfaction. He wasn't going to pussyfoot around until they found a compatible donor. He would make sure that Tony got the heart they needed as fast as possible. He turned to the thin, wiry man standing guard outside his office door. "Crack, where Tony? Go and find he. I have a job for he to do for me."


What can you do, Punchinello, little fellow?
What can you do, Punchinello, little boy?

—Ring game

Ti-Jeanne could see with more than sight. Sometimes she saw how people were going to die. When she closed her eyes, the childhood songs her grandmother had sung to her replayed in her mind, and dancing to their music were images: this one's body jerking in a spray of gunfire and blood, that one writhing as cramps turned her bowels to liquid. Never the peaceful deaths. Ti-Jeanne hated the visions.

Rocking along in the back of a pedicab, she held Baby, cradling her child's tiny head in one hand to cushion it from the jolting. Undeterred by the shaking of the pedicab, Baby was trying to find his mouth with his thumb. Ti-Jeanne took his hand away long enough to ease the little blue mitten onto his fist. "Sherbourne Street," she told the pedicab runner, "corner of Carlton."

"No prob, lady," he panted. "Wouldn't catch me going into the Burn, anyhow."

The pedicab was at Sherbourne and Carlton in a few minutes. Ti-Jeanne got down, pulled her baby and her package into her arms, and paid the runner. She'd have to walk, carrying Baby the rest of the way to the balm-yard her grandmother had set up on the old Riverdale Farm.

The runner moved off quickly, not even looking around for more customers. Coward, Ti-Jeanne thought to herself. It was safe enough in this part of the Burn. The three pastors of the Korean, United, and Catholic churches that flanked the corner had joined forces, taken over most of the buildings from here westward to Ontario Street. They ministered to street people with a firm hand, defending their flock and their turf with baseball bats when necessary.

Ti-Jeanne shivered in the chilly October air and hoisted Baby higher onto her hip. The package in her other hand consisted of four worm-eaten books tied together with string. Her grandmother would be pleased with the trade she had made for the eczema ointment. When she'd shown up to deliver the medicine, she'd found Mr. Reed, self-appointed town librarian, balanced on a stepladder just inside the doors of the old Parkdale Library. He'd been pinning slips of newsprint to the bulletin board. "Hey, Ti-Jeanne; whatcha think of my display?" He'd hopped down and moved the ladder so that she could inspect his project. At the top of the bulletin board was a hand-lettered sign that read TORONTO: THE MAKING OF A DOUGHNUT HOLE.

He'd cut headlines from newspapers that were twelve, thirteen years old and pinned them up in chronological order.

"How you mean, 'doughnut hole'?" Ti-Jeanne had asked.

"That's what they call it when an inner city collapses and people run to the suburbs," he'd answered. "Just a little bit of history. You like it?"

Ti-Jeanne had read the headlines:











The next two headlines in Mr. Reed's display were written in smeared, blurry letters on lavender paper.

"The major Toronto papers jumped ship soon after the army came in," Mr. Reed had told her.

The headlines had been taken from the New-Town Rag. Ti-Jeanne knew the newspaper; a mimeographed 'zine that someone named Malini Lewis churned out by hand whenever she could find paper and ink:



"It's nice," Ti-Jeanne had said uncertainly, not knowing what else to tell the man. All of that was old-time story. Who cared any more? She'd given him his medicine. In return, he'd dug through his book stacks and come up with an encyclopedia of medical symptoms, two gardening books, and the real find: Caribbean Wild Plants and Their Uses.

"Tell your grandmother that I can't give these outright to her," Mr. Reed had said. "It's a loan. If anyone else asks for them, I'll have to send for them."

Ti-Jeanne had just smiled at him. Mr. Reed had grinned and shaken his head. "I know, I doubt anyone will ask for them, either." When Ti-Jeanne left, he was rubbing the ointment luxuriously into his moustache, where the skin was cracked and flaking. Dermatitis: "Seborrheic eczema," Mami had called it, before cooking up a nasty-smelling paste to treat it, made from herbs grown in their garden. Mami freely mixed her nursing training with her knowledge of herbal cures.

"Ti-Jeanne, tell he to stop drinking that elderberry wine he does brew. I think is that irritating he lip. And tell he to stop smoking. Tobacco does only aggravate eczema."

Ti-Jeanne just hoped the ointment would work. Sometimes the plants Mami used had lost their potency, or perhaps were just a weak strain. Too sometime-ish for Ti-Jeanne's taste. She'd slipped some vitamin B tablets and a tube of anti-inflammatory cream into Mr. Reed's package. Mami still had lots of that kind of stuff left in her stockpiles.

Paula and Pavel had set up their awning at the corner of Carlton and Sherbourne, next to the shack from which Bruk-Foot Sam sold reconditioned bicycles. Braces of skinned, gutted squirrels were strung up under Paula and Pavel's awning. Ti-Jeanne could smell the rankness of the fresh raw meat as she walked by. It must have been the morning's kill. The couple had claimed the adjacent Allan Gardens park and its greenhouse, which they farmed. In the winter, Paula and Pavel were the Burn's source of fresh vegetables for those who lacked the resources to import them from outcity. And the overgrown park hid a surprising amount of wild game; pigeons, squirrels; wild dogs and cats for the not too particular. Paula and Pavel defended their territory fiercely. Both brawny people, they each had a large, blood-smeared butcher knife tucked into one boot: warning and advertisement. Nobody gave them much trouble any more, though. It wasn't worth the personal damages to try to steal from the well-muscled pair. Rumour had it that those who crossed Paula and Pavel ended up in the cookpot. Besides, vegetables and fresh meat were scarce, so people tried to stay on Paula and Pavel's good side. Those who lived in the Burn were still city people; most preferred to barter or buy from the couple, rather than learn how to trap for themselves.

Hugely pregnant, Paula was arguing the price of two scrawny squirrels with two gaunt young women who had their arms wrapped possessively around each other. They'd probably take the meat across the street to Lenny's cookstand, where for a price he'd throw it onto the barbecue next to the unidentifiable flesh he skewered, cooked, and sold for money or barter.

"Good evening, Ti-Jeanne," Pavel called out as she went by. He and his wife, Paula, had been lecturers at the University of Toronto before the Riots changed everything. "We got something for your grandmother; leaves from that tree—sour-sop, I think she calls it?"

"Yes," Ti-Jeanne replied. Mami would like that. Soursop leaf tea made a gentle sedative, and the old greenhouse was the only source of the tropical plant.

"Good," Pavel said. "Tell your grandma we'll be by with them later, eh? We'll trade her for some cough syrup for our little Sasha."

Ti-Jeanne nodded, smiled, looked away. In the eleven years since the Riots, she'd had to get used to people talking out loud about her grandmother's homemade medicines. Among Caribbean people, bush medicine used to be something private, but living in the Burn changed all the rules.

Ti-Jeanne walked past Church Row. An old woman bundled into two threadbare coats sat shivering on the steps of the Catholic church; maybe from the icy fall air, maybe a bufftrance. The heavy oaken door opened and Pastor Maisonneuve stepped out. His black shirt and dog collar gave him a formal air, despite his patched jeans.

"Hello, Pamela," he said to the old woman. "Some lunch for you today?"

She turned her head slowly, seemed to be having trouble focusing her eyes. "R-Reverend, I'm hungry."

As Ti-Jeanne walked by, she heard Pastor Maisonneuve say, "All right, dear, but you know the rules. Give me that knife first, then a bath, then you eat."

The next place Ti-Jeanne had to pass was Roopsingh's Roti Parlour: Caribbean and Canadian Food. Nervously she eyed the twitchy huddle of men hanging out in front of the roti shop. Crapaud, Jay, and Crack Monkey, hustlers all, liming till the next job, looking for trouble. She knew them well from her days with Tony. She had always managed to be very busy in Tony's rooming house kitchen when they came to visit. And, of course, there was Tony, liming with them. She would have to bump into him on her first excursion since Baby had been born. Ti-Jeanne sped up slightly. Tony looked at her. Did she hear him softly say her name? No. He and Crack had put their heads together, whispering about something. Tony didn't look too pleased at what Crack was telling him.

Tony was trying to catch her eye. She could feel the pull of his gaze. She risked another glance at him. His features were as fine as she remembered: skin smooth as hot cocoa; square jaw; full, well-defined lips; deep brown eyes. Baby's eyes looked just like that.

She should be ignoring Tony, not staring at him like this. She sidestepped a flock of gulls that were fighting loudly as they picked at a near frozen, orange bolus on the ground, probably the sour remains of last night's meal that someone had vomited onto the sidewalk. Pulse thumping, she began to edge past him and his friends, trying to seem very interested in picking her way through the garbage on the sidewalk.

As Ti-Jeanne walked past the men, Crack Monkey called out to her, "Hey, sister, is time we get to know one another better, you know!" Big joke. They all laughed, though Tony's voice sounded nervous.

"Ah say," Crack hollered, "is time I get to know you better!"

The men's mocking laughter spurred Ti-Jeanne to move faster. She hugged Baby closer to her and scowled at Crack. Tony glared at him, too, but she knew Tony wouldn't say anything to his boss's right-hand man.

Abruptly, the visions were there again. Ti-Jeanne froze, not trusting her eyes any longer to pick reality from fantasy. She was seeing:

Crack Monkey, a wasted thing, falling to the ground and gasping his last. No one around him would care enough to try to help. (Crick-crack, monkey break he back in a ham sack);

Crapaud, the old souse, in a run-down privatized hospital, finding the strength to scratch fitfully once more at his bedsores before his final, rattly exhalation. His sphincters would make a wet, bubbly noise as they released their load into his diaper. Cause of death? Metabolic acidosis. Cirrhosis of the liver. Rum. (Down by the river, down by the sea, Johnny break a bottle and blame it on me);

Jay, killed by love; running to the aid of his sweetheart, a transvestite hooker who would be attacked when her john realised she was actually a man and pulled a knife. Jay's death would come from a belly wound. Ti-Jeanne was sure that no one in the posse suspected that Jay was anything but arrow-straight. (Riddle me ree, riddle me ree, guess me this riddle; or perhaps not).

Ti-Jeanne couldn't see her own death, or Baby's. She couldn't see Tony's death, not anyone close to her. And she didn't see blind Crazy Betty until the woman was right in front of her, sightless eyes turned toward Baby, who was snuggled in Ti-Jeanne's arms, happily gumming the mitten on one tiny fist.

"That is my child! He's mine!" shouted the bag lady. Her wrinkled arms reached to pluck Baby away. "What you doin' with my baby? You can't make a child pretty so! You did never want he! Give he to me!"

The old fear of madness made Ti-Jeanne go cold. She jerked Baby out of Crazy Betty's reach. Alarmed, the child began to wail. Madwoman in front of her. Hard-eyed men just behind. But at least the men had something behind their eyes, some spark of humanity. Ti-Jeanne chose. She turned and ran back the way she'd come.

"Hey, Ti-Jeanne!" Tony reached for her arm. She yanked it away, pushed between Tony and Crapaud. She dragged the door open and ran into the roti shop. The warm, fragrant air on her face was a shock. How come she was outside, and why was it warm? Ti-Jeanne looked around her, then jumped as she felt Tony's hand on her shoulder. "Ti-Jeanne, what's up? You all right?"

She didn't answer. She appeared to be in a green tropical meadow. A narrow dirt path ran through it, disappearing in the distance as the road curved gently downward. The scent of frangipani blossoms wafted by on a gentle breeze. Baby stopped fussing.

A figure came over the rise, leaping and dancing up the path.

Man-like, man-tall, on long, wobbly legs look as if they hitch on backward. Red, red all over: red eyes, red hair, nasty, pointy red tail jooking up into the air. Face like a grinning African mask. Only is not a mask; the lips-them moving, and it have real teeth behind them lips, attached to real gums. He waving a stick, and even the stick self paint-up red, with some pink and crimson rags hanging from the one end. Is dance he dancing on them wobbly legs, flapping he knees in and out like if he drunk, jabbing he stick in the air, and now I could hear the beat he moving to, hear the words of the chant:

"Diab'-diab'! Diab'-diab'! Diab'-diab'!"

Ti-Jeanne shrank back, trying to hide Baby's face from the terrifying sight. But he chortled and stretched baby-fat hands out in the direction of the Jab-Jab. Tony had more sense. Behind her, she could hear him whisper, "God Almighty! What the hell is that?"

The Jab-Jab turned its appalling grin of living wood in their direction. It hopped right up to the three of them, split its wooden lips wide, and hissed in their faces—a hot, stiff wind.


  • "Excellent...a bright, original mix of future urban decay and West Indian magic...strongly rooted in character and place."—Sunday Denver Post
  • "A wonderful sense of narrative and a finely tuned ear for dialogue...balances a well-crafted and imaginative story with incisive social critique and a vivid sense of place."—Emerge
  • "An impressive debut precisely because of Hopkinson's fresh viewpoint."—The Washington Post
  • "Hopkinson lives up to her advance billing."—New York Times Book Review
  • "Hopkinson's writing is smooth and assured, and her characters lively and believable. She has created a vivid world of urban decay and startling, dangerous magic, where the human heart is both a physical and metaphorical key."—Publisher's Weekly
  • "Splendid....Superbly plotted and redolent of the rhythms of Afro-Caribbean speech."—Kirkus Review
  • "Utterly original....the debut of a major talent. Gripping, memorable, and beautiful."—Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club

On Sale
Mar 15, 2001
Page Count
288 pages

Nalo Hopkinson

About the Author

Nalo Hopkinson was born in Jamaica and has lived in Guyana, Trinidad, and Canada. The daughter of a poet/playwright and a library technician, she has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Award, the World Fantasy Award, and Canada’s Sunburst Award for literature of the fantastic. Her award-winning short fiction collection Skin Folk was selected for the 2002 New York Times Summer Reading List and was one of the New York Times Best Books of the Year. Hopkinson is also the author of The New Moon’s Arms, The Salt Roads, Midnight Robber, and Brown Girl in the Ring. She is a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and splits her time between California, USA, and Toronto, Canada.

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