After returning to the barn and doing more chores with Maggie McKelvey’s other horses, Tony rode Eagle over to Woodboo, careful not to go too fast and hurt his hoof again. He also rode over to Wantoot and Pooshee, other plantations near the headwaters of the western branch in Middle St. John’s Berkeley Parish. A few days earlier, he looked at Fountain Swamp and Chelsea plantations and into adjacent areas of St. Stephen’s Parish, the limestone region. And especially at the springs at Eutaw which were in the same area. He was looking for cymbee water for his mother. She wasn’t sick, just wanted some on hand.
He chatted with Eagle along the way to Woodboo. The canopy of big oak branches that leaned over from both sides of the road provided relief from an early June sun that couldn’t wait to get the heat going and really show its stuff. After a while, Tony got off Eagle to walk on the soft light sandy roads, brown gold. The dirt helped to cool his bare feet. His trouser cuffs were high enough not to drag in the dirt. If trees with their Spanish moss weren’t the best thing about the Lowcountry, Tony thought, dirt roads were. The horse followed him, creating an inimitable image of Lowcountry life.
At Woodboo Plantation Tony hoped to see a cymbee, what some folks told him were Kongo water spirits. Each spring had its own cymbee which looked like a web-footed goose or like a mermaid with long hair, folks said. He had never seen a cymbee, just heard about them. Flora, who ran away from General William Moultrie after Charleston fell the year before, told Tony that she saw one at Woodboo. Others saw them, too, Hercules, Isham and Cadar. No doubt about it, they said. All his life in the South Carolina Lowcountry Tony heard of their relation with the natural environment in both physical and spiritual ways, with both the living and the dead.
“Some say they’re like a person or like a python or a gourd, red or black sometimes,” Isham said when Tony met up with him at Woodboo. “Or even a spark of fire.” Isham was a good friend of Tony’s parents and considered himself especially close to Tony. In tattered dirty clothes, he nonetheless was careful to hold himself up in an erect posture whenever he saw the younger man. He seldom got excited about anything, not even hurricanes, but cymbees were an exception. Tony asked him about them every chance he got.
“They’re creatures you ought to be afraid of, too,” Cadar said, coming from nowhere to join them. He was younger than Tony and distant kin. Like Isham, he wore a shirt made out of a gunny sack. He talked about the cymbee like a child, but in a factual kind of way. Cadar was probably not inventing anything, but Tony could not suppress an incredulous grin the more Cadar talked.
“But they also got good powers, too—from the other world. In this new land here we need the water spirits to survive. My grandmomma told me they’re kind of like the undine and the kelpie, the nkisi, the nkita, or the kilundu, back in Africa, but different, too.” Cadar distinctly pronounced each of the difficult names and smiled, knowing that Tony was the ultimate wordsmith.
“Grandmomma told me that if I couldn’t remember a cymbee’s name, it would haunt me till I could. A name’s like respect, she said. At night you can sometimes hear a cymbee make a thumping sound ‘round the sinkholes. But if you ever see one, you’re not ever supposed to talk about it. They’ll get you if you do.”
“I’m not a scaredy cat like you, Cadar,” Tony replied. “You’re afraid of the dark. I hear you sleep so close to the fireplace, you’re going to catch fire and burn up someday.”
“You don’t need to be afraid, Cadar,” Hercules said as he joined the group of younger men. A big, ageless man, Hercules commanded respect because he respected others, especially the youngsters. Everybody trusted him, including whites. He appeared to be a free man like Tony’s father by the way he talked and acted, but he was not.
“They’re our spiritual guardians. Give us strength and a feeling that this new land is now ours, too, no matter where we came from. We always want to keep the cymbee.” He leaned into Tony. “But remember to skim off just a little from the top of the gourd when you dip into a spring so the spirit of the cymbee isn’t so strong that it will give you the ague and fever.”
Flora heard Hercules talking, and she, too, joined the group. She put down a basket full of produce and put her hands on her broad hips as if to emphasize her authority on the subject. Flora was a good-looking woman, so the men quickly gave way, happy to have her join them.
“They can heal you in lots of ways,” she said and clapped her hands three times for a reason she didn’t share. “They’re nature spirits that are hard to explain. Mainly they just help and protect us. They’re at The Rocks, Wappoo, and Belvidere, too.”
All continued to tell Tony about cymbees until late afternoon. It was dark when he got back to the barn at Miss Maggie’s and put Eagle back in his stall.
Something to keep in mind. I know the springs and fountains around here have real healing powers. Don’t need Hercules and Flora or anybody else to tell me that. They’re at the two springs here at Eutaw. They cured Momma. She told me so after a hard time last summer. Said she had female trouble, but the cymbee cured her. I’ve seen the springs at lots of plantations. White folks know about cymbees, too. They believe in cymbees. We all do.
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