Willie was finally on duty at the ice cream stand, making change for some tourists off a cruise liner. A thin little boy in ragged shorts and outgrown T-shirt, he eyed me with an oddly adult skepticism when I mentioned “Granny,” the herb woman Lisabet had told me about the week before. He snapped up my five-dollar bill and found another kid to watch the kiosk.
Willie led me through twisting alleys squeezed against the base of the mountain, between houses in peeling stucco and wooden shutters. Flies swarmed in the stink of sewage and garbage. He stopped at the foot of a wooden stairway climbing the side wall of a two-story house.
“Upstairs?” I turned to the boy. “You can go, I’ll find my way back.”
He gave me a sly, quicksilver grin and vanished into the winding lanes.
I had to pound on the door at the top of the landing before it finally cracked open in a swirl of spicy cooking and an indefinable pungency. A tiny girl in an oversize polka-dot dress let me in. She led me through a living room with frayed furniture, droning TV, a shirtless man snoring on the couch, and magazine pictures in pink plastic frames on the walls. In the kitchen, a woman turned from the stove, wiping hands on her apron. “Fifteen dollah.”
The little girl tugged me down a hall to a closed door, opened it, and gave me a push.
The pungent smell engulfed me, foreign and overwhelming. Through the haze, candles vaguely illuminated pictures crowding the walls. Christ images, from innocuous blue-eyed Jesus sitting with a lamblike smile among a flock of children, to bizarre red and black renditions like Picasso on LSD. Surrounding them, painted directly on the wall, geometric veve patterns of spiky stars, triangles, filigreed curves, spirals.
On the opposite wall, rosaries. A statue of the Virgin Mary smiled gently from the corner, hands reaching down. Beneath her, on a cloth-covered table, a wild clutter: candles, a cross, seeds, dried plants and roots, feathers, corked bottles. And a big chunk of black rock, “dressed” reverently with a gold-fringed sash and silver chains.
The paraphernalia registered only for a moment. She moved, and there was no part of me that wasn’t tuned in on her.
She was enormous. Her sturdy wooden chair creaked as she rose ponderously to her feet. I’d never seen a woman so tall, sheer volume of flesh overpowering. She stood and I looked up into a broad shield of a face, full dark flesh in a net of wrinkles, age capturing only the outermost layer. A turban-like wrapping bound her head. She wore a loose white cotton dress, thick strong arms bare. She wasn’t swollen with fat, but packed solid, cast in a giant’s mold.
Towering carved stone face, immense hands cupping lifeblood, a cascade of vibrant green down Her mountainous flanks. It was this woman’s face I’d seen in my vision on the mountain with Conrad.
She didn’t speak. She grasped my wrists and turned my hands palm up, studying them. Her opaque gaze lifted to mine and I was pinned by her stare, wrists held in a grip I could never break.
The pungent smoke swirled, and all I saw were her eyes, ancient stone eyes carved in infinite spirals. I was spinning down a blind whirlpool, following John, and I couldn’t breathe, swallowed by the choking blackness.
*night sea hisses with my panting breaths, John’s breaths, my/his heart pounding, bubbles bursting up as he spins around, fins kicking. Knife knocked away glinting, drifting down. Hands grab him masked faces mocking laughter ringing as he fights useless he’s caught he’s drowning.
Rage screams down his throat my throat. The heavy anchor crashes down on us, cold blue eyes watching behind the mask.
Devil fish manta swoops up eerie silent bat wings undulating through red waves, horned beast circling me, spiraling down. I follow beckoning black wings into the abyss, into the pulsing bloodbath, deeper*
Hands gripped mine. I gasped, fighting them.
The grip tightened, holding me there. Warmth spread through me, suddenly intensified to a hot pulse as I shuddered, icy darkness melting out of me. A touch on my forehead. I blinked. I was sitting in a chair, the woman looming over me.
“C’est un bête, un bête noir, que t’a pris.”
“Comment?” A black beast?
“No, I don’t understand!” I wrenched my hands free. I didn’t understand anything any more. I’d thought I could keep it all straight, but now nothing made sense. Maybe Manden was right, that first day at the beach, I couldn’t know until I plunged in, but now everything was out of control.
A sharp sting on my scalp. The woman was stepping back with startling quickness for her bulk, clutching strands of my hair glinting in candlelight. She turned to the cluttered altar, laying the hairs on it and picking up a glass bottle. “You drink.”
I shook my head.
A smile curved her lips. A low chant rose, swelling to reverberate through the dim, smoky cave of a room. Rhythm of the sea. Day and night. Waxing and waning moon . . . .
I sighed as it faded.
The enigmatic smile again, fingers touching my forehead. “You drink. Good foh pain. Fever.”
I took a swallow. Sharp alcohol bite and aromatic herbs. The astringency flared through me, scouring away my nagging headache, snapping me into clarity.
“So.” She took the bottle, stood watching me. “You be tinkin’ on put a power on some body. Eye foh eye, blood foh blood?”
I gawked at her.
“You temptin’ de powers.” Slow shake of her headdress. “Some spirit dey quiet in heart lak whisper, lak soft wind in tree, lak tide she come an’ come in own time ripen. Yes and be some spirit dey summon easy, make big promise fast, big power, dey always come back takin’ more dan give. You fool chile. Don’ know de price. Dey bring all you nightmare come sure.”
She could see the visions invading me. This was real. My stomach flopped like I’d just stepped out into free-fall.
“I didn’t ask for this.” My voice cracked. “But someone murdered my brother.” Finally I knew it. “I want justice. The truth.”
“Truth.” She snorted. “You taste blood, you get a thirst don’ quench. Hand grasp knife, blade turn two way.”
“Is there a Bocor behind it all? Who is he?”
“Dem ting no matter foh you. You look inside, ask you heart.”
She turned to the altar. More incense, more chanting, as she put my hairs and other things into a small cloth bag. She moved ponderously to me, touched Conrad’s Jumbie-seed necklace, and draped her bag on its leather thong around my neck.
I touched it gingerly. “Did you make one of these for Samuel Simmons?”
A crooning moan, her broad face stricken with grief. In place of the impassive oracle stood a sorrowing grandmother, bowed under the weight of her immense frame. Somehow she was even more powerful.
She sighed. “Chile he need help. He start messin’ in de powers, don’ know to stop. Too late now.”
“What about his brother Dwayne? What happened to him?”
“Bad seed.” She spat. “Now you, chile, you got powers, an dey drawin’ powers you don want. ’Cept you study deep on de ways, you bes leave dis island. Run ’fore you drown, too.” She thrust a paper packet into my hands. “You shake dem seed roun house. Mischief spirit stop, pick up every seed, be too weary foh comin’ in.”
“Thank you.” I braced myself, gripping the packet. “But I need to know about the petroglyphs, the carved stones. Are there Jumbies in them? Are they power spots?”
The woman drew back, towering grimly over me, thick finger jabbing. “Stay clear dem stones, dey drawin’ you. Too strong. You ignorant drawin’ powers, you drawin’ trouble foh more dan self. No place here foh you.”
Steel drums, ringing overhead, woke me in the middle of the night.
“What?” I bolted upright, straining.
Rain pounded the corrugated metal roof, sloshing down the gutters into the cistern beneath the cottage. My persistent headache was gone.
The darkness was heavy with moisture. Pulling in a muggy lungful, I swung open the door to a cool mist fuming off the patio with the force of the cloudburst. Frogs sang madly through the thrumming downpour. Flower scents simmered, rivulets racing over the cobbles into the thirsty earth.
Deafened, still half-dreaming, I lifted my hands to slide my nightshirt over my shoulders and let it drop around my feet. I stepped out into the blinding deluge. Tilting my face up, eyes closed, I opened my arms to the rain.
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