By Michael Jordan
Sealey lay in his hammock, smoking and staring at the logie’s galvanized roof. His stomach was heavy with cassiri and the labba meal he had eaten at Perez’s house. His head was filled with the day’s events. He had stayed in the village until evening; watching as they buried the child before returning to the hut with Perez.
He pressed out his cigarette against a post, then settled back in his hammock.
Not that he believed that it had been made by a bush-spirit. But it was strange. Perez was sure it hadn’t been made by any of the men who had found the body. Perez could have been wrong about that. But the hair they had found on the baboon. Where had that come from?
This was the sort of experience that made porknockers tell those crazy stories to pass the long, lonely hours. Who knows, maybe in years to come, this story would be told to frightened Amerindian children. And he, Vibert Sealey, might be mentioned in it.
Just think of that. Vibert Sealey in a jumbie story. An Amerindian jumbie story.
Just think of that…
He awoke around midnight, his skin pebbled by goosebumps. He sensed something different about the night. He lay in his hammock, hand on the long hunting knife in his belt, listening. Faint music…the chirp of insects…the dry pods from the old tree outside rattling in the breeze… the snores of a miner filtering through the thin logie wall…
There it was. An alien rustle of sound outside.
Sealey drew the hunting knife from his belt and edged towards the door. Keeping in the dark, he peered outside.
Leon sat on an old tree-stump; hugging himself and shivering. His head was bent, his eyes were closed. Sealey was about to call out to the boy when something on the mist-shrouded airstrip behind Leon caught his eye.
The hunter stood on the airstrip, almost swathed in mist. He stood motionless, as if frozen still. He was staring at the boy. Then he began to move towards the logie.
He moved with a strange, crablike motion; without a trace of a limp, his head thrust forward, hair streaming behind him, his eyes fixed on Leon. As the man moved closer, Sealey saw that he was naked except for some dark, loincloth-thing. Sealey stood in the darkness, at first too surprised to move. Then he stepped out of the logie.
“What the hell happening out there?”
The hunter stopped. His head swiveled towards the logie. He stared at Sealey. Despite the distance and the gloom, Sealey thought that he could see the hunter’s eyes; those blank yet hostile eyes that had stared into his the day before. The hunter’s huge shoulders were hunched, and Sealey had the disquieting feeling that the man was about to leap across the distance and attack him. He knew he was tough and fit for his sixty years, but something about this strange man made him feel old and feeble.
The hunting knife suddenly felt puny in his hand. He thought of his shotgun, lodged at the police outpost.
He thought he caught a hint of a sneer on the man’s face. Sealey felt anger rising in his chest. To hell with this nonsense. He took a step forward, holding the knife away from his body.
The man stared back at him. The sneer was gone. They stood there for what seemed like an eternity, and just as Sealey was thinking that the man would advance, the hunter made a loud, sniffing sound and turned contemptuously away.
He walked across the airstrip, limping now, heading towards the houses where the prostitutes slept.
Sealey out a long sigh; fumbled the knife back into its leather sheath. Damn…he was trembling. He turned again to Leon. The boy still sat on the stump; head bent; oblivious of the drama that had just played out. And now he saw that Leon’s clothes were damp…soaked, in fact. Droplets of water trickled from his head.
“What the hell happen to you, chap?”
Leon raised his head. His face had the grayish hue of a man who had been in cold water for a long time. His half-open eyes found Sealey’s.
“R-r-river.” The word was a mumble through chattering teeth.
“You went and swim in the river at midnight? With that girl? You crazy?”
The boy didn’t answer. His eyelids drooped and he swayed on the stump.
Midnight swim. With a freaky prostitute. With a jaguar or something out there. Of all the—
Sealey sighed. He’d talk to the boy in the morning. “You better get inside and change.”
Leon tried to rise from the stump, but his legs gave way. Sealey grabbed him just in time. He caught the scent of cassiri and the girl’s odour on him. He could feel the boy’s heart thumping madly as Leon leaned on him.
“Tired.” The words were slurred.
“What that hunter-chap was doing here?”
He helped the boy into the logie. Leon staggered towards a carte and sat, hugging himself.
Sealey bent to the liquor carton near his hammock and removed a bottle of brandy. He passed the bottle to Leon, who was now stripped to his shorts. The boy was half-asleep again, one leg still hooked in his trousers. The flambeau light flickered on the fresh row of scratches on his back.
Sealey nudged him awake. The boy took the brandy bottle. He sipped, coughed, and put the bottle on the floor. The shot of brandy seemed to revive him somewhat, and he rose, hobbled out of his pants, put on a long-sleeved jersey, staggered into his hammock and was instantly asleep.
But it was long past one before Sealey closed his eyes. And the last image he had before tumbling into dreamland was of the hunter with that strange, crippled foot, moving towards Leon with no trace of a limp…
He had considered giving the Jaguar’s Den the skip the following day, but then Ovid Kingston, a young miner who had just arrived from gold bush came to the logie shouting for him.
Sealey put aside the stack of old newspapers he was reading and followed Kingston and his rowdy crew to the Den. Kingston started off by ordering four cases of whisky. Three young prostitutes, like ants following a trail of sugar, came smiling and uninvited to their table. Shirleen, and a prostitute they called Butterfly—she would flit from table to table; a sip of whiskey here, a promise of a night-sleep there—joined them. Mentore and Bap Reggie, half-drunk already, came in around seven-thirty.
Shirleen, sitting between Kingston and Sealey, bawled above the din: “Where Leon?”
Mentore laughed. “He suffering from fatigue.”
Shirleen, glancing at the chairs outside said: “Well, like her majesty come looking for he.”
They all stared outside, in time to see the girl entering the disco. She scanned the crowd, finding them at their table near the bar. Sealey thought he caught a flash of disappointment on her face, but then she turned to the bar, collected her usual cider and went back outside.
Bap Reggie laughed, shaking his head in admiration. “You could believe this? Poor Leon like a dead dog back in the logie, and she fresh and ready fuh battle.”
The girl looked around and found an empty table outside the disco. Almost immediately, a miner broke off from a group and sat next to her. She ignored him.
Ovid Kingston had one of the young prostitutes in his lap, but he was craning his neck to look at the girl.
“Yes…my type o’ woman, boy. Long hair and red skin.”
Shirleen sucked his teeth. The prostitute in Ovid’s lap stretched her mouth sulkily.
“You could stare all yuh want, Ovid Kingston,” Bap Reggie said. “But she only sleeping with one man…from the Vibert Sealey crew.”
Ovid Kingston licked his lips. “How much he paying?”
“Not…one…damn…cent,” Bap Reggie said with a trace of pride.
Kingston laughed, shaking his head in disbelief. “A bush-girl? Sleeping with a man fuh free?”
“That bush-girl turn down the Bishop the other night. And he had diamonds.”
They stared at the girl again, the empty talk at the table drying up. Unlike the first time, when she had sat aloof, Sealey sensed restlessness in her tonight. She left her drink untouched. She kept staring at their table, completely ignoring the miner who was leaning to her and chattering away.
Now she bowed her head. Sealey couldn’t be sure, but he thought that her eyes were closed. Her thighs were locked together.
The miner, smiling, put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. She swiveled to him, and she saw the man shift back in his seat. She glared at the man for a moment, then rose quickly, bumping against the table, leaving the miner sitting and gaping after her…
They teased him about getting soft and old when he rose to leave at around eight-thirty. Shirleen, half-drunk, rose at the same time. She followed Sealey out of the disco, and as he was about to head for the logie, said: “I want to talk to you.”
She held his hand and followed him to the back of the disco. There was the same tension he had sensed in her yesterday.
She looked around quickly then said: “You gotta watch out for Leon with that girl and that freaky chap who always hanging around. I believe they up to something.”
“Why you say that?”
”Because I see something strange the other night.” She was whispering, although they were alone. “I see both of them in auntie backyard. The man had on some sort of jockstrap. And he was eating something.” She shivered. “That man does give me the creeps.”
“Easy girl,” he said. “Shirleen, tell me exactly what this thing he was eating look like.”
She frowned. “I couldn’t see too good, but it was something long…lumpy…slimy.” She grimaced. “He was trying to eat it fast, but it was like—slipping in his hands.” She frowned again. “I think I know what it is, only I can’t place it.
“Anyway, when he was eating, Leon girl suddenly appear from behind the hol’-me-back bush in the yard. She look really, really vex. When he see she, that big man go down on he knees and start to beg. Then they just walk away…right through the bush.”
He saw a flash of anger in the prostitute’s eyes. “Yes, I was a little high at the time. But I know what I see—”
“Alright Shirles,” he soothed.
“I check the yard when I went to hang out clothes the next day. I see streaks of blood on the grass…and slime.” Again that shudder.
A sudden thought struck him. “Shirleen…exactly when you see that chap in your yard?”
”Not last night. The night before.” She paused, then said: “Mr. Sealey, I believe that whore see me watching them. She was looking at the window, straight at me.”
Her fingers dug into his arm, and she looked earnestly at him. “Sealey—you believe in—in witchcraft?”
The question caught him by surprise. She was still staring at him, with no hint of her earlier semi-drunkenness.
He shook his head. “I believe every strange thing got an explanation. Why you asking me?”
She was silent, then said: “When I was a lil girl living in James Street, they had a crazy beggar-lady who used to pass every Friday. She use to dress in a white gown like what spiritual-church people does wear, and she always had a lotta beads, and a heavy blue crucifix around she neck.
“My grandmother used to send me to the gate to give her a coin—‘give and you shall receive,’ granny would say.
“This woman would take the coin without a word, but she would look at me with those reddish eyes she had, and she would smile…this mad, evil smile. Sometimes she would grab at my hand.
“I used to dream her every Friday night. I used to dream that she looking through my bedroom window, or hiding under my bed, or hanging from the roof over my head.
“I convinced, even today, that that beggar-woman was demon-possessed or some sort of witch or something. She had what my grandmother would call a ‘heavy’ spirit. She used to make me feel frightened and—and small at the same time.”
She sighed. “And that is how that man with the funny foot does make me feel.”
She pressed close to him. “I feel that you gotta be careful with that girl and Leon. I worried.”
The way she said it made him wonder if she was afraid for Leon, or for herself…
He’d half-expected the boy to be gone, but Leon was still there when Sealey stepped into the Logie. He looked up eagerly from his seat on the crate near his hammock. Through the thin logie walls, he could hear a rowdy game of dominoes being played in the adjoining room.
“How things, chap?”
Leon shrugged. “Cool.” He pointed with his chin in the direction from which they could hear the sound of bone dominoes slapped down hard. “Played a couple of games with them chaps.”
He did look much better. But he had to have been really tired not to have gone looking for the girl. Silence, then he threw the question that Sealey knew was hanging at the edge of his lips.
“Uh—you see Carmelita?”
“Nah,” Sealey lied.
Leon sighed. In the adjoining room, someone cursed and smashed a bottle against the adjoining wall. And now was as good a time as he would ever have to question the boy. Sealey took off his boots, then sat in his hammock opposite Leon.
“Tell me something, chap. Anything strange happen at your girlfriend place two nights back?”
The boy shook his head.
“That hunter-chap. He got any …uh…injuries?”
Leon blinked in surprise. “He got some deep scratches on the back of his neck.” He peered anxiously at Sealey. “Something wrong, Mr. Sealey?”
He shook his head. “I ain’t sure.” He lay back in his hammock and stared at the roof.
You believe in witchcraft?
He had knocked around the interior for more than thirty years; seen men, left alone in camp, run stark staring mad from loneliness. Had heard his share of weird stories. But, like he had told Shirleen, he didn’t believe in jumbies.
But what he was thinking now was almost as crazy as the things Perez had told him.
It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Leon not to see the girl anymore. But then, since when did a young man listen to advice when he was in love?
Thank God, all of this would be over soon, and they would be back in Georgetown.
But a small, insistent voice kept telling him that something lurked round the corner for him that was far, far worse than one of his men losing his heart over a whore…
(To be continued)