By Michael Jordan
It was around midday that death came to Kamarang.
They were at the Jaguar’s Den; Ovid Kingston and several others crowded near the bar; the drinks on the Sealey crew because they were leaving next day.
Sealey had already sent a radio message out to Georgetown to tell Brenda to expect him.
Christ…he missed her. After seven weeks in the bush, it would be nice to lie in a real bed, feeling her warm, sultry presence nearby.
He glanced around him. Bap Reggie and another miner were having some drunken argument about politics. Ovid Kingston was breaking open another bottle of whiskey. Shirleen and a hard-faced prostitute were sharing a marijuana joint.
He smiled. He would miss this rough company. But in a way—in a big way—he would be glad to see the back of Kamarang.
He stirred uneasily as the events at the prostitute’s house leapt at him; the girl, writhing in that disturbingly boneless way against the doorway; the serpent-like thing that he’d seen—or thought he’d seen—on her thigh. And then Leon had come outside, his face pasty-grey. He knew that it was impossible, but it had seemed to Sealey that the boy was thinner than when he had left the logie that morning. There was a look in his eyes; something almost like relief when he had seen Sealey at the door. He’d followed Sealey back to the logie, stumbled to his hammock and slept straight through the night.
No, not straight through. The boy had had that nightmare again…
He felt somebody elbowing him and realised that Ovid Kingston was speaking.
“…when you coming back to Kamarang, bush-man?”
Sealey refilled his glass before answering. “Maybe in two, three months’ time.” Actually, he meant to stay longer; invest, plan for the future. He wasn’t getting any younger.
Shirleen, staring sullenly at the table said: “I think I pulling out of this place meself tomorrow. Fuh good.”
Mentore, sitting near her, grunted in surprise. “You leaving? When the money ain done and the fun just start?”
Shirleen, looking straight at Sealey muttered: “I leaving. This place got evil people.”
Mentore leaned forward to push a hand up Shirleen’s leg. “I in a evil mood…”
Shirleen elbowed him away, spilling her drink in the process. She shot up from her seat angrily, shaking out her skirt. “Wha wrong wid you Jerry Mentore?” She brushed at her skirt again, glared at Mentore, then squeezed past him and headed in the direction of the outhouses behind the disco.
Mentore turned to the hard-faced prostitute. “What bothering she?”
The prostitute stretched her mouth sulkily. “Somebody thief Shirleen crucifix when she went bathing.”
Mentore laughed. “Y’all hear that? A whore, fretting over a crucifix.” He waved his hand dismissively at the prostitute and resumed drinking.
Sealey was bending to the whiskey carton for another bottle when they heard the scream.
It was long, piercing, cutting through the din of laughter and music and the clink of glass; a scream of agony and terror. They turned to the direction of the sound and saw Shirleen. She came running from behind the disco. She was barefoot, her skirt unzipped. Her hands were up to her face; her mouth was stretched wide as she emitted her terror-filled, garbled shriek.
“SNEEEEKKKK!”, she screamed. “SNEEEKKKKK!”
Now she turned and began to sprint in the direction of Kamarang Point. “SNNNNEEEEKK!” Her unzipped skirt slipped down to her ankles. She was naked underneath. She stumbled, but, by some miracle, remained upright and kept on running.
“What the hell—” someone said, surprise and amusement in his voice.
“SNEEEEEEKKKKK!” Shirleen screamed again.
Sealey and Jerry Mentore rose simultaneously and began to push through the crowd. Shirleen seemed to be sprinting straight for the porknockers’ logie. Two miners were standing outside. Sealey waved at them to cut Shirleen off, but suddenly she veered to the right, heading for the airstrip.
Simultaneously, they heard a muted roar, and saw the plane.
“Oh Christ,” Mentore said. “SHIRLEEN!” he yelled. “SHIRLEEN!”
“SNNNEEEKKK!” She screamed. She sprinted on, still heading for the airstrip. Sealey felt his breath catch in his throat. The small yellow plane was turning lazily at the end of the airstrip. Now it cruised towards them.
“SHIRLEN!” they both bellowed, waving futilely to attract the pilot.
She answered them with her terror-filled scream and continued sprinting towards the airstrip; Mentore, arms pumping, a few meters behind.
Behind them came the sound of gunshots. That would be Alvin Benn, shooting to distract Shirleen, or to alert others to help. But now her feet touched the airstrip. Sealey prayed that she would continue straight across, to the houses on the other side, but then she veered left and headed towards the plane. They could see it clearly now; its propeller a blur as it picked up speed.
Sealey could hear his own pain-wracked breathing. He felt as if he were running in slow-motion, or in a dream. He was out of the chase, but, thank God Mentore was gaining on Shirleen.
And it seemed as if the pilot had seen her now, for Sealey saw that he had begun to veer off course.
But then, with a sense of horror, he saw that Shirleen had swerved, too.
Everything seemed to slow down. Mentore reached out and grabbed at Shirleen.
His hand, Sealey thought, even brushed her shoulder, before she ran headlong into the plane…
They helped to wrap the body. They helped to find the rest of her. After the endless police questions, they sent a radio message to Shirleen’s aunt; reassuring her that they would look after any funeral arrangements. She would have to be buried in Kamarang the next day, because the body would not keep until another plane came in. The pilot in the yellow plane was in no mood to fly.
Afterwards, by some strange sort of telepathy, groups of miners and prostitutes trekked to the Jaguar’s Den. Cards and dominoes appeared as if from nowhere, and soon they were playing poker to her memory, slapping down dominoes to her memory, drinking to her memory. Jerry Mentore was laughing and cussing louder than everyone else. But their eyes had met for a moment, and Sealey had seen the pain there.
They tried to speak of other things, but, inevitably, the talk would come back to her.
…she had education, you know. She used to go to secondary school, and the some whorin’ man big she belly…
…sitting right here when she say: ‘dis is a evil place’, and next thing you know, she dead as a nit…
Ovid Kingston, who had been drinking since morning, had crawled off to a corner near the bar to sleep. Sealey glanced at the miner enviously. He wished that he, too, could slip into dreamless, drunken sleep, or maybe weep the way some of the girls had; or maybe even release some of his pain and anger in the arms of some whore.
Sealey spotted Leon in a corner by the bar playing a game of dominoes. Leon was still sleeping when Sealey had returned from the river after washing off the blood that had gushed on his face and hands. For some reason, the sight of the sleeping boy had annoyed Sealey, and he had shaken him roughly awake and told him about Shirleen’s death.
Shirleen…he kept seeing her sprinting across the airstrip…her severed arms and head spinning grotesquely in the air.
Her demented scream still echoed in his mind.
What had made her kill herself? Drugs? Had she just gone crazy? When, only moments before, she had been alright? But had she really been okay? Hadn’t she been uneasy since the night she had seen the girl and the hunter in her aunt’s backyard?
He put his glass down, suddenly aware that his bladder was full. He shifted through the crowd and went to the urinal behind the disco. He was heading back when he saw Jerry Mentore coming towards him.
The miner was walking slowly and staring on the ground. But when he saw Sealey, a swagger came into his walk. Sealey stopped to light a cigarette. He gave Mentore a light. They stood, smoking silently; an awkwardness between them because of Mentore’s earlier tears.
Mentore cleared his throat, then said: “So we sending Shirleen home tomorrow.”
Mentore pulled on his cigarette, seemed about to say something, then turned abruptly away. Sealey put a hand roughly on Mentore’s shoulder.
“Take it easy, Jerry.”
“I cool, man,” Mentore said hoarsely. He turned to Sealey. “Is just that—I shoudda listen more careful to Shirleen last night. Something was bothering her. She was…jumpy. She practically beg me to stay with her last night; say she didn’t want to be alone. Had a knife under she pillow. And all the time, she keep getting up and peeping outside.”
He sighed. “Poor…poor bitch.”
They smoked in silence again, then Mentore took a last pull on his cigarette and ground it out with his heel. “Going back inside now?”
Sealey shook his head.
Mentore sighed. “Going and get blasted drunk.” He sighed again and trudged back inside.
Sealey stared at him for a moment, then lit another cigarette. He inhaled deeply, turned to face Kamarang Point, and saw Tony Perez.
The old man was approaching him from the track that led to the porknockers’ logie. Something seemed out of place about Perez, until Sealey realized that he was carrying his shotgun. With a pang of unease, Sealey saw that he was wearing a faded striped shirt, just as Sealey had seen him in the dream when he had been killed by a bush-spirit.
“So you hear about Shirleen,” Sealey said.
Perez nodded. “Come to pay my respects. And to warn you.”
Again, that stab of dread. “Warn me about what, Perez?”
Perez’s seamy face seemed even more creased with worry. “Go home, Vibert Sealey. Go tomorrow. You and the boy not safe here.”
He wanted to speak, to say something, but the words didn’t come.
Perez continued to stare at him, and now there was a trace of sadness in his voice. “Vibert, I know that you don’t really believe in our ways. But I want to tell you this: Something bad come to Kamarang. And it kill my little one, and the monkeys, and Shirleen. And that same thing will kill you if you stay.”
He squinted at Sealey. “I saw you dead in a dream last night.”
“In the forest. The di-di caught you in his basket.” His eyes shifted away and he stared at the ground. “I couldn’t help you.”
“Christ,” Sealey whispered. “I had the same dream about you.”
Perez looked up sharply. Then he nodded, and his lips tightened into a grim smile. He reached into his pouch and removed two bead necklaces. He pressed them into Sealey’s hands. “For you and the boy.”
Sealey slipped on one of the necklaces. His old friend had given him many binas over the years. He tried to tell himself that this was just one more; that he would wear it to please the old man.
But as he slipped the necklace on, he felt the cloud of unease recede. Somehow he felt safer, but safer from what, or from whom, he couldn’t quite say…
It was only when day-clean came and he rose to leave that he realized how hard the liquor had hit him.
He stood, legs aching from the unaccustomed running he had done. He headed out of the disco, trying to walk straight but staggering into benches and stragglers sprawled on the ground.
He entered the logie, almost falling over Bap Reggie, who lay snoring on the floor near the doorway. He cursed Bap Reggie good-naturedly, climbed into his hammock, and tumbled into dreamland…
(To be continued)