Suchen und Finden
A TIME OF SHADOWS
De debbil bruk loose in dis place.” This was Miss Muriel’s pronouncement when she found the first body lying part in and part out of the salt pond behind her little cottage. There was little of human about it—little more than a wrinkled, dirty white sack appearing even more garish and out of place in the metallic sheen of the waters where bright pink flamingos sieved the mud for brine shrimp. Muriel shivered at the sight. She knew things, and the discovery told her a story she didn’t wish to hear.
The sun had shone brightly but gently on that January morning. As it moved in and out of the shadow of scudding clouds, light advanced, and retreated like a gauzy stage curtain, alternately gilding and dimming the placid scenes of the rustic day. A stiff breeze bore the January chill, which Muriel liked far better than the brazen heat of summer. Is de kin’ o’ wedder dat does cause people to bring out dem ol’ dog bed dey does call ‘sweater’, she thought with a fond smile. She, on the other hand, bared her arms to the bracing gusts that roughened her skin with goose bumps.
Sitting on the south-facing steps of her kitchen where she could gaze at the expanse of sea in the settlement’s wide bay, she had been shelling green peas to make soup. Watching the tiny dark figures of children racing the ebb and flow of the surf lapping the inlet, she dreamed of hot soup. It made her mouth water thinking of how she would fill it with light dumplings, and the fat salt beef she had saved especially for the purpose. Life was good.
It had continued to be a good day until she decided to collect a pan of salt from the heap she had raked up and left drying on the verge of the pond. There was Bul Josey, who should have died at least as black as he had been the day he was born or as black as he had lived for all his adult life. But there he was, white as a new-bleached sheet, eye and mouth tear wide open, lookin’ like he was starin’ into the deepest pit o’ hell, Muriel told Mr Miah the constable, who had come to investigate and remove what was left of the old fisherman.
“De debbil and all he imps buil’in’ house in Port Columba,” Mama Muriel said when another body was discovered a week later, and a jack o’ lantern appeared on the hill, burning as fiercely as one of the ovens of the infernal kingdom. Her grandmother had taught her the meaning of the awe-inspiring but thankfully rare occurrence. Evil of the worst kind was afoot. Muriel sensed shadows closing in on her peaceful home settlement.
The young people, who were raised on radio soap operas from the States and tried to act like Americans, usually dismissed Mama Muriel as crazy. Her brain softened by all the teas she brewed from the leaves, barks and vines that grew in the coppice surrounding her little half task of land, they would say. They didn’t this time. They were too afraid. Most stopped talking, abandoning the jive talk they learned from the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio programme. Concerned as she was about the dire state of affairs in the village, she was glad to be relieved of the constant exclamation of “Holy mackerel!” in imitation of The Kingfish, who led the title characters of that show by the nose.
Death had come calling on the village in his ugliest, most alarming, spit-drying form to people young and old, neighbours and loved ones. Always in the darkest hour of night, long after the night owls stopped hunting, and hooted mournfully from perches high up in the gnarled branches of a great tamarind tree.
As if anyone would call madness what had befallen the Port Columba dying… The skin of each victim seemed to have been bleached to a ghastly white. Each face was distorted, mouth agape, eyes wide open in a stare of absolute horror. Each body was completely drained of blood, leaving not enough even to feed a mosquito. The people who had slept in the same bed with them, or in hearing range had heard no screams. No one had heard the screech of door hinges, which would have warned of an uninvited entry. There had not even been the squeal of frightened mice disturbed in their nightly foraging. Nor had there been a strangled gurgle that would have given notice of the terror the victim must have experienced. Nothing. Just the indecent remains of what must have been some monstrous, unnatural activity pursued in puzzling, impossible silence.
The upheaval was all the worse for having begun just after Christmas, in that fallow part of the year when people were tired from all the holiday revelry, short of money, and in no mood for any distressing excitement. The unexplained departures left the people of the village petrified. They were afraid to fall asleep, afraid of working alone in their fields, and took hours to complete simple tasks for all the time they spent looking over their shoulders, and trembling at the slightest noise. A knock at their doors, a sudden gust of wind, the scraping of a tree branch against the glass of a window, or the unexpected brush of a curtain against an arm made even the strongest men quake in their boots, even the bullies who made others tremble when they passed.
The fear had spread from pond to sea, from hill to banana bottom and from the sturdiest stone house to huts of flimsiest driftwood and wattle. The Baptist minister began to hold daily prayer meetings to ask for divine rescue from the plague. It didn’t come. The Anglican priest said masses and burnt candles to no avail. The Catholic priest did the same with as little result, and wondered whether he should skirt the Church’s regulations, and try an exorcism ritual secretly. His courage failed him. The sparse hair of the Baptist minister was already white when the troubles began, so no one could gauge the degree of his fear. The glorious brown locks of the Anglican priest’s wife, just 20-something years old, showed the first grey. The Catholic priest, much the same age, had no wife to age from dread, but his own locks took on the colour of a new-minted American silver dollar. All were certain that heaven would answer when the time was exactly right, but fear was stronger than patience amid the turmoil. It was clearly time to call on an earthly authority, which might give them a more immediate answer in language they could understand easily.
The Port Columbans called in the white commissioner who was stationed on the main island of their island group in the greater archipelago. The teacher, his wife and children had to make do with a single room as their sleeping quarters to accommodate the Commissioner and his party. The Englishman had thought the trip to Port Columba, and a chance to witness the customs of the superstitious natives would make a good distraction for his beautiful wife and her equally beautiful, but off-putting mother. If the truth be told, the Commissioner was a little afraid of a woman of her time in life who appeared to be ageless, walked noiselessly, and was always looking at him with cold calculation and disdain.
Yet, the annoying woman was in no hurry to end her visit with her daughter. She had joined them for the holidays and, in complete contradiction to her obvious dislike of him, had been eager to follow him on almost every visit he made to the islands he administered. In each case, she seemed to have an intimate knowledge of each island, walking confidently along rocky tracks and through bushy lanes. It proved to be the same at Port Columba.
She was tireless. Rather, she seemed to gain even more energy with each journey. In fact, it was only in the course of such journeys that she ever smiled in his company. No doubt, she was gathering experiences to engage in the game of one-upmanship society ladies back home played constantly within their circle of acquaintances. He shuddered to imagine the superior air and sarcasm with which she would recount her adventures in the colony. He was glad that, in the case of his shy, loving and kind wife, the apple had fallen far from the twisted tree that had produced it.
As soon as his boatman docked the motorized skiff, which ferried the Commissioner on his inter-island visits, that official called a meeting of Port Columba’s citizens to hear their accounts of the recent occurrences, which the Columbans were all too ready to give. He tried manfully to hide his yawns and boredom at the natives’ childish talk of whitened and bloodless corpses. He was eternally glad that he was born, and raised in a civilized country. For a distraction, he kept brushing back his wavy, rust-coloured hair of which he was very proud. From time to time, he rotated the hat he had rested on his lap when he had taken his seat on the unravelling armchair provided for him.
Out the babel of voices came these notions of the root of the problem.
“I t’ink is a mermaid what does live in de blue holes dem ‘bout in the bush,” said B’er Lossie. Strangers had to strain to understand him because he talked with his hand covering his mouth to hide the fact that he had no teeth.
“Is Jack O’ Lantern,” Miss Florene offered. “Nearly every night now, I does see big fire burning on Slave Driver Hill.”
Always feeling superior because of the years he spent picking fruit and vegetables as a migrant worker in the United States, Mr Ferguson reasoned, “You have to excuse my people, Sir; they don’t see much of the world like us. Mr Commissioner, Sir, it gots to be a new-fangled disease come here on a ship. I seen many a strange thing in my time in America.” All this was said in the American accent he displayed when “big time people” were in town.
Mama Muriel said the words that no one wanted to hear… “Hag. Mr Commissioner, is hag what doin’ dis bad business. Don’t look at dis ol’ woman strange,...