He is on deck, the shrouds straining under a full press of sail. Somewhere deep in the south a voice is calling – the voice of the old land, land of his fathers and their fathers. She is screaming, crying, cursing the men who have come to pillage her. They rape her, burn her skin, carry off her children in large ships. She is calling out to her lost children, desperate.
He is on deck, face turned to the south, yellow eyes running wet.
He is up in the shrouds, staring south, straining for the call of Mami Wata, far away, so far off, and he’s begging Legba to hasten him home. He is on his knees in the sand, drawing the vévés that are forbidden outside the oumphor, to call on Papa Legba, to call up the winds that will carry him home. He is spilling the blood from over his heart to give power to the illicit vévés. He is offering vengeance and blood to the Loa.
Creak of timbers, groaning of ropes, the crash of waves under the bow. On shore, the fort is up in flames, masts emerge from the sea, jutting to the heavens as if to try and catch the breezes that used to move them. The jungle is alive with bands of hunters seeking out the last of the devils, the drums are pounding through the still night. The junglesmell is strong tonight, it smells of home, of trees, of earth and of fires.
He is running. The ground is soft, the trail is clear, the leaves and the vines whisper of the devil’s passing. The snakes and the birds point the way to his prey, the stranger. The stranger is wheezing, breath ragged, clothes torn, hair snagged on countless branches, skin is burnt red Lisa. The stranger is afraid, skin reeks of fear. He stops. He smells the stranger. Close. He fits a dart to his atl-atl, approaching. Slowly. The reek of fear strong in his wide open nostrils. A brief glimpse of white in the jungle’s greens. He stops. He winds up. He throws.
It is nighttime. Through the clouds he perceives the lands between the stars. He sees his brothers shaking their fists, he sees his sisters weeping. And the stone in his belly is cold and clenched. He sees the devils newly arrived, raging and impotent, their legs rooted to the spot, their arms powerless. They weep, they scream, they curse and they rage. And as The Baron comes to touch them, they cannot run. And the stone in his belly laughs.
The Atabaque are pounding, he can feel their beat through his ears, his feet, his arms, his belly, his crotch. The oumphor is hot and full. They are dancing, singing, screaming, sweating. The cup comes into his hands, and he tastes the bitterness. He begins the Avalou as he feels the first touch of Legba on his face and his back, and he sees Nago Shango walking to him through the crossroads. And Shango rides him through the Avalou, throwing the chains to the ground and beating the dirt until his fists are raw and bloody. As Shango leaves, he collapses and takes a place at the Atabaque.
He is on his hands and knees, watching a spider crawling between the leaves. The snakes are all around, their tongues whispering as they smell his sweat. The spider crawls onto his hand, and up his arm. As it enters his ear, he knows all the stories that it tells. Stories of the tiger, stories of the lion, stories of men gone astray. Stories of the roof that is burning and the loa that will eat up the fire. He listens and he weeps for the passing of the old. And he is not afraid of the burning.
The sky is black. The stars have gone away to gather at the Gates of the World. Maman Brigitte has gathered up her flock and led them there to pick away at the doorposts. Kalfu is tearing down the magic that holds the world in its place. L’Inglesou is burrowing up from the bottom of the land. They are coming. As he turns his ears to the west, he hears the Siren singing her welcome. As he puts his ear to the ground, he hears the slithering diggers. And as he turns his heart to the sky, he feels the fabric of the world changing.
Change is coming, and he opens his arms in greeting.
The World’s Edge is a solid sheet of mist before his eyes. The water falling over is a cannonade that doesn’t end, it’s all the thunder that ever rolled, it’s every snapping shroud, fall and stay that ever rode the wind. Badessy is holding open a crack in the world, bowing eloquently to the riders as they ride through from the land beyond the stars. Mighty Ogoun, sly Anansi, majestic Damballa, beautiful Ezili Freda with her sister Erzuli Freda and even the ill-tempered Marinette and dark Eshu.
He watches them come, their hoofbeats drown out the water’s roar, but he does not fear their horses.
She is heeled over sharply. Agwe is impatient and She won’t wait for Badessy’s wind. So She is heeled over sharply, her sails flapping randomly as she seeks The Old Land. He straddles the bowsprit, watching the dolphins. They are guiding him, mocking him, calling to him, escorting him. They are as eager as he is to get home. And he knows that they cannot go without him. And he knows that he cannot go without them.
He knows that the Baron is busy behind him. So he does not fear.
He is in the water. The harbour basin is dark and still, the water cold. Ahead looms the ship’s massive black side.
He is in the water, swimming with the mermaid. She pulls him into her arms. And he struggles, tells her that he is a creature of the air, that he needs to breathe the air to live. And she touches his face, and tells him that he shouldn’t be silly.
He is in the water, holding the rope that dangles from the massive black ship. The harbour basin is coming alight, flames and screams and chaos grow slowly out of the night. He begins the climb.
As he leaves the water, her hand touches his ancle, urging him back. And he turns, caresses her arm with his foot, and promises her that they’ll swim together again. She lets him leave her – for now.
Ogoun is marching across the water tonight. Wherever his feet touch flames spring up, men are struck with panic. He stands at the ship’s side and watches it happen. And he knows that Eshu will ride them to help them escape Ogoun’s fury that they have unleashed upon these people.
As Eshu guides them away, he knows that two of the mighty have been served well tonight, and that the Baron will have a busy morning.
His arm goes around the woman. Her scent is as welcome as it is familiar; sweat, sun, dust, lovemaking. A short ways off, the child is playing in the surf, chasing the waves as they roll back off the beach. He holds her close, a promise that is forever.
He sits at the fire, the child at his feet. He is talking; of the sea, of ships, of jungles, of the loa. The child listens until sleep comes. He carries the child to bed.
The woman is still there when he returns. She takes his hands in both of hers. He comes to her, a promise that is forever.
She sings as she bathes in the stream. Naked, black as night, more beautiful than the Freda twins. Her song is at home here, she sings of the land, of the night, of the sky and of her man. And He remembers another song for a moment. But as the woman comes from the stream, the image of the Mermaid flees.
They are calling to him again. Their voices rise out of the deep west to reach him on the shore. And he cannot help listening. They sing to him of the sweetness, they sing to him of things to come. And he knows that he cannot go, he cannot leave. As he stands there listening, vines grow from the sand to envelop his legs and his groin and his chest and his arms.
As he lies on the beach, vines covering all but his face, the voices grow fainter. The singing removes itself from him. And he cannot breathe, he cannot cry, he cannot weep as the tide comes in.
He is outside the birthing hut. Waiting. The sweat runs freely down his back and stomach. He paces. He listens for the moans and cries and for that one first scream.
The midwife hands him the bundle and his heart races. The Baron smiles his death’s head smile. He unwraps the dead white snake, its withered skin clings to the bones. And the Baron is still smiling. He opens the mouth of the infant, looking for the fangs that will never grow in. And the Baron grins as he takes back the tiny bundle.
He is outside the birthing hut. Waiting for the first scream.
He is walking through tall grass. The ring is cold around his neck, the weight of the chain stoops him over. His sweat stings his eyes and the places where the metal has chafed his neck raw. They were singing until their throats got too dry. They held their heads up high until their necks and backs ached too fiercely.
He is on deck, wielding the cat. Each lick of its tails splits the skin, drawing blood. And each blow opens another corner of his back. Each blow disrupts another part of the vévés that his father’s brother drew there in blood and ash, drew with the tiny sharp knife.
He watches the blood flying from the cat’s tails with each stroke. He watches the blood flowing freely from the cuts, staining the planks.
And he is dragging the chain across the dust. He grips it in both hands and raises his face to the black ship that is waiting.
He is laughing. They are running scared all around him, gripped by a black panic. And he laughs and laughs. Even when they are all lying in the dirt, exhausted and twitching, he is laughing. And as he carries the torch to the fire, he is laughing. Laughing to split his sides. Laughing to tear his cheeks. And as the flames catch, he is laughing. And when the houses go up, he laughs even harder. He is laughing at his own tears. Laughing as they mix with the blood from his torn face. And as his skin chars and flakes off, he can do nothing but laugh. Laugh at all that is ending. Laugh at the charred bones lying in the ashes. Laugh at the bloody skull that is left of his face. His cheeks are torn, his sides split wide open, and he is still laughing. When he can no longer see, he is laughing. When he can no longer hear, he is laughing. When nothing remains but his laughter, he is laughing.
She stands in front of him, her charcoal skin shiny with the morning dew. He reaches out his hand to touch her arm, her shoulder, her neck. Her eyes do not waver from his, even when his fingers touch her lips, her nose, her brow. She does not falter.
Only when his fingertips brush her eyelids does she close her eyes. Without a sound. Without a whisper. She offers him her self and her silence. Even as her fingers stray across his chest, his stomach, his thighs. She makes no sound.
Only afterwards, when it is not the dew that shines her skin, does she talk. Only then do the words come. Only then is it safe to speak.
He walks. His feet swirl the dust from the path as he passes. The dirt burns his feet and stings his eyes. He walks. Around his right arm coils the snake. In his left hand is the spear. With each branching of the path, the snake hisses. Each time, he thrusts the spear into the dirt and takes the left hand path. At every branching of the path, he sees the sword thrust into the ground. At every fork lies the tall black hat. He walks. On his left arm, the spiders crawls. In his right hand, he holds hers. He walks.
She stands before the hut, waiting. Her forehead is high and her legs are long. She greets him with all the reserve that the occasion demands. And he takes her into his arms, uncaring.
They go into the hut, he before her. He looks around at all the things that are familiar. He looks longer at the stones that have accumulated in the bowl since he was home last. And he sits down by the fire and weeps.
They are standing there waiting as he comes back out; Niara, her small hands knotted around the shirt she’s sewn; Kitago, his tiny hands clutch the first atl-atl he’s been given; Nara, still in her swaddling.
He kisses them all. On their brows, on their eyes and on their hands. He touches them all. Prouder than proud. Bursting with love and pride.
The smoke stings his eyes. His gaze wanders over the ruins. He knows it but cannot see it. He remembers the houses, courtyards and chicken runs. But they are gone. He breathes ashes and nothingness, he kicks the tiny charred remains.
And he stares over the sea, he peers into the jungle, he surveys he devastation.
And he bends down and picks up the spear that lay there, half forgotten. And he begins the hunt.
Before His eyes, the world is dying. The very air is going still, the ground turns white, even the ocean turns white and dead…
He turns and looks around – sees nothing that is familiar, the people sprout fur as if they were beasts of the jungle, trees are lifeless skeletons reaching for a lead-coloured sky.
As He draws breath, even the air freezes his nostrils, his lips, even his lungs. The sting is insidious and insistent.
Everywhere He looks, the world is still, white, dead.
Her eyes are pale, the colour of dead water still in the riverbed. Her lips are cold, Her kisses leave trails of hoarfrost on his chest and his face. Her fingers are burning icicles tracing across his back.
And She is the only life that exists in this dead land. Her dead Gods the only trace of the loa to be found here.
So He gives himself to her embrace.
He lies face down, shivering. The blood still stains the white thing they call “Snow”. It freezes his belly, stings his eyes, burns his groin. And still, He welcomes the dead caresses of this land. Still, He aches to know this land. Still, He searches for the spark of life that animates this land. This dead land.
He stands numb. Watches the man come riding a Monster. And He knows that this is death. He knows that this is the One they call Horseflesh, the One who is the Baron’s evil twin, the One who will deny Him of Brigitte’s embrace in the end.
He stands rooted to the ground. Watches the woman ride up beside the Other. And He knows that this is Cold, that this is the One they call Witch, the One who is Mami Wata’s antithesis, the One who will keep him here for eternity.
He opens his mouth to scream, to call on Legba, to entreat with Calfu, to plead with Exu. And his tongue is white in his mouth, His teeth are red in his gums, and his screams explode in a mist around his head.
He stands numb and white before Them.
… and she takes Him in her arms, envelops Him in fragrant darkness, smothers the world in a cool, smooth nothingness.
And He falls, tumbles, drops – there is nothing to grasp, nothing to gauge speed, nothing to land on. He falls.
And the emptiness is his tool, it becomes his weapon, He picks it up, holding Nothing in His left hand, Nothing in His right – He wields Nothing against the chains and the demons, He stabs Nothing into the heart of everything …
He stumbles, the chains weigh Him down. He runs, panting, across the endless whiteness, across a featureless plain of nothing. He hears the hunters’ dogs closing in – He feels their hot breath on His calves and the back of His thighs.
And there is a yank on the chain, and He falls, sprawled headlong on the ground. His head is opened, the blood flowing freely.
And the dogs are on Him, barking, biting, pawing. And his back and arms and head and shoulders and legs are bruised and bleeding. And his head and belly and groin are burning with the ignominy.
They stand over Him, laughing. They clap the irons on His wrists and His ankles, and the cold iron stings Him worse than wayward bees ever did. And the cold iron weighs on Him heavier than a goat’s carcass ever was.
And they stand Him up and march Him off.
He lies, spread-eagled and naked, on the ground. The stakes have long since been hammered in, the leather thongs tied to hands and feet. He waits. For the leopard. For the ants. For the vultures.
And a face looks down on Him, eyes like frozen deadwater – she smiles, and … twists … Her skin darkens, her eyes darken, and the staff is in her hand, the snake coiled around her arm. And she strikes the axe through the bonds that bind Him.
She takes his hand, and through the numbness and the tingling, He savours her touch. Through the pain and lightheadedness, He drinks in Her scent. And She leads Him to the hut.
He sits in the sand, warm water washing around His feet. The boy is rushing about out there, chasing the longlegged birds that squawk in annoyance every time they take to the wing. The girl is digging for clams in the wash. Every so often, she holds one up with pride and dumps it into her basket – the first one she’s woven on her own, it’s full of holes and shaky. She loves it.
And as He watches, the tide comes in, carrying seaweed, wreckage and all the dead bodies with it. And as He watches, it covers the sand, it washes the children away, it sucks Him down, down, down. Eyes screwed shut, He watches sails and figureheads of long-dead ships rush onto the shore, rusted cannon spewing brackish water in all directions.
He opens His eyes to look into a pair of deep amber eyes, irises and pupils the colour of dead night, red lips parted over a mouthful of silver and ivory. And He sinks. Down, down, down.
He is rising out of this thing they call “Snow”, out of this dead river with its coating of death, away from the dead lands in the high North. He turns and looks back at his broken body still trapped under dead water, still struggling feebly, still fighting the cold. And He rises into the leaden clouds, through the unending night. And He knows that He is not dying, He knows that The Baron has not yet come for Him, He knows that Brigitte is not yet waiting for Him.
So He gives the eyes a last look before turning back to Himself – knowing that He will not forget that particular shade of amber.
He plunges back into cold water and batters at the death that is keeping him down.
The great cat smells faintly of home. Of jungles and goat’s meat and dancing in the night. He touches black fur, unable to imagine why anyone would prefer silks. He buries his face and his fingers in the predator’s reek as yellow stripes spread through the beast’s pelt.
He is labouring under an other man’s burden that He has taken for himself. He dances under the bundle that is infinitely lighter than the chains, infinitely lighter than the other man’s life that He has stolen. And through the bundles and boxes, chains and barrels burns a flash of amber, striking Him motionless, all else forgotten. And He casts off the burden, throws down the chains, peels away the other’s life. And He follows Her away.
So near, He is so near. And the voices are a babble, not welcome, not unwelcome. The sights and sounds are there. He sees them, He hears them. And they are a babble, not welcome, not unwelcome. He eats, and tastes only amber. He flares his nostrils wide, and smells nothing but amber. So near
She is heeled sharply, Agwe Taroyo straining at shrouds and spars and stays. And Marinette is straining even harder, Her chosen fleeing.
And He knows that the riders are watching this duel. He sees Shango standing aside as Marinette rides her chosen. He senses The Baron waiting, the death’s head hovering over the waves. He hears Badessy holding Her breath, hand in hand with Badessy Mambo. And Legba crawls among them all, staying Kalfu’s hand, restraining Exu, telling them all what Damballah Wedo has decreed. And Ananji watches it all, adding to His store of tales.
And as the riders watch, the ships fly away from Mami Wata, fly off on Marinette’s errand, fly off to the ends of everything.
All is mayhem, blood is pouring in torrents from the gunwales, jagged splinters fly everywhere as Ogoun marches across the waves. Black faces are torn and split all around as He looks around, doing His share of The Baron’s work. And He is there, and his daughter-not-of-the-blood is there, and He-who-was-Tsotse is there. And the death’s head is watching them all, skullgrin beaming down on all three of them.
And He takes The Baron’s hat and places it firmly on tight black curls. And He sighs as He-who-was-Tsotse is no more. And He weeps as the proud young headman is no more. And He slumps slightly as The Baron bows and reclaims His hat and all that are now His charges.
And He walks heavily home, daughter-not-of-the-blood in his arms.
And His daughter-not-of-his-blood’s tears burn His chest as they survey the day’s work