Author: P Hana

Page 140


I breathed in deeply, a lovely smell of grass and flowers, with minor notes of sheep and sun-warmed dust. A brown speck lighted for a moment on my sleeve and clung, long enough for me to see the velvet scales on its wing, and the tiny curled hose of its proboscis. The slender abdomen pulsed, breathing to its wing-beats, and then it was gone.

It might have been the promise of help, the water, the butterflies, or all three, but the burden of fear and fatigue under which I had labored for so long began to lift. True, I still had to face the problem of finding transport to Jamaica, but with thirst assuaged, a friend at hand, and the possibility of lunch just ahead, that no longer appeared the impossible task it had seemed in the mangroves.

“There he is!” Lawrence stopped, waiting for me to come up alongside him on the path. He gestured upward, toward a slight, wiry figure, picking its way carefully down the hillside toward us. I squinted at the figure as it wandered through the sheep, who took no apparent notice of his passage.

“Jesus!” I said. “It’s St. Francis of Assisi.”

Lawrence glanced at me in surprise.

“No, neither one. I told you he’s English.” He raised an arm and shouted, “ÁHola! Señor Fogden!”

The gray-robed figure paused suspiciously, one hand twined protectively in the wool of a passing ewe.

“ÀQuien es?”

“Stern!” called Lawrence. “Lawrence Stern! Come along,” he said, and extended a hand to pull me up the steep hillside onto the sheep path above.

The ewe was making determined efforts to escape her protector, which distracted him from our approach. A slender man a bit taller than I, he had a lean face that might have been handsome if not disfigured by a reddish beard that straggled dust-mop-like round the edges of his chin. His long and straying hair had gone to gray in streaks and runnels, and fell forward into his eyes with some frequency. An orange butterfly took wing from his head as we reached him.

“Stern?” he said, brushing back the hair with his free hand and blinking owlishly in the sunlight. “I don’t know any…oh, it’s you!” His thin face brightened. “Why didn’t you say it was the shitworm man; I should have known you at once!”

Stern looked mildly embarrassed at this, and glanced at me apologetically. “I…ah…collected several interesting parasites from the excrement of Mr. Fogden’s sheep, upon the occasion of my last visit,” he explained.

“Horrible great worms!” Father Fogden said, shuddering violently in recollection. “A foot long, some of them, at least!”

“No more than eight inches,” Stern corrected, smiling. He glanced at the nearest sheep, his hand resting on his collecting bag as though in anticipation of further imminent contributions to science. “Was the remedy I suggested effective?”

Father Fogden looked vaguely doubtful, as though trying to remember quite what the remedy had been.

“The turpentine drench,” the naturalist prompted.

“Oh, yes!” The sun broke out on the priest’s lean countenance, and he beamed fondly upon us. “Of course, of course! Yes, it worked splendidly. A few of them died, but the rest were quite cured. Capital, entirely capital!”

Suddenly it seemed to dawn on Father Fogden that he was being less than hospitable.

“But you must come in!” he said. “I was just about to partake of the midday meal; I insist you must join me.” The priest turned to me. “This will be Mrs. Stern, will it?”

Mention of eight-inch intestinal worms had momentarily suppressed my hunger pangs, but at the mention of food, they came gurgling back in full force.

“No, but we should be delighted to partake of your hospitality,” Stern answered politely. “Pray allow me to introduce my companion—a Mrs. Fraser, a countrywoman of yours.”

Fogden’s eyes grew quite round at this. A pale blue, with a tendency to water in bright sun, they fixed wonderingly upon me.

“An Englishwoman?” he said, disbelieving. “Here?” The round eyes took in the mud and salt stains on my crumpled dress, and my general air of disarray. He blinked for a moment, then stepped forward, and with the utmost dignity, bowed low over my hand.

“Your most obedient servant, Madame,” he said. He rose and gestured grandly at the ruin on the hill. “Mi casa es su casa.” He whistled sharply, and a small King Charles cavalier spaniel poked its face inquiringly out of the weeds.

“We have a guest, Ludo,” the priest said, beaming. “Isn’t that nice?” Tucking my hand firmly under one elbow, he took the sheep by its topknot of wool and towed us both toward the Hacienda de la Fuente, leaving Stern to follow.

The reason for the name became clear as we entered the dilapidated courtyard; a tiny cloud of dragonflies hovered like blinking lights over an algae-filled pool in one corner; it looked like a natural spring that someone had curbed in when the house was built. At least a dozen jungle fowl sprang up from the shattered pavement and flapped madly past our feet, leaving a small cloud of dust and feathers behind them. From other evidences left behind, I deduced that the trees overhanging the patio were their customary roost, and had been for some time.

“And so I was fortunate enough to encounter Mrs. Fraser among the mangroves this morning,” Stern concluded. “I thought that perhaps you might…oh, look at that beauty! A magnificent Odonata!”

A tone of amazed delight accompanied this last statement, and he pushed unceremoniously past us to peer up into the shadows of the palm-thatched patio roof, where an enormous dragonfly, at least four inches across, was darting to and fro, blue body catching fire when it crossed one of the errant rays of sunshine poking through the tattered roof.

“Oh, do you want it? Be my guest.” Our host waved a gracious hand at the dragonfly. “Here, Becky, trot in there and I’ll see to your hoof in a bit.” He shooed the ewe into the patio with a slap on the rump. It snorted and galloped off a few feet, then fell at once to browsing on the scattered fruit of a huge guava that overhung the ancient wall.

In fact, the trees around the patio had grown up to such an extent that the branches at many points interlaced. The whole of the courtyard seemed roofed with them, a sort of leafy tunnel, leading down the length of the patio into the gaping cavern of the house’s entrance.

Drifts of dust and the pink paper leaves of bougainvillaea lay heaped against the sill, but just beyond, the dark wood floor gleamed with polish, bare and immaculate. It was dark inside, after the brilliance of the sunlight, but my eyes quickly adapted to the surroundings, and I looked around curiously.

It was a very plain room, dark and cool, furnished with no more than a long table, a few stools and chairs, and a small sideboard, over which hung a hideous painting in the Spanish style—an emaciated Christ, goateed and pallid in the gloom, indicating with one skeletal hand the bleeding heart that throbbed in his chest.

This ghastly object so struck my eye that it was a moment before I realized there was someone else in the room. The shadows in one corner of the room coalesced, and a small round face emerged, wearing an expression of remarkable malignity. I blinked and took a step back. The woman—for so she was—took a step forward, black eyes fixed on me, unblinking as the sheep.

She was no more than four feet tall, and so thick through the body as to seem like a solid block, without joint or indentation. Her head was a small round knob atop her body, with the smaller knob of a sparse gray bun scraped tightly back behind it. She was a light mahogany color—whether from the sun or naturally, I couldn’t tell—and looked like nothing so much as a carved wooden doll. An ill-wish doll.

“Mamacita,” said the priest, speaking Spanish to the graven image, “what good fortune! We have guests who will eat with us. You remember Señor Stern?” he added, gesturing at Lawrence.

“Sí, claro,” said the image, through invisible wooden lips. “The Christ-killer. And who is the puta alba?”

“And this is Señora Fraser,” Father Fogden went on, beaming as though she had not spoken. “The poor lady has had the misfortune to be shipwrecked; we must assist her as much as we can.”

Mamacita looked me over slowly from top to toe. She said nothing, but the wide nostrils flared with infinite contempt.

“Your food’s ready,” she said, and turned away.

“Splendid!” the priest said happily. “Mamacita welcomes you; she’ll bring us some food. Won’t you sit down?”

The table was already laid with a large cracked plate and a wooden spoon. The priest took two more plates and spoons from the sideboard, and distributed them haphazardly about the table, gesturing hospitably at us to be seated.

A large brown coconut sat on the chair at the head of the table. Fogden tenderly picked this up and set it alongside his plate. The fibrous husk was darkened with age, and the hair was worn off it in patches, showing an almost polished appearance; I thought he must have had it for some time.

“Hallo there,” he said, patting it affectionately. “And how are you keeping this fine day, Coco?”

I glanced at Stern, but he was studying the portrait of Christ, a small frown between his thick black brows. I supposed it was up to me to open a conversation.

“You live alone here, Mr.—ah, Father Fogden?” I inquired of our host. “You, and—er, Mamacita?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so. That’s why I’m so pleased to see you. I haven’t any real company but Ludo and Coco, you know,” he explained, patting the hairy nut once more.

“Coco?” I said politely, thinking that on the evidence to hand so far, Coco wasn’t the only nut among those present. I darted another glance at Stern, who looked mildly amused, but not alarmed.

“Spanish for bugbear—coco,” the priest explained. “A hobgoblin. See him there, wee button nose and his dark little eyes?” Fogden jabbed two long, slender fingers suddenly into the depressions in the end of the coconut and jerked them back, chortling.

“Ah-ah!” he cried. “Mustn’t stare, Coco, it’s rude, you know!”

The pale blue eyes darted a piercing glance at me, and with some difficulty, I removed my teeth from my lower lip.

“Such a pretty lady,” he said, as though to himself. “Not like my Ermenegilda, but very pretty nonetheless—isn’t she, Ludo?”

The dog, thus addressed, ignored me, but bounded joyfully at its master, shoving its head under his hand and barking. He scratched its ears affectionately, then turned his attention back to me.

“Would one of Ermenegilda’s dresses fit you, I wonder?”

I didn’t know whether to answer this or not. Instead, I merely smiled politely, and hoped what I was thinking didn’t show on my face. Fortunately, at this point Mamacita came back, carrying a steaming clay pot wrapped in towels. She slapped a ladleful of the contents on each plate, then went out, her feet—if she had any—moving invisibly beneath the shapeless skirt.

I stirred the mess on my plate, which appeared to be vegetable in nature. I took a cautious bite, and found it surprisingly good.