“Fried plantain, mixed with manioc and red beans,” Lawrence explained, seeing my hesitation. He took a large spoonful of the steaming pulp himself and ate it without pausing for it to cool.
I had expected something of an inquisition about my presence, identity, and prospects. Instead, Father Fogden was singing softly under his breath, keeping time on the table with his spoon between bites.
I darted a glance at Lawrence, eyebrows up. He merely smiled, raised one shoulder in a slight shrug, and bent to his own food.
No real conversation occurred until the conclusion of the meal, when Mamacita—“unsmiling” seemed an understatement of her expression—removed the plates, replacing them with a platter of fruit, three cups, and a gigantic clay pitcher.
“Have you ever drunk sangria, Mrs. Fraser?”
I opened my mouth to say “Yes,” thought better of it, and said, “No, what is it?” Sangria had been a popular drink in the 1960s, and I had had it many times at faculty parties and hospital social events. But for now, I was sure that it was unknown in England and Scotland; Mrs. Fraser of Edinburgh would never have heard of sangria.
“A mixture of red wine and the juices of orange and lemon,” Lawrence Stern was explaining. “Mulled with spices, and served hot or cold, depending upon the weather. A most comforting and healthful beverage, is it not, Fogden?”
“Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Most comforting.” Not waiting for me to find out for myself, the priest drained his cup, and reached for the pitcher before I had taken the first sip.
It was the same; the same sweet, throat-rasping taste, and I suffered the momentary illusion that I was back at the party where I had first tasted it, in company with a marijuana-smoking graduate student and a professor of botany.
This illusion was fostered by Stern’s conversation, which dealt with his collections, and by Father Fogden’s behavior. After several cups of sangria, he had risen, rummaged through the sideboard, and emerged with a large clay pipe. This he packed full of a strong-smelling herb shaken out of a paper twist, and proceeded to smoke.
“Hemp?” Stern asked, seeing this. “Tell me, do you find it settling to the digestive processes? I have heard it is so, but the herb is unobtainable in most European cities, and I have no firsthand observations of its effect.”
“Oh, it is most genial and comforting to the stomach,” Father Fogden assured him. He drew in a huge breath, held it, then exhaled long and dreamily, blowing a stream of soft white smoke that floated in streamers of haze near the room’s low ceiling. “I shall send a packet home with you, dear fellow. Do say, now, what do you mean doing, you and this shipwrecked lady you have rescued?”
Stern explained his plan; after a night’s rest, we intended to walk as far as the village of St. Luis du Nord, and from there see whether a fishing boat might carry us to Cap-Haïtien, thirty miles distant. If not, we would have to make our way overland to Le Cap, the nearest port of any size.
The priest’s sketchy brows drew close together, frowning against the smoke.
“Mm? Well, I suppose there isn’t much choice, is there? Still, you must go careful, particularly if you go overland to Le Cap. Maroons, you know.”
“Maroons?” I glanced quizzically at Stern, who nodded, frowning.
“That’s true. I did meet with two or three small bands as I came north through the valley of the Artibonite. They didn’t molest me, though—I daresay I looked little better off than they, poor wretches. The Maroons are escaped slaves,” he explained to me. “Having fled the cruelty of their masters, they take refuge in the remote hills, where the jungle hides them.”
“They might not trouble you,” Father Fogden said. He sucked deeply on his pipe, with a low, slurping noise, held his breath for a long count and then let it out reluctantly. His eyes were becoming markedly bloodshot. He closed one of them and examined me rather blearily with the other. “She doesn’t look worth robbing, really.”
Stern smiled broadly, looking at me, then quickly erased the smile, as though feeling he had been less than tactful. He coughed and took another cup of sangria. The priest’s eyes gleamed over the pipe, red as a ferret’s.
“I believe I need a little fresh air,” I said, pushing back my chair. “And perhaps a little water, to wash with?”
“Oh, of course, of course!” Father Fogden cried. He rose, swaying unsteadily, and thumped the coals from his pipe carelessly out onto the sideboard. “Come with me.”
The air in the patio seemed fresh and invigorating by comparison, despite its mugginess. I inhaled deeply, looking on with interest as Father Fogden fumbled with a bucket by the fountain in the corner.
“Where does the water come from?” I asked. “Is it a spring?” The stone trough was lined with soft tendrils of green algae, and I could see these moving lazily; evidently there was a current of some kind.
It was Stern who answered.
“Yes, there are hundreds of such springs. Some of them are said to have spirits living in them—but I do not suppose you subscribe to such superstition, sir?”
Father Fogden seemed to have to think about this. He set the half-filled bucket down on the coping and squinted into the water, trying to fix his gaze on one of the small silver fish that swam there.
“Ah?” he said vaguely. “Well, no. Spirits, no. Still—oh, yes, I had forgotten. I had something to show you.” Going to a cupboard set into the wall, he pulled open the cracked wooden door and removed a small bundle of coarse unbleached muslin, which he put gingerly into Stern’s hands.
“It came up in the spring one day last month,” he said. “It died when the noon sun struck it, and I took it out. I’m afraid the other fish nibbled it a bit,” he said apologetically, “but you can still see.”
Lying in the center of the cloth was a small dried fish, much like those darting about in the spring, save that this one was pure white. It was also blind. On either side of the blunt head, there was a small swelling where an eye should have been, but that was all.
“Do you think it is a ghost fish?” the priest inquired. “I thought of it when you mentioned spirits. Still, I can’t think what sort of sin a fish might have committed, so as to be doomed to roam about like that—eyeless, I mean. I mean”—he closed one eye again in his favorite expression—“one doesn’t think of fish as having souls, and yet, if they don’t, how can they become ghosts?”
“I shouldn’t think they do, myself,” I assured him. I peered more closely at the fish, which Stern was examining with the rapt joy of the born naturalist. The skin was very thin, and so transparent that the shadows of the internal organs and the knobbly line of the vertebrae were clearly visible, yet it did have scales, tiny and translucent, though dulled by dryness.
“It is a blind cave fish,” Stern said, reverently stroking the tiny blunt head. “I have seen one only once before, in a pool deep inside a cave, at a place called Abandawe. And that one escaped before I could examine it closely. My dear fellow—” He turned to the priest, eyes shining with excitement. “Might I have it?”
“Of course, of course.” The priest fluttered his fingers in offhand generosity. “No use to me. Too small to eat, you know, even if Mamacita would think of cooking it, which she wouldn’t.” He glanced around the patio, kicking absently at a passing hen. “Where is Mamacita?”
“Here, cabrón, where else?” I hadn’t seen her come out of the house, but there she was, a dusty, sunbrowned little figure stooping to fill another bucket from the spring.
A faintly musty, unpleasant smell reached my nostrils, and they twitched uneasily. The priest must have noticed, for he said, “Oh, you mustn’t mind, it’s only poor Arabella.”
“Yes, in here.” The priest held aside a ragged curtain of burlap that screened off a corner of the patio, and I glanced behind it.
A ledge jutted out of the stone wall at waist-height. On it were ranged a long row of sheep’s skulls, pure white and polished.
“I can’t bear to part with them, you see.” Father Fogden gently stroked the heavy curve of a skull. “This was Beatriz—so sweet and gentle. She died in lambing, poor thing.” He indicated two much smaller skulls nearby, shaped and polished like the rest.
“Arabella is a—a sheep, too?” I asked. The smell was much stronger here, and I thought I really didn’t want to know where it was coming from at all.
“A member of my flock, yes, certainly.” The priest turned his oddly bright blue eyes on me, looking quite fierce. “She was murdered! Poor Arabella, such a gentle, trusting soul. How they can have had the wickedness to betray such innocence for the sake of carnal lusts!”
“Oh, dear,” I said, rather inadequately. “I’m terribly sorry to hear that. Ah—who murdered her?”
“The sailors, the wicked heathen! Killed her on the beach and roasted her poor body over a gridiron, just like St. Lawrence the Martyr.”
“Heavens,” I said.
The priest sighed, and his spindly beard appeared to droop with mourning.
“Yes, I must not forget the hope of Heaven. For if Our Lord observes the fall of every sparrow, He can scarcely have failed to observe Arabella. She must have weighed near on ninety pounds, at least, such a good grazer as she was, poor child.”
“Ah,” I said, trying to infuse the remark with a suitable sympathy and horror. It then occurred to me what the priest had said.
“Sailors?” I asked. “When did you say this—this sad occurrence took place?” It couldn’t be the Porpoise, I thought. Surely, Captain Leonard would not have thought me so important that he had risked bringing his ship in so close to the island, in order to pursue me? But my hands grew damp at the thought, and I wiped them unobtrusively on my robe.
“This morning,” Father Fogden replied, setting back the lamb’s skull he had picked up to fondle. “But,” he added, his manner brightening a bit, “I must say they’re making wonderful progress with her. It usually takes more than a week, and already you can quite see…”
He opened the cupboard again, revealing a large lump, covered with several layers of damp burlap. The smell was markedly stronger now, and a number of small brown beetles scuttled away from the light.
“Are those members of the Dermestidae you have there, Fogden?” Lawrence Stern, having tenderly committed the corpse of his cave fish to a jar of alcoholic spirits, had come to join us. He peered over my shoulder, sunburned features creased in interest.
Inside the cupboard, the white maggot larvae of dermestid beetles were hard at work, polishing the skull of Arabella the sheep. They had made a good start on the eyes. The manioc shifted heavily in my stomach.
“Is that what they are? I suppose so; dear voracious little fellows.” The priest swayed alarmingly, catching himself on the edge of the cupboard. As he did so, he finally noticed the old woman, standing glaring at him, a bucket in either hand.