“The egungun, he didn’t hurt you none?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Thanks to the men. Er…you wouldn’t consider taking that off, would you?”
He ignored the request and sat back on his heels, evidently considering me. I couldn’t see his face, but every line of his body expressed the most profound indecision.
“Why you bein’ here?” he asked at last.
For lack of any better idea, I told him. He didn’t mean to bash me on the head, or he would have done it already, when I collapsed below the cane field.
“Ah,” he said, when I had finished. The reptile’s snout dipped slightly toward me as he thought. A drop of moisture fell from the valved nostril onto my bare hand, and I wiped it quickly on my skirt, shuddering.
“The missus not here tonight,” he said, at last, as though wondering whether it was safe to trust me with the information.
“Yes, I know,” I said. I gathered my feet under me, preparing to rise. “Can you—or one of the men—take me back to the big tree by the river? My husband will be looking for me,” I added pointedly.
“Likely she be takin’ the boy with her,” Ishmael went on, ignoring me.
My heart had lifted when he had verified that Geilie was gone; now it fell, with a distinct thud in my chest.
“She’s taken Ian? Why?”
I couldn’t see his face, but the eyes inside the crocodile mask shone with a gleam of something that was partly amusement—but only partly.
“Missus likes boys,” he said, the malicious tone making his meaning quite clear.
“Does she,” I said flatly. “Do you know when she’ll be coming back?”
The long, toothy snout turned suddenly up, but before he could reply, I sensed someone standing behind me, and swung around on the pallet.
“I know you,” she said, a small frown puckering the wide, smooth forehead as she looked down at me. “Do I not?”
“We’ve met,” I said, trying to swallow the heart that had leapt into my mouth in startlement. “How—how do you do, Miss Campbell?”
Better than when last seen, evidently, in spite of the fact that her neat wool challis gown had been replaced with a loose smock of coarse white cotton, sashed with a broad, raggedly torn strip of the same, stained dark blue with indigo. Both face and figure had grown more slender, though, and she had lost the pasty, sagging look of too many months spent indoors.
“I am well, I thank ye, ma’am,” she said politely. The pale blue eyes had still that distant, unfocused look to them, and despite the new sun-glow on her skin, it was clear that Miss Margaret Campbell was still not altogether in the here and now.
This impression was borne out by the fact that she appeared not to have noticed Ishmael’s unconventional attire. Or to have noticed Ishmael himself, for that matter. She went on looking at me, a vague interest passing across her snub features.
“It is most civil in ye to call upon me, ma’am,” she said. “Might I offer ye refreshment of some kind? A dish of tea, perhaps? We keep no claret, for my brother holds that strong spirits are a temptation to the lusts of the flesh.”
“I daresay they are,” I said, feeling that I could do with a brisk spot of temptation at the moment.
Ishmael had risen, and now bowed deeply to Miss Campbell, the great head slipping precariously.
“You ready, bébé?” he asked softly. “The fire is waiting.”
“Fire,” she said. “Yes, of course,” and turned to me.
“Will ye not join me, Mrs. Malcolm?” she asked graciously. “Tea will be served shortly. I do so enjoy looking into a nice fire,” she confided, taking my arm as I rose. “Do you not find yourself sometimes imagining that you see things in the flames?”
“Now and again,” I said. I glanced at Ishmael, who was standing in the doorway. His indecision was apparent in his stance, but as Miss Campbell moved inexorably toward him, towing me after her, he shrugged very slightly, and stepped aside.
Outside, a small bonfire burned brightly in the center of the clearing before the row of huts. The crocodile had already been skinned; the raw hide was stretched on a frame near one of the huts, throwing a headless shadow on the wooden wall. Several sharpened sticks were thrust into the ground around the fire, each strung with chunks of meat, sizzling with an appetizing smell that nonetheless made my stomach clench.
Perhaps three dozen people, men, women and children, were gathered near the fire, laughing and talking. One man was still singing softly, curled over a battered guitar.
As we appeared, one man caught sight of us, and turned sharply, saying something that sounded like “Hau!” At once, the talk and laughter stopped, and a respectful silence fell upon the crowd.
Ishmael walked slowly toward them, the crocodile’s head grinning in apparent delight. The firelight shone off faces and bodies like polished jet and melted caramel, all with deep black eyes that watched us come.
There was a small bench near the fire, set on a sort of dais made of stacked planks. This was evidently the seat of honor, for Miss Campbell made for it directly, and gestured politely for me to sit down next to her.
I could feel the weight of eyes upon me, with expressions ranging from hostility to guarded curiosity, but most of the attention was for Miss Campbell. Glancing covertly around the circle of faces, I was struck by their strangeness. These were the faces of Africa, and alien to me; not faces like Joe’s, that bore only the faint stamp of his ancestors, diluted by centuries of European blood. Black or not, Joe Abernathy was a great deal more like me than like these people—different to the marrow of their bones.
The man with the guitar had put it aside, and drawn out a small drum that he set between his knees. The sides were covered with the hide of some spotted animal; goat, perhaps. He began to tap it softly with the palms of his hands, in a half-halting rhythm like the beating of a heart.
I glanced at Miss Campbell, sitting tranquil beside me, hands carefully folded in her lap. She was gazing straight ahead, into the leaping flames, with a small, dreaming smile on her lips.
The swaying crowd of slaves parted, and two little girls came out, carrying a large basket between them. The handle of the basket was twined with white roses, and the lid jerked up and down, agitated by the movements of something inside.
The girls set the basket at Ishmael’s feet, casting awed glances up at his grotesque headdress. He rested a hand on each of their heads, murmured a few words, and then dismissed them, his upraised palms a startling flash of yellow-pink, like butterflies rising from the girls’ knotted hair.
The attitude of the spectators had so far been quiet and respectful. It continued so, but now they crowded closer, necks craning to see what would happen next, and the drum began to beat faster, still softly. One of the women was holding a stone bottle, she took one step forward, handed it to Ishmael, and melted back into the crowd.
Ishmael took up the bottle of liquor and poured a small amount on the ground, moving carefully in a circle around the basket. The basket, momentarily quiescent, heaved to and fro, evidently disturbed by the movement or the pungent scent of alcohol.
A man holding a stick wrapped in rags stepped forward, and held the stick in the bonfire until the rags blazed up, bright red. At a word from Ishmael, he dipped his torch to the ground where the liquor had been poured. There was a collective “Ah!” from the watchers as a ring of flame sprang up, burned blue and died away at once, as quickly as it came. From the basket came a loud “Cock-a-doodle-dooo!”
Miss Campbell stirred beside me, eyeing the basket with suspicion.
As though the crowing had been a signal—perhaps it was—a flute began to play, and the humming of the crowd rose to a higher pitch.
Ishmael came toward the makeshift dais where we sat, holding a red headrag between his hands. This he tied about Margaret’s wrist, placing her hand gently back in her lap when he had finished.
“Oh, there is my handkerchief!” she exclaimed, and quite unselfconsciously raised her wrist and wiped her nose.
No one but me seemed to notice. The attention was on Ishmael, who was standing before the crowd, speaking in a language I didn’t recognize. The c**k in the basket crowed again, and the white roses on the handle quivered violently with its struggles.
“I do wish it wouldn’t do that,” said Margaret Campbell, rather petulantly. “If it does again, it will be three times, and that’s bad luck, isn’t it?”
“Is it?” Ishmael was now pouring the rest of the liquor in a circle round the dais. I hoped the flame wouldn’t startle her.
“Oh, yes, Archie says so. ‘Before the c**k crows thrice, thou wilt betray me.’ Archie says women are always betrayers. Is that so, do you think?”
“Depends on your point of view, I suppose,” I murmured, watching the proceedings. Miss Campbell seemed oblivious to the swaying, humming slaves, the music, the twitching basket, and Ishmael, who was collecting small objects handed to him out of the crowd.
“I’m hungry,” she said. “I do hope the tea will be ready soon.”
Ishmael heard this. To my amazement, he reached into one of the bags at his waist and unwrapped a small bundle, which proved to hold a cup of chipped and battered porcelain, the remnants of gold leaf still visible on the rim. This he placed ceremoniously on her lap.
“Oh, goody,” Margaret said happily, clapping her hands together. “Perhaps there’ll be biscuits.”
I rather thought not. Ishmael had placed the objects given him by the crowd along the edge of the dais. A few small bones, with lines carved across them, a spray of jasmine, and two or three crude little figures made of wood, each one wrapped in a scrap of cloth, with little shocks of hair glued to the head-nubbins with clay.
Ishmael spoke again, the torch dipped, and a sudden whiff of blue flame shot up around the dais. As it died away, leaving the scent of scorched earth and burnt brandy heavy in the cool night air, he opened the basket and brought out the cock.
It was a large, healthy bird, black feathers glistening in the torchlight. It struggled madly, uttering piercing squawks, but it was firmly trussed, its feet wrapped in cloth to prevent scratching. Ishmael bowed low, saying something, and handed the bird to Margaret.
“Oh, thank you,” she said graciously.
The c**k stretched out its neck, wattles bright red with agitation, and crowed piercingly. Margaret shook it.
“Naughty bird!” she said crossly, and raising it to her mouth, bit it just behind the head.
I heard the soft crack of the neck bones and the little grunt of effort as she flung her head up, wrenching off the head of the hapless cock.
She clutched the gurgling, struggling trussed carcass tight against her bosom, crooning, “Now, then, now, then, it’s all right, darling,” as the blood spurted and sprayed into the teacup and all over her dress.
The crowd had cried out at first, but now was quite still, watching. The flute, too, had fallen silent, but the drum beat on, sounding much louder than before.
Margaret dropped the drained carcass carelessly to one side, where a boy darted out of the crowd to retrieve it. She brushed absently at the blood on her skirt, picking up the teacup with her red-swathed hand.