“Guests first,” she said politely. “Will you have one lump, Mrs. Malcolm, or two?”
I was fortunately saved from answering by Ishmael, who thrust a crude horn cup into my hands, indicating that I should drink from it. Considering the alternative, I raised it to my mouth without hesitation.
It was fresh-distilled rum, sharp and raw enough to strip the throat, and I choked, wheezing. The tang of some herb rose up the back of my throat and into my nose; something had been mixed with the liquor, or soaked in it. It was faintly tart, but not unpleasant.
Other cups like mine were making their way from hand to hand through the crowd. Ishmael made a sharp gesture, indicating that I should drink more. I obediently raised the cup to my lips, but let the fiery liquid lap against my mouth without swallowing. Whatever was happening here, I thought I might need such wits as I had.
Beside me, Miss Campbell was drinking from her teetotal cup with genteel sips. The feeling of expectancy among the crowd was rising; they were swaying now, and a woman had begun to sing, low and husky, her voice an offbeat counterpoint to the thump of the drum.
The shadow of Ishmael’s headdress fell across my face, and I looked up. He too was swaying slowly, back and forth. The collarless white shirt he wore was speckled over the shoulders with black dots of blood, and stuck to his breast with sweat. I thought suddenly that the raw crocodile’s head must weigh thirty pounds at least, a terrible weight to support; the muscles of his neck and shoulders were taut with effort.
He raised his hands and began to sing as well. I felt a shiver run down my back and coil at the base of my spine, where my tail would have been. With his face masked, the voice could have been Joe’s; deep and honeyed, with a power that commanded attention. If I closed my eyes, it was Joe, with the light glinting off his spectacles, and catching the gold tooth far back as he smiled.
Then I opened my eyes again, half-shocked to see instead the crocodile’s sinister yawn, and the fire gold-green in the cold, cruel eyes. My mouth was dry and there was a faint buzzing in my ears, weaving around the strong, sweet words.
He was getting attention, all right; the night by the fire was full of eyes, black-wide and shiny, and small moans and shouts marked the pauses in the song.
I closed my eyes and shook my head hard. I grabbed the edge of the wooden bench, clinging to its rough reality. I wasn’t drunk, I knew; whatever herb had been mixed with the rum was potent. I could feel it creeping snakelike through my blood, and kept my eyes tight closed, fighting its progress.
I couldn’t block my ears, though, or the sound of that voice, rising and falling.
I didn’t know how much time had passed. I came back to myself with a start, suddenly aware that the drum and the singing had stopped.
There was an absolute silence around the fire. I could hear the small rush of flame, and the rustle of cane leaves in the night wind; the quick darting scuttle of a rat in the palm-frond roof of the hut behind me.
The drug was still in my bloodstream, but the effects were dying; I could feel clarity coming back to my thoughts. Not so for the crowd; the eyes were fixed in a single, unblinking stare, like a wall of mirrors, and I thought suddenly of the voodoo legends of my time—of zombies and the houngans who made them. What had Geilie said? Every legend has one foot on the truth.
Ishmael spoke. He had taken off the crocodile’s head. It lay on the ground at our feet, eyes gone dark in the shadow.
“Ils sont arrivées,” Ishmael said quietly. They have come. He lifted his wet face, lined with exhaustion, and turned to the crowd.
As though in response, a young woman in a turban moved out of the crowd, still swaying, half-dazed, and sank down on the ground before the dais. She put her hand on one of the carved images, a crude wooden icon in the shape of a pregnant woman.
Her eyes looked up with hope, and while I didn’t recognize the words she spoke, it was clear what she asked.
“Aya, gado.” The voice spoke from beside me, but it wasn’t Margaret Campbell’s. It was the voice of an old woman, cracked and high, but confident, answering in the affirmative.
The young woman gasped with joy, and prostrated herself on the ground. Ishmael nudged her gently with a foot; she got up quickly and backed into the crowd, clutching the small image and bobbing her head, murmuring “Mana, mana,” over and over.
Next was a young man, by his face the brother of the first young woman, who squatted respectfully upon his haunches, touching his head before he spoke.
“Grandmère,” he began, in high, nasal French. Grandmother? I thought.
He asked his question looking shyly down at the ground. “Does the woman I love return my love?” His was the jasmine spray; he held it so that it brushed the top of a bare, dusty foot.
The woman beside me laughed, her ancient voice ironic but not unkind. “Certainement,” she answered. “She returns it; and that of three other men, besides. Find another; less generous, but more worthy.”
The young man retired, crestfallen, to be replaced by an older man. This one spoke in an African language I did not know, a tone of bitterness in his voice as he touched one of the clay figures.
“Setato hoye,” said—who? The voice had changed. The voice of a man this time, full-grown but not elderly, answering in the same language with an angry tone.
I stole a look to the side, and despite the heat of the fire, felt the chill ripple up my forearms. It was Margaret’s face no longer. The outlines were the same, but the eyes were bright, alert and focused on the petitioner, the mouth set in grim command, and the pale throat swelled like a frog’s with the effort of strong speech as whoever-it-was argued with the man.
“They are here,” Ishmael had said. “They,” indeed. He stood to one side, silent but watchful, and I saw his eyes rest on me for a second before coming back to Margaret. Or whatever had been Margaret.
“They.” One by one the people came forward, to kneel and ask. Some spoke in English, some French, or the slave patois, some in the African speech of their vanished homes. I couldn’t understand all that was said, but when the questions were in French or English, they were often prefaced by a respectful “Grandfather,” or “Grandmother,” once by “Aunt.”
Both the face and the voice of the oracle beside me changed, as “they” came to answer their call; male and female, mostly middle-aged or old, their shadows dancing on her face with the flicker of the fire.
Do you not sometimes imagine that you see things in the fire? The echo of her own small voice came back to me, thin and childish.
Listening, I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck, and understood for the first time what had brought Ishmael back to this place, risking recapture and renewed slavery. Not friendship, not love, nor any loyalty to his fellow slaves, but power.
What price is there for the power to tell the future? Any price, was the answer I saw, looking out at the rapt faces of the congregation. He had come back for Margaret.
It went on for some time. I didn’t know how long the drug would last, but I saw people here and there sink down to the ground, and nod to sleep; others melted silently back to the darkness of the huts, and after a time, we were almost alone. Only a few remained around the fire, all men.
They were all husky and confident, and from their attitude, accustomed to command some respect, among slaves at least. They had hung back, together as a group, watching the proceedings, until at last one, clearly the leader, stepped forward.
“They be done, mon,” he said to Ishmael, with a jerk of his head toward the sleeping forms around the fire. “Now you ask.”
Ishmael’s face showed nothing but a slight smile, yet he seemed suddenly nervous. Perhaps it was the closing in of the other men. There was nothing overtly menacing about them, but they seemed both serious and intent—not upon Margaret, for a change, but upon Ishmael.
At last he nodded, and turned to face Margaret. During the hiatus, her face had gone blank; no one at home.
“Bouassa,” he said to her. “Come you, Bouassa.”
I shrank involuntarily away, as far as I could get on the bench without falling into the fire. Whoever Bouassa was, he had come promptly.
“I be hearin’.” It was a voice as deep as Ishmael’s, and should have been as pleasant. It wasn’t. One of the men took an involuntary step backward.
Ishmael stood alone; the other men seemed to shrink away from him, as though he suffered some contamination.
“Tell me what I want to know, you Bouassa,” he said.
Margaret’s head tilted slightly, a light of amusement in the pale blue eyes.
“What you want to know?” the deep voice said, with mild scorn. “For why, mon? You be goin’, I tell you anything or not.”
The small smile on Ishmael’s face echoed that on Bouassa’s.
“You say true,” he said softly. “But these—” He jerked his head toward his companions, not taking his eyes from the face. “They be goin’ with me?”
“Might as well,” the deep voice said. It chuckled, rather unpleasantly. “The Maggot dies in three days. Won’t be nothin’ for them here. That all you be wantin’ with me?” Not waiting for an answer, Bouassa yawned widely, and a loud belch erupted from Margaret’s dainty mouth.
Her mouth closed, and her eyes resumed their vacant stare, but the men weren’t noticing. An excited chatter erupted from them, to be hushed by Ishmael, with a significant glance at me. Abruptly quiet, they moved away, still muttering, glancing at me as they went.
Ishmael closed his eyes as the last man left the clearing, and his shoulders sagged. I felt a trifle drained myself.
“What—” I began, and then stopped. Across the fire, a man had stepped from the shelter of the sugarcane. Jamie, tall as the cane itself, with the dying fire staining shirt and face as red as his hair.
He raised a finger to his lips, and I nodded. I gathered my feet cautiously beneath me, picking up my stained skirt in one hand. I could be up, past the fire, and into the cane with him before Ishmael could reach me. But Margaret?
I hesitated, turned to look at her, and saw that her face had come alive once again. It was lifted, eager, lips parted and shining eyes narrowed so that they seemed slightly slanted, as she stared across the fire.
“Daddy?” said Brianna’s voice beside me.
The hairs rippled softly erect on my forearms. It was Brianna’s voice, Brianna’s face, blue eyes dark and slanting with eagerness.
“Bree?” I whispered, and the face turned to me.
“Mama,” said my daughter’s voice, from the throat of the oracle.
“Brianna,” said Jamie, and she turned her head sharply to look at him.
“Daddy,” she said, with great certainty. “I knew it was you. I’ve been dreaming about you.”
Jamie’s face was white with shock. I saw his lips form the word “Jesus,” without sound, and his hand moved instinctively to cross himself.
“Don’t let Mama go alone,” said the voice with great certainty. “You go with her. I’ll keep you safe.”