Several bunches of bananas have appeared in the Orange Field banana grove. The kawem (dry season) seems to finally be upon us.
THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF ZED MALENDER
By Paul Crask
Molly Clark and the soucouyans
I properly met Zedekiah, known as Zed, Malender, just over two years ago. In truth, I had been fairly idle, not doing much with myself ever since graduating from secondary school. But then there really wasn’t much I could do. Opportunities were few and far between. My mother didn’t have enough money to send me to college – ‘education has become a luxury for rich folks’, she would say – and I didn’t know my father to ask him for any. Who and where he was remained mysteries and asking about him always upset my mother. So I didn’t.
I have two sisters, one younger by a year, the other older by two. We’re not sure, but we think we probably all have different fathers, but these are further moot subjects at home, you understand. The day after her eighteenth birthday my older sister, Jennifer, ran off to live in the bush with a Rastaman from Grand Bay. She comes back to visit us from time to time and brings home-made coconut oil and soap that is scented with bay leaf and cinnamon. She once confided in me that she thought her father was a church minister who had seduced my mother when she was still a teenager. But she can’t prove it and has never confronted either our mother or the man in question. My mother loves her and cries every time she leaves.
My younger sister, Hilda, got a job as a veterinarian’s assistant in town. She loves dogs and keeps three of her own in our small yard. She’s the smart one in the family and we all have high hopes for her.
And me ? My name is Shadrach Hooper. I’m nearly twenty and, until I hooked up with Zed Malender, had very little purpose in my life.
Zed Malender is our neighbour. He lives with his mother in the wooden board house opposite ours. They have a much larger garden, more of a smallholding in fact, where Zed seems to spend most of his time, tending plots of vegetables, ground provisions, fruits and herbs. He is a quiet and private man, a reclusive Dread, who minds his own business and doesn’t talk very much. He just works his garden, day in and day out. My mother told me that his wife died in a fire just weeks after they were married. They say it broke his heart and he never recovered.
I would usually while away my days sitting by our garden gate beneath an old nutmeg tree, my head buried in a book of some sort. I like to read stories that are set in faraway places or biographies of travellers and explorers. I would often imagine myself being far away from here. Somewhere exciting. From time to time I’d look up and greet people who were walking the narrow track that linked the back of the village, where we live, to the main road below. Other times, especially on hot afternoons, I’d crawl into a hammock I’d slung up between two branches and doze off in the shade until my mother called me in for dinner.
One bright and sticky morning in June, Molly Clark called by our house. She was a squat woman, round and wide, who barely made it up to my chin. Known for her religious fervor and usually flush in the cheeks from the effort of walking along the track to and from her home, she seemed especially red-faced and out of breath on this particular occasion. Rushing by me without a word, she squeezed through the garden gate and waddled hurriedly to the open door of our home.
“Rebekah!” she shouted. “Rebekah!”
I closed my book. Something was afoot. My mother came to the door, wiping her hands with a towel. She had been cleaning the house and was wet with perspiration.
“What on earth is it, Molly?” she asked, wiping a forearm across her brow.
“May Jesus protect me, Rebekah! May He protect all of us,” said Molly excitedly, making the sign of the cross. “Soucouyan, Rebekah, soucouyan!”
My mother looked at Molly and then across the yard at me. I shrugged.
“Why don’t you come inside for a cup of tea and tell me all about it,” she said, smiling.
“There’s no time for that, Rebekah,” said Molly, still very agitated. “No time at all! I saw them last night. In the woods by me. We have to do something. The devil has come to us! Bon dieu! Bon dieu!”
“Them ? You mean you saw more than one ?”
“Yes! Lord have mercy!” shrieked Molly. “There were two or three of them, oui. In the trees right by my house! I’ve been so afraid to come out in case they are still there. May sweet Jesus protect us all.”
“I tell you what,” said my mother, now flushing a little herself. “Let’s go over and see Ma Malender. She’s old and wise. She’ll surely know what to do.”
I watched them walk up the garden towards the Malender house. My mother was quite tall and slender, and when she walked it seemed as if she floated effortlessly above the earth. Molly Clark, on the other hand, wobbled from side to side and her fat arms were moving back and forth like pistons driving a heavy goods train. Together they looked rather an odd pair.
Zed was working hard on his beds as usual and they stopped briefly to talk to him. I saw him nodding, brushing a big hand through his locks and scratching his long beard. After a little while he ushered them both towards the house and they all disappeared inside.
The day was hot and still, nothing stirred. Hilda’s three dogs were asleep beneath an overgrown sweet lime thicket and I slipped into my hammock and waited in the shade. Time drifted slowly by and, as there was no sign of any activity, I soon gave way to sleep.
When I awoke, my neighbor, Zed Malender, was standing by the gate post.
“Uh, hello,” I said, a little flustered.
“Shadrach, right ?” he asked.
“Well then, Shadrach. Come. We have work to do.” And with that, off he walked up the track.
I didn’t know what to make of this at all but, as I had no time to give it any thought, I slipped out of the hammock and made off after him.
Zed is a tall man, muscular and strong from years of working and living outdoors. He has locks that fall down to his chest and a pepper pot beard and moustache that smothers the bottom half of his face. His eyes are a deep shade of brown and a sliver of a scar, perhaps a couple of inches long and with a history of its own, runs across the bridge of his nose. Whenever I see him he wears the same clothes; long olive pants and matching jacket that hangs open over a dark vest. On his feet are old but well cared-for leather boots and tied around his belt is a bandana he uses to wipe his face when he gets hot. Usually mistaken for a Rasta, Zed rejects all kinds of religion. He’s not big on rules and regulations of any kind. “Man makes them,” he once said to me. “And what good is he?” Zed’s law is the law of nature, it is really the only one he respects and, for that reason, he is a Dread of the old order. He had been involved in the troubles of the seventies, caught between the police and the ‘terrorists’ as he called them. The result was enemies on both sides and he found himself on the run on many occasions. It was during this time that he married a childhood sweetheart who he carried in his arms all the way up into the hills where he lived with a small community of like-minded and wrongly persecuted Dreads. One night he came down to check on his mother who was ill. When he returned to the forest, he found the wooden shack he had shared with his wife burned to the ground along with several others. The doors had been barricaded with posts so no-one could escape. Instead of the revenge his comrades sought, Zed withdrew and lived alone in a shack somewhere on the eastern slopes of Morne Anglais until he finally came down at the end of the ‘war’. Ostracised from both compatriots and the general community, Zed lived with his mother and tended the land. He kept himself to himself, troubled no-one, rarely spoke and hardly ever left his garden.
I’ll never know why it was that Molly Clark’s story of soucouyans was the trigger it took for him to rejoin the world, and I have never asked. I’m sure he’d just tell me ‘it was time’, or something like that. He gets quite deep and philosophical about things, but he can also be frustratingly vague and, even now, it’s still quite hard to figure him out. He’s truly a man of the earth, a nom tew in local patois, and I believe his intimacy with nature is one of the reasons he is so observant, sharp, and able to think differently to others. After two years of being his friend I have come to the conclusion that he is a special and unique man.
“So what do we know about soucouyans?” he asked as we followed the track uphill away from our homes.
“According to legend they are night spirits,” I replied. “Devilish phantoms that masquerade as women during the day but turn into fireballs at night.”
He stopped and turned to look at me.
“You’re a man of words,” he smiled. “That’s good. That’s very good. Continue.”
“I’m not sure what they’re supposed to do to you if they catch you,” I said, flushed from his compliment as well as the pace he was setting, “but I can’t imagine it’s very nice. And there’s something about a calabash and peas,” I continued. “That’s it. They shed their skin and turn into balls of fire, commit evil, and then put their skins back on again afterwards. But if you find their skin, you’re supposed to put a calabash of peas next to it. Apparently they can’t put it back on again until they’ve counted all the peas? Something like that. Oh, and salt. I think you’re supposed to put salt on their skin so it burns them when they put it back on.”
“So why do you think they’re flying about in the woods near Molly Clark’s house?” asked Zed.
“I really can’t imagine.”
“Try,” he urged.
“Well, she’s a very religious woman. Perhaps it’s some kind of good versus evil thing,” I said.
“We all know she’s a bit of a gossip. Always talking about people’s business. Maybe it’s a punishment?”
“Mind if I ask you a question?” I ventured, now breathing heavily from the uphill walk. I realized I was more than a little out of shape, unlike Zed who seemed completely unaffected.
“Go ahead,” he said.
“You don’t believe her, do you?”
“Why not?” he replied. “Don’t you?”
“To be honest, I don’t know,” I said. “If I believe her, it means I believe that soucouyans actually exist, right?”
“Not necessarily,” Zed said. “There are other possibilities.”
“Like what? Do you believe her?” I asked.
“I believe she saw something that scared her out of her wits,” he said. “Of that I think we can both be sure.”
“Unless she’s some kind of attention-seeker,” I said.
“It’s possible, I suppose,” said Zed. “But unlikely, I think. It would be hard to fake that degree of fear.”
“Do you believe soucouyans exist?” I asked.
“I believe anything has the possibility of existing until nature says otherwise,” he replied.
I mulled this over as the track curved around to the south. Through the trees on my right I caught glimpses of the village along the main road, and the church. I couldn’t help whispering a little prayer to myself, hoping Zed wouldn’t notice.
Set amidst the forest-covered slopes of the mountain, Molly Clark’s house sits all alone in the heart of a grassy swale just beyond a mature bamboo grove. It is a wooden house, painted blue, rather like ours, with a galvanized steel roof and a shed porch that protects the front door from the rain. I noticed the paint was beginning to crack and peel on the windward side, and all the windows were showing their age. Molly Clark lives alone. Her husband died a few years ago from a misdiagnosed condition that led a troupe of lawyers to her door, all offering their services and promising a wealth of successful damages claims. With a large broom of cocoyer sticks, Molly Clark swept them all from her stoop and told them never to come back again. No amount of money would ever replace her beloved husband, may God rest his soul, and those who had done wrong would ultimately find themselves at the mercy of the Lord Himself, she had maintained. To be honest, plenty of people in the village thought she was a bit of a crackpot, especially after rejecting the opportunity of financial recompense, but she was a thick-skinned woman who seemed as impervious to insults as a balisier leaf to rain. It didn’t stop her gossiping, however, a trait for which she had gained considerable reputation, and the doctors who had brought about the demise of her husband surely felt the bite of her sharp tongue, however far away.
At the front of the house there is a small and rather overgrown garden that meets the track via a crumbling and weed infested stone path and a rather dilapidated wooden gate.
“Let’s scout around and see what the forest tells us,” said Zed, continuing along the narrowing trail. A couple of hundred yards past the house it made a sharp turn to the right and ran back downhill to the village. I knew from walking it once that it came out between the Credit Union and the bus stop on the main village road. But instead of following it down, Zed looked to the left into the bush.
to be continued …..
Thank you for the aid donation of US$300,000 towards the cost of clean up and repairs to our island following the awful Christmas flooding we experienced. It’s very generous and we really appreciate it. But you know, I was just wondering if you are sure you have that kind of money to spare ? I read that about half of the people in your country live in extreme poverty and don’t even have toilet facilities. They have to defecate in the open which, quite understandably, leads to all kinds of health and sanitation issues. Our messed up roads and drains, though very important to us, don’t really seem to be in the same ballpark as half a billion people not having basic sanitation.
Listen, seriously, I’d be completely okay with driving through and around holes for a while longer if I thought people in India weren’t having to dig them to defecate in. Honestly. I’d get by.