THE SINGULAR ADVENTURES OF ZED MALENDER
By Paul Crask
Molly Clark and the soucouyans
I had heard rumours that Dreads had a knack for this; making themselves invisible in the forest, and had never really believed it until now. For a few troublesome seconds I thought Zed really had vanished and, when turning to see him crouching behind me instead of walking somewhere in front, I was quite taken aback. He seemed to be examining the forest floor, picking up leaves and twigs. Just as I stooped to take a look, he stood up and strode off again.
“Come!” he urged.
I gave up any notion of examining the undergrowth for myself and made off after him. He seemed like an alert animal following the faint scent of prey, sniffing the air, and scrutinizing the forest, looking right through the dense bush and challenging it to give up some of its secrets.
The sun was high in the early afternoon sky and pierced the thick canopy with narrow shafts of light. Zed forged ahead, carefully pushing branches aside and working his way up the hill. By now there was nothing to be seen but trees and more trees, and only the slope of the mountainside gave away our direction of travel. He paused once again to examine foliage and forest floor but was off at a trot before I could see what, if anything, had caught his eye. The one thought that gave me comfort on this trek was that, if real, soucouyans came out at night time, so there was no need to worry. So why was Zed dragging us up here in the day time ?
While I was musing over the purpose of what we were doing and what we were looking for I didn’t notice that Zed had stopped, and walked right into the back of him.
“Sorry, Zed, I didn’t realise you had stopped,” I said to his back. “Actually I was thinking about soucouyans,” I continued. “If they are real, and we don’t know that they are, of course. But if they are, then they only come out at night time, right ? So what are we looking for now ?”
Zed didn’t answer. He just stood there, staring straight ahead in complete silence. I moved around to his side, pushing away a branch that was obstructing my view.
“Oh, my god!” I cried.
In front of us was a small clearing, unremarkable except for one thing; all the trees of the perimeter as well as the branches above our heads had been charred black by fire.
Zed had not said a word all the way back to his house. We sat on his front porch in silence, looking down the mountainside towards the sea. The sun was arcing steadily towards the horizon and long shadows of trees stretched across the land. He seemed lost in thought, getting up occasionally and walking somewhat aimlessly around the garden, disappearing into the house for a while, and then coming back out again. He scratched at his beard then sunk his head so far into his folded arms that his dreadlocks fell down and covered his face entirely.
I sat there in complete limbo, not knowing what to say or do. I desperately wanted to say something but didn’t dare break this heavy silence. But I held my tongue and resolved to let Zed have the first word. It was a huge relief when the door opened and old Ma Malender came onto the porch with a pitcher of mango juice and a couple of ice-filled tumblers.
“Food for the brain,” she smiled and winked at me. “Drink. I made it fresh just now.”
“Thanks, Mrs Malender,” I said, picking up the pitcher and filling the two tumblers.
Zed looked up and smiled at his mother. She gave his shoulders a squeeze and kissed the top of his head before disappearing back into the house.
“We have to go back,” said Zed before taking a drink. I waited for him to continue. “Into the forest. Tonight. Finish your drink, go home and get ready,” he said, looking me in the eyes. “You have a flashlight?”
“Yes,” I said, nervously.
“Good. Then let us do this thing. I’ll meet you in an hour. And bring a cutlass.”
When I left our house daylight had nearly vanished. All that was left of the sun was a lilac and orange glow in the sky above the sea on the western horizon. Zed was waiting for me at the garden gate. He seemed less far earnest, more light-hearted, positively chirpy even. He flashed me a big smile through the bush of his moustache and beard. His eyes seemed to be sparkling in the twilight.
“So are you ready Shadrach Hooper ? Ready to track down some soucouyans ?” he smiled.
“That’s quite a question,” I replied, now feeling it was my turn to get serious about the whole affair. Zed turned to face me. He put his big hands on my shoulders and brought his face close to mine.
“Have no fear my young friend,” he said. “Whatever we find out there, no harm will come to us this night.”
Given the circumstances of this venture I wanted to ask him how he could be so sure, but somehow I didn’t need to. It’s hard to explain but I sensed some of his strength being transferred through those hands into my body. My breathing slowed, and I felt calm. As he stood there holding me and looking intensely into my eyes, no words were exchanged, yet somehow he seemed to be communicating with me, connecting us.
“Shadrach Hooper, we are brothers of nature, you and I,” he finally said. “Whatever is out there in the forest cannot touch us. We are protected.”
“By what ?”
“By nature, my friend. By nature.”
Even if I had understood the meaning, which I really didn’t, there was nothing much I could say, yet there was no need to say anything. Instead I nodded and he lifted his hands from my shoulders.
“Come, Shadrach. Let us see about these soucouyans of Molly Clark.”
We set off up the hill. Darkness had come quickly though the half-moon and the stars cast enough light for us to see the track without having to use my flashlight. Tree frogs and crickets had begun their night chorus and the air was full of singing. I heard the unmistakable screeching of an owl somewhere overhead as well as the buzzing of moths and the whisper of bats as they flew past my ears. We each carried a cutlass and I also had a small knife tucked into my jacket pocket along with a flashlight.
Past the bamboo grove we saw the dim lights of Molly Clark’s house and we turned off the track into her garden. I saw her at the kitchen window and she opened the door a crack as we approached.
“Good night, Mrs Clark,” said Zed. “If it is agreeable to you, we have come to station ourselves on your porch and see what good or evil this night may bring.”
“Good night, Mr Malender. Shadrach,” she acknowledged, now opening the door wide enough for us to see inside her simple two-room home. “But of course, and may God bless you for coming,” she continued. “I have provisions in a simple braf if I may offer you a bowl ?”
“That would warm our stomachs and hearts no end,” Zed replied courteously. “We thank you.”
On the small porch was a long wooden bench and a table. We seated ourselves and looked out across the darkness of the forest.
“Which direction is the clearing ?” I asked.
“Up so,” Zed pointed to the south east where the curve of the mountain divides into two narrow ridges and a valley.
We sat there quietly for a while. As time went by my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I was able to make out shapes and even see the outlines of trees. I glanced at Zed. He too was looking out towards the darkness of mountain slope and the mysteries of the forest. From inside the house I could hear Molly Clark singing along with a religious station on the radio. Our presence seemed to give her some comfort, it seemed, and soon she opened the door with two steaming bowls of braf. She placed them on the table and returned with spoons and a bottle of hot pepper sauce.
“Thanks, Mrs. Clark,” I said. Her smile disappeared when she looked up and across towards the forest, and she made the sign of the cross before heading quickly back inside. But there was nothing there. Just darkness.
Zed and I tucked into the braf of yam, tannia and fig.
“It’s good,” I said and Zed nodded in agreement. “But it does need a little bit of pepper to spice it up.” I splashed a few drops of hot pepper sauce into the braf and mixed it in with my spoon. Zed watched and smiled, and then added some into his own.
“You’re right,” he said. “Much better.”
With one eye on the forest and the other on the braf, we ate in comfortable silence. Zed seemed alert yet relaxed about things, whereas I just felt on edge the whole time. Part of me wanted nothing to happen at all, the other part wished it would get on with it so it could be over with quickly. I wondered why. Perhaps it was curiosity, or more likely because I was afraid. I finished my braf and Zed nodded to me as if reading my conflicting thoughts. He gave me a reassuring smile and, just as he was about to speak, something caught his attention. What was it ? I looked at the forest but saw nothing. But then yes. Over there. A light. More lights, flickering in the distance.
“You see that ?” I whispered.
“I see it,” Zed replied as the lights suddenly disappeared and the forest returned to darkness.
“What was it ?”
Zed shook his head. “Perhaps they’re busy shedding their skins,” he grinned.
“Not funny,” I replied.
Suddenly they were back again, flickering like oversized fireflies, clearly on the move up the mountain slope.
“They should be coming to the clearing, right ?” I said.
Zed nodded and slowly rose from his seat. “With stealth,” he whispered, nodding at me to move. Just at that moment a sudden bright light behind us gave me a start and my heart almost leapt from my chest.
“Finished ? How was it ?” Molly Clark asked. “I know it wasn’t much but …”. She stopped short, seeing us both poised and staring at the forest. Zed’s hand reached for his cutlass and I bent to pick up mine from the floor. The three of us stood there in freeze frame, looking out into the darkness. My heart was beating so hard I thought I could hear it.
“Bon dieu !” screamed Molly Clark. “Bon dieu ! Jesus save us. Sweet Jesus save us all !”
to be continued …..
Aunty Joan and her neighbour Agnes live in the sleepy village of Delices on the south east coast of Dominica. Set against a backdrop of rainforest-covered mountains, their gardens are magical places, linked by a network of labrynthine tracks that meander between raised vegetable beds, chicken coups, countless fruit trees and colourful sprays of tropical plants and flowers.
Though they have been created and tended by Joan and Agnes over many years, their gardens feel perfectly natural; everything seems to be in the right place and to move something just a few inches would be to upset the balance of it all. I can lose myself for hours here, and often do, learning new things, remembering old ones, accepting cuttings and fresh produce, daydreaming.
A kiss goodbye; my arms crammed with fruit and vegetables, my head with peace and inspiration, I take my leave and am already looking forward to the next time.