Faith and belief are things we learn -- no matter how tightly we shut our eyes, reality always shimmers at the edge of our vision.
The major had killed her rooster. That was what, after she had scrubbed away his seed all sticky with dirt and someone's blood mixed in it, hardened her heart. Brave rooster. He'd come at the major rattling his feathers like spears, red eyes glaring, spurs cocked like Le Diable's horns. But the major had two quick hands, to grab and give a scrawny, feathered neck one sharp twist and hurl the limp bundle away. That was the star by which she would set her course; poor Tio Noche, a ragged bundle of black feathers held together by bone and scrawn.
Clever major, but there was such a thing as being too clever. All roosters were sacred to Oudun Redeye, and Tio Noche especially. He'd been dedicated. Sabada was no fool. She'd saved the scrap of cloth she'd used to wipe off the major's seed, and now she tied it around one of Tio Noche's stiff, skinny legs to make him remember. She drew a circle of flour around the rooster, then sprinkled its body with Spirit-Stay-Put powder.
She would need a drummer, that was one thing, and it had best be done tonight. Otherwise Tio Noche would start to forget and not be angry any more. Sabada tied a bright scarf about her head and sallied forth.
Christophe was sitting in the morning sun, carving on a half-finished totopo with its butt end anchored between his feet. He gave her a sidelong look.
"Heard you yellin' last night, girl. Saw a man leave." Christophe was no vodu-guru, but he knew things on account of what the wood told his hands while he carved. "My Gina tell me she hear that major-fella trade for three bottles of rum yesterday."
Three bottles, and he'd only brought one. Sabada spat in the dust like a viper. "He come by 'bout moonrise. Ask me to read the cartas for him, look in the candle flame."
"I said it before, your mama should've seen you handfast afore she died." He spoke mildly, but the astropo he wielded by its double handles flashed in the sun, broad, thin wood-shavings curling in its wake. "You ought to know better than to believe them that come asking after vodu readings and isn't born Izladoran."
"He said," Sabada said fiercely. "The candle and the cartas."
"Never trust no man bringin' rum." Christophe's face was stubborn. Ripe, rounded, double curves took shape beneath the blade of the astropo; La Dama, who the women called Lady-have-pity and the men called Swaying Hips.
"He killed Tio Noche. I'll fix him for that."
"Well." Even Christophe knew the major had no call to be doing that. "You be careful, girl. You think about usin' the bludemagick, you be careful."
Sabada looked at the hard, red rage in her heart and avoided responding. She drew a line in the dirt with the hard heel of one foot.
"Well," said Christophe finally. "He shouldn't have killed the rooster." The girl had set her course and he held no sway to turn her. He watched her walk away, then spit in his hands and offered a quick prayer to Bon Dieu Bon to keep her safe; not that he carried much sway with Bon Dieu Bon either. His Gina'd come out to hang the wash and she caught his eye, shook her head.
She was a headstrong one, Sabada was, and proud enough of it. Not long a woman, but she had a mean temper when crossed. Christophe's Gina said once that La Fria must've spit in her eye the day she was born and today Sabada thought with satisfaction that it might be so. She stood with her fists on her hips and stared up Mont Peligra at the village Millie Tarries nestled in a gorge. The major lived there, him and other mericanos, soldiers and sailors and who knew what. They felt safe there -- safe, Bon Dieu Bon, in the shadow of Tarry-no-more! Many an' many of them that wasn't born Izladoran had made that leap, from the peak of Tarry-no-more straight into the arms of old Papa Bones.
"He Mister Highstepper," Sabada murmured. "Ain't no wall tall enough to keep him out. You watch out, major. You wake up and find Mister Highstepper a-knockin' on your door."
She made her way down to the sea and sought out King Jambo, finding him mending his net on the shore. He looked up when her shadow fell over him, flashing a white, white smile.
"Miz Sabada, you lookin' as bright and pretty as bouganvillea. What bring you down 'mong all these smelly fishnets?"
"Looking for a drummer, King."
"Holdin' a fete galante, Miz Sabada?"
King's sunny face darkened. "Who done what, girl?"
"The major, he force me. He trick me. And he kill my Tio Noche."
"Oo-wee, Miz Sabada! You don' say. I be there 'bout sundown. Do you some righteous drummin', catch old Brother Blood's ear."
"We do that, King."
Willie Handelman was sitting under the eaves on the Club's porch, playing cards with Private Macauley, and he let out a long whistle when the major walked up. "Looks like she hoodooed you but good, major!"
"Shut your mouth, Willie," the major said. He was the only major on the base, on the whole of the island, and proud of it. There had been a naval lieutenant, but he was gone now. It was what you'd expect. The officers never lasted long. "Who's manning the radio?"
Willie looked at Private Macauley, who shrugged and shifted his cud of coca leaves to the other cheek.
"Neevil, or Harris, I reckon," the private said. He squinted at the sun. "T'ain't my shift. You oughta put you some asafoetida on them scratches, major."
"I've washed them already, private."
"Them's nail tracks, they fester real easy. You'll be wantin' a good root and leaf man for that," Willie said helpfully. "My gal Jessamine, her brother's fixin' to be a feuille docteur."
"I'll let you know if I need the services of an herbalist," the major said sourly, and pushed his way through the saloon doors into the dark of the Club.
"Hair of the dog, major! Best thing for it," Willie called after him.
"Likes of him won't listen," said Macauley, and shifted his cud again.
"Workin' at that radio seven year now. Ain't nobody ever gonna answer."
"I reckon not. You ever hear anything on it?"
"Heard, sure. One time I even heard 'em comin' outta Cape Cannibal; in Florida, you know? Thumbed that mike till I blistered raw. You?"
"Reckon I have. Merican Airliner. Cuba, even; it ain't so far. Same thing's you. Blistered my thumb, hollered myself hoarse."
Macauley snorted with laughter. "Transmitter's probably been broke since before we went down."
"Before we set out," Willie agreed.
"Before we was born, maybe."
They'd said it all before. There were always new catchphrases, a few months after a new group was marooned. When they started to wonder if they'd ever get off the island, but still thought in their hearts that some day they would. Time took care of that, ground down the sharp edges of their black humor until nothing was left of it but a few well-worn, familiar words.
The first death or two always took off the edges too. Leapers, island sickness, vodu; hard to tell the difference sometimes. And there were the ones who tried to leave, the ones who washed back ashore a week later. It wasn't always bodies. Engine parts, boards, lifeboats, part of a nameplate sometimes.
None came back alive, and there was never any rescue.
"Major fixin' for trouble, you reckon?" Macauley asked after a time.
"Yep," said Willie.
He knew, the major. He knew. Unlike the others, who either died fast or evolved gradually into the slow, strange rhythms of Izladora, the major maintained a survivor's passions toward the island that had saved and claimed his life.
The rage was unintended. It was a horse he couldn't curb, a demon on his back. She had a temper and a tongue on her, Sabada did, but that was no excuse; he had known, when the red fog cleared, that he had crossed a bad line. Cold and rational, a weapon that thought, his mind denied the whisper of vodu revenge, but his blood knew better. The pumping of his heart anticipated the beating of drums and each surge of blood was impregnated with fresh fear. The major was sweating.
"Abuelito, give me a rum and lime," he said brusquely, pulling up a stool. "With a splash of soda."
The old man behind the bar blinked once, slowly, and shuffled to the rack. He peered at the scratches that furrowed the major's neck and disappeared into his collar, shook his head once, slowly, and mixed the drink.
"Not a word, Abuelito." The major picked up his glass and downed half the contents at a gulp, grimaced and set the glass back on the bar. The tropic sweetness of the rum coated the inside of his mouth with a syrupy taste that neither the tartness of lime nor the fizz of soda could allay. "Goddammit."
Abuelito did not speak, but his thick, heavy eyelids creased briefly. His skin was the color of well-oiled teak and he had tended the Club at Millie Tarries since long before the major had arrived.
"What?" the major asked irritably, but with a pulse of fear beneath the irritation. "What?" The old man's eyes gleamed under his heavy lids. "Tell me, dammit."
"Eh." Abuelito shook a hand-rolled cigarette from a faded cigarette pack given him by a long-ago serviceman, then lit it with a crudely made Izladoran match, cupping the match between his hands. "Seen many an' many men with the mark on them."
"What mark?" A drop of sweat crawled from the major's right temple to his jaw. The Club's fan, propelled by a windmill atop the roof, rotated slowly. "Goddammit! What mark?"
"Fear." The old man's eyes gleamed again.
"I don't believe in vodu," the major said stiffly. Abuelito shrugged.
"Not vodu," he said. "Bludemagick. There's them that are born with the drawing power in they blood. Your Miss Sabada, she's a one."
A shudder that began deep in his bowels racked the major. His sweat turned cold and his heart rate increased.
If you give in, his mind whispered, the island will have won. It will have broken you. Izladora will laugh while the last sane man on the island bids his marbles farewell.
And if you don't, his blood whispered, you'll die. You'll stand on the edge of Tarry-no-more with Oudun Redeye's hot breath on the back of your neck and Oudun Redeye's sharp spear in the base of your spine and you'll jump and you'll scream all the way down, and when your mind snaps and your bones snap and stab their way out of your flesh you'll still be screaming.
And if Redeye doesn't get you tonight, his sister will, La Fria will come, Knife-in-the-dark, and she'll creep into your head and you won't ever know until you wake up screaming, your knife in one hand and your private parts in the other and after the knife flashes and La Fria's black smile shines in the dark you'll still be screaming.
The major shuddered again and lifted his fear-sick gaze to meet the old man's eyes. "Help me," he said.
Darkness was falling on the island. Sabada's hut was lit with many candles. She hummed through her grinning teeth as she drew in white flour on the dirt floor the veve-sign of Oudun, which would enclose both her and the rooster.
In the corner, King Jambo had begun drumming; softly yet, the drumming only a rasping, thrumming pulse. He hummed too, and swayed as he drummed. He was the best drummer on Izladora, King was, and he loved drumming for drumming's sake, so much that the Espiritus would come sometimes just to listen.
Tio Noche lay in the center of the veve-sign, his stiff claws pointing toward the roof of the hut, a black candle at his head and a red candle on either side; before him sat the empty bronze bowl and the flint knife.
When the veve-sign was finished and nightfall lay like on the island like a black cloak, Sabada set aside the flour and smiled fiercely to herself. She pulled the bright scarf from her head and tugged out the pins that held her braids in place. The braids fell free, writhing and tangling like black mambas, all the way to her waist. "Time now, King," she said, smiling still, and the whites of her eyes had gone all scarlet with blood.
King Jambo swayed, and the drumbeat deepened.
"That's all." The major was trembling with the force of his confession. "By all that's holy, I swear it."
He knelt at the feet of Mere d'Mere, Mother of the Espiritus, Mother of All. The major was far from Millie Tarries.
Abuelito scratched his ribs through his sleeveless undershirt and nodded at the major. "Buen. You give her the offering now, major."
The ribbons that marked his rank and history and achievements were clenched in his fist. The major opened his hand with an effort. Mere d'Mere's face was neither welcoming nor compassionate; it was smooth and impassive, heavy-lidded and broad-lipped. The major averted his eyes as he fastened the ribbons on the effigy's rich robe, which was already crowded with offering tokens. His hands shook.
Then it was done, and something in his mind gave way, taking with it an enormous weight and leaving him weak with the delerium of relief and surrender. He could almost laugh, and he could have curled at the feet of Mere d'Mere and gratefully slept.
"Eh, buen." Abuelito ground out the cigarette he was smoking and tucked the butt carefully in a pocket of his baggy, wrinkled trousers, then shuffled over to one of the lamp-lit shelves that lined the grotto of Mere d'Mere, chiseled from the rocky walls. From a wooden bowl he took a handful of salt, and then shuffled to the pool in the center of the grotto and cast the salt on the water. "Salt be blessed, purify this water." He nodded at the major and gestured at the pool with his chin.
The major stripped down and climbed into the pool; the water was cold and looked black and oily in the wavering light of the lamps. Chest-deep, the major shivered. Abuelito squatted on his haunches at the edge of the pool and placed a hand on the major's head. Once, twice, three times the old man submerged the major.
"You get out now," he said.
The major climbed out shivering. Abuelito dug in his pockets and found a small, stoppered bottle of blue glass. "Holy Oil of Repentance and Sorrow," he said, and drew an oil-smeared cross on the major's brow. "Mere d'Mere, this man has crossed you and he is sorry. He place himself under your protection and ask forgiveness. He has crossed your son Oudun Redeye and he is sorry. He makes repentance to you in the name of all the Espiritus and the Bon Dieu Bon. This man makes an offering and asks for your protection. He asks you intercede on his behalf with your son Oudun Redeye. This he so beseeches. Mere d'Mere, hear his prayer." Abuelito removed his hand from the major's brow. "Grace misery cord. Amen."
"What happens now?" The major was still shivering. The old man shrugged and sat on a boulder, rolling another cigarette.
"Wait and see."
The drumming was grown wild and frenzied. King Jambo was far gone into the rhythms, his eyes closed, his hands a blur, his skin glistening with sweat.
Sabada swayed, and the stone knife danced in her hands. It wove patterns in the candlelight, it leapt from hand to hand and pricked her skin with sharp kisses that drew tiny beads of blood.
Oh, they had caught old Brother Blood's ear for sure this night. Sabada felt his presence crowding her hut, felt his dark and thunderous interest pressing against her skin, his smell like ozone and heated bronze.
"Oyé!" she cried, "Oyé, Oudun Redeye, Spear-shaker, Brother Blood! Come, Redeye, come, I have for you to drink. Oyé, come, Oudun Redeye!"
The stone knife flashed dully across her left forearm, opening a new seam in skin which already bore several straight scars. Rich, red blood spilled into the bowl.
"You see, Redeye, you see Tio Noche, your servant. We asking justice for his death. You see he be marked with the seed of the man who done it; we asking justice."
Clever major, foolish man. She'd have shared with him what he wanted, maybe, if he'd have come courtin' rather than lyin'. Even then, with the rum... but there was no giving to them that wanted to take. He'd crossed her, and he'd killed her Tio Noche.
The knife cut again. Sabada held both arms over the bowl, letting them drain and chanting, "Oudun, Oudun, Oudun." The drum drove her heart-pulse, her heart drove her blood, the blood drew the Espiritu. The bronze bowl grew full.
Outside her hut stormclouds gathered and spears of lightning jabbed the night. Thunder rolled through the drumbeat and Sabada laughed aloud.
The Espiritu answered. Sabada screamed once and went stiff, her eyes rolling up to show the blood-red whites.
He came, he answered. Tio Noche's dead feathers rattled. The candle flames fluttered wildly. King Jambo's hands fell silent on the drums. The bronze bowl spun and spun and emptied, spun and wobbled and settled into stillness. Oudun Redeye's war cry thundered; he came, Oudun Redeye, came and went.
"Eh." The old man cracked open one eye and peered at the gathering storm. "Oyé, Spear-shaker."
An angry rumble of thunder replied. Abuelito glanced at the sleeping form of the major, who slept with his knees drawn up, his hands tucked between his thighs. The thunder rumbled again, an impatient spark of red winking in the roiling clouds. Abuelito grumbled and found his feet, taking a seat on a boulder and addressing the storm while he searched his pockets for a cigarette.
"Oyé, patience, Spear-shaker. I am an old man." He cupped a match between his creased, leathery palms and lit a cigarette. "Eh, buen," he sighed, exhaling smoke. "Well, I have given your rightful prey into the protection of Tu Maman Grande's arms. So. The girl is young, and headstrong. She uses you for what is rightfully between her and the man. That leaves only the rooster. So?"
Lightning flashed violently.
"Aiee, well... He has repented, and been shriven." Abuelito drew thoughtfully on his cigarette. "Let us say... Suppose I take on the blood debt for the rooster. Would that be acceptable, eh?"
There was a long peal of thunder. The old man shrugged.
"It is a matter between your mother and myself, let us say. So. Do we have a bargain?"
The stormclouds roiled furiously, the red eye in their midst flashing. Crescendos of thunder boomed and shook the island. In his sleep, the major whimpered. Abuelito coughed and spat alongside the boulder. Lightning flickered; once, twice, three times, and the storm clouds drew in upon themselves and disappeared with a final, fading burst of thunder.
Stillness returned to the island.
"Oyé, Mamacita," the old man said to the effigy of Mere d'Mere, "A Millie Tarries man for the blood-price of one rooster. Pretty good, eh? Your son is not happy, but I am thinking I made you a good bargain." A deep silence answered, and the old man nodded to himself, then glanced at the major. "Eh, major. You a part of Izladora now, and the island, she is part of you. Fight her no more."
In his sleep, the major sighed deeply and relaxed.
Sabada was awakened by King Jambo's hand shaking her shoulder.
"Gotta be goin', Miz Sabada. Fish don't wait for no bludemagick."
"Mercy, King. Be seein' you." She watched him leave with his drums tucked under his arm, and full waking greeted her riding on a wave of disgust. The aftermath of bludemagick, sure enough; and worse. Something had gone wrong. If it went right, the power returned threefold, but Sabada was as weak as a day-old kitten.
No tellin' where the blame was to be laid just yet. Sabada wrapped a sarong around her waist and walked to the river to wash the dirt and black blood and flour from her skin. Her nanny goat Cleo bleated at her, pleading sore to be milked, and the taro patch sore needed water.
"Heard old Spear-shaker rattlin' the roofbeams last night," Christophe called as she walked back from the river. Sabada didn't answer. "You think maybe he could 'splain 'bout that fella comin' down the path there, girl?"
It was the major. Sabada would have spat when she saw him, but there was no spit left in her this morning. The major didn't look like himself. She'd never seen him without Millie Tarries clothes on, but he didn't have nothing on but a pair of short pants tied up with sisal rope, and a big old cowry shell 'round his neck, and a scrawny little black rooster under one arm and a bottle of rum under the other.
"What you want?" Sabada asked, making her voice mean. The major set the bottle down and held the rooster out to her.
"To make amends," he said. "He's for you. Abuelito said to tell you his name is Paga á Pecado."
"I don't need no damn rooster from no vieux mexicali guru-man. Rooster don't pay for sin. Rum don't pay for no sin. Blood pay for sin."
"No." The major went down on one knee and released Paga á Pecado, who began scratching in the dust around Sabada's feet. "Life pays for sin." He picked up the bottle of rum and stood, holding it out toward her. "Here. I'm sorry."
Sabada gave him the evil eye sidelong, but her power was weak and the eye had no sting. She pointed at his cowry shell with her chin. "Token of Mere d'Mere, eh? He's smart man, that vieux mexicali. Come to bludemagick, she 'bout the only thing holds sway to turn the Espiritus. They listen to they Maman. Always a price, though, 'specially if you in the wrong."
"Yes," he said. "My military rank."
"So, no more Millie Tarries guru-man, eh? Poor major," she scoffed. He shrugged.
"I wasn't a very good guru-man. I used to be, before. Not here, not on Izladora. Everything's different. You were born here, you don't know."
"Many an' many of them that wasn't born Izladoran make the leap," Sabada said in dire agreement. "So you believe now, eh major? No more mockin' the candle and the cartas, vodu and bludemagick and the Espiritus. No more, eh? You believe."
"I do," he said, and he expected a shudder of terror and loss, but there was none; only the hot morning sun, the scratching rooster and the woman.
"Good." Sabada stooped and picked up Paga á Pecado. "Pay for sin, eh major? You start by waterin' my taro patch." She turned on her heel and made for her hut. The major scratched his head, smiled wryly at his cowry shell token, and followed her.
Behind the bar at the Millie Tarries Club, the old man chuckled to himself and rolled another cigarette.
Jacqueline Carey (firstname.lastname@example.org) studies anything from Goedel's theorem to Egyptian astrology, all or none of which may inform her writing. Her work has appeared in a handful of small press publications, and she supports her writing habit by working as the coordinator of the DePree Art Center & Gallery in Michigan.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 Jacqueline Carey.