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© 2011 Jess Mowry
Pogo wearily trudged to the truck and hoisted the big burlap sack off his shoulders. It thudded against the others he'd loaded and puffed out a cloud of white dust. The sacks weighed almost as much as he did, and he paused to lean panting against the truck's bed and wipe the gray sweat from his ebony face. He was almost thirteen, solid but slender, with every small muscle tightly defined under skin the shade of a panther at midnight, but striped like a zebra with sweat streaks and dust. He wore cutoff jeans so ragged and low that they bared his lean hips like a loincloth with pockets and seemed to be more decoration than clothes. A slim strip of leather encircled his neck, and a silver charm glittered against his chest as he ruffled the powdery dust from his hair.
The hot Haitian sun was a blazing brass ball as it sank toward the shimmering sea in the west; and Pogo turned toward it, spreading his arms to welcome the cool evening breeze on his body. The truck was parked on a small flat space at the rim of an ancient volcano. Seabirds circled and soared overhead, snowy white in the brilliant blue sky, calling and probably cursing at Pogo for still being there when they wanted to land. Deep within the volcano's cone was a little lake that mirrored the sky, surrounded by vine-tangled trees. Eastward lay most of the tiny island, only a few square miles in size, and much of that was used to grow crops... beans, plantains and sugar cane.
Despite being tired from working since dawn, digging, sacking, and loading guano, Pogo wiped the dust from his eyes and took a long moment to look around. He'd read lots books about faraway lands, and seen many pictures in old magazines, but nowhere on earth seemed as pretty a place as his own little island of Cayes Squellette.
Far out at sea was a passenger ship, probably bound for Kingston, Jamaica with a cargo of people in deck chairs aboard. Closer to shore was a big motor-yacht; but few foreign tourists visited Haiti, and no one came to Skeleton Cay.
Down in the sea near the base of the cliffs, a small open boat with a tattered brown sail was tacking carefully through the reefs on a southeastern course for the island's cove. Iris Millay was at the tiller, while Andre DeFoe in the bow kept a lookout. Pogo shaded his eyes from the sun and watched as Iris guided the boat through a foaming gap in the jagged rock teeth. To sail inshore was the fastest way home, but a foolish and dangerous thing to do; and Pogo hoped Esu was with them. He watched until the boat cleared the rocks and reached deeper water in safety, then he walked to a little three-sided tin shack.
Inside were stacks of burlap bags and a battered old scale to weigh them. There was also a wooden table and chair; and another boy of about Pogo's age sat asleep in the chair with his feet on the table and fingers laced over his belly. He was rolly fat with a chubby-cheeked face and a mane of hair as wild as Pogo's but only lightly dusted with white. He covered more of his cutoff jeans than the cutoffs covered him, and he wore the same little silver medallion between the spherical shapes of his chest.
Pogo remembered pictures in books of fat little children with angel wings who were painted on ceilings of Catholic churches. "Laurent!" he called. "How many is that?”
"Huh? ...Oh." The fat boy opened his eyes and yawned, then reached for a notebook on the table. "How many did you load after lunch?”
"Ven," said Pogo, Kreyol for twenty.
Laurent took a pencil and added up numbers. "Senkant," he said with satisfaction. "Fifty sacks we have loaded today while the men were at work on the schooner. She will have a full cargo, and my father will be pleased." He flipped through the notebook's pages. "And, I have written a poem. About you, mwen zanmi. Listen."
Pogo came into the shade of the shack, his bare feet raising puffs of dust that haunted his ankles like baby ghosts. A half-empty water jug stood on the table, along with the palm leaf wrappers of lunch... curried goat, plantains and rice. Laurent offered Pogo a drink from the jug, then took one himself and cleared his throat:
"Shape of a cheetah, heart of a lion,
black as a panther under the sun.
Brave as a leopard, strong as a tiger,
fleet as a jaguar on the run.”
He paused expectantly. "What do you think?”
"It's very... um... catty," said Pogo, then asked, "Is that all?”
"It's not finished yet," said Laurent. "Poetry is difficult work. But, do you like it so far?”
"I'm not sure about 'leopard brave' and 'lion heart.'" Pogo looked down at himself. "But you have made me very handsome.”
Laurent smiled slyly. "Iris Millay thinks this about you.”
Pogo frowned. "Where did you hear that?”
Laurent only grinned. "Privileged information, Lieutenant.”
Pogo sighed. "She has a strange way of showing it, then. She called me flying-fox-face yesterday.”
Laurent shrugged. "Girls are like that, my friend. It is not what they say, but that they say something." He tossed the notebook back on the table.
"Don't leave it there please," said Pogo. "Someone might read it.”
Laurent laughed. "Maybe Iris Millay? But, I have not used your name.”
"Only you write poetry. And Iris Millay is no fool." Then Pogo added, "Even if she dares the reef.”
"She did?" asked Laurent. "And when?”
"I will speak to her about that,” said Laurent. “I will not have our fishing boat foolishly risked.”
"Will you tell your father?" asked Pogo. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.”
"It was your duty, Lieutenant, but I will not tell my father. But, I assigned Andre command of the boat.”
Pogo shrugged. "It is hard to command Iris Millay.”
Laurent smiled. "Watch me and learn, Lieutenant. But, maybe you're right about the poem." Laurent recovered the notebook, tore out a page, folded it carefully into his pocket then glanced toward the sea and the lowering sun. "We have time for a swim before supper." He studied Pogo and chuckled again. "You look like a zonbi who was buried in guano.”
"I feel like a zonbi,” said Pogo, wiping more muddy sweat from his face. “Fifty sacks has been no fun, even with you to help.”
"I think you have broken Andre's record.”
"I think I do not really care." Pogo went out to the truck and closed the heavy tailgate, latching it with wooden pins. The vehicle was the color of rust, a 1923 Linn, with big iron tracks like a bulldozer instead of a set of rear wheels. Its cab was open like a Jeep, there wasn't any windshield, and its front tires were worn completely smooth, displaying fabric all around. RHINOCEROS was painted in yellow on either side of the hood.
Laurent came out to join Pogo. "I'll help you start it.”
"Thanks," said Pogo. "The magneto contacts are burned. Maybe my father can find a new set when he sails to Port-au-Prince. Advance the spark and give it half-throttle.”
"Be careful, Lieutenant. Rhino could break your arm again.”
Pogo flexed a stony bicep. "My arm is stronger these days." He patted the truck's rusty fender. "Hear that, Rhino? Do not give me grief." He helped Laurent climb into the cab by putting a shoulder beneath Laurent's bottom and hoisting him like a guano sack. Laurent squeezed behind the big steering wheel, his chest overlapping the rim. He flipped a switch, adjusted two levers, then stepped on the clutch and shifted to neutral. "Ready for takeoff, Lieutenant.”
Pogo went to the front of the truck and grasped a heavy iron crank handle that stuck out from under the radiator. "Wake up, beast!" He twisted the handle, and the engine caught with a sudden roar, but Laurent immediately cut the throttle and retarded the spark before it could backfire. It settled into a slow-thumping idle, puffing blue smoke from the rusty exhaust pipe. Pogo came to the driver's side and saluted Laurent. "We make a good team, mwen Chéf.”
"I'm not your chief yet," said Laurent. "The people will make that choice for themselves when my father decides to retire.”
"But for three-hundred years it has been the same choice and Cayes Squellette has always prospered.”
Laurent smiled. "Thank you, loyal subject. But I have not even come of age yet, and nothing in life is certain.”
Pogo climbed onto the running-board. "Your ceremony is three days away and you will make everyone proud. Of that I am certain." He scanned Laurent's face, then asked, "Have I said something wrong?”
"Non. I just think about it a lot. And more as my birthday approaches.”
"We all do," said Pogo. "A lot before, and... according to my father... a lifetime after. Would you like to drive?”
"You may." Laurent squirmed out from behind the wheel and scooted across the dusty seat, which was only a board covered with canvas and thinly padded with straw.
Pogo slid into the driver's position, adjusted the spark and lowered the throttle. He trod the clutch pedal and shifted to first while giving the engine more gas. The truck billowed smoke and clattered away. Its iron tracks squealed and clanked on the rock as it reached the volcano's rim and descended. The grade was steep as the trail curved down toward the little blue lake with its green rim of forest; and Pogo kept the truck in low gear because the brakes were badly worn. The air was cooler among the trees, but Pogo was shiny and dripping with sweat from fighting the massive steering wheel, which jerked and twisted to and fro as the truck lumbered over the rugged terrain. The trail leveled off to circle the lake, and Pogo shifted to second gear. The truck now followed the ruts it had made, and Pogo took his hands off the wheel to wipe the guano-mud out of his eyes. "Would you like to stop here and swim?”
Laurent lounged back with his feet on the dash and his arms behind his head. His rolly body wobbled in waves to the lurch and jolts of the truck. "We will swim in Esu's pool. The water is always fresh from falling, as if it gathers life from the air. And I want to talk with Him.”
"About your ceremony?" asked Pogo above the engine’s clatter. "Why do you worry? No boy or girl has ever failed.”
"I do not 'worry,' I just think a lot. My rowing is not as good as yours. And I am not as strong.”
Pogo patted Laurent’s bobby chest. "You have the heart of a lion, mwen Chéf, and you row as well as anyone. But we could practice if you wish.”
"That's a good idea.”
The truck clattered on beneath towering trees, leaving a trail of smoke in its wake. Sunlight shafted down through the leaves, golden now in the late afternoon. Bright-colored birds flew squawking and screaming, disturbed by the rumble and clank of the truck. Pogo down-shifted to first gear again, and the truck clawed its way to the top of the rim, balanced there for a breathless moment, then dropped its nose with a bone-shaking crash and descended toward the fringe of forest surrounding the mountain’s base. Pogo used both feet on the brake, producing a teeth-gritting screech from the tracks but barely slowing the truck”
"I don’t like this part," said Laurent as he clung to the top of the dashboard. "If people were meant to go this fast, Esu would have given us wings.”
They bucked and jolted down the slope at twenty miles-an-hour. The trail veered south at the foot of the mountain, muddy and soft under silkcotton trees. The tires sank down to their rusty rims, and the rattling tracks threw mud everywhere, including on both of the boys. They passed the village graveyard, with timber crosses and lava headstones brightly painted in rainbow colors that rivaled the flowers growing among them and the butterflies soaring about. Candles flickered in Mason jars and in various bottles and vases. Over the rattle and clatter of iron came the low rushing roar of a small waterfall. Laurent appeared to be napping again, but asked without opening his eyes, "You are thinking about your mother?”
"Wi," said Pogo, glancing back at the peaceful graveyard. "It has been two years, but I still miss her very much." He turned to Laurent. "Do you think she will see my ceremony? And the part I will play in yours?”
"I think she will. But, ask Jeanette Millay." Laurent smiled. "Or Iris. She, too, will be a mambo, that is why she is hard to command.”
Pogo shrugged while fighting the wheel. "We used to talk of many things, Iris and I. But, now she only seems silly sometimes and preoccupied at others. ...I don't think she likes me any more.”
"Her ceremony is soon after yours. No doubt that occupies her mind.”
Pogo nodded. "Maybe." Then he added. "I catch more fish than Andre.”
"I am aware of that. But I needed your strength to load the guano.”
"Andre is stronger than me.”
"You are my Lieutenant."
“As you wish, mwen Chéf.”
The truck clattered on through the deepening shadows. Its lights had burned out many decades before; but Pogo knew the way by heart and ducked the occasional low-hanging vines that dangled like sinuous snakes from the trees. The soothing rush of falling water rose above the engine's roar as they rounded the southeastern foot of the mountain and stopped near a rippling pool. It was thickly encircled by broadleaf ferns and shadowed by graceful coconut palms. The fall tumbled over a black lava cliff to fling up streamers of swirling spray and shroud the pool in drifting mist. Pogo stopped and switched off the engine. "We need an offering.”
Laurent pulled the poem from his pocket. "I have this.”
"But, it's about me.”
"Are you not one of His creations?”
The boys got down and slipped out of their cutoffs. Laurent plucked a leaf, rolled the paper up in it, and tucked it tightly into his hair. Then he and Pogo pushed through the ferns and waded into the water. Pogo swam silent and gracefully, while Laurent came paddling noisily after. Pogo submerged to wash off the dust, scaring small fish as he glided along, then surfaced and waited for Laurent to catch up. Reaching the fall, the boys took deep breaths and plunged underneath. It was like passing from one world to another, a moment's journey of swirling confusion, and then they emerged in a green-lit grotto lushly lined with velvety moss like the emerald womb of a forest. The fading rays of the setting sun filtered through the curtain of water to play about in shimmers and sparkles and shifting ribbons of rainbow. Mist filled the cave like the haze of a dream. An ancient ship’s lantern was burning; and here and there around the walls were shadowed hollows deep in the rock where skulls looked out and eternally smiled.
The naked form of a jet-black boy sat upon a carpet of moss, lounging back against the wall and surrounded by glistening ferns. His knees were up and widely spread, and He rested a hand on top of a tummy so huge and round that it looked like a planet. He seemed to be about eight-years-old, an ordinary Haitian boy with the chubby face of a mischievous imp who'd gotten amazingly fat... if you didn't consider the prominent pair of baby goat horns on His woolly-maned head. His other hand held a bottle of rum; and piled around His tremendous tummy were offerings of every kind... seashells, marbles, pretty pebbles, a plastic party-favor trumpet, a pocket knife, a model boat, various coins and other things a boy His age would like. There were also bottles of island-brewed beer; and at His side within easy reach was a brimming bowl of rice and pork. A cigar was clamped in His grinning teeth, and others lay in a box nearby. Esu was carved from ebony wood, but He seemed to cheerfully wink at His guests as if He knew why they had come. Pogo's stomach rumbled a bit as he scented the freshly-cooked food; and Esu seemed to grin even wider, as if He remembered when eight-year-old Pogo had shared His meals and sipped His beer. Laurent and Pogo climbed out of the water to greet the boy-god with reverent bon soirs and kneel at His feet in the moss.
"Do you think I should read it to Him?" Laurent whispered.
"A poem is meant to be read, you know." Then Pogo grinned as widely as Esu. "And why do you whisper, enbesil? Do you think He can't hear your thoughts?”
Laurent read the poem; and Esu's black eyes seemed to sparkle. Laurent rolled the paper back up in the leaf and laid it near Esu's toes. Pogo waited with lowered head while Laurent prepared to make his request. He was almost shocked to hear Laurent ask, "Please, Esu, make me strong and brave like Pogo.”
Pogo opened one eye to see if Laurent joking -- Esu loved jokes and often played them -- but Laurent's chubby face was serious. Praying to Esu and giving Him gifts was no guarantee He would help you... He was only eight, and might forget.
Laurent reached out to rub Esu's tummy, which was polished as smooth as an onyx mirror by generations of children's hands. Pogo rose to his feet with Laurent, then took Laurent's shoulders and studied his face. Out on earth it was nearly dark; and only the lantern lit the grotto, striking gold sparks in Laurent's dripping hair and reflecting from his silver medallion.
"I don't understand," said Pogo. "You're already strong and brave.”
Laurent shook his head. "I have never been hurt. Your arm was broken, and..." He touched a small scar in Pogo's side. "That street boy stabbed you in Port-au-Prince.”
Pogo shrugged. "He thought I had money. Hunger makes people do desperate things.”
"But it must have hurt a lot.”
"As my father said then, you do not collect pain like souvenirs. Nor do you hoard it away like money, because it can buy you nothing. You hurt for a while and then it is gone. You can't remember the pain itself, except that it hurt, and maybe a lot, and you pray it will never hurt again." Pogo paused to think. "And, if your heart has learned from its pain, you also pray it will never hurt for anyone else as it hurt for you.”
Laurent gripped Pogo's hard-muscled arms. "I'm glad you're strong, mwen fré.”
Pogo searched Laurent's eyes in the flickering glow of the lantern. "Why should that matter?”
"Don't you know?”
Pogo thought for a another moment. "Wi. I guess I do." He flexed an arm and smiled. "Is this why I have been digging guano?”
"Are you angry with me?”
Pogo laughed and hugged Laurent. "How could I be? You have made me into a handsome poem and offered me to Esu.”
Laurent returned the hug. "Come then, Lieutenant. Supper is waiting.”
They said bon soir to Esu, then slipped back into the roiling water, dove beneath the roaring fall, and surfaced beyond in the pool. A slim silver crescent of newly-born moon hung in the sky like a smile. Night-birds called from deep in the forest, and bats flitted silently through the trees. The boys returned to the truck and dressed, then Pogo boosted Laurent aboard. This time it didn't start easily, and Pogo cranked for several minutes while cursing many things to hell. At last the engine sputtered to life.
"I'll drive now," said Laurent. "You rest.”
"As you wish, mewn Chéf," panted Pogo, crawling up onto the seat.
Laurent let out the clutch and the truck clattered on down the trail. Laurent up-shifted to second, then third. A brook meandered from Esu's pool down to the cove where the village lay. The trail crossed the water several times, the truck splashing through and flinging up spray that hissed and steamed on the hot radiator. Pogo opened an eye and laughed. "If people were meant to go this fast, then Esu would have given us wings.”
Laurent ducked a bat as big as a fox. "If people were meant to miss their suppers, then no one would cook them, enbesil!”
The village was only a dozen houses scattered around under trees. They were various sizes and ages, the oldest of logs and heavy timber, the newer of plywood and packing crate planks. All were raised on stones or blocks, roofed with rusty sheets of tin; and their porches were wide and meant be used for sitting and playing and long conversations. Their windows had screens instead of glass, with shutters to close against storms.
The scents of cooking filled the air; rice and beans, fried plantains, and the rich aromas of goat meat and pork. The soft glow of candles and kerosene lamps shone from windows and doorways. Barefoot women in colorful dresses were visiting neighbors to borrow or trade this or that for a meal... a pinch of spice, a handful of peppers. Children played hide-and-seek in the shadows or sailed model boats in the brook. The younger kids wore only their charms, the older boys in cutoffs or shorts; and the elder girls were clad the same except for tank-tops or T-shirts. Pogo waved to Andre DeFoe, who puffed a cigar on the steps of his porch. He was newly fourteen, solidly muscled, and was reading a book by lantern light. Laurent stopped the truck and asked, "How many fish today?”
"Two baskets," said Andre.
"Bon. But, try for three tomorrow. ...And if you set out a little earlier, you won't have to cross the western reef to make it home before dark.”
"That was not my idea," Andre protested.
"A captain is responsible for safety of those aboard his ship.”
Andre nodded. "I had not thought of that. Thank you, mewn Chéf.”
"I'm not your chief yet, but you're welcome." Laurent drove on through the village, and the younger kids ran to climb aboard for a short ride down to the cove. Laurent's little brother, Tomas, was with them, and the silver charm was all he wore. He was eight like Esu, with a jungle of hair, an impish grin, and a tummy almost as round and huge so he leaned far backward to balance its bulk. Laurent stopped again, and Pogo got down to boost Tomas aboard.
"The schooner is ready," puffed Tomas, taking over the passenger seat. "The men are launching her now.”
"Bon," said Laurent. "She can sail as soon as the guano is loaded.”
The largest house in the tiny village wasn't the Chief's but belonged to the mambo, Jeanette Millay, and was also the island's schoolroom. Iris Millay and Simone Devereaux were doing their homework out on the steps. Iris wore shorts and a tank-top. Her skin was a smooth dusky shade, and her hair was an ebony halo of ringlets above eyes with a hint of gold in their depths. She seemed to be watching as Pogo rode past -- on the running-board because of Tomas -- although she pretended not to.
"See what I mean?" said Pogo. "She will not even look at me, dammit.”
Laurent smiled. "I’m sure she sees you clearly."
"Um, are you going to speak to her?”
"I already have. Through Andre.”
"...Oh. I see. It is truly in your blood to be Chief.”
Laurent shrugged. "Those are only skills to be learned, like fishing or sailing, or driving this truck.”
The truck rattled on through a grove of palms and emerged on a white-sanded beach. The forty-foot schooner was almost afloat, rolling on logs with a dozen men pushing.
"Everyone help!" ordered Laurent, and the children ran to add their shoulders. The new copper sheets on the schooner's bottom gleamed in the glow of kerosene lanterns set here and there in the sand; and in minutes the vessel was floating.
Pogo could never quite decide if Laurent's father, Joseph Latortue, reminded him more of a Sumo wrestler or a mighty statue of Buddha. He wore only tan shorts, the small silver charm, and steel-rimmed spectacles low on his nose. He stood knee-deep in the moonlit water, talking with Pogo's father, Paul, a muscular man with a cheetah-like build.
"...Another barrel of kerosene, and one of gasoline for the truck," Joseph was saying. “They are becoming expensive; we will have to raise the price of guano.”
"As you wish, mwen Chéf," said Paul, then studied the schooner to see how she floated. "I will check for leaks while the crew goes to supper. Then we'll load her, sail by midnight, and should be back on Tuesday morning, wind and Esu willing.”
Pogo waded out to his father and got a sweaty hug. "Don't forget the magneto parts. Rhino is getting cranky.”
"Pogo and I loaded fifty more sacks," announced Laurent.
Joseph smiled and embraced his son, enveloping him in hugeness. "A good day's work." He gave Pogo a wink. "You must be tired.”
"Hungry mostly," said Laurent. "I invited Pogo to eat with us. Then we're going to...”
The beach was suddenly lit bright as day as the blue-white beam of a powerful searchlight stabbed across the water. Joseph shaded his eyes with a hand and looked to the rocky jaws of the cove. "Now, what is that? Not a gunboat, I hope. I thought those days were over.”
Pogo's father faced the glare as the searchlight probed for a way through the rocks. "A gunboat would wait until morning. The last one to try the passage at night got stuck on the reef and had to wait three days for a tug.”
Joseph laughed. “A joke of Esu’s, no doubt.”
"I saw a motor-yacht," said Pogo. "From up on the mountain an hour ago. It seemed to be heading this way, but I didn't think it was coming here.”
"It seems to be trying,” said Joseph. “Take the longboat and guide it in. Hurry before there's a wreck.”
"Come, Laurent," said Pogo, grabbing a lantern to signal with. "Now is a good time to practice your rowing.”
"I'm coming, too!" said Tomas.
"Get the rifle," ordered Laurent. "In case they are smugglers or pirates.”
"Or terrorists!" said Tomas, puffing away at a comical waddle.
A short time later, the gleaming white yacht, twice the size of the Cayes Squellette schooner, let go its anchor within the small cove like an iron fist through liquid crystal. Its portholes and windows blazed with light that lit up the water all around and brought curious fish to the surface. Laurent pulled the oars of the twenty-foot longboat and squinted up at the varnished decks. "Electric lights are too damn bright.”
"I guess people get used to them.” Pogo held the "rifle,” a massive old machine-gun as long as he was tall, while Tomas tended its belt of bullets.
Laurent shook his head. "Then they must forget what night is like, as if was something to deny instead of the other half of a day.”
"Blancs," observed Tomas, as two white men in cotton trousers and polo shirts came out on deck to check the anchor. "Do you think they could be terrorists?”
Pogo studied them with interest: he hadn't seen many blancs in his life, and only in Port-au-Prince. "They don't look like terrorists to me.”
"And how do terrorists look?" said Laurent. "Ready your rifle and see what they do.”
"Shall I aim it at them?”
"No need to be rude.”
Pogo cocked the heavy bolt and its ominous clack echoed over the water. "Watch your fingers," he murmured to Tomas. "In case I have to shoot this thing.”
The men exchanged uncertain glances, then offered their hands palms out.
Laurent smiled. "The universal sign of peace... ‘see, I don’t have a rock in my hand.’ I wonder if they speak French.”
"I doubt they speak Kreyol," said Pogo.
"Bonsoir," called Laurent, using the French pronunciation. "Welcome to Cayes Squellette.”
"Bonsoir," answered one of the men. He seemed surprised to hear Laurent's French, though his own was far from perfect. The "rifle" obviously made him nervous, although it was aimed at the stars. "Thank you for guiding us in." He looked to be in his early forties, with sandy-blond hair and a neatly-trimmed beard. "May I speak with your Elder or Chief? ...Or is this not a proper time?”
Laurent murmured, “‘Take me to your leader,’” then said, "I'm the Chief's son. We were just about to have supper, and of course you are invited. We can take you ashore if you wish.”
"Thank you." The blond man conferred with the other, older, whose brown hair and beard were sprinkled with gray. They spoke in English, Pogo noted, debating whether to come with the boys or use their own launch. Pogo heard the word, "etiquette"... it was the Chief's son who had offered to take them ashore. The blond man said, "Perhaps we should come in our boat so you won't have to row us back.”
Laurent grinned at Pogo and said in Kreyol, "Quite tactful.”
The men went aft to lower a motor-powered skiff, but Pogo's eyes were drawn to a doorway as a boy of around his own age appeared. He was barefoot and wearing only jeans, which looked sort of ragged and tightly outgrown for a boy so apparently rich. A soft roll of tummy lapped over the jeans, and they were more than half unzipped. He seemed to have just awakened, and his long shaggy mane of silver-blond hair almost completely covered his eyes.
"I've never seen a young blanc before," said Tomas. "Except in magazine pictures."
"Nor have I," said Pogo. “Even in Port-au-Prince.” He compared the clothes of the men and the boy, and added, "Perhaps he is a crewman.”
"Perhaps," agreed Laurent. "But don't stare, it's rude." He glanced to the shoreline. "The entire village has come out to see, so everyone's supper is waiting now.”
Joseph Latortue, in fresh khaki shorts and a huge matching shirt, stood on his porch to greet the guests as Laurent escorted them up from the beach. Pogo and Tomas followed behind, the big gun slung over Pogo's shoulder while Tomas toted the bandolier dragging behind through the sand. The blond boy seemed to be more than a crewman because he had come ashore with the men, but though he had put on a T-shirt and sneakers they looked as old as his jeans.
The house's front room was partly an office, with a battered desk and a file cabinet. On the wall was a picture of Haiti's new president, and a government paper which gave Laurent's father the power to execute people. Joseph briefly described his duties as he ushered the visitors into the kitchen. Pogo unslung the massive old gun, ejected the bullet, put it back in the links, then stood the weapon by the door.
"...Settle disputes," Joseph was saying, as Pogo came into the kitchen. "Not that we have very many. Preside at weddings performed by our mambo, fill out birth and death certificates, send copies to Port-au-Prince once a year. And keep records of our business, which is exporting guano aboard the schooner."
“You have no computer?” the blond man asked.
Joseph smiled. “We are still savages here. Please be seated.”
He took his place at the head of the table, which had been set with a red linen cloth and the ancient formal dishes. Candles burned in pewter stands, and an ancient ship’s lantern hung overhead. Laurent's mother had put on her best gingham dress, and had placed fresh flowers in Mason jars. Joseph waved everyone into chairs. "This is my wife, Angelique. You have met my sons, Laurent and Tomas. And this is Pogo Malroux.”
"My name is David Benson," said the blond man. "This is my associate, William Malone." He glanced at the blond boy, who still looked sleepy. "And my son, Randy. We're from America.”
"North, South, or Central?" asked Laurent.
"...Er," said David. "The United States.”
"Are you terrorists?" asked Tomas, still standing at the kitchen counter and sampling a bit of fried fish.
"Tomas!" exclaimed Angelique.
"No," said David, looking uncertain, though Joseph only chuckled.
Pogo had been studying Randy: like the men he was tanned to a coppery tone -- at least the visible parts of him -- showing he'd spent lots of time at sea. His eyes were bright blue beneath his pale hair, and his face looked potentially cheerful, though maybe he wasn't in the mood right now. He appeared to be waking up a bit; and if he thought his surroundings were strange, he was good at not letting on. He seemed accustomed to candles, and looked as if he trusted his nose that the food would be worth waking up for. Joseph had also been scanning the boy, as if more could be learned from him than the men.
"You are perhaps, missionaries?" asked Joseph.
The blond man smiled as if at a joke. "No, I'm a writer. And William is a photographer. We've done a series of books on religions and we're working on one about Voodoo now. ...Real Voodoo. Not the Hollywood movie stuff.”
Joseph looked relieved: missionaries, as he often said, were usually a pain in the bounda, always overstaying their welcome and never shutting up, as if Jesus Christ wanted obnoxious people to pester the world in His name. "Ah," he laughed. "No sticking of pins into dolls, or calling up zonbis from graves.”
"Yes," said David, also looking relieved. "We heard about a ceremony that seems to be unique to your island." He produced an official envelope. "I have a letter of introduction from the Minister Of...”
Joseph smiled. "I do not wish to see it. Please. The Minister... whomever he is... may be in disfavor now.”
"I saw him just last week," said David.
Joseph only smiled again. "The wind changes often in Haiti. I would burn that if I were you. ...Tomas? Would you be so kind?”
David watched, a bit bewildered, as Tomas took the letter and tossed it into the stove.
"Thank you, Tomas," said Joseph. He smiled at David once more. "And what is the ceremony you heard of?”
“We were told it was a celebration...” David glanced at Laurent and Pogo. “...of young men coming of age.
“Ah,” said Joseph. “My son is having his ceremony in just three days from now. You are welcome to stay and observe. Or even take part if you wish. I will introduce you to our mambo.”
"Er," said David. "You have no oungan. No priest?”
"Voodoo is an equal-opportunity religion. ...But you must be hungry after your voyage. ...Laurent, will you pass the plantains? Tomas, pour the wine please.”
Laurent nudged Pogo and whispered, "Finally!”
Pogo watched Randy -- he seemed to be fully awake now -- and if a naked Haitian eight-year-old pouring French wine was any surprise, he was too polite to show it.
Tomas's charm lay atop his huge tummy instead of dangling down; and David seemed to be studying it as the boy came over to fill his glass. "May I?”
"Of course," said Tomas.
David took the charm in his hand and examined the design. It depicted a boy who looked like Tomas sitting atop a pile of skulls... except the boy had horns. "Interesting," said David. "I've seen this theme in other religions.”
"It is the circle," said Joseph. "Of life and death, and life anew.”
"In 'heaven?’" asked David, smiling slightly. "Or beginning again as a child?”
Angelique spoke: "Does it not say in the Christian Bible: 'Unless you become as a little child, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven?’”
"Interesting," said David, dropping the charm on Tomas's tummy. "I noticed when we came ashore that everyone seems to wear these. Are they of African origin?”
"Esu is of African origin," said Joseph, drawing Tomas to his side. "Although His name is different there, as is God’s around the world. We have the charms manufactured in China." He chuckled. "The same company makes crucifixes, Egyptian ankhs, and statues of Buddha." He ruffled Tomas's hair. "But, after all, it is God we worship, and not His image on chrome-plated brass. Those are only reminders." He glanced at Randy. "Like carrying a picture of those you love.”
After supper, Pogo and Laurent excused themselves and went out on the porch with bottles of beer. Tomas had tried to escape with them when Jeanette Millay had come over, but had been recaptured to do the dishes. Laurent lay back against the rail and patted his wobbly belly. "It was worth the wait," he happily sighed. "My mother must have borrowed something from everyone in the village.”
"Wi," agreed Pogo, his own tummy round and tight as a drum as he settled comfortably onto the steps. "I thought I tasted Jeanette's curry sauce and Madame Devereaux's chicken-in-wine." He took a sip of beer and burped. "Pardon-moi. Do you want to practice rowing tonight? The moon is very pretty.”
"Maybe later. I'm too full now. We should have guests more often.”
"I will drink to that." Pogo gazed toward the cove. The schooner was being loaded with the last of the sacks from the truck. It seemed strange to see the lights of the yacht, painfully and unnaturally bright. The screen door squeaked and Randy came out. He hadn't said much during supper, though his appetite had spoken volumes. Pogo smiled and scooted over to offer a place on the steps. "Hi," he said.
"Hi," said Randy. "...I didn't know you guys could speak English.”
"Is 'duh' an English word?" said Laurent.
"Only a little," said Pogo. "Jeanette Millay teaches English at school.”
"No TV or web?" asked Randy.
Laurent smiled. "We are still rather savage here, as you have no doubt observed.”
"You surprised my dad," said Randy. "I guess he thought you were really savage.”
Laurent laughed."We will eat you tomorrow. After stewing you in a big black pot. We are just too full right now.”
"I can relate," said Randy, lifting his soft roll of belly to show his unzipped jeans. "My dad ain't much of a cook. An' William could burn a pot of water. I mostly microwave stuff on the boat, an' this's been the best dinner in weeks.”
"Would you like a beer?" asked Pogo.
"Thought you'd never ask.”
Pogo pointed. "In the chest over there.”
"Is this a pirate's chest?" asked Randy, opening the massive lid. "It looks like one I saw in a movie.”
Laurent looked thoughtful. "It is in a way.”
Randy took out a bottle and tried to twist off the cap. Pogo laughed. "It is not that kind. We cap them ourselves with a hand machine. Use the lock on the chest to open it.”
Randy sat down and took a sip, and then a great big gulp. "Woah! This's way better than Bud!”
"It is our island recipe," said Laurent. "The secret is sugar cane. We also distill some alcohol to add to the gasoline for our truck... gas is becoming expensive.”
“So is diesel fuel,” said Randy. “Like for our boat. Dad bitches about it all the time.”
“Perhaps you should get a schooner,” suggested Laurent.
“Dad doesn’t know how to sail.” Randy gulped from his bottle again. "I thought beer had to be cold to taste good.”
"I had a cold Budweiser in Port-au-Prince," said Pogo. "I did not think it tasted good.”
"Yeah," agreed Randy, drinking deep. "When we were in England, my dad asked a waitress for an American beer, an' she called it fairy-piss.”
"Beware of our beer," said Pogo. "As I said, its ingredients also power our truck."
"Have you been all over the world?" asked Laurent.
"Kinda, I guess... Africa, India, Tibet, Afghanistan... before we bombed it... Burma, Iran... after we bombed it. Central an' South America. Like you heard, my dad writes books about religions. It was Druids in England. They worship trees, I think." He paused to wipe sweat from his face. "Funny, but most of the coolest religions seem to be in the hottest places.”
"You can take off your shirt if you like," said Pogo. "We are not very formal on Cayes Squellette.”
"Thanks," said Randy, peeling out of his sweaty shirt. "We got air-conditioning on the boat. Spoils you, I guess. I play a lot of video games. An' drink lots of beer." He patted his roll of belly. "But you probably figured that already.”
Pogo smiled. "I was looking at you because I have never seen a young blanc before.”
Randy spread his arms. "Ta da. I'm not shy. Been too many places where people don't even wear clothes." He kicked off his shoes to show his tan feet as if to confirm that fact.
"How old are you?" asked Laurent.
"Be thirteen next month. The seventh.”
"Cool," said Pogo. "That is my birthday, too.”
"That is kinda cool. Are you gonna have a Voodoo thing?”
"Wi... Yes. Though it is Laurent who is now being honored.”
"Are you gonna stick pins in a doll?”
"Of course not.”
Randy took another drink and glance at the house’s doorway. "My dad's probably gonna be in there all night askin' a million questions. You'll probably wanna stick pins in him if he stays here three days. He almost got our heads cut off by insulting a shaman in Brazil.”
"Well," said Pogo, "We can sit here until dawn if we wish. But, what is your own religion, Randy?”
"I don't got one.”
"You do not believe in God?" asked Laurent.
Randy drank what was left in his bottle. "Maybe I've seen too many... or what people call their gods, anyway... an' none of 'em seem to do nothin' except make people hate other people who worship different gods.”
“God doesn’t make anyone hate,” said Laurent.
“Or want them to,” said Pogo.
“No offense, but I don’t believe that. The world’s full of hate because of gods.”
"Would you like to meet God?" asked Laurent.
“Then you can ask Him yourself,” added Pogo.
Randy smiled. "Mean like see your church or your shrine, or whatever you call it? No offense, dudes, but I seen a hundred of those an’ ‘god’ don’t live in any of ‘em.”
"Well," said Laurent. "Esu does have an ounphor... a shrine... but He is very much living here.”
Randy shrugged. "Okay, let's see him. ...But you ain’t gonna chop off my head if I laugh?”
Pogo smiled. “No, and I'm sure you will laugh.”
Laurent pointed to the cove. "The truck is unloaded. Bring it up here, Lieutenant." He got to his feet and went to the chest. "I'll get some offerings.”
"Come and meet Rhino," said Pogo.
"Is he a god, too?" asked Randy.
"He thinks he is.”
Randy started to get up but then plopped down on his butt. "Woah!" he laughed. "You were right about your beer! It could send a rocket to the moon!”
Pogo grasped Randy under the arms and helped him to his feet. "If you really wish to go to the moon, Esu may take you there.”
Laurent went into the house and returned with a shiny new charm. Pogo steadied Randy as Laurent slipped the leather strip over his head.
"Do I need this to meet god?" asked Randy, admiring the medallion.
"Non," said Pogo. "It is a gift from us.”
"Oh. Thanks. It's cool. I got painted like a skeleton somewhere up the Amazon. It was a symbolic sacrifice, but they used to do real ones.”
"How sad," said Laurent. "No one who has really met God would ever sacrifice their children."
In the kitchen, Jeanette Millay, a powerful woman in a calico dress, with beaded bracelets and seashell necklaces, was patiently puffing her wooden pipe while answering David's questions. Angelique was pouring coffee, while Tomas stood on a box at the sink and dutifully washed the dishes. Joseph smoked a Cuban cigar, as did the older man, William. David was taking notes on a laptop. "But isn't Esu a minor god?" He tapped keys to call up an image, then glanced at Tomas as if to compare them. "An eight-year-old boy with horns? Like on your medallions?”
Jeanette replied, "He is minor to those who don’t know Him. Merely an imp, or perhaps the equivalent of a Christian cherub or a Celtic elf. But this is His island, His home on earth. And here He welcomed our ancestors three-hundred years ago.”
David picked up his wine glass. "I noticed these are very old. Like your plates and silverware.”
"Old, wi," said Joseph. "But common utensils in their day. Not all ships carried treasure, and their captains did not eat from golden plates. But Cayes Squellette's wealth is her children. And Esu is God as a child.”
"Why do you call it Skeleton Cay?" asked William.
Jeanette’s smile saddened a little. "That will no doubt become clear to you after Laurent's ceremony.”
"Interesting," said David. "The child-god concept, I mean. The Christian religion is one of the few that doesn't offer God in a child's incarnation. Basically, you have 'Christ is born in Bethlehem,’ then, except for one scene with the 'wise men,’ he disappears from the Bible until he's a full-grown adult.”
"Perhaps he was apprenticed to Joseph as a carpenter?" suggested Angelique.
David chucked. "Hardly an impressive resume for the Son of God. No wonder they kept it a secret.”
"Lord Krishna herded cows in his youth," said Joseph. "And there are stories of Buddha as a boy, playing and having adventures.”
"God as a child must be cherished," said Jeanette. "Protected and cared-for as well as worshipped." She smiled and patted Tomas's shoulder. "He needs love and affection. A culture that does not treat its children as gods is sowing the seeds of its own destruction.”
"But, what can a child do for you?" asked David.
Jeannete raised an eyebrow. "Do you not have a child of your own?”
Then the white men sat up in surprise as the evening quiet was shattered by a sudden deep-throated roar. "It is only our truck," laughed Joseph. "Not the announcement of Rapture.”
Tomas jumped down from his box, but Angelique caught him before he could run. "Non, little imp, it is past your bedtime.”
"Dammit!" yelled Tomas. "I never have any fun around here!”
"You will have lots of fun at Laurent's ceremony."
David peered through the doorway as the truck clattered past in the starlight. "Er... my son is with yours. And that other boy... Pogo.”
"So I see," said Joseph. "Your son, like all children, quickly makes friends.”
David sat back in his chair. "I guess he gets lonely sometimes. His mother and I divorced years ago. Randy lives with me on the boat. He has his computer and games. We don't get in each other's way.”
Jeanette asked, "And what are you seeking all over the world?”
"I write books about religions.”
"Ah yes. That is what you said.”
"Pardon me." David got up and went out on the porch, but the lightless truck had vanished, and its racket was fading away in the forest. He returned with Randy's shirt and shoes and a puzzled look on his face.
"I know where they have gone," said Jeanette. "Do not worry, Monsieur Benson; there is no safer place on earth. But they will not return until morning.”
"I'm sure he's in good company. Thank you for the wonderful dinner, and for your patience in answering my questions. ...I hope I haven’t offended...?”
Jeanette smiled. “Those who truly know God are seldom offended by what people do, and even less by what people say... although often saddened.”
“I have many more questions...”
"Of that I am sure," said Jeanette. "Please come to see me tomorrow. And Tomas will show you the ounphor of Esu, which he keeps. Do you swim?”
"Er... yes." David gave Tomas a glance. "Uh, pardon another question, but do you... fatten... a child to resemble Esu?”
Joseph drew Tomas close in a hug. "Esu chooses the keeper of His shrine. It is usually a boy, though sometimes a girl, and they hear His call around six years of age. Some have served Him until nine or ten." He patted Tomas's massive tummy. "Esu loves to share.”
"Interesting. I assume your older son served him, too?”
"A logical assumption: but actually it was Pogo who kept Esu's shrine before Tomas." Joseph chuckled. "Looking like God is not a requirement. Laurent is good at poetry and thinking. ...Perhaps your son is a thinker as well?”
David shrugged. "We don't talk much.”
The rosy light of early dawn filtered through the waterfall, brightening the grotto to emerald green. Four boys were naked and glistening with spray upon the carpet of velvety moss. Three of them slept in a tangle, while the fourth was sitting awake and seemed to watch over his slumbering friends. Randy awoke and sat up. His blue eyes roamed for a moment, then met and returned Esu's ebony gaze. He smiled as if sharing a secret, then gently shook Pogo's shoulder. "Are you awake, mwen fré?”
Pogo stretched like a sleepy cheetah. "I am now." He sat up and seemed to remember something. "What was it Esu said that you found so funny last night?”
Randy cocked his head. "But you were there. Outside in the pool with us.”
"I only heard you laughing together.”
Randy opened his mouth to speak, but then paused and looked puzzled. "Swear to god, man, I knew everything a second ago, but I can't remember nothin' now.”
Pogo laughed. "What is your name?”
Randy laughed, too. "I mean all that other stuff... you know? About... life, I think... an’... everything.”
"I know what you mean," said Pogo. “But I don’t think you would be happy in life if you did remember it." He nudged Laurent, who yawned.
"Um?" asked Randy. "That was a dream, wasn't it? Playin' out there in the stars an' all... seein’ the moon... I think? Like a Navajo peyote ceremony? Except with your magic beer.”
Laurent slowly stretched, and yawned again. "I have no idea what Navajos do. But, can three people share the same dream?”
"Did you hear what Esu told me?”
Laurent shrugged. "A joke, I assume, because you where laughing.”
"Will your father be worried?" asked Pogo.
Randy gazed out through the falling water. "Nah. One time I smoked crack in Miami and wandered around for a week stayin' high. He thought I was down in my cabin.”
Pogo shook his head. "Some of the ri-timouns... the homeless street children in Port-au-Prince... sniff glue when they are lonely.”
"Funny," said Randy, looking around at the empty bottles. "I don't feel hungover or nothin'." He stretched. "Fact is, I feel really good.”
Pogo smiled. "Playing with Esu is like that.”
“I thought I was gettin’ too old to play.”
“One is never too old to play with God.” Laurent got to his feet. "Pogo will make us breakfast.”
"As you wish, mwen chéf.”
The boys said goodbye to Esu, slipped into the water, dove under the fall, and swam across the shimmering pool. Randy and Pogo boosted Laurent up into the truck, then Pogo went around to crank.
"Can I help?" asked Randy. "That looks hard.”
Pogo puffed his chest. "I am harder!" He grabbed the handle and braced his feet. "Wake up, beast!" The engine fired like a shotgun blast, blowing flame from its pipe. The crank spun backwards, hurling Pogo into the ferns at the edge of the pool.
"Bastaed!" he yelled. "Dammit to hell!”
Randy pushed through the ferns with Laurent close behind. "Pogo! Are you okay?”
Pogo struggled to sit up. "SHIT!”
Randy grabbed his shoulders. "Pogo!”
"OW! ...My arm is broken!”
Laurent knelt beside him. "We'll take you to Jeanette. ...Um, maybe it's not really broken?”
"Oh yes," said Pogo ruefully. "It is very goddamn broken.”
It was evening and two days later. Everyone on Cayes Squellette was gathered at the cove. The big motor-yacht had been moved toward the cliffs, and the battered old schooner now rode at anchor out near the jaws of the cove. The people had formed two rows in the sand; and David Benson and William Malone stood with Jeanette at the waterline. David had a cassette recorder, and William a small movie camera. David turned to Jeanette after glancing at Pogo, who stood nearby with his arm in a sling.
"Is Randy the only one who can do this?" asked David.
It was clearly a question he'd asked before, but Jeannette only smiled. "The part is performed by the next in line to have their ceremony. And your son is the same age as Pogo." She looked at Iris, who was standing at Pogo's side. "My daughter's rite will follow Pogo's, and she will play the part for his. Perhaps she could play it now for Laurent; but no child has ever performed it twice, and I doubt if Esu would wish it.”
David smiled a little. “You didn’t ask?”
“I have no doubt He would have told me if I did not do what I felt He would wish.”
"I could still do it," said Pogo. "I have been teaching Randy, and my other arm is fine.”
"Do not be an ass," said Iris. "You would only hurt yourself again.”
"I didn't know you cared."
"You do not know a lot, stupid boy.”
"What about him?" asked David, pointing to Andre DeFoe. "He looks a lot stronger than Randy.”
"He has had his ceremony," said Jeanette. "And would not want to hurt another again.”
"But, who did it to him?”
"Laurent did it for him."
David shook his head. "I don't understand. It's backward. In America it would be the other way around.”
"That would be revenge. And 'vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.’ ...Of course you are free to change your mind. You have the earthy care of your son and the power to choose for him whatever you believe to be right.”
"It was Randy's decision.”
"Ah, wi," sighed Jeanette. "You do not get in each other's way.”
William was checking his camera, but paused to give David a one-sided smile. "This isn't going to be seen as politically-correct in the good U.S.A.”
"But it is the truth," said Jeanette. "And Esu seems to have chosen Randy to remind us of that.”
David raised an eyebrow. "Are you saying 'He' brought us here for this?”
Jeanette only shrugged. "You are here now." She looked to the cove, where the longboat was tied against the schooner. Two boys came out on the schooner's deck, and all the people fell silent.
"It begins," said Jeanette.
The boys were Laurent and Randy, but it seemed as if their friendship of the last three days had savagely ended. Laurent was naked, and the black iron manacles clamped on his wrists, and the two feet of chain connecting them, were so huge and medieval-looking that they might have been made of papier-mâché, if they hadn't been so obviously heavy.
Randy wore only his ragged jeans, and despite his softness looked fierce and cruel with a long leather whip in one hand. He seemed to pause as if taking a breath, then swung the whip with all his strength; and the crack of leather against Laurent's back came echoing over the water.
David winced, but William was already filming; and the people were watching in silence. David switched on his recorder as Jeanette stepped into the transparent wavelets and began to speak. She had told this story many times, yet her voice was clear and filled with emotion, and her words were starkly punctuated by the crack of the whip and Randy's curses as Laurent got clumsily into the boat, burdened by his massive shackles, and took up the heavy oars.
"Long ago there was a slave ship. She had come from Africa, bringing our people in chains to be sold like animals by those who called themselves civilized. Upon reaching these waters, the ship was beset by a savage storm. She was beaten by mountainous waves, whipped by a howling wind, and slashed by rain that cut like knives. She was dismasted. Most of her crew were lost. She was sinking, and yet our people were imprisoned below in the flooding holds. They were chained to the planking. They could not escape. Many... men, women, children, babies... were drowned as the water rose.”
Pogo gazed out on the water. He'd attended these rites since babyhood, but could still almost hear the crash of the sea, the roar of the wind, the screams and cries of the imprisoned people and the desperate sounds of their chains in the darkness. Maybe Randy's father could hear it, too... the man seemed transfixed as he held his recorder. And even William's face looked grim as he aimed the camera's indifferent eye. Pogo felt Iris's hand on his arm.
Jeanette continued: "Only the captain and one of his crewmen remained alive on the vessel's deck, clinging to the stumps of the masts, while the wreckage of spars entangled in rigging pounded the hull and gashed at the planks. Without sail the ship was helpless, a drifting hulk at the mercy of the elements.”
Jeanette turned to point; and Pogo looked beyond the cove, as did all the other people. He could almost see the stormy sky superimposed on the gold of sunset, the raging waves seething over the rocks, and the dismasted ship with its human cargo being driven toward them.
"The ship was cast upon the reef. She began to break up. Not many were left alive in the holds. Men fought to keep their heads above water, to help their women and children breathe. They tried to tear loose their chains from the ring-bolts. The women held babies over their heads for as long as they could, but most of the children had already drowned. On deck above, the last crewman was swept overside. A longboat was still lashed aboard, but the captain could not launch it alone, nor row it ashore by himself.”
Jeanette paused, gazing out to sea, not seeming to notice the actual longboat, now halfway to the beach, or Laurent in chains struggling to row while Randy cursed and whipped him.
"Desperate to save his own life, the captain knelt at the grating and called down into the hold: he would release the remaining men if they would agree to launch the boat and row it ashore.”
Iris was gripping Pogo's hand, but Pogo's eyes were locked on the boat. Laurent was pouring sweat. Blood was running down his back and dripping from his wrists where the iron cuffs were chafing. Randy was drenched in sweat of his own from the effort of swinging the whip. He stood in the stern, his bobby chest heaving, his pale hair dripping lank on his shoulders. The whip was dangling limp in his hand, but he lashed his captive with curses. Pogo thought of all the blood that had soaked into the boat's ancient wood. Did it now have a soul of its own, he wondered? A spirit to give Laurent strength? But Laurent was only a boy... a boy who liked thinking and poetry. He was brave as a lion but not as strong. How could he ever make it to shore?
Jeanette continued: "The captain wanted only men. What use were women and babies to him? But, by then there were only three men, and three women with infants in arms left alive. With his ship being battered to pieces, the captain had no choice. He unbarred the grating and threw down the keys." Jeanette now pointed to the boat. "The people were still in manacles, which were riveted onto their wrists. Yet somehow the boat was launched.”
Pogo watched the longboat, now only a hundred feet from the sand. Randy seemed too exhausted to swing the whip anymore, and Laurent's oar strokes were shallow and weak, sometimes only skimming the surface and hardly moving the boat at all.
William murmured to David in English: "What if he doesn't make it?”
"Interesting," said David. "It's not a drivers license test. He can't take it over again.”
But Jeanette went on, as if never doubting Laurent. "The captain was heavily armed, of course. His pistols were wet and useless, but he had a sword and a whip. He would have left the babies to drown, but feared that the women would not row, and so had allowed the infants to be placed in the boat. His confidence began to return as the boat reached the cove in safety. He had lost his ship, and with it his world, but he still had slaves to serve him.”
All the people were silent as the longboat finally grounded on sand. Laurent's father was trembling, but stood with his arms around Angelique. The only sounds were Laurent's panting breaths intermingled with Randy's, the lapping of waves on the sandy shore, and the rush of the waterfall back in the forest. Children clung to their parents. Older boys and girls held hands. The tape recorder and camera went on with their small and civilized sounds. Randy cursed Laurent again, bawling commands in a hoarse, breaking voice.
Jeanette continued: "The captain began to make plans. He would take this island for his own, as if all the world was his by right and his god approved of stealing. But even though our people were chained, he knew he must never show weakness before them. They must always know who was master.”
Pogo watched as Laurent struggled over the side of the boat and staggered weakly to shore. The heavy links of his manacles tangled between his legs. Maybe there were tears on his cheeks, but the sweat camouflaged them. Just as six men and women had done, he lay face-down in the shallow water while Randy walked over his back, grinding sand into his gashes. His chubby fists clenched in agony, but he made no sound.
Jeanette's quiet voice cut the silence. "Then, Esu appeared.”
The people had already turned around, but it took a moment for David and William to tear their eyes from the scene on the shore. William recovered first, and swung the camera toward the trees. He seemed to have trouble keeping it steady as Esu came out of the shadowy forest and stalked between the rows of people. There seemed to be something wrong with that image, as if a young boy should be happy. But He walked with a grim sense of purpose, a frightening thing for a child to do. David's hand shook as he held the recorder. Tomas had shown them the ounphor, and William had taken pictures, but they obviously hadn't expected to see Esu Himself out here on the beach... an ebony eight-year-old boy with horns, and a face full of god-like wrath.
Laurent still lay in the lapping water, now tinted red by his blood. He struggled up onto his elbows to gaze at Esu in awe. Randy's face was frozen in fear, as if he'd forgotten who he was and no longer playing a role. The whip fell from his fingers; and he seemed to want to run away but there was nowhere to go. David tensed as Esu reached out and touched Randy's chest with a fingertip.
"I gave you love as a child," said Esu. “But you chose to hate as you grew older.” His voice was quiet but seemed to echo -- and why would God need to shout? "Now you no longer have a heart.”
Randy dropped like a stone, as if his heart had been instantly stopped. It didn't look like acting: he fell face-down and lay deathly still. David stiffened in shock, but Jeanette only said:
"Until you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." Then she knelt at Esu's feet, as did all of the other people. Only David and William still stood, as if uncertain what to do.
Jeanette spread her arms to the sky. "Esu welcomed our ancestors, and here we have lived in His love ever since.”
Esu stepped to Laurent over Randy's body. Laurent rose to his knees, and the manacles slipped from his bloody wrists to fall open in the water. The people began to shout and cheer, and gathered around the three small figures. David seemed to catch his breath and started toward his son, but Laurent and Pogo reached him first. They lifted his face from the sand, then Esu touched his chest again. Randy's eyes fluttered open. "Did I do well?" he asked in Kreyol.
Esu grinned. "You were very cool."
"Thank you, Randy," said Laurent. "Now I am a man." He kissed Randy's cheek then gave Esu a hug. “My heart is yours.”
Esu smiled. "You may do the dishes next week.”
David switched off his recorder and wiped the sweat from his face. "Is it over?" he asked Jeanette.
"There is the feast, which will last until morning. There will be drums and dancing." Esu came to Jeanette, who hugged him and added, "The children now rule with Esu. We must serve them and do what they say.”
"I've seen a lot of feasts," said David. "I have to get back to the boat and make notes.”
"Surely you do not fear children?”
"Of course not.”
William had picked up the ancient slave chains. "These things were actually riveted on. How did they fall off on cue?”
David shrugged. "A circus clown could do that trick." He seemed more interested in Esu. "That's Tomas, isn't it?" he asked Jeanette.
"He is whoever you believe him to be.”
"May I touch him?”
"I am sure he would like a hug." Jeanette glanced at Randy, who along with Laurent, were getting lots from everyone. "Children often do.”
"I meant the horns," said David. "They're from a baby goat, aren't they?”
"Few things in nature are as joyful and naughty as kids.”
Esu leaned forward to let David tug at His horns. They seemed very firmly attached. William came over to look. "Probably some sort of glue.”
David turned toward the distant reef. "I assume the island's name must have come from the bones washing up on the beach?”
"For years afterward," said Jeanette. "It must have been very sad for the people.”
David studied Esu again. "Have you ever considered there might be a logical explanation? You people aren’t...”
Jeanette smiled. “Ignorant savages?"
David flushed a little. "Of course I wasn't going to say that."
Jeanette smiled again. "Of course you weren't going to say it. A missionary once proposed that a boy had been marooned on this island. A slave-child lost... or thrown overboard... from another ship. And this young savage killed the captain. And I suggested that Jesus Christ might have been only a carpenter's son with a very good imagination."
Laurent and Pogo helped Randy up, and he stood with an arm around each of them, careful of Laurent's bleeding back. "How can you have any fun at your feast?”
Laurent laughed. "A little beer will help.”
“Can’t Esu fix it?”
“Duh,” said Esu. “But it has to hurt for awhile.”
“Yeah,” said Randy. “I guess it does.”
David turned to his son. "Are you all right?”
"Yeah." Randy looked at Esu then faced his father again. "My birthday's next month. I want to stay an' have it here. I'm tired of travelin' all around lookin' for God with you.”
David scowled at his son. "I'm not 'looking for god,’ Randy."
"Yeah you are. What's sad is you don't know He’s right here.”
“I see a fat kid with horns glued on his head, and that’s all you should be seeing too.”
“I know you got a heart, dad, but if you don’t use it you’re gonna lose it.”
David flushed beneath his tan, but hesitated when Esu frowned. "We can talk about those things tomorrow. I assume you want to stay for the party?”
Esu was looking at David, and the knowing expression on His chubby face seemed far too aware for an eight-year-old. He smiled a very impish smile. "He will stay much longer than that.”