This story is included in Reaps, available on Kindle.

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                                       Esu's Island

                                  © 2011 Jess Mowry

                                       

                                                                                       (excerpt)



       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?”

"Just now.”

"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.”



End of excerpt. This story is included in Reaps, available on Kindle.