Piggott told Sergeant Williams that a lady was here threatening to burn down the zoo. “Here” was the West End police station in Diego Martin, a sleepy outpost, not much to do here, though the canal beside it sometimes overflowed. Well, this was not entirely true; every now and again hot hot heat in the neighborhoods that branched off the Main Road like fingers from a hand snapped like a matchhead, and up in the hills, trouble. Someone cutlass-chopped, someone ice-pick-stabbed, someone facial-scarred. During upticks in menace, gunplay surged like a gas tank filling from E to F, and then predicaments registered a mean heat of one million Scoville heat units. Mostly the people understood the lay of the land and dealt with things as best they could, but sometimes things grew too hot, and the officers shrugged into the phone that there were no vehicles to chase offenders. There was an order and a plan. So who needed this matchstick woman and her hot hot threats to upset the balance of this hot hot island?
Sergeant Lester Williams was ambitious, but this was still a land in which who knew you was currency, and Williams only had friends in low places. Professional advancement was limited. Still, this case Piggott brought him was either mamaguy or a way up. He stroked his mustache. He had Piggott show her in. Williams’s deodorant had retired a few hours ago, and though he could smell himself in the early afternoon heat, a shower was far off. His smell was a reminder of decay. The woman, when he saw her, was the same. Wild. Smelling high. He gestured to a seat across from his desk.
“This is the Miss Lady,” Piggott said, and he made to leave, but Williams stayed him with a signal. You always wanted witnesses to madness.
“But why you mean to burn down the zoo?” Williams asked the woman.
“I didn’t say I was going to burn down anything,” the woman said. She turned to Piggott. “I say that?”
“In so many words,” Piggott replied. His teeth always stuck out, and he always seemed ready to smile inappropriately.
She returned to Williams. “What I said was that someone was going to set fire to the zoo and take the zoo’s jaguarundi for wild meat.”
This woman made Williams uneasy. He retrieved a scratch pad from his desk drawer. “The what now?” You knew madness when you saw it, and Williams understood madness here. He wanted the details right. Poui bright clothes, bright red top, blazing yellow wrap skirt, loose fitted for her extra weight and ampleness. Head bald as a roll-on.
“Jaguarundi meat good for strength,” the woman said. “Or so I hear. You need to salt it down first.”
Piggott looked at Williams; he was as flustered as a chased pigeon.
Williams scratched away on his pad. “So who’s going to perpetrate this act?” Here the woman grew quiet. Williams tried again. “So why you must burn up the zoo good good jaguar?”
“Not me,” the woman said. “And jaguarundi,” she repeated, “not jaguar.” She told him that the zoo had misspelled herpailurus yagouaroundi on their website. She said that poachers measured out salt by the kilogram. She said that the exotic meat market was strong at the moment.
Williams scribbled on. “You live around here, Miss? Any ID?”
“I live in Barataria, just outside of Dahomey.”
Williams knew Barataria; Dahomey he didn’t. Piggott laughed inappropriately, and Williams knew Piggott’s ignorance with madness made Piggott antsy. His gray uniform still didn’t fit him; he had to gain a few pounds. This was Piggott’s second year in the service, and his face still showed milk.
“Then why come all the way down here from Barataria to make this threat?” Williams asked.
“Which threat?” she said. “Is information.” She leaned forward and laughed. “My mother was a clumsy woman,” she said. “In life she would trip over everything you laid out before her. Two years ago forestry division held three men for poaching a brown scarlet ibis.”
The more she talked the more Williams understood that her roundabout delivery was a marker of a particular madness he hadn’t measured in person before. That she came in right away talking about fire was a tip-off. That she now hopscotched through time was another: the past and the ibis, the future and the jaguarundi. The trick was to get her out as quickly as possible then for him to go home for a shower.
This was no opportunity for advancement.
He stroked his mustache.
But still, a mention of fire—and arson—had to be taken seriously. With the recent burning down of the Mas Camp Pub and, before that, Smokey and Bunty, fires earned a hot rage in people’s minds, and insurance schemes in the minds of the more salacious. The woman gave the date of when the fire would attack the zoo—just a few days from now—and Williams thanked her and wrote it all down, a pinpoint precise prophetess.
After Piggott showed her out, Williams asked him what they were going to do. Do? If Piggott had any initiative, he should have hopped into a car and followed the woman to see where she went, but Williams understood that this kind of woman wouldn’t have a car. She would have jumped into the backseat of a taxi on the Main Road just outside the station with three other passengers and never emerge. If Piggott pulled the taxi over, the woman wouldn’t be in the car even though the car would be full of three other passengers. Piggott would describe the woman to everyone, and no one would remember seeing her. That is what police work was like on this island—when people saw, they weren’t saying, and when they saw, their memories would grow cataract cloudy under interrogation.
His body suddenly weary, Williams said that Piggott could play the number of the date in whe whe if he wanted and win some money, but Williams wasn’t going to let the woman mamaguy him. He returned the scratch pad to his desk drawer. They would do exactly nothing. A saying came to Williams’s mind about the woman as he walked to his car: she was as mad as a bag of frogs. This wasn’t a local saying, but one gifted to him by his sister who had struck out for London when she was barely nineteen, more than twenty-five years ago. At times like these Williams wished he had followed her. Over his shoulder he wished Piggott good night and told him not to burn the station down.
The next day Williams drove to the zoo. He hadn’t visited it since his primary school days when the entire third standard class was taken there by Mrs. DeSouza and Miss Dardain. He remembered the macaws, as silent as gravestones, in the large cage at the entrance; they disappointed him with their stony glares and silence. Ruiz Lares said that if they did speak, all they would do was curse his mother. As Williams left the station Piggott asked if he wanted company on his errand, but Williams made Piggott remain at the station in case the woman returned. He was glad that Piggott didn’t ask him why he was visiting the zoo.
Williams stood in front of the enclosure for the jaguarundi for a long time before the wild cat showed itself. Before then there was not a hint of its existence. Six different people came and left without waiting to see it. “Mister, you good,” said one woman as she walked back past him twenty minutes later. “You have plenty patience.” But Williams had to see the animal. He wondered why the woman at the station focused on this creature. It wasn’t particularly popular with zoo-goers. When the cat finally came out in a slow slink from its cave, Williams’s mind was elsewhere. He was thinking about his mother and how he hadn’t seen her in years. When his eyes focused, the animal didn’t look like what he expected. It was as slender as a broomstick and thin as a scratch. It moved low to the ground on short legs. It looked like an animal that he couldn’t name, one that swam in rivers and cracked clams on its stomach. Looks like that woman hit me a six for a nine, he thought. He double-checked the placard with the animal’s name to confirm its identity, and it was just as she had said. A long time ago there was a scandal about the zoo involving the head zookeeper and his trade in illicit photographs of children. Maybe the woman had been one of his victims long ago. Did her age match up with the past? He would look into it, but records back then, he knew, would be as slippery as a North Shore road after a thunderstorm; the police system was still mostly scratch pads, word of mouth, and uneven memories.
Another reason that Williams didn’t have Piggott along was that Williams didn’t want to explain to him that the woman visited him the night before. In a kind of roundabout way. In a way that felt like she appeared in a controlled dream that wasn’t really a dream. Williams saw her just as he stepped out of his shower, a towel wrapped around his waist, his mustache recently trimmed. He had left the light on in his bedroom, but now it was out, and he was trying to switch it on, but the switch just clicked and clicked. Bulb blown, he figured, but then he saw her covered in the doorway’s gloom. She began to undress as she stepped deeper into the room. You were right, she said. Of course I plan to burn down the zoo and eat the jaguarandi.
“But why?” he asked. She continued to move toward him as she floated over the ground.
I am right there at this moment, she said, but elsewhere too. She had removed her skirt and now worked on her top. I am always choosing the best course of action. When the woman had removed both skirt and top, Williams saw that she wore more clothing beneath: a form-fitting black catsuit tight against her skin. But when she was just a few feet away from him the woman stopped suddenly, and Williams saw that if she moved closer to him she would be bathed in a shaft of moonlight and he would see her clearly. This was a border that she would not cross.
“Why not come closer?” he asked, and she began to move toward him again, slowly, careful of the light. He reached out to her suddenly and snapped her wrist and pulled her toward him into the moonlight, but when the moonlight caught her like fish in a seine, she exploded into a flock of squawking macaws and the birds flew all about Williams’s head, screaming and screeching, and their force made him hit the heel of his foot on the edge of his bed and stumble back. He saw that one bird held his mother’s face. This was the last thing he saw before he fell back and cracked his head on the window ledge. Williams’s next conscious thought found him awake and fully clothed under his bedsheet, wrapped up tight like a roti, the ceiling fan rattling above him like it had been taken out and had a confession beaten out of it.
As Williams drove to the station the next morning with neither a bump on his head nor associated pain, he examined each detail of the night in the clarity of day. As he had dressed, he had expected his room to smell faintly of smoke and soot, feathers and guano. Instead his bedroom smelled as if it had been scrubbed clean with disinfectants. He chastised himself as he drove to work. To date there had been over four hundred murders on the island, the drug trade was in top gear, and there were rumors that Iran was sending war ships to the Venezuelan coastline. And here he was worrying about a conjure woman. Williams once knew a drinking partner who said he used to check on a soucouyant who would turn into a ball of fire late into the night, that they were together for almost half a year, but this was the same man who used to drink six Stag beers before noon, so left could be right and up could be down with that joker. Williams, overcome with curiosity one night, asked the man how he and the woman used to dance. The man took a long swallow of his beer before he answered. “Carefully,” he replied.
Williams was eight years old when his mother disappeared. It was the week after he had visited the zoo. Months leading up to her disappearance she explained to him and his sister that she had been visited by UFOs. One night they had taken her away for a few hours. She explained all this to Williams and his sister. His sister, three years older than him, never bought into it, and when their mother disappeared his sister told him that their mother had been spirited away to another planet alright—Venezuela. But why? Williams wondered. And what was she doing there?
The siblings ended up being raised by their mother’s sister, a hard-hitting thumper who gained immense pleasure in cracking Williams about his ear. When he was sixteen, and just before his sister struck out for London, Williams asked her if they would ever see their mother again. Her laugh rang out merrily. He joined the police service soon after that. His sister reminded him of this query on a recent phone call. He laughed at her recall and at his naïveté. “Well,” he said. “You think there’s still a chance that we will see her again?” His sister had become successful in London, was now a solicitor forever drawing up contracts. “You have Bob Hope and no hope of that, mate,” she replied. “And Bob Hope’s dead.”
Both before and after his mother’s disappearance Williams began to experience oddities. At a sleepover a week before his mother disappeared, he saw a soucouyant, but he didn’t tell anyone, not even his sister. The sleepover was in Woodbrook by Ruiz Lares. In the middle of the night Williams heard chickens in an uproar in the house behind Ruiz’s. He moved to the back of the house and slid open the glass door to the backyard. There he saw a woman in the form of light pulling on a suit that looked very much like the close-fitting suit worn by the woman who had visited him the night before. Two weeks after that, on a Saturday morning, he witnessed a small two-headed snake in the drain on the way home from first communion classes. He kept that to himself too.
He pulled into his parking spot. The sound of the hand brake was like a neck snapping.
He was pleased that Piggott hadn’t burned down the police station.
Williams felt a terrible weight on his chest throughout the day. The woman and her jaguarundi prophecy bothered him. He sought counsel. He looked up the number of a popular television pastor who had his ministry on the Main Road opposite Sardonyx Avenue. The pastor quoted him three mentions of fire and flood in the Bible, two of which the sergeant and Piggott were able to locate, and one that befuddled them.
A UWI professor from the Faculty of Humanities and Education who wore his hair in a black power Afro long past its sell-by date was Williams’s next phone call. The lecturer seemed unsure of how he could help, and he mumbled something about a short story parable by Borges about a jaguar. Williams thanked him and hung up. “Jaguar my foot,” Williams told Piggott. “That is not the same as a jaguarundi.”
After lunch Williams had Piggott track down and drag in a longtime gambler whose trousers smelled of urine and who was rumored to be richer than a maharajah. He was also rumored to own a couple of illegal gambling dens as well as one of the first legal casinos on the island that had burned down in a kind of funny wink-your-eye, touch-your-nose kind of way. The man lived nearby and came in on foot. Anything to help the police, he said, but then he said he was losing income by being there, and he needed to be compensated. Williams said he would accidentally on purpose lose all the man’s car wrecker tickets the next five times that his car was towed, as was usually the case several times a week while the gambler lay down bets at the OTB in Port of Spain. “Make it half a year’s worth, man,” the gambler said. The men shook hands. “It’s a classic gambling misdirection maneuver,” he explained to Williams. He held both hands to the left of his left knee. “First she make you look over here,” he said. He shifted his hands to outside the boundary of his right knee. “While she takes something from there.”
Williams furrowed his brow. “So you’re saying that she will definitely take the jaguarundi?”
“Mister,” said the gambler, “all I know is what I’ve noticed in gamblers betting cards over the years.”
That rest of day was quiet at the police station, but that afternoon the island’s beaches acted up, the water pulling away from the shore and the rain beginning to fall without stopping. When the water left the shoreline, people reported all kinds of treasure now revealed: the fetters of slaves, a gnostic lost cache of drugs, a lifeboat from the Lusitania.
By early evening water started to pool outside the station and on the Main Road. Based on the advice of the gambler, Williams pivoted. He sent Piggott to do some research on flooding. “No Bible stories,” he told him. Forty-five minutes later Piggott said he had someone on the phone from the Japanese embassy. The assistant to the ambassador spent twenty-five minutes explaining the importance of a nineteenth-century work of art, Hokusai’s The Great Wave, to Williams. “The Great Wave includes mathematical forms,” the assistant said. “It considers humanity hovering between change and perfect stasis.”
“Righto,” said Williams, hanging up the phone.
Outside, the water continued to rise; the canal already spilled over, and the police phones rang with people asking for all kinds of divine assistance that the police couldn’t offer.
The next morning Piggott was shot in the chest responding to a looting call. The Main Road was a mad scramble with the rain and floods, and the police had been deployed on various calls. The rains had flooded the Main Road, and a clutch of six bandits had moved to loot one of the grocery stores just opposite Covigne Road on the Main Road. Piggott and a few other officers were called to the scene. The perpetrators had already butchered the owner—cut through his stomach with a cutlass—and beaten his wife into a coma. Animals. Piggott wasn’t the lone law enforcement casualty; two other officers had been shot dead. Piggott was rushed to the general hospital. The morning after Piggott was shot, the grocery where the melee had happened was burned to the ground, hard to fathom in all this rain. Williams, who had been on a different part of the Main Road supervising a vehicular accident when Piggott was shot, made his way to the hospital.
There in the room keeping vigil he found Piggott’s mother, wrinkled and stooped with a cane beside her. “But how is this happening every day now?” Mrs. Piggott asked Williams. “Why they shooting up everybody all the time?” Williams couldn’t provide an answer. Piggott, Williams knew, wouldn’t make it; the boy had been looking for a way out of this life since before he joined the service. Now he had a good excuse to keep his eyes shut forever, but this was nothing Williams could tell Piggott’s mother. Williams felt helpless standing beside the old woman as a beeping machine counted down the last dribbles of her son’s life. Sitting beside Piggott’s bed, Williams registered doom about the upcoming days. A reckoning, he knew, approached; various oracles had warned him in several ways. His sister had long urged him to come to the UK, but he had stayed behind. In the coming week, the rains continued unabated, and the young men who looted the grocery grew bolder and attacked other businesses, and after having stolen Piggott and his cohort’s handguns, they would eventually attack the police station en masse in search of the cache of weapons there. They would shoot their way in, willing to risk a few casualties in exchange for the opportunity. Williams would be seated at his desk still trying to figure out the riddle of the jaguarundi. Before he headed home after his visit with Piggott’s mother that evening, he sat in his car and dialed the zoo’s number on his cell phone to check on the animal. On his roof the rain drummed down like someone bored; the tedium making her tap her fingers over and over again while she waited for everyone else to solve the equation.
Justin Haynes’s work has appeared in various journals, including Anthurium, Caribbean Quarterly, and the Caribbean Writer. His writing and research explore Caribbean folklore and carnival.