(An excerpt from Diana McCaulay’s forthcoming novel, Huracan. See Part I here.)
The tavern was not marked by name or sign. Two saddled horses were tethered outside and a black man stood in the sun, holding a pair of horses harnessed to a buggy. He was dressed much more formally than the man on the jetty, in black trousers, a white shirt with too-long sleeves, and a vest, trimmed with pearl buttons. Despite the lavish attire, his feet were bare. Zachary and Trevor Manning went inside.
The tavern was cool and crowded. Zachary recognized some of his shipmates. The floor was dirt, packed hard. Small wooden windows with slats were propped outwards, letting in narrow bands of sunshine. The walls were thick stone, with remnants of plaster clinging in places. Tables were scattered about, most seats taken. Men were clustered around a rudimentary bar and it was clear many were well on their way to drunkenness.
“There. I see two seats,” Manning said. He led Zachary to a table, already occupied by two white men. “Good morn, gentlemen,” Manning said. “May we join you?”
“Help yourself, Sir. We’re leaving now anyway.” The men were well dressed in expensive cotton clothes in pale colors. Their wide-brimmed hats were hung on hooks behind them, their boots were polished, and their faces were reddened and peeling.
“So, Zachary Macaulay, I presume you have enough money to get you to Bonnie Valley?” Manning said, sitting down at the table.
“Sir, I am grateful for your kindness, but my father told me it is unwise tae divulge such details tae strangers.”
Trevor Manning laughed. “Your father was right, lad. You seem to be well schooled—your English is excellent. He did well by you. From Scotland, are you?”
“There are many Scots in the Indies.”
“How long have ye been here, Mr. Manning?” Zachary said.
“How long? Oh, close on ten years. I go back and forth every few years. It’s a long trip, but the climate here suits me. It doesn’t suit everyone. Now, what shall we eat?”
A woman approached their table. Her skin was a rich brown with copper highlights and her hair was hidden under a bright blue headscarf. “You genklemen havin the turtle stew?” she said, eyes averted. Zachary had to listen closely to understand her.
“Turtle?” he said to Trevor Manning. “I’ve not eaten turtle.”
“Sea turtle,” said Manning. “Very good.” He looked up at the woman. “That sounds capital. And a flagon of your best grog.” The woman nodded and left them. Zachary thought of pond turtles he had seen in boggy places—how much meat would such a creature contain? But these were sea turtles and he remembered seeing them from the jolly boat, their brown and tan shells glistening. They were much bigger than pond turtles, and he wondered if they would taste like fish.
“So how do you plan to get to Bonnie Valley?” Manning asked, removing his hat and stretching his legs.
“I dinnae ken, Sir.” Zachary felt stupid. “But I believe I have enough money to buy a horse. How much would a horse cost?”
“That very much depends on the horse. We’ll go in search of a mount when we’ve eaten. Everything will look different then. I suggest you sell your sea chest. It will be too difficult to transport.”
“There are things of value in it,” Zachary said.
“Then we will have to find someone with a carriage or buggy going your way.”
“Will that be hard?”
“It could be. You may have to stay here for awhile.”
Zachary said nothing. The men at the bar were becoming louder. He saw a couple of them grab for the darkie woman who was serving food. She wriggled from their grasp, her eyes downcast, and put two steaming bowls on a nearby table. The men crowed with laughter.
“Is she a slave, Sir?” Zachary asked Trevor Manning, nodding at the woman.
“Probably. She could be one of those with more than six children, so no more labour in the fields. She could also be free.”
“How do slaves become free?”
“All manner of ways. She could have purchased her freedom. Her master could have granted it. She looks like a mulatto; maybe a quadroon—perhaps she has a white . . . ah, protector . . . and he bought her freedom. ”
“Child of a white man by a Negress. A quadroon is the child of a mulatto mother, with a white father.”
Zachary found himself excited. The tavern carried an atmosphere of danger and licentiousness, of rules discarded. He understood what was meant by Trevor Manning’s euphemism—protector. Lover, he thought. Lover and concubine. Lover and slave. He thought of the parlor at their house in Inverary, with its faded carpet and solid furniture, where his sisters sat in the afternoons, doing needlework or reading the Bible to each other, perhaps practicing scales on the piano. None of his sisters would have been allowed to see a man without a chaperone. Martha, of course, had ignored the rules; now she was in confinement, and he was in the Indies, punishment for his cover-up of her transgressions. But the brown woman, the mulatto, she was a different order of female altogether. She might be free or still enslaved, but Zachary was sure any man could have her. He imagined her laughing, with her head thrown back and her breasts bare. He squirmed in his seat.
Soon she returned, carrying a tray. He wanted to pull her into his lap and slip his hands under her skirt. His erection was insistent. He tried to meet her eyes, but she avoided him. She set the tray down and unloaded two large bowls of a rich stew. There was a platter of round golden cakes, cut into quarters, and a flagon of an amber liquid. The brown woman set down two mugs and the cutlery. She bowed her head and left them. The smell of the food was intoxicating. He felt he had wandered into a place of sin, where the pleasures of the flesh held sway. God, give me strength, he prayed, although despite his father’s insistent tutelage, he was not sure he believed in God.
The two men ate. The turtle stew was peppery and nourishing. The meat had a faint greenish cast. “What is this thing?” Zachary asked of the fried cakes.
“Cassava,” Manning answered.
“What is cassava?”
“A root. If not properly prepared, it can be poisonous. It’s what passes for bread here. Flour doesn’t generally survive the sea journey, although a few people bring it in from the Americas.”
The grog burned Zachary’s throat and his head swam. “Rum,” Trevor Manning said. “From the sugar cane.”
They finished everything on the table. Exhaustion overwhelmed Zachary. He had not slept a full night in months, nor eaten such delicious food. Although a harsh and potent liquor had been available on the Prospero, he had not touched it. Now he was in Jamaica and there were turtles to eat, turtles the sea gave up easily, and cassava from the land, and rum from the sugar cane, and brown women who had to carry out his bidding. Perhaps it would not be so bad to stay in Montego Bay for a few days. He felt his eyes closing. All he wanted was to succumb to the demands of his body.
“Falling asleep, young ’un? Only to be expected. I intend to stay the night here and set out early on the morrow. Shall we see if rooms are to be had in the town?” Manning said.
Zachary allowed him to take charge. A small lodging house was located with rooms like cells, but each one had a bed covered in rough white sheets, and a table with a basin of water and a jug. Two darkie boys placed his chest at the end of the bed. He tore off his clothes and splashed his face with water. Naked, he lay on the bed in a tumult of sexual arousal and masturbated. Afterward, sleep claimed him instantly, and he slept with his body washed in a sheen of sweat, his hand around his penis and his semen drying crusty on his stomach. When the mosquitoes found him at dusk, he did not stir. He slept for fifteen hours straight.
“D’ye ken the name of the river?” Zachary asked.
“Martha Brae,” Manning said. “It runs through Bonnie Valley. Soon we will head inland.” Zachary felt a jolt hearing his older sister’s nickname. His long sea journey and present surroundings made him feel his beloved sister was someone from his babyhood, a relative who had spooned mush into his mouth and held him on her shoulder until he burped, a relationship too long in the past to matter. He tried to see her face in his mind, but he could not.
“Who was Martha?” he asked.
“There’s a legend about an Arawak princess who led Spanish conquistadores to their death in a cave.” Manning said.
“How did they die in a cave?”
“They drowned. Sometimes the caves are dry, but sometimes they are filled by underground rivers.”
The two men had left Montego Bay the previous day and had spent the night in the busy coastal town of Falmouth. Zachary had bought a sturdy bay mare, broken, the dealer explained, both for the saddle and the carriage. He had also purchased a harness and a small wagon for the sea chest, which the mare drew behind her. “That’ll make for slow going, to be sure,” Manning had said, shaking his head. “Still, you’ll be able to see the countryside. I’m going in your general direction; I’ll ride with you to the turnoff to Bonnie Valley. Then you’re on your own, but the road is easy to mark and you’ll find your way.”
Zachary had found his coolest clothes and his hat. He was covered in mosquito bites. Manning had laughed when he saw him after the first night. “It’s a West Indian rite of passage,” he said. “You’ll get used to them. Ask your employer for a mosquito net and tuck it under your bedding. And get a house slave to fumigate your room before you retire—mosquitoes don’t like smoke.”
Zachary was happy to be astride the mare after the confinement of the ship. The freedom of his journey, the adventure of it, made him want to laugh out loud. The road followed the contours of the coast and when it lifted, the travelers could see over the coastal vegetation to the sea. The boy had journeyed thousands of miles by ship and had not seen water of such varied colors. He could not swim, but he wanted to throw himself into the sea.
“See where the waves break?” Manning had asked. “That’s the reef. Many ships find themselves dashed to pieces on those rocks. Let’s try a trot, see if that wagon of yours turns over. If we don’t go faster, you’ll have to sleep in the bush tonight.” Zachary kicked the mare into a trot and he was pleased when she broke into a long, low stride that would eat up the miles. What would he call the mare? He thought of the Prospero. Back in Scotland, he had taught himself Greek and Latin and read much of Shakespeare. The mare would be Miranda, he decided.
It was cooler the faster they went. Zachary watched how Manning took advantage of the shade, guiding his horse from one side of the dirt road to the other. The horses’ hooves raised puffs of dust. Huge trees lined the road and Zachary wished he knew their names. “D’ye ken the name of that tree?” he asked Manning, pointing to a large tree with a peeling bark.
“No,” Manning said, uninterested.
The road began to leave the coast, and the forest was dense. The surface of the track became rutted and their progress slowed. A flock of bright green parrots exploded from the tree tops. The horses bolted and before Zachary could bring Miranda to a halt, the wagon tipped over. Luckily, the sea chest was strapped to the wagon. Miranda reared against the sudden dead weight and Zachary jumped off, holding her bridle and speaking softly to her.
Manning whistled. “I’ll wager that’s not the last time you’ll be righting that wagon. You’d best do it on your own, lad. I’ll not be with you much longer.”
Zachary threw the tethering rein over Miranda’s neck. She was still snorting and stamping. “Shush,” he said. “Quiet now.” He walked behind her and tried to right the wagon. He could not move it. Within seconds, his clothes were drenched with sweat. Mosquitoes gathered around his head in a cloud. He wanted to cry.
“Think, lad. You’re far from civilization now. There are few to help on the road,” Manning said.
Zachary sat on the bank. It was hopeless. He could not even get himself from the ship to the plantation. He wanted to go home. Manning waited, still mounted, under a tree with a large grey trunk, small canopy, and buttress roots. “I know the name of this one,” he said, conversationally, looking upwards. “It’s a cotton tree. The darkies say they’re haunted.” Shut your mouth, Zachary thought.
They waited. Miranda put her head down and strained to reach the grass, but the wagon held her immobile. Her flanks were dark with sweat. I cannot stay here, Zachary thought. There must be something. He heard his father’s voice in his mind: You will amount to nothing and I wash my hands of you.
Zachary got up and unhooked the harness. He led Miranda to the bank and tethered her, allowing her to graze. He unstrapped the sea chest and it fell out of the wagon. He heaved the wagon upright and reharnessed Miranda. Then he unpacked the chest, laying his possessions in the dust and weighting them with a stone. He dragged the chest to the wagon and inched it up over the side. “Shush,” he said to Miranda, as her head flashed up. He waited. She flicked her ears and after awhile, lowered her head to the grass. Zachary pitted his strength against the chest and it slid into the wagon. He collected all that he had brought with him and repacked the chest. He replaced the straps that held it fast. He checked his knots and shook the chest. The straps held the chest immobile. And then he untied Miranda and swung into the saddle. For a moment, the world flickered black and yellow and he feared he would faint. His muscles had wasted on the long sea voyage. His clothes were soaked right through and the heat was like punishment. “You brought books,” Manning observed. Zachary said nothing.
“Let’s go, then,” Manning said and they rode on.
Diana McCaulay is a Jamaican writer and environmental activist. Her second novel, Huracan, will be published by Peepal Tree Press in July 2012.