Circle of Shade
With the first crowing of the old rooster that slept high in the thorny lime tree in his backyard, Striker! opened his eyes. Through the bare window-space of his mud and wattle ajoupa the full moon beamed its pale yellow gaze on him. He glared at it, sucking down his lips ugly, and abruptly rolled off the coconut fiber mattress that slept him naked from the hard earth floor. As he stood up, he hawked and spat a mouthful through the window, high at the foredawn sky. A soft breeze came seeking past his face and left the single space of the room still bearing all its comfort. "Don't need no moon eye fix on me," Striker! mumbled and needing to piss, started through the door space for the snake pit.
Last new moon, as he set out on business deep in the night, the brightness at the doorway had stopped him for notice. Although the moon blade skinny, starlight was so strong, shadows were forming their own colors. Taking it in, all of a sudden Striker! had noticed a glitter shifting just past the clearing of the yard; a sheen sliding along around the bole of the old red zaboca tree; a gleaming darkness that slipped through the underbrush with barely a rustle.
Striker!, smooth and silent over the yard's clean-swept dirt, had quicked over to see the snake gradually disappearing into a hole under the buttress roots of the old tree: a big macawoeul, fat around as Striker!'s lithe waist, and two, three times long as him. Judging from its sluggishness and the bulge of its belly, it had just fed, and was returning to its nest to digest the meal.
The two weeks since that morning, that's where Striker! pissed: right down the snake-pit every morning, noon, and night. In the long run, when the snake came out hungry again, it would've grown to accept his scent and to take it as a natural part of its nest, allowing Striker! to tame it easily. In his business, a big old snake was always useful.
He targeted a strong stream and, thinking of business, pictured the land-grabbing woman he had woken up to deal with this morning: one of a settle of families who - despite his undermining efforts - had remained squatting in Striker!'s forests. This one a woman in her prime with two boy children, she had shiny, dark-chocolate skin, short-tempered eyes, a ready, rude mouth, and a long, bold stride. He conjured up her slim-thick legs, her pouting rump swaying defiant. He saw himself with her: on her, holding her wrists to the ground, pegging her, spreading those hostile thighs, licking the angry sweat off her breasts, absorbing all her struggle until there was just submission in her eyes. Then he'd tongue the salt of surrender from her belly, tasting her, teasing her, taunting her will.
Caught in his dream, flushed and panting, Striker! squeezed and tugged the thick shaft of his swelling cock. But when he imagined her hot chocolate face again, the disgusted grimace he pictured there abruptly curdled his passion. His skin crinkled to the chill in the air, as instead, he recalled the one real time he had gone by her board-and-concrete house to try courting . . .
. . . it was a cool, sunshiny afternoon end of rainy season. Bursting cedar flowers were filling the breezes with winged seeds and wood-scent. Broad-leaf tannia had flourished like tall grass all under the forest and hordes of wild pigs rooting tubers were easy to kill - they so dotish on the plenty. From the best hung in his 'joupa, he had taken along a buccaneered haunch for the woman's kitchen. He had crossed the narrow graveled cart-road to their wicket gate, leaned over and put the meat just inside their low bamboo fence. Then he called the house and waited.
He could hear them, feel them, scrutinizing him through their front jalousies. But only the dog came around; hostile, growling suspicion at his meat, sniffing at it with not even a try at a nibble, and glaring red eyes at him. Then Striker! sighted her younger son sidling along in the shadow of the house. Screwed-up faced, he carried a piss-pot of whatever. Quick and scrawny, the ten-year-old had scuttled up and made his awkward toss, nearly splashing himself; most of the mess plopping on the meat, while Striker! easily jumped well out of range.
Half holding to hope, half holding back temper, Striker! had eyed his stunk-up meat and said to the boy, "Sonny-boy, tell yuh mother, I jus' want friendship. Is all. De boucan was a kitchen present." He couldn't stop his voice rising. "Is too much pride to foul up good food so. All you shouldn't do ting like dat."
"I doh carry message for no ol' ugly bushman!" the boy retorted and scampered back to a side door.
Then she set the dog at him; it rushing threats and snarls but well keeping its place behind the bamboo fence. Striker! had given up. Not because of the stupid dog - he could always silence dogs; it was rejection had beaten him down, had dampened his anger like water dousing fired coal.
With half a year though, that same rejection had brewed him a bitter, smoldering resentment at her. While six times the night's pale eye went from golden goad to glittering blade, Striker! watched her house and brooded on why she threw shit at him; on why she felt too high-blood proud and pretty for him. She would've made a fine female friend, but now he'd have to rid himself of her and her boy soldiers altogether. For as she chose to be, he had no need for such a formidable woman. And finally he had hit on the manner of his revenge: his early job today.
Striker! went back in the ajoupa and pulled his hunting pants up over his nakedness and tied its leather belt tight. The coarse, dirt-brown canvas fitted like a loose skin, supporting the weight of his balls, protecting his skinny legs right down to his ankles, shielding him. Wearing the hard cloth, he felt boar-hog indifferent to the densest bush.
Next, from his special corner and using his left hand, he concentrated on gathering materials he needed into a snakeskin draw-pouch. Same left-handed, Striker! put the pouch into a left side pocket. Lastly, he hitched the knife-sheath to his belt and slid his big blade into it. Then he left the 'joupa for his home of forest.
In the foredawn darkness under the canopy, Striker! strode along swiftly and silent, his great callused feet familiar and confident of step. He was in his own place, where he was born free. Every crick and cranny, every pale-green peeping bud, every rotten root and balding knoll, every grassy flat in the woods this side the mountain was his yard, his safe-place. He had come up here, nurtured to natural growing rhythms. Same was his father: born of girl stolen by a bushman grandfather run'way from the yoke fresh off the hell-boat. They'd all grown up in these safe forests, all bred in remembered ways, all raised by free men honoring ancient gods of the ancestors and remaining ever untamed.
And now concrete-house and engines were invading this sacred place; and among them was this high-assed, hot chocolate woman who felt she could spit on him.
Thinking bitterness and with special needs in mind, Striker! headed for another squatter's claim half-mile past the sidetrack to the woman's place. This family - man, woman, four big boys, and a ripe young girl - had greedily boundaried off whole four acres. They worked the plot like oxen, making a garden of short crops like tomatoes, bodie beans, table greens, and such. Once a week, a noisy, smoking jitney groaned up the gravel road to pick up produce they sold in town. Every Saturday evening, the band of them returned grinning over the money they'd reaped out of Striker!'s birthright. Second on his list, he intended a harsh justice for them. For now, though, he only needed a sacrifice.
At night a guard dog prowled their yard, but time ago, Striker! had made friends with it. Now he softly called the brute to him and petted it some before giving it a bit of meat from his pocket. The dog gulped down the tidbit and came slobbering for more. Striker! cuffed it away roughly, stood up from his crouch and started for the backyard trees where the fowls slept.
Easily, quietly, Striker! climbed up the tree towards the white cockerel. When it was in reach, with practiced moves he stifled the bird's head with one hand and twisted sharply, gathering its shuddering body close under his arm to smother the dying efforts of its flapping wings.
Quickly to the ground, Striker! at once ripped the young cock's head off, tossed it away, and drank deeply of the pulsing blood. It splashed warmly on his face and whiskers, his chest, where he absently rubbed it in, matting his hair into sticky clumps. When he had to pause gulping to breathe, he felt the power from the libation rush through him and fill his head almost to a swoon. Striker! closed his eyes and thought prayers of homage to his ancient forest gods. With the grin of a hungry dog, he invoked ferocious Kutua Kalivudun, and frightful Culisha, and Tagwadome Fafume, the malicious forest wraith. From the cockerel's ragged neck, he relished the fresh, gushing blood for them, gorging their terrible appetites, and in exchange, he begged that the might of their fierce magic'd be on his side.
But already the blood was clotting sluggish on his palate. So he pulled the neck skin and feathers down and using his teeth, tore open the bird's chest. The thick, fresh-warm aroma of the entrails filled his nose and his head and made his mouth water. He swallowed ready, viscous spit and probed a careful finger around in the opened body until he located the gallbladder. He cut that out with the left little fingernail, and that done, gave in to gouging out the pink, bubbly lungs and stuffing his mouth with the sweet raw meat.
In response to the gorging, his bulging bowels suddenly rolled loosely, demanding immediate relief. He squatted down there under the fowls' roosting tree and shat, chuckling at the confusion he imagined the later-found turds would cause the land grabbers. For, with their trust in their fence and their watchdog, and their skittish, noisy fowl, they'd never stop thinking wild creatures. Wondering what monster of a hunting animal had made such a huge lump of shit. And that'd be only their lighter frightener. For what if they did think about the dread bushman?
Done, he wiped his asshole with the feathery pelt and, on the way back to his forest's tracks, tossed the cockerel's carcass to the slavering watchdog, smiling again at the trouble it'd pay for its choice early-morning snack.
Just as he had planned, Striker! got to the woman's place as day was cleaning. Opposite in the gloom of the forest, he squatted and waited for her house to come to life. After a while, as usual, the older boy emerged from the kitchen door and went up the backyard to the latrine. In due time the little wiry one followed suit. Patiently, Striker! waited until wisps of blue smoke told him the morning wood fire was lit and the boys would begin their daily routines - the big one making breakfast, the other sweeping the yard. Then Striker! got up, ready to be contrary.
He jogged lightly across the graveled road, approached their low bamboo fence with a burst of speed and leapt cleanly over it - only to land challenged as their growling watchdog appeared from nowhere and with a furious snarl launched itself at him. Quickly bracing himself and swinging powerfully from his shoulder, Striker! punched the flying dog in the nose. With a brief howl it fell heavily against the fence and lay shuddering.
Striker! looked up from the brained dog to find the smaller boy, straw broom in hand, lip hanging slackly, staring in horror. Striker! bared his teeth and grunted at him. The boy shot off towards the back of the house screaming, "Mammie! Mammie! The bushman, the bushman! The dreadman coming. And he just kill Princess!"
Striker! grinned. "Damn right," he muttered, starting for the back of the house, "the dreadman is coming! And he coming set powerful to move out all a'you!" In his left pocket, his hand began dipping into the pouch to gather some special stuff he'd brought.
A window banged open side of the house and the woman was screaming at him, "Mister man, what you doing in my yard?"
Striker! looked at her without answering. This close she was even prettier; even though she was roused for war and still rising. Her eyes were wide in her face - hard black marbles staring from white heat. Forming through her flush, sweat beaded rapidly and rolled over her cheeks and temples.
She screamed again, "Ah talking to you, mister man. What you doing in my yard? What right you have? Why you here stinking down my morning, frightening my children, and making my place ugly? Why the hell you deviling my yard?"
This was what particularly irritated Striker! about the whole set of them - this claim of the land they kept repeating. Where did she, they, get this right from? He said angrily, "Y'all think put up fence is all to do and you inherit land, eh? Own it just so, eh?"
"I do what everybody else do and for that matter, I do much less than most. So don't pick on me! You better leave me alone and go nasty someplace else."
"Is not me that have anywhere to go, madam." said Striker! slowly, "and is not only yuh own hot mouth and yuh own high pride that goin' have you goin'."
"Going? Who saying I going? Look here! Don't you threaten me, mister. Don't you mistake me. I ent no putty woman for you or anybody to shape up as they feel like. You don't frighten me at all. I's mih father one-chile. Dead and gone, he jumbie still mih Tauvudun and for man like you I have all strength. So you measure close the steps you take with me, mister . . ."
The bigger boy interrupted, "Mum. Is true. He kill done Princess!"
The woman's marble stare blinked swiftly and cleared to a dangerous cast. "What's that you saying, chile?" she asked.
The boy replied, "Princess dead. She neck break or something. She laying down by the gate, bleeding from the mouth. But she dead, or soon so."
The woman turned to Striker!, eyes glittering. She screamed at him terribly, "God blast your tricks! You evil fool. I warn you not to try to walk on me." She slammed the window shut and disappeared.
Satisfied, Striker! grunted: she seemed convinced he was serious. She'd soon realize her only way out now was his way. And to make the point, he started for the back where her yardfowl roosted in an old cocoa tree. This morning when they flew down hungry, they'd be gobbling up handfuls of poisoned corn he planned to toss from a pocket. The next matter'd be his knife to the yard animals. And, all or nothing, then it'd be the soldierboys.
Under the cocoa tree, Striker! looked up at feathered bellies and claws of chickens, guinea fowl, turkeys, pigeons; at all the snoozing yardfowl fluffed and huddled up against the early morning chill, yet unready to meet day, allowing Striker! time to summon support of his dread gods. The gods he needed to harden his mind to frenzy he could terrorize from, and to harden his hands into talons of stone to hurt and maim.
He stretched out belly down, humbling himself to his demons, grubbing his nose into the dirt and rotting leaves and fowlshit, fresh and stale. The soil's warm, stinky-sweet aroma rose up from the little gully his rooting chin and nose formed. He sucked the earthy breath noisily into his belly, holding the in-draught long, bloating up himself, clearing way to his soul for the spirits he sought.
And he could feel them coming in. Low in his throat, he moaned into the ground - the vibrations traveling down his chest and guts to his groin, rousing and thickening his nature. As his gods' grip took hold, Striker!'s eyes rolled up white and vacant. Then, serpent supple, he slowly stood up straight and tall, entranced, unmerciful, a weapon cast.
From the corner of his vision, swift movement: the quick younger son, beginning a wail, was coming at him. From a calabash, the boy flung a cloud of powder that hit Striker! square in the face. That made him gasp for air, further smothering himself as the dry, stinging stuff crammed his lungs and forced him to chokes and wheezing.
Overhead, alarmed by his hoarse, stifled coughs, the startled fowl began clucking and squawking; a cackling and fluttering that faded gradually and most strangely eased his breathing to a hollow-shell sound more and more muffled and distant. A lazy, heavy moving noise, as if his raging storm of discomfort was suddenly being squelched in a lake of molasses.
Striker! closed his bulging eyes to the confusing world changing about him; only to confront a multitude of weird shapes and commingling colors shifting through the black window of his mind. Without pattern, they stood or rolled and fused or weaved and thinned or danced and made him think of how the round green grass once frolicked with the black ice smiles of sunny . . . shiny . . . shine . . . he shivered helplessly in the brilliance . . . as the sky's bright grin came falling down, scattering about him in great cold chunks.
From all around, the woman's booming voice came crashing and scratching into him. Words like needles piercing every hair root, screaming: "Hear now, bully man, I warn you fair to leave me be and pass me by. But morning come or not, you choose to bind yourself to midnight. Well, dreadman, now I command you just so. Stay fast with your choice! Be bound!"
A stifling darkness overcame his mind. Her statements - massive and clammy - covered him like rain clouds, exploded heavy in his head like thunderbolts. Then, subject to their demanding sentence, his will dense, weighed down, Striker! at once commenced pacing round and round the shade under the cocoa tree.
Dully stepping. Steadfast stepping. Stepping a careful circle. Staying in the shade. Stepping where he dared not desert. Panicked yardfowl fluttered from their roost, colliding with Striker! in descent. Still he trod true at his circle. Wings and claws flapped and scratched his chest and shoulders. He only continued slapping his broad feet in their constant rut. One guinea hen's foot caught in his braids, clamoring with beating wings until it tore away a lock of hair and was free. Yet Striker! remained unriven from his wheeling way. Off and on, loads of steaming fowlshit splattered down on him. No matter. Striker! kept steadily stepping. Stolid, stupid, step after step . . .
. . . the world went around with a hollow rushing like dry leaves pushed along on a big whooosshh of wind. Yoked to the slapping-feet rhythm of his trek, his mind caught wispy dreams about his squatter-woman driver. He saw her standing arms akimbo in a sunny field, dressed in men's trousers and banded for war with white cloths about her head and belly. She straddled the ground, fiercely guarding it like it'd dropped from her womb. Like she'd bloody the black dirt defending it, be ruthless . . .
. . . he saw her strolling in a garden with her shaman - a cotton headed man, short to her knees, who pranced about her like a playful child, now this side, now that. The ancient carried a square leather box under his arm and every now and again he'd peek into it and grin huge, toothless glee at what he saw inside.
Striker!'s soul squirmed with yearning to know the contents of the box: what powers, potions, secrets? And at last, by enormous striving, he finally got a glimpse: in the box was a cage that held a tiny garden, and under a low tree with swollen leaves dripping milk, a dark, hairy man was chained up like a slave. Big white drops bathed the man's brow, yet he could not drink, his lips being pinned together with great, curved spines.
Still, the desperate man, his head strained back and tears of pain streaming into his ears, was slowly forcing his mouth open against the cruel spines, gradually ripping apart his purpled, punctured lips so he could suck his own blood and slake his horrid thirst. And suddenly Striker! realized the poor, tortured slave was he . . .
. . . long and deliberate as an old tree grows, vague Time passed. Weary, despairing of the endlessness, compelled to trudge the shade of the roosting tree yet again, he went sniveling around . . .
. . . beyond his stepping feet, the world was haze: a shimmering glare where things animals? vudun? people? moved about at odd angles and brightnesses. A nibble of fear, once cowering in his belly, had long grown into a cruel greedy corbeau scavenging his mind peck after peck . . .
. . . over and over one main anxiety beat on him: that she had him altogether now! He could not ever get away. This idea pelted down on him like rain. Only it was a plain fact. He could not ever escape, although to them he was hardly even there . . .
. . . the land-grabbing woman, her children, her fowls, her animals in the yard all went about their business in the daze, treating him like a tree stump. They moved around him like he was another lump of dirt in their yard. He felt empty of presence to them, just like his open ajoupa in its forest clearing was vacant without him . . .
. . . off and on, an enormous melancholy would rise up and choke him, and without relief Striker! would weep . . .
. . . later still, blind in his swoon, unknowing whether he was whispering, or thinking, or heard, or not, Striker! cried out, "O please, miss lady, let me go!" Through the mess of snot and tears, he begged, "Please, lady, lemme go."
. . . more time later, Striker!'s world began slowly righting, and making sense in simple ways. Pain was close on him like sweat. All over his tired back and neck and straining shoulders, scrapes and scratches stung wickedly. But the distresses made sense . . .
. . . he breathed the sweet, very cool air over his rasped throat, starting and flinching as it scraped down to his hot lungs. Still, it soothed . . .
. . . his eyes were sore, his jaws hurt. With every step, he now smelled the stale shit slicking in his pants. He tried to talk, only managed a hoarse groan. Yet, it wasn't so bad as before.
Eventually, looking about blearily, Striker! focused on the spry boy scrutinizing him, and cringing fearfully, he began a violent trembling as the boy boomed, "Mammie, the bushman waking up!"
Each word erupted pain volcanoes in Striker!'s fragile mind. For ease he could only cradle sweaty hands around his tormented head and trudge along drooling like a feebled bull.
The woman came out dressed in men's trousers, her hair bound up, her head banded in white. She approached and commanded, "Stand steady you!"
Striker! stood, his eyes aimed at his foul crusty toes.
"So! You still want to war with me, mister man?" she asked.
Every part of every word hammered echoing hurt into Striker!'s head. Afraid to speak answer and make more noise, he tried to shake his head in silent surrender, but at that, the world shimmered unsteady again. He felt himself close to being down and crawling before her, and grasped at the air for balance. So dreading a fall to that final lowness, he just stood swaying, cowed and quiet.
The woman said, "You is a cockroach now? You can't even mumble? So you want me let you walk and go, eh? And you want to go 'way and come back no more? And you want to leave me and mine in peace? Eh, bushman? Is that all what you want now? Eh? Nothing else?"
Striker!, drudged by the hot, jumping pains in his head and the punishing whip in her tone, couldn't answer. Instead, he began weeping again. After a bit of clearing his throat, he managed to whisper, "Just lemme go, miss lady. Please. No more."
"Listen to him, sons," the woman said, "look at him good. This is what man could be. No more! he says. Pleading now, he is. Remember him so! And you, mister man, don't you ever cross my pathways no more, you hear me!"
Then, from a bowl in her hand, she tossed sprinkles of liquid on his face. "Now, take all that bad yuh bring and leave my yard in peace!" she commanded and turned her back on him.
Then and only then, Striker! felt free to go.
Anxiously, careful to close the wicket gate behind him, Striker! realized the crimson sun setting meant she had trapped and stolen his spirit for a full day. What a power she must have! he thought, shuddering as he slunk across the graveled road and padded back into the forest. Just inside the sheltering fronds, Striker! turned and gazed befuddledly at her place one last time. Then, wearily, woozily, he homed towards his mud and wattle den to huddle and to heal.
(c) Kelvin Christopher James