Shandy stepped back, away from the bridge, and sat down. He had meant to avoid meeting anyone's eyes, but as he looked around tor Hurwood's lantern, he glanced up and found Davies looking straight at him.
The lean old pirate was grinning at him, evidently pleased.
Shandy grinned back in relief, glad Davies understood ... and then he realized that Davies thought he had sat down in order to take off his boots.
And suddenly he knew, unhappily, that he couldn't just sit it out. This was stupid, as stupid as his father pulling a woodworking knife on a gang of Nantes alley toughs, or Captain Chaworth rushing with an unfamiliar sword at a pistol-armed pirate chief; but somehow, perhaps like them, he had been robbed of every way out of it. He took off his boots and stood up again.
By the time Friend tore his gaze away from the ludicrously bobbing figure of Benjamin Hurwood, Shandy's boots and knife lay abandoned in the sand and Shandy was standing in front of him.
"What's the matter?" Shandy asked the fat physician. His voice quavered only slightly. "Can't get familiar with a girl unless she's asleep?"
Friend's face got even redder. "D-d-d-don't b-be ab-ab-ab - d-don't - "
"I think he's trying to say, 'Don't be absurd,' Jack," said Davies helpfully.
"Do you?" asked Shandy, his voice still a little wild. "I thought it was, 'Yeah, because that was the only time even my mother didn't gag at the sight of me.'"
Friend began squawking and stuttering in, weirdly, a little-boy voice; then blood burst from his nose and bright red drops tumbled to his silk shirt-front and soaked into the weave in blurrily cross-shaped stains. His knees started to give, and for a moment Shandy thought the physician himself was about to faint, or even die.
Then Friend straightened, took a deep breath, and, without looking at Shandy, shifted his hold on Beth and stepped up onto the bridge.
Hurwood finally rolled over and smiled at the sky for a few moments, then he twitched, glanced around, winced and got to his feet. He walked to the bridge. "Friend and I will lead," was all he said.
Shandy and Davies followed him onto the bridge's paving stones, and then Bonnett and the boatman stepped from the sand onto the bridge surface.
The boatman instantly collapsed in a pile of loose clothing' Shandy looked more closely and saw that clothing was all that lay on the stones - there was no body.
Hurwood noticed the phenomenon and raised an eyebrow. "Your servant was a dead man?"
"Well ... yes," said Blackbeard.
"Ah." Hurwood shrugged. "To be expected - dust to dust, you know." He turned his back on them and started forward.
For quite a while they walked without speaking - footsteps were the only sounds, and they were just echoless thuds. As much to distract himself as to satisfy curiosity, Shandy began mentally counting paces; and he had counted more than two thousand when the light began to dim again. He found he had no idea how long the dawn period had lasted.
They seemed now to be passing through alternating patches of light and shade, and for a moment Shandy thought he smelled incense. Hurwood began walking more slowly, and Shandy glanced at him.
They were all walking down the center aisle of a church. Hurwood was somehow dressed in a long formal coat, and his hair was brown and long and carefully curled, but the rest of the people in the procession were still dressed in the mud-caked, ragged, scorched clothes they'd worn through the jungle. Hurwood had one hand on the wooden box that was slung at his side, and his other hand swung back and forth as he walked up the aisle ...
He's got his other arm back, thought Shandy with a dreamlike lack of surprise.
Shandy looked ahead, toward the altar. A minister of some sort was smiling as this unsavory crowd approached, but there was an altar boy at a kneeler off to the side who stared at them with far more horror than even their devastated appearance seemed to call for. Nervously, Shandy looked behind himself ...
... And saw just the bridge, and the plain far beyond it, deeply shadowed now in twilight. He turned back toward the church scene, but it was fading. Shandy caught one more whiff of incense, and then the bridge was just the bridge again.
What was that? he wondered. A look into Hurwood's mind, his memories? Did Davies and Blackbeard see it too, or was it just me because I happened to glance at him when he was projecting it?
There were smears of blood on the paving stones ahead of them, and when he reached them Shandy noticed that the drops and smudges and handprints seemed to be the tracks of two bleeding people crawling. He paused for a moment to crouch and touch one wide, splash-edged drop - the blood was still wet. For some reason this profoundly upset Shandy, though he had to admit that it was certainly a minor unpleasantness compared to most of the other recent events. There were no figures, walking or crawling, visible ahead of them, but Shandy kept glancing that way, almost fearfully.
The air here had not ever been particularly fresh, but now it was stale - Shandy smelled boiled cabbage and unchanged bed-sheets. He glanced one by one at his companions; and when he looked at Friend a scene came into focus around the fat physician. The fat man was younger, a boy in fact, and though he was keeping up with Shandy and the others he was lying in a bed. Shandy followed the boy's upward gaze, and was startled to see the vague female forms in diaphanous draperies that twisted slowly overhead. There was a naively exaggerated eroticism about them, like the crude naked-lady pictures a little boy might draw on a wall ... but why did they all have gray hair?
The scene dissolved in a burst of whiteness, and again the bridge was visible underfoot, the shoulder-height walls moving past on either side. Shandy's foot skidded on something that felt like a pebble - but he knew it was a tooth, and the knowledge increased his uneasiness.
Then there was deep sand underfoot, and Davies' face was lit by firelight. His face was fuller, his hair darker, and he wore the tattered remains of a Royal Navy officer's jacket. Shandy looked around, and saw that they were walking along the shore of New Providence Island; Hog Island was dimly visible across the starlit harbor to their right, and cooking fires dotted the sand slope to the left but there were fewer fires, and fewer craft in the harbor, and a couple of big pieces of storm-wrecked ships that Shandy remembered being up on the sand were nowhere to be seen. Shandy couldn't hear the conversation, but Davies was talking to Blackbeard; and though Davies was laughing and shaking his head scornfully, Shandy thought he looked upset - frightened, even. Blackbeard seemed to be making an offer, and wheedling, and Davies didn't seem to be refusing it so much as disparaging it - doubting its genuineness. Finally Blackbeard sighed, stepped back, seemed to brace himself, and gestured at the sand. Shandy smelled hot metal. Then the sand rippled and jumped, as if all the sand crabs were simultaneously struck with apoplexy, and white bones began poking up out of it and rolling and cartwheeling together into a pile; the pile heaved and shifted and shook, then steadied, and Shandy realized it was now a human skeleton in a crouching posture. As Davies stared, his half-smile a rictus of strain now, the skeleton straightened up and faced him. Blackbeard spoke, and the skeleton lowered itself and knelt on one bony knee, and it lowered its skull head. Blackbeard then made a dismissing gesture, at which the skeleton sprang apart and resumed its status as just a scattering of old bones, and Blackbeard continued his soliciting speech. Davies still didn't answer, but his air of amused skepticism was gone.
Then Shandy was once more walking on blood-spattered paving stones.
"Are we getting any closer to the goddamned place?" he asked. As he spoke, he was afraid his voice would betray his mounting fear, but the dead air here muffled his words, and he hardly heard them himself.
They kept walking. A couple of times Shandy thought he heard scuffling sounds, and gasping sobs, ahead of them on the bridge, but it was too dark for him to see clearly.
The air seemed heavy, like syrup so thick that one more grain of sugar would cause the whole works to crystallize; and, though it terrified him to do it, Shandy couldn't prevent himself from turning to look at Blackbeard ... and he did look, and for a while Shandy stopped being Shandy.
He was a fifteen-year-old boy known to the outlaw mountain blacks as Johnny Con, though since his misuse of some of the spells of the hungan he'd been serving, he was no longer a fit assistant for a respectable vodun priest, and had no further right - nor even inclination anymore - to call himself an adjanikon; Ed Thatch was his real name, his adult name, and in three days he'd be entitled to start using it.
Today would be the first day of his baptism to the loa that would be his guide through life, and whose goals he would henceforth share. The black marrons who had raised him since childhood had this morning escorted him down from the blue mountains to the house of Jean Petro, a legendary magician who had documentably lived here for more than a hundred years, and was said to have actually made many loas, and had to live in a house on stilts because of the way dirt turned rusty and sterile after any long proximity to him; compared to Petro, every other bocor in the Caribbean was considered a mere caplata, a street-corner turnip-conjuror.
The marrons were escaped slaves who, having originally lived in Senegal, and Dahomey, and the nations of the Congo coast, had no difficulty adapting to life in the mountain jungles of Jamaica, and the white colonists were so unnerved by this dangerous and unforgiving population that they paid the blacks a seasonal tribute in exchange for sparing the outlying farms and settlements; but even the marrons refused to venture within half a mile of Jean Petro's house, and the boy walked alone down the long path that led to the garden and the livestock pens and, finally, the house on stilts.
A stream ran behind the house, and that's where the old man was - Thatch could see his bare legs, knobby and dark as blackthorn walking sticks, below the raised floor. Thatch was of course barefoot, and he made a "Be silent" gesture at the chickens poking around under the house and then padded across the dusty front yard as noiselessly as the shifting speckles of sunlight. When he had moved around the corner of the house, he could see that old Petro was walking along the stream bank, pausing here and there to lift one squat bottle after another out of the water, peer into the clouded glass, rattle his long fingernails against it, hold the dripping bottle to his ear, and then shake his head and crouch to put it back and fish up another.
Thatch watched while he kept it up, and finally the old bocor's face curdled in a smile when he listened to one bottle, and he rattled his nails on it again; and then he just stood there and took turns tapping the bottle and listening, like a dungeon-confined prisoner whose measured wall-clinking has at long last elicited, however remotely, a response.
"It's our boy, sure enough," he said in a scratchy old-man's voice. "Gede, the loa who's the ... chief foreman, sort of, of the one who wants you."
Thatch realized the old man was aware of him and was talking to him. He stayed where he was, but he called, " 'Wants me'? I chose him."
The old man chuckled. "Well, anyway, that one ain't in the creek here, and we need Gede to call him. Of course even Gede's only here tokenly. This is only a part of him, in this jar, his belly button, you might say - -just enough to compel him." Petro turned around and hobbled back to the yard where Thatch stood. "The dead become more powerful as time goes by, you see, boy. What was just an unquiet ghost to your grandfather could be a full-fledged loa to your grandchildren. And I've learned to bend 'em, train 'em in certain directions like you would a vine. Farmer plant a seed in the ground and one day have a tree - I put a ghost in a bottle under running water and one day I have a loa." He grinned, revealing a few teeth in white gums, and waved the bottle back toward the stream. "I've grown near a dozen to maturity. They ain't quite the quality of the Rada loas, the ones that came with us across the ocean from Guinee, but I can grow 'em to fit what I need."
The chickens in the shade under the house were recovering from Thatch's gesture, and began clucking and fluttering. Petro winked, and they shut up again. "Of course," Petro went on, "the one that wants you - or that you want, if you prefer - old Baron Samedi, he's a different sort of beast." He shook his head and his eyes narrowed in what might have been awe. "Every now and then, no more than twice or three times in my whole life, I think I've accidentally made one that was too much like ... some thing or other that already existed, was already out there, and the resemblance was too close for 'em to keep on being separate. So suddenly I had a thing in a bottle that was too big to fit ... even just tokenly. My damn house was nearly knocked over when Baron Samedi got too big - bottle went off like a bomb, tossed trees every which way, and the creek didn't refill for an hour. There's still a wide, deep pool there. Nothing'll grow on the bank and every Spring I've got to net dead pollywogs out of it."
Young Thatch stared indignantly at the bottle. "So what you got in your beer bottle there is just some servant of Baron Samedi's?"
"More or less. But Gede's a top-ranking loa - he's number-two man here just because the Baron is so much more. And like any other loa Gede must be invited, and then entreated, using the rites he demands, to do what we ask. Now, I've got the sheets from the bed a bad man died in, and a black robe for you, and today is Saturday, Gede's sacred day. We'll roast a chicken and a goat for him, and I've got a whole keg of clairin - rum - because Gede is lavish in his consumption of it. Today we'll - "
"I didn't come down from the mountains to deal with Baron Samedi's bungo houseboy."
Jean Petro smiled broadly. "Ohhh!" He held the bottle out toward the boy. "Well, why don't you tell him that? Just hold the bottle up to the sunlight and peek in through the side until you see him ... then you can explain your social standards to him."