On Oleander Road, near midnight, Jean beheld a strange procession.
He supposed he had sat down at the road's edge, as he might have done in some country lane of the north, above his City. Here there were snakes and poisonous toads, hairy lianas, vampire insects—but he was past considering them. He did not sleep but sank into a stupor, in which he was aware of moisture, the dew of old rains dripping down, and things that hastened over his hands. The moon crossed the road, and when it was gone, through the dark a throbbing seemed to come, like the pulse of blood along an artery.
Jean gazed with dull eyes. Presently the curtains of night were parted, and from some obscure avenue among the trees of the forest, a troop of men and women emerged onto the road. They looked themselves black as the night, and would not have been easy to see but for the fact many of them wore light-colored garments that shone in a skull-faced flicker of lanterns. Jean noticed that several of the women carried bunches of some plant. It was not unfamiliar, perhaps he had seen it growing wild here and there, an ugly shrub, stringy, like an uncombed horse's tail.
The leader of these people was a tall man dressed in white. He stalked ahead as if alone, staring directly before him. He held a whip with a bone handle. There was also a girl who lugged in a wicker cage two or three black birds that jumped and flapped, but their outcry was lost in the drums and a deep, ceaseless murmuring that went with them up the road.
Jean was aware, incoherently, that he looked on something that maybe it would have been better he had not seen. There was an overt secrecy to the procession, which seemed to make no attempt to hide itself simply because, by an inexorable law, it must not be witnessed.
When the vision had disappeared into the tunnel of the road going in the direction perhaps of Dargue's estate, Jean stayed motionless, listening after the fading drumbeat, until it mingled with the beating of his own heart in his ears.
When he moved again, it was with a stupefied caution. He was not afraid, but he suspected he should be.
He stumbled on, and with no further encounter, came eventually back to the brink of the Town. Here, earlier, he had found a possible lodging. Having climbed the wall, he slept in the garden of this place, for he would not rouse them at that hour, the prohibitions of his upbringing forbade such a thing. It was almost dawn in any case. The sky's membrane palpitated. Beneath a mango tree with savage leaves he fell, and using his bag for a pillow, began to tell himself mindlessly over and over what he must do. That all there was to do now was to seek labor, as a clerk, or even at a meaner occupation, earning his return passage to the City. What else could he attempt? For he was like a somnambulist roughly wakened. The dream had misled; he had lost his way.
Although he could not sleep, every now and then the image of the procession on Oleander Road went swaying through his thoughts, scattering them.
Had the procession been going to the house of Dargue? But they had told him on the ship, the black race of the islands hated the white race. The last wave of the Revolution, breaking there, had freed the slaves of Ha"issa, but made of them instead mostly serfs. And those that had become black masters, in their turn, hated too, in a more perilous, educated manner, anything that was pale, even where darkness ran just visibly under the skin.
This was a land of nightmares, this country he had woken up in. He must get home. Anything else was futile. He was broken.
It is probable Jean went mad that night. Of course he had been tinged by insanity for years, for all his life. But like a deadly flower it burst open in him then, in the hours on the road, going back, cheated. Beneath the mango in the garden of the lodging house.
That is not to say his madness was incurable.
When day arrived, he heard persons stirring in the house and went and claimed his room there. Next, having washed himself and shaved, he went into the Town to look for employment. He did all this very correctly, and like a man with no soul. There is a name for this condition in the islands, and he was to hear it quite soon.
In the afternoon, when a bruised light hung over the Town, the outrider of the storm that usually occurred daily at that season, Jean de St. Jean was sitting in the dusty little office of someone who might be willing to give him some work. He had been waiting an interminable time, which was in reality only a few minutes, and his nerves were urging him sluggishly but repeatedly to get up and leave, for this could be no use to him. Then the door opened, and a black man entered.
He was dressed as a laborer, and his personal scent was strong, like the musk of the panther. He looked directly at Jean and, without a word, jerked his feline head toward the street.
Jean saw this, and said, «What do you want?»
He had not achieved the proper purblind arrogance of the white in Ha"issa, or the proper uneasiness either. He reacted as he would have done to something unreal yet fundamentally inimical. To a threatening and superior thing.
The man did not answer him, but poised there, plainly expecting Jean to get up and go out with him.
Jean was so exhausted, so demoralized and unhinged, that in a moment this was exactly what he did.
When they were on the street, Jean said, «But—«
That was all.
They went down and down, through a kind of corkscrew of streets, where vines and palms poured over walls, and the houses came to be built of planks and tin. Finally there was a space, and a rickety hut with a tin roof, and the black man pointed at its door.
«Who are you?» said Jean.
The black man laughed. He looked like a god when he did so, lawless and all-wise. Then he spat on the ground and walked off another way, and Jean was left there, at the bottom of the corkscrew, with only the door in front of him. So he pushed the door wide.
Inside was the dusk again, redolent with such stuff as cooked rice, blood, spice, tobacco, washing, and rum. He could make out no furniture, but some black beings were seated on the earth floor in an open circle, and before them was a scatter of objects lit by one window. Jean saw dried beans and cards, a shawl, a fruit, and the bones of a dog brightly painted.
«Shut our door,» said a voice.
Jean drew the door in against him, and the shack became more solid and less visible, and the bones glowed, and the white eyes in the faces like ebony, like beautiful alien masks, and like nothing human.
«Sit down with us,» someone said. And someone else gave a cruel laugh.
Jean remained in the shut door. They were figments of a new dream.
Finally, a man said from the circle, «M'sir Dargue is dead. Are you sorry he dead?»
Jean choked back a confused reply. He felt compelled to respond, unbearably excited, could not speak.
«Why you would want him alive?» said the voice.
There was a great attention then. They focused it upon Jean. He did not know how many of them there were, but the eyes fastened on him like claws.
«Alive—so I—« said Jean.
«He not loved, Monsieur Dargue,» said the voice. The others purred in the dark. «No one is sorry.»
Jean covered his face with one hand. He longed, as though to vomit, to evict the cry: My father's murderer! It would not come.
«You not sorry,» said the voice, soothingly.
The illness flooded from Jean, the words released him. He said hoarsely, «Yes, I came to kill him. Too late.»
«Not so. We give him you, for killing.»
And the others purred.
They were smiling at him. In every night of a face a sickle moon.
But Dargue was dead.
«We invite you to come our God-Place,» said the first voice. A black hand reached out and took up one of the bones from the ground. The bone moved as if still alive, and animal. «We invite M'sir Dargue. We fetch him. You be surprised. But we give you have M'sir Dargue, because you want him so.»
Jean thought they must have pursued him back along Oleander Road on the previous night, and read his mind. They were sorcerers, so much was apparent. He had always half believed in sorcery.
But what were they saying? That Dargue was not dead, but in some way their prisoner?»
«You pay the price,» said the voice.
Jean said, «I haven't any money—«
They purred again. The shack reverberated. Jean thought, Not money. It isn't that. Something they want and I want, but I must pay and then they need not.
He thought, very clearly: What am I doing? Where am I? What is happening to me? And someone else said, «This is the Religion of the Night.»
Then he was sitting close by them on the earth floor, cooking hot as if above a volcano, with his back to the wall and the tin ceiling above, from which feathers and paper blossoms and bells hung on threads. A mirror floated in space, like a tear, a small lizard clinging to its cracked, uneven rim. A black woman was giving him drink out of a calabash gourd. It was rum with something sweet. Jean drank, and thanked the woman, and she laughed, and touched his brow with her finger. Her touch was like a star, it burned.
Rain was drilling on the tin roof. They had given him a direction, where he must go tonight, not too late….
«No,» said Jean.
Jean returned to his lodging and dozed feverishly on the bed. He dreamed his Aunt Andromede was standing over him, wringing her hands, saying, «Let me advise you, Jean,, you mustn't go anywhere with such people.» But there were feathers pinned into her tight hair.
The storm flew toward the sea, and the evening descended clear, as stars rose up through it.
He went out and moved toward a market at a crossroads known as Horse Tail. He had already asked the way. He received solemn looks and vague replies, until a wizened black woman had shown him the route, drawing a diagram in the dust. Still, he meant to be late. He did not guess why he was going. They might set on him, though there was surely no motive. He was destitute; he had done nothing to annoy them, except that being alive might be enough. He concluded they meant to play some trick. But he was drawn as if by a magnet. It allowed him to dawdle, but not to resist.
It was dark when he reached the crossroads. There were some carts and awnings, and fires burning on the ground, and candles in gourds strung up. Commerce of a desultory type was in progress, scrawny chickens changing hands, some barter over beans and pots of jelly.
The market ignored Jean, as if he were invisible. Then a man came walking straight between the carts, the refuse, and the market seemed to make way for him. He wore a black robe, black on black, but in his hand was a whip with a white bone handle.
When he reached Jean, there were all at once five or six other men at this man's back.
The man said to Jean, «Come, now. We invite you.»
And turning away, he strode off again, toward the forest and the hills. The other men went with him and, pulled as though by tough cord, Jean walked after them.
The God-Place crouched in a somber clearing. Water ran close by, snarled in the roots of an enormous tree, making a weird tearing sound. The roof of the temple was thatched, with an open court beneath, enclosing the sanctum, and full of the night people of Haissa. As the man with the whip had ascended the forest path among his guard, and Jean followed, he heard the subterranean notes of conch shells blowing in the woods above. When the temple came in sight, and they approached it, these shells were blown again, a dubious, threatening greeting.
The man with the whip strode to a boundary of the court, which was marked by some small heaps of meal, petals, and paper. He used the whip's bone handle to point with. «You will stand there. You say nothing. If you fear and run away, you not get what you come for.» He did not look at Jean, had never really looked into Jean's face or eyes.
Jean did not protest. He went to the indicated spot at the perimeter of the court. Five women who had been grouped inside the boundary, near where he must stand, ebbed away, turning their shadow masks from him.
The man with the whip passed into the temple. They had brought a chair and set it by the entry to the inner shrine. The chair had an abnormally high and upright back resembling a coffin. The whip man seated himself, and the crowd in the court deferred to him. Evidently he was their priest, and their magician.
The skull lamps of the calabash gourds burned from the thatch, and here and there glimmered wicks in cups of oil. The light only made one with the darkness. And the smell of the God-Place was intense and disturbing.
A girl in white came flaunting over the court. She carried a lighted candle and a jar of clear rum, from which she poured a libation under the central post of the thatch roof. Another white-clad girl came after her, an echo, a smoke-ghost. She poured flour or meal on to the ground in a pattern. A third girl came with a snake's rattle in each hand, and she whirled like a top until her white and her black merged into a vortex, out of which all three girls seemed to vanish away.
Then the three drums of the spirits began, and Jean saw the Dance of the Religion of the Night, a forbidden thing, both prayer and invocation, during which power descends, along the temple's very spine, and rays out among those who call themselves the Night Beasts, the black lynxes of the hills, whose true hills are older yet and whose rites began in cities of stone and bone when white men only whimpered at their cave mouths, afraid of all things and the dark especially, with some continuing cause.
Jean saw how the people formed into a black serpent of flesh, a body of many parts linked by a communal soul. And they passed about the spine post of the temple in the ancient benign positive right-to-right motion known in the Craft of Europe as God's Flowing, and commemorated by artisans in the action of clocks and watches. The steps of the Dance were a rapid stamping and tossing, and the drums formed these steps out of the muscle and skeleton of every dancer, lifting them, setting them down. The names of the three drums, which were later told to Jean, were the little cat's drum, and the drum of the second, and the mother Drum, which roars like a she-bull under the ground, the earthquake birth, the summoner.
As he watched, Jean felt his own body beginning to move with the rhythm of the Dance, although, too, he was rooted to the spot. A crazy exhilaration rose with the sweat and perfume of the God-Place. Naturally, educated and refined as he had been, Jean was instinctively resistant to it. He could not and would not give himself to the surge of power. He stayed outside, his breathing rapid and shallow and his eyes on fire, steeled, aroused, dismayed, in chains.
After a while, out of the dancing serpent, a young woman broke away. She raised her arms and screamed aloud. The dancers gave her room. She was the mare-horse, and one would come to ride her.
She was the mare among the Night Beasts and the horseman would possess her, riding in her skin, a god mounting her, and she would lose herself, gaining him.
The woman who was possessed was now in an open space against the central post. Her eyes were like blind windows, yet something flashed behind them. A girl in a pale robe came to the woman and handed her a black hen. Its terrible fluttering exploded in blood and feathers as the possessed tore off its head and wings with her teeth.
The woman flung the hen down, and drawing a pin from her dress, she thrust it through her arm, once, twice, three, four, five times. Jean beheld the bright point going in and coming out of her, but there was no blood now, no pain. She danced on the carcass of the dead bird, twirling and shouting.
The magician-priest had risen from his coffin-chair. He pointed at the woman, and all at once the blood-beat of the drumming fell away, leaving behind an extraordinary absence, as though part of the very ground had dropped into space. He spoke in the patois, which Jean did not truly understand. It was evidently a welcome.
The possessed ceased her whirling. She stood before the priest, laughing with tiger's teeth. Then she cried out in a deep man's voice; Jean caught the idea that she was now a lord and would be obeyed.
The priest nodded and bowed. Clearly he said, «Lead us.»
And then the woman, or whatever she had become, went springing out of the court, and bounded away through the clearing, and the dancers broke and raced after her.
Jean stood still, not knowing what to do, until fingers brushed on his arm and someone said to him, «We go to the graveyard now.»
He did not see who spoke, and the hand was gone from him like the flick of a paw.
He turned and half staggered into the rear of the swirling wave. It accepted him and rolled with him away across the clearing and up into the matted forest darkness sprinkled with wild stars.
Afterward—that is, one month later—Jean conjectured that some drug might have been pressed on him. Though he ate and drank nothing throughout the ceremony of the Night, yet there were certain poisons he had heard the Night Beasts used, and these, rubbed into the skin, worked very swiftly on the blood and brain.
As he ran through the forest, Jean had only the sensation of forward motion, and that his eyes were strangely enlarged, like those of some nocturnal animal. It occurred to him he saw, in glimpses, creatures that normally a man does not easily see— birds upon branches, lizards and frogs, etched in fine silver…. There were other things, too, of which only the vaguest impression was left—of a huge man, naked but for a cloak, of a species of demon that grew in the trees like leaves, of a woman anointing herself in a glade. None of them were real, yet he saw, and acknowledged, each of them, as he ran by.
The graveyard must have been some way up behind Oleander Road. It was presumably respectable, but to the Beasts of Night, open as a door. They made an invocation at the gate, and again it seemed something went prancing along the wall, but it was gone before Jean could identify it.
His next formed impression—which was abnormally apparent, in fact—was of a woman he took for a priestess standing out before the others at a place where the ground was freshly dug. All around were Christian crosses and ornate monuments on which the lianas fed in a still gray moonlight. There was a headstone, too, naked and unfinished, and here the woman's snakelike shadow fell. She wore white, like the others, but it was a gown that might have come from Jean's City, ivory satin, sashed, and sewn with brilliants, leaving her shoulders bare as smooth black lacquer. She wore a plumed hat also, and a white domino with scintillants stitched about the eyes. He did not know where she had come from. He thought she carried a fan, then he saw it was a bunch of the ugly horsetail plants. She smiled as she stood over the new grave. Jean could make out no name on the headstone, but there was no need.
The priestess straddled the grave in her satin gown. She frisked the horsetail in the air and shook her head of plumes. From everywhere there came then the clacking together of rocks and stones.
Jean held his breath, could not catch it, had surrendered. He believed in anything at this moment, and accordingly, liberated night did not fail him.
«Monsieur Dargue!» cried the night, in all its voices, over and over again.
Jean found that he had called out, too.
And the stones clacked.
And something pranced along the wall, and there went the possessed woman whirling with a burning branch in her hands, and a man's face, and the black masks all turned one way and the moon that was like a quartered fruit—
And the earth on the grave shook. It shook and shattered and a piece of wood shot up out of it, and the satin priestess screamed down into the grave, «Come out, come out, come out!» And then half a wooden coffin lid burst up and stood on end and a colorless white man's hand came creeping out of the soil like a blind crab.
The priestess stayed as she was. She never moved. The strength that seared from her was hot and palpable as the smell of living bodies and decay.
Then the ground fissured, and Dargue came up out of it.
Instantly the noise of the rocks and the shouting ended in a dense ringing silence.
Dargue stood in the bell glass of it, or what had been Dargue, a sort of man, clad in a nightshirt, and a crucifix on his breast pushed sideways. His nails were torn and dirty where he had used them to thrust off the coffin, a feat of great strength, which, alive, he might have been incapable of. His face was a dead man's face. He had lost his good angel, they said, soul-gone .
The dead eyes did not look around, the head did not turn, having got up from his bed he did not stir.
»Ha! » said the priestess. And she spat a stream of something that glowed into his face; it might only have been the white rum. Then she moved aside.
Some men ran forward. They carried the horsetails in their hands, and with these they slashed Dargue across the head and body. The spiky plants made wounds in his flesh, but Dargue did not bleed. He did not attempt to protect himself, and when, quite suddenly, he fell to his knees, the gesture evoked neither pity nor satisfaction, it was plainly only that the tendons of his legs had relaxed.
Jean stared at what he was witnessing, and now he tried desperately hard to feel something in response. Perhaps he did not even know that this was what he did. He was not afraid, no longer exhilarated. If anything, he felt very tired, for he had not slept properly or eaten much, and everything was alien, and therefore somehow all strangeness had abruptly become mundane.
What he tried most to feel was his anger, hatred of Dargue. It was there within him, but he could not get hold of it. It had faded to a memory.
The priestess moved up in front of Jean. She looked as thought she were laughing at him, her wonderful dreadful teeth glittering. Her hands were gloved as if for the opera, and she was balancing on them, before him, a sword.
She nodded, and the plumes in the hat fluttered, while the sword was motionless.
«What do you want me to do?» said Jean. He used the stupidity as an amulet, but of course it was ineffectual.
«Take the sword,» said the black priestess. And she put it gently into his hands, which had somehow risen to grasp it.
The Beasts of the Night waited, and the moon waited, and the graveyard, and the Island, and Dargue who was dead, he waited too.
Jean went across the silent ground, toward Dargue, who kneeled there with his head sunk on his breast.
In all his least lawful, most incoherent dreams, Jean had never deployed his vengeance in this fashion.
He used both hands and all his strength to swing the sword backward and forward again, ramming it in through the wall of Dargue's chest, through the linen, and through the flesh, which crumbled like biscuit. A trickle of murky stuff oozed out. A rib snapped and came pointing from the cavity. The body of Dargue crumpled over and took the sword with it out of Jean's grip.
Jean stood there like a fool, feeling nothing except a faint disgust, until someone should tell him what to do now.
Shortly someone did come up, and murmured—was it courteously?—that he might go, his portion was finished, out of the gate, and follow the path, and he would soon come to the edges of the Town, with the moon to watch over him.
So he stepped off the grave and walked away.
He kept repeating to himself as he went, My father's murderer .
This did not help.
Then, when the graveyard had been left behind and he was on a rambling track through the forest, with the moon glimpsing out like a girl's face among the balconies of the trees, he saw what he had done, that he had cheated death in an odd, insulting manner, and this was why he had been allowed to perform the act with the sword, since death was probably venerated here, and to cheat him was such a bit of cheek it must require payment.
But all Jean wanted, actually, by this stage, was to find his lodging and go to sleep. He no longer cared about anything else. He shook everything off him as he went on, like dust from his coat. And like dust, some of it was already in his system, he had swallowed it, it was a part of him.
When he reached the lodging house he no longer had scruples about waking them up. He knocked and banged on the shutters. When they let him in, he crawled through the house and dropped on the mattress in his clothes, with the dust of night in his belly, mind, and spirit. And without a single dream that he knew of he slept, like the dead.