It was damn hot riding in the sun. The heat shimmered above the land as the laborers stooped, placing the short pieces of cane with a bud eye into the prepared planting rows. In the field next to them, the cane crop was already knee-high. My father had instigated rotational planting years ago, when the plantation had been like a new toy to him, and he’d spent several years here himself. As long as you avoided having the cane ripen during the rainy seasons—too much moisture could ruin the crop in its final days—you could stagger the planting and guard against market highs and lows. In theory.
Sugar, I could still hear him lecturing over the dining room table, will be money in the bank long after Entwhile has ceased to be. Sugar is a drug. The whole world craves it. And unlike opium, we don’t even have to feel guilty about it. Why, grandmothers give babes in arms something sweet to calm their fretting. But it’s a drug nonetheless. Never forget that.
Despite my father’s passion for sugarcane, my mother refused to leave England, and so he’d run the plantation by correspondence for years. Several lazy and unscrupulous overseers had turned Crosswinds from a productive enterprise into a liability. I knew that if I could turn it back from ruin, I would at last be the favored son. Let my older brothers, Rupert and Harry, toady along at my father’s side at Entwhile. Father’s heart was in Jamaica.
Tuttle had let the rotational cropping go, too drunk to rouse himself or the laborers more than once a year for planting. The field we were working now had been reclaimed by the wild grasses and ferns, and it had been an almighty struggle to plow it. It made me angry. Three months since I’d arrived, and I was still angry at how Tuttle had abused my father’s trust, claiming in his letters to be doing work that had never been done. And, from the whispers I’d heard, taking advantage of the laborers too. We paid them a pittance in wages since slavery had been abolished, but they still needed the money. There were few ways to earn your daily bread in Jamaica. A ruthless man could use that leverage to force the poor wretches to do whatever he wanted.
Looking at their bent bodies working away, sweating in the sun, the idea turned my stomach. The women came in all hues, from a medium caramel to nearly black. They wore full skirts in faded colorful cotton, tucked up to their knees to avoid the mud, billowy, long-sleeved shirts, and handkerchiefs tied around their heads. The cotton was their shield from the sun. I could not fathom wanting to rut with such bodies. The older men covered themselves too, but the younger ones… some of them tied the long sleeves of their tunics around their waist so that their sweat-slicked muscles were exposed.
I tried not to look at them at all.
I called a break at noon, and Sally and Morning went among the laborers, passing out buttered bread and fried plantains. It did not seem to bother the natives to sit in the sun, but my own head, accustomed to the English gloom, was spinning. I made for the shade of the trees that edged the field.
Crosswinds lay at the foot of a small mountain so that one could walk up into the forest and look down on the property and on out to the distant sea. The plantation looked perfect from up there—idyllic and green—until you got up close enough to see the neglect, to see the green was out of control and threatened to swallow us all up again.
I had just tied my horse and taken the water from my saddle when I saw a woman—Tiyah was her name—approaching the trees. She acted like she didn’t see me, her face fiercely intent on her internal thoughts. She disappeared into the forest.
I would normally have let her go, assuming she was going to relieve herself or spend the short break out of the heat. But the look on her face stirred my curiosity. And also, it was Tiyah. She was a tall woman, not young but not yet old, and handsome for her people. She had a commanding presence that, to be honest, intimidated me, though I would never admit it. I’d heard whispers among the servants in the house—about going to Tiyah for aches and pains, blessings or advice. She was an Obeah woman, a practitioner of that folk magic that so fascinated me. My mother would have been horrified at such heathen ways and refused to have her on the plantation. But I had the advantage of an education at Eton and Cambridge, where my mind had been opened to the wonders of the natural world, of travel and exploration. Oh, the long nights Richard and I had spent, up talking until dawn about distant peoples and places we’d read about in the tales of Marco Polo and lurid magazines.
This would make an interesting letter to Richard. That made up my mind. Leaving my horse safely tied, I followed Tiyah on foot.
She took a well-trod trail through the forest up the hill. I stayed as far back as I could, but she was oblivious to me. At times I caught snatches of her muttering. It was nearly a chant in a singsong voice, but I couldn’t make out the words.
The tree cover was thick and buzzing with insects, and I nearly stumbled right on top of her before I saw that she had stopped.
To the side of the trail was a small ridge where a narrow footpath edged out to a looming rocky face. There was a natural depression in the face of the rock that was the size of a large steamer trunk. It had been made into a sort of shrine. Tiyah knelt in front of it and lit a half-dozen candles. In and among the candles were a host of items—a bottle of rum, a beaded necklace, small bones, a loaf of bread, coins, scraps of brightly colored cloth, and a statuette of what looked like the Virgin Mary only with a black face and hands.
I watched from the cover of the trees, delighted to be seeing the native practice with my own eyes.
After lighting the candles, Tiyah spoke in urgent patois. I’d picked up a few words from hearing my servants speak. The patois the natives spoke was a mix of English words and African, though the pronunciation made the English words challenging to recognize. But there was no mistaking the pleading tone of her request, or the main thread of it.
“Erzulie, I beg you! Erzulie, save my daughter!”
Tiyah took a white handkerchief stained with blood from a pocket and placed it on the shrine. Then she removed a plantain leaf and carefully unwrapped it to reveal a small chunk of ice.
I knew there were ice ships from the north that visited the docks, but I could not imagine how she’d managed to keep such a thing from melting through her morning work. Perhaps it had been much larger to start. She offered it with both hands, placing it in front of the candles.
I was still pondering it in my mind when she rose and turned toward me, done with her prayers. I started to dive back into the trees, but I realized it was too late and I would only look like a namby-pamby fool. So I straightened my spine and stepped out.
“Tiyah,” I greeted her firmly, not wanting to appear apologetic. “Get along back to the field now.”
She didn’t move. Her eyes stared into mine with both confusion and a kind of challenge. “You follow me, Missah.”
I thought of making up a lie, but such instincts had been beaten out of me in my youth. My father had never tolerated a liar. “I did. I was curious. You’re not in any trouble. Go join the others.”
She took one deliberate step closer to me and tilted her head, her eyes narrowing as she studied me.
I refused to be afraid of her, Odeah woman or not. I might be curious, but I was no gullible fool. Like many folk beliefs—curses, the “evil eye”—Odeah was based on sympathetic magic. As a man of learning, I knew it was all folderol in the end, even if it was rather fascinating.
Then I realized the look in her eyes was not threatening. At least not that way. She looked like she wanted to… lick me. I felt my body blush. I was no gullible fool for that either. I had no interest in picking up a paramour, as some of the English here did.
If she wasn’t going to obey my order, I’d simply turn and go myself, haughtily, as if I expected her to follow as a matter of course. As I started to leave, she spoke.
“You curious, Missah? About dis?” She waved at the shrine.
I raised my chin. “From a scientific standpoint, yes.”
She laughed. “Den ask what you will, young scientist.”
She was mocking me, but it didn’t feel ill-meant. And why should I not ask, if she was willing to tell me? I thought of what Dr. Hodgets would do.
“Why the ice?”
Her face grew grave, a shadow passing over her. “My… daughter. She very ill. Fever. Seven days now. If it do not break soon, she die. The gods burn her up.”
“So the ice is… a sign of what you want them to do—cool her down. Is that right?”
“Yes.” She looked at me fiercely. “I speak to de loa, but actions, tings, are better than words. Words!” She spit it out like it was poison. “Words make promises and break dem, like a lamp trown at de wall.”
I had nothing to say to that. It was true enough, I supposed. I wanted to ask more about the gods, about the shrine, but I could see she was troubled about her daughter and it was not the time.
“Has she seen a doctor?”
Tiyah shot me an angry glare. “White medicine—only for those with plenty white money.” With that she pushed past me and headed down the trail.