Zora And The Zombie
by Andy Duncan
Andy Duncan's fiction has appeared in magazines such as Asimov's Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Conjunctions, Weird Tales , and SCI FICTION , and in anthologies such as Starlight 1, Eclipse One, Mojo: Conjure Stories , and Wizards . Much of his short fiction has been collected in Beluthahatchie and Other Stories , which won the World Fantasy Award. Duncan won the World Fantasy Award, again, for his story «The Pottawatomie Giant» and won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for «The Chief Designer.» He also co-edited (with F. Brett Cox) the anthology Crossroads: Tales of the Southern Literary Fantastic . When not writing, Duncan teaches in the Honors College of the University of Alabama and works as a senior editor at a business-to-business magazine.
This story was a finalist for both the Stoker and Nebula awards. It was also reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror , and in that volume, Duncan is quoted as saying that he'd been inspired by the work of Zora Neale Hurston for years, but that this story was the first time he'd attempted to write about her. «I marvel that many readers, judging from their comments, never heard of Hurston,» he says. «Had I realized beforehand that this story would be many readers' introduction to her I wouldn't have dared write it.»
«What is the truth?» the houngan shouted over the drums. The mambo, in response, flung open her white dress. She was naked beneath. The drummers quickened their tempo as the mambo danced among the columns in a frenzy. Her loose clothing could not keep pace with her kicks, swings and swivels. Her belt, shawl, kerchief, dress floated free. The mambo flung herself writhing onto the ground. The first man in line shuffled forward on his knees to kiss the truth that glistened between the mambo's thighs.
Zora's pencil point snapped. Ah, shit. Sweat-damp and jostled on all sides by the crowd, she fumbled for her penknife and burned with futility. Zora had learned just that morning that the Broadway hoofer and self-proclaimed anthropologist Katherine Dunham, on her Rosenwald fellowship to Haiti—the one that rightfully should have been Zora's—not only witnessed this very truth ceremony a year ago, for good measure underwent the three-day initiation to become Mama Katherine, bride of the serpent god Damballa—the heifer!
Three nights later, another houngan knelt at another altar with a platter full of chicken. People in the back began to scream. A man with a terrible face flung himself through the crowd, careened against people, spread chaos. His eyes rolled. The tongue between his teeth drooled blood. «He is mounted!» the people cried. «A loa has made him his horse.» The houngan began to turn. The horse crashed into him. The houngan and the horse fell together, limbs entwined. The chicken was mashed into the dirt. The people moaned and sobbed. Zora sighed. She had read this in Herskovitz, and in Johnson too. Still, maybe poor fictional Tea Cake, rabid, would act like this. In the pandemonium she silently leafed to the novel section of her notebook. «Somethin' got after me in mah sleep, Janie,» she had written. «Tried tuh choke me tuh death.»
Another night, another compound, another pencil. The dead man sat up, head nodding forward, jaw slack, eyes bulging. Women and men shrieked. The dead man lay back down and was still. The mambo pulled the blanket back over him, tucked it in. Perhaps tomorrow, Zora thought, I will go to Pont Beudet, or to Ville Bonheur. Perhaps something new is happening there.
«Miss Hurston,» a woman whispered, her heavy necklace clanking into Zora's shoulder. «Miss Hurston. Have they shared with you what was found a month ago? Walking by daylight in the Ennery road?»
Doctor Legros, chief of staff at the hospital at Gonaives, was a good-looking mulatto of middle years with pomaded hair and a thin mustache. His three-piece suit was all sharp creases and jutting angles, like that of a paper doll, and his handshake left Zora's palm powder dry. He poured her a belt of raw white clairin, minus the nutmeg and peppers that would make it palatable to Guede, the prancing black-clad loa of derision, but breathtaking nonetheless, and as they took dutiful medicinal sips his small talk was all big, all politics—whether Mr. Roosevelt would be true to his word that the Marines would never be back; whether Haiti's good friend Senator King of Utah had larger ambitions; whether America would support President Vincent if the grateful Haitians were to seek to extend his second term beyond the arbitrary date technically mandated by the Constitution—but his eyes, to Zora who was older than she looked and much older than she claimed, posed an entirely different set of questions. He seemed to view Zora as a sort of plenipotentiary from Washington, and only reluctantly allowed her to steer the conversation to the delicate subject of his unusual patient.
«It is important for your countrymen and your sponsors to understand, Miss Hurston, that the beliefs of which you speak are not the beliefs of civilized men, in Haiti or elsewhere. These are Negro beliefs, embarrassing to the rest of us, and confined to the canaille—to the, what is the phrase, the backwater areas, such as your American South. These beliefs belong to Haiti's past, not her future.»
Zora mentally placed the good doctor waistcoat-deep in a backwater area of Eatonville, Florida, and set gators upon him. «I understand, Doctor Legros, but I assure you I'm here for the full picture of your country, not just the Broadway version, the tomtoms and the shouting. But in every ministry, veranda and salon I visit, why, even in the office of the director-general of the Health Service, what is all educated Haiti talking about but your patient, this unfortunate woman Felicia Felix-Mentor? Would you stuff my ears, shelter me from the topic of the day?»
He laughed, his teeth white and perfect and artificial. Zora, self-conscious of her own teeth, smiled with her lips closed, chin down. This often passed for flirtation. Zora wondered what the bright-eyed Doctor Legros thought of the seductive man-eater Erzulie, the most «uncivilized» loa of all. As she slowly crossed her legs, she thought: Huh! What's Erzulie got on Zora, got on me?
«Well, you are right to be interested in the poor creature,» the doctor said, pinching a fresh cigarette into his holder while looking neither at it nor at Zora's eyes. «I plan to write a monograph on the subject myself, when the press of duty allows me. Perhaps I should apply for my own Guggenheim, eh? Clement!» He clapped his hands. «Clement! More clairin for our guest, if you please, and mangoes when we return from the yard.»
As the doctor led her down the central corridor of the gingerbread Victorian hospital, he steered her around patients in creeping wicker wheelchairs, spat volleys of French at cowed black women in white, and told her the story she already knew, raising his voice whenever passing a doorway through which moans were unusually loud.
«In 1907, a young wife and mother in Ennery town died after a brief illness. She had a Christian burial. Her widower and son grieved for a time, then moved on with their lives, as men must do. Empty this basin immediately! Do you hear me, woman? This is a hospital, not a chickenhouse! My pardon. Now we come to a month ago. The Haitian Guard received reports of a madwoman accosting travelers near Ennery. She made her way to a farm and refused to leave, became violently agitated by all attempts to dislodge her. The owner of this family farm was summoned. He took one look at this poor creature and said, 'My God, it is my sister, dead and buried nearly thirty years.' Watch your step, please.»
He held open a French door and ushered her onto a flagstone veranda, out of the hot, close, blood-smelling hospital into the hot, close outdoors, scented with hibiscus, goats, charcoal and tobacco in bloom. «And all the other family members, too, including her husband and son, have identified her. And so one mystery was solved, and in the process, another took its place.»
In the far corner of the dusty, enclosed yard, in the sallow shade of an hourglass grove, a sexless figure in a white hospital gown stood huddled against the wall, shoulders hunched and back turned, like a child chosen It and counting.
«That's her,» said the doctor.
As they approached, one of the hourglass fruits dropped onto the stony ground and burst with a report like a pistol firing, not three feet behind the huddled figure. She didn't budge.
«It is best not to surprise her,» the doctor murmured, hot clairin breath in Zora's ear, hand in the small of her back. «Her movements are . . . unpredictable.» As yours are not, Zora thought, stepping away.
The doctor began to hum a tune that sounded like
Mama don't want no peas no rice
She don't want no coconut oil
All she wants is brandy
Handy all the time
but wasn't. At the sound of his humming, the woman—for woman she was; Zora would resist labeling her as all Haiti had done—sprang forward into the wall with a fleshy smack, as if trying to fling herself face first through the stones, then sprang backward with a half-turn that set her arms to swinging without volition, like pendulums. Her eyes were beads of clouded glass. The broad lumpish face around them might have been attractive had its muscles displayed any of the tension common to animal life.
In her first brush with theater, years before, Zora had spent months scrubbing bustles and darning epaulets during a tour of that damned Mikado , may Gilbert and Sullivan both lose their heads, and there she learned that putty cheeks and false noses slide into grotesquerie by the final act. This woman's face likewise seemed to have been sweated beneath too long.
All this Zora registered in a second, as she would a face from an elevated train. The woman immediately turned away again, snatched down a slim hourglass branch and slashed the ground, back and forth, as a machete slashes through cane. The three attached fruits blew up, bang bang bang , seeds clouding outward, as she flailed the branch in the dirt.
«What is she doing?»
«She sweeps,» the doctor said. «She fears being caught idle, for idle servants are beaten. In some quarters.» He tried to reach around the suddenly nimble woman and take the branch.
«Nnnnn,» she said, twisting away, still slashing the dirt.
«Behave yourself, Felicia. This visitor wants to speak with you.»
«Please leave her be,» Zora said, ashamed because the name Felicia jarred when applied to this wretch. «I didn't mean to disturb her.»
Ignoring this, the doctor, eyes shining, stopped the slashing movements by seizing the woman's skinny wrist and holding it aloft. The patient froze, knees bent in a half-crouch, head averted as if awaiting a blow. With his free hand, the doctor, still humming, still watching the woman's face, pried her fingers from the branch one by one, then flung it aside, nearly swatting Zora. The patient continued saying, «Nnnnn, nnnnn, nnnnn,» at metronomic intervals. The sound lacked any note of panic or protest, any communicative tonality whatsoever, was instead a simple emission, like the whistle of a turpentine cooker.
«Felicia?» Zora asked.
«Nnnnn, nnnnn, nnnnn.»
«My name is Zora, and I come from Florida, in the United States.»
«Nnnnn, nnnnn, nnnnn.»
«I have heard her make one other noise only,» said the doctor, still holding up her arm as if she were Joe Louis, «and that is when she is bathed or touched with water—a sound like a mouse that is trod upon. I will demonstrate. Where is that hose?»
«No need for that!» Zora cried. «Release her, please.»
The doctor did so. Felicia scuttled away, clutched and lifted the hem of her gown until her face was covered and her buttocks bared. Zora thought of her mother's wake, where her aunts and cousins had greeted each fresh burst of tears by flipping their aprons over their heads and rushing into the kitchen to mewl together like nestlings. Thank God for aprons, Zora thought. Felicia's legs, to Zora's surprise, were ropy with muscle.
«Such strength,» the doctor murmured, «and so untamed. You realize, Miss Hurston, that when she was found squatting in the road, she was as naked as all mankind.»
A horsefly droned past.
The doctor cleared his throat, clasped his hands behind his back, and began to orate, as if addressing a medical society at Columbia. «It is interesting to speculate on the drugs used to rob a sentient being of her reason, of her will. The ingredients, even the means of administration, are most jealously guarded secrets.»
He paced toward the hospital, not looking at Zora, and did not raise his voice as he spoke of herbs and powders, salves and cucumbers, as if certain she walked alongside him, unbidden. Instead she stooped and hefted the branch Felicia had wielded. It was much heavier than she had assumed, so lightly had Felicia snatched it down. Zora tugged at one of its twigs and found the dense, rubbery wood quite resistant. Lucky for the doctor that anger seemed to be among the emotions cooked away. What emotions were left? Fear remained, certainly. And what else?
Zora dropped the branch next to a gouge in the dirt that, as she glanced at it, seemed to resolve itself into the letter M.
«Miss Hurston?» called the doctor from halfway across the yard. «I beg your pardon. You have seen enough, have you not?»
Zora knelt, her hands outstretched as if to encompass, to contain, the scratches that Felicia Felix-Mentor had slashed with the branch. Yes, that was definitely an M, and that vertical slash could be an I, and that next one—
MI HAUT MI BAS
Half high, half low?
Doctor Boas at Barnard liked to say that one began to understand a people only when one began to think in their language. Now, as she knelt in the hospital yard, staring at the words Felicia Felix-Mentor had left in the dirt, a phrase welled from her lips that she had heard often in Haiti but never felt before, a Creole phrase used to mean «So be it,» to mean «Amen,» to mean «There you have it,» to mean whatever one chose it to mean but always conveying a more or less resigned acquiescence to the world and all its marvels.
«Ah bo bo,» Zora said.
«Miss Hurston?» The doctor's dusty wingtips entered her vision, stood on the delicate pattern Zora had teased from the dirt, a pattern that began to disintegrate outward from the shoes, as if they produced a breeze or tidal eddy. «Are you suffering perhaps the digestion? Often the peasant spices can disrupt refined systems. Might I have Clement bring you a soda? Or»—and here his voice took on new excitement—«could this be perhaps a feminine complaint?»
«No, thank you, Doctor,» Zora said as she stood, ignoring his outstretched hand. «May I please, do you think, return tomorrow with my camera?»
She intended the request to sound casual but failed. Not in Damballa Calls , not in The White King of La Gonave , not in The Magic Island , not in any best-seller ever served up to the Haiti-loving American public had anyone ever included a photograph of a Zombie.
As she held her breath, the doctor squinted and glanced from Zora to the patient and back, as if suspecting the two women of collusion. He loudly sucked a tooth. «It is impossible, madame,» he said. «Tomorrow I must away to Port-de-Paix, leaving at dawn and not returning for—«
«It must be tomorrow!» Zora blurted, hastily adding, «because the next day I have an appointment in . . . Petionville.» To obscure that slightest of pauses, she gushed, «Oh, Doctor Legros,» and dimpled his tailored shoulder with her forefinger. «Until we have the pleasure of meeting again, surely you won't deny me this one small token of your regard?»
Since she was a sprat of thirteen sashaying around the gatepost in Eatonville, slowing Yankees aboil for Winter Park or Sunken Gardens or the Weeki Wachee with a wink and a wave, Zora had viewed sexuality, like other talents, as a bank of backstage switches to be flipped separately or together to achieve specific effects—a spotlight glare, a thunderstorm, the slow, seeping warmth of dawn. Few switches were needed for everyday use, and certainly not for Doctor Legros, who was the most everyday of men.
«But of course,» the doctor said, his body ready and still. «Doctor Belfong will expect you, and I will ensure that he extend you every courtesy. And then, Miss Hurston, we will compare travel notes on another day, n'est-ce pas?»
As she stepped onto the veranda, Zora looked back. Felicia Felix-Mentor stood in the middle of the yard, arms wrapped across her torso as if chilled, rocking on the balls of her calloused feet. She was looking at Zora, if at anything. Behind her, a dusty flamingo high-stepped across the yard.
Zora found signboards in Haiti fairly easy to understand in French, but the English ones were a different story. As she wedged herself into a seat in the crowded tap-tap that rattled twice a day between Gonaives and Port-au-Prince, Felicia Felix-Mentor an hour planted and taking root in her mind, she found herself facing a stern injunction above the grimy, cracked windshield: «Passengers Are Not Permitted To Stand Forward While the Bus Is Either at a Standstill or Approaching in Motion.»
As the bus lurched forward, tires spinning, gears grinding, the driver loudly recited: «Dear clients, let us pray to the Good God and to all the most merciful martyrs in heaven that we may be delivered safely unto our chosen destination. Amen.»
Amen, Zora thought despite herself, already jotting in her notebook. The beautiful woman in the window seat beside her shifted sideways to give Zora's elbow more room, and Zora absently flashed her a smile. At the top of the page she wrote, «Felicia Felix-Mentor,» the hyphen jagging upward from a pothole. Then she added a question mark and tapped the pencil against her teeth.
Who had Felicia been, and what life had she led? Where was her family? Of these matters, Doctor Legros refused to speak. Maybe the family had abandoned its feeble relative, or worse. The poor woman may have been brutalized into her present state. Such things happened at the hands of family members, Zora knew.
Zora found herself doodling a shambling figure, arms outstretched. Nothing like Felicia, she conceded. More like Mr. Karloff's monster. Several years before, in New York to put together a Broadway production that came to nothing, Zora had wandered, depressed and whimsical, into a Times Square movie theater to see a foolish horror movie titled White Zombie . The swaying sugar cane on the poster («She was not dead . . . She was not alive . . . WHAT WAS SHE?») suggested, however spuriously, Haiti, which even then Zora hoped to visit one day. Bela Lugosi in Mephistophelean whiskers proved about as Haitian as Fannie Hurst, and his Zombies, stalking bug-eyed and stiff-legged around the tatty sets, all looked white to Zora, so she couldn't grasp the urgency of the title, whatever Lugosi's designs on the heroine. Raising Zombies just to staff a sugar mill, moreover, struck her as wasted effort, since many a live Haitian (or Floridian) would work a full Depression day for as little pay as any Zombie and do a better job too. Still, she admired how the movie Zombies walked mindlessly to their doom off the parapet of Lugosi's castle, just as the fanatic soldiers of the mad Haitian King Henri Christophe were supposed to have done from the heights of the Citadel Laferriere.
But suppose Felicia were a Zombie—in Haitian terms, anyway? Not a supernaturally revived corpse, but a sort of combined kidnap and poisoning victim, released or abandoned by her captor, her bocor, after three decades.
Supposedly, the bocor stole a victim's soul by mounting a horse backward, facing the tail, and riding by night to her house. There he knelt on the doorstep, pressed his face against the crack beneath the door, bared his teeth, and sssssssst! He inhaled the soul of the sleeping woman, breathed her right into his lungs. And then the bocor would have marched Felicia (so the tales went) past her house the next night, her first night as a Zombie, to prevent her ever recognizing it or seeking it again.
Yet Felicia had sought out the family farm, however late. Maybe something had gone wrong with the spell. Maybe someone had fed her salt—the hair-of-the-dog remedy for years-long zombie hangovers. Where, then, was Felicia's bocor? Why hold her prisoner all this time, but no longer? Had he died, setting his charge free to wander? Had he other charges, other Zombies? How had Felicia become both victim and escapee?
«And how do you like your Zombie, Miss Hurston?»
Zora started. The beautiful passenger beside her had spoken.
«I beg your pardon!» Zora instinctively shut her notebook. «I do not believe we have met, Miss . . .?»
The wide-mouthed stranger laughed merrily, her opalescent earrings shimmering on her high cheekbones. One ringlet of brown hair spilled onto her forehead from beneath her kerchief, which like her tight-fitting, high-necked dress was an ever-swirling riot of color. Her heavy gold necklace was nearly lost in it. Her skin was two parts cream to one part coffee. Antebellum New Orleans would have been at this woman's feet, once the shutters were latched.
«Ah, I knew you did not recognize me, Miss Hurston.» Her accent made the first syllable of «Hurston» a prolonged purr. «We met in Arcahaie, in the hounfort of Dieu Donnez St. Leger, during the rite of the fishhook of the dead.» She bulged her eyes and sat forward slack-jawed, then fell back, clapping her hands with delight, ruby ring flashing, at her passable imitation of a dead man.
«You may call me Freida. It is I, Miss Hurston, who first told you of the Zombie Felix-Mentor.»
Their exchange in the sweltering crowd had been brief and confused, but Zora could have sworn that her informant that night had been an older, plainer woman. Still, Zora probably hadn't looked her best, either. The deacons and mothers back home would deny it, but many a worshipper looked better outside church than in.
Zora apologized for her absent-mindedness, thanked this, Freida? for her tip, and told her some of her hospital visit. She left out the message in the dirt, if message it was, but mused aloud:
«Today we lock the poor woman away, but who knows? Once she may have had a place of honor, as a messenger touched by the gods.»
«No, no, no, no, no, no, no,» said Freida in a forceful singsong. «No! The gods did not take her powers away.» She leaned in, became conspiratorial. «Some man , and only a man, did that. You saw. You know.»
Zora, teasing, said, «Ah, so you have experience with men.»
«None more,» Freida stated. Then she smiled. «Ah bo bo. That is night talk. Let us speak instead of daylight things.»
The two women chatted happily for a bouncing half-hour, Freida questioning and Zora answering—talking about her Haiti book, turpentine camps, the sights of New York. It was good to be questioned herself for a change, after collecting from others all the time. The tap-tap jolted along, ladling dust equally onto all who shared the road: mounted columns of Haitian Guards, shelf-hipped laundresses, half-dead donkeys laden with guinea-grass. The day's shadows lengthened.
«This is my stop,» said Freida at length, though the tap-tap showed no signs of slowing, and no stop was visible through the windows, just dense palm groves to either side. Where a less graceful creature would merely have stood, Freida rose, then turned and edged toward the aisle, facing not the front but, oddly, the back of the bus. Zora swiveled in her seat to give her more room, but Freida pressed against her anyway, thrust her pelvis forward against the older woman's bosom. Zora felt Freida's heat through the thin material. Above, Freida flashed a smile, nipped her own lower lip, and chuckled as the pluck of skin fell back into place.
«I look forward to our next visit, Miss Hurston.»
«And where might I call on you?» Zora asked, determined to follow the conventions.
Freida edged past and swayed down the aisle, not reaching for the handgrips. «You'll find me,» she said, over her shoulder.
Zora opened her mouth to say something but forgot what. Directly in front of the bus, visible through the windshield past Freida's shoulder, a charcoal truck roared into the roadway at right angles. Zora braced herself for the crash. The tap-tap driver screamed with everyone else, stamped the brakes and spun the wheel. With a hellish screech, the bus slewed about in a cloud of dirt and dust that darkened the sunlight, crusted Zora's tongue, and hid the charcoal truck from view. For one long, delirious, nearly sexual moment the bus tipped sideways. Then it righted itself with a tooth-loosening slam that shattered the windshield. In the silence, Zora heard someone sobbing, heard the engine's last faltering cough, heard the front door slide open with its usual clatter. She righted her hat in order to see. The tap-tap and the charcoal truck had come to rest a foot away from one another, side by side and facing opposite directions. Freida, smiling, unscathed, kerchief still angled just so, sauntered down the aisle between the vehicles, one finger trailing along the side of the truck, tracking the dust like a child. She passed Zora's window without looking up, and was gone.
«She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.»
Mouth dry, head aching from the heat and from the effort of reading her own chicken-scratch, Zora turned the last page of the manuscript, squared the stack and looked up at her audience. Felicia sat on an hourglass root, a baked yam in each hand, gnawing first one, then the other.
«That's the end,» Zora said, in the same soft, non-threatening voice with which she had read her novel thus far. «I'm still unsure of the middle,» she continued, setting down the manuscript and picking up the Brownie camera, «but I know this is the end, all right, and that's something.»
As yam after yam disappeared, skins and all, Felicia's eyes registered nothing. No matter. Zora always liked to read her work aloud as she was writing, and Felicia was as good an audience as anybody. She was, in fact, the first audience this particular book had had.
While Zora had no concerns whatsoever about sharing her novel with Felicia, she was uncomfortably aware of the narrow Victorian casements above, and felt the attentive eyes of the dying and the mad. On the veranda, a bent old man in a wheelchair mumbled to himself, half-watched by a nurse with a magazine.
In a spasm of experiment, Zora had salted the yams, to no visible effect. This Zombie took salt like an editor took whiskey.
«I'm not in your country to write a novel,» Zora told her chewing companion. «Not officially. I'm being paid just to do folklore on this trip. Why, this novel isn't even set in Haiti, ha! So I can't tell the foundation about this quite yet. It's our secret, right, Felicia?»
The hospital matron had refused Zora any of her good china, grudgingly piling bribe-yams onto a scarred gourd-plate instead. Now, only two were left. The plate sat on the ground, just inside Felicia's reach. Chapter by chapter, yam by yam, Zora had been reaching out and dragging the plate just a bit nearer herself, a bit farther away from Felicia. So far, Felicia had not seemed to mind.
Now Zora moved the plate again, just as Felicia was licking the previous two yams off her fingers. Felicia reached for the plate, then froze, when she registered that it was out of reach. She sat there, arm suspended in the air.
«Nnnnn, nnnnn, nnnnn,» she said.
Zora sat motionless, cradling her Brownie camera in her lap.
Felicia slid forward on her buttocks and snatched up two yams—choosing to eat them where she now sat, as Zora had hoped, rather than slide backward into the shade once more. Zora took several pictures in the sunlight, though none of them, she later realized, managed to penetrate the shadows beneath Felicia's furrowed brow, where the patient's sightless eyes lurked.
«Zombies!» came an unearthly cry. The old man on the veranda was having a spasm, legs kicking, arms flailing. The nurse moved quickly, propelled his wheelchair toward the hospital door. «I made them all Zombies! Zombies!»
«Observe my powers,» said the mad Zombie-maker King Henri Christophe, twirling his stage mustache and leering down at the beautiful young(ish) anthropologist who squirmed against her snakeskin bonds. The mad king's broad white face and syrupy accent suggested Budapest. At his languid gesture, black-and-white legions of Zombies both black and white shuffled into view around the papier-m^ach'e cliff and marched single file up the steps of the balsa parapet, and over. None cried out as he fell. Flipping through his captive's notebook, the king laughed maniacally and said, «I never knew you wrote this! Why, this is good! » As Zombies toppled behind him like ninepins, their German Expressionist shadows scudding across his face, the mad king began hammily to read aloud the opening passage of Imitation of Life .
Zora woke in a sweat.
The rain still sheeted down, a ceremonial drumming on the slate roof. Her manuscript, a white blob in the darkness, was moving sideways along the desktop. She watched as it went over the edge and dashed itself across the floor with a sound like a gust of wind. So the iguana had gotten in again. It loved messing with her manuscript. She should take the iguana to New York, get it a job at Lippincott's. She isolated the iguana's crouching, bowlegged shape in the drumming darkness and lay still, never sure whether iguanas jumped and how far and why.
Gradually she became aware of another sound nearer than the rain: someone crying.
Zora switched on the bedside lamp, found her slippers with her feet and reached for her robe. The top of her writing desk was empty. The manuscript must have been top-heavy, that's all. Shaking her head at her night fancies, cinching her belt, yawning, Zora walked into the corridor and nearly stepped on the damned iguana as it scuttled just ahead of her, claws clack-clack-clacking on the hardwood. Zora tugged off her left slipper and gripped it by the toe as an unlikely weapon as she followed the iguana into the great room. Her housekeeper, Lucille, lay on the sofa, crying two-handed into a handkerchief. The window above her was open, curtains billowing, and the iguana escaped as it had arrived, scrambling up the back of the sofa and out into the hissing rain. Lucille was oblivious until Zora closed the sash, when she sat up with a start.
«Oh, Miss! You frightened me! I thought the Sect Rouge had come.»
Ah, yes, the Sect Rouge. That secret, invisible mountain-dwelling cannibal cult, their distant nocturnal drums audible only to the doomed, whose blood thirst made the Klan look like the Bethune-Cookman board of visitors, was Lucille's most cherished night terror. Zora had never had a housekeeper before, never wanted one, but Lucille «came with the house,» as the agent had put it. It was all a package: mountainside view, Sect Rouge paranoia, hot and cold running iguanas.
«Lucille, darling, whatever is the matter? Why are you crying?»
A fresh burst of tears. «It is my faithless husband, madame! My Etienne. He has forsaken me . . . for Erzulie!» She fairly spat the name, as a wronged woman in Eatonville would have spat the infamous name of Miss Delpheeny.
Zora had laid eyes on Etienne only once, when he came flushed and hatless to the back door to show off his prize catch, grinning as widely as the dead caiman he held up by the tail. For his giggling wife's benefit, he had tied a pink ribbon around the creature's neck, and Zora had decided then that Lucille was as lucky a woman as any.
«There, there. Come to Zora. Here, blow your nose. That's better. You needn't tell me any more, if you don't want to. Who is this Erzulie?»
Zora had heard much about Erzulie in Haiti, always from other women, in tones of resentment and admiration, but she was keen for more.
«Oh, madame, she is a terrible woman! She has every man she wants, all the men, and . . . and some of the women, too!» This last said in a hush of reverence. «No home in Haiti is safe from her. First she came to my Etienne in his dreams, teasing and tormenting his sleep until he cried out and spent himself in the sheets. Then she troubled his waking life, too, with frets and ill fortune, so that he was angry with himself and with me all the time. Finally I sent him to the houngan, and the houngan said, 'Why do you ask me what this is? Any child could say to you the truth: You have been chosen as a consort of Erzulie.' And then he embraced my Etienne, and said: 'My son, your bed above all beds is now the one for all men to envy.' Ah, madame, religion is a hard thing for women!»
Even as she tried to console the weeping woman, Zora felt a pang of writerly conscience. On the one hand, she genuinely wanted to help; on the other hand, everything was material.
«Whenever Erzulie pleases, she takes the form that a man most desires, to ride him as dry as a bean husk, and to rob his woman of comfort. Oh, madame! My Etienne has not come to my bed in . . . in . . . twelve days!» She collapsed into the sofa in a fresh spasm of grief, buried her head beneath a cushion and began to hiccup. Twelve whole days, Zora thought, my my, as she did dispiriting math, but she said nothing, only patted Lucille's shoulder and cooed.
Later, while frying an egg for her dejected, red-eyed housekeeper, Zora sought to change the subject. «Lucille. Didn't I hear you say the other day, when the postman ran over the rooster, something like, 'Ah, the Zombies eat well tonight!'»
«Yes, madame, I think I did say this thing.»
«And last week, when you spotted that big spider web just after putting the ladder away, you said, 'Ah bo bo, the Zombies make extra work for me today.' When you say such things, Lucille, what do you mean? To what Zombies do you refer?»
«Oh, madame, it is just a thing to say when small things go wrong. Oh, the milk is sour, the Zombies have put their feet in it, and so on. My mother always says it, and her mother too.»
Soon Lucille was chatting merrily away about the little coffee girls and the ritual baths at Saut d'Eau, and Zora took notes and drank coffee, and all was well. Ah bo bo!
The sun was still hours from rising when Lucille's chatter shut off mid-sentence. Zora looked up to see Lucille frozen in terror, eyes wide, face ashen.
«Madame . . . Listen!»
«Lucille, I hear nothing but the rain on the roof.»
«Madame,» Lucille whispered, «the rain has stopped.»
Zora set down her pencil and went to the window. Only a few drops pattered from the eaves and the trees. In the distance, far up the mountain, someone was beating the drums—ten drums, a hundred, who could say? The sound was like thunder sustained, never coming closer but never fading either.
Zora closed and latched the shutters and turned back to Lucille with a smile. «Honey, that's just man-noise in the night, like the big-mouthing on the porch at Joe Clarke's store. You mean I never told you about all the lying that men do back home? Break us another egg, Cille honey, and I'll tell you some things.»
November 20, 1936
Dr. Henry Allen Moe, Sec.
John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation
551 Fifth Avenue
New York City, New York
Dear Dr. Moe,
I regret to report that for all my knocking and ringing and dust-raising, I have found no relatives of this unfortunate Felix-Mentor woman. She is both famous and unknown. All have heard of her and know, or think they know, the two-sentence outline of her «story,» and have their own fantasies about her, but can go no further. She is the Garbo of Haiti. I would think her a made-up character had I not seen her myself, and taken her picture as . . . evidence? A photograph of the Empire State Building is evidence too, but of what? That is for the viewer to say.
I am amused of course, as you were, to hear from some of our friends and colleagues on the Haiti beat their concerns that poor Zora has «gone native,» has thrown away the WPA and Jesse Owens and the travel trailer and all the other achievements of the motherland to break chickens and become an initiate in the mysteries of the Sect Rouge. Lord knows, Dr. Moe, I spent twenty-plus years in the Southern U.S., beneath the constant gaze of every First Abyssinian Macedonian African Methodist Episcopal Presbyterian Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Assembly of God of Christ of Jesus with Signs Following minister mother and deacon, all so full of the spirit they look like death eating crackers, and in all that time I never once came down with even a mild case of Christianity. I certainly won't catch the local disease from only six months in Haiti. . . .
Obligations, travel and illness—«suffering perhaps the digestion,» thank you, Doctor Legros—kept Zora away from the hospital at Gonaives for some weeks. When she finally did return, she walked onto the veranda to see Felicia, as before, standing all alone in the quiet yard, her face toward the high wall. Today Felicia had chosen to stand on the sole visible spot of green grass, a plot of soft imprisoned turf about the diameter of an Easter hat. Zora felt a deep satisfaction upon seeing her, this self-contained, fixed point in her traveler's life.
To reach the steps, she had to walk past the mad old man in the wheelchair, whose nurse was not in sight today. Despite his sunken cheeks, his matted eyelashes, his patchy tufts of white hair, Zora could see he must have been handsome in his day. She smiled as she approached.
He blinked and spoke in a thoughtful voice. «I will be a Zombie soon,» he said.
That stopped her. «Excuse me?»
«Death came for me many years ago,» said the old man, eyes bright, «and I said, No, not me, take my wife instead. And so I gave her up as a Zombie. That gained me five years, you see. A good bargain. And then, five years later, I gave our oldest son. Then our daughter. Then our youngest. And more loved ones, too, now all Zombies, all. There is no one left. No one but me.» His hands plucked at the coverlet that draped his legs. He peered all around the yard. «I will be a Zombie soon,» he said, and wept.
Shaking her head, Zora descended the steps. Approaching Felicia from behind, as Doctor Legros had said that first day, was always a delicate maneuver. One had to be loud enough to be heard but quiet enough not to panic her.
«Hello, Felicia,» Zora said.
The huddled figure didn't turn, didn't budge, and Zora, emboldened by long absence, repeated the name, reached out, touched Felicia's shoulder with her fingertips. As she made contact, a tingling shiver ran up her arm and down her spine to her feet. Without turning, Felicia emerged from her crouch. She stood up straight, flexed her shoulders, stretched her neck, and spoke.
«Zora, my friend!»
Felicia turned and was not Felicia at all, but a tall, beautiful woman in a brief white gown. Freida registered the look on Zora's face and laughed.
«Did I not tell you that you would find me? Do you not even know your friend Freida?»
Zora's breath returned. «I know you,» she retorted, «and I know that was a cruel trick. Where is Felicia? What have you done with her?»
«Whatever do you mean? Felicia was not mine to give you, and she is not mine to take away. No one is owned by anyone.»
«Why is Felicia not in the yard? Is she ill? And why are you here? Are you ill as well?»
Freida sighed. «So many questions. Is this how a book gets written? If Felicia were not ill, silly, she would not have been here in the first place. Besides.» She squared her shoulders. «Why do you care so about this . . . powerless woman? This woman who let some man lead her soul astray, like a starving cat behind an eel-barrel?» She stepped close, the heat of the day coalescing around. «Tell a woman of power your book. Tell me your book,» she murmured. «Tell me of the mule's funeral, and the rising waters, and the buzzing pear-tree, and young Janie's secret sigh.»
Zora had two simultaneous thoughts, like a moan and a breath interlaced: Get out of my book! and My God, she's jealous!
«Why bother?» Zora bit off, flush with anger. «You think you know it by heart already. And besides,» Zora continued, stepping forward, nose to nose, «there are powers other than yours.»
Freida hissed, stepped back as if pattered with stove-grease.
Zora put her nose in the air and said, airily, «I'll have you know that Felicia is a writer, too.»
Her mouth a thin line, Freida turned and strode toward the hospital, thighs long and taut beneath her gown. Without thought, Zora walked, too, and kept pace.
«If you must know,» Freida said, «your writer friend is now in the care of her family. Her son came for her. Do you find this so remarkable? Perhaps the son should have notified you, hmm?» She winked at Zora. «He is quite a muscular young man, with a taste for older women. Much, much older women. I could show you where he lives. I have been there often. I have been there more than he knows.»
«How dependent you are,» Zora said, «on men.»
As Freida stepped onto the veranda, the old man in the wheelchair cringed and moaned. «Hush, child,» Freida said. She pulled a nurse's cap from her pocket and tugged it on over her chestnut hair.
«Don't let her take me!» the old man howled. «She'll make me a Zombie! She will! A Zombie!»
«Oh, pish,» Freida said. She raised one bare foot and used it to push the wheelchair forward a foot or so, revealing a sensible pair of white shoes on the flagstones beneath. These she stepped into as she wheeled the chair around. «Here is your bocor, Miss Hurston. What use have I for a Zombie's cold hands? Au revoir, Miss Hurston. Zora. I hope you find much to write about in my country . . . however you limit your experiences.»
Zora stood at the foot of the steps, watched her wheel the old man away over the uneven flagstones.
«Erzulie,» Zora said.
The woman stopped. Without turning, she asked, «What name did you call me?»
«I called you a true name, and I'm telling you that if you don't leave Lucille's Etienne alone, so the two of them can go to hell in their own way, then I . . . well, then I will forget all about you, and you will never be in my book.»
Freida pealed with laughter. The old man slumped in his chair. The laughter cut off like a radio, and Freida, suddenly grave, looked down. «They do not last any time, do they?» she murmured. With a forefinger, she poked the back of his head. «Poor pretty things.» With a sigh, she faced Zora, gave her a look of frank appraisal, up and down. Then she shrugged. «You are mad,» she said, «but you are fair.» She backed into the door, shoved it open with her behind, and hauled the dead man in after her.
The tap-tap was running late as usual, so Zora, restless, started out on foot. As long as the road kept going downhill and the sun stayed over yonder, she reasoned, she was unlikely to get lost. As she walked through the countryside she sang and picked flowers and worked on her book in the best way she knew to work on a book, in her own head, with no paper and indeed no words, not yet. She enjoyed the caution signs on each curve—«La Route Tue et Blesse,» or, literally, «The Road Kills And Injures.»
She wondered how it felt, to walk naked along a roadside like Felicia Felix-Mentor. She considered trying the experiment when she realized that night had fallen. (And where was the tap-tap, and all the other traffic, and why was the road so narrow?) But once shed, her dress, her shift, her shoes would be a terrible armful. The only efficient way to carry clothes, really, was to wear them. So thinking, she plodded, footsore, around a sharp curve and nearly ran into several dozen hooded figures in red, proceeding in the opposite direction. Several carried torches, all carried drums, and one had a large, mean-looking dog on a rope.
«Who comes?» asked a deep male voice. Zora couldn't tell which of the hooded figures had spoken, if any.
«Who wants to know?» she asked.
The hoods looked at one another. Without speaking, several reached into their robes. One drew a sword. One drew a machete. The one with the dog drew a pistol, then knelt to murmur into the dog's ear. With one hand he scratched the dog between the shoulder blades, and with the other he gently stroked its head with the moon-gleaming barrel of the pistol. Zora could hear the thump and rustle of the dog's tail wagging in the leaves.
«Give us the words of passage,» said the voice, presumably the sword-wielder's, as he was the one who pointed at Zora for emphasis. «Give them to us, woman, or you will die, and we will feast upon you.»
«She cannot know the words,» said a woman's voice, «unless she too has spoken with the dead. Let us eat her.»
Suddenly, as well as she knew anything on the round old world, Zora knew exactly what the words of passage were. Felicia Felix-Mentor had given them to her. Mi haut, mi bas. Half high, half low. She could say them now. But she would not say them. She would believe in Zombies, a little, and in Erzulie, perhaps, a little more. But she would not believe in the Sect Rouge, in blood-oathed societies of men. She walked forward again, of her own free will, and the red-robed figures stood motionless as she passed among them. The dog whimpered. She walked down the hill, hearing nothing behind but a growing chorus of frogs. Around the next bend she saw the distant lights of Port-au-Prince and, much nearer, a tap-tap idling in front of a store. Zora laughed and hung her hat on a caution sign. Between her and the bus, the moonlit road was flecked with tiny frogs, distinguished from bits of gravel and bark only by their leaping, their errands of life. Ah bo bo! She called in her soul to come and see.