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 any more — 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-conjurer.
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 the 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.” petrol 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 wuold 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… something 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.”
Thatch had never dealt directly with a loa, but he tried to act sure of himself as he contemptuously took the bottle. “Very well, ghostling,” he said, holding it up to the sun, “show yourself!” His tone was scornful, but his mouth had gone dry and his heart was thudding hard in his chest.
At first At first all he could see were blurry flaws in the crudely blown glass, but then he saw movement in there, and focused on it — and for an instant he thought the bottle contained a featherless baby bird, swimming with deformed wings and legs in some cloudy fluid.
Then there was a voice in his head, jabbering shrilly in debased French. Thatch understood only some of it, enough to gather that the speaker was not only demanding chicken and rum, but protesting that it had every right to those things, and to as much candy as it wanted, too, and threatening dire punishments if any of the formalities of its invitation ceremony weren’t performed with the greatest pomp and grandeur and respectfulness; and there’d better be no laughing. At the same time, Thatch got an impression of great age, and of a power that had grown vase… at such great personal expense that only a fragment of the original personality remained, like a chimney still standing in the heart of a furiously burning house. The senile petulance and the terrifying power, Thatch realized, were not contradictory qualities — each was somehow a product of the other.
Then it became aware of him. The tirade halted and he could sense the speaker looking around in some confusion. Thatch imagined a very old king, startled when he had thought he was alone, hastily arranging his robs so that they draped properly, and combing his sparse hair forward to cover his baldness.
At that point Gede evidently called Thatch’s words up from memory and paid attention to them, for the voice in the boy’s head was suddenly back, and it was roaring now.
“Ghostling?” Gede raged. “Bungo houseboy?”
Thatch’s head was punched back by something invisible, and suddenly there was blood on his nose and mouth. He reeled a couple of steps backward and tried to fling the bottle away but it clung to his palm.
“Thatch is your name, eh?” The voice ground the inside of the boy’s skull like a grating-blade being turned into a coconut.
Thatch’s belly imploded visibly — blood sprayed from his nose and he sat down hard. A moment later all of his clothes burst into flame. The boy rolled, blazing, toward the stream, and though along the way he jerked with the impacts of a couple more invisible kicks, he managed to splash into the water. “I’ll tell the Baron,” said the voice in his head as he floundered, still unable to get rid of the bottle, “to treat you special.”
Thatch got his feet under himself and crawled up onto the bank and sat down. His hair was scorched t the scalp and his clothes looked like curtains dug out of the wreckage of a burned-down house and blood was running down his forearm from his bottle-clutching hand, but he didn’t tremble as he held the thing up to the sun and grinned into its glass depths. “Do that,” he whispered. “You pitiful goddamn pickled herring.”