Partners in Death

Pale moonlight; it’s a trite phrase, isn’t it? For the sake of seeming unique, I might say something like, “silvery” or “metallic” moonlight. But, that would just be semantics; because, more accurately, it’s pale.

So, here goes. I’m sitting at the foot of a large Oak, bathed in the pale moonlight that has slowly swallowed the sun. I’m thinking about death. Maybe because I always think about death in autumn. Maybe because I can smell the tree rot. Maybe because the humidity is clogging my lungs. Or, maybe it’s because I’m in a graveyard, waiting for the Dead to rise.

Don’t worry. I’m a Hunter. A Protector. I know what I’m doing.

So, I’m waiting for the Dead to rise, and I’m thinking, ‘Is this what it all amounts to?’ When I die, will my greatest accomplishment be ‘Killed the Dead.’ Will Death be my legacy? How messed up is that?

And, because I’m so wrapped up in the narcissism that is existentialism, I don’t see the shadow crossing mine. Not until it’s right in front of me. A sudden chill in the air picks up and rustles the leaves above me. This shocks me present, but it’s too late. Or, at least, it’s later than I’d like. I’m midair when I realize it’s time to fight.

The Hunter becomes the Hunted. I’m a breathing adage, tonight. But, at least I’m breathing.

As I hit the wall of a tree trunk, my instincts take over. I twist my body so that when I land, I do so on all fours. The force of the blow is bruising me from the inside out, but I can ignore it for now. The blade I’d readied is still at the foot of the Oak that I’m nowhere near now. I pull a second from a sheath in my boot and lock eyes with my contender. It’s Dead, alright; but it’s not Free.

So, here I am, face to face with every Hunter’s worst nightmare. A Dead controlled by a Living. And that pale moonlight that’s still washing over us; it’s glittering in the Dead’s eyes, reflecting pure black magic – bo.

It lunges at me, and I have to think fast. I swing my leg around 360 degrees, sweeping it onto its back. And then I take my moment, and run. The only thing to do now is head straight to the manbo. Even I know my limitations.

My rubber soles slap against the dark pavement. That pale moonlight from the cemetery seems to be following me. Watching over me, even. I’ll need all the help I can get, seeing as how the manbo is not exactly a fan of Hunters. Her spiritual beliefs tell her I am useless, and worse, that I am ignorant and dangerous. Maybe I am. The Hunt is in my blood.

For generations my kin have been Hunters of the Dead, Protectors of the Living. It has a nice ring to it, but it also has a sorted history. See, if you trace my line far enough back, you’ll come to a plantation owner who took a slave woman for a wife. And, believe me, I don’t use the term “took” lightly. Like all slaves, she had been forcibly converted to Catholicism. Like many slaves, she practiced a syncretic form of Voodoo. She bore many children for the man who took her, and these children are considered to be the first Dead Army. It’s said that she and her brother conspired to turn the children into Zombies and set them loose on their father. But, they did not attack out of love and respect – it’s said. And then it’s said that the Zombies were put under the control of their uncle, a powerful sorcerer of bo – a bokor. It was war. As it spread, so did bo. My bloodline was divided that day, along with the rest of the community, between the Dead and the Living. The Evil and the Righteous. The Hunted and the Hunters.

Guess which side I was raised on?

Maybe that’s where my narcissistic existentialism comes from. Shame. Not shame at what either side did, of course; I can’t control the past or where I fit into it. But the shame of choosing to go about my life as it was handed to me. The truth is, I’ve never explored the other half of me. Don’t get me wrong; I know Voodoo isn’t all bo. I know the manbo is no bokor. But I also know bo and the bokor and the Dead exist. And isn’t that reason enough to fight?

“What do you want?”

The manbo squints her eyes at me, peering as deep inside as she can get. A drapo hanging from her door billows in the uncanny breeze, a reminder that All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day are approaching. Soon, these streets will be filled with ceremonial drums and every Voodoo icon observers can manage.

“I have a job for you.”

I tease a smile, knowing I will upset her, but she will let me in. She does, and I’m smug about it. Something inside of me winces at my inability to be more civil.

I sit at her round, wooden table. I’ve been here before, and I know the drill well. I avert my eyes while she tends to an ill man, swaddling him and making promises of a swift return. Then, she pulls down makeshift curtains to divide us from him – a way of telling me I’m barely welcome.

“I found a Dead.”

“That’s what you do, isn’t it?”

Her lips tighten, sealing her tongue away before she can say anything worse. But, I know she’s thinking worse; the silence is as good as hearing it. She believes, as most of her people do, that the Dead are not to be feared, but revered. Unless, of course, they’re…

“Controlled,” I say.

The part about the controller being a bokor is implicit. My single word reply is a simple elaboration. Minimizing the words we exchange is important. It’s the only form of respect I can offer; which is awful, considering how many times she’s saved our community from an evil above my pay grade.

So, I’m sitting here, across from a woman who hates me on principal, and I’m thinking about death again. This time, I’m thinking about the irony of how death brings people together; revitalizing life, pumping blood through veins of hope and resilience and, above all, commonality. Right now, the manbo and I have everything that matters in common – a goal to wipe our home of black magic.

“It was ineluctable,” she finally says, shivering in disgust and disappointment.

Her eyes soften as if admitting defeat, and I let my shoulders drop in response. The tension slowly evaporates. I tell her what I witnessed and how I reacted.

“You did the right thing,” she offers, nodding her head approvingly. “I suspect a new bokor has risen.”

“What makes you think that?” My question is genuine. Her knowledge is priceless. Her knowledge is powerful.

“This.”

The manbo rises cryptically and collects something from her kitchen. I can see her head back to me with a bundled object wrapped in a handkerchief. Intrigued, I watch her slowly unwrap it while muttering what I assume is a prayer to the Gedes. What she exposes makes the hair on my arms stand up. The dug out carcass of a pufferfish.

See, the thing about magic is that its synchronous with science. In the case of the Controlled Dead, we’re talking tetrodotoxin. It’s the main ingredient in a very particular recipe that relies heavily on scientific interactions, and the power of bo.

“Where did you find this?” I ask, adrenaline hurrying my heart.

“The riverbank.”

“So, exactly where someone might also find marine toads and tree frogs.” Two more key ingredients.

“Afraid so.”

The manbo doesn’t sit back down and I don’t expect her to. Her mind has been set ablaze, turning gears like rapid fire. I stand now too; partly to steady my legs, partly to avoid the power dynamic that takes over when one party physically looms over the other like an alter. But before she can share her thoughts, the ill man behind the curtain coughs. As if snapping out of a hypnotic state, the manbo rushes to his side. It doesn’t take her long to decide his emergency takes priority. She pops her head out from behind the divider.

“Go now,” she says. “Go to the river and look for human remains. I’ll meet you there as soon as I can.” She disappears again, indicating there’s no protest to be made. So, I oblige.

It’s funny how a night can start in one place – say, a cemetery – and end in another. The moon is growing weary, and the sun is arriving to take its place. They are opposites, and yet they are partners. Not unlike the manbo and myself, I suppose.

Despite the pooling of sweat at my brow and under my breasts, I’m grateful for the sun. It brings light that is not pale and eerie, but illuminating and stark. Without it, I might not be catching the lucky glimpse of an unusual coin. The coin is too small to be a quarter and too large to be a nickel. It’s the perfect size for discreet marking. As they say, x marks the spot. I move the surrounding rocks aside, revealing a plot of marshy land that has clearly been disturbed.

This is common. Bo is tricky. It’s not entirely reliable. Which means, even the most self-assured practitioners have to be prepared for bad outcomes. Human remains, the last key ingredient, can be tough to come by, so a stash of leftovers is best kept at the site of the ritual.

So, here I am, once again, face-to-face with death. I pull a severed hand from the earth. It doesn’t twist my gut or spin my stomach. Death is my life. It follows me, stalks me, haunts me. Death waits for me in every shadow, in every corner, everywhere I go. It hasn’t taken me; but it takes another piece of me every day. I am both an adversary and a helper to Death. So, maybe this is it. Maybe this codependent relationship between myself and Death is my true legacy, after all. And maybe that’s okay.

The manbo seems to appear out of nowhere. She makes no apologies for how long I had to wait, and I don’t ask her to. She said she would come, and she has, a mobile apothecary in tow. Fatigue heavy in her eyes, she drops her bag of contraband beside me and lowers cautiously to her knees. Sometimes, I forget how old she is. Her vivacious energy seems lifetimes her junior.

“You found something?”

“A hand.”

I pass her the partial corpse and she takes it without even a bat of the eye. We are more alike than either of us cares to admit, but the thought makes me smile a little.

The sky is a hazy amalgam of red and orange now, with streaks of blinding white seeping through. Ironically, it’s one of the most lively and luscious sunrises I’ve ever seen. I can’t help but keep one eye on it as the manbo prepares her ritual. When she’s ready, I step back to give her space. I know she’ll need it.

Like a voyeur, I stay quiet and patient, gazing as she chants and moans. Soon, she’s dancing too; her whole body partaking. I can’t say I understand exactly what she’s doing, or how it works. But I know she’s calling to the bokor’s creation, and I know it’s working when I see it crest the riverbank’s hill.

It heads towards us, eyes still gleaming malevolently. The manbo continues her chanting and her moving. I, on the other hand, take a fighting stance. I’m locked into position, blade readied. But the Dead doesn’t pay me any mind whatsoever. Instead, it walks directly to the manbo.

“Watch out!” I grunt, not knowing if I should interject.

“Stay back!” she whispers harshly.

She extends her arms, inviting the Dead to her. As it gets closer, her words get louder. They peer into each other’s eyes and her bravery sends chills up my spine. I watch, white knuckling my trusty weapon. When the Dead is close enough to touch her, she leaps forward and wraps her arms around it. It’s not a hug, exactly; it’s a level of restraint no human should be able to provide. But she does. It struggles a little, but only for a moment. She wills it to look into her eyes and it does. She hisses a prayer I only vaguely recognize, and the Dead goes limp in her arms. She lets go, and it falls to the ground.

“What’s happening?” I ask in a tone that is both defensive and afraid. I can feel my heart throbbing violently in my chest. There’s a lump in my throat the size of a fist.

The manbo shakes her head, signalling that I’m out of line and breaking her concentration. I step forward but I don’t say anything else. I wait. She returns to her knees and shakes a charcoal coloured powder over its body. Before my eyes, it begins to shrink and decay until there’s nothing left but dust.

When it’s over, the manbo kisses the earth and rises to face me.

“That was incredible,” I say. “What did you do?”

“It’s something new I’m trying out.”

There’s a hint of a smile on her face. Her chest is heaving.

“You’re not going to tell me, are you?”

“Of course not. But I am going to find the bokor. And when I do, I’ll tell you where to meet me.”

We exchange proper smiles now.

“Fair enough,” I say.

© Shyla Fairfax-Owen

***

This story was inspired by two fascinating How Stuff Works articles:

How Voodoo Works and How Zombies Work

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