The manifestations had started outdoors and then moved into the house. First, we discovered that our horses were being ridden by ghostly riders. One rider really, for only one horse at a time would disappear, only to reappear the next day or a few days later tied up or quietly grazing some distance away – near the main road usually. At first there was hell to pay for I naturally assumed it was one of the penmen taking liberties but then the whole thing didn’t make sense for the men would all be accounted for while the horse would still be missing. And though counting my wife and myself and the staff there were usually fifteen to twenty people around in the immediate vicinity, none of us ever saw or heard anything.
We did all the usual things – setting up watchmen and alarms. Of course nothing happened while we watched and we couldn’t keep it up forever. As soon as our concentration wavered, a horse would be ‘borrowed’ again – with saddle, bridle, everything. You have to understand that we live in probably the most remote part of the island of Jamaica – there are no idle passersby or stray thieves in our neck of the woods – what I’m describing took place in the 1930s just before the war. Perhaps I should explain that what I have here is mainly a livestock pen – cattle and horses with some pimento and logwood. We went out of sugar ages ago – it’s just too dry up here. We are right on the edge of the Cockpit Country, the most inhospitable region in all of Jamaica – we like to tell people we are the last outpost of civilization – nothing but rockstone and bush and wilderness and the mountain cockpits between us and the coast – unless you count the Maroon settlements. Well, by now everyone knows who the Maroons are or I’d be surprised if you didn’t since the majority of our visitors are in fact scientists and university people from all over the world on their way to study them. (Perhaps, needless to add, that the Maroons are also studying them?)
Our Enfield Pen is the last little European outpost, so to speak, and the word gets around – “drop in on the Hudson-Jameses.” People tend to do that – on their way up to their camping grounds (the scientists) or to stay in the Maroon villages of Accompong or Cudjoe Mountain (the sociologists and anthropologists and folklorists and what have you). And when they get bored or sick or fed up after a few months or weeks, they will mount their mules and get a Maroon guide to bring them back down the trail to our house for a bit of R and R, so to speak. My wife Daphne and I love to have visitors, otherwise we wouldn’t see anyone but the servants and the penmen from one week to the next, and the doors of our house are always open.
That’s one thing you have to say about the Hudson-James’s, we have always been open-handed. Well, I don’t want to boast, but our house is one of the few plantation houses in this part of the island that has never been burnt down in any slave or Maroon uprising because the Hudson-Jameses have always been considered good friends of black people. We were the first to offer shelter and land for a church to the Missionaries (Methodist) in this area when everywhere else they were reviled and chased from off the plantations though nowadays there really is no congregation since we are the last remaining plantation still operating up here – everything else has been abandoned to the bush. We don’t even have squatters in the area, nobody from the outside except for the charcoal burners. So this really is a God-forsaken part of the world. The first Hudson-James is said to have made his fortune as a pirate and then used his ill-gotten gains to carve out a plantation as far as he could from the sea – and the law. But he might also have chosen it for the wild scenery which, to quote a famous visitor, Dr Beckwith, affords a vista of “wave upon wave of mountain range toward the sea”. Well, the pirate is a good story anyway. The thing is, we’ve always had a special relationship with the Maroons, from the time when just the name ‘Maroon’ was enough to make people run scared. Back then, you wouldn’t find a single black Jamaican going anywhere near a Maroon village uninvited and as for the Maroons, their philosophy in these parts is: “Me no sen’, yu nuh come”.
My great-great grandfather was the first superintendent at Cudjoe Mountain at the end of the first Maroon wars when the Maroons forced the British to sign a treaty and give them their own lands, and the Maroons almost went to war again when the English fired him because they said he had got too friendly with them and could no longer operate in the best interests of the government. Well that might have ended our official connection but it didn’t end our mutual trust; some Hudson-James or other was always being accused by the British of collaboration with the rebels which is what the Maroons were up to the end of the eighteenth century when they went to war again until the British sent bloodhounds after them, tricked them into what they called a surrender and shipped off them all off to Halifax, Canada in the middle of winter. That is what literally tore their heart out. But I guess everyone knows that story.
I should explain that although my wife and I are of English stock ourselves, like a lot of creoles we’ve always regarded ourselves as Jamaicans first when it comes to politics and how to run our country, that’s where some of us part company with the English government (though that doesn’t mean I support all of the current agitation for home rule and all that nonsense – but don’t get me started on that.)
Of course nowadays the Maroons are no threat to anyone and they tend rather to keep to themselves (and people tend to keep away from them). Their warrior days over, they’ve become rather like the forgotten people except for all these scholars who come, regarding them as some exotic species. I have a whole shelf of my bookcase full of all the stuff they write. The Maroons tell them tales and they go away and write the most ludicrous things. Of course the Maroons were never given enough land – tricked out of that too – so some of the younger ones do work out – my current foreman Jacob is in fact a Maroon and so are most of the fellows on the place nowadays for he keeps bringing his relatives in. Excellent workers, the best I’d say and disciplined too – I’d have nothing but Maroon workmen if I could, but the proudest bunch of bastards you will ever came across, I can tell you that, you have to know how to handle them. Well, the ones today are no different from the ‘Coromantees’ the historians described – Long and Edwards and Dallas and the rest of them. Those guys were Ashanti and Fanti warriors – prisoners of war sold into slavery and shipped out here with the rest. The planters feared them. With good reason, for virtually every slave rebellion – and there were plenty of them – was organised by a Coromantee. But they also couldn’t get enough of these guys – the admiration was palpable. This is Edwards, the Negro hater: “Their demeanour is lofty, their walk firm, and their persons erect. Every motion displays a combination of strength and agility. The muscles . . . are very prominent, and strongly marked. Their sight withal is wonderfully acute, and their hearing remarkably quick.” They were also described as incredibly haughty, warlike, and quick to take offence. And, I can tell you, there’s still a lot of that Cuffie spirit around.
I’ve been going up to Cudjoe Mountain with my dad since I was a little boy – I know all of them in the town – there are a lot of Hudson-Jameses there because once they were tamed they wanted European names so they took the names of the planter families they liked. So we’ve always had a special relationship with them and they still look to our family for help with anything they need. By the same token, I know that if we were ever in trouble, we could call on any of them and they would be right there for us. We’re neighbourly, as the Americans would say. And not only have I known Brother Solomon, who is their chief ‘doctor’ if you want to call him that, since I was a boy, I would never go on a wild pig hunt without him in the party and I’d trust him with my life. I owe him a bigger debt too for he once saved the life of my daughter when all the medical profession had virtually given her up for dead – but that is another story.
But back to the ghost. By the time the men could get Ba Solomon to come and ‘fix’ the duppy, it had transferred its activities to our house, moving about as if it was searching for something. We could hear drawers opening and closing, cupboard doors slammed or were left half-open, there were signs of a search say, among papers and books in my office, inside the clothes closets. Amazingly – for a ghost – it operated in broad daylight. But what was really frightening was the growing intensity of this ghost. We got the definite feeling that it was getting more and more frantic as it failed to find whatever it was looking for and soon it began to throw things around. Fortunately it never stayed for any lengthy period. It would appear, make its presence known for a day or two and then disappear for maybe weeks at a time.
The next time it appeared though, I was definitely wavering between summoning Ba Solomon or a Catholic priest from the Balaclava mission, or both, to rid our house of it, when a thought suddenly struck me. Now the duppy was operating inside the house, I noticed it was only active when we had American visitors present. And did it scare them! The most rational of scientists would leave looking white and shaken, no matter how disbelieving they expressed themselves of the manifestations. It was as if the ghost was a malignant spirit expressing extreme jealousy of them, for it took to tearing their notebooks out of their hands and ripping pages out, grabbing and flinging their pens away and wrecking the nibs and – with the last visitor – actually taking up an open bottle of Quink and flinging it with such force at his head it exploded on the wall behind him. The visitor, a distinguished zoologist from Harvard who had come to collect butterflies, was mortified as he had just arrived the day before and we hadn’t yet told him about our ghost so he didn’t quite know how to explain to us the huge stain on the wallpaper and bedspread and ink spattered across the wooden floor.
Our visitor – the real one – left the next day for the bush and I began to think back over the ghostly behaviour – when and where – and put two and two together. I don’t know why it came to me so suddenly then but it did, that the duppy could be no other than the owner of the knapsack, and that is what she was looking for. I confidently said she, for we knew the owner of the bag was a lady scholar from a prominent eastern American university – Eva Mellen – who had come to study the Cudjoe Mountain Maroons and had spent some time living up there. She had left Cudjoe Mountain intending to take the train to Kingston where she had arranged to do some research at the West India Reference Library, but she had vanished on the way.
All of this had happened the year my wife and I were away in England. We had gone over for the wedding of our eldest daughter but then Daphne had got seriously ill and what with the time spent waiting for diagnosis and treatment we had ended up being away from home for the better part of a year, at the very time this Miss Mellen had been in our part of the woods and went missing. My cousin Jack who was looking after the place wasn’t much for any kind of communication so it happened that not only did we not meet her but we missed all the excitement concerning her disappearance and the police investigation – which turned up nothing. It was a kind of nine days wonder.
So we didn’t know the lady at all but the knapsack we found was undoubtedly hers. I figured out that even if we hadn’t been introduced, if she was going to come on to my property and take liberties with me and mine, then that gave me leave to assume some familiarity with her. Besides, by then I figured I was the only one who knew the true story. That knowledge gave me a kind of confidence to feel that I could communicate with this ‘ghost’.
So I sat at my desk to write her a note. But I got only as far as “Dear Miss Mellen” when I had the fright of my life for I suddenly felt this presence and a force like a wild animal which almost knocked me out of my chair. Reaching across me, it grabbed the entire writing pad from the desk and ripped off the top sheet I was writing on, scrunched it up and flung both pad and paper on the ground.
At first I was so frightened I could feel my head growing, cold sweat washed over me and I wanted to faint. I tried to cry out but nothing but a croak came from my throat. I can safely say I have never been so frightened in my life because I myself for the first time felt the force of this angry being. But then when nothing else happened I calmed down a bit and took stock and realised that whoever it was was not going to hurt me – at least for now. The presence was still there, I could clearly feel someone standing behind my chair and the whole atmosphere of the room was stifling and crackling as if a storm was about to break. I tried to keep calm and think of what it was that the woman wanted me to do, for I was convinced more than ever that it was Miss Mellen and knowing her to be a woman, and a young woman at that – the same age as my youngest daughter – made her seem less threatening.
And so it came to me that all I had to do was talk to her, and that is what I did, though I felt rather foolish sitting there at my desk facing the wall and talking to a seemingly empty room. But without turning around I said, “Miss Mellen, I know who you are and I know you are looking for your bag – I don’t know why it’s so important to you – sorry but I had to look inside to find out who the owner was. One of my boys found it in the cave and brought it to me but I passed it on to the police at Black River. The CID in Kingston took over the case, so I’m sure your bag is now at CID headquarters.” I could feel a new tension – almost like a heat wave – at my back, then I realised she was an American and probably didn’t know what I was talking about. So I explained, “That’s Criminal Investigation Department. They’re located at police headquarters at Sutton Street in Kingston.”
It’s funny but as I said that I could almost feel the rage evaporating from the room and I imagined her behind me forcing herself to breathe more slowly. I could actually sense her interest, how, I cannot explain, so I continued, trying to speak in a calm and matter of fact voice: “I’m pretty sure they are keeping it in the evidence room which is down in the basement. There’s a side door from the lane on the eastern side.”
I knew all this because one of my uncles had been with the CID – had become a celebrated Assistant Commissioner in fact. I’d gone to headquarters with him more than once where he’d proudly taken me on tours of the building (while he was trying to inveigle me to join the Force myself). I really don’t know why I was telling her all this except that at the time I simply wanted to get this so-called duppy out of my house. I was about to go on and say more – now that I had her attention I wanted to ask her a few questions myself. But in a way I cannot explain I realised that she had already gone – all the anger and rage that had built up in the room had evaporated and I knew there was no longer a foreign presence there. The next morning I was not surprised to hear that one of our horses had gone missing again. Days later, it was found grazing on the bankside near the railway station.
A few months later I went to Black River – I’d taken the wife and put her on the train at Balaclava for a trip to Kingston to visit with relatives there, and I went on to the town to do some business. The Inspector of police, a fellow called O’Connor – Irish as most of the police officers are – came to have dinner with me at Waterloo Hotel where I was staying and over brandy we exchanged the usual gossip. Then he swore me to secrecy – though he knew he didn’t have to – and he told me the latest scandal rocking the Force. Someone had gone into the evidence room in the basement of CID headquarters in Kingston and had literally torn the place apart!
The minute I heard that I could feel my scalp lifting and I hoped that O’Connor didn’t notice my startled reaction. I found myself feeling so agitated I was hardly listening to the story – my mind was racing ahead and I only came back to attention at the part where he said stuff was scattered everywhere as if a hurricane had hit the room that night and yet no one had seen or heard anything and there was no sign of forced entry. Heads were still rolling in the subsequent internal investigation – as one can well imagine.
I could feel my heart beating hard as I asked in the most casual voice I could muster: “So was anything taken? Was someone trying to get rid of evidence?” I felt such a fraud as I said that.
“That’s the problem”, he said. “They’re still trying to sort things out. A lot of the labels were ripped off and everything mixed up so it’s a tedious job of going through cases. These were all cases on the back burner, so to speak, not ongoing but not yet closed. It’s a dickens of a job as you can imagine and the Old Man’s mad as hell that someone could breach security like that. Of course there are all those stories going the rounds of the Sutton Street ghost.” We both laughed heartily at that.
I had to force myself not tell him what they would find missing. A canvas knapsack belonging to an American scholar named Eva Mellen and anything else of hers that might have been stored there for I believe the police had taken her trunk into safekeeping.
Actually, I was frightened at how close I came to telling him everything I knew and it occurred to me what a heavy burden of knowledge I was carrying. I would not describe myself as a coward, I’ve faced down a 600-pound wild boar and more than one workman run amok with a machete, the workers on the property respect me because they know Hudson-Jameses are fair but tough as old boots. But what I was facing here was something beyond both my understanding and my moral compass and it scared me. I realised that once I started to speak about it, nothing would stop me from spilling everything I knew. And yet it was something I could never tell. Not only because no one would believe me but I also owed it to a man I respected and considered a friend and who would suffer untold consequences if anyone knew of his involvement. It was something the world would never understand. That night as I lay in bed I realised what a burden was on my mind for the whole thing had turned out to be so incredible I had told no one – not even Daphne to whom I normally confide everything. But I realised that I needed to tell for if I didn’t it would burst out of me one day – and perhaps I would spill it to the wrong person.
So that is when I decided to write the story down, and that is what I started to do the very next morning, glad now that Daphne was away though I would normally have missed her terribly. I’m no writer, mark you – the intellectual in the family is my brother Robin who went to Cambridge – but then it probably will be seen by no eyes but my own. Though I am already tempted to show it to my daughter Kathleen who’s the journalist. Not that I would want her to publish anything about it, but simply because she is the only one in the family who, like me, has a fairly open mind about these matters. Ba Solomon is a special friend of hers – she’s the one he cured – and she’s always been the one who wanted to accompany me to Cudjoe Mountain when she was little and she has continued to show an interest in the place. She’s even been on a wild pig hunt. So who knows, maybe when Ba Solomon and I and everyone involved are dead, she might be able to do something with it. At least I’d like her to know the story. But those decisions are for later.
Right now I just want to get the whole thing off my chest and hope that it will stop me from feeling like a restless ghost myself. And since I started writing it without thinking about how I was going to do it, perhaps it will be best if I continue in the same vein, as if I were sitting and talking to you, Dear Reader (and feeling like some bad 19th century novelist).
Now I know from what O’Connor had told me that Miss Mellen is no longer around our part of the world, I can see just where she is headed. Any day now, I expect to read in the newspapers or hear from some visiting American scholar of powerful ghostly manifestations at a prominent American university.
I’ve spent all this time telling how the whole thing came about, but I should go back to the beginning. I had been back home for maybe a year after my trip to England and the disappearance of Miss Mellen – about which I knew nothing at the time, remember. It must have been around 1934 then, when one of the penmen brought me the knapsack which he claimed to have found hidden in a cave by Bitterns Hill which is a prominent marker – just by the line where our property joins the Maroon land and near where the trail from Cudjoe Mountain joins the parochial road to the coast that goes past the hill on which our house stands. It is called a road but is certainly not driveable and horses and mules are our main means of transport – except for the Maroons who think nothing of walking the twenty miles to Black River and back in one day.
I’ve been running on and on before coming to the main point, but, as you will see, all of it is relevant. To cut a long story short: one of the penmen found this knapsack in a cave and brought it to me. Afterwards I realised what excitement this had caused among the men, for some of them recognised it right away as belonging to the missing woman, for they had seen her with it at Cudjoe Mountain and on the trail. I’m sure Ba Solomon had news of it before that day was out for the Maroons have their own way of communicating with one another. But of course not one of them said a thing to me at the time.
The canvas bag was very dry though somewhat dirty from bush and bats’ droppings in the cave but when I opened it, the contents were quite clean. It contained some notebooks – I opened one and was surprised to find on the first page the name of a woman and a Department of Anthropology at a big American university. There were these four fat notebooks – quarto size of about 100 pages each – filled with writing in a very small, neat hand. I flipped them open and could see they were notes but at that stage I didn’t read anything for I’ve always regarded other people’s notebooks as sacred and didn’t want to appear to be prying. I simply looked at the other stuff in the bag, stationery type stuff – pen, ink, eraser and so on – books (now long overdue) from the university library and noted they were the standard stuff on the Maroons that I have in my own library Dallas: Beckwith, etc., some offprints from journals, a small dictionary, a New Testament, a pair of reading glasses in a case and – amusingly when I look back – copies of two books by intrepid Victorian women travellers – Mary Kingsley was one I recalled. There was also a well-thumbed copy of Thackery’s Vanity Fair.
It was clear to me that the stuff belonged to one of our visiting American researchers but one I had never heard of and from the dates on the library books, one who had passed through almost two years before. My first reaction was that the bag had been stolen though theft was rare in our part of the world, but when I questioned the boy who had brought it he could tell me nothing except that he stumbled across it at the entrance to a small cave into which his mule had strayed. The whole of this part of the country is nothing but limestone so it’s honeycombed with caves. From what he said, I got the impression that this wasn’t a bag carelessly thrown in there by a thief anxious to get rid of evidence but something carefully stowed to one side and half hidden with small branches.
I put the knapsack in my office and the next time one of the boys was going to town I sent a note to the Police Inspector there – the same O’Connor – and told him I had something of interest to show him. He had got in the habit of coming over to see us from time to time when he had a break, for a bit of birdshooting or just to get away from the town which has got to be the hottest and most miserable part of the island.
So it was when O’Connor turned up that I first heard the story of Miss Mellen and her disappearance. It had happened right after he’d been posted to the town (and so I hadn’t even met him before these events occurred which is one of the reasons I had never been told of them) and the investigation had occupied him for the better part of the year for of course her university had got on to the American Consul who had got into the act. It was a big case for O’Connor but it had left him feeling an utter failure so now he was very excited to find her knapsack for this was like opening a whole new chapter to the story. He was quite disappointed though when he had examined the contents, for they threw no new light on the case. Nor did the cave when he went there later with some idea, perhaps, of finding her body but it turned out to be one of those bat caves with the entrance to the main cavern much too small for a human to penetrate.
Up to that point in time the police had established to their satisfaction that Miss Mellen had left the Maroons safe and sound for she had spent the night at Waterloo Hotel and the next day was seen walking around the town. She went to the bank, into one of the stores and so on, and had arranged to catch the mail bus to the train station at Balaclava later in the week. She did arrive in Balaclava and it was there that she vanished. After the rush of the morning train she was the only person left at the station and she had almost a day’s wait for the up train to Kingston. The station master – a Mr Hanlan with thirty years service with the railway and the soul of reliability – had directed her into the town (he later reported that she was extremely polite in her manner and her behaviour and in appearance seemed quite normal) and he had reminded her that the train would be there at 2 o’clock sharp. We are positive that she had the knapsack with her for Hanlan said it seemed very heavy for a woman to be carrying around and he had offered to keep it or even to send a boy with her but she had thanked him and said she would manage. She also had with her a small leather handbag in which presumably she kept her passport, tickets, money and so on, for these were never found.
Now the strange part is that although Hanlan saw her leave the station and set off down the road, no one can remember seeing her after that. Hanlan himself was busy when the train came in and can’t say for sure that she got on it though her trunk which she had checked and left in the baggage room was put on board. It is doubtful that she ever got on the train at all – nobody remembers seeing her – though a lot of time passed between that day and the investigation. She had purchased a first-class ticket which had not been collected. In other words, she simply vanished. But nobody noticed for a while. Only when her university noted that she hadn’t turned up for work when she was due did anyone begin to make enquiries. This made me wonder what kind of woman this Miss Mellen was to live such a life that no one seems to have missed her.
Of course the police had gone up to Cudjoe Mountain and it was only O’Connor’s references to that place that made me sit up and take notice for up to that point I was more bemused than anything else – listening to the story was like reading of some nine-day’s wonder in the newspaper and feeling titillated but distanced.
Up at Cudjoe Mountain, Miss Mellen’s visit seemed to have gone well – everyone remembered her kindly (as indeed they would have remembered any visitor to an outsider, regardless). But what interested O’Connor – as it now did me – is that the last person she had visited before leaving was Ba Solomon. She had spent a considerable time at his house the very morning before she set off down the trail on mule back, accompanied by a young Maroon guide.
O’Connor described Solomon as a rascal – as did almost everyone who had merely heard of him, for he had a reputation as a powerful Obeahman. I knew differently, but I didn’t bother to correct O’Connor since it would have been a waste of time. I myself would have described Ba Solomon to a European as a wizard or magician or magus since these are terms he would understand though the word in use up here is Kumfu man, a mixture of the old African witch doctor, magician, healer, what-have-you. People would also say myalist – referring to Myal, the very old religion brought from Africa. In this area of the Cockpit Country where I live, one or two of these Myalists can still be found – as Dr Martha Warren Beckwith noted in her studies – but all except for Solomon are very old men now. They were once the most powerful people in the slave world, steeped in the old African practices of magic rituals and healing – and even today people believe the Maroons are the most powerful at this.
Ba Solomon’s father and grandfather had been Kumfu-men before him – the calling was a bit of a family trait. I knew from all the stories handed down in the Hudson-James family about these men that if Ba Solomon had inherited even half of their powers he was – like the Biblical Solomon – a very powerful man indeed, for his mother, like others, attended the Catholic church from time to time which in no way affected the old time African religions that they practised. As they say here, you can’t get enough of power. ‘French obeah’ is what they call the magic of the Catholic priests (for the first of these men to come here were French speakers from Haiti) – the candles, holy water, anything blessed by ‘Father’, the Latin tongue and the whole panoply of saints soon become incorporated into their African rites.
O’Connor – like every policemen before him – was clearly itching to get Solomon on some sort of charge only because of a congenital dislike of the police for anyone who engages in anything they can’t understand. But of course he really had nothing on him and only if the charge was murder could a Maroon be taken by the island police anyway, for they otherwise had no jurisdiction in the Maroon towns, according to the old treaties. I could have told O’Connor that up at Cudjoe Mountain Solomon was the healer rather than the dealer in black magic (for up there, there is also a sorcerer – whom I will not name – as there has always been).
I simply asked O’Connor the usual questions to keep him talking about the ins and outs of the case, for now that I heard that Miss Mellen had been up at Cudjoe Mountain and the police thought Ba Solomon had something to do with her disappearance, I was far more interested in the whole thing.
Of course, now that her bag had been found near the boundary with Maroon country O’Connor was all excited again about a connection, though placing Miss Mellen’s bag in the area was a far different thing from placing her self there. And O’Connor had to admit that all of Ba Solomon’s time had been fully accounted for by just about everyone in the village for the weeks following Miss Mellen’s departure and disappearance as it did indeed coincide with a memorial celebration.
O’Connor was excited at the new evidence in the case but also annoyed that it had come at this point in time for he was just about due a fortnight’s leave in Kingston where he was getting married (Daphne attending the wedding on our behalf). By now I was annoyed with myself for not reading the notebooks before calling him and I was itching to do so now with an almost childish intensity, so I rather deviously made him an offer.
“I know Solomon well”, I said, “and I’m willing to talk to him about Miss Mellen. He might tell me things he wouldn’t tell you. In fact, I’m quite willing to go to Cudjoe Mountain and scout around. They all know me.”
O’Connor perked up at that. So as part of the deal he agreed that I could keep the notebooks until he returned from Kingston for at this stage he had no intention of handing the knapsack over to the CID until he himself had had another attempt at cracking the case. He knew he could trust me. I was after all a Justice of the Peace and sat on the bench sometimes plus there was still my late Uncle Jack’s reputation as one of the Force’s formidable investigators. O’Connor might have hoped that some of his skills had rubbed off on me. I promised to go through the notebooks carefully and make notes of anything that seemed relevant and also to scout around in Cudjoe Mountain to see what I could find out. O’Connor left seeming quite pleased with the arrangement.
The first thing I did was send a message to Ba Solomon asking him to come and see me. I myself would have preferred to talk to him in his den, so to speak, but it was calving time so I didn’t want to leave the Pen.
You know it’s interesting that all the people who have ever written of Jamaican wizards of whatever stripe are always at pains to describe them as misshapen, ugly, old, in short as the most disagreeable physical specimens. Some might well have been so, I’ve had one or two such come up before me on the bench, but Ba Solomon certainly didn’t fit into that category. Like most of the Maroons he was a physically commanding man – even though he was now in his forties. He was a clean shaven, handsome man with nothing about him to indicate that he was special – unless he had allowed you to examine the contents of his heng-pon-me (or straw knapsack) or you could see the guzus or charms he wore under his denim shirt or the pieces of iron that he had secreted somewhere about his person to connect him with the karamante spirits.
I have to say at the outset that the meeting with Ba Solomon did not go well even though the Sunday he came we took advantage of Daphne’s absence to sit on the back veranda until night fell and polish off a bottle of rum and a good part of a roast. Then he went to spend the night with the men in the barracks and I have no doubt provide them all with new guzus – they were all looking decidedly more cheerful after he left.
Nowadays I saw Ba Solomon rarely but we have always enjoyed each other’s company, we loved to enter into all kinds of disputations which I think he liked because no one in his world would have dared to challenge him and it kept his wits sharpened. I admired not just his earthy wisdom but his dry humour. But this time, probably because I was so preoccupied with Miss Mellen’s case I didn’t pay much attention to anything else. For on the question of the lady although he spoke readily and freely about her visit, I was left with the feeling that he was holding back a great deal. Of course, I would not have said that to him but when we parted, I was left with a hollow feeling as if my time had been somewhat wasted. And I was hurt too, that Ba Solomon did not think he could trust me. I was glad now that I hadn’t told him about the notebooks as I had intended to. He knew of course that Miss Mellen’s bag had been found and that O’Connor had taken it with him, as he seemed to know everything that went on in the entire parish. I was on the verge then of saying I had kept back the notebooks to read but something made me hold my tongue. It was as if I and Ba Solomon whom I’d known all my life had slipped out of our normal friendly posture and were now engaging in some kind of mental combat. I was extremely bothered by the idea because no matter how ‘English’ I considered myself – I had been schooled at Marlborough after all – in my heart of hearts I knew I was a true creole or ‘born-ya’ for I couldn’t rid myself of a strong belief in the irrational. I had had too many experiences myself. Ba Solomon is not someone I would want to engage in a battle with.
As soon as Ba Solomon left, my first impulse was to rush to get started on the first notebook but I didn’t, for I had this irrational fear that if I did so while he was still on the property, he would have been able to read what I was doing right through the walls. I had never had any fear of Solomon before and I knew he was illiterate so I don’t know why I even thought he would have had any interest in the notebooks as such. But of course if there was something to hide, he would have been concerned to find out what Miss Mellen had written. Anyway, I waited until the Monday night when I knew he had returned home before I started on the first notebook.
I spent the next week or so reading through the first three of them carefully whenever I could take a break from my regular job of running the property and I have to confess that I began to cut corners and leave quite a few things up to my headman. My main intention of course was to find out what Miss Mellen had to say about Ba Solomon or if anything untoward had occurred while she was up at Cudjoe Mountain but I also copied extracts of lots of other things that interested me. But the whole business was taking up all of my time in the evenings and I began to get tired from staying up every night way past my regular bedtime. On the pen we start early – I get up at 5:00 every morning – so I was really missing a great deal of sleep, but I couldn’t let it go.
I established early that one notebook was different from the rest, it was clearly a personal journal, and I put it aside as I still had an absurd respect for Miss Mellen’s privacy. I concentrated on reading the three that were clearly field notes.
Much of the notebooks of course consisted of this woman’s observations of her surroundings, people and things, notes of interviews and so on, some of it (her speculation or commentary?) written in a very technical language or in a kind of shorthand. The first few days after her arrival her observations were quite general but after a while she seemed to have identified her informants and it was clear she was making some kind of study of medical practices, especially among the women. In the notebooks she gave their full names so I knew who they were though I suppose when she came to write up her findings she would have used pseudonyms. I felt like a bit of a voyeur for I knew the people but I was also amused at how much they were not telling her – the Maroons after all are past masters of disguise in every form – it is the only way they could have escaped from slavery the moment they arrived from Africa and set up their own settlements in what were once slave colonies which have lasted for hundreds of years. I don’t want to waste time, but there’s this story of them in Dallas, about their ability to ‘disappear’ out of sight of the British soldiers, that had always interested me and which she herself had copied in her notebook: At the time of the first Maroon war, when the leaders were summoned to a peace negotiation with the British, one captain and his troops was still in the field. A horn man was ordered to summon them. He blew the abeng, at which the bushes around the camp started to stir and the entire missing band was revealed. They had been there the whole time, hidden by the bush in which they draped themselves, ‘ambush’ as they called it. As the abeng summoned them, each man used his machete to chop the bush under which he had lain hidden, thus exposing the entire band, ‘arranged in order’.
But what interested me most from reading the notebooks was how Miss Mellen herself was emerging, not swiftly and vigorously as the Maroons did from ambush to strike down their enemy, but softly, by degrees, like matter seeping slowly and insidiously from the underground cavern in which her notebooks had resided. As if foreshadowing her appearance in my house as an aggressive ghost, she emerged from the pages like a print from a photographic plate, first as nebulous as spirit matter, then as my reading progressed, impressing herself on the page more strongly so that by the end, I had a vivid picture of her personality before me which corresponded very much to what Ba Solomon had said. Here indeed was no timid female scholar but a woman warrior in the making. No wonder she had felt confident enough to engage Ba Solomon in a duel.
As I’ve mentioned before, we have had experience of many academics of many nationalities passing through, mostly men but of late an increasing number of women. Of course, it takes a certain type of personality I think to set off for the wilds of some foreign tropical country in the hope of being enriched not by something material like gold or emeralds but merely by information about strange people, plants, or animals and their lifestyles or habitat. More, that that will be enough to secure or enhance the researcher’s status in a narrow little world called academia. To the average person who operates on the material plane, that in itself is a strange notion and needless to say, most of the people whom we have met are of an eccentric though frequently engaging turn of mind. The women who have passed through have been rather strong in character and opinions – I guess they have to be – but none has ever been short on charm.
It seems to me that much of this business of field research depends on the goodwill of what they fondly call the ‘natives’ and the more experienced manage to hide their own naked ambition or even sometimes their contempt for the people whose hospitality they are enjoying. Because we are white and we are part of what I suppose would be the rural elite in this country, our foreign visitors tend to assume that we share totally in their views and my wife and I often try to hide the fact that we are sometimes horrified by such views. But such unpleasantness doesn’t happen very often.
But I’m afraid to say that this Miss Mellen bothered me, for what she showed of herself seemed to me rather unpleasant. Let me hasten to say I have two grown up daughters and that has probably been my greatest lesson in understanding young women – particularly this modern generation. So I would describe myself as sympathetic to their aims and their desire for a more equitable share in running the world. My daughter in Kingston who is the journalist is very much a part of the struggle there for what we might call women’s rights and is certainly not afraid to express herself to others or to me. So old fogie though my daughters call me, I have had some softening up, so to speak. But this Miss Mellen seemed a type I had come to dislike intensely, the intellectually superior know-it-all without that redeeming sense of humour, the type that takes herself – and everyone else – too seriously. But what struck me most of all was that she was driven by an ambition that seemed almost masculine in its strength, as if she had experienced a particular denigration both personal and professional from her status as a woman and that what she hoped to derive from her stay among the Maroons was something of such world shattering importance it would make the academic world sit up and take notice, enshrine her place in history and be one in the eye for someone who seemed like a rival – Dr Bannister – or maybe he was merely her supervisor, for she referred to him frequently.
Maybe some of this could be ascribed to her youth – O’Connor said she was in her mid twenties and already a doctoral candidate so she was naturally very bright, but heavens! She seemed very much lacking in the milk of human kindness.
This initial assessment of mine was not far wrong, for although they did not put it into so many words, it was also the opinion of the Maroon colonel and other community elders to whom I later spoke. They all compared Miss Mellen unfavourably to previous female researchers they had entertained. Despite her surface affability, even generosity, they had all felt singed by a fiery spirit. In short, the Maroons had seen right through her, weighed her in the balance and dismissed her.
What a contrast that was to Miss Mellen’s reading of the Maroons – or so I was to realise after I finally came to read the personal journal. But that was to be far into the future.
I closed the last of the field notebooks with a feeling not of elation but of intense depression for I felt that the effort had taken me nowhere. All I learnt was that Solomon and Miss Mellen had engaged in some kind of duel (or so it seemed to me) in that each wanted something the other had, and in intensity of purpose at any rate they were evenly matched. Though Miss Mellen in her arrogance had no idea how out of her depth she really was in all other ways.
All I could make out was that in exchange for some secret he was going to tell her, he wanted her notebook. Because the books are all identical in appearance I assume he thought she had only one. At first she had assumed he merely wanted a blank book and was quite ready to hand that over, but later realised that what he was after was the book filled with writing. And of course she was smart enough to recognise that what she was dealing with here was some kind of word magic. I knew, for instance, as she had discovered, that Solomon had several copies of the Bible for the sole purpose of tearing up small pieces from the pages and including them in his medicinal recipes to be swallowed by his patients along with fluids and herbs or whatever.
I could understand the Holy Book having such potency, especially since Solomon was only interested in securing ones which has been blessed by a Catholic priest and been sprinkled with holy water. But I couldn’t imagine what kind of potency a doctoral candidate’s notebook could have. She asked him, and didn’t get an answer, but she agreed to her part of the deal. I couldn’t imagine that a scholar would part with her most valuable possession – the journal of her field work, so I assumed she would do what I would have done, which is to make a copy of the one she was giving away. She knew Solomon couldn’t read, so she could have faked a quick version of the whole thing. But what was it that Solomon was going to give to her? She never said, even in her own private journal that I eventually turned to, she was extremely coy about it, but she certainly made it out to be something earth-shattering.
For some reason, Solomon had insisted that he would hand over whatever it was only when she was leaving for good, for once she got it she could not turn back to Cudjoe Mountain again but was to head straight down the hill. She was not to try it out, whatever ‘it’ was, until she reached America. The last entry in her book reads, “Off to Brother Solomon’s!!!!!!”
Now here’s the strangest thing. I had finished reading the last of the field notebooks early one Friday morning. In fact, I had fallen asleep over it the night before and had got up extra early that morning to read the last few pages. At the dining room table where I was reading I had closed the last page just as day was breaking and had blown out the lamp. I was sitting there with my eyes closed, turning the matter over in my head, trying to make sense of it all. Then I remember thinking, “I must send a message to Solomon and this time I must tell him everything I know and ask him to do the same with me” when I felt rather than heard something. I opened my eyes thinking it was the maid Vadnie bringing me coffee though it was early even for her. Imagine my surprise to see Solomon standing at the door leading to the kitchen. I nearly jumped out of my chair but before I could speak he said, “Sorry bass, I didn’t mean to frighten you. I was calling and I thought you did say ‘come in’. I decide to come as soon as I get your message”.
What message, I thought, feeling strangely discombobulated, for I had sent no message to Solomon. But he was looking at me so earnestly, I said nothing about it, and invited him to have some breakfast with me. I then took him into my office and closed the door, for nothing said anywhere else in the house is safe from the ears of Vadnie or anyone else of the staff. This time I decided to get to the truth of the matter, come what may. Given my past relationship with Solomon I didn’t think I needed to do this, but I thought I owed it to him to say that whatever was said between us, no matter what, would go no further. He said nothing to this but in the light of what happened afterwards, I believe our mutual trust was re-established.
Of course he must have seen the notebook the minute he entered the dining room, for I still had it on the table. So now I picked it up and took it with us to the office. I put it on the desk between us and without beating around the bush, I said, “Solomon, what is this big secret that you were going to tell Miss Mellen the morning she left? What she really come to your house for?"
I was surprised that he threw back his head and gave a hearty laugh. Nodding at the notebook he asked, “You mean she nevva tell you”?
“No”, I said, flipping through the pages. “That’s why I’m asking.”
He continued to seem highly amused as he said, almost to himself, “then she did really fraid.” This seemed to please him even more and he sat there with a smile on his face but said nothing else.
Taking a different tack I asked, “So what did you want with her notebook? Don’t you have the Bible?”
“Yes, but this different. Me nuh fool. Me know fe har word not the same as todder word. But bass you have to understand this woman not easy. She a-write every blessed ting down from her foot touch Cudjoe Town. Dat not right. Like she born wid pen in her hand.”
“So what? Isn’t that what they all do? Look how many of these foreign university people you have had up at the place!”
“Yes, but when they come to talk to me, none of them ever bring book. They come, they talk, respectful like, we can spend some good time together. They leave. They write. That way, they can only write what breeze catch . . . it only bring back half.”
“So she was writing all the time . . .”
“. . . even when she was with you?”
“Yea. And she just stare you right in the face. Her eye blue like marble.” From the scornful way he said it, I know Miss Mellen had irritated and upset him.
“You still don’t tell me what you wanted with the notebook.”
“You don’t see?” he asked in surprise. “She spend all her time from she come writing down everything. Same way the word fall from our mouth same way she pick them up hot hot and lock it into her book. Is my job to protec . . .”
Now I understood. As he saw it, the foreign woman in her little book was capturing what we might call the spirit of the place, entrapping everything for her own use. As spiritual adviser, it was Solomon’s duty to recapture these images and put them back in their rightful place. Solomon would have ‘decommissioned’ the notebook so to speak and then fed its pages to every Cudjoe Town resident, perhaps at one of their ancestral feasts.
I know this might sound like nonsense to some people, but it made perfect sense to Solomon, as it did to me.
Of course, he said, he knew she was not going to give him the notebook. He seemed to have viewed Miss Mellen from the outset as some kind of devious witch. So he had prepared for that. He instructed her to bring the notebook the morning of her departure at which time he would hand over the secret (which he still had not told me).
“So she brought the notebook?” I asked.
“She think she could fool me. Wrap up in fancy paper.”
“Oh?” I thought my theory was right and she had made up a notebook specially for him. But Miss Mellen was not as smart as I thought, for Solomon now said with some bitterness, “she was playing me for a fool. Never know I could see the book was white as the driven snow. Not a speck of writing in it.”
“You opened it while she was there?”
He looked at me scornfully so I knew he had seen through the wrapping paper. "No. Don’t you play fool to catch wise?”
“So what did you do next?”
“I give her what she come for.”
“What! After she cheat you?”
He smiled and said, “Duppy know who to frighten.”
“So Solomon, tell me, is what you give her?” I said it in a teasing kind of way but by now I was dying to know.
“She wanted me was to tell her how to vanish.”
“Disappear. Come invisible”.
“What!” I wasn’t shocked at the notion, for Solomon’s ability to vanish and reappear at will was well known, it was one of the arts of his family. But I genuinely could not believe that he would have shared such knowledge with this woman – and for such a trifling exchange – or so it seemed to me.
“And you did it”? I asked, leaning forward and looking him straight in the eye for it occurred to me that he might have been pulling my leg.
“Yes”, he said, but he was smiling broadly and his eyes were far away as if he were remembering and even savouring the moment. “Me tell her me will tell her, yes, but no book. She have to remember everything in her head. That is the rule.”
I couldn’t help myself, I was feeling angry and let-down by Solomon whom I’d always felt was a man of honour who would never stoop to selling out any of his culture – as some of his compatriots were beginning to do – I know this was happening from the many things my guests had told me. One little woman had even come to Accompong and wheedled and paid her way until she left with the last of the old authentic musical instruments and other precious artefacts, then had the audacity to write about her feat. But that is another story.
Thinking of that sort of thing made me a bit hot under the collar and without being aware of it, I had raised my voice: “But why would you tell her such an important thing? What really was she giving you in exchange? You said she had cheated you over the notebook. Solomon, I don’t understand why you would go to the trouble.”
Solomon laughed again, a genuine laugh. Then he leaned across the desk and looked me straight in the eye.
“Bass”, he said, “Yu nuh understan?
“No”, I said with some irritation.
“I tell her how to disappear. But I never tell her how to come back.”
I held my breath for a moment then burst out laughing at the audacity of Solomon. I laughed and the laughter just took over both of us, shattering the morning. I was laughing out of sheer relief that someone I guess I had idealised or maybe even romanticised hadn’t broken my trust in him by selling out. I was so pleased I got out the rum bottle I kept in my desk drawer and though the day was barely beginning, Solomon and I shared many a toast with each other.
After Solomon left I sat there and sobered up in the various senses of the word. I thought then of Miss Mellen and I began to feel uncomfortable. Ignoring Solomon’s instructions, she must have tried out the spell before leaving, perhaps as she left the railway station. If it worked, how long did it take for her to realise what he had done? That she had no way of returning to the visible world? I decided then and there that this unpleasant Miss Mellen was not worth the trouble of my worrying over her, and I locked the notebook away in my desk with the others and began to think about what I would tell O’Connor. For now I wanted to be mentally rid of the whole thing. He’d be disappointed that my investigations merely confirmed what he already knew, that Miss Mellen had left Cudjoe Mountain hale and hearty, on the best of terms with everyone. So highly was she esteemed that she had gone over to Solomon’s house before she left to exchange parting gifts. She had given him a box of handkerchiefs and he had given her an old carved stick that had been in his family for generations. O’Connor would have no choice now but to close the book.
And that is exactly what happened. I returned the knapsack with the notebooks. At that time I swear I was not aware that I had accidentally left behind in my desk drawer the personal notebook, the one I had not read, for it had somehow fallen down and got wedged against the side of the drawer and my ledger. O’Connor wrote up a report regarding the finding of the knapsack and the subsequent investigation which yielded no further results (leaving my part out of it of course) and he sent off the report and the bag to police headquarters in Kingston and we all thought that was the end of that.
Nobody had counted on the tenacity of Miss Mellen though. Solomon thought she was sufficiently in awe of him to have followed his instructions exactly and would not have tried out the conjure until she had actually returned home to America. He must have been shocked to discover what a mess she had made of things right on his doorstep, so to speak. For it was clear that she herself had hidden the knapsack in the cave, which meant she was making her way straight back to him.
Later, I asked Solomon about this, why if she got that far she hadn’t managed to get back to Cudjoe Town, for I assume that she hadn’t.
“She could nevva do that”, he said. “I nuh buil’ wall? She could never cross into Maroon territory.”
I knew he meant a magical wall but for once I didn’t believe him.
“How you know to do that?” I asked.
“Same way I know everything else.”
“Cho”, I said, “don’t make joke with me, man. If your great-granddaddy did know how to do a thing like that, how come you all couldn’t keep out British soldier?”
“You don’t understand how this thing work”, he said. “You can only keep out one smaddy at a time for you have to work with something they handle. With their sweat on it.”
So now I knew he was talking about an imaginary line drawn, probably with a smoke ring made from some personal item burning, the ring getting bigger and bigger until it encircled the entire place to be protected.
“So you’ve kept her out?”
“Yes, she bound to stay t’odder side.”
I was finally able to understand then the fury of the ‘ghost’ that had finally tracked its way to our house where the knapsack had been taken. I could imagine it now, how she had made her way back up from the railway station – a feat in itself for hardly anyone would walk alone along that lonely track. It would probably have taken her days and the possibility of getting lost was very real for there were no real landmarks – all the hillocks of the cockpits look the same, even experienced trackers sometimes had a hard time finding their way home. But she had persisted, though as an invisible person she could have attached herself to some party on the trail. She would have known the turn off to Cudjoe Town. And then she must have found the cave to stash the bag. I found it interesting that on her way to ask Solomon to redeem her from the fate to which he had consigned her, she had still hidden her notebooks which she would have known by now would have been her strongest bargaining tools. She must have known she would have had to pay a very high price for Solomon’s help. What did she have now to give in exchange? I didn’t want to think though I did wonder how far an ambitious scholar would be ready to sell her soul. Or maybe she had already done so, even before she came, to some higher power. Remembering the anger of the ghost that had taken over my house, I suppressed my sympathy, knowing that she could have smashed up the entire house, how she had disturbed the family, the staff, our guests. If I hadn’t figured out who she was, God knows what she would have done. But of course by the time she came to our house, she must have spent a very long time trying to find a way into Maroon territory, coming up against this imaginary wall again and again. I can only assume that she strayed so far away and perhaps had found her way back simply by accident but had no way of finding again the cave where she had stashed the bag. I can’t even imagine how she could have survived out there in the bush, without food or water – though thinking about it now I have no idea what the requirements of the invisible body are. In fact, writing this down now, the whole thing sounds so preposterous that I’m almost tempted to tear the whole thing up and put it all down to Solomon’s powers of suggestion.
Of course, there is always the other notebook, her personal one. The one that got left behind ‘accidentally on purpose’ perhaps when I returned the rest to O’Connor? The one I had failed to read with the others out of respect for Miss Mellen’s privacy. How I wish now I had had no such scruples and had read it with the rest. There I might have found answers to the mystery. But although I am tempted now, I just cannot bring myself to open the thing, no longer out of respect but – I hate to confess this – simply out of fear, and the more time passes, the more my courage fails me. I’ve tried to forget about it, but that object is very present in this room, locked up inside my desk drawer. Every now and then the thought of it leaps into my mind, and it’s like a ticking bomb. I even have the irrational fear sometimes that it is drawing Miss Mellen on, back towards my house. I keep thinking I should get rid of the thing and consider the whole case closed, once and for all. Except that it is precisely at those times that my courage returns, my rational self gains the ascendant, my natural common sense reasserts itself. Such nonsense, I say. Just to show my mastery, I will unlock the drawer, take out the notebook, turn it from side to side. But I can never bring myself to open it. I’ll read you soon, I say. And once again I’ll find myself locking the thing away with a haste that I’m embarrassed to say can only be described as unseemly.
Olive Senior is the award-winning author of four books of poetry, three books of fiction and four non-fiction books on Caribbean culture including the Encyclopedia of Jamaica Heritage and Working Miracles: Women’s Lives in the English Speaking Caribbean.