La Temps des Passions
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Like a tightrope. Or a noose. Each morning as she woke, Lorna Mulrooney could feel the hands of local tradition squeezing more tightly around her throat. Often she woke soaked in sweat, always she woke to a background buzz of fear that resonated deep in her heart.
This rousing fear was the fear of nightmares: insistent, unidentified, unidentifiable. An intangible, shapeless dread. It bred in the thick green light of the leaf-lit jungle, even here in the clearing of the village, it bred in the jungle smell of leaf-litter, the ammonia of a million insects, the persistent stench of animal and vegetable decay. Every morning she struggled through its veil.
Full, waking, alert fear was a different beast. It was clear, close and precise. It was in the unspoken threat of everyone around her. Nine months she had been here now. And in those nine months, the childish fear of the unknown had not diminished by as much as a breath but the adult fear of known dangers had grown as fast as maggots in a corpse.
But still she stayed. Her original mission to bring Jesus to these wild villagers in the dense depths of the island was long discarded. These people already knew about Christianity. They had embraced it so completely that it was now their own, a thing in its own right.
Every scripture she had read, every psalm she had sung, had been read and sung and danced back to her with new twists and new turns, interpretations that had made her own pastel-coloured faith seem a mere shadow of the vibrant, shocking and mocking primary colours of this jungle church under the canopy of the sky.
She stayed because the little she knew about medicine had seemed to be useful. But now the doubts about even this were settling on her daily, like ash from a volcano. She stayed because they had allowed her to stay. There was no society more closed than this – and they had allowed her to co-exist with them. She stayed because of the extremities of light and dark, heat and chill. She stayed because she was hooked.
Turning out of the cot and on to the tarpaulin groundsheet of the tent, she lit the stump of candle and woke her six-year-old daughter, Amy.
In the cotton night-dresses that somehow still survived, they knelt, side by side in the guttering light of the candle and made their prayers.
But Lorna knew her god was not here. No almighty of the meek dare nuzzle amidst the brimstone passion of these Zephaniah peoples. No New Testament compassion among these worshippers. Here was all blood and revenge and slaughter. Here was a God of passion and fear.
Her words murmured the rituals of a lesser god. Deep inside, her heart trembled to the passion of a greater faith.
There is an art to never looking anyone in the eye. It’s an apparition of deference. It’s more about retaining one’s own integrity than it is about acknowledgement of a superior. The people in the jungle never look outsiders in the eye. Outsiders are other people, with strange and dangerous ways, they come to kill, to flog, to maim, to control, to train, to teach – but never to share.
Lorna Mulrooney had learned the style of not looking, but she had not learned the art. For her to look down or away was true recognition of her lowly place in the village hierarchy. And so it is with this deference that she and Amy leave their tent and, slightly stooped, walk almost crabwise towards the centre of the village and to breakfast.
Approaching the Culinierre, they crouch low, hold their bowls upwards and turn their bodies away. Always there is a pause. The Culinierre will look around the assembled villagers for a nod or a shake of their heads, seeking consent as to whether these outsiders should be fed. Almost always now, the pause is following by the slop of the breakfast stew into the wooden bowls.
Rarely do Lorna and the girl go hungry. At first it had been different. Within the first month their supply of dried food had been used up. Now a small tin of hardtack was all they had in their tent and if they had to skip a meal they went hungry.
The hardtack was their last link with the rest of the world, a link that in an emergency would feed them for perhaps three days.
The slop of the food into the wooden bowls and they crouch their way a respectful distance from the Culinierre before sitting on the ground and spooning heaped mouthfuls of the banana and meat.
There is murmuring all around and the soft clunk of wooden spoons on wooden bowls as the village comes awake and gathers, in small groups, to meet the new day with food.
There is less tension in the air than when they first arrived, stumbling into the village, having lost the pastor who was leading the mission.
A tiny but rambling village, no more than a couple of dozen shacks, or huts or sheds. A mish-mash of brick and stone and rough-cut planks. Roofs of corrugated tin, some even of palm leaves still, some a mix of both where thatch has been patched with tin or tin patched with thatch.
They eat, and they wash their bowls and they wash themselves at the river. Amy wanders among the children, almost at one with their ways of play. She is happy to help the other children as they skin and gut a boar or a monkey to be cooked later. She gathers berries and leaves with them.
Lorna busies herself with unasked tasks, straightening logs for the fire, carrying ashes from the fire to the shit pits. Sometimes a villager will give her a troublesome baby to entertain, or she will find herself with all four of village’s infants when there is a major task at hand.
And the days slip by – and little by little, Lorna steps closer to the heart of the community, despite her strangeness, she feels herself drawn to the passion, the heart, the embrace of these people who live as if in another century.
Somewhere, sometimes close, exasperatingly always out of reach, there is waiting the embrace of fear and passion, of love and dread.
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She was washing clothes on the riverbank. The slop, scrub, slop, scrub on the rock making its own infintesimal echo through the valley. Scrubbing cotton on rock, feeling the chill mountain waters around her ankles, cooling in the afternoon heat.
The shadow that fell across her, across the bank and across half of the river, could only have been Medicinierre. The acrid smell, the length and blackness of the shadow. Afraid to look up, she stopped her washing and waited.
The Medicinierre were the heart of the people. Young men and women called to the service would be decorated in head-dresses of bright parrot plumage, dressed in bright cloaks, beads and buttons, tiny bells sewn into the seams of their trousers. The celebrations that attended the callings would go on for two, three days, with singing and dancing.
And then these curates would go into the smokehouse. A span of the moon they would stay there. Four weeks inside the smoke-choked hell-on-Earth. And when they came out they were no longer young men and women, they were Medicinierre. One hand dyed red, smoke-blackened faces and arms. The plumage, the clothes all smoke-black. Never again would they wash, they had become wed to the afterlife, the otherlife. Always walking one step in the world of the peoples, one step in the world of the demons. They were the bridge and through them flowed the power.
She waited. Head lowered. Eyes lowered.
“You are Mulrooney.”
“Of John Mulrooney.”
“The child is whelp of Mulrooney.”
A streaked red hand entered her field of vision. She felt the Medicinierre bend closer.
“This is for you.”
The red fist turned slowly, turned and opened like a corpse flower awakening in the touch of the morning sun. In the palm of the hand, a small round trinket, a coin. Although she had only heard stories, she knew instantly the embossed hands and claws of a Règle de Trois.
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From icy chill of thousand feets islands are cracked circle, deep green against blue of sea. Green of circle edged with sand band gold. Great slash across where turquoise sea slit runs between.
From here, on air currents, mountains below seen to rise up through thick frond of jungle mess. Light green of mountain foots, grey brown of low slope, goes up and grey and up and up to white-top head of mountain. Food is not in white-tops and not look there except for time of must need.
From here in light white blue of high above, I look down at lesser bird, black shapes circling over jungle tree. And lower, flutter birds of colour jabbing from tree stem to tree stem. Down there they will be cackle screech between trees.
From high here, is no sound, only rush of airchill through own gold wings. Except if eyes made sound. If eyes made sound there would be screech as I look down, pierce down through feets of sky, through bird flock that scud treetops, through jabber birds caw-cawking and through thick leaftops to where food scampers. And, where trees part, I see down to where walking monkeys live in group of many-coloured box nest on ground.
See down now. Down in village near rise of mountain. Stoop woman near river, stands next to crowman, she is move across jimble-jumble nest places, she stoop ever as she walk and he stand, stand, stand and watch her, as if his eyes are like mine and can push her to where she goes.
From even here, from even thousands feets, my pierce-eyes smell carrion.
I circle downwards.
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Escorted by a stare to the ramshackle hut at the edge of the village, Lorna blinked at the gloom inside and was not surprised to see Amy standing there in the murk.
Amy stretched out her hand.
“Mummy, I have been given this.”
The tiny hand opened and nestling in the palm was a second Règle de Trois. The same mixed alloy, the same worn appearance.
Lorna took the coin, caught her daughter up in her arms.
“It’s ok honey.
“It’s ok but we have to go now. We have to leave the village and we have to leave now. You have to be a brave girl now. Stay close to me always.”
A quick glance around the hut brought nothing, no food, no tools, not even a stick. Pressing her foot to the single-skin brick wall at the back of the room, Lorna pushed. She pushed harder, feeling movement. Kneeling, she put her shoulder to the bricks, pushed. The tired brickwork moved a little. She worked the bricks, pressing her shoulder against them, freeing them, working the movement little by little.
Noises outside, outside in the village. Some shouts. She stood, sideways to the wall and stamped out with her leg, the ball of her foot kicking against the brickwork. Again. Again. Ignoring the bruising to her foot, she stamped out again and again against the wall. Each time feeling it take the strain.
Two stamps in quick succession and a little tumble of bricks, one had fallen, two more hanging precariously. She knelt again, and with Amy at her side, matching her actions, she scrabbled bricks, mortar from the base of the wall. Two bricks, three bricks free. Were the shouts closer? Two pairs of hands scrabbling at the mortar, tugging bricks free. Four, five, another tumble and a hole large enough for Amy.
Amy squirmed through the hole. She worked the bricks from the other side. Two more free. Lorna lay flat, pushed her hands through the hole and dragged, tugged, pulled her body to the other side.
A few brief gasps as she lay on the ground next to the hole, scratched and dusty, hands bleeding. And then up:
“Come now Amy, come, this way, into the jungle.”
Up and running. Hand-in-hand into the jungle. Skipping over gnarled roots, dodging branches, ducking under branches, a twinkle-toe dance into the thorns and thickets. But twenty, thirty yards in and they are into deep jungle. They cannot take the paths of the villagers and must move as the beasts move, through the mass of jungle mess.
“Amy, stay with me.”
No longer able to hold hands, Lorna leads, squirming where she can through the fronds and the ferns, the hanging vines, the tumble-foot roots that grab at her ankles. Twigs and thorns tearing at her arms, lashing her face. She glances back to her daughter.
“Come now Amy, come, come, this way now, this way.
“Good girl, good girl, stay with me.”
Fifteen minutes and it seems like hours. The jungle feels like a web that catches you slowly. A web that slows and weakens you until you can fight it no longer.
Thirty minutes and the lashes of branches have covered any unprotected skin with tiger-stripe scratches, little jig-jags of scratches, breathing is laboured and the sweat stings eyes.
Sixty minutes into the deep jungle and it seems a lifetime. Progress is slowed to a stagger, trying to avoid the fingers of the jungle as they reach from the trees, from the bushes, from the soil to grab at you. You have become a wriggling worm in a cocoon of jungle, a ball of movement, holding each space in the green for only a moment. Stop and the green closes you in its fist.
When they broke out of the village only a couple of hours of daylight remained and Lorna dare not stop while they are still able to squint through the gloom and move on. Amy is crying with exhaustion. Lorna takes her in her arms and presses on. She staggers on, trying to shield her daughter by walking sideways, wrapping her body around the girl and letting her shoulder press through the hanging vines.
The medicinierre will not come after them in the light, it will come when they are trapped in the blackness. Lorna knows they must move while there is still light, when night comes they must stay still. Still and silent. Jungle-night belongs to medicinierre and when it closes on them, they must curl low on the ground and stay still and silent, listening to the sounds in the night, but not being part of them.
I am the beating heart of the jungle. For millennia fallen trees, birds, beasts have rotted into my black soil. I lie here and year after year I grow deeper, richer, blacker with the blood and the sap of those who come to feed on me and upon whom I feed.
Deep in my black soil twisting roots clutch foundations as an eagle clutches its prey. The white fingers of roots reach through the thick soil and scrabble their nails against the bedrock of my deepest memory.
My leaf-litter dressing crawls with beetles making beds and babies in the rich fibre of my skin A crispy, scablike skin of rustling leaves, rustling in the sick wind under the canopy high above, rustling with untold horrors of creatures that strike the fear-sickness into soft men’s hearts.
Give me one breath of sunlight in a gap of trees, a gap where the warm rays touch the black-sugar soil and life bursts upwards like bursting bowels. Each plant, each tree, each parasite, choking, suffocating, stamping on the face of its rival.
I am the beating heart of the jungle, screened from the glare of the midday sun by my parasol of leaves. A canopy of leaves where butterflies dance and dart. Where butterflies lay their eggs and die, tumbling in great swirls under the leaf-light to fall to the gaping mouth of my earth.
Fall to my earth and I suck the last juice of life from you, and, when I am ready, I spit the juice of life a hundred feet in the air, spit a new tree up, hurrying to join its cousins in the sunlight, fearful of the choking rivals grasping at its heels.
And into my beating heart comes this woman, this girl. Tumbling through my twisted ground-roots that grasp at toes and ankles, tearing through my thorn thickets that tug at hair and clothes, stumbling and tripping over the grasping hands of tree limbs in the dark green semi-dark.
I sense them move through my space like wounded fawns. They stagger, they slip, they slide in mud-ooze. They move like victims and I wonder if I will suck the last of life-juice from them soon.
And after them come medicinierre, who know my ways. They move as a snake moves, they move with the ground and among my plants. They wriggle untouched through the thorns and the poison pricks of the bushes that punctuate their path. One day, I will suck the last of their life-juice also, but for them I must wait.
And so I wait and watch. And send twisted branches to snatch and snarl at these two strangers who stamp and strain across my face.
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We three am Medicinierre. We think, we move, we act as one. We am wait now, crouched apart but one on the edge of the jungle. We am wait now for the thick night to mask the dark of the leaf-light with blackness. We move in the black by smell and touch. Seeing is no use in the jungle, touch and smell will guide we.
The people do not talk we. There is sick-fear in their bellies. They have not seen three-we as one before. It is all one.
We wait and crouch, feeling the sun go down on our backs, seeing the shadows spread long, watching the long shadows grow thin, the thin shadows melt into the blackening ground at the edge of the jungle.
The sun goes down and we rise up as one, stamp we feet as one, and slide as one into the tangle-wrap of jungle night.
Separate and together we writhe through the root and the vine of brother jungle. Smelling out the quarry woman-girl. Feeling the bruise and hurt path they have bled through the branches.
We body wriggles unseen, untouched through the night, fingers reach out touching broken twigs, torn vine. Slow and steady, slow and steady. Working our way through the dark, tracking the spoor of the woman-girl that has left its path as if like a shining light to our eyes.
Three years ago the John Mulrooney come and hunt the children with a gun. Now we am hunt the Mulrooney seed that came among us in its innocence. We make no sound in the dark, it is all cicada noise, bird hoot and dogwolf howl.
The Mulrooney child will be found. Blud answers blud. It is all one.
Only three days in and already Lorna was incapable of taking the lead. She was sick and exhausted. They drank rain from the stems and leaves of plants where it collected. They ate berries, leaves and grubs that Amy remembered from her play with the village children.
But it was not enough, they ate as they walked, nipping off berries with their fingers. With Amy in front, Lorna could see what was edible, watching and copying meant there was no need to talk, it saved energy. They were always hungry, always thirsty and still the thorns and vines pulled at them.
Amy chose the route but they were heading generally east, not because they knew what was ahead, but because of what they knew was behind. Amy could see erratic routes through the tumble of leaves and stalks.
They staggered, torn and tugged, through the undergrowth. Amy could see that her mother was sick. She hoped they were heading towards the foothills, she wanted to get her mother out of the heat and humidity under the jungle canopy. Light and air and the cool of the mountains would help her mother. She pressed on, calling in a soft voice for her mother to follow whenever she started to lag behind.
“This way, this way. Nearly there. Just the next few steps.”
Soft calls in the green light, and Lorna stumbled after, following the sound of her daughter’s voice.
At night they hunkered down amongst the patchy ground-growth where the speckled light breaking through the canopy twisted the flora into strange shapes. Lorna snatched what sleep she could, more collapse than sleep. And she woke often, starting with the hand of fear that had taken hold of her heart. The roots around them felt like hands and she dreamed they were trying to tug her under the soil.
Amy crouched by her mother through the nights and slept on her feet, letting sleep wash her in and out of consciousness. She listened to the jungle-noise in the dark, reached out and touched the ghosts gathered around them like mosquitoes, their whispered voices matching almost exactly the buzz of insect wings.
Soft calls in the soft cloak of night:
“This way, this way. Nearly there. Just the next few steps.”
Excelsior. Onward and upward. Slowly, painstakingly, shuffled step by shuffled step, Lorna and Amy move to the base of the foothills. There is the beginning of a noticeable thinning in the density of the jungle, the density of the air and the density of fear.
Amy still takes the lead, the jungle fever still wrapped tight around her mother. They begin to work their way upwards, the gentle slope is increasingly strewn with open spaces and broken rock. A gentle wind blows through the remnants of their once-white nightdresses. Against the dark greens of vegetation and the grey of the rocks they look like ragged angels, clipped wing, stumbling on foot back to heaven.
They ascend slowly, Amy almost carrying her mother as she drifts in and out of delirium. Amy has no idea where they are headed, they are headed forward, onward, upward. Amy has no sense of being chased but she senses the urge to grow as they go onward.
They pause often. Amy picks small pink and yellow flowers growing amid the rocks and makes a crown of them for her mother and herself. They have not beaten the jungle but they have shared with it and now it feels right for Amy and her mother to adorn themselves with its children.
And Lorna can go no further. The rests had been coming more frequently, her mother less and less coherent, the fever more intense. Amy lays her mother down on the side of the hill, clear now from the jungle, open and with the hint of a sea breeze cooling the afternoon air.
She makes a pillow of leaves and petals from the small plants covering the space between the rocks. Resting her mother’s head on the pillow, she strokes the sweat from Lorna’s brow and prays softly to her:
“Our Father, who art in Heaven…”
Murmured so softly the words catch in the wind and flutter like butterflies over the hillside.
Late afternoon and Amy is still knelt next to her mother, her head bowed in attentiveness, still murmuring the prayer, over and over. Around the edge of her vision the bright green of low vegetation is suddenly broken by three long black streaks of shadow seemingly stretching to eternity.
Amy looks up to see the three Medicinierre looking down at her.
“Yes. We see. The jungle is taking her. We take you both. We take both back to village home.”
Lorna Mulrooney died four days later, her unsettled spirit fluttering among the treetops close to the village. By the time she had been carried back to the village her body was wracked with fever and her mind visited constantly by apparitions, ill-formed passions, ghosts and ghouls. She had begun her descent into the underworld at almost the same time as her journey had led her to ascend the mountains.
She was beyond all treatments, sweatings and smokings. Her last hours were spent on a soft bed of palameira leaves that the villagers gathered and prepared. She was surrounded by tenderness, the Culinierre raising her head to dampen her lips with broth. When the children happened past, they hushed their games, a little in care and a little in awe of the journey she had made with her daughter.
Having nowhere else to go, I stayed on in the village and completed the education in the ways of the jungle I had already started in my play with the other children.
I write this now partly as a memoriam for my mother, partly for future generations in order to set some record of this time of passions that may, one day, be lost to the peoples of the world as they stagger towards a simpler and threadbare relationship with all around them.
My father did not ever return to the islands, although the spectre of the abominations he committed during his first and only visit continues to haunt the people. His serpent mark in this Eden of isles is as indelibly etched on their souls as the sorrow with which Eve was condemned to bring forth children.
I do not believe he knew my mother fled to the scene of his depredations after she left him, with me bundled in her arms. Her arrival at the island’s main port with the Pastor leading the mission was little remarked at the time as such missions were relatively common. Neither did the disappearance of the entire party create much more than a vague hacking around of the jungle for a few days by soldiers who cared more about the heat in their uniforms than the search itself.
And just as the God Almighty said “man is become one of us” with Adam’s knowledge of good and evil, so did I become one with the people who adopted me. And I adopted their ways and traditions, choosing my own path within the maze of life they themselves endure.
But I am always the bloodline of my father and even with the villagers’ care, I grew, like the tree of life, to bring forth bittersweet fruit, mixing sanctity and sacrilege, a little of this life a little of the next, seeing, touching, sharing the paradox of polarities. My children, the agony is the ecstacy.
I am Amy Mulrooney, I am Medicinierre, I am the people. I am the birds and the beasts, I am the jungle. I am Ton Ton Macoute. Blud answers blud.