Authors: Tracey Baptiste
ALGONQUIN YOUNG READERS 2015
To my children, Alyssa and Adam,
without whom this book
would have been finished years ago.
And to all the children of the
Caribbean (no matter your age).
See, you have fairy tales too.
orinne La Mer's heart beat like wild drums as she ran through the forest. Her bare feet stumbled over the dead leaves and protruding roots of the forest floor. She strained her eyes in the dappled sunlight to keep track of the small, furry agouti that scampered away from her. Occasionally, light glinted off the smooth rock tied to the animal's hind leg. It called to Corinne like a beacon. When she got close enough, she pounced on the 'gouti and missed, grabbing only a handful of dirt. Corinne grunted and threw the dirt aside. The animal ran beneath a bush and Corinne squeezed down to the damp earth to crawl after it. Her skirt got caught on branches, but she ripped it away, determined to reach the animal. On the other side, the creature cowered against a rock and the roots of a large tree. In her eleven years of life, Corinne had learned that with nowhere to run, a wild animal might try to attack. She hung back.
“I'm not going to hurt you,” she said in her calmest voice. She eased closer. “I just need that thing on your leg. You'll be able to run much faster without it, and I won't be chasing you . . . so . . .” She moved with care toward the 'gouti and gently untied the silk cord. The animal's coarse fur shivered and its pulse beat as fast as her own. Corinne closed her fist firmly around the stone pendant and crawled back out of the bush.
She rubbed the stone with her thumb. Over years of constant handling, she had worn a smooth groove that fit her finger perfectly. The pendant had been her mama's, and when she put her thumb into the little hollow, she imagined her mama's hand around her own. Corinne breathed a sigh of relief now that it was back in her possession, but her relief did not last long.
She didn't know this part of the forest. And it was darker here. The branches of the mahogany trees were so thick that barely any light came through. It even smelled different, of wood and wet earth, while Corinne was used to the smell of the sea. She had no idea which way was out.
Somewhere between the leaves, Corinne thought she saw a pair of lights shining. They were close together, like eyes. Her skin prickled, but then the lights disappeared and Corinne tried to shake off her fear. The little bit of light must have been reflecting on something.
Don't be silly,
she scolded herself. “I'm going to kill those boys,” she muttered into the heavy air.
A pair of yellow-bellied birds alighted on a branch overhead, and called out,
! Something small scratched through the undergrowth. A cold lump formed in Corinne's stomach and began to spread. She had heard grown-ups tell stories about the terrible things that lived in hidden pockets of the island, like this forest filled with ancient mahogany trees. They talked about creatures with backward feet, and women who could shed their skin, and women with hooves for feet. Even though her papa told her these stories were not true, there must have been a reason no one ever came this far into the forest.
Corinne felt the wind at her left cheek. She followed it as her papa had taught her to do.
After a few minutes, the trees thinned out. There was a bit more sunlight filtering through the branches. Corinne breathed easier. Her heart slowed its pace. But she continued to hurry over the uneven ground, ducking beneath trees as she went. Then, behind her, the bushes rustled. She turned just in time to see something move in the shadows. Surely it was only an animal. But what if it was another kind of thing entirely? The kind of thing from the grown-ups' stories?
The hairs on her arms stood on end. She gripped her mama's necklace as she glanced behind her. From a curtain of shadow, the two large yellow eyes blinked. Corinne turned and ran as fast as she could. The thing snarled and rushed after her.
Corinne concentrated on the ground as she fled. She burst through the last line of trees onto the dirt road. A large pair of hands grabbed her. Corinne squeezed her eyes shut.
“What are you running from, Corinne?” a familiar voice asked.
She opened her eyes, relieved. “Nothing, Papa,” she said. Her breath came in fast sips and her body shook.
Pierre La Mer looked into her eyes. “Why were you in there?”
Corinne looked down the road. Near the dried-up well, two boys in tattered, dirty clothing stood watching them. The older one w
as smiling with mischief. He held a small frog in his hands over the top of the well. It was struggling, but he held it firmly.
Their next victim,
Corinne thought. Corinne let the stone pendant dangle from her fingers. Its smooth surface gleamed. The smile slid off the boy's face. The younger one looked surprised and then his face broke into a grin. His brother nudged him hard.
“Those filthy boys tied Mama's necklace to a baby 'gouti and scared it into the forest. I had to get it back, didn't I?”
“What boys?” Pierre looked around, but the boys had run away. “You actually chased an agouti into the forest and caught it?” He looked at Corinne from head to foot and pulled some of the twigs and leaves from her braids. Suddenly, he laughed. “I've raised a hunter!” He kissed both her cheeks, but then his face grew serious. “You should be old enough to know not to go running in the woods. There are wild animals in the bush, Corinne. There's a reason you don't see anyone else in there.”
Corinne looked back at the bushes and thought of those shining eyes and the thing that had run after her.
Her father swept her up into a tight hug. “Your heart is going quicker than a riptide. Did something frighten you? It wasn't a jumbie was it?” he teased.
In her father's arms, in the open air, Corinne laughed at her fear. She hugged him back and said, “No, Papa.”
“Of course not. Nothing frightens my girl, right?” He winked. Pierre wiped some mud off his daughter's face. “The sun is going down. It's time to go visit your mama. Are you ready?”
Corinne retied the necklace around her neck and felt the stone settle close to her heart. “Ready.”
Corinne and her father walked away as the sun slipped toward the horizon.
They did not see the pair of yellow eyes that brought a dim light to the edge of the forest. The darker it got, the brighter the eyes became. The eyes watched Corinne and Pierre as they went on the road until they disappeared around a bend. And once the sun descended beneath the tops of the trees and the forest shadows lengthened along the road, the jumbie emerged.
orinne and her father joined dozens of other people walking to the graveyard. It was an All Hallow's Eve tradition to pay respect to those buried there. Many people on Corinne's island believed All Hallow's Eve was the one night when the dead had the power to seek out the living. Some said spirits and jumbies came out to exact revenge on those who had wronged them. Of the two, people of the island feared jumbies more. In the stories people told, jumbies lived among people, hidden in the shadows, always waiting for their moment to attack, mostly out of pure wickedness. Most believed in them, but Pierre had taught Corinne that spirits and jumbies were all nonsense. So while some children clung close to their parents, Corinne was not afraid. She skipped ahead of everyone and began to sing.
Ti-dong, ti-dong dong, ti-dong
The frog is hopping, hopping, hopping, hopping
A few of the braver children joined her.
Ti-dong, ti-dong dong, ti-dong
As the crowd got closer to the churchyard their song trailed off. Children returned to their parents, and Corinne felt her father's large hand close around her own. Fresh sea air was in his long, locked hair, and the sharp scent of saltwater wafted out of his damp sandals as he walked. His hands were warm and rough from working on the sea, pulling in his nets full of fishes.
The old stone church came into view at the top of a low hill. Corinne could just make out the whitewashed tombstones and wooden crosses in the graveyard next to it. Her eyes moved over the crowd. There was Laurent, walking next to his mother, both with the same sun-baked skin and wide eyes. Lucia and her brothers walked ahead of their mother and father. Lucia's mother panted and tried to keep up, though it was hard with the weight of her belly filled with Lucia's latest brother or sister.
“I remember her, you know,” Corinne told Pierre. “I remember my mama.”
“Do you?” Pierre asked with a smile.
“She had thick black braids that fell down the middle of her back.”
“Just like mine,” Corinne said with a smile. “And her skin was the deep brown color of earth.”
“Just like yours!” Pierre said.
“Yes. And her eyes were as round and bright as the sun.”
“Hmm, and how do you remember all of that?”
“You tell me every day, Papa!” Corinne said.
Pierre's laugh mingled with the sound of waves that rolled back out to sea. Pierre and Corinne quickened their pace and entered the churchyard just as the final rays of sunlight threw an orange veil over the world.
“Orange magic,” Corinne and her father said together.
“Your mama's favorite time of day,” said Pierre. His eyes filled with tears.
“Then we're here at just the right time,” Corinne said. She squeezed his hand and pulled him past the people who were already in the small graveyard, lighting candles and planting flowers. In a corner near a sapling tree, Pierre traced his hand over the words carved into a wooden cross.
NICOLE LA MER
BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER
His hand lingered longest over “Nicole.”
He plucked a white orange blossom from the sapling tree and tucked it into Corinne's hair. It still had the strong scent of oranges even though it had already begun to fold its petals in for the night. Corinne remembered when they had buried her mama in the ground like a seed. Corinne was four years old, and her mama had been teaching her to grow things. At the burial Corinne had whispered, “How long will it take for her to grow back, Papa?” But the look on his face told her that not everything that was put in the ground would give something back. A little orange tree had appeared next to the grave a year later, and had bloomed every year since, but it was not the same as having her mother.
Pierre took some candles out of his pocket and struck a match. He passed the flame under each candle. As the wax melted, he pressed the candles into the hard ground over the grave and lit each wick. The flames flickered with the sea breeze.
“Look, Papa,” Corinne said, pointing toward the sky. “Like fireflies.”
Pierre had just looked up at the hundreds of flickering yellow flames hovering over the dark graveyard, when their light was eclipsed by a large man.
“The spirits are out tonight, my friend,” the man said. His voice boomed over the tombstones as he clapped Pierre on the back.
“Hugo!” Pierre said with a smile. “How are you doing?”
Hugo nodded. “I'm doing all right.” He patted himself, and as he did, little wafts of fresh flour puffed off his clothes. Hugo was the village baker. He always smelled of fresh bread and had dough beneath his fingernails. Even his cheeks puffed out like pastry. Hugo touched his unlit candle to one of Pierre's. The flame doubled in size, then split into two as Hugo pulled his candle away. “The dead walk the earth, little one,” he said to Corinne. “Aren't you afraid?”
She touched her mama's stone pendant, smiled at her father, and shook her head.
Hugo laughed. The sound carried over the graveyard and brought all eyes to their little corner. He pulled at one of her shiny black braids. “Not afraid of the dead, but are you afraid of losing? The other children have already begun their collections.”
Corinne looked at the balls of wax the others were gathering. This was the game they played while the grown-ups cleaned the graves and chatted among themselves. The one with the biggest ball of wax at the end of the night was declared the winner and had the right to gloat on the walk home.
“I have another idea,” she said. She reached for the nearest candle and pulled away the soft wax that dripped off the side.
“Mind the clear wax, Corinne!” Pierre warned.
Corinne ran to join the children who moved among the graves, scooping up handfuls of dripping wax and balling them up in their hands. Older children like Corinne knew to touch only the wax that was turning a cloudy white. The little ones either burned the tips of their fingers on the scalding-hot transparent wax that was just falling, or waited too long and tried to break off the already-cooled hard white pieces.
After they had visited all the graves, Corinne's friends left the churchyard with lumpy grayish balls of candle wax in varying sizes, but Corinne did not.
“Did you win?” Papa asked.
“Mine's not a ball.” She had shaped her wax into a woman with long braids just like hers. She showed it to her father.
He touched the wax figure gently. “You still should have won. Yours is pretty big.”
“I don't mind,” Corinne said. “This is better.” She looked at her friends Lucia and Laurent, who hefted lumpy wax balls larger than their hands. They looked at her and grinned. Corinne held up her statue and smiled back.
“Still not big enough,” Laurent said.
“Not bigger than mine,” Lucia said.
Everyone held on to their wax collections like prizes, though Lucia had been declared the winner. She went skipping ahead, but she had to keep stopping for her mother.
As they all streamed back out to the road, Pierre stepped toward a woman who was standing alone in the shadows. “Are you lost?” he asked the stranger.
The woman turned toward him and slowly shook her head. Corinne could only make out the woman's face in the darkness. Her eyes reflected the moon like quicksilver.
Pierre hesitated as if he wanted to say something more to the woman.
“Papa!” Corinne called to her father. He returned to her side. “Look, Papa,” she said. She held up her doll against the moon. “It's glowing.”
Pierre smiled. “It must be magic . . . like you.” Corinne followed her father's gaze as he looked back toward the shadows, but the woman was gone. All she saw now was the empty graveyard.