Author: Guede Mazaka
It’s not good to throw out the house-water on the ground just outside. The water picks up scents and touches and filth from the very most private parts and corners, and then just spilling it on the doorstep is asking for someone to come along and scoop up that dirt and use it against you. Besides, it may offend some spirit living nearby, and she has many of them and they’re too helpful for her to be shooing them off and calming them down all the time.
The sea brings one into the world, coming out of a woman and baptizing the baby for itself before any damn priest of any color can get to it—never mind what they say in the church, now, just nod and then remember who really lives in the dark and the trees and the wind—and so the sea doesn’t mind so. The sea remembers who belongs to it and it’ll be coming to take a body back anyway in the end.
Tia Dalma doesn’t trust the sluggish river to carry it all out before somebody who wouldn’t know better, or who maybe does—swims in it, so every morning at crack of dawn she carries her big jug of house-water down the steps and onto her canoe and then she paddles it out till the current runs a little faster and she can taste a tiny bit of salt when she dips her finger into the water. Then she dumps it out.
She says words of power over it, watching the mud swirl away the new clear streak. She doesn’t mean any insult or harm by spilling her waste-water here; she’s just returning what she’s been given. She honors the mother of them all, even when maybe it looks like the mother doesn’t want to love and respect them. That’s what the sea wants, then that’s what they got to take. That is the way the currents flow.
* * *
The space between high and low tide, that’s special. It’s neither here nor there with land and sea, but always having parts of the other in it when the one is having it. It’s a place where Tia Dalma can go when she wishes to see things.
She has herself a place on a tiny dog’s tail of sand that curls back round, like here the ground’s trying to embrace the sea. Well, fools can try that, but there’s no holding the mother when she wants to go no matter what some people think.
Tia Dalma digs her toes into the wet sand, feeling it harden into sharp little crystals and then go soft, turn to a slurry the moment she takes off the pressure. She leans over, but her skirt is in the way and she cannot see where she is standing—always a danger. With one hand, she takes in fist after fist of faded red silk, crinkly stiff yellowed lace, and bundles it high around her. The sand sucks at her feet, clinging to her heels, and leaves small, grainy, vague patterns of fate as it dries high around her ankles.
She mutters the prayers of her ancestors that go all the way back to the old country, the grass-country with the wide sky and the dry-bone soil where the cattle roamed and a tree was something to be thankful for spotting, because the water came so rarely. This Tia Dalma barely knew in the span of her own life, but the sea touches all lands and carries all memories in the end; she can stand here with the heat of high noon beating down through the thick jungle and hear the night-time roars, have to swallow hard in the middle of all the Caribbee’s sweat-air against the parched feeling in her throat.
The water swirls higher, pushing her heels deep into the ground. She stands her ground but lets her ankles and knees go loose, not stupid enough to stubbornly resist. She’ll bend before the sea, all right, though if it tries to take her she’ll tear off her skirt and throw up her arms for the surface. Sailors, they always be talking about giving in to the mother but that never will earn them a speck of respect from her. And not from Tia Dalma, either.
Her feet sink lower, lower, and then the big toe of her left foot pushes down against something softer, smoother than the sand. Tia Dalma immediately lifts that foot, knowing the sea doesn’t always throw up something nice, and steps back till she can squat down and look at it.
It looks like dirt, like the hard oblong clumps crusted over with salt that form when the sun scrapes her nails over the ground, but the thing is holding against the wash of the waves. The bump is shaped like a crooked finger rising out of the sand, a filthy thing for the scavengers to see to.
She walks back a few paces, then turns around to look at it again. Her hands rise of their own volition, and after a moment, she makes the signs against evil. The water comes up, just laps at her toes, and when it goes it leaves behind smooth sand.
* * *
A man begins to talk in her head at night, late when she’s swum out of her body and gone to be cradled in her mother’s arms once again. He’s grumbling so, always complaining, so she pays him no mind. But after a while she begins to hear the other grumbling, the roiling beneath her that rattles her bones and sends her awake with her hand to her belly, clutching at phantom pains.
Some mornings now, when she goes out with her jar of house-water, the river is flowing backwards a ways. And this, this is not right.
The sea looks sullen, and when the men venture down to the beach, every day they’re bringing home pieces of sea-worn lumber and fish-gnawed bones when it used to be every week, every few weeks, maybe. They don’t bring home any of the gifts that the ocean used to throw up, like pieces of cold iron and the occasional barrel of goods.
Tia Dalma goes to cast her bones and finds them covered in a grainy white film, like sand. But when she scrapes off a little into her trembling palm and tastes it, she tastes salt.
* * *
She tells the people to light as many fires as they can, and never mind the threat to the trees. When the sea roils so hard that the foam splashes on her front porch, when she knows that it is time, it is far into the night and she must have light to do this working by. There is darkness enough in the sea, where this began, and the light they need to draw out the end, to show the trouble the way.
But she goes alone to the space between land and water, with a plain dress on and her sleeves pulled up and her skirts tied about her waist. She kneels in the wet sand, kneading it with her hands and her feet till she feels the grains harden, fuse together and melt into rough skin. It’s hard work, and soon the sweat comes on her face and threatens to drip down the sides and off her chin. She stops often to wipe it off or to flick the drops to the side, well away from the pale arm now emerging from the ground.
It’s a bad birth, the body all positioned wrong with the head back and that one arm leading, its nails jagged and carrying rust-red crusts beneath them. No wonder the sea roils. Tia Dalma lets the arm trail and backs off to wash her hands in the sea. She scrapes off the salt film left behind, then anoints her arms with oil of palm that’s been steeping with herbs in a jar buried deep in the earth among the bones of the people. She needs to call to land, and not remind this one of the ocean if she’s to have any hope of seeing it free.
She goes back to the shore and plants her feet to either side of the arm, then squats down and slowly forces her hands into the heavy, wet sand, following the round of the shoulder down till her fingers tangle in her, her hands cradle a head. The mouth works against her palm, grazing teeth over it; this one is too eager, fighting to get ahead of the natural flow and then getting itself stuck high and dry with nothing to slide it out the rest of the way. She grunts and presses her hand down further till she can force the chin down, keep it back while she sees the rest of the skull crowned first.
The sands begin to stir around her, heaving and rippling, and she has to keep treading in order to stay on top as she slowly, slowly draws out the rest of the body. The man is heavy as iron, cold as ice, and even when the whitish layer of sea-salt flakes away from his body, his skin is white, white as bone. His legs are slow to come, forcing her to drop his head in the drier, yellower sand so she can take a lower hold on his waist, and when the last of his foot is finally rising from the ground, it frees itself with a feeble but pointed kick.
Out on the ocean, the skies begin to rumble and the waves crash higher, readying themselves to finish the emptying. Tia Dalma sits herself ungracefully besides this latest unwanted birth, breathing hard with her arms flung carelessly over her knees. Her clothes are wrung damply about her, and her muscles are shaking with more than her own strain.
There’s a rattling breath beside her. She turns her head, gives him a look that has plenty of tired resentment in it, and sees pale eyes blankly glaring back. “Should’ve stayed with her,” she mutters. “What you want back here?”
He answers in wordless gurgles and coughs, his lungs now feeling the burn of the air and no longer able to take the smooth touch of water. Tia Dalma gets her arm under him, rolls him over and thumps his back till he gets it all out. Lightning cracks overhead, vengefully ripping open the sky so the rain spurts down.
She calls for the others then, to carry the man back to her house, but she stays herself to fill up the hole in the shore once again and say the words over it. As she walks back by herself, a white arc drops between two clouds, then falls apart as if sliced through the middle, both ends flying off to the ends of the world. The wind brings the smell of fetid smoke to her, the rain making the ashes smell like drying blood.
* * *
They wash him in water collected from the sky, not river or ocean-water, so he’ll not feel called back too soon and start this nonsense all over again. He starts to wake then, and loudly enough so that Tia Dalma has a roomful of small hurts to treat after they’re done scrubbing him down. But he’s quiet now, lying in her bed. She goes in there once and sees his pale eyes slowly, intelligently, greedily moving about the room, and she knows already why the sea didn’t want to take this one back so soon.
After that, he saves his strength. He lets the women feed him through hollowed-out reeds, sucks down bowl after bowl of mush. His skin loses some of its wrinkles, keeps others, and dries out to parched-paper thinness, though Tia Dalma sees that no matter how roughly he’s handled, he never bleeds.
The first time she leaves a candle by the bedside, he spends hours moving his fingers in and out of it, and wincing every time with a look of triumph on his face.
The first time she hands him a bowl and a whittled shell for a scoop, he grimaces and asks for salt. “This…tastes like nothing.”
Tia Dalma pauses, already busy pulling out jars from the shelves. She looks at him, at his sour-twisted mouth and his arched eyebrow. “Do it, now.”
“No,” he says after a moment, considering the bowl. “But it needs salt, woman.”
After a moment, she turns and she gets the salt, but instead of handing it to him, she throws it over his head. He jerks back his head, then pulls up a knee beneath the sheets and puts his hand on it, as if to rise. “And what’s that for?”
“Dat? Dat for de ha’nts.” Tia Dalma leaves the salt by the bedside for him to do himself.
He laughs at her. “Ghosts? To keep the ghosts away from me?”
“Keep you from getting near ‘nough to dem, I t’ink,” she snorts, walking off. She can feel his gaze slide from the point between her shoulderblades, just where the neck of her dress scoops low, down the line of her back and linger on the sway of her hips. But he’s thinking, not only watching.
She’s working on her second batch of dough for the day, kneading it now so it’ll rise as the moon rises and take on some of the moon’s influence, show her where the tides lead when she sprinkles crumbs from the baked loaf on the waters, when she hears him get up out of the bed. He didn’t move at all during the day, acting all weak, but his stride is heavy if slow. He walks over to the bucket with the dipper.
When he slurps his drink, the wind rises outside. Tia Dalma smells rum and blood, and a small, brightly-colored bird suddenly flashes red and black and gold by the window.
She looks down at her hands and sees a gray cast go over the dough. He walks back to bed as she takes out her hands, scrapes them clean and then washes them in sea-water and wine for good measure. The wind goes down with a last whisper over the floor, stirring a few stray twigs and leaves into lazy cross-bones.
In the morning, when Tia Dalma checks the bread, she feels no surprise at seeing that it hasn’t risen an inch. But she can’t be shooing this one out yet, though he disturbs her house the way he disturbed the sea. It’s not yet time, and taking this one out needs much more care than seeing to the waste-water every day.
* * *
Tia Dalma keeps everything the sea gives her, whether she’s got a need for it or not. She bundles what she doesn’t use right away into the corners of her house and in the shed leaning against the back wall. She never shows this to the man, but he finds his way by himself and shows up in the doorway dressed in black boots and rover’s garb.
She flicks an eye at him, keeps her knife chopping across herbs and bones. “You may have de clothes, Barbossa, but you don’t have de wind with you yet.”
His weight shifts on the planks, changing the way they rattle against her bare feet. “Who are you, woman?” he asks.
“You should show respect.” After she’s finished cutting, she pushes the mince onto the flat of her blade and then tips it into her bottle of oil.
“I am. I’m calling you ‘woman,’ aren’t I? Can’t call you much else till I know your name,” he says.
He’s got a veneer of charm to him, but like his smile, he’s unafraid of letting the scratched-off patches and the venom below show. He takes a step into the room and the pot of day-old stew in the corner curdles as if it were soured milk. She flips the knife around in her hand and taps it once, hard on the counter, and the chill leaves and the stew thins itself. “Dis here is me house, Barbossa. Mind yourself.”
“Like you are, I expect you mean.” He doesn’t step back or forwards.
She does laugh at this. “Oh, no, no. De sea does dat, and I just be her hands and feet on de land, sometimes. You in her hands—you always been in her hands.”
He considers this for a while. The day’s chores are barely yet begun, so Tia Dalma pays him no mind as she goes around the kitchen. She puts down the knife from time to time, but he’s not so foolish as to make a rush at her anyway. He heard the planks flex and the nails bend when she called to her house to remember itself.
“I believe I’ll be here for a spell,” he finally says, soft but restless at the end. Angry—he wants to be out there, like a good sailor, and he wants to be out there, like a spirit with things yet to do in this world before rest can be had. “What’s your name?”
“My name I keep to meself—de people here call me Tia Dalma.” She spreads a handful of vegetables into a layer, then lines up her knife across them. Clear water moistens the freshly-cut ends, like dew or like colorless blood.
When he goes to leave, she says his name, just so he knows once and for all who runs this house. He stops, stares at her for a good long while. She ignores him and continues about the day’s work, busier than usual because of the extra effort it takes to rectify the consequences of his stay.
“Well, Tia Dalma.” The tread of his boots is echoed in the trembling of the sunlight that slants through the windows, darkening and then brightening as he moves away.
* * *
The people don’t like him much, even before he started pulling strange fruits from trees. He leaves a basket of them in the kitchen, and Tia Dalma throws salt over them and says the prayers before she ever touches the basket-handles. She knows it’s no gift. She doesn’t eat any of them, and whenever she finds a core that he’s left, she buries it far from the house.
Otherwise he’s an easy enough one; he eats anything but eats all sparingly, more for taste than for nourishment. He stays out of the kitchen, out of that which is for living, and in amongst the tools of her trade, in with that which is for seeing, so he’s not so much a nuisance.
He tells her stories sometimes, trying to catch her out and then smiling tight-lipped when she points out what is the truth and what is the embroidery. And sometimes she hears him talking in the other room, low and tense, when she already has one hand to the salt and the other on the nearest piece of iron. For now she lets him have his talks, but when he is gone, she’ll have to dress down the whole house.
Once in a while he goes down the steps to the river, but he’s never gone back to the shore as far as she knows. He’s waiting.
* * *
Tia Dalma doesn’t dally with anyone who lives near, or who might be apt to settle near. She can’t carry away a man and bury him far from her house—at least, not under the sun, and she isn’t such a fool as to put herself to that much of a bother over something just as likely to wash away the next day. And women…even worse, since they have the pull of the tide in them.
She has to slaughter a goat one day, for food and for offering, and right after the blade has cut the scream from the beast’s throat, Barbossa leans out of the window. His eyes are on her, but they’re drinking up the gleam from the blood spilling over her hands.
“Suits you,” he says later, when she’s walked in the door with stained skirt. “How good are you, Tia?”
‘Tia’s’ just a prettier way to say ‘woman’ in his mind. But sometimes she thinks it might be a sign of backhanded respect, after all; he doesn’t say what he think is part of her name, and she always calls him Barbossa.
“Can you set the dead to walking at night? Tell the future?” He reaches up and sets one of the strings of gourds to swinging. The hollow things crack against each other till they sound like the rolling of pebbles in the surf. “If I asked you—”
“I stay in me house, I do what I do from here. I stand and watch from me land; I’m not one to go sailing into de fate of other people,” she says, gathering up her skirt into a fat tail. She dips it into one of the jars of wash-water she has sitting around, then squeezes her hands up and down it to work out the blood.
His steps circle around her, pause just behind her left shoulder and then continue a moment before she would’ve made the sign against ill will. The blood that floats out of her skirt is already in lumps, dark red-brown and hard between her fingers.
“I think you’d like traveling. You seem like a woman who’s got salt in her blood as well as her mouth,” he calls over his shoulder. The sound of his voice runs around the room, making the wood creak and her bones shiver and ache.
* * *
She dozes in the kitchen every so often, just sitting down on a sack or a barrel and closing her eyes for a few moments. He still takes up her bed and more often now it’s something she can feel, like a nagging memory just beyond recollection. Like a shadow squatting in the corner, daring her to either put a candle into its center or put out all the candles.
So she’s glad, in a way, when damned Jack Sparrow shows up. He’s bright and flitting and he always puts everything else but himself out of mind when he steps into the room—except this time, when she looks into his face and she suddenly sees the streams of years and lives flow together. It chills her and she latches onto the new sun in the doorway, the shining young one who’s surrounded by fire. Blacksmith, death by cannon…safe iron and heat all through him. It’s still a foolish thing, because there’s been many like him and none who’ve never gone back to the sea, but it keeps the smile on her face and the mystical nattering on her tongue.
He comes into the front room while she’s sending them off; she can feel his gaze at the window and when Jack doesn’t show a hint of sensing it, then she knows that Sparrow is a doomed one. She’ll have to have the people get more candles in preparation.
“Ah, Jack,” Barbossa says like twisting a knife in a wound when she walks back into the house. His eyes are far off, looking through the trees to the ocean beyond, and she knows that it won’t be long for this one either.
Eventually he steps back from the window, and she feels when his eyes turn towards her, when his impatience rises too fast and his hands lift and his boot grates across the floorboards—
--she clenches her fists to her sides, and snaps his name and snaps another word besides, and then he is in the bedroom and the house slams the door on him.
She could have spoken before him, she thinks. She should have. It wasn’t her that he had meant to take, after all, and never mind that she knew he would have left afterwards. Sometimes even the wanderers weren’t safe, for the trouble that remained behind them. But what’s done is done, and after all it is still her house, her land and she is still a ways from going back to the sea.
* * *
That boy comes back, like Tia Dalma had expected, and this time he comes as a ragged wound. He can’t quite ask, though the pressure of his want and of the want of the girl with him is like a thunderstorm rising on the horizon, so finally Tia Dalma asks for him. And when they assent, there is a sharp cut of lightning across the room, a sudden violent swell before Barbossa steps through the doorway at the back.
He’s laughing, his eyes sucking in all that lightning as the air bursts and then empties all its life into him. When he bites into one of his strange fruits, he might as well be crunching the bones of the land between his teeth.
She sits in the corner while he talks to them, swaggering and sneering, with one hand pressed to her stomach. She can see that the others, they’ve only just begun to feel the rise of tension, but for her and for this it’s all over. She can rest now, if she wants. She has been delivered.
Her head swims a little, and her vision fades some from true color. She smiles wryly at the thought, knowing it’s got nothing to do with the Christian idea of deliverance, and he looks up and catches her at it. He nods, his eyes flickering, and then she knows she’ll have to have words with him before they leave.
* * *
“You were the first face I saw when I was living again,” he says.
“I didn’t bring you back,” she says.
He smiles with his lips shut, not fooling with her like he does the others. “I know. I brought myself back. But you were there.”
“I ain’t your mother, or your woman.” The hollow deep in Tia Dalma’s gut, nestled down in her pelvis, where the moon and the ocean swirl in a woman, aches.
“No, but you caught me. You did that for a while. Can name the people who’ve done that on one hand.” Barbossa looks at her, long and hard. “You aren’t ever going to catch me again. And if I catch you out of your house, then I may not mind thankfulness.”
She laughs in his face, putting her hand on the side of the door, and tells him she’ll mind what she minds till she sees him at sea again, and then they’ll see. Then she closes the door before he can speak to her any more, and once the wood bangs against wood, she turns around to put her back to the door. Her stomach hurts, and so does her head.
Her feet are wet. Tia Dalma frowns, picks one up, and then puts it down and walks over to a jug in the corner. It’s leaking.
* * *
When they’re well away from her shores, she goes down to the space between land and sea again, and she buries the cracked jar where she drew up Barbossa. Then she wades deeper, till she doesn’t have to hold up her skirt because the water does it for her, and she reaches between her legs to scrub and push the water deep into her till she feels clean. Till she feels like what she did: nothing.
The sea caresses her legs and reminds her with its murmuring where everything goes in the end and why she shouldn’t let things like this trouble her. She closes her eyes, breathing in its sharp salty smell, and hears the chomp of teeth into firm flesh, the cracking of wind in sails, the vicious note to his laugh. And she lets it go into the waters, till she may still hear it but it’s far away like the lowing of the cattle in the grass-land. The sea gives and the sea takes.
Tia Dalma returns home, and begins to clean him out of her house, leaving it ready for what the next tide might bring.