He barely heard the clunk of the canteen, dropped on the ground, and watched, blinking, as the houngan’s white-clad back wavered before him. A dark blur of face as Ishmael turned to him.

‘Come.’ The man disappeared into the veil of water.

‘Right,’ he muttered. ‘Well, then . . .’ He removed his boots, unbuckled the knee-bands of his breeches and peeled off his stockings. Then shucked his coat and stepped cautiously into the steaming water.

It was hot enough to make him gasp, but within a few moments, he had got used to the temperature, and made his way across a shallow, steaming pool toward the mouth of the cavern, shifting gravel hard under his bare feet. He heard whispering from his guards, but no one offered any alternative suggestions.

Water poured from the overhang, but not in the manner of a true waterfall; slender streams, like jagged teeth. The guards had pegged the torches into the ground at the edge of the spring; the flames danced like rainbows in the drizzle of the falling water as he passed beneath the overhang.

The hot, wet air pressed his lungs and made it hard to breathe. After a few moments, he couldn’t feel any difference between his skin and the moist air through which he walked; it was as though he had melted into the darkness of the cavern.

And it was dark. Completely. A faint glow came from behind him, but he could see nothing at all before him, and was obliged to feel his way, one hand on the rough rock wall. The sound of falling water grew fainter, replaced by the heavy thump of his own heartbeat, struggling against the pressure on his chest. Once he stopped and pressed his fingers against his eyelids, taking comfort in the coloured patterns that appeared there; he wasn’t blind, then. When he opened his eyes again, though, the darkness was still complete.

He thought the walls were narrowing – he could touch them on both sides by stretching out his arms – and had a nightmare moment when he seemed to feel them drawing in upon him. He forced himself to breathe, a deep, explosive gasp, and forced the illusion back.

‘Stop there.’ The voice was a whisper. He stopped.

There was silence, for what seemed a long time.

‘Come forward,’ said the whisper, seeming suddenly quite near him. ‘There is dry land, just before you.’

He shuffled forward, felt the floor of the cave rise beneath him, and stepped out carefully onto bare rock. Walked slowly forward until again the voice bade him stop.

Silence. He thought he could make out breathing, but wasn’t sure; the sound of the water was still faintly audible in the distance. All right, he thought. Come along, then.

It hadn’t been precisely an invitation, but what came into his mind was Mrs Abernathy’s intent green eyes, staring at him as she said, ‘I see a great, huge snake, lying on your shoulders, colonel.’

With a convulsive shudder, he realised that he felt a weight on his shoulders. Not a dead weight, but something live. It moved, just barely.

‘Jesus,’ he whispered, and thought he heard the ghost of a laugh from somewhere in the cave. He stiffened himself and fought back against the mental image, for surely this was nothing more than imagination, fuelled by rum. Sure enough, the illusion of green eyes vanished – but the weight rested on him still, though he couldn’t tell whether it lay upon his shoulders or his mind.

‘So,’ said the low voice, sounding surprised. ‘The loa has come already. The snakes do like you, buckra.’

‘And if they do?’ he asked. He spoke in a normal tone of voice; his words echoed from the walls around him.

The voice chuckled briefly, and he felt rather than heard movement nearby, the rustle of limbs and a soft thump as something struck the floor near his right foot. His head felt immense, throbbing with rum, and waves of heat pulsed through him, though the depths of the cave were cool.

‘See if this snake likes you, buckra,’ the voice invited. ‘Pick it up.’

He couldn’t see a thing, but slowly moved his foot, feeling his way over the silty floor. His toes touched something and he stopped abruptly. Whatever he had touched moved abruptly in turn, recoiling from him. Then he felt the tiny flicker of a snake’s tongue on his toe, tasting him.

Oddly, the sensation steadied him. Surely this wasn’t his friend, the tiny yellow constrictor – but it was a serpent much like that one in general size, so far as he could tell. Nothing to fear from that.

‘Pick it up,’ the voice invited him. ‘The krait will tell us if you speak the truth.’

‘Will he, indeed?’ Grey said dryly. ‘How?’

The voice laughed, and he thought he heard two or three more chuckling behind it – but perhaps it was only echoes.

‘If you die . . . you lied.’

He gave a small, contemptuous snort. There were no venomous snakes on Jamaica. He cupped his hand, and bent at the knee, but hesitated. Venomous or not, he had an instinctive aversion to being bitten by a snake. And how did he know how the man – or men – sitting in the shadows would take it if the thing did bite him?

‘I trust this snake,’ said the voice softly. ‘Krait comes with me from Africa. Long time now.’

Grey’s knees straightened abruptly. Africa! Now he placed the name, and cold sweat broke out on his face. Krait. A fucking African krait. Gwynne had had one. Small, no bigger than the circumference of a man’s little finger. ‘Bloody deadly,’ Gwynne had crooned, stroking the thing’s back with the tip of a goose-quill – an attention to which the snake, a slender, nondescript brown thing, had seemed oblivious.

This one was squirming languorously over the top of Grey’s foot; he had to restrain a strong urge to kick it away and stamp on it. What the devil was it about him that attracted snakes, of all ungodly things? He supposed it could be worse; it might be cockroaches . . . he instantly felt a hideous crawling sensation upon his forearms, and rubbed them hard, reflexively, seeing, yes, he bloody saw them, here in the dark, thorny jointed legs and wriggling, inquisitive antennae brushing his skin.

He might have cried out. Someone laughed.

If he thought at all, he couldn’t do it. He stooped and snatched the thing and rising, hurled it into the darkness. There was a yelp and a sudden scrabbling, then a brief, shocked scream.

He stood panting and trembling from reaction, checking and rechecking his hand – but felt no pain, could find no puncture wounds. The scream had been succeeded by a low stream of unintelligible curses, punctuated by the deep gasps of a man in terror. The voice of the houngan – if that’s who it was – came urgently, followed by another voice, doubtful, fearful. Behind him, before him? He had no sense of direction anymore.

br />

He barely heard the clunk of the canteen, dropped on the ground, and watched, blinking, as the houngan’s white-clad back wavered before him. A dark blur of face as Ishmael turned to him.

‘Come.’ The man disappeared into the veil of water.

‘Right,’ he muttered. ‘Well, then . . .’ He removed his boots, unbuckled the knee-bands of his breeches and peeled off his stockings. Then shucked his coat and stepped cautiously into the steaming water.

It was hot enough to make him gasp, but within a few moments, he had got used to the temperature, and made his way across a shallow, steaming pool toward the mouth of the cavern, shifting gravel hard under his bare feet. He heard whispering from his guards, but no one offered any alternative suggestions.

Water poured from the overhang, but not in the manner of a true waterfall; slender streams, like jagged teeth. The guards had pegged the torches into the ground at the edge of the spring; the flames danced like rainbows in the drizzle of the falling water as he passed beneath the overhang.

The hot, wet air pressed his lungs and made it hard to breathe. After a few moments, he couldn’t feel any difference between his skin and the moist air through which he walked; it was as though he had melted into the darkness of the cavern.

And it was dark. Completely. A faint glow came from behind him, but he could see nothing at all before him, and was obliged to feel his way, one hand on the rough rock wall. The sound of falling water grew fainter, replaced by the heavy thump of his own heartbeat, struggling against the pressure on his chest. Once he stopped and pressed his fingers against his eyelids, taking comfort in the coloured patterns that appeared there; he wasn’t blind, then. When he opened his eyes again, though, the darkness was still complete.

He thought the walls were narrowing – he could touch them on both sides by stretching out his arms – and had a nightmare moment when he seemed to feel them drawing in upon him. He forced himself to breathe, a deep, explosive gasp, and forced the illusion back.

‘Stop there.’ The voice was a whisper. He stopped.

There was silence, for what seemed a long time.

‘Come forward,’ said the whisper, seeming suddenly quite near him. ‘There is dry land, just before you.’

He shuffled forward, felt the floor of the cave rise beneath him, and stepped out carefully onto bare rock. Walked slowly forward until again the voice bade him stop.

Silence. He thought he could make out breathing, but wasn’t sure; the sound of the water was still faintly audible in the distance. All right, he thought. Come along, then.

It hadn’t been precisely an invitation, but what came into his mind was Mrs Abernathy’s intent green eyes, staring at him as she said, ‘I see a great, huge snake, lying on your shoulders, colonel.’

With a convulsive shudder, he realised that he felt a weight on his shoulders. Not a dead weight, but something live. It moved, just barely.

‘Jesus,’ he whispered, and thought he heard the ghost of a laugh from somewhere in the cave. He stiffened himself and fought back against the mental image, for surely this was nothing more than imagination, fuelled by rum. Sure enough, the illusion of green eyes vanished – but the weight rested on him still, though he couldn’t tell whether it lay upon his shoulders or his mind.

‘So,’ said the low voice, sounding surprised. ‘The loa has come already. The snakes do like you, buckra.’

‘And if they do?’ he asked. He spoke in a normal tone of voice; his words echoed from the walls around him.

The voice chuckled briefly, and he felt rather than heard movement nearby, the rustle of limbs and a soft thump as something struck the floor near his right foot. His head felt immense, throbbing with rum, and waves of heat pulsed through him, though the depths of the cave were cool.

‘See if this snake likes you, buckra,’ the voice invited. ‘Pick it up.’

He couldn’t see a thing, but slowly moved his foot, feeling his way over the silty floor. His toes touched something and he stopped abruptly. Whatever he had touched moved abruptly in turn, recoiling from him. Then he felt the tiny flicker of a snake’s tongue on his toe, tasting him.

Oddly, the sensation steadied him. Surely this wasn’t his friend, the tiny yellow constrictor – but it was a serpent much like that one in general size, so far as he could tell. Nothing to fear from that.

‘Pick it up,’ the voice invited him. ‘The krait will tell us if you speak the truth.’

‘Will he, indeed?’ Grey said dryly. ‘How?’

The voice laughed, and he thought he heard two or three more chuckling behind it – but perhaps it was only echoes.

‘If you die . . . you lied.’

He gave a small, contemptuous snort. There were no venomous snakes on Jamaica. He cupped his hand, and bent at the knee, but hesitated. Venomous or not, he had an instinctive aversion to being bitten by a snake. And how did he know how the man – or men – sitting in the shadows would take it if the thing did bite him?

‘I trust this snake,’ said the voice softly. ‘Krait comes with me from Africa. Long time now.’

Grey’s knees straightened abruptly. Africa! Now he placed the name, and cold sweat broke out on his face. Krait. A fucking African krait. Gwynne had had one. Small, no bigger than the circumference of a man’s little finger. ‘Bloody deadly,’ Gwynne had crooned, stroking the thing’s back with the tip of a goose-quill – an attention to which the snake, a slender, nondescript brown thing, had seemed oblivious.

This one was squirming languorously over the top of Grey’s foot; he had to restrain a strong urge to kick it away and stamp on it. What the devil was it about him that attracted snakes, of all ungodly things? He supposed it could be worse; it might be cockroaches . . . he instantly felt a hideous crawling sensation upon his forearms, and rubbed them hard, reflexively, seeing, yes, he bloody saw them, here in the dark, thorny jointed legs and wriggling, inquisitive antennae brushing his skin.

He might have cried out. Someone laughed.

If he thought at all, he couldn’t do it. He stooped and snatched the thing and rising, hurled it into the darkness. There was a yelp and a sudden scrabbling, then a brief, shocked scream.

He stood panting and trembling from reaction, checking and rechecking his hand – but felt no pain, could find no puncture wounds. The scream had been succeeded by a low stream of unintelligible curses, punctuated by the deep gasps of a man in terror. The voice of the houngan – if that’s who it was – came urgently, followed by another voice, doubtful, fearful. Behind him, before him? He had no sense of direction anymore.

Something brushed past him, the heaviness of a body, and he fell against the wall of the cave, scraping his arm. He welcomed the pain; it was something to cling to, something real.

More urgency in the depths of the cave, sudden silence. And then a swishing thunk! as something struck hard into flesh, and the sheared-copper smell of fresh blood came strong over the scent of hot rock and rushing water. No further sound.

He was sitting on the muddy floor of the cave; he could feel the cool dirt under him. He pressed his hands flat against it, getting his bearings. After a moment, he heaved himself to his feet and stood, swaying and dizzy.

‘I don’t lie,’ he said, into the dark. ‘And I will have my men.’

Dripping with sweat and water, he turned back, toward the rainbows.

The sun had barely risen when he came back into the mountain compound. The smoke of cooking fires hung among the huts, and the smell of food made his stomach clench painfully, but all that could wait. He strode as well as he might – his feet were so badly blistered that he hadn’t been able to get his boots back on, and had walked back barefoot, over rocks and thorns – to the largest hut, where Captain Accompong sat placidly waiting for him.

Tom and the soldiers were there, too, no longer roped together, but still bound, kneeling by the fire. And Cresswell, a little way apart, looking wretched, but at least upright.

Accompong looked at one of his lieutenants, who stepped forward with a big cane-knife, and cut the prisoners’ bonds with a series of casual but fortunately accurate swipes.

‘Your men, my colonel,’ he said magnanimously, flipping one fat hand in their direction. ‘I give them back to you.’

‘I am deeply obliged to you, sir.’ Grey bowed. ‘There is one missing, though. Where is Rodrigo?’

There was a sudden silence. Even the shouting children hushed instantly, melting back behind their mothers. Grey could hear the trickling of water down the distant rock-face, and the pulse beating in his ears.

‘The zombie?’ Accompong said at last. He spoke mildly, but Grey sensed some unease in his voice. ‘He is not yours.’

‘Yes,’ Grey said firmly. ‘He is. He came to the mountain under my protection – and he will leave the same way. It is my duty.’

The squatty headman’s expression was hard to interpret. For none of the crowd moved, or murmured, though he caught a glimpse from the corner of his eyes of the faint turning of heads, as folk asked silent questions of one another.

‘It is my duty,’ Grey repeated. ‘I cannot go without him.’ Carefully omitting any suggestion that it might not be his choice whether to go or not. Still, why would Accompong return the white men to him, if he planned to kill or imprison Grey?

The headman pursed fleshy lips, then turned his head and said something questioning. Movement, in the hut where Ishmael had emerged the night before. There was a considerable pause, but once more, the houngan came out.

His face was pale, and one of his feet was wrapped in a bloodstained wad of fabric, bound tightly. Amputation, Grey thought with interest, recalling the metallic thunk that had seemed to echo through his own flesh in the cave. It was the only sure way to keep a snake’s venom from spreading through the body.

‘Ah,’ said Grey, voice light. ‘So the krait liked me better, did he?’

He thought Accompong laughed under his breath, but didn’t really pay attention. The houngan’s eyes flashed hate at him, and he regretted his wit, fearing that it might cost Rodrigo more than had already been taken from him.

Despite his shock and horror, though, he clung to what Mrs Abernathy had told him. The young man was not truly dead. He swallowed. Could Rodrigo perhaps be restored? The Scotchwoman had said not – but perhaps she was wrong. Clearly Rodrigo had not been a zombie for more than a few days. And she did say that the drug dissipated over time . . . perhaps . . .

Accompong spoke sharply, and the houngan lowered his head.

‘Anda,’ he said sullenly. There was stumbling movement in the hut, and he stepped aside, half-pushing Rodrigo out into the light, where he came to a stop, staring vacantly at the ground, mouth open.

‘You want this?’ Accompong waved a hand at Rodrigo. ‘What for? He’s no good to you, surely? Unless you want to take him to bed – he won’t say no to you!’

Everyone thought that very funny; the clearing rocked with laughter. Grey waited it out. From the corner of his eye, he saw the girl Azeel, watching him with something like a fearful hope in her eyes.

‘He is under my protection,’ he repeated. ‘Yes, I want him.’

Accompong nodded and took a deep breath, sniffing appreciatively at the mingled scents of cassava porridge, fried plantain, and frying pig-meat.

‘Sit down, colonel,’ he said, ‘and eat with me.’

Grey sank slowly down beside him, weariness throbbing through his legs. Looking round, he saw Cresswell dragged roughly off, but left sitting on the ground against a hut, unmolested. Tom and the two soldiers, looking dazed, were being fed at one of the cook-fires. Then he saw Rodrigo, still standing like a scarecrow, and struggled to his feet.

He took the young man’s tattered sleeve and said, ‘Come with me.’ Rather to his surprise, Rodrigo did, turning like an automaton. He led the young man through the staring crowd to the girl Azeel, and said, ‘Stop.’ He lifted Rodrigo’s hand and offered it to the girl, who, after a moment’s hesitation, took firmly hold of it.

‘Look after him, please,’ Grey said to her. Only as he turned away did it register upon him that the arm he had held was wrapped with a bandage. Ah. Dead men don’t bleed.

Returning to Accompong’s fire, he found a wooden platter of steaming food awaiting him. He sank down gratefully upon the ground again, and closed his eyes – then opened them, startled, as he felt something descend upon his head, and found himself peering out from under the drooping felt brim of the headman’s ragged hat.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’ He hesitated, looking round, either for the leather hat-box, or for his ragged palm-frond hat, but didn’t see either one.

‘Never mind,’ said Accompong, and leaning forward, slid his hands carefully over Grey’s shoulders, palm up, as though lifting something heavy. ‘I will take your snake, instead. You have carried him long enough, I think.’

AUTHOR’S NOTES

My source for the theoretical basis of making zombies was The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic, by Wade Davis, which I’d read many years ago. Information on the maroons of Jamaica, the temperament, beliefs, and behaviour of Africans from different regions, and on historical slave rebellions came chiefly from Black Rebellion: Five Slave Revolts, by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. This manuscript (originally a series of articles published in Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, and Century) also supplied a number of valuable details regarding terrain and personalities.

Captain Accompong was a real maroon leader – I took his physical description from this source – and the custom of trading hats upon conclusion of a bargain also came from Black Rebellion. General background, atmosphere, and the importance of snakes came from Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse and a number of less important books dealing with voodoo. (By the way, I now have most of my reference collection – some 1,500 books – listed on LibraryThing and cross-indexed by topic, in case you’re interested in pursuing anything like, say, Scotland, magic, or the American Revolution.)

Source: www.StudyNovels.com