Outside Magazine, November 1994
Before explaining how I became the confidant of practitioners of obeah, a form of black magic, and before describing how my friend Mallow demonstrated his own cunning and cowardice by tricking me into camping alone at the site of more than one devilish Black Mass, I must first explain why I traveled to Cat Island in the Bahamas. That's if you are to believe what happened and why, and if you are to understand why Mallow may never again draw an easy Christian breath in my presence.
It was Mallow who, a month earlier, had telephoned with what sounded at first like just another drunken Caribbean tale. A Bahamian he knew had found a treasure chest in the ruins of a plantation house on Cat Island. Since the plantation house dated back to the 1700s, and since a locksmith had recently judged the chest to be 300 to 400 years old, the contents, I admit, were of interest.
"The trouble is," Mallow said, "Tony won't open the chest." (Tony was Tony Armbrister, the owner of the chest, whose family had settled on the island in 1780.) "The locksmith said that he would have to destroy it to open it. Since it belonged to his ancestors, Tony says he'd rather have the box than what's inside it. Not even his wife can talk him into opening the thing."
It was Mallow's belief that I, with the promise of publicity for Tony's beachside resort, might be able to change his mind. I was dubious but thought it would be interesting to see this old iron box, so I decided to go to Cat Island--a decision not made quickly, for I am not a fan of the Bahamas. Yet Cat Island, located 142 miles southeast of Nassau, wasn't like other islands in the Bahamas that I have visited. Which is to say it was exactly what I desire a tropical island to be: remote and windtattered, with empty beaches edged by coconut palms. Plus its citizenry had not been transformed into predators and wastrels by a jet stream of tourism. On Cat Island the 2,000 inhabitants still fish and work their gardens, growing bananas, yams, papayas, and peas, just as islanders have for the last 200 years.
Because better-known islands in the Bahamas are what they are, it's easier to describe Cat Island by noting what it is not and does not have. There are no jet-ski concessions, no disco drunk factories, no cold-weather sex trade, no obnoxious rental scooters, no paved roads, and no crime to speak of. For some happy reason, the resort pirates have overlooked this place, although the island isn't small. It's 46 miles long and shaped like an old crone's boot: narrow except for its deltaic southern base. There are a couple of airstrips, but no jetport. In fact, there are no cities, only a scattering of lime-and-wattle settlements with names that echo the lassitude of enduring in a place dominated by rock, thorn, wind, and sea.
Fernandez Bay Village, the Armbrister family stronghold and one of the few places on the island where visitors can stay, meshes prettily with the geography and history. A rind of white beach and clear-water harbor, Fernandez Bay is where, nearly 30 years ago, Frances Armbrister, the family matron (Mrs. A to most everyone) and her son Tony built a few rental cottages on land granted to their Loyalist family during the American Revolution. The results of their labor are a tropical reverie. The villas, constructed of stone and wood, have high ceilings and lofts that open out onto the sea. The main house serves three excellent meals a day--Tony, a pilot, flies the guests and supplies in from Fort Lauderdale--and there is a beach bar that operates on the honor system. If you want a cold bottle of beer, you simply wipe the ice off it and sign your name on the clipboard.
So I was glad that I came to Cat Island, metal chest or no metal chest. Each morning, I would zombie-walk from bed straight into the sea and swim the quarter-mile out to the reef and back. Then I'd read, or go for a bike ride with my 11-year-old son, Rogan. Rogan was wild about the place, too. In the afternoons we'd jog along the beach or pedal down to Smith's Bay and fly-cast to the resident bonefish. In the evenings we'd linger over dinner on the beach terrace, listening to Mrs. A tell stories. (She was once a Hollywood starlet, and her husband, Cyril, was a producer for the radio show The Shadow. They returned to the Armbrister land on Cat Island in 1938).
In other words, we enjoyed a sort of idyllic island existence.
But there was a treasure chest, just as Mallow had said. Tony kept it in the main house by the fireplace. My first day, he let me wrestle with it. The thing was built of slab iron, ancient in appearance, and it must have weighed 200 pounds. "My mother and some friends dug it out of the ruins of one of the old stone houses," Tony told me, giving the kind of shrug that illustrates finality. "I could use a blowtorch to get into it, but think of how long it's been in my family. Even if it has gold doubloons in it, it's more valuable to me the way it is." Then he added, "Mallow knows that. I'm surprised he brought you down here on a wild-goose chase."
I wasn't surprised. Mallow is shifty by nature and trouble by design. He has spent his life involved with one kind of Caribbean intrigue or another, and his enthusiasm, though refreshing, too often masks schemes that are convoluted and sometimes just plain dangerous. Early in our stay, he showed his stripe by stealing our lunches and short-sheeting our beds. Worse, he began to exert his influence on my son. Too soon, I was running alone and fishing alone while Rogan, by choice, remained in the thatched shade of the cabana bar under Mallow's delinquent guidance.
I found this disconcerting, for my fatherly definition of adventure has never included ogling island women through a rum haze. Even more troubling was Mallow's intent. Why had he lured us to this paradise? What hellish, juvenile prank did this elaborate ruse mask? Fearing a blind-side attack, I remained on full alert. Which is why I was wary when Mallow began pestering: "Now that you've got this treasure-chest thing out of your system, we ought to get away from Fernandez Bay. You know, do something exciting."
One evening Mallow goaded Mrs. a into telling stories about obeah, the island's underground religion. One was about her friend Lavida's daughter, Judy, who'd been the target of "a salt obeah" (assault obeah, I would learn later), the effect of which was nearly fatal. "At night," Mrs. A began, "hands came down out of the darkness and choked her--that's the way Judy described it. Judy was intelligent, mind you, an educated woman, but she was terrified. The fact that the practice of obeah has been outlawed by the Bahamian government makes it no less powerful."
The 85-year-old Mrs. A held court on the beach every evening by torchlight. She was a regal lady in a flowing white dress who long ago had made peace with the exigencies of island living. Beside her were Tony, who looks more like a young Ivy League professor than an island bush pilot, and his wife, Pam, a woman of great beauty, who wore a blue sarong and, in her hair, a coral-red hibiscus blossom. Also in attendance was a hulking artist named Steve, whom I privately believed to be a little mad, and of course Mallow. The beach was deserted; we sat in a cluster, leaning in to hear Mrs. A's soft, sure voice.
"Judy was dying," she said. "We tried medical doctors, but they couldn't help. Finally, in desperation, Lavida took Judy to a Haitian healer who lived in Nassau. A houngan--a witch doctor, we might call him here. The houngan took one look at Judy and said that she had been hexed. They stared into a crystal ball and Lavida saw the people who had placed the obeah on Judy--the jealous parents of a girl who wanted Judy's job. The father had already given Judy two doses of something, the witch doctor said. The third and final dose would be fatal. The witch doctor then called upon Judy's dead grandfather to intercede and protect her. A week or so later, the jealous girl's father was riding horseback to Lavida's house when the ghost of the grandfather rose up out of the road. The horse spooked, and the man was badly injured. The obeah was broken. Now Judy is a happy, healthy woman and has children." Mrs. A smiled, pleased with her story.
And it was a compelling tale. Mrs. A had a huge repertory of such stories, in part because her own history, the history of Cat Island, and the practice of obeah were inexorably intertwined. Obeah still thrived on the island, she said, which led Mallow to say that he'd heard that the midnight meeting place for what he called "those voodoo folks" was an abandoned hermitage. The hermitage he spoke of sat atop 206-foot Mount Alvernia, the highest peak in all the Bahamas, and was built by Friar Jerome Hawes, a recluse who lived in a cave while he constructed the retreat as penance, stone by stone. I had seen the place from a distance, and it looked less like a monastery than a medieval castle, with parapets, domed roof, and bell tower--an eerie reminder of the Dark Ages on a hill that shimmered with heat.
"It'd be interesting to camp there," Mallow said, indicating the four of us--himself, me, Rogan, and Steve, the mad artist. "We might see some ghosts or hear some of their secret spells." Then Mallow eyed me pointedly. "You're not afraid, are you? You're not superstitious?"
I play baseball, fish, and often fly in small planes. Of course I'm superstitious. But this adolescent challenge was being made in the presence of my son. To back down would be to imply cowardice and, worse, might strengthen Mallow's churlish influence on an impressionable boy. So I replied, "I'd love to camp at the hermitage. In fact, it's the sort of thing I'd normally do alone. But if you want to go, I'll look after you as best I can." Which, I felt, put Mallow right in his place.
We were two days away from the full moon, a Wednesday, which we agreed would be the ideal night. That decided, we put the topic aside and continued with our normal island routine--at least, Mallow and the mad artist did; I only pretended to. In truth, I busied myself doing research on the island's obeah community. Would the true believers be offended if we camped at the hermitage? Pitching a tent, uninvited, on the floor of a Carolina Baptist church invited a well-deserved thrashing, and our impiety might summon the Cat Island equivalent. I wanted permission, but to whom should I go? With the help of Tony and Mrs. A, I secured the name of a local man, Victor Smith, who they said might be knowledgeable. "But don't be surprised if no one will talk about it," Mrs. A warned. "It's all secret, you know."
I found Victor Smith at home, and he confirmed that his late grandfather had indeed been a powerful man on the island. "He was known as Thunder," Smith explained, "but that was in back times, long ago."
We shared a beer, and that's when we discovered that we were members of the same secret fraternity--one that has nothing to do with college. Instantly we were confidants.
"I will take you to the houngan," he said, "but you will not be allowed to publish all you hear. Don't forget--we're both bound by the same oath, man!"
The houngan received us in a room housing shelves of bottles and vials, and rows of candles. On a table was an open Bible, one page crossed out with black electrical tape. When he noticed me staring, the houngan asked, "What your favorite psalm be?"
It is not a question that one often hears, but I had a ready reply: the 91st Psalm. In my line of work, the scripture regarding pestilence, arrows, and thousands of people dropping like flies is eerily applicable.
"I got a better one for you, brother," the houngan said. "Lot stronger than that!" He spent the next minutes teaching me what he called "the special psalms," then went into great detail about the power of an assault obeah and the specific ingredients and ceremony necessary to empower it. There were other spells: love obeahs, death obeahs, banishment obeahs. My ears perked up. "How much for a banishment obeah?" I asked.
"I tell you how we do it," the houngan replied. "Just give me the person's name!"
I learned from him that there are three main components in the craft: physical, biblical, and numerical. In some rituals, coarse salt must be used, or spirits of turpentine, blue stones from Haiti, Chipman paper, fire, and blood. All important ceremonies were held either at midnight or at 6 A.M., often in cemeteries. To illustrate the power of a death obeah, the houngan recounted a recent event: A local man, Ali, had been murdered in Nassau. Ali's father contacted the houngan, asking for revenge. One midnight, the houngan visited Ali's corpse at the mortuary and, after performing a complex ceremony, placed a raw egg in Ali's hand. Within a week, two of the murderers were decapitated in a motorcycle crash, and two others were killed in a car crash. Again at midnight, the houngan exhumed Ali's body and found that the fresh egg was now broken. "That was one stinking thing!" the houngan told me. "The egg, I mean. Plus, Ali, he wasn't in too good shape, neither. But it proved they all dead--all the conspirators!"
Before leaving, I told the houngan that four of us were planning to camp at the abandoned hermitage. "Should be all right," he said, "but don't tell nobody you're doing it. Keep it private, man. Real personal." He offered to anoint me with some protective oil. "I buy it from a Hai-tian lady, lives in Nassau. Miz Nola. Two hundred fifty dollars a vial!"
I accepted the oil. The houngan refused my offer of payment.
On Wednesday, the night of the full moon, Mallow backed out. He cited mosquitoes, spiders--all kinds of weak reasons. Steve, the mad artist, followed suit, and then Rogan said, "I'll go if you really want me to, but I'd rather stay here. They're having cake for dessert."
So I headed out alone. To get to the hermitage, you drive several miles on washboard road and then turn east through the stone entrance of a ruined plantation. After that tight squeeze, it's another quarter-mile down a carriage lane, and then you climb Mount Alvernia on steps chiseled out by Father Hawes. When I got to the top, I explored the hermitage, hunching my way through the tiny chapel, the vestry, and the canoe-size sleeping chamber (the man must have been a dwarf). Then I sat outside atop the crevice where Hawes lies interred.
Behind me, the moon was rising; before me, the sun was setting and Cat Island, alone on a bronze sea, floated in the balance. Below, the twilight villages glittered, but everything else was receding into smoky shadow--the unpopulated areas of an island that by benefit of its isolation retained the extract of its own history, a rare thing in the Bahamas. Spells were still cast here, and those spells struck at the marrow. Unopened treasure chests seemed drab in comparison.
In the end, I didn't camp--hadn't really planned to. I just wanted to watch the moon rise and listen to the island's sounds. Around midnight, when I returned to Fernandez Bay, the Armbristers, Steve, Mallow, and Rogan were all sitting outside, roaring with laughter. They seemed loony with moonlight.
"You thought I was going to sneak up there and scare you!" Mallow called out.
That was the joke. I was to have stayed at the hermitage, anticipating an attack while Mallow laid around in comfort, sipping rum. Not that this came as a surprise. Rogan had warned me the morning before, asking, "Do you think Mallow will ever act his age?"
Now, sitting at the table, my young son shook his head and winked at me, confirmation of our private alliance.
I began laughing, too, but for a reason none of them knew. The name I'd given the houngan was Mallow's.