New Year, new deadlines! Plenty of catching up on the writing schedule!
For thirty years I’ve carried the image in a magnetically clamped locket. Originally there were two photographs, but the second of the pair had an allure that would not leave me. Her face within that brass oval was not harsh or foreboding, but in some small way, showed a hint of surprise. It was as if she had been startled to see me, as if recognition had flickered across her features from some distant shoreline of the past.
But of course, there was a problem.
When I first stood in that corner room, open windows gazing out across low rolling fields towards the Caribbean, it was empty. There was only the sound of floorboards creaking with my entry. The remaining silence had been emptied of all the centuries of suffering, all the decades of pain. In the now hollow plantation acres, the aching anguish of men’s legs bitten within man-traps, of backs bled bare by the harsh lash, of shortened years with little laughter were conveniently silenced.
The sea-breeze had ruffled the curtains, limp beside the open shutters. I knew there was time to spare, my young guide having departed to the coral-walled cellars below. Gazing around the room the shortened four-poster was a surprise, for paintings had show the mistress of the house to be much taller – until I remembered it was the custom of the day to sleep in a near-seated position.
I had taken out the well-used Nikon and framed my shots perfectly. Ensuring that the light pouring in through the windows did not adversely affect the exposure I began to photograph the key features of the room. First the bed, sheets clean and pristine and then the small scarlet chaise-lounge. Before long I came to the main feature of my attention. Her mirror. I looked behind one last time to ensure I was totally alone and then walking close enough to fill the frame, took two photographs. The black frame was almost mat and I wanted to be sure I caught the detail, for there were Haitian veves scratched into its surface.
The problem did not occur to me until later, in the darkened galley of the ship leaving the West Indies, as I watched the large prints materialise from their vats of chemicals. For on the first picture there was nothing in the mirror but the empty wall behind me, whilst in the second photograph she stood, that shiver of recognition on her face that has haunted me ever since. Were the scratched obeah signs there to banish or to invoke? I was never sure, but regardless, in the moments between the taking of the photograph and its twin the very fabric of our world had been quickly unzipped.
“That’s a great ghost story Stefan” said James, downing another Jack Daniels to outstrip the tally of my own empty shot glasses.
“Well, like all great ghost stories, here’s the proof.” I took the locket from beneath my shirt, pulled the chain over my head and placed it in his hand.
“Go on, open it”.
Almost tentatively, which was unusual for him, he applied leverage to the middle section and the magnetic force abated enough for it to open.
“Well, she’s certainly a looker, this ghost of yours!”
“Oh, I don’t think she’s mine James.” I emptied my own glass and moved to retrieve the locket.
“So this is the great adventure you got me all the way out here to New York for ? Why didn’t you just tell me back in London there was a woman involved?”
“C’mon Jimmy, I know how you feel about my work. I thought it was high time you discovered it isn’t all hocus-pocus and double-exposures”.
“So who is she, the woman in the photograph?”
I knew simple answers would be no use to him. He’d spent a lifetime ignoring the other worlds around him. If he didn’t have me for a brother then maybe he’d have been able to go on that way, but there were too many strange sights that managed to wrap themselves around me and this was one had been waiting a long time.
The pre-recorded security message reverberated from high in the ceiling of the steel and glass terminal lounge as I got up from the bar stool, left ten dollars by the empty glasses and strode purposefully towards the departure gate. Across the way in the outlet of Hudsons News, an elderly lady was berating the staff over their range of magazines. Clearly, in her eyes, there was a world of difference between The New Yorker and the New York Magazine and she was determined to let all share her disappointment. I scanned the selections myself, like a mini luggage carousel they surrounded the cashier and wallpapered the small booth. There was little to interest me any more than the copy of the New York Times already sticking out of my laptop bag.
Pretty soon James had joined me on the lattice of seats. The steel frames managed to angle their form into the minimum shape required to create the semblance of a chair. That was the nature of their being, no doubt, to offer transitory rest, never anything more. Through the large window, beyond the silver shape of the airplane the sun was breaking above the horizon. It was not a welcome sight. This twilight world of scattered time zones, sleep deprivation and alcohol was beginning to take its affect on me and I my body was crying out for sleep whilst my mind urged it on through the processes needed to get to the plane and the respite of a fully horizontal seat.
“Looks like we’re together” said James wafting his boarding pass before my face. He was clutching a selection of magazines. All the latest technologies and killer advertisements of Wired, an old, pristine copy of Mondo2000 that he carried as a status symbol and just so no one in the know would have any doubt, the latest issue of 2600. I raised an eyebrow at the latter.
“Research Stefan, you know how it is – got to keep one step ahead of the enemy.” He smiled. I knew he’d got so used to parroting this excuse to everyone he worked with.
He was fortunate; his miss-spent youth with telephones, black boxes and later peer to peer networks had earned him enough respect at Mind’s Eye Securities to fund his digital adventures. They gave him a free reign, just so long as their own and their clients’ server farms remained out of reach of the Russian, Chinese and Korean hackers.
“So how come you didn’t get me any discount on this?” I said, patting the black leather and inlaid white Apple logo of my laptop bag.
“That’s easy big brother, no none else has a 32-Core yet, you don’t know quality when you see it!”
I grinned. I knew more than he realised, but it was fun to let him think he knew best. We’d been like that all the while growing up together. He was always there with the smartest strategy, or the latest game or piece of high-tech wonder. Unfortunately it was lost on the rest of the family, no matter how infectious his own enthusiasm got. Well, not entirely true, you see I had a vested interest in the source of all the creativity that had produced that technology in the first place. Jimmy liked to bask in the incredible glow of it, whilst I preferred to fathom the depths of the minds that had made it. It was a dynamic reflected in the cameras we carried. Me, with my battered old Nikon, him with the latest digital Bronica-Sony, ever clamped to his hand. Any moment now I knew he was going to jump up and immerse the early morning terminal in its flashlight as he catalogued the passing moments. For some reason he proved me wrong.
“Stefan, what’s this all about ? If you need me to find some woman I can do it from anywhere, you know we don’t have to be out here.”
“True, but this isn’t the type of system you can just hook into. You saw the photograph, she needs us there physically.”
“OK, now you’ve got me confused. Plus a little intrigued. How long till the flight?”
As if on cue, the airline staff began the boarding announcements. I picked up a copy of the Sunday Herald as we entered the plane and showed James the photograph on the front of the brightly clothed motherly woman, Mama Loi Olivia Tyaishia.
“Isn’t she a member of…”
Before he could finish I stepped into the cabin of the aircraft.
“Yes James, this is Cabal business and I need your help”.
“Good morning sir, if you’d like to take the stairs to the left, we’ll be serving refreshments shortly” said the stewardess, preventing James’ response. She looked at my boarding card stub and then directly at me. “How would you like me to address you Colonel Anderson?”
“Just Stefan. Stefan is fine.”
I climbed the spiral stairs, passed the bar and walked towards the Upper Class seats. Refreshments were already being dispensed and I ordered another Jack and Coke as I stowed the laptop bag and waited for James to catch me up. Unfolding the Herald, I looked over the photograph of Olivia. The greens and oranges of her clothes accented the dark tones of her skin beautifully. The years had been kind to her. No doubt she would have plenty of tales of her grandchildren for us. Opening the locket I looked once more at the photograph of another woman. A woman of opposites. Opposite skin colouring, opposite life, opposite obeah – black, to Olivia’s white. The photograph, itself, starkly tonal black and white echoed this dance of opposites. One woman alive, one dead. After thirty years away from the island I wondered if this was a good time to return. Olivia was already wrapped up in the politics of her people, wrapped up in the comfort of her family. I had no right to tear all that apart and yet the photograph had a different plan. Those Haitian marks on the frame weren’t just veves, amongst them was a date. January 23rd, of this year. There was no turning back from the photograph now. After thirty years preparations in the old plantation house for the seance were already being made. By the time we landed Olivia will already have prepared her old clothes. Gone will be the joyous colours of the newspaper photograph as she too is wrapped in the blacks and whites of a Priestess of the Other Nation.