Sissa and the Bakru
SISSA, the Maclises’ under-housemaid, lingered in the Negro gate, settling her big skirts for the street.
‘Make has’e, girl,’ called the butler, invisible. ‘What for you standin’ up spreadin’ you’self so many? Ain’t you know master callin’ fo’ he ice?’
With a grimace of irritation, Sissa swung her basket to her head and stepped forth into the world. The crisp shell pavement scorched and crackled beneath her bare black feet. The points of shadow cast by the avenue of palms stabbed mockingly into the white glare of the earth under the blue glare of the sky. Yet the girl’s deep oppression came neither from the heat nor from the merciless light, as she shuffled away on her daily errand, muttering and gesticulating after the manner of her kind.
‘That saucy Barbadian woman make my heart burn too much!’ she repeated aloud, as if continuing an argument. ‘What make she trouble me so, every five minutes? Suppose I did suck my teeth at she. Is suck-teeth such a big, big thing?’
Wrathfully she kicked a fallen palmnut at a vulture fishing in the trench. The vulture teetered one hasty sidestep, then went on obscurely fishing. Sissa progressed a space, brooding in silence. Then the ireful voice broke forth again.
‘ ’Badians is too sinful! This creature Delilah spoil all my pleasure walkin’ out. God know she do. Every mornin’, when I come for master’s ice, there she is, standin’ up quar’lin’ and cussin’, lettin’ every soul in this said town of Paramaribo hear my name. She makes my skin weary with such wickedness. Oh ! ’
The final grunt of wrath echoed between the stone face of the trench bridge and the front of a little neighborhood depot bearing the placard ‘ YS.'
Around the shop door a group of housemaids loitered. Some, like Sissa’s self, were native Surinam blacks, wearing the glorious costume of the colony; others were islanders; the rest Demerara girls, trig, tight, and clumsy. Regardless of origin, all chattered together, like a congress of friendly crows.
‘Odi, Sissa, fa, joe, tan tedei, mi pikien?’ called a compatriot, cordially.
‘ Hi, girl! Mornin’. You is quite well to-day ? ’ a Demerarian phrased the sentiment.
And with this addition to the pot of gossip, turbans clustered closer and hands flapped more fin-like than before.
Suddenly one drew apart, peering up a tributary lane. ‘Aie!’ she squealed at half-voice, ‘Aie! aie! mates, here come Delilah, sailin’! ’
The newcomer, a tall mulatto, graceful as a ship at sea, bore down swiftly, smoothly, head up, eyes level, the joy of mortal insolence on her handsome yellow face. As she drew nigh, the circle opened wide, leaving Sissa alone in the centre, confronting her enemy. All eyes rolled upon her, and the keen delight of anticipation crackled in their depths. Sissa felt their blood-thirst, eager for the show; felt the cool, sophisticated malice of the Barbadian girl, and knew herself hopelessly outclassed. Tier heart brimmed willy rage. Red specks danced before her eyes. Her throat seemed bursting. Each instant her heavy blue-black lips protruded farther and farther till her very chin was absorbed and lost in their volume. Yet no words came.
Delilah, arms akimbo, watched with cat-like relish. ‘Girl,’ she drawled at last, as if satiate, gliding with a superb gesture into her easy stride, ‘girl, move your mouth and let me pass.’
Sissa found tongue with a gasp. ‘Woman! ’ — she began. But the other was already under weigh.
‘Don’t address me as “woman,”’ she tossed back, over her shoulder.
‘ I’s a lady used to my title. You may call me Miss Fitzjim.’
A titter, like a sudden breeze, swept through the listening circle. But as suddenly it hushed. For two reasons it is unwise too openly to take the wanning side: first, it may nip a pretty quarrel in the bud; second, even the under-dog may prove, in the after-reckoning, to hold black magic stronger than your own.
‘Independent niggers, this-time niggers!’ exclaimed one, therefore, righteously. Yet her voice was carefully gauged to elude the ear of the vanishing Miss Fitzjim.
‘So upstart people, these ’Badian people! ’ echoed another.
‘See, Sissa, child, you must put she in she place,’ whispered a third in ostentatious sympathy.
Yet Sissa well knew what their hearts said. Silently she hoisted her ice-filled basket, and slunk off home.
All day she brooded over the insult. All night she dreamed of the cruel eyes and the easy, maddening Miss Fitzjim. By the time ice-hour recurred, next morning, her wits were stunned, incapable. She entered the rendezvous with no plan or power of action yet with the certainty of encounter and defeat.
‘Odí, Sissa!’ ‘Mornin’, chile!’ came the salutation as before. Yet even with the friendly words, black eyes gleamed in scarce-veiled appetite, and the very smell of the arena bit into the air.
For a moment followed talk that Sissa heard as one asleep. Then rose the word she awaited, rending her brain like the blow of a dull machete. ‘Aie! aie! Here come Delilah, sailin’!’
‘Delilah look mighty fine,’ said one. ‘Delilah wearin’ she new frock.’
‘Delilah feelin’ mighty good,’ said another. ‘Look how she shake she hips! Yaller girl is proud!’
‘Delilah done tie she head Surinam way! ’ cried a third. ‘ That is n’t neither Barbadian tie!’
‘Oh, look, look! Delilah clone tie she head Aspasia fashion! ’ shrieked a dozen voices at once. And with that fell a hush like the hush that attends a sentence of death.
Because, to Her Dutch Majesty’s Negroes of Surinam, to ‘tie the head Aspasia fashion’ is to hoist the signal of the deadliest insult in moral ken. And Delilah, in truth, had changed her close Barbadian turban for a gay Dutch kerchief — a kerchief curiously folded,with one end pendent at the side.
At the sight Sissa’s soul reeled. She hung, blind and dizzy, amidst the circling tumult of her mind. A horror of imminent impact bore thick and heavy upon her, but no thought took form in the maëlstrom within.
Rustling fresh starch, Delilah bore down, a vision of cool insolence in rosy calico. And always the little fly-end of her turban floated and balanced, like a familiar devilkin, over her pretty left ear.
She swept alongside the circle of gossips. Once more it clove wide, leaving Sissa in its midst, rooted to earth. The Barbadian’s gaze rested upon her victim. A moment she paused, delicately feasting on the other’s speechless throes. Her thin lips curved in a slow and subtle smile, then puckered rosette-wise with a little sucking sound of air drawn through the teeth.
Sissa leaped forward like a baited beast. ‘ Nigger !’ she panted, choking in the utterance, ‘d-d-don’t you dare to suck you’ teeth at me!’
So came the supreme moment, foreseen, ecstatic. Very softly, the tormentor slid into her panther’s stride, departing. Yet as she moved, with long, black eyes a-glitter sidewise beneath Egyptian lids, she turned her head till the loose end of the kerchief pointed to her prey. The eager crowd craned forward, like Vestals with thumbs down. Not a sound, save the catch of intaken breath. Then came the voice of Delilah smooth and clear, addressed to the point of her own turban.
‘Aspasia,’ it said, in tones of weary elegance, ‘Aspasia, you speak to auntie. / really cant be bothered.’
Now this is the last, worst infamy, inexpugnable, final, admitting neither parry nor riposte. The deep waters welled and closed above Sissa’s head. She fell to earth a shapeless heap of calico tumultuously agitated. Her heels battered the ground in a steady tattoo. Her shrieks assembled the populace from half a mile round. For an hour they worked over her, without avail. Then they carried her home.
All the day thereafter she lay on the floor of her little room, drunk and sodden with wrath, seeing scarlet in the silence and the dark. But, in the silence and the dark, immortal Mother Africa whispered to her heart, until at night she rose with purpose set.
Down in an old slave cabin by the river dwells Jansie, very ancient, very dirty, very sinister of repute. Her arms are gaunt and twisted and gray, like the muddy roots of a mangrove. Her little snake-like eyes glint from among a thousand folds and wrinkles. Her multitudinous wrappings smell of strange, uncanny things that no one dares to name. Who knows how long ago the slavers snatched her from her mother’s arms, on the far Loango coast? But the mother, a mighty obea-woman, a maker of great magics, followed her child inspirit, — endowed her with her craft. Jansie, herself an obea-woman of renown, will thrive in respect and plenty as long as her life endures and Negro blood survives in the colony.
Fearfully, tremblingly, groping for courage to knock, Sissa stood at the cabin door — the door that, all her life, she had hurried past with beating heart and averted eyes. Very fearfully, tremblingly, she obeyed the summons to enter.
The tiny room was dark, save for a dim, lace-like light at ihe far corner. There an old Dutch lantern of perforated brass made faintly visible a smoke-stained print of the Mother of Sorrows, hanging on the black, antriddled wall. Before it, equally honored, coiled the Serpent, sleeping. On the floor beneath, back to the light, squatted an old, old, eldritch creature, silent, watchful, like a soulless sphinx.
‘Odí, odí, bigi odí, Missi Jansie,’ began the girl in abject deference, ‘I came’ — But there speech choked her throat.
Then spoke the Sphinx, in a voice as thin and far as a dying wind. ‘You came because you have an enemy. And you want — her life.’
Awhile she peered in silence through the shadows, then spoke again.
‘An enemy so dead is worse than one alive. From living enemies you may escape. An embodied being cannot stand forever in your sight. But the dead whom you have killed are always present. Their dead eyes never quit your own. Their dead hands clutch your cup. Their dead lips share each morsel that you eat. They influence every deed you do, and every thought you think. Now, you are warned. If you yet desire it I will give you the obea to kill.'
Sissa crouched upon the floor, grayvisaged, rolling great eyes of fear.
‘Is there some other way,’she faltered, ‘some other way to revenge?’
‘Will you have a Bakru to do your bidding?’ asked the Ancient One.
Now, a Bakru is a spirit of the dead — a thing of infinite darkness and spite. The very name, on such lips, in such a place, strikes terror to the core. But Sissa’s courage, galvanized by hate, maintained a sham of being.
The magic-maker eyed her an instant, shivering, speechless as she was, yet determined still; then went on in the cracked and reedy voice, —
‘Good. I shall give you a strong obea. To-night, at a quarter before midnight, you are standing at the great gate of the graveyard where they buried old Katootje seven days ago to-day. At a quarter before midnight you enter the mouth of the long path. Then, three steps forward, two steps back, three steps forward, two steps back, counting carefully, you walk till you reach Katootje’s grave. It is the last on the left. Lie down flat on the mound, press your face into the ground above Katootje’s face, and keep very, very still. As the clock begins to strike for twelve, take your obea in both hands, and call three times Katootje’s name. Then rise and hurry home. But do not look behind you. For old Katootje will be close at your back all the way. And the Bakru people are angry with those who take them from their sleep. So that at first she would kill you, if your eyes met. At dawn, — and this you must surely remember, — when you first arise, before you speak one word else, before you say your prayers, you must turn to your right, and curtsy low, and say good-morning, very politely, to your Bakru. As long as you do this, the Bakru must obey your every command. But should you one single time forget, your Bakru will become your mortal enemy. Now here is your obea.’
Sissa’s hand closed tremblingly over the little vial that slid from the witch’s palm. She rose, bent knee, and would have sped away.
‘Wait,’ croaked Jansie. ‘Give me my silver. Then go and let me rest.’
Dismay flooded Sissa’s heart. ‘Oh, Missi Jansie,’ she stammered, ‘I forgot! I have spent all my month’s money. — And— pay-day is not till Tuesday!'
The obea-woman glowered. Then, ‘Take the vial. Get your Bakru,’ she said. ‘This day is Thursday. Come again on Tuesday night at the same hour. — None dare forget their debts to me.'
With soundless feet, Sissa fled through the empty, moonlit streets, seeking dark places, hugging the walls, yet shying at every shadow that the night contained. A thousand times her heart would have failed her utterly, but for the madness that gnawed thereat. And now she vaguely felt that some external power, some great, wild ally of evil had gathered her in. Dimly she wondered, as she sped, — saw herself from apart and afar,— a light, small thing, without volition, driven before a mighty wind. And when, at last, she crouched in the graveyard gate — when she began her halting course up the ghostly path, all her mind was sodden within her. She moved as an automaton; not even the terrors of the place could rouse her to realization.
Yet, as she threw herself on the grave, face downward, a hideous vision grew upon her of what lay sleeping in the thin and brackish mud below. Through shell and slime she saw how old Katootje’s eyelids already quivered over the dead eyes raised to meet her own.
‘One!’ the clock struck, beginning the midnight peal . ‘ Two! ’ —
' Katootje! Katootje! — Katootje!' gasped the girl, in a last paroxysm of artificial strength. Then, with one shivering shriek, she sprang to her feet and ran as though all hell itself pursued.
With crazy haste she barred the door and windows of her room, yet knew full well the while how old Katootje stood behind her, grinning at the farce. Casting her sleeping-cloth on the floor, she threw herself on it, burying her face in her arms. And still with every nerve in her body she saw the Bakru bending above her, peering with its cold, dead, baleful eyes.
All night long she lay horribly awake, tortured with cramp, yet motionless, so that the Bakru, lulled by silence, might for one moment nod and forget. With the dawn, she staggered to her feet, faint, stiff, exhausted, turning to her right in deep obeisance.
‘Odí, Missi Katootje, odí,’she whispered. ‘May all be well with you today. And do not be so angry, sweet Missi Katootje!' Then she dropped on her knees and said her Moravian prayers. But they wrought no charm. The sense of an evil presence, of a companionship of wrath, terrible and unclean, clung thick upon her. She had disturbed the peace of the dead. She had laid her yoke, presumptuous, upon their awful power.
That, morning the cocoa tasted bitter, and her cassava-bread stuck in her throat. At ice-hour she slunk through back ways to a distant depot, to avoid the Vestals and Miss Fitzjim. By dusk she had swathed her face in a cloth. Next morning the other servants told their mistress that Sissa lay sick of the fever and like to die.
Nora Maclise, going out to the quarters, found the girl neatly clad as an accoutred corpse, stretched upon a clean sleeping-cloth. Her face was ashen and withered, as she lay inert in the exhaustion following the attack. No word would she speak, but in her glassy eyes cowered an animal fear. Nora saw and wondered; then, after a useless question or two, gave the usual drugs and left her alone, in the silence and the dark, to sleep.
But there, in the silence and the dark, crouched Katootje, old Katootje, squatting at the sick girl’s feet, watching always, with angry eyes that pierced shut lids; waiting always, waiting the orders that should speed her to her work.
Once and again had Sissa sat up, with trembling lips framed to a behest — any behest, however futile, that might for one moment remove those terrible, questioning eyes from her own. But the words would not come. The hideous presence filled her every sense. Miss Fitzjim and the Vestals had vanished into nothingness. Of her own identity naught remained but incarnate fear. She dared not command a thing so horrific. She dared not use a power so dread. And always the eyes grew angrier and angrier. ‘Palterer!’ they said, ‘Was it for this that you in your folly dragged us from the dark ooze where we slept!’
Saturday and Sunday passed. Sissa came no more from her chamber, refusing all food, lying with face hidden, on the floor. Sometimes the fever wrenched and racked her; sometimes she lay quite still, as if sleeping or stunned.
Now it chanced that the Maclises planned to go down river, on the Tuesday, to Plantation Johanna Maria, for a season of recreation.
‘I scarcely know,’ said Nora, ‘whether to take Sissa along or to send her to the hospital here.’
‘By rights it would be hospital,’ Maclise replied, ‘ but take her along all the same. The change may rouse her, and rousing’s what she wants.’
On the night of arrival Sissa was put in a little room near Nora’s own. Refreshed by the river journey, fanned by the cane-field breezes, she slept heavily, and waked only at sunrise, to see the mistress standing by her holding a glass of milk warm from the cow.
‘Drink this, little Sissa,’ Nora commanded, ‘drink it at once, while I wait. — Now get ready and come into the garden. I want help with the flowers.’
The garden was fresh and cool, glorious in bloom and foliage, sweet with the fragrance of roses and stephanotis and wonderful blossoming vines. Three Javan women were already busy trimming its turf with cutlasses, their sarongs kilted high above their smooth brown knees, starry jasmines strung like beads in the coils of their shining hair. A dog as big as a jaguar — a great, fair dog from across the sea — came and nuzzled in Nora’s hand.
‘He is very wise,’ observed Nora, ‘and as kind as he is strong — unless people trouble him, or try to do some evil. Then —’
Sissa stared at the Dane wide-eyed, and furtively bent knee as she passed before him. Later, on the back verandah, she fetched and carried vases, brought fresh water, and watched with beauty-hungry eagerness the work of the mistress’s hands.
‘Now,’ said Nora, ‘go to sleep. Then eat your dinner and sleep again. And then dress nicely and go out for a walk.’
The girl did as she was bid, with the obedience natural to her race. The sense of directed action brought fresh life. And by mid-afternoon, as she strolled down the fine plantation roads toward the waterside, the absorbing interest in a thousand new things banished misery.
At the floating dock a tent-boat had just made fast. Its single passenger, bearing a tin clothcs-canister on her head, was disembarking. Sissa recognized a fellow servant left behind for an extra day in town.
‘Odí, Jetje! ’ she shouted, gayly.
‘Odí, Sissa, odí, mi pikien! I am too glad to see you up and walking. — But wait! I have a message for you.’
With finger on lip the newcomer drew close, and whispered low.
‘Last night,’ she breathed, ‘I passed by Missi Jansie’s door.’ Fearfully she paused, searching ground and sky with her eyes, as though a lizard or a hawk might eavesdrop. ‘Missi Jansie,’ she resumed, barely murmuring the name, ‘looked out and called to me. Missi Jansie said, “Tell this to Sissa. — ‘ To those who once forget comes a Second Forgetting.’ ” Oh, Sissa! What did she mean ? lam frightened! '
Sissa stared at the speaker unseeing. Then she turned and left her, moving mechanically down the empty dock.
‘To those who forget — ’ What had she forgotten ? — Somewhere in her thistle-head a knell began tolling: ‘Come again — on Tuesday night. — None dare forget — their debts to me. And Tuesday night was the night just gone — that sweet, sweet night that she had slept all through, without so much as a dream of any wicked thing — slept to awaken to no horrid vision, but with her own dear mistress standing at her side, good food in her hand!
‘Oh, thank you, mistress!’ she said aloud, as the scene came back to her. And at the sound of her own voice her light went out. Those had been her first words of the morning! That was the Second Forgetting! She had spoken to another before greeting Katootje. Now — even now, her Bakru was her untrammeled enemy!
Sissa sank to the wet floor of the dock, stunned by the shock of despair, crushed in the vista of a life bedeviled. Like a log she lay, till the fever came and shook her in its icy clutch. Later it burned her with fires. At that, groping, half-conscious, she crawled to the dock’s edge, slipped up her skirts and slid her bare legs over into the river.
The cool, brown flood, opaque with the mud of the fore-shores, rose half up her thighs, lipping, lapping, softly. Lipping, lapping, it soothed her and cooled her with pulsing caresses. Her head, weary of torments, nodded and fell. And so the girl sat dozing, while the setting sun painted the sky and water all rose and violet and pearl.
Now through the cool, brown flood, opaque with the mud of the foreshores, moved something also cool, and brown, and exceedingly wavy, — something big and long, with a mouth of the first comprehension,—something that swam at ease, in large and free undulations, seeking what God might send.
Swimming at ease, swaying hither and yon under the opaque water, its nose touched a pendent brown thing,— touched it softly, coolly, like another pulse of the river, — touched it and found it good. Slowly, softly, lipping, lapping, like the little waves of the river, the great stretched mouth set aswallowing, — lipping, lapping, rising, under the opaque water. And still Sissa dozed.
Then, with one piercing yell, the girl waked and flung herself backward, clutching at the planks of the dock with both hands over her head. Shriek on shriek brought the crew of the tentboat running. Seizing her shoulders, they hauled at her, shouting, prancing, exhorting each other, cursing her weight and resistance. With a flop, they landed her — and thirty stricken feet of water-camoodie beside.
In the din that arose as they slew the great snake and peeled it off from her, no one remarked her ceaseless halfcrazy cry, ‘Oh, Missi Katootje, leave me! Don’t eat me! Leave me, leave me, sweet Missi Katootje!'
But that night, after the oldest women had boiled the fat of the snake and therewith anointed her, after the chatter and marvel had slackened, Sissa, from her bed, found some one to summon Jetje. With her lips at Jetje’s ear, the sick girl pleaded, —
‘Beg the mistress, for me, to send you to town to-morrow. Get my month’s money, from my canister. Carry it to Missi Jansie and say, “Take back that which you gave, and this is all yours, with more also. Sissa is weary of trouble. Sissa loves Miss Fitzjim.”’