A TRUE STORY BASED UPON PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
By Eric Mackenzie-Lamb
ROSEAU, DOMINICA: Known as the Nature Island, Dominica is indeed a special destination for any visitor, and, as anyone who’s ever been there can tell you, very different from any of its neighbors. With an area of roughly three hundred and five square miles , more than eighty percent of its land mass consists of forested mountains and deep ravines or valleys. Dominica’s original Carib name, Waitukubuli, means Land of Many Rivers. (Three hundred and sixty-five of them, it is said; one for every day if the year). Situated between the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, Dominica still remains largely unspoiled, a truly magical place where you can sit beneath towering Gommier trees and hear the rushing of waterfalls, the croaking of frogs, and the sound of the wind. Here, you can forget the outside world (at least for a few hours) and revel in the pungent scents of wild lemon grass or the resinous bark of the Bois Bonde tree. This is tropical Caribbean nature in its full splendor, virtually unchanged since the days of Columbus.
Over the years-and precisely because of the fact that its attractions are so different-Dominica has evolved into something which almost no one could have imagined even two decades ago: a busy stopover for passing cruise ships. This, in turn,has been a bonanza for many local tour operators and taxi drivers. But, on the downside, it has also impacted the isolation which made Dominica so special in former years. I know this because I was there.
My first visit to the island was back in 1967, while on a photographic assignment for a British magazine to cover the world’s last and only Carib Indian reservation. Dominica was very different then: virtually uninhabited in most of the interior, with few roads, no national parks, and only a scant number of tourists. Bananas were the island’s most important crop, followed by grapefruit and lime. Heavy rains and landslides were common occurrences. To explore Dominica in the way it deserved to be, I soon discovered, required a sturdy four wheel drive vehicle and, above all, a sense of adventure and willingness to take certain risks. But the rewards were more than anyone could have hoped for. Quite literally, I was smitten by the island’s beauty, its amazing history, and the warmth of its people. I’d finally found my special paradise, I realized; it was a place to which I was determined to return.
And I did, less than a year later. Not as a tourist, but as a 27 year old entrepreneur hoping to start something very different: a four wheel drive tour operation which could take Dominica’s more adventurous visitors to places where conventional taxis couldn’t go. My previous visit had convinced me that the idea would work. The company, eventually named Dominica Safaris, was the first of its kind on the island. (Today, there are dozens).
Surprisingly, the majority of our very first customers turned out to be passing charter yachts. But only rarely would they anchor off Roseau because of the heavy swells ; instead, most continued to Portsmouth, a small town about 16 miles further north, where the waters were calmer. Thanks to a suggestion from one of their skippers, we decided to install a two-way marine radio in our office. From that day on, we never looked back. Reservations kept pouring in through the crackling static. Within six months, Dominica Safaris had increased its driving staff to four, had hired its own cook to prepare on-board lunches and rum punch, and was listed as a must-do adventure in dozens of yachting magazines.
We soon fell into a routine. Our Safari drivers would leave Roseau before dawn, negotiate 52 miles of narrow, winding roads to Portsmouth (the present road along the leeward coast didn’t exist in those years) , arriving in adequate time to pick up the yacht’s charter guests around 9 AM. The drivers would then retrace their route, stopping at numerous attractions like the Carib Reserve and the Emerald Pool (where guests were served a gourmet picnic lunch on a white linen tablecloth). Meanwhile, the yacht’s crew would enjoy a leisurely sail to Roseau, do some shopping at Whitchurch’s supermarket to restock supplies, and wait for their guests to rejoin them. From there, most would proceed overnight to Martinique, their next port of call, or to English Harbour in Antigua.
I soon learned that the yacht skippers offered their guests another must-do recommendation whenever they overnighted at Portsmouth’s Prince Rupert bay: a rustic beach bar famous for its barbecued steaks and locally-caught fish, as well as its selection of rums. In fact, the Coconut Oasis, as it was called, had also received rave revues in the same yachting magazines which had featured our tours. Its owner, whom I first met during a New Year’s lunch on the beach, was a local Dominican man in his mid thirties named Byron. (Not his real name, but let’s leave it at that). Byron never seemed to stop moving or barking out orders to his staff, most of whom seemed genuinely cowed by his presence. When he wasn’t admonishing his employees in his deep, throaty voice, he would hop between the guests’ tables, dressed in his bright red Calypso shirt and shell necklace, and charm them with somewhat risqué local anecdotes which invariably brought raucous bursts of laughter. At times, he would even sing to his customers while he danced barefoot in the sand around the log fire. With his flashing smile and never-ending talk-talk-talk, it was easy to understand his popularity with tourists. It didn’t take long for me to figure out what had made him such an obvious success: Byron knew exactly where these rich white people were coming from, and how they perceived Caribbean black people to be: gregarious, funny, entertaining, and friendly, just like they imagined Harry Belafonte to be. Byron, it was obvious, had long ago learned how to play his expected role to the hilt. (What he really thought about his pampered customers, though, was anyone’s guess).
I got to know Byron better over the following weeks. Although from completely different backgrounds and cultures, we had one thing in common: we were both entrepreneurs. Often, when I was doubling for one of our drivers, Byron, in town for his errands, would spot me waiting at the pier and walk over for a friendly chat.
One morning, he asked me if we could talk business for a few minutes.
“Sure”, I said. “Anyway, my passengers aren’t here yet. Climb in and have a seat.”
Byron proceeded to reveal that all wasn’t as as good at Coconut Oasis as things might have appeared. He needed some help. His landlord, the man who actually owned the beach property where the restaurant was situated, had never been willing to give him a formal written lease. Everything was verbal, he explained; Byron had become increasingly worried that the landlord might decide to pull the rug from under him and sell the existing business to someone else at a profit. But, he added, he might be willing to formally lease it to me, a foreigner, if I told the landlord that I wanted to enter into a partnership in the restaurant. “He’ll trust you. You’re a white man”, Byron assured me. “That’s how people think in Dominica. They don’t feel secure doing business with each other”
There could be other advantages as well, he continued. Especially for getting food supplies for the restaurant. He’d tried bringing them up from Roseau on buses or other peoples’ trucks, but this had turned out to be unreliable and very costly. On the other hand, our Jeeps came directly from Roseau almost every morning, and, since they were empty on that leg, it would be easy to bring items for the restaurant, especially perishable ones. After all, he reminded me, we now shared the same customers. As for profits, he was willing to split them right down the middle if I were willing to help him.
Just then, I spotted the dingy carrying our guests approaching the pier. “Give me a few days to think about it,” I told Byron. “I’ll get back to you.”
The following week, I decided to pay a visit to Byron’s landlord, a stooped, grey-haired man named Friendly Wallace. Wallace, I’d been told by the locals, was a solitary and eccentric man who sometimes , when the spirit possessed him, could be found preaching fire and brimstone to passers -by in the streets. When I first met him, I had to admit to feeling a little intimidated because I couldn’t really see whom I was speaking to. He wore a white surgical mask over his nose and mouth, with a flap which extended down over his throat. His voice seemed to emanate from an echo chamber, as if from another world. (I would later learn that he had contracted leprosy in his youth , which had left him severely disfigured).
“What can I do for you , sir?” Wallace asked after I’d introduced myself. He gestured for me to take a seat. As I did so, I was startled by a harsh shriek from behind me. Turning in my chair, I realized that we had company: a large green parrot, head cocked to one side, staring at me from its cage in a corner of the porch.
Wallace chuckled behind his mask. “Don’t worry about old Maggie . She’ll quiet down in a while. We don’t get a lot of visitors up here.”
The parrot had broken the ice, and Friendly Wallace and I were soon engaged in conversation. But I was still a little unsure of how to approach him about the real reason for my visit. Instead, I began asking him general questions about life in the countryside.
Finally, I felt comfortable enough to explain the reason for coming to see him. After I’d finished, Wallace sat back in his chair and contemplated me for what seemed a very long moment.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” he asked.
“I think so. The place is doing well, from everything I’ve seen. It could do even better with our tour operation as a partner. It’s a natural fit.”
“That’s not what I meant. Are you sure that you want to get involved with Mr Byron?”
His question had caught me off guard. “Why do you ask? Is there something I should know?”
Wallace didn’t respond immediately. He rose slowly from his chair, shuffled over to the edge of the verandah, and glanced toward the mountains. “Looks like we’ll get rain tonight,” he mumbled; more to himself, it seemed, than to me.Then he turned to face me.
“Sir, it was only a question which you need to ask yourself. You’re a white man, a foreigner. You don’t know our ways and how we think. Or what we believe in. Or are afraid of. We, as mortals, cannot cast judgement upon others, because we are all sinners.”
Here comes the sermon, I thought to myself.
“On the other hand,” he continued, “I cannot deny the right to my own instincts-just as you, sir, have to yours. Questions reveal truths as well as lies. Although still young, you are obviously a man of the world and must know that”.
” I still quite don’t understand,” I persisted “Have you had problems with Byron? Has he not paid you the rent?”
“He has always paid. And on time. No,sir. Personally, I have never had a problem with him.”
“That’s good to hear,” I said, relieved. Still, the way he’d phrased his question had left me a little uneasy. “Is there anything else I should know?”
Wallace was silent for a moment, obviously contemplating how he would phrase his answer.
“Let’s just say that he’s special. Not like others.”
An odd answer, I thought; then decided not to pursue the subject. We moved on to more general things: the upcoming election, rising import taxes, the need for better hospital equipment, and concerns about rising crime. As it turned out, we agreed about a lot of things. And, in the process, got to know each other a little better.
In the end, just as Byron had predicted, Friendly Wallace agreed to provide me a formal lease for two years-but in my name only-with renewal rights subject to mutual consent. The terms were extremely reasonable. He would ask his lawyer in Roseau to draw up the necessary documents.
As for his comments about Byron, they were already fading from my memory. I eventually put them down to a combination of Wallace’s own eccentricity and, I suspected, his disapproval of Byron’s renowned un-Christian lifestyle. Besides, I reminded myself, I was an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have to be willing to take some risks, don’t they?
That’s how it started. Within weeks, Coconut Oasis was busier than ever. Deliveries of food supplies went as smoothly as we’d anticipated. I also had access to a 12-foot Glastron speedboat in Roseau; this was used once a week to bring up the more perishable items, especially our own imported (and very expensive) Angus steaks, along with wine and liquor. Using this method of transportation, the trip to Portsmouth took less than 45 minutes, which guaranteed that produce would still be fresh, and meat still frozen, upon arrival.
Over the next two months, business became better than ever. We now had so many reservations that we had to invest in new tables and chairs, beach umbrellas, and a third refrigerator. About once a week, I would overnight in Portsmouth and help Byron behind the bar. I began to notice that, oddly, none of our customers were locals, not even at the bar. In fact, apart from Byron and our employees-or the occasional paid musician-one hardly ever saw a black face in Coconut Oasis. When I queried Byron about this, he explained that it was because our prices were considerably higher than those of other local establishments. But then, he added smugly, so was the quality. I accepted his explanation and never gave the matter a second thought. Until much later, that is. By then, it was too late.
The other thing that struck me as a little strange was that, whenever I mentioned Byron’s name to local merchants, they seemed to not want to talk about him, or suddenly became too busy to carry on the conversation. The same applied to others whom I’d met casually on the street. Most likely, I told myself, locals weren’t all that eager to share gossip about their own with strangers. Another subtle warning which went unheeded.
February passed, and then came March. Although the northern winter would soon come to an end, the first part of April was still considered high season for Caribbean tourism. As night fell, Portsmouth harbor became alive with bobbing masthead lights. And the reservations just kept coming. By now, we found ourselves completely booked almost every night. Once a week, Byron would escort me to his back office, lock the door behind him, and together we would sit and tally receipts, expenses, cash, and bank deposit slips. After the final numbers had been crunched, we would split the previous week’s profits , as agreed, straight down the middle. Some weeks, I would return to Roseau with over a thousand US dollars in my pocket, a small fortune in those days. And our employees were doing well, too. Some guests were even leaving US hundred dollar bills as tips. No question about it: business couldn’t have been better. Coconut Oasis had finally come into its own.
But the bubble was about to burst.
Toward the end of April, Peterson Angol, one of our senior drivers, relayed an urgent message to me from Byron. There had been a power outage two days before in Portsmouth which, unfortunately discovered too late, had damaged one of our freezers. More than a hundred pounds of prime steaks had been ruined. Could I please rush up replacements as soon as possible?
This translated to a huge loss-just the import taxes alone came to several hundred dollars-which also meant that almost two weeks’ worth of profits had instantly gone down the drain. But I had no choice.
I delivered the replacement steaks by boat the following morning. Byron shook his head despondently as he showed me the faulty unit which, he said, had already been repaired by a local electrician. A bad fuse, he said. None of our kitchen staff had told him anything.
By now, the season was slowly winding down. The majority of yachts whom we relied upon were preparing to transit to the Mediterranean for the summer season, or had already left. Still, Coconut Oasis had a decent number of customers, although, by now, profits had declined significantly. The same situation applied to the Safaris. That’s how it was in the Caribbean, I reminded myself; make hay while the sun shines, then tread water as best you can and wait patiently for the return of the next winter season.
About three weeks later, I received a second piece of bad news: another power failure. But this time it was far worse. Our largest freezer had been severely damaged after its motor had caught fire. Not only were the contents contaminated, according to Byron, the unit itself had been burned beyond repair. We would have to find a replacement.
Again, I was faced with no options. Any kind of appliances, especially freezers, were notoriously expensive in Dominica; not only because they were imported, but because of the taxes which the government slapped on. In fact, new freezer units could be costlier than some used cars. And there were seldom, if ever, second hand ones on the market. This time, practically everything I’d managed to put aside over the last four months vanished in a single transaction at J.E. Nassief’s appliance counter. What I’d hoped would be every entrepreneur’s dream of success had somehow turned into a nightmare. How, I asked myself, could we have been so unlucky?
Another speedboat ride to Portsmouth. The new freezer delivered. I didn’t see Byron, nor did I wish to. I didn’t want to see anybody, in fact. I was utterly depressed and just wanted to get back to Roseau as fast as I could. At least there I could mope in the privacy of my own room. Steering past the mouth of the Layou River, oblivious to the beautiful sunset, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t listened more carefully to those words from behind Friendly Wallace’s mask. I couldn’t pinpoint it, but looming somewhere in the back of my mind, vague premonition had become reality. But I couldn’t yet see its shape.
All that changed a few days later, when Isaac Newton Shillingford stopped by the office to say hello in the course of one of his infrequent visits to town. Shillingford, one of Dominica’s wealthiest and most prominent businessmen, owned Syndicate estate, a vast grapefruit plantation high in the hills above Portsmouth. He was also the father of our office landlord, Ivan, which is how I’d come to know him. Unlike many Dominicans I’d met, he was well traveled and easy to talk to. And, as I’d discovered on several previous occasions, always willing to offer sound advice if you asked him.
After a few minutes of conversation, I mentioned the recent power outages in the Portsmouth area. Had they affected him? Or did he have his own generators?
He looked at me quizzically. “Outages?”
“Yes, last week. And another one around the end of last month.”
He shook his head. ” No, we haven’t had any since way before Christmas. Why do you ask?”
I stared at him. “Are you sure about that?”
“Of course. After all, I live in the area. Not only that, the manager of the power station happens to be a good friend of mine. We play gin rummy together every week. I’d be one of the first to know about something like that.”
The awful moment of truth, having lurked in the shadows for so long, had finally struck. All I could do was to close my eyes and just sit there. Self-recrimination would come later.
Then I told Isaac Newton Shillingford the whole story, from beginning to end.
“He probably sold the meat to smugglers from Marie-Galante,” Shillingford said, referring to a nearby French island renowned for its contraband boats. “As for your new freezer, it’s probably already on its way to the Mediterranean on some charter yacht. Byron would have made its captain an offer he couldn’t refuse.” He shook his head sadly. “I’m so sorry, Eric.”
There followed a long silence. I turned and watched a group of colorfully-dressed women, balancing heavily-laden wicker baskets on their heads, as they passed our window on their way to market. Guavas, cinnamon, lettuce, cucumbers, soursops, melons, finger bananas, eggs, even live chickens: you name it, they probably sold it. It could have been a scene straight out of Ghana or Cameroon. Dominica, thanks to its rich soil and abundant water, was an enormous tropical garden; almost everyone had a plot in his or her back yard, or in some small clearing in the forest.
Life goes on, I told myself.
Shillingford broke the silence with a long sigh.
“Eric, I wish that you’d come to me before you decided to get involved with an unsavory character like Byron”.
I just stared down gloomily at the table,
” I would have told you not to go near him with a ten-foot pole. Byron could talk a tortoise out if his shell. And you’re not the first foreigner he’s conned, believe me”.
I glanced up at him. “Well, I only have my own stupidness to blame, don’t I? The world’s full of con men. I should have known better.”
“True.” He paused, choosing his next words carefully. “But there’s something else you couldn’t have known-because nobody in Portsmouth would have told you. You see, Byron is much more than just a con man.”
“I don’t understand.”
Shillingford rose from his chair and slowly walked over to the window. He was a slim grey-haired man, an imposing figure who always dressed immaculately whenever he came to Roseau, right down to his polished shoes. For a few moments, he stood there without speaking, watching the traditional Saturday morning hustle and bustle on the street below. When he turned back to me, his expression had become deadly serious.
“Do you know the meaning of Obeah Man?”
I nodded. “Yes, from my visits to Africa. And what I’ve read. Something like a witch doctor?”
“Something like that.”
He settled back into his chair. “Because that’s what Byron is,” he continued. “Why do you think no locals come into his establishment? Or, as you just told me, turned their faces away whenever you mentioned his name? I’ll tell you why. Because they know. But they would have been too afraid to tell you. Not just for themselves, but for their families. That’s what an Obeah Man does, what makes him so powerful. But nobody will talk about it, except in whispers,”
He paused and looked me straight in the eye. “Most white men I’ve known wouldn’t believe a word of what I’m telling you right now. Or, more to the point, wouldn’t want to. They’d just dismiss the whole thing as local superstition. But, as you said, you’ve spent time in Africa. You know what I’m talking about.”
He was right. After all, that’s where Obeah had reputedly originated,in the isolated west African mountain villages of the Ashanti tribe, long before Europeans had first set foot on the continent. There, the practice was known as obayifo, an adaptation of an ancient Egyptian word for serpent. Obayifo often involved the placing of objects, such dog’s teeth or parrot beaks, in newly-dug graves . As a photo journalist, i’d observed some of their tribal rituals with my own eyes. These traditional beliefs, I knew, had first come to the West Indies on slave ships from Elmina and other ports situated along what was then called the Gold Coast.
Then I remembered Friendly Wallace’s words in that cabin in the hills, what now seemed an eternity ago: Let’s just say that he’s special, he’d said; not like others. Suddenly, everything clicked.
I hadn’t wanted to believe. But I did now.
My first impulse was to jump into the speedboat and head immediately to Portsmouth to confront Byron face to face. But Shillingford finally dissuaded me. It would be a waste of time, he assured me. Byron would deny everything. Besides, he added,ominously, I couldn’t be sure of my personal safety. Byron was known for his violent temper, another reason why people tried their best to avoid him. He’d once tried to attack one of his own bartenders with a cutlass, right in front of his customers, after he’d caught him stealing. In my case, he’d already got what he wanted; I was no longer of any value. As usual, I realized, Isaac Newton Shillingford was right.
Instead, he advised, I should go to court and try to get him evicted. After all, he reminded me, the lease was in my name, not Byron’s. At the very least, I might be able to take possession of any remaining appliances and other items of value, then sell them to cut my losses-although, he cautioned, there was no guarantee that I’d find anything left by then. Or I could just forget about the whole thing and put it down to one of life’s unpleasant learning experiences. For me, that would be unthinkable. I wouldn’t even be able to look at myself in the mirror. No, I told Shillingford, I would go to court.
He nodded in understanding. “You have a firearms permit, you once told me”.
“Yes, for a pistol. The government doesn’t want to risk any negative publicity when it comes to tourism. As you know, we go to some pretty isolated areas.”
Shillingford leaned forward in his chair toward me. “A bit of advice,” he said, lowering his voice. “From now on, keep it with you at all times. No matter where you go, even here in the office. You never know who’s going walk in through that door.”
I had to admit that his words struck an uneasy chord in me. But I’d made my decision.
Later that afternoon, Shillingford introduced me to one of his own lawyers, an energetic female barrister who worked under Eugenia Charles (later to become Dominica’s first woman Prime Minister) with long experience in property disputes. After hearing us out, she agreed to represent me in my claim against Byron.
As it turned out, the case moved forward with surprising speed despite what many considered the country’s often cumbersome judicial system, a system largely inherited from Dominica’s former British colonial era. A formal hearing was scheduled for the middle of August and a bailiff was sent to serve a summons on Byron.
But Byron never showed up in court on the appointed day. This time, the court gave him seven days to provide an explanation as to why he hadn’t done so. Once again, Byron ignored the judge’s orders, not even bothering to respond. Ten days later, the judge granted my request to have him evicted from the property.
But that’s as far as it got. As events turned out, nobody in Portsmouth, it seemed, was willing to enforce the court’s orders, least of all the local police. Whenever I called the police station, I was shuttled from person to person and given one excuse after another. Sorry, sir, the officer in charge isn’t in today, please call back tomorrow. On the rare occasions when I did manage to reach someone of authority, I was told either that Byron couldn’t be found, or that they believed that the Coconut Oasis was closed for the season. More often than not, the excuse given was that the police were already swamped with more serious crime investigations but, nevertheless, I was assured, the Court’s orders would be obeyed. When time permitted.
But, as the days and weeks went by, I came to realize that I no longer had the slightest interest in going back to Portsmouth and the Coconut Oasis. In fact, I wanted nothing more to do with it. The whole thing had been like a bad dream. I just wanted to forget.
Something else had changed, too. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake off a deep sense of depression. It haunted me from the moment I woke up to when I went to bed at night. Instead of my usual optimism, there was now a sense of self doubt, even despair. Even my own personality, I realized, seemed to have changed. I’d become morose and short-tempered, to the point where Peterson, Harold, and the other drivers did their best to avoid me. Even Doug Robertson, our English mechanic and a personal friend, seldom spoke to me these days. As for Dominica Safaris, it had suddenly become a burden I no longer wanted to bear. An almost overwhelming sense of pessimism, entwined with self-pity, had taken hold of me. I wanted out.
One day, Lionel Pinard, the scion of a wealthy local family, dropped by for friendly chat. I knew that Lionel owned a small derelict-looking freighter which he kept moored off Roseau, Most of his voyages were to the neighboring French islands, usually to bring in certain delicacies for the larger supermarkets. But he also transported regular freight , as well as occasional tourists on fishing trips to Bird Island. His mother, Teresa, often prepared lunches for our Safari guests.
Finally, Lionel Pinard revealed the real reason behind his visit. Had I ever considered selling Dominica Safaris, he asked, casually.
His question had come straight out of the blue and had caught me off guard.. “Well”, I replied, as nonchalantly as I could.”I have to admit that the thought has crossed my mind a couple of times. Why do you ask?”
Lionel went on to explain that his family had always thought that taking tourists by jeep through Dominica’s jungles was a great idea. In his opinion, the business had a lot of potential, especially if it were locally owned. For one thing, overheads would be reduced dramatically. Doing business in Dominica, he added, was tough at the best of times. And it was very important to have connections.
He was certainly right there. And I knew that he wouldn’t have come to see me without his parents’ blessing. After all, they were the ones with the money.
And that’s how it happened. Three weeks later, I had packed my bags and was on my way to New York City and another life. Doug Robertson, when I had told him the news, had decided to return to England to resume his career as a freelance marine engineer. The final payout had been pathetically small, with almost nothing for the goodwill side of the business itself, only for the agreed value of the vehicles, tools, and office furniture. Still, I considered myself lucky. I was finally free. It was time to move on with my life.
Once in New York, I went back to my old profession as a photojournalist. But it was a struggle . I was an unknown in America, and there was a lot of competition.To make ends meet, I even resumed my former work at the opposite end of the camera lens, as a bit actor or extra-sometimes even as a male model, (which actually paid far better) something I’d had moderate success with in London. (There, in a rare stroke of good fortune, I’d been chosen to replace Roger Moore as the Brylcreem Man after Moore had moved from commercials to stardom as the Saint, a popular television series which would eventually land him the role of James Bond.) But here, in New York City, the majority of advertising agencies preferred to work with established people they already knew. It could be dog eat dog at times. Every one in the profession, including myself, was hoping for that lucky break. For most, it never came. To make matters worse, I had never been able shake off my feeling of depression, not even with prescribed medication. Why was I feeling like this, I kept asking myself . I was in excellent health and had a lot to be thankful for. But, deep down inside, I had little or no confidence in myself, and this must have shown. Even simulating a convincing laugh at some audition was difficult. I soon began to realize that most studio and ad executives would immediately sense this during the course of an initial interview. If they didn’t feel comfortable, I knew, they’d just give the job to some one else. That’s how it was in New York.
Still, somehow, I managed to survive.
Now, let’s move the clock forward , to more than four years later: a dismal wet afternoon on East 66th street in Manhattan.
I’d stepped under a bus shelter, waiting for the rain to stop. Just behind me was one of the city’s numerous psychic reader establishments, often referred to as fortune tellers parlors. The psychic herself was sheltering under her basement canopy, a tall, colorfully-dressed woman, probably in her early forties, with raven-black hair and long, brightly-painted crimson fingernails. Judging from the the style of her clothing, I guessed that she was originally from somewhere in eastern Europe. Maybe even a gypsy.
We eventually became engaged in conversation. She was from Romania, she said. Her parents had died in a Nazi concentration camp. She’d come to America as a young child, sponsored by an aunt who had since passed away. And so it went. After a few minutes, she asked me whether I’d be interested in having my fortune read.
“No thanks,” I told her. (Anyway, I had never believed in such things).
“Why not ?” she insisted. “You can give me whatever you wish. Anyway, what else is there to do on a rainy day? Come on down .”
She gestured for me to take a chair at a small wooden table in the middle of the room. I thought that I could smell a faint scent of incense. Then, after closing the curtains , she sat down at the opposite end of the table .
“Let me see your hands,” was all that she said. Not once did she ask my name . Nor for any other personal information.
Then, under the faint light from an overhanging lamp, she proceeded to examine every line on my palms and fingers. The silence was only occasionally broken by a grunt or an “uh-uh”, sometimes accompanied by a nod of her head.
The reading took almost fifteen minutes.
Finally, she released my hands and sat back in her chair, eyes closed, as if the experience had exhausted her. By now, her expression had become serious,
“I can see that you once lived on a tropical island,” she began, her eyes still closed.”An island with many mountains and many rivers. I can see green, green everywhere.”
I stared at her in disbelief.
“I see that someone has placed an evil curse on you ,” she continued. “They took something that belonged to you and placed it inside the coffin of a person who died in great misery. That misery has now come to you .”
There was more.
“I can see that someone now , just barely,” she went on. “He has gold in his mouth and is married to a light-skinned woman. But he himself is dark .”
I sat straight up in my chair, as if a bolt of electricity had hit me. Byron, I remembered, had at least four gold teeth in his mouth. And he was married to the Carib chief ‘s sister.
“And your life has been miserable ever since ,” she continued . “You are alone. You do not know where your life will take you . You do not even know who you are .”
Her words were followed by total silence.
A few moments later, the psychic opened her eyes, as if emerging from a deep trance . As for myself, no words could have adequately described what I felt at that moment. Shock, disbelief, and, above all, fear, all rolled into one.
When I finally rose from the table, I could actually feel my legs trembling. I dug into my pocket and placed a hundred dollars on the table.
“I think that the rain’s stopped. I’d better get on my way .”
I started to move toward the door, then paused. I had to ask her one last question.
“Can you remember anything of what you just told me?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “Not a word. It was the spirits talking to you through me. I was only their voice.”
I didn’t sleep that night. Nor the next. It took me two more days to finally reach Peterson on the telephone.
“Peterson, this is important. Do you remember if anything that belonged to me ever went missing when we were in Portsmouth? Anything at all?
Please try to remember ”
His reply came almost immediately. “Sure I do. That brand new bathing suit. On the beach in front of Coconut Oasis. Someone must have stolen it, you told me. You never found it, you said.”
The line had suddenly become poor, with a lot of crackling and static. Peterson’s voice had faded in and out, but I had still heard what he’d said.
“I need you to do something for me, Peterson . It’s urgent.”
“I need you to find someone on the island who can remove a hex from me . I don’t care what it costs, as long as it ‘a somebody who really knows about those things. As soon as you find that person, I’ll fly down to Dominica. Can you do it?”
“I’ll ask Harold. He lives way up in the country. He’d know a lot more about things like that than I would. But he doesn’t have a phone, and he’s on holiday until next week. I’ll have to drive up there to find him.”
“Yes. Please do that as soon as you can .”
“Call me back in two days. I should have an answer for you by then . Early evening is the best time to reach me.”
When I next called him, Peterson had some good news.
“Harold found someone,” he said. “Some old lady who lives up in the hills near Soufriere . They call her Madame Tete Chien.”
“Does he think that she ‘s for real?”
“For sure. Harold told me that he went to her once for some problem he was having with a neighbor. He said that she done fix it good, whatever it was.”
I made my decision.
“I’ll be down next Monday on the regular late afternoon LIAT flight from Antigua. Can you and Harold meet me at Melville Hall ?”
“Will do. I’ll let Harold know. I’ll ask Mr Pinard if I can borrow one of the jeeps. Don’t worry, we have Land Rovers now. I’m sure he won’t mind, especially since it’s you. Besides, things are kind of slow right now. And the roads up there can be pretty rough .”
When I finally met Madame Tete Chien, I had to admit to myself that she wasn’t quite what I’d expected. Especially because of her name, which meant boa constrictor in local Patois. (Only later did I learn from Harold that it had been given to her because of her reputation for being able to crush evil spirits). She was an extremely thin, wizened black lady-probably well into her eighties, I guessed-with a thick crop of white hair tied into a bun. Although I couldn’t be certain, she seemed to have only one functional eye; the other was discolored, its iris pointed in a different direction and never moving.
For someone of her age, Madame Tete Chien herself moved with amazing agility. She smiled readily and spoke in a soft voice which I found both pleasant and soothing. She offered me a cup of lemon grass tea, then we chatted for a while. Considering her isolated location, and the fact that she no radio or television, she seemed to possess an amazing knowledge of the outside world. Her only constant companion, she said, was an old grey cat which she’d rescued after it had been hit by a passing banana truck. By strange coincidence, the cat, too, possessed only one eye. It didn’t take long for me to feel reassured that I’d come to the right person.
Her home was a simple one-room wooden house perched on stilts on the top of a grassy knoll. The most prominent item of furniture was a small bookcase next to her bed, where her Bibles and other books were kept. She had no electricity, she explained, only an old kerosene lamp, some candles, and a wood-burning stove. Above her bed was the only picture I could see in the house, a framed image of Jesus offering a blessing.
Finally, it was time to get down to business.
Madame Tete Chien had already asked Harold and Peterson to wait outside until she called them. Now, she handed me a worn leather -covered Bible and a long white feather. She then instructed me to insert the feather anywhere I chose between the pages.
I did as I was told. She took back the Bible, opened it at the place marked by the feather, and began to read intently. Considering the dim light and the fact that she possessed only one good eye, I found it amazing that she could read anything at all.
After several minutes, she closed the Bible and placed it on the table between us. Her expression became serious.
“Here, young man, is what you must do,” she said. “And you must do everything exactly as I tell you, otherwise you will not be freed from another’s evil. Do you understand?”
“First, you must go and buy a bar of blue laundry soap. The kind which our local women use to wash clothing in the river. Do you know the kind of I mean?”
“Yes. I’ve seen them use it.”
“No other kind, and it must be blue,” she continued. “Next, you must take a complete change of clothing-everything you wear on your body, including shoes-and put them into a carrying bag. The shoes can be canvas or leather, or any other material, but they must not be black or red. Can you remember that?”
“Then, early in the morning , just after the sun has risen, you must go to a place where the river meets the sea. There, you must take off your clothes.-everything-until you are as naked as Adam when he was created. Then cast them away , as far as you can. You must not touch or even look at them again. Take the blue soap and walk into the sea. Wash every part of your body .Do you understand?”
“After you have cleansed yourself from head to toe, throw the bar of soap into the sea and go back to the shore. Dress yourself in your new clothes and leave as quickly as possible. Do not, under any circumstances, look back-even if you hear what you think is a familiar voice calling your name.”
She looked at me intently, the light from the window playing over the lines and furrows of her face. “Do you now understand what you must do, young man?”
“Yes, I understand.”
The old woman rose from her chair and placed her hand gently on mine.
“Then go with God, my son. He will protect you .”
In the early hours of the following morning, long before sunrise, Harold and Peterson picked me up from the small guest house where I’d spent the night, and drove me to the windward coast where the Rosalie river flowed into the Atlantic Ocean. The eastern sky was already beginning to lighten and the stars fading.
“Please wait for me here,” I told them. “I won’t be too long”.
I walked along the beach for about a quarter of a mile, carrying my bag of spare clothes over my shoulder. Overhead, a few seagulls called out their raucous cries, while, below, there was only the hissing sound of surf. These same waves, I remember thinking, had probably come all the way from Africa, where Obeah had all begun. Now, I prayed, they would take it back.
A few minutes later, just as the first light of dawn seeped into the sky, I undressed and walked into the sea.
That same afternoon, after saying goodby to Harold and Peterson, I departed Dominica for New York.
I slept almost all the way, better than I had for months.
When I finally arrived at my Manhattan apartment that night, I realized that there was a voice mail message waiting for me. The Ford Model Agency wanted me to call them.
I did so the next morning. I was put through to Joey Hunter, who was in charge of the men’s division of the agency.
“Hey, Eric, welcome back,” said Joey. “How was your trip to the Caribbean, you lucky dog? I wish I had the time to have your life style.”
“Oh, fine. Nothing special, just went down to visit a few people I hadn’t seen for a long time,” Obviously, I would leave it at that.
“Listen, I have some really great news for you,” he said. “Are you ready?”
“You know who Ralph Lauren is, don’t you?”
“Of course. Who wouldn’t? He’s probably America’s most famous fashion designer.”
“Not probably. Is.” Joey paused “And guess what? We got a call from his office yesterday around noon. Ralph has personally chosen you to be his next Polo Man. For print ads as well as TV commercials. You know what that means?”
“I’m not quite sure. A little more money?”
“No, Eric. Not just a little. We’re talking some good bucks here. From now on, just about every ad agency in the country will know your face. That’s when the phones will start ringing, Congratulations, my man. You’re in the Big Leagues now.”
As it turned out, Joey had been right. From that day on, I never looked back. Not long afterwards, my first novel, Labyrinth, was accepted by a major publishing house. My life, and my luck, had turned around one hundred and eighty degrees.
Eventually, I did return to Dominica, but only for a very brief visit. That’s when I learned , through Lionel Pinard, that Byron had been shot to death a couple of summers before during an argument at a casino table in Guadeloupe. As far as anyone in Dominica was aware, no one, not even his own family, had ever gone to claim his body.
As for Coconut Oasis, it no longer existed. It had been washed away some years ago during a hurricane. All that had remained, according to Pinard, were some twisted bamboo frames and an empty birdcage with some black feathers.