‘One dog buried. The other live.’
‘Lives,’ Nell corrected. Mora’s diction by now was an odd mix of the eloquent and the clumsy, fully anglicised in places but those quaint nuances were hard to cure. ‘But wait, are you saying there were two?’
‘In their haste to chase one dog they missed the other. They are sisters perhaps,’ said Mora, ‘but as with humans the likeness is not always so marked.’ They were walking by the side of the house in the moonlight, Mora’s face weirdly blanched, double imaged by the drink distorting Nell’s brain. ‘Come,’ Mora added, ‘I will show you the grave.’
The light had cast a blue path across the park, as if the house were a ship and the path its wake, calm and still on a windless night. She led Nell away to where a cluster of bushes bordered the cropped green. Rhododendrons abounded here, their short season of flowering long gone. By day the shadows were lengthening, the air had a golden serenity. Autumn was coming with its usual chills, its sense of loss and foreboding.
‘I took it down from the tree and buried it here,’ said Mora, pointing to the small fresh mound, neatly topped with a few late flowers. ‘I used the spike they killed it with to dig the hole.’ The sister dog had bounded up the mound and begun to scratch. ‘That is how I found her, trying to raise the dead. Only she doesn’t know how.’
‘And do you? Is it true what they say about you? I wish to know.’
Mora smiled. ‘You no longer say I command it.’
‘That time is past,’ said Nell. ‘I hope we are friends now.’
‘I become what you are, you become what I am – isn’t that what we agreed?’ said Mora. ‘Half and half, share and share alike.’
‘You sound like a lawyer,’ Nell said, thinking of Vine. He was loose in her imagination, blasting its house like a hurricane. Had he brought one back with him from the Caribbean? – did he hold it inside him ready to unleash at a time of his choosing? She laughed nervously. ‘Perhaps you should draw up a contract.’
‘We will make one now and sign it in blood. You will see that I bleed just like you.’
‘I knew that already. It’s part of the turmoil I’m in. But I don’t want it to stop. I want us to cut ourselves and mix our blood as you say.’
‘I didn’t say mix – your words, not mine.’
A fox barked beyond the edge of the parkland. Nell felt like the vixen hiding from its man; she felt like a daughter hiding from her father and his dog fox cronies, one called Vine, the other Mortimer. But never mind them, she had Mora – who would do what must be done. She snapped off a briar growing among the bushes and asked if she were ready. ‘Then hold out your finger.’
Nell looked at the heart-shaped thorn. So small, so cruel in the wrong hands. Jesus had worn a crown of them, for love; the Devil might do so for hate, to spite himself and enjoy the pain. Mora pricked Nell’s finger, pricked her own and pressed them together in the same motion. The sensation was dull, more ache than pain. Mora’s scent was mingled with the fox musk sprayed upon the leaves. The combination was wholly carnal. Forbidden, yet wanted all the more. Nell’s breath came fast; the blood was listening in her veins, running hot.
‘I want you,’ she said, ‘in all the wrong ways.’
‘You are not yourself.’
‘But what is myself?’ She was happy and sad, worry-free and troubled all in one sensation. It felt like a wave; a wave so big it threatened to engulf her like the dark flood of sleep. Nell wanted it so; she wanted to breathe her last, live her life afresh with nothing the same. Mora was the mirror that reflected her being, but how? – was she asleep for real? Maybe, for this felt like sand slipping through her fingers in a dream within a dream, neither of which she would wake from. She was drowning at the bottom of a deep, clear pool, whose surface led back to the first dream; it was rippling brightly in the moonshine, but she couldn’t reach it. That wave had truly engulfed her. She held her breath, fought the dizziness and the sinking of her soul until, as suddenly as it had started, it was gone. She was back on dry land. Through the bushes the moonlight filtered in thin spurts, first one and then another, flashing among the branches and the leaves.
‘I don’t wish to know the mystery of the moon,’ she said, ‘or the earth beneath our feet. Or the sea, or the rivers or the lakes.’ She could see the moonlight playing upon the water of her father’s ponds. They were deep, murky, home to worlds she refused to imagine. Eels, she always thought of eels, long and thick and writhing. And black, slimy, with teeth that bit, and a coil that crushed as it rattled. ‘There must always be mystery in the world. Above all, there must be mystery.’ Her thoughts rambled like the path they’d trod. She didn’t want it to end; didn’t know where it would lead.
But Mora now had taken her hand; it seemed the cure for everything. The feel of her skin, the bones beneath – they brought a yearning to Nell’s breast. To try anything once, however distasteful – why not when her sex was in doubt? – when she wanted her as a man wants a woman – when she wanted her as she wanted a man – as she wanted a mother – as she wanted herself. Yes, most of all, she wanted to love the image of herself, the image of what she might – with effort – become.
‘I don’t know what is real any more and what is fancy.’
‘You want your momma, I know that.’
Nell liked how she said it – your momma – but felt afraid. She thought she saw a figure walking towards her on the pond, calling her name in a whisper. ‘Look,’ she said but the image was gone. Mora squeezed her hand tighter. ‘All will be well,’ she said. ‘The white men who write of these things know nothing. They write dirt, like dirt at the bottom of ponds. You were thinking of ponds just now,’ and she watched the water in the moonlight, its surface like milk in a glass. ‘Don’t be frightened of what lurks there, it’s just dirt.’
‘There are no eels, longer than a man’s body?’
‘No eels,’ said Mora. ‘Well maybe just a thin one to tighten round a man’s neck while he sleeps.’ Nell knew who she meant; she could believe he was watching them now. ‘If I could kill that man …’
‘Then kill him,’ said Nell. ‘Kill him with your magic, your obeah. It could be done from afar, you wouldn’t need to look in his eyes. Isn’t that the way with it?’
‘The man resists in his mind, where he’s strong. A man must surrender his will, believe in the power. That Mr Vine he …’
‘He what Mora?’
‘Nothing – but he’s something darker in the heart than you could ever imagine.’
‘He won’t hurt you, I won’t let him.’
‘You think he is frightened of your power when he’s not even frightened of your father’s? I tell you he’s not frightened of anyone.’ But though Nell knew she was right – the night’s events were proof enough – she was determined to make him fear her one day. The memory returned of her father’s study that afternoon, how she’d looked at the tools of his manhood – first his pipe which signalled peace; next his pistols that stood for war. Those pistols no longer repelled her as they’d once done. She wanted to hold one as he had held it, first limply then stiff and cock sure. She ached to feel it in her hand, so shiny and smooth, as black as Mora, yet tinged indubitably with a deep and shining blue. At the thought of firing it her hand trembled with impatience. What did it mean?’ she asked, and should she be horrified even to think it? No, she said to herself, not where Vine’s concerned. But if that day of reckoning must wait …
‘Then kill the Reverend instead,’ said Nell. ‘To be rid of the weaker of the two parasites is surely something.’
‘Yes,’ said Mora, ‘it is something.’
‘How would you do it? How would we do it?’ Nell was playing with fire, with deep water that could never quench it, playing most of all with evil which, like all evil – hadn’t the Reverend himself said as much? – attracts.
‘Poison is the way,’ said Mora, ‘a poison whose fuse is long and slow burning. He would die a cruel death – you’ve no idea how cruel.’
It sounded terrifying, wonderfully so. ‘And what else can you teach me? If you really can talk to the dead then show me how! Show me the Devil, take me to Hell and leave me there.’
‘You have already seen Him, and you are already there. Your life, your home, your country. All I can show you is a different way. A better way, though no one you know would agree.’
‘I still wish to learn. I must.’
‘You have drunk too much of your father’s wine. We’ll talk again tomorrow when you’re sober.’ She walked on but Nell snatched at her shoulder. ‘Tomorrow,’ Mora repeated.
‘No, tonight! Tomorrow may be too late. I’ll be too reserved again, too respectable. Tonight I am urging you to excess. It’s what I want.’
‘But is it what I want?’ She moved on ahead some more then stopped, her eyes on the full moon. It wasn’t round, Nell decided as she watched it too, but a sphere, more white than silver. It was bumpy and it had a face. The face seemed to grin, but not malevolently. It was a friend but what sort? for the cloud that now covered it was a veil hiding its true meaning. The moon, as Muslims might say, was in purdha.
‘Very well,’ said Mora, ‘but you must call me Olushegun. It’s my rightful name, filled with tribal meaning.’
‘May I not shorten it to Olu?’ Nell ventured. ‘I promise there’ll be no more Mora, no more Cooper.’ She had said the last with a rush of contempt, recalling her talk with her father that day, just up there, on that slope, near the Serpentine Path, where the hills above now sparkled in a moonbeam, and where the higher hills beyond were known as Hautboy because they were high and wooded, untouched by the scars of mining yet to come. Farther on, invisible, was the moor known as Dead Moor – which she’d soon find out was anything but.
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