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About the Author
An award-winning poet and prose writer, Adisa has more than twenty titles to her credit, including Look! A Moko Jumbie, CaribbeanReads, 2016; 4-Headed Woman, Tia Chucha Press, 2013; and Painting Away Regrets, novel, Peepal Tree Press, 2011.
She has been a resident artist in internationally acclaimed residencies such as Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assis, Italy), El Gouna (Egypt), Sacatar Institute (Brazil) and McColl Center, (North Carolina) and Headlines Center for the Arts (California, USA). Opal Palmer Adisa's work has been reviewed by Ishmael Reed, Al Young, and Alice Walker (Color Purple), who described her work as "solid, visceral, important stories written with integrity and love."
A Distinguished professor of creative writing and literature in the MFA program at California College of the Arts, where she teaches in the Fall. She has been a visiting professor at several universities including, Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley and University of the Virgin Islands. Her poetry, stories, essays and articles on a wide range of subjects have been collected in over 400 journals, anthologies and other publications, including Essence Magazine.
Adisa is the founder and editor of Interviewing the Caribbean, an annual journal of poetry, prose art and interviews.
Read an Excerpt
The Protectors' Pledge
Secrets of Oscuros
By Danielle Y. C. McClean
CaribbeanReads PublishingCopyright © 2015 Danielle Y. C. McClean
All rights reserved.
A Stranger Knocks
"JASON! Jason Felix Theodore Valentine!"
Granny B's call pierced its way from the kitchen, zipped along the narrow main corridor of the brick cottage, shot under the bedroom door, and found its mark on JV's well-attuned but less-than-receptive ears. He pulled the pillow down tighter over his head. Today was Saturday, and there wasn't one part of his body that was ready to leave the comfort of his sheets.
He considered feigning sleep then thought better of getting on the wrong side of Granny B on the very first day of his much-anticipated two-month-long vacation. Groaning, he pushed aside the pillow, dragged himself up, and looked out of the window. It was early. Much too early. The trees of the Oscuros Forest were black against a sky still filled with inky blue and purple.
JV knew those trees well. From as far back as he could remember, he would accompany Granny B into Oscuros and amble around carrying her big old basket pretending to help search for bachelor's button, lantana, shining bush, or any of the many other herbs she collected. In reality, he mostly amused himself following lizards and frogs, and although there were times when he wandered out of Granny B's sight, he never ventured too far away.
Often he felt a strange pull from the forest — as if an unseen force wanted to usher him deeper in, away from his grandmother, his home, and his village. On those occasions he would resist the mysterious tug and stay where he could hear Granny B's low mutterings. He knew that she would be bending close to the ground, inspecting leaves, stems, and flowers, and assessing whether they would come in handy the following week. The curve of her bosse back, which had earned her the insolent but catchy nickname "Bosse B" among Alcavere's children, would be more pronounced as she bent over, and JV would question for the hundredth time why such a skilled healer hadn't fixed her own conspicuous imperfection. Her longstanding explanation that some things in life were beyond fixing had never been acceptable to him.
Studying the dark skyline, he wondered why he'd never gone exploring on his own. Granny B wouldn't have minded and he wasn't afraid of the ever-shifting shadows or intimidated by the way the Caribbean sun never fully reached the forest floor. And he certainly didn't believe all those stories about the Oscuros Forest being a haven for the soucouyant — an old crone who shed her skin at night, turned into a ball of fire, and drank human blood — or the shape-shifting lagahoo who prowled during the dark hours always ready to sink his fangs into his next victim. Those tall tales were for babies and JV was twelve, after all.
Yes, it was definitely time to embark on a quest. Although he had never met his parents, he liked to think that he had inherited his lust for adventure from them. His bedroom walls were lined with books filled with peril and excitement, and he had read and reread all the exploits of their brave young heroes. His dreams were drama-packed and dangerfraught escapades in which he scaled cliffs, dived for lost treasure on the ocean floor, and navigated jungles in search of forgotten cities. He was ready for live action, and it was waiting for him just beyond his backyard. This holiday for sure he was going to —
All thoughts of Oscuros fled JV's brain.
"Coming!" he shouted, then mumbled, "And it's JV, Granny, not Jason." He fished his slippers from under the bed, put them on, and followed the smell of freshly-made coconut bakes.
As he peered into the den of delights — JV's name for the kitchen — he was happy to see his grandmother transferring a steaming, flat, round loaf from a baking sheet to a cooling tray on the table. Her two grey braids were pinned in their usual place across the nape of her neck and a dish towel hung over her right shoulder, which was three inches lower than the left.
He stepped from behind the wall onto the slate-grey linoleum tiles and surveyed the small room. It was in its usual state of disorder: a measuring spoon was balanced precariously on the edge of a well-stacked sink; baking pans and trays of various sizes lay scattered along the counter tops; a pile of onion, garlic, and fruit skins waited to be tossed into the bin; and a fresh, fine layer of flour covered all visible surfaces.
A sharp metallic rattling drew his attention to the corner by the window. JV saw Granny B's parakeet, Kockot using a clawed foot to drag an empty food tin along the bottom of her cage.
"All right, all right, Miss Lady," Granny B said. "Every morning you'll make noise so? You know I didn't forget you. Your breakfast is coming." She lifted the latch on the cage, carefully opened the door, and filled Kockot's dish with pieces of mango and banana. "When will you talk for me, eh?"
Granny B froze then leaned forward slightly. Kockot was still pecking at the fruit. Chuckling, Granny B shook her head, turned around, and glanced at JV.
"Oh, you're finally up, Jason?" She closed the cage. "Well, good thing."
She shuffled back to the stove, and JV inhaled the heavy scent of saltfish simmering with onions. Buljol was his favourite dish, and he kept his eyes on the pan as Granny B added the diced tomatoes and pepper.
"We have to make a trip to the market before it gets too late, eh," she said, mixing the contents and taking a taste. "You know how the freshest produce goes quick, quick. Well, come on. Help with the table. As good-looking as you are with those long lashes and dimples, it can't set itself, you know."
JV stifled a yawn and got out the place mats, all the while thinking of the countless other things he would rather do on the first morning of his vacation. Sleeping in was at the top of his list, of course, since the school term did not grant much time for lolling around in bed. Granny B always made sure that he was up by six thirty on a weekday; that he had something to eat, was showered, and was dressed in his well-starched uniform of khaki long pants and a monogrammed blue shirt; and that he was waiting on the front porch by seven fifteen at the very latest — to guarantee that he did not miss his ride to school with the Pearson children. It was beside the point that their father's white station wagon never pulled up to the gate before seven thirty. According to Granny B, good manners dictated that he be ready "early o'clock." Maybe he could have negotiated for more sleep if she were the one taking him to school, but her ancient Ford Cortina was now only capable of short weekly trips to the market.
And weekends weren't much better. In Granny B's world, the prime time to do outdoor chores was in the early morning before the sun got too hot. So the first thing on his agenda during these eight blissfully school-free weeks was to sleep as long and as late as he could get away with. His next priority would be exploring the forest.
He put down the plates, knives, and forks in their places on the table and considered the mission he was devising — an exploratory trek into Oscuros, his very own adventure. He chewed on his thumbnail. The mission could be even more fun if he took someone along. It would still be his expedition, of course, but having company wouldn't hurt. The question was, who? He deliberated as he got two mugs from the cupboard overhead — one for Granny B's orange-peel tea and the other for his cocoa. His best friend, Riaz, was an obvious choice and would make a perfect co-explorer, but he was spending the vacation with some cousins in the capital.
There was a knock at the door, and Kockot gave a startled flap of her emerald wings. JV looked at the clock. It was just after five thirty. Who could be out there at this hour? he thought. A louder, more urgent series of knocks made it clear that whoever it was wasn't going away. Granny B turned off the stove and went to the door.
"Yes?" she asked after she pulled it open.
A tall man was on the other side, leaning against the frame with his right arm cradled against his chest. Despite the darkness, JV could make out sunken eyes set in a broad, middle-aged, and unshaven face. The man was perspiring heavily and in obvious pain.
"You Miss B?" he asked through gritted teeth. "The healer?"
"Yes, son. Come in, come in." She put her hand gently on his shoulder to usher him forward, while eyeing the wound on his swollen forearm. "Snake got you? What kind?"
"Not sure. It was too quick."
"Well, first things first. Let's keep that arm nice and low." Granny B led the stranger into the kitchen. She put on the old-fashioned reading glasses that hung from a silver chain around her neck, pulled a chair away from the table, and motioned for him to sit. "JV, go get some twef while I clean off the bite. Make haste, now."
JV bolted out the door, raced across the front porch, and jumped down the two concrete steps that led into the yard. Orange streaks now slashed through the sky's ever-lightening purples and blues. He ran past the hibiscus shrubs and the crotons along the side of the house and past Granny B's old car resting comfortably in its usual spot under the soursop tree. He flashed by the guava, avocado, and orange trees and stopped only when he had reached the wire fence almost completely covered with a slender, brilliantly green vine. With its reputation as a ward against bewitchment, twef was a common sight in villages such as Alcavere where there was still a healthy respect for superstition. JV pulled fistfuls of the shiny three-pronged leaves off the vine and dashed back to the house.
When he rushed in, Granny B was dipping a cloth in soapy water and gently applying it to the man's wound. She patted it dry and took a closer look at the bite marks.
"See the pattern here, Mr. ..."
"Mr. Phipps. You see this pattern here?" she asked, pointing at the horseshoe-shaped impression of small cuts. "It wasn't a venomous one that got you. You're lucky, but you'll have to watch for infection."
The stranger closed his eyes and sighed.
Granny B studied him carefully. "I've been living in Alcavere since Moses parted the Red Sea, and I never saw you before," she said. "How did you know I could help?"
"Nah, I'm not from around here. Just passing through. I'm on my way up north and stopped to camp out not too far from here last night. Then this happened." He nodded toward his arm. "I didn't know what snake it was and thought the worst, so I started off for the village. Saw some folks who looked like they were heading to market. They told me about you and pointed the way."
Granny B looked across the kitchen and saw JV. He was still panting heavily but proudly held out his fists full of leaves, happy to have been of use in such a dire situation.
"You sure you left any leaves on the vine, Jason?" She smiled. "I just need a few to ease the pain. Rest the others on the far side of the counter over there for me, and I'll put them in the herb room later. And could you get a glass of water for Mr. Phipps, please?"
She put four or five leaves in her granite mortar, picked up the pestle, and began to pound away rhythmically, the cadence like the beat of a tribal war drum: POC, poc, poc, poc ... POC, poc, poc, poc ... POC, poc, poc, poc. So it went for a few minutes. Then Granny added a drop or two of a sweet-smelling oil, a little pinch of this and a little pinch of that, and finally pounded some more until the contents had reached the desired consistency. JV loved to watch his grandmother work. She followed no recipe that he could see, but her fingers always knew exactly what to do.
As JV looked on, Granny B used a wooden spatula to smear the thick green salve on the wound. She then took a piece of gauze from one of the kitchen drawers that served as their first-aid kit, cut off a generous square, and bandaged the man's arm tightly.
The soothing effect of the poultice was immediately visible. Mr. Phipps's shoulders dropped an inch, his face relaxed, and the lines on his deeply creased forehead became less pronounced. He slowly let out a long breath and opened his eyes, which he'd been holding tightly shut. Granny B patted his hand.
"When you knocked, we were just going to have breakfast, Mr. Phipps. It's not much — some coconut bake, buljol, and tea — but you can join us."
JV's eyes darted to the coconut bake, still untouched on the table. He wasn't sure he liked where things were heading. It was one thing to save a stranger's life but quite another to give an open invitation to breakfast, especially when bake and buljol were involved. He held his breath, waiting for Mr. Phipps's reply.
"Well, if it isn't too much trouble, Miss B, yes. I'd be grateful to have a little breakfast."
JV looked sorrowfully at the bake and buljol and mourned the loss of a potential third serving while Mr. Phipps moved to an unset place at the table.
"I really didn't eat much in the forest last night," he said.
JV snapped out of his woe and stared at the stranger. "You're staying in the forest?" he blurted. "I'll be exploring Oscuros this vacation!" He headed to the cupboard and pulled out another plate and mug, his displeasure at having to share his breakfast forgotten. "I kind of already know my way around certain parts 'cause I've been going in with Granny for a long time to help her collect herbs and stuff, but I really want to go exploring, you know? Maybe discover something cool or even a spot that no one else has ever seen. Have you been in Oscuros long? Have you seen anything interesting? Maybe I can go back with you?" JV was so excited that the mug almost slipped from his hand.
The sudden questioning seemed to take Mr. Phipps by surprise. He was staring at JV in a wide-eyed and open-mouthed sort of way when Granny B interrupted.
"Mind your manners, Jason. Mr. Phipps here didn't say yes to breakfast so he could go through an Alcavere version of the Spanish Inquisition, you know. Boy, let the man eat in peace."
JV sat down but eyed Mr. Phipps expectantly. The gentleman, however, did not seem to be in any rush to continue the conversation and helped himself to two slices of bake and a generous serving of buljol. After he had finished the first slice and sighed appreciatively, he said, "I wouldn't worry too much about that forest, you know, boy. I'm sure your granny here doesn't need you to go and get yourself lost."
JV's anticipation instantly turned to indignation.
"Lost? Who, me? No way! I couldn't get lost in Oscuros. Right, Granny?" He turned to his grandmother.
Granny B put a third spoonful of sugar in her tea, stirred, and smiled. "I don't think there's too much in Oscuros that Jason can't handle. And in any case," she added, looking at JV with an arched eyebrow, "he knows not to go beyond a certain point or to let sunset catch him in there." She took a sip of her tea and once again reached for the sugar bowl.
Not quite sure whether Granny B had provided sufficient support for his argument, JV pressed the matter further, between mouthfuls of bake. "I'm pretty good in the forest, you know. I don't need a compass to tell what direction I'm going in, I know what plants to stay away from, and I can recognize lots of bird calls." He put the last forkful of buljol in his mouth and sat back, content with his breakfast and his list of skills.
Mr. Phipps studied him for a moment. "And what about the spirits? I'm no expert, eh, but you see that forest?" he said, pointing in the direction of Oscuros, "After only one night in there I can tell you it has spirits for sure. Don't ask me what type — it was dark and I couldn't see too good — but I could tell you plenty stories about the spirits in the forests down south. Make you think twice about heading in this one again."
JV lowered his eyes. Oh great! he thought. Someone else trying to frighten me with superstitious nonsense.
All the villagers ever seemed to talk about was spirits and supernatural creatures in the forest. He had heard many stories about Papa Bois and Mama D'Lo — the legendary guardians of Oscuros and fierce protectors of its flora and fauna. Then there was the story about a local arsonist who had entered the forest intent on setting a fire. According to village lore, the firebug's encounter with the guardians was so horrific that he never struck a match again and went to his grave without revealing the details of what had happened beneath those trees. JV didn't think that there was any truth to such tales, but he had begun to wonder if so many people, including this traveller, could be wrong. He bit his lip and Mr. Phipps snickered.
Granny B looked up from her tea, raised an eyebrow, and held Mr. Phipps's gaze. "Like I said, there's not too much in Oscuros that Jason can't handle."
The visitor smirked, shrugged, and took a third slice of bake along with another helping of buljol. Irked by how the conversation had gone, JV redirected his irritation to the quantity of food being consumed by their guest.
Excerpted from The Protectors' Pledge by Danielle Y. C. McClean. Copyright © 2015 Danielle Y. C. McClean. Excerpted by permission of CaribbeanReads Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Conscience Is the Same as Do Right
Mattie and Night’s Sister
The Living Roots