BLACK MIDAS (Extract)

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“Was a double-barrel wedding, pardner. The doc was working near Buxton village and me eye catch on to a samba gal and next thing me know she was in the family way. To tell you the truth, me didn’t know what to do, but me mind was telling me to light out fast. Come one Saturday night when me was going to visit the gal and a friend tip me off that she father find out. But me thought that me was smart, so me go just the same. Well, pardner, me foot didn’t land inside the house good when the old man brace me ‘gainst the wall with a shot-gun and ask me what was me intention. It didn’t take me long to answer, but all the time me was thinking up scheme how just as me reach outside not even bullet would catch me. But this father was a stone-face black man with eye that don’t miss a thing. When me done talking to the gal and getting ready to go, the old man was still by the door with he gun and me say, “Go’night. father-in-law,” and he say, ‘It raining outside, boy. You better stay in that room we prepare for you,” and ‘though me didn’t hear no rain, me take the old man word ’cause a man can’t argue with gun. Well, to make a long story short, they never let me out ’till the wedding day, and the old man and a big nephew take me to church and they never lef me side ’till they hear me say ‘I will,’ and is so me get married.”

“What happened to the child. Santos?”

“It growing up,” he said, and changed the sub­ject. “We got to get up fore-day-morning to catch the boat, pardner, so we better get lil’ sleep.” He stood up and stamped his feet and I saw some of the spider’s eyes on the path vanish.

Santos fell asleep at once, but I listened to the noises from the forests behind Sorrow Hill — the lunatic hooting of a ooskudu owl, dew-drops dripping from leaves, the long-drawn-out howling of an ocelot.

A family of red howlers shook the earth with their roaring at day-clean. It was cold outside the hut and I ran up and down the hill to get warm.

“Come on, pardner!” Santos said, coaxing the fire to a blaze, blowing his cheeks out like a pig’s bladder. Tinamous filled the silence which the red howlers had left for them. They sang to one another in the forest, and it was the sweetest music I ever heard. They began in a low key, and carried the notes so high and held them so long, I thought their throats would burst.

After a breakfast of turtle eggs, biscuits and tea, we headed for the stelling. Behind us, sakki-winki monkeys chattered, and toucans screamed with delight in a big mango tree.

The main street of Bartica had come to life. It was crowded with pork-knockers carrying huge loads, naked Amerindian families in single file, the men in front with wareshis harnessed to their foreheads and shoulders, and the women and children shuffling behind them, boatmen with torsos thick as tree trunks carrying broad-bladed paddles, loud-mouthed, laugh­ing women who vibrated everywhere at the same time. The pork-knockers shouted fare-wells to the women.

“Mary, I going to pour gold in you lap and full up you belly with joy when I come back, gal.”

“Ow! Hennie, come with me, gal. You does make me feel like a king on top you throne.”

The women shouted back, flexing breasts and belly-skins and backsides, and laughing raucously.

Before the sun looked over the hills, we had loaded our crates abroad the Victor P., and captain and bowman were standing by to push off. There were twenty-four other passengers abroad the Victor P. and with crates and bales piled up to the gunnels, she sat deep in the water. She was a squat, shallow-draught river boat. The Captain was a burly man. black as river water when a shadow fell on it. He was so accustomed to shouting above the noise of rapids that even when he talked ordinarily, his voice sounded like a red howler’s. Standing in the stern with a paddle in one hand, and the cord for starting the outboard motor in the other, he looked as if he had never been born in the ordinary way, but had fallen there like a stone.

“Cast away, and God be with we!” he bellowed, giving the cord a hard pull. The motor sputtered, then settled down to a steady phut-phutting and the Victor P. swung out into the river. We sailed through still waters, parting the mists. I looked back and saw women washing clothes on the river bank. They put the wet, soapy garments on the flat of rocks and beat them with paddles. The mist swallowed them, muffling the sound of their voices and the slap-slapping of their paddles