Elias Maduro was on his way back to his house from the sea-side when Baboo, the Guyanese obeah man, called out to him from across the street. Elias was busy arguing with himself about whether the government should really carry out its plan to fill in the land next to the little piece of beach and did not hear him the first time so Baboo clapped his hands to get his attention.
“Is so you passing me?” Baboo asked, laughing as he walked towards him. Elias thought he had never known a man who liked to laugh like Baboo. “You passing me straight without even a ‘howdy-do.’”
“I did not see you, Baboo,” Elias said. He didn’t have any truck with Baboo and his conjurations but he was a courteous man and would not pass anyone without greeting them. “My mind was on the reclamation they doing. I cyan understand why they feel the need to spoil the place so. What they need to do is give the fishermen a proper place to tie them boat and sell them fish, not make the place look well ugly with a next landfill. When you look at the drawing they put up and you see the square piece of land sticking out, it just look wrong. Ain nothing straight in nature. ”
“Progress, they say, Elias. Is progress. You can’t fight it.”
“Maybe, Baboo. Maybe.” Elias was not convinced it could not be fought. He thought it could be. Elections were coming up. All it would require to stop ‘progress’ was to vote in one of the new candidates trying to unseat the incumbent. He would vote for someone who knew better than to mess around with the land like that.
“But I had something to tell you, Elias. That is why I did hail you.” Baboo drew closer, his expression one of suppressed excitement.
“Oh,” said Elias, thinking that if he’d just been five minutes earlier or later he might have missed Baboo entirely. That would have been his preference but the world did not arrange itself around him, he was not, after all, somebody very important, like say, a politician. Not that there wasn’t any reason he could not be. Elias almost stumbled. The idea, so startling in its newness, shocked him to the core. Him, Elias Maduro, a politician. Running for office! Speaking on a stage! Getting his picture in the papers! He would have to remember to shave regular, but him! A politician! And why not? Not everybody in government had to be a lawyer or big-time businessman. He could be the voice of the small man, the fisherman, the mechanic, the postal worker. He wanted to hurry home right then so he could shut himself up in the bathroom and think. Could he do it? Should he?
“Elias.” Baboo grabbed his arm as if he could tell Elias was about to bolt. “I dream about you last night.”
“Oh?” Elias brought himself back to Coconut Grove and stared at Baboo resentfully. Should men be dreaming of other men? And this man, in particular. Elias felt sure upstanding people like himself, a budding politician, did not belong in the dreams of an obeah man.
“I want you come see me tonight.” Baboo looked around significantly. Elias realized that the young dreadlocked men standing in front of Mamie’s shop were staring at them and, so too, were Thomas and Alpheous, his friends, sitting under the almond tree.
“I don’t know, Baboo,” Elias said. “I have things to do. My wife, you know… “
Baboo nodded and smiled. Who in Coconut Grove did not know Elias’s wife?
“Still, you got to come. It was life-changing dream.”
“My life?” Elias asked. The politician idea came back to him. He wondered if Baboo’s dream had anything to do with that but how could it? Elias had never been sure about God; it had never sat right with him that there was some all-powerful supernatural being who could do a whole lot of good and rid the world of disease and war and poverty but chose not to. No, Elias Randolph Maduro had his misgivings about God, the subject of many of his internal arguments. Obeah, on the other hand, he was quite certain was out and out foolishness.
“Yes, your life, nah. Is not you, I talking to?” Baboo’s voice took on an aggrieved tone. “Is you the dream concern. You self, Elias.” He turned away. “I expecting you round eight.”
Elias continued on his way but now his head felt heavy and his chest constricted. Usually, after he spent a couple hours swimming or sitting in the surf, he would feel completely at peace, like a baby with a full belly. But now he felt dizzy, his mind busy with all kinds of thoughts and questions.
When he arrived home, Edis was in the kitchen cooking. He greeted her absent-mindedly, and went in to take a shower. As the water poured over him he wondered if he should say anything to her about the possibility of his entering politics but decided not to. He had not made up his mind to run, he needed to think about it some more so that if he decided to do it, he would be ready for any objections she might make. And as for telling her about Baboo, well, that was out of the question for his wife was a God-fearing woman who kept wondering why Immigration didn’t see fit to deport the ‘Satanic witch-man,’ as she called him. No, there was no need to get her going on that particular subject but this left the problem of what excuse he would make for leaving the house at eight in the night.
He knew he should not go to Baboo but suppose what the man had to say was somehow connected to the election-thing? In all his born days he had never thought of becoming a politician but then Baboo called out to him and, same time, the idea had come just so.
As he dressed himself he thought about the clothes he would wear if he were elected. Elias had always liked ties but he didn’t have much reason to wear them now he had retired from the post office. The people at Edis’s church to which he occasionally went in a show of support did not believe in sartorial flourishes, considered ties and such the first vain step on the slippery slope that led straight to hell. As a politician and representative of his people he would be required to wear them, though. Elias put on a plain jeans pants and an old guayaberra, all the while imagining himself in a well-cut black suit, a green shirt and a bright yellow tie. He had heard that the Chief Minister bought his ties in London. He would buy his there, too.
Elias was about to go back outside to talk to Edis about the reclamation, thinking it might be important to establish how concerned he was about issues like that when he remembered Baboo. He looked around for the telephone book which was never under the bedside telephone as it should be. Eventually, he found it in a basket of magazines under the teevee. He flipped through it but there was no-one with Baboo as their last name in the book. Elias turned the pages idly, hoping to just find it by luck but anxious in case that worked and then he’d have to confront the fact that the coincidences were piling up. His eyes scanned the pages quickly. His desire to find it was about equal with his hope that he would not. And there it was – Ramesh Baboolal Singh – Coconut Grove – 494-7777. For a minute he thought of chucking the book away from him and going out to Edis and telling her everything but then he pulled the phone to him and dialed. When Baboo answered, Elias identified himself.
“Why you call?”
“I was thinking you could just tell me what you had dream over the phone so I wouldn’t have to come.” Elias knew a defensive tone had crept into his voice but he could not help it. “You could just tell me now, if you really want me to know.”
Baboo laughed. The rich, throaty sound annoyed Elias.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
“I am not telling you over the phone, nah. Is who wear the pants, you or your wife? I know is she why you fraid to come. If you don’t come see me tonight you will never have no other chance to hear it.” He hung up. Elias glared at the handset. He didn’t know why the man was being difficult. He could just have told him and then all unpleasantness with Edis could be avoided but, instead, he was making things harder than they had to be.
“I had forget to tell you, Dennis called while you were gone,” Edis told him when he joined her in the kitchen.
“What he wanted?”
Their third and youngest son only called when he wanted something.
“Nothing. He say he coming down next month.”
Elias contemplated the information. It had crossed his mind several times when the boy was in primary school and already had the police knocking at their door that something had gone wrong but he had never been able to pinpoint what it was exactly. It had been a huge relief when Dennis announced his intention to join the American army. All of Elias and Edis’s five children had been born at the Roy L. Schneider Hospital on St. Thomas, thirty minutes away from Tortola by boat, so Dennis was an American citizen. He had joined the US Army and Elias had been cautiously hopeful. It took the boy only eight months to dash those hopes to the ground. Some Sergeant made a fuss about a stolen credit card and the next thing Elias knew, Dennis was out on his tail with a dishonorable discharge. Dennis swore up and down he had only borrow the card and that the Sergeant, himself, had let him borrow it but then they had fallen out and he had told lies on Dennis because of how spiteful he was. Neither Elias nor his wife doubted for a minute that their son had stolen the man’s card and they were glad when he decided to stay Stateside and look for a job. If he was coming back to stay, it could mean trouble, Elias thought. He would have to reconsider the political career because who knew in what novel ways Dennis would embarrass him as he was trying to get people to take him seriously and vote for him.
All through dinner and afterwards, as he washed up, he could not stop thinking about how complicated his life had suddenly become. He had had no worries on his mind from the time he woke up to the time he went for his sea-bath but then Baboo had called out to him and everything had changed. Maybe that was what being an obeah-man was all about, introducing yourself into people’s lives and then turning them bazzledy. Religion did that too, he thought. Look at Edis – when she was young, she had been a woman who liked sex, at any time and in all ways. Then when she was pregnant with Dennis, her friend, Martha, had got her going to hear some fox-faced preacher operating above one of the Syrian shoe stores in Road Town. Edis had never stepped foot in the Anglican church after that. In two-twos, she had accepted Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior and become one of the church’s stars, regularly speaking in tongues and given to praying loudly and with much joy whenever the Spirit took her which could happen as easily in the supermarket as in church. Elias and Edis’s sexing had dwindled almost to the frequency of a blue moon and was restricted to one position only. Lately, though, he had begun to wonder why she was the one who got to have everything go the way she wanted. Maybe it really was time he wore the pants, just like Baboo said.
“I going down the road,” he said when he was finished with the dishes.
She stared at him from the couch. It was their custom every night to watch the local news after dinner.
“At this hour?”
“Is not even seven thirty,” Elias replied, irritated. “I soon back.” He grabbed his cap from the hat-stand by the door and darted through the door before she could say anything else.
People hailed Elias as he passed by but he did not stop. The obeah man lived by himself in a small house in a clearing past the breadfruit trees behind Zeke’s Bar. A woman who was Elias’s third cousin owned the house but she had moved to New York a long time ago and a succession of renters had moved in, of which Baboo was the last.
Baboo’s door was half-open.
“Baboo? Good night, Baboo. You there?”
“Come in, nah.” Baboo loomed suddenly in the doorway. Elias started and Baboo began to laugh. “Is me, man, is me. You fraid or what?”
“You just startle me is all,” Elias snapped. “Is so you persuade people you is obeah man, for true? By jumping out on them like you believe you is jumbie?”
“Nah, man. Look, I sorry. Come in, come in.”
The front door opened right into a tiny living room which was decorated in a way that Elias had not expected. In fact, he did not quite know exactly what he had expected but it was not the scuffed brown velvet sofa with its matching armchair and plain side table. A wall unit held a teevee. The off-white walls were bare except for two posters – one depicted Kaietur Falls and the other the Eiffel Tower.
“Have a seat. You want a beer?”
“No, thank you. I will take a malt if you have it.”
“I will get you a Vita Malt.”
When Baboo was gone, Elias settled further back into the couch. At home, the teevee or the radio was always on and sometimes both together but Baboo’s house was so quiet Elias could hear the hum of the refrigerator and the steady cry of a bo-peep outside in the bush.
Baboo came back out with the Vita Malt and a bottle opener. He handed these over to Elias who was momentarily piqued that he had to open it himself but then was struck by the thought that most people who came to the obeah man’s house probably preferred to open their drinks themselves.
Baboo shrugged and dropped into the armchair.
“So you get way from Edis?”
Elias didn’t dignify this with a response. The Vita Malt was very cold, just like he liked it.
“You know a lot of people think obeah is witchcraft,” Baboo began. “It is not witchcraft. Witchcraft is devil-work. Obeah is science.”
“Science,” Elias repeated.
“Yes, is old science. Science of the moon and stars, science of the earth and of the body.”
Elias swallowed the last of the malt and rested the bottle on the floor beside him.
“Obeah is African science mixed in with the old Taino and Kalinago science. Yes, those people the Europeans did meet in them New World did know plenty things them never put in a book. Plenty herb science, plenty sky science.”
Elias thought that that might well be so but where were the Taino and the Kalinago now? All their science had not saved them.
“You said you had dream about me?”
“You in a hurry, eh? You did get way from Edis but you in a hurry to get back?” Baboo leaned forward, his shadow jumping on the wall. “People does pay me for my dreams but I telling you this for free because I respect you. In my dream I did see you digging in your backyard and your hoe had make this thuck-thuck sound and, next thing, you pull out this old, wooden chest. It so old that as you pulling it up, the wood fall apart and is pure rubies and emeralds and diamonds rolling around in the dirt. And gold like peas – gold rings, gold chains, gold brooch – all kinda big, heavy gold jewelry like them don’t make no more.”
Elias did not say anything. He just stared at Baboo. He felt cheated.
“You have gold bury in your yard, nuff gold to make you the richest man in the Caribbean, maybe the world. Rich man, rich. You could buy anything at all you want – big house, big car, anything at all.” Baboo looked at him, slyly. “Even election.”
“That is your dream?” Elias asked quietly. Like the house, itself, this was not what he had expected.
“Yes, Elias.” Baboo frowned, puzzled. “You going be rich. You not happy I tell you so? And I ain’t even charging you. You not going say ‘thanks’? Is the opportunity of a lifetime. But I will tell you one thing, you must not start digging without telling me because you will never find the gold all by yourself. You will need the help of the spirits and is me alone could call them.”
Elias rose to his feet making sure to avoid kicking over the Vita Malt bottle.
“Baboo, I must go now,” he said, speaking slowly and carefully. “Thank you for the drink. Thank you for telling me your dream, too, though I had never ask you to dream about me. Have a good-night.”
Outside, he had to wait a few seconds while his eyes adjusted to the darkness but then he marched out to the main road and headed home.
A week passed by. Elias found that the more he tried not to think about the gold in his backyard, the more he thought about. He thought about it in church as Edis raised her arms and talked gibberish. He thought about it as he treaded water at the beach and looked out at the neighbouring islands. And the more he thought about it, the more the gold seemed inseparable from the other matters on his mind. It was clear to him that if he were really to find the kind of treasure Baboo had talked about, he would win any election hands down. Elections were all about who could hand out the most money to the most supporters. The party in power knew this very well. He, himself, had received a couple of white envelopes from the district’s representative – “so you can treat the missus,” the man had said with a wink. Elias had winked back, feeling ridiculous, but he had indeed taken Edis on a cruise. Why not? He had voted for the man, too, but the last time he had seen him, the politician had brushed off his complaints about the land reclamation. With his very own treasure chest, Elias could easily out-spend the man. He would also be able to send Dennis money, enough to keep him in the States until he either pulled himself together or landed in one of their prisons.
The more Elias thought about it, the better the whole idea of the treasure sounded so, early one morning, while the roosters were still crowing, he pulled out his shovel and began to dig. He dug steadily for a couple of hours. Sweat trickled down his face, salting his cheeks and chin and darkening the old shirt he wore.
The soil was good black soil, loose and crumbly, and his shovel cut through it like a knife through cake but, every now and then, the shovel would give a sharp thwack and Elias’s heart would jump in his chest but so far he had found only rocks. After he finished digging a fairly wide hole at least six feet deep, he climbed out and started in on another one.
“What are you doing?” Edis asked from the kitchen door.
He could feel the waves of puzzlement coming from her. She wanted to ask him more questions, they were probably on the tip of her tongue but she managed to keep them from escaping. After a few minutes she moved away. It was a Saturday so he knew she would soon leave for Town where she and the other church women would spend the rest of the day prettying up the church for the next day’s services.
He stopped digging at nine when heat and tiredness got to him. In the kitchen, his breakfast, saltfish and dumplings, was on the stove in a foil-covered plate. The house was quiet and he guessed that Edis had gone. He devoured his food quickly and went back outside to survey his handiwork. His backyard was not all that big, maybe forty-five square feet, certainly not more than sixty. If he dug all day and the next he should be finished by the third day.
He heard someone moving through the bush in the field beside his house. The seed cases of the mother-in-law bushes rattled. Baboo emerged with a squirming crocus bag in his hand. Elias frowned in surprise.
“Is what you doing here?” he asked. He could not see that there was any further role for the man to play.
“The spirits tell me you had start digging. Didn’t I tell you to come back to me when you was ready?” Baboo looked at the holes with respect. “You didn’t start digging just this morning?”
“Yes, from before sunup,” Elias answered, proud of how hard he had worked.
“You do a lot but you ain’t start it right.” Baboo held up the crocus bag. “We have to offer it to the spirits if you want them help. I did bring this for you.” He reached in and brought out a scrawny white-feathered rooster. Elias had seen the self-same rooster scratching around along the road in the company of two equally scrawny hens.
“I will offer it for you and say the prayers but you have to pay me five hundred dollars, first,” Baboo said. He returned the indignant rooster to the bag.
“Five hundred dollars!” Elias felt nothing for the rooster, after all he ate chicken at least once a week and the Bible, itself, spoke of offerings but that was a lot of money.
“In cash,” Baboo confirmed.
Elias eyed the obeah man. He had heard Baboo only accepted cash.
“I don’t have that, Baboo. I would have to go the ATM for that.”
“I will wait here for you.” Baboo crossed the yard to sit under the mango tree.
“No, Mr. Baboo.” Elias started as Edis came outside and pushed past him. She had not left as he’d thought. “You will leave now, Mr. Baboo.” The obeah man struggled to his feet. “And if I see you back here again or if I even hear that you cast your eye this way, I going straight to the police. You parading up and down the place like obeah is not illegal but you will go the jail, if you step back on my land again.”
“Missus Edis, I….”
“Don’t say no more before you raise my Ebenezer higher. Go.”
Just then, the maddened rooster gave a particularly vicious twist and the bag fell from Baboo’s hand. Crowing raucously, the bird scrambled out and disappeared into the bush, flapping his wings. Baboo snatched up the bag and hot-footed it after him.
“Now you, Father.” Edis turned to Elias. “You will please to have the yard looking like how it is supposed to look by the time I reach back home. You have plowed iniquity and were about to sow wickedness.”
“Edis, he said there was gold buried… We were going to be rich. The spirits told him… I….” He ran out of steam under her steady gaze.
“Seek not riches, nor the wealth of this world,” she said. “For our wealth must lie in our understanding of God and in our love for Him.” She walked around to the front of the house and seconds later he heard her car start.
Elias grabbed the shovel and began to fill back in the holes he had made.