Thursday evening . . .
We’re all sitting at our dining room table, having dinner like proper adults. Ms. Josephine cooked us up a traditional dish from her home in Haiti. It’s terribly spicy, but with all kinds of cinnamon and other sweet smelling ingredients. We have these potatoes that are cooked with green and red peppers, fried bananas, and strips of chicken.
Billtruck and Ricky are on one side of the large glass table, and Ms. Josephine and I are on the other side, and we’ve been telling silly stories for awhile. Ricky told us about how he and Billtruck first met, chasing after the same girl in college. Ricky contends that it wasn’t fair because Billtruck was much bigger and more masculine.
Billtruck countered that Ricky was much more quick-witted, so it evened out.
It was just a nice evening. So calm and easygoing that I almost forgot what lay ahead of us. This is basically what a normal life would be like. Take out the spooks and monsters, angels and Evil beings, and what you’re left with is a group of individuals all cooperating on a common vision.
We all have our reasons for being right here, right now.
Ricky was trying to find his raison d’etre. His point in life.
Billtruck was bored with a normal life.
I was trying to figure out who I am, since my brain forgot who I was.
Ms. Josephine was keeping us all together.
But here we are. Together.
Billtruck took a sip of Cabernet and said, “Ms. Josephine, by your accent I’d say you were from the islands. Whereabouts, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I’m from the Republic of Haiti. Actually, I was born in Tortuga, but my parents took me to Port-au-Prince when I was just a baby.”
“What was it like,” Ricky asked, “growing up there?”
Ms. Josephine leaned back in her chair, thinking about the place she used to call, home. “We were descended almost entirely from African slaves. We won our independence from France in eighteen-oh-four. We were da second country in the Americas to free ourselves from colonial rule. Da first being the United States.
“ . . . dat being said, centuries of economic, social, and political problems ’ave done us badly. Haiti is da poorest nation in da Western ’emisphere. It was not like ’ere. Being a child in an environment like dat is difficult . . . scary.”
I leaned towards her, “Scary, how?”
“Dere’s a lot of energy on da island. Da ground is always rumblin’, like it’s angry at somethin’ we done. We got underground rivers, limestone caves, and dark places where people don’t need to be. Dere’s a lot of magic on da island.”
She looked over at Billtruck, “You don’t believe in magic, do you?”
He finished chewing a huge piece of chicken and raised his fork, “I mean, I’m an objective scientist. And there’s just not that much room for magic in the math. I’d like to think there’s something mystical to the world.” He sighed, “Just haven’t seen any proof.”
Ricky and I glanced at each other briefly.
“Dere’s da magic you can see, and da magic you can’t,” Ms. Josephine said softly. “When I was a child, I couldn’t see. I was blind.”
“ . . . I was born dat way,” she said. “Dat’s why my eyes look da way they do.”
And I remembered how her eyes looked when I saw her, both from this side, and the Land of Sorrows. She had these glassy, glowing eyes, like a blind person might.
She closed her eyes, “I ‘eard tings, you know. Nothin’ special, mind you. Just people talkin’ and whatnot. And when you’re a child, well . . . you don’t know no better. I didn’t know who was talkin’ to me ’alf da time, but I was never alone.”
“No, dere was always somebody sayin’ somethin’ to me. And since I couldn’t see who it was, I didn’t know no better. My mother used to sing to me, in French and Creole, little rhymes and tings to keep me quiet. She was catholic, very religious. My father, whenever ’e was around, well . . . ’e was into other tings. Darker tings.”
“Can you drink the water in Haiti?” Billtruck asked, holding his glass of wine up, sloshing it around the sides.
“You can,” Ms. Josephine said, “ . . . but you’ll probably get sick if you ain’t used to it. Lots of tings on the island can be dangerous. We have other problems, much worse dan bad drinkin’ water.”
I’ve never seen this side of Ms. Josephine. The human side. Ever since I met her I figured she was just one of those strange characters you meet. No background. No past. Just a strange gift that appears in your life. But she’s real. Her past, it’s just surreal to most people because they grew up in the cushy comforts of America.
Since I can’t remember my past, I find it fascinating to hear about someone else’s. Plus, it’s taking my mind off of my itching tattoos.
“ . . . in Haiti dere is a certain percentage of da population who have a taste for . . . long pork.”
“Long pork?” Billtruck said as he took another bite of chicken.
Ricky and me, we looked uneasily at each other. I’m kind of just touching the table with the tips of my fingers, wondering how far this is going to go.
“Dat’s human flesh, Mr. Billtruck,” She explained. “It’s one of dose less publicized ’abits dat we brought from Africa. And my father . . . ” she said, letting the words trial off as if she was walking on eggshells.
None of us said anything. We didn’t move.
Didn’t even breathe.
Billtruck’s still got half-chewed jerk chicken in his mouth. Ricky’s staring at his fork. Me, I’m still wondering how to cook long pork. When I was in the cooking class offered by County Support Services, I learned about thoroughly cooking meats to remove bacteria and microbes that can cause illness to humans.
To get all the nasty little bugs out of chicken you need to cook it until there’s no more red or pink in the meat. You don’t want salmonella.
For most fish, you grill or bake it until it’s golden brown.
“My father was into da darker side of da occult. Unlike my mother,” she said slowly, a slight smile briefly passing across her face, “ . . . ’e didn’t follow da tenets of Catholicism. ’is religion was much closer to Africa. To da earth. And dere was always a power struggle between my mother and father over which way I should be raised.”
If you’re frying fish, you know it’s safe when it floats in the grease.
Looking at her plate, Ms. Josephine smiles and kind of laughs to herself, “My mother thought my blindness was her punishment for having a child out of marriage with my father. And you couldn’t say nothin’ to convince ’er otherwise.”
For red meats like beef and buffalo, you cook it until it visibly stops bleeding, and make sure the center is pink instead of red. Although, I can’t actually imagine eating a buffalo. That’s something pioneers and Indians eat.
“ . . . my father, ’e . . . ’e believed dat I was special. Gifted. And every chance ’e got ’e took me into da jungle. I ’eard da priests, and medicine men, and all da strange sounds of da world of Voodoo.”
She considered her words, as if she might be doing injustice to say too much, “And, although I didn’t know it when I was a young child, dere were more voices talking to me, dan dere were actually people. My mother started to fear dat my father was filling me wit evil and black magic. Not to mention ’e ’ad developed quite a ’unger for long pork.”
That chicken on Billtruck’s plate, it could be human flesh the way he’s staring at it.
The wine might as well be blood.
My potatoes, they just might be cooked cartilage.
The fried bananas, skin chips.
“ . . . dey’re careful not to eat white people. See, people ask questions about missing tourists and white men. But villagers who stray off course late in da night,” she shrugged. “I’m not sayin’ it’s right . . . ”
Generally, with pork, you need to cook all the pink out of it until it’s closer to grey. If not, you could get a disease called trichinosis—where a bunch of tiny worms mate in your small intestine, after which the fertilized female trichinae burrow into your intestinal wall and release their larvae. Those larvae are then transported by the bloodstream to all parts of the body. The worm grows within muscle tissue, requiring around 16 days to mature. A cyst develops around the larva’s body. And this horrible cycle continues. So cook your pork.
“ . . . and den, when I’m almost ten years old, I wake up one night and I can see. No warning, no nothing. One day I’m blind. Den I can see.” She took a deep breath, her hands touching her chest. Her eyes, they really sparkle when she’s animated like this. She has a blind person’s eyes, but she sees everything. More than everything.
She nodded, “Dat’s when I knew I was ‘earin’ voices from somewhere else.”
“Ms. Josephine,” Ricky said, asking the question that was on all of our minds, “ . . . did you ever eat long pork?”
She picked up her napkin, dabbing her lips and stood slowly, “’elp me clear dese dishes and make room for some dessert.”
We’re all basically paralyzed, waiting for an answer. And no answer, that’s as good as an answer. That’s like having her say, Yes.
She seems to sense this and smiles, “Do you really tink I could eat a person?”
And then we all laugh it off as she takes a stack of several plates into the kitchen. Billtruck and Ricky start talking about their computer stuff. I’m helping with the dishes. And what’s on my mind, the thing that keeps repeating itself is . . .
. . . she still didn’t say, No.
I hand her two plates with what could be Caribbean cuisine, or could be the missing neighbors, and Ms. Josephine is just giggling to herself. She’s probably reading my mind or something, having a grand old time.
And as I turn towards the dining table I have a sudden flash in my left eye that stops me dead in my tracks. It only lasts a fraction of a second.
But I’m frozen.