He had always been curious as to what lay behind the gate: a metal portcullis, of an almost medieval aspect, opposite the corner of Columbus Park. Paul sometimes practiced t’ai chi there, in the early mornings when the city breathed quietly, or at other times, waiting for a call from the courts, he might play Chinese chess at one of the picnic tables, always to be bested by some stripling or a toothless ancient, with whom he had not one syllable of a common language.
There on the corner of Baxter and Bayard had once been a bar where he used to drink alongside police and guards from the jail across the way. Once, a fight had broken out, but joyously, cops shouting and laughing as they broke legs off the furniture to swing at one another.
The bar had been out of business for a long time now; the corner was the back room of some restaurant. The restaurant was closed and dark, so it must be very late. There were other bars, plenty of them, running east along the top of the park, and north up toward Canal.
The metal gateway divided either side of a masonry block, some sort of central tower. On either side, the gates could be rolled up to permit the entry of a van. In one was a small sally port, man-sized; an officer stood beside it, head lowered, as if waiting for a signal.
The baking heat of the day had lifted, and a pleasant breeze came from the north. Behind him, he could hear the leaves of trees in the park, shifting in the moving air. From the dark block to the north a Chinese sage appeared, attired in a brocade robe that hid his feet, and a complicated conical hat, impossible to describe. One hand held a long staff, with a tiny brass bell springing from the top it. The bell tinkled shallowly as he moved toward them, with an odd invisible hopping step. The Chinese sage was smiling, possibly; his face was such a mass of wrinkles it was hard to tell. The wrinkles seemed to squeeze his eyes completely shut.
All turned to regard this apparition, except the officers, busy with their work. A click of chain answered the brass clinking of the bell.
A woman was coming from the same direction, walking very carefully, as if on eggshells, or the rolling deck of a ship, dressed all in white, or no; she had a rose-coloured scarf wrapped around her waist as a sash. Earlier in the evening she might have looked matronly, but now . . . a smile was fixed on her patchily flushed face. Her blonde hair, possibly refreshed with dye, was just a little disheveled. On one side the hem of her white T-shirt had come loose from the sash and waistband of white jeans.
Paul might have found her attractive, had he not been chained in the coffle with the others: Angel, Gabriel and men whose names he had not learned. It was her state of abandon that attracted him, he understood – a slightly disagreeable insight. Anything might happen with her. To her.
‘Get off the street!’ Paul heard himself say suddenly, and everyone laughed with him, except the officers.
The sage and the loose woman had turned to face each other. The woman moved the point of her chin, and looked as if she might have curtseyed – something of the sort, if she’d had sure enough balance for it. The sage inclined his upper body toward her, and the staff, tipping with him, rang the bell.
The officer took a backward step. At his right hand, the sally port swung open, framing a space of milky light inside.
On the far side of the phone from Paul sat a well-muscled young Hispanic man, plainly dressed in khaki shorts and a V-neck white T-shirt. His brown wavy hair and beard were fastidiously cut, with tight razor lines defining every edge. He had made a phone call and got no reply. Since replacing the grubby receiver, he’d asked Paul for the time, politely, about every forty-five seconds. Paul answered, with the same grave courtesy, each time he was asked, although after the first few repetitions he began to dislike being reminded of how slowly time was crawling.
He looked at the pay phone. Funny how hard it had become to find a pay phone in New York City. You really had to search. Paul swallowed the bubble of laughter which this private observation had provoked. He had the feeling it might surge into hysteria if he let it come out.
The man in the V-necked shirt asked him the time and Paul told him. The watch on his wrist was always in plain view. It dawned on him that the other man probably didn’t know how to read an analog watch. He looked to be a perfectly respectable youth – nothing wrong with him, except that his legs kept twitching – vibrating really, from his hips on the metal bench to his heels braced on the concrete.
‘Ba’m feu là.’ Professor Rochefort twisted and stopped from the bench. He had said, literally, Give me the fire, but what he wanted was the lighter. Paul was a little surprised, as he had never seen the Professor smoke, but now he was straightening in his seat with the little translucent red plastic tube caught between his elegant brown fingers. He looked at Paul intently through the horizontal ovals of his spectacles.
‘Maître Paul,’ he said. ‘Do you wish not to be here?’ And then he switched from French to Kreyol. ‘Tankou w pa janm ici.’ As if you were never here.
Paul felt himself nodding. He hadn’t planned any sort of assent. The proposition was too outlandish.
‘Ah,’ the Professor said. ‘But you have to agree.’
In the Columbus Park pavilion, an old man was teaching t’ai chi, accompanied by boom box music. A moon guitar. Most of the students were round-eyed women, dressed in loose drawstring pants or shorts. It was evening; an intermittent breeze that pulled through the posts of the pavilion and ruffled leaves of the trees bordering the park gave a hint that the August swelter might abate.
Not yet. The concrete table before which Paul sat pulsed such a radiance that he thought the paper Chinese chess board spread on it might catch fire. Across from him sat a teenager from Shanghai who had promised Paul, in his beginner’s English, ‘I will teach you the many ways of killing.’
Of being killed, Paul thought. He lost every time he played with young Let Li, or rather was annihilated. But long ago when he’d played European chess a lot, he’d recognized that you learn more from losing. Winning only proves what you already know.
At the side of the table Charles Morgan sat, watching the game intently, saying nothing. It was Morgan who had introduced Paul to this pastime, a game of vertices instead of squares. Chinese chessmen occupied intersections, crossroads, instead of the blank spaces they surrounded. To Paul that had come to seem a more powerful idea.
The Chinese chess set was his own, the cheapest made, with its paper board and the light wood discs, each carved with a relief character that denoted the piece, painted either red or black. Winning only proves what you already know. He carried it in a paper wallet, bought at the same sundries shop. Charles Morgan had sent him there. He and Charles played often in this park, if they were waiting for calls from the courts across the way, where Charles also worked occasionally as an interpreter. He was a stronger player than Paul, though not in the class with Let Li. Paul could beat Charles Morgan sometimes, with concentration and a lot of luck.
Charles was motionless, except for his sparse hair, moved by the rise and fall of the breeze. Maybe he wasn’t watching the game at all. He might have been meditating, or merely dreaming, behind his black sunglasses.
Paul returned his attention to the board. The breeze licked up an edge of the paper and he pinned it back in place with his thumb, so that the pieces would not scatter all over the park. Although he might be better off if they did. He was about to be killed again, he knew, though he couldn’t quite perceive how it would happen.
A scream of metal, drowning out the moon guitar, made Paul look over his shoulder. The left gate of the Tombs intake portal was grinding its way upward. Outside, a police van waited, beeping quietly, to the rhythm of a pulse. A uniformed officer stepped out and signaled. The van’s gears slammed as it moved through the opening. Slowly, loudly, the gate clattered down behind it. The officer went in the sally port and slapped the door shut after him. Though he could feel Let Li’s impatience, Paul kept looking at the portal after all its issues had been shut. He had the sense of a narrow escape.
The sad bending notes of the moon guitar regained their volume. Paul returned his attention to the board. Let Li made the move that killed him, and Paul sat back, smiling ruefully, raising his head. There was a damp, cooler feel to the breeze now when it rose.
Across the way, on the eastern edge of the park, a rail-thin silhouette appeared, as if on a horizon. The legs moved stiffly, carrying the upper body like a crate. Paul had a peculiar sense of recognition and foreboding. The figure seemed to have magnetized his sight from the moment he lifted his head from the lost game.
With an effort he turned his eyes away. The t’ai chi class was breaking up, and the women were coming down the stairs from the pavilion, pausing to glance up at the sky, for a cloud had blown up to cover the sun. The wind troubled their loose clothing, and brought a tang of their sweat toward Paul. He watched them as he might wild animals; they seemed poised, balanced, like deer uncertain which way to run.
That black stick figure was definitely coming toward them. Paul felt, with a stutter of his heartbeat, that the figure was walking a straight line that ran through his own body and through the portal of the Tombs behind him, before dissolving into the spirals inside.
The moon guitar seemed ever more plaintive. Paul pictured the instrument: the white banjo head, the inch-high wooden frets between which one warped the strings. It seemed to him that he had once played one like it, whose neck felt like a dog’s leg in his hand, whose tuning pegs were made of little finger bones . . .
As the stalking figure arrived at the edge of the table, the recorded music shut off with a snap; presently the t’ai chi master descended the steps, carrying the boom box in one hand and a blue gym bag in the other. Let Li had disappeared from his position, though Paul had never seen him leave. The new arrival stood behind the cement toadstool Let had been sitting on to play. After all it was only Professor Rochefort, an amiable acquaintance, and yet his manner was peculiar: a tightness gripped him, especially around the jaw.
‘I am content to see you at liberty,’ the Professor said, in his formal eighteenth-century French. He waited, but Paul could make no sense of either the statement or the Professor’s expression. He held his head at an odd angle, so that his little round spectacles reflected light and hid his eyes. Paul thought of lockjaw, or rabies.
‘There is an obligation,’ the Professor said. ‘You must pay the bokor.’
‘I don’t understand at all,’ Paul said, also in French. He had the same obscurely threatening sense of recognition as when he’d first seen the silhouette appear at the edge of the park, like a revenant escaped from a bad dream.
‘The bokor sent his zonbi to set you free,’ the Professor said, and maybe after all he was looking over Paul’s head, into the closed portal of the Tombs. ‘For that, you owe the bokor.’
‘A zombie.’ Paul felt himself staring. ‘You said, his zombie?’ He glanced at Charles Morgan, who was supposed to be better versed in such matters, maybe even to dabble in them. But Charles had only sat back a little when the Professor joined them. One temple of his sunglasses was repaired with clear tape. There was no clue at all in his face.
‘Zombie?’ Paul said, for the third time. He stuck his arms straight out in front of him, a gesture he must have seen in some movie, and assumed a wide-eyed stare.
The Professor snatched off his glasses, revealing the depth of angry contempt in the look he returned to Paul, who dropped his arms and quailed, at least inwardly. He was ashamed, though he still understood nothing. Comprehension tickled a corner of his brain, like someone’s name he couldn’t quite remember. He looked at Charles again for a clue and didn’t find one.
The Professor seemed to have already turned, to be stalking away, leaving his words to hang in the blood-thick humidity of the air behind him.
You owe the bokor. You must pay.
Read Madison Smartt Bell’s essay on Haitian Vodou and creative possession, here.
Photo © Sean Dawson