Yolanda A. Reid

2000

The Fire-Calf




     Grandfather was ninety years old when he arrived in New York for the first time. He had never been outside of Panama for six decades. He remained composed, however, and unimpressed by the skyscrapers or Coney Island. He liked two things only: the whales at the aquarium and baseball. He nearly drove me mad with baseball, for he insisted on seeing all the games, was persistent and fastidious about the schedule, even when I explained that a game had been cancelled. The voice of the baseball commentator filled the house, for Grandfather's hearing was imperfect.
     I hated baseball.
     When he was not watching baseball, he insisted on doing his own laundry, or scouring all the pots and pans in the kitchen, or cooking meals I had not seen since my own childhood.
Porridge and cucu were his favorites. He might awaken one morning and say to me, "I feel like eating some porridge and cucu." I would then help him gather the utensils, and he would instruct me on the procedure.
     After making it, I liked to pour the milk over the porridge for him, and watch it seep throughout the bowl. (This reminded me of Goldilocks cooling her porridge.)
In making cucu, I had to whip the batter many many times until my arm ached. Grandfather would say that I was young and that it was good for me, if I complained.
He might then offer to illustrate the benefits of making cucu, and then wander onto other topics.
     But, mostly, his mind was precise. It surprised me that he seemed to remember everything from the past. I was astonished when he told me his first memories, when he was two years old. But Grandfather was adamant: he was ill at the time, and as he lay in his bassinet he watched his older brother, Christopher, age four, reaching for a decanter of milk, honey, rum, and lime--a tonic for the sick child, Alexander Augustine More. Nicknamed Luke.
     As a child, he saw ghosts. In 1893, he was seven years old--old enough to know good from evil, the nuns would say. And he did: he knew a good ghost from a bad ghost, a vampire from an ordinary bat. His theory about ghosts was that they required the darkness of the 19th century: that is to say, electricity decimated the ghost population, but not totally.
     The first ghost he ever saw was of an old man, gleaming alabaster in the darkness, on the road, by the churchyard gate. The next day an old man came to the house and asked to speak to Grandfather's mother. He told her the child had been born with a "veil" over his face, and that "little Luke" would see ghosts all his life. Then the man vanished. He never spoke a truer word.


     My notebooks are filled with the stories Grandfather told me. We spent hours talking over the past, so that now I feel I belong to the 19th century. I was reading one of my old diaries, when I came upon the tale of "The Firecalf":
     June, 1980.
     This morning Grandfather spent in the garden, eating cashews and feeding birds.
     He said, quite casually, "There's a ghost in the garden," and then proceeded to tell me about a ghost he saw in 1893. By then, he was the youngest of 16 children, except for his younger brother, Virgil. His mother, Vida Cordelia More, was a strong, educated woman (she had attended Palmyra College). According to Grandfather, she was clad, for Sunday excursions, in grey silk, white petticoats and gloves, a cameo brooch, a straw hat pinned to a brown chignon underneath. She was strict yet loving, and believed in ghosts (as everyone on Palmyra island did). For this reason, she would leave a hurricane lantern on the front porch, especially for Morgan, Grandfather's older brother, who liked to wander the dark roads of the island despite Mama's warnings.
     "Ghosts go about, too," she would say, but Morgan would laugh and shrug his shoulders. He liked to wander in the moonlight, with his friend, Clive, going from house to house serenading girls. This was at Christmastime. He especially liked to serenade Georgina, the girl he loved. Luke once heard his father say so.
     I try to envision "little Luke." He had a long nose, he says. I gather he was a thin sickly child (who grew up to be strong). Also, he was serious, and acknowledged as truthful.
     One evening, the house was in darkness except for the hurricane lantern glowing on the porch, by the pail of dew water. (The pail warded off ghosts.) Luke awoke: he thought he heard the strumming of a guitar. Eventually, he decided he had been dreaming, and so went round to the back of the house, to see if the hen house was secure and to be certain that Jane, his goat, was asleep.
     As he slid into the cool bed, he heard Morgan in the outer room and remembered that baby Virgil always refused to sleep in a bed unless Mama had first lain in the bed to warm it. Virgil was asleep now. Morgan lit a kerosene lamp. The light shone at the doorway outside the bedroom. Everyone was asleep in the same room: George, Christopher, the brothers, and Emily, Juliana, Young Cordelia, the sisters all sleeping in the same bed as peas in a pod. (Emma, Giles, Dorcas, and Elwyn comprised the rest of the family, but most of them were married and lived in their own domiciles.)
     Luke listened as Morgan roamed about in the next room. The child lay quietly; he thought of other nights when he had listened to Morgan's soft tread as the young man lit the kerosene lamp, set his guitar on his chair, undressed quietly (so as not to awaken the family), then extinguished the lamp and went to sleep.
     "I have seen a ghost," Morgan said one evening, visibly shaken, shivering in his shirt sleeves, the night air warm and tepid. Morgan said he and Clive had seen a calf whose eyes were fiery, bright as two bonfire-wheels in the darkness. "We feared approaching it."
     Christopher said, "Did it speak to you?"
     "No," Morgan said. "It followed us with its hot eyes."
He looked at Mama's face, for reassurance that all would be well. "It glowed crimson in the dark, eyes bright and hot as two big coals wheeling in the sky."
     Mama's face was somber yet serene. Morgan explained that he and Clive had finally agreed to separate, each to head home. The firecalf followed Clive. Morgan said he looked back and he could hear Clive cursing the fiery ghost.
     Mama said he knew what he must do. But when Morgan shook his head, Mama said,      "Pray."
     The following morning Morgan learned Clive had awakened in the night with a fever. Clive kept crying out, "No!"
     Mama said he was ill, because he had cursed the fire-calf. She suggested that the witch, Miss Ursula, ought to be sent for.
     When Miss Ursula arrived, she entered Clive's room, and remained there for hours. When she emerged, finally, her hair was drenched and dishevelled, her black eyes seeming to glow, but she herself moved with composure as if she could slay mighty ogres--real or imagined--without flinching.
     "We must wait until the new moon," Miss Ursula said.
     For three days, Clive's family stood vigil; at night, they prayed amid the pale ocher light of the kerosene lamp, and steadily, as the moon increased to the shape of a silvery plate, Clive improved and was cured.
     (What a fool he had been, everyone thought. Afterward, anytime a child became ill its mother would ask, "Have you cursed the firecalf?")
     For a long while Clive and Morgan ceased their nocturnal jaunts, but, soon, the two young men (15 and 16 years old) forgot the fire calf and resumed their guitar serenades.
     One afternoon, weeks afterward, Morgan was on his way home when he spied a cat seated, sphinx-like, on the church's stone wall. His revulsion for cats surged within him as he watched it spring to the ground, then run along the bottom of the wall. The cat was about to slip through an opening in the wall when Morgan hurled a stone at it. The cat faltered for a moment, but crept into the opening, nevertheless.
     When it had disappeared, Morgan heard a voice shout from the other side fo the wall:      "You hit me! You hit me! You struck first!"
     Then, Morgan saw a head, enormous as a lion's, now hovering above the wall; when it roared he peered into its mouth and noted the huge teeth, shaped like big icicles. They were teeth of fire.
     At this sight, Morgan said later, he ran into the house, slamming the door against something that was now making a thunderous neighing sound, as it breathed and droned and stomped outside the door.
     Morgan looked at Mama. He had offended another spirit.
     Mama said, stern and loud, "In God's name, what is it?"
     Morgan opened the door, his hands trembling. A giant horse head loomed before them, a star on its forehead, and a white streak from the temple to its nostrils. The horse head reminded Luke of Goliath, for it seemed large enough to house a thousand philistines.
Morgan stood stunned, while Mama lingered behind him.
     She shouted, "God have mercy on us!" and made the sign of the cross in the air.
     The horse head retreated immediately, but remained all night in the yard, stomping and neighing its plaint against Morgan.
     At dawn, Mama uttered these words, wearily: "We have heard you, now in God's name let us have rest!"
     Now the horse head vanished.


     Morgan extinguished the lamp. Luke heard him enter the room. The bed shook slightly as Morgan slid into it. At once, Luke heard a flute playing the sweetest melody he had ever heard. (Grandfather later said, he never in all his life since heard music like that.) The scent of wisteria wafted in through the window, and Luke felt he was in the presence of angels. He listened as, one by one, his brothers and sisters sat up in bed, first Emily then Christopher until even little Virgil was awake.
     Someone entered the room.
     "Be quiet," Mama whispered, as she lit a kerosene lamp.
     The music stopped. Luke's heart fluttered, in sadness, but everyone else seemed relieved. Mama out the lamp, then the melody resumed.
     She re-lit the lamp, then said, "He won't be playing anymore tonight." She waited a few moments, extinguished the lamp once more. This time all that could be heard were crickets, bullfrogs, the sea.
     Luke smiled faintly as Mama kissed him and Virgil, her two youngest children. He felt safe, for he knew Mama was strong and wise: all the ghosts Morgan brought home with him seemed to think so.

copyright 1993 by Y. A. Reid

 

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