Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism/Excerpt from Judith Colombo's THE FABLESINGER

Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

b y   j u d i t h   w o o l c o c k   c o l o m b o   ~   d e p o s i t ,   n e w   y o r k

THE OLD woman lay in bed, the sheets pulled up to her neck and wrapped tightly around her. She always went to sleep swaddled in this fashion, even on the hottest nights. When she was young and had lovers, they complained that there was no room for them under the covers. They wanted to know if she did not desire the warmth of their bodies next to hers. She never explained that any closeness after the sexual desire had been satisfied would intensify her self-imposed loneliness even more. Instead she laughingly replied that if she died in her sleep, there would be no need to prepare her body for burial, as she was already swaddled; all they would have to do would be to pick her up and place her in her coffin.

She now lay remembering those lovers with a certain amount of regret. Sunlight streamed through the window, mocking her regret. Thrusting her chin forward, she mocked back at it, envying its beauty. Memory flooded her mind with pictures of long, slender hands and warm lips caressing a firm, smooth body. Once again she experienced the passion that had been hers then. "Old fool," she murmured, as she felt her body move in rhythm to the remembered ecstasy. With a sigh she pulled herself upright against the pillows, the sheets still wound tight around her. She looked at the dark, wrinkled old hands on her sheet, thinking of all the years of her loneliness. Now this loneliness was about to come to an end, and she was reluctant to give it up. It had become like an old cloak, worn yet comfortable. In all her years of solitude, she had never sought to share her life with anyone, but the forces that she served had now seen fit to ordain otherwise.

She had lived in this cottage since the age of ten, when her parents had brought her, reluctant and crying, to stand with other girls in a line, while the Fablesinger, a figure of mystery and awe, circled around them, jabbing at them and asking questions after endless questions. Finally the questions had come to an end, and she alone, of the long line of girls, remained. The old woman smiled to herself as she recalled her first days in the company of the Fablesinger--the fear, the curiosity, and finally the love, with which she had viewed her new mistress.

She remembered the long hard years it had taken to master her craft, the hours of aloneness and self-deprivation. Those years, however, had not been spent in vain; at the end of them she had gone beyond the knowledge of a Fablesinger to attain the knowledge of a full Mayal. She had retained, as was customary, the title of Fablesinger and all the responsibility that the office entailed. But added to that was also the Mayal's continuous struggle with the Sasambonsam and its followers.

After her mistress died, she had continued to live in seclusion in the cottage, refusing to choose an apprentice. Year after year the villagers would send her girls between the ages of ten and fourteen to choose from, and year after year she went through the pretense of considering one for her apprentice, until the villagers no longer sent their daughters to be rejected. She knew that this reluctance to take an apprentice would be seen by the villagers as arrogance on her part and that they had also begun to worry as she grew older and more fragile. If she died without training an apprentice, they would be left without a Singer, and this meant that they would be left without a healer, a guide and a direct link to the spirit world. Without a Fablesinger, bodies could not be healed, crops grown, souls soothed or, most important, the spirit assured a smooth journey to the shadow world.

A Fablesinger has absolute power over her community. Her stories are a portal to the past and future of the individual's soul. If one knows where the soul has been and where it will go in its rebirths, then one has power over the individual and his world. She was reluctant to share this power and she had begun to fear that the power had become more important to her than the good it could do. To be confronted with an apprentice and the prospect of finally relinquishing her power was something that the old woman dreaded. She did not want to witness her own refusal to give up the power, for then she would know that she had failed to complete the task set before every Fablesinger—that of passing on the power in full measure for the good of the people. However, she was now to have no choice in the matter. The decision had been made for her in the spirit world. She had failed by refusing to take an apprentice. Therefore, one had been chosen and would be sent to her.

She was in her herb garden when the first messenger arrived. Intent on the task before her, she did not notice the arrival of the large bird which circled her cottage twice before perching on the peak of the roof. It was the loud, harsh cry that made her start and look up to see the huge black bird with the long, red neck peering down at her. The old woman recognized the bird as a common scavenger frequently seen flying over the village refuse heap. Something, however, in the bird's behavior struck her as uncommon; perhaps it was the apparent intelligence with which it watched her every move. She arose from where she knelt and approached it. As she drew near, the carrion eater stretched and flapped its wings. It was then that the Fablesinger saw the mark on its left wing. Only someone versed in shaman law would have recognized the mark. On seeing it, the Fablesinger took a quick breath and, facing the bird, she addressed it: "Wat yu want, spirit bird?"

In reply, the bird took off from its perch with a fierce cry and dove straight for the old woman's head. With its sharp beak, it tore at the wrap on the Fablesinger's head until the cloth had been completely unwound from her hair. Taking the cloth in its beak, the bird flew back up to the room of the cottage, where it held the cloth down with its talons while tearing it to pieces with its beak. The scavenger then gathered the shreds of wrap in its beak and flew out over the Fablesinger's garden to the field beyond, where the bodies of the previous Fablesingers lay. The bird dropped the torn wrap piece by piece over the graves. It was then that the Fablesinger knew the bird was a messenger and understood its command.

Since that day she had been preparing herself psychologically for the inevitable transfer of power and awaiting a sign that would herald the coming of her apprentice. On the morning the sign came, the Singer awoke with a sense of apprehension. She had the feeling that her every move was being watched. Following this apprehension, she awakened very early, lit her lamps, brewed some herb tea and prepared to meet whatever or whomever was coming. After pacing back and forth from window to door and from room to room, the old woman finally placed her chair between the window and the door of the cottage's main room. These she felt were the two most likely places by which whatever was coming would arrive.

The spirit arrived in the guise of a doctor bird, its drab gray feathers damp in the morning dew. In its long syringe-like beak it held a new rosebud, which it dropped into the lap of the Fablesinger. After the bird had flown out the window, the Singer raised the bud to her eyes and examined it. She recognized it to be one of the wild mountain roses that always came to bloom in early May.

That had been three months ago, and now May arrived and the old woman was growing restless awaiting her coming companion. Suddenly a noise in the outer room of her cottage arrested her attention. The Fablesinger sprang out of bed with an agility surprising for her years. Lying against the frame of her bedroom door was a staff of deep black ebony, the summit of which was crowned with the carving of an owl, wings unfurled and talons extended as if to strike. The old woman grabbed this staff as she hurried out of the room. "Yu come?" she exclaimed. However it was not a young woman who stood in her main room but a boy of about fourteen. She recognized him, from the animal teeth strung around his neck, to be one of the Obeah man's apprentices. "Wat yu want, boy? Yu masa send yu to spy on me?" demanded the Fablesinger, advancing on the boy, her staff held out in front of her like a club.

"No mam! No mam!" The boy threw his hands up in front of his face in anticipation of the old woman's blows. "He just wanted me to announce him."

"Announce 'im! What de 'ell fo?" asked the Fablesinger, raising her staff above her head. "I don't want 'im 'ere."

"Come, come old woman. What did I ever do you?"

The Fablesinger turned around to see a huge good-looking man dressed in scarlet and black standing on her threshold. "Well, wat yu want?" The old woman turned to face the man , pushing the boy toward him.

"Oh, nothing. I just came to see how you were doing," said the Obeah man with a smile.

The Singer snorted in disbelief. The man and his profession were her natural enemies. He dealt in fear and revenge; his god was a god of hate and anger, while her god was one of mercy and compassion. Her task was to heal the body and protect the soul. Anger in her eyes, the Fablesinger turned full around to face her rival. "Wat yu really want?"

"I saw the spirit bird flying around here a couple of times," admitted the Obeah man, flashing his large white teeth.

"Oh, yu come see if I dead?"

"Not exactly. Just wondering, since you are here without an apprentice and such."

"So dat is noting to yu," replied the old woman, grasping her staff and advancing menacingly toward the Obeah man.

He sprang back, fear in his eyes, trying to mask it with a loud laugh. "Going, going. I don't know what you have to cover up. Come, boy!"

The Fablesinger followed the man and boy to her gate and stood awhile watching their retreating forms. After they disappeared from sight, she walked out onto the dirt road in front of her gate. Bending her head, she spat on the ground and then paced out three steps to the left, three to the right, and three going straight away from the gate. While she paced, she chanted certain words of power, being careful not to step in her spit. Satisfied that she had marked out a safe boundary around her yard and house, rooting any evil force to the ground with her saliva, the Fablesinger reentered her garden. She was disturbed by the Obeah man's visit. True, he was still afraid of her—she smiled to recall the look of fear in his eyes when she had raised her staff—but he had recognized the spirit bird.

She had not realized that he was so far advanced in his profession. There were many so-called Obeah men professing to have knowledge of the dark ways and knowledge of the spirits who in fact were charlatans, using the name of the Sasambonsam to strike fear into the hearts of their followers. They indulged in elaborate ceremonies with pigs' blood and rats' feces to impress gullible clients. She had thought this man to be one of them. This misjudgment angered her. In her younger days she would have recognized him to be a true Obi long ago. She now recalled that when he came into her house, he had worn around his neck a chain, from the end of which hung a pendant in the shape of a snake, and that around his right fist coiled a black jade bracelet in the shape of a snake. Only one learned in the knowledge of the cult of the Great Shadow would dare to wear such a chain or bracelet. Also, the Fablesinger reflected, these things were usually worn in secret. He must have wanted her to see them and to recognize them. He had come to warn her of his power. Well, she was warned; she would not underestimate him any longer.

Later, after she had purified her cottage of the Obeah man's presence, the old woman sat at her table drinking her fifth cup of tea and casting her mind back to the first time she had met him. It had been thirty-four years ago at his birth. His father had been a farmer and his mother had run a small dry goods store in the village. He was the seventh of twelve children in his family. The family had left the village when the boy was ten years old. Many people who remembered them and the boy had been surprised when he returned three years ago proclaiming himself an Obeah man. The older villagers, the Fablesinger among them, remembered the awkward, silent boy, laughed, shaking their heads at the nonsense he was feeding the younger folk. Now the old woman sighed and shifted uneasily in her chair.

She should have known that there was more to his claim than the usual rigmarole. She remembered his eyes the night of his birth. They had been old eyes, eyes full of evil and malice, eyes that had knowledge. The Fablesinger got up from the table, realizing that chiding herself would do no good now. Instead she must prepare for who would come after her.

The old woman bathed, anointed her body with sweet oil and dressed herself in the ceremonial robes of office. Around her neck she placed a thin, black leather strap in which was embedded certain powers. The pendant that hung from this strap was the figure of an owl with outspread wings. The face, body and inside of the wings were made of black onyx. The eyes were two pieces of amber shaded by black onyx lids. The result was an immensely lifelike bird hurling itself through space. Thus attired, the Fablesinger took up her staff and slipped through her cottage door.

The Fablesinger turned to face the east, where the sun had now fully risen, and holding aloft her staff, she shouted the ancient word of power. The hills resounded with the word. It seemed as if a thousand voices screamed back at her. A single golden ray of light shot from the sky to her feet, and for a moment she saw framed within the light the figure of an owl like the one around her neck. In its beak it held a fully grown rose. The Singer nodded her head briefly in acknowledgment of the symbol, turned and walked briskly through her gate.

Judith Woolcock Colombo was born and raised on the island of Jamaica and grew up surrounded by the magic and myth of the Caribbean.

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