Running from Ghosts
By Richard Fife
Renaud listened to the water lapping against the boat as he stared at the rail under his hands. There were other sounds, men murmuring to themselves as they handled the lines, the creak of wood and flutter of sails, but the water was what held his attention. Water had always seemed foreign to him, accepting. It did not flee or rush in of its own accord; it simply was. Sometimes, he wished he could be like the water. Always, he knew that he could not.
A man said something that Renaud only half-heard behind him, but it was enough to make him lift his eyes from the railing. Ahead, through the late evening fog, the scant lights of Port-au-Prince appeared as spectral fireflies dancing to a strange, unheard tune. It had been a decade since Renaud had left his home and journeyed to the mainland.
“Look at that, Beauregard.” He chuckled and elbowed the tall man next to him in the ribs. “There’s home.”
Beauregard stared out at the city and said nothing. Renaud glanced over at him and let his smile slip. The man’s tattered gray clothes were at least clean, and there was not likely to be anyone on the island that knew what the three stripes on the man’s collar meant. Renaud sighed and turned back to the approaching city.
“You’re right, of course,” he said. “How can I really call this place home? I doubt I can expect a hero’s welcome. Were you expecting one of those, once? I doubt that if you went home now, you’d find much of one, either.”
Beauregard grunted slightly, and Renaud started.
“Why, I say old boy, that’s the most I’ve heard out of you since we got on this boat. Looking forward to land again, is it?” Renaud hoped for another grunt, but was disappointed. “Well, you can go ahead and get our things ready then. I want off this tub soon as it’s tied up.”
Beauregard turned from the railing and left Renaud alone. For his part, Renaud still could not decide if he felt better when Beauregard was at hand or away. The man had his uses, but he was rather unnerving at the same time. Perhaps he was still bitter over what had happened. When news of the battle at Appomattox had reached them in New Orleans, Beauregard had gone quiet. Not that Renaud could blame him. It was not everyday that you lost a war, even if you were not fighting it anymore.
The ship was tied up before Beauregard had returned with the large steamer trunk and backpack, but Renaud did not feel like chastising him. It would only make the taller man more melancholy, and Renaud was already dour enough for the both of them. Also, soon as that plank had been pushed across to the quay, he had lost any desire to step across it. Tub or no, the boat suddenly felt a better option than land.
“Maybe we should just go back, letter from Variola or no.” He turned and grabbed the arm of a passing sailor. “How long until we make way again?”
“Make way?” The sailor laughed and pulled his hat off. “Not anytime soon, I’d wager. Captain wants to take in the town a bit, as I understand it. Has a sweet thing waiting for him down the way, as I reckon it. Shouldn’t be a problem to catch passage back if your business isn’t much over a few days.”
“A few days?” Renaud sighed and turned to Beauregard. “Guess this is our stop after all, old boy. Come along.”
The sailor gave him a queer look but shrugged and went back to his work. Soon as Renaud’s foot hit the stones of the quay, he felt the unease in his gut twist into dread. He had stared down the face of darker horrors than any man had the right to have seen, but at that moment, he wanted nothing more than to get back on a boat as fast as he could. Surely another ship would be sailing soon. All he had to do was find it.
Before he could even think of where to look, though, quick footfalls came echoing out of the fog-shrouded night. Renaud reached for the pistol in his waistband–it had been Beauregard’s once, but the man had no use for it now–and looked into the murk. Something caught his eye from one alley, a faint greenish light, and moments later, a man came barreling out, clothes the simple rags of a drifter and eyes round and white with fright.
Renaud recognized that look, and then even if he had not, the light he had seen was enough. He pulled his hand away from the gun and stepped in the man’s path. For his part, the man did not even seem to see Renaud and would have likely plowed him over. That is, would have except for the large, gray-clothed man that stepped in front of Renaud and instead sent the man floundering backwards by simply being there. Renaud patted Beauregard’s shoulder in thanks and stooped down to the man and snapped his fingers. The man’s eyes flickered away from Beauregard and looked at Renaud in confusion.
“Hello friend,” Renaud said. “And just what might you be running from?”
The man stared for a moment more then moaned. “You can’t help me! No one can! The loa have forsaken me!”
“The loa do not forsake those who remember them,” Renaud said. “But sometimes we all need a little help doing that. What are you running from?”
“A ghost!” The man grabbed the lapel of Renaud’s coat. “It howls and shrieks. It will kill me, and no one can help. Not you, not nobody!”
“Relax, friend. I don’t want to be here anymore than you do, but perhaps I can help.” Renaud reached into his pocket and dug out a string of beads with a fox’s fang set in the middle. “I am a bokor, friend.”
The man flinched and let go of Renaud’s coat. He glanced back at Beauregard with a new understanding, and then back at Renaud. “What is that?”
“Have you ever listened to a mambo talking to you, friend?” Renaud laughed and held the necklace out. “It is an ouanga, a talisman. The ghost will not hurt you so long as you keep it. That and one other thing.”
The man stared at the necklace then snatched it as if he was scared Renaud would take it back. “What is that?”
Renaud stood. “Do not run from the ghost. It will only give it power.”
The man stared at the necklace in his hand and fingered the fang. “How much?”
“Tonight, it is free,” Renaud said. “It is my homecoming, although I doubt I will be here long. Let it not be said that Renaud did nothing for his people, though.”
The man looked at Renaud for a moment then pocketed the talisman. He made a quick bow, ruining it with a hard glare at Beauregard, then darted back into the night.
Renaud turned to Beauregard. “Think he will remember to not run, old boy?” The tall man only went about picking back up the pack he had dropped when he moved to protect Renaud. “Who knows, eh? It is a hard lesson to learn. I wonder if I have even mastered it yet, yes?”
Beauregard stood stoically, and Renaud grunted and looked inland. Perhaps he could stay on the island for a little while. He at the least should find out exactly what Variola wanted. He owed her that much.
He started to walk up the street, and Beauregard fell in step behind him. A good soldier, that one. Never asking questions, always ready to follow. Perhaps, for as much as Renaud doubted it, there was still something left of the man Beauregard was before he met Renaud. If that was true, though, Renaud prayed to Papa Legba that it was only the soldier. Some things were best left buried in the past.
The fog thinned as they worked their way into the foothills, although it did little to help Renaud see. Soon as they were out of Port-au-Prince proper, the streetlamps stopped. Had it not been for the crescent moon in the sky, Renaud would have been guessing at where the road was, and adolescent memories were hardly reliable for that.
The forest closed in around them, and Renaud stopped. The wind rustled through the trees, and on it he heard what sounded like laughter. But, where others might have found it unnerving, he laughed with it. Not even in the bayous of Louisiana had he heard it so strongly. Perhaps there were parts of Haiti that he did miss.
“Is that you, Grand Bois?” Renaud laughed again and glanced at Beauregard. The man stood quietly, apparently uncaring that Renaud was talking to the wind and trees. Most likely, he could not hear the laughter, just like he probably did not hear half the things Renaud did. The man’s spirit was never all that strong, but at least he took it in stride.
“What is so funny?” Renaud said. “I hear you laughing. Is it at me? Do you wonder why I return?”
The laughter turned into a cackle, and Renaud grimaced. Grand Bois knew why he was there. He suddenly envied Beauregard’s deafness. The wind continued to laugh, and Renaud kept walking down the path, longing to block out their mocking tone. Perhaps he should turn back. Soon as he thought it, the laughter became more biting, and he pressed on instead.
“That’s the thing about hard lessons, old boy,” he said. “If they were easy, they wouldn’t mean a thing.”
Beauregard grunted, and again Renaud looked at the man in surprise. Twice in the same night.
Renaud pointed to the other man’s hip flask. “Drink your juice.”
Beauregard obeyed as meekly as a schoolboy, and Renaud put his mind back to the road. Grand Bois kept him company in the wind, but after he had cast away the thought of turning back, it had only become an inaudible whisper.
They followed the road through a bend in the woods, and the wind left them as a small shantytown came into sight. A solitary lamppost offered light to those who dared venture out, which on a night like this was no one. Renaud went straight to a house on the far side of that pool of light and hesitated before he knocked. The wind flared and pulled at his coat, and he pounded unceremoniously. Best to just get it over with.
A woman opened the door, one hand holding her robe closed at the neck and the other hidden behind the door. “Who’s there?”
Renaud eyed the woman. “Is it so bad that a mambo has to answer her own door with a club, Variola?”
Variola squinted in the darkness then gasped. “Renaud? You came?”
“How could I ignore my own sister?” he said.
She smiled, if only slightly, then looked past Renaud. “Who is this?”
Renaud cleared his throat and stood up a little taller. “This is Beauregard.”
Variola’s smile slipped as she got a better look at the tall man. “Why have you brought this . . . this thing here, Renaud? Have you no shame?”
“I am what I am, sister,” he said. “And I am a bokor. Beauregard is my business.”
“A zombi is hardly good business.” She glared at Renaud then gave Beauregard a look of sympathy. “Who was he?”
“A confederate captain,” he said. “And a slaver, and a monster. I can think of no one more deserving of what I have done, and he is useful.”
“He may have deserved death,” she said. “But to push unlife on him? Brother, how could you? I have half a mind to free him.”
“Do you now, sister?” He leaned forward, putting a hand on the doorframe. “If you could, I have a feeling you would not have sent for me all the way in New Orleans. I doubt you asked for me after all this time because you missed your baby brother. You, a mambo, need a bokor, so you sent for the best.”
“Are you the best, Renaud? Or are you simply the one whom I needed?” She held his gaze for a moment then turned back inside. “Wait here, let me put something on.”
The door closed in his face, and Renaud walked back to Beauregard. “It’s alright, old boy. She was always icy at first, but I’m sure she’ll warm up to you.”
Beauregard only stared into the night, and Renaud wondered why he tried. The zombi rarely showed any response except to orders. Perhaps it was guilt, but a man who had held slaves and abused them was hardly worth feeling that.
The door opened again, and Variola walked out in a simple dress and with a lantern. “Follow me.”
Renaud shrugged and did as she said. They walked in silence perhaps a quarter mile in the dark until a worn, wooden fence blocked their way. The hole that served as a gate was nearly indistinguishable from other holes that had cropped up over the ages, and dark, tall stones littered the ground beyond.
She turned to him and held the lantern high. “I sent for you because this is a special problem. I have had many different houngans and mambos try, myself included, and no few bokor. This seems to be uniquely suited to you, though, dear brother.”
Renaud smirked. “And what, my loving sister, is the problem?”
“Who, Renaud,” she said. “It is Rene.”
Any mirth left Renaud at the name. “Rene? After ten years?”
She held out the lamp for him. “Rene. I can pay whatever your fee is, but only if you can handle it. Can you?”
Renaud took the lamp. “I’ll let you know what your bill is when I return.”
Variola stood and watched as the two men walked into the cemetery, and Renaud was relieved that she did not insist on coming. He normally did not mind when people watched him work, but this was going to be a special case.
He was not very far into the cemetery when he noticed the green light. Rene or not, there was definitely something that needed his attention here. Not long after he saw the light, he heard the howling, a pained and angry sound that might have been mistaken for festive and merry. It was above all else, though, painfully human. Not an upset loa then, but a ghost. He must not run.
He made a turn and the green light seemed to vanish. Just ahead, sitting on the steps to a mausoleum, an older man in ragged, white clothes was drinking straight from a bottle of rum. Where had it gotten the liquor? Had they tried placating the ghost like it was any other spirit? They must have been desperate.
“Hello, Rene,” Renaud said.
The howling stopped, not that it had appeared to have been coming from the man, and he looked at his visitors in surprise. “Is that you, Renaud?”
“Variola sent for me,” he said. “She tells me that you have been causing problems.”
“And whose fault would that be?” Rene lounged on the steps and took another drink. “Perhaps, sometimes, the sins of the son are the sins of the father?”
“You are no father of mine.” The words were out of Renaud’s mouth before he even knew what he was saying.
“You can’t pick your family, son,” Rene said. “Although, as you are well aware, you can choose when to get rid of one of them.”
“When he is a drunk who beats his children and wife,” Renaud said. “What I did was a service.”
Rene threw the bottle against a nearby grave and stood. “A service? Is that how you sleep at night? You killed me! Stabbed a pin in a doll and a knife in my heart, you did!”
“I put down a rabid dog.” Renaud turned to Beauregard. “Get my things out.”
The former confederate moved mechanically, opening the trunk it had been hauling around and pulling out talismans and corked bottles of liquids and powders.
“A dog?” Rene spat on the ground. “I was a bokor, boy! I served the loa!”
Renaud started to sort through the different items. “You served yourself, Rene. If you served the loa, it was only with one hand.”
Rene glowered and the wind rose. “And is this why my murderous child has come back? To prove he is better? To kill me again? Is that why you became a bokor, boy? I remember you hating the idea of it when the mambos said you had the gift.”
“It meant being like you,” Renaud said. “What was there not to hate?”
“You still learned enough to kill me.”
Renaud uncorked a bottle of silver-white dust and let a small amount poor into his hand. “If it meant protecting mama and Variola, it was worth becoming a monster. You were my first kill Rene, but I think you can see you’ve hardly been my last.”
Rene looked up at Beauregard and laughed. “So is that it? You kill those who you think need killing to try and make your peace? Killing a killer is still killing, Renaud. Perhaps you are my son after all.”
Renaud threw the dust into a cloud at ghost. “By Samedi, begone! What anchors you here, spirit? What hatred could you have to keep you ten years?”
The dust passed through Rene with no effect, and he laughed. “That I could have, Renaud?”
Renaud uncorked another bottle, this one with a purple liquid, and picked up a small fetish statue. “I will see you at rest, Rene.”
“Better bokor than you have tried.” Rene lounged back down on the steps. “The loa will not listen to your trinkets. I was the best, and they fear me. You are what you have always been: nothing. They only laugh at you. You will never be me!”
Renaud raised his hand to hurl the bottle at Rene. Memories of this man towering over him seemed to rise like a zombi from its grave. And the feeling of fear and wonder at how simple the doll had been to make. How simple it had been to plunge the pin in. And then, in the next room, his father had screamed and fallen from his chair at the dinner table. A heart attack, as far as anyone had known. Renaud had destroyed the doll; no one ever had to have known different. But Rene did, and he seemed to enjoy holding it over Renaud. He hated Rene all the more for it.
He lowered the bottle and put the stopper back in it. “You are right. I am not you.”
Rene only stared at him. Renaud turned and handed the bottle to Beauregard. “Pack up. We are done here.”
At that, Rene stood and laughed, seeming to grow taller. “You can’t just make a doll and stab me from the shadows this time, Renaud. What are you going to do? Run like the scared little child you are?”
Renaud paused. “No, I am done running. I fled my home ten years ago, but I never was able to outrun you or what I did. No more. I stand, I may die for it. I should die for it. But still, I stand.”
Rene took a step back, suddenly smaller. “What?”
“You heard me,” Renaud said. “I am not going to run from what I did any longer. I am not going to run from you any longer. I know what hatred keeps you here, Rene.”
Rene took a step back. “You know nothing, you–”
“It was my own, wasn’t it?” Renaud laughed and shook his head. “I had to come back. I had abandoned my people, and a bokor cannot do that. I will be the man you should have been, Rene. That shall be your legacy.”
The spirit huddled against the mausoleum, and Renaud walked over to it and placed a hand on its cheek. The flesh was colder than ice, and he could see the stone faintly through his father’s face.
“Go and rest with Bondye.”
The spirit cowered and vanished in a flash of green light, and Renaud stood up, feeling lighter than he had in years. He turned around and felt all the weight come crashing back, though. Variola stood on the edge of the circle of light from the lantern with a face of unreadable stone.
She sighed and crossed her arms. “Renaud.”
He walked over to her and fell to his knees. “I . . . I’m sorry, sister. I killed him.”
“You banished him?” she said. “You are a better bokor than I thought.”
Renaud swallowed hard. “I did banish him, sister, but that is not what I said. Rene did not die of a heart attack. I killed him.”
Variola narrowed her eyes. “Why are you telling me this? You could have gone on, and no one would have known. Rene had never told us.”
He shook his head, stood and walked over to Beauregard. “Go down to the harbor and throw your juice into it. Sit there until you no longer remember this, and then do whatever you will.”
Beauregard moved without hesitation or eagerness, heading off into the night, and Renaud turned back to Variola.
“You are letting him go?” she said. “I am surprised you are not just killing him outright.”
Renaud flinched at the words. “I am done with killing, sister. It was not my place to take his life. I cannot give him back what I’ve taken, nor do I think he will ever find a home to go back to, but I can give him his freedom, at least.”
She nodded slowly. “Then what now, Renaud?”
“That is up to you, sister,” he said. “I killed our father, and for that you can see me clapped in irons. But, I beg forgiveness. I wish to help my people.”
She stared at him quietly in the darkness. After what felt like an eternity, she smiled, walked over to him and wrapped her arms around him. “Welcome home, brother.”
Renaud smiled and hugged his sister back. “Yes, home.”