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       Coffins, p.23

           Rodman Philbrick
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  No further mention is made of Monbasu, or the curse he uttered before hanging.



  The sorcerers of Dahomey have the power to change shape, and

  to visit the living even after they are dead. White men think they

  are immune to their power, because the Dahomey gods are black.

  This is a mistake.


  1. Why the Sea Isn’t to Blame

  I closed the “True log of the Whippet” with a heavy heart, convinced that although I might have discovered the source of the curse, and the reason, still I had learned nothing to change the present course of events. The part of my mind that clung to the rational, and begged to divine some logic that might explain the horrors of the previous weeks, could find no reason to ease my fears.

  I slept, but sleep brought no relief.

  Benjamin woke me not long after dawn, and begged my pardon for intruding at so early an hour. A large and powerfully built man, he had lately lost weight, and the flesh hung loose upon his bones. His beard was streaked white, and his eyes seemed to have been pressed deep into his head, as if by savage thumbs into a lump of damp, gray clay. He was dressed, as always, in a slightly shabby black sack suit, a ready-made cotton shirt, and Hessian boots.

  “The Captain wishes to see you.”

  “Ah. Does he know who I am?” I asked.

  “More or less,” he said uncertainly. “He believes you to be a friend of Jeb’s, and a fellow abolitionist.”

  “I am both, the one more than the other.”

  Benjamin nodded curtly. “There’s, um, something else you should know. He’s somehow formed the impression that your true name is Emerson.”

  I sighed, heaved myself from the bed, and washed my face in the warm basin Benjamin had kindly supplied. “How is Nathaniel faring?”

  The eldest and quite possibly the proudest of Cash Coffin’s surviving sons, Benjamin was obviously at his wit’s end. At the mention of his brother, he sank onto a chair by the basin, looking, to my physician’s eye, very near the point of complete collapse from nervous exhaustion. “Nathaniel,” he said. “Poor Nathaniel. He believes Sarah will soon recover her wits, and remember that he is her husband. Is that likely, do you think?”

  “Truly, I don’t know what to think.”

  “I will pray for her.”

  I asked that he pray for all of us, and meant it. I no longer had faith in prayer, but Benjamin obviously did, and besides, what harm could it do? “I’ll visit the Captain, of course,” I assured him. “Is he still armed, by the way?”

  Benjamin looked greatly embarrassed as he nodded. “I tried to persuade him to give me that old flintlock pistol. He prefers to keep it.” The big man hesitated, and looked at his hands. “You are not obliged to visit the tower, Dr. Bentwood. No one will think the less of you for refusing.”

  “Thank you, Benjamin. Allow me to dress myself, and I will attend him. But for you, I really must insist on bed rest. Immediately. Even if you can’t sleep, you are to lie down with your eyes closed, is that agreed?”

  “You are very kind, Doctor,” he said, with a tentative smile. “I will attempt to obey.”

  “See that you do,” I said, trying to sound confident and cheerful. “Please don’t worry yourself about me and the Captain. We’re old friends.”

  Tucking the logbook into my jacket, I left him there, sighing and staring at his hands, as if deciding whether or not to fold them in prayer.

  Since my last visit to the tower, Captain Coffin had lost his only grandchild and another son, not to mention a fine ship, and I did not expect to find that his mental facilities had improved in my absence. I reflected ruefully that the best his logbook could do me now was to stop a bullet, if he had it in mind to shoot me, or mistook me for one of the black devils that haunted him. For that matter, my own facilities had hardly improved, having lost my place in this world and glimpsed the horror beyond. There was nothing in Emerson to help me, or in the Bible of my youth, and I felt empty at my core, as if something vital had been sucked out of me.

  The Captain might be armed with his pistol, but this time I was armed with a better understanding of what to expect. If the narrow stairs of the tower seemed to mire my feet in dread, it was not so powerful a sensation as when the presence had invaded my room. Indeed, to my relief the presence or force that had compelled me to search for the logbook was altogether absent from the tower. What dread I felt was the dread any man might feel, at the prospect of confronting a grief-stricken, guilt-ridden madman.

  Was it possible that the presence, having revealed the logbook, was done with us all?

  With that happy thought I turned the final corner and came at last to the top of the tower. Rather than knock—what if the old man reacted by firing through the door panels?—I stood back a ways and announced myself. “Captain Coffin! This is Emerson! I believe you wanted to see me, sir!”

  Nothing could have astonished me more than what happened next. The door eased open, and Cash Coffin presented himself. But a different Cash than I’d met previously. This one had his hair carefully washed and combed, and his white beard had been neatly trimmed, and his face scrubbed. He was dressed in a finely tailored black suit of densely woven wool, waistcoat and frock jacket both, and his knee-high seaman’s boots had been polished to a gleam. A black cravat showed under clean, starched white collar of his boiled shirt. But the greatest surprise was his eyes: his eyes were as tired and deeply sunk as Benjamin’s, but there was no gleam of lunacy apparent. To all outward appearance, his sanity had been recovered.

  The old man studied me from the doorway, sniffed with his hawkish nose, and then grunted. “You’re Jeb’s friend, Dr. Bentwood. But if you’d prefer to be called Emerson, I’ll oblige.”

  I stammered, and felt the heat rise in my cheeks. “No, no. Davis Bentwood at your service, Captain. May I come in?”

  He bowed slightly and made a gesture of formal welcome. I formed the impression that the spiffy, go-to-meeting togs and the sartorial improvements were for my benefit, as if to correct any wrong conclusions I might have drawn from our previous encounter. “Scat there, Charley!” he barked, and his enormous, green-eyed coon cat vacated his chair and limped away with great dignity, taking up a position near the stove, where it endeavored to ignore us completely. The bandages on the animal’s hindquarters were smaller, boding well for its recovery. I reminded myself that the Captain had shot the cat, which he loved, and that although his sanity had apparently returned, it might leave him again without warning.

  The tower room was filled with daylight that warmed the floorboards under my feet, and eased me somewhat. The fist of nervous tension in my mind relaxed, and I was able to look about me with something like equanimity, or acceptance. All of White Harbor fell away below the windows, the snow-dusted roofs of the village, and harbor beyond, and the visibility was such that distant islands seemed to hover slightly above the flat, black waters of the placid sea. A man might float here, serene as the eye of God, and paint such pictures in his mind, that transcendence would be as easy as drawing a breath. But make no mistake, I no longer believed that such a state was possible, certainly not in this house, and I took the calmness of the moment to be nothing more than a cruel illusion that might at any time be snatched away.

  I stood gazing out those windows, lost in such contemplations, while my host prepared coffee on his little ship’s stove.

  “What do you see?” the Captain asked companionably, as he set out the cups and poured.

  “I see as beautiful a village as ever existed. I see a rich, prosperous town of sea captains and merchants. I see ships in the harbor, and boats of all sizes.”

  “What else?”

  I looked again. What was the old man getting at? “The sea?” I guessed.

  “Right, the sea. Calm today, but not always calm.”

  “I suppose not.”

  “Calm today, but sometimes it rage
s and storms.” He favored me with such a frank look that I knew he wasn’t talking about the sea conditions, but his own. “Sea can’t help it when it storms,” he said, studying me over his cup. He’d given me the better chair and taken the three-legged stool, the very one where he’d forced me to strip and shiver for the duration of our previous encounter. “Ain’t the sea that makes the storm, it’s the wind that drives it. Can’t see the wind but you know when it’s there. Wind makes the waves, but the sea gets blamed.”

  “I never thought of it that way.”

  “Make sense to you, does it?”

  “I think it does.”

  He nodded to himself, satisfied. “Never know when the wind’ll kick up. But when it does, remember the sea can’t help it.”

  “I’ll remember.”

  “Jebediah says yer a good ’un. Ben, too. Says they couldn’t cope with all our terrible sorrows, but for you helping out.”

  “I don’t feel that I’ve helped all that much, sir. There’s not a lot a man can do when the, ah, when the wind comes up, as you say.”

  Coffin smoothed his beard as he digested my reply. He nodded to himself again and then said, “I’m pleased we understand each other so well, Dr. Bentwood. As you know, I don’t hold much with doctors or priests, as a general rule, but you’re the exception.”

  “Thank you, sir.”

  He grunted and finished his coffee. “So,” he said. “What did you think of it?”

  “Excuse me, sir? I don’t follow.”

  “My logbook. You’ve got it under your coat, I assume you’ve read it.”

  In hot embarrassment I looked down, and sure enough a corner of the calfskin volume protruded from under my waistcoat. I tried to say something, but the words caught in my throat. I’d meant to return it to him, if the situation warranted, but hadn’t meant to reveal the book in so underhanded a fashion. The Captain made a gesture that meant I was not to trouble myself, that he understood how the thing had come to be there. “I expect you was led to it,” he said. “Is that how it happened?”

  “Um, yes, sir.”

  “Felt you couldn’t resist, did you?”

  I nodded.

  “You couldn’t,” he said. “No more’n the sea can resist the wind. But we already agreed about that. I want you to know,” he said, pointing at the book under my coat, “there ain’t nothin’ in there I’m ashamed of. Ain’t saying I don’t regret it happened, but shame don’t enter into it. I tried to do the best I could by him, up ’til the very end. Had I tried to free them poor, miserable captives, my crew’d’ve hung me from the same yardarm, and that’s a fact. Then when I come back home I kept tryin’ to make amends. Gave heaps of honest money to them who asked, for the cause. Gave money to black men, too. You ask Jebediah, he’ll tell you I did.”

  “He told me so himself.”

  “See? What else could a man do to make amends for a situation that was never his fault in the first place? You think if Whippet hadn’t touched in Whydah the slaves would have been freed? Never happen. Them blacks was currency, like money, and nobody throws money away, or doesn’t pick it up when they find it lyin’ in the street.”

  “I suppose not,” I said uneasily, not wanting to rile him further.

  “Then you suppose right! Listen here, Dr. Bentwood, you may have read what I wrote, but you ain’t seen what I seen in all my travels. Men have been buying and selling each other since before they invented money, and they’ll still be doing it after money is forgotten, one way or another. We may end the practice here in this country, and I hope we do, but that don’t mean it will end in Cuba or Brazil or anywhere else where there’s gain to be made by it. China? Why every Chinaman’s a slave, except he’s a Mandarin. India? What about India? You think the British don’t own the Indians, every blamed one of ’em? Course they do, and use ’em most cruelly, too! A Georgia plantation, the worst you can imagine, it don’t have nothing on the East India Company, when it comes to owning folk.”

  “I never thought of it quite that way.”

  “Why would you? You ain’t in the business. But the point is, Cassius Coffin ain’t in the business, either. Not for years and years. So why’s it rise up at me now, after all this time?”

  “I’ve no idea,” I said, in all sincerity.

  Cash leaned forward, speaking in a low, conspiratorial tone. “Tell you why, boy. Because he’s a right cruel bastard. Crueler than ever I was, for all I did. Since my mind cleared I been thinking on it, thinking heavy, and here’s what I know for certain. This ain’t no struggle of good and evil, like you might find in the Bible. It’s only evil. That’s all he’s got left, the evil part of him.”

  “You speak of the African, Monbasu?”

  “Who else?”

  “I thought, you know, the drums, the black gods—”

  “It’s him!” he said fiercely, reaching out to grasp me by the wrist, with a strength that belied his age. “He’s the wind, see? He makes it happen.”

  His agitation was such that I feared his reason would soon be lost again, but there was nothing I could say to calm him. It was all I could do to free myself from his iron grasp. Finally he seemed to regain control and stood up, bidding me to do the same. “See how calm it is, the sea? It isn’t only wind that makes it move, or storms that can wreck us. There’s a thing they know in the Pacific, those island folk, where a great wave rises out of a sea as calm as that. Out of nowhere, mind. No warning at all. One minute you’re there, the next you’ve been washed away by a wave so huge a man can’t hold it in his mind, how a thing like that would look. We never know, exactly, because them that have seen it aren’t alive to tell the tale. But we know it happens because we see what it leaves behind. Do you follow, Dr. Bentwood?”

  “I think so,” I said, uncertainly, moving toward the door, and escape.

  “We’ve seen the storm and felt the wind,” he said. “But the worst is still to come.”

  “Good day, Captain. I’m wanted below.”

  “Nothing we can do,” he said, bending to feed his little stove. “A great wave is coming to wash us all away.”

  When I looked back the green-eyed cat was staring at me.

  2. The Rattle of Chains

  To clear my head I went out into the village and walked about aimlessly, filling my lungs with crisp winter air that was redolent of ice and salt and the cold harbor waters. The Captain’s logbook remained under my waistcoat, next to my heavy heart. Despite my protestations, I had come to believe as he did, that a vengeful presence emanated from the house, a presence able to make itself felt wherever a Coffin might be, and through some incomprehensible agency, wreck havoc and destruction on his progeny. But whether it be a force strictly of evil, as the Captain so fervently believed, was less certain in my mind.

  Monbasu may have been flawed, as all men are flawed—he, like Cash, was a slave trader profiting in human misery—but it did not necessarily follow that the ruthless punishment of a great sin is itself a great evil. One does not equate with the other. To suppose that the punishment of sin is evil is to suppose that God is evil, and that was a distance I wasn’t willing to travel. Better to believe that God did not exist than that He was in equal parts Good and Evil. Was the God of the Old Testament practicing evil when he sought revenge upon the sinners, destroying Sodom? Was it evil of God to torment poor Job to test his faith? To believe so is to believe we Christians worship Evil in the guise of Goodness, that Satan impersonates God and makes fools of all humanity. Were such a thing true, a man of conscience could not continue to live in the world but must, by his own hand, depart.

  The thought of ending my life by violent means brought me up short, and returned me to my surroundings. I was somewhere in the neighborhood of the tradesmen who catered to the seafaring families of White Harbor. From nearby came the hammering of tongs upon iron, and the hot smell of a forge. A smell not unlike the hot stink of a gun barrel, after the charge has been fired. Fired into the grateful, overwrought brain. How reason
able that sounded! Why had I stopped Jebediah when he sought surcease of sorrow? Did I not, in my secret heart, seek the same end?

  I found myself much shaken to have such thoughts careening through my mind. Never, even in the lowest moments of my life, had I contemplated suicide, and yet somehow my philosophical musings had led me to a place where suicide seemed a rational act of conscience. It was as if something outside of me had insinuated the darkest and most dangerous ideas into my addled brain. Satan impersonating God? It was a thought so corrosive that it might unseat reason, and leave me gibbering upon the cold and windswept streets.

  I determined to hurry back to the Coffin house, and face whatever demon might dwell there, for it could be no more terrifying than the easy contemplation of self-destruction.

  The familiar crunch of white oyster shells under my boots was oddly comforting, but what drew my attention was an elegant, German-style landau drawn up to the front entrance. The carriage was painted a deep enamel black, with modest but tasteful filigree in gold, and drawn by a pair of handsome white horses. There was a large trunk lashed to the roof, neatly covered with a fitted tarpaulin. A liveried coachman stood by, tending the horses, who snorted quietly in the cold air. Obviously a coach-for-hire that had come some distance, but I’d heard nothing of any expected visitors.

  Hurrying into the parlor I found Lucy deep in conversation with a short, matronly woman who looked strangely familiar. As if I had seen her plump, pleasing face, framed by the long curling ringlets of her white hair, staring out at me from a famous painting. Both women looked up at me with startled expressions, for I’d entered at a rush, expecting some emergency, or, at the least, the arrival of more bad news. Lucy was, as usual, in her solemn mourning dress, black from hem to ruffled neck, her thick hair restrained and made properly modest by black silk ribbons. Her companion was very well turned out in an exquisitely tailored, high-collared blue dress a few shades darker than her keenly intelligent eyes. Her sleeves were puffed, and as round and plump as the rest of her. As a gesture of sympathy for the household, the stranger had affixed an identical black silk ribbon to the fashionably wide brim of the cabriolet bonnet she carried in her lap.

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