“The Obi Man”

By Eden Phillpotts

Published in Harper’s Magazine, Saturday July 1, 1893

Hidden in the heart of a tropical tangle of tamarind and mango, palm and plantain, perched on the lonely apex of a lofty hill overlooking the Caribbean Sea, stands a hut beside a scanty patch of cleared land. The hut is thatched with dried cane-tops and the broad leaves of the palm; the sky is very blue above; hot air dances and shimmers against the baking earth and the dark green and orange-tawny of the forest beyond; a narrow strip of thorny cactus hedge fences the cultivated land. Here a cocoanut-palm or two rear their heads; here a clump of bananas, their broad leaves all frayed and tattered by sea-breezes, bend beneath giant clusters of fruit. A goat is tethered to a little pomegranate-tree in the garden; over the cleared soil itself grow vines of the sweet-potato.

This lonely habitation, situate on the mountain-side in the West-Indian isle of Tobago belongs to a time-worn fragment of humanity-a disciple of mystery, a priest of Obeah.

Glance twice at his secluded, ragged hut, and signs of exceptional character and significance become instantly apparent. It lies very far removed from all other dwellings, for no man would care to pitch his own home within sight or sound of it. The situation is silent and mysterious; the spot is adorned with strange fragments of things dead. Two eyeless bullocks’ skulls ornament the entrance of our Obi Man’s dwelling, and his land is fenced with a fantastic ribbon, whereon hand empty bottles, bright feathers, and fragments of gaudy rag. Within this weird zone no man may enter uninvited, and certain it is that no man would do so; for Obeah is a real terrible business still- a creed beyond the power of missionary to shatter or destroy; and the African negro would no more speak disrespectfully of it than his own grandparents.

Enter this hut and look round it, gradually observing the monstrous matters hidden in the gloom as your eyes become accustomed to the darkness. Dried mummies of beasts and men haunt the place, hang against the walls, and sit propped in corners, with a loathsome semblance of living about them. Festoons of birds’ eggs and curious seeds and empty bottles hang across the rook. Skins of animals and birds litter the floor; strange malodorous smells greet the nostrils. There is a piece of red glass in the roof, and, thrown down through this, falls a round flaming eye of light. The illumination centres upon a little three-legged table, scattered over which lie strange, uncanny-looking fragments. Filth and mystery and darkness blend in grim combination here. Across one angle of the hut hangs a curtain which hides Acranum- the Chambers of Horrors, or Holy of Holies, whichever your attitude towards Obeah inclines you to call it.

Jesse, the mystic himself was in his garden. A great snakegourd trailed and twined over a pile of rubbish at one corner of the property, and here, hidden under the shadows of citron and lemon tress, the Obi Man worked.

He appeared very ancient. His old ribs made a gridiron of his lean breast; his limbs were skin and bone; his scant wool was gray; a tangled network of furrows and deep lines scarred and seamed his face in every direction; and curiously wide apart, on either side of a flat nose, the man’s eyes gleamed from his withered head-piece like the eyes of a toad or other reptile. Jesse was in extreme undress that afternoon. Only a few fragments of a pair of trousers covered his loins, and a band of red cloth circled his weazened throat. Despite his evident age no little physical strength remained to him. Indeed, his present task sufficiently proclaimed the fact, for it was no simple agricultural operation. In fact, the chance observer would have said that Jesse must be digging a grave under the shadow of his citron and amongst the roots of his great snakegourd.

As he worked, getting deeper and deeper, ramming the broad wooden spade home with his horny feet, and rapidly increasing the pile of earth at his side, Jesse sang to himself in a piping old-man’s treble, with the usual plaintive West-Indian whine. A blue bird sat on a thorn and put his head upon one side to hear the song; a green lizard, with eyes as bright as Jesse’s own, rustled out from under the cactus fence and stopped, with palpitating, tremulous motion of his front paws, to listen also, Then the bird flew and reptile fled, for neither enjoyed the song overmuch.
This is what Jesse sang:

Low him lie; low him lie,
In delight ob de moon and de twinkling sky;
But only de root ob de snakegard know
How him come to de hole so black, so low.

Low him lie; low him lie,
In delight ob de moony sky;
But nobody see whar de snakegard grow,
Twining him roots far down below.

Low him lie; low him lie
Where de worms dey crawl in de white man’s eye;
But only de snakegard and Jesse know
Where him sleep so still in de hole so low.

The song rose and sank and seemed to hang in the trees and creep about like a live thing, while its last penetrating notes were answered by the crisp chirp, chirp of great winged crickets. Jesse’s uncanny melody truly fitted the place, the man, and his task.

He worked on steadily, only stopping once, like Shakespeare’s grave-digger, to address a fragment he suddenly exhumed. It was a flat-browed negro skull with low receding forehead; and Jesse set it before him on the grave’s edge and spoke to it.

“Who was you, sar?” he asked, and gravely waited for a reply, which naturally did not come. “You no answer, sar -den you most rude, ‘pertinent fellow!”

Whereupon he playfully smacked the empty brain-pan before him with his spade, and laughed -a cracked laugh- a horrible sort of chuckle which greatly frightened the goat tethered at hand.

Then the Obi Man grew suddenly sober and spoke to the skull again:

You larf, too-eh? You larf! Me Gard! I dun’no’ what you got to larf for. You’s Jephson; dat’s you; I ‘member Jephson. Mista Ford, him want Jephson ‘rub out,’ and send him wild message to Jesse. Ah! an’ now him want another man ‘rub out’- why, Jesse, him berry bal’ble (valuable) to Mista Ford. He, he!”

He labored in silence and dug on until his pit extended five feet underground. His next task was to conceal every sign of the aperture, and he set about hiding all traces of it with most artistic neatness. He buried the pile of damp earth under dead palm leaves, broken wood, and rubbish. Then he trailed over it a straggling shoot or two from the snakegourd. After he covered the hole with thick planks and piled earth upon these, until the entire concern looked to be nothing by a newly turned furrow in the aforesaid patch of sweet potatoes.

Having made an end of the business, Jesse sought his outer gate, and posting himself there, screened his face from the glare of the sunshine and looked out, with his bright toad’s eyes, down the steep hill before him. A magnificent tropical panorama, of savage forest, distant snowy beach, and wonderful sea, spread below; and winding up through the woods, struggling as it were with difficulty, through dense undergrowth and narrow places full of thorny cacti and trailing weeds, there ascended a bridle-path, flanked by bewildering tangles of foliage, and mighty tree, and volcanic bowlder. Here and there the flaming flowers of bois immortelles lighted the woods with crimson brightness; at other points, all festooned and linked together with twining and climbing parasites, or gray curtains of lacelike lichens, arose palmetto and palm and notable forest giants, some gleaming with wondrous blossoms, some bending under great wealth of varied fruits. And through the mingling draperies of green and brown, olive and gold, under the feathery crown of the bamboo, amongst the little green blossoms of the mango, or hovering before more brilliant flowers, flying like liquid gems in the prodigious glare of the sunlight, did humming-birds, with breasts of emerald and ruby, flash and dance. Every step or terrace in the steep acclivities of the hills was crowned with cocoanut or cabbage palm, and from point to point arose the gaunt bleached arms of some arboreal corpse, waiting for tempest to lower its dead limbs and blot it out from the great living hill-side. Far below glimmered a white beach, and through the woods, all silent in the great heat, arose a sigh of surf breaking- surf that, even from this elevation, could be seen lying like a band of silver between the gorgeous many-tinted sea and the pale shore.

Far away, on the western side of the hills, extended long, undulating fields of bright green vegetation. In their midst arose a building, with metal roof, flashing under the sun, and a tall black chimney. It was the Pelican Sugar Estate, an important and prosperous concern that stood, like an oasis, in a great desert of stagnation. For Tobago was a languishing island just then, and not a few different factors combined to depress and trouble the place. There was but little money moving, while labor became harder and harder to command. Sugar culture, indeed, threaten to grow a played-out, futile industry, as had cotton-growing before it; and folks spoke hopelessly of the island’s future, unless some new enterprises should soon be hit upon, and fresh capital from fresh sources speedily flow in. But John Ford, manager of the Pelican Estate laughed at this universal lamentation, and pointed to his concerns as a standing refutation of the accepted fact that no good thing could now come out of Tobago.

Touching this man, and for the better understanding of what follows, a brief word must be spoken, He had labored here twenty long years on behalf of his uncle, one William Ford, merchant of Thames Street, London. He had toiled zealously, made handsome profits of his relation, gained that old man’s good-will, and won from him a promise that when the said merchant should depart this life, and leave his goods to other hands, the Pelican Sugar Estate would be bequeathed to the present able manager of it.

Upon the strength of which promise John Ford married a Creole girl, begot a large family, and prayed his uncle would make an end of living as soon as possible.

Time rolled on, the estates prospered, and their owner, instead of passing away, turned his London business into a company, and wrote informing his nephew that he designed to spend a portion of the coming winter in the West Indies.

John Ford, a man who was honest because he deemed honesty the best policy, and for that reason only, awaited his wealthy relation’s advent with some interest, and discovered, when he presently arrived at Tobago, that Mr. William Ford was a pompous and powerful bachelor, hale in mind and body, sound at every point, clearly without any immediate intention of joining his ancestors. Uncle and nephew were extremely friendly, however: the elder man highly commended his manager’s conduct of affairs, and repeated his assurance that the Pelican Sugar Estate should in the future become the property of him and his heirs forever.

John Ford returned thanks with humble gratitude, and lavished upon the old man such West-Indian hospitality as Tobago is justly noted for. But, privately, the manager grew glum and grim. He yearned for the green plantation; he was tired of making money for other people; he desired to send his growing lads home and give them the benefit of English educations. These things grew further off than ever now. His uncle cared nothing for growing lads; the old man proved, in fact, to have distinctly miserly instincts. He had even desired to cut down expenses on the estate at one or two points. And John Ford felt that Uncle William was a distinctly undesirable individual-a man whose decease must unquestionably tend to better the prospects of the entire community. He also recollected that life in the tropics is an uncertain matter, and prevailed upon Mr. Ford senior to extend his visit.

But when May came the old man found that the West Indies were getting too hot to hold him; and upon the afternoon of this narrative only two days further sojourn remained of his stay in Tobago. Then the Royal Mail Company’s “fast and commodious” packet Solent would sail for Barbadoes; and William Ford was going in her. About which time his nephew began to feel that desperate troubles need equally desperate remedies.

Jesse saw no sign of man or beast approaching his lonely den. He left the gate, therefore, went into his grewsome hut, and proceeded with preparations for coming guests. His own attire appeared to be in the main and most important matter. Disappearing behind the curtain which screened his sanctum, the Obi Man entered upon the most weird, bizarre, unlovely toilet it is possible to imagine. On his head he placed a fur cap with long black horns, between which hung tinkling trophies of empty medicine-bottles and beads. Over his lean body and legs he drew hair garments, coarsely painted with daubs of crimson and white. These things were girt upon him with a waist-belt of feather. His lean arms remained bare, but upon wrists and ankles he tied links of snake-skin and elaborate bracelets of red and black “crab’s eye” seeds. About his neck he festooned a chain of human teeth, and upon his breast he fastened a loathsome amulet- a shrivelled-up human fetus- the hideous ghost of a thing that had never lived. He next painted sundry blue hieroglyphics over his wrinkled face, and then gazed at the general effect in a scrap of looking-glass. The sight evidently gave him unqualified pleasure.

“Yes, Obi somebody dis day,” he said to his goat; and the beast was constrained to admit it.

If he looked unearthly in his own dim dwelling-house, Jesse’s appearance under the sun’s fierce eye was not less so. The brilliant scraps of cloth and daubs of paint now gleamed like fire; the glass bottles on his crest danced and jingled and flashed; a thousand fantastic trifles amidst his accoutrements, not before visible, now became painfully apparent. He had secured strange bribes from sailor clients in the past. Civilization in the shape of a big jack-knife and a little brass-bound Bible, hung round his neck. Probably the Word of God never dangled in such strange company before. The horrid thing on his breast had yellow eyes stuck in its head; its shrivelled little arms clung about its master and hugged him.

Then, down in the hot haze of the distance, partially hidden amid trees and rocks, our human monster saw indications of a small cavalcade struggling up the hill. A row of horsemen in a single file were wrestling with the slippery, tortuous path, and Jesse could catch glimpses of white garments and brown horses, and hear the thud of hoofs and the sounds of human voices, raised in laugh or oath as one or another slipped and stumbled, or sat secure and watched others do so.

Then, again entering his home, he did all that remained to be done. He stooped low, routed amid debris in a corner, and, from a box hidden beneath it, removed a second smaller box, which was carefully wrapped up in paper. It contained a thick glutinous, gray substance about the consistency of birdlime.

Taking some of the stuff upon a skewer, Jesse pulled back the ball of his left-hand middle finger until a space was left beneath the nail. Into this he carefully plastered his compound from the box. All his nails were particularly long and dirty, so this strangely anointed middle finger was not calculated to attract the least attention. Then he polished up the edge of his nail, hid away the box again, and disappearing behind his curtain, sat quietly down and waited for the coming party.

Presently the horsemen arrived and drew up before Jesse’s gate. There were three of them- a lad, a man in his prime, and an elderly gentleman, the last very hot and very exhausted.

“I fear he’s out,” said the adult, looking about him. It was John Ford, a tall, brown individual, dressed in white, with a Panama hat on the back of his head. Twenty years of tropic sunshine had tanned him dark, had streaked his black hair with gray, had killed his conscience, but, thanks to his own temperate habits and fine constitution, had left his liver sound as a bell. The lad was John’s son, and the elderly personage his uncle.

“Jesse! Jesse!” called out John Ford; and Jesse, who knew his visitors had arrived, and only waited their summons, now appeared and bowed low, while his finery made wild music.

“By Jove, we’re lucky!” exclaimed the manager; “I told you that you should see an Obi doctor, uncle, but I never thought he would have all his war-paint on.”

“Tell him to get out of sight while I dismount,” answered the old man. “No horse alive could stand a thing like that.”

“Gib you good-day, Mista Ford; an’ gib you good-day, Mista Jack; and gib you berry good day too, sar,” said Jesse, bowing again and again.

“This is my uncle, Mr. William Ford, owner of the Pelican plantations, Jesse.”

The Obi Man bent respectfully.

“Wonnerful estate, Mista- wonnerful cane on de Pelican land, sar. Come in, gemmen; I’s proud to see you har.”

They dismounted, tethered their horses, and followed the negro into his hut.

Jesse brought fruit and a bottle of rum, and directed young Mister Jack Ford, with whom he was on great terms of friendship, to get some calabashes from a corner.

“Wish I’d known ob dis har visit, sars; den Jesse’d hab t’ings ready,” he said.

But from what has passed we can only suppose this was a little bit of humbug on Jesse’s part. He did “hab t’ings ready.”

Mr. Ford senior sat and mopped his brow and breathed heavily. His climb in the hold sunlight had exhausted him a good deal. The manager ate an orange, then lighted a cigar and began to talk. He was wonderfully cool for the time of day.

“You’ve got to thank Jesse, I can tell you, Uncle William,” he said. “Why, he’s been worth pounds and pounds to you. At one time a tremendous deal of sugar-cane was stolen here. The thieves came by night-“

“He, he! tiefs come by night.” interrupted Jesse.

“And simply took tons of stuff.” continued John Ford. “I placed the matter in the hands of the parson and the police, but they could do no good. Then I came to Jesse, and he had things right in no time.”

“T’ings right in no time,” echoed the old man.

“You see, Jesse put your lands under Obeah, Uncle William. Of course, I don’t believe in all that rubbish any more than you do, but Obeah is a real terrible thing to the locals. Our friend here just threw a spell over the place and hung red rags and empty bottles and feathers about on the skirts of the plantations, and the devil another cane went.”

“Debble anudder cane go- he, he!” sniggered Jesse.

Presently it transpired that this was William Ford’s last excursion in Tobago. He and his nephew and the boy Jack had ridden up from the Pelican Estate below to see Jesse- one of the greatest curiosities in the island. Having spent half an hour in his company, the party intended to go down to the beach and enjoy a bath returning to Scarborough, the seaport town.

John Ford knew Jesse pretty well, perhaps better even than people supposed. Curious things had happened in Tobago once or twice, and recalcitrant gentlemen from the Pelican Estate had been unaccountably missed. But, of course, individual lives did not command much attention; and because a man disappeared it by no means followed that ill must have fallen him. There was plenty of room in the island.

“Seen any turtle on the beach lately?” asked Jack.

“Plenty turtle, sar. I takes walk on moony nights, and see de sand all ‘libe wid turtles.”

“And the seas with sharks, eh?” laughed John Ford. “We’re going for a dip before dusk,” he added; “but not in the open water. There’s a little natural bathing-place below, hemmed in with rocks. I’ve had the sea-hedgehogs cleared out of it, and now it’s perfect. You know it, Jack?”

Mr. William Ford presently declared that he felt much better and completely rested. Then the entire party walked round Jesse’s garden, and he showed them the objects of interest.

“Dat snakegard, Mista, and dem creepy gards like snakes, day grow ‘libe at night and crawl ’bout. And dat tree dar, silk-cotton-tree -de Obeah tree, sar- what ‘loogaroo’ put him skin under when he go out.”

“A loupgarou is a sort of vampire,” explained Jack; “he’s a terrible chap, Jesse, isn’t he?”

“Oh, him terrible bad fellow, sar,” admitted the Obi Man.

Presently our visitors, having seen all Jesse’s wonders, were preparing to depart. As they proceeded to his gate their host stopped suddenly with evident dismay. “Gemmen,” he exclaimed. “why, you no drink wid me!”

“Then we certainly will do so,” answered the elder Ford, good-naturedly. And this he said because as they ascended the hill, his nephew had casually mentioned that to refuse liquid refreshment from the mystery man was a terrible affront in his eyes.

They returned to the hut for a moment, and Jesse directed Jack to rinse out four split calabash-bowls while he drew the cork from a stone bottle of rum.

“Make Master Jack’s very weak, please, Jesse,” said the manager.

Then Jesse, endeavoring to get a look of cheery hospitality into his bright toad’s eyes, poured out four bowls of refreshment. He handed one to each guest, and reserved the fourth for himself. A very acute observer might have noticed that the long bony middle finger of Jesse’s left hand rested for a while in one of those calabashes- that destined for Mr. William Ford.

The boy, draining his weak rum and water, went out to the horses, and a minute later his father followed him.

“Uncle has changed his mind about that bathe, Jack,” he said. “The old gentleman is going to rest a little longer and then follow us. We have arranged to meet at the gate of the estate and ride home together. I’m not sorry he’s given up the idea. Come along.”

And in the mean while Ford senior had drunk half his rum and water, and then suddenly fell forward at Jesse’s feet.

“Where’s my nephew?” he asked, feebly; “there’s something wrong with me. I cannot see.”

“Mista Ford back in a moment, sar. Hot sun, sar. Dam hot sun. Drink, sar, quick. Jesse put you right.”

He handed the old man his calabash of spirit and water, and again a long finger touched the liquid in it.

Then the Obi Man went out and looked down the hill. Jack’s boyish laughter echoed away in the woods. Presently it grew faint and ceased. There was no further sound save Mr. William Ford’s horse tethered at the gate. Sometimes it stamped its hoof or dragged at its bridle to reach fresh grass, while with unceasing swish, swish, swish form side to side its tail kept the flies off.

Then the day drew to a close, and the glorious gold and crimson of a tropical sunset flamed over the hill-side and painted the sea below; while Jesse took off his insignia of office and donned the scanty remains of a pair of trousers again and busied himself with sundry matters.

John Ford and his merry boy enjoyed their dip in the Caribbean, and afterwards rode as arranged to the entrance of the Pelican Estate, there to meet the owner thereof. But he did not come. Then, the hour growing late, the scant twilight having nearly sped, they suspected their relation, tired of waiting had proceed alone towards Scarborough.

“His road lies straight before him, he cannot miss it. We will hurry to overtake him,” said John Ford.

But father and son overtook nobody, and were in some consternation on reaching home to find that Uncle William had not arrived.

Jack was instantly sent off to rouse the authorities, while John Ford, with a friend or two, rose back to the Obi Man’s hut. It was a trying matter, struggling up the hill in darkness, but they managed it. The tree-frogs raised their little voices in the palms; bigger batrachians boomed up from the marshes; fire-flies spangled the darkness; strange sounds and rustlings of nocturnal life were audible everywhere. But to West-Indians such concerns appeared no more remarkable than at home the gleam of a gas-lamp or the rattle of a cab in deserted streets at midnight. The only thought in their minds was to reach Jesse’s hut with all possible speed; and this they presently did.

“Mista no come! Why, Jesse walk down de hill wid him. He went ebber so soon after you, Mista Ford. He said he catch you and go bade. He make up his mind to bade, sar.”

“Bathe! I hope to heaven he didn’t,” said the manager, uneasily. “There’s only one safe spot on the beach- where I went with Jack.

His friends soothed his alarm. They opined that an old man of sixty at the least would hardly be likely to have gone bathing alone; but time proved John Ford’s fears to be well grounded, and showed that Jesse told the truth.

No sign of Uncle William appeared that night. At dawn upon the following morning, however, a brown horse was found tethered to a cocoanut-palm on the shore, and near the animal lay a pile of clothes.

Uncle had taken the wrong turn, and evidently making up his mind to enjoy a bathe at all costs, had done so. It was a wonderful performance, even for such a hale, hearty man. Doubtless the Tobago sharks could tell the sequel to it. His watch was in his pocket, his money also; nothing had been touched. A line of footprints ran down over the dry sand to the edge of the water-that was all.

John Ford appeared to be terribly prostrated. The fact that the Pelican Estate presently became his own property, and that his young sons would now be able to enjoy English educations, gave him very little pleasure. He blamed himself bitterly, and would not be comforted either by his wife or his friends for fully six months. Then he cheered up a little.

Harmless old Jesse continues to be a great institution at Tobago.

He tends his garden, and sometimes sings snatches of that curious song, in the piping voice of extreme age.

Low him lie; low him lie,
Where de worms dey crawl in de man’s eye;
But only de snakegard and Jesse know
Where him sleep so still in de hole so low.

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