Goombay

It was growing dusk, and, glad for the excuse to leave the house, which seemed a little dreary in the half light, I decided to walk down the mountain to Ba’ Foster’s and find out why he had not brought me my goombay. Two weird little mouse bats whirled past my head as I stepped out into the yard, and settled under the rustling straw roof with a great flapping of wings and a contented squeaking. I had never liked them, and tonight they were especially repulsive with their flash of sharp white mouse teeth and webbed furry wings.

Nearing Ba’ Foster’s house, I began to feel an excitement in the air, and almost involuntarily my step quickened and I was breathing faster without knowing why. Then I became aware of the drum. Not the deep booming of the revivalist Salvation Army drum, but the sharp staccato of a goatskin drawn tightly over a small hollowed trunk and beaten expertly by gnarled black palms. I skidded down the last rocky decline and directly into Ba’ Foster’s “yard.” This was deserted. But farther down in the hollow, well hidden from the road behind a tangle of pimiento and breadfruit and coconut trees, I could see the smoky glow of kerosene torches. A circle of tense eager bodies, faces ecstatic in the flickering half-light, and in the middle of the circle, Mis’ Ma’y and an old man whom I did not know, performing a strange ritual, more pantomime than dance. To one side Ba’ Weeyums squatted over the goombay, my goombay, his face streaked with perspiration, his eyes brilliant, and his hard palms beating the goatskin, the tone changing from sharp to sullen, from a command to a coaxing by a deft sliding of the side and the palm along the face of the drum.

Ba’ Teddy saw me first. Yes, even he was there.

“Evenin’, evenin,’ Missus,” said Ba’ Teddy softly.

“Evenin’,” I replied, winking back a tear. Ba’ Foster stepped quickly forward with the goombay under one arm.

“Me juh’ gwi’ bring eem you, Missus!” he said, with too much emphasis. “Me on de way now w’en me meet up wid’ Ba’ Weeyums en eem ax er play eem jus’ dis’ once.”

I looked at Ba’ Weeyums. He was first on one foot and then on the other, twisting his little felt hat around his forefinger, and looking anxiously at me the while. Then suddenly I realized that this was the long-hoped-for-opportunity—that here were the dances that I had waited so many weeks to see. It was my turn to look anxiously at Ba’ Weeyums.

“But everyone’s leaving!” I said. And to be sure, of the score of old and young who circled the dancers when I arrived, there were now less than half.

“De’ goombay eem good ‘nuf,” said Ba’ Weeyums slowly, “but eem need rum. Don’ no goombay talk like eem should talk eef eem no had de rum.”

The rum! The rum! Of course. I asked Ral if he would go up to my cottage and bring down the jug of rum from under Mai’s bunk in the kitchen. He was off with unusual alacrity, whether because of the rum or because of the chance that Mai might by this hour have retired to the bunk, I do not know.

While we waited, Ba’ Weeyums explained that of course he could have beat the drum for me any day, but there had been no drum to beat. Ba’ Teddy explained further that all of this was strictly forbidden by the Colonel, that he had cautioned them against doing these dances while I was there, that Ba’ Foster’s story was true, that nothing had been planned but only by the accident of Ba’ Weeyums’s drum-beating had these passersby gathered, and that were the Colonel not at Balaclava, even this would have been completely out of the question.