6. Bush of Ghosts

Outside of town moonlight defines the black hill with the silver it brushes over the trees and bushes. Outside of town the hill heaves in the passing wind; a mass of dense black shapes, shadows against shadows, that roll and stand firm as night governs and night creatures come out, scuffling for food, calling for mates, lapping at streams. 

In a modest clearing a flame trembles on ashen earth. A meagre flame that defies the shroud of night and casts a small orange light over a man. His profile is stern as he pokes at the small flame. His beard is tangled and matted. His forehead is wide and square. His bony knees meet his thin chest as he works over a clay mortar at his feet. 

‘Twelve hot pepper, dry. Twelve green pepper, dry. Coffee beans. Just three.’ He tosses the ingredients into the mortar as he speaks. ‘Tobacco. Myrrh. Some oil, and dragons blood.’ He reaches out and takes a warm stone from the edge of the fire and begins grinding the ingredients together. He works silently. The medicinal smell of the myrrh mingling with the sweet of the dragon’s blood. The scraping sound of the stone against the clay repeating rhythmically. The night frogs crick, crick, crick. Soft wind sets the trees whispering. 

A branch cracks, and the man looks up. Somewhere in the darkness an owl purrs. The man glances round. He stands up slowly, his eyes trained on the darkness. 
‘Aha, I see you,’ he whispers.
The bushes crunch and crack. 
‘I see you!’ the man shouts. ‘Bloodsucker!’
There is a sudden rush of flapping wings and falling leaves.
‘Not tonight!’ the man shouts. 
He reaches down and grabs a handful of paste from his mortar.
‘I ready for you!’

He drops the handful of paste into the embers of his camp fire, and it sparks and spits. Almost at once, a cloud of smoke rises up into the air, mushrooms over the clearing, and the man falls backward. The smoke is thick and pungent. The man scrambles away as it reaches up and out. For a brief moment, in the play of shadow and light, the smoke takes on the features of a woman. ‘I see you,’ the man chokes out, and the smoke thins and spreads like a mist.
‘Soucuyah can’t touch me,’ the man shouts and immediately starts to cough. ‘Soucouyah can’t hold me,’ he coughs.
‘I ready now, and you gon’ die
When I catch y’skin I go make you cry.’
His throat stings and his eyes water.  ‘Aye yai-yai! Aye yai-yai! Soucouyah can’t hold me!’ he crows and stumbles to his feet.
Coughing and gagging, he staggers away from the fumes and smoke.
‘Salt y’skin,’ he wheezes. ‘You go die.’
He hacks and coughs, lurching blindly through the bush to the river. At the edge, he slips on a rock and splashes into the shallow depth. His gasps of laughter echo over the water.

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