Enigma in Ebony

Crazily the taxi plunged past the thick-clustered pink huts of Curacao’s native quarter. Dark terror engulfed the fat Canadian professor as he struggled to fathom the purpose of the man at the wheel

Earle Birney October 15 1953

Enigma in Ebony

Crazily the taxi plunged past the thick-clustered pink huts of Curacao’s native quarter. Dark terror engulfed the fat Canadian professor as he struggled to fathom the purpose of the man at the wheel

Earle Birney October 15 1953

Enigma in Ebony

Crazily the taxi plunged past the thick-clustered pink huts of Curacao’s native quarter. Dark terror engulfed the fat Canadian professor as he struggled to fathom the purpose of the man at the wheel

Earle Birney

THE BLACK CAB bounced around the corner of the shed as Sanford lifted his cane from the last oily step of the gangway. It made a squealing semicircle over the empty wharf, halted beside him and, as though by itself, swung open its back door.

“Votre taxi, monsieur.”

The tone was almost authoritative, as if Sanford, in some forgotten visit to this unknown island, had contracted Jfor its owner’s appearance at this precise moment. He peered into t he car, strangely dark still in the pink Curaçao dawn, and saw only the outline of a head by the wheel.

“Combien à Willemstad?”

“Two dollars, doctor.” The head turned; Sanford saw two steady yellow eyeballs and a flash of feral teeth. The sudden switch to English seemed bantering, but perhaps it was the slight, soft accent? —as if the man implied: “Come now, we know you’re justa Canadian professor, for all your cane and beard and tropical-whites, and the tricolor at the stern of your freighter.”

He had scarcely sunk his bulk on the seat behind the driver when the car roared, spun round the shed and charged honking up a narrow street between overhanging blobs of houses. Another cab, coming down, reeled over the curb to escape and braked to a halt inches from an improbably orange housewall. Sanford was aware of a dark fist shaken angrily from the other car, and as they shot on and up, a woman with a bandanna, high on a terrace, leaning from a rainbow line of wash to shout at them. The head of Sanford’s driver did not turn; startlingly African, cropped and intricately curled, it continued to bob before his eyes like some mysterious black fruit of the jungle.

“Don’t go so fast!” He clutched a side strap as the car swung suddenly at right, angles to climb a curbless lane. Two ochre goats, in the act of butting a dog away from some lump of refuse on the cobblestones, leaped hurriedly to a stairway. Sanford twisted to look through the back window, certain the cur had yelped agonizingly under their wheels. But it was already circling to retrieve its carrion. “It’s all right, doctor. Ree-lax yourself. I show you the town.”

As the car swung again, Sanford at last saw clearly his driver’s profile. The man was some kind of phenomenally “pure” negro, of a type he had never seen in the West Indies, or anyw'here else for that matter except in photographs of elongated tribesmen, clay-daubed and skin-draped, deep in Africa itself. Ashanti, perhaps? The black upthrust, of forehead, the enormous blossoming nostril and lips, the sudden sinking chin. All must, have been passed unblurred to him, through mysteriously intractable generations, from some proud spearsman hauled aboard a slaver by just such a tall delicate neck. Sanford realized with a flicker of shame that the profile and the ebony torso had, in part, frightened him. Heavens, the man probably belonged to a strain common enough here. And if not, what did it matter? Surely he wasn’t becoming an old woman of a tourist, upset by a little fast driving they hadn’t hit anything—and a chauffeur out, of a grade B travelogue.

“Take me straight to the main post office. I’ll see the town later.” Sanford was annoyed at a sort of husky anxiety in his voice; he had meant only to sound firm.

“Post office not open yet, doctor. I show you the so-call’ Native Quarter first. All for the two dollar.” Was it the voice that both excited and disturbed him, so utterly different from the black pear of a head it came from? Not an educated speech, of course, though by no means pidgen and curiously knowing in cadence, serene, insinuating. It upset him that somehow he was reminded of Arthur.

“I haven’t the time—” Sanford began, but they were sweeping around another corner. Two chocolate girls in spotted calicoes, descending toward them, baskets of

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fruit floating on their heads, swayed quickly to a doorway, clutching at their loads. The driver jammed to a stop, almost unloosing Sanford’s sweating grip on the car strap. At the same time, in a reckless synchronizing of motion, he shoved his right hand on the wheel and leant out the window, great shoulders glistening. Over the echoes of the horn he shouted in some unintelligible language. The two girls took it up, rolling their eyes and peering mischievously at Sanford. What were they gabbing? He recognized an English word, a Spanish phrase—or was it Portuguese? But the basis seemed Dutch or even Afrikaans! He could make no sense of it. Were they making fun of him? Because he was fat? Or the red beard? They wouldn’t see many here. But it seemed somehow more than that, as if he were the ball in some elaborate and rushing game. For suddenly the car was off again, the driver waving a long bare arm like a slow snake at the laughing women. He began to wish he had waited for the ship’s breakfast and shared a taxi to town with some of his fellow passengers. But he got enough of them between ports, and there was only a morning in Curaçao.

“T haven’t time for side trips,” Sanford shouted. They were mounting still through streets of increasingly dingy houses, shacks really. “T’ve got to be back by ten!”

The driver swerved round a cluster of half-naked children playing in front of a squat hovel whose roof, Sanford was surprised to see, was actually junglethatched. The car’s top brushed the contorted boughs of a low tree at the hut’s wall and two blossoms fell through the window into Sanford’s lap. Pink, huge, they looked more like soft prawns than flowers. He brushed them off quickly.

“Did you hear—?”

“That’s all right, doctor. Your ship not sail till eleven.” The long head t'lted back —was the fellow laughing? -—but did not turn. So he knew that too. But he wasn’t going to get away with this. Sanford leaned toward the enigmatic back. “Take me straight to the centre of town. Now!” He made his voice angry.

The horn blew at once, as if in retort, but it was only to part a ragged covey of cyclists pedaling toward them, their bare sooty feet dancing below American army pants. Workmen of some sort. The driver slowed and there was another explosion of patois and high laughter as the cyclists, braking also, crouched to peer at Sanford in passing. He was about to shout again at the driver when the car changed gear, veered to the crest of the hill and stopped abruptly.

“This a touris’ viewpoint, doctor. You have a good look, eh?”

Sanford suppressed a peevish reply. He might as well look, now they were here. “Which way is the town-centre?”

“Down there, doctor.” The black boa of an arm undulated vaguely out the driver’s window. “See channel coming in from south, from sea. That where your ship sail in las’ night.”

F rom where they sat the nearer huts went steeply down, changing to carmine-tiled roofs and pastel walls which the dog-legged streets cut into a weird confusion of planes. Here and there the geometry of houses was interrupted by wind-twisted shrubs, uprisings of cacti, and the pale fountainings of banana trees. At the bottom a ribbon of water glittered. Douanier Rousseau, Sanford thought, reworked by Picasso.

“This view much admired by painters,” the driver said softly, as if he had been following Sanford’s mind through the back of his own brocaded head.

“But is the main town on this side of the channel?” Sanford asked. There seemed to be an equal thickening and rising of buildings on the far bank, at a point where a curious low bridge spanned the inlet.

“Other side, doctor. Soon we cross on Queen Emma. Famous pontoon bridge.”

“All right,” said Sanford abruptly, “let’s get going.”

“Doctor shouldn’t miss big view, other side of car.” The driver did not move.

“Oh, very well.” The fellow had a definite way with him. Sanford shifted over to his right window.

“There you see where your ship now,” the ambiguous voice pursued

him. “Sehottegat Harbor. Channel lead into it.”

It was certainly a “view.” They were high enough to look north over the narrow island’s waist to a flecked turquoise Caribbean rolling in the trade winds to a cobalt sky. Nearer, cushioned from the sea by hills, an amoebiclagoon quivered in the risen sun, outlined with refineries, oil tanks like silver hatboxes, and serrations of docks and moored ships. He searched the complexity for his freighter, but could not identify it, and shifted heavily back behind the driver, who was gazing out his own side, his silhouette expressionless still, a black-ivory fetish. Automatically Sanford followed his stare. A tanker was creeping toward the channel’s mouth; farther south the blue-green waters were dotted with ships arrowing to and from the dim blur of the Venezuelan coast.

“Let’s go,” said Sanford harshly.

The driver turned his eyes to the wheel. There was a pause, as if he debated something involved and oh-' scure within his exotic skull, and then, slowly, softly, the car glided down. Sanford, who had automatically braced his feet for another riot of motion relaxed.

“That’s the speed. Don’t go any faster than this.”

“For sure, doctor.”

As the road leveled out, and the homes swelled into respectability, Sanford for the first time began to enjoy himself. The place was unique, endlessly harlequin. The streets now were livening with cycles, carts, motors, in shapes and hues as various as the houses and the hurrying people. They passed tall buildings looking as if they had been lifted bodily from the canal sides of Ghent; then the precise playground of a Le Corbusier school, shaded by the towers of a Spanish church, stuccoed in violent cerise. Sedately they rolled through a brief park where palms clacked and fluttered in the

unceasing trade wind, and strange heavy odors sifted into the car. Sanford lay back. Over the thickening noise of traffic came the long booood of a boat whistle, surprisingly clear and as if from the heart of the town ahead.

“You like me to drive fast now?” The driver, who had been silent since the hilltop, suddenly presented the totemic outline of his face.

“No, no, this is just right.” It could only be a few blocks more.

“You’re the doctor.” The flippancy of the phrase startled Sanford, and even more perhaps the remote and baffling irony of the tone. Was it merely an accent, he wondered, something indigenous to this wholly unaccountable island? They turned a corner and were immediately on an esplanade beside a canal-like reach of water. This must he St. Anna Channel. Yes; at its sea end there was an entering tanker, the one no doubt whose whistle they had heard a few blocks back, and here, close at hand, just beyond a “Hotel Americano.” was the long pontoon bridge.

“Queen Emma, doctor.”

Under its flat reach the dozen prows of the individual pontoons projected in a neat perspective of lozenges; above, enclosed by low railings, iridescent currents and counter-currents of cars and walkers flowed and sparkled in the tropic sun.

Suddenly Sanford was aware of a bell clanging ahead, and an instant flurry among the bridge’s pedestrians. ’Those who had just begun to walk toward the farther shore turned back, those at the centre quickened their flow; a few began running. The scene had an unreal quality, vaguely symbolic, like something from, who was it? Addison? Yes—the Vision of Mirza. Sanford’s taxi stopped, its line of traffic stalled.

“What’s happening, driver?”

“Queen Emma, doctor. The tanker has right-of-way.”

“What!” But of course. Ass. It had to be a swing bridge or ships couldn’t get into the harbor, the Schottegat. Even as he watched, the bridge, bare now of cars, broke its far end free, as if pushed by invisible emanations from the towering prow of the approaching tanker. One pedestrian, a flash of white, leaped at the last minute to the shore. Gradually, in a dream of motion, the bridge swung into midchannel, folded toward them like a caliper, still bearing, on its moving tip, two belated walkers riding to nowhere, ridiculous, forlorn. What about himself?

“What do we do now, driver?”

The African did not stir or reply. Sanford, quite sure he had been heard, felt his nails clench into his palms with pique.

“Answer me! How long do we wait? Isn’t there ary way round? You didn’t take n e a direct route, and now—.” His voice broke to a wheeze and he checked it, embarrassed.

Tranquilly the driver spoke, addressing still his windshield. “When we hear boat blow, I say ‘You like me to drive fast now?’ You say ‘No, no, this

is just right.’ So we wait now, fifteen minutes maybe.”

“But I didn’t realize—” The chap was right. Ah, but wait—if he had let him speed up? Could they, even at his slam-bang pace, have reached the bridge before the cars were halted? Wasn’t it that the driver knew, when the whistle blew, it was too late. Coldly now, underlining his words, Sanford spoke:

“Do you intend to charge me extra for waiting here?”

The curled head tilted back. “Yes, doctor. All taxi charge waiting for Queen Emma; seventy-five cent each quarter-hour.”

Sanford sat cursing his own naïveté. This tanker was the one they had seen from the hill. ’The fellow had spotted it, calculated when it would reach the pontoon, poked along till the whistle sounded. And more—that was why they’d gone to the “view” in the first place—to wait for a boat! Wasting an hour, perhaps—all to gyp him out of a few cents. One was usually on guard against this sort of thing; but he had been taken in by the novel front, by this, well, rather beautiful savage god — with the soul of the usual West Indian cabbie. The charlatan had even been parading him around to be laughed at by the whole native ward, a fat tourist sheep about to be shorn.

Quickly Sanford took two dollar bills from his wallet, shoved open the door and stumbled around to the driver. “Here. I’m walking across, when the bridge closes.” As he held the money out, the driver turned and Sanford, for the first time, looked at him full face. For a long bewildered moment, he stood, hand extended like a schizophrene, unable to shift from the gaze of those db idy great eyes that, from the jet urmoving sculpture of the face, glowed with, surely, some fierce and yet enigmatic message.

“You tricked me, you know.” Sanford’s tone, in spite of himself, was apologetic; he could neither move nor withdraw his arm. The wide smooth lips, the caverned no itrils did not stir, but slowly the drive 's stare fell to the outstretched hand, and sank, as if in defeat, to Sanford’s feet. But at once the tapestried head came up, long sloeblack fingers picked the bills from Sanfoid’s hand, and the eyes looked again into the white man’s. In that brief interval, the driver had subtly changed. Something, some minute quiver of muscles playing at the smoky flare of the mouth and at the flat wings of the massive nose, or perhaps a fleeting roll of light in the ochre eyeballs — something in the man’s face was matched at last to the poised raillery of the voice that spoke now, as if in amused granting of a request:

“I take you back, doctor, for sure. I meet you—”

But Sanford wheeled and hurried down the sidewalk that led, between the stalled line of cars and the channel bank, toward the bridge. Behind him he heard the d fiver shouting something

“ . . . other side Queen Emma.” He shouldered his way confusedly through the motley of walkers, pursued hy a last “Doctor!”, a cry that seemed half appeal, half laughter.

For a moment he had an irrational urge to hail an approaching cab and drive back at once to his ship. But then, arriving abreast of the iron grille barring the way to the splayed-out pontoon (the tanker only now moving through the gap beyond), he became aware of a purposeful current in the multicolored human stream around him. People were jostling past the grille and down a few yards over a shallow quay to a substantial ferryboat, cabined with bright purple awnings. A twin to it was already approaching, cutting through the wake of the tanker, its deck black with passengers.

Fool, fool, not to have guessed that, in a town of this size, there would be ferries operating when the bridge was barred. Free, even, he saw, reading the quadrilingual sign on the pier; operated by the government. As he heaved himself aboard, he realized, with an anticipatory twinge in his flat arches, that he would have to stand for the crossing. It was then that Sanford missed his cane

The cane was in the taxi. The silver-knobbed Irish thorn that Arthur had given him when he left him. Yes, he had let it slip to the back floor the first time he reached for a side strap as they left the ship’s wharf. The sonofabitch, he breathed, audibly enough to startle a wide immaculate Dutchman planned beside him. He’s got his tip and his bridge-graft out of me after all. It was deliberate—that franc-tireur was too sly not to have noticed; he had let him walk off, guessing that Sanford would neither wish to come back for it nor to spend his short time in the town reporting it to the police. For it was already, Sanford saw by his watch, eight twenty-five, and he wanted very much to get a mint block of the current Curaçaoan airmail. He should find and write some view cards too, and perhaps buy a bit of perfume—and of course a bottle of Curaçao. Now he would have to search out a stick as well, damn the fellow.

Curious, though, that he would have wanted to drive Sanford back. Either he hadn’t realized that the cane was worth several times the fare money, or—? Or what? Deliberately he put the whole incident out of his mind, seeing himself at last in the heart of the old town. With gradually increasing spirits he sauntered through the little Hindu quarter, purchasing (at a bargain) a fairly presentable malacca, and finding his way, through the bizarre miscegenations of humanity and architecture, to the aged and cavernous post office, where a pretty youth, some kind of Latin half-caste with lips like a*-brown cockleshell, sold him the mint airmail block. Avoiding then the street by the channel, he circled through a lush park where outlandish fat waterlilies shone from the shadow of Wilhelmina’s statue. When his arches begah.aching, he found a seat in an arcaded cafe beside a spur of the channel; piratical schooners lay moored to the shore, their riggings festooned with bright bananas, their decks noisy with natives shouting bargains at the great-beamed women waddling past on the sidewalk.

While he sipped a cup of excellent American coffee, Sanford thumbed through a tourist folder he had picked up in a perfume shop. There was a neat map of the bus routes and their schedules. He began, with mild masochism, working out the direct route to his ship. By walking a block or so down to the bridge and crossing it (or taking the ferry, if need be), he

could catch a bus almost at the spot where he had left the taxi. The bus, following the channel bank and a short outcurve of the Schottegat, would bring him within yards of his ship in a matter of eight minutes. And the fare would be, what? A quarterguilder, thirteen Canadian cents.

In sudden petulance, Sanford decided to take the bus at once, and paid his check. He had more than a half-hour yet, but his feet still ached, and coping with the unceasing flow of people in the narrow streets had made him sweat. And he would not hire a taxi, whoever

was driving it. Yet, out in the sun again, caught in the strange kaleidoscope of face and drests and shop front, Sanford found himself wishing he had a month here. He would begin to paint once more, surely.

He surveyed the channel with care. No boats approaching; the bridge intact. He turned on to it. Extraordinary though, and the thought pushed unwelcome into his consciousness, nowhere in all the racial polychrome of this crossroads island had he glimpsed another face and head remotely resembling his driver’s. Or heard a

voice like his, for that matter, a voice like—he wondered suddenly, with a kind of panic, if the fellow was actually sitting there in wait for him. No, he’d be drinking whatever his kind drank, off in his “so-cali’ Native Quarter” — what a curious phrase for him to have used—from the proceeds of the silverheaded cane.

Sanford stepped heavily off the absurd bridge and saw the bus sign andhe’d better be quick—a red omnibus already veering toward the bright little pool of waiters. Just as Sanford reached it, and t he bus puffed

to a halt; there was a shout from across the narrow street.


From the window of the dark cab the familiar black boa of an arm was waving, and Sanford, in a trance of embarrassment, saw the leaning blur of that massive face and the beautiful animal flash of teeth in—what was it? — a smile?

“Doctor. Over here.”

Sanford stopped, half turned.

“You come with me. Lots of time. I got......”

“No! No!,” Sanford shouted, as much in protest against his own impulse as against the invitation. Clutching parcels and cane he butted his way in reckless misery around the two men still between him and the bus door, and into the dense haven of the passengers. ’They stood so packed inside he could not see what the blackamoor was doing out in the street. Sanford had fancied, in his last glimpse, that the man was climbing out of his car toward him. The bus jerked forward, and Sanford let out his breath in a slow sigh. He tried to look back, but could see nothing. And when he let himself down within sight of the ship’s funnel he was alone.

It was a half-hour before the St. Malo cast loose, a little late; Sanford had time for a shower and a change. Feeling almost himself again, he got an aperitif, mounted to the open recreation deck, where most of the other passengers were already gathered, and settled himself in the largest deck chair. The ship was already moving from the Schottegat into the channel, hooting mournfully. Sanford watched the fantastic brindled town slide by on either side in the bright noon sun. Ahead, on the right, the long pontoon began to break and arc out toward them, an oddly satisfying sight.

As the end swung through the water in front of their approaching ship, Sanford saw that a pedestrian had once more stranded himself on the amputated prow of the grotesque structure, some workman apparently — it was a bit far to see—bare-waisted in dark jeans, for whom time was not so important that he should walk back to the fixed end of the pontoon and take the ferry. Sanford set his glass on the chair arm. The bridge swung a little wider, enough to give the St. Malo clear passage. And now, as the ship’s nose drew toward the figure on the pontoon, Sanford knew with awful certainty who it was that stood there, immensely tall, immobile, with glistening pitchy chest. Dismayed and yet curious, Sanford gripped the armrest of his deck chair and waited.

“Ooo, look at the big black man,” said a woman leaning on the rail—it was the Nebraska female, in her usual mock-childish accents.

“Say,” her husband beside her spoke quickly, “what’s he up to?”

For the figure held something in his right hand and, as the passengers glided abreast, he tilted his long crinkled head, swept back his arm, and hurled the object, like a spear, in a magnificent gesture of grace and power, as if straight at Sanford. He struggled to lift himself out of the deck chair, spilling the aperitif into his lap, and the coy woman screamed, but it would have been too late to avoid being struck if the object had not, in fact, been cast to arch glittering over all their heads and clatter on the deck behind.

Then, as the passengers swept past and out of sight of the sable figure, there came winging from it, like a second spear which did not pass over Sanford’s head, the deep and forever ambiguous voice:

“Your cane, doctor.” -fa