Claude dreamed that he was back in the old rainforest. He dreamed that he was surrounded by the blanketing moss that crept out of the dark, crawled over wood and swept across the earth under his feet. He dreamed of his dead twin.
He dreamed that her lifeless body was still sprawled half-in, half-out of the shallow end of the river, the soaked hem of her red summer dress bobbing in the inky wet. There was a noise, an awful noise that came rushing into his head. That strange sound followed him down and back up the old road, in and out of dreaming.
Jolting wide awake, he squeezed his eyes shut against sunlight streaming in through the cracks in a wooden window. He frowned up at the soot-clouded ceiling of the shack that he and Caroline Dewitt, an ex-student of his father, had taken shelter in during the night.
Then he remembered where he was: Cockpit Country, Jamaica, a lush expanse riddled with limestone sinkholes, snaky rivers and hoary caves. The terrain was treacherous. This was a land where ancient gods and demons once roamed, a place shrouded in secrets and myths. For Claude, the dark heart of this Caribbean jewel was the stuff of nightmares but this time, he hadn’t just been dreaming.
He’d really come back to this godforsaken place. For the next few minutes, all he could do was lay there trying his damnedest to remember what the hell had possessed him to do a thing like that.
Caroline was already awake beside him. She sat halfway unsheathed from her sleeping bag, fiddling with the thick braid into which she’d gathered her hair. How long had she been sitting there watching him, catty eyes lit up with avid curiosity?
“I really wish you wouldn’t do that,” he muttered. “It’s creepy.”
“What were you dreaming about?” She asked, blatantly ignoring his complaint.
Caroline had a thick, lyrical voice, which she’d laughingly credited to her West African ancestry the day before. It seemed a strange assertion coming from one he’d heard locals call a coolie. Her eerily feline eyes bored into his now, searching. It was as if she expected his answer to have some deeply profound meaning.
He didn’t answer.
“Fine,” her fingers stopped working briefly. “Don’t tell me.”
Claude doubted the academic had any real intention of leaving it at that. Her clinical interest and insight were unnerving, left him feeling that she could see things he didn’t want her to see, didn’t want anyone to see. He didn’t like it. Not one bit.
“I keep having these dreams,” he finally said. “I’m always dreaming about this place. It’s like there’s something important I forgot. And I’ve been hearing this… sound.”
“What kind of sound?” Caroline asked, as if nothing else he said was of any consequence.
“I don’t know. A noise.”
The academic seemed satisfied with that answer. She tugged on her sneakers and fussed with the laces. “What are we doing about breakfast? I brought bun and cheese. I could maybe scare up a granola bar if you’d rather skip the local fare.”
Claude wondered whether bun and cheese was really all she’d brought or if she was just amusing herself at his expense again? “There’s canned fruit and soup in my backpack,” he offered.
“Fruit and soup….” She made a beeline for the doorway, chuckling for reasons known only to herself.
“Claude!” Her panicked yelp had him bolting right out of his sleeping bag. “Claude, get out here!”
He stepped into the unforgiving morning light. Someone had left quite the grisly gift on the doorstep. An indigo and yellow snake had been killed, chopped into eight pieces. Its head had been piked on a rusty-bladed machete and the crude tool jammed into the hard earth. The ground around the big nanka’s carcass was sprinkled with vivid, red spider lilies.
His eyes settled on one of the hapless blossoms. Was someone else here? Was there someone following and watching their every move?
“Do you know what it means?” Caroline asked, sounding strained. “I know the people here, but I don’t know about this.”
Claude met her worried gaze with kind of a wry half-smile half-grimace. “Guess I’m just not welcome here.”
Not like he needed to be told. He didn’t realize that he was biting down on his bottom lip until he tasted blood. He’d gone numb, couldn’t even feel it.
He bent, grasped the machete by the handle and yanked it up, out of the dirt. He pointed the tip at the spider lilies. “Where do these things grow?”
Caroline hesitated. “Why?”
“They were Tarah’s favorite,” Claude frowned down at the bloodied blade. “There’s no deeper reason.” Not for him, and he got the feeling, not for the one who’d left it at the doorstep either.
Caroline pointed vaguely north-westward. “Roughly a quarter mile on. There’s a whole field of them. They bloom there all year round. Strange thing. They’re not even indigenous.”
“Thanks,” he turned to go back inside. “I can pretty much figure where I’ll need to go from here. You can just wait here, right?”
“Kelvin told me about what happened here when you were a kid,” Caroline said suddenly. “About your sister, the way she went missing.”
“Yeah,” he stopped, back still turned to her. “What about it?”
“Nothing,” she murmured. “Never mind.”
Tarah had died. She’d drowned in the river, deep in these hills. There was no use in talking about it.
He found the field east of the main river, where the spider lilies thrived in abundance. He’d brought the bloody machete that had been left at the doorstep that morning. He chopped off enough of their red little heads to fill the bamboo bucket. He waded to the deep end of the fiery flower-sea.
A path to the place where his twin had died was hidden by bramble and brush, but he found it easily. Even if he’d been blindfolded, he would have found it as effortlessly. He stood at the foot of the slippery steps carved into the steep mountain slope. Those steps must have been there for centuries before Claude first climbed them as a teen. He doubted anyone in this country even remembered who had carved them anymore. From there he ascended into the thick of the hills.
The way was obscured by morning mist and the crush of trees. Halfway to the top, Claude stopped. He turned. Seeing no one there, he released a shaky breath. A second ago, he’d been so certain there was someone behind him. Would being right have made him less uneasy? The mountain had gone silent, save for the sound of the wind spiraling down through the trees and a waterfall’s distant thunder. Claude continued. His grip on the machete tightened. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something or someone was watching his every move.
Ancient steps led to an arced tunnel carved into the karst near the summit. Claude stepped into the darkness and was thrust into daylight on the other side of the slope. Vertigo grabbed hold. The steps continued steeply downward. The thick foliage downslope obscured his view of the river, but he could see the radical divide where the verdant valley was split into extremes of day and night.
On the darker side, the woods were blackened by what he was inexplicably convinced had to be something far more fearsome than the shadow of the next ridge. The air was swollen with the cries of birds in the wild, the roars of scattered cascades and gurgling rills. Brimming with trepidation, he descended into the seething maw of the hollow.
By the time reached the bottom, his guts were all knotted up inside. He couldn’t shake that sick feeling. Slivers of that awful day kept battering at his splintered memory.
As the world around him tilted, Tarah had floated to the surface as if unseen hands were raising her body up from the deep. Claude remembered with stark clarity, her lifeless body bobbing in the water. That image burned brightly in his memory, tormented him endlessly. There were gaps in his memory. The crucial moments before and immediately after his sister’s death escaped him completely.
Tarah had been in the water, but Claude couldn’t remember pulling her from the river. He could only remember seeing her lying there against the bank, still partially submerged. He remembered kneeling beside her body, pressing his lips against the dead flesh. He remembered how cold she was, like she’d sunk for hours into the depths before slowly rising back up to the top.
Here he was now, after all this time. Boot heels sinking down into the slippery soft mud, he cast Tarah’s favorite flowers into the murky water. He watched their slow procession into the vein of the river where they were swallowed up by the dark.
What was he doing? Tarah was long gone and she wasn’t coming back. What the hell was he doing here after all this time?
He saw it then, that thing.
The tall, shadowy figure stood upright, expelling air in ragged breaths. It stepped closer to the river’s edge. Claude’s eyes went wide. No way was that human! The horrible realization made his body tremble. The beastly body was completely covered in the breathing moss that grew on everything. It crouched there, the white of its wide eyes spearing across the small distance between them. It flashed Claude a toothy grimace. Had it had smiled or simply bared its teeth? It crouched there watching him, watching him and watching him.
“You!” An indescribable rage bubbled forth. Claude glared into the eyes of his ancient foe. Somehow, he found his voice. “It was you, wasn’t it?” he pointed. “You’re the one,” machete gripped tightly in hand. “You’re the one!”
Brandishing the blade, he dashed forward into the river. The backlash was instantaneous. Some unseen forced knocked him backward, sent him flying. His back slammed into the muddy riverbank. The world tilted, went dark.
Claude let out a choked cry as pain lanced through his right leg. Something was broken. He was on the ground and broken. He couldn’t seem to remember how he’d gotten that way. His vision kept going blurry. He heard footsteps, and then the monster was looming over him. He flailed, tried to scramble away, but couldn’t. He reached blindly for the machete—anything!
He heard it again, that strangely ominous sound.
That awful noise was like a train hurtling by. The earth beneath him shuddered like it was being torn apart from deep inside.
The creature crouched low. The scent of green and rot became overpowering. Pain radiated through every cell in Claude’s body. He couldn’t move, could barely breathe. His eyes failed him. Helpless and terrified, he waited for the fatal blow but the gruesome attack never came. He felt something light and wet fall on his chest. It happened again. It took him a while to realize that they were the flowers he’d thrown into the river, every last one of them.
As Claude lay there stunned, the dark body backed away. The mad noise that filled his head was receding. He heard brambles breaking as the strange one retreated, plunging into the arms of the darker side of the river. It slowly became easier to breathe. Lightheaded, Claude struggled to keep his grasp on consciousness.
When he came to again, Caroline was with him. She was seated on the muddy ground beside him with her knees drawn up to her chin.
He tried to move. Pain radiated through every cell in his body. He bit down on a hoarse yelp.
“Keep still,” Caroline ordered. “I called for help but they’ll be a while and I don’t know how badly you were hurt.”
“I told you not to come,” Claude croaked but he was grateful for her presence.
She’d bandaged his leg with a section of her shirt, using skinny limbs from a nearby tree as a splint for his leg. The rest, she’d used on her own hand. There was blood soaking through the fabric wrapped around the space between her forefinger and thumb.
She noticed where he was looking. “Nothing serious. I just got a bit careless.”
“What happened?” She drilled. “You didn’t come back down, so I followed even though you didn’t want me to. Good thing I–”
“Did you see it?” he demanded, still dazed.
Caroline’s brow furrowed. “See what?”
“That thing!” He bit out impatiently. “It was here. It was right here. I thought it was going to kill me but it didn’t.” He looked to his companion helplessly. “I don’t know why it didn’t.”
Caroline’s expression was odd but she only shook her head. “If there was something here, it was gone by the time I came.”
The tributary had widened. Because of the quake, the water was and ruddy from the topsoil that had tumbled over the bank and spiraling down into a whirlpool. Soon, there would only be a gaping cavity where the dark water once flowed.
“I don’t get it.” he reached out for one of the wilting red flowers. “All it did was give these back to me.”
If that thing—whatever it was—had killed his sister, wouldn’t it have killed him too? How had Tarah really ended up in the river?
“I couldn’t remember. Still can’t,” he murmured. “What if all I did that day was just stand here and watch her die?”
Caroline was staring at him strangely again.
“It’s just,” her fingers curled into the wet earth. “You keep talking like the day you found Tarah was the day she died.”
“Well, yeah. She wanted to show me this really cool place she’d found. We came here.” He swallowed, but just couldn’t dislodge that painful lump in his throat. “Then everything went to hell.”
“I’m telling you, that’s not possible.” Caroline rummaged around in her backpack. “Claude,” she asked. “Know anything about this island’s history?”
“Just the textbook stuff.”
“This island has seen a lot of death,” the scholar explained. “That was long before the likes of Columbus reached the West Indies. The people who lived here his time were the Taino but they weren’t the first.”
“I know at least that bit,” Claude scoffed. “Before that, there were the…?”
“The Ciboney,” Caroline supplied with a brief grin. “Before them, the Igneri inhabited the island. Before that—who knows? For a long time, this island’s history was a repeating pattern of people settling here, and then vanishing from the face of the earth. It happened again and again. No one know how long this kept happening, or why.”
“Then the Taino settled. You probably know the rest. The Europeans came, bringing disease and slavery. It didn’t take long to wipe out the native population. Well,” Caroline clarified. “Some managed to escape into these lands.”
Claude peered into the darkness across the now raging river. Rampant moss and shadowy foliage masked whatever secrets Cockpit Country kept. What had become of the runaway Taino? What had they found waiting here?
“I don’t understand what any of this has to do with my sister,” he finally said.
“I looked into it before agreeing to take you here, you know.” From her backpack, Caroline produced a worn notebook. She flipped through the pages. “By all accounts—except yours—Tarah went missing. She’d already been missing for three days when you found her body in the river. You say she was with you the whole time but Claude, no one else remembers that. Not Kelvin. Not your mother. I mean no one.”
“That’s insane!” He shook his head. “That doesn’t even make any sense. I remember. I remember every second of it. She was here. She was—hell.” His head hurt. It felt hot inside his skull. It felt wrong, so wrong. “You think I’m just making this up?”
“No,” Caroline firmly denied. “I don’t think that at all.”
“Then what?” He demanded harshly. “Am I going insane?” He asked, and just couldn’t dull that bitter edge to his words. “Then maybe my mom isn’t the only one who belongs in a–“
“That’s not what I’m saying at all.” Caroline cut him off before he could finish that tirade. “I do believe you. I believe it happened. Everything. Just as you said.”
“Then what?” Claude didn’t know what to think now. “What exactly are you getting at?”
“I’ve heard a few old stories; they all went down pretty much to the same tune.” Caroline stuck the notebook back into her backpack. He was dazzled by the light streaming down and lighting up her liquid-amber irises. “The older locals avoid this area. It’s too unnerving for them.”
“Ridiculous,” Claude muttered. “Do you really expect me to buy into that garbage?”
“Can you deny it?” Caroline challenged. Her fascination and envy were palpable. “Can you honestly deny it, after you’ve actually lived it?”
Claude’s protest died in his throat, as he contemplated the horrifying possibility. For three days—all those years ago–there had been something living and breathing beside him. Something no one else could see.
Had Tarah encountered some forgotten relic of the Tainos’ tragic history or was the creature he tried to confront something much more primitive? What about the one who’d led him here in the first place? Had that been his sister or not?
Claude shuddered. “I just can’t make any sense of this.”
“You don’t get to make sense of it,” Caroline snorted sympathetically, prying the muddy flower from his trembling fingers. “You just make your peace with it.”
Scores of doomed crawfish and river fish writhed and twisted in the thickening mud. This branch of the river was gone, had slipped away through the crack the quake had made in the earth. Gone like Tarah. Gone like the atavic beast that had waited for Claude on the darker side of the river.
Burrowing deep down into the bones of the earth, Black River twisted sinuously through the heart of Cockpit Country.