Murder? Well, yes; there could have been no question, ultimately, that my friend Mattison was murdered.
His death has stayed sadly in my mind these 20 years, which surely makes that long-ago journey into the tropics enduringly memorable for me.
I mean to say, a "memorable vacation" isn't necessarily a thing of jolly times on a white-sand beach with a lot of girls in vegetable skirts, you agree?
I think emphatically not. My most memorable vacation, just 20 years ago this year, had to do with the island of Haiti, with unforgettable people named Solange, and dear Madame Jugie, and Caleb Cadwallader Mattison (of the Carolina Mattisons), plus a German doctor named Lemke, surely the most talented physician in all of Port-au-Prince at that time.
I knew Haiti pretty well, back then; I'd spent a number of vacations there, along the coast and in the mountains too, up in the high cool region called the Pine Forest, where the wild horses roam.
Close Haitian Friends
I had made a few really close Haitian friends, and learned, too, a fair bit of the patois called Creole, a blending of French and African, mostly under tutelage by a wonderful French woman, a Parisian by birth, who owned and operated the Hotel de France in downtown Port-au-Prince, close by the wharf and the sea.
Madame Jugie was a charmer, a great cook, with a handsome husband who played cutthroat chess and, in his spare time, kept the hotel accounts.
The Jugies were much fun to stay with. Madame always reserved for me an airy chamber, top floor, flowerpots along my balcony wall, a majestic view on the wide bright-blue bay stretching west almost, you'd think, to Cuba.
I have to start by saying that Caleb Cadwallader Mattison of South Carolina turned up one morning 20 years ago and sweet-talked Madame Jugie into giving him one of her nicest rooms, a room with a sea view, almost as nice as mine. Madame listened to him and liked him; he had competent-looking hands and a wealth of walnut-brown hair.
Also, he played chess beyond the average and once almost won a match from Monsieur Jugie, which endeared him to all the hotel staff. He was very much a man, Mattison.
In due course he rented a house of his own, an almost native house, grass roof and wattle walls, in the hills above the Riviere Froide (meaning Cold River) a dozen lonely miles upcountry from the city. Included was a patchwork garden featuring two grapefruit trees, one oranger , a lemon and a lime, all great for mixing a rum drink or two at sundown. He planned, Mattison said, to stay a while.
He invited me, early on, to pay him and his new country seat a visit, and one afternoon I did, riding horseback. We took a skinny-dip in the swift-running cold river. He insisted that I stay for a drink. I didn't mind.
A Real Find
His housemaid, Solange, mixed the rum punches and carried them to us on the terrace. A very pretty native girl, medium-tall, slender, with a coffee-and-cream complexion. Mattison was picking up the patois from her; he called her a real find.
But about the two lazy yard boys he'd hired to keep his garden flourishing, he made a mild scoffing, and he scoffed too, at first, about the manifold superstitions of the natives. "They see black magic--voodoo--in absolutely everything," he said, and snorted good-naturedly.
On another afternoon--again we'd been for a swim in the river and were climbing the hill toward his house--I sidestepped like a jack rabbit when my eye caught a sudden dead-white gleam in the path. A roar of laughter exploded behind me.
"But you jumped!" Mattison hooted. "I tell you, man, you're as far gone in the black arts as the idiot son of my cook. . . ."
I glanced again toward the faintly ash-blond object in the path--a bone, a stick, nothing more. And yet the hill people believe that any old bone or twist of paper or white rag planted in the center of a trail may be a mumbo-jumbo trick of the devil to snare the unwary. You have only to step on it and your leg blackens and maybe drops off.
People believe this. Myself, how do I know? So I laughed uncertainly, perhaps self-consciously. "Don't be silly," I said. "Thing like that could be a snake, you know. I'm careful where I tread in these hills."
"Sure, sure," he said, and we marched silently up the path toward the house and toward his bi jou rum cocktails.
Time passed. Maybe, thinking back, it was a full three weeks before I got round to calling again on Mattison. His cook had stirred up a fish-head soup for dinner, a kind of Caribbean bouillabaisse, so of course I hung around.
Slapping the Mosquitoes
With coffee we moved onto the terrace, eyeing the yellow moon that tiptoed above the hills, talking casually about the new revolution in Haitian painting, about Haiti's music, all the while slapping the Haitian mosquitoes, persistent little bastards.
"How's about a nightcap?" Mattison volunteered.
I said, "Don't trouble yourself."
"Solange is somewhere around." He called her name.