The jumbie finds him swilling the dregs of a wasted evening out behind the club, rum on his breath, the beat of the bassline still shuddering through his body. The streets at the end of November shine with the slick of rain and the club’s neon glow soaks the alley in festering pinks and yellows. Ravi does not believe that the jumbie is a jumbie at all, at first, because it doesn’t look the way he imagined it would when he was a child and his mother sat at the edge of his bed and explained why they left a line of salt outside his bedroom door. Then, he thought a jumbie would look hunched and desiccated, like the twisted body of a man blackened by fire, something living that should be dead.
But as the jumbie emerges from the club, it looks like it could be another queer man in the Village, another of the boys inside on the dance floor; it wears a tailored peacoat and Converse and has a face that would be beautiful if it wasn’t so long, if only its thin-lipped mouth wasn’t quite so wide. Ravi knows it is a jumbie because, as it nears, he smells Brazil nut trees and the hot, packed earth; he smells yellow-tongued orchids opening in the sun.
“Why are you here?” he asks. The jumbie says nothing.
Somewhere behind the fizzy haze of his drunkenness, an old fear sparks. He tosses his now-empty plastic cup at the curb and starts down the long street, slipping between the shadows of low brick buildings. The club’s back door swings open again and a group of boys spills out; they grin with glitter-painted lips and stumble into one another as they go, singing and shouting. In the distance, a siren troubles the night.
The alley merges with a larger street, which opens onto Bowery. He takes this south, looking for a place to hail a cab. He glances over his shoulder and sees that the jumbie is there, keeping pace behind him, its pale eyes trained on the rain-darkened sidewalk. He considers getting on the subway, but it will be empty this time of night and the thought of being caught alone with the creature in a subway car raises gooseflesh up his arms.
Ravi comes, at last, to a street corner where a Chinese place is still open. Some college kids smoke outside, takeout bags in hand. Their laughter is brittle in the cold. He stands in a lamppost’s jaundiced light and raises his hand to the cab across the street. Its low beams wink on; it rumbles into life. He looks back one last time. The jumbie stands outside the restaurant’s window, and the college kids keep talking and laughing as if they don’t see it, as if it’s not even there.
He ducks into the cab and tells the driver where to go. As he rolls the tinted window up and the cab pulls away, the jumbie starts walking again.
The rain comes again and this time it is heavy with the beginnings of ice. The cab driver flicks the windshield wipers on and curses under his breath.
The sluice cloaks the city, blinding him to whatever is out beyond the car, so he pulls himself back from the window and reclines into the seat’s plush, ratty upholstery. He calls to mind what little he knows about the jumbie. The first time he heard the word was back in Guyana, soon after Auntie’s death, when his cousin Bibi moved in with them. His mother became convinced that a jumbie lived in the space beneath their house and ran its nails along the floorboards at night. His father said that her sorrow made her mad, but all the same he left a line of salt outside their bedroom doors.
When his mother came to say goodnight to Ravi and his cousin, she told them, her voice still clotted with grief, that the jumbie would not enter their room until it had counted the grains, one by one, and that by the time it was done the sun would have risen and it would flee back to the place where only darkness can live.
He tries to remember what more she said, but he has spent long years trying to forget this part of his life. What is left comes to him in gasps: the chickens under the house; a crackling transistor radio; his father’s hands scarred from cutting cane; Bibi’s whispers in their bedroom when neither of them could sleep, kept up by heat lightning branching across the sky.
“It’ll be fifteen even,” the driver says, and Ravi realizes the taxi has pulled to the curb. He pays the driver and runs for the apartment, shielding his eyes from the rain with the crook of his arm.
Up the stairs and inside, he kicks off his shoes and locks the door. His housemate, Pilar, is out for the weekend, leaf peeping in Poughkeepsie with her new boyfriend.
Pilar has done all of the work of decorating the apartment: pictures of her family stand propped up along the mantle next to red candles still wrapped in plastic; white Christmas lights trace a looping pattern along the walls and wind their way around unframed posters of silver screen legends: Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr. Ravi helped string the lights and carry the rocking chair and futon up the three flights of stairs, but nothing in the room is his.
He goes to the kitchen and takes the container of Morton’s Salt off the shelf. As he shuffles back to his room, he pours some salt into his palm. Before he goes inside, he spreads the salt in a haphazard line that runs the length of the door. For a moment, he considers the line before stepping over it and into his room.
Ravi locks the door behind himself, closes the blinds, and peels off his soaked clothes. Flipping open his cell phone, he stares at the keypad. It’s been five years and eight months since he last spoke to his father. They still spoke after he came out—stifled, awkward conversations—but after he moved out a silence stretched between them that grew colder and wider until even a phone call seemed impossible. Ravi knows that if he calls now his father might not recognize the number; he might not even pick up.
He toys, for a moment, with the idea of calling Pilar, of interrupting her weekend of foliage and fucking with the news that he’s seen a monster from the jungle of his childhood.
He dials his father’s number.
The phone rings, rings, rings out. It cuts to voicemail.
“Hello. I can’t make it to the phone right now, but if you leave your name and number I’ll get back to you. OK. Thank you.”
His voice is different; his accent has been flattened by these last six years, and he speaks with a nasality Ravi doesn’t remember.
A sound startles him. He wills himself to believe, at first, that it’s just a change in the rain’s tempo, the rasping of sleet against the windows. But it isn’t coming from outside the window; it’s on the other side of the door. A whispering: three, four, five … six, seven, eight …
He doesn’t get up from the bed because the mattress will groan if he does. He tilts his head, listening to the jumbie’s murmurings, the low rumble as it counts its grains of salt. He stays this way for a long minute, still as he can manage, drawing deep breaths. When his heart has slowed he dials the number again.
This time, his father picks up.
… thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven … thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty …
“Hello?” his father asks again.
“Hi,” he finally says, “hi, it’s me. It’s Ravi.”
“Ravi,” his father echoes.
There were other voices in the background but these go silent. The two men listen to each other breathe.
… fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three … fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six …
“There’s a jumbie,” Ravi says at last, hating the way his words quake, hating the way the sound of his father’s voice makes him feel like a child. “It’s outside my door. I wasn’t sure who else to call.”
His father begins to say something else, but stops.
… sixty. Sixty-one, sixty-two, sixty-three ...
“Yes. I don’t know what I should do. It’s just so—”
On the other end of the line, a child squeals. It’s a squeal of delight that pitches up into chortling laughter. He hears a woman trying to shush the child; he realizes it’s his cousin.
“Is that Bibi?” Ravi asks, his voice becoming small. “Daddy, is that—does she have a—?”
The child gurgles pleasantly in the background; Ravi feels heat rising in his cheeks.
Five years ago Bibi was engaged to a man she met back in Georgetown. Ravi knew they would get married and have children and yet—he didn’t realize how his gut would hollow hearing that child for the first time, knowing it is alive. He sees the house in Richmond Hill, a narrow duplex with couches covered in plastic and fake plants at every window; his mother in the kitchen stirring a pot of daal and his father setting the table; Bibi taking care of the child alone because her husband’s on a plane back to Guyana to visit his auntie, a woman who walks a mile to market every morning for saltfish and onions, who makes roti to give to the man who sleeps on a pallet in the street outside her home—a vagrant whose name she doesn’t know but with whom she shares her food, her warmth, her life.
“Ravi?” His father’s voice. He’s whispering. “It’s very late. Your mother, she’s—she’s very upset. And you don’t sound well, boy. Not at all.”
Ravi waits ten seconds, twenty seconds, until he no longer hears his father’s labored breaths, and at last the line goes dead.
He flips the phone shut and blinks tears from his lashes. He thought that the silence between them was a temporary matter, a holding pattern; he thought they would tell him about something so momentous as a new child, as the family moving forward. But now, alone in his narrow room, he doesn’t know why he ever believed those things.
He realizes, after a moment, that the jumbie has stopped counting; there’s only silence from the other side of the door. He looks up.
The knob turns and the door begins to open. He knows he locked all the doors—the front door, his bedroom door—but that doesn’t matter, not for the jumbie. It stands in the doorframe, its peacoat still on, its wet eyes fixed on him. Salt dissolves on its lips.
Looking at the beast’s waxy face he remembers, with sudden, terrible clarity, something he hasn’t thought about since coming to America. He remembers the first gay man he ever met— the first antiman, as his father used to call him. His name was Rohan and they were related somehow, distantly—his mother’s cousin’s in-law. They had met at a wedding, introduced only briefly. He had a moustache and a huge, braying laugh; that was all Ravi remembered.
After it came out that he was cheating on his wife with other men, Rohan was beaten one night by some of the men in town and burned alive at the jungle’s edge. Ravi didn’t see it happen but he smelled the body the next morning. It was so strong he choked for days.
He breaks his gaze away from the jumbie and reaches for the Morton’s container. He opens the spout with his thumbnail and pours a few grains into his palm.
Ravi leans back on the bed and brushes a small line of salt down his bare chest, from the nubs of his collarbone down to the waistband of his underwear. The jumbie comes to the bed, straddles him. It leans its pale face down—its sagging lips tickle his coarse stomach hair—and the tip of its black tongue flicks out of its mouth. It laps up the first grain of salt.
It works its way up, methodically, catching and counting every grain until its heavy body is fully upon him and its face is just above his. It waits for him.
Ravi puts his hand on the back of the creature’s head and brings it in. They kiss softly at first, gently, learning each other’s needs. Then he pushes his tongue in hungrily, his body warming with pleasure, and he opens the jumbie’s wide lips with his own. He tastes salt and rum. Ravi sinks himself in deeper and deeper, opening the jumbie’s throat, opening it wide, and he tastes salt, rum, and the singing of a cutlass; he tastes ash on the wind, and the memory of home.