Jeroboam Henley’s Debt

by Charles R. Saunders

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Note: This story first appeared in 1982, in the Canadian magazine Potboiler. The current version has been slightly modified by the author.

The October moon limned the old house and its surrounding copse of trees in a wan white glare. A lowslung black sedan slowly approached the driveway, then turned in. The sound the car’s motor made before its driver switched off the ignition was reminiscent of the growl of an impatient beast.

The door on the driver’s side opened; when he emerged, it was as though a segment of the shadowy machine had detached itself and assumed the shape of a tall, muscular man. As the driver, whose name was Theotis Nedeau, started up the porch steps, an outside light flared on, illuminating his face. Even in the light, his complexion was of a singularly dusky hue.

With a sharp squeal of hinges, the screen door flew open and a short, rotund man bounded onto the porch to greet his visitor.

“Theotis!” he cried. “It’s been so long since you wired from Toronto. My God, I thought something had happened to you….”

About to catch his friend in an impulsive embrace, the smaller man, whose name was Jeremiah Henley, suddenly stepped back. For he recognized the grim set of the dark man’s mouth and the glint in his narrowed eyes.

Anticipating Henley’s next thought, Nedeau broke his silence.

“I was…delayed…at a gas station outside of Chatham.”

Suppressed fury crackled like static electricity in his voice.

“You’d better come in and have a drink, Theotis,” Henley suggested.

“Maybe I’d better.”

Together, the two men hauled Nedeau’s two suitcases out of the trunk of the new-model 1933 Auburn and carried them into the house. Though the suitcases were of similar weight, Henley had to labour with the one he’d chosen, while Nedeau bore his own burden easily. Once again, Henley recalled his friend’s phenomenal athletic prowess, how Nedeau had set football records that still stood and had once held his own sparring three rounds with Harry Wills, the black heavyweight even the great Jack Dempsey never dared to meet.

And he remembered a night more than a dozen years ago in Virginia, when he and Nedeau had been stopped by a policeman wanting to know exactly how a couple of “Nigras” had come by such a fine motorcar as the one they were in without having stolen it. Nedeau had flattened the policeman with one blow and they’d fled the state with a posse of cracker cops on their tail all the way up to the gates of the black college they’d been attending.

It had taken virtually all of the Dean of Men’s powers of diplomacy to forestall a major racial incident. And an abrupt increase in Howard University’s endowment, courtesy of Nedeau’s mysteriously moneyed father, had saved Theotis from summary expulsion.

Now, Theotis Nedeau had been “delayed.”

Henley shivered a little as he ensconced his friend in an overstuffed chair in the living room. Then he poured two tumblers of bourbon.

“Are Emma and the boys here?” Nedeau asked.

“No,” Henley replied. “They’re staying with my in-laws in Dresden, north of here. They’ll be safe there.”

Nedeau nodded somberly. Silence fell between the two seated figures as they sipped their bourbon. They were a study in contrast. Nedeau was black as polished ebony. The immaculate dark suit he wore barely hid the mesomorphic lines of his physique. Henley was of a café-au-lait complexion, with a neatly trimmed mustache and carefully pomaded hair. There were lines of worry in his face and deep shadows smudged the skin beneath his eyes. His lounging suit, though expensively tailored, was unpressed.

More than a decade had passed since the former college roommates had seen each other. Even so, they had maintained a regular correspondence. It was Henley’s most recent letter, followed by an urgent telegram, that had brought Nedeau more than a thousand miles northward to Ontario….

Nedeau finished his drink, then began to talk in a flat, uninflected tone.

“I had some problems with directions,” he said. “Up to a point, the guards at the Niagara Falls border crossing were helpful – after I signed a statement swearing that I won’t remain in Canada longer than two weeks.”

Henley shook his head. He knew the intensity of Nedeau’s race pride, but it was no secret that the Canadian government officially discouraged “coloured immigration”. It wasn’t Nedeau’s pride that was at stake now, though.

“It wasn’t difficult to find my way to Toronto, where I wired you to let you know I was coming, and from there to Chatham,” Nedeau continued. “But I became confused a few miles west of Chatham. I saw a gas station on the side of the road, and pulled in to ask for directions. Before I could say anything, the attendant said, ‘We don’t serve your kind here.’ When I mentioned that I only wanted directions to Henleyville, he pulled a gun, flashed a deputy’s badge and forced me out of my car. He said he was going to arrest me for car theft.”

Nedeau’s fists clenched.

“He was disappointed to find that all my identification was in order – including my auto registration. But he wasn’t done. He asked what I wanted in Henleyville. I told him I intended to visit an old friend. When he asked who the friend was, I was tempted to tell him it was none of his concern. But I wanted to arrive here as quickly as I could. So, I mentioned your name. For a moment, I thought he was going to shoot me. Then, strangely enough, he gave me the directions and walked back into the station without another word.”

“That would be Lorne Cooder,” Henley murmured half to himself. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he paid us a visit tonight. Listen, Theotis, I’m sorry about….”

“Forget it,” Nedeau said.

His eyes wandered to the wall above an ornate mantelpiece. There was a large square of wallpaper several shades lighter than the surrounding area, as though a picture that had hung there for a long time had suddenly been removed.

“What happened to the portrait?” Nedeau asked.

Henley started violently. His eyes widened with something akin to terror as he looked at Nedeau. Then Henley remembered their many late-night conversations about his illustrious grandfather – Jeroboam Henley.

Jeroboam Henley was a slave who had escaped to the North of the United States, then assisted fellow runaways in fleeing to sanctuary in Canada via the network of abolitionists known as the “Underground Railroad”. Henley himself had finally emigrated from Ohio to Canada in protest against the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law by the U.S. Congress shortly before the start of the Civil War.

Settling in Ontario, Henley built a house and founded a self-contained community of ex-slaves. He had disdained the mass migration of blacks back to the U.S. when slavery was abolished there, and the diminished community he had founded eventually bore his name.

As Jeroboam Henley’s grandson, Jeremiah had been something of a celebrity even at Howard, a college replete with the scions of illustrious men of colour. He had told Nedeau of the large portrait of old Jeroboam – who had died before Jeremiah was born – that hung over the mantelpiece of the ancestral home. Thus, it was not surprising that Nedeau remembered it now.

“I burned it,” Jeremiah Henley said.

***

Now, it was Nedeau’s turn to express shock, though for him that expression was limited to a raising of his brows followed by an intense, thoughtful gaze.

“Jeremiah,” he said, “I think you’d better swallow that drink of yours, pour yourself another, then start from the beginning. I won’t be able to help you until I know the whole story.”

Nodding jerkily, Henley complied. There was a tremor in his hands as he finished his first drink. When he finished the second, the trembling was gone.

“It began a few weeks ago,” he said. “No – even before that. I had trouble sleeping. And when I did sleep, I tossed and yelled so much that Emma took to going downstairs and sleeping on the couch. If it was nightmares, I couldn’t remember them. At least, not until that night….

“As usual, I couldn’t get to sleep. But I must have dozed off somehow, because the next thing I remember, I was sitting up in bed and Emma wasn’t there. I decided to go down to the living room to talk to her. I got out of bed, went down the hall…but my feet wouldn’t let me go down the stairs! I found myself walking past the children’s room, toward the walled-over end of the hall where the stairs to the attic are supposed to be. I tried to stop myself – I had always dreaded that part of the house since my father whipped me within an inch of my life just for asking about it – but my legs wouldn’t obey me.

“The closer I got to the end of the hall, the more fear I felt. My eyes were getting used to the dark, but I still wanted to put on the hall lights. I couldn’t stop myself from walking in a straight line toward the hidden attic stairs. I decided I must be dreaming – but never before had I known I was dreaming while the dream was still going on.

“When I got to the end of the hall, my hands – of their own accord – pressed against certain sections of the wall. Then the whole wall slid back, not making any sound at all! I’ll tell you, Theotis, I’ve never been more scared in my life than I was then – not even when those crackers chased us out of Virginia. I hadn’t even thought of that part of the house since the beating my father gave me. And now I was at the stairs, and my feet were carrying me up into that dark attic….

“Once I got up there, though, it wasn’t all that dark. There’s a big dormer window in the attic and there weren’t any shades to block the moonlight. The place was piled high with boxes, crates and trunks. There were black shadows between the piles. My feet carried me straight toward one of those shadows. I knelt down. My hands reached out. My fingers worked at the fastenings of a small chest I couldn’t see. I opened the lid of the chest, reached in and pulled out a thick, leather-bound book of some sort. I went to the light of the window and opened the book. By then, I was in control of my actions – and I knew I wasn’t dreaming.

“The moon was full. By its light, I could clearly see the writing in the book. It was a diary – my grandfather’s diary.”

Henley drew the back of one hand across his brow. The hand came away wet. Silently, Nedeau waited for him to continue.

“It was actually more of a record than a diary. My grandfather kept detailed listings of all the runaway slaves who passed through his ‘station’ on the Underground Railroad. There were scores of names. Everyone knows Jeroboam Henley helped many of his people to freedom.

“But some of the names were – crossed out. I didn’t know what that meant until I paged further through the book, and found a special section in the back. The names that had been crossed out earlier were repeated – with monetary values entered next to them. It was like a ledger.

“Suspicion dawned…a sickening suspicion that was confirmed as I read further and understood more fully. With each word I read, a part of me died.

“Not all of the runaways who came to my grandfather’s house in Ohio went on to Canada, Theotis. You know what that man was doing? He was selling his own people to a plantation owner in Louisiana! Not all of them, mind you. Just the ones who met the plantation owner’s specifications. They had to be native African, and by the 1850s, you couldn’t find many of those – so my grandfather said.

“He drugged their food, then tied them up and turned them over to the plantation owner’s Northern agent, who lived in the town under the guise of a freight operator. The whites paid my grandfather well and they kept his secret. They needed him. He was the only one, other than Harriet Tubman, that the runaways trusted implicitly – damn him!

“There were hints in the diary that the plantation owner had some sort of hold over my grandfather. There were also suggestions that the slaves were used as sacrifices to some sort of god or devil named ‘Shub-Niggurath.'”

“I don’t like the sound of that name,” Nedeau interrupted.

“Neither do I!” Henley flared. “But it sure as hell didn’t bother my grandfather! All he could think about was the money the plantation owner paid him! Hell, he loved it! The greedy son of a bitch!”

Overcome with emotion, Henley held his face in his hands.

“Damn,” Nedeau said softly. “Jeremiah, I’m really sorry to hear that. You must have – ”

“That’s not all of it!” Henley cried. “There was a final name on the list of the ones my grandfather betrayed. It was an African name…’Gbomi’. He was a witch doctor of some kind, so my grandfather said. When this Gbomi realized he had been drugged, he called down a curse on my grandfather. My grandfather laughed as the African mumbled and slurred in his native tongue while being bound. He took his blood money from the plantation owner’s agent and thought no more about Gbomi – not until things began to happen at night in that Ohio town.

“Strange things…a black face appearing in people’s windows…cattle, sheep and dogs slaughtered mysteriously, horribly, drained of blood…splayed foot prints leading to my grandfather’s house….

“The town turned against my grandfather. The people were stirred up by an element which had always been opposed to his antislavery activities. The plantation owner and his agent soon let my grandfather know that he was of no further use to them. He panicked. He fled to Canada, using his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law as a smokescreen. But he was really running from Gbomi.”

“When I finished with that damnable diary, my eyes were sore from the strain of reading by moonlight. I felt as betrayed as those slaves my grandfather sold. Then the anger came, driving everything else before it. I walked out of that attic. This time, I was the one controlling my actions. Enraged as I was, I still managed to step quietly, so as not to awaken my sons.

“I kept walking until I got to the living room. Emma was there, sleeping on the couch. There was a low fire in the fireplace. It got higher when I set my grandfather’s diary in the flames. Then I looked over to the mantel and saw his portrait. I took it down and put it in the fireplace, frame and all.

“By the time Emma woke up, both the diary and the portrait were nothing but ashes. Emma looked at the empty wall, then at the fireplace, then at me. And she ran sobbing from the room. She gathered up the boys and left. She thought I was crazy. Maybe I was that night. Maybe I still am….

“It was not long after that night that things began to happen here – things similar to the events that forced Jeroboam Henley out of Ohio. That’s why I need you, Theotis. You’re the only one who can help me. Don’t you see? He’s come back. By all that’s holy and unholy, Theotis, he’s come back!”

“Who?” Nedeau asked quietly.

Nonplussed, Henley cried, “What do you mean, ‘Who?'”

“Who do you think has come back?” Nedeau pressed. “Gbomi – or your grandfather?”

Before Henley could reply, a sudden crashing sound splintered the short silence. Both men sprang to their feet. The roar of a car motor faded in the distance as Henley and Nedeau rushed to the shattered front window. Henley bent to pick something up from the shards of glass, while Nedeau wrenched the front door open and raced outside. Only a few moments passed before he returned, his face set in a scowl of frustration.

“Couldn’t get the bastard’s licence number,” he muttered.

“I know who it is,” Henley said. “Remember, I said we’d get a visit from Lorne Cooder tonight.”

Nedeau looked at him. Never before had he heard such bitterness in his friend’s tone. Wordlessly, Henley handed Nedeau the red house brick that had been thrown through the window. There was a note attached:

NIGGER –

If your black friend has come to take you out of here, tell him it had better be sooner than later!

The note bore no signature.

“It’s come to this,” Henley said. “My neighbours show their true colours at last – lily white. It was fine for us back in the old days, when the escaped slaves came up here and the Canadians took them in so that they could fling their ‘true adherence to the principles of freedom’ in the faces of the Americans. But when slavery was over, we became ‘niggers’ again. And when something goes wrong….”

“Whoever wrote that note was right in one sense,” Nedeau cut in.

“What do you mean?”

“We have no time to lose,” Nedeau said as he reached for the handle of one of his suitcases. “Let’s go.”

“Go where?” Henley asked numbly.

“Upstairs. To the attic.”

“After what you just heard about my grandfather, you’re still going to help me?”

“Do you think you’re to blame for what your grandfather did?”

Henley left the question unanswered.

***

For only the second time in his life, Jeremiah Henley stood in the cobwebbed attic of his ancestral home. Despite Nedeau’s presence, Henley was experiencing even more anxiety than he had the night something outside himself had guided him to a secret better left buried with its bearer….

Except for the flicker of a row of three tapers, the attic was shrouded in darkness. Nedeau had covered the single window with a heavy quilt. Henley watched uncertainly while Nedeau carefully arranged the apparatus he had extracted from his suitcase.

Nedeau poured a sackful of sand into a shallow metal tray and spread it evenly across the bottom. From another, smaller sack he poured a fine black powder into a wooden bowl carved with geometric African designs. He took special care not to allow any of the powder to touch his skin.

Henley felt a queer sense of detachment as he observed his friend’s preparations. He remembered Nedeau’s almost obsessive absorption with African culture back in college, as well as how spitefully Nedeau had been ridiculed for it. All things African had been shunned by Howard students then; even the smattering of Africans attending the college were derided as “Home Boys”. More than once, Henley had privately defended Nedeau’s affinity for the “Home Boys”. Publicly, Nedeau had always been more than capable of defending himself.

Now, Nedeau was a professor in the Howard history department and taught courses in African lore. He had even spent a year in the Gold Coast, a British West African colony. Henley thought of the letters he had received with Gold Coast postage – long, enthusiastic missives full of near-incomprehensible reports of Nedeau’s studies of the magic of West African ju-ju men….

“I hope this voodoo of yours works,” Henley said, for no reason other to break a silence that was becoming intolerable.

Nedeau looked at him. He had removed his coat and shirt, and his bare torso was even more impressive than Henley recalled. It was Nedeau’s eyes, however, that caused Henley to recoil in dismay.

“Voodoo!” He spat the word as if it were a curse. “It would take more time than I have to explain to you the difference between that half-baked Haitian superstition and the true magic of Africa.”

Scowling, he returned to his preparations. Henley, who remained seated on a dusty trunk, could not suppress a gasp of shock when Nedeau drew a pair of long, white bones from the suitcase.

“Leopard, not human,” Nedeau said. “They were given to me by a powerful malam – what the ignorant would call a ‘witch doctor’ or ‘ju-ju man’ – because I spoke on his behalf in a case brought against him by a District Commissioner. We will need them tonight.

“From the hints I gathered in your letter – confirmed by our conversation downstairs – I would say you are being stalked by a semando – a dead-sending.”

“You mean a…zombie?”

“Worse than that. Your grandfather’s enemy must have been a powerful malam indeed to have launched a curse that has spanned two generations.”

“What is a semando, if it isn’t a zombie?”

“A semando is a dead thing shaped and motivated by the will of the malam. The animal killings are typical of a semando’s work, for it needs blood to build its potency to the point where it can fulfill its ultimate purpose – vengeance.”

Henley shuddered. “How can such a – thing – be stopped?”

“With the powder in that bowl. It is kaliloze, meaning that it’s deadly to any supernatural thing it touches. It will be the only thing that will save us when I summon the semando here.”

“What?” Henley cried. “Have you gone insane?”

“It’s the only way, man. We can’t go out to seek the creature; it’s a thing of the night and it would be suicidal to attempt to face it in its own element. I must lure it here, where I’ll at least have a chance to get to it with the kaliloze. And it will come. I have only to call it, using this oracle of sand and the bones of power. The semando will come, for what it wants is here – you.”

“God!” Henley exclaimed. “This is so senseless – unreal! Savage ceremonies here, in 1933….”

Nedeau stood up, towering over Henley.

“You asked for my help,” he grated. “If you don’t want it, say so now. If you do, then you’ll keep your mouth shut until this thing is over with.”

Henley, well aware of the meaning of his friend’s tone, fell silent. He was beginning to fear Theotis Nedeau….

Holding the leopard bones like a pair of drumsticks, Nedeau squatted before the sand-filled tray. Then he began to strike the sand with the bones, beating out a rhythmic pattern that slid and twisted like a serpent of sound through Henley’s mind. While he drummed, he chanted, singing a litany in a language Henley hadn’t heard before.

Nervously, Henley kept his eyes on Nedeau. Though the attic was unheated, beads of perspiration were forming on Nedeau’s bare chest. Reflected candlelight transformed the droplets into shimmering liquid gems. Henley moved his gaze to the sand in the tray. The yellow grains bounced and shifted to the rhythm of the pounding bones. He could almost see shapes appearing in the leaping sand – the shapes of graves opening at midnight….

The din of the drumming and the cacophony of the chant seemed an assault on Henley’s sanity, inexorably dragging him back to things he did not want to remember and never wanted to know. Just as he was about to shout at Nedeau to stop, a rending crash surmounted the sound of the rite.

Immediately, the drumming ceased. Nedeau’s voice fell silent. He sat stock-still, like an ebony carving, his eyes fixed in a set stare at something Henley could not see.

Then the footsteps came. Footsteps that ascended the stairs at a steady, measured pace. Footsteps that grew louder as the thing that made them slowly approached the door of the attic. Footsteps that rose and fell with a squamous, sucking sound….

The footsteps stopped.

“For God’s sake, Theotis,” Henley shouted. “It’s here!

Nedeau did not move.

The attic door banged inward. Dimly, the light from the floor below illuminated the hulking, indistinct silhouette filling the doorway. The figure moved closer, catching the wavering glimmer of the candles.

Henley screamed.

The semando was a grotesque, misshapen thing formed of mephitic grave-mud that oozed with each sickening step it took. But it was not the lurching travesty of a body that bulged Henley’s eyes and clove his tongue to the roof of his mouth. It was the face.

Crudely molded and distorted as its features were, Henley had seen them before – in the portrait that had hung over the mantelpiece downstairs. It was the face of his grandfather, Jeroboam Henley….

Blunt, malformed fingers reached clawlike for Henley’s throat as the semando drew nearer. Henley could not move; sheer horror rooted him to his seat.

Theotis!” he shrieked, as if the sheer sound of his terror could halt the advance of the thing with his grandfather’s face.

Then a lithe, shadowy form leaped between Henley and the approaching hell-creature. It was Nedeau, cradling the wooden bowl of kaliloze powder in his hands. With a swift, smooth motion, Nedeau flung the bowl’s contents full into the face of the semando.

For a single, timeless moment, the dust hung like a black miasma, enveloping the head of the semando. Then it spread across the death-sending’s carcass like a swarm of tiny, voracious insects.

The semando halted its advance. Its mouth opened, but no sound issued forth. Then the mud began to slough from its form, pooling viscously on the floorboards. Mixed with the malodorous mire was the animal blood that had lent the semando its macabre semblance of life. Only a skeleton remained. Then that, too, collapsed, leaving only a tangle of smeared bits of calcium behind.

“You did it, Theotis!” Henley cried, his voice weak with relief. “You destroyed the thing Gbomi sent to kill me.”

“It served its purpose,” Nedeau said quietly.

“What do you mean?” Henley asked.

Before Henley could move, Nedeau’s hands shot out and enclosed the smaller man’s throat in a clasp of steel. Henley struggled with a strength born of desperation, but Nedeau held him easily. He tightened his grip, choking off Henley’s outcries. But Henley’s betrayed, innocent eyes mirrored the man’s final question: Why?

Nedeau told him.

“I never mentioned much about my family back in Louisiana, Jeremiah. I never told you how we came by our name. ‘Nedeau’ means ‘born of the water’ in Creole French. In the Yoruba language of West Africa, the word for ‘born of the water’ is…’Gbomi.’ Gbomi – my grandfather. It is Gbomi who has returned, not Jeroboam Henley. Gbomi is in me.”

Nedeau’s voice was calm and steady, betraying no indication of the effort it took to keep Henley helpless in his grasp. His face was as impassive as a mask.

In a strangled voice, Henley managed to croak, “For…God’s sake…Theotis…I’m…your…friend!”

Something softened in Nedeau’s face then. His eyes blinked; his fingers began to relax…. Then, abruptly, his features contorted. An unholy flame kindled in his eyes. His lips drew back from his teeth in a rictus of sheer hatred. And the voice that issued from Nedeau’s throat was not his own. The accent was thick, alien, but the words were as plain as the dates chiseled on a tombstone.

Hen-lee…now, you die!

Nedeau’s fingers constricted. Henley’s eyes popped. His tongue protruded. His cries of pain were crushed in his throat. With an abrupt wrench, Nedeau snapped Jeremiah Henley’s neck. When his hands opened, a new corpse dropped to the floor beside another, far older one.

Calmly, Nedeau put on his shirt and coat. Before departing the attic, he overturned the still-burning tapers. For a moment, he watched the flames spread among the musty crates and boxes. Then he hurried down the stairs.

***

The Henley house blazed like a giant pyre against the night sky. Seated in his black sedan, Theotis Nedeau watched the conflagration. He knew the fire would soon be spotted even in this isolated countryside, and the man who had thrown the brick through Henley’s window would return before long. By then, Nedeau would be gone, safely and anonymously back across the border while Canadian authorities sorted vainly through the maze of fictitious identification he had provided them.

His face remained expressionless as he remembered an earlier killing…the death in the Gold Coast of a man whose grandfather had sold a malam named Gbomi to the captain of a Yankee slave ship so many years ago. The Gold Coast man was innocent…innocent like Jeremiah Henley. Nedeau regretted those deaths.

But there was another man behind the mask of Theotis Nedeau’s face…the other who had been there since the day Nedeau participated in a calling-of-the-ancestors rite in the Gold Coast. Though his bones rotted in a secret graveyard in a Louisiana bayou, the spirit of Gbomi had spanned an ocean to join with, and ultimately overwhelm, that of his grandson.

It was Gbomi who taught Nedeau the malam‘s way: all generations were part of a single continuum, ancestors and descendants all as one. Until the debts of the forebears were paid, they must be borne by the progeny….

One more death remained to be dealt…that of the grandson of the Louisiana slave-owner who had attempted to steal the spirit of an African malam, then slain the malam as a sacrifice to a god with an unspeakable name. One more death and perhaps then, the relentless shade of Gbomi would be placated. Perhaps then, only Theotis Nedeau would dwell behind the eyes that now turned from the burning house and began to study a road map of Louisiana.

Gbomi would not allow Theotis Nedeau to weep for his friend….

THE END

Charles R. Saunders has been writing fiction since the early 1970s, including four novels about a heroic character named Imaro, who swings his sword in an alternate version of Africa, and a collection of stories about an African Amazon named Dossouye. He has also had stories published in various small-press magazines, as well as paperback anthologies. He lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. He invites visitors to his website: www.charlessaunderswriter.com.

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