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The Matanzas Obeah Woman


Source: Myths & Legends Of Our New Possessions & Protectorate

On a hillock near Matanzas, with a ragged wood behind it, stood for
many years an unkempt cottage. In our land we should hardly dignify it
by such a name. We would call it, rather, a hovel. Some rotting timbers
of it may still be left, for the black people who live thereabout
keep away, especially at night, believing that the hillock is a resort
of spirits. Yet not many of them remember the incident that put this
unpleasant fame upon it, for--that was back in the slavery days. The
brutal O'Donnell was governor-general then. He found Cuba in its usual
state of sullen tranquillity, and no chance seemed to offer by which he
could make a name for himself, so he magnified every village wrangle
into an insurrection. It looked well in his reports when he set forth
the skill and ease with which he had suppressed the uprisings, and,
as he did not scruple to take life in punishment for slight offences,
nor to retaliate on a community for the misconduct of a single member
of it, he almost created the revolution that he described to his home
government. The merest murmur, the merest shadow was enough to take
him to the scene of an alleged outbreak, and he would cause slaves
to be whipped until they were ready to confess anything.

A black boy in Matanzas, arrested on suspicion of inciting
to rebellion, was condemned to seven hundred blows with the
lash. At the end of the flogging, being still alive, he was shot, at
O'Donnell's order. He would confess nothing, because he had nothing to
confess. This boy had been brought up in a well-to-do Spanish family,
and was the play-mate, the friend, of the son of that family, rather
than his slave. The white boy begged for the life of his associate,
the family implored mercy, and asked for at least a trial, but the
governor-general would not listen to them, and after the shooting
the white boy became insane with shock and grief. Thus much of the
legend is declared to be fact.

It was the mother of the black boy who lived in this cabin outside of
the town. She had also been a slave until the Spanish family, giving
up its plantation, moved into the city, sold the younger and stronger
of their human properties, and set free the elderly and rheumatic,
taking with them only a couple of servants and the boy, who went with
his mother's consent, for she knew he would be cared for, and she
could see him often, the relation between slave and owner, being more
commonly affectionate than otherwise. At its best, slavery is morally
benumbing to the enslaved, destructive of the finer feelings, and
when the old woman learned of her son's death,--and such a death--she
did not go mad, as his playfellow had done. She lamented loudly, she
said many prayers, she accepted condolences with seeming gratitude,
but the tears had ceased to flow ere many weeks, and she was seen to
smile when her old mistress, whose affliction was indeed the heavier,
had called on her in her cabin, no doubt feeling as much in need of
her servant's sympathy as the servant felt of the creature comforts
she took to her.

Yet deep in Maumee Nina's nature a change had taken place. She did not
know it herself for many months. Her loss had not affected her conduct
or appearance greatly, yet her heart had hardened under it and she
began to look upon the world with a different eye. She cared less for
her friends, and went to church less often,--a suspicious circumstance,
for when a negro failed to go to mass, and kept away from confession,
it was surely because he had something mischievous to confess. The
rumor got about that Maumee Nina had become an Obeah woman,--a voodoo
worker, a witch. It is not unlikely that the accusation inspired her
to live down to it. Not only were witches held in respect and fear,
but she might be able, through evil arts, to plague the race that
had worked her husband to death in the mines, and now had killed her
only son. She kept still more at home, brooding, planning, yielding
farther and farther to the evil suggestions that her repute as a
voodoo priestess offered to her, yet keeping one place in her heart
even warmer than before,--the place filled by her daughter, Juanita.

This girl of fifteen or sixteen was not black, like her mother. She
was a handsome mulatto. In a country where relations are so easily
established without marriage, and where marriage is so difficult and
has so little force, the fatherhood of many children is in doubt. If
Juanita knew her father's name she was not known to him. It mattered
little. The old woman intended to bring her up as a lady,--that is,
to qualify her for a place as waiting-maid in the house of some
good family; so she made many sacrifices on her account, clothing
her vividly, requiring less work of her than she should have done,
and even, it was said, paying money to have reading taught to her,
and that was an accomplishment, indeed.

Considering the pains and self-denials that the rearing of this child
incurred, it was a trifle inconsistent that Maumee Nina should have
opposed the friendly advances of gallants from the town. She was not
of a class that is wont to consider the etiquette of such attentions,
nor would she have refused to give her daughter in marriage to any
Cuban. It was that her feeling toward the Spaniards was deepening
into hate, and it rejoiced her to learn that a revolution was really
intended. By her native shrewdness she was able to do something for her
people's cause. Whenever a young negro went to her to have his fortune
told,--and from this art she began to realize a steady income,--she
managed to hint at his future greatness as a military leader, his
gains in the loot of Spanish camps, his prowess in bush-fighting when
hostilities should really have begun.

In this way she really incited a number of the ambitious, the
quarrelsome, and the greedy to enlist in the schemes for Cuba's
liberation. Nanigo meetings were held in and near her house; there
were wild dances and uncanny ceremonies, sacrificing of animals in
the moonlight, baptisms of blood, weird chants and responses, and
crime increased in the town. All this being reported to the military
the guard lines were extended and a squadron was posted at a house
not over a mile from Maumee Nina's, with Lieutenant Fernandez in
command. Fernandez was a dashing fellow, with swarthy countenance,
moustachios that bristled upward, close-trimmed hair and beard, a
laughing, pleasure-loving eye, and he wore a trig uniform that set
off his compact shape to advantage. Old Nina heard, though it was not
true, probably, that he had carried out the order of O'Donnell for the
shooting of her boy. Naturally he was the last man she could wish to
see, and she made no secret of her dislike when, on returning to her
home from a visit to Matanzas, she found this young officer seated
on a chair before her door, twirling his moustache and gayly chatting
with her daughter. She instantly ordered the girl to go indoors, and
bade the lieutenant pack off about his business. Being an easy-going
fellow, with no dislike for the people among whom the fortunes of his
calling had cast him, and with a strong fondness for pretty maids,
the young man deprecated the anger of the woman, but finding, after
some persiflage, that it was of small use to try to make friends with
her, he marched away toward his quarters, trolling a lively air and
drumming with his fingers on his sword-hilt. On the next evening he
was at Maumee Nina's again, and before the very nose of that indignant
dame chaffed her daughter, whom he also chucked under the chin; and he
gazed long and searchingly at a couple of low-browed, shifty-looking
blacks who were talking with the old woman when he entered.

"Who are these fellows?" he demanded.

"What right have you, senor lieutenant, to question me about my guests,
in my own house?" replied Nina. "It is enough that they were invited,
and you were not."

The lieutenant glanced sharply at Juanita. She looked at the shabby
fellows for an instant, smiled contemptuously, and gave her head a
saucy fling. The officer's good-nature was restored in a moment. "Give
me a calabash of water from that spring of yours, your grace, and
I'll take myself off," said he. "But, mind, there are to be no more
dances here,--no more voodoo practice."

Old Nina left the room grumbling to herself, while Fernandez talked
with Juanita, quite disregarding the sour and silent pair of black
men. As he glanced through a crack in the timbers of the house he saw
the old woman raise a gourd of water, wave her hand above it three
times, mutter, and shake her head. Then she drew from her pocket a tiny
object and dropped it in the water, stirring it around and around,
as if to dissolve it. There was a quiet smile on the lieutenant's
face as he received the calabash from the old woman's hand.

"In the old days, senora," he said, "it was the way to sweeten the
drink of a cavalier by getting the fairest lady of the house to sip
from it before he drank. Senora Juanita, you will take a little from
this shell, and I will then drink to your eyes."

Juanita had taken the calabash and had lifted it to her mouth, when
Nina sprang forward and struck it to the floor. The lieutenant looked
steadily into the face of the old woman. Her eyes, at first expressing
fear, then anger, dropped under his gaze. "I thought so," he said,
calmly, and left the house without a backward look or another word.

Late that night a subaltern, who had called on Fernandez to carry
a report to headquarters, set off alone in the direction of the
city. When half a mile on his way a man suddenly confronted him
and asked him for a light. He promptly offered his cigar. Puffing
fiercely the stranger created a glow, and in the shadow behind it he
eagerly scanned the face of the soldier. He then returned the stump,
saying, "Pass on, sir. You are not he I seek. Your cigar has saved
your life." There was a click, as of a knife thrust into its sheath,
and the stranger was gone.

Fernandez heard of this and drew an inference, but it did not deter
him from another visit to the Obeah woman's house next evening. The
old woman was away. Juanita was there alone. Truly, the girl was fair,
her eye was merry, she had white teeth and a tempting lip; moreover,
she appeared by no means indifferent to the young officer. In ten
minutes they were talking pleasantly, confidently, and Fernandez held
the maiden's hand.

The hours went by without any one there to take account of them. It
was a fair and quiet night, except for the queer and persistent
call of some insects that seemed always to be drawing nearer to the
house. Faint now came the sound of the clock in Matanzas striking
twelve. As if it were a signal to the dead, shadows appeared about
the house of the Obeah woman, creeping, nodding, motioning, moving
toward the door. One stood close beside it and struck it twice, loudly,
with a metal implement that rang sharply; then it waited. Steps were
heard inside,--the steps of a man in military boots: Fernandez. There
was a swish of steel, too, like a sword whipped out of its scabbard,
but almost at the instant when this was heard the door was opened. A
blow, a faint cry, a fall, a hurry of steps in the grass; then a
light. Fernandez held it. A long, agonized scream quavered through
the darkness, and Maumee Nina, with blood on her hands, fell prone
on the body of her daughter, her Juanita, lying there on the earth
with a knife in her heart.

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