The Matanzas Obeah Woman

: 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

sant 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.