This was one of the stories collected during the research for my first book. The last time I saw these friends they had just finished boiling another batch of babash.
I found many local stills in the islands, but all were inoperative due to leaks or were incomplete for a lack of materials. It was late in the year and final preparations were underway for the first edition of this book. Soon, I would have to go to the States, without actually seeing one of these stills in operation. Even though I had walked too many miles, chasing other leads about local stills without success, I was excited when I heard that one might be nearby.
The directions were not very clear, but I was compelled to look for it. All I had to go on was part of a conversation I had overheard. "We were on our way to town and as the road began to rise, a young man came down a small path from up the hill and asked us for a cigarette. He invited us to the shack for a taste of local rum, but we were in a hurry to get to town so we didn't stop. The shack didn't look big enough for a still. But, if you want some local rum, you might find some there."
On my next trip to town with two friends, I was careful to notice the grade of the road. As it began to rise, my heart quickened, partly from the exertion of walking uphill in the hot afternoon sun and partly from the excitement of meeting someone who might be willing to let me see their still in operation. It was Thursday afternoon, and if I was right, the rum would be distilled sometime soon, probably before the weekend.
A hundred yards after the road began to rise, a small footpath led to a shack up the hill to the right. As we approached and tried to make ourselves known, it became obvious that no one was there. We looked between the pieces of rusted sheet metal that formed the door, and only saw a cup and some clothes inside. There was no still. But it was early in the afternoon, so we walked back to the dirt road and continued toward town.
The next field shack was also to the right. As we approached, we heard people talking and a woman laughing. A black dog announced our arrival, and a smiling young man with a piece of cloth tied around his forehead appeared. Before I could tell him we were looking for some local rum, he invited us into the shade. Just before the last step into the low-roofed shed, the young man stopped us and pulled a piece of wood with nails driven through it out of the grass. "We've had some thieving around here. This is a trap for the thief to step on." He held the primitive, but effective trap up for us to see, then tossed it under a bluggoe tree at the corner of the shack.
I first thought this was a banana tree, but the fruit were much shorter and fatter than bananas, like swollen fingers sticking out of the single, fruit-bearing branch. Inside the shed, a woman, who appeared to be old enough to be the young man's mother, was sitting on a few boards across the right side of the shed. When I told her that we were looking for some local rum, her broad smile lit up in the dark shadows of the shed. "Come in, come in out of the sun. Get another cup of water," she instructed the young man who was outside playing with the dog.
She pulled a bag from the bench behind her and poured a little clear liquid from a nearly empty bottle into an already wet cup. As she handed it to me, the young man appeared with another cup, larger than the first, half full of water. I was reluctant to taste this liquor. But as I deliberately moved the cup toward my nose I was surprised that it didn't have a harsh smell, the almost petroleum essence that I have come to associate with rum from the local stills in the Caribbean.. Instead it had a pleasant fragrance like a sweet wild flower.
As I carefully let the liquid touch my mouth, the coolness of the alcohol evaporating on my lips convinced me that this was strong. I forced my mouth open and sipped just enough to taste the liquid that I expected to burn not only my mouth, but also my throat, eyes, and probably my heart and lungs by the time it hit my stomach.
I handed the cup to my friend who eagerly took it from me as he watched my reaction. My mouth was not burning, my throat was not scorched, and my eyes were not full of tears. Even the aftertaste was not unpleasant. The young man handed me a cup of water, I sipped it, and handed to my friend. Unsure of my experience, he waited for the water before he committed himself to the small cup.
Without saying a word, he sipped from the cup, then the water, and handed both to his wife. Her eyes became bigger as she held the two cups, a small plastic tea cup with a broken handle and a much bigger porcelain-covered metal cup, rusted where the thin ceramic coating had been worn away by years of use. She hesitated until she was aware that we were looking at her, then sipped from the cups in turn.
Without noticing the man or his mother, we looked at each other as if we alone had just witnessed some extraordinary event that none of us was capable of relating to anyone else. As I formed my mouth to speak to my friend's wife, I became aware again of the young man standing behind me and the woman sitting on the bench, silently watching our reactions. Behind the woman, a partition of rusted metal, which did not reach the ceiling, divided the shed. I looked over the partition and saw an old metal drum and some sticks on the floor, but hardly enough to convince me that this was what I had been looking for. Trying to hide my disappointment, I asked where the rum was made and tried to explain that my interest was solely . . . "Come see over here," the young man interrupted with an approving nod from the woman.
As we moved to the larger space that was open to the hill behind the shack, I saw another barrel on its side, slightly inclined, perched on a few rocks. A rectangular hole had been chiseled into the top side of this barrel and it was nearly full of water. A piece of pipe protruded from its ends. We were in the right place! But the still had been dismantled. We moved to the first barrel I had seen. My host removed a piece of wood from on top of the barrel and exposed a cleanly-cut, round hole, too small to put my head into. He told me to smell the contents. I could just make out some brown bubbles coming from the dark liquid that more than half filled the barrel. Judging from the bubbles, in the next day or so the fire would be lit and, if I was lucky, I would be allowed to witness the magic in this small shack. While my companions examined the barrel, the young man pulled a long copper pipe from the roof of the shed and placed it between the two barrels. He began to explain the operation of the still when the woman appeared with another sip of rum.
Once it was disclosed that the fire would be lit Sunday afternoon, I asked if it would be all right to come see the boiling. Without hesitation, the woman assured me that we were welcome. Since the boiling would take the better part of the night, I asked what we should bring. "No, come just then and join us. After, if you want to buy some rum, you can then."
As we walked back down the hill to the main road, we quickly agreed that, in spite of the fact that it was unmistakably strong, this was some of the best rum we had ever tasted. But in our euphoria, we had forgotten to ask to buy some of the fragrant spirit to take with us. But never mind, there would be plenty of rum on Sunday. Just a couple of sips of this powerful spirit had obviously shaken our senses.
My friends had to set sail before Sunday, so I assured them that I would let them know all of the details that I could remember. This is the account I promised them. As best as I could recall.
After a couple of sips of rum and the excitement of the previous visit, I was unsure of the time that the boiling would take place, so I rowed ashore and headed for the shed about five o'clock Sunday afternoon. Not far from the dusty path that led up the hill to the camp, I stopped to catch my breath under the shade of a tamarind tree. As I turned to pull one of the fig-like fruit from the tree, I saw two figures coming up the road from the well. They were carrying some bags and a white plastic jug, which even at this distance appeared to be empty. The woman waved to me like a young girl. They were the people I had met a few days earlier. The conversation was light as we made our way up the hill to the camp. The young man went ahead with his bags and the black dog barked as he approached. He filled a can with water for the animal and met us at the entrance to the camp. As the woman and I took the last steps up the incline we looked for the trap. "It's over there," the young man grinned, pointing to the piece of wood with sharpened nails shining in the late afternoon sun. We entered the shade of the rusted structure and the jovial mood of the gathering changed to one of purpose.
The young man removed the cover of the barrel where the dark liquid had been bubbling. Now, no bubbles were visible. To cover the round hole in the top of this barrel, he pushed a large, dry-milk powder can, without a lid, upside down into the barrel a couple of inches. The metal drum looked like it was wearing a party hat. A hole in the dry-milk can was directed toward the high end of the other inclined barrel filled with water.
Next, he took another four-gallon, metal container with rounded ends and placed it on three rocks near the high end of the inclined barrel. In the side of this container there was a hole large enough to slide over the pipe that extended from one end of the water-filled barrel. When this was done, another hole, near the top of this rounded container, lined up toward the hole in the milk-powder can. Then, the copper pipe, which we had seen before, was put in place between the hole in the milk-powder can and the hole near the top of the rounded container. While the boiler was being assembled, the woman had been making a paste of white flour and water. Then, she pulled some stringy material from a coffee can where it had been soaking in water. This was the dried stalk of a bluggoe plant, and would give the flour paste the strength to seal the joints so that none of the precious vapor would escape. With sure, sculptor-like hands, she coated the fibers with the white paste and forced it into the cracks between the boiler and the milk can. Next, she put some of the paste around the copper pipe where it fit into the can. The young man took some and applied it to the two holes in the round-topped container where the pipes fit into it.
Standing straight, she surveyed their work, then told the young man to cut a plug for the drain hole in the bottom of the rounded container. Until now, not one word had been spoken since we had entered the camp. When he had finished fitting the plug, she offered the last of the sticky mixture from between the callused fingers of her large hands.
Without noticing me, she began to sing as she dipped water from another drum that collected rain water from the roof. When her hands were clean, she sat down on another round-topped container, no longer used because the holes in it had rusted until they were too big to be sealed with the flour and bluggoe stucco.
Below the lower end of the inclined barrel, a hole had been scooped out of the dirt floor of the shed. On a rusty piece of metal in the hole, she placed the small tea cup on top of the coffee can. The cup sat a couple of inches below the pipe that passed through the water-filled barrel. In a few minutes, the still was in position, though not quite ready for operation. To complete the still, she reached toward the metal wall of the shed and, as if by magic, produced a piece of forked branch. The smooth branch was inserted into the pipe above the small cup.
Finished with her preparations, she crossed her ankles and, from the folds of her skirt, pulled a crumpled bag of tobacco and a delicate clay pipe. Satisfaction covered her broad features as she arranged her skirt to hold the plastic bag. Through an opening in the shed behind her, the last of the day's sun formed a collage of pastel colors that framed her radiant silhouette. She took a deep breath, held her unlit pipe in her mouth, and looked at her son who was busy getting the fire ready to light.
The metal boiling drum sat on several rocks so a fire could be built beneath it. The young man was arranging small kindling under the front of the barrel, then lit it with a single match. Soon, the flickering flames of the kindling chased shadows around the shed. The pastels were fading from the sky, replaced by a sliver of the new moon, and Venus, on their first trip this month into the tropical sky.
Without being asked, he handed her a lit branch for her pipe. While he waited, she lit her pipe, then asked him to put some more wood on the fire. We all watched the fire begin to lick the front of the barrel. "If the fire is not under the barrel, the flames be rushing up the top and the rum will be slow to come," the smoke from her pipe mixed with her words. The old woman looked at me and smiled. I asked how long she had been making rum. "I been boiling since nineteen hundred and seventy. . . .six," she said hesitantly. Almost every week since then, with the help of her adopted son, she had willed the fire to turn the fermented cane juice into rum.
I knew this was illegal, but asked anyway. "Does anyone care you make rum?" "Well, in before times, when the other government was here, they was bad for it. But now, they don't be so bad for it. The last time I really heard of someone to get in trouble for it, the man had three barrels of rum when they come to his camp. That was, like I say, before."
Once the fire under the boiler was hot, a second fire was built between some rocks near the inclined barrel. The young man had pulled his fish traps this morning and taken a few small fish. Fish stew was put on this fire in a dented pot with a lid that barely covered it. Then, the woman again directed the young man's attention to the fire under the boiler. "Shake the fire! Shake the fire!"
The larger pieces of wood in the fire were removed and all of the coals were brought out to the side of the boiler with a forked stick. He put the largest pieces of smoking wood back on the fire and reached to his left for more dry branches. She sprinkled water on the coals, and the rusty shed coughed smoke and steam in all directions. This charcoal would be used for cooking at home during the coming week.
"Are you from here," I asked when the smoke cleared.
"No," she said. "I'm really not from here, since I was small I live here, but I'm really not from here. Before, I used to sell charcoal in the market with those other women in town, you know. One time, a woman give me some charcoal to sell that looked good, it was black and shiny, but it couldn't boil a pot. Then, a woman that I sell the charcoal come to my house and ask me why I sell charcoal that don't have any heat. The Lord knows, I didn't know that it was no good until I, myself, try to boil a pot on it. And you know, after one-and-a-half hours, the pot, it wouldn't boil. I don't like that business. For what? You work all day and maybe you get a few dollars, but I give it up now. Now, I just work here in me garden." Her black skin glowed as she looked out the opening of the shack into the dark garden behind her. There were spices, watermelon, cantaloupe, bodi, squash, corn, and sugar cane. It had been too dry this year for tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, and sugar apples.
The black dog barked once, but didn't alarm the woman or her son. A man, older than the woman, entered the shed through the small area. As he put his folded cardigan sweater over the metal divider, he greeted the young man, hugged the woman, and called her by her first name. Then, he turned to me as the woman introduced me.
He was a strong and fit man with a quick, sincere smile and short, gray hair under his hat. His pullover shirt was neat and his just-washed, polyester slacks fit him well. He looked like he was on his way to the prayer house except for his rubber shoes, which he soon took off to reveal his wide bare feet.
He had been here many times before and, after looking in the cup and seeing it empty, took a step toward the long copper pipe that separated us. He put his hand on the dark pipe, looked to the heavens through the metal roof, and silently asked the Lord's will to bring the rum to the cup as he moved his hand closer to the boiler. It was too soon, the pipe was not hot yet. The old man stood reverently in the middle of the dirt floor. The woman said almost laughing, "If you have any questions about boiling, this is the man to ask." She didn't want to reveal that he had taught her how to boil nearly twenty years ago.
The old man looked at me. "You want to know about boiling?" And he began to tell me about the apparatus that stood between us in the shed as the woman and her son grinned at each other with affection.
"First, you have to set up. You have to take four pails of water and four gallons of cane syrup. Then, you add one pail of leavener from the last boiling, and some yeast. You mix that up and let it set. You let it set about five days, according to the syrup. After five days, if it is ready to boil, you will know because the bubbles will fall." "If it fall before it's time, you can know that it won't be so good." The woman offered. "How much yeast do you use?" I asked.
"One ounce of yeast. But," the woman warned as she smiled, "if you use too much yeast, when you drink the rum, you will be certain to get loose bowels." The men laughed with her as she pulled the folds of her shirt around her stomach to keep her tobacco from spilling on the floor.
"Then, you assemble the boiler and light the fire, like so," he continued as he turned to the fire. The woman and her son held their laughter until the old man turned back to me. "The set will heat up, but not too hot or the rum will taste burnt. After, when the set turn to steam, the pipe will get hot like so. And, as the heat moves down the pipe, then the steam in the boiler pushes the heat into the extractor." He held his hand over the rounded can in front of me.
"The extractor extracts the water from the rum. The water comes same as the rum and is separated in the bottom. When you get one jar of rum, you might get one of water, so you must condemn and remove it from here." He pointed to the drain on the extractor, then waited for my eyes to meet his before he continued. "Only the rum vapor will pass the extractor. Unless," he paused to make me understand the gravity of what he was saying, "the waste forgets to drain and runs down this pipe in the cooler and into the jar."
"Can you use the water for anything?" I inquired of my tutor.
"No!" The old man was forceful. "Some people collect it, then put it back in the boiler through the bung in the head, but it makes the rum taste as bad as that water smells." "If you drink that in your rum, you won't want to talk to your wife in the morning," the woman added, "that's what give you bad breath when you drink the other rum." The two men nodded in agreement. She obviously knew what she was talking about. "Some people use it for rheumatism; you rub it all over your body before you go to bed at night. But," she grinned, "if you use it, they will know that you be coming from a camp." The three of them laughed out loud, looking first at me, then each other.
With his hand in the water of the inclined barrel, the old man continued. "Only the rum vapor will pass the extractor, then it makes drops in the pipe in the cooler and comes out there." Pointing to the nipple above the cup, he looked over the barrel to see if the rum had come yet. "If you stroke the pipe in the barrel to cool it, the rum will come better. You understand?" I nodded, and everyone began to laugh at the old man leaning over the cooler with his hand in the water up to his elbow, stroking and caressing the pipe that passed through it, willing the rum to come.
The young man got up and put his hand on the pipe to check the heat. The heat had moved down the pipe and was nearly in front of me, only a foot or so from the rounded extractor. It was dark now. A piece of rag had been shoved into the top of a bottle, two-thirds full of kerosene. Lit from the fire under the boiler, the flame provided just enough light to see the branch where the rum would appear.
The sound of the wood fire filled the shed. The flame got smaller as it was batted about the top of the bottle by the draft in the three-walled area. The young man moved from his place, on a board between two cans, and tipped the bottle, to soak the rag wick that barely reach the flammable liquid. Tipping the bottle also caused the flame to become very orange and give off thick, black smoke for a few seconds.
I looked toward the fish, and noticed that the small fire had gone almost completely out. "No problem," the young man said. As he moved the lid, the smell of fish stew was a pleasant relief from the smoke of the charcoal cooling next to the boiler and the soot from the kerosene flame.
The old man was the first to smell the smoke from the still. He leaned closer to the cup and the woman peered into it. There was no rum yet. I reached to feel the extractor in front of me. Even before I touched it, I could feel the warmth of the rounded metal can. Then, I caught the sweet smell of the smoke. "The rum is behind the smoke," the woman said. "Since you are smelling it, the rum will come just now."
I moved closer to the cup and saw a little bit of smoke come from the pipe above the cup. The old man reached behind me and again stroked the pipe in the cooler. As we laughed, the young man began. "Put some more oil in the lamp." And the others joined him. "Keep it burning, keep it burning till breakaway.
"If it's a quarter, it's better than water.
"Bring it with your willing mind.
"Bring it, Mr. Chairman, bring it with your willing mind."
The rum had not yet come, but the sweet smell of the cane liquor was filling the air. I knew the first liquor would be the harshest to come out of this still. I also knew that I didn't want to be the first to taste it. I asked the woman, "Who will be the first to taste the rum?" "You will be the first," she smiled, "strangers are always first." The young man laughed as he willed the rum to come with his nose close to the empty cup.
"I'll be the first to taste the rum," the old man proclaimed, as if the accepting the heavy burden of tasting the first rum from me, but without any indication that he ever expected anything in return. The woman laughed and again focused her dark eyes on the cup. A wisp of smoke emerged, then one drop of clear liquid, then another, followed quickly by another, and another, until an almost steady stream of liquid flowed from the whittled stick to the cup. As soon as the rum appeared, the young man moved to the fire. After he had pulled the fire from under the kettle, he quickly rebuilt it with smaller wood. And the rum continued to come. When the cup was about one-quarter full, the woman removed it. The old man took the coffee can, and replaced it with a one-gallon, wide-mouth jar. Now, the liquid was steadily dripping into the bottom of the jar, but everyone's attention was on the small cup she held in the palms of her large black hands.
She sniffed at it, then poured a little of the first liquor into the palm of her left hand. She handed the cup to the old man, then rubbed the liquid on the back of her right hand. She smiled as she felt the coolness of the alcohol on her hands. The rum was strong. After the rest of us had tasted this first rum, the cup was returned to her with just a few drops left in it. Without tasting it she threw the last few drops of fresh spirit into the fire. Blue flames flashed to the smoke-blackened metal roof over the boiler. Startled, everyone laughed as she replaced the gallon jar with the cup and the coffee can.
"The first rum is called high wines," the old man began. The woman sat down in front of the cup and pulled her bag of tobacco from her skirt. "After the high wines is the seconds, and then come the low wines. The low wines are not so high temperature as the high wines, and so, we mix the first and the seconds with the low wines to lower the temperature of the rum." Finally, it occurred to me that the temperature was not a measure of heat, but described the strength of the rum.
The stream of rum into the jar was growing. "Remove the fire, remove the fire!" she ordered the young man. "Remove the fire, don't burn the rum!" When he didn't respond, she carefully stepped around him and tended the fire herself. In a minute, the rum was back to a steady, smaller stream and the jar was again replaced by the cup and its rusty pedestal. The young man brought four deep bowls in from the smaller area. His mother, for the last thirty years, looked into the cup, then turned and smiled at him. Dark, round eyes gleamed back at her, then they both turned their attention to the cup in the dim, yellow light of the flame. The old man took the bowls and began to serve dinner. When he had finished, the woman removed the cup as her son replaced the gallon jar. "Now, no more until the jar is full," she said. The cup of rum, and another of water, were passed around twice. The first time we each took a drink; the second time we spilled a little of the fresh rum into our bowls. The old man held the cup up to get the last drop before he placed it on the cooler where it would be handy. The first jar of rum was filling up.
When it was confirmed that the rum was coming and the fire had ben tended we stoped for a short prayer thanking the Master for our souls and gifts he had sent.
The fish stew had been spiced with spices grown in the garden and was simply good. The rum was an even better condiment than the usual hot sauce used in the islands. We ate in silence except for the sound of the barrel boiling and the rum dripping into the jar. Occasionally the wind would rustle the trees behind the shack. Soon, everyone had cleaned their bowls and, since I was closest to the pot, I served seconds.
After dinner, the woman held the cup to collect some more rum. The clear stream pleased her as it flowed into the cup. She took a sip, then moved from her seat in front of the jar to the bench behind the partition. The old man stood up and stretched his arms, then looked for the cup. It had a little left in it and he handed it to me. "Have a drink, my friend." There was a kind sincerity in his voice.
I took the cup and said, "She sure is a nice woman."
"She sure is." He repeated. "I love her," he whispered.
"You are high, you've been drinking too much, you are getting high," the woman's voice came from the other side of the partition.
"I am not," he said. "I am not, I won't have another drink till morning."
"O.K.," came the consoling reply.
"She really is wonderful," he continued, this time in a lower voice. "She has been my friend for a long time now. Yes, she is a wonderful woman. You won't find a better woman than her, and none with a camp."
The young man had been pulling more coals from the fire and started laughing at his friend. Feeling a little ashamed, the old man stood up and began again. "I've been a fisherman, boat builder, I can do macheting." As he spoke, he imitated the actions of each of the trades he had done in his life. "Plumbing, masonry with bricks, carpentering."
"Carpenter," she was beside him now, and corrected him as if he were a school boy.
"Carpenter," he repeated, his voice imitating her young pupil. She smiled at him as their eyes met.
The jar was just about full. The woman replaced it with the cup and the small can. "Tippy, tippy, tippy," the old man whispered. The woman looked at him, her white teeth shining as she smiled. She was happy, the rum was coming, and it was still strong. Her happiness was contagious. She passed the full jar to the young man. While I held the funnel, he poured the fragrant rum into the plastic jug that would carry it home at the end of the night. When we had finished, the young man removed the plug from the extractor. A foul smell filled the shed as the condemned water spilled from the container. "Don't forget to plug back the extractor." The old man said as he handed first the cup of rum, and then the water, to his younger friend.
"Thank you, I hold it in me hand." He held the wooden plug between his knuckles so the older man could see it as he tipped the cup of rum toward his mouth. The politeness of the moment surprised me. The old man chuckled approvingly. He envied the young man, living with the woman he loved, but he did not resent him in the least. They had been friends most of the younger man's life.
"How do you know when the seconds come?" I asked, peering into the jar.
"See the beads in the bottom?" she asked, as she leaned over me with her warm hand on my shoulder. The bottom of the jar was just covered with liquid, and the beads formed by the rum splashing into it were floating to the outside of the jar. "When the seconds come, the beads won't stay like that."
It was hard to see, but in the next few minutes, I am sure I saw a difference in the behavior of the little bubbles of clear rum in the jar. Or at least I think I did. The old man was trying to focus on the jar in the dim light. "When the moon be new, the rum will be plenty. When the moon be filling, the rum be getting stronger. After, when the moon falling, the rum be getting weaker. And so."
There was plenty of rum, and I thought it was plenty strong. I tried to think of where I planned to be when this moon would be full. Never mind, I thought, plans on sailing boats are for fools. Enjoy where you are and don't worry about the full moon, just be free to see it. The simplicity of the experience mixed with the rum had a warm, numbing effect on me. Like the old man, I, too, loved the woman. She was as fair as a human could be. What a delight to spend time with these people, who, by their own assessment were poor, honest people, thankful for whatever the Master gave them. But they were richer than anyone I could think of, and I hoped to learn the secret of their wealth.
As the second jar filled, the conversation became more animated and several more songs were sung, but to be honest, I can hardly remember a word of any of them. When the one song I knew was sung, I joined in, and was reminded of singing in church when I was a young boy. All of the songs had a gospel rhythm and feeling to them. I looked at each of the three people with me, we all smiled and admitted our unabashed friendship. There was no doubt that I would visit the camp again. My thoughts condensed into words. "Would you mind if I came again, to see how you make the rum."
"Of course not," they said in unison. Then, the woman spoke out. "As long as I am the boss of this camp, you are welcome!"
"How do you know when the low wines are coming?" I asked.
"The beads will not form and the jar will get cloudy in the top," the woman said. As I leaned toward the jar, I could still see the beads. The top of the jar was still clear, although I wasn't sure exactly what she meant. But I was sure that, in time, I would understand. "Tippy, tippy, tippy," the old man began to sing. "Tippy, tippy, tippy," echoed his young friend. The woman couldn't help but smile.
"Okay," as she spoke, the old man took the cup and put it under the peeing twig to catch the rum right out of the cooler. She leaned forward and removed the jar.
Soon, the cup had enough rum in it to pass around. "Stand up, and tell me do you like me rum." The young man began singing.
"I want to know, oh yeah. I want to know if you like me rum."
Then, very softly. "A little more oil in the lamp." This time, I was pleased to join them. "Keep it burning, keep it burning till breakaway."
"If it's a quarter, it's better than water."
"Bring it with your willing mind."
"Bring it, Mr. Chairman, bring it with your willing mind."
This was a happy night and everyone laughed between singing the songs that had helped them pass the time many nights in the past. My new friends had been very patient with me. But then, they were polite and patient with each other. Only kindness had been spoken and felt here in the garden and I was surprised how quickly they had accepted me into their old circle of friendship. I felt like I was at an evening church social instead of a rusty shack, watching rum being made.
The second jar of rum was nearly full and the cut was the topic of discussion. The cut was the point when the seconds turned to the low wines. It didn't seem to me that it really mattered, since all of the rum was mixed in the end anyway, but it was important. Finally, the second jar of rum was full. The cup once again replaced the jar while the gallon of raw rum was emptied into the plastic jug.
When we had finished, the drip of rum into the cup almost stopped. "Shake the fire, shake the fire," the woman said. The old man leaned over the fire, and I put my hand in the cooler. It surprised me that the water in the top of the cooler was so hot. When I stepped back, I could see a little steam rising from the hole in the top of the inclined barrel. "Is this too hot?" I asked.
The young man put his hand in the cooler and agreed. We took about ten gallons of water out of the cooler and replaced it with water from the barrel behind the woman. The stinking water was again removed from the extractor.
Soon, the fire was hot again, the rum was coming, and the woman took her seat in front of the jar. As the old man stepped back from the fire, he came close to the flame and the woman scolded him. "Don't kick the flame, don't kick the flame!"
"Yes, yes," he comforted her, and sat down next to her. He looked at me and cautioned. "You have to be careful about the flame to get too close to the rum." The woman smiled and the young man laughed. I nodded in agreement.
"Have you ever had a fire?" I wondered out loud.
"One time, the flame get too close and the fire go in here," the old man was pointing to the nipple, "and around there, and back to the boiler and all blow up! But that was not here. You have to be careful."
"Have you had a fire?" I asked the woman when her eyes met mine.
"No," she looked up to thank the Master. "No, not as of yet," she said, with her chin still pointing toward the heavens.
The jar was beginning to collect moisture around the inside of its wide mouth, as if it had just been pulled from a tub of hot water. "Is this the low wines?" I asked. "This is kill prick," the woman laughed. The old man laughed, but he did think it quite as funny as the woman.
"You know what is kill prick?" the young man asked. I shrugged my shoulders, and asked him with my eyes to tell me.
The woman laughed again. "If you drink this one, you won't be any good for any woman!" As we passed the cup of rum and another of water, we all laughed. "Some rum, it make you strong. Some rum, it make you weak," the old man said.
"Some rum make you stand," the woman was looking directly into my tired eyes, "and some rum make you sleep." We all laughed again. Even though it was dark in the camp and her face was blacker from tending the smoky fire, I could see her blush. She really was beautiful.
By now, the cup wasn't getting much lighter as it was passed. We all had drunk plenty of rum, and we were all tired. The young man stood up and walked outside to shake off the long night. It was well after midnight when the drip of rum from the nipple quit again. The woman started to get up, but I offered to shake the fire. It didn't take long for the rum to begin to drip again. She put the empty cup under the nipple and collected a few drops, then smelled it, and threw it into the fire. A blue flash lit up the shed, and the young man appeared.
After a few more minutes, the rum again refused to come. I shook the fire while her son removed the jar. When a few drops had come to the cup he handed it to her. She raised it to her nose. Knowing that all of the rum had come, she threw it into the fire. The liquid hissed loudly as it hit the hot coals.
"That's breakaway," she smiled at me, and turned to the old man, asleep against her shoulder.