Tonight is Hallowe’en. It’s a celebration of all things gloomy, dark and deliciously disturbing. We humans have always had a fascination for the supernatural, and there is nothing strange about that. And indeed it’s another grey, glowering evening in Kingston, after yet another day of heavy rain. Elsewhere in the world, it’s the time of year when the days grow shorter, the wind grows chill, and one huddles towards the warmth.
Although Hallowe’en is not a Jamaican festival, in recent years the happy upper classes of Kingston, always looking for another opportunity to dress up and socialize, have embraced it. It’s another opportunity to party, and why not? This does not sit well with some Jamaicans, who would rather reject what one journalist called “yet another Americanism” today. Well, firstly Hallowe’en is not a mere Americanism, although the way in which it has been commercialized and regularly celebrated is. It is a Christian (and possibly pre-Christian) festival on the eve of All Hallows Day. It coincides with the Samhain Festival, which likely has Celtic roots; and with the Mexican Day of the Dead, among other regional and national events of some significance. It’s just not on the Jamaican calendar – except, it appears, for the partying uptowners.
Oddly, though, Jamaicans of all walks of life have fervently embraced another much more obvious “Americanism” – the horribly commercialized Valentine’s Day, with its pink roses and teddie bears. Valentine’s is an institution in Jamaica, almost an obsession. Perhaps this is so because it does not appear to replace any Jamaican tradition. Part of the argument is that we are hating and rejecting our own traditional festivals in Jamaica, and embracing “foreign” cultural expressions. Horrors!
Well, Jamaicans and other Caribbean countries have their own duppies (who are really frightening), most of which are derived from African folklore. It is culturally the correct to do, some say, for Jamaicans to embrace these shivery monsters, while rejecting witches and goblins and the like. But hold on a minute… Couldn’t one attend a Hallowe’en Party in Jamaica (or elsewhere) dressed as a Rolling Calf? Now, there’s a thought!
Be that as it may, here is my duppy story for tonight. It’s very loosely based on a story a dear departed friend told me. He grew up in St. Thomas (the home of obeah, or Jamaican “black magic”) and he believed in duppies. So be careful, my dears, when walking down a lonely country road tonight, with only the stars for company…or maybe something else? This story first appeared in Tanya Batson Savage (Susumba’s) Book Bag: http://www.susumba.com/magazine/issue/book-bag-issue-8-fiction-edition It’s packed with good stories!
A Tap on the Shoulder
Leckie sat and watched the sunlight gently leaving his acre of land. The sun was wishing his banana trees and his Scotch Bonnet pepper plants and his yam sticks a good night. The sun was not in a hurry to leave, but it had a timetable to meet. It was off somewhere else, leaving Leckie sitting there.
Leckie was a serious man. He narrowed his eyes at the sunbeams winking at him through the trees and said silently, “Goodbye, sun. Until tomorrow, God’s willing.” It was time to go home. He put his hand on his machete and his bag of provisions – a few green bananas and a couple of dasheen – but still did not get up to leave the rock on which he always sat, rounded smooth. Sometimes, he liked to linger for just a few more minutes, watching the shadows deepening under the trees and listening to the tiny frogs and insects tuning up their nightly orchestra.
For Leckie, it was the best time of day. When he was a young man, needing some peace, he would light a little fire to keep away the mosquitoes and stay up there all night alone, resting and dreaming on his rock. As the woodpecker cried in the trees in the pale morning light, he would roast a piece of yam on the fire, eat it and go home, his head clear once more.
It was about an hour’s walk to his home, depending on his pace and whether he stopped to sit down by the roadside for a few minutes, along the way. Sometimes the heat of the day that had passed tired him so much that his walk turned into a shuffle, barely lifting his feet. When people asked him his age, Leckie would give a half-smile and say he had been “troddin’ this earth a good while, now.” He did not always remember his birthday these days, but no matter. He knew he was growing older, that was all.
Leckie stood up, straightening his back and tucking his machete under his arm. He slung his bag over his shoulder, as he did every evening. This was the moment when he felt most content. He started down the path, worn with his footprints and the footprints of his father before him (and his uncle, too) to the road below. A small animal rustled in the grass. The trees stirred in the evening breeze.
The road was darker than his hillside plot had been. The moon was not up yet, and only the breeze kept him company. A few stars began to flicker in the sky, still streaked with orange. A car passed by, shaking with a heavy bass line, lighting his way for a second or two with its headlights. It disappeared down the road, the sound echoing behind. Leckie gave a little sigh, and continued on his way, wrapped up once more in the cries of the tree frogs, and his own wandering thoughts.
And another sound. Someone was walking behind him. He had not noticed anyone else on the road, but they must have caught up with him. He walked slowly these days. There was no hurry to get home, since his wife died. The house was dark and empty, and no pot on the fire – just the dog wagging his tail from his spot under the mango tree. The house was just a place to sleep.
Who could that be, walking so silent behind him, with no greeting? He wanted to turn round and look, but something told him not to. Anyway, the dim starlight would not allow him to see very far behind, or in front. He continued walking.
His thoughts drifted back to his wife. Although she was gone six years now, he still missed her in odd little ways. Sometimes he thought he could hear her rasping cough out in the yard. He saw the movement of her arm as she hung the washing out. When they were courting, many years ago, he used to tell her what strong arms she had. They were to hold him tight, she told him.
The footsteps behind him took a little pause, and Leckie paused too. He turned his head, peering sideways out of the corner of his eye. He thought he saw a shadow, some way behind, but it could have been the shadow of a tree. And the moon was rising late tonight. He started walking again, picking up his pace just a little. He had reached the low wall of the cemetery, with its tottering stones.
Suddenly, someone was right beside him, walking clear and strong right beside him. How could he have caught up with him so fast? Leckie jumped. His machete slipped out from under his arm and clattered to the ground. He bent down to pick it up, and as he straightened up again he found he was looking at his old friend Mas Johnny.
“Wha’ppen?” said Leckie. How strange and yet delightful it was, to meet him on the road.
“Nice breeze tonight,” responded Mas Johnny, in his usual casual way. He gave a little chuckle. He was wearing the old flat cap he had brought back from England, years ago. He looked good, and full of that energy – or “vim and vigor,” as he used to call it.
“What’s the matter, Mas Johnny?” Despite the chuckle, Leckie knew something was wrong. “Wha gwaan?”
“Well, it’s the missus.” Mas Johnny loved to use these funny English expressions. “She’s a bit under the weather, these days.”
Leckie thought the weather was very nice for the time of year. But he thought he knew what Mas Johnny meant.
“Last time I saw her, she look fine,” he told his friend. “Nuh worry yuhself. She’s fine.”
Mas Johnny said nothing. He was so quiet Leckie looked to see if he was still there. He was walking slightly ahead of him now, his body almost seeming to merge into the roadway. Leckie blinked his eyes and wished the moon would come out.
Mas Johnny and his wife Maisie lived at the end of a narrow pathway fringed with hibiscus, just five minutes from Leckie’s house. The two of them used to operate the little building at the front, its zinc walls painted blue, as a shop selling drinks and snacks, until a few years ago.
“Yuh tink so? She fine? Well… Me hope so.” said Mas Johnny. He sounded cheerful enough. He tapped Leckie on the shoulder, as he always did when he was giving jokes, a white rum in his hand, at the bar.
“Likkle more!” said Mas Johnny. And again, in a curious, high-pitched voice: “Likkle more!”
Leckie had never heard his friend speak like that before. It didn’t sound right, to him. Then, he made a sound – maybe it was intended as a chuckle, but it came out more like he had something stuck in his throat.
Mas Johnnie pulled on the peak of his flat English cap in what seemed to be a gesture of farewell, and leaped over the wall of the cemetery, nimble as a young boy, one arm in the air, his legs swinging up to one side. Like he was doing the high jump, thought Leckie, with some surprise and admiration.
Leckie stopped suddenly, standing very still. The tree frogs stopped too, then started again even more loudly and insistently, a crazy warble. Leckie felt dizzy. Time to take a little rest, he thought, as the edge of a lop-sided moon crept above the hills. He sat down.
He was not sure how long he sat there by the side of the road. The stars spun, and the moon tilted its hat at him. Soon come!
A little further down the road was Mas Johnny and Miss Maisie’s house. Leckie turned down the pathway, and knocked on Miss Maisie’s door. He knew she went to bed early, but she was still up. A television flickered in a corner of the room behind her. She offered him a cup of tea, but he refused. He felt weary, suddenly. He just had to see if she was OK.
Miss Maisie was surprised by the evening visit from her husband’s old friend. Usually, she only saw him at church, and he didn’t attend church regularly, either. She was even more surprised when he asked:
“How yuh keepin’, Miss Maisie? Mas Johnny’s worried about you. I decided to come see you. See if you’re doing OK.”
Miss Maisie’s eyes widened. She took a deep breath, but did not let it out. She sat down, pressing her hand against her chest as if she felt it might explode. She did not reply for quite a while, and when she did her eyes were closed.
“So… You did see Mas Johnny?”
Leckie felt even more confused. Of course he saw him, on the road just now. Why did Miss Maisie look like that?
“No, Mr. Leckie. I think you been drinkin’. You had a dream. Or someone playing games with you. Go home, go rest. And don’t come back here talking about Mas Johnny no more. It nuh make sense. No, it nuh make sense at all. Go rest up. Take a likkle break. It’s late. Go home nuh! Please.”
Miss Maisie’s words tumbled over each other, her eyes cast down. She couldn’t look at Leckie. She kept clenching her fingers to stop them from trembling. Was she afraid? Why was she afraid?
“Miss Maisie. It’s OK. I’m leaving.”
Leckie backed away from her towards the door. Perhaps Mas Johnny was right; she wasn’t so well, after all. He put his hand in his bag, and placed the green bananas on a table near the door.
As he bade her good night and turned to leave, she called out.
“Mr. Leckie! What is that on your shoulder?”
He turned sharply, pulling the sleeves of his old shirt towards him to look. On his right sleeve was a bright, white patch. It glowed like the moon, and when he touched it, it felt cold as river water.
He told her it was nothing; it wasn’t painful.
When he got home at last, he stood outside his front door for a long time, while his dog snuffled at his shoes. Then he opened the latch, and went inside, where it was darker than outside. The only light was the faint moon glow he was wearing. His arms felt loose and heavy at his sides. He dropped his bag on the ground.
He took off his shirt and lay down on the bed. He took a sip of tea, and closed his eyes.
The next day, Miss Maisie tapped on Leckie’s front door. She wanted to thank him for the bananas, and to bring him a little peppermint to make tea. It was Sunday; she hoped he was resting today. He was acting strange last night.
The door was not closed properly. She called out; the two-room house was silent. She could see the corner of a bed in the room next door. She went in.
Leckie was lying on the bed, on his back. His shirt lay across the back of a chair, and a cold cup of tea stood on a table beside it. When she picked up the shirt and examined it closely, there was not a mark on it. The window rattled in the breeze. Rain was coming.
Miss Maisie touched the bed. She was afraid to touch Mr. Leckie himself. His feet protruded from the sheet, the toes turned out. His mouth was half open, but the movement of breath was gone. Miss Maisie gave a long, deep sigh.
Likkle more, Mr. Leckie. Likkle more!