Spotlight

Jumbie Child

by Kheryn Casey


When she wasn’t calling me Ambrosine, Madame Lorde forbade me from going to the graveyard, and if she knew that I was going when the sun was about to set, she’d slap me so hard that my head would spin around on my neck.

The graveyard was a narrow field of dirt. Stones stood one on top of the other, threatening to crash to the ground. They marked where the bodies lay. I went to my mother’s stones. I knelt down on the ground so that her body was beneath me. I prayed. Birds ca-cawed to one another, reptiles crunched through the brush, and I heard the chirping of a cricket even though the sun still shined. Madame Lorde told me that crickets were confused and dying if they chirped to the sun, so I said a little prayer for that cricket too.

Madame Lorde didn’t like me coming to the graveyard since it was so close to the brush, but it was the only place in the whole village I liked to be. It was the only place the other women wouldn’t go, so I knew I wouldn’t have to put up with their stares. Madame Lorde told me not to pay them any mind, but when she didn’t think I was looking, sometimes I caught her staring at me too.

The reptiles stopped sliding, the dying cricket stopped chirping, and birds were as silent as my mother’s stones. I opened my eyes. I was being watched. I didn’t know who or what it was, but I knew it was there, hidden in the tangled brush of bark and greasy brown leaves. I thought that it might’ve been the wild dogs that waited until night to kill the chickens we kept in our pens. If I was bitten by a dog in the graveyard, when I knew full well I wasn’t supposed to be there at all, Madame Lorde would say, “That’s your raas,” and leave me to bleed.

But maybe it wasn’t a dog at all. Maybe it was a jumbie. In the marketplace, I’d overheard Dionne Fenty talk about the boy jumbie she’d seen sitting in the mahogany tree late one night. It’d waved at her, and its hands were on backwards, as were its feet. She said she fainted right there in the dirt, and the next morning, the women thought Dionne Fenty’s arms and legs were the overgrown roots of the mahogany tree.

I looked into the brush that surrounded the graveyard, but I couldn’t see what watched me.


***

In the village there were rows of clay houses with galvanized roofs that shined so bright I couldn’t see anything but white spots whenever I looked at them. The older women and Madame Lorde built those houses before I’d even been born. The houses were built so long ago that many of the walls were cracked like the earth sometimes liked to crack in the red heat. The cracks in those houses scared me. I was afraid that the clay would crumble and crush me while I slept.

I went to the house I shared with Madame Lorde. Madame Lorde hadn’t returned from her service where she praised God and told the women of the village that He was the only man that they could love and trust. Their voices carried through the village as they sang hymns and screamed to the sky. They sounded like birds liked to sound, crying out to each other from the treetops. Every woman of the village was supposed to be there. They would’ve noticed that I didn’t come by now. I already knew that Madame Lorde wouldn’t be happy when she came back home. I pinched my cheeks to make them numb, so it wouldn’t sting so much when she slapped me.

I lay down on the quilt Madame Lorde made for me, the quilt that the two of us shared, and it began to squirm in the pit of my belly. My jumbie was excited. The day belonged to me, but whenever the sun started to set and I closed my eyes, my jumbie came out with the promise to roam free. When I was a little girl child, Madame Lorde sometimes caught me standing from our quilt, eyes wide open and shining in the white moonlight, feet ready to take me from the cracked walls of our house and towards the graveyard where my mother waited and the brush where the dogs and boy jumbie and men liked to hide. Madame Lorde said that boy jumbie was trapped up inside my belly, and that it wanted nothing more than to get out of the village, into the world of men where I would die and it would be free. Madame Lorde started tying bells around my neck, so that whenever boy jumbie pulled me to my feet, she would hear the click of rocks inside their hollow cups and snatch me by my knees.

Nights jumbie didn’t try to take me to the graveyard, jumbie took me to the sky. The last time boy jumbie took me, my skin began to burn as though I was being pinched all over by Madame Lorde’s fingernails. My bones stretched. They creaked as they grew, and I got so big that the bottom of my head scraped the branches of the trees. The knobs on my spine grew from the size of pebbles to the size of stones. I shot up into the air, my feet as big as the village itself. But the other women could not see me. They crawled over my toes like they were just another hill to climb. Birds like gnats flew by my eyelashes.

From my spot in the sky, I could finally see the outside world. The brush ended where water began. The water shined as black as goat blood staining up the rusty ground. And far below, in the tangled brush that laced the village, were the lights that glowed like the embers in Madame Lorde’s fire pit, tiny fires that reminded me of devil eyes. I knew that this was where the men waited.


***

Madame Lorde came home. I closed my eyes and pretended that I was asleep. I listened to her as she moved around in the dark. The women of the village walked by outside, their feet shuffling in the dirt as they hummed the hymns they’d sung in the marketplace. Madame Lorde’s bare feet made ripples in the sand. The dirt trembled until I knew she was standing right over me.

“Tell me where you were.”

Madame Lorde turned on the oil lamp, and I opened my eyes. Madame Lorde was a tall woman. She could have reached out and touched the ceiling if she wanted to, though she never did. The years had creased her up face and curtained her eyes with yellow.

“You weren’t at the service. Tell me where you were.”

“You already know where I was.” I didn’t care that I was being rude. “Why do you even bother to ask? You already know.

She didn’t move, didn’t say a thing. I moved away from her, my eyes wide open and staring. I was afraid that if I blinked, I’d miss her hand flying through the air. Then, “What’s wrong with you, child? I tell you to do one thing, and you do the opposite. Just to spite me. Why didn’t you come to the service? Every woman is supposed to be there. How do you think I look, eh? Standing up there, leading the service, and my own grandchild won’t come to listen to me speak.”

“Why should I go to your service?” I asked. “You only speak about God. I don’t care about God.”

She threw her arms into the air. “Where do you get this from? That’s the jumbie in you.”

“No. This isn’t my jumbie. This is me. But I don’t think my jumbie gives a rot either.”

Madame Lorde watched me hard, and if she planned to whip me across the mouth that would’ve been as good a time as any, but instead she slumped to the ground so that she fell onto the quilt beside me. She heaved out a good long breath. The spirit in her was ready to escape. It couldn’t take another second cooped up inside her rotting shell. At least she only had one spirit to worry about. I had two: me and my boy jumbie, stuck right beneath my skin.

“I don’t have energy for you, Marian,” Madame Lorde said. “You’re killing me.”

I didn’t say anything, even though I wanted to.

“You’re a foolish girl,” she said. “A foolish, foolish girl. You’re too much like your mother.”

I tensed up. Madame Lorde rarely spoke about her daughter, but whenever she did, I listened carefully. Madame Lorde didn’t like to speak about Ambrosine, especially when asked.

“It was that same disrespect for rules that got Ambrosine killed,” she continued. “You’ll end up dead, just like her, if you don’t watch yourself.” It felt like the noise around the village was muffled. Even the women outside had stopped humming to listen. “Be a good girl, Marian,” Madame Lorde said. “I can’t stand to lose my little girl child twice. Not before I die.”


***

The goat we owned had worms in its eyes and it would not make any sounds, even when Madame Lorde took a machete blade and cut its throat. I helped her strip the goat of its skin, and we washed this so that we could trade it in the marketplace. We cut into the belly to take out the bloated, gray innards and put them into pans. While we worked, Madame Lorde spoke to me about the day she came to this island.

“There was a storm, Marian – a storm that nearly killed me and the other women. The waves broke our boat in half. All of the women you see here were on that boat. Your mother was on that boat too. She was a little girl child. She was screaming, just like the other women were. We just knew we were going to die that night. And I prayed to God, and I asked Him to protect us. Next thing I see, a whale is in that storm. It swam beneath the crashing waves, calm because what can hurt a whale in the ocean? The whale swam beneath our cracked ship and we floated on the whale’s back while it took us to safety. It even leapt over the reefs that surround this island, and it took us up onto shore. It couldn’t get back into the ocean, and it died right there on the beach.”

Madame Lorde told me to be careful, else I’d end up staining my dress. Then she cut the meat from the goat’s white bone, and put this into a pot to stew. She buried the bones beneath our dirt so that more plants would come, though it seemed nothing but weeds wanted to grow. When we left our house, it was to join a parade of silent women. The women didn’t dare to look at me, much less whisper about me – not when Madame Lorde was there.

Madame Lorde left me to stand beneath the old mahogany tree. When she spoke, she told us that the Good Lord had blessed us with our own Garden of Eden, free of men and snakes. It wasn’t long before sweat ran down her skin as she shouted for Him to hear, and as the women watched her, they jumped and screamed and bawled and trembled on the ground. They sang and reached for the sky and swayed from side to side, their hollow voices echoing into the brush for the jumbie to hear. Madame Lorde didn’t see me when I left.

I climbed up the hill and went to my mother’s stones. I prayed. I lay down and stretched my arms across the dirt. The hymns echoed. The moon sucked up the women’s voices until I could only hear the reptiles and the night birds and the crickets that were not confused and dying. I waited for my jumbie to come, ready to see the outside world that I’d never seen, that world with men and monsters and women that were brave enough to live there – but my jumbie was silent tonight.



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About the author...

Kheryn Casey was born and raised in St. Thomas of the United States Virgin Islands. She studied fine arts and creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and in the fall of 2012, she will attend The New School’s Writing for Children program. Kheryn hopes to publish Caribbean literature for older teens.

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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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