The night was quiet as if the whole world was holding its breath, waiting for something to happen. The moon looked so big and hung so low it looked as if you could reach out and touch it. Somewhere in the distance a dog howled mournfully and even further away an owl hooted eerily.
Those were not good signs for Mama and she made a sign of the cross before huddling me into the living room. On her face she wore the look which tells us she was worried and I knew what it was all about.
It has been three nights since Mr. James died and Mama had always told us that a person never know death had come until three nights later. “You will die today eh but you will not know until three nights after,” she always said. Then the spirit would make one last move around the place it used to live as a human being before heading in the direction of the cemetery to meet the physical body buried there.
And tonight was the night Mr. James was going to know that he had died.
Whenever someone died in our area, Mama was the first person that was called, “to take care of things.” Then she would grab her rosary, a small bottle of holy water that never seemed to run dry, her book of novenas and hurry as fast as her legs could carry her to the death house. There she would chant some psalms, sprinkle holy water in the four corners of the house, place coins over the dead person’s eyes to keep them closed, say her rosary, repeat prayers from the novena book and wait for North-Eastern Funeral Home to come and pick up the body.
Mama said her job was to keep evil spirits from contaminating the body of the dead person because if they did, the person would not truly die but return to work with obeah men and do all sorts of evil things. She saw herself as the last stance between the evil world and the living world.
But despite her familiarity with death, Mama was afraid of spirits, jumbies, loogawoos, soukouyans and the like. And her fear was evidence all over our house: brooms were left upside down to prevent soukouyans from stealing them to fly around at nights; crucifixes adorned every window and door; a horseshoe hung upside down on the main door to prevent soukouyans from entering; the walls were covered with images of St. Michael the Archangel and St. George slaying the dragon. And then there were things that Mama had in the house which I was not allowed to see but have heard her talk about them. And they include cemetery dirt, a Mahoe Piman whip and the teeth of a male pig.
So naturally when Mr. James died Mama went to perform her duties and I followed. This was the first time I had actually gone with Mama to a death house. Upon arrival the place was punctuated by cries of anguish and a solemn look covered everyone face.
We entered the house and into the bedroom. The smell of death filled my nostrils; a heavy, pungent and suffocating smell. Mr. James lay on his bed as if he was sleeping, in his hands he grasped a crucifix undoubtedly place there by a relative, his eyes were still open staring at nothing and he appeared as white as a sheet. For even a six year old like me, it was evidence he was dead.
Mama began her rituals but I could not take my eyes off the corpse on the bed and suddenly a terrifying fear filled me. I could feel my head growing bigger and bigger and my tongue getting heavier and heavier and I struggled for breath. Mama’s chanting, the cries of sorrow, the wind in the breadfruit tree outside all blended into one and seemed to grow louder and louder.
Then everything around me started growing dark and Mama’s chanting, the cries of sorrow, the wind all seemed to grow fainter and fainter. Dark shadows danced in front of my eyes and breathing became more labored. Then to my utter horror Mr. James turned his head, opened his eyes and winked at me. The last thing I remembered was a weak scream coming from my mouth and then everything turned pitch black.
When I came to my senses I was at home and when I told Mama what happened, she suddenly became deeply concerned and immediately sprang into action. First I was anointed with olive oil and I was awoken at midnight and given a bath which consisted of Glory Cedar, Pom Coolie, Zeb Couwess, and Tabak Zombie leaves. Added to this was red lavender and Alcalado.
Then Mama told me what had transpired. She said Mr. James’ body was about to be taken over by an evil spirit but she had arrived in time, however she was not sure how powerful the spirit was and if it had completely taken over his body. When I saw Mr. James open his eyes and blink at me, it was the work of the evil spirit, she said and she was sure it would come back after me knowing that I was a weak and vulnerable child. “But doh worry your head,” she concluded. “I know how to take care of things.”
In the distance the dog kept howling and Mama walked around straightening things in the house unnecessarily. The story she told me about what happened at Mr. James house had evoked a combination of fear and curiosity in me and somehow I wished Papa was home.
Papa had gone to say rosary at the death house which was normally done for nine days after a person died. Papa was a brave man who feared no man or spirit and the talks of Mr. James’ spirit did not put a dent in his adventurous demeanor. Papa loved rosary recitals and nine nights because it was a time to meet old friend, drink some rum and have a good time.
“That damn dog there doesn’t shut its mouth then,” Mama said as the dog kept howling in the distance. “I wish I could give it a kick in it bottom eh.”
Mama went to the kitchen and suddenly I got the strange sensation that someone was outside the window. A moment later the strange but familiar smell of death filled my nostril. The smell brought back a flood of memories from Mr. James’ house; Mama chanting, the wails of sorrow, the wind in the breadfruit tree. I felt my head getting bigger and bigger and my chest closed around my lungs.
Then I felt as if someone or something was pulling me towards the window. I tried to struggle but it was an attempt at futility as I felt myself being dragged closer and closer to it. By now the smell of death was overpowering and it seemed to envelop me in a cocoon of which there was no return.
Before I knew it I was standing at the window looking out. Outside was like daylight and the howling of the dog had stopped. Thick silence covered everything. The smell of death was so powerful that I wanted to vomit.
And then I saw it, standing below the window staring up at me. I only saw the top part of the body, from the chest up. It appeared as if it had no legs but was just floating in mid-air. The hair was matted as if by water and the eyes stared out at nothing. It was Mr. James!
For what seemed like an eternity we stared at each other. On my part I could not think or move or say anything. It appeared as if I was held bound by some invisible force over which I had no control. I tried to scream but my tongue had turned to lead and nothing emanated from my mouth. I tried to move back but it seemed as if my legs had stopped working.
I struggled desperately and in a strong surge of energy I heard myself screaming, “Mama, Mama.”
From somewhere far, far away I heard hurried footstep and then I felt Mama’s strong and comforting embrace enveloping me. She told me the next day that my eyes were turning white and I was foaming at the mouth when she found me at the window.
But that night I didn’t know all this and Mama took me to the bed while she repeated over and over again her favorite Latin Prayer, “Veni Creator Spiritus.” I was given a glass of water and Mama asked me what happened. I told her and her face became chiseled with determination.
She left me on the bed and went to the window. “I rebuke you, you evil spirit,” Mama said. “I rebuke you in the name of the Infant Jesus of Prague.”
She returned to the bedroom and told me she was going to do what had to be done because she said an evil spirit had somehow entered Mr. James’s dead body and was now trying to take control of it. The evil spirit has somehow locked itself unto me and was trying to possess me, a living body, instead of Mr. James’ dead body.
The revelation filled me with horror and I sat trembling in the bed as Mama made preparation to battle the spirit which she said was still outside. First she put on her clothes inside out, and then she wrapped her left sleeve three times, spun around three times and poured a handful of the cemetery dirt over her head. Then she opened an old suitcase from the corner and pulled out the Mahoe Piman whip. I had never seen it before and the sight of it filled me with a mixture of awe and curiosity.
“Stay there,” Mama whispered hoarsely to me and went outside.
That night I didn’t know what really happened outside. I stayed on the bed filled with fear and shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. All I heard was Mama screaming strange incantations and the cracking of the Mahoe Piman whip. This went on for about ten minutes but it seemed like an eternity. Suddenly there was a loud blood curling scream and then silence.
The silence was so heavy I could hear my heart beating and hear the sound of my labored breathing. Finally Mama came in exhausted. She carefully wrapped the Mahoe Piman whip and placed it back in the suitcase.
She came and lay down beside me and whispered that everything was going to be fine. We lay silently on the bed for a long time and then somewhere outside a cricket started chirping merrily.
“This is a good sign eh,” Mama whispered. “A good sign.”
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