In the 1950s, 1960s and into the late 1970s tales of Lougarous and Soukouyants were everywhere. For those of us growing up in the far flung villages of Dominica such tales provided useful and sometimes terrifying entertainment to wile away the dark silent nights.
This was before the advent of electricity in the villages and in household after household young and old would gather to relate tales of those dark, evil creatures. Years later, although I have grown up and supposedly moved on, such tales are as vivid as when I heard them as a kid growing up in the village.
According to the storytellers, Lougarous and Soukouyants were all amongst us. These were men (Lougarous) and women (Soukouyants) living in the villages who had given their lives to the devil and in exchange had super human powers to do such things as vanish into thin air or be transformed into fireflies at night, or cast spells.
The tales were tall and terrifying. To my young mind, fear of the dark was the inevitable consequence. I dreaded the dark. Every movement or the whistling of the wind could be one of them coming after me. And those dreaded fireflies? We called them la loo and la belle. The smaller ones the la belle were the Soukouyants and the bigger, brighter ones, the la loo were the Lougarous.
I recall one time, through no fault of mine having to brave the night all alone after being left stranded at a neighbor’s house. Today, many years later, I remember that night as though it was yesterday. Those darting fireflies were everywhere, tugging at my shirt, blowing against me, threatening to carry me away into the night. I screamed my way home that night. The 500 yards felt like 500 miles.
So powerful were the Soukouyants that they were ascribed god-like powers. Consider this story. This particular Soukouyant from La Plaine was said to routinely fly to England in one night and return before day break. On one such journey, she entered the Queens palace and stole the Queen’s dress.
Villagers swear by this account. Several of them recall seeing the woman wearing the dress at church on Sunday morning. Much later, I learnt that this particular woman was undone when on returning from one of her nightly sojourn flying the night skies, she made the mistake of passing directly over the church where some villagers were waiting for her with a special concoction. She was blown from the sky and the next morning found dead in the church yard.
In another story, a carpenter was given a single piece of wood to build a cabinet for one of the villagers who was rumored to be a Soukouyant. In the middle of the night he arose to strange noises coming from under his house where he had placed the plank.
Suddenly it hit him. This plank was meant to kill his entire family. Getting up from bed, he crawled under the house and retrieved the plank. Then he started to walk the half mile to deliver the plank back to the lady’s house. As he got closer to her house, he realized that the plank was becoming heavier and heavier threatening to crush him. He offered up a prayer: “ Papa Bon Dieu par muen courage pour faire ca” (Dear God give me the courage to do that). Apparently it worked. He successfully returned the plank to the lady’s house. The next day she was dead.
Today, as I write these stories they seem ridiculous, but like most children of my generation at the time they were true. The truth was everywhere. Soukouyants were named. As such during the day, you saw them, knew where they lived and so you avoided them. Even a casual look in your direction would send you fleeing in fear.
We were warned not to let them approach us or touch our heads since they would prevent us from learning. Parents kept supplies of red lavender that were religiously applied in the form of a cross on their children’s head, ostensibly to ward off the dark powers. Children attending secondary schools in the town would receive a special bath of herbs and wild weeds during the summer break to keep the spells away. How could we not believe?
Two years ago, I think I was finally able to put the ghosts to rest. On my return to the village, I saw one of the ladies who were supposedly the most powerful Soukouyant in her day. She must be well into her nineties, yet she looked strong and alert and was taking a casual stroll down the street. As I looked at her I paused; a thousand stories rushed through my mind.
I was about to pass her without saying a word. Just then, I looked up at her. She was looking directly at me. “C’est ou qui savant Thoma qui autres payee?” ( So it’s you the child of Thomas that is overseas?) she asked. I was stunned. How did she know me? Surely growing up as a kid I had never looked closely at her. I was simply too fearful. How did she know? Could all these stories be true?
Then I smiled, told her that yes it was me. Then I complemented her on the way she looked. “It’s really nice seeing you”. She too smiled, then turned and continued to walk down the road. I looked back at her. Could it really be true? No way, I told myself. Then I started thinking of the pain and suffering this poor woman must have gone through having to bear that burden of being labeled a Soukouyant for all those years.
Rather than being revered as she should be, she had become a social outcast. I wondered what she was thinking when she saw me. Then I began thinking again of all those stories. The names of the famous ones in the village. Most of them long dead.
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