So It Go
by David Martins
We grow up in Guyana, and the Caribbean generally, with this notion of jumbie, soucoyant, ol’ higue, etc. very firmly entrenched. Grownups swear by it, and some will even walk about with some object or liquid to “protect we from jumbie”. (I will tell you about Mrs. Vieira from New Road another time.) Interestingly, when you’re very young it’s not very much on your radar (being oblivious to many things is a blessed part of youth), but as you get older and you start to hear about these detailed personal encounters with jumbie, usually told with a lot of intensity by “big people”, the belief in spirits, other than the DDL variety, often grows and is taken very seriously.
Where I grew up in Hague and Vreed-en-Hoop, jumbie was serious business; don’t fresh up yourself and argue wid dem old people about it. There was a huge estate-type house set back from the road close to Pouderoyen, on a big piece of land, owned by some people named Coghlan, and the story was that it was haunted. I remember a bunch of us, macho 16-year-olds, riding past there one night, nobody speaking, feigning bravery, and suddenly, as if from a silent signal, everybody got off the saddle and started “shotting”, as we said in those days, full speed until we passed the property.
Mind you, my reaction to the shotting was that I was just going along with the guys, but actually I was a sceptic. I had never seen a ghost, except in my dreams. That’s the first piece.
Let me back up to say that all five of the Martins children grew up at Hague Front in that big two-storey house at the Middle Walk junction. My mother, a Barcellos, and her sisters were born and raised in the house, and my mother gave birth to her five children (Theresa, Imelda, Cecelia, Marie, David) there as well.
It was a lovely airy house, particularly the upper storey facing the sea, and at the very front of it was a single large bedroom which had been my grandmother’s bedroom. It had one of those beautiful cast-iron four-poster beds; draped with mosquito netting at night, it was a beautiful sight. When I was still very young, my grandmother, Avo as the Putagee people say, had died in that very room on that very bed. And that’s the second piece of where I’m going, because after Avo passed away nobody slept in that room.
My aunts would clean the room, fluff the pillows, open the Demerara shutters to air it out, sweep the floor, etc., but nobody slept there; the other three bedrooms upstairs, yes; not Avo’s bed. It was a soft inviting mattress, but it remained empty. I recall, too, that conversations with my sisters about sleeping there were usually extremely brief. A single sentence – “Avo dead in that bed, you know.” – sealed the issue.
Fast forward now. I’ve graduated from Saints, started working, macho coming out of me like molasses at Diamond, and I go down to Hague to spend a few days. I don’t know if it was because I was now 18 years old, full of ginger, couple dollars in my pocket, and even starting to eye woman, but I suddenly got it in my head that I was going to sleep in Avo’s room.
I need to emphasise that my head was totally clear about this. I had outgrown or simply gotten over whatever early trepidation I might have had about the room. I wasn’t even a little bit anxious. In fact, I was kind of looking forward to stretching out on that sweet mattress in that breezy room. Man, you could even hear the Atlantic waves from there.
So your boy gets organized. My Aunt Julie comes in with a glass of water, checking that I’m okay, says good night, and leaves. I roll over on that soft mattress. I can feel the breeze filtering through the shutters. I can hear the ocean by the seawall. Almost instantly I’m asleep.
I don’t know how long I slept, and I don’t know what woke me up, but the next thing I know, I am wide awake, lying on my back, and I mean I am wide awake; no drowsy eyeballs here. And flat on my back, I look at the foot of the bed, and I can see, clear as day, a woman’s face, resting on her folded arms on the wrought iron, looking at me. She is completely still. She doesn’t blink. She doesn’t speak. She just stares.
Well, your boy goes cold. I shut my eyes, tight, in the hope that I’m not seeing right, and I open them again. The figure is still there, staring. No question about it. I turn my head to the right, nothing unusual. I turn to the left, again all normal. I turn back to the centre. The figure is still there on the bed foot, face on folded arms, watching me.
Up to now I have not moved an inch, but cold sweat is starting to take me. For some reason I didn’t call out to anyone, and didn’t raise any alarm, but I quickly realized sleep was no longer an option – I had to get up and confront this thing. I ducked under the mosquito net, heart in my mouth, and walked around to the foot of the bed to the spot where I had seen the figure. In an instant I saw what had happened: my Aunt Julie had left a small multi-coloured blanket for me on the bed rail, and the moonlight, coming through the shutters, had landed on the blanket in such a way as to make it look like a human face.
And here’s the third piece. I got back in the bed, stretched out in the same spot, looked at the same area where I had seen the jumbie, and now I could see it was just a blanket with moonlight on it.
Sometimes, when you think you’re seeing with your eyes, you’re seeing with your mind.