With no television around, and none in sight, for decades, even remotely, in the south Georgetown backstreets I and my varied pals haunted, we children regularly begged adults to relate scary “stories.”
Experiencing another prolonged blackout, books few and nearly impossible to read against the thin, tired flame of a slumping paraffin candle, we would remember the expensive batteries being forever too low to power the sputtering Radio Demerara. Yet, we would eventually weary of trying to entertain each other and playing games like “Ring a Ring o’ Roses,” the search and find challenge of “Hot bread and butter” and the fast-moving competitive race and rush of “One, two, three…Redlight!”
Gathered under the stars, we would hold hands tightly in a circle, to dance barefoot and sing with the uninhibited gusto and lusty lungs of the happy young, “Ring-a-ring o’ roses, A pocket full of posies, A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down,” demonstrating the last part with such great excess that we would roll around on the cold concrete in mock ritual agony, loudly feigning the Black Death’s painful stranglehold until one of us rudely reincarnated and burst into an uncontrollable and contagious fit of the giggles.
Urban legend says the composition originally described the 17th century-Great Plague of London, but experts now reject this idea as unlikely. A common nursery rhyme or folksong, it first appeared in print a century before, around 1881, although versions were popular in parts of Europe decades earlier.
Some of my favourite memories are of magical full moon nights with no electricity, when the white rocky orb would slowly rise high in the east, all the triangular rooflines silhouetted in multiple, mysterious rows along a subdued Middle Road, as a light breeze frolicked in, caressing our flowing hair, flirting with our lashes and sighing in our ears.
We would stop and listen for a moment, before heeding the siren song of the soft wind by racing off to seek out the street’s supreme teller of tales. The older of my two marvellous mothers, both since sadly deceased, Ms. Nora or Aunty Nora excelled in the old oral tradition of what we euphemistically term, “jumbie stories.” Born in 1918, she had started life as an only child in a far too bushy and remote area of the mighty Abary-Mahaica rivers, later moving to the neat little farming village of Cane Grove, so dubbed for the famous sweet stalks cultivated there.
Her mother Samudria/Samaria was reportedly delivered on an Indian immigrant vessel that may also have ferried her boy father Mangal or Mangar. At the turn of the 20th century, their parents crossed the “Kala Pani” or oceanic dark waters to escape religious persecution as members of the fledgling Hindu religious reform movement, the controversial “Arya Samaj” or “Noble Society” that promoted belief in one God and rejected the worship of idols.
Still a girl, she had watched her parents separate, lived with a hard taskmistress of a stepmother and then witness her father, a handsome tailor with a restless nature and a roving eye, take a swig from a bottle of soft drink, abruptly collapse and die. She would remain convinced for the rest of her 78 years that he had been deliberately poisoned. Married off to an abusive alcoholic almost twice her age, she would flee as her ancestors had, this time wending her way from the green countryside to my gentle “chacha” or elder paternal uncle, “Mr. Big” my adoptive father and head of the extended family and city household.
My biological parents eventually moved out to another sectioned off house close by to care for their second born, my baby brother. I, being a delicate, premature case and an endless source of baffling, often expensive ailments, stayed with her, a wife who so desperately wanted to be a mother, she had already informally adopted one of her half-sister’s children, who in turn became my forever beloved older sibling.
Coming from a strange, shadowy realm replete with the ubiquitous “jumbies”, the blood-sucking “ol’ higues”, the tormented “churailes” or unhappy women who had died during childbirth, my mom regaled us with sworn accounts of the insatiable milk-mad and banana-guzzling dwarves, locals called “baccoos.” These troublesome creatures brought untold and sudden riches to those who did not mind worrying about a mountain of missiles thundering against their roofs, when the psychotic spirits lost it and demanded ever-greater sustenance far beyond their miniature size, money-making abilities and all human comprehension.
The gnarled Guianese hags termed “ol’higues” whipped through the dark skies above vulnerable villages, rushing past in a rolling ball of flames, shedding their skins and all inhibitions as darkness descended, to scale slippery roofs with the smoothness of a primed teenaged athlete. They would slide in through impossibly small crevices and key-holes to hunt newborn babies when mothers forgot the required protective trail made from endless grains of rice, or the required blue clothing and compulsory amulets such as the Indian silver prayer “guard” or cylindrical “tabeej.”.
In her world, sultry “fairmaids” and charismatic “mer-men” lurked along each of our many interior waterways, luring the unsuspecting to a deep watery grave. She would tell us about the terrifying “Moongazer” the ethereal, towering, mist-cursed white giant, legs apart, gazing enraptured at the earth’s natural satellite. Who would be mad enough to risk passing between such intimidating appendages?
We heard too about the infamous night when travelling back along the lonely road from Atkinson Airport the family car’s headlights swung on a running nude female momentarily frozen in the glare, and as my parents watched in horror, she turned towards them, breasts exposed and then sped off into the inky forest. She was headless, the apparent ghostly victim of a jealous cutlass-wielding husband whose mind and reason departed with the sniggers and slight suggestions of infidelity.
For a puny, perpetually sick child with a far too vivid imagination, such stories were never a good idea before bedtime. Yet, I and every other stupidly spiel-smitten simpleton, near and far, would invariably mob and beg the consummate Ms. Nora to torture us some more. Almost every night. Late. For hours.
This week, my older mom would have turned 100, and the younger 73. They were both born on November 21.
ID misses the many fascinating stories of her mothers. “Dis time nah lang time!” they would scold her. However, she finds current real-life events and some politicians to be far more blood-curdling be it Berbice “baccoos” or modern money-seeking corporate “ol-higues.”