“Jumbie is not real” is what nine year old Devika had come to believe after her teacher interjected the idea into a conversation she was having with two of her friends during lunch break. Ms. Beverly explained that those were only stories and folktales from a time long ago, meant to frighten lil children. Devika clung to this notion, partially because she had never seen a Jumbie in real life, but mostly because the thought of any Jumbie being real terrified her. Her two friends, Javid and Celina, were not convinced. The two of them were bewitched by Jumbie stories and would seize every opportune moment to share them at school, often adding and omitting certain aspects depending on how far they let their imaginations stray in their retelling. It’s as if they had an archive of Jumbie stories between them that would gather large crowds of eager listeners into a corner of the school compound. Javid would perch up on his usual spot, a low hanging limb of an old mango tree, while Celina would sit on an upturned bucket that was meant to be a flower pot. There they would trade stories like it was gold. Their audience, which comprised students of all grades, would often buy them snacks from the school canteen just to keep listening, because Javid and Celina had a tendency to get hungry or thirsty from all that talking.
“We got a good thing going here, yuh know. And this crass Ms. Beverly want to ruin it,” Javid thought.
Real or not, Devika and the children of St. Paul’s Primary were always drawn to listen and retell tales about the Baccoo that stole money from Old Lady Pearl’s purse unless she left out milk and bananas at her front door for him to eat, or the Moon Gazer that stood at the nearby junction on the road at twelve o’clock every night waiting to snap a passerby’s neck. For generations, these spellbinding stories manifested a fear in children and if retold by parents at the right time could be the perfect tool to effect obedience. However, very few would say that they ever saw a Jumbie in real life if they were being completely honest with you. Any one of them could tell you though, that Jumbie come in all shapes and forms. It got the Baccoo, a mischievous lil spirit that would pelt stones at your house. The Massacura Man that can capsize boats in the river and drown its victims. And the Kanaima that can shapeshift into different animals. Honourable mentions include the Dutchman and the Churail but the list can go on and on. Yet, the most frightening and definitely the one with the most stories and sightings is the Ol’ Higue. It’s hard to tell who is an Ol’ Higue because they live among us like normal people. During the day, the Ol’ Higue looks like she is a sweet and quiet old lady but at night she does peel off her skin and hang it on a calabash tree. Then, she would transform into a ball of fire, flying about in search of somebody’s blood to suck. Even if your door is locked tight, she can pass through creases and key-holes. A few village folk might tell you that they saw balls of fire hovering in the rice fields on moonless nights. But meeting an Ol’ Higue face-to-face? No one can say that they have nor does anyone covet such an experience.
The exact number of Ol’ Higue stories in Javid’s and Celina’s repertoire is hard to ascertain. Suffice to say, they had nuff. But little did they know that another one was about to be added to this ever-expanding archive of theirs. ’Cause you see, the thing is, unbeknownst to Ms. Beverly, Devika, Javid and Celina, they were all in a Jumbie story themselves. For on Market Street, on the very same street they all lived, there also lived an Ol’ Higue.
Devika lived with her younger brother and her parents, Padma and Suresh, a.k.a. Son-Son, at 62 Market Street, opposite Boyo’s Grocery Shop, three houses away from where Javid lived. Right next door to them lived her Cha-Cha Omesh and Cha-Chee Naali; her paternal uncle and his wife. It was a Saturday morning and Devika was helping her mother to cut up some bora that was going to be lunch, while her six-year-old brother watched TV. And typical of any Saturday morning, bright and early, the sun barely come up, Cha-Chee already came over to talk name with Devika’s mother.
“Eh gyal, you hear Boyo daughter run away with Punka son?” Cha-Chee asked gleefully, knowing that she was probably the first to communicate the most pertinent, life-changing bit of information of the day.
“Eh heh? That’s why me nah see the gyal by the shop no more,” Padma replied as if it all made sense now.
“Yes gyal, you know how long-” Cha-Chee paused abruptly to inspect something that caught her eye on Padma’s arm.
“What happen to yuh hand there?”
“I see it when I wake up this morning. I want to believe is Ol’ Higue suck me,” Padma skittishly expressed.
Upon closer inspection, Cha-Chee concluded that it had to be an Ol’ Higue mark based on its black and blue colouration, size and placement. She cautioned Padma that her blood was too sweet and to drink some bitters or Corilla bush.
“You know, Omesh been tell me that Old Lady Pearl is a Ol’ Higue but me never believe he,” Cha-Chee revealed.
“Ey, you know me hear nuff people say that same thing. It got to be she suck me.”
Devika sat there in the kitchen listening to the back and forth of this conversation, her mind buzzing with questions. But she knew better than to butt in when big people talking. Old Lady Pearl lived alone in a broken-down, flat, wooden house at the end of Market Street. The last house before the seawall. Devika couldn’t believe that she was an Ol’ Higue. For one, Devika and her friends always played in her yard and picked her fruits but she never once scolded them or complained. She was a nice, sweet old lady, incapable of such evil. But Cha-Chee and her mother seemed convinced at this point. With that, Cha-Chee left hurriedly after “borrowing” two onions and some masala, claiming that she better finish cooking before Omesh came home for lunch.
Suresh and his brother Omesh worked at Hashim & Sons rice-mill, located right in the village. Suresh was a security guard who worked mostly night shifts. During the day, you could see him staggering around his yard in his bare bukta, sometimes in a heated cuss-out with this neighbour or that one. Another telltale sign that Son-Son was home was when loud chutney music and oldies could be heard blaring from two overgrown speakers he had on his verandah. Son-Son was an alcoholic. And whenever he could, he would get Omesh to join him in taking his daily doses unless Cha-Chee created a ruckus over it.
That Saturday night was one such night when he got Omesh to come over to take a “lil drink”. Cha-Chee decided to not make a scene ’cause she wanted to go over this Ol’ Higue business with everybody present. And on what better night to talk about Jumbie than on a night when there was a blackout. You see, blackouts are a staple of the countryside but they’re not uncommon even in the capital city. No lights, no electric fans, no running water. Just the silky moonlight reflecting off the branches of the coconut palm, a sky full of dancing stars, the smell of mosquito coils burning in the air, and the sounds of mosquitos singing in your ears even though you have two mosquito coils burning. Many a Jumbie story had been told on nights like these.
After dinner by kerosene lamp, the four of them gathered on the verandah to start the gyaff. Son-Son and Omesh had by then finished half a bottle of white rum and had every intention to finish the other half before the night was out.
“Look at all the calabash trees that Old Lady Pearl got in she yard. What she doing with all of that?” Cha-Chee inquired.
“Is to hang she skin when she take it off at night. I keep telling people, that lady is a Ol’ Higue. I see it for meself when I was coming home a night with Son-Son,” answered Omesh.
Omesh recounted the events of the night when he and Son-Son claimed to have seen a ball of fire hovering over Old Lady Pearl’s house. The two of them had been drinking, of course, and had “suddenly” sobered up after witnessing it.
“Nobody cyan tell me that I didn’t see what I see,” Son-Son said, as if he had sensed some doubt coming from Cha-Chee or Padma.
Devika kept by the door, silently listening to the conversation. Her mind was now in doubt about whether or not to believe what Ms. Beverly had told her. Her father’s story seemed convincing. And why did Old Lady Pearl have so many calabash trees in her yard? She didn’t know but she wanted answers and so she bravely decided to butt in.
“My teacher Ms. Beverly said that Jumbie is not real,” Devika said meekly.
That statement whipped Son-Son up into a rage.
“I fed up warn you not to butt in when big people talking. Get your r*** in yuh bed now!”
Devika vanished almost instantly from the doorway.
“That Ms Beverly feel she is a know-it-all just because she been to university,” Cha-Chee chimed in her two cents.
“That gyal don’t listen when I talk to her but she listening to the nonsense that Beverly fulling she head with. Last week Sunday I catch her taking a drop home from Mandir on a bicycle with one of Punka son. I warn she about them boys. If she cyan hear, she guh feel,” Son-Son grumbled.
The conversation then strayed on to Punka’s sons and their infamous reputation in the village but it didn’t take long to circle back on course to the matter at hand.
“If it got the living, then it must got the dead,” Omesh decided.
“Boy that is true. Old Lady Pearl look like she dead since Jagan was president but like she don’t want to give up she spirit,” Cha-Chee remarked.
“She cyan give it up unless she get somebody to pass on the Jumbie to,” replied Son-Son.
Ol’ Higues were notorious for the way they died. Before an Ol’ Higue can pass on, she must pass on a token in the form of a sweet or a coin or some other ordinary object to an unsuspecting person, who then becomes an Ol’ Higue themselves. This is usually done on her deathbed as she is surrounded by family members. That is why they say that Ol’ Higues run in families. But that is not always the case. The token can be passed at any odd time, after which the Ol’ Higue can choose when she wants to die. And so parents exercise extra caution in teaching their children not to accept things from strangers.
By the end of the late night gyaff it was confirmed, at least among the four of them (although Padma barely spoke), that Old Lady Pearl was the village Ol’ Higue and that necessary precautions were to be taken.
But it wasn’t as clear for Devika. She lay awake in bed that night, tossing with uncertainty about what she knew. Her curiosity for the truth about this whole Ol’ Higue conundrum stemmed not from the natural inquisitiveness of children but from the fear of it turning out to be true. She just had to know if Jumbie was real. Ms. Beverly’s words weren’t as reassuring as they were to her before, not after hearing all that her family had to say on the matter. And so she devised a plan. On Monday after school she would ask Javid and Celina to skip after-school lessons to accompany her to Old Lady Pearl’s house. She had some questions that she wanted answers to. And given the fact that they all played in and around Old Lady Pearl’s house from time to time, she did not see any danger in going there, at least not while the sun was still up.
That Sunday at Mandir, the news that Old Lady Pearl was the village Ol’ Higue made its way around the congregation faster than the parsad that was being distributed. Of course, it was Cha-Chee at the centre of that gossip storm. And it didn’t take long for it to make its way around the village. After Mandir, Devika walked home with Cha-Chee. Padma had been to Sunday Market and Devika was expected to go help her pack out the groceries.
“I forget to buy chalk. Take forty dollars and go over to Boyo and buy two stick of chalk for me,” Padma told Devika.
An odd request she thought but she went along. Boyo had an old box of chalk untouched for years at the end of a dusty shelf. But that Sunday it sold like hot dhal puri. So he thought he’d make a few extra dollars by selling a stick for forty dollars instead of twenty.
“Surely the price of chalk must have gone up in the past few years,” he reasoned to himself.
Plus, in an Ol’ Higue crisis the demand for chalk goes up as well, and Boyo was a businessman after all. Marking doorways with a chalk line was a guaranteed way of keeping an Ol’ Higue out of your home. An Ol’ Higue can’t cross a line drawn with chalk. Neither can she cross a pointer broom placed in any doorway. Also, if uncooked rice is left at your front door, she would have to count every single grain before she can enter, a feat that is seemingly impossible before she is caught.
“Meh only got one stick of chalk for forty dollars Mommy,” Devika said as she returned from Boyo’s.
“That man is a damn scamp,” Padma complained followed by a long steups.
Later that afternoon, Padma and Cha-Chee made sure to mark all their doorways with chalk lines. Padma placed her pointer broom at her front door and left out a pint of uncooked rice. It seemed that the entire village was doing the same thing. No one was taking any chances.
The next day at school Devika approached Javid and Celina with her plan. They were in their usual spot relating their newest story to their audience: The story of Old Lady Pearl, the Ol’ Higue on Market Street. They were both reluctant to go along with Devika’s plan, saying that they had been warned by their parents not to go near Old Lady Pearl’s house again. Devika too had been warned but she thought their parents would never find out if they kept out of sight. They would avoid walking on Market Street and take the seawall route to the house instead. Javid and Celina were not convinced.
“Javid, you wouldn’t know so many Jumbie stories if it wasn’t for Old Lady Pearl. Remember she told us about the Baccoo and the Massacura Man and so,” Devika said in defence of Old Lady Pearl.
“Exactly! Who else would know so much about Jumbie than a Jumbie sheself?” Javid snapped back.
Devika looked to Celina for approval but Celina ducked her gaze and said nothing. Sensing that she wouldn’t have the support of her friends, Devika decided to go alone. She left after school and made her way to a small trail running parallel to the seawall. She followed the narrow, loam filled path until she came upon Old Lady Pearl’s house.
When she got there in the mid-afternoon sun she didn’t see the old lady outside. Just a few yard fowls running around, the Atlantic breeze rustling through the leaves of the many calabash trees and a pointer broom placed at the entrance of the yard. Devika leaped over the broom and entered the yard, her eyes surveying each and every corner of the place. The house was wooden and unpainted. Moss had spread over large spots near the Demerara windows and on the shingle roof. A chalk line ran across the front doorway where a few Dutch bottles stood. It reminded Devika of those small cottages she saw and read about in her old children’s books. That is the reason why she enjoyed playing there, only now it seemed a bit more dilapidated than how she remembered it. She was hesitant but eventually she called out for Old Lady Pearl. After about a minute, the bolts on the front door began to rumble. Devika felt her stomach turn. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all, she thought. Maybe she should’ve listened to her friends and not come here by herself. What if this old woman is actually an Ol’ Higue? But she couldn’t turn back now. The door had already swung open and a grizzled hair, frail figure emerged. She walked right over the chalk line and into the yard. Her sagging skin seemed to barely cling to her bones. Her back was hunched and her forehead crinkled as her squinting eyes tried to make out who was in her yard.
“Is me Old Lady Pearl, is Devika.”
“Devika? Oh gyal how long me nah see you. How you do? You alright?” the old lady replied, her voice as fragile as her frame.
“Yes, I alright. How you do?” Devika asked
“Me trying. Me get old now man. Me nah see too well. Come close nah.”
Devika walked up and sat on a bench next to the house. Old Lady Pearl joined her. Devika didn’t hesitate to ask her why she had so many calabash trees in her yard.
“Me son plant them trees when he been alive to keep out stray dogs ’cause the yard nah fenced,” she explained.
Devika observed that the calabash trees were planted on the perimeter of Old Lady Pearl’s small patch of land. It made sense to her.
“You know, people saying that you is a Ol’ Higue. But me nah believe them. Ol’ Higue can’t cross chalk,” Devika revealed.
Old Lady Pearl let out a slight chuckle and steuped.
“Them eyes pass me. Look how them put broom at the front of me yard and mark up me door with chalk. Harassing a old lady like me. But me nah got the time to care. Me too old for that!”
Devika felt guilty knowing that it was her parents and her aunt and uncle that were responsible for spreading the rumour, but she said nothing about it. Instead they spent the next hour talking about Old Lady Pearl and her life. She had been a teacher in the British days, but left the job after she got pregnant with her first child. Her husband used to beat her throughout their marriage but he died not long after their third son was born. And all of her three sons died before they turned twenty-five. So, she was left to live alone in her old broken-down house at the end of Market Street.
Old Lady Pearl got up suddenly and went inside to get something. When she returned she had in her hand a small golden brooch, in the shape of a bird.
“Take this. I always said if I had a granddaughter I would give it to her. But all me pickney dead out and leff me. Is about time me let go of these things, me don’t have long more to live and not much to live for anymore. Meh soul tired,” Old Lady Pearl said, handing the brooch to Devika.
Devika took the brooch and examined it carefully. It was old and tarnished. The beak of the bird was missing. Maybe it had broken off years ago, she assumed.
And for the first time in her life Devika looked at Old Lady Pearl not as an old lady but as a woman that was once her age, and Ms. Beverly’s age, and her mother’s age. She realized that Old Lady Pearl’s skin couldn’t be peeled off and hung on a tree. She had lived in it all her life, it bore the marks to show. And now that it seemed to barely hang onto her bones it still wasn’t going to come off. This struck her because it was so removed from her own existence and ideas of what life was like. She couldn’t understand the way this made her feel, but it was a feeling that would stay with her long after she could.
“Thank you for the brooch. I glad I came and talk to you this afternoon,” Devika said smiling.
Old Lady Pearl smiled back and asked if she wanted to stay for something to eat but Devika declined. It was getting late so Devika decided to make her way home. She slipped out of the yard waving goodbye to the old woman and ran down the street to her house, hoping no one had seen her. But someone did see her.
Later that afternoon, when Son-Son came home from his day shift, he was greeted with a complaint from Cha-Chee. She said that she saw Devika at Old Lady Pearl’s house earlier. Upon hearing this, Son-Son marched out of the house and down the street straight towards Old Lady Pearl’s house. Padma and Cha-Chee tried to stop him but he was already drunk from drinking on the job, and they instinctively knew that any attempt to stop him would be futile. Cha-Chee left quickly in her usual manner, claiming that she had only come over to borrow some face powder ‘cause she and Omesh were going out for a drive.
Devika was upstairs, unaware of what was going on until she heard her father shouting and cussing in the street. She ran out to the verandah and saw him in front of Old Lady Pearl’s house, hurling the nastiest of remarks at her. He called her a witch and a Jumbie. He accused her of being an Ol’ Higue that wanted to feed on the children in the village. With every one of his sentences the amount of cuss words multiplied. All of the neighbours ran out to their verandahs to witness the commotion going on. Cha-Chee and Omesh pulled out in their car but paused to catch a piece of the cuss-out. Old Lady Pearl did not respond but instead went inside and locked her door.
After cussing to his heart’s content he began to make his way back to his yard when he spotted Devika on the verandah.
“I will deal with yuh r*** today!” he shouted at her as he entered the yard.
Son-Son rushed up the stairs, tripped on a pointer broom and almost fell over, which only served to fuel his rage. Devika backed herself into a corner in the verandah and watched in terror as he made his way to her. His eyes and face seemed to be on fire, red with fury. It was as if he had peeled off his skin to reveal something truly horrible that was hiding inside, because Devika could not recognise the figure approaching her as the man she called her father.
He dragged her by the arm and flung her in from the verandah. She let out a scream that was cut halfway by the brute force of his hand slapping her across her face. She began to wail. Padma rushed upstairs nervously. But before she could intervene he had pushed Devika towards a chair where she hit her arm and fell to the floor, yelling about how fed up he was with her disobedience.
“You feel you is a big woman in this house? Eh? You will take licks like a big woman!” he barked as he raised his hands to hit her once more.
But Padma stepped in between and begged him to stop. And after cussing and accusing Padma of encouraging Devika’s behaviour, he finally made his way downstairs to go change his working-clothes and to shower.
All the while Devika sat on the floor sobbing in a pool of her own urine. She didn’t even realise she had wet herself. Padma tried comforting her by wiping her tears and picking her up. She examined her body for marks and bruises and took her downstairs to bathe her.
The next morning Devika awoke to pain in her arm. There was a black and blue mark on the spot that had hit the chair. But what alarmed her was the blood she found on her bed sheets and on her nighty. And for a moment she thought that an Ol’ Higue had sucked her.
Padma dashed into the room after she heard a scream. She saw her daughter confused and in tears once more. But once the confusion had cleared in her mind, Devika knew she was no longer a little girl anymore. She had begun to transform into something else; a woman.
And on the day following that, news went around the village that Old Lady Pearl had died. She wondered if it was her father’s drunken verbal assault that caused the dying woman to die faster. Devika spent most of that day in the toilet muffling her cries and decided that it was. She took the brooch that Old Lady Pearl had given her and hid it away in a box of her old books and toys. No one would find it there.
That Thursday Cha-Chee decided to show her face again after the trouble she stirred up earlier in the week. Padma was in the kitchen cutting up onion and Devika was helping her to cut up some pumpkin that was going to be lunch.
“Eh gyal, you not in school?” Cha-Chee asked Devika.
Devika shook her head and continued doing what she was doing.
“She get she period, so I let she stay home,” Padma whispered to Cha-Chee.
“Oh. Okay. Is good that you-” Cha-Chee paused after she saw a black and blue mark on Devika’s arm.
“What happen to Devika arm deh?”
“Gyal what yuh think? Is Ol’ Higue suck she last night!” Padma quickly replied.
“But Old Lady Pearl dead.”
“Well it got to be that she pass it on to somebody else in the village before she dead,” Padma concluded.
Devika sat there listening to their conversation. Her mind did not buzz with questions. She had no doubts about where her mark came from. And no doubts about whether Jumbie is real or not. She had seen one face-to-face and it terrified her. But she remained silent ’cause she knew better than to butt in when big people talking.
About the Author
Kevin Garbaran’s ‘The Ole Higue on Market Street’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Garbaran, a 24-year-old Zorg, Essequibo Coast resident, has described it as “a coming-of-age story,” which also explores “the nature of stories and how they can have an impact on the listener.”
In an interview earlier this year with Sunday Stabroek, Garbaran explained that while Guyana has a very rich tradition of storytelling and folktales, he also wanted to capture and focus on issues that plague Guyanese society, which resulted in the domestic abuse themes that also feature in the story.
Garbaran grew up in Zorg and credited his exposure to stories during his childhood among his inspirations for taking up writing. “Growing up on the countryside, with a big extended family, I experienced the well-known tradition of ‘Jumbie storytelling,’ which later inspired me to become a writer,” he said.
He also mentioned that during his time at President’s College, which is a boarding school, he would visit his grandparents in Mahaicony and they also told him a great deal of stories, which increased his love for literature.
Although he started writing stories from the age of six, he said he never had the confidence to show his pieces to people other than his relatives. His submission for the Commonwealth Prize was his first time entering such a competition. He was among 22 persons shortlisted from a whopping 5,081 entries for the Prize.
Garbaran, an Environmental Studies graduate of the University of Guyana, currently works as a part-time server at the Pegasus Hotel, which allows him to be financially stable, while also having the time to write.
He is currently working on a novel.