The old house on Abercromby Street has long ago become a parking lot. But as a boy, I was taken there to meet Madame July. My aunt Ameline had said to me, as we climbed the creaky, dimly lit stairs:
“Be careful what you are thinking. She will read your thoughts.”
Have you ever tried to think of nothing?
We met her at the top of the stairs. She had been expecting us. They spoke quickly in Patois. The sitting room was almost bare. A large rocker and old couch, a low bench and a small wooden chest. Mlle. Barth sat on the rocker. Madame July reclined on the couch. My aunt and I sat on the small wooden chest. They were both very old and smelled of vertivert and ‘Evening in Paris’.
Mlle Barth, with Madame July’s murmured encouraging, seemed to fall asleep. The other rocked herself gently. I thought of nothing. My aunt had gone there to inquire about Maxim Arneaud with whom she was in love, and had been for years. As it turned out, she married Charles Loshon and as Amayline Loshon lived a very happy life.
During the 1940s and 1950s, these two old ladies of Abercromby Street were well known as mediums, voyagers into the spirit world, who were able to solve love triangles, cure maljoe, and were credited in aiding the authorities in finding the remains of Mikey Cipriani in the high mountains of Trinidad’s north coast.
It was while on one of these spiritualistic missions, that Mlle Barth in fact met her death. It was well known that old Mrs. Molé of Mayaro was a soucouyant. She didn’t trouble the village, and the village didn’t trouble her. The problem arose, if you pardon the expression, with her homeward bound flights. As she grew into her nineties, her sense of direction began to fail. There was, for example, that embarrassing morning when she was discovered naked on top of the water tank in the police station compound. She had put her skin in its protective mortar on the tank. Now her problem was to get down!
The ladies Barth and July were called in to exorcise her soucouyant personality, and that was when the trouble started. Although Mrs. Molé was old and frail, the soucouyant was strong. In the end, Mlle. Barth was savaged and subsequently died. She had been bitten and sucked by the creature in the sole of her foot.
It was said, long ago, that certain French families brought the vampire tradition to Trinidad. These European vampires intermingled with their enslaved African counterparts, and out of this the soucouyant emerged. The soucouyant makes a pact with the devil, and as such can assume any form. Her first undertaking is to go to a cemetery and dig up a freshly buried corpse and cut out the liver. From this, an oil is made. When this oil is rubbed all over, she can then slip out of her skin. The skin is kept in a mortar or hollowed-out trunk of a tree, used to parch coffee or ferment cocoa beans.
The soucouyant of St. Eau Island off the north coast, is described as a “ball of flame, along she came, flying without a wind”. One Monsieur Didier had this to relate:
“One night I was fishing. Suddenly, I saw a globe of fire which appeared far away at the very extremity of the beach where I was and which approached me slowly. I remained absolutely quiet. The globe of fire passed by a few steps away from me, some meters in the air. In the middle of this globe, I saw the face of a woman whom I recognised as a negress from the neighbouring village. When it had passed by, I asked my comrades if they had seen anything. They said they had seen the ball of fire and the face of the woman which it surrounded.”
Old people in Paramin could tell you about a soucouyant called Désirée, who on a bet flew to London to steal one of Queen Victoria’s gold spoons. However, on her way back with the spoon she “catch a malcadie” over Dent Ma Teteron in the First Bocas, and the spoon fell from her. The large gold spoon to this day lies on that rock in the middle of the First Bocas.
A soucouyant doesn’t always suck you. She could pinch you too, or cuff you, and in the morning you would have large black and blues that turn a little greenish. After a while, you could begin to feel bad, weak, thin, frail, mager. By that time, your eye sockets are sinking in your head, and you are only staring all the time. Then, you die.
Sometimes, she is a bat. Sometimes, a hog. There was a soucouyant who used to live at the top of Henry Street. She caused a lot of problems with people coming home late. Ripper Qui Tang’s father had a shop. He emptied a 100 lb bag of rice in front of Rosary Church. The next morning, they saw three big hogs eating the rice. There was another soucouyant who used to live under the washhouse bridge, near to Sony parlour. She was bad. She used to work the mortuary.
Soucouyants come and look for people whose hands are dirty. They can pass through a keyhole or under the crack in the door. The soucouyant would live on the edge of the village. Her old house was surrounded by tall forest trees. As night came, she would shed her skin to rise as a ball of flame and go streaking through the sky. By morning, she would drop through the mists and set the dogs to howling, and as a green and glowing vapour enter her old room. There, before the mortar, she would sing: “Skin, skin, skin, come to me!” - The skin would jump and twinge and wrinkle to her voice. In a leap, it would drop upon her. “Ieeee!” she shrieked, and flung away her skin that lay upon the ground, a wretched thing. “Skin, skin, skin, you na no me, you na no me old skin.” But a dreadful thing had happened. Coarse salt had been put upon her skin. In the distance, she could hear the tinkle of the bell. Oh, dreadful thing. The priests, the men of the village, would find her. She could smell the boiling pitch into which they would throw her. Her end would come at last, to rest in peace. She was old - she had lived in Maraval for 132 years.
A note on witch tales:
The ‘old woman of the village’ is a traditional evil character in the folklore of many cultures. Where does it come from? A socio-historical explanation may be ventured here.
Women naturally live longer than men, and more often than not a woman lived to great age whereas her husband would die younger, in war, because of sickness or through an accident. Old people were more often than not women, not men.
Furthermore, in traditional cultures, women did not enjoy the same rights as men. There are many accounts of widows being total outcasts in village life - the people of the village coveted her land and her possessions for themselves, especially if the woman had no sons of her own to protect her.
So, the ugly, wrinkled and lonesome old woman was a burden to village life, just another mouth to feed. Because she was a woman, nobody was interested in her personal life experience and wisdom. When she had no protectors, people invented witch stories around her, and in the end killed her, sharing her possessions, her land, her house and her livestock amongst themselves.
So take the soucouyant story with a grain of - coarse - salt!