An origin story of the soucouyah.
‘A ball of flame, along she came,
flying without the wind.’
They say the French families brought parasols to protect their sensitive skins. They say he was one of them, came one night on a ship. And on days, when the sun was too strong for him and his silken handkerchief, he went inside and hid in the shade until the night came in. Then, in hood and cape, and under flambeaux light, he would stroll among the shacks, trying and savouring the fat of the fertile, shackled land.
And it was on one of those nights, they say, that he met, Miss Sasa. She was under the big, big, cotton tree. The one at the far edge of the wide cane field. And when he saw her, he took a step closer and skinned his pointed teeth.But Sasa wasn’t afraid of him. No. She could smell the big house smell on him, and something else besides. And though she’d had dreams the night before, she hadn’t planned for him.
-Bonne nuit jolie. He greeted. -Venez ici. And he took another step in.
And Sasa stood fearless. Stood up straight, planted amongst the roots, and laughed deep and low, and answered.
-No misyé! Oú mét vini. And shook her head. -No. You come. Or you go.
And he was intrigued that she dared to be so bold. And shivered, but not because it was cold. Ahh, no moon was out, the dark belonged to him. He touched his brow with his handkerchief and sniffed his perfumed wrist.
-Celle-ci. He whispered. Yes. This one. He’d have some fun with this one first, before he quenched his thirst. -Impudent fille, in a ragged chapeau. He’d make her a hag before the sun could show to dry the blood red mist.
They say there was some blood, soaked into the mud. But not as much as you would expect, considering the state he was found in. There were repercussions, of course, and interrogations. A couple of floggings too, but no one could say what the real truth was. But Sasa knew. She knew.
You see, Sasa used to be a firefly, till she found herself marooned, unsure how she’d got on the island, and no power to get back home. Sometimes it looked like home to her, and she’d, for a moment, pretend. But the smells were the biggest difference, making it impossible to forget. No fermenting maize or goats milk. No stink of drying fish. No waft of boiling groundnut. No scent of elephant shit. The heat was real, but the ocean breeze added salt to the earthy sweat. And though she was still perfectly formed, she wasn’t all that she had been.
So Sasa listened for murmurs, talk carried on the wind, and decided the only action was to make a deal. She was desperate. She called on the spirit of the cotton tree. Made a pact with the devil some said. But what did they know, those wounded souls with their memories torn from their heads?
So, she dug up the body of Eloise, the girl who had died in the house, cut her liver from her belly, and made the oil required. She hid in the night to use it, rubbing it over her curves. More than confident that the procedure, the ritual would work. She rubbed the balm over her breasts, and evenly down her thighs. She smeared it on her back. She knew it was worth a try. Rubbed it down her belly and even across her face. She was sure, as she stroked, she wasn’t long for that small place. So she rubbed the blood red oil, thickly, into her hair, and smeared it on her hips, and even sipped a taste when she rubbed it on her lips. And then… she waited. An hour, a day, a week. And how she cursed the earth, the sun, the sea, she even cursed the tree. Until that night. The night she met Misyé‘Venez-ici’. With his bloodless skin and long white teeth. He was the missing piece.
Mauvais Langue and Gossip.
They said, -She ate the bread the devil kneads, and wears it on her hips. They eyed her as they said it, but Sasa laughed.
-Cut-eye don’t kill.
They said the French man had burned, scorched from within. It was her that caused it, they said. And it didn’t matter if he deserved it, she’d put a curse on everything.
The Madame’s daughter got sick soon after. The son caught scarlet fever and died. The Madame started a slide to madness and the house girl was made blind. The Madame’s brother, Lavalette, vicious and full of vice, decided it was the workers that would have to pay the price. Work hours got longer. Food rations got smaller. Mam Helene, the healer, was sent far away. Drums were broken, rain stopped falling, and sugar ants swarmed the canes. They didn’t whisper when they began to recite, that Sasa was a blight and a shame.
But when they spoke of her growing waistline, they whispered.
They said, -Sasa’s belly holds a bad seed. The curse of the French man and his handkerchief.
And Angeline, Alizée’s daughter, whispered as truth in their ears, that she had seen Sasa one night, coming from the tree, and her hair had been all matted with blood. Dark-red blood smeared all over her bare skin. And even more, Angeline said, she had seen her praying to the spirit of the silk.
And the whisper dispersed like bagasse dust in the air. But Sasa sneered, she was Adze, and she remembered still the power of her will, and the freedoms she had possessed. And with each growing month she could feel it returning, the heat of her old strength. And she reflected on the dead French man and how she’d called him to the tree. How he’d forced her to her knees. How he’d slapped her to the ground and violated her mouth. How he’d sniggered when she’d told him he would pay.
-Ou pral péyé!
And how he flew into a rage when her nails tore his skin. And seeing her bare neck, how he sank his teeth in. And she recalled the shock in his eyes as she willed him to die. And not blood, but hot lava, spurted onto his lips. And his kerchief caught fire, casting an orange tint as she clung to him.
That is how she survived.
And as she sucked his life dry, Sasa understood that she was renewed, with her powers and freedoms, and something else besides, something more.
They say Sasa gave birth to a skinless child and stole a skin for her.
Sa sa ye. Sa sa ye, bonje.
Sasa moved into a broken-down shack. Pass the field and up a dirt track. She used to sell herb bush for fever and cataract, while her belly was big on her skinny back.
Sa sa ye. Sa sa ye, bonje.
The talk was that the cursed child, of Sasa and the Frenchman, would never survive. And the night when the baby was due, all was still, under a yellow half-moon. On her own, and all alone, Sasa crouched down in full squat, and hot like lava, or bubbling magma, the mysterious baby fell out.
Sa sa ye. Sa sa ye. Bonje.
And the baby was very alive. Sasa held her close, full of pride. But the baby just bawled and cried. They say it sounded like a dying cat a wailing in the night.
And when Alizée went to see the of the distressing sound, what she saw, made her call out, -Oh lord! Oh Lord!
Sa sa ye! Sa sa ye! Bonje!
They say Matilde, Angeline’s baby daughter, suddenly took ill not long after Sasa’s new infant was born. And it was Alizée, Matilde’s grandmother, who spread the talk that a sósyé was visiting Matilde, and sucking life blood from her.
-A soucouyah, she said and the word set.
Soucouyah, blood sucker witch, was what she meant. And the talk that spread was, that, night after night, Sasa was taking flight. Searching the shadows for the blood of a child to save the deformed seed of the French ghoul.
-Moist and red like a butchered hen. Alizée told them. It screamed and howled under the sun and the moon. Skinless, and tortured. It wasn’t meant for this world.
And so Alizée found a lost recipe of protection. A remedy for the siuation. In some water that had been cooled, she put a cup of indigo blue. And into that she put gully root leaves and lanewah, and a pinch of salt too. Then she got a cloth and washed it all over her grand daughter Matilde. Saying prayers and singing. Trying to keep a vigil. But, poor woman, she fell asleep and awoke only to see a fire flame, dancing on the wall. A flame that ducked and flew out of the window as she called out. -Oh Lord! Oh Lord!
That same morning, Matilde was gone, dead.
They say the sun set in a special gold way, when some of the women went past the field and up the dirt lane. They hid behind a bush with their ropes and sticks, to punish Sasa and end their afflictions. And when she appeared with her baby in her arms, they rushed out at her and stuffed her mouth with rags. They tied the rope around her neck and marched her and dragged her down the track. Behind the old shacks and past the tree to the very centre of the wide cane field. And out of sight of anyone else, they jostled Sasa and her whining infant into an old puncheon barrel. And they nailed the barrel shut and with a prayer for protection, left it out there among the tall canes, ignoring the cries that came from within.
They say there was a sense of foreboding, a heavy feeling in the air, as the night bore down upon them, humid and dark and still. And they could hear the cries of the baby trapped in a puncheon cask. But it was only the women who knew the smell of stale sugar was meant to be her last.
And Sasa cursed those women, called them weak willed and gutless dogs. And in defiant desperation, cackled, and laughed out loud. Then she tucked her baby against her breast, and gradually began to peel, to carefully tear, her skin from her head. And as she peeled, a flickering fire lit the confined space. And when the skin was completely removed, a conflagration ignited. Red hot and blazing, it split the wood like lightning. Sending sparks and flames flying, to catch a fire among the canes. And leaping into the air, Sasa screeched, a loud, piercing shriek. And before the field men knew what was happening, the whole field was ablazing.
They say they saw a ball of fire shoot high up into the air, and dart and circle round and round, high above their heads. And even as they watched, it swiftly disappeared.
But the cane was aflame, and the field men were afraid. They stood in dumb amazement as the fire escalated.
They say Misye Lavalette rushed out of the big house, shouting for water to out the inferno. But the field men refused. No, they wouldn’t go near the unholy flames. And Lavalette cursed them. Accused them of defiance. And sent for the house men. But the field men were angry, and resisted the order. And Lavalette called it rebellion. And threatened them with his gun.
Confusion ensued. The field men charged, grabbing cane knives and cutlass. And they butchered Lavalette, and two of the house men, invading and looting the big house. The gwan mézon was on fire.
For four days the bloody battle raged, until the plantation house was burnt to ash, until the shacks and workhouses were razed. And the governor sent soldiers to march on the plantation, with guns and bayonets. He was determined to quell the insurrection, contain the budding revolution.
In the darkness a fire burns, curled around a fallen log. Fanning heat on the winking coal lying in the dirt. The earth protects it, and the recesses of the cave. No daylight can stretch its long arm into the heavy shade.
Sasa waits. She feels the day fading, the welcoming call of sunset. She’ll have to go. She’ll have to go. If she’s to save her infant.
-Mwen viwé, she whispers, not in words but a rasping breath. -Viwe talé. Mes enfant. Soon, soon, soon.
She crawls reluctantly to the mouth of the cave and sees the stars in the sky. And off the ground and into the trees, on the wind she flies. No moon lights the way, it’s the way she likes it best, she zigs and zags through the leaves, through the dark branches. She finds a house with a broken back door, and creeps quietly inside. She finds an old woman ailing there, on a cot in soft lamp light. An old grandmother slowly dying, each breath like a final sigh. Sasa inches over, and gently sucks and bleeds the gwan-maman dry. And carefully strips the sagging skin, rolls it off the brittle bones. And in a flash, darts round the room and out the broken door.
But the house is stirred and voices cry. -There! There! A ball of fire! Flying with no wind!
And then the next night, she’s out again, the ember tucked under the skin. Another mission to undertake before they both are safe. No wind stirs, the ocean breathes, as over the trees she streaks, sneaking through the village, to a house on the hill. She circles round it carefully, and then softly flutters in. She sees a child in a cot, breathing heavily. She feels the camphor in the room, and knows the child is sick. One drop of blood, one drop of blood and she knows she’ll get the skin. One drop of blood, one drop of blood, she’ll end the suffering.
Unluckily the father enters and spots the fire in the room. As Sasa strips off the limp girl’s skin and flashes through a window.
-A ball of fire! A ball of fire! The frightened father cries, and bawls. Sasa blazes across the sky.
Hours and hours, Sasa hovers, ministering to her fading child. Fitting the skin of the other, over the ember’s light. And when it’s on she takes a breath, a hissing, smoking sigh.