The one thing that my grandma and close friends across the globe have in common, is their ability to weave tales from the past into their interactions with others. I grew up listening to my grandmother and have interacted with many people who have shared their stories and cautionary tales with me. Until recently, I never stop to think about why they were telling me these things or if they were true. Once I entered adulthood, I pushed many of these stories to the furthest reaches of my mind until I was triggered to remember them. These stories have always been there, and it’s only through listening to others, I realized everyone has tales to tell. If I could record all these stories, I would be a bestselling author by now.
For me, storytelling is a bond that keeps us together, turning experiences into tales that will grow legs and travel into the future with each generation. In this blog, I will share tales passed down from my grandparents and friends I’ve met along the way. As a disclaimer, some of these tales are long, so I had to condense them. Many have a supernatural twist that might put these tales in the realm of fiction. To that, I insist that you take what you must from the stories I have presented and understand that people have varying beliefs and ideas about their reality.
After buying my first car, I had the privilege of receiving 6 months’ worth of free Sirius Satellite Radio access. A year after buying my car, I continued paying for Sirius access, then found myself spending 8 months working in another state and traveling back to my home every weekend. Doing this forced me to take on the task of driving three-and-a-half hours each way. During my first trip, I found a show called Coast-to-Coast AM. Coast-to-Coast is an American late-night talk show that tends to have topics about conspiracy theories and paranormal events. I found this show interesting because prior to this, I had never heard adults talk so seriously on these topics.
The first time I listened, the topic was Native American stories of Skinwalkers. It was fascinating to learn about Native American traditions and beliefs. The most exciting part was how the stories of Skinwalkers reminded me of something my grandmother told me when I was sixteen. I cannot remember how the conversation came about, but she introduced me to Soucauyant. She said these things were common in French West Indian countries but claimed that there is at least half a dozen living on each island. She went on to say that Soucauyants are evil men and women who can shapeshift into any animal to get into your home. Once they get inside, they turn back into a skinless creature that sucks your blood. My grandmother had an incredible amount of seriousness while telling this story. She told me that if I ever came across the skin, I must immediately throw salt on it. Doing this kept the Soucauyant in the form it had shapeshifted into, which will eventually kill it. I was also advised to put salt around my house or at my door to keep them away. One can imagine as a sixteen-year-old existing in the age of computers, internet, and cell phones; I wasn’t in any way worried about this story and silently wondered if my grandmother really believed in what she was saying. I didn’t believe my grandmother but couldn’t say it, out of respect for her.
After hearing about Skinwalkers, I come across other islanders from different parts of the Caribbean who shared similar stories. I started to think there was something to these stories. For just like my grandmother had passed down this tale to me, they too were told about the Soucauyants in a similar manner. We were collectively told what they were, how they became these dark creatures, how to kill them, how to protect our family, and how to spot a shapeshifter in a crowd of people. Every time I heard about a Soucauyant, I discovered a new element about their powers and limitations. My friends from Grenada, Trinidad, Tobago, and Barbados shared the same name but said Soucauyants were usually older women. They would take their skin off and put it in a mortar at a specific time of night, then turn into a traveling fireball. Through these friends, I discovered that rice was another way to keeping Soucauyants distracted because they couldn’t help themselves and had an uncontrollable urge to count every grain of rice. While these entities are similar to demons or vampires in some European tales, their weakness was counting rice not chickpeas. Regardless of who told this story, the slight connections to the European, Caribbean, and Native American tales were fascinating.
Some places might spell it jumbee or jumbie, while others might call it mendo or chongo. Regardless of what it’s called, jumbee stories are common across the Caribbean, Central, and South America; and tend to be the general name given to evil spirits. They are the spirits that will drive you crazy, lock you out of your house, kill your pet, take your newborn, cause bad luck, and rein terror over your life if they don’t kill you first. It’s generally believed that people who are evil as humans, when they die they become evil spirits (jumbies). They turn into the darkest versions of their astral form with powers to influence our reality. According to the Catholic faith, they would simply be demons or minion of the devil, and in America, they are poltergeists. The belief and myths of jumbie is commonly found in former British colonizes but extend to the Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish colonizes too.
The jumbie fire story is another one that was told to me by my grandmother. This one starts off on a small island where a group of girls attending a netball match decided to spend the last day of their school trip shopping. The teachers and parents who were acting as chaperons allowed the girls some free time alone in the town. During this free time, four girls decided to execute a plot of stealing from a local jewelry store owner. The girls distracted the shopkeeper long enough for a fourth girl to steal a gold necklace. A week after doing this, the girl who kept the gold necklace started experiencing strange happenings. It began when a neighbor called 911 to report a house on fire. The firefighters show up to put out the fire, but soon after arriving, the smoke slowly settled, and there was no fire. Two days after that, while the entire family was home, their home once again filled with smoke causing them to evacuate. The firefighters arrived, and upon entering the smoking house, they couldn’t locate the source of the fire. Everyone could see and smell the smoke, but no one could see the flames. After the smoke dissipated, the firefighters waited around to see if it would happen again. They waited for more than two hours then allowed the family to return to their house. Two more days go by, and it happens again, but this time the village began to gossip, calling this event a jumbie fire. The belief was that the smoke was caused by a jumbie. Since the family never complained of any paranormal activity before every adult in the village, concluded that someone had placed Obeah (a curse) on the family.
Another interesting fact about the Caribbean is the idea of Obeah. Wiki defines it as a form of sorcery found in the West Indies. In other countries, they might call Obeah practitioners witch doctors or even link them to having similar beliefs as gypsies, witches, wizards, mediums, or psychics. You can even place it in the same realm as witchcraft, black magic, voodoo, or santeria.
I was told that the jumbie fire appeared four times before the family was advised to visit an Obeah man or woman who told them that someone had cursed them. She or he told them that whoever did it was seeking revenge for something that was done to them. Eventually, the daughter admitted to her parents that she stole a necklace from a jewelry store while visiting another island. Once this was discovered, the Obeah practitioner requested that the family return the necklace with an apology. My grandmother then claimed that the entire family took a trip back to the other island, and the fire never happened again.
For me, this was just a fascinating story and one that I have heard from other people. I cannot be sure if this event did happen or if this same story is being shared across the Caribbean with various alterations made to it. The jumbie fire story seem more like a cautionary tale. As my grandmother always ended it by saying, “Do good, and good will follow you!”
The Undoing of a Mistress
This is another story that involved an Obeah practitioner, but this time she or he is coming to a scorned woman’s aid. This story is a strange but delicate topic because it deals with infidelity and what can happen when adults misbehave. In my village, there was a young single mother in her late twenties with two children. She was also the caregiver for her three nieces, so she had a full house. Unlike other single mothers, she was lucky enough to inherited family land and assets, and worked at the national bank. She had a total of five children living with her, and from the outside, it appeared to be a delighted family. She started dating a guy from the capital, who I remember very well because he drove a fancy car. Her new boyfriend stood out because he worked for the government and seemed more refined than the village men. If you grew up in a small community, you would understand that everyone is subtly involved in each other’s lives. Whenever someone started courting an outside or a new person moves in, their presence in the village felt like gaining a new family member.
Months after her boyfriend started frequenting the village, her youngest niece got terribly ill and disappeared from public view for almost a year. Once she was well enough to appear again, the child had an excessive amount of ulcerous soars covering every inch of her legs with a few scatted on her arms. The soars were so prominent that she was forced to wear long trousers instead of the pleated plaid skirt we wore to school. Shortly after she returned to school, the villagers all had a tale about what happened to her. They discovered that her aunt’s boyfriend was married, and once his wife found out about his infidelity, instead of approaching him and his lover, she did some research. She discovered where his lover lived and decided to consult an Obeah practitioner. Out of anger, she asked the Obeah practitioner for help keeping her husband away from his lover. What unfolded was a transaction where money changed hands for a mystical favor. It was concluded that the Obeah man or woman got someone in the village to place a potion around the young woman’s property. Apparently, this wasn’t the first time something like this has happened in our village. The potion was brewed to cause physical harm so that her beauty would be disfigured. By placing it in the yard, they were hoping that she would fall into the trap. Instead, it was her youngest niece who stepped into the potion and ended up with soars all over her legs and arms. After this happened, the relationship ended, he stopped visiting, and it appeared that the wife got what she wanted.
I remember the aftermath of this incident because the power of Obeah was evident. It caused fear amongst all of us and forced everyone in the village to change our routine. The first thing I noticed was that my mother and other family members kept telling us to never walk outside without wearing shoes. We were told that the first step we took out of our home every morning had to be one that involved wearing shoes. We also had to make sure that we never left clothing outside on the clothing line at night. There was intense fear that anything that belongs to us could be tampered with and used against us. As a child, I felt like I had to believe this story because the evidence was staring at me every day in the form of a very sick child. It wasn’t until I was forced to take a mythology course in college when I realize that some of the things that Obeah men and women do is nothing but science, chemistry, and physics in disguise. Using various herbs, sea creatures, household products, and other known remedies, they can set traps for their victims.
A Chaplain’s Tale
In late 2011, I met an American military Chaplain from Michigan. For those who aren’t aware, military Chaplains are common and responsible for religious services and supporting service members’ needs. Most military has Chaplains come from different faiths, so you might run into Chaplains who represent Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Muslim faith. The tale that I am about to deliver came from a Christian chaplain during his first few years after graduating seminary school. He was assigned to his first official post and was working with a high-ranking officer who was also trained as a pastor. As a young minister, he worked on community outreach projects and did most of the night services.
He started off his story by telling us that this event happened during a Thursday night church service, when a middle-aged couple who he had never been there before approached him. They told him that they had a problem and needed assistance. In attempting to convey their needs, they begged him to come with them to get a better understanding of their problem. He said he told them that it would be best to schedule an appointment with the lead pastor or return in the morning. For over 30 minutes, they begged and asked him for help, so he assumed that perhaps the couple was a bit bothered and simply needed his presence and kind words to carry them through the night, so he agreed to go with them. They left the church property and drove less than 25 minutes away to a quiet suburban community. The chaplain told me while following behind them in his car, he didn’t feel worried, and since it was only shortly before 8 at night, he knew he would make it home in time for dinner and his favorite television show. He said while driving there, he was thinking about what he would have for dinner and the meetings scheduled for the following day. As he turned down the road that led their house, he immediately was hit with a very heavy forbidden feeling. He expressed that the feeling was odd and worrisome to him. By the time he parked his car, he was very nervous about what he was about to encounter. All he was told earlier was that the elderly mother of the wife was acting strange, and they fear it was a case of possession. They expressed that she was in the early stages of dementia, so he naturally assumed that was the real cause of their worry.
While the Chaplain was telling this story, he was very descriptive about what the house looked like. He said it was a one-story ranch-style home with one parking garage attached. When he walked into the home, he could see straight down a hallway, where the couple pointed out that the guest room was the last door on the left. Once they got to the room, he didn’t enter until the couple went in and spoke to their mother who was sitting on the bed. Once, he walked in and stuck his hand out to introduce himself. The elderly woman recoil in horror and got under the bed to hide from him. According to the Chaplain, the husband-and-wife team was visibly embarrassed by this, but they seemed a custom to the behavior. They both sprang into action in their attempts to coax her from under the bed. He claimed that the wife was on her knees looking under the bed, trying to baby-talk her mother out while the husband was laying on his belly with his head completely under the bedframe. This part of the story gets very strange for me as a listener and for the Chaplain because while he witnessed all of us, I don’t think he ever truly grasp the craziness that was about to unfold. The mother began hissing like a snake and kept attacking the husband, so he came out from under the bed. The Chaplain then said that he was worried for the older lady’s safety because it sounds like she was hitting her head and limps moving around. He got down on his knees in his attempt to try to calm her down and to be the smooth operator he thought he was. He claimed that the lady looked visibly upset, but the face she wore wasn’t the same face he saw when he first introduced himself. It was as if she had taken on a new face, so knowing that she was a very godly woman according to her daughter, he began to pray. This is the part of the story where he claimed that other than going with this couple alone, he made the second biggest mistake when he got down on the floor because the lady lunged at him, causing him to fall back. She slowly started to emerge from under the bed, and instead of moving like a human, she slithers from under the bed like a snake. That’s when he had to break out his prayer book and start reciting various prayers out of shock. While the couple was still trying to wrangle her back onto the bed he kept on praying. After she calmed down, they all preceded to pray together until she fell asleep. Once everything claimed down, the couple explained that this was what they had been dealing with ever since she moved in with them.
I do not know what became of this family, but after the Chaplain told us that story. I will be honest with everyone, I have heard some crazy tales but this one takes the prize. This was one of the few that I didn’t want to question. The Chaplain experienced this early in his career, and he seemed grateful for it. This was the only time in my life where I had such an open and honest conversation with a religious figure. Even though he was the most junior and in his early thirties, he had such a presence about him that was not judgmental. He never tried to convert anyone, but he would never neglect anyone he saw in pain. When he interacted with us it was like interacting with a person who was filled with light, happiness and was never afraid to tackle hard topics like sexual orientation, abuse, racism, or sexism. Something about his presence made me feel like he knew what his purpose was in life. While he was still somewhat reluctant to diagnose this as an actual demonic possession. He told us that if we believed in a God, then we also have to believe that there are opposing forces that do not wish us well.
I am not asking anyone to believe any of these stories. I just wanted to share some of the tales that I was told. I feel privileged to have listened to these stories and connect with these people on a level that made them feel comfortable to share these tales. As scary or perplexing as some of them may seem, I take great joy in preserving them. I know that it cannot be easy in our society with the current collective mindset that governs us to still hold on to and share stories.