“Children Play While Shadows Walk” by Neala Bhagwansingh
Akashic Books is proud to introduce a new flash fiction series, Duppy Thursday. Though we’re based in Brooklyn, our location envy of the Caribbean is evident throughout our catalog. One aspect of Caribbean literature that appeals to us is the integration of folklore into contemporary stories—a perfect example being Jamaican author Marlon James’s debut novel John Crow’s Devil, which we published to great critical acclaim in 2005. Whether it be the spider Anansi, the devil woman La Diablesse, the Soucouyant, Mama Dlo, or Papa Bois, these mythical beings have injected life (and death) into the literature of the region. As with our other flash fiction series, we challenge you to tell your story in 750 words or less.
This week, Neala Bhagwansingh is let in on a secret.
We scampered across the assembly hall to peep out of the wooden louvered windows of our primary school, hoping to catch a glimpse of the parents as the cars pulled up across the street at the porte cochere of the Members Club to deposit their passengers.
Mothers straightened their shoulder pads, fluffed their eighties hairstyles, and grinned hello to each other. It was Christmastime, and everything and everyone seemed to sparkle. The humid night air was filled with the scent of flambeau oil, charcoal, and face paint, and we were already sticky with Vaseline and glitter. We watched the fathers park their cars, thump each other on the back, and make beelines for the club bar.
Here in the assemble hall, the four- and five-year-olds from the infants class fretted and fidgeted as they waited impatiently for the start of the Nativity play. Their grumbles took those of us in the juniors class chuckling down memory lane:
“Miss! Angela broke my halo and Johnny crushed my wings!”
“Miss! I can’t find my sheep!”
“Miss! It’s so hot!”
It was hot. Especially under those heavy white choir robes and costumes. Only the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel sat unperturbed, holding hands, their made-up little faces growing shiny with the heat.
The boys in the seniors class ran this way and that, pulling our ponytails and planting kisses on unsuspecting cheeks, excited to see the girls in anything other than their plaid school uniforms. We took every advantage of the opportunity to wear makeup and stood in neat little rows, patiently waiting our turn to be painted with rouge, eye shadow, and lipstick.
Finally, the infants were rounded up and, holding hands, were ushered across the asphalt roadway, over the knee-high fence, and up the stone pathway to the clubhouse hall. The fathers swallowed the last of their drinks and made their way to beckoning wives, who exclaimed, “It’s starting!”
A chorus of infants’ voices began to sing: “The Angel Gabriel from heaven came. His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame.”
Back at the school building, the seniors and juniors were shushed into the usual crossed-legged seated position in the now silent hall as Mrs. Rogers stood watch with her ready ruler and her “No noise!” expression. “Fingers on lips!” she said, and confident that we would obey, left the assembly hall to catch glimpses of the Nativity play from across the club garden’s well-manicured lawn.
That’s when the whispers began. It started, as always, with the older students, the seniors.
“You know the school’s haunted, right?”
We juniors sat wide-eyed and still. It was a rite of passage, hearing the story, which was only told on play nights. A little game of pass-the-message commenced. Sentence to whispered sentence: “They said not to build a home here. The Shadows walked the grounds at night. That’s what they told the two nuns who founded the school: Build a school. Safe from dark of night.”
No one breathed. No one moved. A cold wind snaked its way into the assembly hall.
“It’s the old Amerindian burial ground. They buried evil men right under this hall.” The head boy slowly tapped his foot on the floor. “Now they walk at night, looking for children’s souls.”
By now, the youngest among us were in tears and wanted a teacher to come to our rescue. Any teacher. Even Mrs. Rogers and her ready ruler would be welcome. We wished ourselves young again. Young enough to be in the infants play about Baby Jesus and his Virgin Mother, safe and warm around a manger, dressed as an angel or a shepherd, not in rude orange-and-black costumes as members of the Clan of the Spider Monkey Uncle King, inviting death and shadow.
There was nowhere to go. Little fingers pressed tightly against pink lips, turning them white. Shh! Eyes wide as the fierce whispers continued.
“You remember Mrs. Franklyn, the art teacher? She knew the history and she was there that day when they dug up the bones under the science lab. That’s why she got sick and left the school. She’s crazy now, in St. Ann’s Mental Hospital. The bad spirits won’t leave her alone. She tries to warn people, you see. She knows that on nights like these, the bad spirits look for children. Not for us though. We’re too old. They want you, the little ones.”
The head boy looked toward the window. “Shh!” he hissed, startling the juniors. “Can you hear that?”
Something was wrong. Very wrong. This was more than just a scary rite of passage. There were voices in the wind now, whistling through the windows. Dark and terrible voices. The head boy turned back to face us. “They’re here.”
Our hearts pounded. A small boy shouted, “We have to go. We have to find a teacher!”
But no one wanted to risk leaving the hall. Not when the voices were just outside, calling to us.
“We have to get a grown-up!” he wailed again. Some of us were crying softly, holding onto each other.
“No we don’t! They just want one of us.”
The seniors nodded in agreement, and terror prickled our skin. The head boy made his choice.
When the plays were over, they said Sheldon wasn’t feeling well. They said he went home. But we knew what happened. Our performance of the Spider Monkey Uncle King went off without a hitch and no one seemed to notice the boy who wasn’t there or that a shadow had replaced him. We knew we should’ve told our parents, but what could we say? Parents and teachers would never have believed us. That’s what the seniors told us and what we told the juniors two years later when we became seniors. Parents and teachers would never understand. It was a rite of passage too—to learn that what is known and understood by children would never be understood by adults.
NEALA BHAGWANSINGH was born and lives in Trinidad and Tobago. She explores the nature of light and shadow in her surroundings, in herself and in others. Her poetry, fiction, and articles have been published in The Caribbean Writer, Small Axe, Maco People Magazine, The Boca, Rebelle Society, and Upful Journal. She is the features editor of AmPassion Teen magazine and an alum of the Cropper Foundation’s Caribbean Writers’ Workshop.
—We are not offering payment, and are asking for first digital rights. The rights to the story revert to the author immediately upon publication.
—Your story should be set in a Caribbean location and incorporate some aspect of folklore, whether centrally or tangentially.
—Include the location and the referenced folk tale or figure of the story with your byline.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words.
—Please include a short bio with your submission.
—Accepted submissions to Duppy Thursday are typically posted 2–4 months after the notification date, and will be edited for cohesion and to conform to our house style.
—E-mail your submission to [email protected]. Please paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.
Posted: Nov 13, 2015
Category: Duppy Thursday | Tags: Caribbean, Trinidad & Tobago, flash fiction, short story, Caribbean Literature, short fiction, Duppy Thursday, Neala Bhagwansingh, Children Play While Shadows Walk, Palo Seco
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