“Feeding the Spirits” by Katia D. Ulysse
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, Drifting author Katia D. Ulysse takes a look at old Haitian traditions. Next week, Sharon Millar, author of the 2013 Commonwealth Prize–winning story “The Whale House” from Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean, gives us a twist on a Caribbean folklore character.
Everyone knew. My mother never tried to hide who she was. The ceremonies over which she presided were legendary. Bonfires raged for days. Fattened goats and roosters never knew each minute that passed would be their last. Drummers played feverishly. Furious rhythms sprouted under naked feet like sugarcane. Delirious devotees wailed ancient chants. Sun-stung initiates in white clothing executed elaborate salutations. My mother shook her dried-gourd Ason, a maraca-like instrument that rattled with its contents of snake vertebrae; strings of colorful beads crisscrossed over the Ason, contributing to its mesmeric sound. It wouldn’t take long for someone to behave like a horse possessed.
I was ashamed for my mother. For years, she tried to educate me in the archaic rites, saying one day it would be my turn to carry on the legacy. I did not tell her the legacy would die with her. The minute I had a chance to leave the country, I was gone. She spent years and so much money on invisible ancestors and spirits that I could have gone to the Syracuse University College of Law six times more than I actually did.
When she fell ill and had to be hospitalized for months, I asked her to return to the States with me, where I might have been able to get her better care, but she insisted on staying in Haiti. The imploring look in her eyes told me my time to feed the spirits would soon come. I wanted to remind her that I’d just landed a job at a huge law firm in Washington, DC. Haiti was not in my future. My condo would not double as a temple. I would never follow in her footsteps.
When I told my girlfriend about it, she told me to honor my mother’s wishes. She was from Benin, supermodel gorgeous, cooked like a top chef. We’d been together three years when I bought a ring and got down on one knee. The sex was ethereal. I even saw children in our future, a house in Chevy Chase, the works. I was not interested in studying vodun rites and ways to serve invisible spirits.
“The knowledge will come to you,” my mother assured me, adding: “Come home to Haiti once a year or so. I will give you names of elders who can teach you all you need to learn. While you learn the proper ways to perform rituals, you can honor the spirits by removing cobwebs from the drums that have been in the family for generations. Open the windows to let in fresh air. The ancestors understand you are young. All they ask is that you honor their memory. Drop a libation in their name and in mine, for I will join them soon.”
“Do as she says,” my girlfriend said. “What will it cost you to learn about your ancestral lineage? The spirits you refuse to acknowledge protect and love you. I’m willing to go with you to Haiti twice a year. We’ll learn the rites together.”
Not you too, I thought. Not even married yet and Ms. Benin wanted to make up my mind for me.
“Why should we travel to Haiti to feed spirits?” I asked her. She didn’t answer. I said, “I’ll call a carryout place and have a few pizzas delivered to the peristyle. I guarantee you those spirits have never had good pizza.”
“I wouldn’t joke about that sort of thing if I were you,” she said.
I was not joking.
Sometimes people die to get even with the living. Moments before the doctor covered my mother’s face with a white sheet and mouthed a few words of sympathy to appease me, she used her last breaths to ask me to do the one thing I would not.
Seven years have gone by since I buried my mother. Of course, I did not return to Haiti to feed her invisible spirits. Even if I wanted to go now, I could not. The girlfriend has three kids with the guy she married six months after we broke up. (She threw the ring at me—damn thing cost me a year’s salary.) The law firm decided to downsize, and you can guess what happened next. I couldn’t make mortgage payments, and lost my condo. The job market stinks. I rent a room in an old law school buddy’s place. I’m a few months behind with the rent. The last thing I would be interested in is feeding invisible spirits and dead ancestors when I can barely afford to feed myself.
KATIA D. ULYSSE was born in Haiti, and moved to the United States as a teen. Her writings have been published in numerous literary journals, including the Caribbean Writer, Meridians, Calabash, Peregrine, and Smartish Pace, among others. Her work has also appeared in The Butterfly’s Way and Haiti Noir. Her first children’s book, Fabiola Can Count, was published in 2013. Ulysse lives in Maryland with her husband and daughter. When she’s not reading, writing fiction, gardening, or teaching, she blogs on VoicesfromHaiti.com. Drifting is her first book of fiction.
—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.
—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: Aug 6, 2015