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News & Features » August 2015 » “Ilyeana” by Sharon Millar

“Ilyeana” by Sharon Millar

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, 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. Next week, Pepperpot contributor Barbara Jenkins tells us a story of life and death set in Trinidad.

Sharon Millar_credit Ross MillarIlyeana
by Sharon Millar
Trinidad & Tobago

When the young soucouyant first realised there was a baby growing in her, she held the thought in her head tightly, boxing it in the same way you might wrap a pastelle: fold one side over and seal before folding the other side. This she did mentally every morning, imagining the secret, as red as the roucou-stained beef that her mother cooked to place in the banana leaves when they made pastelles at Christmas. It was important the secret stay within its boundaries. The skin had skipped down through the mothers, appearing only when their wombs had dried. It was assumed that dry wombs were responsible for the hunger for young blood, newborn blood, or the soft veins of beautiful men.

At first, she thought she’d grown the baby herself. She knew she was having a baby because she was a modern soucouyant and she had friends who told her what happened when you were sixteen and stopped bleeding once a month. The pharmacist had given her the pregnancy test and told her to pee on it with her morning stream. At first she’d woken in the night, worried, but she was sure that once she shed her skin, the little heartbeat would be burned up in her ball of fire. But when she’d tried to shed her skin that first night, she’d laboured on her bed until she’d passed a tiny clot. It was only then that she remembered the man and the raising of hips. When she’d finally shed her skin, it wrapped itself, still warm and damp, around the tiny pulsing sac.

On the nights the man wanted to meet her, she held her skin close so it covered all of her. She was always careful because she liked the man and the way he made her feel. She liked his heaviness on her hips, and she liked looking over his shoulder at the stars while he panted into her neck. She was careful never to lust after his beautiful veins, choosing instead to pick strangers and innocent babies. They often drove to the southeast coast. On the Manzanilla stretch, they passed thin men selling blue swamp crabs, elaborately tied and twisted with mangrove roots, their indigo backs exposed to the road. Crossing the Nariva River cued a small sigh of release, a subtle loosening of muscle and sinew and bone as she looked at the flat brown river under the cantilevered metal bridge. The man drove a large van with night-rider floodlights and heavy wide tires, and when they fucked it was in the wide tray on a blanket the man had spread.

There are not many things that can be said about young soucuoyants because there are not many of them. Ilyeana’s mother and grandmother still shed, but when Ilyeana had first shed her skin in a heap on the kitchen floor at midnight on a Sunday night, they’d had the presence of mind to gather up the skin and keep it moist in the jar that was also used to make garlic pork at Christmas time. By time they’d gathered the skin, she was out the door, a rolling ball of fire and bloodlust. The next day they sat her down and warned of the dangers of salt and of leaving her skin unprotected. But because they knew little of the ways and the appetites of young soucouyants, they did not know what else to tell her.

Sometimes Ilyeana made the man drive his van onto the beach and light up the ocean with his big night-rider floodlights. On these nights, she felt like any sixteen-year-old in the world, happy to look at the wide Manzanilla sky freckled with stars like balls of fire. Growing a baby made her want the man more than she’d ever wanted anything. And so it was that she’d been caught by surprise by the man on the blanket under the stars and in a shuddering moment had lost her skin. There’d been no one to warn her, but when the skin felt the deep swells of pleasure pushing the beating heart out of her, it gathered itself around the thin-skinned cocoon while the man burned off like ether.

Afterward the villagers from Mayaro told the newspapers that the ball of fire had streaked the horizon, dodging the oil rigs and their flares of burning natural gas. Ilyeana had become a tropical aurora borealis that caused the old people to pull out their rosaries and the priests to shiver in their beds.

At dawn she slipped into her skin, the baby safe again in her mother’s warm body. Today Ilyeana lives in a small house in Mayaro where she can watch the ocean and the oil rigs flare at night. She still drives the big van with the wide tires and the big night-lights. Her little girl goes to the village school, and Ilyeana watches her carefully for signs. Sometimes men call, but Ilyeana is careful because she knows she dares not shed her skin until her womb is cold and dry. But sometimes, on moonless nights, she drives the van onto the beach. But that is not often.

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SHARON MILLAR was born and lives in Trinidad. The winner of the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the 2012 Small Axe Short Fiction Award, her work has appeared in publications such as Granta, The Manchester ReviewSmall Axe, and Susumba Book Bag. She is the author of The Whale House and other stories and is a part time lecturer at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, where she teaches Prose Fiction.

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Do you have a story you’d like us to consider for online publication in the Duppy Thursday flash fiction series? Here are the submission terms and guidelines:

—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 13, 2015

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