Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

Akashic Books

||| |||

News & Features » May 2018 » “The Silk-Cotton Tree” by Jean Wolfersteig

“The Silk-Cotton Tree” by Jean Wolfersteig

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, we learn that the only way to trap a jumbie is with stilts, cunning, and salt.

The Silk-Cotton Tree
by Jean Wolfersteig
Tortola, British Virgin Islands; Jumbie

As usual, Deadman has left me a car at the airport, and, for the first time since Irma hit, I bump along the rutted streets of Road Town. Makeshift tarps sprout between roofless buildings and piles of debris. A ferry lays beached in the road, and upended broken boats clutter the bays. On Zion Hill, a field is littered with tents made into an ad hoc elementary school. Bomba’s, home of Full Moon Parties and mushroom tea, is gone. Swept into the sea. Long Bay’s villas are skeletons, pierced by twenty-five foot waves.

My beloved Tortola—pitons dropping into the sea, gentle ocean breezes, white beaches rimmed with palm trees—is still here. But the island looks like a war zone. Anxious faces brace for the next hurricane season. I’m heartsick.

The locals—belongers—say the winds have changed.

I’m wintering on Belmont Hill, one of many squatters. Windows blown in and furniture wrecked, my villa doesn’t have electricity, but it’s still daylight. I jimmy the lock, toss my pack and the stilts in an upstairs bedroom, and set up my hammock so I can see the ocean—and the remains of the ancient Taino ball field.

I study the past.

Once upon a time, Belmont Hill was covered with communal roundhouses made of thatch and a plaza oriented to the equinox and solstice, marking the seasons. I unburied nine standing stones encircling the ball field, one carved with a petroglyph of the sun. My mission is to return the light.           

At dusk, I hear the rubber ball served and returned on the ball court below. Ghosts of the Tainos are signaling it’s time. I grab the costume, stilts, and container of salt, and leave a pair of shoes outside the villa, in case the jumbie follows me.

Up the hill, a flight of crumbling stairs ascends to the ruins of a sugar cane plantation from the mid-1700s. The château’s owner was an evil man. He beat his slaves to death, vanishing them into unmarked graves.

Belongers believe this place is haunted and won’t go near it.

A wrinkled old woman appears at my side, as I scramble up the steps. She seems to have come from nowhere. “Where are you headed?” I ask.

“Same place you are.”

I watch as she lifts her skirt to climb and catch a glimpse of her feet. They’re pointing backwards. She’s a jumbie.

A silk-cotton tree towers over the château’s foundation. Slaves believed the tree possessed a resident evil spirit who ruled the souls of the dead—a jumbie—in the rooted entrance to the underworld. An Obeah man once told me the only way to destroy her is to pour salt in the skin she takes off at night.

The old woman disappears. Into the tree, I think. There’s a fold in the bark where she may have put her skin.

A dark shadowy figure appears beneath the tree. The Buddha gained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. This shadow is his opposite.

I climb into my moko jumbie costume—brightly colored pants, mask of feathers, stilts to make me taller than the jumbie—transforming me into the flip side of spiritual darkness.

I bang on the root buttresses. The tree booms like a bass drum.

“No need to make noise,” the shadow says. “I can see you.”

“Who are you? Are you the one who killed his slaves?”

“No. He’s my slave. I stole his soul. I could steal yours.”

“You’re the Devil.”

The shadow shrugs.

“You must love this tree.”

“Not really. Why don’t you chop it down?” she asks slyly.

I know better than to cut the spirit loose. “Did you cause the hurricane?” I ask.

The shadow lets out a belly laugh. “No, but I had my fun, stepping up the wind.”

I recall reports of tornadoes and 350 mph winds—and stilt-walk closer to the tree, the salt container in a big pants pocket.

“You look ridiculous, you know. That getup won’t save you.”

The jumbie flies across the darkened sky—a fireball. I feel the burning of my skin and hair. The stilts collapse beneath me in flames. But I fumble for the salt and manage to douse the skin she left in the fold of the tree.

“No! You can’t!” she screams, retreating into the tree’s roots. She’s trapped.

But so am I. A hush falls over the Taino ball field.   

I am a belonger now.

I am the wind.


JEAN WOLFERSTEIG retired as the CEO of a psychiatric hospital in upstate New York and turned to writing fiction and teaching yoga. She is currently looking for a home for her novel, The Room Where the Elephants Go to Die, and is working on a new novel, The Dead Man’s Taxi Service. She lives in the Mid-Hudson Valley with her husband. She has spent over twenty winters in Tortola and feels a deep connection with the people and the place.


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, and will be edited for cohesion and to conform to our house style.
—E-mail your submission to info@akashicbooks.com. Please paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.

Posted: May 31, 2018

Category: Original Fiction, Duppy Thursday | Tags: , , , ,