18 October 2013

When the Owl Hoots and the Calf Rolls

We island folk are a superstitious and deeply spiritual lot. It's not surprising when you look at where our ancestors come from. Africans, Europeans and Asians all contributed various beliefs, leading to a true hodgepodge of superstitions and things that go bump in the night. I thought it might be... well... not fun exactly, but perhaps interesting to take you on a little walk with a man I'll call Johnny Dread, who's having what is quite possibly the worse night of his life, Jamaican style. (Words marked with * are explained a little more in the glossary after the story.)

Johnny and the Rollin' Calf

Johnny got off the minibus at the intersection, and stood watching it drive away. It was after one o'clock in the morning, and when the sound of the revving motor faded away all he could hear was the rustle of leaves and animals in the bush at the side of the road. There were no streetlights on the narrow country road leading the the village of Stone Heart, but the moon was full, lighting his way. Hitching his bag higher on his shoulder, Johnny turned to begin the five mile walk toward his grandmother's house. Just as he took the first step, a white form took flight from a nearby mango tree and soared across the road above his head, letting out a long, loud WOO...

"Bumboclaat*!" Johnny dropped down, stooping as low as possible, covering his head with his arms. "Patoo*!"

The owl seemed to understand the words, circling back over Johnny, hooting again. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, and in complete silence, it was gone.

Legs shaking, clutching his bag to his chest, Johnny got up and stared up into the trees, trying to figure out where the owl had gone. This was bad. Raasclaat*, this was bad-bad-bad. He knew he shouldn't have come, but his mother had begged him to help her clean out Uncle Juckoo's house. He had missed the funeral, and had heard the people in the village suspected someone had worked Obeah* on Juckoo, but he hoped it wasn't true. If the Obeah woman had stolen his spirit, the rest of the family was in big trouble since it would be used against them. Worst of all, there had been no ninth-night* gathering. At least if they'd had a ninth-night, there was a chance his spirit might appear, be captured in the water bowl and then set free outside. Seeing the patoo was a bad omen. Now it seemed Johnny himself was walking into danger. Was Juckoo's duppy already being used against him?

The quicker he got to the village, the better, so Johnny started jogging down the narrow asphalt road, hoping a car would come along and the driver would stop to give him a lift. The road dipped into a little valley, and Johnny started running, using the slope to gain momentum. Just as he got to the bottom something moved in the bush at the side of the road and, seeing two points of light shining out from among the leaves, Johnny skidded and almost fell. He tried to shout, but fear caught the sound in his throat and it came out as a strangled moan. With a mwraw! a black cat jumped out of the bush and streaked across the road.

"Oh, Lawd..."

First the patoo, and now a black puss*? Could it get worse?

He was shaking so much now, it was a struggle to get up the hill, but finally he was at the top and, in the distance, could see the village. Not too much farther now, especially if he ran all the way. Galloping like a mule, his bag slapping against his side, Johnny made a break for it. Down into the next shallow valley, then up again. All he could hear were his own footsteps and the rasp of his breathing. One more hill, and he would almost be in Stone Heart.

Suddenly, without any warning, Johnny found himself in fog. Not the light mist that sometimes came down into the hollows during the night, but a thick, blinding white covering. Barely able to see the road ahead, Johnny stumbled to a walk, but didn't stop. It felt as if the fog had gone into his ears, because he could no longer hear his footsteps. Even his breathing seemed to be coming from far away, and was accompanied by a rattling sound he'd never heard before in his life. Then he realized the sound was coming from behind him, getting louder, as whatever was making it came closer.

Ignoring the fog, he started to run again, ignoring the potholes, just wanting to get away. But now he could hear a deep, demonic snorting sound mixed in with the metallic rattle of chains and the rapid tuc-a-tuc, tuc-a-tuc, tuc-a-tuc of hooves. He didn't want to look back. If he could stop himself looking back, maybe the rolling calf* would just go past...

But he couldn't stop himself from looking over his shoulder as he ran.

A huge, black bull, wrapped in chains, wreathed in fire, charged toward him. Fire also blazed from the beast's eyes and, in what seemed to be the last moment of Johnny Dread's life, he found the strength to scream...

Next morning it was the sun that woke him, as he lay between the roots of a huge old cotton tree*, covered in mud and shivering in the cool morning air. It took a moment to figure out where he was and what had happened. When he did, Johnny stumbled to his feet and took off running, not stopping until he got back to the main road, where he could catch a minibus back to Kingston.

He'd never go back to Stone Heart again...

'Bumboclaat' and 'Raasclaat' - Jamaican swear words.

'Patoo' - The name given to an owl, usually a barn owl. Seeing a white-faced owl is considered a sign of extreme bad luck or death.

'Obeah' - A religion brought from West Africa, connected to the god Obi and closely connected to Myalism. It is believed an Obeah practitioner can draw the spirit from a person and trap it in a cotton tree. Eventually the person whose spirit has been stolen will die, if no one can be found to "dig out" the spirit and bring it back. If the person dies, the spirit can be used by its thief to bedevil the rest of the family.

'Ninth-night/Nine-night' -  A ceremony that takes place on the ninth night after the funeral. It is believed that on the third day after the funeral the spirit of the deceased rises and goes back to the residence to wander among its possessions. On the ninth night after the funeral the family and friends gather to sing and dance, giving the spirit a farewell party, so to speak. In years gone by, a person adept in seeing and capturing spirits would 'catch' the spirit and trap it in a bowl of water, which is then thrown out the window, releasing the spirit.

'Black puss/cat' - Cats are viewed with suspicion and fear by many Jamaicans, as they are said to sit on babies chests and suck the air from their lungs (perhaps an explanation for SIDS?). A black cat is particularly feared, as the color black is associated with the devil. Fully black dogs fare little better than cats.

Rollin' Calf - The name is said to derive from "Roaring Calf' but while this evil spirit is usually described as taking the shape of a bull, it also is said to take a number of other shapes, and can shift from small creatures (cats and dogs, always black) to large (bulls and horses). It rarely attacks people, but often is reported chasing them, or lying in wait for them at crossroads.

'Cotton tree' - This tree, along with bamboo clumps, is said to be the home or haunt of the rolling calf and also of the spirits stolen by Obeah men and women. Finding himself at the root of one of these trees would confirm for Johnny that he hadn't dreamt the encounter.

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