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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 4785

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Night in all countries brings with it vaguenesses and illusions which terrify certain imaginations;-but in the tropics it produces effects peculiarly impressive and peculiarly sinister. Shapes of vegetation that startle even while the sun shines upon them assume, after his setting, a grimness,-a grotesquery,-a suggestiveness for which there is no name.... In the North a tree is simply a tree;-here it is a personality that makes itself felt; it has a vague physiognomy, an indefinable Me: it is an Individual (with a capital I); it is a Being (with a capital B).

From the high woods, as the moon mounts, fantastic darknesses descend into the roads,-black distortions, mockeries, bad dreams,-an endless procession of goblins. Least startling are the shadows flung down by the various forms of palm, because instantly recognizable;-yet these take the semblance of giant fingers opening and closing over the way, or a black crawling of unutterable spiders....

Nevertheless, these phasma seldom alarm the solitary and belated Bitaco: the darknesses that creep stealthily along the path have no frightful signification for him,-do not appeal to his imagination;-if he suddenly starts and stops and stares, it is not because of such shapes, but because he has perceived two specks of orange light, and is not yet sure whether they are only fire-flies, or the eyes of a trigonocephalus. The spectres of his fancy have nothing in common with those indistinct and monstrous umbrages: what he most fears, next to the deadly serpent, are human witchcrafts. A white rag, an old bone lying in the path, might be a malefice which, if trodden upon, would cause his leg to blacken and swell up to the size of the limb of an elephant;-an unopened bundle of plantain leaves or of bamboo strippings, dropped by the way-side, might contain the skin of a Soucouyan. But the ghastly being who doffs or dons his skin at will-and the Zombi-and the Moun-Mò-may be quelled or exorcised by prayer; and the lights of shrines, the white gleaming of crosses, continually remind the traveller of his duty to the Powers that save. All along the way there are shrines at intervals, not very far apart: while standing in the radiance of one niche-lamp, you may perhaps discern the glow of the next, if the road be level and straight. They are almost everywhere,-shining along the skirts of the woods, at the entrance

of ravines, by the verges of precipices;-there is a cross even upon the summit of the loftiest peak in the island. And the night-walker removes his hat each time his bare feet touch the soft stream of yellow light outpoured from the illuminated shrine of a white Virgin or a white Christ. These are good ghostly company for him;-he salutes them, talks to them, tells them his pains or fears: their blanched faces seem to him full of sympathy;-they appear to cheer him voicelessly as he strides from gloom to gloom, under the goblinry of those woods which tower black as ebony under the stars.... And he has other companionship. One of the greatest terrors of darkness in other lands does not exist here after the setting of the sun,-the terror of Silence.... Tropical night is full of voices;-extraordinary populations of crickets are trilling; nations of tree-frogs are chanting; the Cabri-des-bois, [14] or cra-cra, almost deafens you with the wheezy bleating sound by which it earned its creole name; birds pipe: everything that bells, ululates, drones, clacks, guggles, joins the enormous chorus; and you fancy you see all the shadows vibrating to the force of this vocal storm. The true life of Nature in the tropics begins with the darkness, ends with the light.

And it is partly, perhaps, because of these conditions that the coming of the dawn does not dissipate all fears of the supernatural. I ni pè zombi mênm gran'-jou (he is afraid of ghosts even in broad daylight) is a phrase which does not sound exaggerated in these latitudes,-not, at least, to anyone knowing something of the conditions that nourish or inspire weird beliefs. In the awful peace of tropical day, in the hush of the woods, the solemn silence of the hills (broken only by torrent voices that cannot make themselves heard at night), even in the amazing luminosity, there is a something apparitional and weird,-something that seems to weigh upon the world like a measureless haunting. So still all Nature's chambers are that a loud utterance jars upon the ear brutally, like a burst of laughter in a sanctuary. With all its luxuriance of color, with all its violence of light, this tropical day has its ghostliness and its ghosts. Among the people of color there are many who believe that even at noon-when the boulevards behind the city are most deserted-the zombis will show themselves to solitary loiterers.

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