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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 8853

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Cyrilla's solicitude for me extends beyond the commonplaces of hygiene and diet into the uncertain domain of matters ghostly. She fears much that something might happen to me through the agency of wizards, witches (sociès), or zombis. Especially zombis. Cyrillia's belief in zombis has a solidity that renders argument out of the question. This belief is part of her inner nature,-something hereditary, racial, ancient as Africa, as characteristic of her people as the love of rhythms and melodies totally different from our own musical conceptions, but possessing, even for the civilized, an inexplicable emotional charm.

Zombi!-the word is perhaps full of mystery even for those who made it. The explanations of those who utter it most often are never quite lucid: it seems to convey ideas darkly impossible to define,-fancies belonging to the mind of another race and another era,-unspeakably old. Perhaps the word in our own language which offers the best analogy is "goblin": yet the one is not fully translated by the other. Both have, however, one common ground on which they become indistinguishable,-that region of the supernatural which is most primitive and most vague; and the closest relation between the savage and the civilized fancy may be found in the fears which we call childish,-of darkness, shadows, and things dreamed. One form of the zombi-belief-akin to certain ghostly superstitions held by various primitive races-would seem to have been suggested by nightmare,-that form of nightmare in which familiar persons become slowly and hideously transformed into malevolent beings. The zombi deludes under the appearance of a travelling companion, an old comrade-like the desert spirits of the Arabs-or even under the form of an animal. Consequently the creole negro fears everything living which he meets after dark upon a lonely road,-a stray horse, a cow, even a dog; and mothers quell the naughtiness of their children by the threat of summoning a zombi-cat or a zombi-creature of some kind. "Zombi ké nana ou" (the zombi will gobble thee up) is generally an effectual menace in the country parts, where it is believed zombis may be met with any time after sunset. In the city it is thought that their regular hours are between two and four o'clock in the morning. At least so Cyrillia says:-

-"Dèezhè, toua-zhè-matin: c'est lhè zombi. Yo ka sòti dèzhè, toua zhè: c'est lhè yo. A quattrhè yo ka rentré;-angelus ka sonné." (At four o'clock they go back where they came from, before the Angelus rings.) Why?

-"C'est pou moune pas joinne yo dans larue." (So that people may not meet with them in the street), Cyrillia answers.

-"Are they afraid of the people, Cyrillia?" I asked.

-"No, they are not afraid; but they do not want people to know their business" (pa lè moune ouè zaffai yo).

Cyrillia also says one must not look out of the window when a dog howls at night. Such a dog may be a mauvais vivant (evil being): "If he sees me looking at him he will say, 'Ou tropp quirièse quittée cabane ou pou gàdé zaffai lezautt.'" (You are too curious to leave your bed like that to look at other folks' business.)

-"And what then, Cyrillia?"

-"Then he will put out your eyes,-y ké coqui zié ou,-make you blind."

-"But, Cyrillia," I asked one day, "did you ever see any zombis?"

-"How? I often see them!... They walk about the room at night;-they walk like people. They sit in the rocking-chairs and rock themselves very softly, and look at me. I say to them:-'What do you want here?-I never did any harm to anybody. Go away!' Then they go away."

-"What do they look like?"

-"Like people,-sometimes like beautiful people (bel moune). I am afraid of them. I only see them when there is no light burning. While the lamp bums before the Virgin they do not come. But sometimes the oil fails, and the light dies."

In my own room there are dried palm leaves and some withered flowers fastened to the wall. Cyrillia put them there. They were taken from the reposoirs (temporary altars) erected for the last Corpus Christi procession: consequently they are blessed, and ought to keep the zombis away. That is why they are fastened to the wall, over my bed.

Nobody could be kinder to animals than Cyrillia usually shows herself to be: all the domestic animals in the neighborhood impose upon her;-various dogs and cats steal from her impudently, without the least fear of being

beaten. I was therefore very much surprised to see her one evening catch a flying beetle that approached the light, and deliberately put its head in the candle-flame. When I asked her how she could be so cruel, she replied:-

-"Ah ou pa connaitt cho?e pays-ci." (You do not know Things in this country.)

The Things thus referred to I found to be supernatural Things. It is popularly believed that certain winged creatures which circle about candles at night may be engagés or envoyés-wicked people having the power of transformation, or even zombis "sent" by witches or wizards to do harm. "There was a woman at Tricolore," Cyrillia says, "who used to sew a great deal at night; and a big beetle used to come into her room and fly about the candle, and and bother her very much. One night she managed to get hold of it, and she singed its head in the candle. Next day, a woman who was her neighbor came to the house with her head all tied up. 'Ah! macoumè,' asked the sewing-woman, '?a ou ni dans gui?le-ou?' And the other answered, very angrily, 'Ou ni toupet mandé moin ?a moin ni dans gui?le moin!-et cété ou qui té brilé gui?le moin nans chandelle-ou hiè-souè.'" (You have the impudence to ask what is the matter with my mouth! and you yourself burned my mouth in your candle last night.)

Early one morning, about five o'clock, Cyrillia, opening the front door, saw a huge crab walking down the street. Probably it had escaped from some barrel; for it is customary here to keep live crabs in barrels and fatten them,-feeding them with maize, mangoes, and, above all, green peppers: nobody likes to cook crabs as soon as caught; for they may have been eating manchineel apples at the river-mouths. Cyrillia uttered a cry of dismay on seeing that crab; then I heard her talking to herself:-"I touch it?-never! it can go about its business. How do I know it is not an arranged crab (yon crabe rangé), or an envoyé?-since everybody knows I like crabs. For two sous I can buy a fine crab and know where it comes from." The crab went on down the street: everywhere the sight of it created consternation; nobody dared to touch it; women cried out at it, "Miserabe!-envoyé Satan!-allez, maudi!"-some threw holy water on the crab. Doubtless it reached the sea in safety. In the evening Cyrillia said: "I think that crab was a little zombi;-I am going to burn a light all night to keep it from coming back."

Another day, while I was out, a negro to whom I had lent two francs came to the house, and paid his debt Cyrillia told me when I came back, and showed me the money carefully enveloped in a piece of brown paper; but said I must not touch it,-she would get rid of it for me at the market. I laughed at her fears; and she observed: "You do not know negroes, Missié!-negroes are wicked, negroes are jealous! I do not want you to touch that money, because I have not a good opinion about this affair."

After I began to learn more of the underside of Martinique life, I could understand the source and justification of many similar superstitions in simple and uneducated minds. The negro sorcerer is, at worst, only a poisoner; but he possesses a very curious art which long defied serious investigation, and in the beginning of the last century was attributed, even by whites, to diabolical influence. In 1721, 1723, and 1725, several negroes were burned alive at the stake as wizards in league with the devil. It was an era of comparative ignorance; but even now things are done which would astonish the most sceptical and practical physician. For example, a laborer discharged from a plantation vows vengeance; and the next morning the whole force of hands-the entire atelier-are totally disabled from work. Every man and woman on the place is unable to walk; everybody has one or both legs frightfully swollen. Yo te ka pilé malifice: they have trodden on a "malifice." What is the "malifice"? All that can be ascertained is that certain little prickly seeds have been scattered all over the ground, where the barefooted workers are in the habit of passing. Ordinarily, treading on these seeds is of no consequence; but it is evident in such a case that they must have been prepared in a special way,-soaked in some poison, perhaps snake-venom. At all events, the physician deems it safest to treat the inflammations after the manner of snake wounds; and after many days the hands are perhaps able to resume duty.

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