I’m 78-years-old sitting, waiting for death in a Florida hospital, hooked up to machines and monitors which are supposed to keep me alive, but ironically makes me feel more dead than anything else.
I don’t have a whole lot of time left but these past few days after chemotherapy, I’ve had a lot of time to think and reflect on my memories of my earlier life, in a different time and a different place.
There was nothing particularly outstanding about my life. With time and age, I’ve forgotten most of the irrelevant parts of it, sometimes I even forget my own name… Wendell Jr.
I write it down here and there to remember which is part of the reason why I’m writing this.
As I lay here, one particular incident from my childhood stands out to me with frightening clarity that even now as a geriatric it makes me shut my eyes and clench my fists, wishing it was only a bad dream.
I was born on the island of Trinidad, in the Caribbean. It’s relatively small but wealthy in oil and other resources.
This was back in the fifties before Trinidad was even a country of its own, but instead just another British colonial possession in the Caribbean. At the time infrastructure wasn’t very well developed, but I lived with my parents in the capital of Port of Spain which was much more industrialised than the countryside, where my grandmother lived.
One summer, when I was ten years old my father, an engineer, decided it would be a good opportunity for me to visit his mother, my grandmother, at her house in Sangre Grande, a largely rural area in the northeastern part of the island.
I had only heard of her every now and again and usually through arguments between my parents. My mother wasn’t particularly fond of Eunice Charles, or ‘Mammy Eun’ as she was known in creole by the family.
My mother, an educated and progressive-minded woman for her time, was fiercely opposed to Mammy Eun’s superstitions and traditional view of family life. Even though they met in person only a total of three times for the most, my mother couldn’t stand her. So when my father hatched the idea of sending me to visit her during our school vacation, she was less than pleased.
I remembered the night before I left, our sizeable apartment in the city was in an uproar.
“You’re sending him to stay with that old bat in the bush for an entire month Wendell! What if a snake bites him? Or he falls off a cliff? She can’t take proper care of him,” my mother hissed.
“Would you calm down? I’m only taking him there for two weeks and I’ll be stationed at the tracking centre in Arima. That’s less than an hour away by car, if anything happens I’ll be there quickly enough,” my father retorted.
“I still don’t like this. What if she poisons my child? He isn’t accustomed to that kind of countryside food they eat. He is such a delicate boy.”
“Which is why this trip is perfect for him Sandra. A couple weeks in the country outside of this hellhole of a city will do him some good. The country is changing, it would be good for him to experience at least some of the things I did as a child before it becomes a wasteland.”
I listened through the walls. I don’t know why my mother and Mammy Eun had such a bad relationship. One of my older relatives told me it was because of something that happened when Ma was still pregnant with me.
I never really questioned it, but it was strange hearing my mother talk about her mother-in-law like that. I had never heard her raise her voice like that before so hearing it was strange.
The next day my father loaded up his car and we were on our way out of the city heading towards God alone knows what. We spent close to three hours driving on some of the worst roads in the country at the time. After some time, asphalt road turned to dirt, then to mud, and eventually what I can only describe as sod.
The telephone lines were replaced by towering palm and coconut trees and I wondered how a woman as old as my grandmother lived in a place so remote.
The villages were spread far and apart with only a few huts, dotting the lush green ocean of trees.
The nearest neighbours were about twenty minutes away – each way – and with no telephone lines and very few vehicles, you could end up dead from something as mundane as food poisoning or a stubbed toe that got infected.
I began wondering about what my mother said and had immediate reservations about coming here. What did I know about this woman besides the fact that she held me once when I was a few days old?
My father who was silent the entire drive must have seen the look of concern on my face and spoke up.
“I know this is a new experience for you Junior, but trust me this will be good for you. Getting some time away from your mother and I will be great. You’ll get to see some streams and breathe some of the freshest air on the island. I can remember playing in the forests up on that side for hours when I was your age. Just don’t go too far inside.”
“Yea I know snakes,” I said softly
“Yea snakes and other things.”
My father’s face immediately turned from happy and nostalgic to concerned. I noticed his brow tensed. He only did that when he was in deep thought or considering a punishment for me. In hindsight, it was one of the strangest things I had seen.
After a few more minutes of driving, we finally reached a dirt track leading to a little cottage with sheets of galvanize for a roof.
I later learned this part of Trinidad was called Guaico, with deep foliage extending as far as the eyes could see on any side.
An old woman was sitting on a small wooden bench in the gallery outside. She waved for us to come inside.
“That’s your granny Eun,” said my father with a smile.
“You grew up here?”
“Yep some of the best years of my life,” he said without taking his eyes off of the house.
“Baby boy!! Look how big you get! Oh my Lord, I missed you so much,” the woman said as she threw two frail arms around my father’s shoulders holding him in a tight embrace.
She was the stereotypical black Caribbean granny, wearing a long blouse with a multi-coloured headwrap. Looking back there weren’t any particularly distinguishing features I could describe only that she was old, even by my understanding of age right now.
“This must be the big man. I ain’t seen you since you was a little one with your mammy,” she said.
“Yea, he’ll be staying with you here for the next couple weeks. It will be good to get to know each other. Plus, he’s never been out of the city,” my father said.
“Is that so? Well, we have lots to see on this side Mr City Bwoy. I can’t wait for you to come and go for a trail walk with me.”
Even at her age, I could see how spritey and full of life she was. Looking back, her courage and spirit were just a few of the things I admired about her the most.
After a cup of cocoa and some catching up, my dad got back into his antique Chevy leaving me behind.
Mammy Eun took me upstairs to my room which had a gorgeous view of the Sangre Grande horizon. In the distance, I could hear monkeys chattering and parrots squawking. I had never seen so many trees in one place before and it was a welcome change from the dismal grey buildings and traffic congestion of the city.
“When you’re done unpacking you can walk around downstairs but don’t stray too far. You’ll like it here, I just know it,” she said warmly before setting off to get dinner started.
I slipped into a pair of shorts and a button-up t-shirt before heading downstairs.
“We don’t call the names of the chirren when they’re out in the bush. It invites things to follow them,” Mammy Eun said curtly before inviting me into the house.
I walked around in the yard and saw there was no fence separating Mammy Eun’s house from the forest. I walked around the towering trees and saw large, colourful fruits hanging from the trees. Some of which I recognised and others I did not.
While walking I continued to hear the sounds of the forests – a few toads, some monkeys overhead, the squawk of a parrot. I walked a little distance away and came upon dead silence. It was odd; not even the breeze seemed to rustle the leaves and branches where I stood and there was a hot, heavy presence in the air. The only way I could describe it is like it was being on a packed bus at midday in Port of Spain.
But there was no one besides me around.
I was about to investigate further when I heard a bell ringing in the direction of Mammy Eun’s house. I walked over and saw her ringing the bell in the gallery. I thought this was odd. As old as she was I’m sure she could have still called me, I wasn’t that far away.
“I’m back. How come you didn’t just call me in?” I asked
“We don’t call the names of the chirren when they’re out in the bush. It invites things to follow them,” Mammy Eun said curtly before inviting me into the house.
Things like what? Certainly, it couldn’t be the parrots or the monkeys I saw out there. I was genuinely confused at this point but I decided not to press any further, at least not until after dinner when we would have more time to chat.
It was at that point I realised my grandmother was a woman of many strange quirks and customs.
Taking her shoes off at the front door, throwing a pinch of salt over her shoulder when cooking. Even her almost ten-minute long “Grace Before Meals” prayer in creole was something to note.
After dinner, while lounging around the living room, I saw my grandmother had a small bookcase near her rocking chair. It looked ancient and was made of shiny black wood. I remembered the bookcase particularly well because out of everything in her house it was the only thing that seemed to shine, as if polished.
On it were different versions of the Bible, a copy of the Bhagavad Gita (the Hindu holy book), and other various leather-bound hard-covered books with what appeared to be scarlet red pages. Those ones particularly interested me because I couldn’t remember seeing books that size before. They were about twice the thickness of the old Bible Mamma Eun was reading near her oil lamp right now.
“You looking at the books over there?” she asked over her shoulder, without even taking her eyes off of the page she was reading.
I felt a little nervous, I didn’t want her to think that I was prying on her just one day into my visit.
“It’s okay. I imagine you’re very curious. I don’t think your mother and father would have spoken a lot about me over at your house,” she said slowly.
I walked over to her and asked, “What are all those books?”
She studied my face beside the orange glow of the lamp before answering.
“Knowledge of the spiritual. I’m a Catholic by birth but it’s good to read about other people’s cultures and experiences with the other plane. As far as I can see they all hold a little bit of truth in each page.”
I found it so profound my grandmother had such an open mind. On more than one occasion I heard my mother refer to her as a senile old bat, but this interaction was refreshing. Suddenly, the old cabin wasn’t as menacing as I thought it was. Mamma Eun began giving me details on her own background.
How her parents were plantation hands who could trace their ancestry back to Cameroon. How she married a drunken mule cart driver who squandered their savings leaving only this house for her after his death. How my father got a scholarship to go abroad and furthered his life, and how despite his repeated pleas to move her to somewhere more civilised, she refuses to go.
“My heart and soul is in this land. It has so much beauty and happiness out here in these fields and forests. But at the same time, there is some wickedness too. Not a lot but just a lil’ bit,” she said. I could see a look of worry wash over her face in the flicker of the orange flame.
The way the shadows cast over her eyelids made her look sad.
That’s when I remembered what she told me when I first came in from my walk.
“Mammy Eun, what did you mean when you told me that calling my name might invite something in with me?”
She kept her head in the same position. I thought with age her hearing would have deteriorated and she didn’t hear the question so I began to repeat it before she interrupted.
“I heard you the first time. Child, you might not know it, but there’s a lot of evil in this world, and just how it have good things to help us and guide us, there is the bad that tries to distract us and keep us scared. Out in that bush has some of those things and hearing your name is only giving them too much information.”
I sat listening to her with wide eyes. For most of my life, my mother told me the superstitions of ghosts was just nonsense. In the city with our cars and electric lights it was easy to dismiss these fears with the flick of a switch as easy as the light would push back the shadows, but out here, Mammy Eun’s slow words had an eerie quality I just couldn’t shake, not even with all the lights in the world.
“These is spirits you’re talking about? They live in the bush?” I asked
“Yes boy. They live out there. Some of them take the physical fleshy form of some nasty little things. Human-animal hybrids. The worst is the douens. Them is the spirits of the babies that was never baptised. They walk around with their feet backturned to show they progressing backwards with age.”
I raised one eyebrow at the thought of this. I wasn’t very versed in folklore so this was the first I have ever heard of the douens.
“Have you ever seen one?” I asked
“Na. Years ago there was a woman that used to live in another village. She used to walk down to the river to wash her clothes and on her way back she saw a basket with what she thought was a baby inside crying. She wanted to know what beast would abandon a helpless child on a dirt track in the bush, so she picked it up and decided to carry it home.
“A little ways down the road she started to feel the basket getting heavier and heavier in her arms until she couldn’t carry it no more and the baby’s cries was replaced with a deep manly voice that told her, ‘You better put me back where you find me.’”
“Well child, she dropped the basket with whatever was in it and took off down the road and never looked back. In the end, it took two doctors and a priest to try and calm her down, but she ain’t never been right up here since,” Mammy Eun said as she tapped the side of her head.
They take my child!
As unsettling as this story was, even at my age I was still skeptical. The eye-witness account of one obviously traumatised woman who probably didn’t have a proper education wasn’t enough to convince me of what was going on.
“Do you believe that?” I asked timidly
She turned and I could see what looked like anger in her eyes. The warm maternal presence was gone and her mood shifted entirely
“What you mean if I believe that? Boy even though I wasn’t there I see some things in this life, eh. Your father could tell you too. He might pretend he forget or don’t know, but trust me he remember.”
I thought of my father’s facial expression on the way here when he described his own experiences. It was weird, and clearly both he and Mammy Eun weren’t giving me the whole story. I was curious but she wasn’t in the mood to answer much more of my questions.
“It’s getting late. You should go and sleep. I’ll wake you for breakfast and tomorrow we can take that walk. Wash up and say your prayers.”
I felt like I now had more questions than answers. That night I lay awake listening to the breeze blow across the branches of the trees outside. I heard a few forest noises and what might have been the trickle of a few streams, but nothing else. I was thinking about what Mammy Eun told me and trying to piece together from my early childhood memory what could have been responsible for such apprehension and strangeness from both her and my father.
Eventually, sleep came but it was heavy and restless. The following day I woke up with a headache. I heard movement in the kitchen downstairs and went down to see Mammy Eun cooking breakfast. After a surprisingly quiet breakfast. We washed up the wares and got ready for the hike.
By this time, the sun was just a little bit over the horizon and bathed the entire forest in a lovely, green-gold hue. I sometimes remember that glow on my days in this old grey building of death and I yearn for it. Right now it only exists in my mind.
During the walk, Mammy Eun showed me some of the native plants and told me what they were used for. They were used for everything from treating urinary tract infections and fever, to even being a quick poison. We walked until we reached a clearing.
“You know your father had a brother?”
Of all the things I was expecting her to say that was not one of them. I was about to ask her to repeat, I was so sure I didn’t hear what she said when she continued:
“His name was Warren. He was a year younger.”
I never heard of my father mentioning siblings of any kind, so this was a shock.
“Years ago when they were about your age. They were out here playing, exploring and they got lost. We thought they just lost track of time, but when we eventually found your father he was petrified and alone. All the men and boys in the village gathered up torches and lights to go look for Warren.
“We even got help from some officers who had trucks to drive through those dirt roads. We must have looked through them bushes for weeks, months even, before they eventually gave up.”
I could only listen and watch as the first drops of tears run down her wrinkled cheeks.
“We thought he just died and was never found until your father finally spoke up and told us what happened while they were out there. He said the douens appeared around them, one by one in a circle and started playing with them. He said from the top half they seemed like normal children, they couldn’t see their feet because of the underbrush in the forest. But when they got to a clearing like this, they saw their twisted legs and tried to run. That’s when they grabbed my sons. Your father said he fought to get away and ran back but left Warren behind.”
“They take my child!” she yelled into the forest before her voice descended into sobs.
I was dumbfounded. If what my grandmother was saying is true, I had an uncle who disappeared in these bushes decades ago. No wonder my mother was apprehensive about me coming here. But with something as traumatic as that incident why would my father allow it. No. Encourage it?
I still had my skepticism about this whole issue. Ghost children didn’t abduct my uncle. Rural areas like these, I reasoned, had more than enough ways to die without the supernatural being involved so I quickly dismissed the idea. But if that was the case, well then why was his body never found?
Drowned in a river was one thing, but on an island as small as Trinidad one was bound to find the dead body of a child sooner or later.
In the end, I could only arrive at the conclusion that none of this made any sense.
Mammy Eun composed herself before looking at me still emotional and said, “Don’t worry. Just stay near the house and you’ll be safe. This is still a good place.”
I wasn’t so sure anymore. In my ten-year-old brain, there was a mask over this part of the country. One I only got fleeting glimpses of in moments like these.
We walked back to the house in silence. While my grandmother prepared lunch I decided to do some exploring on my own. I thought a few wildflowers and fruits would be enough to console my grandmother from having the recount such an ordeal earlier, so I wandered into the track much further than I should have in search of some wild Orchids.
Before long, the sounds of the forest came under a heavy silence. No parrots or monkeys were around. Even the wind seemed to avoid this particular patch of trees. I thought about what could have caused this when suddenly I felt dizzy.
It was strange. I wasn’t hungry nor was I even moving, I just felt disoriented without literally doing anything. When I found my footing I saw in the distance some matted black hair poking out from behind a log. I looked closer and realised it was a little boy. He didn’t seem to be lost, in fact, he seemed quite comfortable out here.
Maybe it was the neighbour’s child, but the nearest neighbour was a quarter-mile away and I doubt anyone would walk this far up the road. When the boy emerged from behind the log, I felt my stomach sink. Instead of a pair of normal legs, the boy’s toes were facing backward as both legs appeared to be sickeningly twisted at the kneecaps.
He turned and I saw his face, horribly distorted as his eye sockets sagged and lips trembled uttering something that resembled, “Hoop… Hoop… Hoop..”
It screeched louder as it got closer, it’s backward legs not slowing it down as it scuttled towards me.
As terrified as I was I remember whispering “Oh God,” beneath my voice just before turning to run. I couldn’t bear to turn around and see how close he, that thing, was to me. But I could hear branches breaking and leaves rustling with that awful ‘Hoop Hoop’ sound just behind me.
Pure fear coursed through my body as I leaped over branches and tree buttresses to get away. In the distance, I could hear Mammy Eun calling me towards the edge of the Tree Line. I raced towards her as I gradually heard the footsteps and sounds fade away behind me. I burst out of the bushes with such a force Mammy Eun jumped back.
“Boy where you was? You know how long I ringing this damn bell. I was…”
She paused as she saw the look of fear and bewilderment on my face.
“Oh God, you okay?” she asked as she wrapped her arms around me.
“They real…” I could only say between pants and sobs.
She led me inside and tried to soothe me. Apparently what I thought was only a few minutes in the forest was actually three hours. By the time I was inside, the sun already began to dip below the horizon leaving behind an eerie, orange-blue glow in the clouds.
“We don’t have any phone here and it’s too late to go down to the store, so I’ll call your father to come pick you up first thing tomorrow. Oh God, the same thing I didn’t want to happen,” she lamented.
At dinner, I couldn’t eat. I kept thinking about that thing’s face. How distorted it seemed; and it’s legs! A shudder ran up my spine and I felt my stomach turn again. After dinner, in bed, I tried to think of the things I liked: cricket, coconut water, fishing with my friends, anything to get my mind off of that thing, but to no avail. So if these things were real and they were responsible for my uncle’s disappearance, what did they do to him? Was he their prisoner? Was he eaten by them? Why have none of these things ever been captured? I know they were supposed to be ghosts but what I saw this afternoon looked oddly physical enough. These thoughts did not bring back rational thinking, they erased it. Then it occurred to me, during my escape in the bush, Mammy Eun was calling me. She called my name.
Unlike the night before I couldn’t hear any wind brushing against the treetops, no forest animals, not even the streams seemed to make any noise. I had just reached for the oil lantern on the nightstand when I saw a dark figure leap through the open window in a flash. Straight through the window and onto my bed, it landed on top of my chest. It was one of those things. Despite its relatively small, lean frame it was strong and sinewy. It’s slanted eyelids had no eyes underneath they were just empty sockets as I could see it’s mouth making the ‘Hoop’ noises.
I was terrified beyond belief as it began strangling me with it’s dirty, hard hands. I was forced to look at its hideous face. Then it shocked me when it spoke in a deep tone. “Ah know you would have come back, Wendell. Ah know that I would have gotten you eventually.”
How did this thing talk? It knew my name. Or, my father’s name? I could feel myself losing consciousness just as Mammy Eun burst into the room. Shouting psalms in French Creole, she was armed with nothing but her heavy black Bible in one hand and a machete in the other.
“You not going and get another one you wicked thing!!” she screamed.
The thing began cursing before releasing me and jumping through the window back into the darkness. I became unconscious. I have faint memories of my grandmother carrying me to her room and rubbing my chest and neck with eucalyptus and other sweet-smelling oils before eventually holding me close and rocking me to sleep.
The next day my grandmother took me to the nearest supply store where she called my father. I waited outside as she instructed him to come and get me. During the conversation, I heard her use the words, ’emergency’ and ‘a repeat’ before she eventually hung up. Thirty minutes later I saw my father’s car pulling up the driveway of the store.
“I really wished your stay could have been better,” Mammy Eun said before pulling me in for a hug. She looked and sounded so sad.
“I know, I just don’t know what to say, Mammy. Just, thanks…” I said softly.
She let me go as I hurried over to the front seat. My father looked about ten years older as Mammy Eun brought him up to speed on everything that happened. His look of fear was quickly replaced with sorrow when he looked back at me in the passenger side seat. I never saw my father cry before that day and I never saw him cry again after. It was a powerful image that moved me to tears as well.
As we left, Mammy Eun raised her hand and gave me a wave. I returned it, knowing this would be the last I ever saw her again. The three-hour drive back to Port of Spain was excruciatingly silent. On at least three dozen occasions I wanted to start a conversation with my father about what happened, about what he saw growing up. About something. He only spoke once, as he approached our house and it is something that stays with me now even as a decomposing old man.
“He was your age. Warren. They took him in that forest and never let him go. They wanted me too. I don’t know why, but they came back one night when your mother was pregnant and we were in Sangre Grande. It came and offered me Warren back in return for, you.”
I sat there in fear. My throat burned and I felt my eyes water. “Why did you send me? If you knew they wanted me?” I asked.
He replied without looking at me, “I wanted to know if they would keep the promise,” he said softly.
In the days then years that followed, my father and I spoke less and less to each other. About two years later I heard Mammy Eun died of a heart attack while walking down to the corner parlour. She was 102 and still full of life and energy. The entire family had her buried in Sangre Grande under special rights as per her last request.
I did not attend. In a letter, all I was told by my older relatives was that these rights would “Keep her safe and at rest.”
Years later, I passed my last secondary school examinations and earned a scholarship to study medicine in Florida, where I met my wife. Despite repeated pleas from my mother to return to Trinidad, I never did. But I did move her to the US with my family when my father died. I can’t even remember our final conversation, only that he ended it with how sorry he was.