The Kitchen Duppy by Beth Thompson and Ovarn Brown
By bobby on January 19, 2014 in
Ovarn Brown was born in Black River, Jamaica. Beth Thompson was born in Melbourne, Australia. ‘The Kitchen Duppy’ is the first story they have written together.
The night jasmine flowers once the sun sets. It sends pollen on the wings of moths and gnats to bump into yellow-lit lanterns and drop perfumed dust onto the sweat-beaded necks of dewy Jamaican mummies. They sit and read papers in the half-light of day (spent in penance and prayer) and night (born of promised sins between bed sheets). They swat at mosquitos with folded newspapers; smacking the thick thighs and biceps of bodies fattened on chicken, mannish water, bammy and coconut cream.
In Jamaica, porches at dusk become stages for storytellers. Women recline on wicker furniture and drain mugs of black coffee thick as molasses. Soap operas unfold around the lives of the widow who took up a much younger lover, the lawyer who attempted to murder his wife and the pastor who impregnated the clergywoman. The sky hangs as a backdrop to the drama and is painted shades of tangerine to lilac by the setting sun. Hummingbirds roost in flower trees and crickets crawl out of cinder blocks to sing the symphonies of Shostakovich. Their lullabies invite hungry dogs with barrel chests to sleep by their master’s feet or to howl harmonics by the kitchen door. Bare hands slap goat hide drums and throw baritone beats into the mountain’s belly. The Fundeh’s voice rumbles; it shakes guinnips and guava from tree branches and sends ripples across black river waters — coaxing crocodiles to swim.
Maisy scratches at a bite that has swollen her knee to the size of a grapefruit. She wind sucks like an old brood mare.
‘Whoooooooweeeee,’ she whistles at the Manchester mountains. They don’t answer her, but fade into night shade. She drops orange rind onto a plate by her feet.
‘Marcia gone back inna di hospital,’ she says.
I try to ignore her. Last time Marcia was in the hospital she came back with a lot of fantastic stories. They caused much excitement despite their flaws and fictitious sources. She told me there was a woman in the hospital that had been unfaithful to her husband and became pregnant. Everyone knew she was unfaithful because she gave birth to a fish. I asked Marcia if she had seen this unearthly bastard fish. She had not.
I take up the plate by Maisy’s feet, throw the rind into the garden and go into the kitchen. I flick the light switch and the bulb pops. The light flickers then fades.
‘Di light gone again. But di current no gone,’ I call out to Maisy.
From the porch I hear her huff, ‘Again?’
I flick the switch a few times, ‘Yeah man.’
‘A t’ree time it happen dis week, you know!’
I drop the plate into the sink full of dirty dishwater. Maisy has left pots bubbling on the stove: boiled green bananas, curry goat, rice and peas. The windows sweat from the steaming supper. I stir each pot then go back to sit with Maisy on the porch.
‘All last week it did go weh fa,’ she says with raised eyebrows.
I can read Maisy’s thoughts, so scold her. ‘Mi know wah you a t’ink Maisy, but dem somet’ing deh no real at all.’
She thought it was the work of a spirit. A duppy.
‘No bother wid dat Maisy,’ I kiss my teeth at her.
‘It’s not only the light, you know. Mi come home and find di whole a di glass dem mash up.’
‘You sure a never your husband or pickney dem do it?’
‘No sah! Not dem. It must have been a duppy dat did it.’
As a girl I had been afraid of duppies. My mother gave me the fear. I spent my girlhood trying to keep them away: with frankincense and myrrh stitched in red cloth and pinned to my dress or drinking spirit weed tea. My mother taught me that they like to live in silk cotton and dogwood trees. They sit in these trees and ‘throw heat’ at people passing by. Throwing heat makes a person’s head swell, their tongue gets heavy, their skin prickles and they feel as hot as a scotch bonnet pepper. That is why silk cotton and dogwood trees are never planted close to the house.
Unlike Maisy, I had outgrown my fear of duppies. ‘Dem a false t’ing invented fi fools to fear,’ I whisper to myself.
Maisy looks up at me curtly. ‘Weh you seh?’
‘Dem a false t’ing invented fi fools to fear,’ I say little louder than a whisper.
‘Beg your pardon? Hmmmph.’She didn’t take kindly to being called a fool.
‘A just somet’ing mi father used to say,’ I mumble, ‘Never mind.’
‘Mi see duppy do dem evil sint’ing ya already,’ Maisy said. ‘When mi was a lil’ gal in Clarendon, one duppy did bother mi.’
‘Dem somet’ing deh no real at all.’
I excuse myself from the porch and go home to fix dinner. I don’t want to stay and listen to tales of crazy Marcia or the duppy any longer.
‘All right den, mi ago call a Mother Woman fi come deal wid it a morning,’ Maisy calls out after me.
The next day we can’t hear the radio over the rain. White spears of lightning scream and slate grey storm clouds shake. The sky dehisces and spills its belly to the mountains. Heavy sheets of rain wash the roads into caramel coloured currents that wash chicken bones and Appleton rum bottles out to sea.
Maisy and I are sitting inside her house when we hear knocking on the window. Cammy, one of the neighbours, is standing under a banana palm. She is using a plastic scandal bag as an umbrella.
‘Come outta di rain before you dead.’
‘Yes ma’am.’ She runs to the door.
‘Why you choose fi stand out inna di rain and you know dat you coulda come to mi door?’
Maisy ushers Cammy towards the dinner table.
Cammy moved from Mudtown last year and is still shy around us. She reminds me of a field mouse trapped in a butter bucket. She holds up a plastic bag, ‘Here’s some tamarind mi did bring fi you ma’am.’
Maisy snatches the bag of tamarind from Cammy. She sets to cracking open the pods and sucking on the fruit. She chews on the seeds and mumbles: ‘Mi want some sugar fi put pon dem tamarind ya, Lard dem sour!’
‘Dem can’t ripen any sweeter dan dat,’ Cammy swears earnestly.
‘Sit down, mi will bring you some tea,’ Maisy orders. Maisy told me she wanted to set an example for Cammy, but I think she just wanted to show off that she was well educated. She put on a lot of pomp when Cammy came over. I cussed her for acting like the Queen of England.
When Maisy said ‘mi will bring you some tea,’ she was really telling me to make it. I get up from my chair begrudgingly and go to the kitchen.
‘Weh you want fi tea Cammy?’ I ask. Jamaicans call many things ‘tea’.
‘Same t’ing dat you have in your cup,’ she says.
I pour Cammy a mug of chicory coffee. ‘Weh di sugar deh?’ I ask.
‘It deh pon di bottom shelf.’
‘No sah, it no di deh.’
‘Maybe pon di stove side?’
‘Maybe di duppy took it?!’
‘Stop that foolishnis,’ I cuss.
I come back with the coffee and no sugar. Maisy sucks her teeth and makes a fuss that the tamarinds are too sour; but she doesn’t stop eating them. Her obeah woman didn’t come to the house today because of the rain. Maisy has fixed a tape measure to the kitchen doorway. ‘Duppy don’t want to get measured’ is all she says when I frown at it.
‘Red cloth run duppy,’ Cammy says. She asks Maisy if she has tried red cloth, frankincense and myrrh.
Maisy puffs out her chest. ‘A that me ago do Cammy! Once dis damn rain stops.’
I roll my eyes. There is no duppy. Maisy is just a fat housewife with too much time and too little sense.
The rain eases, I make us more coffee and we nest on the porch. Cammy shares the news she learned in town.
‘When I was at di market dis morning, one accident happened round Racecourse Road. One school bus crash and a seven pickney mi hear seh dead. Dem eye burst open, ah mi seh di whole a dem teeth lick out.’ She holds an imaginary melon and thrusts a fist down at it. ‘Di whole a dem head sink in.’
I feel like I’m drowning. I feel like I’m deep in the ocean and I’m trying to swim to the surface, but I don’t know which way the surface is because the water is so black and so deep. Maybe I’m swimming deeper down?
‘Lard have mercy,’ is all that we can say.
We sit watching the lights explode in the sky.
‘If mi was a poet, mi woulda write some lines bout dat sky deh,’ Maisy sighs.
That night at dinner I sit opposite my husband and study his face. He is a good man. I love everything about him. I love the way his voice bellows like a church organ, the way he wraps his dreads upon his head, the freckles on his nose, the way he purrs when he says ‘guava’ and the way he smells like a hot pan of pimento spice on a wood fire. He looks up and catches me studying his face.
‘A weh you a t’ink bout?’
‘Noel, you t’ink seh duppy real?’
He laughs at me. ‘You spend too much time wid Maisy you know?’
I laugh too. ‘Mi know. But seriously doe?’
‘It no matter if duppies real or not. A di believin’ part dat is important. If mi seh duppy real, dem real. When you believe inna sint’ing den it ago seem real. Wid out di whole heap ah incense, red cloth and di tape measure, a duppy is just an accident and coincidence.’
‘So you t’ink seh duppy only real when a person t’inks it to be?’
‘Yes man. Jus like how God is not real until you want Him to be real.’
‘A not di same t’ing Noel. Dat a blasphemy!’
‘Hear ya know. If dem did never teach you bout God den He woulda never be real to you. You woulda worshiped di moon ah di sun instead. God never exist, until dem did teach you bout Him.’
‘Mi can’t believe seh you a compare God to duppy.’
Noel picks up an empty glass. ‘It look like mi drink too much rum fi one night. But weh mi seh make sense.’
That night we are woken by cries from next door. Noel and I put on our jackets and rush onto the street. Maisy’s kitchen is on fire. The yard is filled with plumes of brown smoke. The neighbours empty out of their homes and onto Maisy’s lawn.
‘Fire! Fire! Fire!’ She cries.
Noel shouts for some of the men to grab buckets.
I run to Maisy. ‘What happened? Are you okay?’
‘Di duppy a try fi burn mi house down!’ She wails. ‘Duppy take over di kitchen.’
Men fill buckets at the well and throw them into the house. At first they run with urgency, but soon the wet wood smoulders and they take to slowly sliding along muddy paths. They bump into one another with jovial elbow jabs and slurs.
‘Look weh you going kno?’
They laugh and curse.
Some women gather in the yard and sing revival hymns. They close their eyes and hold their palms up to the heavens. They sing louder and faster until they tremble with fever. Hands dip into apron pockets and retrieve handkerchiefs to mop their clammy necks and brows. They break into a frenzy of ‘Amens.’ A fat woman with an alto voice is shouting ‘Thank you Jesus!’ when Mr Ellis comes out of Maisy’s kitchen.
‘Di stove did left on,’ he says to the crowd. We fall silent. ‘Di stove did left on,’ he says again.
Maisy won’t believe him. ‘Di duppy turn di stove on. It take over di kitchen.’
It was to be no one’s fault but the duppy’s.
‘All right den Maisy, t’ink weh you wa t’ink den.’ He rolls his eyes.
‘It look like you a get bun?’ I tease him, ‘You no see seh you shirt turn back to front.’
He smiles and shakes his head. ‘Mi jus run out when mi hear Maisy screaming. Mi throw mi shirt on widout t’inking. Mi woulda put mi head on backwards too, if God never did stick it pon me straight.’
Mr Ellis is a retired teacher. He lives across the road from us. His granddaughter died in the bus crash yesterday.
‘Mi sorry fi hear bout you grand pickney,’ I say.
‘A so it go, a jus life,’ he says.
It is true that when a thing is done, it cannot be undone. Not unless you worship things darker than duppies.
Noel pats Mr Ellis on the back. ‘Tomorrow,’ he says. He kisses me on the forehead. ‘Mi a go back a mi bed. Cause mi have work a morning.’
‘Mi a stay wid Maisy ah take care of her.’
‘You better come back a bed, before di duppy make more trick pon you.’
‘A mi friend Noel. Mi a go stay.’
He shakes his head and walks home without me.
Maisy calls for the Mother Woman. The crowd that had gathered in her yard shrinks until just the two of us are left standing amongst the black wood and mud. I try and coax Maisy into my own house.
‘Maisy dat can stay til a morning fi clean up. Come over mi yard and mi make you some tea. Mi have some gizzada mi can give to you too.’
‘Mi can’t leave mi yard ’cause di duppy ago mash it up more.’
‘Stop chat nonsense, dem somet’ing deh no real. Just come and drink some tea.’
‘Not real?! How you fi seh it not real. See it deh, how it do mi house.’
By the time the Mother Woman arrives the moon has sunk down and is sitting in a coconut tree, whilst the sun hangs in the sky like a ripe mandarin. The ground is still wet from yesterday’s storm. We wilt where we stand in the wet grass. The rain and sun make everything sweat and quiver; the plants, tar roads and our bare thighs, that are fat and glistening with perspiration. The rainforest grows dense and casts dark shadows over our cinder block homes. Trees and vines copulate and choke one another, blushing ixora flowers gasp for breath between green razor blades, palms spew up purple banana flowers, canopies drip golden datura trumpets and in the underbrush lantana knit webs and burgundy sorrel bells bloom. Everything is humid and sticky and drips.
The Mother Woman comes from St Thomas. She doesn’t speak to us. I don’t think she can sees us beyond her billowing white raiment. She wears a white blouse, white full circle skirt and has her hair wrapped in a red stained scarf. At the nape of her neck the scarf is knotted and secured behind each ear with a lead pencil.
‘Di woman can see di duppy,’ Maisy says.
‘A no duppy she a see now. A wah burn down kitchen.’
Maisy pretends not to hear me.
The Mother Woman catches Maisy’s eye, ‘Weh di duppy give di most trouble?’ Her voice is built from gravel and ash.
‘Mi kitchen it won’t leave.’
The Mother Woman carries her bag towards the kitchen. It clinks and jingles at her knees.
‘Don’t come inna di house if you not strong enough to conquer di duppy,’ she warns Maisy.
Maisy doesn’t heed her call and rushes into the kitchen.
I sit in the shade of a Breadfruit tree and watch the witch and her crony. Maisy circles her like a John Crow vulture as she begins shouting psalms.
‘Come ya duppy!’ The Mother Woman calls.
‘Come ya duppy,’ Maisy calls.
The Mother Woman sprinkles oil and rum around the kitchen, making a ‘trap’.
I am reminded of the Mother Woman’s yard my mother took me to as a child. Her name was Herma. She lived in a yellow weatherboard house with a rusted zinc roof. It smelled of goat and burnt plastic. She had a large kitchen table that she covered with black cloth. On it sat a bowl carved from lignum vitae full of white eggs and tall glass bottles filled with yellow oil and white rum. I was too scared to enter her home, so would sit on the stairs whilst my mother spoke with her.
I laugh to myself as I think about the fear I held as a child. Then I start to vex at Maisy’s foolishness. She is not a child and she is not an un-schooled dimwit. She should know better.
After three psalms, a half bottle of oil and a quart of rum, Maisy and the Mother Woman come out of the kitchen holding the ‘duppy’ in a bottle. Maisy’s eyes are red from smoke and lack of sleep. Her hair rollers have wrung loose and hang around her shoulders. She is laughing rabidly.
I walk home without saying ‘good morning’ to Maisy. I climb into bed just as Noel is leaving for work.
He kisses me on the forehead and says ‘Di night is over. No hold hate inna your heart.’
The kitchen duppy had gone. However, it wasn’t going to be the last time Maisy would be troubled by a spirit. She still had the bedroom, bathroom and basement duppies to come.