When we returned to Nevis after our honeymoon my wife and I moved into our house with a peculiar feeling of being followed. There seemed to lurk a prickly cloud of cold by the front door. Little things seemed out of place, pictures on the table kept falling over and often I could smell cigarettes though neither my wife nor I smoke. The strangest thing was hearing our names called out when we knew no one was near. And, sometimes, we were pulled from our sleep by the insubstantial voices of shadows.
“Never answer the first call,” I said, telling my wife what I had been told when I was young. The women in the village had their superstitions, wives tales and stories. The first call might be the “Jumbie”, trying to learn your name.
“Wait three times,” the old wives said. “The devil won’t count to three.”
Jumbies are the spirits of the dead, the spirits that cannot rest and are thus stuck in an abeyance of resentment and lingering malevolence. Maybe the name comes from Africa, recalled from the nightmares of the Africans, a malediction that was whimpered on thin and broken lips in the holds of slave ships. Or, perhaps jumbies are a Caribbean creation to describe the restless resentment of a people forced to dig only shallow graves and never permitted to mourn their loved ones completely. I do not know from where they come but they are the nebulous dread felt in sudden chills and pockets of cold, the dark shifting shapes in our peripheral vision.
I told the ladies from the village that something was wrong at home. My wife and I agreed there was more in the house than just us. I described the footsteps and the clatters, the sudden clouds of coldness, the smell of smoke and that our wedding pictures kept falling over. And these ladies, these matriarchs of the village, explained that we had made our own bed when at our wedding we offered no invitation to the dead. We laid no table for those who were there but could not join, we had ignored them and we had forgotten death.
I have a memory from my childhood, or perhaps it was a dream, of a wedding table laid in white, with a bride, groom and guests around. The table was laden with a feast and in it all, easily overlooked but yet still glaring, sat a blanched white empty skull with its jawbone missing. It seemed to grin, with empty sockets and half a smile.
“You want to make them happy? Then set a jumbie table, a pretty table with cloth and flowers, offer them rum and cake. The devil won’t eat cake.”
So we followed this advice and laid the jumbie’s share. The rum and the cake sat out overnight and though they were untouched in the morning, the house had become still.