Like ash adrift on an inferno, we flutter into the capsized life of 17-year-old Suti Neville – an enigmatic, simple, deep-thinking Barrackpore girl. Through the layers of correspondence with Tamara, and the police enquiry into the devastating blaze, Suti emerges as complicit, used for her cover, or the victim – but there is a fourth scenario, of which the folk of Barrackpore speak, noting she is not the only suspect.
Many realities co-exist, depending on your point of view: life in Trinidad and Tobago is no different in this sense, where modern coalesces with country; truths finesse lies; suspicion hides its own hand and sometimes there is no one answer. What really became of ‘Suti the souc…’ sshhh?
[A word about this story construction: this is an epistolary told through e-mails between Suti and Tamara. The e-mails have been printed out and are contained in a police report file, along with a couple of newspaper articles. The highlighted text corresponds to the yellow “post-it” notes from Acting Detective Inspector Rex Crichlow, and appear at the end of the corresponding paragraph; please click on them to enlarge and experience the other layer of the story.]
In the heart of Myrtle Cadoggan
Top shelf did bow with ’guana tail and pressed oils,
Treatment for sins, unloving and soils,
of the heart and head dey could dig out yuh eye,
Torn flesh, wrung heart and spirituous sight.
When Sampson from puncheon urged a child for he side,
Powdered in dust, and food for he hide,
He hollered queen Myrtle to come for his seed,
Obeah man lovin’, fat purse, loins longing for feed.
From pitch lake no phoenix ever will gloat,
and Lucifer seeing the chink in the hope,
Squeezed forth a drop, a fiery load,
Birthing Soucouyant, sweet doux doux, soul of a toad.
(Soucouyant Self, 1974, author unknown)
-Lord. Myrtle, why yuh lookin so?
-Hush nah, I cyan think straight girl. Gimme a 20oz coke nah.
-Seven dollars. Sampson by you?
-No girl. And a pack of chicken foot. Lord, what I go do?
-Seven and 12 is 19 dollars. Maco tell de Vine flames leap from de roof yuh know. You ever know galvanise bun? Stew or curry?
-Curry. And a pack of black eye. Hurry nah. Allyuh taking too long, girl.
-Geed. Curry foot and black eye? Like yuh head eh good?
-(Steups) Is not to eat girl. Is Sampson self I lookin’ for.
6 months earlier
> subj: Hotness
Ha ha ha. Oi girl, how yuh do? Yesterday was so gud. We shd lime again. D fellas from last night, one call dis morning. My head was heavy pouning. When we go link up nex? I know u was toting when yuh leave. I right here. Next time yuh cd spend d night. Doh mind d place small. It have everything – stove, fan and water. Wha more we need…
I ent missin Barrackcraw one shit. But yuh know I missin meh girl already. D red fella tell me it was u he was trackin. You know yuh hair does drive man wild. I dunno why u does play stoosh and tie she up d whole time. Loose she nah…wha go happen? Is not weave yuh have.
So, wha d good? I have class jus now. I heading east wid Belinga or Belinda, whateva she name. I meet she d first day. She from St James, so she passin to pick me up.
Anyhow, I cool fuh now. Sorry I get vex about d notebook, but yuh know I doh like dis obeah ting. Make sure and doh read it again eh – a spirit go lash yuh. Lol
Be cool. T x
Later that day
> subj: School
I hope your class was good. Yes, you mentioned Belinda – “thicky with a k-foot”, your description not mine. It’s a good thing you’re not studying dance or theatre.
Finding Sampson’s book really upset me, which is why I brought it to show you. It was lodged between the mattress and frame of his wooden bed. I have no idea if he’ll miss it. What do you think he’ll do?
But hey – who are you calling slutty!? Lol I know you’re trying to unpeel my cocoon but you can’t rush a butterfly. Especially after what happened…
I know you hated Barrackpore; Port of Spain has its issues too, I’m sure. I heard women on Murray Street make fares for $20, depending on one’s proclivity.
I have been feeling down though. I don’t know what’s been happening to me, but my mind just seems cloudy all the time.
4 weeks later
> subj: Redman
This past month was real busy, Girl. I dunno how I go make. I have news though – I get wid d red fella. Jason. I get some real sexy pictures to show yuh, but not on e-mail. When yuh come we go pong soaps. Jason real sweet tho.
Yuh know I ent mean anyting about d ting. Wha you went thru was real bad. Men these days wicked when dey ready.
I have an essay on ‘Sex and society’ to write for school. Yuh cd help me out…I dunno what to say about it. I know you does think deep.
Send me something. It have to be in by Friday.
Friday that week
> subj: The struggle
> : Country girl charm
I’m struggling with what to do these days. Sampson has been getting on. You know he’s nearly 80 now. He slipped on the wet floor the other evening. He was by the stove, and well, you know how uneven our floor is – we still have that hole by the table that your foot went through and you can see chickens running under the house. Well, he stepped in a pool of water in the vinyl and twisted his back as he fell. He cussed an avalanche with every moment of his fall. And when he landed he pulled the sink skirt with him and a whole set of wares. I was propped on the mop and didn’t even turn around. But I saw the flying pot-spoon’s reflection in the TV. If it’s one thing Myrtle taught me to do it’s to mop and duck. Not that my mother is good for much else.
I’ve attached some ideas for your essay. I hope they help.
But there’s something odd I need to tell you about: this morning I noticed the strangest thing on my picture wall in the living room. I think Deren might have broken in and tried to burn the house. It looked like a candle had been held against the white-painted boards – there were soot flecks that looked like writing. I nearly cried with the shock when I saw it. You know how he smokes too much. I wiped the walls with a damp cloth before Sampson woke up, but you can still see smears in one corner. I rearranged the pictures to cover them up.
I couldn’t quite make out the words – and I don’t know if my mind is playing tricks on me or what, but I read something in Sampson’s book. He has a section called: “The four guilded bedlams to guided obeah” written in pencil toward the back, and one of the symbols on the wall matched his notebook images.
It’s freaking me out.
What do you think it’s about? I need you to help me Tamara. Seriously. Maybe one of your lecturers will know something about this kind of thing. The words looked like:
In a world beyond prayer… and something that looked like hell’s dance
You think Deren might be possessed? Weak minds are prone to evil invasions, you know.
1 month later
> subj: Media madness
Sorry it’s been so long. Yuh last message real worry meh. I ent go lie. I have dis one media teacher who say ppl does read and put stories in dey mind.
Everything he says is about media tho.
Jason say not to get too deep.
I go write you properly when I get time.
Later that day
> subj: Deathnote
I’ve come to realise something since you left – it is possible to predict death as easily as it is a birth. It’s only that we don’t like to talk about it, which stops people sharing these ideas. Death starts with not seeing excitement. Then since there’s nothing to look forward to, plans dwindle. Hope in mankind vanishes – actually it shifts focus to something out of this world – and once ideas start to compress, folding inwards like cake batter, consuming the buttery air, the day is almost done.
I can feel it coming.
You don’t write me any more. Now you have Jason and school. It’s been two months since you moved away.
I’ve been waking up with terrible fevers these last few weeks. Not that you care. You didn’t even take my plea seriously. What would a media teacher have to say about my nightmare at home – an abusive father, absent mother? I’m like a damn washer woman in this house. I’ve been scrubbing walls daily since you moved away.
I devised a plan to see if I could catch the culprit. Last week I went to the hardware and got a new padlock for the back door. Before I went to bed I pushed the table against the front door and I set my alarm for 2am.
When my alarm went off I darted though the hanging curtain and dashed on the light. I couldn’t breathe with what I saw. The air clogged in my throat. I thought I saw the room on fire, but my mind went blank. All sound cut off. And when I recognised myself I was in the room again, everything was tumbled – like a tornado had run through a labasse and dropped its mess everywhere. I was so frightened Sampson might fly up in a rage.
I had to dart for a black bag to clean up.
The crud all over the place was pieces of what looked like bubbly melted plastic, and charred spheres of wood. The oddest thing was they were completely cold, like they had been there for hours. The soot stained my hands. I look like I’ve been digging a firepit with my hands. There were more words on the walls too:
I am here. Take my form with scorpion sting
Something is beginning to formulate in my mind Tammy. It’s reading like a message…to ME. I really think it’s a message to me!
Please don’t wait so long to reply T. Even if Jason has you to himself in person, you know you still have a place in my life.
19 days later
> Tamara.holder @sta.uwi.edu
> subj: Moving on
I real want us to link back up, but since I leave Barrackpore my life get real busy with work and stuff. Jason got a job in a garage near me and he decide to move in. So since last week we been settling down. He bought me new curtains for d place, if yuh see how pretty.
The other day his partner came over – the talk dark one from that night. Well they was in we place talking obeah talk.
I dunno what happen Suti but my blood run cold – I call your name and I told him we ent talking again because of d obeah business. It just came out. That’s why I sending this from a school e-mail. I doh feel Jason go like we talking too much.
If he wasn’t so in my business, it could be ok. But like so, I jus not sure. I know you go understand. I know he’s yuh fadda eh, but from Sampson you know how men is.
Dis talk of burning stuff and writing on d walls, I find it real freaky. I can’t sleep when I hear stories like that. Try and move nearer this way then we could lime for sure.
I’ll write you when school eases up.
1 week later
> subj: Burning rage
Congratulations on things with Jason. He was a sweet guy and you deserve each other.
I’m not sure I understood you completely though. Are you saying you’re not writing me again?
You could send me e-mails from school if you wanted to. Even one line would make me happy. At least I would know we are still connected. Not hearing anything is what frustrates me most.
I know you will find this weird, but I went to the corner parlour the other day and Miss Jennifer was talking about a soucouyant in the area. Then it struck me, that’s who has been writing messages. But something worse Tam…
I think the soucouyant is ME. Remember the night I padlocked the door. Well, how could there be writing on the walls if the room was locked?
I think I’m going mad. Yesterday Sampson was asleep on the sofa in the middle of the day and I went up close and put my hands on his neck while he snored down the place like a bullfrog. He didn’t even move. I wanted to tighten my grip around his brown paper bag neck and suffocate him. I felt a fire inside me…welling up like a volcano. I watched his flaring nostrils, and T, it would have been so easy.
What should I do?
2 days later
> tamara.holder @sta.uwi.edu
> subj: From school
This is Jason, writing from Tam’s address. I feel u should visit Mount St Benedict and ask for the Abbot. Yuh falling into a trap girl and I don’t want T involved. Fix up.
2 weeks later
> subj: Black notebook
I’m not happy with what happened. You shouldn’t let Jason read our private e-mails. You do know he suggested I see the Abbot, right? I don’t need any Abbot praying for me. The church has been praying for millennia and look where we are. How come the prayers haven’t gotten me away from this shit years ago.
Remember I said I had read Sampson’s notebook, well I found a section he’s finished since I last checked on ‘the four gilded bedlams’. I think he knows I’m reading it and he’s writing things for me to see.
He put my name on a page and had written “black seed” next to it. When I saw this, I thought I was going to vomit out my beating heart. It was pumping lub dub in my mouth and then my nose and then I could feel it in my forehead like it was bursting in my skull. Then things just went blank.
I think you’re probably right about making some space between us. I’m not good for you. You have school and Jason and you’re going up in the world. Me, there’s only housework and the sometimes glance from Deren when he’s stoned.
I put together some new words from the wall and I now know what I have to do.
Take me and I will give you back
I bought some red candles and am going to light them in the living room. I read from Sampson’s notebook a reference to scorpion – you know what it is? The scorpion pepper! I’m going to blend it and put it in the lit candles. The soucouyant will be drawn to the flames, but when she touches it, she will feel the pepper too.
You won’t be bothered by me again after that. It’s been good Tam. I only ever wanted the best for you.
The next day
> subj: Calm down
What foolishness you talking? If you is d soucouyant, then wha go happen when you pepper she? Ent u go dead?!!! Doh be so ignorant wid yuhself. You better write me tomorrow. Dis shit is just too much.
Go to sleep and stop being an effing drama queen.
I love you.
>Sent from iphone
24 hours later
> subj: ??
>Sent from iphone
THE DAILY VINE
Barrackpore blaze: 2 missing
NINE Barrackpore homes were last night razed to the ground by a raging inferno that swept through a section of Main Trace and burned for more than seven hours. It took more than 50 firefighters to quell the fire.
Residents who witnessed the blaze described a “sea of fire” that engulfed the area. It eventually destroyed four acres of Barrackpore woodland.
There were no reported deaths, however, Trinidad & Tobago Fire Service said Suti Neville, 17, and her father Sampson Neville, 79, were unaccounted for. The inferno is believed to have originated in their wooden home, which last night had no current following a power outage that forced them to rely on candlelight.
Firefighters investigating the matter told The Daily Vine that the dwelling was largely unscathed except for singed curtains at a back window. A single tan-coloured shoe belonging to Neville was found near the kitchen sink along with a black notebook that had a “partial burnt thumb print” on the edge of the front cover.
Last night residents taking a night stroll in the street saw flames on the galvanise roof and said the fire inexplicably “leapt across the road” from the Neville home to more than 18 feet away.
Neighbour Myrtle Cadoggan, 69, said she believed Sampson had simply fled the blaze but did not know his whereabouts.
Palls of dense smoke obliterated the moon and stars in the night sky for many across Trinidad and Tobago as the Barrackpore blaze decimated the area and four square acres of surrounding woodland.
Prime Minister Jeremy Hypolite speaking to this newspaper said those displaced by the fire would be temporarily housed in the local community centre on Hydraulic Road while welfare services were being arranged. He said offers of assistance should be directed to his office.
The previous evening
> subj: Getting there
When we met, do you remember? We were like two old threads brought into shore on a foamy wave. Me from the Caribbean Sea, you the Orinoco. I knew from then that the sea would thrash us about and knot us in ways only a devil could loosen. I could tell too that you had a good hustle – walking into the rum shop, past those boys playing whappy, their eyes watching your bumper thumping its muscular way across to the bar. Heavy load on the stool. You must have known the stir you were causing. Curtis’s eyes didn’t stop roving till you motioned for a double vodka. I don’t think he’d ever seen a proper woman cross his floor. Sixteen-year-olds like me don’t count, especially through the choking cigarette smoke and permanently attached to a mop.
The main road chatter got wild. Curtis texted Pumpy who alerted the bachacs of Barrackpore that an over-ripe cocoa pod had fallen and gashed its side, wide open. When you ever saw a country hole pumping on a Tuesday by 8pm? Never. Not before you. The banshees in their half empty beds had it in for you since then. You can imagine, I’m sure. Did they ever get to suck the seeds?
>Boy, woman on fire. Bring d clip.
>Eh he! Tell she big snake coming. Here dry like yuh face…lol
“Honi, I steppin out to come back.”
“Where yuh going?”
“I feel to play snake tomorrow. We go go Tobago when we win.”
“We?” she laughs. “Take a $40 from meh jeans pocket and play someting for meh spendin moni.”
>Yuh liming? Curtis say a bess ting waiting on we. Leh we go.
“Baby, yuh need anything from d parlour?”
“Yeah, I feelin snackish. I’ll bring yuh a seamoss.”
“Always. But after d seamoss yuh go feel nice. And yuh know nice does lead to better.”
>Wazzup. See u by Curtis in 10mins. Women like peas.
“Dad…DAAAADDD. DAAAAAADDDD. I gone.”
“What? Yuh what? Where you? Ummm…wait…I want a…a…ting…from d road. Hello??? Hello??? Hmpf. F**kin boy.”
Only I had your back. You know how village mentality is. But I cared. Enough to tell Curtis when the bedroom lights flicked off, curtains pushed back to block out the orange streetlight. And with the dust finally still from the ruffled feathers, he let Baron carry the mood, and your huge tyres started to roll. That was our first night.
The night you called me over to shoot tequila with you. I know you remember. The men jeering when I ate the lime. How was I to know you were laughing at me. My chest erupted in heat and my face was a sticky mess. All those sweaty eye sockets looking back from grey faces under strip lights, gold splices glinting, and yabbering. By two shots I had relaxed, then three. Four, the hair was stuck to my face – cadaverous. My dress was above my knees, and I asked myself, from the barstool: “Why is that man’s hand on my waist?” When I glanced at you, anxious, you grinned, and nodded, your bulging eyes red and swimming. It was my fault – for asking a billowing octopus about the ocean. The soca pulling you up from your stool by your party hair and leaving your sweaty moon-prints on the vinyl stool. What a sight we were. You wining, Curtis’s stumpy arms reaching round his belly and barely reaching the breadth of your back: his mossy hands on your belly.
Innocence is like a horn child. A pot-hound on the road, mangy, but everyone feels when it whimpers, its fresh pups smeared across the asphalt showing where the car slammed to a halt; ironically, between two speed humps. I understand how Sampson felt now – loved and loathed, for what he could do and for what he had done: villagers asking for his magic and hating his nasty ways. That night I scurried a rat among corbeaux. I think you knew what might happen: dragged by my hand into the ammonia cloud of the urinals, half laughing, wholly delirious.
But it was you who picked up the pieces. Found me torn and bloody. I know you took me to a bed, found out who I was and told Sampson that I had been in an accident and Curtis was covering some recuperation costs for the next week. What did my father’s eyes say to this news? I know shock blipped up momentarily on his emotional radar, for the shortest second his stomach might have fluttered with fear – fear of loss, fear of losing control, fear of no Cinders to make his soup and pick his garden herbs. You told me, that from our rickety front step he had stood, back bowed in the full morning sun glinting off his grey curls and his coconut husk face, and his bruised lips had formed a sound like “Oooh, oooohhhhh” that seemed to express concern. But what did his eyes really say? You can tell me now. Surely it never mattered to you.
Why should you care, I surely wouldn’t – an everyday village violation, drunkenness, sweaty men innocent to their sin, rapists, drunkards, farmers, weed boys, teachers who play with students, parents who play with children. Where did you even come from Tamara? You left as you came, shameless. Mud can’t stick where it is constantly hosed down, removing traces of history, where no roots can take hold. What did you run from Tamara, if that is even your name?
You told me of the day Sampson came wet like a goat in rain to look for me. The smell of livestock vamping off his bent body and when he removed his shirt to dry on your line, his stomach was hard like chiselled marble. His arms, you said, were knots of banga wood and his shoulders hefts of granite. He’s not the withering old man you think he is. Don’t mind his back is rickety, that’s the cost of obeah. Sampson is strong, which is why he can’t be left to continue. I won’t do anything to harm him, but no one can speak for the soucouyant.
2 hours later
> subj: The End
Sorry for the abrupt end. I got startled – I thought Sampson was coming into my room. I was grating peppers for the candles and I think he could smell it.
I was saying before…as I recovered you fed me sancoche, green fig and pumpkin and mopped my forehead with Limacol. I know he didn’t come back after that one visit, but I’m wondering if you saw him do anything untoward to my body. I never really explained this fully to you, but when I told you of my life being ‘empty’ I meant it in a literal way: no dreams, no ambition, no ideas. And as I think back, before my ordeal I wasn’t like that. You didn’t know me then, but although I was quiet I wanted to leave Barrackpore just as you have managed to. I used to want to go school and become something.
I’m not sure if it was Sampson’s obeah, or something about my life that made it turn so black. The emptiness started as a seed. When I closed my eyes, against a white horizon as far as the eye could see I could feel a tiny black seed floating in the unlimited nothingness. The seed would float and if ever I tried to examine it, think about it or get closer to it it would just expand a little, pushing its silence towards me like a football aimed at my head.
I would find that in the day this silence would engulf me; there was a time I saw Deren from my bedroom window. He was sitting in his back yard smoking, his bony spine pressed against the trunk of his peas tree. He watched me and juked his chin in a “how yuh do?” motion and in that instance the seed’s darkness gripped me. I couldn’t find the words. It’s not that I didn’t know how I was a moment before he asked. I had been feeling happy. But as he asked, the seed came to mind and it swallowed my feeling and left me with nothing to say. I’m not sure how I must have looked to him, but he flashed his yellow-grey front tooth and took another pull on his smoke. His eyes glazed over and fell half shut in stupor again. You always said you thought that sweet. I’m smiling thinking of your voice telling Deren: “Boy yuh look dreamy”. And the way he looks back, pleasantly puzzled. I always liked him. But it’s not him I really want to talk about; it’s Sampson and whether he put anything on me to make me heal in this way? You have to tell me. Before it’s too late.
Over the months the seed grew and I swear there were times when it was taunting me, giving me a glimpse of an idea just to show me that it could take it away. I told you this, but you never listened. Now there’s only a thin white line left to my world. It’s as though I talked but no one heard anything: not you, not Myrtle, not Deren, and well I couldn’t tell daddy. I still think it was him who put it there. But why would he want to take the last part of my world away? Why?
I think he felt that I was drifting from him, and you coming along was all the excuse he needed. From the pit of his hell he summoned up a demon to eat my mind. From you I had hoped for so much more.
So I took a decision on the matter. There were more words on the living room wall last night, licked out of soot by the soucouyant’s tongue, and they completed the story:
we will ALL be done
You know what that means? ALL. It read: ALL. I’m seeing you reading this now, the words flashing on your screen, your button nose and eyes brown like cocoa seeds the only visible parts, the rest of you in the dark of your room. I never did get to see your room.
Now, I know you said not to, but I looked at daddy’s black notebook to see if he had these words anywhere. His writing it terrible, as you know, but under the “A”s he had: “Kills the Self and the self.” It’s making me sick to think about. But by the time you read this, the fire will have long taken hold. I couldn’t risk telling you earlier and you getting in the way of my plans. So, play your part girl. I’m sure it will make the news. You’ll be able to look at it and tell people, “I knew that girl”. Just don’t allow yourself to be on TV6 talking about me – because you can’t possible know me inside. It’s not possible to know nothing.
I wanted to end where I started Tam, in knowing death’s calling. You should listen out for it, seek your purpose and live that, before it’s too late. Because you never know when I might decide to come for you. I love you, and I have since we met. We became like a thousand threads all intertwined, but if you ever look back and wonder if things should have been different, don’t despair, the thousand threads will always be there – like a rope. Don’t despair Tam. This was how things were meant to be.
12 months later
Police re-open file: seek girl, missing black book
POLICE are asking for the return of a black notebook that went missing from the scene of the Barrackpore blaze that devastated the area almost one year ago.
The book is believed to have contained notes from Sampson Neville, 79, who firefighters believed died in the inferno that razed Main Trace and four acres of surrounding woodland.
Police yesterday re-opened the file saying the sighting of a dark girl in the area had prompted a re-evaluation of the case. They would not disclose the book’s contents but hinted that it may have been “spiritual in nature” and said it was “relevant to the case”.
A dishevelled girl with curly hair was seen roaming the area recently, but neighbours could not identify her. The community are asking that she come forward to be eliminated from the investigations.
Dr. Sampson Neville. “The four gilded bedlams of guided obeah” – by Sampson Neville. [Taken from Sampson’s notebook – not contained in the police report.]