The Boy who ate the Ghost Bird
a short story
by Austin Mitchell
Curline had known that something was wrong with Delceta. The girl was going on fifteen and seemed to have lost her mind. They were living in the village of Pineridge with her mother, Miss Felicity and her other daughter, Lacena. Her children’s father only came around sometimes, especially when he was broke and thought he could sweet talk her out of some of her money. Curline was a cook at the nearby high school. She baked all sorts of pastries, which she sold at the school and a small shop operated by Lacena. Lacena was two years older than Delceta but acted in a very responsible way, Curline thought. She knew that several boys from their village had been after Lacena but the girl was sensible enough to rebuke any of them who passed his place with her. But it wasn’t Lacena that worried Curline, it was Delceta.
They lived on a dirt road and the nearest shop was a half a mile away. It was while returning from shop alone, one night that Delceta claimed to have seen Stampy and Mass Clarence in the huge cotton tree in the Duggan’s cemetery. The cotton tree overlooked the road and generations of Duggans had been buried there with Mass Clarence being the latest. Stampy had been a fifteen year old boy from their village who had shot a ‘ghost’ bird with his slingshot. Stampy had promptly ate the bird despite being warned that it was a ghost bird having its nest in the cotton tree in the Duggan’s cemetery. Stampy paid no heed to these warnings, making a feast of the delectable bird meat and the next day he was dead.
There was consternation that morning when Stampy’s father, Jacob and his mother, Mildred, started shouting that Stampy wasn’t waking up.
“All we knock and shake him, not a sound. Stampy dead,” Mildred wailed.
“What happed, Jacob, Mildred?” neighbours asked.
“Stampy, dead. He went to his bed healthy last night and this morning we find him dead,” Jacob cried.
“The little boy dead. His body get cold already and I don’t feel him heart a beat,” an old woman said.
An old man shook his head after examining Stampy.
“The boy is dead.”
“Mildred and Jacob, you can’t move his body until the police come,” a young woman advised them.
The police were sent for. They instructed that the body be taken to the nearby Spanish Town Hospital. The post mortem revealed that Stampy had died from food poisoning. When told that his last meal had been bird meat the doctor said he found it strange since there was no sign of bird meat in Stampy’s stomach. Instead the doctor said that Stampy had died from ackee poisoning as that was what he found in the young man’s stomach. Pineridge was ackee country and everybody wondered if Stumpy had a meal of unfit ackees before he ate the ghost bird. On hearing of how Stampy had met his death all the young boys in the village put away their slingshots and other bird shooting implements, afraid to shoot any bird at all.
Still Stampy had disobeyed a few customs as far as bird shooting was concerned. You never shoot birds after six in the evenings, on Sundays, holy days like Good Friday and Ash Wednesday. Stampy was at bird bush on these days despite pleadings from his parents and neighbours.
“What are you going to do about Delceta?” Miss Felicity asked her daughter.
“Whenever I go to go to church at nights and have to pass that tree and I remember what happened to Delceta and I’m afraid, mama,” Curline said.
They had taken Delceta to see several healers but to no avail.
“I don’t know what to do with her. I’ve spent so much money and she’s still the same,” Curline said as they sat on the verandah that Tuesday evening.
Curline had just returned home from work and had already eaten her dinner and was relaxing with her mother on the verandah of their modest four bed bedroom house.
“It was Stampy, who boxed her. That little boy was wicked when he was alive and now that he is dead he is even wickeder,” Miss Felicity declared.
Delceta had claimed that Stampy had called to her. Knowing that he was dead, she had set off running but he ran after her and boxed her in her face. From that day she was sick with a malady of complaints. Stampy would sometimes give bird meat to Delceta although Lacena refused to have any. Many persons theorized that Stampy was angry that he had called to Delceta and she didn’t reply and that was the reason why he had boxed her.
“She has to get better, Curline. Look what that wicked boy did to my nice granddaughter. I could kill him again.”
“I didn’t know that it was you who killed him that first time.”
“I don’t know why Bancroft don’t cut down that tree. Mass Clarence was afraid to cut it down and now he has taken up residence in it,” Miss Felicity remarked.
This was the only cotton tree in Pineridge as all the rest had been cut down several years now after they were revealed to harbor ghosts. The people of Pineridge were also afraid of the calabash tree. It all happened after Calbert Hemmings and Distant Jones had a fight and Calbert had used a piece of calabash stick to hit and cripple Distant. It was rumored that several other persons had been crippled from blows received from calabash stick wielders but this was never proved.
The Duggans owned a fifty acre property in Pineridge and Bancroft was the latest Duggan to own the property. He was Mass Clarence’s third son but his two other brothers had fled the community for the United States. Mass Clarence had no daughters. Hubert and Navon had left Pineridge, claiming that they could not live in such a ghost ridden place. Indeed it was rumored that Mass Clarence had confessed on his death bed to having killed at least a dozen of his neighbors. The Duggan’s property provided the only source of employment for most able bodied persons in Pineridge. Stampy’s mother and father worked on the property and that was one of the reasons why he was buried in their cemetery. Stampy was allowed to shoot birds on the property and he would give some to Mass Bancroft.
There was a knocking on their gate and Curline got up to see who it was. She hoped it wasn’t Cornel. She was in no mood to talk to him plus she wanted him out of her life. As far as she was concerned Cornel didn’t care about her or her children. All he cared about was money and the young village girls he could spend it on but he wasn’t going to get any more from her. It was Distant Jones and a tall good looking woman. Distant still walked on crutches. Actually the case had gone to court but the judge had thrown it out as he said he didn’t see how anybody could be crippled by a blow from suck a rotten piece of stick.
Distant introduced the woman as Bethsada Logan. She was a healer and was already helping him as he could walk without the crutches, but he still used them and wouldn’t stop until he was fully healed.
“You have to let her go and live in another district where that boy won’t get to trouble her. Make sure that they don’t have any cotton trees nearby for him to live in,” Bethsada warned.
Both Miss Felicity and Curline began thinking. Miss Felicity had two other daughters and one son. The son was abroad, in the United States to be exact. Curline at forty five was her eldest child. Lita and Zola were forty two and forty respectively. Lita lived in Kingston and Zola lived in the village of Denton in St. Catherine.
“That tree should be chopped down. Noah wants to chop it down, but Bancroft doesn’t want him to do it,” Distant said.
“I’ll get Noah to chop it down. I don’t think Lita can put her up but I’ll ask Zola if she can,” Miss Felicity said.
“As I said if she goes to live there you’ve got to make sure there are no cotton trees nearby for him to live in and take set on her,” Bethsada warned.
“Mama, are you crazy to be wanting Noah to chop down the cotton tree in the Duggan’s cemetery?” Curline asked.
“The tree doesn’t have to be chopped down. All you have to do is to get Delceta out of this district so that that boy won’t take set on her,” Bethsada said.
Bethsada and Distant left. Miss Felicity was still insistent on cutting down the cotton tree. Noah was a yard boy on the Duggan’s property, but he wasn’t right in his head.
Miss Felicity phoned Zola and told her what Bethsada said. The next day she went to visit Zola and to tour the village to ensure no cotton trees were around. Satisfied that none was around they started preparations for Delcerta to leave.
Delceta left that Sunday, Miss Felicity going with her. Miss Felicity returned the next day to report that Delceta was settling in nicely. Meanwhile Noah was sharpening up his axe to cut down the tree. He had heard Bancroft telling his wife that he wanted them to go to Ocho Rios for the weekend. He planned to ring the tree, that way Bancroft might not notice it. Ringing a tree was to chop around it near the root and so deep that it would die within a few months.
That Friday Bancroft left for Ocho Rios with his wife and two daughters. By Saturday morning Noah was at the tree. When the overseer a Mr. Darby asked him who had given him permission to cut down the tree he replied that the boss had done so. Mr. Darby said he would ask Mr. Duggan about it when he returned. He was from May Pen and actually lived there but had heard so much about this tree in particular that he did not mind getting rid of it .
By Monday morning Mr. Darby had forgotten all about it. It wasn’t until a month later when the leaves began to fall off the tree that Bancroft noticed. He asked Mr. Darby who had given permission for it to be cut down? He told him that Noah said that he had gotten permission from him.
“Where is Noah now? Find him for me?” an angry Bancroft Duggan shouted.
But Noah was nowhere to be found and several of the workers said that it was a couple of weeks now that they had not seen him. A search of his one room shack on the estate revealed that his bed had been made up but not slept in for weeks. Nothing was missing from his room thus deepening the mystery as to his whereabouts.
Meanwhile Zola reported that Delceta had regained her health and wanted to return to school so Curline sent some money for her to start attending school.
“If she never left up here she would still be sick,” Miss Felicity said.
“Mama, they can’t find Noah. Do you think it had something to do with the tree he cut down?”
“That boy is not right in his head. He could have wandered off somewhere.”
“The tree rottening down and all the ghost birds have gone and I suppose all the duppies too,” Curline said.
Lacena was now running a full scale shop and bar and both her mother and grandmother liked her boyfriend. He was from a village a mile away and was three years her senior and a carpenter.
“If Noah never cut down that tree they would still be there and people would be seeing them. You know how many times I have seen Mass Clarence but I’ve never seen Stampy. I had to bring down the name of the Lord before he would move,” Miss Felicity said.
Miss Felicity was talking about the night she was coming home late from church and had bucked up a man on the short-cut road and to her surprise it was Mass Clarence. She knew that he had died a year or so ago. She had to preach the word of God to him before he would move and that was one of the reasons she wanted the cotton tree cut down.
“It’s next week Lacena plan to open her shop and bar. I want Delceta to come but I’m afraid for her,” Curline said.
“She could help out in the shop when she’s not in school but it’s best if she stays where she is,”Miss Felicity replied.
Miss Felicity has gone to her bed when Curline heard a knocking on her gate and went to look, it was Cornel.
“What do you want?”
“Can’t I come inside?”
“Sure but only as far as the verandah.”
“I can’t tell when I’ve gone further,” he said as she pulled the gate to let him in.
“Whose fault is it that you aren’t going further than the verandah in my house?” she asked.
They were now seated on the verandah and he ignored her question.
“Where is Delceta?”
“Fancy you to be asking after Delceta and all the time she was sick you never helped or didn’t you notice that she was sick?” she asked and when he didn’t answer she continued.
“Are you working now? Because I don’t want you to be up here fishing around. I’ve instructed Lacena not to serve you either in the shop or bar.”
“I have money. I am not begging anything. You’re a wicked woman, Curline. So you’d bar her from serving me even if I was dropping down from hunger.”
“You have money, I don’t believe you. Far as I know you’re not working.”
“You don’t worry about me and money. I won’t be begging you any or buying anything at your shop or bar. All I came to find out was where Delceta was.”
“I don’t have to tell you where she is because as I said all the time she was sick you never paid her any mind.”
“Okay so you won’t tell me where she is but I’ll find out though and I saw you coming from Joel Sawyers house the other night. Is he your new man now?”
“From we broke up, Cornel I’ve seen you with dozens of women and even before we broke up, I never asked you who you were seeing so I’m not going to answer you. Only to say I’m still young and men still fancy me and I have a man but I won’t tell you who he is.”
“Don’t worry, if it’s not Joel Sawyers I’ll find out one day,” he said getting up.
Curline watched him go before going over the shop and bar to help Lacena.
“Mummy, what did daddy want?” Lacena asked later as they were locking up.
“He wanted to know where Delceta was and I wouldn’t tell him.”
“I’ve warned him off both the bar and the shop. He says he has money but I doubt him.”
“Mummy, you don’t have to worry. I won’t be serving him anything unless he has money to buy and I haven’t told anybody where Delceta is,” Lacena told her mother as they finally finished locking up.
The shop and bar opening was in full swing with lots of customers. Drinks and food were on sale, music was playing. Domino games and several other games abounded. Music was playing and several top selectors put in an appearance. Curline and Lacena were smiling because they knew they had made a substantial profit. After everything was finished Lacena’s boyfriend helped her lock up before leaving for his home.
About one o’clock that morning both Lacena and Curline heard a loud crash and knew that it had come from Miss Felicity’s room. Both women ran to the room to see the old woman on the floor.
“Mama, mama, what happen to you?”
Curline threw herself on her mother.
“Mama, answer me. What happen to you?” she asked, shaking herr mother but there was no answer.
“Lacena, her heart not beating. Jesus Christ, mama dead,” Curlin spread out on the floor beside her mother.
“Mama dead, mama’s dead,” Curline wailed.
Lacena went outside and shouted.
“Miss Felicity dead, duppy kill me grandmother.” She then let rip a string of bad words.
She returned inside as neighbours began to arrive.
Lacena could only look at the stiff body of her grandmother on the floor. It was the first time she was experiencing anything like this.
“They came for her, if she hadn’t paid Noah to cut down that tree nothing like this would have happened,” Curline said.
“Mamma ever since that tree was cut down I’ve been seeing a tall man standing outside the shop. But he has never come inside nor said anything to anybody and when I cursed some bad words I didn’t see him again.”
Curline thought about what Lacena had told her. She knew that Lacena had a rough spirit and that’s why Stampy had preferred Delceta to her.
“It’s Longers, he used to work for Mass Clarence before he drowned in one of their tanks. So he might have been up in that tree too.”
An old man standing on the roadside said.
“A Longers, I saw him with my own two eyes. A now him look tall, like a coconut tree. He made after me when I was coming up the road, I had to tell him some bad words.”
“He made after me too. I had to rip some bad words after him. A the same clothes him have on that we bury him in,” another old man, nearby said.
Two weeks later Miss Felicity was buried. Delceta attended the funeral but returned home the same evening with her aunt. Lacena and Curline stayed at the shop late each night, but there was no sign of Longers.
“It was a good thing that Noah did in cutting down that cotton tree. From he cut it down I haven’t heard anybody say that they’ve seen any ghosts,” Curline said to Lacena as they were closing up the shop and bar one night.
Six months later Noah turned up much to the surprise of all the villagers. He claimed that he had gotten a dream that Stampy and Mass Clarence planned to choke him to death for cutting down the tree. He was sorry to hear about Miss Felicity as he thought that it was only him they were after and should have warned her. Both Lacena and her mother noticed the change in Noah. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, which was a far cry from the pass down clothes he used to wear. He said that since leaving Pineridge all his senses had returned. He was now living on the North Coast and working in a restaurant. He promised to return and look for them again.
Bertram sold out the property to a foreign firm and moved to another area of St. Catherine where he bought an even bigger holding.
Two months after Noah visited them, Distant Jones and Bethsada visited them. Distant was walking normally. They both hung down their heads when they heard what had happened to Miss Felicity. Bethsada said that Noah had done a good thing for the village by cutting down the tree. The duppy tree dwellers had gotten their revenge by killing Miss Felicity and she didn’t think they wanted anybody else since they could not reach either Delceta or Noah.
Neither Lacena nor her mother saw Longers again. Delceta is now at a community college studying to be a nurse. The End. Please visit my blog at:http://stredwick.blogspot.com