My grandmother Theresa tells a story of an incident that really happened over 70 years ago in a forest a couple hundred feet from where we live.A young couple ventured into the woods to pick mangoes from a large tree, which still stands. With them was their four-year-old son.The boy wandered off into the forest and was lost. His frantic parents searched until darkness fell and then hastened to the constabulary at Siparia two miles away and a report was laid.The police called in experienced hunters who knew the high woods thoroughly, and augmented by townspeople, dozens of searchers combed the forest high and low for a week. The search extended as far as the south coast on Quinam Beach, over seven miles away, since in those days the mighty forest stretched unbroken from Moruga to Erin.
The search was called off, and the grieving parents left with the inconsolable void of having lost a child that those in similar circumstances know too well.About three months later, some villagers were again in the vicinity of the mango tree when they heard voices coming from a nearby clump of balisier.In the thicket was the lost child. His clothes were in tatters, but he seemed healthy and well-cared for–not at all haggard and dehydrated as one would expect of a person wandering in the jungle. He was sitting in a cleared circle and playing with bits of wood and stone.The boy was reunited with his overjoyed parents, but on being plied with questions about his ordeal he would only reply cryptically that he had been cared for in his absence by "friends."The boy lived to be an old man and is now deceased, but it has always been believed he was taken by douens.
The douen, like other characters of local folklore, is almost a direct transfer of the stories of West Africa, from whence hundreds of thousands of hapless captives from the Ibo, Dahomey and Yoruba nations were transported to the West Indies as slaves for the sugar barons. From the Ashanti coast they brought the tradition of the griot (storyteller) and around their fires outside their huts in bondage, the timtim grew and flourished. Brer Anansi, the tricky spiderman and his loveable antics found root in the Caribbean soil alongside other folk spirits of a decidedly more sinister nature.Lost somewhere in our mythical past, the European vampire–Nosferatu, like Bram Stoker's Count Dracula–came to these islands with the French planters and copulated with the inyanga (witches) of West Africa, who came from the Rada strongholds deep in the Belmont valley, and thus the soucouyant was born.
In nearly every village of rural T&T there is a timtim of an aged crone who lived alone in a remote hut (very much like the witches of European origin) and when night fell, shed her skin, which was placed in a wooden mortar, while she burst into a ball of flame and flew off to suck the blood of the living.To banish the soucouyant would mean finding her mortar and rubbing salt and pepper in the skin so that she would not be able to put it on again, sending her into shrieks of "Skin, skin, you nah know me?" In our haste to pursue what we term development, we have lost our ancestral spirits and the art of the timtim. Nevertheless, if you journey deep into the countryside, you will find the belief in the supernatural alive and well.In the Irois Forest they tell of douens that have been seen. Many a hunter will weave a story of having been led astray by the kindly woodman, Papa Bois. I myself have wandered alone in these high woods and have never managed to shake the feeling of being closely watched at every step.
A friend jokingly said that electric lights have banished the douen, Papa Bois and la diablesse, but if you go into the primal woodland where silence closes in on one like prison walls, you will soon realise that the belief in the denizens of the forest cannot be easily forgotten.Folklore characters live deep in the indelible subconscious of our people. From the artistic expressions of LeRoy Clarke's Douendom to yarns told around a dim kerosene lamp on a dark night, we explore the surreal realm of what lies just outside the pale of reality.These are the stories handed down through generations like cherished heirlooms wherein the echoes of Africa emerge with flitting, shadowy figures in the indigo blue of the Caribbean twilight.