Talc: A Haitian Zombie Story
Ti Jocelyne walked through the narrow living space connecting the two rooms to the front alleyway. It was carnival and Ti Jocelyne braced herself for the unexpected. People wore ridiculous outfits with crazy hairstyles; some dressed their goats while others paraded painted roosters. Sooner than Ti Jocelyne stepped outside, Jessica ran back to her mother. White talcum powder hid her face, arms, hair and yellow dress. The little girl cried while holding onto her mother.
“Little one, what’s taken a hold of you?”
“Zombies, they’re outside everywhere.”
“Don’t occupy yourself with people who are talking about stupid things.”
“But I saw them; I saw them with my own two eyes.”
Ti Jocelyne remained incredulous while Didoune grabbed a clean towel to wipe the powder out of Jessica’s eyes. Ti Jocelyne stepped into the front entranceway and was greeted by a cloud of powder over the entire street. The talc clouds descended to meet Ti Jocelyne and she was unafraid. A group of young men beating drums with white bandanas tied across their faces were the source. The pulsations of the rhythmic drums increased with each step. Members of their group were designated to squirt mounds of talcum powder onto the spectators. Teenagers and children fetched their own talcum powder to join the onslaught. When the bigger kids ran out of powder they stole bottles from the younger kids. The powder fell at a tender pace and covered anyone in its path.
As the musicians proceeded into Ti Jocelyne’s alley, she finally understood what they were chanting:
“Zombie gade yo. Mwen di Zombie, gade yo. Zombie louvri baryè pou yo.”
“Zombies look at them. I said Zombie, look at them. Zombie, open the gate for them.”
They repeated the song over and over again while accompanied by drums and instruments down the street. The chaotic blowing of whistles nicked in perfect unison with the steady drum beat accentuated by a cow bell, scratching rake and an underlying melody of portable sound system. As they passed one corner or corridor, the collective chant grew more infectious as additional bystanders blended into the chorus. Squatted vendors clapped along and merchants balanced goods on their heads to the music. Old ladies found the beat by hunching their shoulders up and down.
In the distance, children ran through the cloud of talc screaming:
“Zombie, zombie, zombie!”
No adult paid them any attention. It was carnival, outrageous costumes were expected. Didoune came outside and sat on the wooden block permanently stationed on the side of the entranceway and laughed at the collective commotion.
The chant possessed Ti Jocelyne and she danced in the street. The talcum powder veiled her hair, face, arms, and left a wonderful mess. Ti Jocelyne wanted to ingest the inviting scent of the powder; it belonged inside of her. Jessica ran into the street with both arms raised for her mother to pick her up amid the white haze. Ti Jocelyne joined the carnival revelers in their folly. She rarely let her guard down and or exhibited joy in front of her daughter. Carnival was one of the rare times where work was useless. Even if she wanted to work, her boss Gwo Pierro wouldn’t let her. She had no choice than to partake in the festivities because even the drivers of the colorful taptap trucks, shoe shine boys and corrupt government officials were diligently at rest.
The music grew faint as the procession of carnival players marched further away from Ti Jocelyne’s front door. Ti Jocelyne and her daughter were doused in talcum powder and a voice manifested behind her. Sister Marie Martine, her next door neighbor, appeared with a look of contempt.
“You can’t serve two masters. You will either hate one or love the other.”
Sister Marie Martine was a miserable soul with a never-ending testimony about how Jesus had saved her from vodou and gave her a husband as a reward. Sister Marie Martine once gave a testimony about how Erzulie’s spirit used to torment and threaten her with spinsterhood. Sister Marie Martine could have been at least fifty years old, but Ti Jocelyne couldn’t tell her age because old Haitian mountain women never wrinkled.
Ti Jocelyne was plain and didn’t wear elaborate clothes or hairstyles. Yet her childhood as a restavèk working in Madan Maurice’s house taught her how to present a façade of womanhood: make-up, neatly combed hair, deodorant, Epsom salt steel wool pedicures, shaped eyebrows and double bladed Gillette razors to shave legs and armpits. Ti Jocelyne had observed Madan Maurice’s sisters, cousins, goddaughters and neighbors. Getting a man was like tilling soil; preparation, tools, seed and equipment were required. Ti Jocelyne had served as a cook, housekeeper, gardener, car washer and personal esthetician. Madan Maurice denied Ti Jocelyne toiletries but failed to realize that in forcing her to set rollers, give pedicures, shave legs, and shape eyebrows, Ti Jocelyne mastered these subtle society skills. Working for Madan Maurice as a child taught Ti Jocelyne about the Haitian elite. Elegance was simple, clean, understated and often went unnoticed. Ti Jocelyne felt comfortable with shaved legs, shaped eyebrows, plain cotton underwear, light sundresses and sandals. Anything more would be to attract attention or impress other people.
Sister Marie Martine’s testimony was suspect. Her leg hairs were so thick they could be braided into cornrows, she never styled her hair, never wore any makeup or did anything to make herself more attractive. Sister Marie Martine loved to give testimonies about Jesus saving her from Erzulie and vodou. Ti Jocelyne wondered what Jesus had to do with her walking around like a frumpy ridiculous mess? If Sister Marie Martine wanted a husband sooner, she should have shaved her legs and put on a flattering dress twenty years ago.
Sister Marie Martine lived across the street and remained inside for the entirety of the drum celebration. Nonetheless, she somehow managed to wedge her eye into a crevice to spy on Ti Jocelyne and her daughter enjoying the drums and the cool pleasure of the talcum powder falling on their skin in the midst of the Okap heat. Her voice whispered past Ti Jocelyne’s ear again:
“You can’t serve two masters. You will either hate one or love the other.”
“Judge not and be not judged. I don’t judge you when you’re gossiping about the other ladies at church--- whenever they are in front of you, you never seem to have anything to say. Yet, you want to spray your venom in front of me.” Ti Jocelyne responded.
Sister Marie Martine slivered back into her hovel. She was insignificant in their church circle. Pastor Jeremiah only respected the parishioners who tithed regularly. Sister Marie Martine was eternally at church cooking, cleaning and telling people what to do. Ti Jocelyne conspicuously dropped five hundred gourdes in the offering basket each week and upon leaving the church often promised Pastor Jeremiah:
“You know, when God gives me more, I will give the church more.”
Her pastor loved this display of loyalty. She updated him about how she sold different artisanal pieces to tourists close to the hotels on the weekends. She made him believe that she earned modest sums through God’s good grace and obedient tithes. Pastor Jeremiah was a self-aggrandizing creature that consistently encouraged the majority female congregation to emulate Ti Jocelyne’s financial faithfulness. If the other women could give more faithfully their church could truly begin to manifest the glory of God.
Sister Marie Martine hated Ti Jocelyne because she lived free of other people’s expectations. Ti Jocelyne began each day with her own goals serving as a compass. Sister Marie Martine began each day with the intention of finding out what other people were doing or had failed to do. Ti Jocelyne did her own thing and no one in Okap uttered a slanderous word against her. Nonetheless, Sister Marie Martine had tried to uncover the father of Ti Jocelyne’s daughter, to no avail. Ti Jocelyne’s flawless chocolate skin accentuated a svelte figure and high cheekbones; the origin of her daughter’s light skin and eyes was a persistent question on Sister Marie Martine’s barren mind.
In the midst of carnival joy, Ti Jocelyne sensed hateful eyes on her radiant daughter as they continued to rejoice in the fog of talcum powder. While other women would have allowed the bitter old woman to overwhelm them, Ti Jocelyne was genuinely at peace.
The fragrance of the talcum powder unleashed opposing memories: pampering her daughter as a newborn and her work with dead bodies in the mountains for Gwo Pierro. Either way, talc meant tranquility. But there was to be no quiet that day or for the next few days. Carnival season was in session and it had absolutely no intention of being interrupted. The air was ripe. Vendors sold more than usual. People were buoyant and everyone expected a fresh batch of babies in nine months. Opportunities were open.
Ti Jocelyne’s daughter was in school. Pastor Jeremiah had pulled some strings with the American pastor at the brand new non-denominational school. She wouldn’t even have to pay tuition for her daughter to attend. Good old white Christians in the United States had donated close to two million dollars to build the school and pay the teachers. Her daughter was receiving an education, something she had never received. Ti Jocelyne refused to get comfortable and instead pivoted to the next goal: building her own house.
She had saved nearly twenty thousand American dollars from her work with Gwo Pierro and wasn’t sure how to build a house without attracting attention. By watching Gwo Pierro, she learned to act like she had nothing and knew nothing, in order to get everything. Ti Jocelyne thought about it day and night. Even Didoune didn’t know how Ti Jocelyne earned her living. And Sister Marie Martine was perpetually sniffing around because it was apparent that Ti Jocelyne wanted for nothing. Ti Jocelyne remained on high-alert to avoid disclosing the true source of her income.
The melodies of the musical caravan had faded but residual powder clung to the concrete sidewalks, the side of the dilapidated houses and onto the broken patchwork of tiles, cobblestones and asphalt streets. In the distance, a fast rara tempo band interrupted the regular carnival cadence and ushered a new spirit into the street. It was almost six o’clock and revelers piled on top of one another for the full effect of carnival.
In the crowd was Jean, the son of Gwo Pierro’s sole confidante, David. Jean was a tall, handsome man and a couple of years older than Ti Jocelyne. He handled dead bodies for Gwo Pierro in the Pilate mountain shack too. She must have interacted with Jean at least a dozen times but today he was resplendent. He never displayed facial emotion, but in the midst of carnival, Jean was joyful. His presence surprised her. Where did he live? What exactly did he do for Gwo Pierro? Jean was wearing a red and blue striped shirt with words she couldn’t read. Could he read? Would he tell people about her real job? Ti Jocelyne never approached people. Instead, she took a seat on a plastic crate next to Didoune and enjoyed the approaching band. This man had caught her attention. Usually she caught the attention of men and it brought trouble. She was 23 years old and even though she had given birth, Ti Jocelyne had never experienced sex freely, let alone been in love.
A group of children ran past Ti Jocelyne kicking gravel in their fury. A short old man turned the corner dressed in white with four snakes loosely draped around his shoulders while holding the largest snake taut between his hands. Steps brought him closer. His face was painted red and gold. The snakes balanced gracefully around his neck and torso. And with every footfall, the crowd swelled as it followed him at a safe distance. A gap separated the man with the snakes from the four men who belonged to him. The barefoot men were painted in a black oil sludge and wore nothing but blank expressions and crude burlap slivers around their hips.
The crowd no longer swayed to the sound of the drums. The drum beat holds power over all Haitian people; it cuts across gender, class, education and religion. Ti Jocelyne fixated on the snakes dancing to the drum cadence. The four oiled men were unaffected by the beat of the drums. The street was littered with debris yet they did not flinch when the soles of their feet met broken glass.
Didoune could no longer see faraway objects out of her remaining eye but one good look at the men would be enough. The oiled men passed. Didoune exhaled exasperation while observing the reactions of fellow onlookers. Ti Jocelyne trembled when Didoune’s reaction confirmed her fears: a bòkò was parading his zombies on one of the busiest days of the year. Ti Jocelyne’s fears fell further when they met with Didoune. Stories of people selling their souls to bòkòs in exchange for love, money or power were not new.
“Child, let me go inside. I’m about to be indisposed in a matter of no time.” Didoune said underneath her breath.
Ti Jocelyne helped Didoune off the crate and guided her through their entranceway where Jessica was enraptured in a Jesus coloring book from church. They walked into the back room where Didoune’s large double bed laid waiting.
“What happened, don’t you feel well?” Ti Jocelyne asked in a haze.
“I’m so shocked, I can barely talk, let alone sit down properly.”
“What is it, go ahead and speak.”
“Go and bring the child all the way inside. Don’t leave her out there. Evil is out in the air tonight.” Didoune uttered between shallow breaths.
Ti Jocelyne pulled the slanted wooden door firmly behind her and clutched Jessica leaving the crayons and the coloring book on the corridor floor.
“Didoune, go ahead, go ahead, you can speak now.”
“I always knew it existed. They say after getting a spell cast that was successful, for riches or power, the signer was indebted to the bòkò and promised a certain percentage of the wealth in return for his services. Usually ten percent of the fortune acquired. Yet, the same poor men who were grateful to the bòkò eventually forgot the source of their wealth. Month after month, year after year, some would give the bòkò less of their promised tithes. In arrogance, their new wealth lulled them into neglecting the lifelong covenants they had signed in exchange for the bòkò spells. Ritualistic baths of mysterious herbs and powders ingested through their skin and noses.” Didoune explained.
“You think those men are like that?
“Of course they are and now they are his, to do whatever he chooses. When did you ever hear of an owner not collecting his property? His rendered service was non-refundable and he will surely receive payment. This is one debt that men cannot forget to pay. Once they sign their lives over to a bòkò , the only way to break the debt is for the bòkò to die. Even after he dies, most of them have been living without a sense of consciousness so long that they never find themselves again.”
“But why come down during carnival where people are enjoying themselves to do all of this?” Ti Jocelyne asked.
“This is the best time to do it. Everyone can see it at the same time. When people tell stories, one witness swears before a group that he saw a werewolf climb a tree or a shapeshifter ascend into the sky. Most people listen but few believe. That bòkò came to make a point and needed the entire town to bear witness to his power so there can be no denials. The last person to march a herd of zombies like that was Duvalier.”
“What do you mean?”
“That man was a big devil, when he appeared, people disappeared. While he was on his power, he would regularly turn dissidents into zombies and parade them around town during carnival for people to understand that his political power was girded by the spirits.”
“But why would this man come into town, today, with snakes around his neck with these men like that?”
“To serve as a warning to other people still indebted to him, remind them that he’s not playing, and that they better pay their debts or he will turn them into zombies too.”
“But what about the black oil?’
“It's to keep them from burning in the hot sun. They char plantain skins and mix it with luil maskriti and spread it on until they are so black that all you can see are the whites in their eyes.”
“Why all of that?”
“Zombies are about work. They use zombies to make money. The black oil keeps the worms, maggots and mosquitos away. It’s how he maintains their physical bodies in horrid working conditions: cutting cane in the sun, cleaning deep sewage pits, installing asphalt, handling dead animal carcasses and hundreds of other jobs that no one wants to do. The black oil keeps them from getting sick.
“Sick, why would they be worried about zombies getting sick? They are already dead.”
“The powder kills their mind, kills their senses, kills their soul but their bodies still function normally--- that is why zombies were first made. They had to find a way to make slaves who didn’t want to work--- work.”
“This is the first time, I’m hearing this thing.”
“The white slave owners bribed a tiny group of slaves with freedom to control the majority of black people. They couldn't do it by themselves. Some of the first ones who came from Guinea knew how to use the plants and the animals on the land to bend the will of nature. Their knowledge to control turned people into zombies in the new world. My generation was taught this, or at least they used to teach, what was included: dried jellyfish, manchineel apples, crushed daturas and puffer fish. They dry these things and grind them together with egg shells and talc to make poud. You know perfectly well, we don’t eat at other people’s houses.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Let me ask you one question. And then you’ll see that what I am saying is true. The way people are dying of hunger from Latibonit to St. Marc to Cité Soleil, have you ever seen someone cook up jellyfish and give it to you to eat on a plate? Manchineel apples? Crushed datura? Puffer fish? The way that jellyfish are going to waste on the shores across the entire country. Don’t you think hungry people over the last two hundred years would have cooked it in a little tomato paste with onions, garlic and scotch bonnet peppers, especially when hunger is bursting through their souls? Haitian people know what these things do so they avoid them at all costs, even preferring to starve to death.”
"Aren’t you afraid?” Ti Jocelyne asked with a hint of fear in her voice.
Ti Jocelyne had been serving the lwas, the spirit gods, since before she left her mother’s house at a young age but there was still so much she didn’t understand. The man with the snakes and zombies expanded her mind.
“Why would I be afraid?” Didoune answered “I have never signed a deal with anyone. I don’t do people harm and I don’t wish harm on anyone. I stay here and I pray to God, by myself, when the idea strikes me. When I don’t have, I’m alright. When I do have, I'm still alright. There is nothing on this earth worth selling my soul for.”
Talc: A Haitian Zombie Story 2019 Jenna Chrisphonte All Rights Reserved