The old man stepped out of his house onto the front porch, felt the brisk early October air and immediately pulled his cardigan closed. He had irrationally hoped that the unseasonably warm weather would stick around for another few weeks, but it looked like the temperatures had finally caught up with the season. He sucked his teeth and shook his head. Even after all these years he hadn’t grown accustomed to the cold. How he dreaded the approach of winter!
Back when he was young and hardy he used to joke that the island sun was still in his blood – that you could take the man out of the Caribbean but not the Caribbean out of the man. He smiled at the thought. There was something heartening about a naïve wisdom that withstood fifty years – even if in his case it meant donning multiple layers and doubling up on socks.
He pushed up the end of his sleeve and looked at the time. It wouldn’t be long now.
Using one of the porch columns as support, he eased his way down the first step and gripped the wooden railings to help with the remaining three. Yet another reason he wasn’t fond of the cold: As the temperature fell, the pain in his joints rose.
Out on the road, a few cars were already parked and waiting. As usual, the shiny black SUV was among them and he waved at the young lady sitting behind the steering wheel, half her face hidden by enormous shades. Funny. For five days a week they exchanged the same greeting – a wave and a smile – but, even so, they probably wouldn’t recognize each other anywhere else.
He checked his watch again and, as if on cue, the yellow bus rounded the corner. It rumbled down the gentle slope of the leaf-strewn road and came to a stop before his house. A blinking, red sign swung out from its side, the doors opened and a handful of children hopped off. Layne was the last to alight.
“Hi Papa Toby,” she yelled, giving her grandfather a hug. Tobias Paul smiled. This was by far the best part of his day.
“How was school, Laylay?” He took her lilac-and-pink backpack and reached for her hand.
“Okay. It’s Wednesday, Papa. Better than Monday but not as good as Friday.”
Tobias recognized his daughter Liselle’s matter-of-fact, tell-you-as-it-is style in the eight-year-old’s response, and laughed. This was good for him. This after-school arrangement made him feel like he had a second chance; an opportunity to make up for some of the quality time he had missed with Lisi when she was that age. Quality time he had had to spend working six and sometimes seven-day weeks, leaving home before she awoke, and returning after his wife Amanda had put her to bed. Like many other immigrants, he had done what was necessary to support a young family. He wasn’t complaining. Much of what he was eventually able to give his wife and daughter wouldn’t have been possible without those early sacrifices. But age and retirement brought a different perspective, and the Tobias Paul of today – the Papa Toby – wouldn’t trade these afternoons with his granddaughter for anything in the world.
“So did you get them, Papa?” Layne asked as they entered the house and she shrugged off her sweater.
“Of course I did!” He placed her bag on the hall table and hung the sweater and his cardigan on nearby hooks. “This old man’s brain hasn’t checked out of the station just yet, you know.” Then, lowering his voice to a hoarse whisper, added, “Despite what certain people around here might think.” He nudged her gently and directed a sidelong glance at the stout woman who was standing on a stool, cleaning windows in the adjacent living room.
Layne giggled. “Hi, Mrs. O’Connor.”
Ruth O’Connor came by three times a week to give Papa Toby a hand with cooking, cleaning and laundry. Pausing mid-wipe, she swiveled around.
“Layne! I didn’t even hear the bus pass today. But it’s no wonder,” she said, giving Toby a reproachful look. “What with all the windows shut and the heat cranked up. It feels like the middle of August in this house.”
“That’s right,” Papa Toby responded. “Mid-August. Exactly how I like it!”
Ruth shook her head, sprayed some blue cleaner on her cloth and turned back to the window. “Well, remind me to wear my shorts and sleeveless shirt on Friday, then. No point being in the tropics and not being dressed for the trip.”
Toby waved her off but surreptitiously turned the thermostat down a few notches as he passed the kitchen.
“See, Laylay?” he said, opening the sliding door to the sun room. “I’ve got us all set up out here.” He gestured toward the round, plastic table that had been pulled to the center of the space. On it sat two large pumpkins surrounded by markers, a kitchen knife, a large bowl, some colorful jars of paint and a pair of pot spoons.
Layne let out a squeak, squeezed past him and dashed to the table. She ran her hands over the pumpkins’ smooth, unblemished exteriors then stood back, gave them a critical once-over, and pronounced them perfect.
“Well, let’s get started,” he said. “We’ve only got about three hours.”
They sat, and under Layne’s close watch, Papa Toby cut a circle in the top of the gourds before carefully lifting each crown off by the stem. Layne grabbed one of the pot spoons, and cradling the pumpkin she had chosen, plunged her arm, elbow deep, into its orange hole.
“So, have you made up your mind about what you’re going to be for Halloween?” Toby asked, watching her scoop out the pumpkin’s innards.
“Still not sure, Papa. Witches, werewolves, vampires, zombies… they’re all boring.”
He nodded. The choices weren’t very inspiring. A few years ago he couldn’t turn on the television or enter a bookstore without being bombarded with witches, wizards and warlocks. And then vampires became all the rage. Now, though, it seemed that zombies dominated. A change he wasn’t sure was an improvement.
“How about those things you were telling me about when you visited us last time?” Layne continued. “Not the funny-named werewolf. He’s lame. But maybe one of the others could work. One of the women.” She dumped a spoonful of strings and seeds in the bowl and went back to gouging out the tough flesh.
“You mean La Diablesse?” Toby asked. “Or are you thinking about the Soucouyant?”
“Mmmm… I don’t remember which is which. The one with the long skirt and the big hat. You said she has a cow’s foot.”
“Cow’s hoof,” Toby corrected, smiling. He was pleased that his little American granddaughter remembered his stories from back home. “Yes, that’s La Diablesse. The Devil Woman. She wears a big hat so you won’t see her face, and a long, long skirt to hide her cloven hoof. She’s supposed to be very pretty, but has led many young village men to their demise.”
“Demise?” Laney asked, looking up with eyes wide and brows raised.
“Trouble,” her grandfather explained solemnly. “It means that she led them into lots of trouble they couldn’t get out of.”
“Oh,” she said, frowning. “And what about the sou… sou…”
“The soucouyant,” said Papa Toby. “She sheds her skin at night, turns into a ball of fire and sucks people’s blood.”
“So she’s a vampire?”
“No, no, no,” Toby said, aghast. “The sun isn’t a problem for her – she can walk around all day in it if she wants. And there’s none of that sleeping in coffins nonsense. She uses a bed just like you or me.”
“Does she have fangs?”
“And you said she drinks people’s blood?”
“Then she sounds like a vampire to me, Papa,” Laney said.
Toby was about to protest, but stopped himself. He had to remember that Layne was not a child of the islands. Her dominant culture – the one that formed the lens through which she viewed everything – was not his. So while it was easy for him to hear the crackle of the soucouyant’s flames, and see the crone’s shriveled skin tucked away safely in a mortar until she returned to reclaim it, for Layne the soucouyant was still just a vampire. Just as the Loup Garou had been reduced to nothing more than another werewolf. And apparently a lame one, at that.
The pair continued to work on their pumpkins in silence, Layne putting the final brush strokes to her bright red jack-o-lantern – its smile crooked and malevolent – and Toby carving out the last jagged tooth on his. Then, with what Toby assumed was a sigh of satisfaction, Layne pushed her chair away from the table and declared that she had finished. He looked at her work of art and nodded his approval.
“I think that may be the best one you’ve ever done,” he said, patting her on the back. Layne’s dimples surfaced as she smiled.
“Yours is pretty good too, Papa. And guess what? I’ve made up my mind. I’ll be a La Diablesse. I’m going to need a hat, though. And you’ll have to help me with the cow’s foo- I mean hoof, okay?”
Toby stood, energized by the thought of her choice. He could already see it: A little trick-or-treating La Diablesse roaming the streets of suburban America. Her costume would certainly be unheard-of, but that was okay. No doubt Layne would make sure everyone knew who she was.
“Well, first things first,” he announced. “Let’s see if we can find one of your grandmother’s church hats.” They left the jack-o-lanterns on the table, their mouths grinning toward the setting sun, and went into the main house.
Once in the bedroom, Toby opened the door to the wardrobe, reached up and brought down four round boxes from the top shelf. He rested them gently on the floor and Layne bent over to inspect their contents.
“Ooh! Did Gramma Manda really wear all of these?” she asked, lifting out the hats and trying each one in turn.
“She sure did,” Toby said, smiling. “Your grandmother was the best dressed woman I’ve ever known.”
Layne stood before the mirror wearing a broad-brimmed lilac number, complete with a net veil and feather accents. Turning her head left, then right, she examined herself from every angle.
“This is the one, Papa,” she finally declared, her eyes barely visible beneath the brim. “This will be my La Diablesse hat.”
“A good choice, my dear.” Toby returned the other hats to their boxes and put them back on the shelf. The duo then proceeded to the living room, Laney leading the way, still wearing the hat, and with her head tilted back so she could see where she was going. Only when she had made it to the couch and had sat did she take it off.
“Papa, did you ever meet a La Diablesse?” she asked, fingering the netting and feathers.
Toby shook his head and took a seat. “No, Laylay. But I knew someone who did.”
Her hands froze. “And what happened?”
“Well, it was many years ago,” he began, settling back and crossing his ankles, “although I remember it as if –”
But the chime of the doorbell cut him off. He checked his watch and sighed. The time had certainly flown today.
“I think we know who that is.” He slid forward and pushed off of the couch. Layne reluctantly followed, hat in hand.
“Hello, Colin,” Toby said, pulling the door open. He clapped his son-in-law on the shoulder.
“Hi Toby. Sorry to be later than usual today. Every time I tried to leave work something else cropped up. It seems the excitement never ends when you’re an accountant.”
Toby waved him off. “We didn’t even notice, did we, Laylay?” He stood aside and Colin Blake scooped up his daughter.
“Hi, sweetheart! How was your day?”
“You know, Daddy. It’s Wednesday. Better than Monday but not as good as Friday.”
“I see. And what’s this?” Colin asked, eyeing the hat.
“Part of my La Diablesse costume. It was Gramma Manda’s. But she wasn’t a La Diablesse,” Layne added earnestly. “She just used it for church.”
“Is that so?” Bewildered, Colin turned to Toby.
“I’ll go get your pumpkin, Laylay,” Papa Toby said, trying to keep a straight face. He set off for the sun room and chuckled as he heard Layne launch into all she knew about the La Diablesse. She was still talking when he returned.
“So you see, Daddy? We can’t leave yet. Papa is about to tell me a La Diablesse story. A true one.”
Toby handed the pumpkin to his son-in-law who already had the bright backpack in the crook of an arm.
“Tomorrow’s another day, sweetheart,” Colin said, repositioning the pumpkin and reaching for the door.
“That’s right, Laylay,” Toby interrupted. “I’m not going anywhere and neither is my story.”
“I promise.” Stooping slightly, he zipped up her sweater and accepted the soft kiss on his cheek.
Toby stayed by the door and watched as they got in the car, buckled up and pulled out of the driveway. Only when the red tail lights were out of view did he turn away. The house was always so quiet after she left. Ruth had already gone and his supper would be on the stove. As he passed the thermostat, he clicked it back up. Then he returned to the living room and looked at the large painting that hung next to one of the spotless windows. It was of an immortelle tree, in full orange bloom, standing out against lush vegetation and fanning up toward a perfectly blue sky. He loved that painting. Not only was the scene a striking reminder of his island home, but seeing the immortelle in all its glory always made him marvel that a tiny seed could burgeon into something so majestic, so arresting. A seed. All it took was one tiny seed. He thought of Laney and his mouth stretched into a broad smile. He had a hoof to make.