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The Old Man Is Dead

Evening Weird

Note: The following is an excerpt from The Magic Island, by William Seabrook. The Magic Island is a non-fictional account of Seabrook’s experiences in Haiti. The excerpt is from “Part Two: Black Sorcery,” the chapter titled “The Altar of Skulls,” where Seabrook writes about the Culte des Morts, the Cult of the Dead.

Riding through the mountains between Morne Rouis and Les Verettes late one night I heard shouting, singing, and sounds of bamboche in a group of habitations hidden by a clump of banana trees in a ravine below the trail. If the drums had been going, I would have guessed it to be an ordinary Congo dance. I dismounted and led my horse zigzagging downward.

One of the compounds with its huts was lighted by tin lamps and resin torches, the yard thronged with people. All the neighborhood, apparently, had gathered there. Baskets of gingerbread, biscuit, and dried fish, a cook-pot simmering over embers, indicated they were making a night of it. The women and girls were bedecked in their Sunday best — gold earrings, bead necklaces, bright kerchiefs. In a corner, near a torch stuck in a bamboo fence, some men were playing cards, and a second group were noisily shooting craps.

Others crowded round me in amiable welcome — “Bon soir, blanc,” “Bon soir, lieutenant,” or “Bon soir, docteur” — feeling me friendly, but guessing variously what I might be. They offered me clairin, raw white rum, in tin cups. I drank a little and said, “Oui, me’ci. Mais ça ou fais, tout moon icit?”

“Grand moon li mort” (The old man is dead), they replied. “Entrer donc oué li” (Come in and see him).

They escorted me indoors to view the remains. The room was crowded. All the home-made chairs in the neighborhood had been borrowed, also old boxes and stools. There was a table piled with more gingerbread, a basket of dried herring, bonbons, brown-sugar candy, a five-gallon jug of clairin already half-emptied. Family, cousins, friends, were seated around, eating, drinking, wailing, singing, and having, all in all, a grand good time.

Over against the wall, in the place of honor, which meant nearest the food and rum-jug, sat the dead man in a clean blue smock and blue cotton trousers with shoes on his feet and his Sunday straw hat on the back of his woolly gray head. They had propped him up in a position as lifelike as possible and had fastened him in the chair so he wouldn’t topple over. His head had dropped sideways, but there was nothing repellent about his old wrinkled face. He seemed just a kindly old man, rather stiff in the joints, who had come to the party and then gone to sleep.

I suppose nine-tenths of what one thinks one sees in any material phenomenon, shocking or the reverse, lies not primarily in the visual impression, but in the contributory psychology. I suppose this dead man, really, looked as any corpse would look propped up in a chair. That he seemed so casual, so devoid of shocking or macabre grotesqueness, was doubtless because the living people there accepted him so casually. They expected me to salute him as I did the rest of the company, and when rum was poured out they politely offered the dead man a cupful too. When I produced packages of cigarettes, a youth, probably son or grandson, said, “Perhaps papa would like a smoke,” lighted a cigarette from his own, and went and stuck it between the old man’s lips. It did not seem rude or shocking. It seemed mildly humorous, rather. And I think it was mildly humorous to them, for presently, as the cigarette burned of itself, a smiling wench nudged another and cried, “Garder tonton fimer! Ça li fait plaisi’!” (See Uncle smoking! He seems to like it!)

And several exclaimed delightedly, “Oui, c'est ve’tab’! Li fime!”

Another cried, “Bali li bweh” (Give him a drink).

There was no mockery in this, but rather a sort of faintly humorous affection. Also they believed that his spirit was still hovering around and would enjoy these little attentions.

They wanted me to stay the night with them and attend the funeral the next day — it was to be a dancing funeral — but I had seen dancing funerals before and wanted to get on to Les Verettes.

After taking leave of the company and of the old man, whose cold hand I clasped in saying adieu, which seemed to please them, I gave the widow a couple of small bills to help defray expenses of the bamboche, and rode away reflecting that Haitian peasants are difficult for the civilized mind to understand . . .

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