Advertisement in The Colored American, Washington, D.C. Wednesday, April 22, 1903:
DISCREET SERVICES OFFERED by one DOCTOR B. CASSON for female persons afflicted by hags. Appointments available for the following services: INSTRUCTION concerning the physical & spiritual attributes of possession, PRODUCTS to temper the affliction (including narcotic TEAS, restorative EYEDROPS, transformative OILS, TOOTH FILES in metal, diamond, pumice). Additional services offered for unpossessed persons who have suffered the following ailments: exsanguination, nocturnal pinching or cuffing, distinctive blue-black marks found upon the limbs and/or soft parts (throat, stomach, etc.). HEALING SALVES and PROTECTIVE CHARMS available. Please inquire by writing or in person at the following address: —-. For the possibility of casting off a hag’s spirit, please inquire.
My sister Angélique found me on a warm spring night. She was not looking for me but for a doctor who could treat women ridden by hags. (Such creatures were properly called soucouyants, but the printers took such liberties with the spelling in my weekly advertisements that I found it easier to call them “hags.”) I was the only doctor in the District who provided the service, colored or not.
I practiced beneath a different name. I had moved to the capital two years ago in pursuit of my sister and had spent those years longing to meet her. I had never expected her to require exorcism. We were the daughters of Dr. M. Hebert, the most renowned doctor in Louisiana. If there were any two women trained to avoid the soucouyant’s bite, it was Angélique and I.
She rapped upon my door a quarter after eight. I was not expecting clients. I answered in my night robe. Angélique was clutching at her throat. She wore a coat of beaver skin, and her face was a half-moon beneath the shadow of her veil. “It cannot be you,” she said.
I opened my mouth, but I could not speak, not even a simple, “Good evening.” I wanted to fling myself around her neck, to cover her face in kisses. I dared not, for fear of all that had changed between us during our separation. I wrung my hands, to keep them to myself, and showed her into the parlor.
I rented the English basement of a widow’s rowhouse. The widow knew my business, and she left me to conduct it undisturbed. My parlor was small: four paces this way, four paces that. The smell of my dinner, roast beef and collard greens, hung in the air. Angélique filled the room in her beaver coat, covering her nose with a handkerchief to ward off the scent. She sat on the edge of the couch, gripping her coat in fingers as white and strangling as a pearl collar. I offered to take her coat.
“No,” she said. She would not meet my eye. “I cannot stay long. I only came because there is... There is something amiss with my teeth. If you could look at them, as you used to...”
Two years had not blunted my love for Angélique, nor the sting of her white lies. “If it is only your teeth,” I said, in a quivering voice (these, the first words I had yet managed, of all the words I could have said!), “why have you come to me and not a dentist?”
She covered her face. “Oh god,” she cried, “I am ruined! I do not even know who did this to me.”
I lifted her veil. Her eyes were red and wicked; her eyeteeth forked against her bottom lip, like a snarling dog’s. Already, her skin had begun to blotch, patches of fever-red where she had kneaded it in lieu of scratching. Her fingers had left imprints, as if her flesh was clay. The soucouyant inside of her was restless and pupal, ready to shed.
“Where were you bitten?” I asked. She only shook her head, still overcome. I searched her for the soucouyant’s blue-black mark and found it upon her left calf, puncture wounds puffed against the pale flesh, swollen like a bundt cake, the holes tiny and dark, a bird’s staring eyes. I touched the inflamed skin with shaking hands. How proud my sister had always been of her legs, soft and plump and nearly white.
“You must cast it out now, Bernice,” Angélique said. “I have an engagement—I cannot have this creature riding me.”
“At this hour?” It drove me mad to touch her, to examine her for the soucouyant’s mark as though I was no more than her doctor. But when I took her face in my hands, she pushed me away.
“Now,” she said. “I cannot stay.”
“I cannot cast out a soucouyant on such little notice. You know this. Do not pretend you don’t, Angélique.”
“Do not call me by that name,” she snapped. “Mother could cast it out.”
“I am not our mother.”
Cold silence fell between us.
“Will you not come to me tomorrow, when I have had time to prepare?”
“I cannot wait, I have a function to attend tonight.”
“If I cast it out now, you may very well die.”
Her nostrils flared. She clenched a hand over her mouth. Finally, she gritted out, “Then you must cast it out first thing tomorrow morning.”
“It will not work in the morning, the soucouyant will be asleep. Come in the evening and we shall see. Open your mouth.”
Riding a human woman—living inside her skin—was how soucouyants tolerated the sunlight, but at night, they strove to shed the encasing flesh of their host, to assume their true form until daybreak. And so our mother had taught us how to treat a woman so afflicted: first to lull the monstrous spirit to sleep with a narcotic tea, second to tend to the physical manifestations of her presence. I brewed Angélique a tea that would keep the hag sleeping until next evening. I gave her drops to color her eyes, a salve to soothe the itching. Lastly, I fetched a diamond file to attend to her teeth. She eyed it as she tilted her head, mouth wide open. The pose was undignified. Yet she made it look beautiful: a woman in a painting, her head thrown back, her eyes fixed upon God.
“This is the first time I’ve used it,” I said, meaning the file. Our uncle had sent it to us from Paris when we were young. A cherub crowned the long handle, hiding among fat clustered grapes and thorny vines. Our uncle claimed it had belonged to Marie Antoinette. My mother and I were butchering chickens the day Angélique collected the package from the post office. We bottled blood to give to the soucouyant-ridden among our older neighbors, women with swollen hands and wattled throats, rendered like fatback down to the bodies of the girls they had once been; shrunken by age and their hags’ relentless riding.
Angélique had been meant to help me with the bottling, but she had begged off, as she always did. She tried to run into the house without showing us the package. Mama shouted until she came back out. “What is that?” Mama asked. “Show your sister, she wants to see.”
Angélique balked. “Her hands aren’t clean.” It wasn’t true. I’d wiped them on my apron. There was only a little blood beneath my nails.
Mama sucked her teeth and snatched the wooden case from her hand. The case slipped into the bucket of blood I had been emptying. Angélique made a ragged sound. “It’ll wash off,” Mama said, fishing it out. Angélique ran inside the house.
I rinsed the case and boiled the file, though I had found no blood upon it; I only wanted to be sure. But when I tried to give it back to Angélique, she threw it across the room. “One day I’ll go so far from here Mama won’t ever find me!” she cried. “With all her filth and blood and nasty hags.”
“You can’t leave,” I said. “We’re to be doctors.”
“You be a doctor,” she told me. “It’s nothing to me.”
Now Angélique only shut her eyes, as if she did not remember how the file had come to us. I worked in silence; long, slow strokes, while she dabbed drool from her open mouth. I read the monogram on her handkerchief. I did not recognize the initials. They did not belong to the name my sister had left Louisiana with. “What name shall I call you,” I said, “if you do not want me to call you Angélique?”
“Do not call me anything. It will be easier for us both.”
I knew her married name. I had learned it, and where she had gone, from an article covering her marriage, after she had left our childhood home in Louisiana months before without a word. She had married a Mississippi congressman, and they had relocated to the nation’s capital. She had never written to tell us where she had gone or that she was married. What kind of person did this, unless they were ashamed of their kin? But what reason had she to be ashamed? So she was passing light; so our parents had been enslaved before Emancipation. These were not reasons. These were the grossest of excuses.
Who did you become, I wished to ask her, between leaving us and marrying your congressman? (He was a Negro of old Philadelphia extraction, born to free parents and into enormous wealth; he brayed of it during his speeches, as if this alone made him a credit to the race.) The papers could not make up their minds about Angélique’s origins. Several society columns had variously referred to her as an Italian heiress, a Spanish beauty. Who knew? She was not telling them, this woman without family, sprung into being fully fleshed.
I had followed her north the moment I learned where she had gone and had squandered two years plotting how I might meet her, as one approaches a doe in the wood. I learned she was an active member of the District Colored Woman’s League, and I wrote a letter to the board that I never sent, inquiring after the costs and requirements of membership; I discovered the date of a benefit thrown in honor of her husband and purchased a ticket I never used. I concocted a dozen plans and was in the end too cowardly to carry them out. And now here she sat in my parlor, ridden by a soucouyant; no longer a figment of paper and ink. Was this blessing? Curse? Oh god, I did not know.
“The soucouyant will not sleep for long,” I said. “You will need to feed her and shed your skin, so she can assume her true form and relieve you for a bit.”
Angélique caught my hand, halting the stroke of the file. “She may transform all she wants, once you have cast her out.”
“I am only saying if I cannot do it, you must be prepared.”
She looked at me with wicked eyes. The eyedrops had turned them honey-brown, but behind them burned a flame. Perhaps the flame belonged to the soucouyant; perhaps to Angélique.
“Since when can you not cast her out? Mama taught you how.”
“She taught us both.”
“She taught you better.” Angélique licked her eyeteeth with the tip of her tongue, to check their points.
“It may be better to let her ride you,” I said.
Angélique rose, pulling her beaver coat tight. She turned toward the door, but I hurried after her.
“Stay tonight. Surely you must see that you cannot go back to your husband while a soucouyant rides you. He will find out. You are not safe.”
“The creature is sleeping, and tomorrow she will be gone.”
She stepped out into the night. I began to follow.
“Don’t,” she said. The streetlamps were lit, yellow in her eyes.
“Let me at least walk with you, to see you home safe.”
“I said don’t.” Her voice went high and a little shrill, as though I were a strange man accosting her in the street.
I froze, frightened by her ringing voice, frightened by her fear of me. I did not follow her again.
I once watched my mother exorcise a soucouyant from a girl barely older than me.
Only my mother and I were present for the exorcism. Angélique had refused to come; her refusal had delayed us. She had sat upon our shared bed, loftily pretending to read. Mama would not be gainsaid. She seized Angélique’s arm, then sent me from the room, but I lingered, peering through the gap beneath the door at their skimming shadows. I hated when Mama and Angélique talked without me, as though I were a child and could not understand. It was past time to leave for the exorcism. If Mama did not hurry, we would be late.
“When I die,” Mama breathed, “you will inherit my work, my title. This town will need a doctor. So be worthy of it.”
“Then let Bernice be its doctor.” Angélique whirled away. “Between the three of us, she’s the only one who wants to stay.”
My mother’s face was terrible when at last we left the house. And yet she let slip no sign to the girl’s family of her rage. She advised them to let the soucouyant remain in their daughter. Many a woman had lived well so ridden. “She will drink only blood,” my mother said, “but it will be no hardship to purchase it from the butcher or to collect the drainage from your own chickens, your pigs. Her eyes will be red, but that is only appearances. I sell drops for a good price, take it or leave it. You must use the narcotic tea only sparingly. It is wiser to let the soucouyant to shed her skin and assume her true form every few nights than to force her to sleep indefinitely. I sell an oil that will make the shedding painless. As long as your daughter is well fed, she will hurt no one during the soucouyant’s nightly excursions.”
As my mother gave this advice, the daughter slept a narcotic sleep in the other room. The wife looked to her husband, and the husband said to my mother, “You will cast that thing out. I don’t want damaged goods beneath this roof.”
“She’s not damaged,” my mother said. But she named a price for her service, one that no one could afford. The husband paid half and signed a contract to pay the rest in regular installments, whatever the result. And so my mother did the job, because that was who she was.
I knew the steps of exorcism: a doctor waited until the soucouyant had shed her victim’s skin, then trapped her outside the body until the rising sun incinerated her. I knew how to trap a soucouyant: with scattered grains of rice that the creature would be compelled to count; with salt, poured upon the molted skin to prevent the soucouyant from putting it back on. But it was not enough merely to trap the hag; not enough merely to destroy her. “A woman rides a soucouyant,” my mother said, “as much as it rides her. And that woman must choose to return to her own skin after it is dead. You cannot force her soul back inside.”
“But the soul needs a body,” I protested. “That’s why we cast the soucouyant out, so the woman can have her body back.”
“The skin does not always fit after you have poured salt upon it,” my mother said.
My mother cast out this soucouyant, which was all she’d been paid to do. She reminded the girl’s father of this when months later, he demanded repayment because his daughter had died. He threatened legal action. “She wept until the day she died,” he shouted. “The hag was gone. She should have been on her knees rejoicing.”
My mother kissed her teeth. “And you wonder why your daughter is dead.”
I had seen the daughter’s skin in the aftermath of her exorcism, spread upon the floor. The flesh glistened, folds sloppy with oil, split open from scalp to sex. The girl had been wide awake when the hag shed her. I could see it in the wail of the skin’s sagging mouth, the numb sockets of its eyes. My mother had sat upon the bed, calling softly to the room. “The creature is gone. Your skin is free. Come back, if you want.”
I could not stop thinking of the girl’s skin lying so small upon the floor. I went to bed that night hounded by obsessive thoughts. When Angélique woke me hours later, palm hot against my slick cheek, I shouted. I thought her a hag, come at last to claim me.
“Listen.” Angélique knelt beside my bed. “One day I’m leaving here, when I have enough money. You can come with me.”
“No!” Shock dried my throat. “We can’t leave Mama alone.”
“She chose to be a doctor. We never did. Why can’t we have choices as well as her?”
In my panic, I forgot the exorcised daughter. I heard only my sister’s certainty – no threat to leave, but a promise. I clutched at her. “Do you not love us anymore?”
She shot to her feet. “Why do I have to stay to love you?”
A week later, she was gone.
Advertisement in The Evening Star, Washington, D.C. Wednesday, April 22, 1903:
This miraculous Oil for the skin eases the pain of transformation for female persons afflicted by hags. Each bottle is hand-crafted from ingredients vouched for by doctors of both the medical and spiritual disciplines, and does not contain lead or other vitalic poisons. For fifteen years, Drs. M. Hebert and B. Casson’s Transformative Oil has reigned supreme among the old and young. No other oil is as trusted, safe, and effective. $1.25 a pint. Please inquire in person or in writing to obtain it at the following address: —-.
Angélique arrived by six the next evening, earlier than we had agreed. Her carriage drew up to the front door, and when she stepped out, I saw why she had come before our arranged time: beneath the weight of her beaver coat, her skin was even blotchier than the night before, erupting with the soucouyant’s restlessness. She walked with stiff dignity up the stoop.
She shed her coat before I had fully shut the door. “You must cast her out,” she wailed, sotto voce, as if the neighbors could possibly hear. “The hag is awake, she is killing me inside.”
Angélique’s eyes were red again, her skin jelly-soft and damp with sweat. Her pores were puckered, like those of a freshly plucked chicken. I gave her tea brewed long before she had arrived. She drank it lukewarm, her throat heaving. I guided her to the tub, where I had drawn a cold bath scattered with chunks of ice. I peeled her out of her clothes. Her lacing was loose, but it had left marks. She sank gratefully into the water, shuddering. She dunked her head and stayed there for a long time, her spine a knuckled crest breaching the surface.
When she at last came up for breath, I had gathered my tools of trade: towels to spread across the floor; milk jars of chicken’s blood; the oil my mother had taught me to make, to ease the pain of shedding of one’s skin.
Angélique peered over the tub at the blood and oil. Her eyes were glazed, without expression. “Where is the salt?”
I could not meet her eyes. I pawed among the jars as if they preoccupied me.
“Bernice.” Her voice was sharp. “This is an exorcism. Where is the salt?”
“You should feed the soucouyant,” I said, “and let her shed.”
“You said you would cast her out.”
“I said we would see.”
She slapped a dripping hand on the rim of the tub. Droplets of bathwater flecked my face.
“I don’t know how to do an exorcism,” I said. “So I do not perform them.”
“Your ad said to inquire.”
“Clients inquire.” I looked at the floor. “I talk them out of it.”
Angélique stood. Water spattered the towels, soaked my skirt. “You asked for time. I gave you time. And in return, you promised to rid me of this monster.” She loomed, the bones of her collarbone and hips exposed beneath paper skin, hair dripping down her back. Her curls were loose where mine were tight, her skin bright where mine was dark. We had always been opposites, our parents falling somewhere in between. Neither of us looked as if we belonged to them. And yet we did belong to them and were proud of it. Or so I had thought, until the day my sister left us without a word.
I craned my neck to look at her. “You never saw the exorcisms,” I said. “Even when Mama was careful, some of the girls and women died. I cannot do that to you. I will not. Not now that you’ve come back.”
“I have not come back,” she said. “I came for a service. Do you want me to pay you? There is money in my reticule and I have an allowance. Whatever your fee, I will pay it.”
I jumped to my feet. “How dare you.” I wanted to slap her, to leave the red print of my palm across her face. “I do not want your money.”
“I don’t know why. Mama was happy to collect her fee.”
“You left wearing the clothes Mama bought with that money!” I shouted. “But that wasn’t enough for you, was it? Are you so much better off without us? Is that why you left?”
“I left because I could not live in that house, with a woman like that, always telling me what was to become of me, as though that was her choice to make.”
Angélique stepped from the bath, fumbling for the bathrobe I had laid near at hand. Her belly rippled. A finger strained beneath her skin, stretching it outward as a sleeping woman stretched beneath a blanket. It became a hand long and thin and clawed. Angélique moaned. She clasped her arms to her stomach. The hand clenched a fistful of flesh. She wailed. The tea was wearing off. The soucouyant was waking.
I had only given Angélique enough tea to lull the spirit temporarily, so that she might find relief in the cold bath and I could talk her around to letting it stay, for her sake but mostly for mine. I had not realized it would wake so quickly. A woman could live well enough, possessed by a soucouyant, if she was properly equipped with teas and oils and salves. This was the first thing my mother had taught us. But I had understood that too late.
“Angélique.” I stretched out a hand. “She’s going to tear you open. Let me put oil on you.”
“I want her gone.” Angélique’s voice was ragged. The water of the ice bath had dried on her skin, but she glistened, sweating, fevered. The hag’s hands scrabbled inside her belly, straining to break the skin as a chick sought to break its egg. “You said it yourself. I cannot go home while this thing rides me.”
“But we can go home. You can come live with me, until my rent is up. We’ll go back to Louisiana.” I thought of our childhood home, empty and beloved, then saw the look on her face. “Or we can go anywhere you like.”
She looked at me, astonished. “This city is my home.”
“Then we’ll stay here.”
“My husband’s house is as much mine as it is his.”
“There is no such thing. You are afflicted by a soucouyant, you are a woman, you come from slaves not freedmen. Your husband will not forgive you for any of these things.”
“You do not know the first thing about him.”
I gave an angry laugh. “I don’t need to know anything about him. He is a boor, he regards himself another great Accommodator. He thinks the Negro should cast down his bucket, as though that will solve our disenfranchisement. And I suppose it is only the darker-hued, the poorer-educated, the recently enslaved among us who must remain content to never strive? But the rules do not apply to him and his people, do they? Negroes who’ve always had. And that was what you wanted to become, wasn’t it? Someone who’s always had and had and had.”
Her husband meant nothing to me. I did not want to talk about him. No, I wanted her to admit that she had left me behind, and that she had done it without a word.
Angélique was halfway into her dress, panting with pain. I unscrewed the milk bottle and held it out to her. She slapped it from my hand. The bottle bounced, heaving blood.
“There is no one else in this city who can help you,” I said. “I am the only doctor from here to the Carolinas.”
“Mama taught me too.” Her refined accent slipped, like an un-gartered stocking. She weaved as she sought the front door, only half of her buttons buttoned up. “I’ll do it myself. I’ll ex... orcise myself.”
“You can’t. It’s impossible.”
Angélique dragged her coat onto her shoulders, hiding her undress, the hag’s claws digging now through her back. Her eyes were swollen, half shut.
“Why did you come here?” she slurred. “Why couldn’t you leave me alone?”
“I left you alone.” Always I was the one running after her. “You are the one who sought me out.”
“I wanted a doctor. Not you.”
Even in pain, she knew how to hurt me. Anger washed through me. These were the wages of her desertion: to be ridden by a monster. I was happy this had happened to her. I was sickened that it had.
I did not know how to tell her that I had followed her north because I did not know how to be alone.
“If you leave this house without feeding,” I said, “the soucouyant will tear you open and eat the first person she sees. You need to feed her. You need this oil.”
“Don’t follow me,” Angélique said, and tottered from the house. She climbed into her carriage. I watched it pull away.
“Mama is dead,” I said, to the darkness. “Please come back.”
“There is no shame in being ridden by a soucouyant,” my mother once said to me. “We consider it shameful because we do not understand it, because we are afraid.”
“But it is wrong what they do,” I said. “No woman asks to be a monster. No woman wants to drink blood and shed her skin, or be ridden like a mule until the night is done.”
“There are many things women do not ask for,” my mother said. “Possession is not always one of them.”
My mother, like my sister, was proud of her handsome legs. “They’ve carried me far,” she would tell us, “and looked damn fine doing it.” So this was where the soucouyant that finally claimed my mother bit her: in her well-shaped calf.
My mother had gone to a job alone while I was working on the other side of town, helping an older woman who had forgotten where she had shed her skin. I would have accompanied my mother had I known she was performing an exorcism. But I had not even known she was going.
Afterward, a neighbor told me what had happened. The soucouyant my mother had gone to exorcise had climbed from its victim’s skin and latched onto her instead. “It rode off on her before we could stop it,” he said, as though he had the training to prevent a soucouyant’s attack. When I asked where the creature had gone, he told me one way, and his son, who had also witnessed the accident, told me another.
“What became of the woman, the one my mother meant to treat?” It was an automatic question. I assumed her dead. I did not care.
The men looked at each other. “She’s alive,” said the son. “The soucouyant stepped right out of her body into your ma’s.” He winced, as if he feared he had insulted me with blunt speech.
I went home. I had a vague notion of gathering up my mother’s tools for exorcism and going after the soucouyant. Who the hell knew which way, I’d toss a coin. But the moment I stepped into the door, my legs grew so heavy I found I could not get up. So I sat on the floor with the door open, letting in bluebottle flies and then fat-bodied mosquitoes as the late afternoon turned to dusk.
So my mother found me. She stepped over me, as she came into the house. I didn’t get up. I don’t know what kept me there. I had been this close to a woman possessed by a soucouyant before, but never had that woman been my kin.
There was something mesmerizing and terrible about the strength and grace of her gait. My mother had always walked well, straight-backed and firm, but this woman seemed not to touch the floor, her step was so vigorous. Her calf from which the soucouyant had drunk was blue-black, the puncture wounds seeping. I could not believe that my mother had so willingly given herself over to possession. However much she indulged the spirits when they rode other people, I could not imagine that she herself had not fought.
My mother went to the drawer where we kept the oil for shedding skin. She took off her clothes and began to rub herself with it; great, slathering handfuls that dripped black onto the floor. Gnats and lightning bugs flittered through the open door, coming in with the night. A few stuck in her gleaming skin. My mother saw me watching. She bared her teeth in a vast smile.
When she was oiled, my mother took a knife from the kitchen counter and plunged it into the softness of her belly. I felt the impact like a punch in my own navel. I curled on the floor. From there, I watched the soucouyant-my-mother cut herself open, belly to breastbone to face, down each arm and each leg. She cut no deeper than the layer of fat under the skin. There was no blood, but I supposed the soucouyant had drunk her dry. She worked her fingers into the fat and gingerly began to peel.
I expected muscle, maybe even bone. But beneath my mother’s skin was fire.
A roaring flame stepped out of the skin that had once been my mother, or still was my mother; I did not know. I had never seen a soucouyant transform into her true form. Though my mother had coaxed women through their transformations, she had never asked me to sit in with her. I had thought the moment a soucouyant-woman transformed too private a thing to witness, a thing that stayed between herself and her doctor. But here on the floor I lay, no one’s doctor, watching the soucouyant-my-mother become another thing.
Gently she folded the skin and placed it in the cast iron pot where we had once made stews, when my father was alive and Angélique still lived with us; four mouths to feed instead of two. It had long gone unused. She covered the pot back up. She strode toward me.
Still I could not move. I lay on my belly with my face turned up to the roaring flame. I waited for her to step over me on her way outside.
But instead she knelt. There was a discernible head, trunks for arms and legs; the whole of her a bonfire, her human shape streamlined for flight. But with a nub of hand that she still retained, she lifted my chin. The hand crackled, sparks spitting like lightning, the room lit as if with lightning bugs that darted toward the ceiling before they fizzled out.
And yet the flame beneath my chin did not burn. The palm was wide. I dropped my head against it. I peered into the flames, seeking what had been my mama’s face. I found her smiling at me from the bright burning light.
“I want to show you what I see,” she said, in a voice that hummed inside my ribs and thundered through my marrow, that filled and surrounded me until I could ingest no more. “I want to show you a world so bright and beautiful that it burns.”
I said nothing. I did nothing. I merely lay in the cradle of her hand until she rose and stepped over me out of the door. Did she mean me to come with her? Perhaps she did.
I turned in time to see her shoot toward the sky. As if a star were falling the wrong direction. How brightly the soucouyant-my-mother burned in the darkness. She was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.
But I understood this only later. In that moment, I was still my mother’s apprentice. I had learned the practical lessons of doctoring too well. She had told me there was no shame in being ridden by a soucouyant, but I did not believe her. I watched the soucouyant-my-mother shoot into the sky, and I wanted my mother back. Had my mother ever burned so brightly? Had she ever flown with such grace and power? I never stopped to ask myself this. I thought no farther than what I believed: that the first task of a doctor is to exorcise the soucouyant.
I crawled to my feet. I went to the pantry, where we kept great bags of coarse salt heaped upon the floor. I tore open one and dragged it, leaking, to the pot where the soucouyant-my-mother had placed her skin for safekeeping. I lifted the bag of salt and poured it in, until the skin was buried.
The salt would shrink the skin just enough so that the soucouyant could not put it back on when she returned. Unable to protect herself from the sun, she would burn. And when the soucouyant burned, she would have to let my mother go.
I was ready for the soucouyant when she returned. I threw rice upon the floor. The creature shrieked and shut her eyes, but she had already seen the grains. Helpless, she bent to count them. I flung back every curtain, opened every door. Sunrise had never looked so beautiful, a bright spill of wax. The sun caught the soucouyant’s hunched back. She screamed, and I screamed too. I screamed until my throat was as ground meat and the soucouyant was gone, burned away, black ash upon the floor.
It was only then that I realized I did not know how to find my mother’s soul, freed of the soucouyant and at liberty in the world.I dragged her skin from the pot and wiped away the salt. I stretched it out upon the floor and pleaded for her to see what I had done: “The creature is gone, Mama,” I said. “Your skin is free. Come back.”
Salt shrank the skin, enough to deter a soucouyant but not enough to prevent the return of my mother’s soul. But as I sat alone in that house, staring down at the crumpled length of flesh, nausea lapped at me. My belly curdled with sick doubt. How small her skin looked after what I had done, too small to belong to anyone. Why would she ever choose to come back to it, when for one night she had been fire, shooting through the sky?
Editorial note in The Washington Bee, Washington, D.C. Friday, May 22, 1903:
ANNOUNCEMENT of SERVICE DISRUPTION: We regret to inform the patients of DOCTOR B. CASSON of a disruption to the doctor’s discreet services for female persons afflicted or otherwise inconvenienced by hags. The length of this disruption has not been disclosed to our staff. Letters addressed to the editors inquiring into the nature and length of this disruption or requesting the fulfillment of orders or the refund of moneys already paid will be returned unanswered. The offices of The Washington Bee assume no responsibility in the services offered or, in this case, not offered by one Doctor B. Casson. Concerned citizens may inquire in person at the last known address of the doctor for further information: —-.
I hired a carriage to take me to Angélique’s house. I arrived close to midnight.
The house was open, the electric lights burning. The sounds of a waltz spilled through the open windows. The congressman, I had learned from the society pages, was a great one for hosting functions. I went through the kitchen to avoid the bustle of the foyer. When a servant asked me where I was going, I told her I was a doctor, come to tend to the congressman’s wife.
I looked like no kind of doctor, none respectable, but the woman knew me for who I was. Perhaps she had met my kind of doctor before. Her eyes flitted up the stairs when I mentioned my sister’s married name. She understood the sort of doctor my sister needed.
Angélique was alone. She lay rocking on the bed, moaning. When I touched her shoulder, she turned to me. Her eyes were swollen, her face bloated, her lips great pink slabs that she moved only with difficulty.
“If you want me to exorcise you,” I said, “I will do it.”
She blinked, sluggish. Her hand crept toward mine. I took it gently. Even more gently, I kissed it. I thought of my mother: a pillar of flame, grasping my chin, asking to show me what she saw.
“But the only way I can make sure you will live,” I continued, “is if you let the soucouyant feed. I can help it to feed. You must give it to me.”
She made no movement. I could not be sure she had heard me. I unbuttoned the cuffs of my sleeves, bared my wrists. “If you drink from me, the soucouyant will leave you and come into me.”
Her pupils, almost lost between her eyelids, shifted to me. I nudged my wrist closer to her mouth. “I love you,” I said, “and I have missed you so much. I am sorry I was not a better sister to you when you needed me.”
Her eyeteeth peeped again upon her lip, grown back in the space of hours. She took my wrist and pressed her mouth to it. The teeth pricked. A rag of breath drifted up from her lips: “I did not know how to tell you I was leaving. I’m sorry I did not.” She slumped, exhausted. She shaped six final words against my wrist: I love you. I missed you. I almost did not feel it when her teeth sank in.
How slowly she drank, as if my blood were an old taste, one she’d almost forgotten she still loved. I shut my eyes as the soucouyant entered me. And in that darkness, I saw at last what my mother had seen: a world so bright and beautiful it burned.