“Hush, Nana!” I hissed over my shoulder. She had gotten her foot stuck in the thick swamp mud and was already beginning to wail. “Do you want the jumbies to hear us coming?”
That just got her howling louder. I sighed, set my bag of salt down where the mud seemed hardest, and inched back to my younger sister. Spooklights flashed out in the swamp behind her, giving her rich chocolate skin a greenish glow. Her brown eyes were wide and wet with tears.
“Seven-and-a-half’s too old to get spooked by muck,” I said, wrapping an arm around her waist and hoisting her free. At twice her age, I was easily three times as strong; Papa spoiled the little one.
“Muck ain’t spooking me,” she said. “I thought the sou–the sou–”
“Yeah, that. I thought it got me.”
I bit back my laughter and picked up the salt again. The path through Red Howler Swamp got muggier as we went, and I was afraid that if Nanette tried to carry the bag, she’d sink so deep I’d never get her out. “She ain’t going to get us, Nana. We’re the ones who’re going to get her.”
Nana gulped loudly and latched onto my skirt like a leech.
I didn’t blame her exactly. Like most of my ideas–the ones that made papa say I had cornmeal mush for brains–this one had sounded a lot better in daylight.
See, there was an old thatch hut at the edge of Red Howler Swamp, where Grandmère said an obeah witch made a pact with the devil once-upon-a-time. The devil told her to go to a cemetery and dig up the corpse of a rich man, and then cut out his liver and make an oil out of it. He said that if she rubbed her skin with the oil, she could take it off like you slip out of a dress and become invisible. So the old woman became a soucouyant, and now she went around in the dark, looking for little children to suck the blood out of.
There’s only one way to stop a soucouyant, Grandmère said, and that’s to find the witch’s skin and sprinkle it with salt before she comes back at dawn. And that was exactly what I planned to do.
Not my brightest idea, let me tell you.
“Eulalie!” Nana squeaked, tugging on my skirt and pointing. A reddish-orange light shone between the branches of a mangrove tree; a candle, not spooklight. We’d reached the soucouyant’s house.
“Do you think she’s still at home?” I whispered. Nana shook her head.
We tiptoed up the path to the door, where the light poured out around its rough edges. With a glance at Nanette, I raised my hand to knock…
… and the door swung open before I touched it.
We crept in like a pair of shadows, the salt bag hanging between us. The soucouyant’s house had only one room, with a moldy wooden floor covered by rag-rugs and mud. A table and single chair stood in the center of the room; in the far corner, a mattress sagged behind mosquito netting. The light seemed to come from a pair of mushroom-brown candles, cemented to the table by their own wax.
“Come on,” I said. Behind the candles, I saw a clay bowl covered with a length of cloth.
We ran over to the table and pulled the cloth away from the bowl. A cloud of dust floated up from it, choking me. I wrinkled my nose and peered inside.
The thing in the bowl was gray, not peach like Papa’s skin or chocolate-brown like mine and Nana’s. It stank like every bad thing I’d ever smelled, rotten eggs and swamp muck and dead things all rolled into one. Nana held the bag open for me as I grabbed a handful of salt and tossed it in.
I was about to cover the bowl again and head for the door when Nana screamed.
“What is–” I began to say, when I heard a snarl coming from across the room.
Something black and hairy launched itself out of the shadows by the bed, flying straight at us. I leapt across the table, knocking over the candles as I grabbed Nana around the waist. By the time the fire caught, we were halfway across Red Howler Swamp.
“It was… just a cat,” I panted, bent over double in the hot mud.
“Yeah,” Nana said. “Yeah, just a cat.”
Still, we ran the rest of the way home.
We both slept late the next morning. When we came down for breakfast, Papa had already made his trip to the village grocer and was telling Grandmère about something he’d heard from old Barthelmy at the counter.
“Seems a fire caught somewhere by Red Howler Swamp last night,” he said, shoveling fried egg into his mouth. “It’s curious. I didn’t even know there was a house there.”
I started choking on my breakfast and covered it up with a gulp of coffee.
“Hmp,” Grandmère snorted. “Sounds to me like the devil sent hell-fire back to claim his own. The soucouyant,” she added, turning to Nana and me with a clever gleam in her wrinkly-lidded eyes.
Papa just shook his head. “You should stop filling their heads with that nonsense,” he sighed. “Eulalie, pass me the salt.”
Megan Arkenberg is a writer and poet from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in many webzines and anthologies, including The Lorelei Signal, Rose & Thorn, A Fly in Amber, and numerous haiku and tanka publications. “Her story Panthanatos” was included in Hadley Rille Books” Ruins Metropolis anthology earlier this year. She also edits a small fantasy e-zine, Mirror Dance.