restricted access An excerpt from Sapodilla Terrace: The Carnival Archives
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An excerpt from Sapodilla Terrace:
The Carnival Archives

The Carnival Archives

I took Horsely to the Carnival Archives to see the Midnight Robber, the Jab-Jabs, the minstrels and the bats. Little could one tell that the statues we were looking at were once livewires of a pulsating Carnival.

A mere thirty years before, on a Shrove Tuesday, Benita Alexander would take her children to Buena Vista proper to see the 'mas'. And there I would push forward to the front of the street, closed off from traffic, to get a good view of the bands as they passed.

The little rat-tailed boys of J'Ouvert Old Mas, dressed waist down in crocus bags, had dispersed with the coming of sunlight. With leveled pitchforks, they had already combed the village, beating on biscuit tins. Horns pointing, coiled tails bobbing, they blew whistles and shouted "Pay the Devil!" Awakening households long before six, they had blackmailed enough pocket change. The early morning's plunder belonged to them. They yielded the day to men with ribcages daubed with mud, blue paint, and oil. These threatened to rub themselves on villagers, who dropped coins readily into extended palms.

By early afternoon, 'pretty mas' took over and we Alexanders, minus the head of the household, stood on the curb, awaiting bands and characters as they came down the parade stretch.

The individual I feared most was the villain of the streets, the Midnight Robber himself. This rogue roamed solo with a shrill whistle and fake pistol, demanding money and filling my heart with dread. He wore a black robe ribbed with white; a black broad-brimmed hat, crisscrossed with bleached bones; and a handsome cape embossed with a map, illustrating the perils he had survived long before he came to the New World. His mouth overflowed with bombast. He barred and bayed at the neighbor he had espied, ensnaring this victim who laughed within his threatening embrace. And this illustrious warrior would not release his captive until he had disgorged himself of his fearsome exploits, and the ransom of a penny was dropped into the black purse dangling from his wrist.

For the child gazing up, it was a strengthening of the heart to find suddenly in his face a snarl from a man, who jabbed his chest with the barrel of a pistol that seemed awfully real. The man whistled and cavorted, his black cape a billowing shroud, as he pounced on another victim across the street—a victim long espied, but lulled in a relaxed pose, not thinking of the robber who seemed to be paying him no mind. [End Page 601]

I hid in the folds of Mother's skirt, my heart thumping in my chest. Many a year I had died in those folds and she did not know, reviving only when the rogue had passed. The St. Cecelia Museum had turned this fearsome brigand into a harmless icon, smiling at visitors.

Then there were the Jab Jabs, the group of six or so men in silk clown jumpers, rimmed with tiny bells that used to tinkle as they walked on moccasined feet. In those ancient days, Jab Jabs carried roped whips with which they lashed each other in serious skirmish. They skipped around parrying the blows they rained, although it was said pillows were strapped to their bodies. There was no mockery then. All was savagery in that olden Carnival. It seemed a time for vendetta among people, who were glad for the opportunity to shame their enemies in an atmosphere that even the police tolerated. Adults knew the men behind those costumes, who every year played the same masquerade.

Horsely III was intrigued by the minstrels, their faces painted half-black, half-white. He even asked me to take a picture of him next to the quartet in their scissor-tails. Their white gloves, striped trousers, and tall hats were immaculate. No sound issued from this mannequin ensemble. But in the longtime Carnival, this black-face/white-face mas', dressed in stars-and-stripes and shuffling Hush Puppies, was idolized for the folk songs they sang. 'Swanee River' was my mother's favorite. The...