The National Stadium was a small industrial amphitheater made of concrete and steel. Every year, for one day during the Sports Term, its humble stature blossomed into a majestic duppy paradise. Thousands of teenagers with shimmering souls flowed into the arena, ready to watch their school’s finest track stars, blissfully unaware of the ghosts watching them from the stadium’s entrance. These spirits ignored the adults who came to observe or supervise. They focused only on the students, scoping out those whose adornments shined brightest.
At Sports, boring school uniforms and basic hair transformed. Muddy school colors, which usually dulled the students’ rich skin, were decorated with a vibrant array of ribbons, iridescent glitter, and baubles. Rhinestones dotted cheeks, eyelids, and shoulders like precious gems. Kanekalon weaved into towering cornrows, while temporary color painted large puffs of hair or lined the edges of decorative low-cut fades. School ties were pulled straighter, crisp skirt pleats were patted flatter, edges were laid with the strongest jam, and some pants still hung low but never sagged. Even five-dollar bandanas were elevated to luxury, draped sumptuously over necks and faces. As this magnificent procession of children crossed the stadium’s entrance, they felt something tingly and warm deepen their joy. A feathery breath of air kissed their foreheads, thanking them for their presence. The breeze was so light, only the deepest, subconscious part of them registered the duppy’s touch. Then, only then, the freeing up could begin. Chants and drumming would soon flood the air.
Spirits followed students into the rows of stands enclosing the racetrack. They waited patiently as the children sat restless, enduring the commands of teachers splitting them up by form, assigning prefects to man each section, and finally leaving them to join a small group of parents (who were usually former athletes) at the bottom of the stands. Soon, a gun would fire, and another, then another, until a first or last race—a race that mattered—was in session. All eyes locked on the track.
Duppies braced as students cheered their champion by grabbing anything that could hold a rhythm—overturned plastic buckets, foil pans, books beating against the cement stands. Students jumped up and down, vibrating the thick cement slabs beneath them and exciting the duppies above. In this frenzied focus, their minds, bodies, and voices became one, unknowingly inviting the duppy—no, thousands of duppies—in the stands to slip in and out of their chosen one. They possessed the teenager’s mind crown-first, grateful for communion with the divine part of each teenager that needed to breathe. Legions of duppies led young bodies in sacred movements, much like ancient stories of rhythms that made universes, turning five minutes of jamming into something eternal. The drumming, the wukking up, the chants stretched on long after the race ended, no matter which school won.
The stands groaned under them, because the national stadium was made for sitting, not this. But parents and teachers never intervened. They catching a vibe, man. Leave them. And the adults would leave them, just as others had left them, because they’d had their time with duppies too. When the work ended, each spirit slowly withdrew its essence from their teenager’s body, gliding from the tips of their toes to the soft crown of their head, exiting with a delightful gust of wind that eased the body back to itself, flushing out any slithers of foreign spirit holding on to their host’s soul. At most, a teenager would shiver—that’s how gently a spirit left them. The duppies always floated away in thanks.
This ritual played out every year. Students and duppies poured into the stadium and it would creak louder and longer under their force of their movements. Every year, the arena’s cries would be more noticeable to teachers and parents, but they focused on the spectacle of children catching the spirit. Don’t worry, man they catching a vibe! It was just like this in our days, remember? Still, every year, one or two eyebrows would raise at the stadium’s rusting, exposed beams and crumbling concrete. At the widening gap between the concrete slabs. But students kept quiet, adjusting their movements, learning where they could sit and stand and jump safely in the stands, trying not to complain to teachers or prefects about tripping on a loose nail or chipped edge because, well, they didn’t want their freedom to end. The duppies, sensitive as they are, grew nervous.
The declining state of the stands steadily dimmed the spirit of new students. The duppies, eager to make things work, still welcomed teenagers into their home year after year. Though the children still dressed up, too many of them did not register the warm gust of wind greeting them at its entrance. Every flaw in the old structure caught their attention: Cawblen, government can’t fix that? How we building so much hotels and the stadium look so? Hearing their whispers, the duppies grew resentful, carelessly slipping into students’ bodies whether a soul welcomed them or not, slowly eroding the communion they’d grown to share. Students took longer to let go of their bodies, making possessions last longer than usual—say, ten minutes instead of five. When the spirits were done, they zoomed, instead of floated, out of their chosen bodies into the ether. Teenagers were left feeling lighter, happier, but quite dazed.
Fifteen years later, during a clumsy ripple of possession, one student fell. She was a popular girl, a tiny sprinter with a strong voice, colorful press-on nails, and sculptural cornrows that spiked the air. The duppies were busy swarming students in the stands, frustrated that their moment for possession was taking long to come. Finally, they noticed a difference in this girl, the sprinter, who ran across the track after winning her race. She’d broken a longstanding record. Her coach, who was timing her, laughed as she whisked away his whistle and blowhorn. She put the horn to her lips, shouting to the crowd: That’s the best wunna could do? I know you could do better than that, man! In response, the students came to life.
They jammed hard, chanting louder and wilder as relieved duppies washed through them. Their rhythm called the girl from the tracks to the center of the stands, where newly possessed students formed a makeshift drumline. She repeated her line: Wait, that’s all wunna could do? She took the stick from the hypnotized boy at the front of the pack, hitting the cement quicker than he ever could while wukking up faster and faster, guiding the booming chants and rhythmic stamps rocking every stand.
A duppy entered her slowly, with the reverence of times past. Her spirit welcomed its warmth as it washed her body inside out, easing any points of pain or tension it passed over, reaching into the deepest part of her to connect with pure soul. The feeling was so strong, so missed, that the duppy taking over her swelled wider than usual, easing past the girl’s spirit to the private part of her mind where no one else should go. Her melodious dancing jolted. The smooth whirls of her waist stiffened, as if questioning its own movement. Her careful steps fell out of time, suddenly unsure. She tripped on a crack in the concrete, tumbling through the wide gap between the stands. People and duppies stopped moving when she hit the ground. The government closed the stadium for repairs that year.
Inter-school Sports continues at another venue now. New restrictions forbid students from dressing up, making drums, or dancing. The duppies, drifters by nature, find bright souls somewhere else, while students, teachers, and parents skip the event all together, preferring to stay home. The old stands were bulldozed into large piles of rubble. The infamous racetrack was lifted and burned. In its place, white dust blankets the air, falling and rising and falling, powdering the ground like ash.
Amanda Haynes’s writing has appeared most recently in the Barbadian online journal Arts Etc. She is a recipient of the 2019 Cropper Foundation Caribbean Writers Residency in fiction (Trinidad), led by literary artists Funso Aiyejina and Merle Hodge. To learn more or contact Amanda, visit www.instagram.com/rudelyearly.