My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter XXVII

“Debils-DEBILS”

“As, however, there is no necessity whatever why we should posit the existence of devils, why, then, should they be posited?”

Some of the blacks of my acquaintance are ardent believers in ghosts and do posit the existence of personal “debils-debils.” Seldom is a good word to be said of the phantoms, which depend almost entirely for “local habitation and a name” upon the chronicles of old men steeped to the lips in the accumulated lore of the camps. Many an old man who talks shudderingly of the “debil-debil” has lived in daily expectation of meeting some hostile and vindictive personage endowed with fearsome malice, and a body which may be killed and destroyed. Therefore, when the old man ventures into the dim spaces of the jungle he is invariably specially armed and his perceptive faculties strained to concert pitch, while the unseen glides always at his elbow providing unutterable thrills, lacking which life would be far less real and earnest.

Only one record has come to my knowledge of the presence of a benign “debil-debil.” All the other stories have been saturated with awesomeness and fear. A very intelligent but excessively superstitious boy now living on the Palm Islands was wont to entertain me with graphic descriptions of the one species of “debil-debil” which he feared, and of the most effective plan for its capture. He was under the belief that a live “debil-debil” would be worth more as a curio than “two fella white cockatoo.” He imagined that if a “young fella debil-debil” could be caught — caught in the harmless stage of existence — I would give him a superabundance of tobacco as a reward, and that I would keep it chained up “all asame dog” and give it nothing but water. I was frequently warned “Subpose me catch em young fella ‘debil-debil’ when he come from mother belonga him, no good you give him much tucker. Gib him plenty water. He got fire inside. Smoke come out alonga nose.” Given the possibility of its capture, there was no reason why I should not indulge the frugal joy of having a small and comparatively innocent “debil-debil” on the chain. Did not the legendary Maori chiefs keep such pets for the torment of their enemies? Mine would have to console itself with the astonishment and admiration of friends, for, alas! I have not, to my knowledge, an enemy worthy the least of the infernal pangs. Moreover, out of our abundance of rain we could well spare an occasional meat-tinful of water for the cooling of its internal fires.

Now, the method of capture of a piccaninny “debil-debil” was this: Certain manifestations, not explainable and not visible to white men, had revealed to the blacks that a favourite resort of the species was the sand spit of the Island. Two boys who were wont to discuss their plans, and even to practise them, decided that they must first observe the habits of the “debil-debil,” and so arrange to catch the young one when the backs of the parents were turned, for, of course, designs against a full-grown specimen were not only futile, but attended with infinitely greater risks of personal injury than George would accept for love or money. They procured about fifteen yards of cane from one of the creeping palms, from which they removed all the old leaf sheafs and adventitious rootlets, making it perfectly smooth. Crouching low, each holding an end of the cane, which was strained almost to rigidity, the boys, in their demonstration of the feat, were wont to sweep continuously over a considerable area with the idea of getting the cane on the nape of the neck of the assumed “debil-debil,” and then to suddenly change places, so that it became ensnared in a simple loop by which the baneful beast was to be choked to submission.

Upon my suggestion a thin line used in the harpooning of turtles was substituted for the cane, with which, however, some most realistic and serious preliminary work towards perfection in the stratagem of “debil-debil” capture had been accomplished in valorous daylight. But though the boys gave many exhibitions of their skill and of the proper attitude and degree of caution, the correct gestures and facial expression for so momentous a manoeuvre, they could never be persuaded to put their skill to the test at the spot where “debils-debils” most do congregate after dark, the consequences inevitable on failure being too diabolical to contemplate.

The conditions never seemed to be absolutely favourable for the deed, for the boys anxiously persuaded me of the craft and alertness of the evil one. Either the night was too bright or too gloomy, or it was so calm that the “debil-debil” would be sure to hear their approach, or so windy that they themselves might possibly be taken unawares. They insisted that “debils-debils” suffered from certain physical limitations; they could not cross the sea — hence the variety native to the Island might be different from the mainland species, and would therefore demand local study before being approached with hostile intentions. I was wont to point out that since the sea presented an impassable barrier, the sand spit, drawn out to a fine point, was just the spot where a piccaninny might be easily rounded up, if it were detected in a preoccupied mood. I suggested that I might be at hand to encounter any untoward results in case of a bungle, but was met with the positive assertion that no “debil-debil,” however young and unsophisticated, would “come out” if it smelt a white man.

One of the boys went so far as to select the chain with which the captive was to be secured, and the empty meat-tin whence it was to be schooled to take the only form of nourishment judicious to offer. That he did most truly and sincerely believe the existence of “debils-debils” we had proof every evening, for he would sit at the door of his grass hut, maintain a big, dancing fire, and sing lustily under the supposition that a good discordant corroboree was the most effective scare. Though alleged to be obnoxiously plentiful, the boys could never screw up their courage to the point of a real attempt to apprehend the dreaded enemy to their peace of mind.

Two blacks in the employ of a neighbour went to sleep under an orange-tree early one afternoon, and slumbered industriously while the others worked. The quiet of the drowsy time was, however, suddenly shocked by a great outcry, when the two lazy ones raced towards the workers with every manifestation of fear in their countenances. They declared that while they had slept a piccaninny “debil-debil” had “sat down” on the orange-tree which had afforded them shade, and that when they woke up it was there —“all a same flying fox.” All moved cautiously up, and sure enough, hanging head down, was what my friend took to be a veritable flying fox; but he was in a hopeless minority. All scornfully out-voted him, and to this day the blacks assert that “a piccaninny debil-debil” so closely resembles a flying-fox that none but a black boy can tell the difference.

Again, a black boy and his gin slept in an outhouse across the door-space of which they, as usual, made a fire. In the morning’, Billy found himself, not in the corner where he had gone to sleep, but close to the fire, and moreover his left arm was “sore fella.” With a dreadfully serious face he related his experiences. In the middle of the night a “debil-debil” had entered the hut and, seizing him by the arm, had dragged him towards the door, but being unable to cross the fire, had been compelled to abandon otherwise easy prey. The aching arm proved that he had been dragged by a superior force, and the absence of tracks was assurance that none other than a “debil-debil” could have clutched him. The episode was accepted as one more proof of the horror of “debils-debils” of fire, and of the necessity of such a precautionary measure.

The scene of the only occasion on which a visitant from the land of spirits assumed benign shape is not far from this spot. It is historic, too, from the standpoint of the white man, for it occurred during a “dispersal” by black troopers under the command of mounted police. An old black boy tells the story. Before sunrise the whole camp was panic-struck, for it was surrounded by men with rifles. As the defenceless men and helpless women and children woke up, dismayed, to seek safety in flight, they were shot. One man tumbled down here, another there. The awful noise of the firing, and the bleeding results thereof, the screams of fear and shrieks of pain, caused paralysing confusion. When it seemed impossible for any one to escape, a big man jumped up, and, standing still, called out to the bloodthirsty troopers, “Kill me fella! Kill me fella!” indicating, with his hand his naked chest. Such audacity had its effect. All the troopers began firing at the noble, self-sacrificing hero; but marvellous to say, he did not tumble down, for though the bullets went through him, no blood gushed out. While he was the only target, the other blacks, including the veracious chronicler, ran away, leaving many dead. He afterwards declared that the “big, good fella boy,” who had drawn the fire of the troopers, and whom the troopers could not kill, was a stranger to the camp. No one had ever seen him before or since; but that he appeared at a terrible crisis specially to save the whole camp from butchery was, and is, the emphatic belief of the survivors. This incident was related, or rather dramatically acted, in the presence of an aged native of the Malay Peninsula, whose knowledge of the mysterious was (in his own estimation) far more exact than that of the unenlightened blacks. With eyes sparkling and all his senses quivering under the stress of impatience, he listened to the end, and then burst out, “You fool! That good, big fellow boy, he no boy. That fellow, white man call em ghost! Plenty in my country!”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32