What if they reject me?” she asked the ocean.

Her voice was a small, timid thing that she did not recognize, but still he heard it.

“Our gods who have already marked you with their blessings?” her father asked, settling on the mossy cliff slightly behind her, close enough to comfort but far enough to not crowd her. This was her journey and her decision to make.

Dragging her eyes from the azure waves crashing into the coastline below, Nichi looked over her shoulder to his brown eyes, eyes that mirrored hers, both in hue and unshed tears. Her throat thickened past the point of speech, and she could only shake her head in reply.

Her father pressed, “Who, my child? The Great Mother who has smiled upon you from the day you were born?”

She watched him try to smile and her heartbeat was a sweet, dull pain. Gratitude and love washed over her, aware of what he was doing. She shook her head again.

Dragging her eyes from the azure waves crashing into the coastline below, Nichi looked over her shoulder to his brown eyes, eyes that mirrored hers

“Then who, ti fille mwèn? The flora and fauna who have followed your every loving command since you learned how to speak?” his voice cracked slightly, and it released the gate on her hot tears.

Just like always, he seemed to know the fears she dared not speak. He knew that she was scared her people would reject her; not who she was, but what she would fully become should she make this trip into the sacred cave behind them.

She shook her head, but this time she offered him a watery smile, her thanks for his attempt at fortification in this moment of extreme self-doubt.

“Who then, Nichi?”

She laughed weakly as she turned her gaze back to the Atlantic allowing the gusts to whip her thick, densely curled hair every which way. Her father was right. She had gained acceptance everywhere that was important for this moment in time. Well, almost everywhere.

“There hasn’t been one like me in almost one hundred years, Daddy,” she started shakily, wringing her hands. “What if they call me a soucouyant, or shun me or worse, keep me from teaching the children?” Her breaths were coming in quick and shallow, her chest tight and she was trembling all over. A warm hand rested on her back and rubbed firmly.

“Sssh, my child. Quiet your mind. It speaks too loud in a time when your heart and spirit are the ones whose voices matter. The Great Spirit makes no mistakes, and the Great Mother Waitukubuli selects wisely. If she chose you, it is because we need you. In time, everyone will come around.”

Nichi could feel her heart twist at the thought of being a pariah among her own.

Nichi could feel her heart twist at the thought of being a pariah among her own.

“Yes, but how long would I have to endure being some sort of boogeyman among my own people?” she cried to her father.

With a hand on her cheek, he replied, “Worrying about time is how we waste it.”

Her father was forever a philosopher. No matter the personal dilemma, he would have a parable or sage saying that only made sense much later.

With her life now poised on the precipice of the unknown, she supposed his steadfastness of character was the greatest gift he could give.

“What if I don’t complete the ritual? What will happen to me then?” she asked in a whisper, almost scared that Waitukubuli herself would open the ground and swallow her.

The sound of the waves filled the silence that fell between them. An array of emotions flitted across the older Kalinago man’s face before he answered.

“I do not know yet, or for certain. We know that the ones like you, the ones we call jungle sirens, are born whenever our people or land are in danger. The more jungle sirens, the greater the danger.”

Nichi sighed deeply, the weight of the decision before her resting heavily on her shoulders. At village feasts, storytellers like her great grandmother weaved enchanting tales of the jungle sirens ensuring the Kalinago ran of the Spaniards and escaped those who fought to possess Waitukubuli and change her name.

It was their lore that the jungle sirens advised their warriors to unite with the Neg Marons, stolen Africans who had escaped the French plantations. Together they would raid the colonizers in retaliation, freeing more of those held captive.

When the Europeans left, fewer of these chosen ones were born until they stopped appearing all together. Until her.

“The last two that anyone remembers died long before I was born. According to Mama, one was your great grand aunt, Curly. Mama says, she used to speak of a third, who chose to reject the path.”

Nichi gasped. She had never heard this story before.

Tears slid down her cheek once more as she basked in the feeling of being enveloped in an embrace from the ancient.

“What happened to them?” she asked, eyes wide despite the strong breeze swirling around them.

Her father paused, a strange expression on his face.

“No one knows for sure. Some said he went mad. Others said he became so tortured that he drank just to escape his mind. Some stories say that he lived a normal life until one day he went fishing and never returned.”

She gulped and stared at her hands in her lap. “So, basically no happy ending?”

He ran a hand through his straight, coarse hair the color of midnight, even though he was well into his sixties.

“M’a sav nuh, my child,” he replied ruefully, eyes on the horizon, “I really and truly don’t know,” he repeated in English.

Even the lack of clarity in his answer provided her some of her own. At the end of the day, no matter the path chosen, no one could really know how it ends.

She inhaled deeply and cleared her mind, allowing her spirit to speak to the Great Mother and the ancestors.

“The gifts you have given me are not mine to hoard but to heal and protect. Be with me now and until my final breaths when you take me to join you. Please advocate on my behalf to Bakwa, that he may find me worthy of his blessing and protection.”

There was a rushing sound, and her body grew light. They had heard her and had come to impart their benediction. She could not understand most of what they were saying, much of their mother tongue lost through colonization, but her heart understood. She was not alone. Whatever her path, they would be there.

Tears slid down her cheek once more as she basked in the feeling of being enveloped in an embrace from the ancient.

Cowardice was one trait that she despised, and she would be damned if she would become its home. She thanked her ancestors and felt the woosh of the wind as they left her. Now kneeling, she bowed deeply, her forehead touching the ground, telegraphing her gratitude to Waitukubuli for selecting her for this mission, whatever it may be.

After kissing the ground, she stood; her mind calmer than when she first stopped here. She was ready.

After kissing the ground, she stood; her mind calmer than when she first stopped here. She was ready.

Her father sat still, silently appraising his last born and only daughter. His shoulders visibly relaxed when she gave him a warm smile through her tears. Standing, he pulled her into a tight hug, rocking slightly. She sighed wistfully. No matter what happened, she had him too.

When they broke apart, his cheeks were wet, and she reached up to wipe them and tried to reassure him with a smile.

“I will be fine, Daddy, they’ve chosen me, and I have chosen them. This is the only way for me. I know it with everything I am,” she said sincerely. Every word became her gospel as it was uttered.

Gripping her shoulders, her father looked down at her and gave a watery smile.

“Your mother and I are so proud of you. We prayed that you would be exactly who you are and even then you managed to exceed our expectations.”

Never one comfortable with compliments, Nichi ducked her head and deflected,

“Everything I am, is a reflection of the two of you. I take credit for nothing.”

“Clever child, that also means you take blame for nothing. You smart smart,” he pinched her chin as they both laughed.

She looked up at the dark trail that led up into the cave carved into Mount Majini. L’escalier Tete Chien; stairs of the Great Serpent Bakwa, the guardian of the Kalinago, beckoned her to meet the mystical being.

Legend has it that when he slithered onto the land he decided would be his resting place, his belly left the trail up to the cave where he resided. The early outoubous would go to commune with him and smoke tobacco. Jungle sirens needed his blessing to fully access their gifts to protect the tribe.

“I should go before it gets too dark,” she hugged her father once more and started up the stairs bravely.

“Wait!” he called after her, bringing her a satchel.

“What’s this?”

“Tabac. He likes to smoke with his visitors, or so we are told,” he stuttered. “There’s also two pipes, a lighter and a flashlight. Be safe, my child.”

“Thank you, Daddy. I will.”


The cave was not as dark as she anticipated but the air was thick. Not in a hard to breathe way, but rather it was charged; like there was a potent energy moving invisibly.

She felt no fear, however. As she walked further into the damp cave, the smell of the salty sea air gave way to something more musky and herbal. Suddenly a loud voice reverberated off the walls of the cavern causing her to squeal, startled.

“Anichi, daughter of Ahari, you have finally made it to me.”

Her eyes widened as from the shadows emerged a gargantuan scaled figure. His eyes shone as bright and yellow as the sun, diamond patterns covered his head which was topped with a bejeweled crown. Above him rays of light beamed down through openings in the high ceiling of the cave, reflecting off the chromatic green scales of his massive body coiled behind him.

Dropping to her knees, Nichi bowed her head and held out her satchel before her to the guardian spirit.

“Great Serpent Bakwa, please allow me to gift you this tobacco from my family’s bounty. I ask for your blessing should you find me worthy of becoming a jungle siren, your avatar among my people.”

There was a loud hissing sound and she felt a cold, forked tongue touch her face and she shivered when the voice sounded in her ear.

“Rise Anichi, daughter of Ahari. You have always had my blessing.”

There was a loud hissing sound and she felt a cold, forked tongue touch her face and she shivered when the voice sounded in her ear.

Confused, she stumbled to her feet and followed the large serpent who was slithering to a large room further in the cave. Against the wall was a large rock carved into a seat and another one next to it flattened like a table. On the walls were illustrations she believed were drawn by the Kalinago chiefs and medicine men who visited Bakwa centuries ago.

“Sit,” hissed the serpent king, motioning his crowned head towards the makeshift furniture. She sat so fast that the large boa chuckled.

“Prepare me a pipe, and we will speak of your future.”

This was bizarre. And yet here she was acting as if a giant boa constrictor with a crown asking her for a smoke was the most natural thing in the world. She did her best to stifle an hysterical giggle while she stuffed the pipe with the finely shredded brown, pungent leaves.

Without warning, Bakwa extended his head to stop arm’s length away from her, mouth opened slightly to receive the pipe. After she lit it, he slid away, considering her from across the room, puffs of smoke coming from the slits of his nostrils.

“So you have decided to follow the path, have you?”

“Yes, Great Serpent.”

“I always felt you would, but with humans you can never be too certain.”

Her brows furrowed at his familiarity. He spoke as if they had met before.

“Please forgive me, Great Bakwa, but how did you know I would choose to follow the path?”

“It is all you’ve known, child. The sirens before you, did not receive their gifts until they were chosen by the Great Mother. But you, your gifts were granted before you even entered this plane. Such a gamble would not be made frivolously or with a soul unworthy.”

“What would have happened to me, if I chose to reject it all?” she asked bravely, still incredulous that Bakwa was indeed real and before her.

The sirens before you, did not receive their gifts until they were chosen by the Great Mother. But you, your gifts were granted before you even entered this plane.

“Another would have been chosen, for there is indeed a great danger on the horizon. But tell me, Anichi, if you could no longer commune with the forests and their creatures; if the waters no longer followed your command and the ancestors no longer walked with you? What would happen to you then?”

Nichi frowned, trying to imagine a life where she didn’t feel the energy of the land move through her, existing without her special abilities. It would feel like losing her senses. She shuddered. He was right. This was all she knew.

Another question popped into her mind.

“Do you know all of us?”

“I know how many heart beats are of this land, yes, but I do not know any name or face until they come here.”

“But you know my father?”

Bakwa nodded and exhaled smoke. “I do.”

“How?” she asked, a dread creeping over her.

The great serpent tilted his head for a moment at her question.

“Hmm. He did not tell you, did he?” the serpent chuckled.

“Tell me what?”

“I suppose he felt it was for the best, to not sway your heart,” Bakwa said pensively, “Yes, yes it was for the best, wise human, him.”

“Great Bakwa, tell me what?”

The serpent leveled her with his slitted golden eyes and blinked.

“That he is just like you.”

The room was spinning. Nichi felt like she was falling into a spiral, her thoughts chaotic.

Her father, a jungle siren? But how? Did her mother know? Did anyone know?

“I can tell you are filled with questions, but I will only answer three.”

She tried to compose herself and gather her thoughts.

“When did he first come here?” she whispered.

“Thirty years ago, before you were born. Waitukubuli and the Great Spirit chose him.”

Nichi chewed the inside of her cheek, her mind racing. He had been chosen but did he not complete the ritual? He had to pass the test of spirit, proof of strength and purity of soul just like she did before coming to Bakwa. Did that mean he gave up at the end?

“What is going to happen to him since he rejected his path?” she wrung her hands, fear consuming her. The fate of those who rejected the path was uncertain, but every story suggested the ending was grim. Terror wrenched her heart. She did not want to imagine a painful fate for her father. She could not bear it!

“Who said he rejected his path?”

Nichi’s breath caught her throat. “I beg your pardon?”

“Your father completed the ritual.”

Nichi shook her head, struggling to make sense of this information. Her father? But he —

“My father is a jungle siren?”

“Yes. But his path is… unique.”

“How so?” she asked hoarsely.

“When your father came to me, while we were communing, he had a vision. In that vision he saw you and what you could become, the power you could possess and in that moment his path was redefined.”

“What do you mean?” she asked before she realized it.

“That was your final question. His path became protecting you from anything that sought to harm you before you got to me.”

“His mission was to protect your gifts, your mind, and spirit from corruption and avarice, so that when you finally came to me, your soul was pure. His path was to make sure your heart contained an unshakable love for the people and the land, so when evil came, you would stand and fight. Let’s hope he succeeded.”

Shooting her feet and squaring her shoulders Nichi declared, “He did! He did not fail.”

There was so much to unpack but she would have to do it later. Right now, she had a ritual to complete.

“Good. Now, follow me.”

 In that vision he saw you and what you could become, the power you could possess.

The mystical reptile led her through the cave until they came to a pool with water the color of emeralds, fed by a waterfall coming down through the cave. It was the most beautiful vision she had ever seen and she felt her heart sing.

“Take off your foot coverings and get in. Sing the song to complete the ritual. I wish to go back to sleep.”

She quickly removed her sneakers and got into the cool water up to the knees. It felt alive.

“Sing the song, complete the ritual. Then leave,” Bakwa hissed behind her.

“Which, um, which song should I sing?” she asked nervously.

Bakwa hissed as if frustrated. “You know which one, child. He has sung it to you since you were a babe,” the king serpent hissed and slithered back into his great room, leaving her in the pool.

Her eyes widened. Her father’s special lullaby!

She opened her mouth and her smooth dulcet tones filled the space.

“Lé lé ti lalay pouchi’ou té allé di’yo ça”

Suddenly the waters around her started to move, clockwise around her, whirling and spinning and then voices joined in with her, sirens past.

A response from the whirlpool of voices answered her.

““Lé lé ti lalay !” She sang.

From among the chorus of voices, her father’s familiar baritone came in strong in response and tears pricked her eyes as she sang louder, harmonizing with him.

Whatever her path would bring, whatever dangers lay lurking, they would defeat.

She was not one of one. She was not alone, and so long as she followed her path, she never would be.

Jade Leatham is an American-born Dominica-raised writer. Her first novel, Warlike, is due in 2024. This story is published in partnership with the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival (BCLF) and is the winner of the 2023 BCLF Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writer’s Prize.

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