I spoke to my brother on the phone last week (he lives in New Mexico) and he told me that one night recently he was outside the house and saw this strange creature about two feet tall. "I thought it was an elf," he said. Now, you know, when a person says a thing like that you think they are kidding. If I said it I would be kidding, and my brother has little patience for that sort of trifling. When he says a thing like this, he means what he says. He doesn't believe in elves, he doesn't go in for fictional creatures, not even fictional people, and he is wary of the sort of people who are into elves. And yet for a couple of seconds, perhaps, he saw this creature and thought it was an elf. He wasn't reporting an elf sighting, you see; he was reporting how his mind allowed him to think he was looking at something he didn't believe in. This is a pretty subtle piece of mental business, if you think about it, but all he said was, "I thought it was an elf." He gets exasperated with me because I do not always understand all of what he means when he says something like that, so simply. He expects me to understand it because I am his sister, and why should you have to explain anything to your sister? Whatever you have to explain is not worth telling or it's a lost cause. This is the philosophy of my family. My father's side. Having to talk about an issue represents a breakdown in communication. (And I must say I'm inclining more and more to that view. I'm still enjoying not having anyone around who says we "need to talk about our relationship.") At any rate, this time I got it. And when he told me that the elf turned out to be a skunk with its tail sticking up -- a real skunk, not an imaginary or fictional one -- it did seem funny, and I was allowed to share a laugh with him.
My father told me that when he was a child living in the country in Jamaica, his Uncle Fonso was staying with them. Uncle Fonso was my grandfather's brother, and, sadly, he only died this summer, aged nearly 100. Anyway back when my father was a boy Uncle Fonso came home late one night in a state of great excitement. He had seen a rolling calf and wanted to go back out and catch it.
What is a rolling calf? An especially nasty Jamaican duppy. From Sacred Texts via Google:
(17) Banbury, l.c., p. 23f. Note:--Charles Rampini in his Letters from Jamaica, Edinburgh, 1873, p. 83, states: "A very mischievous ghost is that known by the name of 'rolling calf,' a spirit who haunts the city by night with a flaming eye, trailing a long chain behind him. To speak to, or to touch the chain of a rolling calf will cause him to turn and rend you. The only way to escape is to stick an open penknife in the ground and run without looking behind you.
(18) Banbury, l.c., p. 25. Note:--According to Professor Beckwith, (l.c., p. 100f.): "Whatever the origin of the rolling calf it is looked upon to-day as the animal form assumed by especially dangerous duppies. Obeah-men often become tolling calves and they 'set' rolling calves upon people. Murderers and butchers and I know not how many other reprobates
become rolling calves when they die, and go to live not only at the roots of cotton-wood trees and in clumps of bamboos but also in caves and deserted houses, whence they emerge at night to follow sugar wains because of their fondness for molasses, or to break into cattle pens."
(19) Banbury, l.c., p. 26. Note:--A writer in Chambers's Journal, January 11, 1902, asserts: "The rolling calf . . . This is a quadruped with blazing eyes and having a clanking chain round its neck. Like the loup-garou, it prowls at night, and the man whom it touches dies. The only way to escape--so the Negroes say--is to stick a penknife in the ground and turn your back on the monster. Like Mephistopheles held back by the sign of the Cross, it cannot then advance, however malevolent it may be."