August was drawing to a close. So was my childhood, though I didn’t know it yet. Since the beginning of the afternoon the clouds, a procession of malevolent angels, had obscured the sky, stirring up tempers, awakening thirsts, hungers and the malice of men. And since the body of Mervilus had been found the previous day in a ravine not far from the Dalles quarter, madness like death, like childhood snatched away, had come with the rain. The roads were quickly flooded by the downpours so typical of this season, which wring our spirits like land to be worked for no reward.
Four men carried Mervilus’ corpse, draped in a white sheet, on their shoulders towards Désilia’s house. They moved laboriously like a tap-tap taxi about to get bogged down in soft ground, or a wind-tossed ship. Their legs sank into the mud and they yelled out their anger; the rain scourged their bare torsos with biting lashes and they roared even louder. Holding my little brother Jonas by his hand and running till I lost my breath, I caught up with my mother among those surrounding this fiery crew, my voice blending with the wailing of the women, their strident cries, the bellows of the men. The news had reached Désilia who met the cortège as it made its way back. One of the men lifted the sheet, and Désilia let out the long, plaintive cry of an animal with its throat slit. Eyes rolling, arms flailing, she tore her clothes and ran in all directions, her feet sending water splashing up from the puddles between the huts. Boss Charles and Rameau quickly moved to catch her in their strong arms. Exhausted, Désilia allowed herself to be surrounded and restrained like a captive beast. With the help of Espérance and Nerlande, my mother then tied a large cloth round Désilia’s waist to help contain the pain inside her, let it begin to run its course like a child carried in her womb.
The body was set down in one of the two rooms of the hut, then, as is the custom, the single mirror was covered with a starch paste to prevent any urge on the part of Mervilus to appear from that smooth surface to disturb the living and deprive them of sleep. Espérance saw to the body as my mother began to prepare the broth for the wake. Zuléma brought offcuts of meat, Nerlande malanga and carrots, Conceptia watercress and plantain bananas.
The rain eased off as the first shadows of night crept in. I helped my mother prepare the meal and serve coffee to those boorish men, those men of desire and hardship who kept giving me fevered looks as if they were searching for trails of fire. Jonas refused to stay in one place; the day had been a long one. He was still playing barefoot in the puddles outside Désilia’s door. And soon, tugging at my arm, he stridently demanded those bright, sharp images which I so enjoyed conjuring up for him as the daylight faded. For him alone. And which, through force of habit, had become almost sacred. Images of phosphorescent algae, cohorts of angels and cherubs, guava-scented paths, wounds carved into bones by the tip of a cutlass, ogres gorged on the flesh of children, and purple twilights.
After the meal, the men shared three bottles of rum and other liquors, aniseed and cherry, and played dominoes through the night. Breaking through the lament with which the women, tight-lipped, spirits stitched tight, shrouded the night, the men in their turn recalled their memories of the dead man. Mervilus had gone on a foray to the uptown districts and his luck had left him. Baptiste spoke more than the others. Baptiste had always admired Mervilus, who was a lot younger than he was, had a gun and managed to give Désilia and his son Kesnel a better life than any other woman or child in the quarter – if you didn’t count Mimose who worked for husband-and-wife doctors at Péguy-Ville, in a villa hidden behind high walls, tucked away beneath thick bougainvilleas. Baptiste had never dared go with him on his rounds. But Mervilus knew how to make them dream, him and the others.
Mervilus was an activist with the party of the Destitutes. Militants from the party had arrived in our quarter one afternoon in a great tumult of voices, as loud as those that rang out during the carnival or the Seventh-Day Adventist sermons. That day my mother and I struggled to get home from the market. I went to put her basket down on the doorstep of our house and returned to the end of the road to join the crowd of men and women involved in lively debate as if their lives depended on it. Congregated around the men from the Destitutes’ party, by their two vans, we drank in the words of the speakers as they described to us a rare, extravagant happiness, which the rich had never allowed us to glimpse. In no time these powerful magic words had melted away our tough shells of doubt and suspicion, and soon the unrest had even spread to the children. To the accompaniment of nasal, frenetic music, improvised for the occasion, Jonas and I swayed with the others for a long time after the militants had left. That day, life tasted of fresh water and stars.
That was already two years ago. If Boss Charles was to be believed, the Destitutes’ party had since got five times richer than all the parties of the Rich. And then the death of Mervilus came and changed everything.
In the middle of the wake I joined Jonas who was asleep with his head down, cheek pressed against that of Cocotte, Zuléma’s daughter, arms around the neck of Bonel, Rameau’s son. Turning my back on the tumult of the adults, on the night’s fires which burned too brightly, I caught up with them in the freedom of their dreams, territory already claimed by newly-arrived swallows and flying fish. When I awoke I felt as if I had been absent for a long while. The words had assumed a hue of malice and madness. The vigour of gestures, the fierceness of thirsts and the force of laughter – it was all intensified. Faces appeared mired in the shadows of a lost world. The light of the paraffin lamps and candles appeared to rise from the beaten-earth floor; it illuminated cheeks, lips and eyebrows, leaving the faces with large patches of shadow as if they had been half gnawed away by rats. I was aware as never before of the years of suspicion and poverty which encrusted those faces – and which made us scrutinise the world with an acute curiosity. And which also led us sometimes to stare at it with a malice equal to our hunger.
This morning, Baptiste, still inebriated, smelling of sweat and the damp night, has left very early to join the group of men at the entrance to Boss Charles’ shop. And my mother, like all the other women, waits. She too has hardly slept. Because of the wake, because of the death and the anger. When I awoke and went to draw water from the drinking fountain, she asked me once again to be careful. On my return she was standing on the threshold of the house, exchanging a few words with Espérance and Nerlande. She has now taken the opportunity of lying down to rest on the large bed in the only room of the hut. The solid hut is not very big. Baptiste built it two years ago during the time when he was working on a building site; it looks squat and is lost among the forest of corrugated iron roofs, of badly-planed doors and blank walls. My mother has been tiring easily for some time now; she is pregnant and finds it increasingly difficult to carry the baskets from the market by herself. Fortunately, for three months, I have been going with her, but it is not only to help her that I go. Since she caught the way Obner was looking at me one day when I returned from the drinking fountain, she has decided to leave Jonas in the care of Espérance and take me with her. She often insists on this, telling me never to stop when I am out, and above all to stay deaf and dumb to all those who tell me that I am strong and beautiful for my age. I have always shown her the face of an innocent, smooth and pure. But I know that Baptiste does to my mother what men do to women and she would be afraid to see Obner or some other doing to me. Baptiste is Jonas’ father. I do not know my father. For longer than I can remember, there has only been my mother. So sometimes I feel like blocking my ears and closing my eyes to make Baptiste disappear. I often hear their breathing mingled in the night, when they are entwined from head to toe, in a muted alleycats’ din, on the big lumpy, misshapen bed.
Baptiste returned from Boss Charles’ a few minutes ago. The funeral of Mervilus will be sung in two hours. The priest has agreed to do it because Boss Charles gave him a little money in advance. He and my mother have shared a bucket of water. My mother has applied powder too light for the ebony of her skin, and put on her only blue dress and her black shoes for special occasions. Baptiste looks really funny in his suit that is two times too big for him. Their cheap scent fills the room and covers the musky smell of days when there is no money for water.
Once the adults have left, the sudden silence of the quarter floods into our bones. Jonas has opened up his ragged trousers and sent his spurt of urine skywards. Like yesterday, like the day before that, the procession of the clouds has been unravelling since early afternoon. The more impetuous ones are already brushing against the ground in the muted rumbling of storms and lightning flashes streaking the sky. Cocotte and Bonel join us. Although it is forbidden, we undress and give ourselves up to the intoxication of the water, laughing as if to split the earth in two. The downpour lasts long enough to awaken the hungers and thirsts sleeping in the hearts of men and to fuel their anger. The winding passages between the huts have been transformed into a muddy maze. The men have returned from the funeral, drunk with rage. Baptiste seems to me to be thinner than usual, his cheeks hollower and his eyes even more sunken into their sockets. You could almost believe this sudden thinness has a supernatural cause. The scar on Kesnel’s left cheek seems deeper to me. And Obner’s hairy hands seem broader. Anose started a song a few minutes ago and everyone has followed suit, biting into the words, eating the syllables. The voices rise one by one, as if multiplied by the rain.
In the huts, the candles and paraffin lamps are lit in an unreal, biblical atmosphere. War chants of far-off wars in Africa, of the inexcusable ambushes of wars here, are sung in chorus. And the gods, Ogun, Pétro and Linglinsou breathe through our voices and I can hear their incantations and their growling blending with the calls of the queen conch trumpets which, in turn, mingle with our songs. Shadows multiply and discharge into the night. My mother has grabbed a stick and gone to swell the throng of people already armed with machetes, cutlasses and pikes. I push my way between the bony feet, the vigorous legs like tree trunks. The men are hammering the ground and the women, hips like bulls’ or streamlined like pines, stamp in the mud. Drum rolls tear open the night. The night is seized by convulsions. And we are a wild, grubby band with dirty skin, cavernous eyes, in worn-out clothes. Even with bare feet we do not feel the shards from bottles which get stuck in our heels.
We suddenly emerge on the main road like a horde from beyond the grave. The last tap-taps hurry away from the area and their frightened passengers cling to one another on the back seats of the vehicles. We advance to the place where the night, like a huge mouth, is devouring the road. We loot the shops, rob the few passers-by who are out late, attack the only police vehicle and burn everything in our path. We raise barricades at the four corners of the quarter using the carcases of abandoned cars, tyres and trestles.
When the second police car arrives, shots ring out from all sides. I am hit on my shoulder, on my left forearm. The first shots double our passion. When one of the policemen falls, the others flee. We surround him in a macabre sarabande. At first he is shoved, then we hit him in the face, but the blow delivered by Rameau knocks him right out. We are entranced by the violence, the flames of a hell that delights us, shakes us with happiness. The joy is equal to the blood that is shed, the fear and the hunger. And it is then that Baptiste raises his machete and positions himself above the body. Everything after that happened very quickly. I lowered myself down and wove my way through the forest of legs and I looked at the stranger and I heard in his throat the barely-perceptible gurgling of his last breath. In an abrupt movement I withdrew, bewildered; I turned away, crazed. And I ran madly, falling to the ground behind the door of an abandoned house at the edge of the quarter. And I felt the burning pain in my shoulder and my left forearm.
I clearly hear heavy, careful footsteps like those of a hunter stalking prey. The breathing is suppressed. It is a man’s breathing. The man scratches the rough surfaces of the walls with his nails, bangs against the wood of doors and windows. And then suddenly a voice both authoritative and quavering murmurs my first name. Several times. I recognise Obner’s voice. I am hardly breathing, gripped by a light nausea. For the first time I do not want it to be Obner. I do not want his big calloused hands. I do not want to struggle and scratch and bite until he leaves me for dead. I huddle up. I am afraid. I hide in the shadow, in the belly of the night, and I wait.
When the footsteps at last move away I run as if I had grown wings on my sides and I laugh despite the pain, despite the fear. And I continue to run. And as if by magic my strength increases. Even the very shadows seem worn thin. Some people are hanging around, lost in their insomniac dreams, others stagger with weariness, some are dressing wounds and others wander among the debris. As for me, I rejoice under the moon.
I look up to the washed-out, star-studded sky. And I join the constellations in their mystery, their extravagance and their beauty. The moon creates large white, almost milky patches. I am alone. At last. Alone to breathe under this moon.
I am twelve years of age and I feel strong and beautiful.