"All Souls Rising," The Writer's Cut

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell


continued ...

     "Well, get her feet," the doctor snapped. "Stop that fiddling, whatever it is."
      Browne gave him a wounded look as he crouched and took hold of Fleur's ankles. The woman sagged between them like a hammock. The doctor noticed now that Browne's eyes were deranged with fever and he seemed to be scarcely in his senses. He twisted his head around until he noticed Maman Maigre hunkered in her lean-to, and prompting Browne to follow along he began to back in that direction.
      He laid Fleur's shoulders down softly as he might by the dead embers of Maman Maigre's cook fire. Browne stood there insensible, still holding her legs aloft. There was a pail of water standing near and the doctor sopped a rag of rotten sail cloth in it and uncertainly began cleaning the crust from Fleur's belly. At his first touch she moaned and convulsed onto her side. Maman Maigre took the rag from him and continued the task herself and the doctor gratefully turned his eyes elsewhere. He did not look again until Maman Maigre had covered Fleur's legs with the remains of her clothing, and by then Browne had disappeared from the yard as completely as if a hawk had stooped on him and snatched him away.
      Maman Maigre sat crosslegged, holding Fleur's head on her hammy thigh. The younger woman's eyes were closed completely now and she breathed easily as a sleeper. All over the yard the ghostly ash continued to feather down. The doctor asked Maman Maigre several times over if she knew what had happened to Chloe or Jasmine or Claire, but though he spoke slowly in the clearest creole he could manage, she would not answer him at all.
      At dusk he came stumbling through the northmost quarter of the town into Les Casernes, where he thought he might at least safely stable his horse. When he asked for Maillart the captain came running and almost knocked him over with the surprise of his embrace. He conducted the doctor to his quarters where he broached a bottle of brandy which the doctor was very glad to taste. With his throat so warmed he told of what had happened to him and what he had witnessed: the slaying of Lambert, and how Duvel's head had grinned down on him from its stake, and how Madame Arnaud had saved them all, as he believed, by sacrificing her finger to the Congo.
      At that the captain drew in his breath and looked as if he would make some remark, but when he did speak he told another tale. How he'd gone out at dawn to reconnoiter on the plain with a small body of foot soldiers who'd unexpectedly fallen in with rebel slaves, surprised and outnumbered so completely they'd all been slaughtered saving himself and a few others who'd outdistanced the marauders on horseback. Because it was only Antoine- H-bert and not another military man the captain could confess the shame he felt he felt at fleeing before blacks and the shock of knowing he had no better hope to save his life. And here he hesitated, but finally went on to say he'd something more dreadful than a head raised on a spear: an infant's corpse and what was worse it seemed to have been torn untimely from the womb.
      The doctor set his glass aside and rubbed his eyelids with his fingertips.
      "Can you imagine such bestial cruelty?" the captain said.
      "Unfortunately I don't have to imagine it," the doctor said. He held his hand out before him flat and planed it back and forth across the air as if to show himself that it was steady.
      "What does it mean," the captain said. "What can it mean?"
      "Ours is the age of reason," the doctor said. He took from his pocket the wedge of broken mirror he'd saved from Claire's room and squinted into its minute reflection. "Reason must afford some answer to your question."
      At that the captain only sniffed and rolled the remains of liquor in his glass.
      "Hogs may eat their young," the doctor said. "They sometimes do. But not display a piglet as a trophy." He put the bit of mirror back into his pocket.
      "The woman Claire," said Maillart.
      The doctor raised his head and stared at him with his bloodshot eyes. He'd been helplessly filling Claire into Fleur's situation and now he only expected to hear some such event described more closely.
      "Oui, ta petite amie," the captain said. "I happened to meet her before she'd been harmed. I took her to Les Ursulines...."
      The doctor exhaled. "You astonish me," he said. "I passed by her place-- it looked as if the slaves had sacked it."
      "Yes," the captain said. "She's quite all right. A little frightened. One might look out some other lodging for her. I don't suppose she's very well suited for convent life."
      Then over the captain's protest the doctor went out again into the smoking evening. There was a new tumult in the streets because the main body of troops led by Thouzard had just reentered the town, having fallen back from Limb, in time to repulse a horde of blacks who'd overrun Fort Bongars. News of the garrison's massacre there.... The roof of the house next to the Cignys had caught fire from some floating spark no doubt and a mixed part of slaves and whites were hurrying to extinguish it. But chez Cigny the liveried footman was still at his duty and when ushered into the drawing room the doctor found Madame Cigny playing carelessly with her son Robert.
      The boy had undone a little kit of necessaires and Isobel Cigny was laying out the instruments and prattling to him about their use. A compass, a pair of glass vials, a pen knife and a small scissors... That dainty fop, Pascal, balanced on a spindly chair and played a country air on a violin with a disconsonant expression of seriousness. The doctor could not quite make out whether all this insouciance were courage or idiocy, but remembering Madame Arnaud he thought he would do well to reserve his judgment. Soon he found himself telling the story of his trials again under Madame Cigny's cheerful questioning, though as briefly as she would allow. While he was speaking she quietly removed the scissors from Robert's hand before he could do himself the injury he seemed to intend and raised the boy onto her lap and held him there. The doctor paused.
      "Not to fatigue you with these horrors," he said. Through the cloth of his pocket he fidgeted with the bit of mirror glass. "I came for another reason... to ask your hospitality, your charity, I mean." He fumbled. "Not for myself but another...."
      "A woman?" Madame Cigny said with her provocative smile.
      "C'est ça," the doctor said. He picked up the necessaire box and examined the miniature painted on its side, a couple standing by the steps of a tiny Grecian temple all open to the air. "Une femme de couleur....hmmm.... her home has been rendered uninhabitable. And it seems unsafe generally now."
      "A woman in whom you must have some peculiar interest?" Madame Cigny lifted a fan and hid her mouth behind it; above its fluted rim her eyes looked dark, almost angry. The violin abruptly ceased and in its absence shouting voices reached them more plainly from the street. The doctor felt that he was turning purple. He knocked over the necessaire box in replacing it on the table and had to reach again to set it right.
      "What are her virtues, this girl?" said Madame Cigny. "Has she accomplishments?"
      "Why yes...." The doctor bethought himself that most of Claire's accomplishments were strictly unmentionable. "Well, she can cook. And sew."
      "Vraiment?" Above the fan, Madame Cigny's eyes turned merry. "Then I suppose we may find some place for her here. Out of Christian charity, as you suggest. And temporarily, bien entendu."
      "Thank you," the doctor said. "May I bring her directly? Or no, the morning would certainly be better."
      When he took his leave he was surprised to find that Pascal would accompany him out. Robert wiggled his plump hands happily, trying to reach the scissors again. And as the parlor door closed they heard Madame Cigny begin singing him a little song in creole....
      "Indeed you are a very droll fellow," Pascal said when they had reached the street.
      "What do you mean?"
      "To ask a creole lady to harbor your mulatto wench?"
      "I didn't see it in that light," the doctor said. "The town's in a state of emergency."
      "It's of no consequence. Though I suppose the ladies must inevitably be weary of seeing their husband's bastard get in the arms of these colored women. And you must know that our Isobel was one the ladies who brought about the sumptuary law."
      "Oh but I have only been in the country a couple of months," the doctor said.
      "At the behest of our ladies an ordinance was passed which forbade the mulattresses to wear their fine clothes-- out of their own doors. Nor any jewelry or ornament.... but the women rebelled and refused to go out at all. They refused to entertain. I think you know their touch with entertainment? And so the law was hastily repealed."
      "Thank you," the doctor said. "You have been most enlightening."
      They parted, and the doctor went on to Les Ursulines where with some difficulty he persuaded the nuns to admit him at last. A nun was present throughout his interview with Claire and so he remained across the room from the place where she was seated while he gave his news. After all he hardly knew how to comport himself and really it relieved him that they were not left alone. He had no wish to be touched or to touch anyone for the time being, if he could avoid it. And she seemed mute and uncomprehending; her still beauty was a mask; he had to repeat himself several times before he thought she'd understood. Then she crossed the room more quickly than the nun could stay her, sank down and wrapped her arms around his legs and laid her cheek against his knees.

      Two hours after dark Oule, called Tullius by the white people, led the spotted pony into Crozac's stableyard and put it into its stall. The shutter was open into the farrier's rooms and he could see Marie-Fon sitting near the window, lit by a candle deeper within. He paused to watch her for a moment, until Crozac appeared and pinched her ear and twisted it to make her rise. In the midst of this action the white man stopped and stared out the window so intently that Oule wondered if he'd seen him, though he thought it was too far and he was too well hidden in the dark.
      He left the yard and walked through the grumbling streets until he had come to the edge of town near the cemetery, La Fossette. Above the line of Morne du Cap the fires from the plain still painted a dull reflection on the sky and Oule was glad to see it so. He circled the cemetery, eyes on the fiery horizon, and stumbled into a cluster of cats who'd been working over a dry heap of birdbones. The cats scattered away, hissing, invisible in the dark. A few steps further was the hut of the hûngan Bonneau, an affranchi who lived here unmolested since no one cared who lived in such a noisome place. Oule tapped on the doorframe and waited, listening. Inside the hut a light was struck.
      "Ah, you've come for something," the hûngan said as he opened.
      "A death," Oule said.
      "Un coup à l'air?"
      "Un coup poudré."
      "Blanc ou noir?"
      "It's for a white man," Oule said. "Let it be slow."
      The hûngan beckoned him inside and showed him a brownish powder in a thin leather pouch wrinkled in the shape of a testicle sac. They dickered. When they came out again Oule had the sack on a thong around his neck and the h-ngan was clicking a few coins in his palm. They paused for a moment just outside the doorway, listening to a bell ringing slow and dolorous in the town, until Bonneau pronounced the proverb slaves had long attached to such tolling.
      "Bon blanc mouri-- mauvais resté."
      "There are no good ones," Oule said. "But now the bad ones will die too."

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