"All Souls Rising," The Writer's Cut

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell


continued ...

      At his left, one of the creoles flinched and slapped a hand to his left shoulder. He rocked back in the saddle, as though his horse had stumbled, but then the doctor saw the bloom of blood across his chest. He passed the man helplessly by, still following Maillart at a gallop. Somehow he had heard neither shot. It was queer that the attack had begun in silence, without the usual preparatory shrieking and skirling on conchs. Behind Maillart, he reached the point where the gorge made a final twist before issuing into the outmost of Paparel's fields. Here they were immediately taken by highly organized and professional enfilading fire.
      Four of the creoles who'd been at the head of the stampede had fallen in this place; one lay half in the stream with threads of his blood flowing into the water. Several of the mulattos had abandoned their mounts and taken cover among large boulders around the stream bed, returning fire which came not only from the mouth of the gorge but out of the dense jungle above on either side, where those of the hundreds of blacks who lacked weapons were simply hurling down huge stones. Captain Maillart wheeled his mount, crashing shoulder to shoulder into the doctor's horse. Straggling in the rear, the cannon had been overrun by swarms of blacks who now bore the guns away like ants carrying outsized clumps of sugar.
      Philip Browne passed, stretched out to the length of his horse's neck like a Cossack trick rider. Behind him came one of the last of the young creoles. Doctor Hébert saw one of the mulattoes hiding in the rocks take careful aim at the young man and fire, at such near range that the youth was carried backward out of the saddle. He looked to Captain Maillart to see if he had witnessed this treachery, but the captain had rallied those of his men still in the saddle and was ordering a charge down the gorge toward the plantation.
      Maillart spurred up his horse and led the charge with his saber drawn. A black popped up from directly in front of him and took a hip shot with a musket, missing in spite of the pointblank range. Maillart dealt him a crooked saber cut and rode him down. To the doctor's left another man was shot out of the saddle. He saw the sudden vacancy from the corner of his eye, and then a big Ibo scrambled up in the white man's place. The doctor gasped, the Ibo grinned. Another black swung up behind him. The doctor turned his pistol to cover this pair, but numerous hands reached from the ground to drag down his arm. He struck out wildly with his other fist, and broke free, still holding the unfired pistol, cantering into the open field. He felt a small pulse of jubiliation at having carried through the ambush, but just then a bullet creased his horse, and the animal bucked and ran away with him. He was carried off from the other survivors, headed into the burning cane.A swirl of smoke from the burning cane field swept through a gap in the citron hedge across the road. A heavy thick sweet smell like a pastry afire in the oven. The doctor coughed. The heat was terrible, and flame laced through the tightly woven branches of the hedge. Parts of the hedge itself were also catching alight, consuming. The doctor had just managed to pull in his horse, but at the fire's crackling it shied under him, reared and tried to run again. Doctor Hébert held it with great difficulty, tightening the reins and twisting the horse's head down and to the left, its blubbery lips foaming on the bit, its white eye rolling. The doctor was choking and the smoke stung his eyes so he could hardly see.
      But then the wind shifted and the billow of smoke swung off ahead of it and that was when the doctor saw them riding almost directly out of the fire itself. For an instant he thought it was a regular cavalry column because the leader wore an officer's shako, but it was set backward on his head and the man was naked but for that, bare skin all purple black like tar except for the whitened weals from his old whippings, everywhere across his back and arms and legs. Two human heads were slung across the shoulders of his horse, the man's queue tied to the woman's long bloodmatted hair, in balance like a pair of saddle bags. Seeing the doctor he smiled in a brotherly way and whirled a long cane knife around his head. His teeth were filed to points after the occasional Congo fashion. He rode with confidence and skill. The next man behind him was dressed in a tattered blue ballgown with lace trim at the lowcut bodice and long slits ripped on either side to free his legs to straddle the horse. However he had let the reins go dangling and he hung on by the pommel of the saddle, grinning and looking foolishly about. A third rider waved a long crazy-looking fowling piece, the barrel bound to the splintered stock with bits of wire and string. Behind these three were more on foot, armed with knives or staves or carpenter's tools. Out of the smoke and fire reached a severed forearm, impaled on a lance, fingers still wriggling and clutching at the vapors.
      So it looked to the doctor, an illusion perhaps. He had his pistol cocked and ready, but the horse kept shying and lunging, spoiling his aim. He gave the horse its head and led it run, full-tilt and out of control, holding hard with his knees, his hands tangled in the reins and mane and the pistol pinched awkwardly there too. A stench of scorched blood mixed with the burning sugar; the smell could madden horses, the doctor knew. At the end of the lane he gathered the reins and guided the horse across the corner of the cane field, galloping wildly across the provision grounds. No fire here, only a mat of potato vines and worked earth, where the hooves threw up great clots of dirt as the horse went by. The slope of the provison ground was steep and bordered on two sides with the jungle winning a way back over it again. The smoke had cleared but the doctor didn't look behind him. His eyes were streaming and still it was hard to see, but he got fractured glimpses, down the hill, of hundreds of the rebel slaves bearing torches to the buildings all around the grand'case. They had flushed the gérant Mouzon out of the sugar mill and were swarming around him like ants on a spill of syrup. Mouzon held his fists by his ears, ducking. They had hemmed him in and were prodding him with the long poles used on the ladles. Thrust and poke, then one man swung a pole far back and let it come down with an awful langour across the white man's shoulders.
      Mouzon fell, got up again, hunching his shoulders. The doctor saw another pole rise high. Then a wild ululation and blowing of conch shells seemed to rise up just at his feet, and frantically he turned the horse into the trees. A long loop of vine dropped over his chest and snatched him halfway out of the saddle, then it gave way, leaving him clinging to the side of the horse, one knee crooked where his seat should have been. Coarse hair of the mane scrubbed across his face. With a furious effort he got back astride. Something whipped at his cheek, opening a cut, and a bare rise of shale cleared out ahead. Then he was lying on his back, a crushing pain all through his ribs. The horse had rolled over him completely and lay on its side with two legs broken, screaming in a voice that was worse than human.
      No sign of immediate pursuit, but the noise the horse was making could be heard for miles around, no doubt. Who would run toward such a howling? Hair lifted on the back of the doctor's neck. He was still pinned by one leg under the horse's shoulder and he couldn't free himself. For a minute or two he ceased to be a conscious human being; there was nothing left of him at all but a blur of frantic struggle. Then his bare foot popped loose from the boot and he was up and running instantly, although the pain of his exposed ankle was almost incapacitating. Impossible for him to cover any any ground like this. He went slipping over the shale, biting his lips against the pain. The moans of the horse seemed a proxy for his own. He looked back once and saw beyond the horse's flailing shattered legs a single black, old and hunchbacked, his wrinkled face indented with old tribal scarification, carrying a carpenter's saw. He didn't seem to see the doctor, who rested, panting, behind a mapou tree, thinking how unusual it was to see a slave of that age in the colony, where most did not survive so long. The conch shell sounded again, very near, and there was crashing in the brush nearby. The doctor took a few more agonized staggering steps and then shot fifteen feet up a tree without knowing how he had conceived or accomplished the action.
      Some kind of palm it probably was, with shiny grayish bark laid in triangular wedges, like snakeskin or scales, all pointing up. The doctor had cut his hands and his bare foot on the scales of bark while he was climbing. Still, the bark was the only thing that helped him hold his perch. There were no branches. He had thrust himself waist high into the long serrated fronds that sprang from the crown of the tree. They seemed to rattle with his breathing. There was a particolored patch on one that proved to be a giant katydid when the doctor nudged it with his thumb. Through its artifices it had turned itself the precise color of the palm leaf and mimicked veins and fibers, even a few patches of leaf rust, to make itself more completely frondlike. The doctor wished he had some similar ability.
      His eyes went out of focus. He was tired, dazed really. Thirsty too. It was uncomfortable to cling there in the tree and still less comfortable to speculate on what might be his chances if and when he ever came down. Supposing he escaped discovery by the blacks he still had no way to get out of the area. The horse was still screaming in the shale. He imagined that from what he had seen that the rebel slaves would be looting or destroying all the provisions on the plantation. Though one could live on the country here. There were fruit trees, other edibles too if he had known how to identify them. He licked a little blood from the heel of his hand, sliced in parallel lines as tidily as a razor could have done it, and peered down at his naked ankle. It hadn't swollen so very much, and he hoped it was only sprained, not broken, but it couldn't carry him very far or fast. The horse kept on screaming; he wished someone would shoot it. The pain in his ribs was soft, dull, not the sharp-edged sensation of a break, so maybe only bruising, though he didn't know what internal damage he might have sustained. He laid his cheek against a shiny wedge of bark and as his eyes glazed over and slid shut he saw again the severed heads swinging across that lead rider's lap. The woman's head, he now recognized, belonged to the girl Celeste; those slack lips pulling off the teeth had been her petal mouth, that matted bloody rope her wealth and treasure of long flaxen hair.
      It wouldn't do to wonder what had happened to the rest of her. The horse was still screaming, hoarsely now. It would break off for a time and then start over. Somehow it bothered the doctor more than anything else that happened all that day and he knew he would be hearing it ring in his head for a very long time afterward, supposing he survived long enough to enjoy this experience or any other. A great commotion started up around the foot of his tree. The doctor parted the palm fronds and looked down. Several rebel slaves in the tattered cotton breeches of fieldhands were gesticulating at him and chattering loudly among themselves in creole. The doctor couldn't make out one word of what they said. The only arms they had were cane knives and he was a little relieved to see no guns among them. His dragoon pistol had been lost, it occurred to him now, when the horse fell or else earlier in the headlong flight.
      Another man stepped into the clearing, carrying a sort of pike improvised by splinting a cane knife to a long pole from the sugar mill. The others clustered around him as if he had some special knowledge or authority. When he had spoken one ran off and the others drew a little back. The new man set the butt of his makeshift pike on the ground and stared up at the doctor. He was quite tall, emaciated, with a long face and a sorrowful expression. One of his ears had been lopped to a stump and the other was large and wrinkled like an elephant's ear. He gazed at the doctor sadly, intently; the doctor found he couldn't hold the stare. His own eyes went wandering over the tree tops. There were other trees nearby he might have better chosen, taller, with branches for his seat and more leaves to hide him from the ground. The tall man said something to him in creole, a question evidently.
      "Comprends pas," the doctor said. He showed an empty bleeding hand and smiled foolishly. The tall man lifted his pike over his head and probed, without especial vigor. The point of the cane knife pressed into the arch of the doctor's bare foot. Too dull to cut with such a light thrust but it hurt his ankle some. There was nowhere to go. He bowed out his back and worked his knees a little higher in the tree, all the long fronds clashing loudly together with the movement. The crown of the tree bent sideways with the shift of weight and the doctor found himself hanging almost upside down, while the tall man nudged the pike into his thighs and buttocks. The others bystanding laughed and clapped and capered a little. The tall man's expression was gloomy and disinterested, like a bored child teasing a toad with a stick.
      The doctor slipped a little way down the tree trunk, which righted itself elastically. But the tall man could now reach as high as his heart with the point of the cane knife. The doctor slapped the flat of the blade away from him, wondering if he might work it loose from its binding and get possession of it, but it seemed futile to try this project or even to succeed at it. Away out of sight the horse's screams cut off with a gurgling sigh, and then another man entered the area below the tree, riding bareback on a mule. He spoke sharply to the tall man, who lowered his pike and backed away. The mule rider craned his neck and addressed the doctor in passable French.
      "You look like an ape up in that tree," the mule rider said. A red bandanna was bound tightly over his whole head, knotted at his skull's base, and he was otherwise dressed in surprisingly fresh-looking coachman's livery. He sat the mule as if he had sprouted from its hide. On his knees lay a pendulous cloth sack full of some sort of plant matter and pillowed across that a short military musket with a bayonet fixed.
      "Are you an ape, or a man?" the mule rider said. "It's hard to know."
      The doctor was too astounded to reply. He just stared back. The mule rider's glittered darkly under the tight crimp of the bandanna. A sprig of gray hair was caught under the edge of the cloth. He too was elderly for a slave in the colony, late forties or early fifties perhaps. His jaw was long and underslung and full of long yellowish teeth separated by little spaces which his half smile revealed. The mule's long ears revolved and it dipped its head to nose at the base of the tree.
      "Not a soldier," the mule rider said musingly, studying the doctor's clothes. "Not a planter. Not creole, certainly. You'll be some sort of artisan, perhaps, or one of the adventurers that come here."
      "Antoine Hébert," the doctor said. The sound of his voice pronouncing the words made him feel faint and giggly. "I was born in Lyons and trained in Paris as a doctor." "A doctor." The mule rider pursed his lips and nodded. "Médecin."
      "Yes," the doctor said. He still felt like giggling, or weeping perhaps. "And yourself?"
      "Toussaint," the mule rider said, disarmingly, looking at the doctor sidelong. "Just old Toussaint." A practiced obsequiousness in his tone. His eyes glinted below the bandanna and that simpering note left his voice. "Do you want to stay up in the tree and be an ape?" he said. "Why don't you come down here and be a man with me?"
      "I'm afraid," the doctor admitted. It surprised him how good it felt to say it.
      "Of course," Toussaint said. "So are we all. Except the pure fools."

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