"All Souls Rising," The Writer's Cut

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell 1995


Continued ...

      "He knows," Oule said. Outside, a bird was crying sadly. Bonneau's fingers stroked a circle on the goatskin and the drum sighed deeply. Oule told him what the doctor had said to Crozac.
      "Well then, he knows," Bonneau said. "He thinks he knows...." He touched the skin with a light double stroke, fingertips followed by the heel of his hand. Ah-Boum, the drum said softly.
      "He knows, but he does not really say," Bonneau said. He touched the drum, Ah-Boum.
      "That is well," Bonneau decided. "You can go on as before." The drum seconded him. Ah-Boum.
      Marie-Fon went out then, ducking her head under the lintel. She picked up a twig broom and began sweeping around the peristyle, shooing off a pair of speckled hens who'd strayed too near the vévé of the drums. The broom was only a foot long, so she swept in a squat, her long forearm swinging out from where her elbow rested on her knee. Another white-turbaned hounsi arrived in the hounfor and began helping her with the arrangements. Oule watched them through the doorway. He relaxed in his own hunker, sinking back from the balls of his feet to his heels. Ah-Boum, the drum repeated. Oyule closed his eyes and let his thinking stop.

      In the evening Doctor Hébert made his way to the jail where Père Bonne-chance was being held, and negotiated his entrance to the priest's cell, paying the guards a customary compliment of money, that they be left in private. There was a single barred window high in the heavy stone wall, and the priest was standing on a stool beneath it, his face upturned and smiling in a glow of sunset light. In his outstretched right hand was a long thin baguette split lengthwise. The doctor saw within the frame of the window a tiny redthroated hummingbird hovering before the end of the loaf. But the sound of the door closing behind him startled the bird and it flew off.
      "How do you do it?" the doctor said.
      Père Bonne-chance turned and grinned at him, lowering his arm. "Sometimes he comes all the way inside," he said. "I soak the bread in honey. We used to do it that way--at Ouanaminthe." His face clouded slightly as he stepped down from the stool. He motioned for the doctor to take a seat. There was a second stool, by a small round table laid with a chipped plate and an earthenware cup.
      The doctor sat. He took a flask of rum from his inner pocket and poured a measure into the cup. The priest sat opposite him and raised the cup and sipped it. Even in jail he had regained much of his plumpness. Fontelle had mysteriously reappeared with her children in the city; she cooked and carried meals to him. The priest set down the empty cup.
      "Drink with me," he said, "be of good cheer." Obediently, the doctor poured two fingers into the cup and drank it off. The warmth spreading through his chest inspired him with a strange desire to weep. A bar of sunset red clove the table between them and formed a crisp bright slash on the inner wall. The priest stretched out his hand and dabbled his fingers in the light.
      "I'm very fond of this time of day," he said. "When I was a child, it frightened me. I would be frightened and very sad and lonely. Blood-red stains across the lawn and shadows reaching toward me from the trees... well, that feeling is the natural one, I suppose. That's why one drinks at sunset. And now I've come to love the hour-- thanks to you, of course. And to your bottle." He poured himself a fresh measure and drank it a little more quickly.
      "They say the trial begins in four days," the doctor blurted out.
      "Yes, I expect so," the priest said indifferently. "Come, drink with me."
      "But it was not you who did those things," the doctor said. "It was Père Duguit."
      "Ah well, you know this because I told you so," said the priest. "And as Père Duguit is not to be found, someone must bear the burden of his sins, you see."
      The bar of sunlight was shifting on the wall; it glared into the doctor's face and he moved his stool to avoid it.
      "Those women who accuse you are deranged by their suffering," he said. "You must have witnesses of your own. Can you remember no one's name?"
      "Apès tout, this matter is not quite so important as you imagine," the priest said, smiling pleasantly. He poured more rum and lifted the cup.
      "I was never really suited for the priesthood," he said. "Spirits and women-- my tastes are more those of a soldier. Perhaps I would have done better with some army. But being a younger son, I had no choice. I became a Jesuit because they seemed martial but it seems I was not so well suited to that either." He laughed softly. The sun dropped below the sill and the light died suddenly as a lamp snuffed out.
      The doctor had brought along two new candles. He took one out and lit it, dripping a little hot wax to affix it to the tabletop. The priest poured rum into the cup and pushed it toward him. The doctor sipped. He was not uncomfortable remaining there, but he could think of nothing more to say. His fidgeting fingers came on Crozac's letter in his pocket and he took it out. The ends had not been folded and when he flexed the paper it opened enough that he could make out a few phrases in the candlelight, allusions to sugar and money. He put the letter back in his pocket again.
      "Fontelle will be here," the doctor said, and stood up, "she will be waiting. Is there anything at all you would like for me to do?"
      "Pray for me," the priest said.
      "I shall endeavor to do better than that," said Doctor Hébert. He pressed the other's arm, and with his head bowed, left the cell.
      Fontelle in fact was waiting in the corridor, flanked by Paulette, who held a covered dish, and one of the older boys, that skinny one who was called Moustique. Her face was hard with anger and despair, but this was an expression the doctor could meet almost anywhere he turned these days. He exchanged a wordless nod with her. As he passed, he kissed his fingertips and touched them lightly to Paulette's cheek.
      In going down the steps of the building he encountered a figure familiar enough to make him reverse himself once he'd gone by.
      "Pardon?" he called. "Mais...."
      The other man turned in the light of the doorway. "Indeed," he said. "I thought I knew you, yes, but I don't recall your name."
      It was Michel Arnaud, the doctor saw, but greatly changed. He had lost weight, his face was gaunt, and that odd trace of effiminacy had altogether vanished.
      "Antoine Hébert," he said. "I was your guest, this summer past, before the rising."
      Arnaud's eyes narrowed. "Yes, of course," he said. "I believe you are the one who killed my dog."
      "I believe you may have been the one who set the dog upon me," the doctor said.
      "I believe my wife had been a visitor to your room, that night before...."
      The doctor colored. "Yes, but all in innocence," he said. "She was ill and sought advice of my profession."
      "Is it so?" Arnaud said. "Well, let it be." On his lips appeared the sneering smile of his signorial amusement. "It was most extraordinary shooting, I must say, especially for a man of science. I compliment your marksmanship."
      "I regret the loss my markmanship occasioned you."
      "Think nothing of it," Arnaud said. "What brings you to this place?"
      "I came to visit Père Bonne-chance, the priest who had been wrongly accused."
      "Strange," Arnaud said. He twitched his cane; the doctor noticed it was a different one, twisted and black. "I am come on the same errand."
      "You know him? Then you must know he cannot have done the things they claim. He is a kind-hearted man and a true Christian, as I believe, and have seen."
      "Of course the whole affair will be cleared up soon enough," Arnaud said.
      "Do you believe so?"
      "I will vouch for him myself," Arnaud said firmly. His smile was thinner than the doctor remembered, though his arrogance seemed only slightly diluted.
      "Well, then," the doctor said. "And Madame your wife? I hope she is well? Is she still in the city?" Of a sudden he felt himself remiss, not to have called on Madame Arnaud, but then the woman rather unnerved him.
      Arnaud twitched his cane. "Yes, she is here, and well enough."
      "Please convey my greetings to her," the doctor said, and went his way.
      That night he took an early supper with Captain Maillart and some other young officers, but excused himself directly the meal was over. Chez Cigny, he found a typical company assembled over coffee in the drawing room, but since his visit was meant to have a professional character, he remained on his feet and kept the exchange of compliments as brief as he might. He already knew the way to Claire's little room under the eaves.
      She was sitting up in bed, working on some piece of sewing by the light of the small lamp. The small round window was dark, uncurtained; it reflected the doctor's lower body as he walked across the room. She looked up and smiled at him, not speaking. He took the work from her hands and looked at it: a little linen cap, trimmed in lace with lace strings to tie it under the chin; he had bought the material for her himself at the market in the Place d'Armes.
      The stitches were exceedingly fine and regular. He pinned the needle through the cloth and laid the cap on the table, between the lamp and a slender vase that held several pale yellow blossoms of an orchid, closed now for the evening and depending like raindrops from a single green stem. There was nothing else on the table but an expensive-looking snuffbox-- strange appurtenance for a woman in advanced pregnancy, the doctor thought, but no doubt it contained flower petals, or candy, perhaps. He drew a chair up to the bedside and asked her a number of medical questions, to which she responded carelessly. He lifted her arm to take her pulse.
      "What have you done all the day?" she said.
      The doctor was looking at his watch and counting. "I went to the cove," he said.
      "What did you do there?" Her eyes were closed, long black lashes shadowing her cheek.
      "I swam, and sat upon the beach...." Her image sharply appeared to him, naked and slender, graceful and erect, walking slowly out into the still water as if all unaware that it was not her natural element. He cast about for something else to tell her.
      "I sat so quietly there the crabs came out to look at me. A little grey crab with his eyes on stalks came as near to me as I am to you. I winked at him and he put his eye down on one side...."
      He was still holding her by the wrist; of a sudden she reversed the grip and drew his arm up to her face. She kissed the point of the wound, then traced the length of the healing scar with her tongue's catlike tip. The doctor trembled. She was smiling, her eyes still closed. He was alive with desire for her, but with her condition so advanced-- it was impossible. Gently he disengaged his arm.
      A flicker of disturbance crossed her face and her eyes opened. She caught his hand again and moved it to the high rise of her belly.
      "No," she said, as he stiffened to withdraw. "Only feel him."
      She dragged up the skirt of her nightgown under the sheet, tucking it up beneath her swollen breasts, and shifted his hand against her drum-tight skin. Something bulged into his palm and rolled away: a foot, an elbow maybe.
      "Does he hurt you?"
      The doctor lowered his head and flattened his ear against her belly. The skin was very smooth and warm. Listening for a second heartbeat, he closed his eyes. The susurra of her inner currents recalled for him the sound of ocean licking on the shore. When he opened his eyes again he saw Isabel Cigny standing in the doorway, looking down on them with an ironical smile. He sat up sharply, jostling against the table. The orchid shivered in the vase.
      Madame Cigny remained where she was, one hand on the doorframe, her expression fixed. She seemed disposed neither to speak or to leave them in privacy. The doctor cleared his throat.
      "Best that you sleep now," he said, in a quasi-professional tone. He stroked his fingers briefly across Claire's forehead, then reached to lower the wick of the lamp.
      When he stood up, Madame Cigny moved out of the doorway. He followed her down the turning of a stair, into a room he'd never seen before. It was small and close, the windows curtained, fabric hangings covering the walls. He noticed a low daybed of the sort Claire had kept in the rooms she occupied before the riots, this one covered with a fringed silken shawl. As Madame Cigny did not sit down, he also remained standing.
      "The patient is well, I trust?" she said.
      "To the best of my estimation."
      "You are a most attentive physician. I would hope to secure your services to myself," she smiled, "should I be so misfortunate as to lose my health."
      "Why madame, your health is radiant," the doctor said perfunctorily.
      "You are kind," Madame Cigny relaxed her manner slightly. She caught her lower lip in her top teeth and released it to a little blush.
      "My friend," she said, "believe me, I know everything you must be suffering at such a time as this--"
      "I don't think I understand you," said the doctor. Before he could quite complete the sentence, she had slipped within his boundary. He overbalanced, dropping backward onto the daybed. This was sheer surprise, for her weight was nothing, she was not half the size of Claire. Her mouth had opened his, her cool tongue darted and fluttered like the hummingbird. He felt her nails on the back of his neck. Her other hand had opened his trousers all unaided; the doctor was astonished at this dexterity. She cupped his testicles as though she'd weigh them, then milked his member upward with a languid, confident stroke. The doctor tore his mouth from hers, so as to moan. With that she sat up and away from him. He opened his eyes and moved to reach for her, but she was prim, unruffled, the cunning hands neatly folded in her lap.
      "There is something you must know," she said. "Who marries a black woman becomes black. Do you understand it?"
      The doctor stared. She stretched out her hand and flicked the head of his penis with her middle nail. It rebounded, ticking back and forth like the wand of a metronome.
      "Be careful how far you are led by ce monsieur-la," she said. "He is not always a wise instructor." She smiled at him, crisply, distantly, stood up and smoothed her skirts and left the room.
      The doctor sagged back on his elbows. His breathing echoed off the masked walls of the room like the sound of a saw on a barrel. He waited for his erection to subside but it would not. After all, it was a stupid thing; thus far Madame Cigny was absolutely right. When a couple of minutes had gone by with no change in his condition, he crammed it back into his breeches and left the house without bidding goodbye to anyone.

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