"All Souls Rising," The Writer's Cut

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell


Continued ...

      "Have you gone mad?" Browne said. "We must get away from this place immediately."
      The doctor laid one of the loaded pistols back into the case where it was kept. The other he stuck into his belt.
      "Can you not hear me?" Browne said. "We must fly to save our lives."
      "The wicked flee when no man pursueth," the doctor observed. He sidestepped Browne in the doorway and went out through the front room. As he came onto the gallery he pulled his shirt tail out of his waistband, letting it hang loose to cover the pistol in his belt.
      A circle of blacks in the yard was engaged in splinting cane knives to bean poles, as he had instructed. The doctor smiled thinly to himself to recall where he had come by this notion. His old ankle injury was paining him a little. He felt the eyes of Browne and Delsart on him as he went walking out of the yard.
      He climbed the hill at such a good speed that he was soon sweating freely, but once he had passed the last coffee terraces and entered the jungle shade, the moisture turned cold on him, though he remained damp and humid. It was quiet beneath the forest canopy, only for the crying of the birds. He heard no drumming. The sounds of his breathing and his heartbeat seemed loud to him.
      Unsure of his purpose, he went along slowly climbing the steep slope. still soft and slippery underfoot. The mud was spotted here and there with the bright vermilion seeds of the bead trees. The doctor came to vine-covered rocks that edges a shallow ravine; in the bed of it a slender stream went singing down the hill. He continued, climbing alongside it.
      Toward the top of the ridge was a slash in the jungle where some big gommier trees had been logged out by Thibodet. Skirting the edge of it, the doctor saw that it was later than he had thought, for the light of the sun was sharply slanting. Somewhere nearby was a larger stream and he could hear the rush of the water, though he did not see it. All the air was dazed with moisture. He kept going, circling the cut. Never before had he climbed so high; plantation work had allowed him no time for such explorations.
      When he crested the ridge he found one of the flint-paved Carib roads that ran along the backbone of the mountain. Because he had not expected it to be there the discovery quite unnerved him and he left the road immediately, although it would have been easier going, of course, if he had kept to it. It was then that he noticed that all birdsong had ceased. Only, down below him now, a big darkwinged macaw went gliding across the cut as silently as a hunting owl.
      The doctor moved toward a rock face which had been hollowed out a little by the rush of water and was overhung with vines that hung as straight and evenly as rain. There was just enough space behind the vines for him to stand erect. He waited, the damp of the rock face chill against his back. From this vantage he could admire a pale orchid which sprouted near a rotting log, white drooping blossoms strung in a row like harness bells.
      He took the shard of a mirror from his pocket and cupped it in his hand. Amid the wrinkles of his palm his single eye gazed back at him. He turned his wrist and the mirror swam plaid with the muted jungle colors. Why this movement gave him comfort he could not have said.
      The first two men appeard in the slanting shafts of reddened light, below and to the doctor's right; he had not heard or seen them come. They each wore breeches of army issue and one had a shirt and the other was barechested, black skin gone coppery in the crepuscular glow. Both their chests were crossed with straps of cartridge boxes and they both carried muskets at the ready and they went quietly carefully on their splayed bare feet, over the slippery grade. He saw five more men filtering around the edges of the cut, then ten, fifteen. All was silence still, until from above him he heard the tramp of many marching feet. He surmised they would still be following the Carib road, which had led them out of the secret heart of the mountains.
      A black man in the uniform of a captain in the Spanish Army appeared quite near the deadfall log and the white orchid. He was emptyhanded, though he wore two pistols in his belt. He turned and explored the fringe of vines with his attentive eyes before he made his way further down, cautiously over the difficult footing. The doctor noticed that he had a pair of high-topped boots slung over his shoulder, though he went barefoot like the other men. Of course, that was altogether like him. It was the uniform and the unfamiliar captain's hat that had delayed his recognition.
      The doctor parted the vines and stepped into the clear. First he whistled, then called out.
      The barefoot captain pivoted on the ball of his foreward foot, reversing his direction as he threw himself down; he'd drawn a pistol as he spun and now he lay propped on his elbows, training the barrel precisely on the center of the doctor's chest. The doctor spread his hands and waggled the fingers slowly, the mirror shard still caught in his left palm. Quite suddenly, Riau broke into a smilel and sat back on his heels. His hat had fallen off when he threw himself down, so that he looked more like himself as the doctor had known him.
      Doctor Hébert relaxed and took a couple of rapid steps forward, so much too quickly that his feet shot out from under him and he went sliding down the grade, plowing twin tracks through the mud with his blunt heels. He rolled half over and stopped himself by catching hold of a sapling's base, fetching up beside Riau, who was now laughing heartily and pounding the flat of his thigh with his free fist.
      "Mwê môtré sa," Riau said, prying at the doctor's left hand.
      "What?" Unconsciously the doctor had closed his fingers over the mirror shard when he fell. He let Riau unfold them, so the mirror's wink appeared.
      "Oh," said Riau. "There is your ouanga."
      "My ouanga?"
      "It is the eye you see to shoot with."
      Riau smiled, but the doctor saw he was not joking. He shrugged, and put the mirror in his pocket.
      "How did you come here?" he said, wringing some wet mud from his fingers.
      "Following my General Toussaint."
      "Your general?"
      Riau pointed, back toward the rock face where the doctor had cached himself. At the height of the bluff a number of other footsoldiers had materialized. The Carib road must have continued just behind them, for there was Toussaint, astride a gigantic black stallion and wearing a Spanish general's hat resplendent with a curling ostrich feather plume. The doctor scraped some mud from the back of his neck, then tentatively waved. Toussaint swept the hat from his head and bowed to him from the saddle.

      It was agreed that the doctor would go ahead with Riau and some few men of the advance guard to prepare the atelier so that the slaves would not panic, when the main force arrived. Fifteen minutes later the men began filing into the yard. Descending the jungle slope, they had fanned out, but once they reached the coffee terraces they reformed into a column and came lockstep and two by two, through the coffee trees and then the fields of cane. In the yard they regrouped into squares, each division with its officer stiffly standing at attention, Riau, Dessalines, Moise, and Charles Belair. Toussaint dismounted and stood beside the doctor, relaxed but perfectly erect. His military bearing seemed as natural to him as his good horsemanship.
      They were reviewing the troops, the doctor perceived. His own spine stiffened. The Thibodet slaves stood in a loose group, round-eyed and silent.
      "You'll camp here?" the doctor said.
      Toussaint inclined his head.
      "Above the provision grounds is a likely spot." The doctor waved his arm. "We had been clearing land for a new planting."
      "Bon ça," Toussaint. He called an order in a louder voice. His officers saluted him and the men spun the thread of their column once more and began marching out the opposite end of the yard. In the corral, a single ewe kept bleating piteously. As Toussaint's soldiers marched out, the Thibodet slaves began to laugh and gesticulate and chatter among themselves.
      "So the work has been going forward here?" Toussaint said.
      "Yes, we have enjoyed enough tranquility so far...." Was it guilt the doctor felt? After all it was forced labor.
      Toussaint nodded, noncommittally, stroking his clean-shaven jaw. "Show me, then."
      The sun had fallen behind the mountain and the light was blue. The doctor paused to ask Delsart to contribute some yams and a barrel of tafia to the cookfires of Toussaint's encampment. The men were carrying supplies of their own, so Habitation Thibodet would not immediately be picked clean. Delsart went off to execute the order.
      "You know," the doctor said, "I hoped it would be you."
      "You hoped?" said Toussaint.
      "When we first heard the drumming...."
      "You heard no drumming from us, I think," Toussaint said. "That would be Biassou- - but he is still a long way off, behind that mountain."
      The doctor raised his head and looked toward the eastern peaks, though now it was perfectly silent there. Above, the first and brightest stars pricked pinholes in the violet sky.
      The doctor escorted Toussaint around the compound, showed him the hospital, the other projects under way. In response to his occasional questions he explained his plan to resume the manufacture of white sugar. He told how gravely affairs had failed during Thibodet's illness, when both the slaves and crops had been neglected and ill-used, and too many decisions left to the drunken and debauched gérant. He explained how he had sought to rectify these abuses, by building the infirmary and allowing for adequate food and rest, by denying Delsart of the whip in all but the most desperate cases-- and since these policies were instituted there'd been no desperate cases.
      It was dark when they came to the cane mill again. The doctor lit a candle stub and held it high, while Toussaint explored the cane press. Then they went together into Browne's little office. The Englishman was absent-- at his supper, no doubt. The little ram had been forgotten there; when they came in it jumped up and began bleating. Toussaint picked it up and it soon quieted.
      The doctor found himself recounting his suspicions of Browne, describing the losses he'd been able to discover. As he spoke he reached outside the window to draw the shutter to. In the corral, the ewe was still bleating but the shutter muffled the sound when it was closed.
      "Yes." Toussaint had seated himself on Browne's accustomed stool. His hands were folded over the lamb, which nuzzled at his finger. "It's often so. And from that, many wrongs will come. And when the gérant drives the slaves to make a secret profit for himself as well as for the master...."
      "I don't suspect Delsart," the doctor said. "Not in this matter. He is interested in wine and women but not money."
      Toussaint leaned back and stared abstractedly into a cobwebbed corner of the ceiling.
      "You know," he said, "if all the white men did as you, these troubles would have long since ended."
      "And now?"
      Toussaint looked directly at the doctor. The whites of his eyes had yellowed with his age. "You've seen my men. What do you think?"
      "What do you mean?"
      "The Spanish King has said that they are free if they will fight for him. Do you believe that they are free?"
      The doctor looked at Toussaint's hands, long fingers lightly folded over the lamb's thin wool; beneath the wool the fragile skin showed pinkly. The candle cast a shadow over the black man's face. He thought that he might ask Toussaint if he were himself a prisoner of the Spanish authorities at this point, for Toussaint's arrival did represent the invasion of a foreign power..... He recalled Monsieur Panon, whose lecture had sought to locate blacks somewhere in the chain of being between mules and men. There was Michel Arnaud, that night the doctor had first met him, releasing his cane and catching it just before it escaped hhis grasp. He remembered holding Claire's baby soon after it was born and how hungrily the infant had searched him with its eyes, and he thought that it would be absurd to say that all men were born to freedom. In his perigrinations around this place he had often felt as helpless as a newborn.
      "I believe they are as free as I am," the doctor said.
      "Ah," said Toussaint. "That will do."
      The doctor exhaled and stretched out his legs. If it had been a test, he must have passed it.
      "There is a woman in Le Cap," he said. "Also a child. I had thought to go for them, and bring them here. What do you think?"
      "Yes." Again Toussaint lowered his head, perhaps to hide his smile. "I think you might be free enough for that."
      They returned the lamb to the ewe in the corral, then strolled to the encampment where they ate with the other men around the fires. When they had done, the doctor offered Toussaint the hospitality of the grand'case, but the other declared that he would stay with his men. The doctor bade him good night and returned to the house alone through the gathered darkness.
      As he lay in his low bed he could hear singing from the camp. Some of the Thibodet slaves had brought up instruments they had made, and there was drumming now. Although Toussaint suppressed vodûn among his troops, there would be an impromptu calenda danced tonight. The doctor thought that on the morrow, he must give the slaves a day's congé.
      His candle sputtered low in the stick, but he did not extinguish it; there was not enough of the stub to bother saving. He was very weary, but the thought of Claire had quite electrified him, so that his legs were tingling under the thin sheet. He closed his eyes and pictured a black fig, slightly wrinkled, pendulous and ripe to bursting. The fig would be cool in his palm's hollow, and he would hesitate, considering how to enter it.
      When he opened his eyes, Zabeth was standing in the doorway. She smiled and at once hid her face against her shoulder, while with both hands she raised the hem of her white shift to her neck, so that she showed herself to him entire. Her nipples and the soft brush of her nether hair were like dark chocolate layerd onto light.
      Presently the doctor said, "No, no, my dear-- you must go to the dancing." When he opened his eyes again, Zabeth had gone. He smiled weakly, touching his lips with his tongue. She offered herself so to him because she was a wellmeaning person, and she wanted to show him a kindness. So far he had always declined the gift. Sometimes he thought that it would be wrong to hold Delsart to a higher standard than he himself could attain. Sometimes he gave himself another reason.
      When the candle drowned in its molten pool of wax, the fig was firmly in his hand. He required neither knife nor nail, only stroked the glossy darkness of the skin with the balls of his thumbs; gladly it opened itself to him. The black skin parted to disclose the creamy whiteness of the flesh within, but still he would go deeper, deeper still, to reach in the teardrop heart of the fruit the wet red viscera it held. How strange it was that a fig tree should also bear red flowers with those thrusting tongues! His dissection needed no instruments; he would pursue it further. When he had passed entirely through the body of the fruit, his being would be washed in the colorless light of another soul.

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