"All Souls Rising," The Writer's Cut

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell 1995

9 (b)

      "See the funny monkey," she said. The doctor squinted. Back there in a larger cage was a little spider monkey with a long tail and puffs of white hair at its cheeks. It chittered and wiggled its black fingers.
      "Allow me to make you a present of it," the doctor said, and reached into his pocket. Tullius flashed a grin and named a price, which the doctor paid without question. Claire began giggling at him as he lifted the cage by its wicker loop.
      "Oh, you are too rich," she said, laughing as if the thought amused her hugely. "You don't bargain." Before the doctor could answer she took his hand unconsciously and gave it a friendly squeeze across the knuckles and led him away from the stall. In the press of people he was forced back behind her, but she kept him in tow, her crooked forefinger linked his. Meanwhile the monkey's tiny hands thrust through the lattice and plucked at the fine hairs on his wrist. He kept his eye on Claire's head and the miraculously balanced basket. Her hair was done in a chignon, curving down clublike on the back of her neck, and caught in a fine web of gold thread. She was cutting diagonally across the square, toward the monumental fountain in the center, which displayed an image of the sun atop an Ionic column. When they reached it the doctor pulled her up and stopped to read the inscription.
      "They executed Ogéé, here," Claire said. "Chavannes aussi . . ."
      The doctor jerked his head up, but her expression was unreadable. She took his hand again and pulled him forward through the crowd, and he followed with no demurral, though his head was humming. He knew little of Ogé, except that he had raised an illorganized and unsuccessful rebellion last October, intended to force compliance with one of the inscrutable decrees from the metropole which seemed to guarantee some political rights for some of the mulattos. Events had proven him a fool, and his attempt had accomplished nothing or worse, but many said he had died bravely, under terrible torture, and here on this spot. The doctor watched Claire's chignon bobbing; she had not once looked back. By caste and color she would be Ogé,'s partisan, but reprisals against mulattos had been so vicious after the rebellion failed, here in Le Cap and everywhere, that who knew what she might be thinking? He knew just as well that his skin could not reveal to her his sentiments. So far as she could tell he might be a royalist, or one of the faction seeking independence or even an English protectorate for the colony, or the sort of scurvy revolutionist that had surfaced in the coastal cities in reponse to all the movements back in Paris. Or something altogether else; he supposed this last case was the truest. He did not think of letting go her hand.
      Claire lived in two rooms below the Place d'Armes; in fact it was not far at all from the inn where he was staying, and Crozac's stableyard. Much of her furniture was painted wickerwork, and there were a few pieces in mahagony, including a small cabinet which displayed some china bibelots from Europe, a wooden matrioshka doll, and several curious carvings that looked to be of local origin. The doctor set the monkey's cage down on a low table and followed her beckoning hand into the second room, where the first thing that caught his eye was rack on rack of extravagant clothing, filling half the space; the dresses ranged from European fashion to the sort of improvised garment she was wearing today. She laughed to see him so startled, and gathered a great mass of the clothes into herself, hugging them close and smiling with her cheek pressed against a carnation of multicolored fabric. The doctor blinked. There were two beds in the room, one ordinary, covered with a cinnamon Persian rug. The other was a low daybed, with head and footboards carved like a sleigh, but double-width. The doctor nodded as if to affirm something, he knew not what, and withdrew into her salon. Claire let the dresses fall back on their hangers. One slipped to the floor, but she ignored it, following him.
      The light was lowering, glaring in the window that overlooked the street, and reflecting back from the large mirror that hung on the opposite wall. Triangulated by the beams, the monkey scrambled in its cage, which allowed it little room to maneuver. Claire walked around the doctor and stooped to look at it. She closed one eye, then the other, back and forth. The monkey stopped what it was doing and stared at her.
      She smiled up at the doctor. "Oh, take him out," she said. "I want to hold him."
      His misgivings were insufficient to stop him from opening the door of the cage. A brown blur, the monkey raced up his arm and clawed its way to the top of his head. The doctor ducked and whirled around, but the monkey seized hold of his ears and held on desperately. Claire was laughing herself breathless, her head thrown back, while the doctor slapped at his head as if it had caught fire. The monkey gathered itself and sprang to the top of the rolled blind above the window, where it clung with all four paws, its head twisted around like an owl's to scream its indignation down at them.
      Claire doubled over, her laughter tailing off into gasps, then straightened up and caught her breath. The doctor reached for the monkey's dangling tail, but it twitched up out of reach immediately, and he stood with his arms akimbo, frowning. Claire undid the net from her chignon and shook her hair on her collarbone.
      "Let down the blind," she suggested.
      The doctor found the strings and worked them to unwind the roller, but the monkey walked the spool like an acrobat on a floating log;, and was still holding its position when the blind dropped to the sill. The doctor cast about for a cane or stick or something to dislodge it, but he couldn't see well in the suddenly darkened room. His ears were red where the monkey had mauled them.
      "Let him be." Claire's voice sucked down to its center like a whirlpool. "Let him stay there... for a little."
      The doctor turned in time to see her touch herself cunningly just above the breastbone. The cotton wrap came undone spontaneously and whispered to the floor. The necklace winked at him, her bare skin changed its surface like a leopard's coat as she moved forward under the white-hot dots and bars of light that leaked through the weave of the blind. Her bracelets softly belled together as she reached out, and wherever she touched him a piece of his clothing fell away as though cut with a hot knife.
      Now he understood the function of the daybed. He lay on his back, her hair curtaining him from the navel down. Its fringe moved on his belly in a slow caress. It was happening very slowly, and still at a speed he could not stop, but she stopped sharply, with a low hoarse cry, and swung her long ivory leg up and over him. He saw her eyes. Her lips, which looked so large and cushiony, were lively, muscular on his. Her skin was hot, and acidly tart. He seemed to feel none of her weight, but only a slow stroking movement, her nipples circling on his chest; maybe she was supporting herself on knees and elbows, or maybe she was levitating. Cell by cell he was being strained into her. He caught at her hips, the knob of bone at the small of her back, and bridged himself up and nearer.
      Their mouths pulled apart with an audible rip. He saw her eyes barred by her lashes, and heard her breathing over him, "Tournes-toi, vite, comme ça." With a lithe and powerful movement, she reversed herself and slid under him, agile as a stoat. Instantly they were engaged again, if they had ever come apart. He put his hand on the back of her neck and she flattened herself willingly against the sheet, clinging to the scrolled headboard with both her hands. Her mouth uttered some phrases of creole, then no words, while from the waist down she moved in ways his study of anatomy would not have led him to think possible. He watched her cheek flushing, her mouth bloom to a burning red as it spread against the fabric. A wave surged up and carried him high but instead of crashing down when it broke he went sailing away into space.
      Lying half across her back, he felt her heart pulsing toward his through his chest wall. He rested a little, then slipped to the inside of the bed, drew her over on her side and touched her face between his two hands. She looked at him, and curled her fingers around his wrists. Motes of gold swam in the brown swirl of her eyes. The cool rings of her bracelets pressed against his inner arm. He'd lost all sense of his identity; the last vestige of the personality he'd brought into the room eddied somewhere high above like a flake of ash from some great conflagration. Perhaps it had an eye, and watched the scene. He'd slipped his boundaries; there were capabilities in him he'd never known. This was vertigo. He might have slept a little. When he came to himself the light was slightly fading and Claire was up and wrapped in her sarong, slipping out the door and signaling him with a palm-down gesture to remain.
      He lay on his back, sweat drying on the small hairs of his stomach, and watched the dust flecks spinning in the planes of light that penetrated the window lattice. But he felt too alert to doze again, and besides, the mosquitos were beginning to come whining in. After a while he got up and put on his trousers and shirt. Barefoot, he padded into the other room. The monkey had got the curio cabinet open and was picking each piece for a close scrutiny and then dropping it to the floor; miraculously none had yet broken. With a quick occult movement, the doctor caught it by the furry nape of its neck. The monkey shrieked and screwed its head around but it couldn't reach to bite him. As he put it back in the cage he caught sight of himself in the mirror and smiled.
      Returning to the bedroom, he put his eye to a gap in the lattice over the window and looked into the inner courtyard of the block. Under the eave of the house was a clay oven and some iron cooking pots stacked beside a fire, which had burned down to coals under a layer of white ash. Claire hunkered on her heels by the fire, chattering with two black women in starched white headcloths, and stirring a pot with a long-handled spoon. Under her left arm sat a black hen with a red wattle, its eye glassily lidded, as if in a trance. The doctor watched her with admiration and a trace of envy too. He felt hollow, drilled out inside, a nameless vacancy that matched his dizziness. She could squat by the fire with the blacks or come into these pleasant rooms with him; she was more free.
      This thought was yet half-formed when he was distracted by the sight of a man in dandy dress approaching the cookfire from across the court. Claire laid down the pot and stood up smoothly from her heels to greet him. The hen cackled and struggled under her arm; she adjusted it and soothed it with little strokes along the length of its wings. Her back was to the doctor, and over her shoulder he could see the man's face; it was that same strange speckled mulatto he'd noticed before at his inn. He seemed angry, or somehow distressed. His hands moved before him in cramped imperious cuts, but his voice was too low for the doctor to make out, and beneath the suspension of his freckles his expression was very hard to read.
      Claire's voice rose to a sharp note. She stepped aside, closing her hand over the hen's head entirely, and whirled it around so that its own weight broke its neck. The black wings jerked convulsively as she tore the head right off with another twist, and directed the bright jet of blood into the courtyard. The man jumped back, while the black women cackled at him from around the fire. The doctor watched him stalk away, brushing irritably at spatters, real or imagined, on his fine clothes.
      In the other room he picked up the trinkets and rearranged them in the cabinet. The monkey chittered at him constantly; he supposed it wanted food. He went back to the daybed and stretched himself out, only long enough to clear his head, he thought, but he did sleep, and heavily. When he awakened it was dark and Claire was calling him to the table.
      She gave him oyster stew and roasted chicken stuffed with nuts and pineapple. There was a dish of spinach and two kinds of melon; she had a very creditable wine. The doctor ate with fervor. Some part of that emptiness he'd felt was hunger, so it seemed. He was coming back more and more to himself as he ate, but it was not altogether a pleasant sensation. Claire had eaten rather more lightly. She was slipping bits of chicken through the slats of the monkey's cage.
      "See how he eats," she said. "He's like a little man."
      Solemnly the monkey shredded chicken and fingered it into its small mouth. The doctor smiled awkwardly, beginning to feel himself uncomfortably apelike. He did not quite know how to manage the thing he thought must be expected of him.
      "I--" he began, and flapped his aimless hands around the table. "All this, everything, I should-- I'd like to...."
      Claire gave him a cool look. "We will be friends," she said. "You've done a thing for me already, the night we meant, and I remember it, comme tu vois." Their eyes connected; again the doctor felt the vertiginous depth of the self he didn't know. She smiled. "Of course, you may bring me presents if you like."
      The doctor scratched the back of his neck, unconsciously, where a mosquito must have bitten him. He was unsure if he was dealing with professional euphemism or something altogether apart from that. So far as his person was concerned he was without much illusion; he knew that he was prematurely bald, and pear-shaped (though stronger than he looked), that he had spent the greater part of his youth blinded to the world by his studies, that he had no conversation, that he was uninteresting to any woman he had ever met. Heretofore he had expressed his nature only through transactions much more plainly professional than this one.
      "To be sure, I approve of friendship," he finally said. He toyed with a melon rind, and went on without knowing that he would. "Who was that man I saw you with outside?"
      For just an instant, the barest glimpse, she looked as if she'd been stabbed with ice. Then she was laughing merrily as ever. "Oh, you are jealous," she said. "Bon ça." She rose and came around the table toward him. "I think you must have eaten and rested enough, then," she said. "Let's see how well you are restored."

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