"All Souls Rising," The Writer's Cut

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell 1992

First published in Elvis In Oz
Edited by George Garrett and Mary Flinn, (University Press of Virginia, 1992)


      According to Chabron, this uniform was the personal gift of Bonaparte to Toussaint's second son. Placide was presented with another like it, on the same occasion, but no longer wears it.
      The eighth and last of the party looks a miscellany of ill-assembled and badly chosen parts, being overly tall, gangly, poorly proportioned and clumsy in all respects, all thumbs and elbows. His neck is elongated, with a busy Adam's apple the size of a garden spade, and above, his head appears ridiculously small. He rolls his eyes, and stutters when he speaks, and his outsized, longfingered hands creep about all over his person like great agitated spiders the while. This singular creature is Toussaint's valet, known by the fanciful appellation of Mars Plaisir. For the moment, he cannot practice his intended vocation, since Toussaint is strictly sequestered from all this retinue, not permitted to see any of his retainers or even any member of his family. A pointless severity, I should think, yet I would willingly be deprived of the attentions of a Mars Plaisir. In almost any European village I would expect a creature such as he to be set upon and stoned to death.

June 25, 1802, Shipboard.
      Last night, in the cabin, Chabron raised his head from the sag of his hammock, to relay to me a curious remark he had heard made to Savary by Toussaint when he came aboard. A continuation of our earlier conversation, he may have thought it. I was surprised by the accuracy with which he affected to remember the sentences:
      En me reversant, on n'a abattu à Saint-Domingue que le tronc de l'arbre de la liberté des noirs; il poussera par les racines, parce qu'elles sont profondes et nombreuses.
      I could not say why Chabron chose to repeat to me this tit-bit. Perhaps he thought to impress me with his having been privy to conversations of the... notorious, if not precisely the great. I found, however, that I was moved by Toussaint's words, futile and vainglorious as they may have been. But it seemed unwise to show any admiration, considering the creole's unfailing contempt for any pretension of the blacks. I thought for a moment of the part I had to play before I spoke.
      "Who taught this gilded nigger such fine phrases?"
      Chabron vouchsafed no reply to this. He snorted once, a laugh perhaps, and turned his face back to the wall.

June 27, 1802, Shipboard.
A great many flying fish were seen today, running alongside the ship and in the same direction. They will launch themselves from the height of a billow, and can fly or glide a remarkable distance on their translucent wings, which seem to whir, like the wings of a dragonfly. The big bluntnosed fish called dolphin follows them and preys upon them, and these our sailors try to catch, lancing at them with a long five-pointed spear. Several dolphin were caught in this fashion in the course of the forenoon. The living fish is rather beautiful for its color: gold, green, and blue in many shades, with a gleaming iridescence suggesting many other hues as well. But once taken from the water, these colors soon dull, and the dolphin dies. So too with any creature taken from its natural place.
      The meat of the dolphin is sweet and healthful, making a welcome change from salt meat and hard biscuit.
      To my son Robert, if you should read these pages in my absence, be guided by my precept rather than my example, undertake no reckless voyage or adventure, but trust to your own people, your own place.

June 28, 1802, Shipboard.
      I woke this morn much earlier than my accustomed hour-- could not return to sleep owing to the din of Chabron's snores-- and in taking a turn upon the deck I passed a small and unremarkable negro man standing at the stern and staring intently down into the water. He was under guard of a dragoon, yet I, my mind still obscured by sleep, walked by him without immediately understanding who it was that he must be. I believe it was the incongruity of his dress that prompted me to turn to him again: he wore a loose white shirt or smock, coarsely woven and open at the neck, over tight trousers from a military uniform, and a pair of high cavalry boots. There was a kerchief bound over his head, and I remembered hearing that Toussaint affected such a covering, not only in his déshabille, but often even on occasions of state.
      I stopped and stood at a few yards remove from him. He did not seem at all aware of my proximity. I suppose his keepers must have concluded to bring him up at an hour when he would be unlikely to encounter anyone on deck. Not knowing what to say to him, or if I ought to speak at all, I was silent for some minutes before inquiring, what it might be that he was so carefully regarding?
      And here the sentinel's attention abruptly returned to his charge, and he undertook to prevent our conversation, but I overrode him, repeating my question and adding to it, whether Toussaint was looking back toward the island of which he had lately been master, and whether he regretted it?
      At this, Toussaint turned half toward me, and looked at me with half a smile, but without immediately speaking. I suppose he must have gone a lengthy while without much benefit of human discourse. Still there was a sort of slyness, in that smile. His lips were full and heavy, his teeth long and yellow, he lacked an eye-tooth on the left side. The jaw long and slung far forward, stretching and lowering the deep oval of his face. His nose was long also and typically flat, but his forehead was high, and his eyes, with their yellowing whites, were large and expressive-- his best feature. All in all, a most arresting ugliness, and certainly not a face one would soon forget.
      He was smaller than I somehow had expected, standing no higher than my breastbone. His disproportionately long trunk was set on little bandy-legs-- undoubtedly he would appear to best advantage on horseback. Some grizzled hair appeared at his shirt's neck, and the grey pigtail hanging from under the kerchief was fastened with a bit of frayed red ribbon. I would have put him in the middle fifties. He was narrow-hipped and distinctly thin, though not to the point of frailty-- I could guess great strength remaining in his arms and his hands.
      He returned my looks, taking my measure also it may be, and then resumed his staring at the water.
      "Guinée," he said, but so softly I scarce caught the word at all.
      "Africa?" I said, with some surprise. Of course he was not looking in the right direction, but one would hardly expect him to be a master of geography, outside of the colony. He is himself a creole and I believe this must have been the first time he had ever been to sea. I found that my gaze was drawn after his; he continued to inspect the surfaces of the ocean for some time before he spoke. The sun had not yet risen, and the water looked steely, with a sharp steely glitter; I could not know whence it drew its light.
      "Guinée, on dit, se trouve en bas de l'eau." Still Toussaint kept his eyes fixed on the water.
      "But you are a Christian," I said, for I was again surprised, though it was not the first time I had heard of this belief. One often finds the slavers complaining of it-- how their new-bought slaves will fling themselves off the ships in droves, believing that they may pass beneath the ocean to regain their original homes in Africa.
      Toussaint glanced up at me with that same sly smile. "Bien sûr que je suis chrêtien," he said. "Mais j'aimerais voir l'Afrique tout de même."
      But at this juncture, M. Chabron quite suddenly appeared, fully dressed and disconcertingly alert, and desired me to come away with him at once. When I demurred, he gripped me by the wrist, as if he meant to retain me there by force, while the sentinel, with small courtesy, conducted his charge away in the opposite direction.
      Unfortunate fellow, I should not suppose him likely ever to see Africa-- not, at least, in this lifetime.

July 1, 1802, Shipboard.
      These past two days we have suffered through a gale. No genuine danger, I am assured, but much rain, and tearing winds, and heavy seas. I took some pride (and even more comfort) in the discovery that my mal de mer did not return.
      Toward the end of this bout of heavy weather we were hailed by a British merchantman, outward bound. There was an attempt to exchange letters, but the sea was too rough for the successful lowering of a boat.
      The weather is fair and warm today, but strangely I do not believe I feel quite so well as I did during the course of the storm. I suffer some slight pain in the joints, and a sort of ague, though not severe. I have broached the bottle of French brandy to warm me.

July 2, 1802, Shipboard.
      This even, going along the passage, I heard a voice coming from that cabin next but one, and (the sentinel having absented himself, perhaps to the jakes) I paused to listen. The occupant was reading in a loud sonorous voice, this passage from the end of Deuteronomy:

      And Moses went up from the plains of Moab under the mountains of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan.
      And all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim, and Manasseh and all the land of Judah, unto the utmost sea.
      And the south, and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm tress, unto Zoar.
      And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go thither.
      So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord.
      And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor, but no man knoweth his sepulchre unto this day.
      And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.
      And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days: so the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended.

      Here Toussaint stopped, and after a little period of silence began again but in a lower and less certain tone, a murmur unintelligible to me-- perhaps it was a prayer. This was for all the world like a regular church service, though with the one man playing the roles both of priest and communicant.
      Hearing a footfall on the ladder I hastened away, though after all, what had I to fear or conceal? I have looked for Toussaint on deck at all hours, but have never again met with him. If my approach has cost him his opportunity for air and exercise, I am sorry for it.
      My health continuing somewhat worse this day, the ague more frequent, and a sharpish pain in the belly. The brandy does not much relieve it.
      How I shall welcome the first sight of a European shore!

July 3
      Very ill today by what reason I know not. Worse pain in the stomach and in my joints. And a lack of clarity. When I dragged myself abovedecks the light was sharply painful to my eye (though the sky was clouded over) and the scene around me seemed distant, not fully real, like some poorly rendered drawing.
      Returned to my bunk I suffer fever and ague in swift succession. If I cover myself I soon break into a fever sweat and must throw off the blanket, whereupon I am racked with chills and must cover myself again, so continuing.
      With the ague I can scarce grasp the pen. With the fever I cannot clear my mind to write.
      The pain in my head is most severe. Difficulty swallowing also.

July 4
      I believe it is I am not certain of the date Have not left the cabin but an image of the ship's doctor, that buffoon, leaning over me, saying he had never met with a case such as mine following so many weeks at sea. As much as to declare his helplessness.
      Chabron, his face hovering behind the doctor's I saw the fear in his eyes he would not so willingly force his company upon me now.
      Ha! I wish I had not ever met a Frenchman.
      Feeling under the bunk for a lemon I could not discover the box. Is Chabron so base as to steal my food?

      Still at sea at any rate what would I not give to be on land any land now To wake is misery but I will gladly bear it to be spared the terrors of my dreams those horrors I know too well their source I have supped full with them

      why should I dream of Chabron holding my head and guiding it

      A basin at my bed's head w/black bile in it How it came there I know not there is a horrid stench it comes from me

      not so feverish now though the pain in my head is blinding and I feel very weak.... I feel my clarity come and go
      I put these words together like beads on a string to guide me though I don't know where they lead

      there on the island there are those who would make a string of stones or as readily of the bones of their own children I will not think of that not write it

      see words are like a cloud of biting insects which from a distance appears to have form and sense but coming nearer I discern that each is separate and has no relation to any of the others

      I could not say if it has been hours or days I believe my fever is worsening.

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