Maîtresse Erzulie

From the clifftop retreat Arnaud had prepared, Claudine could still sense the curve of the earth below, though most of the horizon was blotted out by smoke. She sat on a stone with her ankles crossed, looking out beyond the gate of Habitation Arnaud, over the charcoal expanse of the Plaine du Nord. The light sound of water running from the spring purled on, behind and to her left. The crossing of her ankles brought her lean shanks wide, stretching the fabric of her skirt and framing the lower loop of a long chain of blue beads, which wrapped twice around her neck before releasing its last length to her kneecaps. The beads were a deep, dense blue, and very shiny and hard, like polished stone, or pottery fiercely fired and glazed; she did not know which.

She shuttled them across her lap with her fingers, one by one, with little clicks. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessèd art thou among women… And there she stuck, her mind refusing to advance the words of the prayer. She did not know where the beads had come from, or knew it only by hearsay. By hearsay and by her fatigue and the marks on her body she knew that two days before, when the fighting began on the road from Limbé, a spirit had mounted into her head and ridden her down to the front gate of Habitation Arnaud. In the open gateway she had danced and shouted and gibbered and torn great chunks of earth from the ground to smear into the scratches she’d clawed on her cheeks. Then the serviteurs must have brought the beads, to adorn the spirit manifest in her.

She had been hard ridden that day, she thought. For a night and a day and another night, she’d lain abed, entranced at first, and later sleeping from exhaustion. This morning before dawn she’d risen, herself again, and slipped from the house to climb the cliff wall, still attired as she had been two days before and wearing the beads to complement that clothing.

Through the smoke, the rising sun appeared like an egg yolk scorching in a neglected skillet. Since yesterday the fires had died, but the smoke still roiled. Yet Habitation Arnaud remained green to the gateway where she had stood, and the gate itself, though built of wood, was still intact. The soldiers’ fight had rolled away down the road toward Le Cap, never entering here, and the revolting field hands who were burning all the cane had stopped at the hedges that marked Arnaud’s borders.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessèd art thou among women…

Claudine stood up and moved toward the path, the longest loop of the bead chain swinging low to knock against her shins. As she began her descent, the boys Etienne and Dieufait appeared, fore and aft of her. Etienne led a little brown kid on a string behind him, and Dieufait skipped backward ahead of her, smiling, beckoning, gesturing toward various rocks and roots that might have tripped her as she went down.

As she emerged on the level ground behind the grand’case, she caught sight of Cléo, who had just finished sweeping out the back gallery and was throwing out some grain to the hens that had gathered expectantly on the packed dirt. Cléo noticed her too and called out that coffee was served on the front gallery and that Claudine must come and take some nourishment, but Claudine simply shook her head and walked around the house. She glanced back once and saw Fontelle’s face above the gallery rail and felt just slightly disconcerted; when had Fontelle come?

In the dooryard of the little case beside the chapel, Marie- Noelle was stirring up small sweet potatoes in a chaudière above a small charcoal fire, the baby gurgling, propped on a board by the doorsill. The curtain was tied back from the door, so that Claudine could see that Moustique was not inside. Briefly she returned Marie-Noelle’s smile and went on, around toward the rear of the chapel. Etienne and Dieufait were capering more widely around her now that they had more room to do so. Etienne’s kid got away from him, but he pursued and arrested it by stamping his bare foot on the trailing string.

In former times the central compound here had been clear and bare to the hedges, but since it had first been laid to waste in ninety-one, a growth of bamboo had encroached along the path of a shallow ditch toward the back side of the chapel, and Claudine had prevailed upon Arnaud to let it stand. Now the tall stalks of bamboo had been bowed and bound to form a tonnelle, a greenly arbored passageway of such a height that Claudine scarcely had to lower her head to enter it. The little boys stopped outside; they were shy of this place, on ordinary days, when the drums did not invite all comers inside it. Distantly Claudine heard the voice of Marie-Noelle calling Dieufait to come back to the cookfire. She went on, deeper into the green shade.

After a dozen yards, the arboreal space widened, like a bulb, and in its center opened to the sky. A little cairn of stones stood by the entrance. Round the edges were hung gourds and bottles and bundles of herbs, and several thatched shelters covered small shrines containing vases and bowls or small plaster figures of saints or, in one, a playing card pinned to a tree.

Moustique was here, moving with quiet delicacy in the shadows, serving one altar and another with flowers, crushing sweet herbs into a bowl of water. Claudine passed him, without speaking, and went directly to a niche devoted to the Mater Dolorosa, roughly painted on a scrap of board. For a moment she hesitated, regarding the sorrowful blue madonna, whose weak hand clasped the blade of an enormous sword, the point driven deep into her open heart. Then she unwound the beads from her neck and carefully coiled them around a white candle, affixed by its own wax to a flat rock before the icon.

“That necklace was offered to Erzulie Jé Rouge.” Moustique had slipped up silently behind her, near enough she thought she felt his warm breath on her neck.

“So it may have been,” Claudine said. “But it is I who give it to Erzulie Fréda.”

She turned to face him. Moustique was the taller—still a tall and gangly youth, who bent on her a child’s expression of puzzlement.

“Was it Erzulie Jé Rouge who turned the war from our gate?” she asked him.

“It was she who danced in your head that day, Madame,” Moustique said.

“Yes,” said Claudine. “But in the spirit of peace and harmony, I give the beads to Fréda now.”

She trailed her fingers through the bowl of water, and let a few drops fall on the cairn as she went out. A few steps into the tonnelle, she turned.

“Your mother is here, this morning.”

“Yes,” Moustique said. From his face Claudine could see that this was no news to him. Fontelle must have been here for a day or more, then. The force of Claudine’s possession had done away with her memory of that arrival.

The Lord is with thee. Blessèd art thou among women, and blessèd is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us…

At the outer mouth of the tonnelle she stopped. A black bore hole of pain had opened in the spot between her navel and her pubes. She waited, swallowing spasmodically, until it passed, and then stepped out into the light. Dieufait and Etienne were waiting for her there, each chewing a small round sweet potato in its skin.

“N’alé lekol,” Dieufait said. We are going to school.

“We are,” Claudine said, and led them to the arbor by the church.

Near two dozen children waited for her in that shade, most too small for field work, with a few older ones for whom Claudine had obtained special dispensation, because of their aptitude for learning. She had devised a reading and writing lesson based on the first few verses of the twentieth chapter of John, where Mary Magdalen discovers the stone rolled away and the cave empty where the body of Jesus had lain. She had meant to push her students forward to the moment of joy, but the children’s reading went haltingly and their writing wanted more correction than ever, so that at the end of their time Claudine was left stranded with the Magdalen, weeping over the empty sepulchre, and lost to herself at that moment. When she raised her head, she saw the children looking at her kindly. They felt her pain, though without understanding it; could they know how the one hollow echoed the other?

The noon bell tolled. The children scattered to their houses. Claudine went to the well and filled two large buckets and raised them on a pole across her shoulders. Shuddering a little under the weight, she began to trudge toward the cane fields. From the pole of the sky, the sun weighed down on her like hot iron.

Presently most of the children rejoined her. They were bringing food to their fathers and brothers in the field, and some of them also carried water. Etienne and Dieufait flanked Claudine; each of them caught hold of a bucket handle and took a little of the weight from her load. In the past she had chased them away when they tried to do it, but Moustique had told her that the boys were moved by their own spirits to this action, and that the value of her penance was not diminished by their taking a small share of the burden.

They followed the carter’s path cut through the cane till they came to a place where a wagon stood half loaded with fresh stalks. Claudine served out the water as the men received their food. The full two hours of midday repose would now be observed, as mandated by the old Code Noir, but most of the men did not return to their houses, remaining here instead, in the shade of the fruit trees bordering the carrés of cane. They ate, then dozed or played with their children. Claudine thought that they seemed happy and at peace.

All was in equally good order at the mill when she passed that way with her empty buckets. The chief refiner brought her some clear syrup in a white saucer, and she shrugged off her yoke and stuck a finger in to taste it. The stuff was sweet, certainly; she knew little of the process.

“It is good,” she said.

“Yes, Madame,” said the refiner. Then, with a slight frown of concern, “Have you news of Monsieur?”

“No,” said Claudine. She’d had no news of Arnaud for many days. In fact she had scarcely thought of him.

“What news have you?” she said.

The refiner looked at her uncertainly. Claudine gestured at the haze of smoke that hovered on their borders.

“Ah,” he said. “The French have landed soldiers, to make us slaves again. That is what they say.” Then, inexplicably, his glossy black face split into a brilliant smile.

Raising her buckets, Claudine stepped out of the mill and looked down the trail which led to the patch of shrubbery where Arnaud’s distillery was concealed. In the ordinary course of things she did not visit any works except the cane fields, but today she felt the impulse to see over everything and verify that all was well. Yet it was ten years now since she had tasted rum, or any liquor. She’d leave the distillery to itself.

Leaving her buckets at the well, she walked up the slope to the grand’case, her legs rubbery beneath her. Cléo received her on the gallery and pressed to her temples a cool damp cloth, then touched it to the base of her skull and the pulse points on her wrists. The table was laid for the midday meal, Fontelle already seated there. Grilled fish, a plate of rice cooked with chopped carrots, a bowl full of fresh peas. Claudine picked at her food and quizzed Fontelle on her recent doings: she had come down from Le Cap a week ago, to visit her new grandson. She had seen Arnaud at the Cigny house there. A French fleet stood outside the harbor, but Fontelle had left before its mission was made known. She had meant to go on to visit her daughter at Ennery before now, but with all the unrest in the region, she did not know…

Claudine assured her she was welcome to remain at Habitation Arnaud for as long as she liked, or needed to. She could tell that Fontelle had responded to her questions before, but she did not seem to object to repeating the answers. Coffee was served, but Claudine declined it. Cléo came with her to the bedroom and helped her to loosen her clothes and let down her hair.

“Why are you kind to me?” Claudine said and thrashed her head against the pillow, the unbound hair spreading out its faded color and the strands of white. Cléo looked at her with a grave reserve, as she always did when this question was put. Then, to Claudine’s surprise, she sat down on a stool beside the bed and took her hand, the one that lacked a finger.

“I was in the camps at Grande Rivière,” she said. “When I left this place, in the time of the first rising.”

“In ninety-one,” Claudine said.

“Yes, in ninety-one.” Cléo stroked the top of her hand absently. “There were many white prisoners there. I took a young blanche to be my servant. Each day I sent her to the river to wash my clothes, scrub them and beat them and dry them on the stones. She had pretty hands when she began, small and fine. They were bleeding the first day. Of course she had never done such work. She’d had a slave to brush her hair and another to tie her shoes. I slapped and beat her for every fault. One would not use a dog so, nor a mule.”

“Yes,” said Claudine, who was familiar with such abuses from her own practice of them in the past. “And then?”

“Biassou took her for his whore,” Cléo said, with a distant smile. “One of the many he took so. Day by day and week by week. Her hands were ruined by that time, but Biassou was not looking at her hands. I never saw her again after that.”

“What was her name?”

“I have forgotten, if I ever knew,” Cléo said. “But in my heart I called her by your name, Madame.”

Gently she laid Claudine’s hand on the sheet and stood. “You must not torment yourself,” she said. “Rest now.”

When Cléo had shut the door behind her, Claudine got up and knelt at her bedside and pressed her forehead against the mattress.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessèd art thou among women, and blessèd is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death…

This time the prayer completed itself without a pang. She stretched out on the bed again. In her mind’s eye, before she slept, she thought she saw the comforting face of the Père Bonne-chance.

The air had changed when she awoke; a breeze was blowing, cool and moist. She got up and dressed herself and pinned up her hair, a little awkwardly. When she met Cléo in the hall she asked for Fontelle and was told that she had gone down to Moustique’s house to see the baby. Claudine walked in that direction. The burning smell of that morning was much fainter. The breeze came scudding low across the yard and a bank of purple clouds was building to the north.

She found Fontelle seated on a low chair beneath a young lime tree, holding the baby on her lap. Marie-Noelle was sweeping the dooryard with a broom of split palm leaves. Claudine sat down on a cloth spread on the ground by Fontelle’s chair.

“Oh, he is thriving, is he not?” she said.

Fontelle simply smiled down on the baby.

“Do you not think he resembles his grandfather?” Claudine said.

“Oh no,” Fontelle said. “He is very dark.” She shot a glance at Marie-Noelle, who was of the purest African stock.

“But look here.” Claudine reached for the baby, who accepted the change without protest at first. “Look at the nose, and the shape of the eyes… I do wish that the Père Bonne-chance could be here to see him.”

“Perhaps he has some way to see him all the same.” Fontelle crossed herself and lowered her head. The baby mewed and kicked against the front of Claudine’s dress. Marie-Noelle propped her broom against the house wall and came to take him up. She knelt on the cloth and undid his swaddling and prodded his soft belly till he gurgled and smiled. As she withdrew her hand, his little penis rose enough to send out a bright jet of urine that arced to the cloth between his legs.

At this the three women shared a laugh, and Marie-Noelle moved him away from the damp spot and began to rub him down. But Claudine was distracted by Etienne and little Dieufait, who came running in a flurry of excitement, calling, “Madame, Madame, come quickly, there is someone at the gate.”

The party escorting the sons of Toussaint Louverture had left Héricourt in good time that morning. As no one had been able to obtain any exact information about the Governor-General’s whereabouts, they were on their way to Ennery, as previously planned. French soldiers had secured the main road, as Leclerc had claimed, though Christophe and the Second Demibrigade had left a wake of ruin in their retreat, and whatever force had opposed Leclerc’s and Hardy’s advance from the Baie d’Acul had left behind another trail of ash.

Arnaud’s heart sank as he rode through it all. He’d seen his own holdings laid to waste before. In ninety-one it had all been burned—not a stick left standing and scarcely one stone still mortared to another. He’d found a scrap of mirror in that bowl of cinders and had not been able to know his own face.

Now he rode in tandem with Bertrand Cigny. They did not speak—there was little conversation that morning among anyone in the group. Arnaud and Cigny had never been close. Cigny was generally tight-lipped and irritable. His wife deceived him so prolifically that he found no friends among other men. Yet today Arnaud felt a certain sympathy for him. They would soon be parting ways—Cigny had determined to investigate the state of his own plantation at Haut de Trou. Somewhat grudgingly, the young Captain Cyprien had agreed to detach two hussars to see him that far. Arnaud himself, who had the shorter distance to go, would travel alone once he diverged from the main road. For his security he had two colossal cavalry pistols, a short sword, and the speed of his horse, which was a good one.

At the riverside before Limbé, he bade good-bye to his companions and urged them brusquely on. A gang of French infantry was still repairing the bridge that had been pulled down during the engagement here a few days before, and those who were going on were obliged to ride along the bank for a few hundred yards to find a place to ford. Arnaud watched till they’d crossed the stream, then turned his horse into the lane beside it.

Much burning here, either side of the way. Arnaud’s tongue thickened in his throat. It was possible that Claudine had survived, even if the plantation had been sacked. She might even have gone off with the rebels, as all Arnaud’s retainers had done the other time.

The bole of a fallen palm tree barred his way, and Arnaud got down to shift it. It was green wood and heavy, difficult to budge. He was puffing and sweaty when he scrambled back onto his horse. Around the next bend of the road was another. Arnaud dismounted, cursing aloud; the sound of his own voice rather startled him. This time he noticed the fresh ax marks on the stump of the felled tree.

Ambush. A bird shot twittering over the road. Arnaud looked back, and out of his fear there came a gang of blacks advancing on foot along the line of his retreat. He did not stop to number them, but gained the saddle with a vault, not troubling with a stirrup. His horse cleared the tree trunk with an excellent jump. Arnaud pressed into a gallop. There was another tree; they jumped that too. The ash-strewn fields went whizzing by. Arnaud felt a rush of sporting excitement. Around the next bend of the lane was a still more complicated barricade; tree trunks laid in a crisscross pattern, branches sticking up like spikes. With his eyes streaming from the wind, Arnaud could not clearly make it out. But his horse was refusing it. Too late to stop. Arnaud felt the hindquarters bunch beneath him. Then they were sliding, going down, then a flood of the dark.

An explosion roused him and he jerked his eyes open to see his horse’s ears twitching against the bark of a fallen tree. Blood was pouring out of the animal’s shattered skull. A skinny old black man stood by, blowing smoke from the barrel of his ancient musket.

“Li pa bon,” he said, referring apparently to the horse. He’s no good. He sat down on one of the trees of the barricade and began painstakingly to reload his weapon.

Arnaud struggled to rise and found his left leg pinned beneath the horse’s body. His hands went scrambling; one of them found a pistol which he drew and leveled at the old man, whose white eyes widened. He did not relinquish his musket, but he left off trying to load it. After a moment he stood up and shrugged and backed off, trailing the musket by the barrel, to join the others who were with him. There were about a dozen of them, all old men or boys, mostly armed only with coutelas, but some with other antique firearms bound together with bits of wire and string. One had a musket of more recent vintage, from Sonthonax’s arms distributions, Arnaud guessed. They all looked at him with neutral eyes for a time, and then as if their minds were one they slipped quickly away through the trees that lined this section of the lane.

Arnaud felt safe enough to lay aside the pistol now. By pushing with both arms he was able to dislodge his left leg from beneath the saddle. At first he thought he was only bruised, but when he put weight on his left foot, a bolt of pain shot to the top of his head, and he sat down abruptly on a log of the barricade.

When he looked at his horse he wanted to weep. The waste of it—and good horses would be hard to come by now. Any kind of horses. Whatever the rebel blacks did not steal would certainly be requisitioned by the French army.

Now he saw that the horse’s right foreleg had been shattered. There had been nothing to do but shoot it, after all. Perhaps those men had only meant to help him. Certainly they might have killed him, with not much trouble or risk to themselves.

With his penknife he hacked off one of his shirt sleeves and used it to bind up his swollen ankle. He could not get his boot back on when he was done, but the bare foot took his weight with a pain that was just bearable. He was horribly thirsty when he stood up. He’d been carrying some water in a skin bag, but the fall had burst the vessel and the water had run out to mingle with the blood and horse piss soaking the ground. His walking stick, a novelty made of a twisted and dried bull’s pizzle, was whole, still strapped to the back of his saddle. He cut it free and went limping down the lane, depending heavily on the stick, his pistol dragging down his other hand.

It was not far, it could not be, but the distance was difficult to cover. Arnaud limped around one bend, then two. There before him appeared the wavering hallucination of a young black woman in a tight red dress, her head bound up in a shimmering blue cloth. She sat on a boulder amid the ashes just off the roadside. On the rock beside her was a tin tray with a white pitcher and a metal cup. Arnaud staggered toward the apparition. To his surprise, she did not vanish in the heat glaze when he came near.

“B’am dlo,” he croaked. Give me water. The woman only gazed at him, without expression. She was plump, no, ripe to bursting, straining every red seam of her dress. In another time he’d have lusted for her mightily. She poured a cup and set it on the tray. Arnaud pinned the pistol under the arm that held the stick, and painfully stretched down to take the cup. He poured the water down his swollen throat. A little ran out the corner of his mouth and he chased those drops with the tip of his tongue.

“Merci,” he said, and fumbled a coin from his breeches pocket to offer her. The woman only looked at him impassively. Arnaud let the coin clang down on the tray. He limped ahead, along the lane.

It was growing cooler now, and breezy, wind running ahead of the rain from the north. If he didn’t come to shelter soon, he’d have more water than he could use. Now to the left of the road, nothing was burned, and he could see the leaves of tall green cane, trembling in the wind above the citrus hedges. And this was his own property, if not another chimera. But that woman’s water had seemed real enough.

The wooden gate was still there, tended by a toothless crone who garbled something he couldn’t make out as Arnaud stumbled through. Two little boys went flying up the long allée ahead of him. He crept on, leaning on the stick. There was singing in the cane on either side of him, beyond the surviving palm trees and the stumps with their new shoots. He looked one way and the other but saw no one. The men were hidden in the cane, singing their way out of the fields before the rain.

Presently the figure of Claudine appeared before him, framed in the top of the allée like an object seen backwards in a telescope. Once something else had stood in that same place, but Arnaud’s mind refused it now, like his horse had refused that last jump.

At the time of their marriage he’d felt small love for her, and in their first years together in the colony he’d come to positively dislike her. The prize he’d supposed he’d brought home from France was barren. Afterward, he’d returned to her from a sense of duty, the same motive that made her carry buckets to the cane fields. But he felt very glad to see her now. Why did she not come out to meet him? Perhaps he was already dead, and so invisible to her.

Yet when he had finally reached her, he drew himself up and felt a little stronger.

“Michel,” she said. There was just a touch of the alien glitter in her eyes. At least she knew him. “You have come home.”

“I see I still have a home to come to,” he replied, looking beyond her—it was all there, the rebuilt house and outbuildings all intact. “A miracle.”

“If it is a miracle, it must be from God,” she said.

“But you are hurt,” said Arnaud, and reached out to touch the two scabbed vertical scratches on her right cheek.

“It’s nothing,” Claudine said. She unfolded his hand from her face and kissed the palm. Then she seemed to take in for the first time his sunblistered, sleeveless arm, the stick, the melon-sized ankle and the bare foot battered by the road.

“Cléo,” she called. “Moustique! Come quickly.” Then Arnaud finally felt his legs grow weak.

Placide found that he was easier in his mind once Arnaud had left their party. When Cigny also turned away, a little later, flanked by the two hussars assigned to him, Placide felt better still. Now there were no colons among them anymore, except for the woman, Isabelle Cigny. Placide did not consider the doctor to be a colon. As for Cyprien and Daspir, he was used to them, which did not mean he liked them, but they were merely strangers in his land, like all the other French soldiers. No matter what he might do or what happened to him, a colon could not lose the memory nor the habit of having owned black men and women to use as beasts of burden. Placide had been a small child when Arnaud and his kind had tortured their slaves through the doors of death, but he had heard the stories.

He glanced at Isaac, wondering if he felt the same; they could not speak freely, since Coisnon rode within earshot. Last night at Héricourt, Coisnon had slept in the same room. He was a good preceptor to them, and Placide knew he cared for them profoundly, and yet there could not be the frankness among them here that there had been in France.

Isaac’s horse stumbled over a stone, and Isaac clucked his tongue and tightened the reins sharply. “Come up,” he hissed, as though it were the horse’s fault. Placide turned his eyes to the road ahead.

In some way Coisnon had shared in the shock of their return. Their disappointment. They’d had several days to contemplate the burned shell of Le Cap from the deck of the Jean-Jacques, once that ship had entered the harbor and moored. After all they’d told Coisnon of its beauties and joys, their tongues were frozen in their heads. They’d spent their passage to Héricourt in a similar silence, turning their heads around like owls, toward wasteland that stretched to all horizons.

But now Placide’s mood, at least, was changing. Now they had passed Haut Limbé and were mounting the steep and winding ascent to Plaisance, jungled mountains towering over them, with plots of corn or groves of bananas terraced into the cliff sides, by the little houses that clung there. I lift up my eyes unto the hills, whence cometh my hope. Placide’s father had catechized him with this line long ago, though now he could not number the chapter or the verse. Yet he felt now how powerfully Toussaint had attached his hope to the hills, and to these mornes in particular; the range of peaks called the Cordon de l’Ouest, running back through the interior to Dondon and the Spanish border.

There were no French troops on this road through the mountains, except for those of their own escort, and there was no sign of war. The market women at the crossroads shouted out their excitement at their appearance, and packs of small children, dogs, and goats, came scampering after them on their way out of Plaisance, until they fell back, breathless, no longer able to keep pace with the horses.

The horses were beginning to be winded too, with the increasing altitude and steady climbing. The way between Plaisance and Morne Pilboreau looked almost flat, but still their mounts had to take it slowly. From the roadside a cliff fell giddily away into the Plaisance river valley. All seemed tranquil, at peace there, along the serpentine turns of the slow stream, except for the vertigo that seemed to pull them toward the brink. Placide realized he was looking down upon the backs of flying hawks which hovered over that deep space.

They rode on. The peak of Pilboreau was sheathed in cloud—a sudden chill as they rode into it, cool droplets condensing on the hairs of their eyebrows and forearms. A great market was here at the crossroads for Marmelade, and all the marchandes came rushing to them, out of the floating tendrils of cool mist.

“Se fils Papa Toussaint ou yé!” they cried. You are the sons of Papa Toussaint! Placide could not imagine how they had known it, yet they did know. The crowd pressed tight around the horses, dividing the riders from each other. Placide could see from their pale drawn faces that Cyprien and Daspir were uneasy in the crush, and the French cavalrymen looked positively afraid, but neither of the officers gave any order. There was no order to be given; this riot was peaceful, no weapon in sight. Among the whites, only the doctor seemed at ease, and Isabelle, but the crowd did not press on her so closely, still somewhat in awe of a white woman.

They swarmed around Placide’s and Isaac’s horses, grasping their stirrups, the flaps of their saddles, stroking their trouser legs and reaching up to touch their hands and feel the fabric of their shirt cuffs and coat sleeves. Other hands came stretching up to present bunches of bananas and baskets of limes and lemons and oranges and avocados, none offered for sale but all in gift. The chill of the mountain mist was gone, and not only because rays of the westering sun had begun to cut through the cloud, but that the compression of so many bodies and beings around them created a warmth that was almost suffocating. Placide was a little alarmed himself at first, if only at the unidentifiable wave of feeling that built in him. Then whatever held it back gave way and the feeling poured out of him to flow into the being of all those others who were other no more.

“Nou la!” Placide said in his strongest voice. His face was wet with the push and pull of the internal tide. “Nou la,” the shining faces upturned to him replied. The words meant simply We are here, but also, We are here and you are here with us and We have survived to arrive here in this place where we are meant to be together.

Placide looked to Isaac and saw to his sadness that his brother understood nothing of what he felt and knew. In truth, Isaac’s French was more perfect than Placide’s, since Isaac had been younger when they were sent from home to the Collège de la Marche. But for the same reason the nuances of their creole mother tongue, which had been rushing back to Placide since they landed, did not return so readily to Isaac. Indeed, the tightness of his face was something like the tension Placide saw in the French officers. He watched Isaac, saying nothing. Isaac reined up his horse so tight that it began to crab sideways, shunting away the people that surrounded him, creating a space in which he was alone.

Some of the hussars had laid hands to their saber hilts. Placide could see they were ready to draw and begin swatting people away from them with the flats of the blades. Captain Daspir must have seen this too, for he called out, “Leave that! Let no man touch a weapon!”

“Avancez!” Cyprien said crisply. Move on! Their column re-formed and Placide was closed within it, cut off from the people of the market. Then they had crossed the crest of the mountain and were going down under the red sun that shone on the scrubby cliff walls of this drier face. Placide twisted in the saddle to look back once, but he could not see the people any more, only the face of the doctor smiling back at him from his place in the line, and dark thunderheads piling up above Pilboreau. He faced forward, looking down the hairpin turns that lined the edges of the gorge below them, believing they’d reach Ennery before the rain.