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Marie Ursule woke up this morning knowing what morning it was and that it might be her last.
She had gathered the poisons the way anyone else might gather flowers, the way one gathers scents or small wishes and fondnesses. Gathering a bit here, wondering at a fiercely beautiful flower there. Tasting the waxiness of some leaves, putting her tongue on the prickliness or roughness of others. And she had been diligent and faithful the way any collector would be, any fervent lover. Scientific. Passionate. Every new knowledge, wonderful. She had even felt the knowing sadness, the melancholy that lovers feel, the haunting not-enough feeling, the way one covets the flight of swifts and terns and nightjars. She had sorted out the most benign vines from the most potent, collecting them all, and anything else she could find, recognizing the leaves through resemblance or smell or bitterness.
She had heard talk. She had listened to whispers from the Caribs and had made dealings with those of them left alive on the island after their own great and long devastation by the Europeans; their six-thousand-year-old trek over the Andes was close to ending here in Trinidad after four hundred years of war with the invaders. Meeting under curtains of heavy rains or unrelenting night, they had told Marie Ursule of a most secret way to ruin. Woorara they called it, their secret to rigour and breathlessness.
Wandering when she could wander, Marie Ursule husbandedthe green twigs, the brown veins, the sticky bitterness, the most sanguine of plants. She loved their stems, their surprise of leaves as veined as her palms, their desperate bundles of berries, their hang of small flowers, and most of all the vine itself, its sinewed grace. She ground the roots to their arresting sweetness, scraped the bark for its abrupt knowledge. She had thought of other ways, bitter cassava, manchineel apples, but their agonies could last for days. Woorara, the Caribs had told her, was simple and quick, though it had taken her years to collect. And wait.
Marie Ursule waited for evenings like a lover waits, wanting soft light to embrace her. She looked over the ranges of cocoa trees, their green and red leaves young and old with longing. She imagined love waiting for her beyond the hectares of ripening fruit. Evenings—when clouds descended between the thick growth—kept secret her walks in search of smells and exchanges, her meetings with a straggle of Caribs, two men, three women, one boy, one baby. The Caribs were becoming ancient and extinct even as she looked into their faces, the last of their language vanishing. Marie Ursule offered them her company, her limp, her wish to die. Risking lashings she would to go to their small encampment where she and they sat in each other's contradictions, the straggle of Caribs moving reluctantly toward memory, Marie Ursule, willingly.
The last time, she had gone in a brief rain at the beginning of December but they had broken camp and disappeared, like the rain itself, the kind of quick rain that raises the smell of the earth, steams the roots of things, then vanishes leaving no trace of its passage. Their fire, smouldering from the rain, was almost imperceptible. Perhaps she should have left with them. Perhaps.
Hiding supplies in dugouts here and there, Marie Ursule collected woorara as patiently as she had worn the iron ring around her ankle. She collected it like a lover collecting sorrows and believed hurts. Faithfully.
Marie Ursule woke up this morning knowing what morning it was. Her flesh felt heavy. She could not get it off the board. It was as if her body was tied taut across the wood house like a hammock. She lay there for a while, gathering her legs and her arms and commanding them to wake up. She turned on her side to look at the door, giving herself a direction, but no resolve came. It was to be her last morning and she had prepared everything long before, and now her flesh would not move.
She heard the early birds' noise outside cross with the late birds' noise. She heard all the night insects go quiet, all the dawn insects shake light-shouldered light. She heard the morning coming, its uptake of breath. She had to move before the dark air turned vermilion and then white. She had to empty the gourd of woorara into the small copper pot hidden in the fire below the big pan full of cornmeal pap. Hammock-like her back winged on its hinge as she shifted again, tasting the early-morning taste of her mouth. It was full of spit unswallowed in the night. If nothing else, to stir her she must empty her mouth of bile. She felt her fingers in the dark, swollen and stiff as the rest of her, and started at the numbness in her feet. A numbness she had awakened to each day since January eighth, 1819—a deadness which always startled her at first—when one foot had been ringed with ten pounds of iron and the other had taken all the weight of walking. Now both were numb, the one in sympathy with the other.
This was her second morning to boil the cornmeal. She had taken this task to be near the fire, to be seen cooking the cornmeal, so that she might also warm the tar of woorara she had collected.
Marie Ursule turned again. The reluctance of her body recalled the sentence she'd been given on January eighth, 1819: two years with her leg in an iron ring and thirty-nine lashes. That was her sentence. And Marcelle Dauphine next to her sentenced to work in chains for life. Two years now, two years and more. But the memory of that ring of iron hung on, even after it was removed. A ghost of pain around her ankle. An impression. It choreographed her walk and her first thoughts each day.
She rose now with only the force of her middle and the urge to empty her mouth of bile. Going to the door, swifter than she'd felt only moments ago lying on the wood, she heard the breath of others taking their last before rising. Their last, praying not to rise. Praying that the dark would not turn vermilion, would not turn to white day.
She would often stay awake to hear them breathe, hours. She would listen, wondering if she slept like that, so deeply, so restfully. Breathing in sleep was the only time you owned the movement of your chest. When breath was all that was left to you, how light and heavy and in your middle it was. How limbs went limp but moved by some instinct to turn and turn only to help breathing. She wanted to lie there and inhale the breaths of those sleeping, inhale the smell like inhaling the smell of milk on a baby's mouth. She wanted to inhale the living. She didn't want to get up and bring an end to it. She stopped for a moment, listening and swallowed up by the breathing. Changing her mind then changing again, she slipped the wood latch and was outside.
* * *
The air resembled blood gone bad. She hoped it wasn't another morning to end up in ten-pound irons. That thought made her foot heavy. She limped to the shed but somehow swift swift. But if it was such a morning, bring it. She spat the bile out and wiped her hand over her mouth, pulling the film of sleep away. Her eyes did not need adjusting to the dark, she knew this way by heart. Marie Ursule, queen of the Convoi Sans Peur; queen of rebels, queen of evenings, queen of malingerings and sabotages; queen of ruin; who had lost an ear and been shackled to a ten-pound iron for two years after the rebellion of 1819 had been betrayed, after the plan to kill de Lambert, and all his own, discovered. While some had been put to death, their heads hung on sticks near the bell and their bodies tied to the walls in chains, she had been given a ten-pound ring to wear. She had been given thirty-nine lashes. She had been given her own ear in her mouth. She had been given a heart full of curses and patience.
The stink of that day was on her breath this morning, turning to white, not just yet, now vermilion, the colour of old blood. She spat. Soon the day would almost break, petit jour. On an ordinary day she would take her skipping walk into the fields of cocoa with the others. On an ordinary day the others would awake and stumble to the shed; stumbling out of their sleep and into the field, into this season and another season and another season to follow, an endless season.
Soon seasons would not matter and the iron imprint at her ankle would be light.
Only her little girl, Bola ... she would send her to Arauc or Terre Bouillante. She would try and send her to the secret hills, to the secret places even beyond those secret hills, to those places where she, Marie Ursule, could not go herself because of her limp. And even more because of her heart, so skilled now, so full of wrath. She could not think of escape for herself. She could not imagine the mountains, or Arauc or Terre Bouillante where they said life was free. She could not imagine or believe any place like that. She was ruined already. She was tied to this morning. But sending Bola far into the hills and the impenetrable bush beyond, beyond the reach of de Lambert and his like, that was her one conceit now, her one little ambition. Hopping swift and lighter than her legs, she worried only if it was too much, and too boldfaced, to try and send the child to Terre Bouillante with Kamena.
The names of secret places had dropped from Kamena's lips in whispers. Terre Bouillante, Arauc, Casse Terre, Morne Diable, Morne Macaque, Morne Maron. He had said them so softly, so gently, she was tempted to believe they existed. He had heard that some who ran away made it to those places. It took days of walking, he had heard, perhaps weeks, perhaps luck, and perhaps waiting, to arrive there. And he had escaped, promising to return for the child. She had told him, just in case, if he didn't find the place, he should go to Culebra Bay where there was nothing but the ghosts of two Ursuline nuns who had once owned her. Just in case he couldn't find his way, she said, in case, then he should go to Culebra Bay; because his voice soughing on the names of Maroon places could not persuade her that such havens of runaways existed, let alone that the militia would not find them. But Culebra was rumoured to have leprosy and so no militia would chance there, though she knew it was only the nuns' old craft, she was convinced that, dead and all, it was their own mystery still hovering. He had escaped, promising to return for the child, not listening to Marie Ursule. Because Bola was his child too and his mind did not linger on hurt like Marie Ursule's. He wanted lightness, he wanted peace.
Marie Ursule wanted peace too but nothing that could be settled in escape. She had lain too many nights listening for rain. It was with rain that the vines sprang and ran. The thought of rain was the only thought that filled her with crying or longing. The sound of rain was comforting, reaching the balata trees windguarding the cocoa—the sound of rain on broad leaves gave her the sense that each drop contained a life, an elliptical limning life like hers. She tried to grasp it before it broke against a leaf.
Did she read the morning right? And who was she to try to save anything? Well, it was already decided and beyond her and now it was too late to discover if she was wrong. Now she couldn't change her mind. If Terre Bouillante existed and if Kamena had survived to find it, he would return today for the child. And if not, then it would be too late: she would have to mark the child then. This morning was the end of the world.
The one vanity she'd had was that child. Like Marcelle Dauphine and Marie Bastien and Marie Rose, she had washed out many from between her legs. Like them, she had vowed never to bring a child into the world, and so to impoverish de Lambert with barrenness as well as disobedience. Not one child born in that place for years, except what de Lambert could make himself with his own wife. Until one day, Marie Ursule made one with all itself intact. Her one curiosity and her vanity. The eyes of the child emerging between her thighs, round and robust, were startlingly open as if to say, "I'm coming, Marie Ursule. Don't lay a harmful hand on me." Its mouth was full of milk, grey drooling milk. It came as if already feeding itself, and if Marie Ursule would not help it, it was ready to survive on its own. She laughed as the child tumbled out of her and the gush of afterbirth followed like an ocean and a torrent between her legs. It sailed Bola away from the hands of Marie Ursule and landed her on the dirt floor, balled into a moon.
The child was not a disappointment. From the moment she was born Bola's eyes saw too much. She was born with teeth, which was a sign of gifts or curses, and from the time she first spoke she sang Marie Ursule's name. Marie Ursule had to contend with people calling the child "jumbie" because she had a mind of her own and would say something to anyone who maliced Marie Ursule. She was a child born out of curiosity and prodigiousness. Though not a good four years old, she was a one-word child, jealous, thief, spirit, goat, hiding, naked. Certain people drew the length of her tongue and shut up right away. This morning Marie Ursule left Bola sleeping, for Kamena to come and take her to Arauc or Terre Bouillante, whichever he had found safely, as they had planned. And, if not, to Culebra Bay.
This child who was her vanity was now her leavings.
She had to fix the small copper pot of woorara, make it boil to its most potent, get ready to put the knife in it. She stepped, lithe now, over the mud drain, feeling a shadow cross the yard and enter the barrack behind her. It was Kamena. She didn't look, she didn't want to change her mind. Let the child go. She herself had to avoid every moment now when her body wanted to do something else, walk back to the barrack, go back to sleep, perhaps walk away herself to the distant place where Kamena rolled under the sky. Her body wanted living. And she had to twist it round to another task. She did not look round to see Kamena carrying the child through the cocoa fields, the fruit reddening and yellowing under the leaves, the morning soaked in mist. She knew Kamena would run through the field to her left, which fell away into dense high bush. Then they would disappear into days of walking.
Well, Marie Ursule, thank God for the beginning of the morning and the end of it too.
In this early early morning when morning wasn't morning and nothing was anything yet; this morning when trees and grass and rock had not yet gathered themselves into their shapes, when life was not even life itself, when anyone could change into what they might be, this morning like any morning in the world for Marie Ursule was not a sign of anything certain. Hadn't life ceased to be certain long ago, hadn't every turning stood still, hadn't every stillness turned to motion long long ago? And what was memory when she felt it loop and repeat, when what she was about to do she had imagined done already, like a memory.
She was owned by M. de Lambert, and before that by the Ursuline nuns who had moved from place to place, from Guadeloupe to Martinique and then here, Trinidad, this last island before Venezuela. They and she had run out of islands. Her ears' tips had been cut for rebellion there in Guadeloupe and many charges laid against her for insolence.
She had come to the Ursulines under false pretence. M. Rochard, her owner before the nuns, saying he was in debt, offered Marie Ursule as his most valuable to the Ursulines, who were always needing for the amount of runaways they had. Rochard wanted to be rid of her and make his money back but the Ursulines didn't miss her ears or the set of her face and bargained him down to take her off his hands.
Mère Marguerite frightened Rochard anyway, streaking toward him when he got off his horse, streaking toward him like a spectre of a century past. Marie Ursule on the rope, walking behind him, smelled communion powder and smoke and spat the taste from her mouth. Soeur de Clémy, following Mère Marguerite de St. Joseph, summed up Marie Ursule in one look, taking in the ears but also her strong legs, her stare that said you'd only get half the work out of her but also the strong large hands, the broad back but the eyes with their own business. She summed her up and offered half of what Rochard wanted.
Rochard handed the rope over and left without arguing, not even bowing before getting back up on his horse, not bothering after all to recite his story about leaving the colony, about stock to get rid of in a hurry, better opportunity in the Guianas; these were only half-truths and anyone could tell they were lies after seeing Marie Ursule. Most of all the Ursulines, who had seen everything. He had heard about but did not believe that he would ever see this vision of the Ursulines, eroding like dead coral and dusty like an eternity. What he saw was more seductive and fatal than his own greed. Why they looked so old he put down to leprosy, but he fled, leaving them in what he knew was another century.
Soeur de Clémy untied the rope from Marie Ursule's hands. When she came close Marie Ursule warned her, "Pain c'est viande beque, vin c'est sang beque, nous va mange pain beque nous va boir sang beque." Bread is the flesh of the white man, wine is the blood of the white man, we will eat the white man's flesh, we will drink the white man's blood.
Running out of islands themselves, the Ursulines had fled the claims of the Jesuits for their estates in Martinique and Guadeloupe. They came to Trinidad with nineteen slaves and their belongings. Having bought a small plantation on Culebra Bay, they arrived at its remote rock face and its bush face. They arrived at a place that was barren and unimaginable. Having no more funds, they settled into its waste and decrepitude. Only the water, the sea at Culebra, showed any bounty. Whales and sharks perused the bay, trumpet fish and bonito, and sometimes wild water and sandy winds. The nuns had been duped, sold a useless piece of rock, which the sea salt took inch by inch.
They were a hard lot, the Ursulines. So much kneeling down for disobedience and so much for lateness and so much more for indolence. The industry of slavery was how they kept God and flesh together. And like all who came to the colonies, they had to make their money out of punishment in some shape. Mère Marguerite de St. Joseph and Soeur de Clémy baptized all their slaves, hoping for obedience, but they could not depend on baptism strictly. The lash was handy. It was as dutiful as praying. And their baptisms were often in blood.
"Go, before you send us to hell," they finally told Marie Ursule after her rebellions and plots. Mère Marguerite's face was already paper-thin, blistering to powder. Soeur de Clémy bit her fingernails to their dry quick. "You in hell already if is up to me, Marie Ursule," Marie Ursule whistled at their powdery skins.
So Marie Ursule was sold to de Lambert when all the beatings did not turn her and when she became so unmanageable that their punishments could not sit well with prayers to their own Virgin Mary. And when their estate at Culebra seemed to be sinking into the coral reef that it really was, they sold Marie Ursule on their suspicions that it was she who had blighted them. Merchants would not come out to Culebra, and whatever goods they made took so long to arrive at Port-of-Spain that the ships were gone and they had to sell cheap. Suspecting the nuns of leprosy because of Mère Marguerite's blistered skin, good commerce abandoned Culebra.
De Lambert had bought an estate on this last island, retreating down the archipelago himself, bringing twenty slaves with him as well as buying Marie Ursule when he arrived. Buying her from a bedraggled nun circling the wharf like a man-o'-war bird, when the boat docked at Port-of-Spain. A nun who looked more weary than her slave but who haggled for a good price nevertheless and who looked out of the corner of her eye and smiled at Marie Ursule, and turned cold when Marie Ursule said, "You going to live long. Take the money from him. You owe me an eternity."
De Lambert had married a free coloured woman who you could hardly see was coloured and who never faced the sun directly. She took care that no one saw the darkening knuckles on her fingers or the tips of her ears. Moving like a ghost herself in dark rooms of the estate house, only her shadows crossing windows. One good sitting in the sun and the African in her would come out. De Lambert was her cousin twice removed and mercifully removed from any black blood. Ten of his slaves belonged to the free coloured wife, bought for her as a dowry by her father, Toussaint Voisin, whom she hated—another free coloured, much closer to Africa.
Toussaint Voisin smiled too much for his oldest daughter's tastes, he smiled and touched his light-skinned daughters as if he were drooling. He touched everything like that, cloth, horses, francs, Madame Voisin née Lavigne, his Creole wife, slaves. His daughter was happy to leave him on Martinique and lighten into her husband's prestige on this last island in this chain of islands floating into the Orinoco River.
Mon Chagrin estate. Why de Lambert called it that was in his own past, some blight he felt he'd suffered, some little hurt he'd kept or some romance he held about himself and his industry. Or perhaps some cognition. Mon Chagrin.
And this is where Marie Ursule had her ear cut off, and got her iron ring for two years, and her thirty-nine lashes, after the first uprising of the Sans Peur Regiment was betrayed by the dog-traitor Vargas, who thought he would be freed for his trouble. And, well, she knew then she would wait, would have to wait. She would learn how to finish something. And she would wait until after they took off the ring and after she looked like her mind was repentant and even after that.
Sans Peur, without fear they called themselves, Sans Peur. They gathered each night thinking and plotting and praying in the old ways that they could remember. They had planned that first insurrection, which was to see the planters rounded up and killed, with the Macaque Regiment and the Mon Repos Regiment, from the two estates to the west of Mon Chagrin. They were also betrayed, and so most of their night army of slaves had ended up in irons, a few dead.
She herself had listened to her own sentence in disappointment, wishing death. "Marie Ursule in Sans Peur Regiment to receive thirty-nine lashes, to have an ear cut off, and to have an iron ring of ten pounds weight affixed to one of her legs, to remain thereon for the space of two years." She, Marie Ursule, would wait and plot another way. It would take that long to plan again and when they did she took the place of Marcelle Dauphine as queen, because Marcelle Dauphine had succumbed to the madness of the weight around her leg for life.
Marie Ursule had waited until this morning. This morning waking up and smelling the sweet breaths of last sleep and tasting the bile in her mouth which caused her to move, this was the morning then. She lit the fire, put the small copper at the bottom and over it the pan of cornmeal to hide the darkening mixture of curare. Somewhere she sensed Kamena and the child, heard the child singing "Marie Ursule, Marie Ursule," calling her. She held the pan full of water and molasses now boiling. Her fingers did not feel pain from the heat. It was long since burning could harm her so she didn't use a rag. She would add vine of the soul and god's breath leaves to the cornmeal, just to make their going easier. These plants would give them visions, dreams and sightings, pleasure at the coming life. They would see where they were going more clearly when they took the knife of woorara to their veins.
The small copper, hidden in the flames under the cornmeal pan, reddened. It would not take long. By the time the morning came and they were all of them gathered, the curare would still the muscles and stop their breath and their hearts.
Kamena moved away without a sign to her. He knew that she saw him, he knew that she heard the child's singing. He could not be sure that he would not be recaptured. But no one would be looking for him once they discovered what the Sans Peur had done. He hoped that the child would not sing all the way to wherever they were going. He hefted the child on his back, felt for a brief moment her weight as heavy as the ocean, felt for a moment a sudden difficulty standing, then stepped away from that place where he was leaving Marie Ursule, her eyes never meeting his or his eyes hers but knowing what they knew. He hoped that the child would not sing all the way to where they were going anyhow.
And it was Marie Ursule's last morning. And the last morning that anything like will would make her rise and live. Those mornings were hard to summon. She could only count a few—the mornings of doing something that was not directed or ordered from outside. What woke her also this morning was dreaming the thing she had to dream. Dreaming her generations. Dreaming a safe place for Bola. And she only remembered to dream when she heard the child singing in the damp ochre shade of the morning. Her hands were already stirring the poison, already hefting the cornmeal, her hands were already burnt on the fire. She had done this thing already, it was a memory when they found her sitting near the dead ones, it was finished. She had lived it already night after night when the Sans Peur Regiment met to dream it and to make it true.
She was already condemned; her eyes were already closed when they opened suddenly to the child's tune of her name, when they opened to Kamena's hesitation and his sinking knowledge of where he should go, when they opened to a vision of red birds and skittering eyes. And for a moment she too hesitated, she too thought of continuing when she foresaw the little girl stooping in the crablands, smothering in her own breath, and Kamena lost. Then she remembered the last thing she had to dream. The two miserable nuns in Culebra Bay whom she had set in stone. Dead now perhaps, dead to the world but not to her vision. Their evanescence thickening into sight, she called their mystery into shape. If Kamena could not find Terre Bouillante, then she would lead him to Culebra Bay. Their way out and their long destination.
Marie Ursule faced the world turning white from vermilion. She faced the bodies of the Sans Peur Regiment moving toward her, shaking and humming. Her hand ladling cornmeal trembled and was still at the same time. They walked close to each other for warmth and assurance. The morning was cold. She saw the others' indecision and their fright but perhaps it was her own. It made her own heart more determined. They sat in their accustomed way, emptying their gourds of cornmeal, then waiting for Marie Ursule to bring the small copper and the knife wrapped in cloth at the hilt.
They saw visions of where they were going, blues and whorling reds and spirits beckoning. Their faces were stricken, whether in pain or relief she could not tell. They each took the knife and drew a mark in their own hands. For the one or two breaths they lived after, the woorara tar was a river flowing through their hands. A river they were going to, to wash themselves of this life and Mon Chagrin and all the other places they had been. Who didn't die, Marie Ursule knew, would be no good after and de Lambert would die too in his own way. "One thing," she thought, "dead is where we all is going." On a morning turning from ochre to white with the smell of frozen blood, dead is where everybody was going.
Her whole body was rigid except for her hands passing the small copper pot to each one. And as the Sans Peur had planned, so no one would see the other dying and lose courage, they marked their palms one after the other without hesitation, cutting the tar-like poison deep into their flesh, humming their accustomed tune. They knew that the body was a terrible thing that wanted to live no matter what. It never gave up, it lived for the sake of itself. It was selfish and full of greed. The body could pitiably recover from lashes, from weight and stroke. Only in the head could you kill yourself, never in the body. It would thrash and heave its way back. So their minds were made up, knowing this. And each night, in the months before, they had plotted together, they had given the mind this mystery to work out, how to ignore the body, how to reach the other shore.
Marie Ursule used to sit at their head, humming a tune. A tune so tuneless it lay between individual breaths and a common sound. It began the way anyone begins walking along alone and needing a sound. Sometimes it began like a moan from a headache or it began from the sound of someone stumbling on a careless stone. Any one of them began. Petit Dominique or Pompey. Sounds catching in their chests like gasping in an airless room. Marcelle Dauphine knocking the iron on her foot with a stone, hoping, the way only madness can hope, that little by little the way she had it calculated the iron would break in thirty years or she'd be dead. Her breath would thicken to a tune with exertion. Then they would all join the tune, which became an enchantment, a going to somewhere dark and empty of things that had happened and dark and empty of failure and dark and empty of history and dark and empty of their bodies burning to live.
Valère, Dominique-Rivière, Pedro, Petit Dominique, Marie Rose, Pancras, Florentine, Adelaide, Gabriel, Eustace, Jean Noel, Pompey, Sayman, Louis, Nero, Marcelle Dauphine, Marie Bastien, Avril. All now breathed the dark emptiness where they were going. Each swallowed darkness. They breathed time. They breathed wholeness. Marie Ursule continued the tune, tuneless and stilling, taking the falling pot from the last hand. She herself would not take the knife to her veins. She wanted to see the faces of de Lambert and the rest when they discovered her. She wanted to vow to them that it was she, Marie Ursule, who had devastated them.
Steady, steady she watched until it was done, waiting, watching the sky break and the world end, watching the Sans Peur swoon to death, their hearts stopped, watching the day end before it truly began.
|Chapter I/... But a Drink of Water||1|
|Chapter II/At the Full and Change of the Moon||49|
|Chapter III/Tamarindus Indica||73|
|Chapter IV/A Sudden and Big Lust||99|
|Chapter VI/A Soft Man||175|
|Chapter VII/In a Window||207|
|Chapter VIII/Blue Airmail Letter||227|
|Chapter X/At the Full and Change of the Moon||293|