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Ranélise had described her birth to her so many times that she believed she had actually played a part—not that of a terrorized and submissive baby whom Madame Fleurette, the midwife, wrenched out from between her mother's bloodied thighs—but that of a clear-sighted witness, a major role, her very mother, the mother in labor, Reynalda herself, whom she imagined sitting rigid, lips pursed, arms crossed, and a look of inexpressible suffering on her face. Years later, standing in front of Frida Kahlo's painting of her own birth, it had seemed to her that this woman, this stranger, must have been thinking of her.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon. The atmosphere shimmered and tingled with excitement. It was Mardi Gras, a day of jubilation when all the companies of masked dancers charged through the streets of La Pointe. The previous Sunday they had secretly plotted to converge on the Place de la Victoire from the outlying districts. The throbbing of the gwo-ka drums could already be heard. Some of the masked dancers were wrapped in dried banana leaves. Others had tarred their bodies and ran through the streets cracking whips that coiled like snakes. Another group had devised buffalos' and bulls' heads for costumes and pinned to their apparel all shapes of mirrors, pieces of glass, and mica that attracted the light and glittered in the sun. These were the formidable mas'a kon dancers, said to have come straight from the Casamance. In the meantime respectable families and their children crowded the verandas between the bougainvillea in flower and the latanias in pots. Theyhad saved up their silver coins with holes in the middle to throw down to the crowd below. At their feet the rabble shuffled along shouting at the top of their voices.
The Vatable Canal district was deserted since everyone had gathered at the center of town. A few moko zombis who had strayed that way soon realized their mistake and proceeded down the rue Frébault kicking violently with their stilts at the closed wooden doors as a reminder of their presence. In Ranélise's four-room house, behind the shutters, you could hear neither the din of the gwo-ka drums, nor the piercing shrill of the whistles, nor the clacking of the rara rattles accompanying the masked dancers. You couldn't hear the screams of pleasure from the crowd either. The silence was broken only by the muffled moans of Reynalda, whose too-narrow, fifteen-year-old pelvis refused to make any concessions, and by the maternal yet exasperated berating in Creole from Mme. Fleurette: "Push, push, I'm telling you, for God's sake!" and finally, out came the frail, persistent wail of a newborn infant.
Mme. Fleurette was a handsome mulatto woman, an experienced midwife, without a diploma to her name, who was goodness itself. Rainy season come dry season she cycled through the poor neighborhoods on her "Flying Pigeon" to deliver the babies of the poor wretches who were turned away by the General Hospital and whom the sisters of the Saint-Jules Hospice could not accommodate. When Reynalda went into labor, Ranélise, who had rescued her a few months earlier after her failed attempt at drowning, recognized the bicycle parked in front of a shack, even on this day of festivities, and together with her younger sister, Claire-Alta, intercepted Mme. Fleurette. After the laborious delivery was over they were thanking Mme. Fleurette and leading her out toward the pool of clear water in the yard when Reynalda, looking like death, uttered such a mournful groan that the three women turned around in alarm. In an instant the threadbare sheet covering her had turned red and was already dripping blood. Fortunately the Saint-Jules Hospice was close by. There they bundled Reynalda into a bed still burning from the puerperal fever of a poor woman who had just passed from this life to the next, and the good sisters went to work.
When Ranélise left the Saint-Jules Hospice around midnight, the fireworks that had been set off over by the harbor were zigzagging across the sky in a multitude of colors and vanishing over Dominica way. The streets were swarming with children, women, and men yelling. Drunks were dancing their entrechats. Amid a hellish din the masked revelers were having their final fling.
Back home she found the newborn infant fast asleep, set down where they had forgotten her. Her tiny face streaked with excrement and dried blood, she smelled of rotting fish. In spite of this, rays of love beamed from Ranélise's heart and shed a glow over the tiny body. She had always wanted a child. Instead the Good Lord had sent her miscarriage after miscarriage, stillborn after stillborn, infants baptized at the very last minute, one after another. She clasped the baby to her heart, convinced that the Good Lord had finally repented for having mistreated her so. Showering her with kisses, she chose the name Marie-Noëlle, though she was born at the height of Carnival. For Marie is the name of the Holy Virgin, mother of all virtues, and Noëlle a reminder of that miraculous night when Jesus became a child to wash away our sins. She prepared a bath of lukewarm water, mixed in some essence of roses, and plopped in soursop leaves as well as a pinch of sweet violets and sweet-smelling husks to soak. Then she dried the baby with a soft towel and laid her on her belly to protect her from the fear of the dark, the wind, and nightmares.
Ranélise was a tall black woman, a cook at Tribord Bâbord, a restaurant with a shabby appearance but a reputation for good food, situated at the Bas de la Source. Her speciality: conch. Nobody could match the way she extracted the mollusk from its shell, left it to soak in a homemade mixture of brine and bay-rum leaves, pounded it with a pestle she had made from a piece of lignum vitae, and served it up juicy and succulent as lamb in a thick reddish sauce. Her customers came from far and wide. Sometimes from as far away as Le Moule or La Boucan, and Gérardo Polius, the Communist mayor of La Pointe, took four meals a week at Tribord Bâbord, sitting down with his entire municipal council. A few months earlier, as she was walking down to the Carenage to meet the fisherman she usually dealt with, she saw a bundle of clothes floating on the water like a buoy. Intrigued, she went over and made out an arm, a leg, then a sliver of buttock. Her shouts had attracted passersby, and, using a pole, they had fished out a bedraggled girl whose heart was still beating unsteadily.
A young girl, almost a child. Fourteen years old. Certainly not more than fifteen. Her breasts the size of guava buds. Ranélise, who wore her heart on her sleeve, had taken her home with her. She had rubbed her with camphor oil and given her an infusion of watergrass mixed with a little rum to warm her up. Then she wrapped her in one of the flannel nightdresses she wore during the bad weather season. The first day they got little more out of her than a few reluctant words. She said her name was Reynalda Titane. Her maman, Antonine, whom everyone nicknamed Nina, hired herself out to the family of Gian Carlo Coppini. Gian Carlo Coppini was an Italian jeweler in the rue de Nozières whose shop, Il Lago di Como, was always full of customers come to buy but mainly to browse in admiration. Gian Carlo Coppini looked a little like Jesus Christ: curly, silky hair and a beard to go with it. He reigned over a host of women: first of all his own wife, always pregnant or in labor; his two sisters, always dressed in black, their heads covered with lace mantillas; and his daughters. It was thanks to him that Nina had been able to send Reynalda to the Dubouchage elementary school. Reynalda loved school. French, history, natural science. She worked hard and passed the exam for her elementary school certificate.
People advised Ranélise to send Reynalda back where she came from. Who knew whether she wasn't a thief or a good-for-nothing wanted by the gendarmes? But when Ranélise mentioned taking her back to Il Lago di Como, Reynalda had knelt down at her feet and like Mary Magdalene soaked them with her tears. That was when she revealed she was pregnant and why she had thrown herself into the sea. Ranélise had stood speechless, facing her. How could she think of killing herself because someone had given her a belly? Didn't she know that a child is a blessing from the Good Lord? A sign that His elixir has enriched your heart as well as your body? A woman who sees her belly swell and grow round should throw herself on her knees, strike her breast, and cry: "Thank you, Lord!"
Reynalda did not breathe a word to anyone. Except sometimes to Claire-Alta, who was about her age. Ranélise ended up keeping her and found her a job at the restaurant Tribord Bâbord—in the kitchen, because in the dining room, customers complained she prevented them from enjoying their rum.
* * *
The second thing Marie-Noëlle imagined was her christening. It had been held right in the middle of Lent on a Saturday, the day reserved for illegitimate children, those who don't know their papa's name. The Church of Saint-Jules, adjoining the hospice of the same name, was a wooden building with a nave in the shape of a ship's hull. It had withstood the fires and earthquakes that devastated La Pointe since it was founded. At that time a good many of its louvered shutters were missing; its stained-glass windows were broken in places, while its bell tower sat askew like the madras headtie of an old woman who has seen far too much of life. Ranélise, her godmother, was carrying her in her arms like the Holy Sacrament. Ranélise was a sight to behold that day. She was radiant, dressed in her polka-dot blue satin two-piece suit with white lapels and a wide hat with a sagging brim. One of her countless good friends, dressed in a double-breasted wool suit and tie, stood in as godfather and joined her in singing: "We give thanks unto Thee, O God;/We give thanks for Thy name is near."
The font stood in front of one of the remaining unbroken stained-glass windows depicting the Annunciation. With her thumb pressed against her palate and her cheek resting against Ranélise's bosom, Marie-Noëlle was interested in neither the priest's homily nor her godfather's and godmother's well-intentioned resolutions. She could not take her eyes off the celestial image of the archangel Gabriel, with his blue cape and great outspread wings, holding a bunch of lilies. All around her the other babies wailed or sucked on the salt of good behavior. Absorbed in her vision; she felt infinitely superior. Hadn't Ranélise proclaimed her to be the most wonderful child on earth? The day of the christening they had listened to music. Not just the usual mazurkas, wa-bap beguines, and others. Monsieur and Madame Léomidas, who worked in Senegal for the Ministry of Overseas Development, had played records on the gramophone and everyone had sat in silence listening to their explanation of the griots in Africa.
Curiously enough, although Ranélise must have recounted the incident fairly frequently, Marie-Noëlle had no memory of her mother leaving. All she could gather was that she had left in September. A September laden with the threat of hurricanes and storms as if the sky were flushed with anger. One or two weeks after the christening Reynalda announced that she was leaving to work in metropolitan France. In France? Yes, France! The BUMIDOM agency had found her a job, as they did for so many fellow islanders at that time—with Jean-René Duparc, who lived on the boulevard Malesherbes in the XVIIth Arrondissement in Paris. This Jean-René had a family of three small children who needed a nurse. The mayor, Gérardo Polius, did not mince his words. Nor did the neighbors, whereas Ranélise was beside herself with joy, and to show it gave Reynalda three hundred-franc notes. Before she left Reynalda had come straight to the point and told Claire-Alta that she had no intention of ending up a maid.
She intended to go to college and become somebody.
* * *
Marie-Noëlle's childhood was an enchantment. Hand in hand with Ranélise she walked in a woodland carpeted with tree ferns, milky white trumpet flowers, and heavy-petaled heliconias rimmed with yellow. Here and there blossomed the purple flower of the wild plantain. A cool wind tickled her nostrils, mingling with the scent of flowers, earth, wind, and rain, and her childhood was a perfumed garden. To some people Marie-Noëlle's possessions would not have amounted to much. A chain bracelet engraved with her name. A necklace with three medallions, one of which was of the Infant Jesus, her patron saint. Some clothes at the bottom of a wicker basket. She never had a tricycle or a toy car with pedals or a Barbie doll. Merely a homemade scooter with which she whisked along the Vatable canal and the streets on the Morne Udol. But a child's joy cannot be measured in gold or expensive toys. It is measured by motions of the heart, and Marie-Noëlle was the only reason Ranélise's heart throbbed. Ranélise's hand was gentle, so gentle, even when she untangled Marie-Noëlle's thick mass of long hair. Never a slap, never a blow, never the mark of a belt on her buttocks. Never a punishment standing up or kneeling down, arms outspread under the merciless sun in the yard. Not even a word spoken louder than the next. Rather cascades of affection, with pet names and showers of kisses on the nape of her neck.
On Easter Monday they would load up a hamper with pots of conch in hot Colombo sauce and rice and set off with friends in a minibus to the beach at Grande-Anse, Deshaies. Marie-Noëlle chuckled and paddled in her Petit-Bateau panties while Rastamen with long fauve-colored dreadlocks played ball in the sand or beat the gwo-ka.
Marie-Noëlle's presence in the house turned Ranélise's life upside down. Until then she had been a woman who took in men. A lot of men. Inquisitive neighbors spied on those who went in at dusk to emerge only at dawn when the stars were fading. Starting with Gérardo Polius, the Communist mayor who had been a regular visitor for twenty years; and Alexis Alexius, his deputy, who slipped inside as soon as the mayor had turned his back. People did not gossip too much because Ranélise was a good soul. Always ready to help a neighbor, slip a banknote into the hands of the destitute, find a job for the unemployed or a place in the nursery school for an infant. From one day to the next, her reckless behavior changed. Except for Gérardo Polius, no man ever came to spend the night with her again. Although she abstained from taking the Holy Sacrament, she had nevertheless always been on good terms with the priests of Saint-Jules and organized carol singing in her yard at Advent. Now, without going so far as to take confession and communion, she never missed a mass, vespers, or rosary. She could be seen walking in the processions of the Holy Virgin, head lowered in prayer and striking her chest as if she never stopped thanking the Good Lord for all the happiness in her life.
Very early on, as soon as Marie-Noëlle started school, it was obvious that He who deals the gift of intelligence had not forgotten her. First in everything. When the prizes were handed out, she never stopped walking up to the podium. It was first prize after first prize, leather-bound books after gilt-edge books, and Ranélise paraded around, already the proud mother of a future schoolteacher. Even a midwife. For she had completely forgotten that Marie-Noëlle had not come out of her belly. Not that Reynalda did anything at all to remind her child she existed. Time passed. Days lapsed into months, months into years, and they received practically no news of her. A card at New Year's without an address. Clodomire Ludovic, a retired postman from the XIIIth Arrondissement in Paris, swore that one day he met her in the very middle of the Place d'Italie. She had looked him straight in the eye and pretended not to recognize him. In spite of the passing years, people often mentioned the name of Reynalda Titane. It's not every day you fish out a drowning girl from the waters of the Carenage. And why did she try to drown herself, come to that? If every girl who paraded around an unwanted bun in the oven did the same the earth would soon be emptied. Gradually all that was left in people's minds was the memory of an eccentric, sullen girl who had not been content with her daily lot.
Every time they talked of her maman Marie-Noëlle sensed a feeling of danger. It was as if an icy wind blew stealthily over her shoulders and she might catch pleurisy. She quickly tried to change the subject, showing off her latest composition or asking to recite a lesson. Sometimes in the middle of the night the thought of her mother gripped her and woke her up like a nightmare. She would start to cry inconsolably, and only the dawn light would dry her cheeks.
On her way to school she could not help making a detour via the rue de Nozières to look at Il Lago di Como, situated on the ground floor of a two-story wooden house that needed a fresh coat of paint. She sensed that this shop, which did not look like much, nothing more than a dark, narrow passageway, where the electric light was left on day and night, held the secret of her birth. What events so terrible had occurred a few years earlier to make her barely fifteen-year-old maman throw herself into the sea and seek death?
One day—she must have been almost ten—Marie-Noëlle plucked up enough courage, pushed open the door, and mingled with the flow of customers admiring the cameo brooches and pendants and all the Florentine engraving. The wife of the owner, pallid and fatigued, sat enthroned at the cash register. The two sisters wearing mantillas were talking to customers. In a corner three or four little girls were playing with rag dolls. Gian Carlo Coppini, a jeweler's loupe inserted into his right eye, his beard and handsome silky hair, now pepper and salt, reaching almost to his shoulders, was examining a green-colored gem. A thin black skullcap sat tightly on his head, which probably meant he was Jewish. After a while he laid the stone down on the counter and cast a look around him. He caught sight of Marie-Noëlle standing in a corner of the shop and gave her a suave, magnanimous smile, revealing a carnassial set of teeth, as if he were Our Lord Jesus Christ surrounded by his apostles. At that moment a young servant girl came out from the back of the shop carrying a small tray set with a white embroidered cloth, a gilt-edged cup, a sugar bowl, and a coffeepot. The girl poured the coffee into the cup, cautiously—like somebody fearing a reprimand—added two spoonfuls of sugar, and the penetrating aroma filled the shop.
Gian Carlo Coppini thanked her with a motion of the hand that dismissed her at the same time. Then, with the unctuousness of a priest drinking the Communion wine and yet with the theatricality of an actor, he lowered his eyes and brought the coffee cup level with his lips, which were like rosebuds set among his mass of hair. When Marie-Noëlle found herself back on the street under the sun, she leaned against a wall and almost fainted with emotion.
Yes, there was no doubt about it, this stranger had played a major role in her life.