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|The Last of the African Kings||1|
Spero was now wide awake. Although strongly built the frame of the house was being shaken by the wind and was creaking in every corner. September had long gone. Yet people were still frightened, wondering whether another Hugo would come to sow death and destruction as it did the year before. Downstairs Debbie was rummaging around in the kitchen. The smell of coffee wafted up the stairs and mingled with the powerful, nauseating stench of the swamps. The entire region was swampland, and the water mixed with the mud to form blackish pools that lapped against the feet of the tall trees. There were few houses on the island because of this insalubrious air, the closest being nearly ten miles away. So the days flowed by without a sound. Only at dusk was the air filled with the cries of seabirds flocking amidst the foliage. When the noise became too deafening Debbie would go out into the dark and set down bowls of milk and slices of fresh fruit under the pines and live oaks festooned with moss, in keeping with a tradition dating back to the time of Eulaliah, who had been the first to live in this house and fill it with children. The spirits of the ancestors were grieving. Spero had had trouble getting used to these surroundings and he still shivered sometimes when he looked outside. He sat on the edge of the bed and then stood up without too much difficulty, without feeling the pain that sometimes seared him from knee to groin. He went down into the kitchen. The television had already been switched on and a red-cheeked, dark-suited preacher with the blond hair of a choirboy, carefully parted on one side, was promising hell to the infidels and the halfhearted. That's how he knew it was Sunday. He gave Debbie the usual peck on the cheek and sat down on the other side of the table. She looked at him strangely. Then after a while, with her mouth full of grits, she said, "Don't you remember today's December Tenth?"
He was taken aback. He had somehow managed to forget this anniversary that had marked his childhood. On 10 December 1906 Djere, his grandfather, had performed a ritual from which Justin, his father, had never shirked. Justin, who never paid attention to anything except the curves and contours of a woman's body, had a requiem mass celebrated regularly in memory of the ancestor who had treated his Caribbean lineage so badly and reminded his sons that if it hadn't been for those wicked French they would all be rich and powerful and living in Africa. On that date the house was as dark as a catafalque. The windows remained closed. The radio was switched off. The mirrors were veiled in mauve crepe while incense burnt in front of the photograph whose frame had been polished the day before with a mixture of lemon and ashes. Marisia, Justin's wedded wife, wrung the neck of a chicken, cooked it without salt, and served it up with okra, dasheen leaves, crabs, and mashed yam from a recipe by Hosannah, Djere's mother. Marisia obeyed orders, but in her heart she was furious. She had no patience with this nonsense of a royal ancestor that was merely an excuse for Justin's idleness, as it had been for his father's. Neither Djere nor Justin had ever done a day's work in his life. It wasn't money that attracted women to them, that's for sure, but something in their aspect that you couldn't help noticing. Marisia had thrown into an iron trunk under the bed the pipe, the metal nose shield, the pair of sandals, the snuffbox, the fringed parasol, the spitoon, and the headdress of discolored pearls that had belonged to the ancestor. But she had been unable to unhook the photograph taken one morning in 1896 in Bellevue, Martinique--Djere had just turned one--that hung imposingly over the Henri II sideboard, ruelle 4, Morne Verdol, La Pointe, Guadeloupe. It was the first thing Hosannah had hung on the wall after she left Martinique to follow a worthy Guadeloupean home to his island to bring up her illegitimate son.
As for the boys, they never looked at the photograph and ignored their father's ramblings. All sorts of meaningless and senseless words flew out of Justin's mouth like silk-cotton tree flowers drifting here and there. Of the three boys only Spero paid scant attention to what Justin said, probably because his father spoiled him so much, calling him his "ray of sunshine" and going so far as to feed him morsels from his own mouth. This alliance had been cemented one Tuesday when the history teacher at the lycee during a class on the colonial conquest had mentioned the same name and told the same story Justin had been filling people's heads with for years. That day Spero dashed home where Marisia, her mouth full of pins and her hands white with chalk, was fitting a wedding dress on a customer. He slowed down in front of the photograph, then shot into the bedroom, where Justin was nursing a slight chill with doses of rum and lemon, sprawled out in his locust-wood bed.
"Papa, Papa," he stammered. "The teacher mentioned your grandfather!"
Justin found strength to sit up.
"What did he say?"
Spero dragged him in front of the picture in the dining room and, lowering his head, recited, "He said the French took his kingdom and gave it to his brother. They made him cross the sea that otherwise he would never have set eyes upon. In February 1894 they exiled him to Martinique where he stayed six years. Then he was allowed to leave. He returned to Africa and died in Algiers, like you said, on December tenth."
Ever since then father and son had spent their evenings whispering with their heads together, much to the irritation of Marisia. Spero was already a bad example to his two brothers, a good-for-nothing interested only in drawing and painting, without putting all sorts of other nonsense into his head.
African king or not, Djere's papa had behaved like all the other black papas on this earth. He neglected his child. He left him behind in the care of his poor single mother. He never answered the cards he received from his son every New Year, nor the letters from Hosannah who, encouraged by Romulus, the man she lived with, demanded money to cover expenses.
The child, it must be said, was never in want. He had sandals. He had shorts. He had shirts. He always had enough to eat. But was this life among the poor children of the Morne Verdol befitting a child of his blood?
Men are not fashioned the same way as women. In the bottomless calabash of their heads they cultivate ambitious nonsense that makes their existence even more difficult for them to bear.
Instead of forgetting all this past and quite simply looking the present straight in the eyes, Djere and Justin alike had clung to the remnants of a bygone age. As soon as he was old enough to understand what he was reading, Djere laid hands on everything he could concerning the history of Africa, especially Dahomey, which today they call Benin. He was not content with reading the worm-eaten books that lay dormant on the shelves of the Lambrianne library. No! He cut out coupons in catalogs and mailed orders to France. All with the money from his mother and the worthy Romulus, a nurse, who to make ends meet climbed up and down the Morne Verdol four times a day before climbing up and down the Morne Vert on which the hospital was perched.
Djere thus built up a magnificent collection of leatherbound books and illustrated magazines. Unfortunately the hurricane of 1928 carried everything off, scattering them over the coolie plum trees, and on his death just before the Second World War, his legacy was nothing but a series of notebooks numbered one to ten that were found at the bottom of a wardrobe. "The Notebooks of Djere." In them he had attempted to recount who his father was and who his mother was as well.
As regular as clockwork, the ancestor would amble down the steep path that folks in Martinique have since named the "royal way," clasping his son's hand. He would step out onto the road to Schoelcher and stride along under a parasol that one of his queens held open over his head. The inhabitants of Bellevue would come out on their doorsteps and with a total disregard for his dignified appearance double up with laughter and mimic his gestures as they watched him go by.
An African king? Whatever next? Whoever heard of kings in Africa? Those people boil each other in cauldrons.
It was a December Tenth, 10 December 1954 to be exact, on returning home from the requiem mass at Saint-Jules, that Spero had given Justin the picture he had secretly painted from the old photograph in the dining room. He had taken particular care in depicting his grandfather Djere's chubby baby face. Wearing a black tie and an armband on his left sleeve, Justin took the picture in both hands. Then the salty tears of pride and emotion flowed down his cheeks to his chin.
Although he never got angry like Marisia when he saw Spero idly daubing large sheets of drawing paper instead of studying to become an elementary-school teacher, he had never taken his son's taste for painting very seriously up till then. But he thought this picture extraordinary. Stunning. Frederic Devaux, the Frenchman who had painted the frescoes in the market and the subprefecture, could not have done better. He started filling in forms and applications for Spero and within a year managed to get him a grant to a school of fine arts in Lille.
That's how Spero came to spend five years in that cold, windy, often snowed-in town where the people are not very talkative. Once he had settled down in a hostel be could he seen more often in the library than at his drawing classes. Shutting himself away from morning to night he would devour every document imaginable written by historians on the defunct kingdom of Abomey. That's how he began a correspondence with Monsieur Bodriol, a former colonial administrator who had spent twenty years putting together the chapters of a work--which the critics agreed was monumental--on the god-kings of Benin, and how he came to visit him in Paris. For reasons he kept secret, this visit was not a success. Nevertheless, like a kpanlingan, a herald, he now knew by heart the kings genealogy from Huegbaja to that day of mourning in 1894 when the egg of the world had been smashed to a thousand smithereens. Spero liked to think he resembled his ancestor, whom even the most colonial of historians depicted as being a man full of fervor and charm. One thing bothered him: his color. Justin had apparently given in to that very Guadeloupean liking for light-skinned women and married Marisia, born from dealings with a beke, a white creole planter, which meant Spero turned out decidedly red of skin and hair. This troubled him. Couldn't this be taken as one of the deformities the dynasty detested? Hadn't King Agonglo rejected his firstborn because three toes were missing from his left foot? Hadn't Adandejan banished his son beyond the Zou River because there were gaps between his upper incisors big enough to insert the tip of his tongue?
During these four years of living and studying in Lille, Spero had told nobody his secret, not even the few women--linen and chamber maids at the hostel, peasant women from the north, sympathetic to immigrants--he was bold enough to seduce and make love to.
In fact, either because he feared ridicule or quite simply because he did not like talking about himself, he had never told anyone about the secret of his royal blood. Except Debbie.
He looked at her across the table, her eyes full of malice, her graying hair shaped into a ship's prow over a smooth forehead, her body, approaching fifty, hunched in her housecoat, and he felt bitter. Distressed at heart, he saw her again as she was some twenty-five years earlier when she had walked into his life.
After two years back home in Guadeloupe he had still not found a job. By his own choosing. He had turned down a teaching job at the technical college in Saint-Claude because he couldn't face crossing the bridge over the Gabarre and being away from Justin, who, despite his ramblings and what Marisia called his laziness, had always preferred him to his other two boys. He refused a job in Le Moule because it was too hot and the reflection of the sun off the sea hurt his eyes, which, as weak as the ancestor's, were always carefully shaded behind sunglasses. He got into the habit of selling his watercolors--a genre he came to prefer over all others while working with Jean Lapouille, the well-known painter from Lille--to the passengers from the cruise ships that docked in the port twice a month. All he had to do was set up his paintings under the almond trees and wait. The silver-haired Americans would limp to a halt, utter cries of admiration, and end up digging out dollars from wallets as roomy as suitcases. Spero could speak a few words of English. "You like it? Not expensive, you know. You give how much?" And at the end of the afternoon, under the contemptuous gaze of Marisia, who had never been very fond of this eldest son who was too much like his father, he would pull out of his pockets as much money as his younger brother Maxo earned after a month pushing paper in the local office of an insurance company from Le Mans. One fine day a young black girl stopped in front of him. Tall. Very tall in fact. Her head positively soared into the air, with a huge mouth and black eyes full of the same sadness he himself felt at the bottom of his heart when the sun ends its day and the earth is left to the terror of dreams. Suddenly he felt ashamed sitting there holding out his hand to white folks (for what else was he doing? Marisia asked) and he jumped up. But she was captivated like the others and asked in a fairly respectable French, "How much is this one?"
At the school of fine arts Spero had been one of the last in his class. The teachers had never paid much attention to this Guadeloupean who swallowed his rs and often missed classes.
He didn't mind. He had no ambition whatsoever. He painted because he hated everything else and did not want to become an elementary-school teacher to help out his parents. When he stood in front of his easel, wings grew out of his shoulders. He thought of nothing. Nothing that would make him think about how to spend the time we have to spend on this earth.
Debbie's admiration had the effect of a shot of rum on an empty stomach. Somewhere inside him he found the courage to invite her for sugarcane juice at the Palmeraie and was staggered when she accepted. So they left the curve of the docks, walked down the main street that ran straight between balconied colonial facades protected by wooden canopies, and plunged into the chaos of the rue de Nozieres. He very soon realized that Debbie had an awful lot to say. Words gushed out. This Caribbean cruise organized by the Black Caucus, an association of black teachers from South Carolina, had been a present from her mother as a reward for getting through college, and it was not a great success. Far from it. They visited a different island every day, and every one was the same as the next with its facade of palm trees and paradisical beaches. On board everyone seemed to be forgetting the convulsions shaking America at the time. It was all games, entertainment, and laughter fit for children. Three years earlier she had lost her father to political violence and her heart would not heal. She had buried herself in her studies and emerged at the age of twenty-two with a history degree. Her only regret was that her studies had taken her away from more burning issues. She had never taken part in any major demonstration and the only militant act she could boast of was a sit-in in Woolworth's cafeteria.
Spero knew nothing at all about girls. After the glass of cane juice he shyly proposed a meal in a restaurant at Bas-du-Fort and got it accepted as well. This time they climbed into a bus parked in the market square, and never had the town they traversed seemed to Spero so congested, so small, so poor in architectural monuments and unworthy of the attention of such a beautiful foreigner. As they crossed the Carenage district the sky darkened and there was a violent cloudburst. In seconds the streets were swollen rivers, and picking up their petticoats, the women ran to take shelter under the balconies of the storied houses. Debbie didn't see a thing. She went on talking as if she hadn't found a sympathetic ear for years! Her family, the Middletons, came from Barbados, which partly explained her mother's good intentions. All that, however, had been lost in the mists of time and they were now considered to be one of Charleston's oldest families. She lived in a hundred-year-old house on Crocker Island, a swampy, half-deserted place that was linked to the mainland by a dilapidated ferry. It rained all the time and on some days you couldn't tell the sky from the sea.
When the little church nearby rang three in the afternoon she was thinking of returning to the docks when Spero, spurred on by despair, managed to invite her to look at his paintings.
The bus stopped at the foot of the Morne Verdol, which had to be climbed head-down under the hot sun. Spero felt ashamed. Although the top of the hill was covered with a wonderful crown of tamarind trees and ylang-ylangs, the perfume trees, halfway up it was an ugly mess of corrugated iron shacks connected to the street by two or three planks laid over a ditch filled with blackish water. The place stank of filth and sewage. Thank goodness Debbie was still talking and paid no more attention to this than she did to the blue sea at Bas-du-Fort or the madras headties of the women who came out on their doorsteps to look suspiciously at this new face. She stopped talking only to inspect with authority the paintings piled up just about everywhere in the house, lingering over the few compositions in oil and mentioning names that Spero had never heard of but was suddenly convinced he could match, even outdo. Beauford Delaney. Jacob Lawrence. Romare Bearden. When she thought about getting back to the docks he did not know what came over him. He started telling her where, despite unfortunate appearances, his family came from. He had to have this woman in his life. At the end of the day, sitting side by side on a wicker trunk, they watched the SS Mariposa slip majestically out of Pointe-a-Pitre harbor. A tangled pile of pink and white clouds veiled the shipwreck of the sun, and Spero reveled in this first so very extraordinary victory of his life, which had been so arid until then.
You can imagine how pleased Marisia was to see this intruder turn up at her house!
Until then her three sons had not caused her any trouble and the neighbors on the Morne Verdol had had no need to lock up their chicks. Suddenly, one of them was bringing home a woman. And what a woman! A woman who didn't speak Creole. A woman who felt the cold and asked for hot bath water twice a day. A woman who suspiciously inspected everything she was given to eat and drink. What annoyed her even more was that Maxo and Lionel had fallen under the spell of the American, too. On weekends, Maxo, an ardent sportsman, accompanied Debbie up to the top of La Soufriere to compare the colors of the volcanic peaks. Some Saturdays he would even drag her along the Victor Hugues forest path to contemplate the massive outlines of Mount Carmichael and the Grande-Decouverte. Lionel, more bucolic by nature, was content to have her admire the Bauhinia variegata, the orchid tree, at the Tambour nurseries. Every afternoon she would be enthroned in the dining room beside Spero, getting in the way of customers and their fittings, deciphering Djere's notebooks with the aid of a dictionary.
In his exile in Martinique, it was not so much the extreme solitude of his existence that saddened the ancestor's spirit. Nor his downfall, pronounced by white men who meant nothing in his eyes. Nor the dethronement of his brother, which he had learned about from press clippings read to him by Ouanilo. It was the thought that he had been too busy fighting for his throne, which in the end he had lost, to think about performing the first funeral rites for his father. Only forty-one young boys and forty-one young girls had been sacrificed. Wouldn't the daadaa, the ancestors, hold it against him? How would he be welcomed when his turn came to enter Kutome, the City of the Dead? As a result, he had one nightmare after another. His wives, left untouched, heard him cry like an infant in the middle of the night.
Debbie still found time to give the boys a lesson in politics. What? They knew nothing about America and its problems? They had never heard the names of W. E. B. Du Bois? Malcolm X? Martin Luther King Jr.? They had never heard of the concept of nonviolence?
Ashamed, Spero stammered out a dubious answer. As for Maxo and Lionel, they couldn't find any excuses.
Justin, too, cast a disapproving eye on this love affair between Spero and his American girl. Up till then his boy had been only his. His and the ancestor's. Now a woman had come between them. He had already found him changed--for the worse--on his return from Lille. On his first December Tenth back home on the Morne Verdol, Spero had had to be persuaded to attend the requiem mass, and as soon as he swallowed the yam mash he had washed his mouth out with a glass of rum as if the insipid taste disgusted him. At present there was no time left for chatting with his papa or for reading him pages out of Djere's notebooks. As soon as the news was over on the radio he locked himself away with Debbie in his bedroom. There was no need to press your ear against the wooden door to hear them laugh and make indecent noises. When oh when would Debbie take herself back home?
One September evening--the rainy season had been particularly rainy, swelling the ditches with torrents of water and pounding the mud--Spero and Debbie pulled out a bottle of Moet et Chandon that had been chilling in an ice bucket, and looking into each other's eyes they announced to the bewildered family their plans to get married and leave for Charleston.
"Did you really forget today's December Tenth?"
Debbie couldn't believe it, suspecting a ruse she didn't understand. He nodded.
Hadn't he in fact started to forget this date twenty-five years earlier, as soon as he had set foot in Charleston? When he realized he was not much different from those around him who changed their first names, draped themselves in African wrappers, and wore a triple necklace of cowries? Their fantasy matched his truth. Gradually he had left the ancestor where he belonged and only Debbie remained the princess, till she became the queen mother.
As soon as their child was old enough, every December Tenth Debbie made her join hands in front of the framed portrait of the ancestor that she had hung on a wall. On a kind of altar she kept candles burning and placed a bunch of fresh flowers. The child adapted perfectly to this atmosphere, to these litanies her mother had her recite, and was delighted with the story her mother told her.
Spero remembered his joy when his daughter was born. Neither of them had wanted a child, for they sensed that as a couple they were not destined to last a lifetime. Their love resembled a tropical storm: sudden and violent, then evaporating into space. Why had Debbie interrupted her cruise so easily? That's anybody's guess. And why did he go into exile and follow her to Charleston? Had either of them ever believed in a glorious future in his painting? Had she perhaps merely made him dream of another place, of another land less irksome and mean than his own?
When he hugged his daughter warm up against his chest Spero had nurtured the illusion that his real life was finally beginning. In his breast his heart had melted with love and hope. A daughter! A daughter!
On the Morne Verdol, people said the family had no luck with daughters. And it's true that first Cyprienne and then Marisia had produced only boys. During her third pregnancy Marisia was convinced from her shape that she would give birth to the long-hoped-for daughter. So disappointed was she that she refused to kiss baby Lionel for three days. Justin, however, adapted very well to his paternity, saying that the descendants of such an ancestor could only be male.
As for Debbie she wanted a boy, and without consulting Spero went through some highly symbolic first names. Malcolm. Sekou. Jomo. Kwame. Modibo. Patrice. When their baby finally arrived the names looked silly, and Spero quickly came up with the name of a blues singer he liked.
A daughter! A token of fertility and a promising future. From now on he would paint for her and make a name for himself.
Very quickly, however, he had become disillusioned. Claiming the infant was sickly, Debbie monopolized her entirely. She took her into her own bed and banished Spero to one of the guest rooms facing north on the third floor. Alone under his sheets he could hear the long talks between mother and child, and once again he felt a foreigner, an exile.
It's true that when she was little Anita was whimpering and wan! Nobody could have foreseen the young beauty she was to grow into once her puberty was over. She did pick up a little the year Debbie took her to Balsa Muir, a small town in South Carolina where a certain Victoria, who had received the gift of God, practised the laying on of hands and advised her to dress the child in red on Fridays and white the other days of the week. Perhaps Spero had begun to forget the ancestor the day his daughter was born: her birth had broken the tradition of boys, and this transgression rooted him firmly in the present, demonstrating that yesterday was well and truly yesterday and today was the only thing that mattered.
He could do nothing about Debbie filling the child's head with these old stories that were better left forgotten. She embroidered on them as she pleased. Djere was no longer the illegitimate son abandoned with his servant mother like a bundle of dirty linen in a villa on the outskirts of Fort-de-France, but the son of a young lady, a proud example of Martinique's upper class who had not had the heart to leave Papa, Maman, and her island. During his exile in Algeria that followed his exile in Martinique, the ancestor had not let a single day go by without mentioning the names of Djere and Hosannah. After his death, the Caribbean lineage had been constantly urged to return to the motherland and take its rightful place.
How could Spero have contradicted such fantasies when the colors of reality were so somber? In Charleston the blood of martyrs had not made the ground fertile. Schools and housing still remained de facto segregated. The black schools were in a terrible state! At the college where Debbie taught history, revolver-holstered vigilantes made the students empty their bulging pockets of jagged-edged knives, six-blade pocket knives, razors, and other arms. Right in the middle of East Bay a man had killed two blacks who thought the South had gone with the wind, and he was still on the run. At Sunday services worshippers swayed and clapped, wondering when the famous dream that had got so much media attention would finally come true. It's been so long coming, O Lord, we've lost faith. Was he too just another false prophet?
Debbie wanted Anita to know Africa. So year after year she inked in for her the lengthy forms from Operations Crossroads Africa whereby the children of America are initiated into the realities of the Third World. Alas, year after year, they were returned marked "Refused for health reasons." Africa had therefore remained a blank until Anita flew off to Benin after four years of development studies at Liman College. She left without asking anyone's permission and her departure seemed very much like a final farewell. During an entire year Spero and Debbie received only two postcards from her, each with a flag printed in the left-hand corner. The first pictured rows of women with identical headpieces, dressed in wrappers of the same color and design. The second portrayed children, also in rows, giving a vaguely martial salute. Worried, Spero tried to make enquiries and was given to believe that the military leader who had been in power for ten years had been driven out by a palace revolt. Apparently this did not reassure Debbie, for he continued to hear her sob her heart out night after night. What's more, all Debbie's letters went unanswered. So it was all he could do to prevent her from joining a package tour to the old forts of Ghana. Elmina. Dixcove. Cape Coast. Anomabu. Prampram. Once she had set foot on the soil of Africa, she hoped to take leave of her traveling companions and set off in search of her daughter. If their daughter did not want to see them, wouldn't it be better to respect her decision, for love's sake?
Debbie got up awkwardly to plug in the toaster and asked with a touch of pity in her voice, "What are you thinking of doing today?"