From The Stone That the Builder Refused


First published in Conjunctionsn 41, Fall 2003 under the title "Two Kingdoms"

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell (c) 2004  all print rights reserved



 Chapter 3

Cry in the Dark


            "You were uneasy in the night," Michel Arnaud remarked to his wife.

            "Oh?" said Claudine Arnaud, pausing with her coffee cup in mid-air.  "I regret to have disturbed your rest."

            "It is nothing," Arnaud said.  He looked at her sidelong.  The suspended coffee cup showed no hint of a tremor.  In fact, Claudine had appeared to gain strength these last few months.  She was lean, certainly, but no longer looked frail.  Her face, once pallid, had broken out in freckles, since lately she took no care against the sun.  She sipped from her cup and set it down precisely in the saucer, then reached across the table to curl her fingers over his wrist.

            "Don't concern yourself," Claudine said, with a transparent smile.  "I have no trouble."  Behind her chair, the mulattress Cléo shifted her feet, staring mistrustfully down at Arnaud, who raised his eyes to meet hers briefly.

            "Encore du café, s'il vous plaît."

            Cléo moved around the table, lifted the pot and poured.  The pot was silver, newly acquired-- lately they'd begun to replace some of the amenities lost or destroyed when the rebel slaves burned this plantation in 1791.  Household service was improving too, though it came wrapped in what Arnaud was wont to regard as an excess of mutual politeness.  And Cléo's attachment to his wife was a strange thing! --though he got an indirect benefit from it.  In the old days, when Cléo had been his mistress as well as his housekeeper, the two women had hated each other cordially.

            He turned his palm up to give his wife's fingers a little squeeze, then disengaged his hand and stirred sugar into his coffee.  White sugar, of his own manufacture.  There was that additional sweetness-- very few cane planters on the Northern Plain had recovered their operations to the point of producing white sugar rather than the less laborious brown.

            Marie-Noelle came out onto the long porch to serve a platter of bananas and fried eggs.  Arnaud helped himself generously, and covertly studied the black girl's hips, moving deliciously under the thin cotton of her gown as she walked away.  In the old days, he'd have had her before breakfast, and never mind who heard or knew.  But now--  he felt Cléo's eyes were drilling him and looked away, from everyone; he hardly knew where to rest his gaze.

            Down below the low hill where the big house stood, the small cabins and ajoupas of the field-hands he'd been able to regather spread out around the tiny chapel Claudine had insisted that he build.  The blacks were now taking their own morning nourishment and marshalling themselves for a day in the cane plantings or at the mill; soon the iron bell would be rung.  Claudine and Arnaud were breakfasting on the porch, for the hypothetical cool, but there was none.  The air was heavy, oppressively damp; drifts of soggy blue cloud cut off the sun.

            Arnaud looked at his wife again, more carefully.  It was true that she appeared quite well.  There was no palsy, no mad glitter in her eye.  Last night they had made love, an uncommon thing for them, and it had been uncommonly successful.  They fell away from each other into deep black slumber, but sometime later in the night Arnaud had been roused by her spasmodic kicking.  She thrashed her head in a tangle of hair and out of her mouth rose a long high silvery ululation.  Then her voice broke and went deep and rasping, as her whole body became rigid, trembling as she uttered the words in Creole: Aba blan! Tuyé moun-yo!  Then she'd convulsed, knees drawing to her chest, the cords of her neck all standing out taut as speechlessly she strangled.  Arnaud had been ready to run for help, but then Claudine relaxed, went limp and presently began to snore.

            He himself had slept but lightly for what remained of the night.  And now he thought that Cléo, who slept in the next room, beyond the flimsiest possible partition, must have heard it all.  Down with the whites.  Kill those people!

            Down below the iron bell clanged, releasing him.  Arnaud pushed back his chair and stood.  When he bent down to peck at his wife's cheek, Claudine turned her face upward so that he received her lips instead.


            A hummingbird whirred before a hyacinth bloom, and Claudine felt her mind go out of her body, into the invisible blur of those wings.  She had gone down the steps from the porch to watch her husband descend the trail to his day's work.  Behind her she heard Cléo and Marie Noelle muttering as they cleared the table.

            "Té gegne lespri nan tet li, wi...."

            True for them, and Claudine felt no resentment of the comment.  There was a spirit in her head....  She was so visited sometimes when she slept, as well as when the drums beat in the hounfor.  To others, a spirit might bring counsel, knowledge of the future even, but Claudine never remembered anything at all.  Unless someone perhaps could tell her what words had been uttered through her lips-- but she would not ask Arnaud.  Afterward she normally felt clean and free, but today she was only more agitated.  Perhaps it was the heavy weather.  Her hands opened and closed at her hips.  She could not tell which way to turn.

            At this hour she might normally have convened the little school she operated for the smaller children of the plantation (though Arnaud thought it a frivolity and would have stopped it if he could).  But in the heavy atmosphere today the children would be indisposed.  And though her teaching often soothed her own disquiet, she thought today that it would not.  She turned from the descending path and walked around the back of the house, swinging her arms lightly to dry the dampness of her palms. 

            Here another trail went zigzag up the cliff, and Claudine grew more damp and clammy as she climbed.  A turn of the trail brought her to a flat pocket, partly sheltered by a great boulder the height of her own shoulders.  The trail ended in this spot.  She stopped to breathe.  This lassitude!  She was weary from whatever had passed in the night, the thing that she could not recall.  She waited till her breath was even, till her pulse no longer throbbed, then, standing tip-toe, reached across the boulder to wet her fingers in the trickle of spring water that ran down the wrinkles of the black rock.  The water was sharply cold, a grateful shock.  She sipped a mouthful from the leaking cup of her hand, then pressed her dampened fingertips against her throat and temples.

            "M'ap bay w dlo," a child's voice called from behind and above her.  "Kite'm fe sa!"

            Claudine settled back on her heels.  In fact the runnel of the spring was just barely within her longest reach.  Etienne, a black child probably five years old, bare-legged and clothed only in the ragged remnant of a cotton shirt, scampered down toward her, his whole face alight.  I'll give you water-- let me do it.  There was no trail where he descended, and the slope was just a few degrees off the vertical, but a few spotted goats were grazing the scrub there among the rocks and Etienne moved as easily as they.  He bounced down onto the level ground beside her, and immediately turned to fish out a gourd cup that lay atop a barrel of meal in a crevice of the cliff-- Arnaud having furnished this spot as an emergency retreat.  Grinning, Etienne scrambled to the top of the boulder and stretched the gourd out toward the spring, careless of the sixty-foot drop on which he teetered.

            "Ai," Claudine gasped.  "Attention, cheri."  She took hold of his shirt-tail.  But Etienne's balance was flawless; he put no weight against her grip.  In a moment he had slipped down to the boulder and was raising the brimming gourd to her.

            "W'ap bwe sa, wi," he said.  You'll drink this.

            "Yes," Claudine, accepting the gourd with a certain ceremony.  The water was very cool and sweet.  She swallowed and returned the gourd to him half full and when he'd drunk his share, she curtsied with a smile.  Etienne giggled.  Claudine smoothed her skirts and sat down on a stone, looking out.

            Below, the cabins of the field-hands fanned out randomly from the little white-washed chapel.  They'd overbuilt the site of the old grand'case which had been burned in the risings of 1791-- the house that had been the theater of her misery when Arnaud first brought her out to Saint Domingue from France.  More distant, two dark threads of smoke were rising from the cane mill and distillery, and further still, two teams of men with ox-drawn wagons were cutting and loading cane from the wide carrés marked out by citrus hedges.

            The higher ground where Arnaud had built the new grand'case was a better spot, less plagued by insects, more secure.  On any height, however modest, one had a better chance to catch a breeze.  Claudine realized she had hoped for a breath of wind when she climbed here, but there was none, only the heavy air and the lowering sky, the dull weight of anticipation.  Something was coming-- she didn't know what.  She might, perhaps, ask Cléo what she had shouted in her sleep....

            A cold touch startled her.  She turned her head; the smiling Etienne was dabbling water around the neck line of her dress.  After the first jolt the sensation was pleasant.  She felt a drop purl down the joints of her spine.

            "Ou pa apprann nou jodi-a," he said.  You are not teaching us today.  A statement, not a question.

            "Non," said Claudine, and as she thought, "It is Saturday."

            Etienne leaned against her back, draping an arm across her shoulder.  His slack hand lay at the top of her breast, his cheek against her hair.  In the heat his warm weight might have been disagreeable, but she felt herself wonderfully comforted.

            Idly her gaze drifted toward the west.  Along the allée which ran to the main road, about two thirds of the royal palms still stood.  The rest had been destroyed in the insurrection, so that the whole looked like a row of broken teeth.  It seemed that the high palms shivered slightly, though where she sat Claudine could feel no breeze.  Beyond, the green plain curved toward the horizon and the blue haze above the sea.  Midway, a point of dust moved spiderlike in her direction.

            She shifted her position when she noticed this, and felt that Etienne's attention had focussed too, though neither of them spoke.  They watched the dot of dust until it grew into a plume, pushing its way toward them through the silence.  Then Claudine saw the silver flashing of the white horse in full gallop, and the small, tight-knit figure of the leading rider. The men of his escort carried pennants on long staves.

            "Come!" she said, jumping up from her stone.  "We must go down quickly."

            It seemed unlikely that Etienne would have recognized the horseman, but he ran down the path ahead of her in a state of high excitement, his velocity attracting other small children into his wake.  Claudine went more slowly, careful of the grade.  As she passed the house, Cléo came out onto the long porch, shading her eyes to look into the west, and Marie Noelle joined her, wiping her hands on her apron.

            Claudine stopped at the edge of the compound, looking down the long allée to the point where Arnaud had recently hung a wooden gate to the stone posts from which the original ironwork had been torn.  She watched; for a time there was no movement.  Nearby a green shoot had sprung four feet high from the trunk of a severed palm, and a blue butterfly hovered over its new fronds.  Etienne and the playmates he'd gathered went hurtling down the allée, scattering a couple of goats who'd wandered there.  The children braked to a sudden halt at the skirl of a lambi shell.  Immediately the wooden gates swung inward.  Flanked by the pennants of his escort, Toussaint Louverture rode toward her at a brisk trot, astride his great white charger, Bel Argent.

            Claudine drew herself a little straighter, and crossed her hands below her waistline.  She was conscious of how she must appear, fixed in the long perspective of the green allée.  There was a hollow under her heels where once had been a gallows post.  She took a step forward onto surer ground, and recomposed herself for the reception.

            Spooked by the advancing horsemen, the children turned tail and came running back toward her.  Etienne and Marie Noelle's oldest boy Dieufait took hold of her skirts on either side and peeped out from behind her.  Toussaint had slowed his horse to a walk several yards short of her, so as not to coat her with his dust.  He slipped down from the saddle, and walked toward her, leading Bel Argent by the reins.  As always, she was a little surprised to see that he was no taller than she was herself once he had dismounted.  Shaking the children free of her skirt, she curtsied to his bow.

            "You are welcome General," she said, "to Habitation Arnaud."

            "Merci."  Toussaint took her hand in his oddly pressureless grip and bowed his head over it.  Claudine felt a tingle that sprang upward from the arches of her feet-- when she'd thought herself long immune to such a blush.  There was a pack of rumors lately, that Toussaint received the amours of many white women of the highest standing, attracted by the thrill of his power if they were not simply angling for gain.  He did not kiss her hand, however, but only breathed upon her knuckles, and now he raised his eyes to meet her own.  His hat was in his other hand, his head bound up in a yellow madras cloth.  The gaze was assaying, somehow.  Toussaint broke it with a click of his tongue, as if he'd seen what he'd been looking for.

            "You'll stay the night," Claudine said.  "I trust-- I hope."

            "Oh no, madame," Toussaint told her, and covered his mouth with his long fingers, as if it pained him to disappoint her.  "Your pardon, but we are pressed-- we stop for water only, for our horses and ourselves."

            Behind him, Guiaou and Riau had ridden up, Guiaou still brandishing the rosy conch shell he'd used to trumpet their arrival.  Claudine pressed her hand to the flat bone between her breasts.

            "But-- tomorrow we will celebrate the Mass."

            "Is it so?" said Toussaint, smiling slightly, with the same automatic movement to cover his mouth.  "Well then.  Of course."

            Claudine fluttered at the little boys who still stood round-eyed at her back.  "Did you not hear?" she hissed at them.  "Go find something for these men to drink-- and take their horses to water."


            Michel Arnaud received the news of Toussaint's arrival with mixed emotions.  The word that horsemen were on the way came to him shouted from man to man across the cane fields, and by the time he stepped to the door of the mill he had the comical view of tiny Dieufait leading the huge white warhorse toward the water trough.  Toussaint was here, Arnaud thought, in part to reassure himself-- to touch the proofs that his government had restored conditions wherein a planter might refine white sugar.  For sugar was money, and money was guns.... Arnaud chopped off that sequence of ideas.  Also of course there was the issue of inspection, and enforcement of the new and strict labor code for the free blacks.    Arnaud had benefited from these rules, although his workers found them very harsh.  But at any rate it was better to be inspected by Toussaint than Dessalines.  The whip had been long since abandoned, but if Dessalines got hold of a laggard or a truant he might order the culprit flogged with a bundle of thorny vines, which tore the skin and laid the flesh open to infection, so that the man might afterwards die.  It was true that the others would work that much harder, for a few days at least after Dessalines had passed.  Toussaint had a different style-- if he had not been terribly provoked, he punished only with a glare, whereupon the suspect would apply himself to his cane knife or hoe with tripled diligence, pursued by his own imagination of what might follow if he did not.

            But somehow Arnaud was not eager for this meeting.  Let Claudine play hostess if she would; he knew she'd press Toussaint and his men to dine with them that night.  If he accepted, they'd be in for a display of his famous piety on the morrow morn....  He pulled down the brim of the wide straw hat he wore against the sun, and walked behind the mill down the crooked path which led through the bush to his distillery.  Arnaud did not drink strong spirits as carelessly as he once had, but it seemed to him now advisable to test the quality of the morning run.

            There, about twenty minutes later, Toussaint came down with his companions: Captain Riau of the Second Regiment and Guiaou, a cavalryman from Toussaint's honor guard.  At once Arnaud, bowing and smiling, proffered a sample of his first-run rum, but the Governor-General refused it, though he saw it dripped directly from the coil.  Riau and Guiaou accepted their measure, and drank with evident enthusiasm.

            "What news have you from the Collège de la Marche?" Toussaint inquired.

            "I beg your pardon?" Arnaud stuttered. 

            Toussaint did not bother to repeat the question.  Arnaud's brain ratcheted backward.  A couple of Cléo's sons, whom he had fathered, had indeed been recently shipped off to that same school in France where Toussaint's brats were stabled.  They were actually Arnaud's only sons so far as he knew, as Claudine was barren, but he had never meant to acknowledge them.  He had sold all Cléo's children off the plantation when they were quite small, but a couple of them had reappeared, a little after Cléo did.  Faced with Cléo's importuning, Arnaud had seen the wisdom of sending those boys overseas to school-- which got them off the property at least.  In his present situation he was not able to pay the whole of their expenses, but it seemed that Cléo had a brother who'd prospered quite wonderfully under the new regime....

            How the devil had Toussaint known about it?  He made it his business to know many unlikely things.  At least he had not put the question in Claudine's presence; there was that to be grateful for.

            "No, no, we have heard nothing yet," he said, with rather a sickly smile.  "The boys are remiss! -they do not write their mother."

            There the subject rested.  The four of them set out on the obligatory tour: Cane fields, provision grounds, the cane mill and refinery....  At the end, Toussaint intruded into Arnaud's books, pursing his lips or raising his eyebrows over the figures of his exports and his income.

            Claudine, with the aid of Marie Noelle and Cléo, had organized a midday meal featuring grilled freshwater fish, with a sauce of hot peppers, tomato and onion.  Toussaint took none of this, but only a piece of bread, a glass of water, and an uncut mango.  Arnaud knew or at least suspected that his well-known abstemiousness was rooted in a fear of poison.  But Riau and Guiaou ate heartily, and Riau, the more articulate of the pair, was ready enough with his compliments.  Then, finally, at the peak of the afternoon's heat, it was time for the siesta.


            The mattress was soggy under her back.  Claudine could feel sweat pooling before the padding could absorb it.  She could not sleep, could hardly rest, tired as she felt from the night before.  The heat was still more smothering than it had been this morning. Toussaint's arrival partly explained her mood, she thought; it was the thing she had felt coming, but it was not yet complete, and so her restlessness was not assuaged.  Through the slats of the jalousies she could hear Cléo's murmuring voice as she gossiped with one of Toussaint's men on the porch.

            At her side, Arnaud released a snore.  Claudine felt a flash of resentment, that he could rest when she could not.  But he'd taken a strong measure of rum with his lunch, which was no longer his usual practice.  When he lay down, Arnaud had taken her left hand in his and dozed off caressing, with the ball of his thumb, the wrinkled stump of the finger where she'd once worn her wedding ring.  He did this often, almost always, but there was nothing erotic in it, and hardly any tenderness; it was more like the superstitious fondling of a fetish.  Now she carefully disengaged her hand, slid quietly to the edge of the bed and stood.

            Cléo sat on the edge of a stool, in a pose which showed the graceful line of her back as she bent her attention on Captain Riau, who stood below the porch railing, looking up at her.  "Where are you going with Papa Toussaint?" she asked him.  Claudine heard a flirtatious lilt in her voice.

            "To Santo Domingo," Riau said.  "Across the border, at Ouanaminthe--" it seemed as if he would have continued, but he saw Claudine in the doorway and stopped.

            "Bon soir, madame," he said, lowering his head.  "Good evening."  His military coat was very correct, despite the suffocating heat-- brass buttons all done up in a row.  As soon as he'd spoken he turned away and began striding down the path toward the lower ground.  There was room in the grand'case only for Toussaint himself, so Marie-Noelle had found pallets for his men in the compound below.

            Cléo turned toward Claudine, her face a mask.  That same face with its long oval shape and its smooth olive tone, which Claudine had once hated so desperately.  The years between had left some lighter lines around Cléo's eyes and at the corners of her mouth, but she was still supple, still attractive, though Arnaud no longer went to her bed.  In her frustration, Claudine stretched out her hands to her.

            "What was it shouted in my sleep last night?" she said.

            Cléo's face became a degree more closed. 

            "M pa konnen," she said.  I don't know.

            Claudine felt a stronger pulse of the old jealous rage.  The one face before became all the faces closed against her, yellow or black, withholding the secrets so vital to her life.  In those old days she could not visit her anger directly upon Cléo (Arnaud had protected the housekeeper from that) so she had worked it out on others in her vicinity.  She took a step forward with her hands still outstretched.

            "Di mwen," she said.  Tell me.

            Cléo's expression broke into an awful sadness.

            "Fok w blié sa," she said, but tenderly.  You must forget it.  She took Claudine's two hands and hers and pressed them.  Claudine felt her anger fade, her frustration melt into a simpler, pain, more pure.  It was too hot for an embrace, but she lowered her hot forehead to touch Cléo's cooler one, then let the colored woman go and walked down the steps.

            In the compound below, Claudine drifted toward her schoolhouse, no more than a frame of sticks roofed over with palm leaves, which the children would replace as needed.  There were some solidly made peg benches, and a rough lectern Arnaud had ordered built as a gift to her.  This afternoon, four of the benches had been shoved together to make room for two mats on the dirt floor.  Guiaou lay on one of these, breathing heavily in sleep, and Riau on the other, his uniform coat neatly folded on the bench beside him.  His eyes were lidded but Claudine did not think he was really asleep; she thought he was aware of her presence, though he did not show it.  She could see her own spare reflection warped in the curve of the silver helmet he'd set underneath the bench.

            Pursued by Etienne, Dieufait ran by outside, rolling a wooden hoop with a stick.  The two children disappeared among the clay-walled cases.  Grazing her fingertips over the lectern, Claudine left the shade of the school roof and walked toward the chapel.  En route she passed the little case inhabited by Moustique and Marie-Noelle.  The cloth that closed the doorway was gathered with a string, and glancing past its edges, Claudine saw Moustique's ivory feet hanging off the edge of the mat where he lay.  Marie-Noelle was on her side, turned toward him and between them their new baby lay curled and quietly sleeping.

            Envy pricked at Claudine again as she went into the chapel.  There was no door, properly speaking, but close-hung bead strings in place of one whole wall, which could be pulled back to open a view of the altar to the compound outside.  The interior space was very small, built on the same plan as a dog-shed that had once stood there.  The walls were whitewashed, and eight pegged benches like those in the school were arranged in a double row.  Claudine sat down on the farthest bench from the altar-- no more than an ordinary wooden table.  Above it hung a crucifix carved in mahogany from the fevered imagination of one of the Africans of the plantation-- or maybe it was drawn from life, for certainly there had been horrors enough, in the last ten years of war, to inspire such a grotesquerie as he had made.

            Claudine sat still, her back rigorously straight, hands folded in her lap.  The bead curtain hung motionless behind her, and on the roof the heat bore down.  She could not pray or think or breathe.  That drumbeat she almost thought she heard was only the pulse in the back of her neck, a headache rising; it would not move the spirit through her.

            After a long time, the bead curtains rustled and Toussaint Louverture walked into the chapel.  Claudine registered his presence without quite turning her head.  Reciprocally, Toussaint displayed no consciousness of her.  He walked slowly between the two rows of benches, stopped before the altar, and stood looking up at Christ's carved wounds.  After some time he crossed himself and sat down on the first bench, to the left of the cross.  Reaching both hands to the back of his head, he undid the knot of his yellow madras, which he spent some time folding into a small triangular packet.  Claudine had not seen him completely uncovered before.  The dome of his head was high and long, the black skin gleaming on the crown.  He gave his folded headcloth a couple of firm pats with his right palm, as if he meant to secure it to the bench, then joined his hands and bowed his head to pray.

            As time passed the light seemed to grow dimmer.  Claudine did not know if the clouds were thickening outside or if it were only an effect of her own fatigue.  She watched Toussaint, whose right hand slowly clicked through the beads of a curiously carved wooden rosary.  A movement of the damp air stirred the strings of the curtain behind her, and she felt a current lifting toward the roof, where the eaves had been left open for ventilation. 

            Finally Toussaint had concluded his prayer.  He stood up, gathering his folded headcloth in the hand that held the rosary.  When he turned toward Claudine he enacted a startle of surprise.

            "O," he said.  "Madame Arnaud."

            "Monsieur le général."  She made a slight movement as if she would rise.  A gesture of Toussaint's palm restored her to her seat.  She watched him walking slowly toward her.  His head was outsized for the wiry, jockey's body-- the great orb of his skull counterbalanced by the long, jutting lower jaw.  The body, whose meagerness was accentuated by the tight riding breeches he wore, carried its burden of head with a concentrated grace that rid Toussaint's whole aspect of any comical quality.  He took a seat across the dirt-floored aisle from her, swinging a leg across the bench to straddle it like a saddle.

            "It is good to see our Catholic religion so well observed here," he said, "when so often it is neglected elsewhere, among the plantations."

            Claudine inclined her head without speaking.

            "I have catechised some of the children walking the grounds this afternoon," he told her.  "I find them to be well instructed.  The boy Dieufait, for example, recites the entire Apostolic Creed with perfect confidence."

            "As well might be expected of the son of a priest."  Claudine attempted an ambiguous smile, in case Toussaint were moved to find irony in what she had said.

            "They say that you give them other instruction too," Toussaint said.  "That you teach them their letters as well as their catechism.  This afternoon I passed by your school-- of which one hears talk as far away as Le Cap, if not farther."

            "Is it so?"

            "Why, yes," Toussaint said.  "You are notorious."

            Claudine felt a bump of her heart.  Behind her the strings of the curtain shivered; outside a wind was rising.  She was notorious for a great deal more than her little school, and Toussaint must know something of that, though she wasn't sure how much.

            "You rather alarm me," she said.

            "There is no need, madame," Toussaint said.  "Of course not every comment is favorable, as there are always some who believe that the children of Guinée must be held in the ignorance of oxen and mules."

            Claudine lowered her head above here lap.  One of her feet had risen to the ball, and the whole leg was shaking; she couldn't seem to make it stop.

            "Yes," Toussaint said.  "My parrain, Jean-Baptiste, taught me my letters when I was a child on the lands of the Comte de Noé."

            Claudine raised her head to look at him.  He was telling her the true version of the story, she thought, which was unusual.  Of late he had been circulating a tale that he had been taught to read and write just before the first rebellion, when he was already past his fiftieth year.

            "If not for that," Toussaint said, "I should have remained in slavery."

            "And many others also," Claudine said.

            "It is so."  Toussaint squeezed the bench with his thighs, as if it really were a horse he meant to urge on.  "But your husband, madame.  What view does he take of your teaching?"

            "He indulges it."  Claudine lowered her head.

            "Does he not find himself well-placed today, Monsieur Arnaud?"  Toussaint seemed to be asking the question of a larger audience than was actually present; his voice had become a little louder.  "With the restoration of his goods, the men back working in the fields.  Why, a fieldhand may learn to read a book and be no less faithful to his hoe.  Does he not find it to be true?"

            "I hope so," Claudine said.  "I believe so... yes, I mostly do."

            "You may not be aware that your husband conspired long ago in a royalist plot against the Revolutionary government here," Toussaint said.  "Or then again, perhaps you know it.  Those men engaged to start a false rising of the slaves in ninety-one-- thinking to frighten the Jacobins with a spectacle of the likely outcome of their own beliefs.  They thought they could control a slave rising, those conspirators, but as you see they were quite wrong.  He was one of them, Michel Arnaud, with the Sieur de Maltrot, and Bayon de Libertat my former master, and Governor Blanchelande himself, who later lost his head for it, to the guillotine in France."

            "As did so many others," Claudine murmured.  As she spoke, her eye fell on the rosary, which Toussaint held in one hand against the yellow headcloth, and she saw for the first time that each of the small wooden beads was an intricately rendered human skull.

            "What an extraordinary article," she said.  It seemed her that each carved skull was just a little different from all the others.

            "It came to me as a spoil of war," Toussaint said, and put the rosary into his pocket, without telling her what other thing it might have come to mean to him now.

            Outside she heard voices, the clucking of chickens as they scuttled for shelter.  The wind rose further, as the air grew chill with the coming rain.

            "Ah well," said Toussaint.  "We have our dead."

            All at once Claudine's leg stopped trembling and her raised foot relaxed against the floor.  How intimately she had her dead!  She wondered if Toussaint was similarly placed, sometimes, or always.  It was certain that he'd caused the deaths of many more than the considerable number he'd ushered out of the world with his own hands.

            "Yes," she burst out.  "My husband killed many before the risings, he killed the children of Guinée with no more regard than for ants or for flies, and with torture sometimes, as bad as that--"  she flung out her arm toward the crucifix.  "Yes, this morning you rode your horse through the place where there once stood a pole, and to that pole husband used to nail his victims, to die slowly as they hung-- like that--"  Her rigid fingers thrust toward the cross again.  "And there was worse, still worse than that. No doubt you know it-- he was famous for it all."  Her whole arm dropped, and she felt her face twisting, that alien sensation as she moved a step farther away from her body.  The blood beat heavy in her temples, and she heard the other voice beginning to come out from behind her head.  "Four hundred years of abominations -- four hundred years for all to endure, and his no larger than a grain among them--"

            She stopped the voice, and came back to herself-- she wanted now to remain herself.  Toussaint had leaned back a little away from her and regarded her with his chin cupped in one hand. 

            "During the risings my husband suffered very much," Claudine said.  "For a time he was made clean by suffering, as fire will burn corruption from the bone.  Oh, he has still cruelty in his nature, and avarice, and too much pride, with contempt for others, white or black, but now he fights against it.  I see him fight it every day."

            Her voice cracked from hoarseness; her throat felt very dry.

            "And yourself, madame?"

            She took it for an answer to the prayer she could not voice.  With a lurch she dropped to her knees on the space of packed dirt between them, embraced his legs and pushed her face into his lap.

            "Hear my confession," she said, but her voice was too muffled to be understood.  Toussaint was pushing her back by the shoulders.

            "Madame, Madame," he said.  "Control your feeling."

            "No," Claudine said.  "No-- I want to touch you not in the flesh but in the spirit."  But she had grasped his wrists now, to hold his hands firm against her collarbones.

            "Hear my confession," she said, clearly now.

            "I am no priest," Toussaint informed her.  He twisted his hands free and drew them back.  "You have your own priest here, who must confess you." 

            Claudine's arms dropped slack to her sides.  To her surprise, he reached for her again, wrapping both hands around her head, balancing it on the point where his fingertips joined in the deepest hollow at the back of her neck.

            "It is not easy to enter into the spiritual life," he said.  By the soft and absent tone of his voice he might have been talking to himself.  But he was looking into her head as if it were transparent to him.

            "So you have been walking to the drum, my child," he said.  "Sometimes there is a spirit who dances in your head."

            The release of his hands let go a flash of light behind her eyes.  The wind had blown the bead strings apart and was stirring the dust under the benches around them.

            Toussaint cocked his head.  "Lapli k'ap vini," he said.  The rain is coming.

            "Yes, you are right," Claudine murmured.  "We must go up before we are caught here."

            Outside, the sky bulged purple over them, and above the mountains a wire of silent lightning glowed and vanished.  Toussaint turned his head to the wind, letting his yellow madras flag out from his hand, then caught it up and bound it over his forehead and temples and knotted it carefully at the back before he followed Claudine, hastening to the grand'case, reaching the shelter of the porch's overhang in the seconds before the deluge came down.


            Because Toussaint had stated, over dinner, his need for an early departure, the Mass commenced exactly at first light.  The hour was painfully early for some, and fewer of the plantation's inhabitants turned out for it than might have otherwise, but still there was a respectable crowd for Moustique to part when, with a slow and solemn step, he carried the wooden processional cross into the little chapel.  Behind him the children of Claudine's school marched, singing, Wi, wi, wi, nou se Legliz, Legliz se nou....  Claudine took her seat in the front row, next to the yawning Arnaud, irritable with his too-early rising.  Yes, yes, yes, the Church is us, we are the Church....  Toussaint, the guest of honor, sat Arnaud's right hand, while Riau and Guiaou shared the opposite bench with Cléo and Marie-Noelle.  The other benches were filled with commandeurs and skilled men from the cane mill or distillery and other persons of a similar importance.  The bead curtain had been tied up above the eaves, so the whole wall was open to the larger congregaton outside, whose members sat crosslegged on the ground as soon as the signal was given.

            Claudine paid small attention to the words of Moustique's sermon; her mind was utterly fixed on the cross.  Ah well, she thought, we have our dead....  As she stared, she perceived that it was the vertical bar of the cross which pierced the membrane between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and allowed the spirits to rise.

            Now Moustique was chanting the Sanctus in Latin, his voice high and whining.  Above the altar, the dark crucifix ran and blurred before Claudine's weary eyes, till it became another image.  She saw the body of her bossale maid Mouche, who'd been lashed quite near to that very same spot in the days when a dog-shed stood on the chapel's site, and saw again the flash of the razor in her own hand as it slashed out the child Arnaud had planted in Mouche's womb and let the fœtus spill on the dirt of the floor, then cut so viciously at the black girl's throat that it uncorked her blood like a fountain.  And now, as Moustique presented the host, the children sang, "Se Jezi Kri ki limyè ki klere kè nou tout.  Li disparèt fènwa pou'l mete klète...."

            The chapel was opened to the east, so that when the rising sun cleared the mountains it struck the whole interior with such force that everything before Claudine's eyes was obliterated in the blaze.  But the bread had been torn, the wine consecrated.  She groped her way forward and knelt to receive.

            It is Jesus Christ who is the light that illuminates all our hearts.  He drives out the darkness to put light in its place....

            A fringe of cloud drifted over the sun, dimming the interior enough for Claudine to see more plainly.  Toussaint, hands clasped before him, opened his mouth for the descending Host as meekly as a baby bird.  Claudine's turn followed.  Moustique served Arnaud, Riau and Guiaou and the other two women, then began his second circuit with the chalice made from a carefully trained and hollowed gourd.  Claudine held the body of Christ on her tongue.  She had confessed her crime many times and to more than one priest, but still the chalice, when raised to her lips, returned to her the salt taste of blood.