Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
That night, Sophonie conceived at the height of the downpour. A liquid dream took hold of her body as the river, overflowing its banks, uprooted the cachiman in Gran’n’s backyard. All she remembered was a human cascade unfurling at her cry, pummeling her stomach, crushing her backside, like an agitated current crashing against rocks in a rage of foam.
A light, wet, breeze rushed in untidily, making the foliage shudder. The cabins only door creaked weakly on its hinges. Emerging from the depths of dream, she heard the tap-tap of the last drops of rain on the banana tree leaves. Her heart beat a wild tempo. She could not control the trembling of her limbs. It felt like she was still countering the water’s assault. She pulled the covers up and decided not to close her eyes, afraid of slipping once again into the strange dream whose vivid images would not leave her mind. A few meters below, Rivière-Froide made a vast noise; it sounded like a chorus of 10,000 men.
* * *
Stunned and exhausted by the violence of the night storm, lakou Kasalé slumbered in a bed of fog. Despite her fatigue and the unusual darkness of daybreak, routine sounded the hour of waking in Sophonie’s body. She felt around for the wall behind her and pulled the large shawl she wrapped herself in in the morning from a wire extended between two nails. The moment she got up, her legs gave out beneath her. She sat back down, her two hands pressed against her abdomen. Brows furrowed, eyes closed, she followed the course of a shooting pain that went from her crotch to her navel. She remained curled up for a few minutes, long enough for her ill feeling to disappear.
A moment later, cup in hand, she washed up quickly in the back of her small courtyard. She felt the presence of water like that of a human being. Hidden in the trees, lizards drunk on cool air let out clear, serene notes. As she finished her ablutions, Sophonie swayed from a dizzy spell and had to lean against the glossy trunk of a banana tree. Overcome by nausea, she spit up a thread of bile. A wildly obvious thought leapt to her mind, upheld by the feelings overtaking her body. It was an absurdity, an enormity that she had to laugh about. But it was already a certainty. The river was alive in her stomach. She could pinpoint the moment new life took root in her womb. Certain women knew these things. Yet that night, her bed had welcomed no male, of blood or water. At least that’s what she thought. For seven months and nine days, she had vigilantly respected a vow of chastity, a promise to Saint-Antoine-Nan-Godé, which she observed in spite of the longings of her flesh.
Absorbed in her private thoughts, Sophonie did not notice a male silhouette coming up the river. Dressed only in white cotton trunks, Athanaël was collecting beautiful rocks carried by the waters current from the hills capping Kasalé. He always came after the rain to collect the raw materials he used to sculpt the forms lying in wait behind his catlike eyes. He had to be fast to beat the stonebreakers who quickly invaded the place once the water’s rage subsided. He often emerged in the heart of the night, not feeling the sting of cold on his skin, not frightened by the dance of shadows populating the lakou. He flexed his muscles to resist the foaming fury. With his arms extended, he embraced the river, from one bank to the other. He confronted the elements with equal force and bare hands. Sophonie hardly saw him. She was, however, thinking of the river-man, his staccato breath, the scent of his armpits, as moving as the first drops of rain on parched earth.
* * *
The sulfur of the matches disintegrated when she struck them. She wasted almost half the box. The logs smoked for a long time before burning. They were wet in spite of her precaution to cover them with a plastic tarp the night before. Crouched on the ground, Sophonie blew on the hearth with all her might, her eyes and nose irritated by persistent smoke. After several attempts, a small flame rose hesitantly from among three rocks. Lighting the fire to make coffee took her a good 20 minutes. Everything was going wrong.
Sophonie could sense a big change in her life, but she did not know whether it was coming in good will or not. A whirlwind was born within her that in a single motion carried away the large trees of Kasalé, the river, and the bloodless sky of morning.
Calmly, dawn broke out behind the hills of Saint-Roc in the cabin next door, Gran’n cleared her throat of the mucous accumulated during the night. Each morning was the same, the old woman’s bodily noises dictated Sophonie’s waking. As soon as she finished selling bread, she would come back to Gran’n’s to tell her about her night. Only the old woman would believe her, understand her and perhaps even explain the unusual thing that had happened in her sleep.
A pale light streamed from the rising day. Sophonie saw the cachiman, its contours blending with the mist rising from the river. A mass of stunned leaves. “Ohhh! Gran’n’s cachimán!” she exclaimed, her eyes widened beyond measure. Her broken heart set off an alarm in the middle of her chest. The tree was resting on its side, its overturned tresses floating in the water. Soon it would lose its hold, slip down the steep, muddy slope, be carried off by the river. The handful of roots still connecting it to the earth would not last long. Sophonie examined the uncertain sky, trying to decipher the reason for the uneasiness drifting over the lakou. No sign in the gray vault, not even the flight of a bird in which to read an oracle. Papa Bondie’m, sa kap pase la? She could not look away from the tree, the familiar cachiman that until last evening still stood sentry at Gran’n’s gate. In her emotional state, she thought she saw a human form lying on the wet ground, open arms defying the sky.
Sophonie inhaled deeply, one breath at a time, to calm her heart and hands. She poured boiling water into the grêpe at the bottom of which she had placed a few spoons of instant coffee. The warm and vibrant fragrance rising in the cold of early morning comforted the young woman. The scent of coffee reconnected her to life’s routine, brought her back to her daily survival. For a moment she forgot about the terrors of the night and the agitation felt at the sight of the fallen tree; she had to get moving. In a moment, she would take her large wicker basket and go down to the bakery where they would soon start the selling of bread to retailers. She had to get there early or she would miss business with the first workers heading toward Carrefour and those who came to the area in increasing numbers to cast about for work, waiting for the start of construction on a new bridge.
Sophonie slipped a loose blouse over her nightshirt and knotted the shawl around her shoulders. From the other side of the stretched curtain, the intermingled breath of three boys rose. As every morning when they woke, they would find the coffee pot on a corner of the fire. She made sure there were a few pieces of cassava in the basket attached to the wall. From beneath one edge of the mattress she pulled her bank, a small silk purse that closed with a cord. She gathered her basket capsized on the table near the door, and deposited the small wooden bench that she sat on to sell there. She went out to seek life in the wet dawn.
* * *
“My child, since dawn, I’ve been walking with one foot on earth and the other on the dead people’s dwelling. My time is approaching. The cachiman has fallen … it will go down in no time, carried off by the current, the water that descends, descends and never returns … I … I cannot deny the fear knotting my insides … for the tree and I share the same destiny. Yet the weight of my certainties prevails over my anxiety.”
Sophonie had joined Gran’n in her bedroom. She was speaking in a low voice, the old woman seated on her narrow bed, her daughter-in-law on the little chair at her feet. Gran’n seemed fragile, like the delicate paper the boys used to make kites during Lent. Slender objects but capable of climbing very high in the sky, of riding the spirited winds of the heavens.
“I must prepare to leave, Sophonie … and I am counting on you to be my eyes when I can no longer see, my will when my last strengths give out … ”
“But Gran’n, you can’t leave … not now … you can’t … ”
Sophonie left her sentence unfinished, conscious of the futility of her words. How could she hold back life? She was simply panicking. A great fear gripped her at the thought of being left alone in the lakou with her sons, without Gran’n’s protection, a stranger among these strangers.
“I’m not leaving right away, my dear. Not before certain … things are resolved. I still have to wait for the signs to come. I will continue to listen to life, to live very close to my dreams.”
“What signs, Gran’n?” Sophonie worried.
“My dear girl, through faith I have lived to this old age. I believed and I will die believing that my destiny rests in the hands of the Eternal and his spirits, the Iwas, I grew up in reverence of the Great Master, placing my trust in him, benefiting from his grace and protection through the service of the mysteries. I do not know what signs will manifest themselves to me. I am only certain that the path of my passage will be pointed out to me.”
The two women remained silent for a moment. Through the half-open door, curious glances of passersby in the alley searched the darkness of the little room. Altagrâce, occupied with her boilers, did not seem to pay much attention, but Nativita, suspicious, found an excuse to approach Gran’n’s cabin. From time to time she scolded the children whose excited playing caused a racket or came into the gallery to look for an empty plate or old dishcloth.
Sophonie did not speak, wearied by the prospect of the solitude that veiled her horizon. She forgot about her daily life, her little sorrows, submerged by a vague but profoundly depressing feeling. To cheer her up, Gran’n said:
“I remember when you arrived … that was, what, six, eight years ago already?” The old woman questioned Sophonie with her eyes. “You seemed so young! I thought your boys were your little brothers. I remember … Jasmin was about three, Milo must’ve been two, Andrisse was still suspended from your breast … ”
Sophonie smiled at the evocation of these memories. Images of this time flooded her mind. Yes, it was true, she felt lost when she had arrived! She had just turned 19. She could still feel the eyes of Kasalé’s inhabitants glued to her back the day Démétrius, Gran’n’s only grandson, brought her to the lakou for the first time. She feared this meeting, and she was right to! The hostility of the people, mostly women, seeped from their silence, for Démétrius had decided to take a mistress from outside the lakou. And what company! A young drifter saddled with three children. But Démétrius did not see her that way. Démétrius, her beloved. The man she would have followed to the Desolate Savannah, on the gulf of Gonâve, or to the ends of the earth.
She had known Démé for only four months when she was carrying Andrisse, her last. She did not know who this last child’s father was. At the time, Sophonie burned the candle at both ends, going off with guys for pleasure, for as long as desire lasted, for one night. Time enough to get pregnant. The idea of prostituting herself never occurred to her. She took an almost unhealthy pride in giving away her body, the only commodity she owned, for nothing. It was a way of provoking life, of offering it the complete sacrifice of her existence, while she waited for a miracle that was slow in coming.
Démétrius was the driver for a businessman in whose house she worked as a laundress. The respect and attention he surrounded her with were the first true signs of interest from a human being in her regard. She discovered kindness, the warmth of a man, and even found it bizarre, in the beginning, that he had feelings for her like affection, compassion. He spoke to her often of his region, Rivière-Froide, and his lakou, Kasalé. She daydreamed while she listened to him, not knowing personally what it meant to have a family life, parents, a place of her own. Her entire orphaned existence had been summed up in compromises for the sake of a corner to sleep in, a piece of bread to subsist on.
Sophonie worked all day and came back in the late afternoon to find her children in a room that she shared with a companion in misfortune, in a residence on the outskirts of Carrefour-Feuilles. Her friend called herself Sheila, from her real name, Soeurette. She wore a long-haired wig to resemble a singer with the same name whose photo adorned the cover of a novella bought third-hand at Marché Salomon; Sheila worked at night. She worked the sidewalks of Bas-Peu-de-Chose. Her area of activity extended from Avenue Magloire Ambroise to Place Jérémie, with incursions into the vicinity of Hôtel Oloffson during the tourist season. In the daytime, she kept an eye on Sophonie’s two kids; Sophonie had to pull her from a sticky sleep when she left for work at 8:00 in the morning.
In spite of his regular surveillance of her, Démétrius never gave any indication of wanting to touch her. The fragility of this small, pregnant woman terrified and fascinated him at the same time. He was slightly ashamed of his violent desire for this body that bore the fruit of another. He satisfied himself devouring her with his eyes, while repressing the impulses of his hands with the help of heavy sighs. Until the day when no longer able to withstand her desire for a man she dreamt of with her eyes wide open, Sophonie led him into her little bedroom. The two kids were sleeping on a straw mattress on the floor. Restrained by a sense of modesty that contrasted strangely with the lightness of her morals, Sophonie had never before offered a suitor the charms of her body distorted by pregnancy. At the time, she was seven months pregnant with Andrisse. She could not explain this pressing need to share with Démétrius her heavy breasts like ripe papayas, her swollen veins, her huge stomach, this other life that pulsed inside her. Perhaps she wanted, for as long as they climaxed together, to make him bear some of the burden that already weighed so heavily on her life. Perhaps she knew intuitively that his love would have the splendor but also the brevity of shooting stars. There was all this and also her skin’s great hunger for this man whose tenderness astonished her. Démétrius, his fear vanished, became her lover. He caressed her at length, with a delicacy and ardor that moved her to tears. In the middle of the night, their pleasure culminated in a fever that took them beyond their last defenses, him, her, and her belly.
Sophonie sighed. That was how she wasted her time, dreaming of the past. While urgency knocked at her door. Thinking of her pregnancy, the memory of her torturous night returned to her.
“Oh, yes! Gran’n, Gran’n!!! I almost forgot … let me tell you the dream I had last night… ”
The old woman gave her her full attention.
“Try to understand me … I don’t know how to explain this … this is not a story I am making up … okay … I dreamt the water took on a human form … while still remaining water … as if the vibration of the currents penetrated my life, sucked me in. I was … violated, subjugated, amazed … finally I gently drifted off.”
“Oh, oh, oh!” the old lady said. She extended her arm and showed it to Sophonie. “Look for yourself, I’m covered in gooseflesh. Ayibobo, ayibobo! My dear, you were visited.”
“What! What are you saying, Gran’n?”
“Yes … the Master of the Water … I’m not mistaken. He’s the only one who can love a woman with such intensity. Oh, Sophonie! Remember, we were just talking about signs, you wanted to know how they would manifest themselves. This is already one. You were visited the same night the cachiman fell. Ayibobo, my child! I always told the nonbelievers that this lakou conceals age-old forces … Something is happening that neither you nor I can understand. A great malaise is overwhelming me. The water roused itself … hmmm … But, tell me, how do you feel since you woke up?”
Sophonie, dumbfounded, could barely speak.
“Pretty mal de macaque, Gran’n. A little nausea, like all my bones are cracked … ”
“Hmmm … I see … yes, that’s it. My dear, from now on you must pay careful attention to your dreams. There will be messages … you are carrying the water’s child.”
Hearing these words, vivid tears sprang to Sophonie’s eyes. It was too much for her, too much at once. She sobbed. A child’s head appeared in the crack in the door, quickly chased away by Gran’n’s cane. She turned to her daughter-in-law and said with new gentleness in her voice:
“Go home, have a good cry. And then wipe your eyes. Continue to go about your business. Above all, do not confide in anyone else. They won’t understand. Go, too many ears surround us now. We will speak of this again … ”
Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.
Jeanine Herman is a French translator who lives in New York City. She has translated Julia Kristeva’s Intimate Revolt (Columbia University Press, 2002), Pierre Clastres’s Archaeology of Violence (semiotext(e), 1995), and Laure: The Collected Writings (City Lights, 1994). Her translations appear regularly in Artforum and the Paris Review. Herman is currently working on a translation of Julien Gracq.
—Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1958, Kettly Mars began writing at the beginning of the 1990s and in 1996 won the Jacques Stephen Alexis Literary Prize for her story “Soleils Contraires.” Mars is on the jury of the Prix Henri Deschamps, the oldest literary prize in Haiti. Her new novel, La dernière part de pureté will be published by Vents d’ailleurs in France. Kasalé, an excerpt of which appears here, was self-published by Mars in Haiti in 2003.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Vargas-Suarez Universal and Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, Vladimir Cybil and Jerry Philogene, Carlos Eire and Silvana Paternostro, David Scott and Stuart Hall, Evelyne Trouillot, Sibylle Fisher, Carlos B. Cordova and Daniel Flores y Ascencio, Damas “Fanfan” Louis and Michael Zwack, and Peniel Guerrier and Yvonne Daniel.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.