The Stone the Builder Refused by Madison Smartt Bell

BOMB 90 Winter 2005
090 Winter 2005 1024X1024

Ogûn-O … Roi des Ange … This was the song that sang in my head as we rode west from Point Samana, but I, Riau, did not let the words come aloud out of my mouth. Riau held his mouth closed tight, and rode with his body springing straight up from the saddle like a palm trunk rooted in the spine of the horse, eyes fixed straight between the shoulders of Major Maillart, who was leading our way down to Port-au-Prince. Everything was silence all around us except for birdsong and the insects in the grass, but the song rang inside my head from one wall to the other.

Ogûn-O … Djab-ìà di lap manjé moin, si sa vré …

And I, Riau, I knew what the letter riding in Maillart’s pocket said, because Riau’s hand had written down the words that Toussaint spoke. Those words were shaped with a twisted tongue, so that there was nothing in the letter that would make Maillart, a blanc and a Frenchman, unhappy to be carrying it. But Toussaint had put another word directly into the head of Riau, without any paper to hold it still. Between this word and the words sealed into the paper Maillart carried in his coat, there was a crack where the devil came in.

Ogûn-O … the devil says he is going to eat me, is it true?

We rode, then, down the Vallé de Consilanza where the road ran south of the Cibao mountains. It was Maillart who led our way, though Riau knew this country just as well. I had come over in the army of Toussaint to set free slaves of the Spanish blancs, and before that, long before, Riau had wandered in these mountains in the time of marronage.

Others of Toussaint’s guard rode with us, but before the end of the first day’s riding they turned from our road to bring Toussaint’s message to Clervaux at Santiago. When darkness came it was Maillart who knocked at the door of a Spanish cattle-herdsman to ask for food and shelter for us two. Maillart was a tall man with a big mustache and the blanc skin of his face all burnt brick color by the sun. He had a voice that was usually loud and sounded happy. People liked him, both blanc and nèg, and Riau liked him very well too. In the night when we lay near each other on pallets put side by side on the floor, Maillart spoke in a lower voice, which would not wake the Spanish people sleeping in the loft. You are quiet tonight, Riau, and all day long you have been so quiet, my friend. I did not give any answer to this, but instead I made my breathing sound like sleep. Maillart had come over to Toussaint a very long time ago, and in the days and years that followed he had taught many black men all he knew about the blanc way of soldiering. Riau had learned very much from him. In those first days he was my captain. Yet I thought how easy it would be to shoot him in the spot between the shoulder blades where my eyes stopped when we were riding. It was for that I rode behind, for each mile ofthat journey.

… djab-làdi l’ap manjé moin …

Next day we rode still further south, around the Lake of Enriquillo. This road took us very near the mountains of Bahoruco, with the signs and the spirits of the old caciques all through their hollow caverns. Riau had stayed a long while at Bahoruco in the time of marronage, and my spirit turned in that direction when we passed, but I would not go there now, not yet. We passed that lake, and the Étang Saumâtre. It was all peaceful in those places, as if there were no blanc soldiers coming out of the ships from France, and it was peaceful also in the town of Croix des Bouquets.

The people in Croix des Bouquets said that Dessalines was in the casernes of Port-au-Prince, so we rode there, though not so quickly with Maillart leading. I was not sure how quickly Major Maillart wanted to get to Dessalines, who was no friend of any white people whether they served Toussaint or not. It was night when we came to Port-au-Prince, and at the casernes they told us that Dessalines was not there. He had gone to Saint Marc, people thought, where he had built a fine house for himself, but no one knew for certain where he was.

In the place of Dessalines a blanc called Agé commanded the town, with Lamartinière, a mulatto, as his second. It might be that Dessalines hated colored men even more than he hated the blancs, and he had seemed to enjoy killing them very much during the war against Rigaud, but Lamartinière was one of the few he liked and respected for his courage. I, Riau, had not known Lamartinière well before this night, but we had seen each others faces and knew each others names, and I went to sit near him when we came into the council room, while Maillart went to the white general Agé.

The ships of the French soldiers had come into the bay of Port-au-Prince already but no one had landed, except for a messenger, Captain Sabès. Another blanc named Gimont was with him but it was Sabès who carried the words. The council room was scattered over with papers this Sabès had brought, each paper saying the same thing, that the French soldiers were not coming to take away our freedom but that they were sworn to protect us and our liberty. I thought that these papers gave nothing but lies, and it seemed to me that Lamartinière did not trust them either. Agé would have sent Sabès back to the ships with a message for friendship, but Lamartinière wanted to hold him there, though without hurting or killing him. There was that difference between Agé and Lamartinière, and though Agé commanded, the men were with Lamartinière.

I learned these things while talking quietly with Lamartinière at one end of the room, while Maillart and Agé had put their heads together in the other. I told Lamartinière that Toussaint had made a lying letter for someone like Agé, telling him to receive the French though not too quickly, but the true word from Toussaint’s mouth to Riau’s ear was that if French soldiers began to land, Dessalines must burn the town and kill the blancs and go into the mountains. Then Lamartinière told me that Dessalines had gone not to Saint Marc but to Léogane. He wanted to know where Toussaint was, but I did not know anything to tell him.

That night a letter was written by Agé that said to the French in the ships that Dessalines had gone away from Port-au-Prince and that they must not land till Dessalines came back or sent his order. Maillart was given this letter to carry to the ships, and Agé whispered to him to tell the French generals that he, Agé, did not really have any power now to control what happened in the town.

We did not know about this whispering until afterward, but still Lamartinière found a way to send another message to the ships, with someone different from Maillart. His message said that if the French soldiers made any sign that they would come ashore, three cannon shots would be fired from the mountain and at this signal the blancs would all be killed and the town set afire. And that was near enough to what Toussaint had wanted.

Maillart went to the French ships then, and Agé stayed with Sabès in the casernes, but I, Riau, went into the streets with Lamartinière. Lamartinière wanted to raise the people to defend the town, besides the soldiers of our army who were already there, but not many people came to join him at first. The town was full of blancs that Toussaint had protected, and colored people and some blacks too, who had built great houses for themselves and had barns full of sugar and coffee to be sent away on ships for money, and these people did not want any fighting, and they did not want to see the town burned down. So Lamartinière began to say that we would defend the town without burning it. All the time he was getting angrier—Lamartinière was a proud man.

At last we came to the Armory, and there at the door was a blanc named Lacombe, who had the keys to the Armory, and he would not give up the keys when Lamartinière asked for them. Lacombe had gotten a copy of the same paper that Sabès had managed to scatter in the streets on his way to the casernes, and he said that because the paper said that the French were coming in friendship there was not any reason to get weapons out to fight them. Some of the people who had been following us through the streets called out that they agreed with him. Lamartinière did not spend any time arguing with Lacombe, but only called him a miserable colón and with the same word shot him, so that his brains came out of the back of his head and splashed on the door of the Armory. There was nobody in the crowd who agreed with Lacombe any more after that, and Lamartinière took the keys from his body and opened the door to get out the guns.

No one noticed Riau going away while these things were happening. I had seen how many ships there were at Samana Bay, and I had seen how Toussaint was made weak for a moment when the sight of those ships first struck his eyes. It did not seem to me to be sure at all that Lamartinière could protect the town without burning it, and the people in the town were divided, too. I walked back to the casernes and got my horse without saying anything to anyone and rode out the south gate toward Léogane.

It was just dawn when I started from Port-au-Prince, and by the time I came to Léogane it was full day and the heat was rising. Dessalines was not at Léogane. I lost much time looking for him in one place and another, because I was suddenly afraid of what would happen, and I could not believe that Dessalines could not be found somewhere here where he was needed. Everyone at Léogane told me now that Dessalines was at Saint Marc, but I did not know if I believed that I would find him there either. While I was looking for him there came word to Léogane that blanc soldiers had landed at Lamentin and they were coming up the road.

I went then to the fort of the Piémont, which covered the road from Léogane to Port-au-Prince. Soldiers of the 68th were in this fort, though Dessalines was not, but Lamartinière came there soon after I did. Then the French soldiers came in sight around a bend of the road below the fort, which was a half-circle earthwork, with six big cannons. One of the blanc officers came out in front of all the rest. He came near enough that a musket shot could have reached him easily, but no one fired at him. Everyone waited, and the officer called in a loud voice, We have not come to fight you—you are French! You are our brothers!

Saying these words, he took his sword out of the sheath and threw it away to the side of the road. He shouted that he wanted to come into the fort alone to parlay with us. But at that his own soldiers began to argue with him and at the same time some of the officers in the fort began to argue with Magny, who was the chef de bataillon there. Some of them wanted to let the French come up and believed that we should not fight them after all.

Lamartinière stood apart from this talk. He was lightskinned enough that Riau could see how all the blood had washed out of his face. His head was turned to one side, listening. He was waiting to hear the cannons at Fort Bizoton, but they did not fire.

In back of the French soldiers I could see that there were some officers much bigger than the one who had come forward. Generals of brigade were there, and one general of division. I knew to recognize them now by their epaulettes and the markings of their coats. All at once I saw that Maillait was among them. He was far off, but I could see it was Maillart, and it seemed that I could even see his mustache moving as he turned to say something to one of the generals of brigade.

Then someone shouted from the top of the fort, Come up! Advance! We have the order to receive you!

I had not heard any order like that. But the French soldiers all began to walk forward when they heard this cry. Lamartinière stood very still. He did not look like he knew what was happening there in front of him. I wondered what spirit might be standing in his head. It was very quiet, and we could all hear the feet of the French soldiers shuffling on the road.

Then came three cannon shots from the mountain above Port-au-Prince. Lamartinière trembled, from his feet to his head. A wave went through his body and his right arm swept down. Fire! he said, and Magny gave the same order, Feu! Feu! Then the muskets and the cannons all shot together and a great many of the French soldiers fell down all at once, hundreds of them, as if a broom had swept them down. But behind them more were coming.

I did not know if Maillart had been shot down or not, though I had seen him moving forward with the others. There was a lot of noise where we were, but I could also hear cannons firing in the bay of Port-au-Prince. I got my horse then and rode around behind the fort and down to the road to the north. The soldiers in the fight were too busy to notice me, and I wanted to see what was happening on the bay. I looked back once as I rode toward the water. The French soldiers were still marching on the fort. They did not stop to reload at all, but kept coming with their bayonets, steadily and keeping close together. They did not seem to care how many of them were shot down. I saw them go over the lip of the earthwork like ants going into a sugar jar.

When those three cannon shots were fired, they did begin killing the blancs in Port-au-Prince, as Lamartinière had promised. Many blancs were taken down to the savane Valembrun where they were shot, but I did not know that until later. I rode to the waterside where I could see the bay and the town harbor. Fort Bizoton was quiet because the French soldiers coming over the land had taken it already, but the other forts were fighting the ships on the bay. It seemed that I could not stop watching this, though it was terrible to see. The ships moved too quickly and the guns of the forts could not follow them. The firing from the ships was very strong and they kept firing till the guns of the forts stopped talking back and then the forts themselves were blown in splinters in the air.

In all my life I never saw such power. I thought then that Toussaint must have seen such a picture in the eye of his mind already, when he first looked at those ships in Samana Bay.

Saint Marc was far from where I was, to the north of Port-au-Prince. I could not go there with a battle to pass through and anyway it was too late for Dessalines to come. I turned from the water and rode into the plain of Léogane. Toussaint had told me to go south once I had given his word to Dessalines. He had a word to send to Laplume, who commanded for him in the Southern Department. Since I had not found Dessalines yet anyway I was not really sure which way I should go. Djab-là di lap manjé moin … I could not think how to get this devil to stop biting me at all. At evening I was riding south away from the fighting, when a big gang of men stopped me on the plain.

They did not seem so friendly when they stopped me. They looked at my uniform with hard eyes. These were maroons, though not all of them had run away from blanc masters before the rising. Men still ran from the plantations even now, since Toussaint had ordered that all must work, and set soldiers of the army above the men who must work with their hoes in the cane fields. In this rule there was no man harsher than Dessalines himself. That was why these men were not very happy to see the uniform I wore, I thought. Or maybe they were happy after all, to catch a soldier riding alone as it grew dark. My horse was tired, and I didn’t know what was going to happen, but then I saw Jean-Pic among these men, and Jean-Pic smiled to see Riau.

I jumped down from my horse, letting the reins fall so I could wrap my arms around Jean-Pic. He had a beard now, which rubbed against my face. When we let each other go, the other men seemed easier, and I did not worry about them any more. I had not seen Jean-Pic for a long time, since I left him in Bahoruco long ago, when I went back to Toussaint. But I had known Jean-Pic for a long time before that, years and years before the rising. Jean-Pic had been with the maroons in the north when I, Riau, first ran away from Bréda Plantation to join them.

Jean-Pic and I walked together to the camp of these maroons, with his hand lying in mine as lightly as a bird. Someone else was leading my horse, because all these men were friendly to me now. That was a big camp they had on the plain, among banana trees and plantain, corn and manioc. Many hundreds of them were there, with children, and women working around the cookfires now that it was night. Jean-Pic had found a woman when he came out of Bahoruco the year before, and there was a baby sleeping in their ajoupa, and the woman stirring sweet potatoes in a pot. Some goat meat was cooking too, and callaloo.

When we had eaten Jean-Pic and I told each other our news. I told him about Merbellay and the children I had made with her, because Jean-Pic had known Merbellay from the time before, when we were all maroons together in the north. But I did not tell him anything about Guiaou, and I did not say much about the fights that I had been in, or the army, or Toussaint. It gave me sadness to think that now there were a lot of things I could not easily tell Jean-Pic. Afterward when the fire had died and I lay looking up at the stars and waiting for sleep, this sadness grew larger. I had not felt such a big spreading sadness since I had stopped remembering Guinée, that time before Riau was stolen and sold in chains onto a ship and brought as a bossale to Bréda. The sadness I felt was as large as that, though I was happy to find Jean-Pic, and the devil had stopped biting me for a while.

In the morning, Lamour Dérance came. Lamour Dérance was leader of all of these maroons now. He wanted to know what was happening on the coast, because there were rumors about the ships. I told him about the ships with their guns that blew up the forts, and how Lamartinière had looked like he would lose the fight outside Léogane, even though a lot of the French soldiers were killed in the first shooting.

When I had told all I knew, Lamour Dérance asked for my name again, and when he had it, he stood with his arms folded and his eyes very deep. His nose came open and closed as he breathed in and out, as if he wanted to catch the odor of my spirit I did not flinch when Lamour Dérance looked at me so. I kept straight, like a blanc soldier almost, as Maillait had taught me, and I did not let my eyes fall down until Lamour Dérance had stopped looking into them, but I felt shame inside my body. When Lamour Dérance had gone away, I told Jean-Pic that Riau must go also, because we were going to have to fight the blancs again.

That was true. But when I had left the camp of the maroons, I did not think of going to Laplume any more, partly because of the way Lamour Dérance had looked at me. I went north again, in the direction of Saint Marc. I had to go around Port-au-Prince on the road past Morne Diable, because the French soldiers had taken the town. As I passed I learned that Lamartinière had got away with most of his men to Croix des Bouquets, but he had not managed to burn Port-au-Prince, so now the white men had it whole. I did not go at once to Dessalines, but kept on north beyond Saint Marc, until I came to Ennery.

I reached Habitation Thibodet after dark, and kept away from the grand’case there. I did not even go in by the main gate, but passed through a tear in the lemon hedges, and led my horse along the slopes where the small cases were scattered among the provision grounds. At different times Riau and Guiaou had made the walls of Merbellay’s case more strong with clay, and built the floor up high against the rain. Over the door there was now an open shelter roofed with leaves, and Merbellay was sitting there when I came, with some other women, and Quamba was there too, playing a slow music on a flute made out of a bone. It was late and the people had already eaten and the fire had burned down. I sat on the ground near Merbellay and after a moment she reached to touch my hand, her head still turned in the direction of the flute.

My son Caco I did not see. He would be running in the trees with the other big boys, I thought. Yoyo was sleeping, inside the case, and Marielle, who had only four years, was walking around the edge of the ash circle where the fire had been, yawning and rubbing her eyes with the back of her wrist. When she saw me she came and wrapped her arms around my leg, then climbed up onto my lap and curled herself against my belly. Very soon she was asleep, before Quamba had finished the music he played on the flute. I thought of my banza still hanging from the roof tree inside the case behind me. Sometimes I played such music with Quamba, but tonight the weight of sleeping Marielle held me where I was.

I had been thinking of these children ever since I saw the French blow up the forts at Port-au-Prince, Caco whose father was Riau, and Yoyo whose father was Guiaou, and Marielle who had the two of us for fathers. It was a good time for Riau to come to Ennery, since Guiaou had been sent to Santo Domingo by Toussaint. Guiaou and Riau did not fight any more about Merbellay, but we did not stay in the case with her at the same time either, so this way it was better.

When Quamba had finished his music he stood and walked away with only a nod to us before leaving. I carried Marielle inside and laid her on the shucks beside her sister. In the darkness of the case I spent some careful time unwinding the cloth that wrapped Merbellay’s head and folding it and laying it carefully down on top of a stool, before I laid my hands onto her shoulders. The sweetness was sharp, as always after a time away. It was the time away that made it so. Afterward I thought again how strange it was that there were many women in the country and many of them beautiful and strong, but for Riau and Guiaou there was only this one.

Then Merbellay slept, but Riau did not. I listened to the two girls breathing in the shucks, and the mice walking on the leaves of the case roof. After a while Caco came in on very quiet feet and crept to lie down on the other side of the case from his sisters. I felt glad then, to be in the same house with all of them together, but still sleep did not come to me. I was thinking how the people at Port-au-Prince had not wanted all they had built there to be torn down again and burned. A lot of them who were blancs had since been killed in the savane Valembrun, so it did not matter any more what they wanted. Riau did not mind the killing of blancs at all, and when the red magic flowered in his head he killed blancs himself with pleasure. Maybe I did not want the whole country to be torn apart and burned again, but I knew it was going to happen, and not only because of the words which Toussaint had put into my head.

I did not know what it was that I wanted, or which way I should go. Instead of sleep, the sadness of the night before came down on me again. At Bahoruco, as in Guinée, each day unfolded a path before me, one path without any crossroads. Now every step brought Riau to some crossroads and he did not know which way to turn, nor even if he could pass through that kalfou at all.

Then I got up from where I lay. Merbellay shifted into the space I opened, but she did not wake. I went out from under the leaf roof over the door and stretched my back. At the top of a round hill to the east I saw the roof of the hounfor with the long cane flagpole reaching very high into the starlit sky. The hounfor was all dark and quiet, no drums, and the kay mystè was shut. I climbed up there and stood outside the cactus fence of the peristyle, looking out over the valley.

Word was that the blanche Elise had come back to the grand’case here, with her youngest child, and Zabeth and her baby. They were going away from some trouble at Le Cap. French ships had come there too, but that was as much as any one I talked to seemed to know about it. From Zabeth my head turned to Bouquart who was the father of her child. Bouquart was dead now, because he had joined in the soulèvement with Moyse, and when Toussaint commanded Bouquart to shoot himself, he did not think that he might not do it.

None of this was long ago. It was not yet one year since Moyse had died, shot by a row of muskets at the fort of Port de Paix, and Moyse had given the order himself for the men to fire their bullets into him. Riau was witness to that shooting, and maybe he had been part of the cause of it too.

Ogûn-O … Djab-la di lap manjé moin, si sa vré …

Riau had known Moyse for longer still than he had known Jean-Pic. They knew each other from slavery time at Bréda, where each of them had Toussaint for his parrain, though Riau ran away into marronage, and Moyse stayed. In the days of the first risings Riau and Moyse killed many blancs together. When Riau ran away from Toussaint’s army into a second marronage, it was Moyse who received him back again, and maybe Moyse had saved him from being shot, when Toussaint might have ordered this for Riau’s deserting.

Now Moyse was dead, but Riau had not served his spirit, and there on the hill at Ennery I felt his spirit at my back, and very near.

This was the shame given to Riau by the eyes of Lamour Dérance.

When Moyse made the soulèvement against Toussaint, Riau knew his reasons. I was even in the same spirit with Moyse then, because Toussaint was making the army to be like commandeurs for the blancs to make people work in the fields with their hoes in a way too much like slavery time had been. I knew the mind of Toussaint also, which was thinking we must make sugar and coffee to turn into money because that money must buy guns to fight the French soldiers if they came again. When they came. But my heart was with Moyse. Still, when I heard that Moyse’s people had risen in the north, I sent Guiaou south to warn Toussaint, and I told him to be certain to tell Toussaint it was Riau who sent him. I did this because I saw that Moyse was not going to win this time, and if I followed my heart to Moyse it might be Riau, and not Bouquart, that Toussaint ordered to blow out his own brains.

Lamour Dérance rose in favor of Moyse in the south then. Toussaint was at Verrettes when it all started, and it did not take him long to put it down. But Riau’s name, which I had told Guiaou to give Toussaint, must have reached Lamour Dérance also in this business. As for Guiaou, his head was so full of Toussaint that there was no room for anything else and nothing else behind it. Toussaint put Guiaou into his honor guard, later on when the soulèvement was broken and everyone he ordered to be shot was dead, and gave Guiaou the silver helmet to wear on his head. That was a great thing for Guiaou, because all the men in the honor guard were tall and handsome, where Guiaou had his face and body spoiled by shark teeth and saber cuts.

Ogûn-O … Djab-la di lap manjé moin, si sa vré? Men genyen BonDye O, Genyen tou les sen yo …

There was the hole where the devil had come in. I saw this now, standing outside the hounfor. And I saw how the devil could be sent away too. Voyé djab-la alé!

Quamba stepped up to me then. He had been standing in the shadow by the fence for some little time, I did not know how long. The bone flute was in his hand but he was not playing it. Quamba had become houngan in the place, after the old houngan had died. He had his case now on the first flat ground cut out of the hill on the path below the hounfor, and I had passed there as I climbed, though as I told him I had tried to set my feet down softly so I would not wake him or his people.

“It was the singing,” Quamba said. I had not known I had been singing this song out loud.

Ogun-o, that devil says he is going to eat me, is it true? … but there is God, there are all the saints …

Then Quamba opened the gate for me, and stood aside for me to pass. It was a small enclosure there on the point of the hill, and the kay mystè was so small a man must bend double to enter it. I sat crosslegged on the ground outside, with my back to the cross of Baron Cimitière and my face toward the open door of the kay mystè.

Ogûn-O … Djab-la di lap manjé moin, si sa vré? Se pa vré ti-moun you, se pa vré! sa se jwet, ti-moun-yo, sa se blag …

I was breathing the night air very deep as I sat there, and keeping my eyes half shut, and after some time it seemed my breath was answered out of the mouths of the govi and canari jars inside the kay mystè, as the wind moved in circles round the hilltop.

Ogun-O … The devil says he is going to eat it me, is it true? It’s not true, my children, it’s not true! That is child’s play, my children, it is a joke …

Quamba was waiting. He did not say anything, but followed me out when I rose from the ground. He pulled the gate shut behind us. I did not say anything until the gate was fastened.

M dwé fé pou Moyse youn wete mò nanba dio,” I told him. I must bring the spirit of Moyse back from beneath the waters.

Quamba nodded, and he said, “I can do that for you when it is time.”

“I must do it myself,” I said to him.

Quamba looked at me then, but his eyes did not hold much surprise. “For that you must take the asson,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “When it is time.” I knew it would be so. Quamba did not say anything more after that, but he took hold of my elbow and my arm with both his hands, as if he thought I would need his touch to guide me on the pathway down the hill.


In the case of Merbellay I slept soundly then, until the morning sun was full. It was the voice of Caco that woke me. Outside the case he was splashing himself with water that the girls had carried and making himself ready to go and work in the coffee. He wanted to see me admire the bigger arms and legs and chest he had got from this work since I had seen him, though he had not yet got all his growth, and this I did. Caco was yet a child, but a man’s work made him proud—he did not hate it. I watched him go into the coffee grove, thinking, At least he is not made to work the cane.

It was not such a good thought to have in my head even so. That devil had taken his teeth out of my neck but I could still feel him waiting near. I knew I could not stay in this place with Merbellay and the children. Toussaint had his wife and youngest son Saint-Jean on a habitation just next to this one, and I knew he must be thinking of them now, and if he came to see them, he might even come to Thibodet, because he often visited here. Now the blanche Elise was in the grandcase, and she could recognize Riau.

I rode down by Gonaïves that day, taking care as I passed the town, but there was no word of any French ships yet in the harbor there. From Gonaïves I crossed the Savane Désolée, and then the rice country, and came at last to Saint Marc in the evening. Here Dessalines had built for himself a house as fine and grand as the one Christophe had made at Le Cap, but today the walls were all painted with tar, and men of the eighth Brigade stood outside with lit torches. In the Place d’Armes and before the church it was the same. The whole town was ready for burning. But there was a lot of commotion in the casernes, where all the soldiers were making ready for a movement.

At last I found Dessalines down at the port, walking back and forth along the embarcadère. He wore his uniform pinned with many medals and draped with sashes and covered with long golden cords. Dessalines had come to his place as general under Toussaint, the same as had Moyse. But there was room in his head for more than Toussaint, and one could not always know what was behind it. He walked up and down the embarcadère, turning his snuff box in his hands. There were not any French ships on the sea in front of Saint Marc, but I thought Dessalines must know by now what had happened in Port-au-Prince, from Lamartinière or from some other.

“Riau!” he said when he saw me. “Where do you come from!”

“From Toussaint,” I said. It was true, even if I had not come in a straight line.

“From Toussaint?” Dessalines said. “I have a dispatch from him already.”

“I have no letter,” I said. “Only the words that are in my head.” Then I told them what they were.

“Ah,” said Dessalines. “It is the same.” I was glad to see him put his snuffbox into his pocket then. He took out a letter and gave it me. The seal was cut and at the bottom of the paper I saw Toussaint’s name in his own writing, though the rest was copied in someone else’s hand. Truly these words were much the same as those Toussaint had given me … Do not forget that while waiting for the rainy season, which will relieve us of our enemies, our only recourse is destruction and fire. Remember that the earth we have bathed in our sweat must not furnish the slightest nourishment to our enemies. Cut off the roads, have corpses and dead horses thrown into all the springs, have everything burned and annihilated, so that those who come to put us back into slavery will always find before them the image of the hell that they deserve.

It was sure that if Dessalines had been at Port-au-Prince all the town would have been burned before the French could land out of their ships. Now it was too late for that, but this letter had been written since I left Toussaint, and since the French had landed too, and the letter said to Dessalines that he must wait for another chance to burn the town, when some of the French soldiers might stray out of it. For that, Dessalines was getting ready to move his men down to Croix des Bouquets where Lamartinière was. It was not sure if he would burn Saint Marc before he left, though it seemed the letter wished him to. I, Riau, did not wait to see, but rode out before light the next morning and before the men of Dessalines were moving. I did not want to move with this army myself, and I thought too that now I had found Dessalines, I might go again to look for Laplume, to finish the work Toussaint had given me.

Copyright © 2004 by Madison Smartt Bell. Excerpted from The Stone the Builder Refused, Pantheon Books, New York.

—Born and raised in Tennessee, Madison Smartt Bell has lived in New York and London and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland. He has taught in various creative writing programs, including the Iowa Writers Workshop and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. Since 1984 he has taught the Goucher College Creative Program, where he is currently professor of English along with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires. In 1999, Bell was appointed director of the Kratz Center for Creative Writing at Goucher College. He is the author of 11 novels, including the trilogy on the Haitian revolution: All Souls Rising (1996), Master of the Crossroads (2001; both Penguin Books), and The Stone the Builder Refused, of which Djab-là is an excerpt, as well as two collections of short stories.

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The Practice + Theory series is sponsored in part by the Frances Dittmer Family Foundation.

Looking Back on 2017: Literature
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Featuring selections by Justin Taylor, Shelly Oria, Mary Walling Blackburn, Kevin Killian, Barry Schwabsky, John Freeman, and more.

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Disastrous screenings, Nam June Paik’s meeting with Bill Clinton, and time spent as a dog.

Originally published in

BOMB 90, Winter 2005

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. 

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