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Whose God to Follow?

ISSUE:  Autumn 2000

Cool, and the calm was ruffled only by the wind, shivering the heavy blades of the old, tall palms. Above the bunches of their tops, the stars of morning faded, as the cocks took up their cry. A last mosquito, his namesake, whined round his ear, then stung. Moustique, whose hands were both engaged in balancing the priest’s slop jar, could not slap it. He let it feed, then fly, and felt his way forward through the warm wet darkness, his ivory toes splaying in the dirt.

L’Abbaye Delahaye had assigned him the slop jar to teach him humility, he said. Moustique was meant to share the vessel, during the night, and likewise to share the priest’s bedchamber, but he preferred to sleep in the outer room, on a pallet, under the shadows of the chalice and censer on the table, the iron crucifix nailed to the wall—he went outside to relieve his flesh, if he must. The priest snored ferociously, and the bedroom, windowless, was too close and too completely dark.

Delahaye himself had done such tasks, which some might think degrading, during his novitiate in France. He mocked Moustique for rising before first light in hope of hiding his progress with the ordures. One who has attained humility, the priest was wont to say, cannot be humiliated. Furthermore, the boy should count himself lucky that the weather was always dulcet here. As a novice, Delahaye had performed his morning devoir walking barefoot across freezing flagstones of his monastary, while outside the roofs and the ground would be covered with snow, that frozen rain that fell lightly as feathers . . .like cotton, the priest explained, but Moustique had not seen cotton either, though once it had been grown in Saint Domingue.

Moustique listened, often without comprehension, and woke each morning well before dawn, to lie listening to the wind bowing the tall palms, the clatter of leaves distant beyond the roar of the priest’s snoring through the thin partition. Then he pushed himself up and collected the slop jar and went out into the dark.

It had rained in the night, and the earth beyond the borders of the village was damp beneath his feet. He moved to the edge of the path to avoid a party of charcoal-burners he could hear coming down from the mountain with their loaded bouriks. They passed him, clucking softly to their animals, the little donkeys snorting at his scent. To his left he could hear the river running over the rocks, and he cut a new path through the reeds and emptied the jar among them, then went on in a long curve to strike the river bank at a lower point. The stars were gone, and daylight was coming up quickly now, framing the mountains and the tree-tops against a purple sky, new light creating the world all at once out of darkness, as Moustique came out of the reeds onto a gravel shoal.

He stepped shin-deep into the water and crouched down to wash the jar. The morning mist was lifting from the river, and he saw a party of girls upstream, kneeling to dip water for their houses, Marie-Noelle among them. Their laughter belled out when they saw him, ringing with innocent delight that a creature so absurd as himself should have appeared for their amusement. Ducking his head over the cold stream, he felt his face break out with inflamed patches that ran down his throat past the loose collar of his shirt and spread across his collarbone. Delahaye addressed him always as Jean-Raphael, but in a reckless moment he had disclosed his nickname to Marie-Noelle, and this information had become the centerpiece for many pleasantries.

Ti-moun prêt, sé moustik li yé!” they called after him, and tightened their lips to make the insect whine. The baby priest is a mosquito. . . . His gangly limbs were like the legs of a mosquito, his long nose of a blanc might give a mosquito’s sting. Moustique refused to look back at them, but even if he could not hear their jokes and laughter he would have been as acutely aware of them, sauntering a few yards behind him, hands and hips lazily swinging, the water jars effortlessly balanced on their heads. He understood that Marie-Noelle tormented him partly from annoyance that he had deprived her of much of her work for the priest—Delahaye had reassigned the most menial tasks to him, although the girl still came to his house to cook, for the priest would not tolerate Moustique’s cooking. There was a limit, he declared, to the mortification of the flesh.

He set the washed jar down on the priest’s door sill, then untied the priest’s two donkeys, the jack and the sweet jenny each marked with a crude cross on the flank, and led them out to forage. When he returned, the priest was at matins. Not many of the faithful had assembled, it being a weekday (and in any case all the white planters had been killed or driven into refuge on the coast). Some few black men and women had come down from the hills, hoping for a Jesus ouanga, a taste of power from the mighty god of blancs. Moustique’s own father had been free enough in dispensing such charms, but Delahaye was stricter—he would not baptise anyone more than once, provided that he recognised the convert on a later application. Part of Moustique’s duty, indeed, was to identify new Christians who came again to repeat the treatment.

He served at the altar as he had been taught. After the service, Delahaye heard his recitation. Moustique spoke with some difficulty, his mouth full of saliva; he could smell Marie Noelle frying maize cakes over the cook fire behind the house.

“For if the first fruit be holy,” Moustique carefully pronounced, “the lump is also holy, and if the root be holy, so are the branches.

“And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive branch, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root at fatness of the olive tree;

“”Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.”“

Delahaye nodded pensively, signalling with his forefinger for Moustique to continue. The priest assigned him a chapter to memorize each day, first in Latin which was mere noise to the boy, then in a French version—good French, for if Moustique should lapse into Creole, Delahaye would rap him across the knuckles with the back of a wooden spoon. And yet at other times the priest would drift, captured more by the sense of the passage than the phrasing.

“Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in.

“”Well, because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith, be not high-minded, but fear:

“”For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.”“

“Yes. . .” Delahaye said, presenting the flat of his palm to stop the recital. “Yes, that will do.” His eyes cleared and focussed on Moustique. “Let us break our fast then,” he said, and touched the boy’s hand in a kindly manner, as he sometimes would. “My wild olive branch.”

Moustique followed him, his puzzlement mute, from the church to the house. As soon as they were seated, Marie Noelle served them quickly and then withdrew. They ate the maize-cakes flavored with dark cane syrup, washed down by cold water from the river. Delahaye discoursed on Latin grammar, comparing certain passages of the morning’s text to the French translation. Moustique nodded, miming comprehension, whereas in truth the only thing that he had grasped was that while French was for white men, and Creole for black, Latin was the language spoken by God.

“You may go to the washing,” Delahaye told him as they picked at the last crumbs, “after the dishes, of course.”

Moustique’s heart lowered. Wash day was in some ways his worst experience of an ordinary week. He looked out the open door in the direction where Marie Noelle had gone. A wisp of smoke from the dying cook fire drifted across the open front of the ajoupa where the girl had stayed, before his own arrival. The little lean-to stood empty now, though Moustique would have gladly slept there himself, further from the snoring, if Delahaye had allowed it.

“Above all you must beware of concupiscence,” Delahaye suddenly announced, drawing the boy’s attention back from the world beyond the door. “Lasciviousness, lust of the flesh. Through this sin was your father lost to God.”

Moustique flinched, swallowed, and got up to clear the table.

The young girls washed downriver from the older women, and Moustique washed downriver from the girls. On other occasions he had gone upstream from all of them, half-hiding himself in a patch of reeds, but the women frowned and the girls complained loudly that they caught his dirt drifting down the currents. Today he crossed the gravel shoal in full view of their party, swinging his bundle of cloth down on the sand at the water’s edge. The sun was hot across his back, but the water was so cold that when he first put a foot in, it shocked him clear to his back teeth. He sighed, unfolded a cassock on the surface of the water, then plunged it under and began to scrub it with a long bar of handmade soap.

This was, absolutely, women’s work: another station on his pathway to humility. His father, the French Jesuit Père Bonne-chance, had been a humble man; Moustique had felt this for himself, before his father’s execution, and his feeling was confirmed by Delahaye, who had known him reasonably well. There was much virtue in your father, Delahaye would lecture him, even a vocation for martyrdom, as was proved, and yet he shut himself out of the community of saints, because. . . . Because, Moustique reminded himself wearily, he had fallen into the snare of love for women, notably Moustique’s mother Fontelle, and had used his male member to plant the seed of children in her belly, the germ of Moustique and his sisters.

He spread a sheet across a boulder and began to scour it with a rounded stone. His palms were wrinkling now from soaking in the water. For some time the girls had been chaffing him in their loud laughing voices, but Moustique, wrapped up in other thoughts, had scarcely been aware of them. Was this the beginning of humility? The divorce of his mind from his surroundings was certainly something new. And the girls, seeing he did not react to their teasing, had lost interest and begun to splash each other. Moustique understood the source of their resentment—he did not belong here at this hour of the day, no more than any man, and if not for his presence the girls would have been free to strip off the dresses they were wearing and scrub them clean and then swim naked while their clothes dried on the rocks. As it was, the splashing game had soaked the whole pack of them to their necks, so that the wet fabric clung transparently to the rich chocolate flesh, breast and buttocks and belly and the shadowy cleft between the thighs. . . . Moustique’s mind skittered sideways, crossing over fragmentary passages half-remembered from a very curious French novel his father had kept hidden (so he thought) and which Moustique and his sisters had partially puzzled out in secret sessions, blushing and giggling in embarrassed titillation.

Now his skin was all afire again, and his wicked thoughts were concentrating in the arrow shaft of sin, which sprung forward and strained against the cotton of his breeches. Moustique sank down to his knees, waist-deep in the water, but it was useless now. The girls had begun to grin and gesture—they knew they had him back on the skewer—and the water was not cold enough to quench his heat. But his mind slipped free of his body again, as it had done a few minutes before, and though he felt the physical symptoms of his shame, the blush and bulge, these no longer mattered to him. Was this humility? He stood up out of the water, his empty hands loose at his sides, and looked at the girls frankly, making no effort to conceal himself. The fattest and most impudent of the group cocked her forefinger at his crotch.

Moustik sa-a, li kab piquè defois!” And she erupted into a laugh so powerful she fell over backward into the shallows with a tremendous splash. It was a fine witticism and the others quickly took it up, shrieking and pointing as they cried, This mosquito can sting two times! Moustique stood still, almost relaxed, and gazed at them with something like indifference. Marie-Noelle, he noticed in a distant way, had not joined in the laughter of the others.

On Saturday a party of mulattos came, coffee planters from the hills roundabout, to dine with the priest before Mass on Sunday morning. Moustique had encountered most of them a time or two before, but had not learned their names, no more than they had inquired after his . . .although he saw that he was noticed by appraising, not entirely friendly eyes. If Delahaye had explained his presence to the guests, he’d done so out of Moustique’s earshot. They were griffes or marabou mostly, from the point of view of color, so Moustique was lighter-skinned himself than any of them.

Marie Noelle had prepared griot of pork with rice and beans and a few stewed greens, but she remained outdoors beside her fire, while Moustique served the table. He was not invited to sit down, but caught snatches of the conversation as he passed the plates and refreshed the rum and water the company drank in place of wine. Most of the talk concerned the war. Toussaint had been battering Saint Marc since midsummer, and without success, but he had defeated the English almost everywhere else he had met them, at Marchand and Pont L’Ester and Verrettes. From this last position he had quickly turned to drive the Spanish from Petite Rivière. The sheer speed of his maneuvering was remarkable, all agreed.

Toussaint was certainly a man of cunning, said the oldest man at the table, fondling his peppery beard as he spoke. Perhaps even a man of genuine talent—but no one could prevail indefinitely against European soldiers. A marabou youth across the table hotly rejoined that no campaign of the British general Brisbane had dislodged Toussaint from the Cordon of the West.

“So for the moment he remains our master,” said the bearded man, “for better or for worse,” and someone noted that every plantation and settlement in the mountains was much calmer since Toussaint had established his chain of posts from Gonaives to the heights above Mirebalais, and someone else complained that his cultivators (he just stopped short of saying slaves) grew restless in the proximity of so many black soldiers, and many ran away to join Toussaint’s army. . . . At the head of the table, Delahaye listened, silently attentive, his fingertips unconsciously worrying a whorl in his close-cropped gray hair, until he noticed Moustique lingering, and gestured at the empty pork platter.

Moustique went outside to the fire. The sky was darkening, slate-blue, the wind shivered the high palms, and crows flew crying among them. In the nearest lakou above the town, there was a quick sharp rattle of drums, trailing off, then beginning again. Marie Noelle refilled the pork platter from the iron kettle, her eyes lowered, almost demure. She was usually quiet, Moustique remembered, when apart from the pack of other girls; still something in her manner seemed to have changed.

When he went back with the dish of pork, the young marabou was loudly declaring that Toussaint had a better hope than anyone of driving all the white people from the island once for all. One of the older men pointed out that such a result would hardly be in their own interests—practically all of them had relatives who were collaborating with the British at Port au Prince and points further south.

“Yes,” the bearded man agreed, “And equally you must not forget that Toussaint has sold himself to the French, to Laveaux—”

“Laveaux is a good man,” Delahaye put in.

“Laveaux is the tool of Sonthonax,” the bearded man said, “who would set the most ignorant, savage Africans above us—”

“Sonthonax has left the country,” the young marabou snapped.

“So he has,” the bearded man said, leaning forward at the same that he lowered his voice, “and on the eve of his departure he gave his Commissioner’s medallion, along with its powers and prerogatives as I have heard, to Dieudonne, who is no more and no less than a wild maroon from the mountains. And he told him—as you may not know—Sonthonax told Dieudonne, So long as you see mulattoes in your ranks you will never be free.

A considerable silence followed, during which Delahaye noticed Moustique again and sent him out for more rum and a plate of cut fruit. When he returned, the conversation had resumed but on some unrelated topic, and he went out again without waiting for Delahaye to dismiss him. It was darker now, the stars appearing, and for the moment the drums had stopped. Marie-Noelle was walking in a spiral pattern between the fire and the trunks of the tall palms, seeming to take pleasure in the light grace of her steps. She was dressed in white, as if for church, and her skirt belled out around her slim legs as she turned. Moustique felt a heart-stirring as he watched her, and wondered if she meant for him to feel it, but her eyes were downcast always, as if unaware of him. She turned and stepped and turned again, the white skirt catching starlight, firelight, starlight.

He lay sleepless in the priest’s front room, the sound of Delahaye’s snore throbbing at him through the wall, textured by the more distant drumming which the snoring only partly masked. Sleep was like a surface of salt water, so buoyant that it would not let him sink. His mind scuttled spiderlike across it, shrinking from the most dreadful images in its store. The scene of his father’s execution sometimes still appeared to him in dreams or waking nightmares such as this. They chained his father to a wheel and broke his bones with hammers till he perished. At first he blessed his executioner but soon enough his prayers turned into screams. And all this was for nothing, for no cause: Pére Bonne-Chance had merely been confused with some other renegade priest who had assisted in tortures and the rape of white women during the first insurrection of 91. Even Delahaye admitted that in this case his father was purely without blame. Then God has no justice, Moustique had said. Delahaye smashed his knuckles with the spoon and set him to memorizing long extracts from the book of Job.

Moustique got up cautiously from his pallet, light-headed, at the edge of nausea. He padded barefoot over the floor, lifted the latch and went outside. Just beyond the threshold he paused, listening; the racket of the priest’s snoring still shook the walls of the house, uninterrupted. Silvery light spilled over his cheek and his arm. The moon was a crescent, sheltering three stars. When he stepped away from the wall of the house, the jenny raised her head in the corral and came to the palings, whickering softly. Moustique stroked her nose and let her warm breath play over his fingers. In the invisible cleft of the dark hill above, the drumming became more insistent.

He walked through pools of moonlight from the church and square to the edge of the town, and with scarcely a beat of hesitation began climbing the corkscrew path that curved over an extended claw of the mountain’s foot. Darkness enveloped him, the moon cut off by the trees. His mind worked, but with no influence over his legs. Delahaye would be furious, if he should find out. Moustique’s own father would have disapproved, perhaps more mildly. Moustique did not know one drum from another, so he did not know if he was bound for a secular celebration—bamboche or calenda—or a service for the pagan gods of Africa. In Jeannot’s camp, where Pére Bonne-Chance had carried his mission in the first months of the rebellion, drums and ceremonies had been a prelude to the slow, elaborate, fatal torture of blanc captives. But all this information and the business of thinking about it became more and more distant, miniaturized, the higher Moustique climbed on the trail, while much more fully present were the drums and his own response: his limbs coming into tune with his heartbeat and the strengthening pulse at the base of his skull. From the darkness above an unearthly cry broke out, an otherworldly entity that voiced itself on a human tongue. Moustique’s arms flowered into goose-flesh, but he could not make out if the sensation was pleasure or fear.

He kept following the twistings of the path, scarcely aware of the embedded stones that gouged into the arches of his bare feet. Someone, maybe more than one, was coining down from the hounfor, and Moustique stepped out of the trail, clinging to a sapling. Scus’m, a man’s voice muttered. Two figures he could not make out completely, though he caught flashes of a white sleeve, white headcloth. When they had passed, he swung down into the groove of the trail and continued. The drumbeat quickened, drawing him up like a jerk on leash tied around his neck. The trail made a sudden twist to the left and steepened sharply. Moustique helped himself up the rise with one hand furrowing the crumbling earth, then straightened in a clearing of packed clay. The brightness of the stars and moon amazed him as he came out of the tree cover. In the center a thick pole was wound around with a carved snake, and spiralled with a painted rainbow. There was a fire that cast no light, and the hounsis, swaying and singing, were turned blue-silver by the moon and stars—white shirts and headcloths glowing.

Damballa-wèdo, papa
Ou kulev-o
Kulev, kulev-o
M’ap rélé kulév-o
Damballa-papa, ou sé kulèv
Kulèv pa sa palé. . . .

The part of Moustique’s mind that registered these images was shrinking, blinking as it fell away like a revolving coin. His body moved in perfect unison with the steady uprush of the drums, as he broke the line of hounsis and moved toward the poteau mitan. That otherworldly cry came from his own thick throat—he hardly knew it. His head threw back, the stars spun round and up and up like flecks of butter in a churn. The drumming sucked the stars into whirlpool, then everything went bright.

Li konnen prié BonDyé?” Man’s voice, with the rough-silk feel of a cat’s tongue.

Li kab chanté Latin, mêm.” A girl, her voice bright with pride.

Moustique turned onto his shoulder and opened one eye upon the hard-packed dirt.

He knows how to pray to the whiteman’s God?

He can even sing in Latin. . . .

But now the voices had stopped. Moustique felt attention turn to him—he saw the man and the girl indistinctly through his half-closed gummy eyes. The flutter of their white garments sent his mind off-balance again. Nothing was clear, not where he was or how he had come there. Above the clearing the sky was paling into dawn. Moustique heard cocks crowing down the gorges, and listened for the morning reveille of Toussaint’s army at Habitation Thibodet, but then he remembered Marmelade, and Delahaye, and he sat up sharply, flinging out an arm.

Dousman,” Marie Noelle supported his elbow, held his hand in hers, without the slightest pressure. His eyes yawed crazily around the clearing. He was still in the hounfor, but the houngan, with his cat’s-tongue voice, had disappeared. He got to his feet; the movement dizzied him.

Dousman. . . .” Marie Noelle was still supporting him, balancing him by his right arm. He looked at her, confused.

Té gegne youn espri nan têt-ou,” she said, quietly, “Vini ak moi.

She led him toward the trail head, guiding him with the pressureless contact of her hands. He felt the fragile clarity of someone waking from a fever. Everything was lucid, but nothing in his consciousness resolved into the elements of self.

There was a spirit in your head. . . .

The dawn was damp, and agreeably cool. Moustique’s knees were a little wobbly, but he felt his strength returning, along with his presence of mind, the further they went down the trail. Marie Noelle’s light touch was pleasant, cool fingers just feathering his palm, and also her demeanor—as if they’d always stood in this relation, whatever it might be.

Sunrise was baffled by the cover of the trees, but when they came out into the border of the town, the full light struck them, and the church bell began to ring. Moustique, returning further to himself, felt a personal jab of panic.

Oui,” said Marie-Noelle, and thrust the priest’s slop jar, emptied and rinsed into his hands. “Yes—hurry.”

A fold of her skirt brushed his leg as she turned away. Moustique scurried toward the church, pausing to set the jar down on the threshold of the priest’s house. The congregation had already begun to assemble when he went in, but Delahaye paid him no mind— distracted perhaps by the party of gens de couleur who had already taken their positions in the front benches.

The priest stood before the altar, tall, lean, almost spectral in his best vestments, the ends of his purple stole twitching from a slight rotation of his hips. He spread his large hands over the people below him.

Dominus vobiscum. . . .”

As customary, Moustique led the mumbling response. “Et vobiscum te. . . .” He took a darting glance over his shoulder. Marie Noelle sat on one the rear benches, not far from the houngan, a small elderly man with a crown of white hair over a dark face wrinkled like a nut meat. The other back seats were filling with men and women dressed in white, many among them who last night had served the loa.

L’Abbaye Delahaye collected herbs and flowers and kept large books in which he sketched the plants, pressed their leaves, and noted down their uses if there were any. A couple of afternoons each week he sent Moustique out to gather plants for him, and encouraged him to talk to people about their value. On this pretext Moustique returned to the lakou where the hounfor was, seeking out the houngan who, as was usual, doubled as a leaf doctor, docte fey.

Moustique had some rudiments of herbal medicine from observation of Toussaint; also his own father had taken some interest in the subject, though less systematic than that of Delahaye. From the houngan, he learned more, though little enough that was new to the priest. To be sure, Moustique did not report to Delahaye that the houngan had also begun to teach him the names and natures of the loa, particularly Damballah, the spirit which had chosen to possess him. But in two weeks time, Moustique was assisting in the ceremonies at the hounfor, wearing the white clothes and mouchwa tet of a hounsi, chanting an Ave Maria or a Pater Noster and perhaps some other fragments of memorized Latin Scripture, before the African spirits were invoked.

The world of the church and its saints mirrored the world of the hounfor and the African mysteries, just as (the houngan explained) the surface world of living people was mirrored by the Island Below Sea, inhabited by souls who had left their bodies: Les Morts et les Mysteres. Flushed with this new understanding, Moustique felt as if he were empowered to walk on water. His life had come into a delicate balance, unlike anything he had ever known before. He was at peace within himself. Even Delahaye appeared satisfied with Moustique’s newfound calm. If he returned belated with the slop jar, blinking in the full light of day, the priest did not reprove his tardiness, but was pleased that the boy seemed to have finally got beyond his sense of shame. Of course, Delahaye had no idea where Moustique went at night.

Moustique began to understand that Marie-Noelle was, like himself, a doubled entity. Her daylight self—the priest’s dutiful cook—was modestly, piously Christian. Her moonlit self was something other, engaged with the mysteries of the hounfor. But with each encounter of those days and nights, Moustique felt her other image attached to her like a shadow. He felt the two images floating closer and closer until at last they would be one, and so it seemed inevitable to him when one night he woke in the small hours with that sense of being called, though this time there was no drumming. The priest’s snores ran on as usual. The moonlight, shattered by the jalousies, spread in long flat rays over the objects in the room. Moustique rose carefully, slipped through the door. His feet fell silently on puffs of powdery dust. No drumming but the beat of his own blood. The silence seemed perfect everywhere, and no one was about, but he felt that sense of expectation, almost choking in his throat, still leading him. He went counterclockwise around the corners of the priest’s house. In a pool of moonlight near the cold ashes of the cook-fire, Marie Noelle stood still and calm. When he appeared, her balance broke, and she took a few steps away from him toward the shadows, her movement lilting, then paused, poised on the balls of her bare feet, looking back over her shoulder.

He overtook her just within the shade of the ajoupa where she had stayed before. Her right hand lay against his collarbone lightly, slightly cool, the barest touch. Their left hands were joined together, as if they were going to waltz. Dousman. Moustique did not know if one of them had said the word aloud. Gently, sweetly . . .dousman. Her taste was the sweetest experience that had ever graced his senses.

Then his days passed easily, as if in dream, for everything in the Scripture and liturgy he was set to learn found its reflection in the knowledge of the hounfor, while each time he entered the ajoupa with Marie Noelle his dreams became actual: voluptuary visions embodied in real flesh. The moon kept waxing night by night, inflating its lopsided edges until it was a perfect circle, whitely blazing in the velvet sky.

Then one night there was no moon. When Moustique, having parted lingeringly from Marie Noelle, re-entered the house to collect the slop jar, there was no sound of the priest’s snoring, though Delahaye lay in his usual position abed, his sharp nose jutting up like the fin of a shark. Moustique’s senses registered the change but his mind took no account of it. He walked to the river in the wandering starlight, cleaned the jar and then returned. When he turned the corner of the church, yawning lazily, turning the damp jar in his hands, he found the priest smashing the ajoupa to flinders with an ax.

Inevitable. Moustique could see that now. Why had he not seen it always? The empty jar had fallen from his numb hands, but had not broken. The relief he felt in this scrap of good fortune was meaningless now, he recognized. Delahaye lowered the ax and braced his hands on the haft, trembling slightly across his shoulders. On occasion Moustique had seen him preach dreadful, fiery sermons, but this was worse, much worse. The priest’s thin lips were white from pressure, red spots flared in the hollow of his cheeks where the skin stretched taut over the bone.

“The Devil,” Delahaye said slowly, “will be driven from you, boy.”

Moustique stayed rooted, as if fascinated by a snake. The priest caught his wrist, spun him around, and pushed him against the trunk of a tree. Automatically Moustique’s arms rose to embrace the wood. His cheek was flattened against rough bark. The priest tore his shirt from collar to tail, ripped down his trousers to the ankles. A pause, a breath, then the first lash fell.

The instrument was a four foot length of green liana, cut in advance for the purpose, as Moustique saw from his one squinted eye. The vine sizzled in the air before each strike, but it did not land as heavily as a leather whip, nor cut as a knotted cord would have done. Not that Moustique had ever been whipped before. He had felt the flat of his father’s hand, but whipping was for slaves, for blacks, and not for him.

Delahaye had evidently some experience of the work to be done. He laid on neat horizontal stripes, accurately spaced and placed, across the back over the buttocks and the thighs. He paced himself, as for long endurance, and in the intervals of breath, before he struck again, he spoke.

“You have . . .” snap! “. . .sinned with the woman . . .” snap! “. . . but have you also . . .” snap! “. . . bowed to the Devil?” snap! “. . . have you invited . . .” snap! “. . .the great black Satan . . .” snap! “. . . into your heart?”

Each blow was painful, but superficially so, a sting and a weal rising from the skin. Soon enough Moustique understood that Delahaye did not mean to do him serious bodily damage, not of the sort that would cripple, maim and scar. Still the sting of the liana brought tears to his eyes, and an expulsion of breath he would not let become a cry.

“Christ our Lord . . .” snap! “. . . drove out the devils . . .” snap! “. . .He sent those devils . . .” snap! “. . .into swine!” snap! “Casting out. . .” snap! “. . . I cast out. . .” snap! “. . .beat the blood of black sin . . .” snap! “. . .out of your veins. . . .”

Moustique’s mind dislocated and began to travel. He had seen whippings aplenty, for under slavery they were common enough. And in the camps of the first rebellion, the black chiefs had whipped their men for various infractions, but not Toussaint. Toussaint had never ordered a man whipped, though if an offense were too grave for verbal rebuke, he might well command the offender to be shot. It was told that Toussaint had never been whipped himself, but many in his company had been, as well as earlopped, amputated, branded with hot iron. . .the scars were evident everywhere. Toussaint’s fearsome subaltern, Dessalines, would sometimes remove his coat and shirt and shift his shoulders in a subtle manner which caused the bands of cicatrice all over his back to writhe like fat white worms.

Moustique’s own father had once broken up a whipping. The slave had been pegged face down on the ground, blood from his stripes soaking into the dirt. Pere Bonne-chance had hopped down from his donkey and traversed the field with his brown cassock flapping. The whiphandling overseer, he said later, was a white canaille from a French prison, bandylegged, troll-like, but with a long muscular arm. Pere Bonne-chance put his own body under the lash, letting the leather wrap around his stubby forearm. With a jerk he brought the overseer stumbling toward him and hit him with his free hand a short blow that stunned him and knocked out several of his teeth. He untied the thongs that bound the wrists and ankles of the injured slave and brought him to his own house to be treated and healed. The master of the plantation had been angry when he heard of the episode but had taken no action, for the embarrassment of brawling with a priest.

Now Moustique thought of the agony his father had suffered on the wheel before his death, and his own wish to whimper shamed him further. Nothing bound him to the tree, his whipping post, but he was fixed there, without the will to move. To close off the cry building in his throat, he bit down on his lip till his mouth filled with blood.

The beating stopped.

“Go into the house,” Delahaye said.

After a moment, Moustique pushed himself up from the tree trunk and looked glazedly at the priest. A swirl of golden dots ran before his eyes.

“Go,” Delahaye said, half breathless. He stood straight, though his voice was strained, and a beading of sweat stood on his forehead. Moustique went limping toward the house, holding his torn trousers up with one hand.

Delahaye came in a moment after him and got a fresh shirt and pair of cotton pantaloons from his own store.

“Put these on,” he said. “Go on, dress yourself.” He turned his back and looked out the window.

Moustique, delicately, put on the new clothing. He could not see the marks of the whipping on his back, but exploration with a fingertip let him know that the skin was welted but not broken. His worst injury was the bitten lip.

Delahaye turned to face him. “You may sit down.”

Moustique swallowed a mouthful of blood and remained on his feet.

“Another preceptor might have beaten you more severely,” Delahaye pointed out. “And afterward, rubbed salt and hot pepper seed into your wounds.”

“I know it,” Moustique said, thickly because of his swollen lip.

“Very well.” Delahaye draped his stole over his shoulders and sat down at the table, looking up at Moustique with his clear grey eyes.

“Understand,” the priest said. “It is not your African blood that I rebuke, but the sin which runs in the blood of all men, no matter what their color. The sin of your father, visited on you.” He paused, eyes drifting, then returning to Moustique’s face. “Saint Paul said, “It is better to marry than to burn,” but a priest must not, may not marry, and fornication is a grievous sin.”

Delahaye put his hand on the cover of the heavy Bible which lay on the table, but did not open it.

“Now if I do that I would not,” he intoned. “”it is not I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God, after the inward man, but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me to captivity to the law of sin which is in my member.”

Delahaye paused to clear his throat.

“”O wretched man that I am!”” he went on. “”Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”“

Delahaye looked hard at Moustique, who swallowed more blood and kept his silence.

“The words of Saint Paul,” the priest said. “But it is Christ only, who delivers. Kneel down, my son, and make a true confession. Repent and your sins will be washed away, even if you have bent your head before the Devil.”

Moustique licked at his cut lip and knelt down carefully. The movement hurt him less than he had expected. He rocked back on his heels and looked up at the priest.

“Saint Paul said also,” Moustique pronounced slowly, “”If you live in the Spirit, you are not under the law.”“

It seemed to him that Delahaye quailed.

“My God,” the priest said. “What have I done?” He covered his face briefly with his large hands. When he took them away, his eyes went wandering, over the window and the furnishings of the room.

“From what tree were you grafted, after all?” he said at last. “Well, boy, I have no will to beat you any more today. . . .” He got up heavily, went into the bedroom and shut the door.

Moustique stretched out gingerly on his pallet. The bleeding of his lip had slowed, so he didn’t have to swallow as often as before. In less than two minutes he was unconscious. His double life had robbed his sleep for many days. Now he slept dreamless through the heat of the day until evening.

The priest had gone out when Moustique awoke, leaving the bedroom door ajar. Moustique went to the river and washed, then returned slowly, greeting no one that he passed. His mind as a near-perfect blank. There was no sign anywhere of Marie-Noelle. He knew that most likely she would have fled to her home lakou in the mountains.

Behind the priest’s house, the embers of the cookfire were dark. Shattered wood from the smashed ajoupa had been heaped across it. Moustique wondered if someone else would be engaged to cook. As for himself, he was only slightly hungry and could think of nothing to eat that would not aggravate his torn lip. Delahaye had not yet returned. Moustique went indoors, lay down, and slept again.

When next he woke, the lightless room reverberated with the snoring of the priest. The bleeding of his lip had stopped completely though it was raw and very swollen. His appetite had not yet returned. His mind was clearer than it had been before. He understood that he might regain the priest’s esteem, which was of value, but that to do so he must renounce both woman and the hounfor. There must be other ways to God.

He got up cautiously, the welts stinging his legs and back. He listened to the rhythm of the snores. The straw macoute he used to gather herbs hung all the wall. Moustique put into it half a loaf of bread, the silver chalice, and the priest’s stole. His shoulder was too sore for the strap, so he slipped from the house with the mouth of the straw bag clutched in one hand.

Dark of the moon. Moustique felt his way to the corral. The little jenny came to him of her own accord, whiskering over his palm. Moustique improvised a rope hackamore, then dropped the top rail and led her out. Wincing slightly, he swung onto her bare back, and rode from the town into the mountains, not knowing where he meant to go.


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