Read Island Beneath the Sea Online

Authors: Isabel Allende

Tags: #Latin American Novel And Short Story, #Historical - General, #Caribbean Area, #Sugar plantations, #Women slaves, #Plantation life, #Fiction - General, #Racially mixed women, #Historical, #Haiti, #General, #Allende; Isabel - Prose & Criticism, #Fiction

Island Beneath the Sea (6 page)

BOOK: Island Beneath the Sea
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No one stopped me in the streets when I left Mademoiselle's apartment
I walked several hours and thought I had crossed the whole city. I got lost in the barrio near the port, but I could see the mountains in the distance, and everything was a question of walking in that direction. We slaves knew that there were Maroons in the mountains, but we did not know that beyond the first peaks were many more, so many they can't be counted. Night fell. I ate my bread but saved the mango. I hid in a stable under a pile of straw, although I was afraid of horses, with their hooves like hammers and steaming nostrils. The animals were very near, I could hear them breathing across the straw, a sweet, green breath like the herbs in Mademoiselle's bath. Clinging to my doll Erzulie, mother of Guinea, I slept the whole night without bad dreams, wrapped in the warmth of the horses. At dawn a slave came into the stable and found me snoring with my feet sticking through the straw
he grabbed my ankles and pulled me out with one tug. I don't know what he expected to find, but it must not have been a scrawny little girl, because instead of hitting me, he lifted me up, carried me to the light, and looked me over with mouth agape. "Are you crazy? What made you hide here?" he asked me finally, not raising his voice. "I have to get to the mountains
I explained, also whispering. The punishment for helping a fugitive slave was very well known, and the man hesitated. "Let me go, please, no one will know I was here
I begged him. He thought it over a while, and finally ordered me to stay where I was and be quiet
he made sure there was no one around, and left the stable. He soon returned with a hard biscuit and a gourd of heavily sugared coffee
he waited for me to eat and then pointed to the way out of the city. If he had turned me in, he would have been given a reward, but he didn't. I hope that Papa Bondye has rewarded him. I burst into a run and left behind the last houses in Le Cap. That day I walked without stopping, even though my feet were bleeding and I was sweating, thinking of the Negro hunters of the
The sun was high overhead when I entered the jungle. Green, everything green
I couldn't see the sky, and light barely penetrated past the leaves. I heard the sounds of animals and murmur of spirits. The path was vanishing. I ate the mango but vomited it up almost immediately. Capitaine Relais's guards did not waste time looking for me because I came back alone after spending the night curled among the roots of a living tree
I could hear its heart beating like Honore's. This is how I remember it.

I spent the day walking, walking, asking and asking, until I reached the place Clugny. I went up to Mademoiselle's apartment so hungry and tired that I scarcely felt it when Loula cuffed me across the room. Mademoiselle, who was getting ready to go out, appeared at that moment, still in her negligee and with her hair down. She lifted me by one arm, pulled me off to her room, and with a push sat me down on her bed
she was much stronger than she looked. She kept standing, with her arms cocked on her hips, looking at me without speaking, and soon she handed me a handkerchief to wipe off the blood from Loula's blow. "Why did you come back?" she asked me. I didn't have an answer. She handed me a glass of water, and then came my tears, like warm rain, mixing with the blood from my nose. "Be grateful, you stupid brat, that I don't lash you as you deserve. Where were you going? To the mountains? You would never get there. Only a few men do that, the most desperate and courageous. If by some miracle you could get out of the city, cross through the trees and swamps without coming upon a plantation, where dogs would devour you, elude the militiamen, the demons, and poisonous snakes, and reach the mountains, the Maroons would kill you. Why do they want a little thing like you? Do you know how to hunt, fight, use a machete? Do you even know how to please a man?" I had to admit I didn't. She told me that I should be grateful for my luck, that it wasn't at all bad. I begged her to let me stay with her, but she said she didn't need me. She counseled me to behave if I didn't want to end up cutting cane. She was training me to be a lady's maid for Madame Valmorain, an easy task. I would live in the house and eat well, it would be better than being with Madame Delphine. She added that I shouldn't pay attention to Loula, that being Spanish was not an illness, it merely meant speaking differently than we do. She knew my new master, she said, a decent monsieur any slave would be happy to belong to. "I want to be free, like you
I told her, sobbing. Then she told me about her grandmother, caught in Senegal, where you find the most beautiful people in the world. A rich merchant bought her, a Frenchman who had a wife in France but fell in love with her the minute he saw her in the black slave market. She gave him a number of children, and he freed them all. He planned to educate them so they would prosper, like so many people of color in Saint-Domingue, but he died suddenly and left them in penury because his wife claimed his entire estate. The Senegalese grandmother set up a little fried food shop in the port to support the family, but her youngest daughter, twelve years old, did not want to ruin herself gutting fish amid fumes from rancid oil and chose instead to service gentlemen. That girl, who inherited her mother's noble beauty, became the most sought-after courtesan in the city, and she in turn had a daughter, Violette Boisier, to whom she taught everything she knew. This is what she told me. "If it hadn't been for the jealousy of the white man who killed her, my mother would still be the queen of the night in Le Cap. But don't get ideas, Tete, my grandmother's love story happens only rarely. A slave remains a slave. If she escapes, and is lucky, she dies in her flight. If she doesn't, she is caught alive. Tear that idea of freedom from your heart, that is the best thing you can do
she said. Then she took me to Loula to get me something to eat.

When my master, Valmorain, came to look for me a few weeks later, he didn't recognize me because I'd put on weight
I was clean, my hair was cut, and I was wearing a new dress Loula had sewn for me. He asked my name, and I answered with my firmest voice, not looking up because I knew never to look a white in the face. "Zarite de Saint-Lazare
, maitre,"
as Mademoiselle had instructed me. My new master smiled, and before we left he set down a pouch. I did not know how much he paid for me. Another man was waiting in the street with two horses, and he looked me over from head to toe and made me open my mouth to examine my teeth. He was Prosper Cambray, the head overseer. He pulled me up on the croup of his horse, a tall, broad beamed, steaming hot beast that was snorting restlessly. My legs weren't long enough to get a grip, and I had to hold onto the man's waist. I had never ridden on a horse, but I swallowed my fear--no one cared what I felt. Master Valmorain also got on his horse, and we set off. I turned to look at the house. Mademoiselle was on the balcony, waving good-bye, until we turned the corner and I could no longer see her. This is how I remember it.

The Lesson

weat and mosquitoes, croaking frogs and whip, days of fatigue and nights of fear for the caravan of slaves, overseers, hired soldiers, and the masters, Toulouse and Eugenia Valmorain. It would take three long days from the plantation to Le Cap, which was still the most important port of the colony, though no longer the capital, which had been moved to Port-au-Prince with the hope of better controlling the territory. The move had little effect; the colonists mocked the law, the pirates sailed up and down the coast, and thousands of slaves fled to the mountains. These Maroons, the always more numerous and bold runaway slaves, fell upon plantations and travelers with justified fury. Capitaine Etienne Relais, "the mastiff of Saint-Domingue," had captured five of their chiefs, a difficult mission because the fugitives knew the terrain, moved like the wind, and hid among peaks inaccessible to horses. Armed only with knives, machetes, and poles, they did not dare confront the soldiers on open ground; theirs was a war of skirmishes, surprise attacks and withdrawals, night forays, stealing, fires, and murders that exhausted the regular forces of the militia--the
--and the army. The plantation slaves protected them, some because they hoped to join them, others because they were afraid of them. Relais never lost sight of the advantage the Maroons--a desperate people fighting for life and liberty--had over his soldiers, who merely obeyed orders. The capitaine was made of iron, dry, slim, strong, pure muscle and nerves, tenacious and courageous, with cold eyes and deep furrows in a face always exposed to the wind and sun, a man of few words, precise, impatient, and strict. No one was comfortable in his presence, neither the
grands blancs
whose interests he protected, nor the
petits blancs
, whose class he belonged to, nor the
, who formed the largest part of his troops. Civilians respected him because he imposed order, and his soldiers, because he did not demand anything of them that he was not himself ready to do. He spent a lot of time trying to hunt down rebels in the mountains, following countless false trails, but he never doubted that he would succeed. He obtained information with methods so brutal that in normal times they were not mentioned in polite society, but since the time of Macandal even fine ladies indulged their taste for cruelty on rebelling slaves; the same
who fainted at the sight of a scorpion or the smell of excrement did not shy away from the executions, and afterward commented about them over glasses of lemonade and little cakes.

Le Cap, with its red-roofed houses, noisy, narrow streets, and markets, with its port, where there were always dozens of boats anchored, waiting to take back to Europe their treasure of sugar, tobacco, indigo, and coffee, continued to be considered the Paris of the Antilles, as the French colonials jokingly called it, since the common aspiration was to make a quick fortune and return to Paris and forget the hatred that floated in the island's air like clouds of mosquitoes and April pestilence. Some left their plantations in the hands of managers who to the best of their ability stole and worked the slaves to death, but that was a calculated loss, the price for returning to civilization. That was not the case with Toulouse Valmorain, who had spent several years trapped in his Habitation Saint-Lazare. He had tried a couple of managers brought from France--the Creoles had a reputation of being corrupt--but they were a failure; one died of a snakebite and the other abandoned himself to the temptation of rum and concubines, until his wife arrived to rescue him and take him off without appeal. Now he was trying Prosper Cambray, who like all the free mulattoes in the colony had served the obligatory three years in the militia--the
--charged with enforcing respect for the law, maintaining order, collecting taxes, and chasing down Maroons. Cambray lacked fortune or patrons and had opted to earn a living at the thankless task of capturing Negroes in that wild geography of hostile jungles and steep mountains where not even mules were surefooted. He had yellow skin pocked with smallpox, frizzy rust colored hair, green, always red-rimmed eyes, a soft, well-modulated voice that contrasted like a joke with his brutal character and killer's physique. He demanded extreme servility from the slaves and at the same time was obsequious with anyone superior to him. At first he tried to win Valmorain's esteem with intrigues, but soon he realized that they were separated by an abyss of race and class. Valmorain offered him a good salary, the opportunity to exercise authority, and the hook of becoming a manager. In the meantime, Cambray chewed on the bit of his ambition and moved with caution, since his employer was suspicious and not an easy prey, as he had at first thought. Even so, he kept alive the hope that Valmorain would not last long in the colony, as he lacked the balls and red blood a plantation required; besides, he was saddled with that Spanish wife with the edgy nerves, whose one desire was to get out of there.

In the dry season, the trip to Le Cap could be made in a single day with good horses, but Toulouse Valmorain was traveling with Eugenia in a hand litter and slaves on foot. He had left women and children on the plantation, along with men who had already lost their will and did not need a lesson. Cambray had chosen to bring the youngest, those who still could imagine freedom. No matter how much the commandeurs lashed the slaves, they could not hurry them beyond human capacity. The route was uncertain, and they were in the middle of the rainy season. Only the instinct of the dogs, and the sure eye of Prosper Cambray, a Creole born in the colony who knew the terrain, prevented them from getting lost in the thick undergrowth, where senses were confused and a person could wander in circles forever. Valmorain feared an attack by Maroons or an uprising of slaves. It would not be the first time that, glimpsing the possibility of flight, the Negroes would face firearms with naked chests, believing their
would protect them from the bullets. While the slaves were afraid of whips and the evil spirits in the jungle, and Eugenia had her own hallucinations, Cambray feared nothing but the living dead, the zombies, and that fear did not consist of encountering them, since they were very few, and timid, but of ending up as one of them. A zombie was the slave of a sorcerer, a
, and not even death could free him because he was already dead.

The head overseer had often been in that region with the
, chasing fugitives. He knew how to read the signs of nature, marks invisible to other eyes; he could follow a trail like the best bloodhound, smell the fear and sweat of a prisoner from several hours away, at night see like the wolves, divine a rebellion before it matured and demolish it. He boasted that under his command few slaves had fled from Saint-Lazare; his method consisted of breaking their souls and wills. Only fear and exhaustion could conquer the seduction of freedom. Work, work, work to the last breath, which was not long in coming, because no one's bones grew old there; three or four years, never more than six or seven. "Do not overdo the punishments, Cambray, you are weakening the workers," Valmorain had ordered on more than one occasion, sickened by the purulent sores and amputations that made the slaves useless for work, but he never contradicted Cambray in front of them; in order to maintain discipline, the word of the overseer had to be beyond appeal. That was what Valmorain wanted; it repulsed him to deal with the Negroes, he preferred to have Cambray be the executioner and keep for himself the role of benevolent master, which fit within the humanist ideals of his youth. In Cambray's view, it was more profitable to replace slaves than to treat them with consideration. Once their cost was amortized, it was profitable to work them to their death and then buy others younger and stronger. If someone had doubts about the need to apply an iron hand, the story of Francois Macandal, the magical Mandingo, dissipated them.

BOOK: Island Beneath the Sea
10.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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