a story for singing
Translated from the Haitian Creole by Peter Constantine
Nan Kas? Nan Kas is an area not too far from Grangozye. But the earth there is different. In Grangozye the only trees that grow are goat trees, bayaonn, gayak, flanbwayan, and cactus. But in Nan Kas guinea weed and rubber trees grow. If a young man has the stamina to sickle away the undergrowth, he can plant corn, beans, yams, bananas, melons—anything he wants.
The earth of Nan Kas is for the taking. Anyone can cut out a piece of land to make a field for himself. But a fence has to be put up. Wild animals and horses, mules, and abandoned donkeys have more rights there than humans do. The law does not extend its arm to Nan Kas, and the only thing that can save you there is a good fence.
Once I had marked out the piece of land that I was going to turn into a field, I figured it would take me about six weeks to clear it and start planting. I went there every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from dawn to late in the afternoon.
If it had just been for me alone I would not have worked that hard, but Mareyta's father had said that we could not marry unless I had a house to put her in. I agreed.
And I'm not a guy who says he'll do something and then doesn't do it.
After four weeks I realized that I had not even cleared half the land, so I got up earlier in the morning and left Nan Kas later in the evening. Even Maryeta said: "You'll kill yourself!" It was as if she was saying: "Work harder so we can have our own house, so we can sleep in the same bed."
These words echoed through my blood like a cool breeze, even when the sun sat on my shoulders pecking at my head like a big bird.
The sweat that ran down my back was hotter than boiling water. Two streams flowed down on either side of my stomach and plunged between my thighs like needles to torment me. If it hadn't been for Maryeta's refreshing words, my head would have split a long time ago.
With my eyes I marked out the land that I still had to clear.
It was a large chunk.
I threw myself at it. I wielded my machete as if I were fighting off an enemy who was out to kill me. I no longer felt heat or exhaustion. It was always like this when my battling grew more fiery than the sun. I no longer felt anything. I did not feel the cuts on my arms and legs. I lifted my machete against a sea of villains, cutting them down for good. Even when a whole brigade of undergrowth tumbled to the ground, I was ready for more.
I gathered piles of wood together and started packing them into posts for a framework for my house. My heart jumped with joy. I sang:
If a woman disrespects you,
Then mark her—
with a crayon!
From time to time I would pick up the posts to check how many I had. I would tie them together with flax, put them on my head, and leave.
People who crossed my path at that point had best make way for me. I would fly over rocks and stones, and then drop the packet at my mother's house.
Before I would eat the food she had left for me I would run down to the shore for a swim. I would swim from the port all the way to the well. There I would wash my body in its sweet water and then run home to put on clean clothes.
Mareta was also a record swimmer. She even swam in the Devil's Rapids, where people say there are dangerous whirlpools. That didn't stop her.
At times I would imagine that she couldn't make it to the shore, and that I would throw myself into the water to save her. All the little boys and girls of Grangozye can swim like fish. The moment they are born their mothers throw them into the ocean so they will learn to fend for themselves—coast kids....
On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, when I didn't go fishing, I would carry sacks of coffee. Carrying coffee is not a job any young man can do! The day I had gone to Madame Lelyo's to ask for a job carrying coffee, everyone had laughed at me. Jakòb and Bèlvant, the senior carriers, said to me:
"Well, well, Nans! So, give it a try! We'll give you a sack to carry!"
They loaded me with coffee as if I had been a carrier for ten years. But I didn't fall. Each sack weighted a hundred and forty pounds. With one of those sacks on my back, I turned to Bèlvant who said to me:
"You won't make it all the way down to the shore."
"And even if he makes it to the shore, he'll never make it back."
I did make it all the way to the shore and I came back.
On the first day I carried ten sacks of coffee. I told Madame Lelyo:
"Please keep my money for me. I want to buy boards, locks and hinges for my house."
Jakòb and Bèlvant called me over to drink grog with them to celebrate my joining the coffee carriers. Every time a boat came into port for loading, they would let me know so I wouldn't go to Nan Kas or go fishing. I always counted the sacks of coffee so I wouldn't carry more than the others. They sang a song about me:
Eminans, valiant young man,
Sacks of coffee, sacks of cotton
Make fifty kob and two gourdins
Maryeta asked me:
"Why are you doing such backbreaking work?"
"So I can finish the house!"
One day I was cutting wood in Nan Kas to make lime. By mistake I hacked my machete into a wasps' nest. The wasps stung my eyes, my ears, my mouth, my chin, my nose, my neck. I gathered up seven different types of leaf to rub my face. To no avail! I could feel my head swell up like a sack of coffee. I couldn't open my eyes. Even though I was desperate to get back to Grangozye, I still took with me the usual bundle of dry wood that I brought my mother. I carried it on my head. But I couldn't open my eyes to find my way to the main road. I propped my eyes open with my fingers. But I needed my hands to hold the bundle of wood, so once I reached the road I started heading back with my eyes shut until I realized that I had lost my way. Little by little I forced my eyes open. Finally I made it home.
When my mother saw me she started screaming. She ran around looking for ointments. She boiled water for compresses to lay on my forehead. She heated up a spoon and moved it over my face. But all these ancient remedies did nothing for me. Fever came, and with it delirium.
My mother had never spoken to Maryeta so that people wouldn't say that she was setting her son up with the girl who could read. But that day she took courage and approached the house of the girl that people said would marry her boy. She asked her if she knew of any medicine against wasp stings.
Maryeta gave my mother some Viks Vaporib which immediately made me feel better, especially when I found out Maryeta had given it to her. The next day I got up. My face was much less swollen.
Maryeta came to see me. The whole of Grangozye was surprised to see a young woman who had been to school cross the street to visit a simple man who had to do the most base jobs so he could build a house for her. She stopped a while in front of our door to speak with my mother. Her father also passed by and greeted my mother. He asked her:
"How is Eminans doing?"
"Praise be the Lord, he's doing better."
My mother asked Maryeta:
"How come your father knows that Eminans is sick?"
"I told him myself that I was going to visit Eminans so he wouldn't hear it from elsewhere."
Within three days I was back at Nan Kas with some matches. I set fire to a bundle of straw and burnt out the wasps' nest.
Maryeta and my mother became good friends. They would visit each other regularly. They would talk for hours. I never asked them about what.
The house was almost ready. The frame was covered, the doors installed, all that was left to do before we moved in were a few decorations and putting in some furniture. Every afternoon when school let out, Maryeta would come over to see how things were progressing.
One day she came with a package of newspapers. She told me:
"We'll keep these newspapers here so I can show you how to read. It won't take more than a week for you to learn how to read this newspaper. You won't have to read other newspapers or books. It's all in Creole. Everything a Haitian needs to know is in there."
I took the newspapers without quite understanding what Maryeta meant. I wasn't in any big hurry. In two three months she and I would be together night and day, and she would have lots of time to teach me to read. I would read the newspapers and see what was in them and they would be better than all those books that learned people read.
Three days after Maryeta had brought me the newspapers—it was a Sunday, and I had just bathed and put on clean clothes—I saw a truck drive into Grangozye. It drove up to the police station, picked up some officers, and drove up to Maryeta's house. My heart beating, I stayed in my house and waited. It never occurred to me that they had come for Maryeta. They made her get into the truck and drove up to my house. They dragged her out and a nasty officer asked me:
"Are you Eminans?"
"You know this girl?"
"We're going to search your house!"
Before I could open my mouth to anwer, he hit me so hard in the head with the handle of his machete that I would have fallen down if I hadn't been a coffee carrier.
"Savages!" Maryeta shouted.
They slapped her. I threw myself at them. They held me back. They searched the house and found the packet of newspapers. They asked Maryeta:
"Do you now what this is?"
"Yes, but Eminans has no idea! He can't read! I asked him to keep them here, but he has no idea what's in them. It's me you have to arrest! He's innocent!"
"You're joking! You'd make a good lawyer, Miss! Get in the truck—you too, young man!"
They went into the house once more. They came out and two of them jumped in the back with us. The others got in through the front. They left the back of the truck open so we could see our house, the house that I had worked like a dog to build for Maryeta, burn. They lit a fire inside and waited to see if the flames would spread through the house before they drove off. Then they closed the door at the back of the truck so we couldn't see where they were taking us.
Maryeta and I sat there silently. They didn't speak with us either. The truck drove on. We drove up mountains and down into valleys, and then up more mountains. We drove across plains. We drove over rocks and stones. We had no idea where we were going—all we knew, by the way the truck was shaking, was that the road was bad. If we'd been heading for Port au Prince, we'd have already arrived there. Well, after a couple of hours we slowed down. We drove into a courtyard and the truck backed up all the way to a door. We were told:
We got out and they started pushing me. Maryeta began pleading with them again:
"He knows nothing. I gave him the newspapers without telling him what was in them!"
They hit her once, they hit her twice, to no avail. They asked what I knew about the papers.
"It's just like the lady said!"
They threw themselves at me and began clubbing me for all they were worth.
"Tell us what you know!"
"There's nothing I can tell you. You might as well kill me right now!"
"When the time comes for us to kill you, we'll do so without asking your permission. We'll put you in a dyak. You know what a dyak is? Yeah, we're gonna dyak you!"
"Do whatever you want!" I answered. "I can't tell you what I don't know!"
"The newspapers were meant to teach him how to read! He can't read! How is he supposed to know what's in them?"
"Listen, Miss, you'd better keep quiet! When we've finished with your boyfriend here, we're gonna take care of you! You're gonna tell us all you know!"
Then they began to set up the dyak for me.
They tied my hands, they tied my legs, and passed a pole through the ropes. They lifted me with the pole and balanced the ends on two tables. I hung there, head down, and they started beating my buttocks.
They beat me thinking I would lose consciousness. But I didn't. They picked up a whip. I could see everything they were doing. They whipped me right in front of Maryeta's eyes. She fainted. She had told them no more than she had said before.
They took Maryeta away. I heard them open a door and then close it. But I couldn't see where it was.
I couldn't walk, so they carried me. They opened a door not far away from where they had locked up Maryeta, and left me lying on the floor. When I opened my eyes, I saw nine or ten zombies in a room without windows. Some of them were sitting on the ground, others were lying on their backs, and others were crouching. They stared at me as if it had been an eternity since they had seen a man who looked like a human being. I heard them say that. Some of them were consumptive and coughed like dogs.
For two days I ate nothing. They came and washed my back and buttocks with alcohol, not to heal my wounds as much as to see if I would crack under the pain of the buring liquid that they rubbed in hard.
The zombies spoke to me. I did not speak too much with them. I told them that if they gave me few bites of their food every day I would help them escape when I myself broke out. They asked me:
"When do you intend to escape?"
They told me that some of them had been locked up three for six, seven years, that they had lost all hope. But no one laughed when I said:
"There's no way I'm staying here! I'm going to get out of here, and I'll leave, you can leave the door open for you. If you guys want to leave, you can leave too."
Deep in their hearts, they thought I was mad. Those who were really crazy in there believed me. They gave me a small bit of their food every day. They also gave me their water. They drank each other's urine—in my eyes they were lower than beasts. Every time the guard opened the door to give us our food, to take us out for our shower, carrying his whip, his revolver, and a bunch of keys, he would punch me. He would say:
"What a name, Eminans!"
Everyone laughed. When he left, they'd tell me they had to laugh so he wouldn't beat them. I said nothing. Four days later, I asked them to keep quiet so that I could sing. I sang:
Far out at sea
I lost my Loua spirits,
I ask you, my darling, where are we,
Where are we,
Where are we today?
I stopped singing and waited. The others wanted to speak. I asked them to keep quiet. They fell silent. Some time passed, fifteen minutes or so, and then a woman's voice could be heard.
Keep a lookout, keep a lookout for the thieves
Keep a lookout, keep a lookout for the thieves
So they do not eat our food.
It was not just an ordinary voice that sang. It was a beautiful voice. The other men now believed that I wasn't alone, that there were forces working for me. They didn't know that Maryeta was locked up a few cells away. They thought that the Goddess Ezili had answered my song in person. They all gave me half their food.
I still used to lie on my stomach as there as no way I could lie on my back on the mat they had given me to sleep on. But when I heard the sound of the key in the door, I would crouch on all fours waiting to be punched and hear the words: "Eminans, what a name, Eminans!"
Six days later I sang:
Mondong o, mondong o
Ye, ye, ye, ye
Mondong o, mondong o
Ye, ye, ye, ye
Mondong ate roast mutton
Mondong ate roast goat
Mondong is strong, he is agile
Ye, ye, ye, ye
I didn't have much of a voice. But the men in my cell were quite impressed by the song. This time I could see they were waiting for the answer to come. But I had to wait for Maryeta to sing back. We waited for half an hour before she answered:
The young man worked
The young man did not eat
The young man worked
The young man did not eat
The young man took his money and bought a
Last night he slept without soup
She sang with a cross voice. I coud hear my cellmates say:
"The Goddess is ill-tempered. We do not give Eminans, her medium, enough to eat."
They gave me all their food. I ate it all. They said:
"It wasn't Eminans who ate our food. It was the Spirit, the Goddess, who ate, and she will fix things for us."
Nine days later I felt strong. I sang:
Kondi Loko we are leaving
We are leaving for our country
Kondi Loko we must leave
We must leave for our country
Maryeta answered just as I was singing the last words:
Ayizan, we shall go
We shall go to Gelekwe
We shall go to seek our family
It is you who tied me up
It is you who shall release me
Oh Ayizan, open the gates.
This time, even though I knew it was only Maryeta answering my song, shivers ran through my body. Just as she finished singing, I heard the key slip into the lock. I quickly crouched down. The guard entered and asked:
"Which one of you was singing?"
No one answered. He came towards me to punch me:
With my head I rammed him with tremendous force in the stomach, knocking the breath out of him. I snatched up his revolver, his whip, and his keys, and then jammed a piece of cloth into his mouth. I seized him by the seat of his pants, and dragged him out into the corridor. I left the door wide open. We stopped in front of Maryeta's cell and I said:
"Open the door, you bastard!"
He opened the door fast. I said:
"Maryeta, we're leaving."
Maryeta stood up, grabbed her clothes and came out. I was still holding the guard by the seat of his pants and we made our way through many corridors and out into the yard. I gave him back his keys in front of the gate that faces out to the sea, and told him:
I dragged him to where the sea waves began washing over out toes. I said:
"This is the place where you come to execute your prisoners, right? One day the hunter reigns, but the day comes where the prey takes over. Today it's my turn!"
He sank to his knees and begged for mercy. I hit him on the head with the bunch of keys. He fell. I threw the keys far out into the sea. I whipped him twice across his face, as a signature he would carry for the rest of his life. I put the whip down next to him. I took off my pants and my shirt and wrapped them in Maryeta's dress. I tied the clothes into a bundle on my head and went into the sea. Maryeta and I walked in the water as long as there was ground beneath our feet and then we swam. We took our time. We swam slowly, like people who travel far by foot, setting off early in the morning, arriving as night falls. We would stop to see which direction we were heading. The moon shone brightly. We could see the shore. We would swim to it, rest, and then swim out to sea again. When we felt that we were far enough from the prison, we went onto a beach to look for a place to sleep.
To sleep? The clothes I had tied into a bundle on my heard weren't drenched through and through, but they weren't dry either. Maryeta took off her wet shirt. I went to wring out my clothes to dry them, and take off my underwear to shake out the sand. When I came back I found that Maryeta had laid out her dress on the sand and was sleeping under the rays of the moon, which gleamed on the water drops on her beautiful black skin. It was as if she were covered in jewels.
I kneeled before her.
I have never prayed at a saint's feet. I was surprised at the words of prayer that sprung from me: Abisini, Kèskedye, Virgin Mother Altagras.
It is in a king's bed that one find such a princess sleeping, decked in jewels. And she belonged to me, a mere dock-worker, she would lie in my bed, the biggest most beautiful bed a man can give a woman.
On the peak of Blanch Mountain I have seen the sun set behind Kolonbye into the lagoon of Dizwit.
On the beach of my town I have seen the sun send its rays at dawn into the four corners of Spanish country.
On the Place D'Armes I have lain late at night and counted three thousand stars in the sky.
On the shores of Karye I have seen the rainbow descend to drink water and to tumble in the waves—I was so close I could have touched it but I just stood and watched.
But I had never seen anything as beautiful as Maryeta lying nude in the rays of the moon after having swum by my side for two hours.
I could have shouted with joy.
She stretched her arms to me.
She reached out till she touched me.
Pain mingled with sweetness. Maryeta rose and swayed like a sailboat passing the Devil's Rapids in a storm. Our bodies stretched like the sailboat's planks. She put her arms around me, pressing me towards her. The wounds on my back stung, but the pain was sweeter than the sweetest joy I had ever felt.
We went into the sea and sunk into each other's embraces again, but I did not tell her that the sea water burnt my wounds like fire. I told her it was sweeter than honey-mead, sweeter than Creole cane, sweeter than the deepest sleep after nine sleepless nights, sweeter than... We rolled back onto the beach, then back into the sea, and then onto the beach again. We lost all track of time until we both fell asleep. I hadn't slept for nine days. In prison the slightest sound had kept me awake: the sound of new prisoners being brought in, the sound of prisoners being dragged off to be shot, the sound of prisoners who were killed at the seashore with one blow to the nape. I slept deeply. When I woke, the sun shone as brilliantly as the sun back home in a sky without a cloud. An exquisite sky to behold after nine days in a cell without a window. A group of children sat on the sand. Maryeta sang for them with her beautiful voice. I jumped up. Maryeta told me:
"The children have been waiting for you to wake up to tell them a story."
I told them:
"Oh, yes! I shall tell you a story! But we are in a hurry. I shall tell you a very short story. We shall return one day when we have more time. But today we must leave. We slept too long. The story you will hear is of how we came to this place. We came from far far away, from the crossroads where life meets death. These crossroads are black as ink. There is no sun, there is no moon. There are no stars. There is no sea for us to bathe in. But we are wont to bathe in the sea. We love the sun. We love the moon. We cannot live without water, without sun. We fled. We took a boat and came here to bathe. Thank your mothers and your fathers for letting us bathe in their sea. Do you see that boat sailing by in the distance? That is the boat that will take us home. Thank you, thank you very much."
The children loved the story. They were not surpised to see us naked. One of the children asked us:
"Are you Adam and Eve?"
I tore off a leaf from a nearby vine and covered myself with it before putting on my underwear. Maryeta slipped into her shirt. I tied our things into a bundle and put it on my head.
We were about to leave when one of the older children came with a jug of water. I drank a few sips. I poured some drops onto the sand three times. The children looked at each other. We waded into the sea. As we began swimming Maryeta asked me:
"Do you know where we are?"
"I have no idea. I don't even know if I'm alive or dead. But one thing's for sure, if I'm dead, I'm in Paradise. Those children were the little angels in heaven."
"You're still telling stories."
"I never stopped telling them!"
Maryeta did not answer. I didn't hold back, I spoke and spoke. I spoke of beautiful things. I spoke. I spoke until I did not know what I was saying. Maryeta lay her hands on my back. She asked me:
"Are you all right?"
"You don't have a fever?"
"No, I'm fine."
That is when I realized that I was not fine. I fought hard to take a grip of myself, harder than I had ever fought cutting the undergrowth in my field in Nan Kas, harder than I had ever fought lugging sacks of coffee.
I remember us swimming and then coming out onto a beach. We walked by the shore, where cars would pass by. Every time we heard one coming we would jump into the bushes. It rained and we got drenched. The sun dried us. We learnt a lot. We learnt that there were many people in the country who lived like we did. No food to eat. No house to live in. Nothing. We did not ask anyone for a handout. Maryeta sang for the children. They gave her food. I told them stories. They gave be ten kòb, twenty kòb. I bought syrup candies for us to eat. We swam in the rivers that we came across. We scraped together enough money to buy a basket which we filled with leaves so we would look like regular travelers. Some places, people gave us coffee to drink. At times we said that thieves had stolen all our things. It was near enough to the truth. After all, we had been robbed through and through.
In some places people thought we were saint-spirits from Africa. They gave us food, drink, money. Before we left, Maryeta would always sing. One time I was hired to unload a large truck that had broken down, and load everything into the replacement truck. I got fifteen goud for that. That was the most money we ever made. We bought sandals, slippers, a knife, some matches.
One day we were almost caught. We arrived in a village where we met a policeman on holiday. He was telling a story about "two prisoners who had escaped swimming." It was the first time in my life that I was truly frightened. I didn't know how we would have gotten out of it if someone had taken a good look at us and said:
"Hey, aren't they the ones?"
But the policeman was definitely embellishing the story. He said we had opened doors without keys. He said we had stopped a boat that passed by the harbor and had boarded it. He said Maryeta had sung a magic song that had conjured all the Loua spirits from Guinea and the Lesenlemo spirits of the saintly dead who came and saved us. He said that on the beach we had written into the sand prophecies of what would happen to Haiti in ten, twenty years. He regretted not having met us, for instead of trying to hunt us down he would have sought our guidance.
Then he told a story which we would have found downright funny if fear hadn't wrung our insides. He said:
"There once was a town where a young woman lived all alone in an old straw hut in which there wasn't even a chair to sit on. One day, by the Lord's blessed water, a couple appeared before her house. They asked her for a cup of coffee. I turned out she just happened to have some that day. She gave them coffee, she gave them bread to dunk in it. Before they left, they asked the young woman if she could sing, and she said no, she'd never tried. They told her: 'You have a beautiful voice, try singing like a woman in pain, and then singing like a woman who is happy.' That's all they said! They turned their backs and left without a sign of where they'd come from or where they had gone to. The girl did not stop singing until the whole town came and brought her over to the radio station to sing. That girl's made a mountain of money. If I'd met that couple, I wouldn't be here now! City people always think they're cleverer than everyone else, and then they always end up doing stupid things."
I thought to myself:
"That's definitely true."
"This country is full of mystery!"
"Yes, he's right!" I thought to myself.
When we left that house I asked Mayreta:
"Did you hear that?"
"Yes," she answered. "Did you hear what he said?"
Maryeta did not sing for the people there, and I didn't tell the children stories. The moment we had the opportunity, we ran for our lives. We disappeared. We no longer visited the houses along the road. We just climbed mountains and descended into valleys until we saw the sea, which didn't seem to be the sea we knew, but a different sea, a sea with big swells, thundering louder, rising higher, crashing harder than we had ever seen before. When the waves rose, they rose as high as Madame Nima's two-story house. And yet there was truth in what the policeman had said. We did get to Grangozye by boat—on a yacht in fact. But that was much later. I don't know how, but we met this rich young man who was on a pleasure cruise with a beautiful woman. He asked us if we wanted to travel with them, all we had to do was a bit of work on deck. It was like heaven on earth. We had a room all to ourselves and they stayed most of the time in their cabin. We prepared the food in the yacht's kitchen. We had everything we needed. We never saw the captain. At times we would drop anchor for two three days and then leave again. We sailed all around Haiti. When we saw the precipice of the Devil's Rapids we told them that we wanted to get off. At first they didn't want to let us go, but when they saw that we were ready to jump into the sea they steered towards Kapyè. They left us there and sailed off.
We couldn't wait to swim where the rainbow drinks water. Nothing had changed. A school of brightly colored fish with pointed mouths gathered, dispersed, shot off in all directions, whirled about, then gathered and dispersed again. I told Maryeta:
"They are dancing for us."
We looked out into the ocean and saw two rainbows. They didn't arc over our heads the way you would expect, but lay straight across the sky. Maryeta said:
"Look! They're welcoming us!"
Ayida behind the rainbow
Look—her dress is of seven colors
Ayida behind the rainbow
Ladies—her dress is of seven colors
Ayida behind the rainbow
We can see her—her dress is of seven colors
Ayida behind the rainbow.
She sang without stopping. The same song. All day and all night. I said to her:
"The two rainbows, that is us! You and I standing alone here in town."
She sang on.
So, on a day like any other, we appeared in Grangozye. Everyone was surprised to see us. They all thought we were dead. They were even more surpised when we told them that neither Maryeta nor I could remember where we had come from or where we had been. The police came looking for us, asking where we had disappeared to, but we had completely forgotten everything. They made their report. After a while, the chief of police told them that as we couldn't remember a thing, there was no point in questioning us any further.
But at times words would tumble out of my mouth. I would tell stories in the middle of the day, stories from an era long long ago when the little cucumber had battled the eggplant. People said I was touched by the moon. When the moon touched Maryeta she would sing, she would weep, she would laugh. On and on she sang, laughed, wept, and sang. For fifteen days and nights she sang without stopping. No one saw her eat or sleep.
People said that we had gone mad. That the moon touched us as it waxed and waned. That is what people thought of us. We, on the other hand, thought of ourselves as rainbows. The moon did not touch us at the same time. When our heads were clear, we heard talk of our madness. We put up with it, for if we had said we were not mad, people would have insisted that we were even madder. But when neither Maryeta nor I were touched by the moon, we could remember little scraps of what had happened before and after we had escaped from prison. Maryeta told me:
"Do you remember when I brought you that newspaper on the steps of your porch?"
"No, but I remember the first time I drew a letter in the sand. We had just woken up, and you started showing me how to read."
"Well, I don't remember that, but you learned to read so fast that it was like you'd always been able to read and write."
Maryeta could not remember who had given her the pile of newspapers and where she had hidden them before our arrest. One day she woke up in the morning and found them by the head of her bed.
My mother had died while we were gone. Maryeta's father had also died. It was distress that had killed them. We did not cry when we heard the news, but for a while Maryeta stopped singing and I stopped telling tales. When I wasn't raving I would take my machete and go up to Nan Kas to cut down the undergrowth on my field and chop wood to build my house, as if it were the first time. I worked feverishly, like a dog, before the moon would touch me again. I worked without stopping for a breath of air. When there was coffee to be carried I lugged more sacks than ever before.
It was like I had a magnet in my shoulders. They'd throw sacks of coffee, and I'd catch them, balancing them on my shoulders. I would then make a full turn and women and children carrying water up the mountain path would stand in a row to let me pass. I would hourl the coffee sack onto the boat and double back for another sack. I would see the same women and children, still carrying their water on their heads. I'd be up and down the hill twice before they reached the top. When I passed horses and mules that were climbing up the hill on the narrow paths while I was carrying sacks down, everyone would stop to look at me. If I would have stumbled into one of the animals I would have gone tumbling down into the ravine. They say that fools have a saint who protects them. Whenever there was a ship to load, I was there.
But I still always had time to read my newspaper. I would go to Maryeta's house and sit reading from morning till sundown.
When the moon struck Maryeta she would sing endlessly, and I would be so unhappy that I could not go near her house. And when the moon struck me, she became dejected. We begged the Lord that the moon would touch us both at the same time.
Then one day, when both Maryeta and I were feeling fine, she said to me:
"Eminans, you know what you should do? You know how to write now. You have a talent for telling tales. Why don't you write a story about everything that happened to us from the time you started clearing away the undergrowth in Nan Kas up to this very minute?"
"But Maryeta, how am I supposed to do that?"
"I'm serious! I'll bring you paper and a pen, and every time you write five or six lines you'll bring them to me to read."
"Do you think I'll be able to do that?"
"I'm sure of it! I f you write things every day and I read them, we'll no longer suffer the madness that's been tormenting us!"
"Do you think so?"
"Those who say you ramble in your madness don't know that you're a writer. All writers invent stories. It's the same with me. When the moon strikes me, I sing without stopping. By you see, I've always loved singing. I don't need the moon to touch me in order to sing."
This is how I came to write the story "Eminans" which you are now reading. Eminans is the name that my father and mother gave me, the name with which I've been known in all of Grangozye since the day I was born. My signature reads: Eminans.
"You know, people don't have to know that we're no longer mad. It's none of their business. But I'll sing whenever I feel like it."
"And I'll tell crazy tales during the day, and at night write them down for a newspaper, so that they will be read by everyone who can read. I will sign the stories: Eminans."
And that was that.
English language translation copyright ©2006 by Green Integer and Peter Constantine.
Félix Morisseau-Leroy was born in Grand-Gosier, Haiti in 1912. He spent his childhood in Jacmel, where he studied at Condorcet Leoy’s school and afterwords at the Lycée Pinchinat in Jacmel, completing his education in Port-au-Prince. He was a teacher at the Lycée Pincinat until he was named chef de division at the Ministry of Public Instruction in 1941. After a period of education at Columbia University in New York, he returned to Haiti as Director General of Education.
Morisseau-Leroy often uses the Haitian dialect of French known as Creole in order to communicate with his often uneducated audience. He is the author of numerous stories, poetry, drama, and essays in both French and the Creole dialect.