Dance the Shadows

by Laurent Gaudé

Translated by C. Dickson

 

 

PROLOGUE

ANTONINE

 

It had been hot all day long and the vendors on rue Veuve were contemplating the desperately empty street wondering what was still keeping them there at that hour when it was fairly evident no one else would be showing up. All day long, Lucine had wiped her neck dry with the purple handkerchief, a gift from her niece—little Alcine. She'd remained squatting behind her wooden stand shaded by the arcades of the lovely houses built after the great fire, dabbing at her forehead, thinking like everyone else about what she would make for dinner that evening. The whole street was sunk in sluggishness. Even old lady Goma—whom the children in the neighborhood called Mam' Popo, though no one knew where the nickname came from—was silent. She usually lorded over the market with the authority of her ample proportions and her sassy mirth, haranguing the customers in language that made the merchants snigger all the way out to Ciné Pigaille . . .

"Bottle of perfume, after-shave, come on over honey, it's from Paris . . ."

"I ain't got a gourde*, Mam' Popo . . ."

"Who's talking money, you clod, I'm talking love!"

"Hey, Mam' Popo, my wife won't like it . . ."

"Shut up, nigger boy, your wife gonna love it if you smell sweet like Paris!"

Even Mam' Popo was silent on that day, immobile, loose-lipped, skirt hanging between her open thighs, slowly sweating out the monotony on the sidewalk. It was as if the whole street was waiting for our matriarch to give the signal to depart by letting out one of her favorite curses, "Son of a bitch, it's so hot today you'd think the sea had farted!" before packing up. Then the ones in most of a hurry would have gone home, the others would have walked calmly down the street to the customs building by the port to get a drink of water, observe the sky and try to comprehend what had caused such heat. But Mam' Popo didn't curse, didn't make a move, just seemed like a lifeless lump and the vendors remained prisoners of their lassitude.

 

Lucine was the first to see it. In the beginning she thought she was having a vision, blinked her eyes, wiped her forehead and looked again. But the exclamations made her realize she wasn't mistaken. In a split second the street merchants had come out of their stupor. All heads were turned toward the upper end of the street.

"Look!"

"Did you see that?"

Someone was walking in syncopated rhythm down the middle of the pavement—it was half dance, half drunken staggering. His chest was bare and shiny in the sunlight. His body was covered with a kind of pitch that brought out every muscle—maybe a mixture of cane syrup and coal dust, like the one used during carnival. Unless it was his real skin, oiled and naturally shiny. On his head he wore a hood cut out of thick burlap material with two cow horns set on top, which made his silhouette resemble that of Beelzebub. If it was a disguise, he'd copied it straight from the Lansetkods, those carnival figures that usually move about in groups, terrorize the passersby, perform pushups in the middle of the street and try to grab onlookers to smear them with molasses. But this wasn't carnival day, or even rara* season, and if that man was disguised, he was either crazy or had picked the wrong town . . . Ulysse, the old basket vendor, was the first to call out to him.

"Hey, bad joke, what you doing here?

The man did not respond. A strange grunt rose from his throat. Then Tite Gervaise, the seamstress from rue Charmant, let out a shriek, "Loa*!" that immediately spread irrepressible panic through the crowd. And what if she was right? What if it wasn't a bad joke, but really a spirit? Marcus, the young water vendor gazed at her in horror and several merchants leapt up, overturning the trinkets they hadn't succeeded in selling, attempting to get out of the shadow's way, yet remain close enough to not miss what would happen next. The cries had drawn other onlookers. The crowd was growing thick. Women came out on their doorsteps and stood there, infants in their arms, dumbfounded by the apparition. In the crowd, a few men who weren't up front and hadn't yet seen the man—but who'd been told someone was there dressed up like at carnival—called out injunctions, still believing it was a farce which people would speak of good-humoredly in the coming days and wanting to mark the scene with their words in the hopes that people would recall their wry comment.

"You made a mistake, Lansetkod, go on back to Guinea until Easter!"

"We're going to roll you in tar, you scoundrel!"

Some people were laughing, but less and less so, for the feeling that something abnormal was happening there and that those who were laughing would regret it, was running through the crowd . . . Lucine wasn't moving. She was just waiting, petrified. Without knowing why, she felt that the shadow had come for her. The Lansetkod moved down rue Veuve, zigzagging, body lithe as a lizard, confident of the fear he inspired in those around him. When he moved yet closer, Mam' Popo cried out, "Sweet Jesus!" and unable to stand it any longer, went running off, knocking into everyone as she passed, turning over a box filled with pineapples and mangos and—without even realizing it—trampling on the dried fish the merchant lady next to her was selling. It was a sort of signal and several onlookers fled, no longer afraid of being seen as cowardly since Mam' Popo herself—who was not easily frightened—had turned tail. Just then the shadow reached Lucine. It stopped, turned slowly, then moved even closer. Lucine saw its two black eyes like chips of quartz and knew she was standing face to face with the spirit Ravage, the one who turns lives inside out, causes the downfall of existences, the one who snaps life in two and makes women weep. He was standing there, immobile, seemed to be sniffing at her. Suddenly, he lifted his right hand toward Lucine's face and with the end of his finger, but without touching her, appeared to draw something on her forehead, a vévé*, or some other sign intended to mark her. Lucine did not move. She knew it was useless. Now the spirit was going to scratch her, curse her, there was nothing she could do. She'd simply made up her mind not to back away. But he didn't do anything of the sort. Slowly, he bowed his head deferentially, almost as if he were paying tribute to her. Lucine watched without a blink. She wasn't afraid anymore. She was facing something inevitable. She held her breath. The spirit continued to stare at her as if he were waiting for her to give an order. Then, abruptly, with feline celerity, he wheeled about and bounded into rue Alcius-Charmant. His sudden dash unleashed shrieks from all sides. People jumped aside, prayed that the demon would not touch them, cursed themselves for having given way to curiosity when they should have followed Mam' Popo's example: beat it as fast as they could and go notify the local authorities. Fruit baskets were overturned. Old lady Adeline ended up losing her dried fish once and for all, stamped into the ground by the crowd. Lucine left the bags of rice and peas she'd been selling and followed the people running after the shadow. Now she could see nothing but bustling bodies that were at once curious and frightened. It wasn't till it passed rue Amboise that the crowd thinned out. Caution, or fear of being robbed if they wandered too far from their stand, had made many of the street vendors give up trying to learn anything more and they remained standing around in small groups at the upper end of the street—confident that in any case, people would relate whatever happened in minute detail and ultimately the true identity of the strange troublemaker would be revealed.

 

Just a few yards before the intersection with rue Normande, Lucine stopped. She couldn't take her eyes off the gathering that had formed in front of her house. She was out of breath and she felt as if she couldn't take another step. The neighbors had grouped together in front of her door, commenting on the event, pointing to different places on the ground, on the wall. When she saw her sister Thérèse, she was reassured and mustered the strength to take a few more steps. Her older sister hadn't seen her yet. She was talking to a neighbor, holding little George, her nephew, in her arms and young Alcine by the hand. Lucine drew closer. Along the wall of the house, she noticed strange traces of molasses. Now that she was nearer, Lucine saw that Thérèse's eyes were filled with tears. "Nine!" . . . "Nine!"  . . . she repeated without being able to utter anything else. Then Lucine suddenly collapsed, barely managing to brace herself with one hand against the wall to break her fall. Everything was clear now. The spirit had come for her younger sister Antonine, George and Alcine's mother. That was surely it. Nine, her sister, devoured by shadows, the girl who rambles and raves at night, rolling crazed eyes and calling out to men in the streets of Jacmel with obscene, provocative words, posing lasciviously for all to see. Nine, the prettiest of the three, for whom Lucine had left Port-au-Prince five years earlier, giving up her studies, leaving behind the life she'd been happily making for herself in the capital city, coming back here to Jacmel, to the house she'd been born in on rue Amboise, because someone had to be responsible for bringing up the children and it could only be her and her sister, Thérèse—if not, George and Alcine would live off of dried grass and the salt air blown in on the wind that caresses the sea, like already half-starved—though newborn—puppies, Nine, that's what it was. Everything she later knew, she had learned right there—still crumpled up at the foot of her own house—from the neighbors who'd recognized her and brought her a little water and related the whole scene to the police officer that finally arrived. Nine had left with the shadow. There had been no violence whatsoever. Some even said that she was singing as she walked away from the house. She was seen going down the road to the cemetery. Then again still further out, way beyond, walking up into the hills . . . "She'll never come back," concluded the people who were questioned. Some insisted on showing the officer the exact spot where the young woman paused one last time, to turn around and contemplate the house before vanishing, the spot where she'd laughed—for yes, she had laughed, like a joyful impatient young woman going on an outing. Lucine could feel her ears buzzing, sentences were being spoken and her breath was growing shallower and shallower, she also heard the voice of her niece, Alcine, calling her, "Aunt Lucine?" . . . "Aunt Lucine?" . . . but she couldn't answer, all of her strength was draining away, it seemed as if her blood had retreated from her fingers, her hands, her temples, she fainted . . .

 

I

PORTAIL LEOGANE

 

 

She was the last one to get out of the bus. She conscientiously allowed all the passengers—young men coming to look for work in the city, a mother clutching two children by the arm, an old merchant woman who climbed down cursing to fend off the crowd and avoid getting jostled. It was hot. The air was heavy with the perspiration of passengers who for four long hours had been tossed this way and that, bounced up and down, bumped against one another, attempting in vain to remain sitting upright in their seats. Everything was sweaty and the passengers all got out of the bus with a sigh of relief, pulling their sticky dress or shirt away from their skin, trying to fan themselves with a newspaper or spot a water vendor as quickly as possible in order to quench their tremendous thirst. Not her, she waited patiently until she was the last person to step down, as if she were afraid to get out of the vehicle, as if something vaguely frightening were awaiting her outside. During the entire journey from Jacmel to Port-au-Prince, she'd thought about what she must do when she arrived, about the mission she had to accomplish. Her little sister was dead, poor Nine—unbalanced, mind out of joint, Nine—voluptuous despite the disapproval of the elderly neighbor women, Nine—escaped from the world in an ultimate sigh of ecstasy. She knew she had come to break the news of her disappearance, she bore the grief of it within, on her face, in her clothing. That is what had made her hang her head during most of the journey, not speak with anyone around her, simply gaze out at the countryside slipping past. That is what would guide her through the streets of Port-au-Prince to Armand Calé, the father of little Alcine. She had come to speak of death, nothing more, and yet when she finally got out of the bus, when she finally put her foot down in the dust of the large crossroads in the south of Port-au-Prince and was seized by the tumult, her mouth fell open in surprise. Something was enveloping her, taking possession of her, something more intense than her grief, something that even seemed to be driving the idea of her mission from her mind. She wasn't thinking about the gourdes* Thérèse had entrusted her with or the faces of her niece and nephew anymore. She wasn't thinking about the words she would have to find when faced with Armand Calé, it was as if everything had been wiped away. All that remained was the commotion in the street. Her head began to swim. She was overwhelmed with a deluge of colors, red, yellow, green, orange, painted cars, decorated buses. Deafened by the constant hubbub of motors, of horns, of chauffeurs hailing down customers . . . This large crossroads in the south of Port-au-Prince, was an inextricable heap of buses, delivery vans, cars, and each vehicle was being loaded in an uninterrupted stream of shouting, their passengers trying to fit in huge packages while people behind them were yelling to make room—they weren't going to spend the night there, the drivers alone remained calm, accustomed to moments that can last a century, in which bodies are attempting to find a space in such a small compartment, in which people are deciding who they'll sit beside, in which suddenly some stand back up, obstructing the center aisle in order to change places because they've just discovered that the window next to their seat won't open and they know the journey—for the person sitting there—will turn into slow torture; the drivers were waiting, waving at a friend from time to time or greeting a taxi driver with a weary look as if they didn't hear the permanent din of honking horns. She was standing there in the middle of it all and feeling as if not only had she come back to her smelly, seething, frantic city, but to her own life as well. Then—surprised even herself at being able to do so—she smiled.

 

The tall wire gate finally opens and Saul discovers something he believed to be impossible in Port-au-Prince: vast luxuriant terraced grounds in which little gravel paths wind through the mango trees, stepping down to the immense villa that overlooks the city. The driver of the motorcycle taxi that brought him up here has just kick-started behind him and raising his fingers slightly without letting go of the handle bars, leaves him face to face with the gatekeeper who is holding the grill ajar, pistol at his belt, waiting for him to step inside so he can close the gate after him. But he doesn't move. He stands there as if he can't decide to go in or as if it appalls him. The entire time the motorcycle had been driving up the vertical road where they hadn't passed a soul, he'd been astounded at not being able to glimpse a single villa of Montagne-Noire. High walls run all along the road. And the only thing passersby can see are the crowns of leafy trees calling up images of tropical gardens in which babbling fountains elegantly drown out the distant rumble of traffic jams. The true luxury, he'd thought at the time, is escaping other peoples' eyes. . . In that city, where everyone lives out-of-doors, where one might observe—in the time it takes for a simple stroll—people having arguments, a group of friends playing cards, babies being bathed, real power would be avoiding all those eyes—and being able to see, all of Montagne-Noire is built like that. The neighborhood overlooks Pétion-Ville and Porte-au-Prince beyond. One has a view of the sea up there. And yet people there live in hiding. Saul's face has grown gloomy. When the gatekeeper asks for the third time, "Sir?" so that he'll step forward, he turns toward him irritably and snaps, "What is it?" Then, without waiting for an answer, enters the domain.

 

The noise in the street assailed her so violently that to keep from falling, Lucine had to hold herself up on the red body of the bus—right in the place where "Lavi pa facil" ("Life no easy") was inscribed in nice round letters. Her head is spinning, she's back in her city. It's all here. The same clamor of intermingling voices. The same jumble of colors: painted cars, women's dresses . . . The same earsplitting roar of the street where everything is mixed together, men's voices shouting at one another, exhaust pipes, the placid grunting of hogs nosing in the mud . . . This is her city, the one she left five years earlier because Nine was pregnant and had to be gotten away from Port-au-Prince, because she and Thérèse, the two older sisters, knew perfectly well that Nine was no mother and never would be, so Lucine had to bring her back to Jacmel—leaving behind the life she'd loved, the law studies, the political meetings with the group she belonged to that was beginning to take up more and more of her time as the situation in the country grew tenser, yes she remembers all of that, at first it had been once a week and they'd speak exultantly about freedom of the press, about democracy, then it had been two or three times a week, the demonstrations had started and everyone was surprised at how widespread the movement was, then it had been every day, classes didn't count anymore, the professors were in the streets too, shouting along with them, "Get out Aristide!" and the crowd was so dense and so young, nothing seemed to be able to defeat them, "Get out Aristide!", the entire Champ-de-Mars was crawling with demonstrators and the presidential palace seemed quite insignificant and quite pathetic the hundreds of demonstrators paid by the regime to counter-demonstrate, even if they looked like thugs and had arms under their T-shirts, even if everyone knew that at one point or another they would open fire on the crowd because that was exactly what was expected of them, "Down with Aristide!" the entire population of the city backing its youth, thanking its youth for daring to revolt in their place, for being fed up in their place and for chanting, sometimes dancing, with their fists raised in the streets, to say that politics out there was a joy, because liberating the people was always a joyous moment, "Down with Aristide!"—she remembers, it was the gang of thugs who had triumphed, they had fired, the government had fired in turn, bodies had been dragged over the pavement, T-shirts ripped, mothers had knelt down weeping in front of the corpses of young sixteen-year-olds who'd gone out in the morning to demand more freedom and come back in the evening lifeless, head cracked open, she remembers everything, the life before she left because Nine wasn't a mother, a lovely sixteen-year-old child as gracile as a she-cat—but not right in the head—who got knocked up by some well-off bourgeois to whom it had never occurred that such a pretty ass could imply such unfortunate consequences as a newborn infant who had to be fed, put to bed and changed. For lack of a mother, the child—who hadn't asked for anything—was well enough entitled to two aunts, so she'd left, convinced she would be back n a few months, to celebrate the university's victory with her friends and the members of the Charlemagne-Péralte cell, because Aristide had fled, whisked away in broad daylight by an American helicopter the very next day. Five years already . . . She'd have never thought she would stay away so long. Five years and another child had been born because Nine was still just as beautiful and because when she'd walk through the streets of Jacmel spouting obscenities, the old negresses would take offence, but the wolves at their sides dreamt only of squeezing the generous curves of the mad woman, her breasts, her buttocks, they wanted it all and Nine consented, believing that the world was love—and the children were born, Thérèse and Lucine came to the rescue, putting aside their own lives, their own dreams. Yes, Aristide had fallen but so had she. Life had been pulled out from under her feet. There was no celebration. The gangs from Cité-Soleil had set the town on fire, terrorizing the man in the street. Everything had gone awry and yet she could recall the exuberance of the demonstrations: striding forward surrounded by thousands of others to bring about change, shouting, clapping their hands and making the people in power tremble. She remembers, but it's as if, in spite of it all, she'd been defeated—five years of exile changing the diapers of a little girl's children, a little girl who was her sister and who came to curl up in her arms when a man from Jacmel would beat her so he could get a better hard-on. She remembers and it's all there again—in Portail Léogâne, her city, and the swarm of sun-baked metal bodies, the blades of the helicopter taking off with the dictator, the slogans chanted by the crowd, demonstrators rushing up the wide thoroughfares in quick dashes, the feeling of power—grief is far from her just now and she's no longer thinking about the reason she'd gotten on that bus at dawn and endured those long hours of travel, she remembers the shots in the distance from time to time and the certainty that somewhere in the streets of Martissant or elsewhere, they were dragging a young student who was bleeding to death over the pavement in an attempt to find shelter even though they knew it was already too late, she remembers, and it's as if life comes surging back to her. Her head is spinning. Five years had gone by. She's got the right to be happy now, the right to jubilate over victory, to hold her life like a piece of fruit in the palm of her hand and calmly savor it. She's got the right, the guts to think of it in those terms, despite the grief she feels, despite her sister Thérèse waiting for her to bring back the money that Armand Calé will give her if she succeeds in finding the words to move him. So then she—tiny motionless figure no one is paying any attention to—closes her eyes as the truck behind her starts back up. She closes her eyes to allow all of that chaos to fill her up, to allow Jacmel to slip away—those interminable afternoons at the market when she wouldn't sell a thing, or so very little, Mam' Popo always repeating the same words, and Nine's sad smiles when men hurt her. She allows the sound of the crowd to sweep through her, yes, everything is beginning all over again, and she—Lucine—smiles at having returned to her old life.

 

* Hatian coins

* Spontaneous parades that precede Easter.

* Term used to name the spirits in Voodoo culture

* Voodoo symbol, often inscribed on the bare ground with hite flour.