Martinique, 1765, and brothers Emile and Lucien are charged by their French master, Father Cléophas, with a mission. They must return to Grenada, the island they once called home, and smuggle back the 42 slaves claimed by English invaders at the hospital plantation in Fort Royal.
While Lucien, barely in his teens, sees the trip as a great adventure, the older and worldlier Emile has no illusions about the dangers they will face. But with no choice other than to obey Cléophas – and sensing the possibility, however remote, of finding his first love Celeste – he sets out with his brother on this ‘reckless venture’.
St Pierre, Martinique, Western Antilles
I was tethering the cows out by the pond when a boy came into our pasture saying that Father Cléophas himself want to see me tout suite in the morgue. Never having set eyes upon this child before I simply looked at him askance. He must have been somewheres about my own age; a mulatto, like myself, perhaps a shade darker than me, a hair smaller. His jaw hung loose and he had froth at the corners of his mouth from which signs I deem him to be of no startling intelligence. I spat on the muddy ground that lay between us to show my scant regard for him. Then I told him something he could do if he had a mind to.
The boy he scowled and thrust out his hand. There upon his palm lay a silver-mounted rabbit foot. This grisly talisman belong to Cléophas who found it on the Sugar Landing in St Pierre and kept it to remind himself of home, though it were a superstitious charm and most likely inapt to his faith. I had seen that pitiful scrap of fur and claw manys a time hence knew the Father must indeed have sent this chuckle-head, now telling me he would tend to my beasts once I had gone. And since I knew no different then, I thought he meant whiles I went to the morgue.
‘Hé! Poté mannèv! ’ said the boy, in our kréyòl tongue. ‘Ou kouyon, wi! ’
Though it would be unwise to make Cléophas wait, I refuse to be hurried by this poor fool, and I daresay I took my time strolling over to Victorine to gather in her rope. My chief employment was to tend livestock for the friars and since I would rather do that than toil on their plantation, you can bet I slung to my chores like a Hercules. Those animals so spoil they fancy themselve kings and queen. Victorine she leaned against me, entirely companiable, whiles I moored her up to the stake. She had the most most velvety ears of any cow you ever did see and her milk always came plentiful and sweet. I had no fancy to abandon her and her sisters to the care of this stranger; some might say a half-wit at that.
Meanwhile, the boy puffed up his cheeks and paced about, inspecting the little herd. The way he strutted and squinted and stroke his chin you would have took him for some Béké colonial cattle-merchant.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked him.
‘Descartes,’ says he.
Now, I might have been a young tom-fool back in those days but whenever the friars discuss the world beyond the islands I kept my ears open and I had heard tell of many great men, René Descartes among them. Seem to me some former master must have name this boy in cruel jest, for I have known game-fowl with more savvy.
I watched him strut about a-whiles then asked him:
‘They name you after the philosopher?’
‘Filo-kwa?’ says the boy.
‘The scholar: Descartes. They gave you his name?’
Boy shook his head, emphatic, then dealt an imaginary hand of Piquet.
‘Mé non,’ says he. ‘Dé KARTES, tu vwa? You damn silly. Playing cards.’
Poor boy had more teeth than brains. I could only hope none of my cattle would suffer whiles in his care.
‘Well, Descartes, you best not harm these ladies,’ I told him. ‘Or else.’ And I showed him my fist, mostly in jest. Then I snatch the rabbit foot from him and took off running like a redshank to the hospital.
The Fathers had constructed the morgue a short distance from the main building in the shade of abundant trees; a stone house in miniature, small enough for to make you laugh had you not known its gruesome purpose. High jalousie windows and walls three feet thick kept the temperature inside cool. I hesitated at the doorway, turning my straw hat in my hands. Not that I felt afraid; I had been in that morgue before. Just the dim light of the interior did blind me awhile. When my eyes adjusted, there stood Father Cléophas and, on the table before him, a naked field hand, dead as a dead herring. Since August they had been perishing at the rate of about one a week, struck down by a raging distemper no amount of prophylactic or purges would cure. For now, the poor dead fellow lay there all of a piece but only a matter of time before Cléophas finish washing him and then he would slice the belly open and haul out the inners. It was a known fact that our surgeon Fathers like to hack up a cadaver, poke around inside. They put our livers and lights in pickle jars and called it Learning. The very thought of it – and the ripe smell of the morgue – would have made a person of delicate disposition queasy. The field hand lips had all shrunk back; his teeth expose; eyes open. There be a fly stood on one of his eyeball but the poor dumb clod would never blink again; he had gone kickeraboo, most certainly.
That corpse had me so hypnotise, it took me a moment to notice my brother Emile stood nearby in the shadows. Blow me tight. The sight of him there made me jump in my linen. I took him for dead too, just propped against the wall – until he opened his eyes. Mary and Joseph! I laughed out loud and was the gladdest kind of boy alive until, slapdash, it occur to me to wonder exactly why he might be return to the hospital. Emile gave me a dismal look as much to say: ‘Well, here we are,’ just as Cléophas beckon me in with a ‘Bonjour’ and bid me put his rabbit foot on the bench. I set the hairy toes beside some medicine jars. Meanwhile, the old man turn to drop his cloth into a bowl and whiles his gaze averted I whisper to my brother:
‘Sa ou fé? ’
But before Emile could tell me how he was or explain his presence, Cléophas had stepped around the table toward us, one finger raised as though to reprimand me. He had been with us several month by that time and the sun had tawned his skin such that it now shone like beeswax in the gloom.
‘Prattle all you like in that gibberish,’ says he, in his same-old fussy-fussy French. ‘But I’m reliably informed, Lucien, that you speak another language.’
At first I thought he must mean his own tongue. Our friars hailed from Paris, Fwance and wanted us slave to speak as they did but we converse mostly like our mothers, in a hodge-podge of their own languages and French and – though we knew more of la langue française than our elders – we were prone to vex the friars with bombast kréyòl.
‘English,’ says Cléophas. ‘I’m told you speak it like a native.’
Perhaps this knack of mine might be a misdeed for which he would scold me inasmuch as, though the war had ended, we still considered England to be the enemy. I cut a glance at my brother. He seem calm enough but I could spot that his breath came fast and shallow. For what purpose he had been summon now I knew no more than a moth. But life had taught us to expect the worst; we were both full of dread and would have twittered in our shoes, had we worn any.
‘No need to look worried, my son,’ the old man said. ‘I speak a little English myself. I gather you learned it in Grenada from that man-nurse, Calder.’
‘Pray let me hear you,’ said Cléophas. He picked up the rabbit foot and slipped it into the folds of his cassock. ‘Say something in English.’
I thought for a moment and presently did as bid, allowing old phrases to come to my lips just as I remembered them; though I took care to leave out the abundant foul curses I knew and use to spout with relish.
‘Good day, Father. How do you do? My name is Lucien. I am thirteen or fourteen years old or thereabouts. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Where is the ipecac? Good boy. Give this man a medal. Bring me a jug. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. The fever has broken. The fever has return. They all have a fever. Fetch bandages and hot water. This leg must come off. She is dead. He is dead. They are all—’
Cléophas raise his hand. ‘Enough,’ said he. ‘I believe you.’
For true, I had not sought his belief but it would have been rash to point this out; and since I had deference ingrained in my very bones, I bessy-down and made him an obeisance.
‘Now then,’ says he. ‘There’s something I want you boys to do for me.’
And in this manner here the whole entire enterprise did commence, exactly so.