An ivory-colored coach chauffeured by a young African man rolled up and around the foothills that ring Mt. Atdamos. The dirt road was soon swept over by the steep slopes of a volcano quiet for nearly a century; it soared skyward until it vanished in a cloud.
An avalanche of wildflowers and riotous ferns cascaded down the mountainside toward the island below, where palm trees swayed, sugar cane grew and a charming little town sat anchored on the rim of a sparkling bay.
Amé called to the high-stepping stallion that drew the coach and gently tugged on the reins. “We have arrived, St Pierre,” he said with an easy smile. And as the coach rolled to a stop − stones cracking, dust settling − the stallion danced with exuberance, lifted his head high and neighed.
After securing the reins Amé glanced over his shoulder to check on his passenger, Emilie − a young aristocratic Frenchwoman, fast asleep.
He turned and whispered to the stallion: “Yes sir, this is the place.”
St. Pierre forcefully exhaled through his nostrils and shook his head.
“What’s wrong, sir?”
Amé climbed down from the coach, tied the reins and searched for any signs of danger. Glancing uphill he saw a vast colony of ferns waving their long slender arms, fingers wiggling, signaling him; wildflowers danced and waved in the sea breeze like children greeting an important emissary. The entire mountainside was enlivened with flora, ginger flower, coralita, and lantana climbing over one another in a frenzy.
Near road’s end Amé watched the deep green hillside peal open revealing a trail that climbed skyward into the mist. He closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and took a deep breath: The air was fecund, redolent with tropical decay and soil being born, refreshed by the scent of wildflowers carried by the sea breeze. He smiled like a man coming home after a long absence.
“Is this the end of the road?” Emilie asked, half asleep, shaking her head with confusion, peering out from under the broad straw hat she wore to protect her pale white skin from the sun. As she adjusted her hat, an elegant silver bracelet with lustrous silver charms jingled from her delicate wrist.
Amé grit his teeth as he felt a sudden chill wrap around him, though the day was warm and comfortable. And when the young Frenchwoman, dressed as casually as her class would allow, smiled − her pupils dilated so that her blue eyes nearly turned black − he felt as if a thick hemp rope slipped around his neck.
Emilie blushed and bashfully turned away, tinkering with her bracelet, much to his relief. But then she began to slide sideways across the ribbed, red-leather seat to its edge, and to gather her things, which included a wicker basket and a bedspread. And Amé felt the noose tighten.
The stallion exhaled forcefully once again, nodding his head up and down, pulling against the harness.
“Pardon me, madam I must tend to St. Pierre.”
“Is there something wrong?”
“I’m not certain, ma’am.”
As Emilie tied her hair up in a bun, Amé gazed into the horse’s eyes, nearly nose-to-nose, and, spotting something, arched his thick eyebrows.
“So this is the end of the road?” Emilie asked idly in a timorous voice.
Amé glanced from side-to-side with some impatience, but politely replied: “Yes ma’am, this is the road’s end.”
The horse snorted and again exhaled loudly.
“What is wrong?” Amé asked.
“Oh I am quite all right,” Emilie said while leaping to the road with vigor, as if she were dismounting a spirited horse. “I lived in America for a year, you know. Now off we go! I must see that magical pool everyone is talking about. It must be quite lovely.”
“Madam, forgive me for saying so but this is not a good idea.”
“It’s a wonderful idea!”
Amé spotted an enormous indigo-and-black spider perched on the wide leaf of a fern tree. “Is this is what is bothering you, St. Pierre?” Amé gingerly picked up the tree spider and relocated him, careful to avoid his fangs. “I’m very sorry to inconvenience you, sir,” he said to the spider, “and I know this is your home. But I can see by looking at you that you are a very intelligent animal, very strong and will have no problem finding your way back. But please do not frighten my good friend here. He is a saint, you know? And he will not harm you unless you make a jump, you see. He is like me, he must work very hard for a living, takes much abuse, and he does get a little anxious at times.”
“Are you talking with the plants and animals now?” Emilie asked with a playful grin.
“Yes I am,” Amé replied looking directly into her eyes. Turning back to the stallion, he said, “Sir, I will not be long, I assure you. And Mr. Tree Spider he has agreed not to jump or sneak up on you.”
Amé stroked the stallion’s forehead and rubbed his neck, and the horse whinnied amiably.
“Really,now. Are you coming? You wouldn’t abandon me in this wild place, now, would you?”
“Of course not, ma’am, though I must tell you we should not be here. It is very dangerous.”
“What do you mean? People come here all the time! We are close to the pond now, no?” she asked, while climbing steep steps with enthusiasm. She stopped suddenly in her tracks. “Oh, my! There is a stream running right through the trail. It’s so beautiful! Come and see!”
The verdant hillside spread apart exposing a foot-wide crevice that split open the volcanic rock. A rivulet dashed downhill, ripples of water splashing through the gap, anxious to reunite with the clear blue sea that surrounded the island.
“The mountain appears to be thirsty,” Emilie said, her blue eyes alluring.
Amé scrambled up beside her to take a look, then conducted a thorough search: he examined the landscape beyond, scrutinized the trail they’d followed, surveyed the horizon, observed the sky; with narrowed eyes and an intense focus, he studied the environs in all directions, even sniffing the air.
“What are you doing?” Emilie asked playfully. Their eyes met briefly, as two strangers on the street. And despite an effort, she was unable to restrain a nervous twitch.
Amé leaned forward, raised his arm − long muscles ribbed by hard labor − and took aim. “There is the pond you seek,” he said calmly, pointing at a clearing in the distance. A glance was exchanged and she winced − an expression he saw often and ignored. “Shall we go, madam?” “Yes,” she replied with gratitude, and they continued the trek uphill.
It wasn’t long before they reached a peaceful, clear pool, soft green bleeding into cobalt blue, an idyllic pond surrounded by several magnolia trees in bloom, bamboo, wild Alpinia in a landscape lit by delicate torch lilies.
“This must be the source of the creek we discovered,” Emilie said.
As Emilie gazed into the pond, Amé spotted something familiar in the distance and went to investigate. There he found a wide square marked off in white powder on the dirt: nearby the heads of five roosters decayed in the sun; horseflies buzzed above a dark fetid pool where maggots emerged from eggs. None of these things seemed to bother him, and he said nothing about them to the aristocrat.
Then the faint yet unmistakable scent of sulfur wafted across the pool, and at that moment, glancing across the pond, Amé caught sight of a pair of red eyes glowing in a dark thicket of bamboo.
Emilie climbed atop a cone-shaped outcrop of volcanic rock on the downward side of the pond. She stood like an explorer, feet firmly planted, hands on hips, and gazed out beyond the island at the sea, nearly as vast as the sky.
“Madame, it is best that we leave this place at this instant,” Amé said with composure, careful to pronounce each word with the soft timbre of a suggestion. Yet she ignored him, as if he wasn’t there.
Amé realized that a different approach was needed. He climbed atop a nearby mound, judiciously a full step behind the aristocrat, and peered over the edge of the mountain like a Sherpa charting a course.
Emilie marveled at the view: She gazed at the bay, a natural harbor shallow around the rim − white foam, light green, then cobalt blue and nearly bottomless in its center. In her eyes it was a marvelous sight, a curiosity: It glittered like a lagoon in a fairy tale, one where pirates might lurk, capture young women, and hold them for ransom. Yet to her the cove was safe and secure. Steamboats and sailing ships docked in the deep port where they could navigate close to shore and fill their cargo holds with cases of the rum her father manufactured and shipped around the world. And yet she wondered: will I ever be able to escape this island?
When Amé gazed at the bay he saw a tropical island born of brimstone and fire, raised up out of the netherworld, touching the sky and clouds − a wildly beautiful place with rich soil, yams and coconut palms and a dazzling array of flowers. It reminded him of the dreams he had at night, of his ancestral Ghana, though it was as far away as it could be. He saw the people of Dahomey captured in the dead of night, chained and horsewhipped and sold as slaves, packed like fish below the deck in the hellish holds of ships, narrow spaces seething with malaria and feces and terror, where it was nearly impossible to breathe much less live; he saw men and women and children shackled in chains, unloaded like freight from slave ships moored in the shimmering bay, his mother and father forced to toil for endless hours harvesting sugar cane in the blistering sun. When Amé gazed down the hillside at the land and sea below, he also saw an island blessed by tropical rains and warm sunshine, graced with black sandy beaches and beautiful Black women dancing Rumba and Samba. He closed his eyes and felt the volcanic slopes of the island plunge deep beneath the sea into the eternal darkness of an abyss colder than death yet pulsing with new life, and he thought: Is that not where the Loas are born? And when he opened his eyes and felt the sun on his skin, he felt grateful to be alive.
“We are in paradise!” Emilie declared. “Just look!”
A small provincial French town sat perched on the edge of the bay. Whitewashed homes and shops built of brick and stone with peeked roofs and French windows climbed the countless steps that crisscrossed the gentle hills. Tamarind, West Indian Mahogany, and African Tulip trees lined the wide cobblestone streets and a stone bridge arched across a clear river that separated the town from the foothills. Looking at the sea from Mt. Atdamos, in the distance they could see a great wooden ship with full white blooming sails boldly approaching the harbor.
“It is very lovely,” Amé said.
As they climbed down from the rocks and approached the pond, Amé kept an eye out. Emilie asked: “What is it are you looking for? It seems to me that you really do not want to be here.”
“It is not that I do not want to be here, Madam. Simply put, this place is not safe and I must convince you that we leave now.”
“Nonsense. You don’t expect me to leave already, do you?”
Amé arched his eyebrows, tightened his lips.
“Oh my, plush plush, it is all very innocent, don’t you worry,” she assured him.
“What is innocent to you is a capital crime for me.”
“Nonsense. We live in a democracy now! You have the same rights as any other Frenchman.”
Oh yes, he thought: democracy. It’s really quite grand, is it not? A novel idea with marvelous characters and incredible plots! The rich and powerful live happily ever after! Never a word about the working people and the burdens they bear!
“Then I vote that we leave this instant!” he said.
“Oh you are so funny.”
There was a thundering crash. Birds took flight and Amé instinctively ducked. And though the deafening roar startled Emilie for an instant, she quickly regained her composure. Looking out to sea, she pointed at the great sailing ship in the distance and said, “Oh don’t worry, it is just that ship firing a salvo − a greeting. It is tradition, you know.”
“The earth has it’s own traditions, Madam, that we must not ignore.”
“Oh but you are worrying too much. It was a cannon! Believe me!”
Pointing toward the ship, he said, “That great roar came from the other direction.” She was not convinced. “Well then,” he said still pointing toward the ship at sea, “In all due respect, Madam, I must point out if that cannon fired why is there no smoke?”
“Oh you, you are so – so tense.”
Emilie quickly made her way to the pond and its narrow banks. She sat upon a large black stone and began to remove her shoes.
“Respectfully, it is not a good idea for you to remove even one shoe.”
“Oh my goodness, you really are nervous, aren’t you? I just want to cool my feet is all.”
Before Amé could object, Emilie was barefoot and had slipped her feet into the pond. Amé surveyed the area again, gritting his teeth, doing his best to conceal his anxiety.
“Oh no!” she cried suddenly, retreating in horror.
“What is it?” He leaped to her side.
“Look at that! What on earth?” A fish floated to the surface, propelled upward by a gush of bubbles.
“What is that, Amé?” He took a breath, relieved, and replied: “It appears to be a dead fish, Madam.”
Amé focused, considering different strategies, his station preventing him from taking direct action, though he considered it.
“Truly this is not a safe place.”
“Why do you keep saying that? People come here all the time! It is one of the most popular places in Mandinique, so beautiful, so perfect!” She turned toward the pond and was startled by what she saw. “Oh my! Look!”
The lake began to change color, from sapphire blue to slate gray. A thin mist began to lift, swirling about and settling down flat upon its surface.
As Amé gazed at the pond a huge silvery snook leaped high out of the water, yellow fins flapping wildly, a black lateral line writhing as it rocketed upward, frantically flexing its body one way then another in a wrenching effort to fly, to escape. Amé saw terror in its bulging sulfurous eyes as it fought even as it reached its zenith, for an instant weightless as an bird in flight, then dragged back, plummeting − still resisting − body arching and contracting as it crashed into the pond’s surface, shattering it with a great splash, a volley of pearls sprayed fountain-like in an arc, white arms and fingers of foam jutting up, lifted skyward in triumph, an evil spirit celebrating then quickly withdrawing back into the lake wrapping around the fish and drawing it deep beneath the surface. There was a roar from within the pond, wrapped in the coils of sound and light.
Amé turned toward Emilie to gauge her reaction.
“Did you hear that?”
“Do you mean the birds?”
Emilie carefully dabbed mud from between her toes with a silk handkerchief, a childlike scowl becoming a grin, lost as she was in a fairyland, an enormous table set with lace placemats and silver platters, a broiled fish with a sprig of Italian parsley served for supper.
“We must leave this place this very moment.”
“But we have only arrived!”
A rush of orioles flushed from a hollow raced in a sharp angle toward the sun.
“We must leave now.”
“But did you see the orioles? Something frightened them.”
“Perhaps the ship fired its cannon again.”
A peregrine falcon swooped down past the pond, looked directly into Amé eyes then jetted off. And in the bamboo grove across the lake red eyes glowed in the shade.
“It’s just nature! Everything is fine! You are just, well, seeing things, I think.”
At that instant there was a powerful tremor, crevices rattling, streams of stones tumbling. Trees and ferns swayed violently and Emilie cried out in terror. Amé snatched her shoes and grabbed her hand. She needed no more convincing. They raced down the trail, leaping from one step to the next. As they reached the coach St. Pierre was rearing, crying out. Then the shaking began to stop, though banana trees and ferns continued to sway; palm leaves rustled and an eerie silence slowly settled, dust and pollen spinning in the air.
Amé reassured St. Pierre then helped Emilie now so terrified she could barely make her way to the carriage; he climbed into the driver’s seat, took hold of the reins and guided the stallion as they rolled down and around the dirt road back toward town. Seeking comfort Emilie fondled her charm bracelet. “My god!” she cried, though Amé was too busy driving the coach to pay attention. “What has happened to my charms?” They had all become dark with tarnish.
Far above them Emilie’s abandoned basket began to burn and the pond bubbled furiously. Scores of fish floated sideways on the surface, bobbing up and down in the boiling water, thoroughly cooked in the carbonated cauldron.
excerpt from Mandinique (Chapter 1)
A historical novel by J.P. Bone
Copyright © 2016, 2019 by J.P. Bone
all rights reserved