Obscurity, The Second Chapter
In which the ménagère of the Estate St. Vincent has a disturbing premonition.
We last read The First Chapter, in which we met Monsieur Le Propriétaire at his death bed.
That evening, the river rose and flooded the Estate St. Vincent.
Water filled its rooms, one after another, as a piano played its keys without a set of hands to escort them. A dinner party of the most inviting sort became lost to the sea as carpets became imbibed by the swamp, and alligators swam amidst the salon as strands of kelp strung themselves about the crystal chandeliers.
The waters crept up the curling staircase and into the hall, flooding the bedchambers and wettening the trousseaus. Cloaked beds became canopied with reeds and vanities decorated with drifting moss. Oil paintings were obscured by tendrils of Queen Anne’s Lace—even the piano, at last, succumbed to the swamp, its tune gurgled into the sea as its strings became drowned in its depths.
In the grand bedchamber, the proprietor’s corpse floated amidst the sheets that once held him, suspended above the room that once cloaked him in death. Now his pallor appeared ghastly in its demise, his hair unruly in its exile from the living. Blood seeped from his chest in curling ribbons of wrath and his mouth carved itself into a most dangerous smile.
In the morning, when the spell was broken and her eyes were opened, the ménagère of the Estate St. Vincent found the waters receded from the estate, the carpets dried out by the Louisiana sun, the chandeliers cleansed of their saline visitors, and the piano once more playing an idling tune—the lingering humidity in the air the last remnant of a night spent in the swamp.
And yet, washed away by those most ominous waters was le Propriétaire St. Vincent, his body removed from the estate and never to be seen again, and left behind in his wake was the woman who would come to be called his widow. The Veuve St. Vincent.
The plantation was set amidst the brooding lush of an island paradise—but the swamp slept behind it, stifling the land with a most impenetrable mud and choking the lungs with a most burdensome humidity.
Against the reaches of prickling palmettos and the tantalizing grasp of mangroves stood a grove of wooden cabins, each sinking into the land with an assortment of haste, with crooked walls and crooked floors and porches that were much too heavy for those most rudimentary huts to hold.
She could already hear the humming.
The old woman sat on her stoop in a rocking chair, curled into herself as she might have been in her mother’s womb. Her skin was heavy with the years that dragged her nearer to the earth and her teeth had grown a rather unsightly centimeter or two. As her body swayed, her mumblings fell through the end of a lit cigarette, puffing perfumed visions into a world that would no longer hear them.
Her words were spoken in opaque poems—their meanings long ago lost to the end of a whip or the battering of a backhand. No one could quite remember when it was that that the old woman’s mind became lost, only that they had searched for it for years on end until, at last, it was determined to be lost for good.
The ménagère sat with the old woman in the evenings, rocking in creaking wooden chairs upon crooked wooden stoops. There was something left of the old woman still, she thought, some remembrance of a woman once awake. She had been shattered like a pane of glass and shaken into disarray, that much was true, but the pieces were all still there, reflecting some part of her still gleaming.
The ménagère was born on the island, but we would be loath to omit that her mother was born in the Before-land.
The place was naught but a dream to the old woman now, and only wisps of memory remained—glimpses of the sun seen through the trees. She wore layers of muslin about her body—if she could see her past clearly—in rich shades of blue. She bathed in the smoke of potent woods and earth—her hair perfumed by the fire.
During the day, she prepared medicines from poisons and poisons from medicines. In the evenings, she stewed wild goat meat with plantains and yams and seasoned them with peppercorns and wood ash. She purified her hands as if in ritual before each meal and drank palm wine fermented from the trees. She smoked tobacco leaves when the light began to dim and at night she would dance around the fire with uninhibited joy.
How beautiful it had been once, she must have thought in the mired depths of her mind, to enjoy life in the Before-land. How wonderful it would be to see it again.
When she was first taken, the woman struggled against her restraints and was beaten into submission. She was rubbed with vinegar and drowned in a pan of water. Soon after, she found herself on an island surrounded by more water than she could possibly swim and surrounded by a jungle more unruly than she could possibly navigate. Barracudas watched over the waters with a prowling eye and the dead slaves who once attempted escape kept vigil in the forest. Conch shell horns alerted owners to the marooning of their slaves and pepper sauce rubbed into their wounds when they were returned.
Against such obstacles, the woman’s options were submission or death—and she found submission a rather difficult poison to swallow. Death seemed a much sweeter sorrow, and she walked toward it with open arms, her mind consoled by nothing else but the embrace of the Before-land and the solace that it would once again greet her when she was no longer confined to the limitations of her body.
In preparation for this journey, the woman took neither food nor water. Her fate, resigned to a sort of purgatory, was neither in this world nor in the next one. Her body worked the sugar fields, cutting through thick canes with a large machete, but her soul never went out to work with her. Instead, it watched from a distance, waiting for the day death would come to her and her journey back to the Before-land would begin.
The plantation was reigned over by a tyrannical master, but his son was a pitiless boy. He took the woman into his bed and gazed into her eyes, but she looked the other way. He held her naked in his arms, but she only watched their embrace from a distance. When their dalliance was at last discovered, her master sent his own son to the whip and she to the post.
Like a woman possessed, she did not cry out when the lash met her skin. She was removed from her body and could no more feel the pain than she could do something to end it, so she endured it. Lash after lash met her skin until there remained hardly enough of it to whip. Finally poised at the very precipice of death, the woman smiled as her tired lungs drank in their last breath. It was then that she saw a flutter of movement near her right eye.
The spirit did naught but stand there, staring at that wretched display of flesh and bone. The last drop of water that could be found in the woman’s body formed in her eye a tear as she recognized the spirit of her daughter, standing before her with all the hope of a future not yet lived. The mother took another gulp of air and a vow that her daughter might grow to see it.
From then on, the woman attended the fields once more, but this time her soul traveled with her, as did the soul of her unborn child. She cradled that new life in her womb and determined that if her daughter had saved her from death, so would the mother save her daughter from life.
The babe was exquisite, a rare beauty, and her mother loved her more than her own life. Though she was raised in the religion of the French and apprenticed as a housemaid, her mother taught her also the ways of the Before-land, and introduced her to her ancestors, whose spirits would always walk beside her.
The young girl grew in beauty and in stature, as well as in moral fiber and fortitude. She was deeply attuned with her own inner well and she swam in its depths quite regularly. There, she found an endless source of happiness that sprung from her being like a brook, bursting forth from the earth to the surface, providing fresh water for all around her.
But even as she was able to find joy in a life half-lived, she still yearned for the other half. By the time she was fully grown, that yearning grew until it became a low rumble, an earthquake trembling just beneath the surface of the island. Dark clouds shrouded the land as an omen and wild animals retreated to the jungle in fear. The young woman sensed the storm but did nothing to stall it—determined that she might at last have the life her mother once meant for her when she decided to live.
The night came unbidden and slaves rebelled against their masters. The master’s son was killed in his bed, and his lover broken by the end of a machete. The young woman carried her mother through the jungle, her head dripping blood upon the leaves that crushed beneath their feet, but their flight was for naught. When at last they reached the coast, they were met by a character who would take them into his care and assign to them a price.
They were sold to the Proprietor St. Vincent and sent away to work at his sugar plantation, making rum for cabarets of Nouvelle-Orléans and sitting in rocking chairs upon their stoops, as the mother babbled incoherently at a past her daughter would never remember, and a future she would come to regret.
The ménagère listened for a time, the old woman’s tale flavored by a language long ago left behind as she babbled incoherently in mired truths and submerged secrets. And yet, amidst the incoherence of a mind long ago lost, the ménagère thought she heard mention of the rising of the swamp, and a woman with seaweed crusted beneath her fingernails.
“Hatched from a rooster’s egg,” she said of the arrival, rapping at her head with her knuckles “with breath as deadly as a snake.”
We next read The Third Chapter, in which the widow enters society and rumors about her become a rather ghastly thing.