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Obscurity, The Thirty-Ninth Chapter
In which a baby is born into the swamp.
There are some who imbibe, not in too much drink, but in too much thought. Though they take much different paths to get there, the destination can feel quite the same: reflection, regret, reverie. But on the former journey, one has only to wait for more sober feeling to come, and on the latter one must endeavor to change their thoughts entirely—and that can be a most troublesome undertaking.
To reverse one’s thoughts and feelings, to turn them from their downward spiral into an upward ascent requires a conscious shift. A recognition that those thoughts have quite gotten away from oneself and to prevail upon them to conjure more joyous feeling. To breathe in life’s most intoxicating elixirs and savor its most delightful tonics. To return from the bowels of winter into the most cheerful ease of the summer.
Indeed, in the summertime it is easy to feel those gaieties. To delight in a time of such abundance and wild freedom. To enjoy this one and precious life most fervently and most vibrantly. To drink it in with all its merriment and mirth and savor its contentedness even if it is so contrived. To live in happiness and healthfulness despite all thoughts to the contrary. To believe in beauty and to see it in all things even when the mind seems determined to upend it.
Such was the way Séverine felt as she drifted one morning upon the bayou, her toes lingering in the cool waters as Rémy rowed their pirogue toward its destination. Her pale pink gown bustled around her thighs and she did nothing to dissuade the waters from wettening it. Her lily rose complexion was shaded beneath a wide palmetto hat, a sheer veil hiding her face and her thoughts as they spiraled into places only interior mind can go, and ever so relentlessly.
The child slept in her lap and she stroked his hair idly, wondering if his thoughts too turned to dark places when he stopped paying too much attention to them—if he too had to battle the darkness on occasion. But then, she thought, perhaps those thoughts were not some beast to be faced nor some demon to defeat. Perhaps that had always been the wrong metaphor. Perhaps sorrows and joys only come upon us as waves, free to come and go as they please, lapping against us with the tides.
And perhaps all we can do, Séverine thought peacefully, is to remain steadfast amidst those tides as they rise and fall, and not hold too tightly to any particular wave as they do.
Out beyond the bayou, once one has waded through the neck-deep waters and submitted themselves to the swaths of mosquitos, there lived a most insightful woman. It was said she was the keeper of lost spirits—that when the ancestors could not find their way back to the homeland, they came to the woman who lived in the swamp who could sing them across the sea.
The woman wore a red cotton dress and a bright green turban about her head and listened to her mother’s stories as she washed her clothing in a nearby stream and hung them to dry in a grove of wild orange trees. The woman fed wandering chickens and gathered their eggs from knots in the trees that looked like wizened old men, and it was said she could boil a pot of water without even a flame.
Every evening she would go out into the bayou and collect wild things into her baskets—the honey from bees, the bones of small birds, the twigs from a nest, or the roots of a tree—and while she did so she kept a portion of gratitude within her heart. Thus settled away from society she had found a freedom both in body and mind. It was not perfect, nor would it be so for quite some time, but she savored what portion she had and endeavored to enjoy it thoroughly.
The woman lived in a cottage that had long ago gone uninherited, with a dovecote that had gone to ruin and a roof that was only protected by the shade of a wild oak. Her husband brought supplies from the islands: sugarcane from revolution-ravaged plantations, cottons from the fields, holy water from the churches. And when he rowed his small pirogue up the bayou from his ship, he was always satisfied to find his wife among the wild. Her thighs lulling against the tropical waters as she gathered medicines. Her skirts trailing behind her in those murky waters.
They lay out under the moon at night and bathed in the cool waters of the bayou, and eventually were joined by others so marooned themselves away from their plantations, establishing their homes in the hollows of trees and the inlets of coves. They build their settlements deep in the swamp, where they would never be found and where, when the waters were still, they could still hear the old woman sing as they fell to sleep.
Theirs was a community of people who did not belong to any country—instead they belonged only to themselves. They sundried orange peels for their rhum and crafted their own medicines. They held their own church services, and they sang their own prayers. They lay in the waters of the bayou, and they hummed songs of their love into the swamp where only the spirits could hear their whispers and sighs, their desires and devotions, their promises and pleasures.
Some nights the wise woman and her husband spent all evening in the swamp, letting the waters bathe their naked bodies as her gathering baskets floated lonesome nearby. Then one morning, a lone hen found its way through a bramble bush and died upon her doorstep—and it was then that she knew they were coming.
When the summer was at its warmest, the couturière, bathed by the swamp with sweat slipping through her chemise, appeared at the ménagère’s sanctuary—she was nine months pregnant, and the birthing pains had just started to begin. The commander held her beneath the arms as the ménagère crouched beneath her, ready to catch the babe who struggled to be born into the swamp.
The ménagère spoke to the spirits and she heard their songs—but the babe refused to be born, so reluctant was he to enter so turbulent a world. For a moment, the ménagère sunk into the mud as the couturière relaxed into the waters of the swamp. It seemed that the child and his mother might fall into the swamp forever, their lives lost to the land of the spirits if the child did not see fit to make his appearance.
But the couturière would not have it. With a sudden surge of energy, she grabbed one of the chickens as it appeared to get stuck in the swamp near her head. She pulled the machete from her lover’s belt, and slaughtered the chicken in one smooth motion. Blood fell from her womb and was mingled with blood from the chicken, the swamp turning shades of crimson where they lay in the waters.
The ménagère released her breath. The motion had reminded her of another death, another lifetime ago, when she had slashed a knife across her master’s throat, and used the back end of it on his lover. This time she watched as that lost life found hope in a new one and contrived to not let it go to waste. She felt her mother’s love in her heart, the whispers of her song in her ears, the waters trembling in her wake, the reeds restless in her winds. She felt her mother’s forgiveness, and she felt it accept the chicken’s life as an atonement for her own.
A small baby boy was born into that swamp, with the strong will of his father, the rebellion of his mother, and the brilliant love of those ancestors who helped bring him to the world. In the days to follow he would be swaddled with palm leaves and held in turn by each member of the swamp: the couturière and the commander, the ménagère and the captain, the widow and the mercenary, and the child. A strange but unusual company of people who loved him all the same, in all the many ways people are able.
We next read The Fortieth Chapter, in which we learn how the widow escaped her cell. This will be the last chapter of our tale. To purchase the (very) first hardcover edition of Obscurity, signed by the author, become a Novelle Collector.