Obscurity, The Seventh Chapter
In which the widow ventures into the swamp for a cure.
We last read The Sixth Chapter, in which we discovered three men with rather nefarious intentions.
The child fell asleep in the ménagère’s arms. She watched his tears run out, his eyelids close, and she placed the palm of her hand against his heart, feeling it beating quietly against her skin. As she did so, her own heart began to ache. As if feeling the sorrows of this small child’s heart, coursing through her own.
This formed in her mind an image. The boy, sitting outside a windowsill, the day warm and humid. He played with rocks in the street and watched people as they walked by, though none seemed to notice him. Every now and then there would be a breath, an exhale heard from the window above him. He would stand on his toes then, peering his eyes over the ledge to look at the woman he loved. The one he called Maman.
She was a warm being—the raft upon which this child would float, safe from the turbulent waters beneath it. She would tell him magical stories about another land, a place where the people lived amongst the wildness and danced along sparkling shores. She told him stories about the beasts that roamed the lands and the monsters that lived beneath the waters. Most of all, she told him of the spirits who kept them safe from such frights.
The boy especially loved the stories about the moon. She was the one who knew the ancestors—those who had gone to the life beyond. She cared for the dead and carried them in her womb. She also cared for those yet to come to it. She held children on her lap and shined her wondrous light down upon them. Every night the boy would cuddle up next to his mother, blow out the candles, and remember that they were always safe so long as they had each other and that the moon looked down on them.
The boy lived in a small cabin set apart from the convent. His mother worked in service to the clergy until one morning she was not feeling so well and struggled to wake herself. The nuns discovered her and took her to the infirmary, but the boy hid himself outside her window where he could not be seen.
The boy tried to care for her. He watched over her and prayed for her. But most of all he told her stories. He told her about very scary monsters and about very happy spirits, and he could see that she loved them because she smiled—she could never stop smiling at her son and the stories he told her.
But late in the afternoon, his mother stopped smiling. The boy tried to wake her, but she did not answer. He heard another breath, another exhale, only this one would be her last. The boy wept. Tucking himself into the building’s edge where he could not be seen, he cried all night until he was very tired and fell asleep. His small life raft tipped over and his life spilled into the waves.
When he awoke, his mother was gone, but the moon was awake. He looked up into it and wondered if she would care for his mother, and himself too. Just as he was thinking such things a shadow crossed the moon. A woman. She was wearing a long black dress and a beautiful black veil, but there was something glowing about her. He tried to get a better look at her. He tried to follow her, but then she was gone—lost in the shadow.
For a moment, the boy felt lost, but then she appeared before him. She knelt before him, lifting the veil from her face and there he saw a woman with skin as bright and luminous as the moon with lips as red as though she had eaten it whole. The boy gasped. He was scared. But the woman reached out her hand to him and he took it—following his new destiny.
The ménagère knew better than to think this image a product of her imagination. It was a memory. The story written on his heart and read by hers. She tucked the boy into her arms and sang him the songs of the moon, remembering her own mother and the stories she used to tell her daughter. The ones now kept alive only in their memories.
The boy woke up to murmurs, small words spoken between the woman who had found him and the woman who had rocked him. These women performed some kind of ritual now, preparing coffee as they spoke amongst themselves.
In the warm morning air, with the sun shining through opened shutters, he almost forgot about his mother. Until he remembered. Then he began to cry once more, silently so as not to disturb the women who were speaking of him.
The women, however, were disturbed and rushed to the parlor sofa where he lay. The widow wrapped her arms around him then, humming sweet songs as they spoke in hushed tones about him. There was no orphanage for boys at that time, not yet. The convent only sheltered young girls who could be developed into marriageable women. And yet, here was this child who would be resigned to the life of an orphan. The widow would not consign the boy to so harrowing a situation, she said.
The widow was living far beyond the reaches of despotic Paris now, and she intended to live a life of freedom, however eccentric that might make her among society. She vowed to make decisions that had nothing to do with what others thought of her, and only those that had something to do with what she thought of herself. And of herself, she believed there was no greater good she could do than to love this child who might otherwise go without it. And so, her mind was made up.
The ménagère took in the scene, the early morning light seeping through the shutters, the fire crackling, the candles spooling, and here this woman, draped across her velvet settee with all the elegance in the world and in her arms a child, wretched with grief, his face pressed against her gown as his tears slipped down the satin. The woman held him close. Her arms wrapped around him. His body nestled against hers. He was destitute and yet comforted. Lost and yet found.
The ménagère saw in this scene the remnants of broken promises and dreams. The shattered images of how their lives were intended to be. The widow would have been a wealthy shopkeeper living in Paris with an aristocratic husband. The ménagère would have lived in a faraway land with her mother, dancing by the fireside at night. And the child, would have lived with his mother, in their own castle set apart from the world. And yet from the wreckage of those lives, they were building a new one, now entwined.
This small family was not bound by blood but by something other. By money, and tragedy, and fate. And yet, there was something at work that might threaten even that which they had built so far. For as the child slept, a slow fever crept into his cheeks and up his forehead, until at last its flush could be felt by the woman who held him.
She kissed his forehead, then pressed her cheek to his, her mind slowly wandering down torturous avenues until at last she recognized in them a buried truth. His mother died only a day before. And now it appeared so would he.
The hospital in those days was a rather crude affair. The doctors were educated men, of course, and they had slaves equipped enough to assist them. But nothing could compensate for the fact that none yet knew the cause of the ailments that ravaged their tropical city so thoroughly and so fatally.
At first, it was thought hazardous gases were emitted from the swamplands, but tar burned into the air and cannons fired into it did nothing to deter the illness from returning. Without an understanding of cause, treatment could hardly fare any better.
At best, most doctors believed anything held within the body must be expelled from it. To this end, several treatments were devised: Laudanum and ammonia impelled one to sweat, tartar emetic taken in tea incited vomiting, wine and bark were taken as a purgative, and various vinegars were soaked into one’s sheets to induce blistering. All these treatments were inflicted on the child, but in vain. He appeared only to grow sicker.
The widow knelt by his bedside, watching as the many experiments afflicted by the doctors had the only result one might suppose: a child, already comatose with pain and fever, was now also soaked in sweat and losing liquids through every possible outlet.
The widow had seen it all before, of course, everyone had. Though some doctors swore upon one antidote or another, the next wave of fever would prove indifferent to it. It seemed all antidotes were naught but a wild guess—a mad flailing of human will against the death that would always conquer it. Then, as now, there is nothing so hopeless as the fleeting whims of our own mortality.
When abrasive measures do nothing to delay death, prayer is the last resource available to those who wish for will to count for something and so the widow sent for the bishop, keeping vigil by the child’s bedside. All that was left to her now was to wait—for her words to count for something, for the cosmos to rearrange themselves for the sake of one small child.
The waiting stretched into minutes and hours. Then finally, another came to be present for the waiting. The bishop settled next to the widow, two figures in black now hovering over the child like an omen.
The ménagère watched these two figures as they made a ritual of the waiting. The widow knelt over the child, her dark veil concealing her tears as she prayed. The bishop appeared just as formidable, the lines in his face so deep that light appeared unable to reach them. He spoke words in a forgotten tongue, his fingers crossing the child repeatedly as he whispered. He broke bread, administering it to the child’s lips, though only a crumb would pass them. Then he sang a small hymn, before they both whispered, “Amen.”
The bishop kissed the widow on the forehead, then departed.
At last, in wretched despair, the ménagère decided she could attend such proceedings no more. She had watched the child become exposed to every conceivable agony, and yet she knew there was more that could be done. Not by the French, not by the Catholic, but by another. By one who had brought the gift of healing from her own country to their new one, just as her own mother had.
The ménagère whispered to the widow, who was despaired enough to consider her ménagère’s words. After a moment, she dropped her veil across her face, wrapped the child in clean linens, and the three departed the white room and strode down the avenue toward a destination they knew not the address of.
It was nearing dusk as they drifted past the city in their pirogue. In those times, every plantation home faced the river, the very portrait of wealth and prosperity. Behind them however, nature was not quite so tidy. The river did not heed the will of the riverbanks, penetrating deeply into them, and leaving behind the watery entrails that made up the swamp.
The swamp was disobedient to the settlers who attempted to tame it and thus remained every bit as enigmatic as the beasts rumored to live within it. None would venture into the swamp, at least not without good reason. There were, however, those who had good reason and the ménagère heard mention of them.
Reaching the outskirts of the Plantation St. Vincent, they lit a lamp and set out into the unknown marsh, the two of them taking turns holding the child in their arms as they sunk down to their knees and thighs in the murk. The swamp dragged on the women’s skirts, forcing them to become heavier with each step. Their shoes become lost in the quagmire.
At long last, as dusk turned to darkness, there was a hum. A far-off rattling tune that came deep from within the swamp. They followed the sound in silence, attempting to discern from it the woman who had once marooned the Estate St. Vincent. There was a petit marronage out and away from the plantation she absconded, the hut fashioned from thatched palmetto leaves and bark. It was circular, about the size of a large tree, with a wooden deck protruding like an apron out in front of it.
On the deck sat the humming woman, the sound emanating from a place deep in her chest.
“What can I do for you?” she said in heavily accented words, her eyes never leaving her weaving.
The ménagère spoke in the sort of French that had become stripped of its heritage, robbed of its privilege, and left only with the soul of the people who spoke it. It was messy and beautiful. Perhaps more beautiful than the tongue from which it had been adapted. The widow understood only fragments of what was said but witnessed the kindling in the woman’s eyes as she took the words in, looking toward the widow, and finally the bundle she held in her arms.
The woman was a traiteuse, a healer. She wore brightly colored fabric tied tightly around her body, and her hair knotted with intricately woven cloth on top of her head. Earrings that looked like gold plates fell from her ears and large necklaces hung heavily from her neck. When the ménagère had finished her entreaty, the woman stood and gestured for the party to follow her into her abode.
The room was small, so much so that everyone was made to sit against the walls as the healer placed the child on a makeshift bed in the center of the room. The hut was crude, but warm. The sort of place one might consider primitive were it not adorned with a certain devotion. Bottles of tinctures lined the walls; small trinkets hung from the thatched roof; and colorful gems, jewelry, and bijoux ornamented every nook and cranny. Despite her remote location, the woman evidently had her share of guests, and they brought with them a great assortment of treasures.
Now the woman looked on the child, clicking her tongue in distaste at the afflictions wrought upon him by the doctors. He had ceased vomiting, but his body was trembling and weak. His eyes were closed, his condition comatose.
The traiteuse began to speak, her words narrated by the ménagère in overlapping streams of Creole. The boy’s fever was dire, she said, but the cure had been passed down to her from her father—a flower known as holy herb, or devil’s bane, depending on one’s perspective. It was the same flower used to treat the messiah’s wounds after he was pulled down from his tree, she told them.
The traiteuse gathered several dried flowers from a tin, ground the leaves into a tea, and busied herself with the process of boiling water and pouring it over the leaves. She hummed as she did so, the sound soothing those anxieties that had so exhausted themselves throughout the day.
Once the tea had sufficiently steeped, the woman used the discarded leaves to create an emetic. She administered the treatment to the child, then placed her hands on his arms and closed her eyes. She held him firmly and took a deep breath, then she began to sing. Her voice was low at first, hardly audible to those around her, but then the sound rose, picking up with it the spirits that had fallen.
The ménagère closed her eyes, as if brought home by the sound. She was reminded of her mother, transported by the music to her childhood on the islands. She remembered it fondly, seeing only that which had been good and true. Suddenly, she felt as though her mother’s spirit were with her and a great happiness overcame her. Tears slipped down her face as she allowed herself to dwell in her mother’s presence. To feel her forgiveness. To feel her healing.
Séverine too was comforted, though not in the same way. There was healing in the room, this she knew, but it was not the same healing she felt in a cathedral, or while praying the rosary. This was a different kind of healing. A tangible healing. A generational healing. Perhaps the kind of healing this child needed most. For it was not the presence of a man of science that proved the most efficacious, but the presence of three women who cared for his wellbeing.
Here she sat, a Catholic whose philosophies were decidedly European, inspired by the world’s great thinkers, philosophers, and logisticians, and yet before her was a scene that might be considered highly unscientific, superstitious even, had not the child chosen just that moment to awaken.
The traiteuse helped the child sit up, then gave him the tea to drink. The child coughed, at first, but the tea soothed him. His eyelids closed softly against his cheeks as he drank. Relief streamed in ribbons of tears from the women’s eyes as they hugged one another and then the child. They thanked the traiteuse, who gave them the tin of tea so that they might continue to apportion it out to him three times daily.
In their relief, they spent the night on the hut floor, holding one another in their arms as they slept. In the morning, the sun dried out the swamp for their departure, the stone rolled away from the tomb so they could return to life once more.
We next read The Eighth Chapter, in which blood is spilled at the Mardi Gras ball.