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from the November 2011 issue

Brine, Blood, and Mother’s Milk

For the woman with bound hands, a vacant stare, and an impudent bottom, whom I glimpsed at Corail one morning during the season of storms

I’ve turned my skin inside out, but I can still feel the treachery of their gestures and mutterings. Braced against the heaving of the boat, my body rides over the crashing waves. I am capsizing in a sinister darkness where silence no longer exists, and I must patiently reconstruct my solitude. Why does that woman on my right insist on poking her foot in my ribs? Why is that man sneering at me?  And yet I was thinking that I’d frightened them for life.

“Look how her eyes are rolling, you’d think they were black marbles, the eyes of a madwoman.”

“And the way she has of jerking her head around like a wobbly top.”

“Poor thing, her milk has gone into her blood.”

“How foul she smells!”

My madness blocks the words from ever reaching me, and if they sometimes come back to me later, it’s because my folly has learned to protect me from their hurtfulness. I am wrapped in my long red dress, not the vivid red that gratifies the senses, but a dark red that expresses suffering. I feel it flap against my legs, a totem of filth and dust that helps me stop crying. I clamber aboard and steady myself with legs spread apart. My black underwear rides up between my buttocks. I greet this familiar irritation with relief. I refuse to put on a clean pair. The pungent yet sweet odor, subversive yet delicate, reminds me of my own body and its needs, my sexual organs and their torment. The odor proves to me that I am alive.

I am lying flat on the deck amidst arms and legs that startle and flinch from contact. On my cheeks are particles of vomit, but I don’t know whether they come from me or my neighbor, who entangles me with her spasmodic movements. Acrid smells assail me from all directions. I cannot say for sure whether I experience the jolts that convulse the others. I am a wave, a fish out of water, a sinner in my soul. I totter above the prostrate bodies and readjust myself with each new squall. I step on nauseating, oozing waste. I catch a jet of sea spray smack in the face. “Shut up, crazy woman, or I’ll toss you overboard.” My laughter becomes froth and derision.

I hear my own cry swallow up the clamor: a child has fixed his unblinking gaze on me. The passengers’ anxieties converge on the madwoman; it distracts them from the overflowing sea. I persist in stamping my feet and screaming, despite the violent kicks I receive. My guts pour out in a long, unbroken howl. My legs thump against the deck in a tom-tom of distress.

 “Take the child away,” calls a voice that I should recognize. “Take him away, she doesn’t like children.” I still tremble from the child’s furtive attention. My agonized cry takes time to wind itself down.

My hands won’t reach my face, so I’m unable to gouge out my eyes or dispel the images that linger behind my eyelids. I’m sick from my chest to the pit of my stomach. Pain intrudes between me and the world. Lashes from a belt, I hunch my back; blows from a stick, I curl my shoulders; strokes of the whip, I lunge with my legs; blows to the midsection, I cover my crotch with my hands. A thousand fingers swarm over me, thrust themselves into all my intimate parts, mark out my own stations of the cross. My skin is cracked. I see my nightmares emerge arm-in-arm from the fissures. A trickle of blood twists around my thighs, coagulating my dreams and desires. A thread-shaped creature emerges from my navel, entwines his long, white tongue around my middle, and squeezes, squeezes to the point of delirium.

A hand forces a sip of seawater into my mouth. I take pleasure in spewing out all my wounds. My teeth sink themselves greedily into the soft flesh, but it has a salty taste and I spit it out. I have always had a sweet tooth . . . That’s because your skin is sweet: Just like the song, Car ta peau est douce. I don’t stop running my hand over your back, I create and recreate you endlessly. I arrive at my fingertips only to discover that they have deliberately lied to me and that you are nothing but a finely wrought illusion.

I thrash around on the deck, colliding with the fears of normal people, who vomit only their bile and hide the rottenness in their inner depths. All the saliva on my lips has dried up. I’ve kissed no one for a very long time. With open arms I seize my rancor, my violent outbursts at day’s end, my wasted opportunities.

My skin stretches, tightens and splits open. My stomach keeps swelling and expands as far as my eyes. I have to choose: close them or make it burst. The liquid that drains from my breasts spreads a fetid odor around me. I lap it up furiously and force myself to vomit, to reject this degradation. I flop down on my stomach and let myself drop again and again. I bounce on my broken springs.

I advance with long strides into the water. On the waves I rediscover my old afflictions, crumpled and washed out. I can only add them to the absurdity of the day. How beautiful I am, floating amid the seaweed with my arms spread and my hair flying in the wind. Gravity, I salute you from the depths of the abyss. I come toward you with no other jest than the splotches of blood on my eyeballs.

The silence slams me without warning. Everything has stopped except the glare of the sky and the roar of the sea. The normal people have stopped talking. In their terror they have walled themselves in solitude and choked back their vomit. Beyond the silent engine, the sovereign sea rages. A fraction of a second elapses in which all movement becomes an indelible imprint, all thought a prelude to panic.

Within me, suddenly, a great turbulence. I swirl in riotous colors, I flail against the walls of my incoherence. Shreds of pain emanate from my throat and jostle each other. My life reels. Insignificant and useless breath, it remains suspended between two infinities, not knowing where to lodge itself. Each location seems to conceal pitfalls and anguish; nowhere do I dare deposit my vulnerability. My uncertainties reverberate in my core and leave me staggering.

Glancing around frantically, I realize my hands are tied in front of me. My eyes follow the damp and soiled rope, and I suddenly feel its movements at the level of my groin. The rope connects me to a man who seems for the moment to have forgotten my existence. Like the others, he has a panic-stricken look, fixed on the sea.

The momentary lull has ended. The passengers’ uncontrolled terror is noisier than the roar of the waves. Only my lunatic’s status protects me from the collective hysteria. I’ve paid dearly for the right to be different. No one pays the slightest attention to my motionless silhouette. Then, with a quick tug, my captor forces me to sit down. I find myself with my legs stretched out and my back wedged against loaded cartons.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we’ll all be lost at sea.”

“I was right to warn against setting out today!”

“What does the captain say? Where is he? Calm down!”

“Luckily, I know how to swim!”

“Even the madwoman is crying. Look at her!”

My face absorbs the strangeness of my tears. I’ve stopped battling against the remembered images; I let them infiltrate me one by one with their precision and their relentless colors.

Rocky ground beneath my feet. It implants its cool, red tenderness under my skin. My toes are impatient for this perennially fresh encounter between my land and me. I slip off my clothes and plunge into the cold water of the river. My senses attune themselves to yours—you whom I call Lacombe from the name of this river where we have loved each other. Where from the first day my barely lucid eyes gently touched your disarray. That day of sweet rain and poetry, when the back of my neck first met your hand. Scents of wet earth, manure, and rank weeds. Effervescence with no smudges of the pre-dawn darkness.

It’s pitch dark now. Where am I? I can’t identify either these shadowy, faded walls or the unfamiliar voices that ignore my presence and humiliate me. The only one I recognize mortifies me more than the others. My father’s cousin, who through a sense of duty took charge of me after my father’s death, harasses and taunts me.

“You filthy whore! How could you debase yourself like that and ruin our good name? Exactly like your mother twenty years ago, and in spite of the education you were given. You’ll end up the same way she did!”

I’m waiting for you to come, so I don’t answer. I close myself up in my confidence, and my affection for you protects me from all stain. My face huddled against your playful laughter, I see neither the anger nor the hatred. With the ample strides of a giant, I elude time and its nostalgic vapors. Already I have rediscovered your arms. Your breathing surrounds me with communion and peace. I am indifferent to suffering. Only my skin bears the abrasions, but I know that even they will vanish under the caress of your fingers, taking away with them all memory of these days of confinement.

“Your lover has gone away! Scampered off to Miami. Did you think he’d risk staying here? Besides, it seems he arranged everything for his departure a long time ago. You’re on your own, girl.”

Despair is not black. It takes on the color of absence, of a denuded landscape, of a riverbed without gentleness. My feet no longer recognize the rocks. They have lost their smooth surface and jab me with their sharp edges. I search in vain for the scent of wet earth; it has been bottled up somewhere part way between the clouds and happiness. The pleasing aromas of the day before yesterday are relegated to my memory. The soft green leaves scatter in deference to my distress. The water’s duplicity perplexes me: It has lost its blue monochrome and become muddy and stagnant. The Lacombe abandoned, and Lacombe who abandons me to my downfall. I dream of being adrift, of churning and tumultuous water, of surging rivers. Torrents and overflowing banks. Drownings and rescues.

When the first one got on top of me, I just let it happen. Why should I defend myself? I no longer recognize this act as meaningful. I anchor myself in solitude even in the midst of the mechanical and sordid gestures of opening and closing my legs. The period of tranquil living allotted to me is cut short as I am battered with slaps, shoves, upending of thighs and buttocks, assaults by bodies and semen. I’ve half-opened two doors: the spasms of silent rage that twist my guts and the stubborn pride that keeps my eyes deliberately open.

I don’t want to keep count. Can one more body on my stomach give a name to the unimaginable? My cousin appealed to a new voice reeking of tobacco and rum, with long hands and fingers tinged green from leaves and mysterious potions. I swallow the tastes of musty earth, of roots long ago yanked from the ground, of greasy concoctions with timeworn labels. I learn not to vomit so I won’t have to swallow the regurgitated mass again. The pummeling I receive reveals new muscles from parts unknown. I neither move nor speak. No wave holds me back. I am the distant shore, the lifeless backwater.

Why did the pain have to germinate at the core of my inert despair? Why this stroke of additional misery that swells my breasts and widens my hips? No trace of blood for three months, except the drops that seep from my wounds. A gob of spittle soils my stomach. “One more whore’s baby.” My pregnancy has taken away my apathy. In spite of myself, I groan when they maneuver into the positions they find most comfortable and satisfying. Only my eyes stay dry, as if all my tears were on the other side of my heart.

Sometimes my dreams toy with me and beguile me with bursts of laughter and sunlight. Two open arms await me. I just need to stretch out to reach the compass points of their tenderness. I play blindman’s bluff with a shadow that smiles at me. Yon sèl manman, miyon, miyon, yon sèl pitit. (One mother, darling, darling, one baby.) I abandon myself to cotton wads of protective softness. There I tuck away my body, which makes itself very small. Without monstrous stomach, without pain or wounds. Alamiyon ou miyon ! (How cute, you darling!)

The days pass in drab light. My dozing blinds me to my nightmarish belly, and my fear is well-behaved in its somnolence. But waking up is always the same, without relief or forgiveness. I cannot escape this excrescence that mocks me, nor the stench of acid and misery that all my pores exude. I banged my head against the wall to drive away the shame, but it stays with me and grows without restraint.

Once there was motherhood, but nothing is left for me now but my fantasies of caring gestures and a womb in constant evolution… Must I go to the depths of madness to be able to return from it? Will I be able to accept the weight of lucidity on my eyeballs? It kills me to hear the words I murmur, but who can count the number of arms it will take to console me?

The pangs awakened me in the middle of the night, as if I needed arrows to trace the outlines of the horror. From the depths of my oldest fears,the present sufferings foretell future agonies as painful as gaping wounds. I am no more than nerves stripped bare, senses stimulated, a steamroller, torture, a hanging on the gallows. My haunches settle into a hot, seething pool. I no longer know how to scream, silence is my sole dignity. Long, reddish streaks mark my thighs. My fingernails have kept their autonomy and comfort me for the cries I do not voice.

More than ever, I deny the existence of time. Eternity! Would it be the moment when suffering creates its own pit and plunges into it? Or was it the second when pleasure claimed its share of the stars? Will it make a difference if I can say confidently how long my body detached itself from me to contemplate its anguish? Or if I can fix the instant when my skin inverted itself to repel my memory?

They have left me alone with this bundle of flesh born of horror and betrayal. I don’t see it, but I hear its breathing, a precarious wheeze that gives life to my nightmare of fathers and recurrent torments. My self-hatred and bitterness have finally found an object! Without consulting each other, my hands envelop the wailing form under the already soiled sheets and linens, carefully avoiding contact with its skin. They seek out its ungainly head, encircle the quivering neck, and squeeze, squeeze to the point of delirium.

“Finally, the boat has started up again.”

“Thank you, merciful Virgin. The sea is calm now.”

“Look how the madwoman trembles. I’d never have believed she’d be afraid like us.”

Without realizing it, I must have cut the rope that kept me prisoner. I am at the bow watching the sea drift by. It is now sublimely placid, having shown us the full extent of its power. I feel myself drawn by its sharp odor, its assured elegance, its promise of eternal serenity and redemption. I hesitate between sea and blood. My eyes can’t yet linger on the mirror that faces an irreversibly meandering reality. Visions of dislocated limbs await me at the end of my return journey. Is it my anger that keeps me upright, even as I falter beneath the weight of irreparable acts? Or is it instead the scent of fresh earth that brings back to me a story of sweet water and poetry? Despite the call of the sea and its everlasting oblivion, my toes cling to the tender grass.

I need to know where life is hidden.  

© Évelyne Trouillot. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2011 by Paul Curtis Daw. All rights reserved.

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