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from the March 2006 issue

Carnival Life

to Chantal Lapicque

Gilda had been elected Miss Haute-Terre in 1987. Thirteen years ago already . . . The memory of a glorious one-year reign that she would evoke whenever her present life made anger well up in her throat, whenever she started feeling sorry for herself, she'd swallow the tears, bitter as a cup of green pawoka tea.

Thirteen years that had gone by so quickly, with their ups and downs. Lots of downs . . . Hard luck, wrong choices, missed opportunities.

Thirteen years that had left her with four children . . .

The first two were from the same father, a black man from Grands-Fonds who could out-dance just about anyone. Lord! How she'd loved Euloge! They'd shared the same cabin and the same dreams for nearly five years—till 1993. A skillful stonemason, while he awaited the money for sacks of cement and cinder blocks, he erected their life's abode with caresses. A smooth-talker, he built the future with vengeful words gathered from the old slave days, which were lucky to have never made his acquaintance. "For sure, I'd have been a maroon slave, a rebel nigger, a hell-raiser . . . For sure I'd have made my mark on History . . ."

Gilda would listen to him, lap up his words, convinced she was living with a hero, a great achiever. Alas, at the end of the third year, he began to grow weary of her body and seek other flesh, other ears. He would get angry over the slightest things, accuse Gilda of bearing a grudge against his knowledge of masonry and above all of having ceased to believe in him. "There's always a mean little smile on your face when I talk to you." She couldn't even count the number of times she'd gone to bed under a hail of insults and had to wait for him—entire nights—with the kids in her bed. Sofia drowsing between her breasts and Lola asleep at the nipple she never wanted to let go of. One day Euloge bundled up his clothing and disappeared, without a word of good-bye, head bowed and back stiff as a block of concrete.

Davy, her third child, was the work of an old charmer; a chabin womanizer and father of three hundred little black babies. "I'm a free man!" he exclaimed as soon as one of his conquests tried to marry him. Gilda couldn't recall how she'd ended up in his rough hands, under that yellow-skinned, flaccid body streaming with sweat. Whenever she thought of Fred, the chabin, it was as if she could feel the man's stinking breath, hear his hoarse breathing all over again. She ran into him by chance in the streets from time to time. He wandered around, swept along on the wind, as free as a leaf fallen from a tree, a stray dog, a bit of grease-stained paper . . . Gilda would avert her eyes.

The morning she gave birth to Davy on November 24, 1995, she swore to herself she'd turn over a new leaf and never get taken for a ride again. She started following the example of the Christians from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She knelt down with them in the ranks of the faithful. She prayed to the cross and sang with all of her soul. She begged the Good Lord to watch over her and asked for his Light, his Joy, and that she may forget the thrill of the flesh. Forget men . . .

For a while she thought she'd been saved, freed from her sins. Her prayers had helped her find a job working in the school cafeteria in Haute-Terre. She preached the good word and swore to those she attempted to convert that she had emerged from the shadows. Each time she would repeat those words—"I have emerged from the shadows . . ."—they became etched more deeply in her mind. "I have emerged from the shadows . . ." They clung to her bones. "I have emerged from the shadows . . ." She felt stronger. More worthy of being initiated to the mystery of the psalms and belting out the chorus with the members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Then in '98—stroke of bad luck—her path crossed that of Silbert, the father of her youngest daughter, Melody. She had backed away a hundred times before embarking on that new relationship. He proved to be patient. And so she gauged the love he promised her on the strength of that patience. Silbert was a plumber. A brother from the church had recommended him. He came to her door in the rain one Thursday in September, with his toolbox and his broad Christian smile. Gilda showed him the bathroom and the shower stall that she'd just bought on sale in Pointe-à-Pitre. He worked for three straight hours without uttering a word and opened his mouth only once, just to ask for a bottle of ice water. Having a male presence under her roof made Gilda feel quite strange. Alone with the rain pattering on the tin roof and the man's noisy tinkering behind the wooden partition. She saw herself in the arms of her past lovers. Images of bodies intertwining, exchanged kisses. When she asked him how much she owed him, he laughed. Pretty teeth. And said, "I'm not charging you, sister!" Gilda offered him some lemonade. He offered to come back to repair the table leg and reinforce the window frame. That night she dreamed of a man without a face covering her body.

Silbert knocked on her door three days later. He immediately spotted other pieces of furniture that needed fixing, just so many excuses for coming back. Gilda slowly grew accustomed to seeing him walking from the kitchen to the bedroom, from the parlor to the courtyard. Gradually, they started talking to one another. While he straightened, plugged up, nailed down, she would stand behind him, leaning up against a doorframe. They began a conversation every time she poured him something to drink. Gilda always seemed to be holding back, as if the words were bogged down in memories she wasn't very proud of. He was hardly more talkative. He lived with his aging mama. Had no children. Wanted to start a family with a sister from the church. He was fond of saying that he put himself in the Good Lord's hands. "An pa présé Gilda! Bon Dié sav I ka fè . . . I in no hurry, Gilda! The Good Lord know what he doing . . ."

Gilda began to wait for him, watching the clock, listening for his step in the courtyard. When he finished his men's work, Silbert continued to pay her visits as a brother, then as a friend, then as a lover. The day she told him she was expecting his child, he immediately thought of his mother. He had no right to shame the poor woman by moving in with some black woman who'd already learned about life. That's what he said, "Some black woman who'd already learned about life . . . A sinner . . . A woman who'd made a carnival of her life . . ."

Gilda adjusted the scrap of pink satin under her arm and clenched her teeth. Despite the full moon, the street was dark, filled with shadows. Most of the women walking home from rehearsal with her lived in the first part of Busson. Gilda had to cross the whole neighborhood alone to get to her place. What had gotten into her to start thinking about Silbert and all them men! This was Carnival! She was thirty-three years old and in spite of her four kids she still felt young and fresh, just like back in the days when she beamed out from under her Miss Haute-Terre crown. This was Carnival! She belonged to the Ka Dance Band. Three hundred dancers and musicians! Twenty-five drums! Two saxophones! A trombone! Three calabashes!

After Silbert's desertion, she thought that the ground would suddenly open up under her feet. Shame had made her call out for death fifty times over. She cried nights, alone in her bed. Those tears cleansed her of her grief and gave her strength to face the coming day. She had carried Melody in the same determined way those defiant Creole women do—displaying their belly and waiting for the jeers and insults lying in ambush on the tips of people's tongues. Embittered, she'd abandoned the hardwood benches of the Seventh-day Adventist Church where Silbert prayed his god to send him a virgin.

After the rehearsal, Odette handed out the design for the Mardi Gras costume. For the men, a white shirt knotted in front, a pair of green satin calypso pants and a large straw hat. The women dancers would wear a sort of Brazilian skirt with flounces and frills. A crop top that revealed half of their breasts and left the midriff bare. The women had laughed. Most of them weren't that young anymore. Quite a few were fat, fleshy and wrinkled. Black women over forty whom life had been rough on. They knew that in showing their bellies and their breasts lashed with stretch marks, they were also revealing their age and bits of their life. But they didn't care.

This was Carnival!

For four days they were going to shake their hips to the rhythm of the music, grind their buttocks and swing, sweat, and swoon to the sound of the beating kas.

This was Carnival!

They had the right, the duty to dance, shout, sing in the streets. They would be the stars of Sunday, Monday, Shrove Tuesday, and Ash Wednesday. The beauties everyone admires and envies. The ones in the parade that everyone applauds. They wouldn't be standing penitently on the sidewalk, like all the spectators dancing timid little steps, stiff-hipped under their parasols.

This was Carnival!

The streets would be theirs for four days.

Four long days of festivities during which they would lay all of their womanly woes, all of their motherly cares, at the feet of King Carnival.

Four days when they'd show the world that even though life had left them by the wayside, they hadn't been beaten yet . . .

Four days of dancing, singing, and shouting out life.

Four days of being swept along on the beat of the tambour-ka that echoed so loudly within them. Stirred their blood. Silenced the fatigue. Dancing. Singing. Dancing . . . Singing . . . Never tiring . . .

This was Carnival!

At times, dazed from the music, the women felt that their hearts were beating as one, were the drum itself. The tight-stretched skin of the tambour-ka upon which the men were beating. They felt alive, so very alive. Then, they wished they could hold back the hours that always flew by too quickly. Hold back the sun that was setting too early. Hold back the sound of the ka that drowned out all the daily sounds of their lives. Hold back King Carnival who would die on Ash Wednesday and make widows of them, lonely women, pointed at and judged by the number of fatherless children they have, abandoned souls . . .

This was Carnival!

The Ka Dance Band had a bad reputation; its name was associated with Busson, the neighborhood in Haute-Terre that had been hastily built on the site of a banana grove after some cyclone, whose name had been forgotten, had hit. The cabins, painted in bright colors, had been allotted after a fine inauguration and red, white, and blue ribbon-cutting. Symbolically, the Mayor had given the keys to the happy owners. Speeches followed one after the other made up of carefully chosen words. Dignity, misery, chance, the disinherited . . . words that remained etched in Gilda's mind for a long time. Then the dignitaries left along with the television cameras and the photographers' flashes. And the cabins opened on to empty rooms, bare cinder-block walls, sinkless kitchens, bathrooms with no washbasins or showers. Only toilets.

Gilda moved in with her first three children. For a while they bathed out-of-doors, with a hose hooked up to a water pipe. Then, little by little, she purchased the necessities. Everyone was in the same boat. Many women were without men. But there were families too, big families. On minimum welfare payments, on benefits for this or for that . . . Odd-jobbers of all sorts. Banana workers. Wanglers. Domino players. Small civil servants. Sunday moonlighters, amateur fishermen. Young people who smoked weed, committed petty theft left and right, and were bored with school. An odd mixture of people from the four corners of Haute-Terre that suddenly ended up being neighbors. Busson never slept. Night and day there was music playing, mopeds backfiring, cries mingling, cocks crowing, dogs barking, hammers beating on sheet iron, the din of cement mixers and chain saws.

Nestor, Glorious, and Patrick, the founders of the band, were brothers. Three self-made mechanics. Determined to change the image of Busson, they'd started out by getting together in an abandoned warehouse where bananas were once sorted. Every Friday night, Nestor's band beat the tambour-ka. At first two, three, grumps griped, saying Busson was disorderly enough as it was and that them drummers tired folks out. But others got into the habit of standing in the door to the warehouse, listening to them, dancing, and singing with them. When Glorious spoke of creating a Busson carnival band, twenty-five black men and women volunteered and swore they'd bring back others. Gilda promised to come and take a look, just take a look, take the temperature, check things out for herself. Melody was barely three months old.

This was the second time Gilda was going to run the streets with the people from the Ka Dance Band. They'd become her family. Three hundred people! The neighborhood had not suddenly turned saintly . . . there were still shouts, backfiring mopeds, grass dealers, thefts, cursing tirades . . . But Carnival was drawing near. One could sense that quarrels just fizzled out. Thefts became more rare. The folks in Busson had only one thing on their minds: Carnival! This Carnival had to be the most breathtaking of all! This was Carnival 2000!

They must spare no effort to be elected best band. They, the down-and-outers, the manless women and fatherless kids from Busson, they had to show the world they were the best. Best dancers. Best musicians. Best singers. Nestor had sworn they could do it. And in the last rehearsals, every last one of them had believed it. The sound of the tambour-kas rose from the warehouse like sacred music dedicated to God. The women dancers were beautiful, even the old ones, the fat ones.

Gilda had planted a breadfruit tree in her courtyard. The full moon seemed to be suspended from its branches. So this is what happens to women who have already learned about life, she said to herself, thinking of Silbert. They get hung up with some black man, drink in his words, and get pregnant. Maddy, the young neighbor girl who took care of her kids, was snoring in front of the bright TV screen between Davy and Sofia. Lola had once again chosen her mother's bed over her own. Melody was asleep in her cradle. Gilda carried Lola into her room and woke Maddy. Soon Melody would be going to school with her brother and two sisters. Just a little more patience and the faces of men that haunted her life would stop pursuing her. Tomorrow, I'll start sewing my Brazilian costume, Gilda promised herself before falling asleep.

The Ka Dance Band had gone on parade every Sunday since the beginning of 2000. Each time, crowds had gathered. People danced and sang on the sidewalks. They were cheered. They made children laugh and grandmothers smile. Evenings, on their way back to Busson, they were proud, like soldiers who'd come to liberate a city. They, simple black folk from Busson, could spread joy. They felt both beautiful and beneficent . . . It seemed to them that the whole world loved them. That they were very fortunate, blessed, angels fallen form the heavens.

Sunday before Mardi Gras the women and children came tumbling out in the front of the men who were beating wildly on their drums.

Monday, in burlesque marriage ceremonies, they called for a rainbow and pushed back the predicted rain.

Then it was Mardi Gras . . .

Marie-Denise had brought some twenty pairs of fishnet stockings back from Pointe-à-Pitre that some Syrian was selling for next to nothing on the sidewalk of rue Frébault. "Now we'll really look Brazilian!" The thinner women were able to put on the stockings; the others drew diamond shapes on their skin with black felt-tip pens. Made up like movie stars, they no longer had the slightest resemblance to the poor abandoned women that the city people from Haute-Terre looked askance at.

Gilda had tried her costume on in front of the children several times. But on Mardi Gras . . . when she appeared in full costume—pink crop top, flounced and frilled skirt, ormolu necklaces and bracelets, black fishnet stockings held up with rubber bands around her thighs, headdress of plastic fruits to crown it all—-Sofia and Lola clapped.

She'd been elected Miss Haute-Terre in 1987.

Thirteen years ago already . . .

It was 2000 now and everything could begin again. The carnival was the song of hope. She had four kids. But she hadn't died in childbirth. Hadn't died because she'd learned about life . . . Hadn't died because she'd known men . . . Hadn't died of shame because of her carnival life.

Life . . .

On Mardi Gras she saw all three of them again. Spectators on the sidewalk. The three fathers of her children. Planted there like the signposts of her existence on this earth. Scattered around, one on rue Schoeler, another on rue Vatable, the third on rue Delgrès.

Euloge had gone gray at the temples. He didn't seem to recognize her or acted as if he didn't. And she danced for him, for the man who hadn't wanted her. With a small child on his shoulders, he was watching the parade with a jaded look on his face. For a moment their eyes met painlessly. And then she smiled at Euloge, the handsome rebel, the maroon slave, the big talker who'd never been able to build anything with his hands . . .

Fred had grown even scrawnier. He looked as if he were being consumed from the inside by some disease of the blood. His face was all bones and hollows. His chabin eyes had turned yellow. He was a pitiful sight. Worn shirt. Grimy Coca-Cola baseball cap. Cigarette butt hanging from his lips. She waved at him. And he answered her gesture, lifting his brow sadly, as if he were imploring her forgiveness. Gilda danced for him.

Silbert still hadn't found a church sister to be his soul mate, you could tell from his drowned-rat look. His mother had died in the first few days of the year. He seemed to be floating in the crowd, drifting over that way by some superior force, right there to watch Gilda passing by in her Brazilian costume . . . Right there to watch Carnival life go surging by . . .

Ash Wednesday, Gilda didn't put on her black and white costume. She wasn't grieving King Carnival.

She wasn't a widow. She wasn't sad. She pulled on her fishnet stockings, her low-necked crop top, her flounced and frilled skirt. She put on her headdress of plastic fruits. And all night long, she danced for the life she'd been given, danced for the new day to come.

Read more from the March 2006 issue
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