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Dance and Forget

   


 Dance and Forget

 

       Louis Cavigneaux’s family had lived on Alira Island in the beautiful blue-green Caribbean Sea for several generations. After subduing the island’s native Indians, they developed a huge banana plantation. But Louis did not really know the details of those early days. In the 21st century what had happened 300 years before was ancient history.

     None of his ancestors had ever spoken of the death of Joba, the rebel leader who had pitted the Indians against the French invaders, including Louis’s grandfather Alexander. Joba had died when the imperialists callously set the brush afire near the cave where he and the last of his men had hidden after the terrible slaughter. Somehow they had escaped the night, when on the edge of the rainforest under the canopy of palm trees, while the colibri birds sipped nectar from the hibiscus, the foreign soldiers had gunned down over a thousand sleeping natives in their encampment: men, women and children.

     “But they had to lose anyway, didn’t they?” asked Marie Rose, the great-granddaughter of Joba. “I mean the only weapons they had to fight with were bows and arrows. The colonialists had cannon and rifles, didn’t they?” she had probed her teachers in the one room shack the neighbors of Louis Cavigneaux called their school. Marie’s grandmother had been a baby in the cave where Joba had died. She had miraculously survived the fire.

     Marie Rose aspired to leave her village and go to university in France, but she was still needed at home. As a descendant of Joba, she was certainly no pure Indian since that race had been annihilated. Her blood was mostly African and her parents were farm workers on the Cavigneaux plantation, as were her sisters and brothers. They earned a pittance compared to the salary of the pretty little French born secretary of Monsieur Cavigneaux.

     It made Marie Rose furious to think of how hard her family worked in the fields just to make ends meet. She had managed to get a job as a maid for Monsieur Cavigneaux’s wife Alma. It was in the only strikingly modern house on the island that Marie’s anger had a place to blossom. The luxury in the plantation owner’s home was such a contrast to the shabbiness of her own home.

    Every day except Saturday she went to the mansion on Royal Palm Hill to clean and market for Madame. She vacuumed the delicate Oriental carpets woven in magenta and ivory silk. She dusted the Lalique crystal and the celadon porcelain vases.

     And every day she descended the sweeping spiral staircase that led from the library to the living room to brush the picture frames of the ancestors hung with the portrait of Louis at the top. She stopped before the painting of Alexander at the foot of the stairs. She moistened her dust rag with a bit of spittle to work out a stubborn mote of dirt in a corner of the intricately carved cherry wood frame. The frightening pig-like eyes of the colonialist stared back at her from above the tight white collar of his military uniform.

     She went to knock shyly at the door of her mistress’s bedroom. Alma, a svelte matron with modishly short, sleek hair said, “Come in.” She rose from her seat at the dressing table as Marie entered and faced her.

     “Yes. Did you want to see me about something Marie?”

     “You know next week is the end of Carnival. I wanted to ask you if you would contribute something to the cost of our costumes.”

     “But don’t you wear the same costumes every year, Marie? What do you need now that you don’t already have?”

    “The things are getting a bit worn. We have some new designs we’d like to try too.”

     “You know this has been a bad year, Marie. The weather has been extremely dry. You know we couldn’t harvest some of our acreage.” Marie Rose watched as Alma pinned a small new diamond brooch to her pale grey suit. Marie’s eyes started to smart.

     “Better ask Monsieur. Perhaps he can find something. Meanwhile, look through some of these boxes I have set aside with things I no longer need.”

     Marie took the boxes out to the kitchen and sat down. In one box were several pieces of costume jewelry, bracelets and necklaces shining with fake gold, rhinestones and pin glass beads. In another box were some dusty crimson and white striped draperies with their sashes.

    She knocked softly at the office door. Monsieur Cavigneaux said she could come in, but she saw immediately she had interrupted something when the secretary, Mademoiselle Robert, was smoothing her skirt and then some loose wisps of her hairdo. They were on the veranda. Monsieur was suddenly amused when a colibri bird tried to suck the sugar from his glass of rum punch. Marie bravely tried to use the moment of  good humor to begin, “Can we please have a little something for the end of Carnival costumes? They are getting raggedy.”

     “You mean for the ceremony where you re-enact the first visit of Columbus, at the monument?”

   “Yes, that’s it. Next week you know.”

     “But that is all your people’s idea. We don’t endorse that activity. It isn’t part of the church’s requirements at all. I’m sorry I really can’t support it. I’m sorry. Now where were we Mademoiselle? Please take a letter.” Marie Rose let herself out of the office.

     It was time to go home, and she took the bus, waiting for it on a bench along the road. After half an hour it appeared, an old yellow hunk of tin with black smoke pouring out of the exhaust. She found a seat in the vehicle crowded with sweating workers who had just left the fields still bearing their tools, machetes, shovels, and rakes.

     Her home was at the edge of the rainforest. It was no more than a three-room shack of painted green boards. There was a piece of linoleum lain over the earth, but there was no real floor. Through a window she could see their mother already home, setting a kettle to boil. That night they had a savory curried goat stew with greens, but her mother was not feeling well again.

     “When are you going to the doctor, Mom?” Marie demanded for the fifth time that month. She was upset that her mother wasn’t getting the care she needed.

     “I have to have a few more dollars to pay him.” Poverty here meant not having much chance to be healed.

     “I just got paid. Here, take what you need to pay the doctor, mother. I’m taking you in the morning when I go to the market.”

     The next morning at 10 A.M. they were on a bus to town. Both sides of the narrow central road were lined with shops. Each was the size of a large closet. None were air-conditioned despite the broiling sun. None of the mannequins showed the latest Paris styles. The goods were of inferior quality.

     By the time they reached the city’s dilapidated hospital they had passed many police buildings. There were more of these than there were emporiums. “I guess they’re afraid we might revolt,” joked Marie to her mother as she saw an unusual number of police along the street. They got off before the old grey brick building with its many missing bricks and the white paint trim badly chipped. From long balconies, elderly patients stood grasping the wrought-iron railings for support, looking down at the street.

     “Go and shop while the doctor sees me,” said the mother. “You know I’ll have to wait some time before he’ll take me.” They could see a row of patients sitting on long benches outside the building. Marie walked out to the food hall. Inside were booths all around the perimeter and in rows up and down, an area the size of a baseball field. Marie saw chickens, roosters, pigs in cages. The counters overflowed with mangoes, pineapples, coconuts, bananas. Women in madras dresses and turbans sold spices. The air was redolent with cinnamon, fenugreek, cardamom, allspice and cloves.

     Suddenly Marie Rose spotted her friend Christina, and as they reached each other, they stopped to kiss each other’s cheeks in the French manner.

     “Did you find a job yet, Tina?”

     “No, not yet.” Tina had recently graduated from high school but there were no appropriate jobs for her with more than thirty percent unemployment on the island. Tina wanted to be a teacher but the only openings were for agricultural or industrial workers. They were building cars and air conditioners on the island now. Unsightly factories were diminishing the natural beauty of the island.

     Tina tried to be cheerful. “Is your district ready for the close of Carnival festivities?”

     “I’ve been given a few things for the ceremony,” Marie responded, “but I’m going to need new material to replace the old costumes. I’ll try the post office later. They may have something.”

     The friends kissed again at parting.

     “See you next week!”

                                   

     The plantation owner and his wife came down the hill to the seaside near the bust of Columbus on the plaza. The police cars blared their horns and waited on the sidelines.

     Every year, near the end of Carnival, the islands re-enacted the arrival of Columbus to these parts.

     Black teenagers led the procession, pulling behind them a replica of the vessel, the Santa Maria. This year they were weirdly dressed. Some wore crimson and white striped dresses with wide sashes. The young men were wearing what looked like hempen sack-like garments. Upon a closer look the word “Post” appeared stamped on their backs.

     Near the rear of the contingent was a black man dressed as an Indian with a bright orange and blue feathered headdress, hopping on one foot, then the other. A tomahawk was held in one had. Around his neck were loops of fake gold and pink glass.

     Following him was a huge, muscular black man with a beard and a bare chest. He portrayed the African in chains. His shackles trailed after him, along with the younger children of the town. During the entire event, some lean Africans with skull-like faces banged vigorously on garbage cans which substituted for drums.

     At the end of the square, as the procession passed, the music grew suddenly louder, gayer, more strongly African in rhythm, and everyone was dancing and singing. Then the entire procession turned off toward the right, down a long country road lined with shrubbery. There was nothing to be seen down this road. It led to nowhere.

     But now bells were added to the music, and it grew wilder and more abandoned, somewhat frenzied. Marie was watching her people perform this ritual. Suddenly she felt elated. The rhythm had effected a kind of catharsis. In this joy, this happiness in their music, in the midst of remembering the past, the islanders physically lost themselves and so, they gained a victory.

     They forgot for a moment in the joy of celebration that though they were liberated from the chains of their ancestors, they could do little more than dance. They were caught between two worlds, unable to return to true tribal life and liberated only to poverty.

 

Norma Gerber

 

Norma (Felsenthal) Gerber is an educator, (literature, writing), a former
editor and business journalist (fragrance, cosmetic industries).
Avocation: photographer with 9 books on Amazon.


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1 Comments

  1. this is strong work and hope to see more of it in the months ahead.

    ReplyDelete