By Félix Morisseau-Leroy

Translated by Guerda Romain Châtelain

from Issue 9: Ghosts


 

Grandgozier is not a lucky place. . . .

* * *

"The ocean stands up, it is walking toward us. Then the sky is coming down to meet up with the ocean over our heads. The weather is dosed tight. "

I have seen the ocean stand up straight as a wall. It depends on where you stand to look at it. When you stand on White Hill, when you stand on Chamber Pot Post or at the head of Lil Coffee, it is like you see a huge wall of water before vour eves. All the time.

They also say it walked toward them. It does walk. It smashes the hill.

I let people say what they wish. Those who want to think the sea is angry—it got up, it smashed and broke the hill with its teeth—that’s their business. What does that change? . . .

* * *

It was in the church, everyone was going to meet up to have a vast wake in honor of the three old people who died in the hurricane: Sis Sou, Sis Da and Sis Titin, each was one hundred years old, and they would have lived longer if the whip of the wind and rain had not killed them.

Women, children, men took the road to the church. All the doors still left standing were open wide.

They came in to find the statue of Saint John lying on his belly on the floor behind the altar. Saint Elizabeth too lay on her back on the other side, in front of the second altar. We went to lift them up.

"No, don’t lift them up like that."

"Who said that?"

It was Germaine. Germaine, sis Gerrnaine. Everyone knows she is not a little piece of a woman.

As big as she is, you need ten yards of cloth to make her a dress. Imagine the strength of the biggest saltfish vendor in the market put together with the power of the biggest fire-baptized kanzo wounsi vodoun initiate, bold mambo-priestess and you’re just starting to get an idea of how strong Germaine is. A large-size woman. A load-bearing pole of a woman. The Justice of the Peace and the Communal Magistrate in the village are little children in Germaine’s house.

"No. Don’t lift them up like that," she said.

As for Saint John himself, even if he wanted to perform a last miracle and get up on his own, he too obeyed and lay even flatter on the ground.

Everyone turned to see what woman spoke with such a voice. Then everyone understood. Some came closer to her to take orders, others brought the news to the other wounsi:

"There is a grownup in the village, you know."

The warrior blacksmith spirit Pa Ogou in Germaine’s head took command at Grandgozier. Anyone not comfortable with that, step aside. Anyone not happy, get on the boat and cut. No one left. Not even the nine prisoners locked up in the military cells. Where would you want them to go? There is no road. Trees are fallen, giant stones rolled to stop all four roads. Telephone poles are laid down. All telephone lines are cut. When we raise our heads to look, what do we see? The top of Lil Coffee Hill, which we look at every day when we wish to see a beautiful flower garden to make our hearts happy, looks like a pile of rusty steel. The wind sprinkled the entire hill with salty seawater, killed all the trees. God has turned his back on us.

The police force is fallen. The Sergeant was not here when the hurricane hit. He had gone to spend his vacation up in the hills. The courts are fallen. All the official papers are wet. There is no government. There is no law. The white priest, he lives in Bodari where he can find fresh air and sweet water. Pa Ogou is the sole chief in the Republic of Grandgozier.

The spirit is angry. He is so angry:

"It is because of heathen men and women in the country here that all these things have happened. They do not serve the spirits. They do not feed the spirits. When was the last time Grandgozier gathered to give a feast such as the feasts Germaine’s grandmother used to give, like the feasts all the wounsi who have since died used to give for the masters of their heads? You have forgotten Saint John the Baptist is a knight—and no small knight—of Ogou’s army. Ah! How do you expect Saint John to be happy with you? Today, you want to raise him up like a piece of rock, like a sack of flour. How do you expect Saint John to have the power to plead your cause before God? For him to take care of your business?"

Only once before had I ever seen a spirit so angry. I would not tell this story if it were not related to what happened in Saint John the Baptist’s church.

Listen well. I do not lie.

I was small, three or four years old. I saw a big dog come into my mother’s yard. The sun had just gone down. I burst into tears. Everyone ran over to see what had happened to me. I pointed my finger and showed them the dog as he was leaving They said it was a werewolf spirit come to eat me in full daylight. I cried even harder. I cried until I lost my breath.

I cried until I had convulsions. They ran to get my aunt. They met her on the way with a spirit in her head. When she got there, she looked at me. She said it is too late. But she would try. She took me by one foot, she turned me upside down and lifted me. She told me:

"Calm down, little boy, a Dahomey man like you, for them to think they can break you in two. O-oo-o-o. Ey. Ey. Ey. . . . Dammit!

She bellowed. She took a bottle of ceremonial Florida Water perfume out of her blouse. She put Florida Water on my arms, on my face, on my legs, on my little cock. My blood shivered. She sent up a spell song. All the women clapped hands, they answered the song:

You see he is small small
You think you’ll break him in two
Okanni Kenmb Alada
You think you’ll break him in two

Okanni is the chief of my family’s nation in Africa-Guinea. Once she called his name, I opened my eyes. My aunt, or rather the spirit in my aunt’s head, talked to me in African ritual language. I answered. She said:

"Oh, my friends, why are you making me waste my time like this? Here is Saint John the Baptist, in the little boy’s head, answering me when I speak. A lougmou cannot eat this man. I’m leaving."

She stayed angry for a while longer, then my aunt opened her eyes and asked:

"What am I doing here?"

She never knew why she left her house to come to my mother’s house.

The same Ogou who danced in my Aunt’s head is the Ogou who dances in Germaine’s head. But Germaine has more body to stand the spirit’s shaking—more money, too, to feed the spirit.

She said that is why the hurricane did not smash the bedroom and living room at her house, nor did her shop suffer. The oven for biscuit-baking in her yard did not shudder. All the fatback, dried cod, salt herring, lard, garlic, salt, pepper, shallots, ginger, cinnamon, booze, syrup, sugar, matches, kerosene, pine kindling, pestles in her shop—she had all this brought to the church.

Anyone who could find food on the ground near where their house used to be brought whatever they found to the church as well. They pulled all the benches to the side. There was enough food in the church to last the whole town a week.

They brought pots, pans, bowls. Wooden spoons, metal spoons, coal stoves, charcoal. They brought flour, they brought red beans, ground corn, millet. They brought pigeon peas. They brought plantains. They brought yams, they brought sweet potatoes. They brought bitter oranges. They brought lemons. They brought honey. They brought raw rum. They brought a few bottles of barley-water syrup for the spirits who do not drink alcohol. Father Maurice, the sexton who had forgotten to ring the angelus, never was so surprised as when he got to the church. He asked when the old people would be buried. Sister Germaine answered him:

"Calm your blood, why don’t you, Maurice boy. The old people are already dry, they can wait three, four days. We are having a wake for them. Then you’ll come sing hymns all you want."

"The caskets have been ready for twenty years. Their dresses have been ready for ten years. Why wait until tomorrow to have the funerals?"

"The caskets are wet. The dresses are wet. We are standing them in the sun."

"When is this mess going to stop in the church?"

He came in and saw Saint John and Saint Elizabeth on the gound. He yelled:

"Oh! You did not lift Saint John from the floor?"

"Leave him on the floor. We will lift him up ourselves after we have done what we need to do so he never falls again."

He tried to insist. They explained:

‘Saint John the Baptist, just like Saint James the Greater, is a warrior in Ogou’s army. Saint John is Shango who rules the wind. This time, we are going to hold a ceremony we’ve never had before we lift him up."

"I cannot let you fool with the saint."

"You are the one fooling with him when you speak Latin in his face. The Saint John you see here is from Grandgozier just like us. We came up to find him here. You, on the other hand, are an immigrant. Where do you get off, telling us how to lift him when he falls? Let us have our ceremony, little boy. What do you know?"

When Germaine called him "little boy," he understood straight away. He left, he went to find three soldiers who were standing with their rifles in the place where the police station used to be. Meanwhile, Pa Ogou passed once or twice over Saint John’s statue. When Maurice came back with the soldiers, everyone let them pass with a polite "Honor- Respect" greeting. Maurice grabbed hold of Saint John. But no way. He could not raise him.

He went to Saint Elizabeth. Well. That one, he managed to stand it up in its place. He tried to lift Saint John again. He asked the frightened soldiers to help him. They explained that this was out of their jurisdiction. They could bring back order if there was disorder. But this was out of their jurisdiction. Maurice left. The soldiers left, too. Right then, the booze and rum flowed like water in the greatest hounfó temple Grandgozier had ever seen.

They had to put a few people and some food on the priest’s veranda and on the hill. That was right where Germaine had her headquarters stationed, where she had two chests of clothing—the spirits’ clothing—brought with ason rattles, govi bottles, flags, swords. . . . She ran around all afternoon, organizing the wake. No man could tell if it was Germaine or if it was Pa Ogou speaking. A bold mambo-priestess never lets a spirit take over her whole head.

At the stroke of midnight, an avalanche of spirits descended into the heads of a dozen young wadyannikon initiates in the church. They pulled themselves up and slammed themselves down. Young men came to help them stand up. They were spirit-dancing as if they had the disease called epilepsy. A few people came up on the roof of the priest’s house to tell the wounsi kanzo that the spirits were wild, taking over Saint John the Baptist’s church. Germaine was in the presbytery. A wounsi opened the chest; white dresses came out. Six wounsi kanzo quickly grabbed two to get dressed. A Comandan Laplas, an initiate assisting the mambo, took the sword. The standard-bearer took the flag. The Mistress of Songs sent a song out:

Bring the wounsis out
Saint John is solid, oh
Bring the wounsis out.

They start going down. They are singing. They are dancing. The standard bearer and the Comandan run down, run up to open the path to Mambo Germaine who is dancing, who is going down, who is letting loose, what you might call spreading out, in a yanvalou low-back shoulder dance.

When the procession comes to the flat land, the dance is widened, it runs through the entire street.

Bring the wounsis out
Saint John is solid, oh. . . .

It was the most beautiful procession I’ve ever seen in my life. When Germaine turned the corner where Euclid Brun’s house used to stand, everyone in the church came out to meet her:

Bring the wounsis out
Saint John is solid, oh. . . .

Germaine picked up the song:

I was just passing through
Oh I was just passing through here
Bring the wounsis out
Saint John is solid oh. . . .

She opened up her dress, she held one end, she lowered her back to the floor, she wiped, she closed her dress, she stood up, and she went off again:

Bring the wounsis out
Saint John is solid oh. . . .

She let loose with all kinds of steps. Her hands were tied. She opened her eyes wide.

Bring the wounsis out.

You hear a roaring cry, not the cry of a people in grief, no. Five hundred, one thousand men and women who are happy, who feel in all this misery that they have one reason to be happy:

"Life!"

Nobody rests their heads on their hands to think about all that is lost. They thank God that they haven’t died. Let them party, laugh, joke, sing, dance at the wake for those who have died. I have seen the koumbit work parties in the hills where one farmer helps another clear a big garden in just one day. I have seen young men gather to help pull a boat to safety when the big sea tried to smash it.

I have never seen people get together to forget a situation that should have made everyone lie on their bellies and cry. It was at that wake, at the church of Saint John the Baptist of the Broken Finger, on Father Lambalaire’s presbytery roof and on the work site where the poor built homes for poor people like them, that I really saw that this country’s men and women have the strength and courage to come face to face with a curse pursuing them since Africa-Guinea and beat it to the ground.

* * *

"Father" Maurice said he would not let it end there. He fetched the soldiers once again. They got there at the moment when the ceremony was at its best. They stopped to watch, they did not bother with Father Maurice who was having a fit. Germaine was standing at the altar. She said:

"I need four men who are real men, four men with long pants."

I walked up with three others. She asked us if we were strong. We said: Yes. She said: "Lift up Saint John. Put him in his place."

We strained. We strained. We could not even shake the statue. The spirit said:

"But dammit! There are no men in this town!"

She got four others. Not a thing. That was when she called to me:

"You there, Saint John’s horse, come shake my hand."

I shook his hand, as you should shake hands with a spirit, one hand after the other, and then both at the same time. He crushed my hands. He rubbed and rubbed them well. He told me:

‘My child, lift up Saint John, and put him in his place!"

I took Saint Tohn with one hand. Oh, he was light as a feather. I lifted him with one hand; I put him on a table; I put Saint John in the church’s niche.

I don’t have to tell you about the bravos and the applause from the people in the church when they saw Saint John the Baptist standing in his place. Some say he was smiling. I did not see that. I cannot say I saw it.

Pa Ogou was right at home. He sent out Saint John’s song. The whole crowd answered:

Saint John asks if you can hold on
Saint John asks if you can hold on there
Saint John the Baptist, oh
Hold on
Saint John the Baptist, oh
Hold on

Pa Ogou is at the altar, dancing. Everyone is clapping in the church except for Maurice and the three soldiers. Six men walk up to them. They take their rifles away:

"We are freeing your hands so you can clap like everyone else."

The soldiers join in on the clapping. "Father" Maurice turns his back and leaves:

"It is too much. Ah, these people, they will hear from me."

They brought two rifles to Germaine. She held one in each hand. All her wounsis surrounded the altar, clapping hands. Germaine, with the rifles in her hands, sent out the Saint James song:

Saint James, oh
Came to visit
What did he bring
Saint James the Greater, came to visit
Warrior man
Saint James, oh
Warrior man

It was as if Saint James’s name excited the women even more. If one hundred women did not become possessed by the spirits all at once, not a single one did. I saw that even the policemen were about to fall into the circle. Germaine, as a mambo who was not lacking in experience, felt she should send out a Congo song to calm the crowd. She sang:

Congo, eya
Watch their mouths
Congo, eya
Watch their mouths
They’ve come to look, ey ey
So they can go talk
Congo, eya
Watch their mouths

 

The soldiers understood that this song was meant for them.

 

They sent word to Germaine that they were Oudyannikon initiates, and that they knew her as the only authority in the village. She made a gesture toward them, too. She had their rifles returned to them. What they saw, what they heard, was enough to steal the soldiers’ souls. But what made them hold the reins to their heads even tighter, trying to keep control, was the smell of food cooking in ten pots, of tea boiling, of coffee flowing mixed with the smell of the raw rum that the living were pouring three times on the ground for the dead before drinking themselves. Everyone ate to unbutton their pants. Those who brought one single plantain, Those who brought a hand of plantains, Those who brought a bunch of plantains, Those who brought a cupful of millet, Those who brought a canister of rice, Those who had nothing to bring found a great plateful of food to eat Those who brought a spoonful of coffee powder, Those who brought a can filled with coffee, Those who brought a piece of rapadou raw sugar, Those who brought a pound of white or brown sugar, Those who did not have a pinch of coffee, Those who had neither sugar nor rapadou, Found a good cup of coffee to drink.

The party went on until daylight. Gambling. Card games. Honey-cake games. Nothing was missing. From time to time someone went to get a drink from the stock. He didn’t have to pay anything.

The soldiers mingled with the free prisoners—they were partying. As for Germaine, she went up to rest on the priest’s veranda. She did not go home to sleep. She went to sleep with everyone else to set a good example.

When the sun opened his eyes again, the villagers picked up everything and put it in corners; they arranged the church benches for the old women’s funeral. When "Father" Maurice came to have a look, he told them they were lucky. If they hadn’t put the church back in order, he would not have officiated at the funeral.

He wanted to be paid double. We already wanted a big funeral: three times the price of an ordinary funeral, that’s two times three equals six. What more could he ask for?

People poured into the church. The men had to stand outdoors. There was no room. When they entered Baobab Street with the caskets, more people swelled into the procession. Behind the cross with "Father" Maurice was Germaine, grief on her face like on those of children who have lost their mother, bringing the dead women to the graveyard.

There was no crying or screaming. But when "Father" Maurice started the Libera, he closely calculated what he would do to them with the "dies ire, dies ira." He burst out with a "DOUM Veeeneris." Those who did not cry for the old women fell to crying for their mother, their father, their sister, their brother, their child whom they remembered sleeping in the cemetery.

The scoundrel knew what power that Latin song has on the tear-water in the eyes of Grandgozier. He gave them their money’s worth. He did not need to know if it was Germaine or Baron Samedi, ruler of the cemetery, at the controls. What did he care?

Everyone returned to the church and to the priest’s house. Where could they go? They washed their hands. Three baskets of biscuits just baked in Germaine’s oven awaited them. They made more coffee. Each ate biscuits dunked in coffee. Most of the people in Grandgozier did not live so well before the hurricane.

Even the dogs got fat. . . .


Félix Morisseau-Leroy was the first significant Haitian writer to write poetry and plays in Haitian Créole. By 1961 he succeeded in having Créole recognized as an official language of Haiti after expanding its teaching in schools and use in creative literature. Morisseau also published works on French, Haitian Créole, and Haitian French literature. He worked internationally, encouraging the development of national literature in post-colonial Ghana and Senegal. In 1981 he settled in Miami, where he was influential in uniting the Haitian community around Créole and encouraged its study in academia. In 1991, his work was included in a collection of English translations. In 1995 he published his last work, an epic novel of his homeland titled People of Haiti with Courage.

Guerda Romain Châtelain was born in Colombia and raised in the United States and Haiti. She earned a Ph.D. in French from Princeton and currently works in Haiti as a translator/interpreter. Her clients have included the American Embassy in Haiti and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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