Readings — From the April 2018 issue

The Mastiff

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By Patrick Chamoiseau, from Slave Old Man, which will be published next month by the New Press. The book was originally published by Gallimard in 1997. Chamoiseau, who is from Martinique, is the author of more than a dozen works of fiction. His novel Texaco won the Prix Goncourt. Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale.

The Master has never seen this. He releases the howling mastiff. At the end of the thick rope, he follows it along the skirt of the tall trees. And there, among the twisted roots, the lace of ferns, the monster does not know in which direction to dash. The old man a pris disparaître: has done disappear. The Master himself, expert in the tracks left by runaways, searches for a tiny rumple in the thousand-year-old tropical silva. Nothing. The slave old man appears not to have passed this way. Or slipped by that way. The mastiff and the Master walk along the edge of the tall trees (their almost-human murmurings brush lightly past like old folks’ breath) until break of day. Mechanical, attentive, the mastiff advances: sniffs, fine-tunes its ears, stretches its neck, and quivers its spine. It seems to be taking its time before bounding away. It finally finds the track (a sour rustling in the innocence of the virgin raziés) but does not hurtle off as usual. With the wary step of a molocoye-tortoise, it pulls the Master beneath the greenish shadows; he dismounts and follows on foot. The chestnut horse stays behind alone, leafy, covered with shade and vines, terrorized by murmurs none of its instincts seem to recognize.

The mastiff becomes a reptile in the wilderness. As for the Master, weighed down by his musketoons, he has to blaze a path with a cutlass. Although the blade opens an imperious breach for him, he must brush away the netting of the bird-eating tarantulas. The long curtains of leaves give way beneath the blade and spring back, splashing him with sap. Soon he must release the mastiff, reel in the rope, and wind it around his waist. The animal ventures alone beneath the dark vault. The Master strains his ears toward its velvet tread. Then he hears it run. The Master tries to follow it closely, convinced the slave is ensnared in a knot of prickles, but then must abandon the fantasy: the mastiff is penetrating the interior at a long-distance pace. The trail carries the dog far, au fondoc dépassé: beyond the back of beyond. The Master speeds up some more, then tires. He keeps in his ear the hammering of those paws, reverberating off the tall trees like the echoes in conch shells. He advances on alone, connected to the percussions of the racing animal. Oala: from that moment on, the Master feels uneasy, his bon-ange upset. It dawns on him that the trees are truly murmuring. Not at him, but these murmurings worry him, so deeply is he registering them in the very clearing of his skull. Without admitting it to himself or truly understanding this, the Master believes he can no longer go back. He believes himself obliged to advance forever into this everlasting half-light. The Master feels alone.

The old man runs. He loses his hat, his staff. He runs. Runs without haste. A steady pace that takes him surefooted through the back-of-beyond zayonn undergrowth. He sends his body across dead stumps, lays low the kneeling branches with his heels, hurtles down ravines devoted to pure silences. Around him, everything shivers shapeless, vulva-dark, carnal opacity, odors of weary eternity and famished life. The forest interior is still in the grip of a millenary night. Like a cocoon of aspirating spittle. The old man could have run with his eyes closed: nothing can orient him. He bumps into unseen little branches, his toes, ankles, face — whipped! He runs behind his bent forearm to protect his open gaze. Then, as he goes on, the trees draw closer together in the thickest of pacts. The boughs fasten themselves to the roots. The raziés-underbrush gives lavishly of its irritating prickles. The Great Woods looms. His pace slows. At times he has to crawl. The enveloping vegetation sticks to him, sucking, elastic. With bleeding elbows, step-by-step, he makes his way. It goes up. It goes down. It monta-descendre: up-and-downs. Sometimes the ground disappears.

The old man feels close to the sky. The stars diffuse a blissful radiance etching the forms of the ferns. But the darkness — so intense — dissolves all forms. He heads down again, he has the impression of descending endlessly, of reaching even the fondoc-fundament of the earth. There he thinks to find the vomiting of lava or the fires said to flame from the foufoune-pudenda of femmes-zombis. Leaves, roots, trunks take on the odor of ashes graced with those of green corn and newborn buds. Water, invisible, showers in drops; at other times, it becomes a sweat that greases his skin until he seems covered with scales. Unsettled by an uncontrollable energy, he is neither hot nor cold. He does not feel the raide licking of water or those thorns prying at his fingernails, or even those sharp branches that in trying to disembowel him make a lovely mess of his livery.

In the beginning, he was scared. He expected to suddenly see the monsters feared by the folktales: the impish Ti-sapoti, the dog-head women, the fireball soucougnans, the flayed-flying-women perfumed with phosphorus, the unbaptized misery of coquemares, and the persecuted zombie persecutors. But he sees nothing of all that. He sees nothing at all. Except this tragic blackness. This slapping, lashing vegetation. The more he imagines the monsters, the bigger his eyes grow, the wider his mind opens, and the more the darkness maneuvers around him. In time, the Great Woods wraps-him-up-tight. Forces him to be still. Then he runs with all his might, jumping at random over imaginary tree trunks, swerving aside at random, lying down at random, leaping at random, advancing according to the laws of a dance that allow him, all unknowing, to avoid a thousand obstacles.

The Master claimed that the runaways he had not managed to catch had dissolved into the Great Woods. This fugitive pinches his limbs, touches a wound, brings a lick of fresh blood to his lips and is reassured to find it tasty. Patting his face, he confirms that he is indeed bien éveillé, bien réveillé — wide awake, well awakened. He mutters the word éveil, éveil léveil: awakening, awakening th’awakening, opening his eyes wide without fear of seeing them burst by a branch. He perceives the giddy whirl of his blood. He experiences, as if torn, the sensation of every bit of his body, every unknown organ, every forgotten function. He apprehends the circulating sun that unites and drives them. His run propelled his flesh to its ultimate limit, and his formerly separate organs, reacting en masse, passing beyond all distress, keep on going, leaving him panting with innocence in a hazy awareness of himself he had never known before.

Suddenly, the light is different. Painful. Daybreak has arrived. Gluey luminescence comes down the tall trees. A foggy dawn suffuses their trunks and drowns the underwood with milty mist. He shuts his eyes and runs more vigorously, overcoming obstacles like a rush of water. Now and then he half opens his eyes and finds himself lashed by ever more intense light. His eyelids burn him; he keeps them shut tight. He tears off a strip of his livery to make a blindfold. His race toward the luminous point spiraling within him continues like that. Inside. All out.

The point vanishes when he hears a brutal growling pitched high.

Far away.

Not a yowling but a jaggedy howl.

The mastiff is hunting him.

Fini bat. . . . Battle’s over! he thinks.

He speeds up but is dismayed at losing his point of light.

So, then, he bends his spirit toward the earth. He listens, all ears, to the pretend silence of the soil, teeming with hay mushrooms, the burrowing of roots, the dense panting uh-huhs of boulders, the limpid light of scattered streams like copper-bright sighs. He listens more, desperate, then finally hears. Thumps. Muffled thumps. Bitunk. Bitunk. Bitunk. The pounding of the monster’s paws pursuing him. They almost match the rhythm of his heart. He accelerates to make those rhythms one, so that he might use this sound sent to run him down as a guide for keeping his distance. Fini bat, he thinks again.

The old man rediscovers a primordial darkness revealed by the blindfold. This night neither envelops the trees nor flows from the sky. It is released inside him as he runs. He senses its growing épaissi, its thickeningness, like a patterning of the balan-rhythm of his running. It seems to allow him to exist a little closer to the center of his being. His skin is skimming up the promise of the coming sun. His eyes whirl, crazy beneath their lids and the cloth blindfold. He pays strict attention now to the noise of the animal’s paws; then, as he races on, he loses contact. Or rather, he registers it differently among the cadences rushing from his heels. The trees seem to change. Doubtless more ancient. The old man feels himself penetrating into the cavern of ages. No one seems ever to have trodden upon that place. He understands the sensation that so overwhelms him: A-a, sé kouri an fondoc syèl. . . . Oh, it’s running right in the sky, he thinks, weeping. And he opens his arms in a cross, each finger an avid root, sentient leaves.

His mind warps. Slowly. He glimpses forms: troubled, troubling, all threatening. Impossible to identify. They come from nothingness. They flow toward him. He thinks he is gone-crazy and tries to tear off his blindfold. But the prospect of dawn’s dazzlement restrains him, as does the idea of opening his eyes upon those unknown trees. He quickens his pace, provoking an onslaught of hallucinations. Clacking-paks. Rolled-rollings. Moans stuffed under wicker baskets and agonies that shatter mirrors. Bright vitalities and the languors of gentle counting rhymes. Flounderings of hatred. Rains of bloodlettings and seed. Broken shells, religious shames, how many women’s emotions, enormous milky breasts, murky not-very-manly desires, how many delicious sins and infectious innocences. How many intimate collapses, including even the worst heartbreak–coeurs-cassés. All this frightens him.

Suddenly, a somber ouélélé-hubbub; it’s a sound in the Creole tongue; he recognizes a voice; the swing of a wake-wailing; warbling registers of unclear words from which he plucks their exemplary energy; it’s sharply, at times brightly, black, directly rooted in unbelievable valor. It brays a vital commandment inside him. A call of life. A call to life. He feels in fine fettle. The visions multiply; he clings to this green vigor that seems like a voice to him. It is human human human. Virile and maternal. It appears to spring from a close atmosphere of silence and death. Elle trouble l’existant: it stirs up his being and existence. He believes that this voice arises from the storytellers known during his enslavement: these men, arising one after another, indefatigable, forging a way of speaking that no one understands but that baptizes everyone. He no longer remembers their appearance, they were that insignificant. But irises of their language stem up now from the most extinguished part of him.

The hallucinations surge back through this force. He falls. As is. Laid low. He stays like that for an unknowable time. He doesn’t dare move.

Nothing stirs thereabouts. The trees chew a cud of eternity. The too-fermented air sediments a thin sticky skin onto him. He hears a whistling. Then another. Then still another, worn away by the distance. He waits. Forcing himself to calm down. His muscles twitch from tumultuous energy. Alive, as if intoxicated. A last bit of courage comes to him. He begins to listen. And it is then — exact — that the fear surges back. He no longer hears the animal’s paws. Nothing. Except the omniscient prayer of the tall trees, the breathing of the brushwood, the quaking of the insects. The germinations bound to the immutable silence. The monster has stopped running. He is no doubt already there. In position. Ready to racher-rip out his throat. The old man who had been a slave feels lost once again. Cacarelle-shitting. Wilting heart. But he does not move. He stays still as mangrove-water. He is listening, straining to the utmost. Listening comme cela s’écrit, to the letter: impeccably. Nothing. The animal tracking does not echo anywhere. The old man feels a relief run through his body with a trembling like a sudden embellie-blossoming of sunshine: perhaps the monster has given up.

But another feeling grips him. That of the beast, straining terrible toward him. He feels it. It is there. It’s coming, yes. To launch itself on him. Biting. Jaws. Cracking of bones. Bleedings. Slaverings and swallowings. Huh. He imagines the cruel approach through the ageless tropical forest. Huh. He thinks he sees the cocoa-brown eyes. The sans-manman fangs. The old man who had been a slave begins to call out, héler. And even to rhéler-anmoué, shout-for-help. In a reflex of lost faith, of blood under pressure, of a bon-ange in eclipse, he removes the blindfold. And this reflex has the astonishing perfection of a warrior’s flourish.

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