Small massacres

A child in Martinique reaches into the dark corners of imagination with the miraculous force of fire.

Published March 9, 1999 4:42PM (EST)

Where does childhood begin? At the memory of one's first glimpse of the world? At the splatter of the visible-landscape against the earliest consciousness? The Prime Confidante speaks of an evening begun in pains. The suitcase was ready since after All Saints' Day. The journey took place on foot along the Levassor Canal, in the direction of the municipal hospital. At nine in the evening, a Thursday, yes, under the arc of December rains and winds, the midwife plucked the first cry, and the Confidante of today welcomed the last bit of her bowels. That was her Creole way of naming the fifth and -- resolutely -- the last of her children.

When, today, the latter expresses rather naive disbelief: But, Mama, why did you go there on foot? "Eti man ti ki pwan lajan pou trapi loto-a?" "Where would I have gotten the money to pay for a car?" she replies, both proud and annoyed.

The man has had occasion to retrace this path of his birth. Down the Rue Frangois-Arago, past the pungent cheer of the fish market, then alongside the canal to the Pont de Chames. He has also had occasion to taste Thursday evenings when nine o'clock finds Fort-de-France bathed in the yellowish points of the public light. He has had occasion, finally, to examine the December evening storms when they erupted on Thursdays, with the desire to note not a sign, but a familiar sensation, a resurgence of the primordial impression. In vain. The man today has a melancholic weakness for rainy weather, damp winds, and nights turning to rivers. He might even have been a poet, perhaps, had these too blatantly beautiful preferences not been in such bad taste.

It was predictable in any case: the little black boy had nothing very special about him. Small, sickly, eyes without much light, consummating the art of whimsy, he set off catastrophes within himself at the slightest remark. He had a taste for being outside of the world, for remaining immobile on the roof of the kitchens, counting the clouds or transparently following the secretions of his pupils. During frenetic periods he climbed everything, like those marmosets whose corpulence, a little of the throat sound, and patience-trying energy he possessed. He was even (a vindictive older brother often affirms) a suckler until an age that defied reason. All day long, he is alleged to have vocalized this single cry on a cannibal beat: "Titac titi! Titac titi!" Without resorting to this lie, it would have been easy to predict the absence here of a true poet. His illusions alone deluded him into believing this babble during his adolescent crises.

His only genius was as a killer. He was anointed (by himself) king of the spiders and ants, of the dragonflies and earthworms, victims, nonetheless, of his massacres. He was the Attila of the red beetles and of the big dark cockroaches called klaclac. And he waged a campaign against a colony of rats that was impossible to destroy. This killer has a history -- and here it is. It's doubtful he is proud of it.

It has its sources in periods of solitude inexplicable today, for the house was filled up. It was a large reef of wood from the north, stretching down the Rue Frangois-Arago to the corner of the Rue Lamartine. At street level the Syrians, the owners of the building, had positioned their fabric stores. Right next to the entrance, opening onto the apartments' stairs, was a wood-working shop. The little boy never saw it but had always known of its existence: the carpenter, who went into sporting goods after a fire, had remained there, nostalgic for his bygone art. He conjured it up by useless repairs to every door and with ostentatious tools to warp the slightest nail. Behind his ear he kept an obstinate pencil. Standing on the doorstep of his store, his gaze lost in the crowd of madams seeking their customers, he used his pencil to take measurements of the world. No madam ever quite identified the object of this measurement. It was nonetheless precise: the fellow devoted time to it -- arm extended, the point of his pencil emerging from between thumb and index, measuring the measure, measuring to measure, measuring, yes.... When the measurer died of a touch of congestion, no one thought to put the pencil in his grave. The little boy shed no tear; he alone knew the carpenter to be a wholesaler of sadness and measurer of an excess of ash.

The staircase led upstairs to where the families lived, the Ma Romulus family, the Ma Ninotte family, the Ma la Sirhne family, the Ma Irinie family, the invisible family of an invisible junk dealer, partner of a near invisible customs officer in a sporadic, but passionate as possible, love. The traveling dealer was rarely there. She wandered the English isles and American coasts, from which she brought back illuminated fabrics, objects neither French nor Catholic, and perfumes capable of stirring spirits and hearts. Her presence in the apartment was as discreet as her absence, more discreet even than the colony of rats populating the labyrinths of the wooden stairs. It was signaled only by the rustling of merchandise unwrapped at night and repacked in small quantities intended for resale. This filled the minds of sleepers with a newspaper oratorio, the chinking of bottles, and the strange odor of genies in exile. But most of all her presence was signaled by the faithful customs officer, a little fat, a little sweaty, a little silent, very kind, whom the little boy of then thinks he saw laboriously climbing the steps of the stairs. In reality, thinking about it, he never saw him. He knew of him what was whispered nearly ten years later. Nor had he seen the traveling junk dealer (the apartment had been empty since before the little boy was even born), but his imagination could assign her an existence equal to the lingering aura of her distant passage. The other children were numerous, every family had four or five. They provided an explosive gang that raced down the hallway and stairs all the blessed day long. Which is why it is doubtful the little boy experienced periods of solitude, even if memories of his childhood begin, unfailingly, with moments of solitary immobility. This immobility would later instate him as an official observer of spiders, of ants, and of cockroaches -- before, of course, turning him into a killer.

Under the staircase lay a zone of darkness favorable to shady lives. Piled there were demijohns, bottles, containers, packets of things that belonged to no one, or perhaps to forgetful families. From time to time, stacks of cardboard boxes signaled the arrival of Syrian products. Also found there were crates of every conceivable type, crates of cod, crates of red herring, crates of potatoes, which everyone concealed in expectation of a need. All this existed beneath a layer of dust, in an indescribable universe, until the day when Ma Ninotte (the little boy's mother) or Ma Romulus or Ma la Sirhne, or else Ma Irinie, would be taken by a prophylactic rage and begin washing everything in a flood of water, showering it all with bleach and delivering heaps of refuse to the evening trash collectors. These sudden cleanings caused great upheaval. The little boy rediscovered a dead world beneath the tidying. Attentive and alone, he then watched as it progressively returned to its previous chaos, as life, with its receptacles and rubbish, brought it back to life.

Spiders, ants, and cockroaches swarmed there. So much life in shadow enchanted the little boy. The spider webs unfurled in stiffened veils, shining, laden with the ashes of a dead moon. Broken by the daily recuperation of bottles, some twisted like ugly braids, while others unfolded into delicate embroidery, half effaced, shimmering in shadow, and revealing their cruelty by the subsequent disclosure of their trappings. Many cadavers hung there, dried-out trunks of pink gnats, of mosquitos, of tiny cockroaches, of yen-yen, of nocturnal butterflies caught in the snare of lace. It was all reminiscent of a celestial cemetery of tiny critters. The gravediggers were nowhere in sight and nothing seemed to be in charge. This enigma unraveled, boom, the day a fly happened to be ensnared before his eyes. The struggling insect shook the living, elastic geometry. Then the incredible happened. A long-fingered she-devil, finely attuned to the threads she seemed to be knitting, swiftly emerged from somewhere unseen, and pounced on her prey, fast as if gliding down a slide.

The fly saw himself covered and ceased -- poof! -- to fight. The spider wove him a whitish camisole fast-and-simple, then stopped still. The fly had become a cocoon adapted to an indefinable manner of eating, which the spider practiced with hearty appetite. Once the feast was over, she went to take up position in the nerve center of her web, connected to the vibratory language of her trap. The little boy subsequently saw her, and others still, and the entire troop, decimate little winged beasts. They were capable of enveloping several almost simultaneously. They scoured their tattered rags of web, the indiscernible limits of which were fanatically precise. He learned to attract them by shaking points on these webs. They hurried forth, found nothing, turned, and swerved back toward their headquarters. During the lookout, they made repairs, casting off from the end of shiny threads spun from the abdomen. Often, they caught themselves on broken fringes and tied them seamlessly, without a knot. The astonished little boy saw the ruin take on a perfect texture, and already he wondered how such genius could be at the service of so much cruelty. Fascinated by these evil culinary habits, he became king of the spiders by furnishing them with edibles. It was for them that he captured flies with the help of cups lined with sugar. For them that he imprisoned in jars a thousand tiny tribes of mosquitos captured on black cloths. For them that he lived with an eye riveted to the dust of the slatted shutters, to the joints of the corridor, to the dead angles of the stairs, tracking the tiny beast worthy of the arachnean holocaust. When habit dulled the interest of these executions, he stirred up fun by posing one spider on the web of another, or by supplying them with insects armed with carapaces, which they then had to tackle for some time before abandoning a part of their web. To do so, they patiently modified the lines of force, sending the trapped invader tumbling. Then he set about snipping the threads at points that destroyed the equilibrium out from under the panic-stricken creatures. Finally, before the age of fire, he began killing them.

He had discovered the miracle of matches and the power of the flame. The house was made of wood. Fires, along with floods and cyclones, made up the pantheon of Creole horrors. Ma Ninotte, who cooked in the apartment over a gas burner, performed a precautionary ceremony before lighting it. She began by silently moving the children aside. Slowly and majestically, she pumped the fuel, then, her eye sharpened, wielding a tiny needle, she unclogged the opening through which the flame would be fed. After a circular glance around, she proceeded to the lighting stage. And therein lay the mystery. For a split second the world was suspended on the edge of an intersection where everything was possible, especially disaster. Every living being prepared to make a run for it. Many were the cases of children singed bare, of shacks that disappeared in the gasp of flame, of lamps explosive as chabines. As a result, Ma Ninotte waxed philosophic about the power of fire, speaking sententiously in fifteen proverbs and three fine expressions. All this sufficed to inspire the little boy to steal a match, and then a box of them.

It was underneath the stairs that he explored the hazy reality of a flame: an orange impatience filled with transparencies and deep reds, arising from nothing, feeding on the wood of the match and suffocating on its own vitality. To contemplate a spark cast him into the antiquity of a preworld, into a pit of memory suddenly awakened to the most muffled fears. The little boy discovered anxieties within himself existing since time immemorial. He felt them flicker and grow silent to the sacred rhythm of the diminishing fire. Each match, aside from its mystery, brought him a rush of fulfillment, which he speedily sought in the next one. The box was gone in a snap, unless, before the last match, his dreamy stupor had permitted the fire to lick his finger. Then he dropped everything, horrified, his imagination torched, fleeing from the box as if from some hole into hell. Soon he returned, like the honeybee to her honey, and dipped into this dangerous happiness. But this age of fire was late in coming, in any case it followed that of massacres born directly from the discovery of the flame's power. It was later that he would learn that this force could be -- for the tumults of childhood -- a source of serenity.

The flame devastated everything. A miracle. The spider webs went up like straw. The spiders themselves were deified into shooting sparks. The little boy, master of the fire, made a clean sweep beneath the stairs. He was drunk with total destruction, drunk with savoring the enigma of a spider escaped from the cinders of its web. The spiders, although regularly set aflame, reproduced according to a law he liked to maintain on the level of a mystery (it was one of his rare virtues, this taste for pacts with incredible beings; he never lost it). Incited by a dearth of spiders, he brought fire to the cockroaches and ants. Columns of ants frequented syrupy remains on the bottles. Beneath the flame they lost their invisible pasture and were unable to converge for an et-cetera of minutes. Their hills went mad, oozed in every direction, and especially into the darkness of a newfound individuality. Nothing is more frenzied than ants ejected from their collective conditioning. Fire alone has this capacity to strike at their instinct and project them into themselves, onto themselves. As for the cockroaches, they either lost their wings in the crackling or rediscovered a frenetic usage of them. The child had to flee many times from beneath the stairs when his flame, having penetrated an inhabited chink in the wall, provoked first an emotional reaction from the larvae, then the flight of taciturn klaclac and of the venerable red roaches. They flew to attack his face, disgust him with their thorny legs, and inflict on him the indelible offence of their frightened musk. Who can say how many matches were consumed for the spiders to become rare, for the cockroaches to emigrate to the kitchens, and for the ants to bury themselves in oblivion. The little boy remained alone with his now useless weapon. He then set fire to corks, bottle labels, plastic, whose twisting he loved to observe. One day he lit a flame just for the sake of it, thus penetrating, yes, ever so gently, into the serenity of the magic age of fire.

By Patrick Chamoiseau

Patrick Chamoiseau is the author of the novel "Texaco" and of an earlier memoir "School Days."

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