Papa and Maman would leave early in the morning to take care of the animals and open the store that you could see as you entered the village of Morne-Galant. Your aunt Lucinde and I would eat in silence, a bit of fraxinella mixed with hot water. When Maman went into town, Lucinde and I would go to school. It was five kilometers on foot to the middle of the town. I could have easily stayed all day next to the house wandering through the big woods, but Maman could see from her spot inside the store, her elbows resting on the countertop, whether or not we walked by. If she could have supervised Papa the way she supervised us, maybe things would have turned out better.
The other kids didn’t talk to us much and I pretended it didn’t bother me. We lived too far away from the other houses, and having a mother like ours did not help. Because of her they ignored us. Despite the fact that each family stocked up on goods from Maman’s lolo, more than a few adults talked about her behind her back, and you know that children guzzle down gossip like coconut water. First there was the color of her skin, a sort of off-white color. And then there was the mahogany trunk that she brought to her wedding, which was the only thing of value in our house. That alone was enough to make people wonder about the money we had.
I must say that she dazzled me and Lucinde as well, turning even her own daughters’ heads. We loved to watch her closely at night: her thin, pale arms and long hair that dropped down to her waist, her two lovely headscarves with fringe that she would fold carefully away in the trunk. It made us feel superior to the other children. I was her daughter, but deep down, even I would observe her as though I had not been born of her myself. It seemed impossible, the incredible difference between her and us; Maman so slight and small, me so tall with my big feet, long neck, with my dark cocoa skin and my kinky hair. Lucinde inherited her tiny waist. In every other respect, we looked like Hilaire, your grandfather.
I couldn’t see myself in her and maybe that’s why we were never close. She always preferred Lucinde. She’d call out, “Minette, honey, come here!” and Lucinde would run to her and jump into her arms. I wasn’t jealous of all that. I found my sister weak and manipulative. Everything she did was for one reason only: to prove her superiority to our parents. She tried to steal more than her fair share of the attention. She obeyed them like a trembling little calf, and after Maman died, she transferred her need for approval onto the town’s gossiping matriarchs until she found a way out. Lucinde is a two-way mirror; that’s her survival strategy.
The other thing that made Maman seem strange in the eyes of the hillbillies in Morne-Galant was how she arrived from Grands Fonds—just like that, on the back of Hilaire’s horse, Hilaire sitting up straight under his dark hat, a bloody wound at his temple, clutching the reins in his huge hands. The fair-skinned beauty was sitting behind one of the darkest Nègres in the region, who was also one of the most brigand, like we say at home, one of the best bandits—it was a slap in the face to both of their worlds.
I told you that we lived in the poorest part of Morne-Galant, which, at that time, had only one road and just ten houses. Even though we were isolated, we still belonged to the town; we constituted a part of it. Any visitor could stop by our house on the way back from Port James or come in and negotiate a day’s pay for work in the sugarcane fields. But farther from us, back deep in the woods, there was a dirt path that turned left, then right, then right again, snaking beneath the green shoulders of the hills.
Back there you would find another world. The route to get there wasn’t too difficult. Maybe eight or ten kilometers of hairpin turns squeezed between two cliffs covered over in roots getting larger and larger, ferns dripping with rain, and mist condensation. The deeper in you went, the lighter the skin of the people living there. At the heart of this millefeuille, this ever-growing foliage, lived the people everyone called the Blancs-Matignon—difficult people to approach. We were afraid of them. And that’s where Maman came from.
Maman’s family, the Lebecqs, were Bretons who had come to Guadeloupe as poor and desolate as Job, two or three hundred years before. They fought to make it, there on the slopes that were never bathed in sunlight, but where the earth was soft, rich, and as black as coffee grounds. They prospered quietly thanks to their cultivation of coffee and cocoa, and then they attempted to grow cotton. They were hardworking, protective of their earnings, not rich enough to afford slaves, but they would never allow any Nègres to move in and settle into the hollows and folds of their land, where they would have ended up mixing.
From what I gather, over the centuries, crises would sweep over them like storms that they would endure, backs curved against them. The price of cocoa and coffee tanked, the cotton never took. They started breeding horses and would hike up from time to time to sell vegetables to poor Blacks and White sugarcane plantation owners alike. They wouldn’t associate with either group. They had complicated alliances with the families that looked like them, stuffed away as they were in the furrows of earth that they had learned to love with all their hearts and souls.
Little by little, the patois of Brittany, Normandy, and Franche-Comté disappeared. When I was young, they spoke only Créole and it baffled me, these blue-eyed White people speaking the language forbidden to us children—if we ever spoke it, we would get our mouths washed out with soap. To be honest, in some ways the Blancs-Matignon lived more like former slaves than the former slave masters. But they insisted on keeping their blood as untainted as possible.
It would take Papa returning with Maman on that mare of his that never left his side—Papa, who was afraid of nothing and was as arrogant as a fighting rooster. He must have met Eulalie at a village dance or maybe while buying a kilo of rice in the tiny store where she worked. Can you imagine the earthquake their relationship must have caused in that little green gully protected from every kind of intrusion? So then Eulalie’s two brothers assumed the role of cowboys from the Old West, willing to take a knife to Hilaire to protect the pretty, delicate flower that was their sister, Eulalie.
One night with scarves masking their faces, they ambushed Hilaire on a dark path as he was passing through on his way to the dance where he was to meet Eulalie. Hilaire’s mind was full of plans for the evening when the two brothers stepped out in front of him like ghosts in the night. His mare lurched quickly to the side, snorting wildly, and the frogs fell quiet. At first, he thought they were soukounians, the devil’s wicked servants—monsters who had come to drain him of his vitality and spit him out like an empty shell. But as they drew nearer, knives in hand, Hilaire recognized the feverish eyes behind their scarves.
Before Hilaire had set eyes on their younger sister, he and the Lebecq brothers had been longtime friends. They had played dominoes until two in the morning, shared recipes of concoctions to make their fighting roosters stronger, even coating them in an ointment that would poison the opponent’s bird. They had shared the same rum around a slaughtered pig, its throat slit to celebrate a wedding. The truth was, the Lebecq brothers had always loved Hilaire for his constant good mood, his lack of malice, and his endless stories, rattled off in Créole.
At the dances, Hilaire dove into a mazurka or a fistfight with the same enthusiasm. The Lebecq brothers, who weren’t ordinarily daredevil types, followed his lead and would have died at his side in a brawl. On our little island where everyone knew everything, Hilaire and the Lebecq brothers shared an entire life, a boyhood. The only things that the brothers would never share with Hilaire was their blood or their future.
That’s why the brothers waited for him there in the middle of the night, spurred on by their mother. Man Lebecq, your great-grandmother, who never left Grands Fonds unless a hurricane came and drove her out. But she was the most vindictive of them all, and her sons adored her.
So there at the bottom of the ravine, Hilaire had two choices: gallop off and try to dodge the blades of their knives, or face certain death. He didn’t wait long to decide: he knew the two brothers well and he must have noticed the hesitation in their feet, the barely perceptible trembling of their hands holding the knives. They were huddled too close together, waiting, not knowing who should strike first. So he stopped his horse and called down to them from the saddle, first in a friendly tone, then more firmly.
The brothers came closer and demanded he dismount. Hilaire allowed his beloved mare to take a few steps back, afraid that they would try to slice the backs of her legs. He loved the mare with all his heart and never would have allowed anyone to hurt her. He raised his voice even more and, at that time of night, it must have resonated throughout the countryside, startling a few souls out of sleep, making the dogs bark. The Lebecq brothers must have attempted to snag the reins from him, but Hilaire wouldn’t let them slip in behind him. He kept talking.
As the minutes ticked by, the brothers thought about the police, since they would have to kill Hilaire to accomplish their mission, and then bury him deep in the hillside where the crabs would slowly pick his skeleton clean. They’d have to slaughter the mare, too. It occurred to them that the whole endeavor was much more complicated than they’d envisioned that morning, sitting next to Man Lebecq as she restlessly rocked in her chair.
Deep in the gully, the three of them slowly circled one another in some kind of macabre dance. The two brothers realized that if they didn’t speed things along and make a move, someone would surely take notice and come to investigate.
At that moment, the good Lord decided enough was enough. Just as one of the brothers was about to attack the mare, an otherworldly light began to materialize, falling noiselessly upon them from high above. The luminous blue veil of silent sparks chased the dark of the night away. They froze in the blinding light, as though angels had come to sit without a sound on the branches around them. All the nearby plants started to quiver, the leaves and trees speaking to one another. The men were too terrified to fight each other. The Lebecq brothers stepped back. The blue streams of light converged to form a shining cloud that hung still, just above their heads. After a few seconds, the cloud drifted to the left, gathered speed, and took off into the night, its trail disappearing in the dark. Everything was calm again. The stars shone, all-knowing, in the clear sky. The Lebecqs retreated, kissing their holy Communion medals. Papa calmed his mare and continued on his way.
Excerpted from Where Dogs Bark with Their Tails by Estelle-Sarah Bulle. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by Éditions Liana Levi. Translation copyright © 2022 by Julia Grawemeyer. All rights reserved.