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"The Last of the African Kings" from Les derniers rois mages.

from Les derniers rois mages

Justin, Spero's father, had been one of those children who seem to be in mourning for the mother they buried at childbirth. Moreover, Djere, his Papa, was so taken up with writing his Notebooks that he paid him no more attention than he did the paint peeling off the walls of the house on the Morne Verdol or the ever darker spots on the ceiling made by the water dripping from the roof nobody repaired rainy season after rainy season. Fortunately there was Hosannah, his grandmother, who treated him like the apple of her eye. She dressed him in velvet and silk poplin with wide sailor collars triple edged in blue. She fed him chicken fillets and creamed mashed potatoes. Never breadfruit or dasheen, none of those basic foodstuffs the poor have to make do with as an accompaniment to their codfish and salt pork. The neighbors jeered at all the trouble she went to, for the child made no progress at school. It was obvious he'd end up like his father who was bone idle, his mind muddled by his constant swilling of rum and that nonsense about a royal ancestor and exile in Martinique. Some people were only too quick to blame Hosannah who after having spoilt and molly coddled her own son was now doing the same with her son's son.

Constantly hearing Djere churn out his nonsense at the Cerf-Volant, a rum shop at the bottom of the hill where he was one of the regulars, some smart alecks had nicknamed him Wise Man Djere, a name that was later passed on to his son. At Epiphany on January 6, a golden paper crown was placed on his head and he was obliged to buy a general round of rum or absinthe. He complied with the money that Hosannah stuffed into his pockets and recited pages out of his Notebooks that nobody listened to.

Justin could not bear his father. Throughout his childhood he had wondered why he didn't have a Papa who on weekdays went off to work with his lunch tin at the d'Arboussier factory like everyone else and on Sundays dressed up in a white starched drill suit. Why did Djere just sit at the dining room table, dipping his pen into a glass inkwell, scribbling and scratching from morning to late afternoon on pieces of paper, and in the evening when he was drunk telling stories that nobody could make either head or tail of? He could not bear his grandmother either. Hosannah was a sad-looking black woman, a genuine beast of burden who worked and worked and worked. Insensitive to the treats she dealt out in silence, he blamed her for a surely unwarranted devotion to Djere. For worshipping him as God in person. Instead of treating him as an egoist, a swiller of rum and an incredible bore who ignored everyone around him.

It was only when a bad bout of pleurisy blew her out in two days like a candle that he missed her, for he had to set about looking for work.

Justin had no time for Djere's stories. They only came to life when he left for Martinique with some other Guadeloupeans to do his military service. Unlike his fellow islanders who, without knowing why exactly, nurtured little fondness in their hearts for Martinique and the Martinicans, he was happy to be boarding the ship. Because of his grandmother's poverty he had never left La Pointe. Even during the long vacation he stayed behind and roasted on the Morne Verdol. His only distraction was to set off for the port and watch the great liners that crossed the Atlantic, without even taking the trouble to dream that one day he would "stride over" the water. Sometimes he made a bit of money carrying the passengers' iron or wicker trunks for he was very tall and very strong since Hosannah kept him well fed. And then his family on his mother's side came from Martinique. On one of the rare occasions when she had opened her mouth, Hosannah told him that people called Jules Juliette were two a penny in Riviere Precheur, the village in Martinique where his mother came from to look for work in town.

The barracks where they kept him locked up were situated in the district of Bellevue. Now it so happened that the pride of this neighborhood was a pink-stoned house hidden at the bottom of a garden filled with hibiscus, bishop's robes and multicolored crotons. It was encircled by a huge verandah supported by six white columns, vaguely Doric in form which was somewhat surprising. If you stuck your nose through the gate that was always locked with a heavy iron chain you could catch a glimpse of an old round pond made of stone and a flute-playing cherubim whose plaster was peeling. They called it the King's House.

For six months Justin passed by the house without stopping or bothering to cast a sideways glance. Then one day he remembered the nonsense his father used to tell him. Who had lived here?

Oblivion scrubs the memory clean, they say. The Martinicans had forgotten their jeering of times gone by. Grandparents had passed on to their children who had passed on to their grandchildren a magnificently edifying story. Everybody was sure they had seen with their own two eyes the old man amble along beside his honton under a parasol held over his head by one of his wives. Sometimes he took his son walking with him and the child who answered to the name of Ouanilo passed by, his head held high as was befitting a prince. With a wealth of details people described the sabre with the wide engraved blade he wore on one side. And especially the fringe of blue pearls that veiled his face. They had never seen anything like it: it reminded them of blue flakes and pearls chipped from the moon. People also recounted how a carpenter from Terres-Sainvilles had carved out a throne in mahogany from a drawing the honton had carefully made in a school exercise book and how he sat on it as stiff as a poker. Almost a century later people were offended by the story of a French teacher, one of those French French who came to idle away their time under the Caribbean sun, who had given Ouanilo a kick and then crowed all over town:

"I booted the butt of a prince!"

For the first time these stories made Justin think that Djere had not just talked through the top of his head. He began to interrogate the inhabitants of Bellevue who could not remember very much. Someone suggested he look in at the Schoelcher Library and he shut himself away there on his day off. It was here he found some dusty newspapers dating from that period that did in fact mention this African king and his suite exiled by the French: five wives, two children plus his alter ego the prince Adandejean. In the December 13, 1894, issue a long article described the arrival of his son Ouanilo at the lycee in Saint-Pierre. "The young prince appears fairly intelligent," wrote the journalist. "He reads quite well and is quite skillful at forming his letters." However there was no mention anywhere of a local family lineage. Yet Justin was as delighted as a detective who had the proof in his hands. And greatly encouraged he returned to La Pointe a different young man from when he left.

Since Hosannah had left this earth three rainy seasons earlier he tried to draw closer to Djere. But rum had definitively disposed of Djere's mind and Justin could get nothing out of him. He tried to read his Notebooks, but never managed to get his hands on them since Djere had double locked them in his wardrobe now that his hands trembled so much he was unable to hold a pen. So Justin began to haunt the municipal libraries of La Pointe and even the history shelves in the bookstores. After his return from Martinique everyone agreed he had become as boring as his father.

What's more he became arrogant. The Morne Verdol became too small for him. He assured everyone he would not end his days there and another land was awaiting him elsewhere. One day he quarreled with his boss, Hassan el-Nouty, the owner of the Garden of Allah where he sold bales of printed calico, and called him "filthy Arab." Hassan el-Nouty did not stand for it and straightway sent him packing.

It was at that time he married Marisia Boyer d'Etterville and what an extraordinary marriage it was. Marisia Boyer d'Etterville had first been a Boisripeaux, like Lacpatia, her mother and grandmother before her. Then a fit of anger had put at death's door the beke who eighteen years earlier had got Lacpatia pregnant, Lacpatia the daughter of a penniless mulatto from the Hauts-Fonds. In his terror of the flames of hell the beke legitimized his sixty-one illegitimate children scattered throughout the savannas of Grande Terre, then passed on to the other life.

The year Marisia changed names was the year she fell sick, so sick that Lacpatia set about sewing her funeral dress.

Why did Marisia fall sick?

Those who know something about these things claim that a name passes the essence of life from one generation to the next and is moored fast in the unfathomed deeps of the soul. From the very first day Marisia was born, or perhaps even as far back as when she had started to swim in Lacpatia's womb, generations of Boisripeaux women, born and died long ago, had passed onto Marisia their valor, their hopes, their stifled ambitions and even their malice which makes people human in the infinite forgiveness of the Lord. Brutally snatched from this lineage and transposed into an unknown line of descendants Marisia's spirit had been unable to resist. It had collapsed and her body had followed.

Yet Marisia came through. So pale she looked as though a monster of the night had sucked all her blood and so thin the ends of her bones were sticking through her skin. On the evening she left the hospital, while Lacpatia was tenderly settling her into a rocking chair, she announced her decision to marry and the name of the man she intended to wed.

Her poor mother wept.

The doctors are still intrigued by Marisia's recovery. They say it was a miracle, a word that doesn't mean very much. What we do know is that she had met Justin. Marisia and Justin met at the hospital, where ever since he had been kicked out of the Garden of Allah, Justin had been sliding basins under patients' behinds, so thankful to have found a job even though it was foul smelling. After forty-five days of illness with her spirit floating out of reach of her body, between heaven and earth, Marisia's blurry eyes had seen a tall man enter her room and approach her bed. While he lifted her up and placed the cold enamel object underneath her he whispered:

"You think I'm a good-for-nothing, a common nigger, isn't that right? A collector of excrement. The shit man. Mr. Kaka. Well, I'm going to tell you something, tell you who I am. Listen to me carefully because I'm not going to start with a Tim-Tim or Is the court asleep?(1)"

Marisia never repeated to anyone what Justin whispered in her ear. Perhaps she kept it locked up in her memory to brighten the dark days of her marriage, and Good Lord there were enough of those. The fact is that when Justin had finished, her mouth, which for forty-five days had barred every sound, opened and let fly a shrill laugh that quickly changed into a gasp of pleasure under his onslaught. The next morning she was able to sit up in bed and swallow a little chicken broth. Ten days later the doctors signed her release sheet. The neighbors on the Morne Verdol learned with stupefaction of Justin's marriage with a deserving young girl from a respectable family. They were lost in conjectures.

What was going on here for goodness sake?

Justin had nothing to his name. A part from the shack on the Morne Verdol, he had no property, no land under the sun, no house in the hills. No diplomas. No light skin. His father was the joke of La Pointe with his bouts of drunkenness and stories of a royal ancestor. All he possessed was the fond memory his devoted grandmother Hosannah had left in people's minds.

But people could go on being surprised as much as they liked, the date fixed for the wedding drew closer. One Saturday, the last before Christmas, two green rented Oldsmobiles draped with narrow garlands of jasmine flowers drew up in front of the church of Saint-Jules. Justin, Marisia, her young brother Florimond and Lacpatia got out, followed by Djere, for once in his right senses, wearing a bowtie over his Adam's apple and the three claws of the Panther sparkling on each of his temples. People noticed with surprise that despite the blackness of his skin he had a regal air about him. The wedding was no crowd-stopper. People felt there would be no happiness here and soon the bride would have nothing but her two eyes to cry with. No reception followed the ceremony at the church. There was no wedding cake. Lacpatia heated up the black pudding and the curried goat she had brought, and the wedding party ate in gloom.

No sooner had he married Marisia than Justin quit his job at the hospital and bade farewell to work forever. From that time on he divided his time between music and the bar at the Cerf-Volant. He had always liked music. But how could he study it when Hosannah earned scarcely enough to feed the family? Then he heard of a group with a teacher who had learned the art in Haiti, and he joined them in a house in the outlying Nassau district. Justin could have become a famous musician, another Siobud or other legend of his time. Alas! He was not persevering. After an hour practicing on his clarinet he would drop everything and run to the rum shop where he would soon be sounding off with his usual nonsense and forget about those who were waiting for him. Poor Marisia had her hands full with both Djere and Justin, two good-for-nothings, two rum guzzlers who sometimes turned violent. Until God in his goodness recalled Djere to Him; Marisia was then eight months pregnant with her first child.

Nobody knows what finished Djere off. Probably an entire existence of sorrow and disillusion lived in the memory of his failed ancestry.

Justin did not cry. This shocked the neighbors on the Morne Verdol.

You only have one Papa. You don't have two or three. The next morning when they had taken away the coffin Justin splintered the door of the locustwood wardrobe at the head of Djere's bed under Marisia's consenting gaze. All he found were some old things belonging to the ancestor, some newspaper clippings, the Histoire Illustree de l'Afrique by Henri Veyrier with a large yellow mark on page 216 and the famous Notebooks numbered from 1 to 10. They were nicely written in straight characters with blue India ink on the first page. Djere had drawn a family tree that ended with that arrogant word: ME. Then he had jotted down sentences that seemed completely meaningless. For instance:

"The lightning struck the coconut palm but the dum-dum palm is untouchable."

"The cardinal does not set the bush on fire."

"The world holds the egg that the earth desires."

There then followed some fairly crude colored drawings of a tree. A pineapple. A fish. A cutlass. An elephant raising his trunk. A lion.

Finally a list of dates aligned in a column.

January 15, 1894.

February 14, 1900.

December 10, 1906.

Intrigued, Justin buried himself in the Notebooks themselves. To the surprise of Marisia who had never seen him read as much as a newspaper, he buried himself for three whole days and nights. When he emerged he had a strange air about him as if he had discovered the secret soul of his father after his death. Justin was in fact filled with belated remorse. Instead of despising Djere and taking him for a wretched swiller of rum he should have tried to understand him, to talk things over with him. How could he repair his indifferent behavior?

After having racked his brains he got an idea: how about having the Notebooks published?

NOTES

1. Traditional openings by the storyteller in Creole.

MARYSE CONDE was born in Guadeloupe. She is the author of several novels, including Heremakhonon, Segou: les Murailles de terre, Moi, Tituba, sorciere noire de Salem, La vie scelerate, and Traversee de la mangrove. She is also author of La parole des femmes: essai sur de romancieres de Antilles de langue francaise, La civilisation du bossale, and other studies of literature and culture.
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Title Annotation:Maryse Conde: A Special Issue; short story
Author:Conde, Maryse
Publication:Callaloo
Date:Jun 22, 1995
Words:2872
Previous Article:The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text and Tradition in Black Women's Fiction.
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