I dreamt of a man on a rocky promontory singing in a language I could not understand. His words became feathers which fell to the ground in a rain. Each feather was black as a crow’s, but they caught the light and rippled with all the colors of the rainbow like the scales of a trout. I reached to catch one, but it turned into cool water in my hands that I could not drink.
I awoke to find Maman kneeling next to me, one of my hands in hers. She wiped my brow with a damp cloth. I had been sick for three days, and the fever had not broken, but M. LeClerque had sent for Maman to dine with him, and she could not refuse him.
She patted my cheek. Her hand felt cool on my face. “I have to go out. Try and sleep.”
Maman tucked an unruly curl inside her tignon. The light was fading, and for a moment, backlit by the orange glow of the afternoon sun filtering through the slats of the shutters, her face looked as hard as one of the mahogany cherubs Parrain carved into his secretaires and commodes. Then, she smiled. The dimples in her cheeks made her seem almost a girl.
She smiled at me again thinly; there were no dimples. “I’ll be here when you wake.”
I was an obedient child and I shut my eyes. That thin, sad smile is my last memory of her.
Dilcey brought me broth, and sang me songs, but I would not be comforted. Half-awake the night Maman went out I’d heard Dilcey speak in hushed tones with an unseen man. A horse. Trampled in the street. When she told me the next morning that there was an accident, that Maman was dead, I called her a liar and screamed until my voice rasped and gave out.
Two days later, I lay on the cot looking out towards the street. My fever broke, but I still was weak and listless. I questioned Dilcey unmercifully. I refused to believe any of the answers she gave me about Maman. When she carried in cords of wood to feed the fire in the stove I asked, “When is Maman coming?”
Her shoulders sagged. “Oh darling boy, your maman, God be good, has gone back to Guinea.”
I curled my hands into fists. I felt my nails bite into my palms. “She would not leave me. She would not leave me.”
Dilcey shook her head. “No, darling boy. But le Bon Dieu takes us when He will.”
Dilcey bundled my clothes, the glass and rosewood rosary from my grandfather, and a small ivory cameo of Maman into a carpet bag. I stared at the bag. Another question, then. “What are you doing?”
Dilcey looked down at the floor. “You going to live with your parrain. Monsieur Baptiste coming for you.”
I closed my eyes. As if shutting them tightly was a charm to undo all of this. I heard a mule’s measured gait on the cobblestones outside. Footsteps up the front path. The door swung open. Parrain’s voice. “That boy ready yet?”
I opened my eyes. Parrain stood in the doorway, hand on the lintel. White curls made a horseshoe around his egg-shaped head; it reminded me of sea foam breaking on a rock. The whites of his eyes had gone yellow, but his bearing was strong, and he stood straight. He was a darker brown than Dilcey, and his hands were browner still, stained indelibly by his woodwork.
My parrain, Jean-Paul Baptiste, still cut a fearsome figure. It took much of my remaining fire to answer him, to ask in a voice that sounded impossibly small, “Why can’t I stay here?”
He strode across the room in three steps. “Your maman was born free.” He spread out his hands, which reminded me of the gnarled roots of an oak. “You are free.” He thrust a crooked finger at Dilcey. “She is not free. She belongs, like the cottage, and the cot you lie on, to M. LeClerque.”
Dilcey seemed to shrink into the wallpaper. Parrain picked up the carpet bag. “Come, boy.”
I slunk after Parrain out to the mule-cart I’d ride over to my new home.
My godparents’ home was bigger than the little cottage where Maman, Dilcey, and I had lived. Two streets nearer to the riverfront, and two stories tall, the Baptiste townhouse had a workshop for Parrain’s furniture and a courtyard choked with fruit trees and green herbs. I was given my own little room on the second floor with green shutters that opened out into the courtyard.
Marrain Baptiste was very kind but sad. She wore black lace and spent long hours working at petit point. For the first three days after I moved in with my godparents she let me walk with her to church and sit at her feet while she hummed in a low voice and thrust her needle in and out of her canvases.
On the fourth day, Parrain decided that I had been weeping long enough over my maman. His eyes were solemn and hard as he told me, “Your maman spoiled you. Past time you learned a trade.” He beckoned me to follow him, and we crossed the courtyard, cool underneath trees. We entered the workshop where I'd spend the next five years learning to make furniture.
The work was hard at first. My hands were soft and more used to holding pens with which I’d write little poems to amuse Maman in my best calligraphy. I did not know how to hold a chisel. Parrain and his two slaves, Luc and Ulysse, were exacting and always ready to correct my mistakes. Sometimes with gentle instruction from Ulysse, who would hold my hands in the right position, sometimes with a glare and cursing from Luc, or a blow to the back of the head from Parrain.
But I began to learn the trick of it. After two years, calluses on my fingers built up and hardened. I sometimes even earned a small compliment from Parrain or a half-smile from Luc.
It was a solemn life. Suppers in the house were always slow affairs with dying light filtering in from beyond heavy curtains and the only sounds the clacking of silverware against porcelain bowls.
Sometimes I would dream of the man on the promontory singing to me in his secret language. Sometimes I would wake up with gleaming black feathers on my pillow that vanished when I opened the shutters to let in the light.
The first time my wings manifested Parrain beat me black and blue. He had hit me before; a backhand when I made a mistake with a chisel, or a cuff when I was too indelicate with the wood, but never like this. His fists, gnarled and veiny from years of hard work, pummeled me. Buffeted by blows to my chest and side, I fell to the ground in a ball, arms raised to protect my head. Then he started kicking me. Finally, out of breath, he stopped, landing one last kick for emphasis and said, “Never again in this house. You hear me?”
My lip was bleeding and my teeth felt loose but I nodded and said, “Yes, sir,” and looked down at his shadow until it receded from me.
Parrain was a harsh man, but he had never before been cruel. Only fifteen minutes before he’d told me to stop working on a cabinet I was staining and get some water because I was flushed from the heat. It was August, which is a stultifying month at best, and that day the air rippled and stank of stagnant water and horse shit drying in the sun. Relieved, I had walked into the courtyard and pumped water into a bucket. I pulled off my shirt, and splashed my face with the water and sat in the cool shade, panting like a dog. Then I was struck by music. It came from nowhere and everywhere, and I stood and strained to hear. Voices were raised in benediction. They seemed to come from above me, but I knew that Marrain had gone to church, and would stay at her prayers until vespers. I felt a tickling in my shoulders, and the voices seemed to sing.
Fly with us.
Come fly with us.
Come to the sky with us.
Without meaning to, I shouted back at the voices, “Yes,” and the tickling become itching, and I felt my skin crack, and there was a sound like the rustling of silk crinolines. Wings longer than my arm, black with feathers like in my boyhood dream, erupted from my shoulders. They were part of me, and I flapped them once in wonder, craning my neck to look, when Parrain came out of the workshop to see what had taken me so long and saw. I felt my wings crumble in among themselves like stale bread as soon as the first blow landed. Later, lying in the dust, I would find only a single feather as proof.
Parrain and I never spoke of the beating. But Marrain and I did once, two weeks later, while I accompanied her back from evening mass. She put her hand on my shoulder. I winced. There was a yellowing bruise in the place she touched. Her eyes were luminous beneath her veil. “Your parrain, he is not a bad man. He wants you to survive in a hard world.”
I nodded. “I know, Marrain. He has been good to me.”
She lifted her chin almost imperceptibly, but that lift gave her face a defiant, angry cast. “I pray and keep faith and the Lord has not seen fit to visit me with mystery. Your parrain has seen things that—” she trailed off for a moment. “Do not judge him so harshly, dear boy.”
I kissed her, lightly on the cheek. We walked back to the townhouse in companionable silence.
That night a storm rolled in. Lightning flashes were answered by thunder, regular as the beat of drums. The wind moaned like the heartbroken. The shutters rattled. I flung them open, and a blast of air, hot and heavy with the scent of spices, buffeted me. The thunder seemed to beat out words.
My wings were back. I beat them in time with the thunderclaps. Their power and strength were new to me. My heart went boom, the thunder answered boom, my wings flapped boom. I climbed up on the window ledge, leaned over the edge and stepped out onto the air. A brief moment of terror, then the wind held me. My wings stretched out wide and I rose in a spiral up over the courtyard. Flapping, joyful, and singing I flew up and out over the city. The moon broke through the clouds, illuminating the river below. Slippery silver and dotted with yellow lights from boats that bobbed along its lengths, it curved around the city making a liquid road into the forest beyond.
I followed the river, keeping it on my left, swooping and soaring on the wind that pushed me further along. Below me were the Cathedral, and the opera house, and the Place des Armes. There were flicking lights in Congo Square. Ahead lay the black expanse of Lake Ponchartrain, its surface dappled with the light of countless stars. On I flew, keeping the river on my left, watching the city give way to live oaks and bald cypresses that crowded the river.
I should go back, I thought. I craned my neck to look behind me, but the wind seemed to push me on with urgency. The thunder clapped again, and its voice seemed to rumble Come. Fly.
So I flew on. I clipped the tops of trees. I banked to avoid the boats that sat low on the river. The wind from behind pushed and prodded me. I flew on past joy, past weariness. The first light of the morning broke over my right side. The wind began to slow. I circled around a small clearing, looking for somewhere to rest.
There was pain, sudden and bright in my right wing, then a crack not unlike the thunder that had called me to this place. My wings shattered, and I saw a rain of feathers before I felt myself falling head over heel. The brown surface of the water hit me like a fist, and I plunged down into the cold, out of breath, too tired to be frightened.
Only moments passed when I felt a strong hand clamp around my wrist. I could make out the figure of something in the murk near me. The hand pulled me upwards, upwards, and we broke the surface. I gasped for breath, spluttered, and found myself dragged onto the shore. I vomited up mud and foul-smelling water. I turned my head and panted, thought I saw something like the scales of a trout, and realized that it was only bare feet squelching in the mud. I looked up.
There was a man barely older than a boy standing over me. He was almost as dark as the night sky, bare to the waist, corded with muscle. I felt something strange within myself, and turned away from his intelligent, piercing gaze.
He laughed softly. “Sorry for shooting you. Also sorry I wasted my last ball getting you down. The Lwa might have told me you was coming by the sky.”
Henri—that was the man’s name—wrapped me in an animal skin and led me sit in the hollow of a bald cypress while he cursed and fumed over a bundle of twigs he meant to ignite. Fire started—after a few invective-filled attempts—he put a small pot of fish and water on to boil and turned his attention to me. His accent was harsh and guttural, and some of the words he used I’d never heard, but I could understand him by-and-by. “So, flying boy, why did you not make of you a bird instead of only wings? I thought you first the witch hunter having learned to fly with baby fat like in the old stories.”
I shivered. I was hungry and had difficulty concentrating on his words. His eyes were wide with curiosity. I tried to answer. “I do not know how to make myself a bird. I had not flown before last night.”
He raised his eyebrows. “No? You have never flown? How far did you come from?”
“I came from the Marigny in New Orleans.”
He swore softly to himself. “Putain. You came that far? The Lwa must have granted you gifts and grace.”
I furrowed my brow. “What are the Lwa?”
Henri broke out into a huge grin. Dimples appeared on his cheeks as he laughed. It was infectious, and I laughed too, although I did not understand the joke. He caught his breath. “You are like a baby! The Lwa do the work of the Bon Dieu. Like the saints. Only not tiny white men with candles and frowns.”
“I’ve had a dream of a man. Taller than you. And darker than you. He sang to me in words that became feathers like my wings.”
Henri nodded. “You see? Gifted and graced. We are alike.” Henri’s legs shimmered in the morning light. Fine scales covered them, glittering with tiny rainbows. As I watched, his legs shifted into the form of a great fish tail, and he slid effortlessly into the river with barely a splash. A few moments later, he emerged, carrying a catfish almost as big as his forearm. His legs reappeared, with his manhood dangling heavily between them. He smashed the fish on a rock, dazing it. He smiled at me, unembarrassed by his nakedness. “You see? We already have supper. But soon you will have to learn to catch us a hare.”
After eating a sort of fish stew from the pot, we struck his camp and continued south down the river. Picking our way through dense copses of trees and avoiding sight of boats was made easier by Henri’s swimming, and by me learning to flit from tree to tree like an oversized sparrow. Henri had taught me to feel the change in my stomach, and then to push it out like song.
Henri had escaped from his master, a gunsmith further up river. He had no definitive direction, but thought that the open sea might offer him freedom denied him on land. I wanted to go back home. So we agreed that it was in our best interests to travel south towards the gulf. Along the way, Henri would teach me how to become more comfortable with the change.
We stopped for a meal, eating the catfish he had caught earlier with a sort of cornmeal mush. It made me long for the turtle soup Marrain made on Sundays. I was tired, and sore from flying. Each time I had regrown my wings anew, and each time I found myself ravenous. The bland mush and fish had barely satisfied me. Henri was right, I would soon have to learn to catch a hare. I asked if we could stop for the day.
Henri shook his head. “No. We can rest here. But it is bad to make sleep where you have eaten. Rest, yes. But we must go on before we stop.”
I groaned. “I do not think I have it in me to fly again.”
He stroked his chin. “I will help you along, but we must not stop. My master,” he spit on the ground, “will have sent much worse than dogs to follow me. Crossing water will not be enough to stop the trail.”
“I have run before. Dogs, they could not catch me. But the witch hunters can smell the people like you and me out like a pig to slops.”
Weary, I rose to my feet. Henri shouldered his pack and grabbed my hand. His hand was rough and strong, and I felt a strange thrill at the contact. My stomach had not yet stopped fluttering when he pulled me into a run. He grinned at me. “I will share with you.”
Tired as I was, heat from his touch poured into me, and I felt myself with the wind and strength to run further. We pushed through whip-sharp grass, splashed through knee-deep water, and plunged into underbrush. We ran until dark. Then Henri pulled us into a small clearing. “We stop here,” he said.
He unshouldered his pack and pulled out his animal skins. I sat on my haunches, panting. I looked for a place to rest, but he beckoned me over to him. The moon illuminated him, and he glistened with sweat that beaded his chest like his scales had beaded his legs earlier. He brushed my face with his hand. “We cannot make a fire. Better that we share our warmth under the skins?”
He pulled me close to him, but I was embarrassed as my body reacted to his nearness. His mouth found my ear. “I think there are other things we may share?”
My lips parted and he wrapped an arm around my waist. My cock, not responding to my embarrassment, betrayed my desire by smacking against Henri’s thigh. I gasped a little.
Henri bit my ear. His free hand crept down to squeeze my hardness. “Yes. Do not worry, little bird.” Squeeze. “This is something sacred to Ezili.”
Dawn broke over us tangled together in the animal skins. I ached, but sweetly. The nearness of Henri, the fragrance of him, and the smoothness of his skin were all new things, and I was greedy for them. He stirred awake and smiled at me. He felt my hardness on his thigh. He smirked. “Again? We will not make any distance today if you become such distraction.”
I sighed in resignation.
“But, I suppose we can make a little more time for the sacred after we have broken our fasts.” He squeezed my thigh, then slipped out from under the animal skins. Quietly, proudly naked, Henri threaded his way through the underbrush towards the river.
Alone, I dressed in the remnant of my clothes. I ran my fingers through my hair. Tangled, and not at all suiting the gentleman Maman had wished me to be. I gathered up moss and twigs for the breakfast fires. To myself, I began humming the song of my dreams. I was lost in a reverie when a strange voice cut my song dead in my throat.
“You’re not the nigger I’m looking for.” A woman dressed in man’s clothing stood at the edge of the clearing. Wisps of mouse-brown hair escaped her hat. Her skin was tan and leathery. She had a spray of freckles over her nose. The lines around her eyes deepened as she squinted at me.
“If you please, madam. I am a freeman. But I would be happy to assist you in any way I can,” I said, dropping my gaze.
She stepped forward. She had a pistol in her left hand and a red, silken cord in her right. Her right hand twitched. The cord snaked out, faster than a whip, and wound itself around my leg. It tightened and pulled me to the ground.
She scowled down at me. “If I please, I can have two bucks for the price of one. Now, where’s the runaway?” At the word “runaway,” sharp, hot pain coursed through me everywhere the red cord touched. I screamed.
“The problem with you fancy niggers is you forget you’re niggers.” Pain again. She snarled. “Answer my question. Don’t lie. Or I’ll send you to cut cane. Won’t last a week.”
The pain was worse than anything I’d felt before. Fibers from the cord drilled into my flesh, burning and tearing. I hoped Henri would hear my howls and stay away. I stared at this woman hard in the face, exactly as I had been taught not to. I shouted, “He has gone on the Grand Tour and is courting the Duchess of Savoy.”
The pain was incredible, and the red cord seemed to smoke. The world twisted, colors became brighter. I could see the tiniest hairs on the woman’s forearm. I screamed. It was the sound of an eagle. My wings had grown powerful. I had cruel talons, and I could feel the strength in them. I flexed them and the cord slithered away. No longer ensnared, I flew up towards the woman and raked her face with my talons. She howled. I beat my wings, and scrabbled for purchase as she knocked me away from her with unholy strength. Skin fell over her face in rents and tears, and blood streaked down, but she still brought her gun to bear down on me. I felt my feathers fall away, and the world twisted again. I was human, and staring at the gun’s muzzle.
From her left, Henri barreled towards her, his face clouded with fury, roaring a song in words I could not understand. She turned to meet him, and the gun thundered. He was struck in the shoulder, but continued towards her, meeting her with arms outstretched. He grabbed her bleeding, ravaged face in between his hands and turned it suddenly. There was a sickening snap, and she fell to the ground, her head twisted to face behind her. She twitched for a moment and then lay still.
Henri shimmered, and the air was thick with the fragrance of perfume. I saw an impossibly tall beautiful woman, dark as the night, robed in blue and white standing behind Henri, her hands on his shoulders. Then she was gone, and Henri fell to his knees in the mud. I ran towards him, pulling off my shirt and pressing it to the place where he had been shot. I pressed myself close to him like a bandage. He kissed my mouth and my chin and said, “I told you it was sacred to Ezili.” Then fell forward, resting his weight on me.
We were slowed by Henri’s injury. We made camp a few miles away and I had him rest. I learned to hunt hares. I was clumsy at first, but by day’s end had managed to kill enough to feed us both. I was an even worse cook than Henri, and the meat was both charred and bloody. But it seemed to do him good, and the grey tint to his cheeks returned to its healthy brown. I worried about making camp where we had eaten, but Henri grinned and said, “Louis LaFournier too cheap to hire two witch hunters.”
We rested, and talked, and made love. In a few days’ time we made our way down the river and towards New Orleans. I realized the third day out that “home” could never be anyplace where Henri wasn’t. But I had debts to pay, and something to retrieve.
I flew above the city as an eagle. With keen sight I could see slaves sneaking around in Congo Square after dark, and rats scurrying along alleyways. I flew on, past the Cathedral and the convent, until I found my godparents’ house. I landed on the windowsill before the green shutters. A voice from within called, “Is that you, darling boy?”
I shifted and pulled the shutters open. Marrain was sitting in a chair next to my bed with her petit point on her lap. Lamplight flickered over her face. She smiled and beckoned me in. “I have been waiting for you to fly home.”
“I have not repaid your kindness well,” I said.
She sucked at her teeth. “Your parrain. He was furious. He stomped and yelled. But I always knew that you would fly from here. Your maman was afraid. But not you.”
“You both were good to me,” I said sadly.
“Duty. And love. You came for this, I think.” She fumbled beneath the canvas on her lap, and pulled out the ivory cameo of Maman. I held it in both hands. It was cool. I traced Maman’s profile with a finger.
A ghost of a smile crossed Marrain’s face. “Your maman was always very beautiful. If you had been a girl, there would have been planters from miles around vying with each other to offer you plaçage.” She sighed. “We came from Saint-Domingue. Your Parrain, your Maman, me. All of us. Before that, from beyond the sea.”
With effort and great dignity, she lifted a carpetbag from off the floor and pushed it towards me. I opened it. It was filled with banknotes, coins, and jewelry. “Take this. It is all I have, and it is all I owed your maman.”
I shook my head.
She thrust it towards me again. “Take it. Go back to Saint-Domingue. It is no longer the same. Go back.” She kissed my cheek. “But first buy yourself new clothing. You stink of the river.”
Neither of us had ever been on a sailing ship. I was sick for most of the crossing. Henri was fretful and anxious and paced the deck staring at the water. I think he felt tantalized. We sailed with twenty other freemen, some of whom had their passage paid for by an organization eager to have them leave the United States. Our cabin in the hold creaked, was slick with salt water, and stank. We kept to ourselves, assuaging my sickness and his anxiety with touch and caresses in the dark.
At long last we docked in Port-au-Prince. Unsteady and shaky down the gangplank, I stared in wonder at the greenness of its trees, and its hills hazy in the sunshine. The smell of fruit and bread wafted on a breeze. I heard singing.
“Is this Saint-Domingue, or is it heaven?”
Henri draped an arm over my shoulder. “No, beloved. It is Haiti.”