Lindsey Collen



Excerpt from THERE IS A TIDE


[Note: Lindsey Collen is a novelist from Mauritius. Here we reproduce the entirety of Chapter Ten of her book, "There Is a Tide." The event described, a fire in a sugar-cane field set by two field hands, takes place in 1945 just before a tropical cyclone strikes the island.]


  The neighbour burst back in.


   "A cane fire. The cane's on fire. Dife dan kann. A great volcanic heat rises in balls with every gust of wind, out of the cane. You have to stand back it's so wild. Hot as hell itself. The heat of Hades is out. The fire itself is red as molten iron. And as the smoke rises up, it rushes headlong into the sky, arid with the help of the sun, makes a bright red blanket in the sky, the horizon itself is crimson. The universe is crackling with noise. It's deafening. Can't get anywhere near for the heat. Thick black smoke keeps curling into the sky. Old smoke, as it hurtles across the sky, is making a new cloud, and when the cloud gets whipped upwards by the heat, it is getting carried away by the cyclone clouds, and is starting to tear across the heavens along with the cyclone clouds. Welcome's cane is burning down fast. His cane. Their cane.


  "The wind is whipping it up even more. You can hear it from just up the road. All the mongoose have fled. Rats are pouring out. Fleas jumping as high as they can. Frogs flying out from the marshy bit. Dogs, tails between their legs, hide behind humans. Beetles, by the thousand, are swarming out of the cane fields to get away from the flames, and the martin birds are flying around li ke a dark swarm of bees on the leeward side of the fire, dive-bombing and eating the beetles as they fly out. A field day. What creatures they are, martin.


  "Welcome is rounding up men like beasts to go and beat the fire out. But, they're refusing. Non, they say. No. No. and again No. It's the boss's cane, tell him to come and put out the fire in it, himself, they say. No. No. No. There has to be a cyclone around for us to say 'no', does there? They're saying the gusts are too strong, the fire will jump, they're saying it'll get put out by the rain, they're saying they didn't light it so why should they put it out they're saying anything at all, so long as it's "no" to Welcome.


  "What a time for them to say no, what a time for us to say no. A cane fire. And we, living in grass houses. At last, at long last, we have succeeded, we have said no. We are saying, 'no.' But what a time."


  She went raving mad. Danced around. 'Mardeveren,' some said, meaning her spirit had taken over. 'Sen Veronik,' others mumbled, knowing about this saint. Some said she was doing a Sen Expedit prayer, wishing ill on the tablisman. Dangerous, they intimated. 'Tit-Alber' was decided momentarily, a poltergeist who sometimes got up to worse mischief. Like in a 'servis buk', maybe, they said, like when the dolok drum beats out its frightening thud and the ancestors start to speak to those present through someone.


  "Let her be. Jayde," the old ladies said. "Let her be."


  And yet she said things I still remember, girl. Till today. She went on raving:


  "The first thing humans should learn to say is 'no.' 'No, don't touch my body.' 'No I don't want milk right now. No, don't hit me. No, don't smother me with sickly love.' But instead we are accomplices. Always bowing down. Yes, sir. Yes, misye. Yes, gran misye. Yes, great boss. Yes, sir. Yes, yes, yes. Anything you say. Yes, father, yes husband. Yes, slave owner, yes coolie boss, yes, mister. Yes. Yes, sir. Yes please. Yes thank you. Anything you say, sir. Try to please, madam. Yes. Certainly. Yes. Of course, sir. Naturally, boss. Yes, yes, yes.


  "They broke the 'no' in us. Brought us on slave ships, cut the 'no' out of our tongues. Chained us. Changed our names. Named us. Bred us. One with another. Sold us. Bartered us. Raped us. Sodomised us. Forced the Code Noir on us, a black code, baptised by force. All Catholics in a fell swoop. Even the Church bought and sold us. Part of their property. Made us say yes. Yes, wi, wi. Rip my babe in arms from my tit, boss. Sell it. Yes. Yes. Anything to avoid the whip. Anything you say. Yes, take it. Anything to avoid being tied to the ladder and beaten. When I say the word ladder, 'lesel' even now, the very word resounds with the echoes of generations of torture, as though a ladder were not a useful thing for climbing up something with. 'Lesel.' Yes. Yes. 'Take my young daughter, cross her with your neighbour's slave.'


  "Cross her," she said, tapping the insides of her two wrists together in a sudden movement.


  "Yes. Yes. Of course. Anything to please. Torture us. Yes. We will not seek anything. Not even our daily bread. We want no rights. Don't even know the word. We will flatter you in our segas. We will dedicate them to you. We will say and even sing, that you, our boss, are better than all the other bosses. It goes without saying that you are better than us. Otherwise why would we be slaves?


  "Yes. Yes sir. We will bow down. We will. We always have so far, so why shouldn't we continue. Yes. We will submit. We will. We will pray your prayers, and forget ours.  Yes. Of course, we will obey. Those who said no, those who refused. They were the heroes. But they didn't survive. They were done away with. Fini. Our brave forefathers were killed. Our cowardly forefathers lived, those who agreed to cower, to cower and to lower their loincloths. We were raped, be we men or women. Our noble foremothers were hanged. Like Ana de Bengal. And our noble forefathers like Anthoni de Malabar. Both hanged by the Dutch East India Company. Like hundreds by the French East India Company. Those who bowed down and leant over, bent over, they are the ones who survived, who lived on, and trained us, from when we were suckling on the breast to cower, to remain silent, to curb our protests, to submit, if we were to survive. Napa fronte. Don't show your forehead. Give in. Give up. How else will you survive? Please. Bizin kurbe. You must be pliant. Give in. Give up. To survive, you have to. You must submit, be subservient. Please. I beg of you, my child. I beg, I beg, I beg you, do not raise your voice, do not say 'no.' Please. For my sake. You must accept things. Bizin reziyne. You must resign yourself. You cannot resist. Please. Give in. Give up, my child, the elders who survived said, because it was the only advice that had ever done them any good. Bizin aksepte. You have to accept reality. You can't change reality. Any memories to the contrary must be banned. Any new thoughts to the contrary must be nipped in the bud. Fode pa rezone. Don't argue, don't even use your powers of reasoning. It isn't worth it. You must submit. Give in. Give up. Give right up, my child of the first generation. You, born into slavery, you cannot create, you must just obey.


  "And yet these youngsters, trained by their cowering mothers to cower, did something. They made up a language, a language more efficient than yours, you stupid sugar cane owners. More elegant. Our language. Kreol. And in it, we usually say yes, sir. Usually. The only thing we know to say. The language reminds us that you took everything we ever had away, yes. And yet it reminds us that we could still invent a language, yes. Couldn't take that away from us. Although you try to take it away. How you try. Not a language, you say. Only gutter talk. Just a patwa. Has no grammar, you say. Broken French. And yet today, a miracle, a miracle. We are saying 'no,' we are refusing. Every now and then 'no' comes back. No, no, no. In our language: no no no. Only when we can say 'no,' can we know the value of saying 'yes.' Freedom, freedom. When will we be free. We be free.


  "But there's good news too, folks. Better news. Really good news. Not just saying no. Good news. Yippee. The fire was arson. Someone in this village really said 'no' this time. Bravo. We shall overcome. We shall overcome."

   She who had breezed in like a gust of the cyclone to announce this, had, after her song, like a gust, gone again.


   "Gone stone mad, she has. Will get us all into trouble talking like that. What arson? What refusal? Can't sing songs like that. Overcome. Can't say things like that. Sounds like a rebel. Be free. We be free. She's gone loony. Must be the moon. Or just be the low pressure because of the cyclone coming. Perhaps her head's tired. Jayde. Let her be."



(Originally posted September 12, 2010)


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