By Yanick Lahens
Translated from the French by Emily Gogolak
Finalist for the 2018 CLMP Firecracker Award
An award-winning, lyrically written, beautifully haunting saga of a Haitian family's fight against a curse spanning four generations.
Publication Date: October 3, 2017
Winner of the 2014 Prix Fémina & 2015 French Voices Award
After she is found washed up on shore, Cétoute Olmène Thérèse, bloody and bruised, recalls the circumstances that led her there. Her voice weaves hauntingly in and out of the narrative, as her story intertwines with those of three generations of women in her family, beginning with Olmène, her grandmother.
Olmène, barely sixteen, catches the eye of the cruel and powerful Tertulien Mésidor, despite the generations-long feud between their families which cast her ancestors into poverty. He promises her shoes, dresses, land, and children who will want for nothing…and five months after moving into her new home, she gives birth to a son. As the family struggles through political and economic turmoil, the narrative shifts between the voices of four women, their lives interwoven with magic and fraught equally with hope and despair, leading to Cétoute’s ultimate, tragic fate.
Yanick Lahens was born in Port-au-Prince in 1953 and is one of Haiti’s most prominent authors. She published her first novel in 2000, was awarded the prestigious Prix Femina in 2014 for Moonbath, and is the 2016 winner of a French Voices Award.
Finalist for the 2018 CLMP Firecracker Award
Winner of the 2014 Prix Fémina & 2015 French Voices Award
“A remarkable accomplishment.” —Asymptote
“Yanick Lahens adeptly dipped her pen nib in tears to write Moonbath. She brandished her writing instrument with dexterity, creating Cétoute as a metaphor symbolizing both the pain and the promise of Haiti.” —Lanie Tankard, The Woven Tale Press
“In the Haitian tradition of the rural novel […] Yanick Lahens’ Moonbath establishes itself by its grand and lucid beauty.” —Le Point
“Lahens’s ambitious fresco of twentieth-century Haiti through the eyes of peasants depicts the first generation with Romain-like incision.” —Robert H. McCormick Jr, World Literature Today
“Lahens is the most important living female Haitian author in French.” —Christiane Makward
“A novel of violent beauty.” —Le Monde
“[Lahens] describes her country with a forceful beauty — the destruction that befell it, political opportunism, families torn apart, and the spellbinding words of Haitian farmers who solely rely on subterranean powers.” —Donyapress
“One of the finest voices of Haitian contemporary literature.” —L’Ob’s
“Everything is there, the content, powerful, and the style, poetic.” —Les Echos
“The novel’s mythic atmosphere is enhanced by Lahens’ meditations on personified nature, and Emily Gogolak’s translation preserves a bare and moving voice throughout.” —The Arkansas International
“Power and corruption are ever present, and their pressures—be they sexual or economic or both—are often impossible to reckon with or escape. Though what’s most surprising is the sense that one has waded fully into the world these characters inhabit, a world so alive that I sometimes forgot I was reading a book at all. I’m reminded of first reading Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book that similarly transported me clean out of my self and into some other world beyond.” —Christian Kiefer, The Paris Review
“An invigorating and necessary investigation of tradition, politics, loss, and history.” —Zeena Yasmine Fuleihan, Ploughshares
After a madness that lasted three days, here I am stretched out, at the feet of a man I don’t know. My face a hairsbreadth from his muddy and worn shoes. My nostrils overtaken by a stench that nearly revolts me. To the point of making me forget this vise of pain around my neck, and the bruise between my thighs. Difficult to turn over. To stand back up. To put one foot on the ground before the other one follows. To cross the distance that separates me from Anse Bleue. If only I could run. If only I could flee as far as Anse Bleue. Not once would I return. Not a single time.
But I cannot. I cannot anymore…
Something happened at dusk on the first day of the storm. Something that I still don’t explain to myself. Something that broke me.
Even though my left cheek was pushed right up against the wet sand and my eyes are nearly closed shut, I still manage, and this gives me some relief, to scan this village built like Anse Bleue. The same narrow houses. All the doors and all the windows closed. The same leprous walls. The same muddy road leading in both directions to the sea.
I want to force a cry up from my stomach to my throat and make it jet out from my mouth. Loud and high. Very loud and very high until I rip these large dark clouds above my head. To cry to call the Grand Maitre*, Lasirenn* and all the saints. How I would love for Lasirenn to take me far, very far, on her long and silky hair, to rest my aching muscles, my gaping braids, my skin all wrinkled by so much water and salt. But before she hears my calls, I can only fill the time. And nothing else…
All that I see.
All that I hear.
All that I smell.
Every thought, fleeting, full, suffocating. Waiting to understand what
happened to me.
The stranger took out his cell phone from his right pocket: a cheap Nokia like the ones you see more and more at the All Stars Supermarket in Baudelet. But he couldn’t use it. He was shaking all over. So much that the phone flew out of his hands and fell straight on my left temple. A little more and the Nokia would have hit my eye…The man backed away abruptly, his gaze terrified. Then, working up the courage, he bent over slowly and stretched out his arms. With a quick motion he grabbed the phone while taking extraordinary care to not touch me.
I heard him repeat very quietly, three times in a row, his voice choked with emotion: “Grace mercy, grace mercy, grace mercy.” I still hear his voice… It gets mixed up with the sea that writhes in wild sprays upon my back.
In my head the images rush. Clash. My memory is like those wreaths of seaweed detached from everything, dancing, panicking on the foam of the waves. I would like to be able to put these scattered pieces back together, to hang them up one by one and reconstruct everything. Everything. The past. The time from long ago, as it was yesterday. As it was three days ago.
Year after year.
Hour after hour.
Second by second.
To retrace in my mind the route of a schoolgirl.
Without brambles, without bayahondas*, without an airplane in the night sky, without fire. To retrace that route as far as the wind that, this night of the storm, enchants me, intoxicates me. And these hands that make me lose my footing. Stumble.
To pull together the whole sequence of my existence, to understand once and for all… To bring back to life, one by one, my grandfathers and my grandmothers, great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, as far back as my ancestors Franginen*, Bonal Lafleur, Tertulien Me´sidor and Anastase, his father. Until Ermancia, Orvil, and Olme`ne, the water and the fire. Olme`ne whose face I do not know. Olme`ne whom I always missed and whom I still miss.
What a storm! What a tumult! In this whole story, it will be important to pay attention not just to the wind, the salt, the water, but also to men and women. The sand was turned around and upside-down in the greatest disorder. You could call it a land waiting to be sowed. Loko* blew three days in a row and swallowed the sun. Three long days. The sky turned a lighter and lighter gray. Milky in places.
“Do not do what you could regret,” my mother hammers into me. “Don’t do it.”
I dribble like an old woman. I ramble like a mad woman. My voice breaks at the back of my throat. It’s still because of the wind, the salt, the water.
The elusive gaze of the men, the slightly aghast look of the women, upon the arrival of this rider, all suggesting that he was a feared and fearful being. And it’s true that we all feared Tertulien Me´sidor.
Tertulien Me´sidor loved to pass through all of the villages, even the most far-flung, to test his power. To measure the courage of men. To weigh the virtue of women. And to verify the innocence of children.
He had emerged out of the candy colors of the devant-jour. At this hour when, behind the mountains, a bright pink rips through shreds of clouds to run, flat out, over the countryside. Sitting on his ash grey horse, he was dressed as usual in a stately straw hat, the wide brim turned down over two protruding eyes. Hanging from his waist was a cutlass and following his lead were two other riders, who advanced as slowly and resolutely as their master.
Tertulien Me´sidor went towards the fish stall that stank of tripe and decomposing flesh. At his approach, we started talking very loudly. We were much louder than usual, boasting the variety of fish, the quality of the vegetables and provisions, but not taking our eyes off the rider. We kept keeping an eye on him and we kept talking louder. Our racket in this dawn was nothing but a mask, another, for our acute awareness. When his horse reared, the cortege froze at the same time as him. Tertulien Me´sidor got down to whisper into the ear of the horse and to caress its mane. “Otan, Otan,” he murmured sweetly. The animal stamped in place and shook its tail. The man with the wide-brimmed hat wanted to go ahead on the stony road between the stalls. With a gesture of authority, he hit the flanks of the horse with his heels and, squeezing the bridle, forced the animal to trot in that direction.
He’d hardly advanced a few meters when he took the reins to stop himself again. The movement was so abrupt that the two other riders had a hard time holding back their horses who were also stamping now. Tertulien Me´sidor had just glimpsed, sitting among all the women, Olme`ne Dorival, the daughter of Orvil Cle´mestal, whose smile split the day in two like a sun and who, without thinking about it, had twisted the bottom of her skirt and slid it between her thighs. Two eyes were already undressing her and she didn’t have the slightest suspicion of it.
By the light trembling of his nostrils, the two other riders knew what to expect. Tertulien Me´sidor kept his eyes fixed for a few seconds on this band of fabric that hid the source and the flower of Olme`ne Dorival. It took his breath away. A few seconds. Only a few seconds. But enough to get all turned around. Captive under some magic spell.
Tertulien Me´sidor’s desire for Olme`ne Dorival was immediate and brutal, and it sparked within him a longing for entangled legs, furtive fingers, hips taken right between his palms, the scents of ferns and wet grass.
Tertulien Me´sidor must have been fifty-five. Olme`ne Dorival was hardly sixteen. He owned three quarters of the lands on the other side of the mountains. He was a don*. A great don. More often than not she went barefoot and the only shoes she had ever worn were hewn from rough leather. He had made several trips to Port-au-Prince, and had even traveled beyond the seas and danced the son* with mulattoes of Havana. She had only left the limits of Anse Bleue to accompany her mother to the fish market in Ti Pistache, which smelled of rot and tripes and where flies danced wild sarabandes. Or, even, a little, just a little, further away to the big market in the city of Baudelet.
Unverifiable legends and tenacious truths hatched under this name Tertulien. They said that he had stolen, killed. That he’d had as many women as there were in our village of fishers and farmers. And still a lot of other things…
In the monotony of very ordinary days, Olme`ne Dorival only escaped through the gods, who sometimes rode through her in dreams, humors, colors, and words.
Tertulien, taking the reins of his beautiful ash, grey, chestnut horse, bent over to caress its mane again. But all of a sudden, not being able to stand it any longer, he clapped his hands in one quick, brusque motion towards Olme`ne. The sound echoed in all our ears like a whip. Olme`ne Dorival did not believe that the command was meant for her.
Neither did we. She had, like all of us, sometimes noticed this rider in the dust of the streets or on the Fretillons’ porch, right next to general store, in Baudelet. But she had done nothing but notice him, with due distance. He belonged to others –– the victors, the rich, the conquerors ––, not to the conquered, the defeated, like her. Like us. Poor like salt, male´re´, we say in Creole, unfortunate.
Olme`ne turned around but only saw behind her the old Man Came who sold medicinal herbs, the one-legged Altema sleeping right on the floor, and one young man holding a donkey’s bridle. She understood that she alone had to face the gaze of this man, the only mention of whom cast a dark shadow over the eyes of her father, Orvil Cle´mestal, and made his mouth swell with a dense saliva, which he spat in a big stream into the dust. She told herself that she would pretend to have seen nothing. Heard nothing. She lowered her head softly and pushed her disorderly braids back beneath her scarf. Then she feigned to arrange whatever fish – sardines, kingfish, paroquettes – her father and brother had caught the previous day, and to lay out the sweet potatoes, yams, red beans and millet in the basket that she and Ermancia, her mother, had placed on the ground. Raising her head, she took a long look at the man on the horse who started to want everything: her wrists, her mouth, her breasts, her flower and her source. And, as she scanned every trait of Tertulien Me´sidor’s face behind the smoky circles that rose from his pipe, Ermancia finished putting out everything she had brought with her daughter from her jardin*.
One of the two riders following Tertulien approached Olme`ne and pointed to his master. Tertulien took off his hat and, with a fixed grin that was at once a smile and a threat, asked Olme`ne to sell him some fish. He bought everything. He who, by several accounts, stopped eating fish long ago. Ever since a kingfish in court-bouillon had nearly killed him some years back. But that day Tertulien would have bought anything. That’s what he did. He didn’t haggle at all, like usual, over the price of the goods, and he paid the fisherman and farmers their due. He bought Ermancia’s millet, sweet potatoes, red beans, and some yams, which the two other riders hauled behind their horses.
Like all of us, Olme`ne had occasionally seen a truck, some horses or donkeys reeling under the weight of goods of all sorts, crossing the salty lands, forking behind the Mayonne River in the distance and climbing the bridge until disappearing, in the direction of the silent lands of Tertulien Me´sidor. Like all of us, she imagined, without saying a word and in a mix of curiosity and envy, what these cargoes were hiding. Whatever was or wasn’t familiar to her, it was beyond what she could possibly imagine. Beyond what we too were even able to invent. And if a smile twisted our lips or exposed our toothless gums in those moments, it was impossible, for her and us alike, to not hate the world for just a few seconds. Impossible to not hate those who looked almost like us, impossible not to blame it on the Me´sidors and their ilk.
The maids who once a week risked the trip to the market in Ti Pistache, Roseaux or Baudelet sometimes said something that piqued our curiosity for this world. A world that we, the men and women of Anse Bleue and of all the surrounding towns and villages, nonetheless avoided. With a determination equal to that with which the Me´sidors kept us at a distance.
A game that chained us all to the Me´sidors and that shackled them to us despite themselves. A game that we, victors and captives, had long ago mastered. Very long ago. That’s to say that an ancient story spanned between the Me´sidors, the wind, the earth, the water and us. But not some story about the origins of the world or the mists of time.
Just a story about men when the gods just barely stepped away… When the sea and the wind still hiss in whispers or wail at the top of their lungs their names of foam, fire, and dust. When the waters trace a straight line at the edge of the sky, blinding in bluish brilliance. And when the sun hovers like a gift or crashes like a fatality.
A story of tumults and very ordinary events. Sometimes of furors and hungers. At times, of blood and silence.
And sometimes of pure joy. So pure…
A story where a new world already straddles the old one. In fits and starts, like you could say about the gods when they ride through a chretien- vivant*…
Such it was that, on this dawning day in Ti Pistasche, not far from Anse Bleue, a village of tuff, salt, and water leaned by foot from the high mountains of Haiti, Tertulien Me´sidor, seigneur of his state, shaken to his core by the sight of Olme`ne Dorival, the peasant girl nonchalantly crouched right on her heels facing a basket of fish, vegetables and sundries at a distant countryside market.
The Me´sidors, due east, on the other side of the mountains towering over Anse Bleue, had always coveted land, women, and goods. Their destiny had crossed that of the Lafleurs and their descendants, the Cle´mestals and the Dorivals, forty years earlier. One day in 1920 when Anastase Me´sidor, the father of Tertulien Me´sidor, had stripped Bonal Lafleur, the great-great- grandfather of Olme`ne Dorival, of the last acres of his habitation* where acajous and mombins, the coffee of the bush, still grew under the shade of elms. Bonal Lafleur got this property from his mother, who wasn’t from the village of Anse Bleu but from Nan Campeche, a locality in the mountains sixty kilometers south.
Anastase Me´sidor had already appropriated the best lands of the plateau. But he also eyed the lands of others to sell for the price of gold to explorers and maverick soldiers who came from afar, like those in the United West Indies Corporation, who had descended upon the island when the Marines came. Persuaded that they were like the fincas of Santo Domingo or the haciendas of Cuba, grand properties that would make them a fortune and, at the same time, would transform us at last into civilized peasants: Christians on clean, brushed horses and wearing shoes. Tamed but landless. “Never,” a word that Solane`le Lafleur, the mother of Bonal, had repeated dozens of times to her son while tracing the sign of the cross on the ground and pointing, quickly and with outspread arms, to the steep slopes of the mountains. There high, in the dokos*, where the spirit of the Ance^tres marrons still blew. “The land, my son, it’s your blood, your flesh, your bones, you hear me!”
Anastase Me´sidor put a curse on the Roseaux brothers, Paule´us and Cle´vil, who thought they could stand up to him and play the rebels. They had disappeared in the fog of the first hours of the day, on the road that led them to their jardin. One was found on the Peletiers’ hillside, hanging like a rag doll from a mango tree, the other was devoured by swine on the side of the road leading from Ti Pistache to the Roseaux locality.
We, the Lafleurs, had the reputation of being unattainable and the bearers of powerful, even fearsome, points*. For kilometers and kilometers, many thought this power extraordinary and envied it. A power without bounds. Yet this solid reputation couldn’t stand up to Anastase Me´sidor’s insistent offer: one morning, grinding his teeth before a surveyor in a black wool hat and a notary in a dark grey three-piece suit that was much too small on him, Bonal Lafleur was forced to let go of his lands.
After a lecture that started with the words “Liberty, equality, fraternity, the Republic of Haiti” and ended with “here collated,” Anastase Me´sidor, the notary and the surveyor made it known to Bonal that he was no longer the proprietor.
His ink-soaked thumb barely stuck on the paper in the guise of a signature, Bonal Lafleur demanded his due from Anastase Me´sidor.
Yanick Lahens was born in Port-au-Prince in 1953. After attending school and university in France, she returned to Haiti., where she taught literature at the university in Port-au-Prince and worked for the Ministry of Culture. Her first novel was published in 2000, and she won the prestigious Prix Femina for Moonbath in 2014.
Emily Gogolak is a journalist focusing on migration, gender, and the US-Mexico border. A former editorial staffer at The New Yorker and a James Reston Reporting Fellow at the New York Times, she now lives in Texas. A graduate of Brown University in Comparative Literature, she is also a literary translator. Her translation of Moonbath won a 2015 French Voices Award.