By April Rains
I’d long been sold off, but I wasn’t much older than you that night in the Crocodile Wood. So listen here, child. That was the night that silence was our war cry that sparked a revolution. I followed Gwinny that night past the sugar fields. I followed her ‘cause I could feel a cracklin’ in the air as the sun floated low on the sticky mosquito-singing air. I followed her too ‘cause I followed her everywhere. She wasn’t lookin for no baby girl. But I’d adopted her all the same. I didn’t have a Momma no more, but she wasn’t that to me neither.
Gwinny glided through the same sugar field that scraped and snatched at me. We were all tattered, even her, but she wore tired calico like it was chifon and I chased the frayed billow of that goldenrod dress through the columns of cane. Her steps cut through the dark woods gracefully and greedily. The clumsy hooves I’d yet to grow into stumbled and sprinted to keep pace.
When the shadows of the Crocodile Wood curled back, flickering, a fire lit faces in a clearing. There weren’t no children there but I was tall for my age. You are too, little one, ya know. So, I slowed and crept quietly, settling into the shadows like I was supposed to be there. I was good at being a shadow back then. The masters told me to be seen but not heard, but I preferred not being seen or heard. I was just scared all the time. I barely even knew my own name ‘cause they all just called me ‘mouse’.
Clustered amongst the crowd I could feel the heat of anticipation rise out the holes in our clothes. The rags we wore were shades of dirt smeared in judgement, shredded, and left unmended. Huddled together, our haze of heated frustration held back the cold hand of hopelessness. I’d only seen a couple of our services held in secret but I cherished them, even though each one risked Christian punishment. And I knew they always started with Legba, the gatekeeper between worlds. There around the fire the symbols and songs that called the crossroads to open up were already drawn on the ground and in the air. Offerings of rum sprayed over the figures of Legba and our other guardian spirits sweetened the air between pungent wafts of perpetual sweat and dried blood. The mambo priestess tended the collections of offerings while the houngan priest sang on the beat of the drums.
Gwinny floated through the crowd leading a black pig she’d snatched and hidden among a patch of sapling palms. The houngan’s song turned to speech about the brave men who died or worse in the wake of all the failed revolts before. Hearing those words and warnings I knew what a risk it was just to be here, just to hear them. The things they could justify doing to us for meeting together, for speaking our grievances, not to mention for serving our own gods.
I knew to be afraid, but I was focused on Gwinny’s face. It was hard. Gwinny was a soft woman with round cheeks and fluttering eyes. Her smile spread easy and her eyes floated over it, warm, like dumplings shimmering in broth. I’d seen that hard face only once before and it was just as unsettling on her now as it was then.
Gwinny’d had a baby boy, but not the master’s, and her frail body couldn’t have no more. He sold it straight off the breast and whipped her for it. He left her hanging there by her wrists a while before forgiving her back into quarters. Her face hardened hanging there. I saw it but was nothing any of us could do without finding ourselves in the right same straps.
She delicately handed the black pig off to the mambo and carried her stern face back to the shadows of the crowd. That pig was her offering to the brutal birth of a new hope.
The sun had long set and the crimson light had been replaced with deepening blue. Legba opened the crossroads. The drummers switched their drums and a new song began that skipped its rhythm on the balance behind the beat. Their fevered fingers clattered along the stretched skin, lingering, chasing but never catching the beat. Thumbs and fingers blurred together and seemed to multiply under the drummers intensity, striking an otherworldly number of blows to the drum. The stretched and scattered cadence creeped into me like fever chillin’ and heatin’ all my insides. Look see here, I got goosebumps all down my arms just thinking on it. The houngan spoke low. Those that crept forward jutted toward him their scarred holes where ears used to be. He growled intensely about the Gods that’d been born on this land, the ones that festered with rage at the cruelty lashed onto us:
“The more the masters punish us for our skin, for our own sacred rites, for existing as men at all and not as chattel, the more the gods seethe, alive, in our blood. Do men not seek vengeance when those innocent of torture are tortured? Do men not seek vengeance when children are snatched from their mother’s breast? Do men not seek vengeance when they are reduced to an object to be broken?” The crowd hummed tones of agreement.
“Our vengeance has failed before. The fault lay on our tongues. We’ve opened our mouths and betrayed our plans for revolution, our plans to enforce our freedom. But that rift will be mended this night. It will not fail this time, brothers and sisters. It will not fail this time.” At that the houngan and the mambo opened their throats to song and the crowd followed. I knew that song, though I’d only heard it once before and couldn’t remember where. The way that the houngan wrenched his throat from low to mid and shook it in its minor key; the way that the mambo swung her rhythms between his was like a melodic scythe sweeping low into my belly. It was a song you couldn’t forget. They were calling to Erzulie Dantor.
My momma had a little card of the Virgin Mary, her heart pierced with a sword. She’d drawn two scars on the Virgin’s face and called her “Dantor”. She sat me on her lap and told me how Erzulie had more than one side, kind of like how the Catholic God was a trinity that included the holy spirit. Dantor was the fiery side of Erzulie. If Mary had punished the Romans for torturing her son, that’d be Dantor. She was the vengeance against those who hurt us. I held the card and gazed into the stern face. I saw justice in Dantor’s red eyes, a hard justice, but justice all the same. My mother had put the card in my waist cord when they took me. I only had it the one day before it was found and taken. I was very young but the image was like molasses, sweet and stuck to me.
Chasing the beat, the wind picked up and gave its voice to the song through the junipers and the giant mango trees. Their song carried the last of the thickness in the air when the thunder joined in a low rumble. Chills ran up and down my body, like a current. But, my mind kept coming back to Gwinny and that day.
The master had sent her to mass for communion in her bandages, her wrists bound by shackles. Tortured by my helplessness, I followed her and stood in the shadows outside the open chapel window. The preacher was preaching loudly about Cain and Abel and making wide gestures as he talked about the purity of Abel sacrificing the lamb to God, about his service. He was trying to make some point about sin and sacrifice and how servants who are humble are cleansed with confession. His message was lost on Gwinny. She sat bleeding into her bandages. Her eyes were dead. Her slack jaw, limp lips, and leaden frame revealed only one expression: despair.
The crocodile wood was a shudder of converging voices. The crowd, the wind, the sky called to Dantor. And suddenly, she was there. From the shadows a body stepped forward mounted in spirit by Dantor. Her body twisted and her gesticulations were rapt with rage. Her face quaked with waves of manic exhilaration. Dantor had chosen Gwinny as her horse and all their collective fury flushed over every surface of Gwinny’s flesh. I remembered how the preacher’s words about the rapture of the Holy Spirit had washed over Gwinny’s worn spirit and left her listless.
Dantor rhythmically rushed forward to the fire and flew over it in a flutter of fabric and frenzy. The mambo and houngan gave their humble respects showing the offerings made to the god. Dantor looked down upon the tobacco, sweet potatoes, and the karabel cloth shawl and seethed through bared teeth. The mambo stepped forward with a double edge blade outstretched on both hands. Dantor snatched it zealously and quickly approached the squealing black pig. Her eyes were red under tightly clenched lids and tears of blood streamed down her face.
“Vengeance comes in my wake. Vengeance comes in silence.” Dantor said through a tense voice. The mambo laid a calabash bowl under the pig’s neck. Dantor’s blade silenced the pig and the blood streamed into a gathering pool. Pointing to the blood with her blade, Dantor purred, “Give me your silence and I will give you mine.”
The mambo passed the blood from person to person. It was my turn to drink, my decision to make, my promise to give. We were going to war and we would speak of it to no one not even each other until our tyrants were dead and our freedom was made. I felt the blood cooling in the bowl and gazed at Gwinny, remembering her on her knees before the blood of Christ in that gilded chalice; the way the priest smacked her cheek when she didn’t raise her lips to meet the gold; the way that she helplessly took in what was forced on her knowing it wasn’t her first time or her last. I opened wide my eyes and fervently took in my pact to freedom, my promise to silence. We all had.
The houngan drank last after the mambo and handed the calabash to Dantor. She drank the last drop and sealed her promise with the blade. It ran deep slicing into her mouth. One hushed voice, we collectively held our breath. She made no sound as she carved. No scream was uttered and the vacuum left by its lack rose hairs in waves over my flesh. The red fire light turned a slice of blue as lightning ruptured round us and she lay her tongue into the bowl. Blood streamed from her eyes and her mouth. She was an overflowing well and her chin was a slow fall of red. From it she almost seemed to smile as she raised her face to the rolling electric underbelly of heaven. The sky ripped open in a torrential flood baptising us all with its silent stream. The woods made no sound, not an animal or a bird. The wind in the trees was still. Not even the rain on the drums made a beat. We stared up into heaven as it bathed us and we drank in the sky together.
Dantor tossed her tongue into the flames and danced her convulsing ecstasy around the burning, her burning, our burning, before returning through the crossroads. Legba closed the gates behind her. She had left Gwinny the knife, a gift to her faithful servant. The fire was extinguished in the rain. But something burned inside us all. We dispersed slowly, the quietest of congregations. Not even the sucking mud made its noise. I stood under the warm flow of water feeling the blood coating my throat and belly. The sticky taste lingered on my tongue and the smell of ember circled my nose. I knew there was a war ahead of us and all I’d ever known was terror. And there was terror aplenty coming. But soaked to the bone in sky and burning from inside, I didn’t want to be a shadow among shadows no more.
As the crowd dispersed, I parted through them and walked right up to Gwinny and the mambo. All the blood was washed away in the deluge. They were on their knees serenely dancing to the silent song that remained when all the spirits had departed. They slowly came to a stop and looked at me quizzically.
“Teach me our songs?” I said. Gwinny leaned toward me and gazed deep into my eyes. She raised a finger to her soft smile and blew a “shhhh” past her virgin pink tongue. The mambo smiled slightly and nodded her head. I wanted to ask why Gwinny’s tongue was intact but this wasn’t the time. The answers would wait. They both took me by the hand and we walked back to each our own plantations and shacks, mute.
What was promised that night I would live to see fulfilled. Now, I didn’t know that there was a long way to go. There were years ahead of us before we’d see our constitution written and a lot of us still wouldn’t be able to read it. But, I knew then that tomorrow would begin a clamor of great violence. And I knew that our master would meet Gwinny’s new blade and the hard justice of Dantor. But I would see her soft nature and hear her sweet voice again someday soon. Gwinny’s rapture was only the vessel. What I hadn’t digested yet walking through the storm with our peace and our violent promise, was just how permanent a sacrifice I’d seen.
It was Dantor’s tongue that had been offered to our freedom. It was Dantor who never spoke again. And even past the revolution, past our tumultuous struggle to keep our republic in the face of new enemies and allies and allies turned enemies, past the years and decades learning my own voice in the songs and service of our spirits, Dantor’s word was never broken and she was never heard again.
Every time she strides onto my spirit I listen for her voice inside me. But her mouth opens and out falls only blood, her eyes weeping wounded tears. Think about it, child. Every time you’ve seen Dantor dance among us, have you ever heard her speak? That’s right... you haven’t. I wish you could’ve heard it, even just once. But then, I wouldn’t have you with me, would I?
She sacrificed her voice so that we could speak these words, so we could write our own story, so we could serve our own spirits. A god gave her tongue so that my tongue could be free to share with you, my own sweet baby, this story and our inheritance.
We walked out of the crocodile woods in the darkest hour of the night, a solemn scattering of dark bodies harboring warm light. To our masters we were all merely shadows barely capable of casting doubt on their conscience. But from the shadows in the silence we found ourselves spirited and ready to strike the dawn.
April Rains was raised on the move around the southern United States before graduating with a literature degree from the University of Texas where she focused on literature and anthropology of the African diaspora. She lives in the Netherlands where she’s stumbling along cobblestones and Dutch diphthongs, writing shorts of psychedelic sci-fi and historical fiction, researching the dynamics of African, American, and Dutch historical perspectives, and working on her debut novel.