Thursday, 7 September 2017

...of a traumatic event

The mass of labourers moves forwards, then back again in a strange sort of dance while the shouting rises and falls in strident modulation. Men brandish cane knives, scythes, and the women hoes and billhooks. Panic-stricken, I stand frozen to the spot, while the crowd jostles around me, encircles me. I’m suffocating, I’m blinded by the dust. With great difficulty I make my way over the wall of the sugar mill. Just then, without my understanding what is happening, I see the three horsemen start to gallop towards the throng that closes in around them. The withers of the horses are pushing the men and women back and the riders are striking out with their rifle butts. Two horses escape in the direction of the cane fields, pursued by the angry cries of the crowd. They pass so close to me I throw myself to the ground in the dust for fear of being trampled. Then I glimpse a third rider. He’s fallen from his horse and the men and women have grabbed him by the arms, are shoving him around. I recognize his face, despite it being twisted with fear. He’s a relative of Ferdinand’s - a man named Dupont, the husband of one of his cousins - who is a field manager on Uncle Ludovic’s plantations. My father says he’s worse than a sirdar, that he beats the workers with sticks and if they complain about him he steals their pay. Now it’s the field labourers who are mauling him, hitting him, insulting him, making him fall to the ground. For a moment, in the midst of the crowd that is shoving him around, he’s so close to me that I can see the wild look in his eyes, can hear the hoarse sound of his breathing. I’m afraid, because I realize he’s going to die. Nausea rises in my throat, strangles me. My eyes fill with tears, I strike out with my fists at the angry crowd that doesn’t even see me. The men and women in gunny cloth pursue their strange dance, their shouts. When I’m able to get out of the crowd I turn around and see the white man. His clothing is torn to pieces and he is being carried, half-naked, at arm’s length above the crowd over to the bagasse furnace. The man isn’t screaming, isn’t moving. His face is a white blotch of fear as the black people lift him up by the arms and legs and begin to swing him in front of the red door of the furnace. I stand there, petrified, alone in the middle of the dirt road, listening to the voices shouting louder and louder, and now it is like a slow and painful chant punctuating the swinging of the body over the flames. Then there is one movement of the crowd and a great wild cry when the man disappears into the furnace. Then the clamour suddenly ceases and I can once again hear the dull roaring of the flames, the gurgling of cane juice in the large shiny kettles. I can’t tear my eyes away from the flaming mouth of the bagasse furnace into which the black men are now shoveling dried cane as if nothing has happened. Then, slowly, the crowd breaks up. The women in gunny cloth walk through the dust, veiling their faces with their head rags. The men wander off towards the paths in the cane fields, knives in hand. There are no more clamours or noises, only the silence of the wind in the cane leaves as I walk towards the river. The silence is within me, is brimming up inside of me making my head spin, and I know I will never be able to talk to anyone about what I’ve seen today.

[The Prospector, Le Cl├ęzio, J. M. G.]

No comments:

Post a Comment