A Head for Monsieur Dimanche
An English novelist who is at present a research fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University, ANDREW SINCLAIR first visited America to study the prohibition movement under the direction of Oscar Handlin of Harvard and Richard Hofstadter of Columbia. His latest book, PROHIBITION, THE ERA OF EXCESS, WOS published in February under the AtlanticLittle, Brown imprint.
A Story by
MY HEAD lay on two raised boards. It had already been sliced from my shoulders by some guillotine. Monsieur Dimanche was cutting off my forehead with his ax. White chips of skull, pale shavings of skin stood up under the blade and flew away as distant gulls.
“My hatchet is my paintbrush.”
Monsieur Dimanche did not speak much as he worked. A quivering fury pinched him continually, once he had picked up his gouges and chisels. This tremor of creation put a frenzy into his fingers. His tools were possessed with the speed of an angel’s sword. They hacked, scraped, delved, dug, incised, scratched ten times too fast for care. Yet bis finished sculptures in wood sometimes held all the precision of patience.
Each time the ax fell on my forehead, I died a little death. I was sitting five feet away from my own face, which was laid out ceremoniously as the stone mask of a knight on a medieval tomb. My stiff hair seemed a helmet on my brow. My cheeks were drained of blood. I felt myself to be the soul let free from the flesh. I was my own spirit watching Monsieur Dimanche try to mold the white oak of my death into a decent likeness of my life, good enough to persuade my mourners that my descent into the beyond had not been too unprepared.
Monsieur Dimanche put down his ax. His words had been locked in the log which he was shaping into my head. Now they poured out oi him like the babble of splinters from under a mechanical saw. “Before you came,” he said, “I had a dream. I was in despair. Then this monk appears to me, this Eastern monk. There is a great fire in him. He says, ‘Fly with me.’ I know I cannot fly. But he takes me by the hand, and I am flying. And the same fire shines out of me.” Monsieur Dimanche laughed. Then he said with great seriousness, “You are the monk.” Then he picked up his ax again.
Outside the studio, black children in bare feet were begging a brief stay to their hunger. They parroted the mystic phrase, “Five cents, Joe,” to the passing tourists. Outside, women carried straw hats full of hens and mangoes. They squatted, knees akimbo, on the edge of the gutters of Port-au-Prince, to make their few cents of profit on their petty trading each day. Outside, one man in ten could find work in the capital of Haiti — this was depression. When one man in three could find work, it was prosperity.
My wife Marianne and I were staying at the Gingerbread Palace above the city. We were living like a king and queen, dining hugely to the sound of dances called merengues, in the glow of candles set among plucked poinsettias with their bleeding open palms. I was in luxury among poverty. My fasting was an endless gorging. If I was a monk, then my monastery was in the center of Sybaris. But, in fact, it was set on the rim of the slums.
“I am no monk,” I said. And, as if to prove my words, the ax in the hand of Monsieur Dimanche stuck in the wood. He chipped away two or three times. He was worried. I saw a large knot appear on my left temple. “I told you I was no monk,” I went on. “That flaw in the wood is the hole for the left horn of the Devil.”
Monsieur Dimanche shook his head, and continued to chip with his ax. The black blade hacked through the white oak, as arrogant in its sure attack as the victories of the liberators, Toussaint L’Ouverture and Christophe and Dessalines, against the slaving French one hundred and fifty years before.
“Ah,” Monsieur Dimanche said, appalled. He was cutting back my right temple to the level of the left. As he cut, he uncovered another dark knot in the wood. It was the slot for the second horn of the Devil. There were no other flaws in all the bleach of my face. Only the two blobs high on my forehead just beneath my hair, the marks of the Evil One.
“Nature does not lie,” I said. “You told me so. Your method is to find the life in the root, to free the true forms of nature from each branch and log as Toussaint freed the slaves from their chains. You said yourself that you do not sculpt. You merely bring out what is hidden in trees. You believe you can’t make a false stroke with your hatchet, because a mistaken blow suggests a new interpretation to you, which was really the right one all the time. You know there’s a divine hand guiding your hand. You’ve never spoiled one sculpture. Each stroke of the ax is good for something. All your works have turned out to be what God and nature intended. You believe so. Then, look, I must be the Devil.”
Monsieur Dimanche was embarrassed. He did not like to contradict his patrons. His tea-brown forehead behind the two saucers of his spectacles was rippled with doubt. “You are the monk,” he said uncertainly. “You have brought me money and luck. I was in despair. Everywhere, the migraine. Now I am fired with energy.” His ax hung heavy in his dropped hand.
“I am a white Devil,” I said. “Or else my wife is being unfaithful to me in the hotel. Those knots are definitely the places for horns.”
“No, your wife is not unfaithful,” Monsieur Dimanche said.
“Then I am a white Devil.”
“No, the monk. I will prove it to you.” Monsieur Dimanche pulled a black leather purse from his pocket. He opened the snap fastener and took out a small shard of pottery. “This will prove you are the monk. It is a piece of the leg of Christ.”
I held the lump of clay between finger and thumb. It was an inch of ugliness. It seemed, of all inconsiderable things in the world, the least worthy of keeping. I gave it back to Monsieur Dimanche, who tucked it away carefully in the small museum of his purse.
“Convince me,” I said. “Convert me.”
MONSIEUR Dimanche told bis story in a rush of faith.
“I have no money a long time ago. There has been a cyclone at Jérémie, where I was born. I hear that the graveyard itself is torn apart by the great wind. I go back to see if the grave of my parents is well. It is. But when I walk up the hill in the graveyard to the place of the Calvary, Christ is gone.
“I stand by that ruin of Calvary for an hour. The Christ that was there has been my inspiration since my childhood. I weep to find Him gone. I want to make another Christ in wood for the Calvary. But I know that the fathers will not let me. They order the Christs direct from Europe to make the peasants believe. If the peasants knew that a man from Haiti itself had made the Christs, perhaps they would not believe.
“Before I go away, I pick up a fragment from the leg of Christ that is lying on the ground. I keep it always with me. I go home, and I look for a piece of wood for the Christ that the fathers will never allow me to make. I find the wood in the forest. I cut it and bring it home. For a week, I sit alone, chatting to the wood.
“ Then a message comes from the fathers. They want me to make a Christ, the first Christ ever made by a Haitian sculptor. It is not for the Calvary at Jeremie, but for a church. I make the Christ. Another order comes in for a second Christ. I make Him too, and a third Christ, whom I see hanging among the trees in the forest. But I do not sell the third.
“Every time that I have no money, I go to the third Christ. I say, ‘Look, man cher, I haven’t got a gourd. I give You the best place in my studio, right under the light. You are the first thing every visitor sees. And You pay me back by paying me nothing. I’m going to punish You.’ And I move Him each day to a worse and worse position in the studio. And I keep on at Him. ’Mon cher, if You don’t buck up, I’m going to be forced to sell You. And You won’t have it so easy as You have it here with me.’
“And, sure enough, every time that I remind Christ like this, He helps me. One time a friend lends me money. Another time a rich American buys four hundred dollars’ worth of sculptures. So I put back my Christ in the front of the studio, right under the light. And I thank Him. ‘I knew You wouldn’t let Yourself be sold,’ I say. ‘You are much too happy here.’ And I add ten dollars each year onto His price, so He will not need to be sold.
“Then, when I was poor again. He sent me this dream about the monk. So I knew you were coming. I even chose a piece of wood to make you in. Of course, you do not come from the East. But I am making your head stylized, thin and long and white. For that is what I see in you. You are the spirit of the monk. As long as I have my Christ, in my studio and in my purse, neither shall be empty.”
Such a confession of faith could not be denied. It could only be understood, and disbelieved. I did not believe it, but I said nothing.
Monsieur Dimanche put down his ax and lifted my head onto its base. Above my polished nose and cheeks, great troughs of roughness had been hacked into my forehead. Thought seemed to have scratched out my brow with its fingernails. “Come back tomorrow. I will have smoothed it,” Monsieur Dimanche said.
He had, indeed, made my head. Only there was something about the eyes. They were white blind eggs that could hatch nothing. They did not perceive.
“The eyes,” I said. “Perhaps they should be more deep-set.”
Monsieur Dimanche took my chin in his right hand and turned my face toward the electric light bulb in the ceiling. “Yes,” he said. He let go of my head, and began to draw on my wooden eyes with a red pencil. The oak bled with false pink wounds. “Tomorrow we will finish that.”
I went through the polite ceremonies of the Haitian good-bye, a ritual of mutual flattery and promises of immediate return. Outside, evening had laid its blanket on the city. The orchestra of the night had begun, the repeated tin-tin-tin-tintin of singing lizards, the endless chirr of crickets, the hooting of car horns, the drumming from a far bamboche for street dancers, and the interminable greetings of the local dogs. The hounds of Portau-Prince had only strength enough to yelp in the cool of the dark. In the time of the sun, their bones stuck so visibly through their skins that they had to lean against a wall to muster up the energy for one brief bark.
Inside my pocket, the hundreds of dollars for hotels and art, the jingling dimes for petty charities burned brands along my thighs. I dreaded the inevitable cupped hands of the beggars. For the shame of giving what was so little to me was almost greater than the shame of refusing what was so much to them. The pain was to be asked at all. Every demand placed me surely with the careless and the rich and the white. The passing faces, indigo beneath bright bandannas or straw hats, seemed ready to blot my precarious peace into guilt. But no one approached me. As I came up the steps of the hotel, from where even the last of the boy sellers of beads had been sucked away by the dark, I heard the voice of an unseen guest saying with conviction, “But they’re such a happy people.”
That was their trouble. Those who saw only the frequent laughter of the Haitian people confused their grinning with their content. The very rich of Haiti declared that they envied the poor for their simple joy. The smiles in the streets were the satisfaction of the dinner tables. The grace and beauty of the thin men and girls of the city gave endless aesthetic pleasure to the gross inhabitants of the restaurants on the hills of Pétionville. But for how long would the people smile and stay thin? For how long would they suffer to be so?
As I reached the veranda of the Gingerbread Palace, I heard a commotion behind me. There was a threat of song. There was the grunt of a conch shell, rhythmically blowing. There were lights, the flowing torches of revolt. A long column of shaking men was coming up the drive, like the battalions of slaves from the Bois Caïman, where the ceremony of the severed pig had sent them out, avenging gods from Guinea, to break their brothers’ gyves and to burn the sugar plantations of France. Were they risen again, sick of the slavery of want? I felt myself alone, ridiculous, imperialist, damned by skin and mind and income to misunderstanding unto death.
A waiter went out to meet the column. Uncle Tom to the dark tower came. And the column unexpectedly turned away, obedient as a crocodile of schoolchildren, and honked its jigging way down the drive. The waiter returned. He explained that the whole thing was merely a Rara procession. Each year groups danced to chase away the evil voodoo spirits, the loas. There was nothing to the whole thing.
Yet throughout the nighttime city, voodoo priests were drinking the blood of a headless cock, as it flapped its wings in a last spasm while the priest drained it dry. There were five thousand voodoo priests in Port-au-Prince alone, more in the plains outside. Each dawn, the cocks crowed the day awake. Each night, their bodies were ceremonial bottles, burned after use. At this frequent blood sacrifice, the murder at the heart of Haiti was appeased. The machetes that hung at every belt needed no further victim. The rest of life was in the hands of le bon Dieu bon. The voodoo and Roman Catholic priests assured men so.
Thus, the gnawing anger of the land was eased by the ritual killing of fowls, by the resigned belief that God would provide, and by the laughter that can outface despair. Only the daily labor, or the search for it and for food, was not to be escaped. As they worked, the men reminded each other of the Creole proverb, “If work were really such a good thing, the rich would have taken it all long ago.”
I thought of these things on the veranda of the Gingerbread Palace, and I could see only revolution ahead. A sudden spatter of rain fired a volley on the roof. The repeating rifles of the drops stuttered their requiems. Haiti has only two seasons, the season of dust and the season of mud. This was the muddy season, and it rained each evening for one hour. Somewhere beyond the horizon, real rifles were coughing out men’s lives, and corpses lay along the beaches of Cuba. Revolution and counterrevolution, rich and poor, each for each and all against all — must that be the way of the Caribbean? Only the Dimanches of the world were excused from these considerations. For them, God was the good. They could carve Him so. Through the ethical glasses on their eyes, they could see only the good in others, and, with this strange insight, could shame men into goodness, from the very weariness of doing evil. To Dimanche, I was a monk and Haiti was a heaven. His inexplicable expectation in us prevented us from doing what we wanted to do, to act like the Devil in hell.
THE next morning, Monsieur Dimanche took Marianne and me up to his studio in the mountains. His head bobbed at the level of our shoulders. He shook with the ecstasy of showing his secret place to strangers. We walked up the hill, past the careful villas that aped in stucco and tile the kempt Rivieras that girdle the beaches of the world.
After a quarter of an hour we reached a mountain village, where mud huts with roofs made from the dried heads of sugarcane brought Africa a step away from suburbia. Below us, men were working in the fields, at the sugar harvest. They moved in a long line, swinging their machetes against the stilts of their giant enemies.
One sweep of the machete clears the tangle about the cane.
Another cuts the cane eight feet from the ground.
A third amputates the cane at the ankle.
Two stripping rips, one up and one down, flay the cane alive from its skin of dead leaves.
A flick of the left hand, which holds the cane, and a cut with the machete in the right hand, and the single stalk flies as two thin legs twenty feet back to the high pile behind. Each attack on a cane takes only a few seconds. It is done with that economy of moving that is all of grace.
Behind the cutters, women and boys tied the cane in bundles and gathered the heads. The incredible industry of the hacking men in front left no room for pause. Each man should cut two tons of cane in a day. For this, he might earn the small fortune of a quarter of a dollar. Indeed, le bon Dieu bon.
As I saw the cane lying down before the machetes, and saw the whistling arcs of the stalks bombard the earth behind the men, I narrowed my eyes to that fuzz of eyelash through which a man may peer to verify his imaginings. The thickets of cane were now the tall regiments of the Republic, of the slave owners, of the West. The machetes were scything them down, though the regiments were twelve feet high in their green shakos and forage caps. The cutters now broke into a Creole work song which I could not understand. But the sound was transmuted by the alchemy of my fears into the jeremiads of hate of die great Jacques Roumain.
to stop m the cotton-fields of Louisiana
in the sugar refineries of the west Indies
the harvest of vengeance
of the blacks
the filthy Negroes
Monsieur Dimanche took me gently by the arm. “Always our great thinker,” he said, laughing. “Please come in.” He led us into a hut that was narrow and long. It was divided into two partitions. The first was piled with logs and roots, some roughly shaped into Madonnas, loas, serpents, grotesques, and Devils. Yellow almond wood, brown wood, white wood, red wood all lay together waiting for the finishing of his hand. Only his final choice would discriminate among them.
We were taken into the second part of the hut. There, Monsieur Dimanche sat us on a bed whose springs were hard reminders of our flesh. Casually prepared, a violin lay open in its case. Monsieur Dimanche gave a transparent start of surprise. “Ah,” he said, “my violin just happens to be here. If you have a few minutes, perhaps you would like to hear me play a few tunes.”
We protested our delight. Monsieur Dimanche was ravished with pleasure to have this opportunity of showing himself both sculptor and fiddler. He played “Ave Maria” and “Haiti Cherie,” pitching the key to that shrill sweetness that seems to pluck at the very catgut of the brain. “I was with the fathers for three years,” he said. “It was then that I learned the violin.” Through the cracks in the side of the wooden hut, we could see the grinning black children’s faces, summoned by the music to an unexpected feast for their ears. Only their swollen bellies made a curve of discontent in their joy.
Above the head of Monsieur Dimanche, a long saw with two handles was attached to a beam. “Do you play the musical saw too?” I asked.
“Only when I cut my wood,” he replied.
“Yes, the music of cut trees, that is really something,” I said.
“ To plant trees is better,” he said.
He told us something of his history. He had worked among the peasants in the back country for twenty-five years for the Ministry of Agriculture before he had become a sculptor. He had taught the people to plant rubber trees that would both give them an extra source of income and protect the growing coffee bushes with their shade. Great plantations now grew where he had once worked. “Then you have planted more trees than you have cut down?” Marianne asked.
“Yes,” said Monsieur Dimanche, “many more.”
This man was a true genius at life. He planted existence for others in the bark of rubber trees. And when the trees died, he sought new life in the grain of the wood and the roots. He searched with his ax, destroyer and preserver, for the shapes hidden in the logs which could seed the eyes of men with fresh understandings. To him. the quick and the dead, the here and the hereafter, humans and spirits and plants all breathed and had to be helped. His vision of the world, whole and indivisible, was incurable. He would live long in such a disease of love, while others would die early from the healthy knowing of the conflicts and the classes and the ills of the earth.
On our return, Monsieur Dimanche finished his work on my head. He began to gouge at my eyes as they lay on the boards beneath him. But he did not like the position. So he called in one of his many sons and apprentices, who were always at their carving, the finished ebony of their bodies a reproach to the rough logs in their hands.
My head was stood on its base and tilted backward. Dimanche’s son put his two palms in front of his forehead, and used this living stay to support the back of my skull at the angle needed for his father’s work. The line of his body made one side of a Gothic arch, such as points the way to the scrolled heavens of the roofs of medieval cathedrals. The other side of the arch was made by the leg of the table and my head, joined by the whiteness of their wood. Ebony and oak, the living bearing up the dead, both equal and necessary — the miracle of the visual symbol was too apt. I smiled, while Monsieur Dimanche gouged at my wooden eyes that I might see.
“Monsieur Dimanche,” I said, “in this land where all the colors are so bright and ready, is there no color problem?”
“There are some who would have it so,” Monsieur Dimanche said. “They would stir up the blacks against the mulattoes for political reasons. They are sick in their minds and see things so. But it is not true. Mon cher, we are all here to help each other. You come to me. You bring me luck. Should I believe such silly things? We are all men.”
He dug the pits of my eyes deeper. His knife seemed to be searching for a canker in my mind. Small cysts of wood were falling down my cheeks onto the floor.
“You are right,” I said. “We are all men.”
With this admission, I entered the world of Monsieur Dimanche. I was baptized in the simplicity and the strength of his art and his beliefs. The banality of his opinions was a surprise and a shock. And now he was scraping and shaping my reborn eyes. The point of his gouge was tracing the ridge of my eyelids, was digging the holes of my pupils. He worked for half an hour. Nothing was said. I basked in the easy answers of the faith of Monsieur Dimanche. At last, he stood back.
My eyes were defined now, two ash leaves of peace under the branch of my brow. The face which Monsieur Dimanche saw in me, the face of the monk, the face of still melancholy and quiet acceptance, this face I could imagine as the perfect mask of my own. My flesh was at fault. My wooden face was more truly myself.
Monsieur Dimanche was looking at the bust with the incredulous surprise of unhoped success. I shared his joy. But as I looked at my face, I saw that its eyes were looking behind and beyond me through the window of the studio toward a babble in the street. I turned around. Marianne was walking toward us, long-legged and free, dressed in pink and orange, rare as a flamingo in flight against the sun. A small boy was begging, his hand a black bowl of want. She was shaking her head and showing her empty palms.
“Monsieur,” she said politely, leaning her face down to the level of the boy’s, “please excuse me. I would give you something, only I have left my purse at the hotel.”
The small boy did not understand. He watched Marianne go, and spat.
I looked again at my face. It was a bust in white oak. It was wooden and dead. “It is a wonderful resemblance,” I said to Monsieur Dimanche. For the statue at last seemed to be me.