The ringing comes with the wind, audible now with the dying of the light and the silence that rises like the laconic brother of dawn. Not the round peals of a church bell, fat like the full moon, but a tinkling: a servant’s bell, a shop door—in entrance or exit—the shuffling of chains.
Bliye m. Forget me. Forget me, she says.
Never. Never. Never. Never.
Her scent lingers; something brushes his face. He wakes.
Every night, the same ringing. Rhys lies with his eyes open, staring at the ceiling; then he turns to the wall, to the window, which overlooks the graveyard of St. Castulus the Martyr, jammed into a crooked trapezoid between two new-build houses in the cold English town of Grey Mare.
The bell, he knows, is a small brass thing mounted on a half-sunk, hunchbacked grave at the far end of the churchyard, near the stump of an old yew tree.
“It’s a safety grave,” said Mr. Saturday, the sexton, when he found Rhys staring at the grave one evening. “You know what a safety grave is?”—his voice was deep but nasal, as if his sinuses were swollen, sore.
Rhys shook his head.
“It’s what them Victorians used to have in case they got buried alive. Find yourself in a coffin and you’re still breathing, you ring the bell and someone comes and digs you out. Strange bunch, the Victorians. Paranoid. Buried-alive-a-phobia.” He let out a long, adenoidal laugh.
“Taphophobia,” Rhys said. “The word is taphophobia. From the Greek taphos, meaning grave.”
“Suit yourself,” said Mr. Saturday with a shrug, before turning, shears in hand, to execute a clump of grass that had grown above its station.
Rhys reached out his hand to touch the bell. It came back with a viscous brown liquid staining his fingers.
“You oil it—the bell?”
Mr. Saturday nodded.
“If it ever goes quiet, people will think I’m dead. Just a reminder that old Saturday is still around.”
* * *
She’s buried, he thinks. I buried her. He still feels her, deep in the pit of his stomach.
He thinks of the last time he saw her, of their room at the Hotel Enfers, stuffy, droning with insects and a temperamental air conditioning unit—Port-au-Prince in winter, hotter than summer ever gets in Gray Mare. The space next to him, the indent that should have been filled with her body, empty; the sudden almighty creak as the whole building shuddered, bones splintering, shaking as if caught in the throes of a tropical fever. My God, he thought, the world is falling apart.
He turned. Groped for her by his side.
I’m going for a drink, he remembered her saying. Don’t come. I want to be alone.
He’d taken her to Le Léthé, the bar at the Enfers, on their first date. Rhys had ordered a mojito, like a tourist, she a rum sour, and they’d talked, her words more riveting than anything the eclectic crowd of diplomats and criminals who drank around them had to say. A mini-djaz band played compas; they danced, him shyly; she took his hand and guided him.
Is she still there? he thought, as the world trembled, shouts and screams clawing at the crumbling walls. After their fight, he’d showered angrily and then lain on the bed, drifting into a frustrated sleep. But for how long? The clock on the bedside table had fallen to the ground. He was dizzy; the room spun, the floor sagged beneath his feet.
When he came to he was trapped in a dark triangle between his overturned mattress and a torn off section of his hotel room wall. A coffin, he’d thought, but no—it was a life capsule, stubbornly keeping him alive until, coughing, caked with sweat and dust, he was pulled from the rubble, his eyes aching at the light.
But not her; she was buried still.
Bliye m, she says when the night is quiet and dark. Forget me.
* * *
“Bliye. Forget.” She’d taught him the word. “Like the French oublier—easy, you see?”
“You know,” he said, trying to be clever, “that the English word forget comes from the Anglo-Saxon forgietan. But there is a word in English that comes from the Middle French oublier. Oubliette. It means a secret dungeon, where you put people you want to forget.”
“Yes, in Kreyòl the word is the same. Oubliyèt. We all put things we want to forget in the same place. In the little dungeon.”
“But you never really forget them, if they’re in a dungeon. They’re buried deep down; but still, they’re there.”
She shrugged. “I prefer your English word—what is it?” She thought for a moment before the word came to her. “Oblivion. Oblivion is final.”
* * *
From across the churchyard, the bell rings and rings. It’s the wind, he tells himself. Just the wind. But there is panic in the ringing; urgency. Someone is in the grave. Someone is trying to get out. Someone is letting him know they’re still alive.
He gets out of bed, covered in sweat, as he did in the stuffy hotel room with the broken air-conditioner. His hands shake like the room shook. He is unsteady on his feet. He pulls on a dressing gown and goes outside. Stalks to the churchyard, through the twisted wrought-iron gate. Turns back. Turns again. Back and forth, like his eyes moved over the list of those still missing, pinned on the tree in the drive of the collapsed Hotel Enfers.
* * *
An alarm bell sounded signalling they’d found someone. He rushed over but was stopped by a policeman. He realised only later that he had been hysterical, had pounded on the policeman’s chest, torn at his shirt, his hair, anything to be let through. It wasn’t her, he found out, in the end.
If only she had some way of signalling to him that she was still alive. A way to make a sound—a whistle, a horn, a bell.
* * *
Ding, dong, bell. Kitty’s in the well. He called her his little cat because she liked to sleep in. Sleep late. Stretch out on the bed in the room they shared. Now she’s at the bottom of a well, thrown in by a stupid boy. What a naughty boy was that. To try and drown poor pussy cat. Ding, dong, bell. Ding, dong, bell.
“I feel like I’m drowning,” she’d said, pulling on her clothes. “I feel like you’re suffocating me. I’m going for a drink. Don’t come. I want to be alone.”
* * *
Forget me, she says. Forget me, Rhys. I beg you. Leave me be. Leave me be.
Never. Never. Never. Never.
But it’s a lie. Her face is fading, her contours blurring. He cannot remember the colour of her eyes. He knows their colour. But he cannot picture them. Her voice, too, has become nothing but an echo, the words she spoke and the sounds she made fading, like a melody on a scratched record, slowly disintegrating into noise.
The bell reminds him. She’s there, beneath the ground. Alive. Living. Breathing. Ringing for help.
* * *
In the evenings, they watched old movies together on the shaky TV. This time, an old French film, Orphée, sputtered in and out of being.
“Don’t you think it was selfish” she asked him when it was over, “for Orphée to go into the underworld like that?”
He said he thought it was heroic. How could you not think that? To journey to hell to rescue the one you love.
“People don’t always need rescuing,” she said. “I think Eurydice would have preferred to be left alone. She didn’t need him coming down there, embarrassing them both with his poetry. She was doing just fine, I think.”
* * *
“You again,” says Mr. Saturday, sweeping the path clean of fallen leaves in the moonlight.
Rhys turns and looks at the sexton. The light falling on his face highlights his cheekbones, stripping them of flesh until only bleached bone shines through.
“What the hell are you doing out here so late?” he says, his nasal voice piercing.
Rhys replies coldly, “I could ask you the same thing.”
“Just doing my job.”
“At this hour?”
“At all hours, friend.” He takes a draught from a flask at his side. “You can’t clock off from guarding the dead.” He proffers the flask to Rhys. “Something to keep you warm?” The smell of rum fills his nostrils, sends a shiver down his back. He refuses the flask.
“So what do you do, friend?”
“I’m—” He corrects himself. “I was a teacher.”
“Wha’d you teach?”
“Comparative religions, at a university.”
The sexton says nothing. His eyes are rimmed with dark circles that look almost like sunglasses.
“But I don’t do that, not any more.”
* * *
Rhys’s guide set up the meeting a few days after he arrived in Port-au-Prince. “I know a girl who could help you,” the guide said. “She’s serves at a House in my neighbourhood. She speaks good English. She can help you.”
They met. Her name was Mirlande. She had long braided hair and clear, chestnut eyes, with fine wrinkles at the edges from smiling too often, too young. She took him, through back streets armoured with iron sheeting, to her temple, her hounfò. She told him to wait outside for a moment, and when she returned, she nodded, and led him through a series of dim chambers, which smelled variously of hot pepper plants and fermented sugar cane, into a small windowless room lit by a single candle.
“This is my Mama, Mambo Simone Pierre Louis,” she said, introducing him to a middle-aged woman in a red headscarf and a purple silk dress.
“A pleasure. Enchanté.” He smiled as cordially as he could. “Thank you for meeting with me,” he said, presenting her with a gift of Barbancourt rum, which they had picked up in a street-side liquor store on the way there. Mirlande translated his thanks, and the mambo returned his smile with a deep, slow nod. “Mirlande said you’d be willing to answer some questions for my paper?”
On the many shelves of an alcove in the back wall, plaster statuettes and gilded icons of catholic saints watched them with serene indifference. In the gloaming he could just make out wanga dolls and spirit pots, bags of tobacco, a bonsai tree, bottles of perfume that snared the candlelight and trapped it in their bellies, before setting it loose to dance along the blade of a machete.
He asked his questions, but his mind was foggy; Mirlande sat beside her Mama as he took his notes. And all he could think about was her soft voice as she relayed his questions, her slight smile each time his eyes flitted from the mambo’s to hers.
“You will come tonight, to the ceremony?” she asked as she escorted him from the hounfò and they emerged between a colourful auto-parts shop and a vendor hawking fried goat.
“Will it be OK with Mambo Simone?”
“My Mama I can convince. Will you come?”
“Will you be there?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said.
He nodded, smiled, and bid her orevwa.
* * *
The week before he left, they strolled around the Marché de Fer, hand in hand. Life seemed to burst from everywhere, the stalls selling spices and vegetables, the sway and dance of puffy blue dresses, even from the lambent eyes of the saintly icons and the transparent gallons of rum stacked in bottles. The air was thick with music, a tambour, the shuffle of calabash rattles.
“Can’t you stay a little longer,” she asked?
He looked down for a moment before saying: “Come back with me. I know it’s fast, too fast, but . . .”
“And do what?” she said. “My life is here; I’m needed here.”
“I need you.”
She shook her head. “No, you want me. There is a difference.”
“Don’t you want me?” He smiled at her, knowing that she did.
She smiled back and kissed him.
Later they made love in the heat of the Hotel Enfers.
The next morning, she was gone.
* * *
“Will you initiate?” she asked, when he returned, a few months later. “Become a part of the House. Stay. Serve the lwa with me.”
He looked down, as he did every time he was about to disappoint her. “I’m an academic. For me, I have to remain detached. It’s study, research.”
“Am I research, too?”
“Of course not. Come back with me,” he begged.
“Would you pull up a tree from its roots?”
“Then you cannot ask it of me.”
* * *
Rhys throws down his cigarette and stamps it out. The sexton gives him a grave look, and then laughs. Rhys sighs with nervous relief. He pulls out a packet and proffers it. “Would you like one?”
The sexton takes a cigarette. Turns it over and over in his hand. A rooster crows. “Sun’ll be up soon,” he says, not taking his eyes off the cigarette.
“I’ve never heard a rooster here before.”
“It’s my wife’s.”
“Your wife keeps a rooster?”
“Aye, keeps it in the church yard. Vicar says it’s OK.”
“And you don’t get any complaints?”
“No, not a single one.”
The sky turns slowly from black to purple, matching the colour of the sexton’s coat.
The bell rings in the breeze.
Gooseflesh rises on Rhys’s arms. The sexton takes another swig of rum, his face pallid in the grey pre-dawn light.
Eventually the sexton finishes his cigarette, throws it to the ground, and picks up his shovel. “I’ll leave you to it, then. He says.”
“Leave me to what?”
“Whatever it is you have to do. I’ll grant you leave to do it. This once. For the cigarette. My wife doesn’t let me smoke any more.”
He winks, then leaves. The graveyard is quiet, except for the ringing of the bell.
* * *
“Leave me be,” she said, after they had made love. “Forget me, please. You’re tearing me in two. I’m afraid.”
“Don’t be afraid.”
“You are the one who should be afraid.”
“Of who, your Mama?” he said, realising too late that his tone had been derisive, flippant.
She shakes her head. “My lwa, they disapprove.”
“I don’t want to take you away. I love you. I just want us to be together. Is that so terrible?”
“Yes,” she said, “it is. Terrible.”
* * *
He digs and digs, through sweat and dirt. His hands tear on rocks and consecrate the ground with blood. Inch by inch he digs his way into the underworld; inch by inch he gets further from the living and into the world of worms and corruption.
The sky above him is bright by now—pale like an upturned bowl of cream. But he is far, far away from the light, below six feet of earth.
At last, his bloodied fingertips scrape on wood, half chewed away by rot. He breaks through it, prising old nails from their holes, opening old wounds. And there, he sees her, his Mirlande, as if for the first time again; his heart leaps.
She is hardly more than dust, her hair musty and caked with filth. She smiles at him; and he reaches out to her, touches her face. He kisses her on the forehead, cradles her in his arms. I’ve got you, my little cat. You’re safe. I’ll never let you go. Never. Never. Never. Never.
“Oubliyèt” © 2017 by Dafydd McKimm. All rights reserved.
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