Volume 29, Number 1

Madame Guillotine

Thomas Moreau

Erzulie Dantor.

I utter the name, and the piss is already running down the leg of that poor nun. Callow girl. Thought she’d stop by my shop, take off her habit for a few minutes. You’d be surprised the number of blans who sneak peeks at this here botanica… missionaries, diplomats, tourists.… It won’t be the first time Mama Dantor’s instilled a dose of healthy fear in the head and, god willing, won’t be her last.

‘Who is she,’ the girl asks for a second time, pointing as I light a candle at the feet of the Madonna and Child.

Oh, God…

‘Many things,’ I say.

She’s our protectress, our friend, our mother. But not to just anyone, no. Her love is earned—you gotta do your part. Wear her mind for a day and you won’t be so trusting either.

You’d see.

Ginen. That’s where she comes from, I tell her. The ancestral land across the waters.

As do we all.

She was the eyes who peered through the jungle fog, watching as our shackled feet moved in unison. Watching, waiting. Coils of downcast heads approaching the shoreline where shredded ribbons were hoisted above wood-iron giants riding the sea. Parasites cleaving to a host shore. Led behind those ghost faced demons, with their straw beards and leather feet. A holy book in one hand, a bullwhip in the other.

She saw it all, chérie. Her children, a holocaust of bodies littering the red coastline. Fire and smoke. Wailing as gunpowder burned out our insides. Our ironclad necks linked and led into the belly of the beast. Feeding us, one by one, into the jaws of those wood-iron giants. They swallowed us all. Into the belly of hell.

Mama Dantor watched it all, with hot tears streaming down her face.

“I will go, too,” she announced to the Gods of Dahomey. “I, too, will share their darkness.”

Could you abandon your own children?

And so they went. Sufferin’. So much sufferin’ inside that belly, chérie. Stricken with plague. Given as food for rats and lice. The filth absorbed into lacerations, infecting the blood, itching the legs to jump to watery emancipation, where more than a few chose the floor of the sea over the humiliation of the auction block. A million times over, she wailed. An owl screeching in the shadows of night as those wood-iron giants glided across the waters.

When the mouths opened once again, sunlight came, and we were spat out onto a golden shore. The New World, they called it. Mama Dantor’s primal eyes gazed across the land. Sugarcane and swampland. Servitude and white-legged palaces. From that moment forward, she was a goddess displaced. Neither here nor there, but makin’ her abode anyways. African blood inseminated into the womb of the Carib. You grow where you’re planted, chouchou.

And still she watched… watched as her children were divvied for consumption. Forced onto the auction block… our teeth examined, our bodies appraised. Families cut like the playing cards in Master’s parlor, that musty room with porcelain cups and flowered walls. Satin furniture and powdered wigs. Where on the mantle sat a holy book that told us about a crucified god named Love. Master in this life and the next. Meeting us in the fields. Working us and subjecting us to cruel humiliations. Dry, blistered skin and soiled rags beneath the merciless heat of day. Sugarcane stalks sticky with blood and sweat. But never our tears, no. They wouldn’t extract that. Our tears were ours.

A marriage of time and brutality was what dried those primordial eyes of hers, chérie… Dried, enraged and kindled them from dirge into serpentine flame. With each passing day, the fist of the people wrapped tighter and tighter around the scythe, tilling an active volcano. Seething. Planting the seeds of white man’s destruction.

At Bois Cayman, the white man’s end began. The year was 1791. One night, a mambo offered Mama Dantor a Kreyòl pig, and something happened. Call it blood kerosene thrown onto retribution’s fire. The offering nourished her and, for the night, she became flesh. She entered the head of the mambo holding the very knife that called her in.

“It is time,” she said.

And with one voice our voices cried out, our scythes and torches raised high to the sky. To the beating of drums, she danced with us through the flames. We followed those serpentine flames into the night, unfettered feet moving in unison towards the white-legged palaces that shadowed our existence for too long. Torches in one hand, our field tools in the other. The ancients and ancestors by our side.

And with emancipation on our lips, we lit the night sky afire, slitting Master’s throat while he dreamed of his greed. Reclaiming what was ours and meting out what was his.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité. They learned these words from us, chérie. They learned them from her, the real Madame Guillotine. We burnt their aristocracy to the ground, and when Pharaoh’s armies came to reclaim us, we drove them back into the sea.

I stop and look at Sister. The handmaiden of the Lord is now contemplating her coffee, or who knows what. But her bloodless face tells me that some invisible crystal has just shattered inside of her. She opens her mouth to say something, but the knock at the door doesn’t wait.

I smile, because I’d know that knock anywhere. Another white redeemer, entranced by the candleflame that glows red from my window.

After all this time, Mama’s still cutting off Master’s head.