Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
b y   k a t i a   u l y s s e   ~   b a l t i m o r e ,   m a r y l a n d

RAYMOND'S ATTEMPT to scream for help failed. The sound that finally passed through his throat was barely audible. He lifted his eyes towards the nonchalant sky and smiled like one who expected some grand thing to happen. Perhaps angels would glide through the patches of cloud and whisk him out of the cornfield; perhaps the ancestors would open their arms to welcome him. It had been only a few seconds since the crushing pain in his chest began, but to Raymond it felt like hours. He searched the sky for angels, or ancestors, but no one was there. The clouds stood still. The noonday sun raged on, pounding hot rays into Raymond’s bald head in its usual merciless way.

A feeble breeze swept over the corn stalks and leveled Raymond. His head scattered a clan of red ants that were probably transporting the day’s meal back to headquarters. Raymond struggled to push himself to his feet, but his arms and legs refused to cooperate. A shaft of light reached him on the ground, revealing a spiraling wall of dust motes through which Raymond beheld his wife. Cherie, he wanted to say, but his tongue was too heavy a lump.

“Raymond!” she screamed a double-edged scream that slashed the last bit of consciousness out of her husband. Now, there was only darkness, oblivion so bitter that Raymond’s mouth filled with bile. When consciousness finally returned, Raymond found himself stretched out on the pallet inside the hut he shared with Madan Casseus and their three boychildren.

Madan Casseus sat on the dirt floor beside her husband, keeping a hand on the cool compress she had placed on his head. She sent her oldest boy, Raphael, to fetch Doctè Massenat, the only doctor in Puis Blin who made house calls.

When Raphael returned with Doctè Massenat almost three hours later, Madan Casseus explained what had happened to the best of her knowledge: “Mari’m indispoze,” she said. “Raymond fainted in the field.”

The doctor removed his hat and fanned his face inside the sweltering hut. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and spread it on the dirt floor before kneeling down to examine the patient. The doctor pressed a couple of fingers against Raymond’s neck and waited for the pulse to speak to him. He nodded as if the blood gushing through Raymond’s veins had said something in a language only he could comprehend.

Madan Casseus twisted the hem of her housedress. “What’s wrong with my husband?” she wanted to know.

“Shhh!” The doctor pressed a finger on his lips. He peeled back Raymond’s eyelids for a quick look. He turned towards Madan Casseus and shook his head. “He needs to be in the hospital,” Doctè Massenat advised; the jar of salve in his bag would be useless in this case.

“Sa’l genyen?” Madan Casseus’s voice trembled.

The doctor scratched his head. He had seen Raymond’s condition before in patients who almost always died. He hunched his shoulders and said “He’s not doing too good, but the doctors at the hospital are very skilled.” Doctè Massenat rose to his feet. “Most of them studied in France or in America. They have all sorts of fancy medicine.”

Doctè Massenat anticipated Madan Casseus’s next question and fired an answer that shattered the earth under the woman’s bare feet. “I wish I could drive your husband there myself,” the doctor said as he put on his hat and headed for the door, “but I have an emergency in another katye.” The doctor took his leave, also taking the sliver of hope his presence had brought.

Madan Casseus reached into her bra and removed a few crumpled gourdes. She gave the money to Raphael. “Go to Kafou Djoumbala and hire a tap tap. Quick.”

Raphael said what he always said when he had to get somewhere in a hurry: "Pye, sa’m manje m’pa ba ou?” His feet kicked up dust as he ran up the road. “Feet, when have I ever eaten and did not feed you?” He repeated the words over and over until he reached Kafou Djoumbala, where tap tap drivers waited for passengers. He hired one and rode back to the hut.

The kind tap tap driver helped hoist Raymond’s body onto the enclosed flatbed. Madan Casseus and the boychildren rode to the hospital in silence. When they reached the hospital, the tap tap driver helped carry Raymond through the long corridor, where a row of pregnant women in labor waited with thighs wide open and stunned looks in their eyes.

Hours later, a doctor—in bloodstained scrubs—examined Raymond and told Madan Casseus that her husband had suffered a stroke. “You could leave him here,” he said, as if she had asked his permission to tie her goat to his fencepost. “I don’t know if we can fix him,” the doctor added, “but we can watch him, for a while; if you can pay.”

“I can pay,” Madan Casseus sucked her teeth. “Please, fix my Raymond.”

With Raymond suddenly stricken, Madan Casseus became the sole provider in the household. The few gourdes she usually earned from selling fried food to tap tap drivers and their passengers at Kafou Djoumbala would not be enough to feed the boys and cover the hospital bills. So, she did the one thing she never thought she would. She took the deed to the acres of land her father had left her and began to parcel out her heritage.

As news of Madan Casseus’ circumstances spread, speculators came from as far north as Kenscoff to secure a piece of Puis Blin. The offers were a pittance of the land’s value, but because of the exigencies of her situation, Madan Casseus accepted.

The cornfield where Raymond had collapsed was first to go. Monsieur Constant, a mulatto from Kenskoff, snatched that deal and enclosed the property with a fence so high that even the crows had difficulty flying into it.

Within days, Madan Casseus’ heritage was gone with the exception of the three acres she vowed to keep for each of her boys. They would never need to beg anyone for a place to lay their heads at night.

She abandoned her vending stall and took a jitney to Port-au-Prince every morning to spend the day with Raymond. His condition remained unchanged. He had to be spoon-fed; his right arm and leg were still useless, but she paid the hospital the equivalent of an acre of land for each day Raymond was in their care.

During the few visits when Raymond was more or less coherent, he asked to be taken home. When the money was almost gone, Madan Casseus had no choice but to agree.

As soon as they reached the hut, she sent Raphael to fetch Boss Pyè, a leaves doctor about whom she’d heard it said that even though he could neither read nor write, when his Iwa spirits mounted him, that man could speak seven languages.

Boss Pyè was about 50 years old, a thin man with sunken cheeks, black-black skin, sugarcane moonshine-red eyes, a broad smile of saffron colored teeth, and large hands. His fingers were heaped with oversized silver rings topped with yellow and red stones. He was soft-spoken but with an extremely confident demeanor. The coarse karabela denim pants and matching shirt swung from his skeletal frame as if from a clothesline. The straw djakout bag slung over his shoulder contained seven white candles, two chicken feet bound with a black string, a flask of sugarcane moonshine, a whistle, and a red handkerchief.

When Boss Pyè stepped into the hut, he bent over Raymond’s crumpled frame and looked carefully into the patient’s dim eyes. Then he rubbed his hands together as he sang an invocation to summon the spirits.

Boss Pyè made circular movements with his hands over the length of Raymond’s body, not touching it—lest the illness was contagious. “Li pran-ou koush poud,” the leaves doctor concluded after a few seconds. “Someone threw powder on your husband.”

Madan Casseus clutched her shirt collar and gasped. It suddenly occurred to her that something other than natural causes might be responsible for her husband’s condition.

“But, don’t worry,” Boss Pyè added. “I will root out the evil your enemy planted in your husband’s body.”

Madan Casseus sighed.

“How long he been like this?” asked Boss Pyè.

“Weeks.” She held up two fingers.

“Why you didn’t send for me sooner?”

“I put him in the hospital,” Madan Casseus said contritely, “but the doctors couldn’t fix him.”

“You wasted a lot of time.” The leaves doctor opened his djakout and removed the chicken feet. He ran the dried claws along the length of Raymond’s bad arm, leg, and the twisted mouth while he chanted in a scratchy baritone.

“The person who did this to your husband knows him—and you—very well,” the leaves doctor grunted. “May be a neighbor or a relative—someone who’s been in your house and eaten from your plates. This person is jealous of you.”

“Of me?” Madan Casseus gasped. “What do I have that anyone would want?” She searched her mind for who this enemy might be. She and Raymond had no real friends to speak of. When visitors came, they were received under the loofah tree, seldom inside the hut. Her only relative, Maggie, a sister who married a man from Petionville, thanked God for the day she left the unpaved streets of Puis Blin behind, and has never returned.

“You own good land,” the leaves doctor replied. “Your father left you a nice heritage.”

“I sold most of it to pay that hospital.”

“Oui,” the leaves doctor said, “I know. But there is still more.”

“Three acres,” Madan Casseus replied. “One for each of my boys.”

Boss Pyè gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. “Normally I charge two thousand dollars U.S. to drive out this kind of evil spirit, but because your situation is so bad, I will do the work for one thousand. U.S. dollars, please. But when I’m through,” his voice rose. “When I’m through, your husband will be like new. And your enemy won’t be able to touch him ever again.”

Madan Casseus did not have much cash left. As if he could read her mind, Boss Pyè said, “Give me five hundred American dollars now. We’ll work something out for the rest. Your husband’s health is more important than money right now, yes?”

She looked imploringly at the leaves doctor, who studied each subtle change in her face. Sensing her reluctance he said, “There is no time to waste, my dear woman. We must begin treatment today. Your enemy’s magic is powerful, but I can make a more powerful magic to heal your husband. All you have to do is decide. Now.”

Madan Casseus reached into her bra and pulled out a clump of damp bills. She counted five hundred dollars and handed them to the leaves doctor. He stuffed the cash into his pocket. He then reached into the djakout and removed five of the seven candles. “Make your demand to the spirit world,” Boss Pyè instructed. “Your husband will be like new before the last of these candles burns out.”

Madan Casseus nodded.

“You’ll need a young goat,” Boss Pyè continued. “Normally I buy all the provisions myself, but since I already gave you a discount, you’ll have to get the goat yourself.”

Madan Casseus nodded again.

“Mark your doorpost with the fresh blood to keep your enemy at bay. Take a plate of the cooked meat to a crossroads and make your demand. Put the plate down, then walk away without looking behind. If you hear someone call out your name, don’t answer. Whatever you do, don’t turn around. Take the goat’s head to the cornfield where your enemy tried to steal Raymond’s good angel. Declare that you want your husband back and then put the goat’s head in the ground. Do as I say, Madan Casseus, and I promise your Raymond will be well again.”

Madan Casseus smiled nervously.

“As you do these things,” Boss Pyè added, “I will be working on your behalf from my own home. Do you understand?”

Madan Casseus nodded.

“I will not stop calling on the spirits until your husband is well again. Do you understand?”

“Thank you,” Madan Casseus mumbled. “Thank you very much.”

The leaves doctor flashed a reassuring smile as he walked out of the hut.

The young goat was purchased, slaughtered and cooked. The doorpost was marked with the fresh blood, as instructed. The head was placed in a plastic bag—to be buried in the cornfield. Madan Casseus fixed a plate to take to the crossroads. She placed the plate at a corner and closed her eyes to make her demands to the spirit world. “Make my Raymond well,” she prayed. Afterwards, she went to the cornfield with the goat’s head in a bag.

“Whatever you are,” Madan Casseus said as she dug a little grave with her hands, “take this goat’s head and give me back my husband the way you found him.”

“What are you doing here?” a disembodied voice shouted, startling Madan Casseus, who tried to hide, but the new proprietor recognized her right away. He had gotten such a good deal on the land that he could never forget the woman who sold it to him.

Monsieur Constant leaned on his carved mahogany walking stick, which he carried strictly as an accessory, and repeated his question a little more forcefully:

"What in hell are you doing on my property?"

“Just passing through.”

Monsieur Constant looked at the little grave she had dug and the bundle she was preparing to bury.

“I don’t allow people to pass through my property.”

“Please,” Madan Casseus cried out. “Time is running out for my husband.”

Monsieur Constant came closer and prodded the bundle with his stick. “What’s in it?”

“Tèt ou ti kabrit,” Madan Casseus said in spite of herself. She had not meant to tell the truth.

“Get off my land,” the proprietor barked.

Madan Casseus opened her arms in supplication. “Please, Monsieur Constant. Someone threw powder on my husband. The doctors at the hospital couldn’t fix him. If I don’t bury this here, my Raymond will die.”

“Take your garbage and get off my land,” Monsieur Constant blasted. “And if I catch you here again, thunder strike me down, I’ll break open your skull with this cane.”

Madan Casseus scooped up the bloody bundle and hobbled back to her hut. She sent Raphael to fetch the leaves doctor. “Hurry,” she said urgently.

“Pye, sa’m manje mwen pa ba-ou?” Raphael told himself as he ran in the black night. When he reached the leaves doctor’s compound, he found him sitting around a card table with a group of men, each with a glass of moonshine before him. “Madan needs to see you,” Raphael said. Boss Pyè mumbled something under his breath and spat on the ground. He pitched the cards on the table and left with the messenger.

“Those Kenscoff hypocrites enrage me,” Boss Pyè scowled once Madan Casseus explained what had taken place in the cornfield. “They know more about magic than I do, but they pretend they don’t. I suppose it’s just not civilized enough for them.”

“What do I do now?” Madan Casseus sighed.

“There is another way,” Boss Pyè declared. “But that will cost a little more.”

“I have no money left.”

“You don’t need cash,” the leaves doctor replied. “I’ll take a couple of acres off your hands and call it even.”

“I have three sons,” Madan Casseus replied. “If I give you the little piece of land I have left, what will they have to call their own when I am gone?”

“It’s your decision,” said the leaves doctor. “You can either have your husband back, or keep the land for your sons. But believe me when I tell you this: I can see by the way Raphael runs that he intends to get as far away from Puis Blin as soon as his feet start to itch. And as for the younger boys, they will leave this place, too, one day. This country is going down, can’t you see? Your land won’t be worth five gourdes in five years. You have a chance to use it for something worthwhile right now. Yes?”

“I’ll take my chances,” Madan Casseus replied. “I’ll rest better in my grave knowing that my children have a piece of land to call their own.”

“What about your husband?” Boss Pyè pursed his lips. “He’s going to die if you don’t finish the work I prescribe.”

“You may be right,” Madan Casseus replied. “But Raymond and I are on our way out; the children are just now entering. They’ll need a piece of land to put their heads down at night.”

“Just don’t call me when your Raymond goes to the other side,” the leaves doctor grunted. “I don’t know nothing about raising the dead.”

“I’m sure you don’t,” Madan Casseus replied. “I’m sure you don’t.”

Katia Ulysse was born in Haiti.

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