Catastrophe (part eleven)
But what, better than phrases, will permit you to imagine this destruction, are photographs. I have brought back many. I am publishing a few. Look at these, consider these—a countryside of crushed stone. And crushed is an insufficient word for certain quarters. The heights of the Fort district have been more than crushed; they have been pulverized, torched. Of the houses, the people, nothing remains. The area has been swept, razed…there is nothing left.
This was from the first great eruption, of the 8th. At the Mouillage, after the 8th, there were still a number of walls standing. The eruption of the 20th has completed its predecessor’s work.
Look, look at the photographs…they are eloquent, they are explicit, more so than my words and descriptions.
Some notes, some details, though, penciled in my notebook.
On the silence enveloping the countryside, a staggering silence…
Nothing…nothing… Only two heaps of coal, that have burned since the 8th, speak, by their fire, of life in these ruins. Thousands of joists and long rods of iron have been flung, twisted, onto the beach. Below, I saw under a slurry of ashy mud, some tatters of dirty stuff…
It was a dress of flowered percale…a woman.
Farther on, a packet of papers…of smoky ledger-books…
I search the cane. An attorney’s office was discarded here. I picked up a letter from 1849. And some photographs, stained and scorched. Of innocence, of grace, of beauty. Three portraits of babies who had asked no more than to live. Two portraits of beautiful young women…who once had lived. One woman, the mother.
In a neighboring heap, thousands of clay pipes, a warehouse full… Some are intact. I took one. Under the stones, not far from what was a rich trading house of M. Knight, the senator, all that stood were the masonry blocks containing the safe and vault… Searching, spreading ashes under rubble that smelled of death, I found some melted silverware. I have kept a spoon, fused together with a pair of sugar tongs.
There are no more remaining in the center of town. Everything here is stone. The second eruption made for the dead a vast tomb. The first corpse I encountered was on the Grande-Savane, near the stone bridge of the Roxelane…and it was no more than a demi-cadaver, a blackened trunk without legs, having only one arm, and for a head a formless thing. The gravediggers covered him with a few shovelfuls of earth and ashes.
On the stone bridge I looked for the plaque of marble where, under the reign of Louis XIV and the generalship of Count d’Ennery, a Danton—the monk Cleophas Danton, surveyor for France—had engraved his name. It is no longer there.
Under the trunks of venerable trees, wrenched and broken like wisps of straw, I saw the iron frame of an infant’s carriage.
Where, the baby being walked?
With desolation, with dread, one goes further in this mournful exploration, the silent ruins, the mortal ruins, peopled with their victims. One listens for them…and one sees…
Not everywhere is it illusion. At Trois-Ponts, I saw…
They were rotting.
There, at Trois-Ponts, on the hills of Parnasse, the upper limit of the gaseous cloud is well-marked along the flanks. On the eighth, all below was razed. Higher, a fifth—to estimate—is left alone. This gives around 120 meters for the height of the turbulence.
At the botanical garden, in the valley that leads to the hills of Trou-Vaillant, and the settlement of Saint-James, life returns. In the midst of burned trunks, a few starts of green. The reawakening of nature in death.
Ahead, in the fullness of destruction, on a cinder-covered slope above a college, we saw another reappearance of life. From the grey shroud ventured a few shoots of green, and a white flower. We baptized it, “perce-cendre”. And that made us…something. I affirm to you, in all sincerity, that this is not “in the literature”.*
The singularities among wreckage, they are always there. And this is useful, if only for the annoyance of those people always wanting, with these complicated phenomena of nature, a very simple explanation. In the college, where this little white flower pushed up, everything was crushed. Standing was a portico of the gymnasium, and three thin wooden beams…
At the hospital, in the midst of the ruins, the disinfection tank had not been crushed.
At the hill of l’Orange, again the dead…
It is an odor of death that has pursued me throughout the ruins.
The odor of forty thousand dead!
We have passed near the theater. Not without a certain emotion did I contemplate the incinerated ruins. Our friends of Saint-Pierre had proposed to make a great ceremony in honor of Schœlcher.
* This passage is a little cryptic. The reason for “something”, I interpret, is that the name they gave the white flower is a play on perce-neige, the French name for the snowdrop (galanthus). Their feeling may have been a sort of wistful humor, but Hess was reluctant to report that they laughed at this moment. Further significances could have come to their minds: the snowdrop is a traditional Candlemas offering, and generally associated with the Virgin. The Républic française called its fifth month, a period in January, Pluviôse, and a day of this month was called “perce-neige“.
In honor of which, a bonus:
Pluviôse, irrité contre la ville entière,
De son urne à grands flots verse un froid ténébreux
Aux pâles habitants du voisin cimetière
Et la mortalité sur les faubourgs brumeux.
Mon chat sur le carreau cherchant une litière
Agite sans repos son corps maigre et galeux;
L’âme d’un vieux poète erre dans la gouttière
Avec la triste voix d’un fantôme frileux.
Le bourdon se lamente, et la bûche enfumée
Accompagne en fausset la pendule enrhumée
Cependant qu’en un jeu plein de sales parfums,
Héritage fatal d’une vieille hydropique,
Le beau valet de coeur et la dame de pique
Causent sinistrement de leurs amours défunts.
Deluge-sion, in ire against the whole city,
A great flood from its urn pours a cold mystery
On pale dwellers of the neighboring cemetery
And the promise of death over suburbs foggy
My cat on the floor-tile searches his litter
Restless his body mangy and meagre
An old poet’s soul at sea in the gutter
Voices the sorrow of a shivering specter
The church bell lamenting and the log wrapped in smoke
Join with, in falsetto, the ailing pendulum’s stroke
A game, but yet fulsome of soiled perfumes
Deadly inheritance of bloated old age
The brave jack of hearts and the queen of old maids
Sinister cause of their lovers’ undoing
(Because of the rainy imagery, I’ve translated the name Pluviôse as a pun.)
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)