Logo The Fabulist

Man vs. Mastiff

  • By Patrick Chamoiseau
  • Issue 22
  • FableMarch 2018

The monster had snatched up the trail at the edge of the Great Woods. An enigmatic odor, changing as it gained access to the knotted heart of the jungle. Thin at first like sighs of dry wood, it had opened into unbelievable perfumes. The monster had detected cemetery-mustiness, coming-undone flesh, disinterred sweats. It had no trouble following this odorous crisis thick as a rope and smelling so much like flesh both dead and alive that the monster had felt its speed increase.

Then the trail had changed again. It had mingled with stale vegetal aromas like a lace of liquor with endless variations. The mastiff had sensed fears from more than twenty thousand years. Genetic torments. Boiling bubbles of terror. This multiplied its impact on the ground tenfold. The trail had morphed into the astringency of wormwood, then almond, then camphor, which had asserted itself over the rain-forest fug. The trail soon had little left that was human. The mastiff’s nostrils caught intrusions of pumice stone and battered basalt. For a moment it had thought itself pursuing an aigle-malfini—a broad-winged hawk—because of a whiff of fluorined rain. The mastiff had thought it was tracking the rank wolf of the great snows, or the ear-shredding mountain bear. It had thought of the Norman black ram for which one heated up a thirteenth silver bullet in a casket of mandragora. It had picked up on the musk of those weasels that rout gypsy caravans. Or that of the badgers pursued by master-scholars eager to mush their brains into anti-epileptic medicines. Up had come miasmas from cat bones disinterred at night for their ability to turn everything invisible. At times, the monster had thought it was crossing those cornfields where each ripe kernel bore the image of a virgin and above which storms would melt away. It had had the feeling of running toward a sea where jellyfish swamped corals with their viscous suicides. Only the imperial continuity of the trail had allowed the monster never to go astray: the track varied infinitely without breaking and the dog had learned that was the thing, that was what it had to hunt, even when this hunt was like sticking its muzzle into the wake of a dusk and a dancing dawn. The monster stayed right on track. Its eyes (if that’s what they were) never blinked.

***

I took care, during my run, to baffle its sense of smell. I rubbed up against cinnamon bark. I smeared myself with the fourmis-santi stink ants that populate the liane douce—a wild potato vine—as well as big termite mounds, living on dead roots. I used vetiver leaves, manicou-possum nests, warm muds that smelled mysterious. While crying I’m sure, I handled the three leaves of l’injonction-diablesse, which convey invisibility. I knotted signs of escape to limp branches. Hand flung over my shoulder, I waved off any blinding spells. In fact, all leaves were good for me; I was hoping to dissolve into this forestine soul. Now I heard the animal’s run in a different way. It had never slowed its balan, had never known fatigue. Its rhythm remained intact like a mechanical thing. I sensed in it a fury more ferocious than at the start. Doubtless because the dog had drawn closer to me. The impacts no longer resounded in a somber way; they crossed the leaf litter with precision. I who believed in nothing, I felt faith in everything: in these trees with tresses of melancholy vines, in these pale orchids on immodest roots, in these keeping-quiet birds nesting bracketed in low tree-forks, in these furtive presences that quickened the shadows. I invoked protection like a little lost child. I must have cried a long time, the run flinging my tears onto ancient dews. I mourned the misfortune of this dog that would destroy me, but I wept as well over this rediscovered life intoxicating my legs, this old heart burning the energy of a thousand years of living every second. I mourned this freshness discovered in my flesh, this magic in my eyes that enchanted the world, this mouth where tastes exploded, the sensitivity in my hands and the rest of my body.

I saw clearly, but was advancing more slowly. Was it fatigue or the accumulation of obstacles? Detouring around tree trunks. Shoving aside bushes. Breaking the moorings of the lianas and the jackstraws of dead branches. My wounds were beyond counting. Clawed. Griji-grazed. Skinned. Froixé-bruised. Swollen. Zié boy, half-blind eye. Blesses, hidden-hurts. I was covered in bright blood and scabs. I saw clearly and that clarity encumbered me. I rather missed my initial blind run. But this light had come to me to confront the monster. It was the wish and the will of life. Running, the mastiff was more alive and lively than I. Its hunger for killing, a good deal stiffer than my longing to live. It galloped, I felt, in the obscure grace that had allowed me to penetrate the zayon-wilderness better than a spectral Dorlis. Ne plus courir, me battre. Not to run anymore, to fight. Fight it. This resolve dismayed me. Excited me as well—truly unexpected.

So then I stopped, battered in my breathing. I seized a dead branch. Long. Heavy. Sharpened from a break. I had it well in hand. Ho, surprise the animal. I was hoping that the odors I had loaded on would cloud its tracking, that it would not know I was coming back in its direction. C’est revenais que je revenais: I was coming back with a vengeance. I was running the other way to meet it. My run became light-footed. It became coconut oil and silk-cotton fluff. I was not thinking about anything. An unusual plenitude bore me along. The decision to fight reintroduced certainties and hopes. It honed to the verge of madness my desire to survive. The race backward exalted this desire into a rage to conquer. Not a hatred, not a resentment, only a will-to-destroy what was threatening me. Loads of times I had, on buoyant bois-flot rafts, faced high waves to deliver barrels or casks of sugar to merchants’ ships. Heading into the waves, negotiating them exact, using their opposing unleashed energies to head up and across. An ancient intoxication found again there, intact in the depths of those Great Woods. My boutou-bludgeon in hand, I’d wound up a hunter. Back to me came attack cries on bright savannas. Many bled-out elephants and wild beasts roaring. Tracking crocodiles in exhausted mires. Dances for the courage of the brave. A blogodo-hullabaloo of peoples and very angry gods. A dementia of four million years illuminated by towering flames. I was going back toward the monster. I no longer saw any of the earlier impediments. I felt myself a warrior.

***

The Master had no idea what to do anymore. He heard his dog running in the distance. He knew it was on the right track. By going in that direction, he hoped to find the animal again, or be found by it. So, the Master walked straight ahead. But he was burdened by the gravest of solitudes. It let go of the trees to settle weightily on his shoulders. His steps were heavy. His steps were slow. His steps were guilty. He did not know whether it was fatigue or truly the mystery of those trees that was torturing him so. Nothing evil there. The Master perceived instead a virginity outside of morality, something primordial that had been offended and that had been lost to people from that time on.

That was it. That was surely it. These places had known damnation. It was there. Prowling around him. He imagined that it was emanating from him. And plaguing him. He did not understand. He had fought so hard to clear this land, beat back the savages, attend to those nègres, present to barbarities the beauty of plantations and the sugar sciences. His life had been nothing but courage and suffering, work and exhaustion, fevered thoughts and heartfelt anxieties. And yet, in spite of these fatigues, the Master slept quite badly. He detected in himself tumultuous shames foreign to the courage he deployed or his heroics as a mighty builder. He had ascribed that to the original sin revealed by his Book, but the Masses had brought no peace. Nor had the confessions. He was proud of himself but that pride, in certain hours, came apart like the finery of a mountebank. He was there, alone among those trees, and those places, and the heroism of the personal chronicle he kept no longer carried much weight. He had handled—it was written down—the conquering tall-sailed ships. He had popped off bombards against Carib rages. He had buried, beneath conch shells, friends and brothers. He had blasted parrots, smoked the fat of manatees, gulped down the raw eggs of thrushes that ran along the sands. He had wept under exile and fever, worn-out memories and lost letters. He had planted pétun, indigo, and then cannamelle. He had modified ships to carry nègres. He had sold them. He had bought them. He had given them the best of his race. He had raised the highest walls of stone, dispensaries of marble and gothic vaults where grandeurs slumber. And founded the white cities in the mirror of harbors. He had cleared the smoking lands, tamed the rivers vomited by the volcano, pushed back the snakes that interfered with the dreams of the little angels on fountains. He had made Great Houses of shadowy light and clay, raised mills, set up sugar works. Mapped out the useful routes and the signs at crossroads. He had explored the secrets of alcohol and the sweetness of life (with a very pale woman, with a very white arm, beneath a wide-brimmed hat with bobbing lace). He had won, over mangroves and steep slopes, the blessed offering of the most fertile fields. He had never wept, or doubted the divine right that sanctified his actions... And yet... A silence grew as he grew older. This lonely poison in the shadow of his victories. This fate that undid his steps. These Great Woods that knew the Before, that harbored the communion Host of an innocence gone by, and which still trembled with primal forces—these woods moved him now. They had fascinated the runaway nègres. They had taken refuge there as in a ventre-manman, a mother’s womb. They wanted to die there rather than fall in a field furrow. Those escapees looked upon the trees as if contemplating a cathedral. They showed them ceremonial respect. And the trees talked to them. He, the Master, had festooned the trees with wickednesses: Nests of zombies, nests of devils, nests of fevers, nests of vanishments! Those baboules, those lies were churning themselves up unexpectedly in him. The Master felt it now. The Great Woods were powerful. They stripped you bare, through force or misfortune, à nu rêche: harsh-naked. Within their shadows, the Master saw himself sunk in shame. He was afraid. His pioneering impulse stalled. His conqueror’s stride faltered. He ought not to turn around. Or look around. Or stare at the stakes of light descending from the sky. He ought to cling to his dog. Follow it until death. This dog alone would allow him to survive.

He was thinking of the old slave. That most faithful among the faithful, who had devoted the best part of his life to him. Betrayal. He did not understand this flight. The old slave had seen him born, had even shown him signs of affection. Had taught him the training of horses, initiated him into the secrets of yellow fruits and fighting cocks. The vieux-nègre had never spoken to him, perhaps smiled sometimes, settled for being there, like a solid grounding from pioneering days. The Master no longer knew whether his father had bought him from the clutches of a slaver, or if he’d come up on this Plantation. He had none of the strangeness of nègres-bossales born in Africa, or the ordinariness of native nègres-créoles. He had always been there. He was called Fafa, or Old-Syrup, no one really knew why. He’d neither had a wife nor given a child. Had never followed the priest’s sermons, or sought baptism or the Host, or worn dilapidated boots or shabby hats. At Father’s death—the Master suddenly remembered—the old slave had not attended the singing at the wake. He had dug the grave without the sorrow-spectacle of the house slaves. When the Madame was in her death throes (la Madame-Maîtresse, a very charitable old Norman lady, who used to take good care of her nègres), the old-fellow had not slumbered out below the Great House, or wailed the lamentations that saddened the cabins when she gave up the ghost. Yet, no hatred in him. Or menace. Or danger. But no acceptance. That was it. The vieux-nègre had not accepted what was done with him. Ever. And yet one had given him everything, graces and favors. He had not been a slave, no, but an old companion. Yes, even that, a very old companion. One had loved him. Betrayal! It was a betrayal.

The Master did not understand above all this energy that seemed to bear him up. Such an old fellow. The mastiff usually caught up with runaways much quicker than this. But the vieux-nègre seemed to run faster than the mastiff. Hard to believe. Such an old fellow. Faster than the mastiff. The Master believed himself faced with a miracle and this increased the mystery of these woods that, gently, more and more, were revealing the silences of his soul. The Master, surprised, discovered water flooding his eyes. An age-old water. Salt water. A slightly bitter water.

***

I stopped flap. It was there. It was approaching, carried along by its momentum. It must have been running like that for heaps of hours, tied to the threads of my odor. I set my back against a trunk, got a firm grip on my club. The inhaled air had lost all oxygen. My eyes were now red and my body was in poisoned-she-cat convulsions. My arms had gone rigid. I felt rage and sainted fright. Only one blow would be possible. Fracture its face. Bash in the jaw so it breaks a vertebra. A single vertebra snapped; my body, saved. Strike with decision, not with strength but as a block of energy and with unerring aim. I made ready to do so; I imagined myself doing this; I assured myself I could do this. I took the time to breathe deep, slowing the anxiety of my lungs begging for air. I took the time to get used to my all-worked-up muscles. Air entered me like a sea breeze, a motherly nursery rhyme nestled in a rocking chair, a banjo strum at the pink of a dawning day. I exhaled—at length and slowly—my confusions and fears. That made my vigilance giddy. I was ready.

The mastiff was approaching. Appalling, the power of its paws. My doubts came rolling back like a widespread tide. The paws’ impacts were clearer, like twacks on a drum. They punched in the earth. And their rapidity was beyond comprehension. That speed would make it invisible. I would not see even a wisp of its smoke. I feared lacking time to launch my blow. Thrash fast. Strike true. I adjusted to the dog’s gallop, gauged its approach, suited my blow to the bellwethering of its paws. My doubts flowed back. Spindrift. Relief. Deep breath. I felt armed once again. I was going to sic the disaster of a lightning bolt on it. I was there with it. Here I am, there you are. But (. . . A-a! . . .) the sound of the paws ceased. The monster had stopped short to stand still.

It knew I was there. It knew I was waiting for it. Its killer’s instinct detected my presence. I did not move. Time went by some more. I heard nothing. My arms tried to tremble: my imagination was beginning to head out to sea. I was seeing the monster slip behind the tree where I was posted. Yes, it’s there on the other side of the trunk. Despite myself, I turned my head, changed position. Again I imagined it on the other side. And even coming from high up. I did not know what to do or which way to turn. My eyes on alert watched in every direction. I ran to shelter beneath a different pied-bois to better cover the surrounding area. Peace. Shade, sunniness, leafiness. Nothing else. So then I listened. Ears pricked up. Nose-holes open. Trying to distinguish the rustle of the wild-beast body against raspy lower branches. Listening hard. Crossing the silence. Hearing. There was as if a pounding of water. A floundering. I understood on the spot: the spring! . . . The mastiff was well and truly drowning! Clawing to death the crumbling banks! Bogging itself down! Coming back up to get bogged down again! . . . My arms to the sky: Hosanna . . . O Gloria! . . .

I rushed toward the spring. I reached it swiftly. I saw the dog. It was frightful. Covered with mud gobs. Covered with leaves. Covered with debris. Barely growling, it was struggling in the moving trap. An evil boiling. Its bidime-big paws were collapsing the edges, flinging up vines: a mushy soup of muzzle, mired-up eyes, suffocations, tohubohu-churning the most ancient of muds. This would disappear for seven to nine seconds to resurface with cas-et-fracas, disturbance-and-turbulence. What I saw was dreadful. It looked like a zombie trying to escape a prison of exorcisms. I did not know how to get closer, or dare get close enough to strike its spine. Get its drowning going. Yet I approached without really thinking about it. The ground gave way, spongy, soft, sucking, famished. In up to my kneecaps, I was still far from the hellish bouillon. So I retreated. I followed the rim of the hole, hoping for a small tongue of solid ground. But my prey was foaming in the mitan-middle of the spring. Inaccessible. Oala, immediately the monster s’envoya-monter, shot-itself-up.

A big-mother fish-leap. I saw it whole, arced in the air in the wink of an eye before falling back heavy into the bouillon hole. This dive splattered me with miraculous mud. The enemy was at my mercy. I was crazy-circling around.

I approached on my belly so as not to sink in. But in that position, impossible to strike. So I returned to the edge. I found a low branch to cling to. That way, I got out over the bouillon. And I struck. Biwoua. One-handed. Biwoua. With my fears, my hatreds, my rage and my longing to live. The mastiff howled like a Seven-headed Beast. Never heard a catastrophe like that. A calamity of tonsillar sounds and muddy smotherings. It bounded again. Its eyes snatched at mine while it was in the air. It discovered me with curiosity. Twisting even beyond belief, it shot its manman-muzzle out at me. I saw its fangs gleam amid the formidable foaming. I struck it again. Biwoua. Right on a rib, but this was tickling the trunk of a silk-cotton tree. My position allowed no room for a back swing. I returned to the rim of the hole, resigned to keeping watch on this agony from a distance. And striking the monster should it happen to emerge. My blows had increased its furies tenfold. Its leaps and torsions were more fearsome. A mite despairing. My eyes bulged: I had never seen such an infernal debacle.

Suddenly, in a sulfurous sault, the mastiff landed outside the hole. Full on some soft soil swaddled in roots. I saw it laid out long on the uncertain turf. Its paws were whipping up a blackish scum. Its jaws snapped at the void. Suddenly, it grew calm, exhausted. Its body now expressed nothing but breathlessness. Gradually, its respiration slowed while yet remaining deep-drawn. It looked at me. I went round the hole to be across from the animal. Its eyes followed me. We were soon face-to-face, separated by ten yards of turbid matter. The fantastic spring loosed bubbles of sulfur to burst at the surface. The clear water welled up beneath the cracked crusts to spread wide like magical oil. Luminous patches celebrated its sheen. The monster sprawled out, eyes firmly affixed on mine. I was horrified. I knew it was enmired in the muck. I saw its body gently sinking. Even though it was caught there, I was horrified. Probably because of that gaze free from all fear. It stared at me: bloodcurdling curiosity. Its problem was not the marshy trap, it was me. And that scared me. Despite its sudden calm and breathlessness, its energy came through intact.

I knelt down to see it better. I set my eyes to stare and bared my teeth. Had to impress it. Suggest to it (myself as well) that I did not fear it, that I could take or spare its life. We stayed like that in a time without length. Eyes in eyes. It, ever calmer; me, petrified by my show of valiance. The Great Woods were moving around me. Became a great blur. I was floating in a dizzy whirl of aggravations. The spring (with its muds, its virgin waters, its hundred-thousand-year-old sulfur) was joining forces with that vision, increasing its giddiness. I found myself laid out in the leaf litter, my gaze level with my enemy’s eyes. Eyes in eyes. No blinking. Hold on. Hold raide. I appointed myself a hunter, transformed the other into prey. It (I felt this) kept itself opaque; me, my awareness became clouded. The miasmas of the spring must have been poisoning me. So were the monster’s eyes, open onto holes-without-end. The animal was stronger than I was. I heard knocking in my chest. My heart wanted to crack open my ribs. I shivered. I moaned. The monster howled. I jumped up flap, and fled at top speed. I had lost my bet.

The monster leaped toward terra firma. It knew instinctively where that was. It landed heavily on the edge of the bank. Crawled along a deep furrow. It was managing to get out. I returned frantic to where it was heading. There, I saw it one more time before me. Frothing muzzle. Gaze sans-maman. I felt myself weaken. It was creeping toward me as if not fearing me. The muck and dead leaves transformed its skull. It seemed a subterranean crab churning the earth. I struck with every strength. Biwoua. Biwoua. My legs, plunged in the sludge, were tipping me off-balance. My wobbly blows were not slowing the terrible advance. A cold resolve was expelling it from the spring. Gazing straight at me, its eyes soon overwhelmed my mind. I lost the courage to strike. Feeble, I aimed blows it deflected with its muzzle. The vise of its jaws gripped my club. I fell to my knees in the slime. I could do nothing. My resistance was giving it leverage to advance more quickly. Pulling on my club was hauling it toward the shore. I gave up. Rolling over, I ran away. Fear severed the suction around my ankles.

Running. I shot my body through the undergrowth, battered myself against tree trunks, got twisted by branches. I was truly throwing myself. It was all leaps, jumps, rolling downhill, sudden somersaults. I was a tête-folle nègre, crazy-head beyond control. My legs shot off like wild arrows. My arms flailed in impossible flight. I went zigzagging, zinzolant. This panic ceased at the sudden snap. Crac. A stump. My ankle. The tip-over. I wound up demolished on the ground. Numbness, then raide throbbing. A sunburst of pain. I tried to get up. I fell back again, swallowed in darkness.

*

The mastiff had not understood what had happened. It had been right on track. The trail had become unbelievable. The scents were thinning out beneath the array of forces in motion. Waves that scintillated, invisible. Shrill sounds, chopped into a complex rhythm and then flowing in discordant sonorous sheets. The mastiff was receiving a real rush of mantras face-on. Its lolling tongue was capturing tastes impossible to know. They awakened chessboards of reveries. The animal took the taste of salt copper then bayberry salve then a rock crystal dissolved in hydromel. It took a country savanna-liking for guavas then fern seed. It believed it was following a crowd bathed in pollens of exodus, beings of all natures, all odors, all fears, all wills and wants. It sped up: the prey was getting closer. It was there, moving like a pluie-fifine-drizzle. The mastiff snarled in surprise. The trail opened immense as a cyclone wind. Whirling in gold and fire. The mastiff thought it had caught up with a giant. The creature pursued was a ball-of-powers. This perplexed the animal: the trail became a maze of mirrors and brutal reversals full of smells in disorderly flight. As if the being—or beings—pursued were heading back toward it. At a fine clip. A light authority, sure of itself. The mastiff suddenly felt hunted. Its course became that of an anxious animal. A quiver ran through it. Unpleasant. It tried to move away from the magnificent wake, curve around to better pounce from behind on what was bearing down on it, but the ground vanished. Water. A hole of water pulled the dog down.

It went down deep. The animal, which had crossed rivers and floods, tackled inlets of demented seas, able to cleave difficult currents and explore underwater ravines, knowing water without fearing it, did not understand into what phenomenon it had fallen.

It was a sinkhole.

It was made of water rock fire earth wind and roots. A lively bowel primed for digestion. A dangerous door: la-porte. The mastiff felt threatened. It let loose. Sucking-snappings. It needed to bound toward the odors of good earth floating all around. It was leaping with a hint of despair. In the air was when it saw or, rather, sensed, smelled its prey. Its eyes were clogged with vegetal matter. It glimpsed a shape. Radiating an incredible force. A crystal of light. This being landed a blow. Weak. Then another. Without using the intensity shining within. If that potential were to mobilize, the mastiff knew it was lost. So it shot its muzzle out at the being. In vain. The shape became a vivid reddish glare. Then a dark pulsation. Fearing a counterattack, the mastiff leaped up several times until it fell upon a sliver of stable mudbank. The animal began to crawl. And there again, it saw, in its murky vision, the formidable being loom ahead. A prism of lunar clarities and with darkness replete. The being had changed into pure energy. The mastiff crept toward this splendor. Attracted by it. Blows landed on the dog but so feebly that they must not have come from the marvel to which it was crawling. Yet the marvel was striking the blows. Probably in ritual defiance. The animal was discovering a worthy adversary. This reawakened the flesh-eating ferocity that exploded inside it in moments of peril. It clamped its jaws on what was hitting it. The thing resisted, then fell apart in its fangs. The mastiff hauled itself over to solid ground where it could stand up. Ready to go wild. But the splendid being was gone.

The mastiff thought it had been a hallucination. Yet the trail was there. Quickly recovered. Flamboyant. Quite close. The mastiff shook itself; then, with most prudent paws, padded along it.

Patrick Chamoiseau is the author of Texaco, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1992, and Creole Folktales, among other books. “Man v. Mastiff” is excerpted from his novel Slave Old Man, which was recently translated into English. Chamoiseau lives in Martinique.

Translated from the French and Creole by Linda Coverdale.

Paul Thulin, “Angel of History,” 2017, from the series Isla de las Palmas.