The rain hammered down through the treetops, and the wind ripped through the forest canopy, making it appear alive. Nawi was used to storms growing up on the island of Saint-Domingue, but this storm was different. The wind and rain came down with a fury she had never known, and every so often, lightning would rip through the clouds above, striking the mountain tops, so close Nawi felt as though she could touch them.
But she was not afraid. She felt excited. Her mother had told her of the Vodou gatherings, where the slaves on the island would come and meet with the free peoples, but at nine years old, this was the first time she had been allowed to come. And Mother said this was to be a ceremony like no other before and that the Great Spirit Ezili Dantor had blessed it with a great storm.
Looking back along the forest trail, she saw her brother Amadi. He was big for his age at twelve years old, already starting to look like a man. In the dim light from his lantern, Nawi thought he looked like Father, his brown eyes the same as those she remembered. Everyone in the family called him Madi, which Nawi had started, unable to pronounce Amadi when she was young. Amadi had always been a happy boy, running around the forest with her and playing games, but since the yellow sickness had taken Father last year, he had become more serious.
They carried on along the forest trail, nineteen people in all from her small village. Some of the villagers had not been able to come, the young children and elderly who could not manage the long road. Despite this, Nawi’s great grandmother, Roseline, had insisted on coming and was being helped along at the back by a young man from the village. Grandma Roseline was very old. No one knew for sure how old, although Grandma Roseline told Nawi that she remembered the year 1700, over ninety years ago, before the last of the Forgotten People, the first inhabitants of the island, had died out. Still, no one had been able to stop her from coming to this gathering at the Bois Cayiman, a sacred site for Vodou rituals.
Looking back ahead, Nawi almost tripped in the dark, stumbling forward into Mother. Turning around, her mother, Tamara, took her by the hand, and by a flash of lightning, Nawi saw her warm smile, bright green eyes glowing like stars for just a moment. The same eyes as Nawi’s and Grandma Roseline. “The women of our family have green eyes,” Mother had told her once. Her short curly hair was hidden in her white head wrap, the headwear worn by the mambo, Vodou priestesses. Holding tight to Mother’s hand, they made their way slowly through the forest, guided by the light of several lanterns and the occasional flash of lightning. A great clap of thunder roared overhead, and the rain seemed to pour down even harder. It was a warm summer’s night, however, and Nawi did not feel cold.
“Are we nearly there?” she asked Mother.
“Soon,” Tamara said, her voice gentle, just loud enough for Nawi to hear her over the wind and rain. “Be patient, Nawi. We have less far to go than those we are meeting.”
“Will Aunty Abdaraya be there?” she asked excitedly. It had been so long since she had seen her favourite aunt.
“Yes, child,” her mother said, “All the aunties and uncles will be there.”
They carried on down the trail, for what to Nawi felt like an age. Occasionally she would glance back to see Grandma Roseline, helped along by the young man. Her old, wrinkled face was barely lit by the light of his lantern, her eyes almost invisible under sagging skin, but she showed no sign of discomfort as she moved slowly down the trail.
As they moved on, Nawi gazed upwards. The trees seemed to be thinning, and through the canopy, she saw the storm clouds part slightly to reveal a bright, full moon in the sky. The rain started to ease a bit, and through the sounds of the storm, she began to hear another sound, a deep rumbling. At first, she thought it was thunder. But it couldn’t be, for it kept going, seeming to get louder and louder. As it grew, she felt her mother’s hand tighten around hers. Then she realised what the sound was. Drums. Like the one Father had played in their village. Only this was much, much louder, and there must have been many of them. Nawi felt her heart start to beat faster, and as they drew nearer, she heard something else as well. Voices. Lots of voices. From behind her, she felt Amadi put a hand on her shoulder.
“Get ready,” her brother said. This was his fourth Vodou gathering.
The trees along the path grew thinner. Under the moonlight, the group carried on, then came over a slight rise and suddenly emerged into a large opening in the trees. As Nawi walked out of the trees and saw the plain, she felt her heart race. Before them in the open field were hundreds of people, maybe thousands. Nawi had never seen so many people in one place before. The wind and rain now seemed barely audible over the sound of drums. From a distance, she saw them playing. Dozens of them, all playing perfectly together in a large circle, while priests and priestesses dressed in white danced to the music.
The rain had slowed to a trickle, and the nineteen villagers moved in to join the others gathered around the large circle of drums and dancers, lit by lanterns and torches and the still bright moon. Mother turned to Nawi.
“Stay with your brother,” she said to her before going back to help Grandma Roseline. Some of the men brought forward a stool and placed it at the edge of the circle of people. Mother and the young man then helped Grandma Roseline down onto the seat, where she sat and watched the priests as they danced. Grandma Roseline often looked tired these days, Nawi thought, but now her face seemed alive and excited. She turned her head and caught Nawi’s eye, her piercing green eyes bright in the moonlight, and gave Nawi a sly smile.
“Is that you, princess?” Nawi heard a familiar voice from behind her. Turning around, she saw Aunty Abdaraya, her black dress and red and white headscarf flowing over her tall, lean frame, her big brown eyes rimmed by crow’s feet, but dark skin otherwise smooth. She looked younger than her forty-five years. A large smile was spread across her face, her arms outstretched.
“Aunty!” Nawi cried, leaping into her arms.
“Hello, princess,” Aunty Abdaraya said, laughing. Her voice was deep and smooth, and with her strong arms, she squeezed Nawi tight. “My, you are so big.” Putting her down, she turned to Amadi.
“And is this young man my Amadi?”
“Hello, Aunty,” Amadi said, embracing her. At twelve, he was almost as tall as she was.
“You’re starting to look like your father, my boy,” Aunty Abdaraya said. Her hand on Nawi’s shoulder, she spoke softly to her. “Did you bring your great grandmother?”
“Yes,” Nawi said, pointing over to where Grandma Roseline sat on her stool, both hands on top of her walking stick. Her wrinkled face was illuminated by the light of the torches, her expression still.
“Good,” Aunty Abdaraya said. “She would not want to miss tonight”.
“Mother said this was the biggest gathering ever,” said Nawi
“It will be princess, and it may be the most important. There is word everywhere of a great storm coming.”
“The storm is already here,” Nawi said, clutching Aunty Abdaraya’s other hand while one rested on her shoulder.
Aunty Abdaraya smiled and stroked Nawi’s short curly hair. “A storm far greater than this one, princess,” she said. “A storm that could change our island forever.”
“Mother says there is talk of rebellion,” said Amadi. “Of war.”
“There is, my boy,” replied Aunty Abdaraya. “That is why so many are here.”
Looking around the dimly lit circle, Nawi saw the faces of the people gathered there. Most were black faces, but some were Mulattos like Mother. Many were dancing to the drum rhythm; others talked with each other, some quietly, others loudly in big groups. Some just stood or sat silently, gazing at the dancing priests and the drummers. Their faces were a mix of emotions; some seemed excited, expectant, while others seemed more nervous.
At the centre of the circle, she noticed Mother embracing and talking to another mambo. This one was shorter than Mother, with the same Mulatto skin. Her white headwrap was worn high on her head, and over her white dress, she wore a silky red scarf. Around her neck was a black bead necklace from which hung a metal cross. Her face was young, but even so, the other mambos seemed to gather around her.
“Who’s that with Mother?” Nawi asked Aunty Abdaraya.
“That is Cecile Fatiman,” she said. “The head priestess of the mambo.”
As Nawi watched her mother talking with the other mambos, she scanned the other people in the crowd again. Many were dressed in rags. Most of these people were slaves from The Cap, she knew. A few, mainly the Mulattos, could have been free people, but mother had said that the few free blacks on the island rarely joined the gatherings. As she looked around, she thought she saw fear and anger in many of the faces, and then she noticed something that she had not noticed before. Weapons. On the floor by many of the people, and some even in their hands, she saw machetes, axes, knives, tools like those used back in the village for chopping down trees or the slaughter of pigs. She became aware of the rain again, pouring down her hair and face, and she shivered. She felt Aunty Abdaraya squeeze her shoulder and hand from behind her.
Into the circle now walked a man. He was enormous, Nawi thought. Much bigger than father had been. He was tall and muscular, his skin jet black, long dreadlocks hanging to his shoulders. He wore short, white trousers down to just below his knees, his torso bare except for a red scarf that hung over his broad shoulders like that worn by Cecile Fatiman. In his hand, Nawi noticed he carried a black book. He stopped to speak with Cecile Fatiman and Mother.
Amadi leaned close to Nawi. “That’s Dutty Boukman,” he whispered to her. “He’s a houngan.”
A houngan was a male Vodou priest, Nawi knew, though she had never seen one. She wondered if they were all so big.
“Is that a bible he’s holding?” She asked Amadi. Mother had told her of the Christian religion of the whites and its holy book.
“I don’t know,” Amadi whispered back. “Mother said he was a priest of the Mohammedans in Africa, and he still carries their holy book.”
Nawi had never heard of the Mohammedans, but Mother had told her of lots of different tribes across the sea, many of them at war with each other. She wondered how many holy books there were.
The dancers had now stopped, and the other mambos were moving to join the outer circle, leaving only Dutty Boukman and Cecile Fatiman at the centre. Mother came and joined them, tightly embracing Aunty Abdaraya. The drummers now stopped playing, and the only noise became the storm and a few hushed voices. Nawi heard a squealing sound, and looking over behind Cecile Fatiman, saw a large black pig being held still by two men, with ropes around its neck and middle.
Dutty Boukman walked to the centre of the circle and lifted his arms. Around the circle, some people stood, some knelt. Another flash of lightning lit up the sky, followed immediately by a loud clap of thunder. In a deep, rolling voice, Boukman began to speak.
“The Good Lord who created the sun which gives us light from above, who rouses the sea and makes the thunder roar. Listen well, all of you. This God, hidden in the clouds, watches us. He sees all that the white people do. The God of the white people demands from them crimes; our God asks for only good deeds. But this God who is good demands vengeance! He will direct our hands; he will aid us. Throw away the image of the God of the whites who thirsts for our tears, and listen to the voice of liberty which speaks in our hearts.”
As he spoke, Cecile Fatiman began to dance and chant. It was a dance unlike any Nawi had seen before. At first, it was slow, her chest rising and falling like she was out of breath, but as they carried on, it grew faster, her movements more violent. Her chanting became indiscernible noises, at least not any language Nawi knew. It grew louder, and as the thunder clapped again, she stretched her arms out wide, her whole body convulsing, her face to the sky, and by the dim light, Nawi saw her eyes rolled back in her head, only the whites visible.
“What’s happening to her?” Nawi asked Amadi.
“I don’t know,” he replied. He looked as shocked as Nawi felt.
“She is taken by the Loa,” Mother said to them, leaning in so they could hear her low voice, “the Vodou spirits.”
As Nawi watched her dance her possessed dance, lightning flashed, and she saw a screech owl fly over Fatiman’s head, disappearing into the night. As Boukman continued to talk and Fatiman continued to dance, on the far side of the circle, Nawi saw her friend Sanité. Sanité, also nine years old, with short curly hair, was standing with her father, Vincent. She saw Nawi, and when Nawi signalled her to come over, she turned to her father and said something to him. Vincent looked down at her, then over at Nawi and her family. He smiled, then said something to Sanité, bending down to kiss her on the forehead, and she ran off out of the circle. Vincent was a kind man, Nawi remembered. He was a carpenter. He and Sanité were free people who lived in The Cap. Mother always took her to see them when they went to town, and Nawi and Sanité had always played in their small garden or snuck off into the woods. Because of his skill, Mother said, despite being black, he was highly sought after for his work by the whites and free Mulattos in town, and they were a respected family. He had made Grandma Roseline’s walking stick as a gift.
From behind them in the crowd, Sanité emerged through the ranks of people. “I saw you when you came. I waved, but you didn’t see me,” she said as they embraced.
“I didn’t know you came to the gatherings,” Nawi said, “Mother said your family never cared about them.”
“This is our first time,” Sanité said excitedly. “Father says it’s important.” Looking into the circle at Cecile Fatiman, she said, “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
“No,” replied Nawi.
The crowd of people was getting thicker now around the inner edge of the circle. “Come on,” Sanité said, and they made their way to the front and knelt next to Grandma Roseline.
In the centre of the circle now were three men. All were dressed in worn clothes, their feet bare, but they stood tall and proud. One was short, no taller than Amadi. The other two were taller. All seemed tiny as they stood in front of the giant houngan. Dutty Boukman raised his arms again, the black book still in his hand, and addressed the three men.
“Jean-Francois Papillon. George Biassou. Jeannot Bullet. The Good Lord has spoken. He says that you shall lead the people of this island in our holy fight for liberty against the tyranny of the white man.”
Cecile Fatiman let forth a great cry, and again the sky was pierced by lightning and the roll of thunder. Stepping forward, she stood before the three men, her arms outstretched, and now Nawi saw in her right hand she carried a long knife. The drums started playing again, no dancing this time, just the deep rumble accompanied by the lashing rain. The two men holding the pig brought it forward and held it in place before Fatiman. It squealed loudly and struggled against them, and they had to use all their force to restrain it. Another mambo priestess came forward and placed a large wooden bowl under the pig’s head.
The crowd had now fallen silent as they watched Cecile Fatiman place one hand on the black pig’s head, which seemed to cease its ferocious struggle under her touch. Then, with the other hand, she raised the knife high, and her voice rang out across the spectators.
“For the Great Spirit Ezili Dantor, we offer this blood to guide us in our journey to liberty. For he who drinks of this blood shall be protected from all harm by the Great Spirit, and the blood that is shed across this land tonight shall form a great river which will lead us to freedom.” In one smooth motion, she moved the knife under the pig’s throat, then pulled it back and up. The pig gave one last violent shake as a spurt of blood was let forth and poured down into the wooden bowl.