This excerpt is from the opening to my novel, La Répondance.
It is time-travelling historical fiction, with the story taking place during the early 1800s, 2010, 2011, 2012, in St. Augustine, Florida, Harlem USA, The Lower East Side, Crown Heights, and back to the last Seminole War in Florida.
Césaire Vrémontay developed a method to bring a descendant to his time through lightning striking his blood twice in an instant. After experimenting with cows and horses, he uses his blood to seek a descendant, who turns out to be Charles Augusto Román of the 21st Century.
Césaire and Charles
~ PROLOGUE ~
1802 was a critical year for Saint-Domingue, the future Haiti. Toussaint L’Ouverture, the military genius and a shrewd tactician in his dealings with the colonial powers, was treacherously kidnapped by the French in May. This was the same month that Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to re-instate slavery; while in St. Augustine, the capital of Spanish Florida, the exiled Saint-Domingue General Georges Biassou has been dead for one year. As yet no dominant leader has emerged to continue the struggle in Saint-Domingue.
It is a little past noon on Thursday, August 19, 1802, in St. Augustine, Florida. A thick humid wind brings light rain against Césaire Vrémontay’s windows. He has just finished drawing a half liter of his blood into a pitcher using a spring loaded lancet. This was a tool he acquired working with French Republican doctors when he returned to the Lesser Antilles to fight against the British military and the French Royalistes planters. He pours half of the blood into a glass pitcher, sealing it,
and then places a cover over the remainder. He has been watching a huge storm cloud develop for hours in the east and south and now it is headed west in his direction; lightning strikes are getting closer, and growling waves of thunder are rolling in more frequently.
He puts on a straw hat and his deerskin jacket. This is one of his favorite jackets; the leather is light and soft, yet good protection against the rainstorms and winds that Florida can have. He made it in the Native style from the Carolinas, with fringes on the back and front to draw the rain off. He added beads, shells, and some symbols that he learned from his African teachers.
Césaire walks through the steady but mild rain down to a small dock that he built near his house for La Répondance (The Response). The dock lies in an area he cleared for La Répondant (The Responder) to arrive; on the shore just before the dock he erected a structure that gave shelter from the storms. There is a pole with a cast iron coil where he attaches the pitcher of blood; the sealed pitcher is placed nearby in case the first lightning strike isn’t successful.
This is the first time he uses human blood for La Répondance: his blood, to bring his descendant as La Répondant. He moves the ladder into position, and with the wind blowing, he gingerly climbs up the ladder and attaches the pitcher to the pole’s top, and climbs down and then waits. The winds pick up even stronger as the lightning moves away from the south to his direction. For Césaire, the closest thing to lightning strikes was artillery shot at him on the battlefields in Saint Domingue, mixing earth and bodies as he and fellow warriors charged enemy positions. Except that lightning was different: he understood lightning as an instrument of life.
It is August 19, 2010, one of the hottest summers on record in New York City: endless numbing heat waves drearily following one another, with each humid day the city is submerged further under smog-heavy lavender-grey skies. Even Charles Augusto Román, 60, who usually enjoys unending hot summer days, has had enough. Román, a lover of swimming, was doing his usual morning swim at “The Bath House” in Harlem. He had just bought a new pair of trunks and speed goggles, which for him was like a kid running in new sneakers as he glided through the water a third of the way through his mile routine. He had recently come back from St. Augustine, Florida, the week before, where he was researching his genealogy. He was able to trace the birth of Dupont Román, his great-great-grandfather there to the late 1830s. He had hoped to find out the name of Román’s father or mother. However, he left this charming and historically rich city without gaining more than tantalizing clues to Dupont Román’s birth.
Charles, an African American, speculated that his Spanish surname may have been the result of a previous ancestor gaining freedom through the Spanish law that permitted a Maroon to gain freedom if they converted to Catholicism, and there were indications that he may have Haitian ancestry. Because of that he preferred the French pronunciation “Sharl” for his name to the English “Charles”. Charles thought that genealogy was more like a “Family ‘Fro”, than a “Family Tree”, because of the amorphous webbing of family ties.
Suddenly he felt a current that thrust him forward somersaulting him until he sat up dazed with his legs spread, looking at wet sandy ground. He wondered what happened to the water then slowly he saw that he wasn’t in the pool, and didn’t have his goggles or trunks on.
CHARLES' FAMILY 'FRO
What did Césaire see? As usual, he wrapped his eyes with a fine cloth to prepare for the blinding flash of the lightning, and he plugged his ears with wet fabric for the deafening crash of the thunder that followed, and he anticipated a lesser, second glittering flash that accompanied La Répondant’s entry, a faint after-glow of the brilliant strike that vaporized the blood and brought La Répondant.
What did Césaire see?
But…this time there is something unexpected: a rushing wave of water appeared. Water had never accompanied La Répondant, and emerging from this gushing wave that sparkled with small electrical flashes, a man somersaulted, moving his arms and legs as if to swim, which explained the water, until he rested upright. He sat dazed for a half minute before standing, with a quizzical look on his face. La Répondant slowly focused on Césaire’s tall, erect form, as he quietly yet intensely looked back at him. Césaire broke the silence between them, speaking in Kreyòl: "Kijan voyaj late pase gason?” When he got no response he repeated the question in French: “Comment c'est passé ton voyage, mon fils?”
The words barely registered; Charles was groggy, feeling drunk; and aggravated. He was jarred by this strange rupture of time and place - just where did he swim to? And annoyed by the presumptuous air of this stranger, who was dressed in what appeared to be a deer-skin jacket with African motifs.
Disoriented, Charles moved in what felt like slow motion, gazing at the surrounding area. He found himself near a body of water, possibly a river, and beyond it land was visible in the distant horizon; he was otherwise surrounded by large stones in an enclosed area. Not aware he was naked he walked out of the enclosure and saw a forest of large oak trees, some were massive, with branches that formed arcs draped by hanging vines of lace-like light-green Spanish moss. Palm trees grew within and around this forest. Through an opening in the trees he could see a small house. The layout of the land in relation to the water was somehow familiar.
The timing of Charles’s Répondance: August 19, 1802 1:10 PM, St. Augustine, Florida
Again in Kreyòl Césaire said, "Mwen prezantem: Césaire Vrémontay, e sa se St. Augustine. Ou rive an 1802, e mwen se zansèt ou.” He then repeated this in French:
- Je me présente: Césaire Vrémontay, et voici St. Augustine. Tu arrives en l'année 1802, et je suis ton ancêtre."
When he got no response then he spoke in Spanish: “Este es el año 1802. Has llegado a St. Augustin, y yo soy tu ancestro Césaire Vrémontay.”
Charles recognized the sounds of Kreyòl and Spanish, and understood the French, and assumed the man was translating the Kreyòl, but was this man really his ancestor? He didn’t doubt that he was no longer swimming in Harlem! After Césaire’s declaration, he saw that he was indeed in St. Augustine from the layout of the land and he recognized the Tolomato River where St. Augustine was first claimed for the Spanish Crown - he had eaten pizza near where he now stood just two weeks before. Who else could this man be?
Césaire was ready to embrace and communicate with his “son”, yet Charles was ironically cautious; for all the love of and searching his ancestry’s rivers and streams, he was now face to face with it at a time when most Africans were enduring hellified suffering in the New World. Charles finally responded in his limited French: “Uh, Je m’appel Charles Augusto Román; je suis né en 1950 en New York City; jai 60 ans; je suis un sculpteur, et une astrologue; uh, mais, je nes parle pas Francais très bien.”
Hearing his accent, Césaire smiled and said, “Yes, then we will speak English! He laughed saying, “So, my son is 12 years older than me! I have clothing for you”, he said pointing to the shelter. He spoke clear English in what sounded like an Afro-Caribbean and French accent. “While we wait for the storm to pass let us introduce ourselves”. Césaire had brought clothing for both sexes, not knowing which would be La Répondant. Charles, who was 6 feet tall, had to roll up his taller ancestor’s shirt sleeves and pants. He dug the floppy straw hat that he was given, sliding it onto his head at a rakish angle.
“How did you bring me to this time?”
“By a méthode I call ‘La Répondance,’ The Response; I placed one quarter liter of blood into a glass pitcher and it was struck by lightning.”
“Charles blurted out, “And how will you bring me back?”
Cesaire smiled and in sincere tones said, “Each Répondant I return; I am not sure how precisely I can bring you to your time, but I will do it.”
Charles asked, “Are you free?”
“Yes; and you, were you born free?”
“Yes, you’d have to go back to my great-grandparents before you find people who were born slaves. On my mother’s father’s side, as far back as 1800 none of her fathers were born slaves. So, in South Carolina a great-great-great-grandfather of mine is now about two years old, and free. That’s a mystery I’d like to solve! What do you know about your ancestors?”
“Very little; I am Wolof; I was born near the La Rivière Sénégal where it meets with La Rivière Karakora, near the village Bakel. I barely have memory of Africa: my father was killed in a local war; I and my mother were taken prisoner and sold when I was 3, according to her. What is rare for a young African slave: she knew the date and time
of my birth since her father was a Griot; by the Christian calendar I was born on February 6, in 1754 shortly after midday. Her name was Fatima, and she died soon after we arrived in Cap-Haïtien. Rarer still, the wealthy French planter, Pierre DesLaurier, who bought us preserved that information. I suspect he had plans for my mother that her untimely death gave her a fortunate escape from.
It is interesting that everything I know about my family, my birth, DesLaurier told me; all of that my mother apparently told him the short time before her passing. When DesLaurier noticed I learned quickly, I was educated with his sons in the sciences and French literature; besides Kreyòl and French, I am fluent in Spanish and English, and I speak some Wolof. When I was 16,
before my freedom, I traveled to Charleston, Paris, and Habana, Cuba - to wait on his sons and to be their companion.”
“Where did you get the name Vrémontay?”
“That name is mine. In English it is like ‘True as a Mountain’. I chose Césaire because of his innovations and daring, even though he was the first ‘dictator for life’ and Rome is the mother of today’s empires.”
“Oh, so your name is like the French Vrai Montagne; is Vrémontay Kreyòl?”
“Yes; at first I was called Apollonius, which I detested because it was not the name my mother called me, which I do not remember. Because we were Muslim, my name may have been Abdullah or similar, and it was changed to Apollonius, which is often the practice. Mais, I will tell you: my early privileges were tainted by being owned. However,
in my 10th year I became aware of free Africans who made me desire independence strongly. Some of them were sailors of merchant and naval vessels who saw much of the New World, and told me about the harsh slavery all over it. The struggle for the liberation of slaves in Saint-Domingue took many turns; not only the planters but some Africans were enemies in the fight for liberté.”
“Tell me more about La Répondance.”
“C’est compliqué: the blood must be struck by lightning twice. After the blood is first struck, it produces a vapor that must be immediately struck a second time before it escapes into the air. La Répondance cannot occur when the blood is completely evaporated by the first strike, because then there is no vapor. Thus the first strike must not be too direct,
and the second strike has to strike the vapor soon. That strike follows the first so quickly they seem to be the same. I used large animals like horses and cows, since small animals like goats do not have enough blood to produce the necessary amount of vapor without harming them.
“I discovered that only one Répondant would come, even if one generation of descendants might number in the tens or more. La Répondant comes who has the closest traits with l’ancêtres. Those traits I call ‘Connexions’; they are not predictable, I do not completely understand them, but I guess they are more than physical.”
“How did you discover it?”
“I studied under two priests: an old man called ‘Bembe’ from Kifuka, high in the mountains in the Congo, where lightning strikes more than anywhere in the world. He was a 'lightning master' that I knew in Saint-Domingue; and Felipe, a Maroon from South Carolina renowned for his mastery of blood. Combining their teachings led me to drawing a half liter of blood;
one quarter of a liter of blood is then put into a glass pitcher; then placed in a cast iron coil attached to the end of a pole over ten feet long that was planted into the ground; the blood would be struck by lightning as I described. When the blood is charged by lightning – ‘La Répondance’ - a descendant - ‘La Répondant’ - is brought instantly to where the blood is, to the L’Ancêtre’s time.
“Bembe showed me that unless it was ‘Lightning between clouds’, lightning in the sky has a correspondence from the Earth, and I want to explore the call and response between the Earth and Sky further. I wonder: can I enhance or even guide the lightning from inside the Earth? And is La Répondant always a descendant and not L’Ancêtre? I think there might be a way to call L’Ancêtre, but for now, my interest is in the future.“