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Alexis L'Estang becomes obsessed with finding the treasure of the legendary Unknown Corsair on the island of Mauritius

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Excerpt: The Prospector

THE PROSPECTOR


DAVID R. GODINE, PUBLISHER

Copyright © 1985 Editions Gallimard
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87923-976-3

Contents

BOUCAN, 1892..................................................1FOREST SIDE...................................................87TOWARD RODRIGUES, 1910........................................105RODRIGUES, ENGLISH COVE, 1911.................................165YPRES, WINTER 1915-THE SOMME, AUTUMN 1916.....................245TOWARD RODRIGUES, SUMMER 1918-1919............................273MANANAVA, 1922................................................309

Chapter One

BOUCAN, 1892,

As far back as I can remember I have listened to the sea: to the sound of it mingling with the wind in the filao needles, the wind that never stopped blowing, even when one left the Shore behind and crossed the sugarcane fields. It is the sound that cradled my childhood. I can hear it now, deep inside me; it will come with me wherever I go; the tireless lingering sound of the waves breaking in the distance on the coral reef, then coming to die on the banks of the Rivière Noire. Not a day went by when l didn't go to the sea; not a night when I didn't wake up with my back sweaty and damp, sitting up in my cot, parting the mosquito net and trying to see the tide, anxious and full of a desire I didn't understand.

I thought of the sea as human, and in the dark all senses were alert, the better to hear her arrival, the better to receive her. The giant waves leapt over the reefs and then tumbled into the lagoon; the noise made the air and earth vibrate like a boiler. I heard her, she moved, she breathed.

When the moon was full, I slid out of bed without a sound, careful not to make the worm-eaten floor creak, But I knew Laure was not asleep; I knew her eyes were open in the dark and that she was holding her breath. I scaled the window ledge and pushed at the wooden shutters, and then I was outside, in the night. The garden was bathed in white moonlight; it shone on the tops of the trees, swaying noisily in the wind, and I could make out the dark masses of rhododendrons and hibiscus. With a beating heart I walked down the lane that went toward the hills, where the fallow land began. A big chalta tree, which Laure called the tree of good and evil, stood very close to the crumbling wall; I climbed onto its highest branches so that I could see the sea over the treetops and the expanse of cane. The moon rolled between the clouds, throwing out splinters of light. Then suddenly, over the foliage and to the left of the Tourelle de Tamarin, I saw it: a great black slab alight with shining, sparkling dots. Did I really see it, did I really hear it? The sea was inside my head, and when I closed my eyes I saw and heard it best, clearly perceiving each wave as it crashed onto the reef and then came together again to unfurl on the shore.

I clung to the branches of the chalta tree for a long time, until my arms grew numb. The wind from the sea blew over the trees and the cane fields, and the moon shone on the leaves. Sometimes I stayed there until dawn, listening and dreaming. At the other end of the garden the big house was dark, closed in on itself like an abandoned wreck. The wind made the loose shingles bang and the framework creak. That, too, was the sound of the sea, as was the groaning of the tree trunk and the moaning of the filao needles. I was afraid to be alone in the tree, but l still didn't want to go back to the room and I resisted the chill wind and the fatigue that made my head heavy.

It was not really fear. It was more like standing on the edge of an abyss or a deep gully and staring down, heart beating so hard that it echoed painfully hi my neck. And yet I knew I had to stay, and that if I did I would at least learn something of great worth. It was impossible for me to go back to the room as long as the tide was rising. I had to stay, clinging to the chalta tree, waiting for the moon to glide across the sky. Just before dawn, when the sky became gray over Mananava, I would go back and slide under the mosquito net. Laure would sigh because she had not slept either during all the time I was outside. She never talked about it. She merely looked at me during the day with dark questioning eyes, and then I was sorry I'd gone out to hear the sea.

Every day I went to the beach. I had to cross the fields, and the cane was so high that I ran blindly down the paths cut in it, and sometimes got lost amid the sharp stalks. Then I could no lounger hear the sea. The burning late-winter sun stifled its sound. I knew when the shore was very close because the air became heavy, still, full of flies. Above me the dazzling blue sky stretched, empty of birds. The dust from the red earth reached up to my ankles; so as not to spoil my shoes 1 took them off and wore them, tied by the laces, around my neck. This way my hands were free. You had to use both hands when crossing a cane field because the stalks were very high and their leaves cut like swords. In order to move forward, you had to push the leaves aside with the flat of your hand. Cook, the chef, said they would be cut next month, Denis, Cook's grandson, was right ahead of me but I couldn't see him. He always went barefoot, armed only with his pole, but walked more quickly than I. To call each other we plucked twice on a grass harp, or howled twice: Aouha! When they were in the high cane the Indian men bayed like that as they slashed it with their long knives.

I heard Denis far ahead of me. Aouha! Aouha! I answered with my harp. There was no other sound. The sea was at her lowest ebb and wouldn't come in before noon. We were moving as fast as we could to the tidal pools, where the shrimp and octopus hid.

In the cane in front of me there was a heap of black lava stones. I climbed to the top so that I could see the green sweep of the fields and, far behind me now, lost in the jumble of trees and thickets, our shipwrecked house with its odd sky-colored roof and Cap'n Cook's little shanty; and farther still, Yemen's chimney and the high red mountains going straight up toward the sky. I spun around at the summit of my stone pyramid and 1 could sec the whole countryside: the smoke from the sugar refineries, the Tamarin river meandering through the trees, the hills, and at last, the dark, glittering sea that had receded from the other side of the reefs.

This was what I loved. I believed I could stay at the top of that heap for hours, even days, doing nothing but looking.

Aouha! Aouha! Denis was calling from the other end of the field. He, too, was standing on a pyramid of black stones, a castaway on an islet in the middle of the sea. He was so far away that I could barely make him out. 1 could only see his long, insectlike silhouette at the top of the pile. I cupped my hands and called in response: Aouha! Aouha! We both climbed down and once more started walking through the cane to the sea.

* * *

In the morning the sea was black and unfathomable because of the lava dust from Tamarin and Grande Rivière Noire. When you went North, or down to Morne in the south, the sea became clear again. From the shelter of the reefs Denis fished for octopus in the lagoon. I watched him as, pole in hand, he waded farther into the water on his long, stiltlike legs. He was not afraid of the sea urchins or scorpion fish. He walked through the dark pools of water, his shadow always behind him. As he waded farther away from the bank he disturbed the flights of laffes, cormorants, and corbijous. I watched him with my bare feet in the cold water. I often asked if I could go with him, but he never let me. He said I was too small, and that my soul was in his care. He said my father had entrusted me to him. This wasn't true, my father had never spoken to him. But I liked the way he said, "Your soul is in my care." I was the only one he let accompany him to the riverbank. My cousin Ferdinand was not allowed to, even though he was a bit older than I, and Laure wasn't either because she was a girl. I liked Denis a lot, he was my friend. My cousin Ferdinand said he couldn't be a friend because he was black and Cook's grandson, But I couldn't care less about that. Ferdinand only said it because he was jealous, he wished he could walk through the cane with Denis to the sea.

When the tide was very low, as it was early in the morning, the black rocks became visible. There were great dark pools, too, and others so clear you could almost believe that light came from them. At the bottom the sea urchins were violet spheres, anemones opened their blood-red corollas, and jellyfish slowly waved their long, hairy arms. I stared into the depths of the pools while in the distance Denis prodded for octopus with the point of his stick.

Here, the sound of the sea was like beautiful music. Waves blown up by the wind broke on the coral reefs far away; 1 could feel their vibration in the rocks and the current that flows up to the sky. It was as if there were a wall on the horizon that the sea was trying to break down. Sometimes a burst of spray rose up, only to fall back onto the reefs in the next instant. The tide had started to come in. This was the moment when Denis could spear the octopuses, for they felt the renewal of water from the open sea in their tentacles and came out of their hiding places, The pools were flooded one by one. The jellyfish waved their arms in the current, clouds of small fish rose to the surface in the swells, and I saw a coffre fish swim by, looking hurried and stupid. I had been going there for a long time, since I was very little. I knew every pool, every rock, and every nook; I knew where the octopuses were, where the fat sea cucumbers crawled, and where the eels and octopuses hid. I would stand very still and silent, so they'd forget I was there. How calm and beautiful the sea was at that moment. When the sun was high above the Tourelle de Tamarin, the water became light, pale blue, the color of the sky. The waves thundered onto the reefs with all their might. Dazzled by the light, I squinted to look for Denis. The sea had come through the inlet and was driving slow waves across the rocks.

When I got to the shore, to the estuary of the two rivers, I saw Denis sitting high up on the beach, in the shade of the veloutier trees. Ten or so octopuses hung like rags at the end of his pole. He waited for me without moving, The sun burned my shoulders and hair. I quickly stripped off my clothes and dived naked into the water, at the point where the two rivers met the sea. I swam against the current of the soft water until I could feel the sharp little pebbles on my stomach and knees. When I was totally immersed in the river I grabbed hold of a large stone and let the fresh water run over me to wash away the burn from the sun and the salty sea.

That was all there was. Only what I felt and saw: the very blue sky, the noise of the sea breaking on the reefs, the cold water running over my skin.

I got out of the water, shivering despite the heat, and dressed without drying. Sand gritted in my shirt and pants and scratched my feet in my shoes. My hair was still sticky with salt, Denis had been watching me without moving, his smooth, dark face indecipherable. Seated in the shade of the veloutier he remained immobile, his two hands resting on the pole from which the octopuses hung like tatters. He never swam in the sea; I didn't even know if he could. When he bathed it was at dusk, high up the Tarnarin river or in the Bassin Salé stream. Sometimes he went a long way away, toward the mountains of Mananava, where he washed with plants from the streams in the gorge. He said his grandfather had taught him to do that so he would grow strong and have a man's penis.

I liked Denis, he knew so many things about trees and water and the sea. He learned everything he knew from his grandfather, and also from his grandmother, an old black woman who lived in Cases Noyales. He knew the names of all the fish and insects, he knew all the edible plants in the forest, all the wild fruit, and he could tell the trees apart by nothing more than their smell, or just by chewing a bit of their bark. He knew so many things that you couldn't ever be bored with him. Laure also liked him because he always brought her little presents, a fruit from the forest, or maybe a flower, a shell, apiece of white flint or an obsidian. Ferdinand called him Friday to make fun of us; he nicknamed me Robin Hood because Uncle Ludovic called me that one day when he saw me coming back from the mountain.

One day, a long time ago, at the beginning of our friendship, Denis brought Laure a strange little gray animal with a long sharp snout which he said was a musquash, but my father said it was only a shrew. Laure had it for a day and it slept on her bed in a little cardboard box, but in the evening, just when it was time to go to sleep, it woke up and started to run all over the place and it made so much noise that my father came in his nightshirt with a candle in his hand; he was angry and chased the little animal outside. After that we never saw it again. I think that hurt Laure deeply.

When the sun was really high Denis stood up, emerged from the shade of the veloutiers, and shouted, "Alek-sees!" That's how he pronounced my name. Then we walked quickly across the cane fields up to Boucan. Denis stopped to eat at his grandfather's hut and I ran toward the big house with the sky-blue roof.

* * *

At daybreak, when the sky was growing light behind the Trois Mamelles, my cousin Ferdinand and 1 walked along the dirt track that led to the Yemen cane fields, By climbing over high walls we got into the chase, where the deer of the big estates of Wolmar, Tamarin, Magenta, Barefoot, and Walhalla lived. Ferdinand knew where he was going. His father was very rich and had taken him to all the properties. He had even gone as tar as the houses of Tamarin Estate; and right up to Wolmar and Médine far in the North. It was forbidden to go into the chase; my father would be very angry if he knew we were going into the estates. He said it was dangerous, that there could be hunters and that we could fall into a ditch, but I think it was mainly because he did not like the people who owned the big estates. He said everybody should stay on their own property, that there was no use wandering over other people's land.

We walked carefully, as if we were in enemy territory. In the distance, in the gray scrub, we glimpsed some shapes disappearing quickly into the undergrowth: deer.

Then Ferdinand said he wanted to go as far as Tamarin Estate. We came out of the chase and walked once more on the long dirt path. I'd never gone so far. Once I went with Denis to the top of the Tourclle, where you could see the countryside up to the Trois Mamelles and right to Morne, and from there I saw the roofs on the houses and the thick smoke coming from the sugar refinery's tall chimney.

It got hot very quickly because it was almost summer, The cane was very high; they started cutting it several days ago. All along the road we passed carts being pulled by oxen, wobbling beneath the weight of the cane. The bullocks were driven by young Indians with an air of indifference, almost as if they were dozing. The air was full of flies and horseflies. Ferdinand walked quickly and I had a hard time keeping up with him. Every time a car came by we jumped into the ditch because there was just enough room on the path for the big iron-ringed wheels.

The fields were full of working men and women. The men had their cutlasses and sickles and the women their hoes. They were wearing gunnies, coverings made from jute sacks, and their heads wrapped in old rags The men's chests were bare and streaming with sweat. We heard the cries and calls of Aouha! The red dust rose in the pathways between the blocks of cane. There was a sour odor in the air, an odor of cane sap, dust, and men's sweat. Slightly drunk from it, we walked and ran toward the houses of Tamarin where the loads of cane were going. Nobody took any notice of us. There was so much dust on the roads that we were red from head to foot and our clothes looked like gunnies. Indian and African children ran with us, holding stalks of cane that had fallen to the ground. Everyone was going to the refinery to see the first presses.

At last we arrived at the buildings. I was a little afraid because it was the first time I'd been there. The carts had stopped in front of the high, whitewashed wall and the men were unloading the cane that would be thrown into the drums. The chimney spat out a heavy rust-colored smoke that darkened the sky and choked us when the wind drove it down. Everywhere was noise and great jets of steam. Directly in front of us I saw a group of men tossing bundles of crushed cane into the furnace. They looked like giants, almost naked, the sweat running down their black backs, their faces twisted in pain from the heat of the fire. They did not talk, just took a bundle in their arms and threw it into the furnace, shouting Huh! each time.

(Continues...)




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