a review by Peter McCambridge
A church is built and then burned down in the bayou. A dove pecks at the eye of his dead pigeon companion. A monstrous animal is half-dog, half-sheep. Sons and fathers go off to war. A young, blond soldier in ceremonial dress walks across a battlefield drowned in fog, a dove on his arm. A man on Death Row requests a cup of earth and a glass of water from the Mississippi as his final meal. Crosses burn on lawns. Three “ghosts” loom, draped in sheets and pointed hats, “demons of flesh and blood.” Three who will soon be joined by ten, fifty, one hundred more.
La porte du ciel is a bright patchwork of images, of ideas. It opens with an image of “two little girls under the Louisiana sun, one brown as tea, the other white as milk, the same height, the same frail bodies, barely eight years old, and yet separated by everything.” We follow them through childhood, adolescence, and the American Civil War.
Dr. McCoy, the little white girl’s father, brings the little tea-coloured girl home from a patient’s house, not out of any deep sense of conviction, but simply because it seems like the right thing to do. No more, no less. She is given the name Eve, and grows up with an ill-defined status. Eve accompanies the family to church, but cannot sit with them in the front pew. “She wasn’t asked to scrub the floors, but it would never have crossed anyone’s mind to ask her to sit at the table when they had company.” She takes tea every day with Eleanor, but it is Eve who always washes the cups. And so, when census time comes around, little wonder that Eve counts for only 3/5 of a person, a feat of arithmetic that puzzles her. Might it be arrived at by depriving a person of “their head, their heart, or their soul?” she wonders.
Not that Eleanor’s situation is later much clearer. Grown up and married in her husband’s house, she is treated no better than “half as child, half as guest” by her mother-in-law. Like Eve, she is tolerated, but never quite at home.
The story of two girls, then. The story, even more, of a country not yet a century old, of a “young giant.” A tale of “troubled times” in a “land of madmen.” Of a land “that is a thousand and that is but one.”
“It wasn’t a country at war, or even two countries trying to separate: it was thirty countries loosely held together, by ties that would come undone and come together again, as though the sections of a quilt were suddenly to spring to life and take it into their heads to change place or colour, tearing out the stitches as they moved, trailing behind them useless ends of thread.”
Quilts are all around, woven into the novel’s very fabric and appearing here, there, and everywhere to provide warmth and shelter, as a sign of fraternity among the ranks of the Union.
We hear tell of Daniel Hough, the first man to die in the Civil War. We learn of the Mississippi. There is a long digression about a man on Death Row, and a digression within a digression as each of the jurors is described at length. The effect is to add to the patchwork, not driving forward any plot, but adding colour and ideas, narrated in turns by King Cotton himself, by Eleanor, and even by Eve, writing on pages destined to be thrown into a coffin.
A novel of images, then, dreamed up by a lively mind. And as Michael, Eleanor’s husband, proclaims:
“There are no limits to what the human mind can come up with. For better or for worse.”
From La porte du ciel
by Dominique Fortier
≈ translated by Peter McCambridge
One night Eve was awoken by a familiar noise that she nevertheless took a moment to recognize: a pattering sound on the roof, followed seconds later by another, then another still. It sounded as though dozens of fingers had begun to drum against the roof and the panes of the black windows. Tossing and turning in her bed, she closed her eyes and listened to the delightful, crystal-clear song of the rain. The drops began to fall more quickly, harder and harder, closer and closer together, like little pebbles flung down from the sky, and she recognized the sound of hailstones.
She recalled a particularly fearsome storm back when she had been a child, when hailstones as fat as eggs had bombarded the fields, obliterating a summer harvest in minutes, leaving plants cowering against the ground, leaves torn to shreds, stalks snapped, fruit burst open, seeds strewn uselessly all around. Until that day—How old had she been? Four? Five?—she had never seen ice outside of Mrs. Salinger’s. Mrs. Salinger owned a huge warehouse that stayed cool even at the height of summer. Once a week they would go there for heavy, translucent blocks of ice for the cold rooms in the big house, ice that smoked a little in the warm air when they pushed back the straw that covered it. Right after the storm, Eve had gone outside, dumbfounded, to gather the shards of ice that burned in her hand and to look up at the now-empty sky.
An hour or two after the storm, they had found five hens lying dead in tiny puddles, with bloody wounds to the head and body, and Eve had spent the rest of the afternoon with her mother and a neighbour plucking the chickens, gutting and cleaning them, then putting two on to boil and roasting three in the embers, taking care to keep the hearts and livers to mix in with a precious lump of butter to make a pink mousse. They had then deboned the carcasses and thrown the fine, sharp bones into a pot of boiling water until they gave up a jelly-like broth. She remembered her mother’s brown fingers in among the white chicken bones, the way they cracked ever so gently. She had never seen so much meat at once. From time to time, she would gaze up at the patch of blue sky she could see through the window, immobile, innocent. All the while, the heads of the chickens, their throats slit, stared at them with their lashless eyes.
Eve was lulled to sleep by the pattering. She dreamed of smoking-hot pots and clawed feet, then was woken a little later by a drumming much more adamant than before. Thousands, millions of projectiles rained down on the roof above her head. Sitting up in her bed, her eyes wide open, Eleanor listened, dumbfounded. Eve jumped to her feet, raced down the stairs four at a time into the living room, where Mrs. McCoy was standing, paralyzed and silent, and out through the open door.
The doctor was already outside, seemingly indifferent to the rain beating down on him. There was almost total darkness; Eve could just about make out people running in the distance, covering their heads with their arms as best they could. The air was filled with a deafening chirring sound. The rain no longer seemed to be pouring forth from the heavens alone, but rising up from the ground as well; every drop driven by a will of its own. Together they formed a swarm that might have come straight from the gates of hell.
It rained locusts for three days and three nights.
On the first day, they attacked the delicate cotton flowers and the last remaining plants that still bore a shrivelled squash or two.
On the second day, they set upon the leaves on the trees and the cotton plants themselves, no matter how hard they were to digest.
On the third day, they pulverized the tender tree bark, exposing fragile trunks that the ants started climbing right away, in long, disciplined lines.
On the fourth day, they stopped. There was nothing left to eat or destroy. The silence had something of the supernatural about it, after hours spent listening to them chewing incessantly, rubbing their legs together, vibrating metallically. Pulling back the drape, Eve saw them in the fields, glistening and still, as though awaiting a signal.
And then, at dawn on the fifth day, the cloud rose as one and the locusts flew away, blocking out the sun. They left behind them a desolate, obliterated landscape. A blank page. ≈