La Catastrophe de la Martinique: six
Ashes and Terrors
Black Fears. White Fears. Blue Fears.
Zulima has not lied. She has barely exaggerated. Fort-de-France is sad. The city seems to go forth from a bad dream. It lies in the ashes. It stinks of volcanism. The ashes cover everything…they are on the roofs, on the soil, in the air, on the trees, in the water of the mountain streams, in the water that we drink, in the bread that we eat…everywhere.
At the hotel I could not bathe; the water ran black in the basin, mud. All the cooking has a taste of ashes; on all the furniture, on the beds, in the drapes, it is ashes and always ashes.
They show me the pebbles that have fallen from the cloud, three days since; they are fat as a thumb, like pigeons’ eggs.
Ashes and pebbles…now I can explain to myself the terror of the people seen at Guadalupe. And explain the terror of the people who stayed, with whom I live.
We habituate ourselves to the volcano, to the trembling of the earth, I have been told by a friend—we in this neighborhood of constant menace have acquired a new temperament, one rather special…
I believe it.
But I believe it needs time, and also I believe the volcano must extinguish itself, that the earth no longer quake.
At present, the volcano of Mt. Pelée has not gone out; the smoke it spits can be seen at all times from Fort-de-France; we are always menaced, the silhouette blocks the sky…always we can ask ourselves if the death the smoke portends in its magnificent billowings, will not soon fall upon us.
And the earth under our feet no longer feels solid. It has not quaked, but it has shivered. This shivering agitates, unnerves, worries. And when one knows that, on the last night of Saint-Pierre, there had been similar shiverings, one is frightened…
Is it well to be terrified… well to fear…?
We breathe badly…there is a hot oppression, full of electricity…we suffer this in the hair. And there is the physical fear of being drowned in something, that one doesn’t see, that he can’t understand, but can feel… It is the fear of the body whose vital forces all bristle in revolt against a deadly threat that lowers upon them, penetrates them…
And, it is something that defies analysis, for, in the heavy body, the spirit becomes heavy. The head is heavy, the chest is heavy; the limbs are heavy. The nerves are weighed upon, and when, to the shocks of this mysterious force, which grinds out its gleams in the night, these vibrate painfully, heavily, it is a crushing anguish…
The man who thinks, the man who reasons the futility of fighting against these invisible forces, the man who knows the wise thing is to resign himself and wait for the inevitable…he resigns himself, and sleeps.
But I understand these crowds of animality closer to the origins; these crowds who shudder, who tremble, who have fear…a blind, deaf, mad fear…and who flee, and who weep, and who cry out.
In the African savannahs, in the months of fiery sun, when the grass burns, I have seen beasts escape with this same bellowing, roaring their fear.
The evening of the 26th I saw, I heard, this fear in Fort-de-France. I had passed the day in Saint-Pierre, I had seen the lava flows in the Rivière des Pères, seen the Roxelane smoking; I had seen the mountain covered in fumes, the crater active. I had felt the earth shake. My nerves were vibrating with the tension of the atmosphere. I returned to Fort-de-France at night expecting a powerful eruption, the more violent; thus what we would see of the city.
At nine o’clock, “it was there”. The night became black. An enormous cloud…black, opaque, black, black…advancing rapidly, in rolling billows that could be seen bounding; parti-colored, for they had to their black, reflections of a very deep red, and lightning also that peaked in gleams successively showing blacker the brooding menace.
This lightning flashed in the black night like bombs, a burst pimple of sooty red, bristling with long red jets, reflecting the yellow of the smelting pot threaded through with gold. Others had the form of a paste, as one of red ink feathering; there were also in this blackness, thin, long slits, like immense sabre cuts in the cloud, vibrating in an instant with red and yellow, which, barely seen, mutated into great, quivering waves of a luminous blue, retreating into the black as quickly as they had come out.
And this was of an unspeakable beauty… And this could be death, death to follow, for all, for all who lived in Fort-de-France…
A cloud like that, a cloud that from the crater’s mouth had flowed so heavy on the valleys of Saint-Pierre, had killed forty thousand beings; this that rolled on our heads some hundreds of meters off, was lighter, no doubt, unable to fall…but who knew it!
The people who reflect thoughtfully, many have said to me, and I think so myself, that this cloud so black was of the same nature as that destructive turmoil of the 8th, a turmoil of heavy gas, projected with force by the volcano, and carried by an air current, formed in answer to a zone of atmospheric heat, and that at the end of its projection, at the end of the current, the cloud had to fall, asphyxiating, and flaring fire.
There are in agony exquisite pleasures. I believe all men have that passion for the unknown, that attraction to the mysterious gulf, where at the toss, it is “heads or tails”, a fortune wagered at a stroke, even a louis. If it rolls at last on the carpet, the blood starts in the veins, the arteries, the heart…an excitation; it is the delicious anguish, the sheer voluptuousness, of waiting with bated breath for the instant to follow.
It was here, under the cloud of Fort-de-France.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(Jean Hess, La Castastrophe de la Martinique, 1902; translated by Stephanie Foster, 2018)