The Devil & King Christophe: Director’s Cut

Unfathomably swiftly speeded,
Earth’s pomp revolves in whirling flight,
As Eden’s brightness is succeeded
By deep and dread-inspired night
Goethe’s “Faust”, 1806

Evangelical broadcaster Pat Robertson says Haiti has been “cursed” because of what he called a “pact with the devil” in its history.
—Associated Press, January 13, 2010

Flower bundles were already laid at the foot of the orange tree and the zombis stood around at their stations, now General Christophe signed to end the dancers. All clapping and the calabashes stopped, the beads and talking drums fell silent until a distant animal shriek, though far away, pierced the night just as if a spear had flown into the ring.

“Azazel, Baphomet. Pluto…” Christophe drew out a string of spooky names with charms and incantations, and called up the devil.

The woman, a negresse verte, had already rubbed the pig’s neck with herbs. Now she split the throat with a cane knife and spilled its blood in a circle about the meeting place. She threw some ambergris in the fire, and a smokeless gleam went up above the flame; splendid, unbearable light.

Even Christophe looked away, but the form who sprang into the ring of blood wore the outfit of a child soldier. He was a boy 16 years old, a standard-bearer, six years already with the revolution’s rebels and wore a thin twine of moustache on his lip. “Behold! What fancy mess,” the boy said. “Good sir, what is your pleasure?”

“Is this a joke?” said Christophe.

“You were expecting Tonton Macoute?”

“Get on back, fils. The moon is really fully full only a minute or two …”

“With all respect to your mumbo jumbo, General, I swear that stuff made my tongue like boiled chicory.”

The zombi guards constricted on the boy, swords to his chin. But their machetes broke into many pieces that crawled away as worms.

“I’m a bad man,” said the boy. “I’m pretty!”

“Such tricks!” cried Christophe. “Why, are you some spokesman sent between the worlds?”

“I’m a part of that part that once was everything,” said the boy.

“You can’t mean you—you are the demon.”

“And what shall I do for you?”

“Pray, then, fearful spirit, what’s your name?” asked Christophe.

“That’s small request, Henri, from one so troubled as yourself,” the devil said. “You warn me that the moon’s turning in the sky—and then burn questions like tobacco.”

“I am too curious. I’ll be quicker if it wears your patience,” Christophe said, “still, forgive me if I’m wrong—you’re not a genie.”

“I am the goat without horns,” the devil said. “When the first wrong was done to the first Arawak, I was there. When the first slaver put out for Nigeria, I stood on her deck.”

“But why show up as Sass, the flag-boy?”

“You like my red and gold attire? The little cloak. The rooster’s feather in my hat, and the long, nicely pointed blade…”

“The point, get to the point.”

The boy curled his moustache with a finger. “I live my part in service to this moment, Henri. Have it your way (though there’s no rush): Let’s move on to your favor.”

“Now listen here, squirmy chap, I don’t care if you’d stay for tea, or join your webby flock and fly to Île à Vache. You’ve been this errand-nigger, lifting banners here and there, waiting for your moment—while we’re a hundred thousand murdered, starved. Toussaint dragged off to France. To liberate a rotten lot of sugar plants. If you’re who you say… you’re not holding up your part, is what I’m getting at!”

Hearing this the devil pried open his mask Krishna-style, revealing himself. He rose out of the boy’s jaws as a foaming hippopotamus, all fiery wings and shining teeth. Henri Christophe saw a thousand abominable eyes and mouths and arms, teeth growing out of ears and eyes on bellies. He heard a sound like lobsters cracking. Those scores of rebels creeping, huddled in the brush, fled in terror—stepping now in cookfires, now on wounded bodies—their thumps and hollers expressed the shape of the darkened hills.

“Yipes! Am I a god?”

“Not quite—a man who would be king.

“Now see in me the evil marvels showered on this world,” the devil said. “I don’t waste time possessing lads. In every toddler’s regal heart I’m stirring havoc, mischief, all while you’re and I’m discussing lunch.”

“But how is it done,” said Christophe, from his knees, “—if two lads occupy two spaces far apart?”

“Didn’t your white fathers teach you about Père Noël?” said the devil. “I’m everywhere at once!”

“Serpent, those fathers talked of their negro mistresses and of the comely mulatto whores—but hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars…” When Henri Christophe talked of those enslaved, and the sorrows of slavery, his voice got like a big bell. “…They forced us to eat shit, cast us alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills. Or lashed us to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes—when not flaying us with the lash, to drive wealth for their own fortunes from Saint-Domingue’s soils—”

The devil nodded. “Aborigines. Good fertilizer.”

“Three quarters of the world’s sugar,” Christophe said. “Coffee, cotton, indigo—rum! They threw us in the boiling cauldrons of cane syrup. When in the day should we have studied Père Noël?”

“Nostalgia’s not what it used to be,” the devil said. “Very well, never mind.”

“It’s only two of us here in this clearing, now you’ve frightened all the tourists,” Christophe said. “I can’t likely speak to you as a child anymore, even though in your place I see that uniform again. But let me hear your proper name.”

“Fair enough. I am known as Meririm, I’m also Lucifer,” sighed the boy. “I am Satan the destroyer. Ba’al-Zevuv, lord of the flies. I have been at Crete, I have been at Roncevaux. Just as I was at Wittenberg, so shall I be at Dockery Plantation. I am Astaroth: I will bring up the dead to eat the living. And the dead will outnumber the living.

“For your part,” he said, “call me Mephistofiles.”

“I beg your pardon,” Christophe said. “The dead outnumber living as it is.”

“No problem, I can offer plenty other favors. Let’s see. We have a fine selection in damsels—all shades of course…”

“What I mean is, devil, we have been at war 12 years. We’re up to our elbows in blood, with fighting, and every night we rest in a niche of skulls and skeletons and death.”

“Go on.”

“The problem,” said Christophe, “is that 12 years ago my people called on you for freedom. You promised victory over our tormentors. You promised glory.”

“And did you not overthrow the grands blancs?”

Christophe said, “We did, and since we’re overrun with conquerors.”

“You knocked out the British, you threw back Spain.”

“Like playing Coup-de-Taupe! Today we run the jungles fighting Frenchmen who cut the heads off French we beat at the start.”

“You are no longer chained, or even lashed,” the devil pointed out. “Your face wears soot from battle, true, but you’re not anymore a coal-nigger. Nor a billiard-boy. The contrary, you’re dressed up as an admiral.”

“There is a little freedom,” said Christophe, “in the grip of combat. It’s my decision, say, to swing my cutlass—hack a man’s throat, or turn left. That shapes the future. I move, I make my destiny. But if that be freedom, then, as completely as that moon is full, our freedom’s fully stretched. Used up by war.”

“I’m sensing buyer’s remorse,” the devil said.

“You might as well uncage a slave and leave him in the ocean, that he may only splash the waves to keep his head from sinking.”

“Technically, your land is dry…”

“To starve our enemy, we burn the fields. We bartered for freedom in our hands, and growing. Not traded for another curse!”

“No offense to you and your lore,” the devil said, “my agreement made at Bois Caiman was liberate your blacks from labor and lift you over your white chastisers. Papa Loa signed the waiver specifically refusing my eternal protection. Trusted in oxtails and his own nigromancy. Saved himself a couple beads.”

Christophe said, “That same voudou brought you round.”

“All those bokor charms and rumps and goblins—he said he was invincible. Ended with his head on a post, but you slaves won your revolt. A deal’s a deal.”

“And after, you clap your hands and watch the royal rumble?”

The devil shrugged.

Christophe said, “If that’s the way it is, what are you doing here?”

“But soft! You invited me, though. Didn’t you?”

“I thought to collect (with interest added),” Christophe said. “What I’m asking is you said you’d been waiting for this hour. Why did you lurk upon this island, so near me with your ruffled collar, if you believed you already filled your contract?”

“What can love do, Henri,” the devil said, “that dares not love attempt?”

“Get out of here.”

“You don’t want more?”

“I’ve had enough.”

“My Henri, dear, where is your famous ambition? I said before I’ve got a thousand favors. You complain I’m disobedient then tell me slavery stories; why do you hear my dreadful words, and miss the lovely parts?”

“I told you I’m not interested.”

The devil said, “The truth is, champ, the spell is sealed. I’m here. And once I’m here I’m bound to serve you. In whatever kind of bargain. There’s orders. I can’t leave to go, or say farewell, until I’m given pardon.”

“Well then, piss off.”

“You have to say it thrice.”

Now Christophe walked all round the devil and looked him in the eyes. He even faked a punch or two, to see what would result. The devil cocked his head somewhat and kept his eyelids steady.

“You can’t leave until I give permission?” Christophe asked.

“In so many words.”

“But if I don’t say it, you stay trapped.”

Ben … formellement…

“With all your mighty tusks and fireworks, you’re in my power,” Christophe said. “The way I see it, phantom, that’s a chip.”

The devil wiped his forehead in his arm.

“We’ll make a new deal,” Christophe said. “I set you free—you do my asking in return. And then we’re square. No extra fees, no bothering, no wooden dolls. No hexes.”

The devil said, “Bad luck’s my favorite pastime.”

“I understand. That’s always in the game.”

“Now we’re getting on the trail,” said the devil. “What is it you want? Mansa Musa’s gold? Helen of Troy?”

“I want everybody to be free men,” Christophe said. “And Saint-Domingue rid of all her worries. One struggle done, that doesn’t mean the end. Now till fin du temps, you understand?”

“General, General, General,” the devil said, “your method’s not so sound. You have a chip. I’m talking seashells, baby. It costs way more than what’s our balance, the favors you propose.”

“Then what’s it take, Baron Samedi? Just keep in mind you owe me one. We’ll mark it on the ledger.”

“First thing, it doesn’t work like that. A carefree freedom, sans-souci as you insist, needs freedom from attackers. Liberty’s something every nation says it has in virtual monopoly, but it also invites a rushing in, and other governments won’t like you to stand in way of their example.”

Christophe said, “Make us independent, then, and out of reach of foreigners.”

“I can give you powers to dominate—though it’s expensive—to smite the Europeans. I can even curse the whites, strike them with avalanches, illnesses, thunder. But it’s up to you to hold your own. I can’t keep them from fighting you forever. Not any more than you’d submit for long (or did, when tables were reversed). Anyway that sort of thing could put me out of business.”

“What mighty doctrine do you call this? Que sera, sera? That doesn’t sound like tables turning.”

“Revolutions are accounted worth it mainly by beneficiaries whose blood had not the mischance to be shed,” the devil said. “It doesn’t happen as a magic trick—”

“What good are you then, infernal menace?”

“—unless you want your new conditions so suspended where, as quickly as you grasp one wrong corner, all the air goes out the other end. It’s rock paper scissors. Order of operations. You’re like the little light who envies mother night her place, and charging to the top too soon upsets nature.”

“And you’re a monster like Simurgh—omnipotent on condition that you do nothing.”

“I’ve got something up my sleeve if you would listen. But it’s still not presto-change-o. We’ve got to get in there with the bolts and rods and take the cylinders all to pieces.”

“Alright,” said Christophe, “what is your plan?”

“One thing I see is you’re in need of some re-branding.”

Christophe rubbed a mark of puffy skin scored underneath his shoulder. “Branding?”

“‘Saint-Domingue’? Too many syllables. Stinks of Europe’s interference. When this land was last left alone its natives called it Hayti.”

“Didn’t work so well for them, though.”

“Never worry! They didn’t have me as their guide.” He removed a blood-drenched laurel from his coat. “Notice how an umlaut civilizes, makes a little crown above the word. I’ll make you king, and be your chief advisor! We’ll build a reservoir of power so well dammed its waters flow on Haïti for centuries.”

Christophe said, “That’s ridiculous, demon. I can’t be despot. I reject monarchy. Same as its sisters, slavery and tyranny.”

“Inbred absolutists—fine. But isn’t a man who’s wise enough to free himself from chains,” the devil said, “to get out of the hole and into sunshine, isn’t he fit to administrate for those who stay and watch the pictures on the wall?”

“That’s true, but why not Dessalines? François Capois or Pétion?”

“Pétion? That half-caste? That pipsqueak of a falcon? Your modesty covers what already shows. They weren’t bold enough to call me.”

“You haven’t said how this is going to solve our military dilemma.”

The devil drew in the dirt with a stick a plan to climb a mountain and drop some regiment down the slopes behind Rochambeau’s fort. They talked back and forth very quickly, in layers of maneuvers. The devil described his design while Christophe questioned and shaped the details. “You’re better climbers. Hold the river, cut off Le Cap, you got the Count surrounded. That pins Napoleon.”

“Terrific,” Christophe said.

“But,” the devil said, “and here’s the peg, you must make friends with your freedom-fighter fellows to the north.”

“By any means, no,” said Christophe. “Not and not betray my brothers. I’ll be a joke.”

“Henri, why, you yourself went to the mainland to help in their own colonial rebellion.”

Christophe became touched by a memory of hiding in his mother’s skirts. As if he spied out behind the stalks her legs. He felt twice embarrassing, for his shyness before strangers and then at the indignity of his retreat.

“It was the spirit of the times,” said Christophe. “And I was just a scout. Those fledgling merchants then turned every bit a snake as Sonthanax. I could observe only free nations of free men.”

“Slaves or no slaves, Americans controls the shipping, this part of the globe,” the devil said. “You’ll suffer plunder and attacks. And who will trade? Keep clobbering invaders, but heads of state will see a bunch of violent, wild negroes. Your truce depends on nations’ cause to view you as legitimate.”

“New France can keep the States in balance on the Gulf. We’ll carve out a power in the Indies and play them both off Spain.”

“Didn’t you hear? Napoleon sold the Yanks his port, the river, everything. St. Louis to New Orleans. You’ve fought too well. Emperor cleaned himself of all his stakes in the New World.”

“What if I would rather weather sanctions?”

“You know how to be healthy, soldier. Strengthen your belly to keep your ribs from showing.”

Christophe sighed. “So what’s the price of all of this?”

“I have to warn you,” the devil said, “the penalty is most extreme.”

“I’ll gladly forfeit my life,” Christophe said, “if it will free us of this diabolical machine.”

“So many lovers and artists said as much, and yet when death approaches, the welcome is not great.”

“I admit I hope I survive at least enough to see Saint-Domingue’s and her rebels’ final deliverance.”

“‘Haïti’s.’ Anyway, I suggest you save yourself. How else can you be the king? As a discount, I’ll be delightedly all yours, and serve your majesty, but when we meet again beyond, you shall do the same for me.”

“I think hell’s a fable.”

“Aye,” said the devil, “think so still, till experience change thy mind.”

“What we been though, when hell’s on earth, what difference does it make if the other place is below or it’s above?”

“Suit yourself.”

“Let’s do this. Get it over.”

The devil offered the laurel. Henri Christophe put it on his head. The devil said, “I’ll need a signature too.”

“Paper or parchment? Give me the pen. Or we can seal it in wax. Or gold, if word’s no good.”

“Blood’s the best. Use any sheet, it’s all the same. I’ll mark a line. There. And with a drop of blood there sign your name.”

“Ah, it feels good now, doesn’t it?” Christophe said. “I feel a beating like a drum. The tree of liberty grows again, just as Toussaint L’Ouverture believed. Now the roots are replenished with fresh blood. Forgive me devil, this is a sublime moment. The roots are numerous indeed. I see Haïti, thick in world currency, her men treated as equal in European courts. I see a bloom of educators and commerce, gifted black men writing letters. Science, and ingenuity.”

“Aha! But Henri, you’re in the end—just what you are! Put wigs on with a million locks and put your foot in Chinese socks, you still remain just what you are.”

“What do you mean?”

“People of Haïti—who is this population that has, as a national conscience, only an agglomeration of tittle-tattle?” said the devil. “As insurgents they are swell. But Haïti’s enemy now is indolence. Her insolence, her distaste for discipline—her indolence and playfulness of spirit.”

Christophe said, “I’ll say to Haïti—go, work hard.”

“Yes, flatten mountains.”

“We’ll engineer the rivers.”

“You’ll harvest stone.”

“And turn the soil clod by clod.”

“Chop down trees.”

“We’ll drain the swamps, open new acreage. More farmsteads, and more. Haïti shall see great movements of her earth. She’ll conquer terrain, each day anew. With her activities, shall earn a paradise in life. With free men on free ground, she’ll share her freedom. A revised version of heaven.”

The devil said, “I was thinking build a giiiant fortress…”

Portions of this conversation have been “liberated” from: Aimé Césaire, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ambrose Bierce, Noam Chomsky, Christopher Marlowe, Stephen Vincent Benét, John Vandercook, Norman Mailer, Ishmael Reed, Ludwig von Mises, Joseph Conrad, Muhammad Ali.


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