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"Eakins' skill at spinning a tale and her love of language are obvious in this story of an eighteenth-century black slave who repeatedly defies convention and ultimately creates his own universe."

-- Michele Leber,
writing in
Booklist



From Pierre Baptiste

The Garden of Fishes

MY MASTER'S TEMPER were by spasms choleric, the spasms exacerbated by trespass, real or fancied, of his slaves, all of whom had had occasion to beg their fellows daub their backs with salve of rum and lard. Yet Dufay had raised up drivers to lash the hands to work, drivers on whom he palmed off most of the stewardship, that he might dedicate himself to advancement of universal knowledge. In sun and rain he tramped, far from the carries where his hands labored, peering under leaves, down burrows, and up into nests to discover and name what creatures inhabited the wilderness parts of his domain.

An excellent draftsman, he delighted in sketching particulars of feather, fur, and scale; the curve of claws, of teeth and beaks; the depths of eyes; the stretch and shove of limbs. On sketching expeditions to the rockiest, most surf-pounded tips of St. Michel, he spied from blinds he had had constructed on narrow ledges, to watch the sea birds fighting and fishing and rutting. (Some said he spied on the slaves, yes, on his own wife and children, in like manner, but I never saw him loiter in the shadows of human habitation.)

From the age of five, I, whom the whites called Goody, had been laboring in the carries, coughing from the fire that burned off the leaves, stepping and stooping to chop the canes and singing between my gritted teeth to keep the bone-grinding pace. One day, M'sieu was riding his mare past the gang, his cockaded hat abob on Yolande's trot as he passed on his way to more tangled parts of our isle to sketch. His old servant trotted behind, one Christophe, called Long-Shanks, carrying the tools of his master's art. Alas, this worn-out soul, Christophe, keeled over; without further adieu, he gave up the ghost and died.

"Hop! Hop! Hop! Do not leave Long-Shanks asprawl to be chewed by dogs," said M'sieu to his driver. "Yet pick out some strong, young, thick, black arms to wait on me at once, not again the tapered wrists of an aging yellow too refined to lift." And, rueful-ironic, he doffed his hat to Christophe.

Pierre was called from the gang then, to lay down his bill and serve the master as porter. Wriggling joyful I was, who had no notion what a world of fetching made a body servant's work! Though I was then a strapping youth of ten, they had not yet given me a pair of pants. So, on the first day I turned my eyes from cane to follow Yolande's tail, I did not look around me much, but only mulled over one single question: Would I get a pair of drawers? And when I did, that very eve, and not coarse Osnaberg, but silk, however faded, I strutted like a cock, and capered to the piping of the cane flute, the first capers I had cut in a very long time, for my smock had ceased to cover my privates, and I had learn't to shrink and cower over Johnny Fish.

Yet the drawers they had given me were pantaloons from years before, very baggy and covered with tufted ribbon loops. And these stale fancies gave great merriment to Pamphile, the master's son, and his stepmother, who swore they would grow my frizz to a full-bottom -- "he would need no curling iron, and nits would lose themselves in the maze" -- and send me over the seas to court, to wait on the jades that yawned around the King. And they conceived a plot, to give me a name from antiquity, like a hero's in a tragedy, but M'sieu stamped his foot and swore, "I'll be damned if I learn a new name I must cry in the bush when I call for a snare set."

At night, in the dark, I lay with the fancy pants in my bed of straw. With my fingers I tugged at the fall, so it tore, and, when I donned the pantaloons, revealed Johnny Fish to the company.

"The stuff be so old it has rotted," I allowed.

So they gave me some drawers more plain and recent.

Once decently covered, I straightened my back and willingly shouldered the master's easel. I looked about me smartly, as he enjoined me over Yolande's withers: "Observe the curious cunning with which Nature has devised the creatures."

Dutifully at first I gaped at the mole, all fur and snout, with shovelly hands, that blindly hunches and wriggles a path like an endless pant leg to inhabit. How came he to St. Michel? Did he tunnel under the sea? Or was he pushing like a hungry root at Creation?

The island had not the variety of creatures, allowed M'sieu, that are known on the continents; yet creatures there were sufficient to preoccupy an inquiring philosopher, most particularly the varieties of lizard and bird. And soon enough Pierre began to observe for the pleasure of the scrutiny. There very greatly charmed him the red and green throat of one small lizard, puffed like a lady's coyly dropped handkerchief as the creature took the sun. All languor he lolled till he cast his tongue to snag a fly! Servant no less than master marveled at the parakeets, their feathers brighter than flowers, cleaning themselves with their toes and hooking with their beaks the mites, smaller than lice, that inhabited their feathers' underbrush.

And the white egret, and in season, the blue heron.

Then there were fishes, more multivarious than birds, a garden of flesh in the waters, impossible to catch and hold, their form their movement, their movement one with the water they had their being in, the salty tear-drenched garden of the dead my godmothers had told me of, where I did not want to linger, though I ate any fish my elders caught, for I knew they took the fish with gratitude, and were forgiven.

The master did not trust the waters any more than I, though his dead slept beneath the earth, patient as seeds, waiting their time. Yet Dufay would not take off his shoes to wet his feet in the sea, let alone remove his clothes to wet his person. He did not like it, that was all; he did not care for it, so he said. `Twas a slimy, endless chaos; he did not want it to impinge on his person.

Still, he must have fish to sketch and paint if his natural history were to be complete. So it fell to me to catch these fish, yet without spoiling their form. So I must into the sea. If I would not do it, he would send me back to the fields. Yet I knew not how to comport myself in the sea, nor did my master. Yet he would teach me by hypothesis, trying one expedient then another.

First, he had me dangled as bait on a rope he tied to a pole held by two big men. And he lowered me choking and bellowing into the sea, till I learned to hold my breath. And he bade me agitate my arms and legs, like a human mill, and thus make myself an engine for motion in the sea. And when he saw my terrors had eased, he bade the two men throw me in, without the rope or the pole, so I must save myself with the motions I had learned. And in this manner I was trained to be nimble in the sea, to capture the fishes Dufay would sketch.

As I must paddle about with a spear in one hand, so I must keep the other, and both my legs, in motion, as an ox on a treadmill, to churn myself afloat. Yet -- could I quiet my heart that pounded loud in my ears as depths rose to claim me, could I bring myself to open my eyes -- then I saw, not the flesh-shrouded bones of the dead, but a paradise shimmering in veils of light. Surely the dead must be at peace in their garden of fish. I prayed I would be forgiven for plucking blossoms of flesh, not to eat, but for M'sieu to paint. Yet the longer I spent in the garden of the dead, the less fearsome seemed the prospect of death. Was I not floating in a bliss that laved me, luxuriant and enjoyable? So Pierre splashed among his ancestors' souls, visible only as movement in water. He celebrated their sweet repose, free of the whites who feared to set foot in their domain. Seeing how Pierre smiled when he rose for breath, the master clapped his hands and patted his slaveman's head.

Copyright © 1997-1999 by Patricia Eakins.

Interested? You can order the book through the Fabularetail page.


"Eakins, a white woman writing at the end of the 20th century, enters into the mind of an African man of letters, a slave in the 18th century. She breathes life into Pierre Baptiste through the power of her literary and moral imagination, creating a character as fully realized and memorable as any in literature. "

-- Michael Perkins
writing in the
Woodstock Times


You may join an online forum on The Marvelous Adventures of Pierrre Baptiste, and can get in touch with Patricia Eakins at eakins@fabulara.com . She is represented by the Martha Millard Literary Agency. Interested publishers can contact the agency at mmla@fabulara.com .

Published 3 Mar 1998; last revised 8 Mar 2007. All site content copyright 1997-2007 Patricia Eakins.
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