- Pretend Wars
For Alejo Carpentier
Diary: June 4, 1822
Athenaïs wants an écorché, of course. Ever since she saw one at our kind neighbor's, the Dottore's, house. A wax body, skin draped back like stage curtains to show the ink-dipped veins and lacquered bones across his exposed ribs. He is made for scientific purposes, said the Dottore. So one may see and understand god's creation, so we can be healed.
The flayed man reminded her of Papa. The man who made this body pulled out the shoulder blades, so they fan out wide and frame the skull like the epaulettes of Papa's kingly uniform. Stuffed veins ran thick as rope down the arms, stained red and blue to show the flow of blood. Like our dear Haitian flag, said Athenaïs.
How charming, the Dottore said. To discover a likeness of the dearly departed Henri Christophe, the King of Haiti, in his very own study.
I didn't see Papa at first. But as soon as she said it, there was Papa in the skull looking back at me. That thing must have been modeled after some poor peasant. Or a soldier, now lipless, mouth open wide, as if surprised. But there was something of Papa in his glass eyes, unblinking. Papa hardly blinked when he looked at you.
I told Athenaïs to best not tell Mama what she sees. It would only upset her.
The Dottore whispered to me that I have nice feet. He gently prodded at my lavender slippers with his black boot. No one saw him do this. Athenaïs absorbed herself in the écorché's innards. Our dear American Governess maintained her usual oblivion, staring off into the disembodied space not occupied by the Dottore working his boot up my ankle. His hand at the smallness of my back. Thick fingers on my muslin.
The Dottore said anytime you would like, dear Signora. I will send over this dear écorché that so pleases you.
Isn't that nice of the Signor, Amethyste? my sister said.
At times, I worry for us. We have left England and come here to Pisa for the warmth, for Mama's rheumatism. But we live too close to death too comfortably. We fill our apartments with dead things, bits of Haiti preserved in wax and liquor, for Papa had so liked preserved things, as a gentleman of enquiry. On our walls hang pressed, red-lipped orchids from Le Cap, petals petrified in their frames lined with blue velvet – a bloom Mama says no longer exists, all burnt in the war. Next to them, Mama's pale yellow snake sits coiled in a jar of rum – an old pet, she says.
Papa's severed ring finger still sits in his bottle of brandy—Mama's proudest possession. The fine [End Page 108] crystal bottle stands on the mantle. Made a deep amber from my father's flesh. His finger has been two years in that bottle. Athenaïs wonders what the liquor tastes like. So do I.
June 5, 1822
A smell wakes me so early this morning. Dusty at first, like chalk crushed under running feet. Then the smell of heat, of something burning. I prod Athenaïs awake and beg her to name the scent.
It is bread baking, you fool. She rolls over. She already returns to sleep. She will not wake for the world now, just to spite me.
For some reason, the memory of Papa's face comes, as if clinging to the bread-filled air. In my mind, Papa's face smiles at me. His hands are pale with flour. He is laughing. He smears flour on my nose, sprinkles fine dust on my brow. I laugh, swatting away his hands, saving my hair. We collapse on the ground, flour scattered around us like the snow we had yet to see.
I know, of course, that this moment never happened. The Papa I knew was a revolutionary—a general and a Haitian king. My Papa was careful. I only saw him in frames. Framed by our ballrooms, our mirrored walls. Framed...