A cool cloth was laid on Marie’s head. Seraphine said:
‘In the beginning, the water was below and the sky above. Obatala asked permission from the other gods to create dry land for beasts to live upon. And so the gods gave him a gold chain to reach the place below, and they gave him a white hen, a palm nut, and a sack filled with sand. When he came to the end of the chain, the gods told him to cast down the sand and to free the hen. And when he did, the hen began to scratch and scatter the sand, and where it landed, hills and mountains were formed and in between, valleys and plains. And when Obatala came down on the land, he planted the palm nut and everywhere great forests sprang up.
‘But soon Obatala grew lonely and so he gathered clay to make beings that were like him, but before he got far, he grew thirsty and drank enough palm wine to make himself drunk. And the beings he formed were not in his image but very flawed.’
Marie smiled. ‘Who told you that story, Seraphine?’
‘She is a wise woman.’
‘You would call her so.’
‘Are there mountains where you are from?’ Seraphine asked.
‘Yes, there are mountains, yes, there are.’
‘They say you came all the way from France.’
‘They can say what they will, but I have never set foot in France. I came here from Martinique after the great hurricane that killed six thousand.’
The girl was quiet, listening.
‘A hurricane is a great wind that levels all in its sight and leaves only ruins behind. But even before, we were ruined by my father’s gambling debts. After the storm my brother could not hold on to the land, and so we left with the intention of coming to our relatives, but he was laid low with a fever in Havana and died.’
‘You have had a sad life Madame,’ the girl said.
‘Yes, but so have many others and much worse than mine, and my father did leave me his legacy,’ Marie touched her deck of playing cards.
‘You have had no husband?’
‘No and I do not wish for one.’
The girl considered this for a time and wanted to ask why that was, but thinking it best not to, wondered aloud what a mountain was like.
‘It is like this.’ Marie crumpled the bed sheets and pulled up peaks. ‘The land in Martinique is green and lush with forests and flowers. There are waterfalls and pools and all around there is ocean, water the color of my aquamarine stones. The ocean is vast and deep and across it lies the rest of the world.’
‘The slaves came from across the great water, they say.’
‘Yes, from a place called Africa that is bigger and vaster than any other place.’
‘Will we stay here long?’ the girl asked wistfully.
‘We never stay long. It is the secret of being a good guest. We go from house to house, and in the off season, we have a little place of our own in New Orleans.’
Seraphine twisted this way and that. She had something on her mind, but she was afraid to ask.
‘Will we return to Monsieur Pierre?’
‘Always. I want you to put all that nonsense about the devil out of your mind. There is no such thing.’
‘But Baron Samedi -‘
‘No. People are responsible for the ills in this world. Not the devil, not Baron Samedi or Baron Cemetaire. Do you understand? There is no such thing. God may have made the world, but that was a long time ago, and God does not concern himself with us any longer. The story you told me is just a story, it is no more real than…’ Marie snapped her fingers.
The girl pressed her lips together and said nothing for a time. ‘Will you play cards tonight?’
‘Yes. I’ll wear my green dress.’
‘I’ll ready it,’ the girl set to work.
‘Seraphine, the world is a terrible place, it’s true. But there is no reason to make ourselves even more afraid than we need be. Do you understand?’
‘Yes, Madame, I understand you very well,’ the girl said not looking up from her task.