The Great Disturbance According to Belonie
By Antonine Maillet
Don't look for this story in a book because you'd probably find it -- and that would be a shame. Titles, subtitles, statistics, dates, theses and antitheses would just eat away at its mystery aand drown its soul. And a story without soul doesn't deserve to stand the test of time.
This one, however, is very much alive, with its heart and soul buried somewhere in tenacious and untamed memories, waiting.
It is waiting for storytellers who do not recount history just as it happened, like historians, but in their own way, the only true way, the way you really want to hear.
I unearthed this story bit by bit, breaking into the most reluctant of consciences and digging into the thick heads of the elderly, who just wanted to fall quietly asleep. . . . Sleep? Oh, no -- not that! Not before passing on to the son of the son of your son the fragments of history your father's father's father paassed on to you one cold winter's night.
Following link after link, I finally arrived at 1770 and Old Bélonie. He was approaching 100, ready to make his final journey and convinced that nobody would disturb him, nobody would try to pry his memories out of him when he was so close to the grave.
These memories stretched back to 1713 and the Treaty of Utrecht, which had sealed, once and for all, the fate of a land that British and French kings had been fighting over for a century, hurling proclamations at each other across the English Channel and changing its name back and forth from Acadie to Nova Scotia.
Acadie was a promised land that no king had actually seen, but Bélonie dreamed that it would be passed on to his descendants, and he'd clung to this dream until 1755.
Then, alas, on a single night he lost everything. At 75, Bélonie had seen his home, his barns, his crops burst into flames, and half his people perish. The other half were sent into exile aboard a British boat, which then sank in the eye of a hurricane less than two days later.
From the bow of the ship that was taking him and a few of his remaining compatriots to a strange land, Bélonie watched as his lineage disappeared. After that, he was just an old man.
It was that same old man whom, 15 years later, Pélagie loaded into her wagon to carry him out of exile and back to the land of Acadie. He was grumpy and stubborn as well as old. Why? Why leave Georgia? Why go back to an Acadie that's dead and without descendants? No, Pélagie, Bélonie has already signed a pact with the Reaper. If he is going back up the coast of America, it will be in the cart of Death, not in the cart of the living.
But Pélagie, having already saved half her people, was determined to bring everyone home, come hell or high water. Eventually, she piled this mass of flesh, grumbles and memories -- against his will -- in the back of her cart. He had just enough time to tune his whining to the clanking of the wheels whenn, in the wink of an eye, another carriage -- a dark one without doors or lantern -- pulled up behind six flaming black horses. It has travelled the world since the beginning of time: the Death cart.
"If no one has ever seen it, how do you know the cart is black?"
But Bélonie did not answer Pélagie, determined not to waste his breath. No living being has ever seen Death, but everybody knows him. The Devil and its horns, the Archangel Saint Michael leaning on his spear, who has seen them? This second cart would follow Bélonie, whether Pélagie liked it or not, all the way to dear departed Acadie. The dead outnumber the living and deserve just as much as they do to spend eternity in the promised land.
Rolled up in the middle of the rigging and travelling gear, the old man grumbles. . . . Promised land, heh! . . . That did not even keep its promise. To whom will this Acadie, burned to the roots, violated, wiped out, erased from the map, be passed on? Who can still fancy it?
Not Bélonie, unable to save even one descendant during the disaster. All had fallen, cut down to the last offspring, a child with eyes not yet open. This one would go back with the others to the ancestors, but in the Death cart, the one Bélonie was pulling secretly, attached by an invisible thread to Pélagie's carriage. All the dead to the north! Let's go!
Pélagie does not answer the inner grumbling of the old goat, but continues to drag scraps of Acadie across an America that does not even hear the squealing of her cart. She will walk all the way, through woods and swamps, in search of a land to sink her roots.
This is where Bélonie, like the others, will bury his bones full of memories. Memory! . . . Memory, Bélonie, you have 20 years more of it than the oldest of the living, more than Charles of Charles, more than Anne-Marie-Françoise, more than Celina-who-limps, you are an essential link to the passing on of memory and without you. . . .
. . . History will have to do without
me, moans the grumpy man, I won't speak, the dead don't need to testify
any more. I don't belong to your world any more. You wanted me to be part
of the convoy at all costs? Too bad! The Reaper will be my only travel
mate, he who transports in the back of his dark carriage all my posterity
written on my own gravestone, hee! . . .
Life went straight ahead, this September morning at Grand Pré, and left us falling into the bottomless funnel. Memory went back to Earth. What a shame! Bélonie would have had so much to talk about! . . . A century and a half since Port Royal, where Champlain and Marc Lescarbot founded the Neptune Theatre and the Order of Good Cheer to help people get through the early winters without losing their spirit.
Then, little by little, field becomes domain, region becomes country. A hundred years of good life on free and fertile soil where generations of Bélonies, fathers to sons, had been building aboiteaux,the drainage sluices that allowed them to steal land from the ocean, filling up cellars and granaries, singing at Sunday mass, dancing at the weddings of their children, passing on the old sayings from France that took on a singing lilt and a rugged accent from the winds and tides of a new climate. It was a life that felt new every morning. For eternity.
An eternity that stops with a sharp
blow one September morning. To the surprise of the wise patriarchs and
perpetual optimists, here is history taking a sudden turn, tearing pacts
and treaties, locking the men folk in the church of Grand Pré for
the reading of a letter from His Joyful British Majesty that absolves them
of their treason and rushes them without trial into exile. An entire people
deported and dispersed along the American coast from New England to Georgia.
So, go! In the swamps, the moors, the woods, carve out a new life as best
feels it all happened so fast that he didn't even have time to cast off
his ancestral beliefs, to change his way of thinking. That he did not succeed,
in 15 years, to embrace the new country that was shoved down his throat.
After cutting him off from his roots, and stripping him of his blossoms,
they wanted him to remember? But what was there to remember? He had seen
the last of his line sink, a child taken away before his eyes were even
open. . . . From that moment on, the old man had lost his memory.
Somebody is shaking him and breaking his train of thought: "Bélonie! Someone is calling for you. Here is a young man named Bélonie son of Thaddée son of Louis son of Bélonie who just turned up in the marshland of Salem. He is saying that . . ."
The old man lifts his head, his eyes glued to the newcomer's face . . . "Thaddée . . . son of Louis . . . son of Bélonie?"
Pélagie creates a path through the curious crowd and puts her hand on the old man's shoulder. At his age, he doesn't need to be bothered with cock-and-bull stories. Bélonie, there are no more descendants.
But the speaker dares to confront Pélagie. He pushes forward the newcomer who pretends to be a direct descendant of the Bélonie family of Grand Pré.
He would have been found at sea 15 years ago by Captain Beausoleil himself. And would not have stopped sailing around since, travelling across every ocean.
Bélonie tries to understand but can't -- the impossible is incomprehensible. History cannot be rewritten, the clock turned back. No wave swirls the same way twice.
Says Pélagie: "Come on, Bélonie, try to remember. The youngest one who disappeared at sea . . . what was his name?"
No name, not even baptized with the water of the ocean.
At that instant, the young man comes forward, walks up and, before Pélagie can warn him that the man is old but not deaf, yells into his ear: "My baptism went on for several days, I have been told, before Beausoleil's sailors fished me from my straw basket, floating off the coast of Sable Island. This I have been told."
All eyes are on Bélonie.
A long silence follows. Then all turn and gaze in amazement at the newcomer.
"That's right, it took years to trace my origins. They even wanted to call me Moses Saved from the Water. Then, one day, as Captain Beausoleil was bringing a whole shipment of deportees back to Gaspésie from the West Indies . . ."
"Gaspésie? Why Gaspésie?"
"Well because Gaspésie was still French at that time."
"How d'you know?"
"Be quiet and let the newcomer tell the story."
The young man smiles, shakes himself and goes on:
"Among the deportees was an old, old woman who remembered seeing, from the coast of Sable Island, with her very eyes, a ship swallowed whole by the wicked wind."
"The hurricane!" stammers Old Bélonie.
Little by little, all the carts pull up, everyone eager to hear the story of the young lone survivor of the famous shipwreck, a child who miraculously escaped the jaws of the hurricane. The old woman deported to the West Indies could swear to God she had seen a basket floating away after the storm. She had tried to rescue it, but the ocean had been too strong.
Years later, "she is the one who recognized my straw cradle in the hold of Beausoleil's ship. And she told me I had to be the son of Thaddée son of Louis son of Bélonie. And she is the one who, that day, named me after the first one in my lineage."
Old Bélonie turns his head toward his invisible funeral cart and, for the first time in 15 years, magnificently thumbs his nose at the Reaper. Hee! . . .
For days, he steals away with his great grandson to escape the eavesdroppers. They talk until his mouth is too dry. Time flies by. His memory came back the instant he looked into the eyes of his only heir. But not for long. For 15 years he has made commitments to the Reaper; he won't be allowed too much freedom dumeschui.
"From now on,my child." You, too, must fill your head with words the south winds might blow away. Words so old that only the oldest voices can utter them without mangling them.
Young Bélonie would have to learn how to tell stories like an old man. The only descendent of an ancient line, a tousled-haired 15-year-old kid, he came back from their daily walks in the bush with his eyes bulging and mouth wide open. Away from the caravan of carts, the old man kneaded his memory and imagination the way a baker kneads his dough. No time to waste. For decades to come, Bélonie would be responsible for handing down the only legacy salvaged from the disaster of 1755: memory.
Of the refusal to give unconditional allegiance to the king of England.
Of the burning of the church and homes that dotted the coast of the French Bay, also called Bay of Fundy.
Of an entire people who hadn't even finished storing away their harvest when they were piled into the holds of ships.
Of the children pulled out of their mothers' arms, the women pulled from their men, several of whom would be shot dead at point-blank range while trying to escape into the woods.
Of families torn apart and deposited on hostile shores, often forced back to sea or left to wander the coastline from Pennsylvania to Maryland, Georgia and the Carolinas.
Of the story of the Thibodeau family who dropped out of Pélagie's convoy to try their luck in Louisiana, where the Landrys, the Martins and the Cormiers already hid.
Of Pélagie's dream of bringing, after 15 years of exile, the remains of her family back to their ancestral home, to load them on her cart despite the reluctance of the lazy and the fearful, despite the risk of starvation, of cold, of disease.
Of the slow procession back to the promised land, made on tiptoe to avoid waking the sleeping giant. A caravan along the back roads of America just as history was preparing for the skirmish between England and its colonies. To the point that when the bells of Philadelphia rang out to celebrate American independence, the Acadians hiding in the bush nearby thought they were hearing a death knell.
Old Bélonie went silent. He would not have enough time to finish the story. His great grandson, God grant him life, would have to learn by himself how the tale of a people already forgotten by History would end. But History alone doesn't determine a people's destiny.
Life is sometimes stronger, more stubborn than destiny, life that exists in the gut, that scrapes the bottom of the heart where the remains of feelings are stuck, that lights up the mind filled with memories that cannot be forgotten.
Put that in your head, Young Bélonie, because the old man will not go on. He has an appointment . . .
Old Bélonie turns his head toward his cart -- the one that carries his tombstone. He is not a man to keep anybody waiting. Let the Reaper come now. And he does . . .
"Bélonie, is it you?"
"Move over, I'm climbing in."
"Are you really in a hurry?"
"I cannot wait to know."
"To know . . .?"
"To know the end of the story I was in charge of telling."
"I will keep mum -- you won't get anything from me."
"I don't expect to hear it from you."
". . .?"
"You fooled me, you old miscreant, letting me think I was the last of my line. But the Bélonies don't disappear with this drivelling old fool, the pioneer of a people's memory. History itself can be quiet, if it doesn't want to open the pages and make its big book squeak any more. We can do without History."
"You are not even in my cart yet and you are already beginning to ramble?"
"I have one foot on the step of your cart and finally I know. I know that our memory will be handed down from home to home, from century to century, from Bélonie to Bélonie. People will tell."
"But all, to the last one, will end up like you in my cart, and you know it."
"But before that, each will have told."
The Reaper whips his scythe under
the feet of the old man, giving him just enough time to wink at life and
give one last: hee! . . .
could now go. Young Bélonie would tell the story by the fireside
to his son Bélonie, the third, who would tell it to Thaddée
son of Bélonie, who would tell it to Bélonie son of Thaddée,
who would pass it on to Louis son of Bélonie Maillet, my cousin.
Antonine Maillet was born in Bouctouche, N.B., in 1929, and much of her work has focused on the history and sensibility of the Acadians. Her 1979 novel, Pélagie-la Charette, won France's prestigious literary award the Prix Goncourt. This short story was translated by Solenn Carriou of Lexique Ltd.
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