Excerpt from The Island and a Night

October 2023

originally published as Daniel Maximin, L’Ile et une nuit (Paris: Seuil, 1995)

The first hour

The next hurricane of the century is announced.

The tropical depression gathers force for three days over the September ocean, preparing its unpredictable menu of Caribbean islands to devour.

We will let the cataclysm sate its violence, let it brew waking dreams and nightmares, and with luck make it to the end, when the sky will unveil those first rays of sunlight that will quickly dry our bread, our eyes, our hope, and our mattresses.

We will search for words together that speak both the tragedy of the coming blackout and the last candle’s resistance, until the day relays the end of our vigil.

Together, our deep-rooted word-thirst will awaken in us the gutsy ingenuity of storytellers at a wake. Alone, just us, the neighborhood not buzzing with mourning rites. Nor will the house remain open to let the soul of the dead depart tranquilly from its coffin.

It will be a wake without stories or songs, where we will nevertheless have to tap our reserves of the strongest, most beautiful words we imagine to be true, ceaselessly caressing our fears and our silences so as not to let our survival instincts go numb.

A wake not to celebrate the dead (no one commits suicide on hurricane nights) but to sustain together the resilience of our homes and our trees and to tirelessly keep watch over our candles so as not to let our houses burn down under the pretext of keeping the wind out of them.

One who walks alone does not advance. One who dies alone does not sow. One who waits alone awaits nothing. Guadeloupe is more than a tree. Even without roots she can flower. Our island is a veritable shack, built by our extended family of betrothed orphans. Fertile enough in the face of hurricanes, earthquakes, or eruptions to preserve grains of sand and drops of seafoam and to harvest roots.

But above all, tonight, we will have to take good care of ourselves, to each protect our own. Hope and despair inhabit the solitary mind. We must say it again together, play it again for the whole family, shouting, crying, or laughing on top of ourselves, chanting, dancing, and hiding under the table, perishing together if there’s nothing else to do, and above all never never slipping outside so long as the hurricane is not yet long gone.

To each their own page, if necessary, but in the same notebook.

We will have to quiet down tonight for the evening prayer of so many of our women: My Lord, give me the strength to remain alone, even without You.

We well know that it is not easy, all alone, to remain part of us, to try to endure together the danger that awaits us tonight. And that will not wait for each of us to make sure that we really are all together.

We had just enough time before the second alert to provision ourselves with water and canned goods. Old ladies laughed at the youths and foreigners who pushed shopping carts full of frozen food, not realizing the electricity would be cut for a long time. Ten years without a hurricane withers the legacy of survival instincts. The afternoon, calm and windless, is passed by boarding up the house or lending a hand to some relative or an overburdened neighbor. All in solidarity, the humans, the shacks, and the trees, but each at home, if possible, families shut in, houses barricaded, and the trees our sentinels. We have all seen shacks blown away and lodged between two trees without breaking, or uprooted trees knocked over without smashing the houses built in their shade, bequeathing for the next day a final harvest of coconuts, avocados, or breadfruit.

Yes. From our solitude to our neighborhood, from our neighborhood to our landscape, and from island to disaster-stricken island, our nudity is never as vast as at that moment when the hurricane—that devil always arriving from elsewhere—imposes on each of us a night of confinement.

So different from earthquakes and eruptions.

For those of us who have already lived through one, we know that earthquakes afflict our feet, turn the ground into a tidal wave without water. Without warning to prepare our bases and our redoubts. In us a dry fear whose cause ceases before we can even grasp it, without even a tangible place to flee to nor even enough time to find a refuge that doesn’t exist anyway, either inside or out. Absolute solitude. (Once leaving only the pediment of the Point-à-Pitre Cathedral intact, to announce to the survivors the exact time of the earthquake on the stopped clock: 10:35 a.m.)

And for those of us who have already lived through one, we know that eruptions afflict our heads. Bent over beneath flaming embers, the starless sunless sky falls down on us, and afterward the island does not reach as high. Mt. Soufrières evacuates brothers and sisters to far corners of other islands, to better sow their fertile compost over fallow ground.

But the hurricane, without head or tail, saltwater thief without hearth or home, slips between peaks and roots, disdaining continents, coming from afar straight through the heart of the islands to batter us, here where futures unfold with neither peaks nor roots.

Far from the whimsical patience and urgency of eruptions and earthquakes (meet in two minutes, in two months, or twenty years, or even at the end of the century?), for centuries our hurricanes have laughed at the predictions of the chroniclers. In 1667: “Hurricanes used to arrive no more than once every seven years, but they have become more frequent since the settlement of the Antilles.” And in 1713: “There was already, my lord, many years when no one spoke about hurricanes in these islands, and it even seemed like we forgot all about them.” In truth, hurricane season comes every year, the fate of the archipelago leaving nothing to chance but the careful choice of which islands to devastate.

Also, never except during a hurricane do we feel so deeply rooted. We don’t flee, we don’t evacuate. We go only as far as the nearest solidly built neighbor’s house. We stay away from churches; they don’t have jalousies. (In Moule, a piece of sheet metal burst through the thick doorway to end up right in the choir.) Plus we have to stay to help our houses. We evacuate the luxury villas: too many hermetically sealed bay windows that will shatter first thing. We don’t evacuate the housing projects, because their decorative brick latticework offers the wind that vital minimum of resistance to calm its pressure. Because of the water, we might lose everything in the house. But we will have saved the house.

The birds have disappeared, the trees are immobile, our memories rise to prepare the future:

The whole landscape prepares to bow down and to make with the people its offering of silence and immobility.

Colors and scents provisionally resume the path of their roots. The twelve notes of Radio-Guadeloupe’s station identification shells out, quarter hour by quarter hour, the storm’s advance, and we hope they announce its detour beyond the chain links of all our islands.

Until the decommissioning of hope.

The wind will pry nail by nail at the roofs of our barricaded houses. Inside we’ve piled mattresses on the large bed, gathered bread, sardines, cookies, silver, papers, and candles in plastic bags, hung a hammock in the bathroom—ultimate retreat in the only room without openings—nailed to the floor the feet of the dining-room table which will serve as the last roof, because even if the house is gutted one must never leave.

Outside, the wind will level cane fields and banana groves, will slice with flying sheets of corrugated steel tree trunks whose roots will have resisted, will smash shacks and villas, will force open doors and windows in order to save the walls, in an immense sell-off of branches and liquidated furniture. And the sea will come to add its salt, licking the windows of the port’s stores, trashing the warehouses, derailing fishermen’s dreams in a smash-up of pirogues and canoes, stripping the cemetery’s unhappy dead of their conch shell decor.

We will not really have dined. But for three days we’ll remain without hunger as we make a feast of defrosted foods and murdered barnyards.

In the final count, because of the progress of progress we won’t have to announce more than twenty or so deaths and ten thousand homeless. The extent of this little number will be incommensurable with the real amplitude of the catastrophe, but we’ll earn a sincere credit of compassion, money, and concrete, without which we couldn’t take up the challenge together, with our thousands of hearts in our stomachs and our hands linked.

Meanwhile, we will have faith, together tonight. Each with our two eyes, our two hands, and our two hearts.

And the new sun will be made of our rise.

We could all stay together in the large house we call Les Flamboyants. All the windows and doors are boarded up. The portable radio has new batteries. We methodically follow the directives of our traditions: go behind the kitchen to gather the soursop leaves and the pink Cayennes destined to ease the weariness of the coming week. Save the vegetable garden’s lemons, peppers, parsley, and the whole bouquet of soup herbs. There are too many flowers in the house, as if there were an overflow of mourning or communion, because we gathered everything outside, with Élisa and Gerty, to give the roses and the anthuriums the chance to fade to death.

Yesterday, Friday, after the first alert, Rosan passed by quickly to inspect the state of Les Flamboyants. At that time, the hurricane had not yet cast its lot between our two sister isles of Martinique and Guadeloupe. The most serious thing, according to him, about that slow-progressing zigzag, is that we wouldn’t know until very late which side of the island the storm will hit, and as a result, which side of the house will be the most exposed.

Rosan always surprises us with his obsession to prepare the defenses rather than to organize the retreat, with his scientific documents or his geographic histories of our sadnesses and our struggles, his little black notebooks about the eruption of Mt. Soufrières in 1976 and about Hurricane David in 1979. Tiny jumbles of discrete characters listing safety instructions, preventive measures, hypothetical predictions, wise responses, and poems meticulously chosen for their precise descriptions of our terrain.

This time, he left behind with us a text of Saint-John Perse, an unpublished letter found by a worker in the Point-à-Pitre museum, a mine of instructions, he said ironically, for the uneducated peasants:

Before the hurricane, there was a lowering of atmospheric tension and a heaviness in the atmosphere. Everything seemed struck with stupor. The light became strange. At first there were hours of silence, a strange calm in nature. The breeze stopped. Not a leaf moved. It was unnerving, the ceasing of the habitual breeze. Then came a sign that never lied, far and wide, across the barren places empty of vegetation, little and sudden whorls of wind. Then little whirlwinds lifting a feather, some dead leaves on the terrace or in the savannah. The cattle lowing while orienting themselves in a certain direction to face the hurricane. The bull called the cows.

The whole herd descended then from the pasture in a half-circle in a certain orientation. We knew then there would be a hurricane and we did not lock up the cattle.

Then it was topsy-turvy at home. First release the animals, the horses, the goats. Then prepare the houses. At La Joséphine, there was a boucan, to dry the cacao beans. We had to store it in the shed. We had built drying racks buried in the earth. That’s where the workers would go.

We had to close the house to the wind. Behind the door we stacked furniture, armoires, bookshelves, tables, planks, mattresses to stop the wind from piercing through the smallest cracks. But we left open the downwind side, so the house would not burst if the wind broke through with violence. When the direction of the hurricane changed, when the storm turned, we had to make a precipitous counter-maneuver in which all the servants participated. A child, my mother made me sit under a table, in the salon, to protect me if La Joséphine collapsed.

There was a servant who kept watch outside, who announced the direction of the wind, its changing. We heard him shout. Sometimes, we made a second one go out, crawling on his belly in the wind, to get news from outside. So we learned that such-and-such tree was uprooted, that the windmill fell, that the roof of the shed ripped away, etc. He also gave news of the neighboring properties.

After the hurricane, we had the impression of leaving Noah’s Ark. For a child, it was like a re-creation of the world.

The first thing, stupefying, that we discovered: the house, once white, turned black! Like a black coffin! Because the wet leaves, stripped from the trees, stuck to the walls of the house, one on top of the other, ten layers thick sometimes. These leaves rapidly turned black in the humidity. We had to scrape them off with a knife and repaint the house white.

We went to see what was left of the herd, gather them. The trees were cut, sometimes felled, by sheets of corrugated steel ripped from the roofs. The torrents from the mountain overflowed. After the hurricane, suddenly this flat calm: nature stunned, inert . . .

All of us together, tonight, will do without a lookout servant. To better see the worst from inside. Better to heal together than prevent alone. And we won’t add to the din our own haunting cries. How many died during hurricanes in Matouba trying to shed light on the fate of La Joséphine? During the flood, no one should leave the ark before Noah.

This is not the time to abandon our trees and our houses. Rosan telephoned to say he preferred to stay locked outside to survey his land below the barn. As if it wouldn’t be worse to watch his animals die, for his own eyes to see the uprooting of his melons and avocados and the devastation of his prawn basins.

Let us leave to others that despair so common among us, of dreams of ruin and apocalypse so total as to stay any plans to rebuild. And let us remember as well the words of the poet in exile learning that La Joséphine, the habitation of his childhood, was razed by a hurricane: “So much the better. It’s gone with the wind.”

Rosan, you are going to caulk yourself inside just like us, so as not to see with your own eyes the wholesale uprooting of the work of your days. Don’t forget that we all helped you build your house, lending our hands to your meticulous plans. You were careful not to bend the nails that held the roofing panels in place, so that a future hurricane could tear them out without warping the frame. Remember the day of sweat and pride when we raised the main beam of mahogany, so thick, so solid, lifting the framework in one piece. And the women played their part, Gerty, Élisa, and us. Even if the roofing-panels go to shreds, we are confident in the frame. So be it.

Here, at Les Flamboyants, all the rooms have been barricaded. In each one a bag with bread, candles, and clothes in case one or the other collapses. Nothing forgotten. Nails, pliers, hammer, and metal file are in a box in the middle of the living room.

The first gusts arrive with the first cloudbursts. Already the rain lashes almost perpendicular to the walls: gravity will lose its force. The electricity still works. And the telephone too. We have not stopped calling one another.

Rosan released his herd of cows at noon. They have twice changed direction, then at four o’clock they formed a semicircle below the prawn basins. That’s when he called us back to inform us that according to his calculations, based on the position of the animals, the hurricane should arrive straight from La Désirade and La Pointe-des-Châteaux, cutting across the island just behind Mt. Soufrières, which would protect Sud Basse-Terre a bit and his house in Baillif. From Les Flamboyants here to La Lézarde would be directly in its path. Later the radio confirmed everything and spoke of winds that would blow close to 185 miles per hour, a speed never yet recorded in Guadeloupe.

The phone rings again. This time it’s our little Siméa, sheltered at Rosan’s place in Baillif with her mom Gerty, to wait out the hurricane together, far from their more fragile house in Goyave, where the two of them have lived since the couple split. She would have preferred to bring her parents here with us, but it was too late. All afternoon Rosan gathered up kilos of melons, stashing them underneath the large bed, which embalmed his caulked-up house in a delicious fragrance. Since the moment they locked themselves in, Siméa has been madly craving a visit to Les Flamboyants to taste the juicy white Italian grapes her godmother Marie-Gabriel sometimes buys out of a capricious nostalgia for Paris. But above all she wants to hear one more time the tale of the thirteen chicks: In the heart of one of them is hidden each evening the next day’s rising sun. And the night, every evening, has the right to kill just one of them. Since the birth of the legend, the night has never yet succeeded in killing the chick carrying the next day’s sun. This story, that we told her on her birthday, a story reserved exclusively for evenings of doubts and rebirths, Siméa demands to hear again tonight, at least over our telephones so far away, to reassure herself that the dice-playing gods have not also given the hurricane the right to kill the sleeping sun. Then all the children could fall asleep at last well before dawn, tranquil between mother and father.

When the young girl went quiet, we hung up. Outside, the trees have begun to suffer. The avocado tree is heavily laden. In eight days we would have been able to harvest at their perfect ripeness all the avocados. The mangoes and litchees finished a while ago. We closed the blinds on the trees. The birds abandoned them too this morning. The trees gave so much fruit this year that Toussaint’s mom predicted we would have a huge hurricane. Our mango tree even fruited twice before wintering. The trees, who know, were gathering force in preparation.

Outside, the hurricane has already started blackening the house. But there is no question of imagining the exterior of our sealed tomb. In the heat of our story, not even our imagination may step outside the house. Above all don’t rave delirious. But dream on the inside. Let fear flow through us, but without moaning and groaning, a fear with a real subject: a little end of the world to endure without necessarily dying, with breaks and tears, rents and cracks. Without need to whisper for help and no one to hear us, because tonight we are all attentive to each other, the five senses awakened and the sixth to look outside. The island bends without breaking, battered this evening hour by hour, to rebuild tomorrow.

Cataclysms follow us and look alike. Ouragans, U Ra Kan, devils from the sky of the ancient Caribs. Destroyers of the seasons, chaotic sons of black sky and dark dawn, wicked homeless winds evil-born over the ocean, furious brothers of Zephyr and Aquilon abandoned in awe without proper names fallen from the heavens and that humans baptize every year in alphabetical order. From our earliest memories: Betsy in ’56, then Edith, Helena, Cleo, Ines, and, six days apart in ’79, David and Frederick.

And then here tonight one whose predicted force exceeds all of those and carries us back to the unnamed ancestor of 1928. Our grandparents’ hurricane, the greatest disaster of the century brusquely recalled from the oblivion to which other generations’ sufferings are relegated: Houses tumbled, eviscerated, the streets cluttered with all sorts of debris, trees reduced to their trunks, at least those that weren’t uprooted. The country became unrecognizable. A whole land devastated, scorched. All sorts of horrible things, atrocious scenes, whose number just grew and grew. Cadavers hauled out of rubble. Isolation, all communications interrupted, famine and plague before us amid twisted metal, broken beams, houses flipped over . . .

Thousands of dead. Entire families. Huddled together in their massacred refuges. Memory obsessing over the crushing of the whole family of a future father, who alone survived, having ditched school to go listen to his favorite Haitian orchestra rehearse, a musical survivor in the basement of the Grand Hotel Royal.

Because in those days, hurricanes arrived without warning, without being announced. They could thus surprise the living and the dead prisoners of our geography and destroy them together, as in 1928, surging right in the middle of the day: front doors open, shacks demolished, cemeteries drowned, families separated, men outdoors, children at school, women alone at home.

It even happened once long ago, at the beginning of history, three centuries back, during one of the first great slave revolts, preventing the soldiers from taking up their positions and impeding the Maroons from joining up with another group of rebels from Basse-Terre. Another time it attacked a whole English phalanx in the Canal des Saintes. Eight thousand soldiers swallowed alive before the assault on the Fort of Basse-Terre. (Maybe the vengeance of U Ra Kan, giant of the wind, against the deportation of the last Indians to the reservations on Dominica and St. Vincent . . .)

The wind of death has now really arrived. Once again we are in the thick of it, in our dry houses, our lives caulked and entombed like they were sixty years ago for the salvation of our departed parents. Our house, Les Flamboyants, valiant like an aged grandfather standing tall in the face of avalanche or high wind. Bent but lively, reborn after hurricane and earthquake, surely not having exhausted the capital of seven generations sheltered beneath its roof. A roof for our life without a sheltering mother, nor fixed address, but a grandfather’s house, rooted among its trees, central column securely planted among the fruit-bearers. An Antillean house all of doors, windows and shutters, jalousies never hermetically sealing off the light from hearts and eyes. Our truly communal house, a house permitting no selfishness, built right for modesty but not intimacy or solitude, with its open-work palisades that let out the air of quarrels, the day’s laughter, and the children’s cries, and oblige lovers to whisper their bedroom music.

In 1928, this house, Les Flamboyants, held up well, protected by its three rows of coconut palms, all felled that day. Tonight, only these remained vigilant: the litchee and avocado trees leaning severely at the back of the estate, the enormous sixty-foot mango tree in the front, and the row of young royal palms planted by grandfather after Betsy’s damage. The house was restored two years ago: the main support beams that had been gnawed by termites were replaced, the roof redone, the sheet metal proudly repainted with designs of red flamboyant leaves.

Together, we will defend ourselves. Follow the house’s example. Groan, sigh, bend like the authentic life of a house lacquered by resistance but not faded. Tonight we trust our lives to it. To this old house that has long ceased nursing us, that has released without moaning the dead and departed through every open door.

How could the word end all of a sudden apply to a refuge that has been so fragile yet so sure for so long? A faithful house full of traces of tinkering to remind us that in addition to the wounds from hurricanes and earthquakes, she nearly burned in ’76 during the eruption of Mt. Soufrières, if our Élisa hadn’t been there to save the essential and prevent the worst. A house that wouldn’t know how to betray because she had never promised safety, just a refuge composed of provisionally barricaded exits. A great, humble house with wounds of splintered wood but neither suicidal nor sick, that to endure does not evoke eternity with cut stone or reinforced concrete but will know how to bend to save us, fold us from room to room toward its last central column, from hour to hour until tomorrow morning when calamity will have ceased breathing our air.

Our strong and fragile house is too precious to be alone tonight.

We must prepare ourselves now for the loss of electricity. We stocked up on candles. They can be lit luxuriously in advance, two per room, in order to prevent the shock of sudden darkness, and the trap of bumping into rearranged furniture as the candlelight first blurs the eyes before lighting up the room.

We will have to find a slowed down rhythm in the face of our lockdown. Patience is a rock from the heart of which a spring bores its exit. We will calmly decant the last drip of coffee in the thermos, make a tour of the rooms to anticipate keeping an eye on the first leaks to plug, hearing well the radio without listening too close: 11:45 p.m., the eye of the hurricane is over La Désirade, the weather station broadcasts a windspeed of 135 miles per hour before going quiet, the antenna broken.

What’s left to raze on La Désirade, that long arid rock trailing behind the archipelago?

Can a salty flood do any good to a land without fresh water?

Or perhaps the hurricane wants to begin by practicing in the void of La Désirade before crossing to the heart of the island, warning us that he will find us even on a desert isle? Each of us, each of our houses tonight is a Désirade.

But it is here in our home’s interior that the first candles already tremble, calling us back to vigilance. Let us leave La Désirade, as easy to drown as a full coffin. No leaving the house. No letting the radio distract us from our certain confinement. Above all no daring to imagine the horizon, and all the folks hidden behind it, there where La Pointe-des-Châteaux has been trying for so long to cleave the waves to cut the sea in two. The sea can do nothing to help the island tonight, in the face of that caravan of furious caravels that will rend the sea (where the fish have taken refuge in the deep), rend the air (left empty by the birds), then rend the rest of the anchored islands of the archipelago. Faithfully stranded like our house, Les Flamboyants, a rooted nest, that must provisionally abandon all memory of birds and fish so as not to lose hope in our defenses.

Tonight, the mirrors were not covered with sheets: it is not a wake of death but a wake of survival. We have made in all our rooms a tour of our world. We don’t have to count on the eyes of others to see better: around midnight, all our mirrors one after the other only reflect a single regard.

Jason Frydman is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, where he has also directed the Caribbean studies interdisciplinary program. He is the author of Sounding the Break: African, American, and Caribbean Routes of World Literature (University of Virginia Press, 2014). His essays on the persistent global resonance of Caribbean culture and thought have appeared in journals including Small AxeInterventionsPostmodern Culture, and Critical Arts, as well as the edited volumes The Routledge Companion to World Literature (2011), The Global South Atlantic (Fordham University Press, 2017), and The Cambridge Companion to Global Literature and Slavery (2022).