Etienne was born on a sugar plantation in 1775 on Saint-Domingue. Conditions on the plantations were harsh and disease was common. This short life expectancy was one reason why the slave trade was so prosperous; most slaves did not live long enough to reproduce. Etienne’s mother died within a year of his birth. His father lived long enough to see his son walk. The plantation owners found it easier to purchase new slaves than to ease conditions, so there was no expectation of change. Besides their regular duties, slaves also were expected to grow and prepare their own food. Because there was little time allotted for this, most slaves were undernourished. While many would have liked to help out the toddler orphan, they were trying to survive themselves.
Etienne turns to scavenging; necessity fosters ingenuity. Being so small, he cannot depend on force to survive, so he becomes clever. He notices the untapped resources on the forest floor and near the refuse piles. He works in the fields all day and then steals and forages what he needs. A few bites of liberated yam and some grubs or a tree frog keep Etienne alive. He does not steal from the masters; that is a guaranteed trip to the afterlife and he is not yet done with this life. Etienne understands that resources are scarce and his survival will likely cause other slaves to die, yet his will to survive is strong. Compassion is a commodity and it is often in direct conflict with survival.
When he enters his teenage years, his energy grows beyond his frame. He can do the work of two grown men in the field, find some scraps to nourish his emaciated body and then join in the rituals of the evening. Some are a small gathering: a little service around the fire honoring their ancestors, their gods, and then they pray to return to a home that he knows only from stories. Frequently, they have larger ceremonies. The slaves sneak into the forest and gather around a large bonfire. After consecrating the ground, they call to the different Loa and ask them to join the party. Some will come and possess a willing slave.
They never knew which Loa will join them, but they can tell by how the possessed act. Sometimes Papa Legba will visit, the watcher of the crossroads between the people and the spirits. Erzulie Freda comes to beguile. Happy Azaka, the farmer, can do no harm. When Etienne comes of age and joins the ceremonies, a new Loa would visit. Ogun is a warrior from their homeland. He is strong and proud. Those ridden by him wash their hands in fire and drink large quantities of rum. Ogun is jealous and particular. He rides Etienne and him alone. Etienne would leap, gyrate and roll across the ground. He would intimidate, inspire and entertain.
His possessions became so frequent that they are expected. The gatherings begin to grow. People see him in the daylight and recognize him as the one who is honored by Ogun. They begin to call him Etolan; the Stallion. He no longer scavenges but finds food waiting for him when the work in the field is done and he gets strong. When he approaches the gatherings, people open a path for him and silently wait to see if Ogun shows himself that night.
Etienne, who is now known as Etolan does not understand why he has been chosen, but he knows that people respect him and even fear him for it. It is not his choice, any more than being born a slave is. Being a slave was all he knew, but he always knew that he wanted more. People begin to value him beyond the ceremony; they value his opinion and honor his perspective. If he has something to say, it carries more weight, for this is Etalon, the stallion of Ogun.
Etalon is young and ambitious. He begins to talk of change, the kind of change that comes from swords and guns, not from talk and dreams. How many 16-year-old boys are listened to by adults? They don’t just listen to him, the believe him. They believe that it is possible and that Ogun is going to guide them.
Then, Etalon begins to notice the sun hurts his eyes. That is a monumental problem when your entire day is spent in a field. He tries to endure the discomfort, but as the discomfort evolves into pain he must stop. The slaves panic when Etalon takes to bed. They experienced hope for the first time since they boarded the ships in chains. Word spreads among the plantations; the Stallion is sick, send help! And pray. The ceremonies continue from dusk until dawn, all over the island with new urgency and with purpose. Healers are brought in, but they are baffled by his condition. No one understands until an old man in brought to Etalon who was born to the Yoruba before being taken as a slave. In the old man’s tribe, strangeness is not a curse, but a blessing from the gods. The moon worshippers were a gift and his tribe maintained close relations with them. The old man had memories of their kind and is aware of what their Stallion is about to endure.
In the middle of the night, Etalon is taken to a cave, high in the hills. They rotate caretakers as he goes through his change. While the old man explains what is coming, the people worry; they no longer think of themselves as slaves, for now they have hope. The masters notice that production is down and they renew the vigor with which they direct. The slaves notice and they resent their station. Did they not hear the whispers of the people’s revolution in France? People took control of their destiny and rewrote their station. Could we not do the same? After all, we are a French colony, the same rules must apply. Perhaps we do not need Etalon and Ogun. Perhaps the time is right, regardless.
The slavemasters notice the resentment. This is something they have never seen and so the whip strikes more frequently and with greater ferocity. Instead of crushing hope it feeds the fire. By the time that Etalon emerges from the cave, everyone is ready. He is ready to lead and they are ready to follow.
The day he returns to his body, word spreads across the island. The people talk of Etalon’s journey back home, to Africa. How he dined with their ancestors and communed with the gods. That night, a ceremony is held and it is one to be remembered. Instead of the 50 or 150 from the neighboring plantations, there are 25,000. The drums can be heard across the entire island. And Etalon is not ridden by Ogun, he becomes Ogun. Etalon does not walk across the red hot coals, he walks through the fire. He is jumping 20, 30 feet in the air, spinning and flipping. He howls in anticipation of the battles to come. And the people howl with him.
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2 replies on “Exerpt from Brian’s upcoming novel”
Very interested in the book!!