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22/01/2014

The Inhabitants

Colette Sensier

The doctor’s eyes moved closer, closer, closer, until they split and duplicated themselves into a line of tight black circles. Then he moved back and his face came into focus again; then he bent to La Sauvage’s toes, giving her a view of the brittle thin patch showing under the powder at the back of his head.

She sniffed, aware only vaguely that he was male and for some reason unable to do more about it than twitch. When his finger and thumb touched her ankle she wanted to kick, but the vague haze around her made moving her foot impossible. In the frame of his white hands touching the swollen pads of her toes, she saw Henriette’s familiar big scarred feet, one brittle toenail hanging loose. The man applied more pressure and she hissed.

Reverend Whittaker stepped forward out of the smiling white bougainvillea. ‘We’ve given her a nip or two this morning, Doctor. Arrack. She should be – ‘

‘Yes, yes.’ Dr Merseul took his fingers from the girl’s wrist. ‘But this deformity – what on earth…?’

‘Nothing on it!’

Mme Merseul, a tense presence beside her husband, took a few steps back. There was a very bright pearl button at her neck, shining enough to eclipse the whole world. La Sauvage unhooked her eyes to enjoy it, making it grow then shrink in the sunlight. The woman smelt of musty pollen and human sweat, in heat at this time of month.

A billow of smoke from Rev. Whittaker’s pipe dispersed the gnats attracted by the raw offal in Henriette’s pocket. He said, ‘Henriette’s been caring for her for three months now. Henriette, tell Dr Merseul, have you found any evidence which might indicate how she’s come to be like this?’

He was trying not to show how excited he was to be this close to La Sauvage. Usually all he could do was watch from his study window as she hopped through the garden on four legs like a rabbit, or Henriette ‘walked’ her on two feet, kicking her back legs to make them move in a straight line; he’d been homesick for cats when he watched her lapping from a bucket of water. But he’d never seen her up close like this, not since she’d been let out of the net.

Doctor Merseul was a young man, under thirty, with a fastidious little mouth. Henriette told him, ‘She favour she right foot. And the big left toe, it bend over wrong. Like this.’ She crooked her index finger. ‘Like Lune finger. Lune finger broken since long time.’

‘A broken toe… that might have prompted her to seek help in the village.’

Whittaker knew Lune. The village told stories about that family, how Billy Carpenter had bought his wife from a woman famous for her cruelty. Lune had a nasty scar down the length of her face. Hadn’t her old mistress thrashed her servants with jellyfish tentacles?  ‘Why are you talking about Lune’s finger, Henriette?’

‘That how I know a broke bone, Suh.’

Dr Merseul was kneeling, oblivious, palpating La Sauvage’s foot. ‘Yes, there’s a break. But there’s nothing to be done for toes. Perhaps she’ll always be slightly lame. You won’t get much work out of her.’

Whittaker cleared his throat. ‘Well, my interest is more philosophical, doctor. I admit I find oddities fascinating.’

‘Oddities?’

‘Have you heard of Wild Peter, for example, captured in the forests of Hamburg some years ago, who they say was suckled by wolves?’

The girl flexed, trying to rise. Her shift moved up and exposed her thighs. Mme Merseul took a step back. Henriette pressed down on La Sauvage’s shoulder.

Whittaker continued, ‘He lives at court now, I believe; the British court, that is. A favourite of Queen Caroline. Or there’s the Fraumark Bear-Girl, kept in an asylum in Hungary for the last three years, living on a diet of raw meat and tree bark. These are children cast outside society, abandoned to the wilderness, who’ve grown to be – something not quite animal, yet unmistakably far from human…’

‘But not spirits, surely, Monsieur!’ Mme Merseul was a magnet with two poles, fear and curiosity. Her hand fluttered to her throat, the pink muslin sealed with the pearl button.

‘No, no, Madame. Of course not. But something deserving investigation…’

The doctor’s hands still clutched the girl’s left foot. ‘There’s certainly severe deformity. Caused – I’m not sure. She clearly exerts great pressure on the thumbs, the pads of the hands and the flats of the feet. No arches at all. Peculiar.’

‘I believe she uses her hands and feet to leap between trees.’

‘That might explain it. The worst is the sore on her leg, but your maid can treat that with rubbing alcohol.’ He straightened up. ‘My recommendation is a course of bleeding. Bring her down to me, say twice a week – or I can come up to St Songy if you’d prefer it, Reverend, a few extra francs, that’s all – and I’ll let out some of the old bad blood. Oddity she might be, but her current state of – contagion – is very likely caused by some animal… foster-mother.’ Merseul eyed his wife carefully, but she didn’t look shocked. ‘We’ll have new human blood pumping through her veins in no time; and then she’ll stop wanting the raw meat, and she’ll get some liveliness back into her. It’s very elementary natural philosophy.’

‘Of course. Of course. The Lord intended us to cook our food.’ Rev. Whittaker was excited to see their ideas collide. He’d so wanted to talk with someone intellectual about the wild child. ‘And isn’t it trur doctor, that the appearance of normal human civilisation, and its existence in fact, are practically one and the same? Now she’s dressed and cleaned, soon, soon she’ll be able to eat properly, to talk. And then when she’s free of animal blood, she’ll be ready to take Christ into her heart.’

The haze around La Sauvage had almost worn off. She could smell the garden, its huge blanket of things, and the changes that had happened in it since the morning. She itched to know what they were. The men’s voices hurt her ears and made her nervous.

The doctor said, ‘Yes, there’s no goodness in uncooked meat. Heaven knows, if a normal African slave can’t digest it cooked, a… a wolf-girl will no doubt have an even coarser constitution.’

La Sauvage concentrated on the white aura around the woman’s shining pearl button. But it swelled and glowed, so huge that in the end it was no good, she couldn’t help it, she leapt to Mme Merseul and made a grab for it with her teeth.

Mme Merseul tumbled to the grass like a shot deer. ‘Oswald!!’

The little party exploded.

‘Damn it, get down! Get down creature!’ Merseul batted her away with the flats of his hands as Whittaker apologised, apologised, called to Amelia for brandy, told them, ‘Perhaps some tamarind juice, Mme Docteur, it has a very cooling effect…’

The doctor shouted, ‘Don’t talk to me about a “soothing female presence,” Caroline – you wanted to see the gossip up close!’

In the commotion Henriette had grabbed the wild child by the back of the neck. She pulled her up past the red flush of rhododendrons and the Indian roses, back to her shed.

Dr Merseul spat on the grass. ‘The speed of those limbs, Whittaker! No scoliotical patient should move as quick as that.’

‘What did I tell you, Doctor? An uncommon phenomenon, truly… uncommon.’

‘I’m sure she’s a ghost. I’m sure she’s a demon,’ Mme Merseul sobbed. A new wife she was, Whittaker recalled, still in her teens.

‘Don’t be silly, Adelaide. She won’t remember this first visit,’ Dr Merseul told the minister, and for a moment Whittaker thought he was talking about his wife. Then he added, ‘Blacks don’t suffer for long, you know. They don’t feel pain, or shame as you or I might do, beyond the present moment.’

To steer his guests back up to the house, Whittaker had to skirt around La Sauvage’s shed. But as they got closer to the building, he realised that it wasn’t just the roar of the ocean he heard in the background. As he listened, the noise broke into syllables, loud thrusts of protest: shrieks like a baby’s, then shrieks like a woman in labour. And behind all that, the thump of overlarge feet on the floor.

Mme Merseul shook beside him. ‘Is that her?’

Whittaker found his hand was on the smallsword in his waistcoat. ‘She doesn’t like men. I’m not sure how much arrack Henriette gave her…’ How loose were the shed’s planks?

A gasp sharp as a pinpoint: Mme Merseul. Whittaker followed her eyes and he saw it.

La Sauvage, dancing a jig on the roof of her shed. Behind her the flame-tree bristled in the noon sun. She stamped and kicked her heels up high as if there was no such thing as gravity, the pull of man towards the earth.

He heard her whoop, inhuman as a monkey call. ‘Ya! Yaaaaa!’

The doctor screamed, ‘That’s no child, Whittaker!’

No: the brown shift had slipped down and hung around her waist. Two naked apple-shaped breasts bounced at the crest of each jump.

Mme Merseul picked up her  blue skirts and ran towards the palisades at the edge of the garden. Merseul followed her.

Whittaker found Henriette beside him, her body in his shadow. For a big woman she moved quietly. For a moment both of them, both the real people, stood frozen and watched the demon dancing on top of the locked, reinforced shed. The girl punched the air, her fist flashing metal against the flame-tree’s scarlet light.

A little knife in her palm.

‘Where did she get the knife, Henriette?!’

‘That not my knife! I don’t let she in the kitchen!’

‘Then how on earth – ?’

Henriette stepped closer to the shed and he followed her. She pointed at a little hole between the roof and wall.

‘No no – a rat couldn’t fit through that. You must have left the door unlocked!’

Henriette turned her head to him – she was taller than he was, and their eyes were level. ‘We was watching, Sir. You don’t think we gonna see she open that door?’

The girl launched herself into the flame tree, leaving ripples of dented red leaves behind her. She disappeared, and then she was visible again, laughing in the white branches of oleander that marked the Valois grounds.

‘Henriette!’

The maid ran, not as daintily as Mme Merseul. She cantered past the rose hedges, the orange trees, the bronze samovar, getting smaller and smaller as she went.

Rev. Whittaker stood back, not yet used to the island’s social mores. Grown women walked around hardly clothed on the plantations, he knew. He suspected it would be acceptable for him to pursue the wild black girl, half-dressed, around the village – to take hold of her on her bare skin, and restrain her against his body. But to act this way wasn’t in his nature. He did not quite want to do it. So he stood still, and watched Henriette career alone across the public square, looking as if she too was running away.

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