I died on the night of the most beautiful day of my life: I died on the night of my marriage in the St Philippe and St Jacques Church. Everyone thought I had been struck down by the sacramental Yes that burst out of me. It was said I had been swept away by the fire of my consent, overcome by the depth of its power and truth — that I had been done in by my own bridal passion.
Truth be told, my false death had begun half an hour before I cried out in the church. Before the bridal party departed to head to the church, I was already completely ready to leave. I took a final look at myself in the sitting room mirror. Let’s go, Hadriana! said a voice inside me. It was excessively hot, and at the base of the stairs, amidst the affectionate chattering of my bridesmaids, I mentioned how thirsty I was.
“I’d love a glass of ice water.”
Mélissa Kraft immediately volunteered to go get me one, but I did not give her the chance. In my full bridal regalia, I charged towards the pantry — speeding through the manor as I had always done. I was faster than my friends. Had someone anticipated my last-minute thirst? A pitcher of lemonade awaited me on the oak dresser, plain as day. I poured myself a tumbler-full, then a second, then a third, drinking each glass to the very last drop until my thirst was entirely quenched. In the heat of that nuptial oven, the cool lemonade was intoxicating. For days, making the most banal gestures had felt as exhilarating as the wedding itself. The emotions of every moment thrilled me.
As I emerged onto Orleans Street, a joyful din arose from the town square.
“Long live the bride! Long live Nana!”
It was truly that general state of jubilation that people in Jacmel had been talking about for the past several days: confetti, garlands, and orange blossoms rained down on my path, mixed with hand-clapping and shouts of adulation. Young girls were crying tears of joy! Some part of me also felt like crying. But laughter blocked its path through my eyes, my mouth, the rapture of my skin . . . I moved forwards — sunlit, ecstatic on the gallant arm of my devoted father. On Church Street, on the Sorels’ balcony, a little boy cried out: “Here’s a kiss for you, Nana!”
I wanted to send one right back to him. But it was too late: I was dying. Just a moment prior, a terrifying unease had started to come over me. A sharp tingling had begun coursing through me, as if I were being pricked with needles from head to toe. I couldn’t breathe. I was suffocating under my veil. My father, though right by my side, noticed nothing. Standing proudly in his tuxedo, he helped me respond to the cheering crowd. No one noticed the state I was in. On the square just in front of the church, I saw my fiancé Hector on the arm of Mam Diani, my friend Patrick’s mother. And Hector saw me for the first time in my bridal gown; the idea that he would soon be able to take it off me was completely blinding him. He could not see that the hands of death had been the first to slip under my dress, rustling with dreams.
With my first steps inside the church, I thought my legs would give out before I could make it to the altar. The sounds, the colours, the lights, the smells — they made a jumble of confused impressions on my muddled senses. I could not make out the difference between the sound of the organ and the flicker of a candle, between my own name and the green banners, between the smell of the incense and the bitter flavour that was burning my taste buds. I moved forwards, groping as I went, through a sort of effervescent tar. I found myself kneeling in front of a wide well: I pulled myself together and concentrated what life I had left on my sense of hearing. I felt as if I were swimming desperately in viscous, bituminous water towards the most fantastic object in the world: my fiancé, Hector Danoze, just to my right, his flesh turned shapeless and phosphorescent. He had become nothing more than three giant letters that spelled out YES. My frantic swimming sought only to reach that goal as it first came close, then moved away, liquefied into a stream of lava that enveloped Hector, the priests, the altar, the hymns, the decorations, the attendees, the sky beyond the apse. This empyreumatic sound-light-body, on one of its backward surges, suddenly threw itself at me. It lodged itself in my genitals. And my genitals came together as a final sigh that began climbing up through my body like the rising mercury of a barometer. I felt its upward movement in my guts, then in my digestive tract. It left a strange emptiness in its wake. It stopped for a few moments at my heart, which was barely beating. Was the sigh of my sex going to take its place? I felt it rise up through my throat. It nearly choked me before finally settling its burning weight on my tongue. With the four lips of my true mouth, I screamed the ultimate Yes of life to my Hector and to the world!
“Hadriana Siloé is dead!” the voice of Dr Sorapal rang out above my lifeless body.
I heard a tumult of overturned chairs and benches, a racket in Creole, a clamouring whirlwind of panic. In the midst of all this, I could make out Lolita Philisbourg’s sensual, dramatic soprano. It seemed as if people were ripping fabric all over the church. Something fell down just next to me, and then someone cried out: “Hector is dead too!”
It seemed he had followed me to the grave. The voice of Father Naélo snapped me out of this first dream within my dream: “Hadriana Siloé has been taken from us at the moment of her marriage. The scandal has occurred in the house of the Father!”
Someone’s arms lifted me off the church floor. Whose could they be? I would have recognised immediately those of my father, Hector, or Patrick. The man had trouble pushing through the crowd of attendees. My dangling feet knocked into people as we passed. A hand grabbed my right foot. It held on for a long time. I felt the cool evening air despite the death mask that had been welded onto my face. The bells chimed with their full force, the backdrop to the cheers and hand-clapping, just as before. Whoever was holding me began to run. Several others ran alongside us noisily. Of all my senses, only my hearing still functioned. A woman’s voice cried out: “Long live the happy couple!”
Immediately, the Carnival began on the town square. I noticed that I could smile — laugh, even — from within my misfortune. I had my first giggling fit of the night — people were doing Carnival dances all around me; drums and vaksin were going wild. I felt as if the man carrying me was also dancing. My stiffened limbs were incapable of joining him. As soon as whoever it was had crossed the manor’s doorstep, my sense of smell immediately came back to me: it was the smell of the waxed floor of my childhood. The man placed me carefully on one of the sitting room rugs.
There was a furious commotion all around me, punctuated intermittently by sobs and exclamations. I could hear the sadness and surprise in my girlfriends’ bitter utterances — admiration and anger in those of my male friends. At one point, I felt someone leaning over me. A hand took hold of my wrist; another moved what must have been a stethoscope to different spots on my chest. The people attached to these hands exchanged a few words. From their voices, I understood they were Dr Sorapal and Dr Braget. Once again, I wanted to laugh. Young Dr Braget, ever since his return from Paris, would say to me every time we met: “When are the Siloés going to switch family doctors? I’d so love to watch over the health of their daughter.” And now, his hand in my blouse, he was feeling my breasts. Would he realise that they were still full of life? My optimism did not last long.
He placed something on my mouth. “Negative,” he murmured to his older colleague.
“She has no pulse,” said Dr Sorapal.
“Her breasts are still warm. Splendid, fresh fruits! It’s like they’re still alive!”
“A dying star continues to shine, my friend! Check her eyes.”
Dr Braget parted my eyelids. I saw him, but the fervent gaze in his catlike brown eyes, misty with tears, could not see me back!
“No ocular reflex,” he said.
“All that remains is to prepare the burial license. It’s official: stiff limbs, no respiratory or ocular reflex, no pulse, diminishing core temperature. Heart attack.”
“Son of a bitch!” exclaimed Dr Braget.
“Damned myocardial infarction!”
They cursed death instead of deepening their exam. I focused on my sense of sight: perhaps there would be a glimmer, the flicker of an eyelid. As he ran his fingers through my hair, Dr Braget’s face was suffused with tears.
Dr Sorapal kept chewing on his lower lip. “The saddest night of my long life,” he said.
“It’s my Waterloo,” said the other one, the Don Juan.
Originally published in 1988, Hadriana dans tous mes rêves is considered a classic of modern Haitian literature. Set in Jacmel on Haiti’s south coast in the 1930s, the novel tells the magical story of the beautiful Hadriana Siloé, who seems to die on her wedding day — the victim of a supernatural plot. The story is an extended love letter to author René Depestre’s hometown, its creole culture, its architecture, and its annual Carnival. Visitors to Jacmel can trace the exact route of the narrative through the streets of the town, and next to the crumbling, stately mansion Depestre depicted as Hadiana’s manor, a public staircase is decorated with a mosaic spelling out the opening lines of the novel.
Hadriana in All My Dreams, copyright 1988 by Editions Gallimard and René Depestre, English translation copyright 2017 by Kaiama L. Glover, used with permission of Akashic Books (akashicbooks.com)