The soft wind ran along the hills of La Resource Estate like the gentle fingers of a man over his lover’s skin, gently brushing the cane aside. The air was filled with the acrid scent of burning cane coming from one of the fields further away, closer to the coastline. Remy took a deep breath smelling the burning scent of the cane, mixing the still salty Caribbean air as he inhaled. This year was his year; he knew it.
“Eh, what you watching, boy?” a sharp voice came behind him like a whip crack.
“Nothing, Osai’o,” Remy replied and returned to inspecting the stalks of cane for the chewing of rodents and other animals that would damage the harvest.
“I hope so, eh,” the overseer spat back at him. “You ent want what happen to Gibbons happen to you.”
“No sah,” Remy replied, with no emotion as he bent to his task. The burning season was coming, and inspecting the cane roots gave his master a good inclination as to which fields should be fired first. The burning used to be a time of great celebration for the village folk because it meant La Carnavale was close. The White Folk up at the plantation house threw lavish parties for Le Carnavale, and the slaves had their own way of celebration. The Carnavale meant that the maîtres du bois would come out to play.
From when he was a child, Remy would sit up and watch the stickfights in the flickering light of the flambeaux, the dim shadows dancing on the trees that surrounded the gayelle where they would come to ‘play stick’ upon each other. There the sharp thrust and counterthrust would seem as though it was play but was actually quite dangerous. Remy has seen many men bested in the gayelle have to lay their heads down in the center of the ring where the hole existed for that purpose, to let their beaten heads bleed.
Remy’s father had been a major player in the bataille bois, being so good as to make it to fighting other estates in the area to be called the ultimate Roi d’gayelle. Remy had seen his father beaten so savagely in one of these fated battles that he had died, his head lain down in the blood hole at the center of the ring.
The scent of the burning cane always took him back to that night. He remembered how many people were gathered from both estates and even some from further afield to see his father play stick. His bois persona was always larger than he was, showing off confidence and bravado in equal measure. Around the estates, the slaves that had been sent from La Resource to neighboring estates had raised the gran charge of their renowned maîtres du bois, and this had led to other estates asking him to tour their estates late at night after the day’s labor was done.
Moreover, it was so he had come to beat every single challenger that had come against him in this form, becoming a true master of the gayelle, taming each and every player that would try to force their hand against him. Remy thought this had made him a celebrity, and beating him was on every stickman’s mind. He faced off against a young, strapping young man with a neck as thick as a log and a set of massive biceps that ensured that if he landed a lash, the opponent would remember it.
Remy’s father was named Cera, and his mother had been sold many years before leaving him and his father as the lone survivors of their family. He had cared for Remy from a child and had taken him along to every stickfighting event in which he participated. That night Remy was just about old enough to start wielding a stick himself. He was becoming a man, his father had told him a month before, and he had to put away childish things.
“If you must play, Remy,” Cera had said, “play the stick.”
Remy had trained with his father since childhood, and he was probably better than anyone else in his age group, but to be a true maîtres du bois, he would have to have more practice. Even so, Remy could easily spot fighters’ bad moves in the gayelle. His father had trained him like that to ensure that not just Cera but Remy, too, would learn of the mistakes he made when fighting.
“No swing is perfect,” Cera was fond of saying as they practiced. “No attack is immune to counterattack. There is a winner and a loser. The more alert and the less alert. There are no good moves, only moves that make you less vulnerable to your opponent.”
Many described Cera’s style as if he was the sugar leaf floating on the wind. Those who fought against him said he moved quickly, unlike a man. They complained (some with reluctance, others with admiration) that he was never there when they tried to hit him but was always there to hit them when they gave him the opportunity. Many watching from the sidelines claimed his style was almost like watching a dance — the Danse du bois.
The chantwell had started his verses, giving the stickmen their rhythm in which to play the art. Stickfighting was a true martial art that embraced the rhythm of the chantwell’s beat and the power and ferocity of the all-out attack — the primal need to hurt an opponent. Remy remembered watching his father take his stance, hesitate for the barest of moments and then catch the beat, keeping his distance from the opponent.
Cera was shorter and more buff than his opponent. He was more of medium build, with sharp, intelligent brown eyes that bored into your soul when he spoke to you. Remy remembered the times his father would impart some knowledge to him, whether about life or about the gayelle, and his eyes would take on this faraway look as if that fact or knowledge came directly from the ancestors. Cera’s hair was short and well-kept, and his bronzed skin shone with the oil he had put on himself to prepare for the bataille bois. Slowly, the chantwell’s tempo raised, signaling to the men that it was time to attack.
Henry, Remy remembered. The opponent was named Henry. His features were as dark as his skin, almost completely black, with the oil glistening on him like the way a water snake looked as it crawled out of the river. This man was as dangerous as a water snake if only Cera had known it.
The two men circled each other warily before a flash came from Henry, snapping the stick forward to probe Cera’s defenses. The older man brushed the strike away and returned in kind, with Henry ducking out of the way easily. They were still testing each other. Remy had learned that the first step in learning to best an opponent was testing how far they went and if they were afraid of the stick or part of it. Opponents that shied away from the stick made themselves an easy target, but a man who saw the stick as an extension of his opponent was one to be reckoned with. Henry seemed like one of the latter.
Another whistle as Henry swung his bois sidearm, trying to catch Cera off-guard, but the older man’s reflexes were razor sharp, and the dull thwack of the bois hitting each other and rebounding echoed around the clearing. A couple of men urged on their champions. Cera nodded and moved in closer. Henry, not being on to shy away, obliged, closing the circle tighter.
Another close thrust as Henry aimed for Cera’s head, barely missing it as Remy’s father dodged just in time, bringing his own bois up to hit the younger man’s forearm. He cried out in pain, a much higher-pitched sound than Remy expected to hear from him. Cera did not want to damage the boy, so the lash was simply a warning of what would happen if he continued. Henry did not know this, and his grimace had more than a little ire in it as he resumed pacing on the outskirts of the circle.
Cera rushed in and pulled up, gran-charging in the ring as the rest of the La Resource slaves had done outside it. Many times after the first touch of the stick, the opponent would be so cowed by the threat of more than a gran-charge would be all that was necessary to end the duel. Not this time, though, as Henry eyed him balefully, holding his ground. Cera smiled wider. This was actually going to be a challenge.
With a swift movement, Cera struck out, taking the offensive role now as they swept low, at shin level. Henry jumped and sought to bring his own bois down upon Cera’s head but missed him as the older man hit him a sharp rap across his back, drawing a small yelp from him. Cera followed up quickly with another waist-high sweep, which Henry prepared to divert. Without warning, Cera pulled back his sweep and rolled forward, thrusting the blunt edge of the stick into Henry’s midsection. The crowd oohed as Henry coughed, dropping to one knee. Had Cera bested another of their best?
The chantwell kept his rhythm, and Cera circled as Henry caught his breath. Cera rushed in to deliver the final blow, which would lay his head wide open, and suddenly, Henry was on him! A flurry of blows that Cera fought his hardest to block, getting most of them but missing his footing as he was being pushed back to the edge of the ring. One, two, three, four, five, the blows fell innumerable on Cera’s face and head. The older men moved quickly to seize the bois from Henry as he pummeled his opponent, repeatedly the stick jabbing into his face and forehead. By the time they took the rod from the man, Cera was dead, his face a mass of crushed blood and brain matter spread out on the gayelle floor.