Iseult lived by the water. She lived by the wide brown river. Her eyes were brown and her skin was brown. Iseult lived by the water and she didn’t know she was drowning.
Where the river met the sea in a spooling of salty mud, Iseult would throw her nets high and wide. The nets fell—ccchhh—into the swirling confluence and came out alive and shiny with crawdaddies and crabs, fish and eels. Her hair was brown, and her belly was brown. She was not very young and not very old; she was not very happy and not very sad. She filled the middle of the roads of her life with helping and healing, with fishing and finding. She had diamonds in her soul, but her hands were like pots, rough and useful.
Once she found a ship’s radio in the muddy wrack of a storm, and grieved for the lost ones under the sea. Once she found a pearl button in the sand and smiled for the passion of beautiful clothes. Iseult put the button next to the radio on her outdoor altar, where the passing ghosts of their owners could see them and be comforted.
On her indoor altar she kept the healing things: herbs and bones and feathers, prayers on twigs, many-folded photographs—all the small tokens of love and fellowship people had cherished during their time on this blue marble, travelling towards the future. She was neither very good nor was she very bad; Iseult knew old magic, that was all. She had no altar for pain and loss because she believed they could always be healed. Who would pray for pain? Who would request loss?
Her arms were brown, and her legs were brown. When she needed to be alone, Iseult walked past the river and the mud banks—down to the wild sea and the white sand and the high tides. She found things there that she did not bring home, for she knew they only belonged to that wild place.
One day in the wind she heard calling from the wild sea. She rushed to the white sand and she threw her net high and wide—cccchhhhhhh—into the angry waves, and she hauled it to shore and there was a prince of men holding on to the net for all his life’s worth and barely aware.
Iseult lifted him from the breakers’ foam, and held him to warm him. His hair was as black as a raven, his skin was as white as the sands. His eyes, oh his eyes were closed; but when he coughed and woke and looked at Iseult, one eye was as blue as the highest sky and one eye was as green as the deepest rock pools. He threw the net of his beauty around Iseult’s heart and she was caught. His hands were like dove’s wings, fair and soft.
Iseult lit a fire on the beach and sat quietly; the prince dried himself and thanked her with all the heart he could spare. Iseult found she had been drowning until that day and moment; until she felt the weight of his body in her arms, and the firm ground beneath her feet, for the first time. She found her heart filled with a joy and a need she had never known before, but at the same time recognised the parting would be agony. For she knew there must be a parting. This was the no-place; she could not go to him any more than he could stay with her. This liminal beach, this threshold of worlds, this interstice of his life and hers. Across the fire she felt the match of his nature with hers, of his white with her black, of his speech with her silence, of his thoughts with her understanding. And she saw the parting of their paths, their pasts and futures drawing them apart as surely as two currents of water.
Before it got dark, she guided him to the road he needed to follow. He left with his adieu and she let him go, with a whispered au revoir, ‘til I see you again’. In her Creole mind the words flowed onwards: Jusqu’à ce que tu reviennes—til you come back— je rêverai de toi —I will dream of you. Souffrir whispered the waves on the shore. Douleur sighed the wind.
Iseult sat on the beach and the wind wrapped her in its arms, the sea whispered sweet words, but she didn’t feel, didn’t hear. She sat all night and into the morning. The rising sun brought Papa Legba limping along on his morning walk by the sea, with one foot in this world and the other foot in the spirits’ lands; he saw his favourite Iseult so sad and low and he felt sorry for her pain. Everything that happened to Iseult next, was down to Papa Legba, for he wanted to help. But he’s a silly old man some days, although you must never tell him so.
Iseult found a mussel shell the colour of the prince’s left eye. She found a piece of sea glass the colour of the prince’s right eye. She made a face in the sand and placed the glass and the shell. Black pebbles she laid for his hair and her tears made them shine. His body she formed from driftwood, gull feathers for his hands and pearly white shells for his ears. Where his untouchable heart would be, she placed a scoop of the ocean: vast and eternal. Meddlesome Papa Legba made Iseult cut her finger on the scooping shell. Her blood fell into the heart of ocean water. She had made a voodoo, a magic moppet of the prince.
The moppet sat up. He blinked and looked at Iseult with such love, she felt it hit her like an ocean wave.
‘Maman Erzulie, my god of love’ the moppet breathed. Papa Legba smiled and kept walking along the shore.
‘Non! No, I am not Erzulie. Go away you monster, tu zombie!’ And she threw sand and scuttled backwards, away in horror from the beach-made prince, with his one shell eye and his one glass eye.
‘P’tite Maman! Sha mama, Little mother!’ said the zombie in a voice of dry seaweed. ‘Je t’aime. I love you. You have made me, Maman Erzulie, and I love you.’ And he staggered toward Iseult on his little woody legs. He reached out for her with his little woody arms.
Iseult threw a stone at the zombie prince and knocked his little head off, she scrambled around and fled home. Behind her, the zombie prince scooped up his head and put it back on his wooden neck. He moved swiftly through the dawn; the steamy mangroves bowed to his passing. As he ran, he grew tall as a tree.
Iseult got home and barred the door, but he was in the house already. She threw an axe to chop off his legs, but he caught it in his feathery hand. She threw fresh water to wash out his heart, but he let it fall over his black shiny hair. She threw her screams at him, but he smiled as the sound sank into his sandy, shelly ears.
‘Je t’aime, p‘tite maman, why do you fear me so? I am your blood; I am your tears.’
Iseult stopped screaming so she could consider this view of the situation, and thought for a moment.
‘If you are my blood then you will be my servant?’
‘Oui, d’accord, yes of course’
‘Go to the cellar and kill me the mouse that lives there.’
So the zombie prince went to the cellar, he saw the mouse and he bent to pick it up; but the mouse ran though his feather fingers. He went to put his foot on the mouse, but the mouse ran though his wooden toes. While he was trying to catch the mouse, Iseult threw the cellar door shut, and chained it with iron, and bound it with silken strings.
‘Maman Erzulie?’ cried the zombie prince. He cried all night. Iseult slept with her hands over her ears.
For a week the zombie cried for love of Iseult, and Iseult cried for love of the prince.
At the end of the week, Iseult went back to the beach where she had lost her contentment, and she looked around, hoping she would find peace of mind again. But no, it had gone with the tides and the storm and the prince’s fading footprints in the dry sand. Again, she started to form a shape of the beautiful prince to soothe her aching heart. Again, it came alive, full of longing. Again, she locked it in the cellar. She made more and more voodoos as her troubled soul cried out, and she filled and formed them from the sad things, the lost things, the edges of poignancy. She formed zombies from petrichor, the smell of approaching rain; from psithurism, the sighing of wind in the pine trees; from paraselene, the false moonlight in the sea mists. From requiems and threnodies she gave them voices. From unnoticed gestures and forgotten stories and discarded letters she shaped the hearts and bones of them. And over all she breathed her sighs of longing. And the zombies grew tall.
The zombies played with their friend the mouse at night, while Iseult lay abed, her ears pillowed, her eyes veiled. She knew she could never call the prince hers, she would never be first and last in his heart, and her good nature began to crumble in the dreary dark. For the prince was going to marry and Iseult could not bear it. She went to visit the cellar.
The zombies had all taken names: Bipi,’Teet Chou, Tresor, Fripouille, Canaille, Jaquo. But the first zombie, with the blue eye and the green eye, had taken the biggest name: Damballa, the sky father, wise and patient; for he believed he was the god consort of Erzulie. He loved Iseult more then she loved herself. He listened attentively as Iseult talked about the prince, for talking soothed her sleepless nights. She talked only of the prince.
But in her unspoken words Iseult taught her zombies about pain, for they did not know pain. Under her breath Iseult taught her zombies about loss and this was the first they knew of loss. Behind her sentences Iseult taught them about sadness and they suddenly knew sadness.
Zombie Damballa saw the solution in his zombie dream. When next Iseult came to the cellar with her ruffled heart and her strung-out longing, Zombie Damballa took the mussel shell of his blue eye and with its sharp blue edge, he sliced out Iseult’s heart, so it could not be broken. He sliced out her brain so she would not remember grief. He sliced out her eyes so she would not see the Prince’s shadow everywhere she looked. Iseult cried once only.
Then Zombie Damballa gave her a heart of the ocean in a shell, he gave her the mind of a cloud at sunrise. He gave her an eye of sea glass and an eye of mussel shell. And he gave her all his huge love, for he was made of love. And he gave her his very own gri-gri for her life charm and filled it with his salt-water tears.
Iseult woke as from a trance. Through her green eye she saw the zombies were her eternal family. Through her blue eye she saw that her longing had been cut clean away. And Iseult saw that she would always be safe. Her hands were pots but her soul was full of diamonds.
‘I will be your Erzulie’ she smiled. And they all lived happily forever after, in the shack of trinkets by the wide muddy river.
The prince sometimes thought of how Iseult rescued him that stormy day, but he married a grumpy woman who never liked the sea. What a shame.