I rubbed shoulders with a miraculous pendulum in this West Indian black republic not very long ago, a homemade pendulum that defied science yet performed miracles.
The beginning was a blue tropical morning in a dusty village on a desolate plain called Cul-de-Sac (meaning Dead End).
It is a few mile east and north of this city from which I write, Haiti’s capital. The curtain rises on me sitting uncomfortably in the rear of a beat-up flatbed truck, embarking on a traveler’s adventure, the unlikely pursuit of wild horses.
You didn’t know there were wild horses in Haiti? Well, nobody can say for sure, but rumor has long persisted. The way it’s told, stunted descendants of Spanish conquistador horses are alive and friskily reproducing in the forests of this country’s highest mountain chain, the Massif de la Selle.
My long-time Haitian friend, Joseph Nadal, is certainly not among the believers in hearsay reports. Haitian peasants, Joseph says, would long ago have trapped and eaten char-broiled any runaway descendants.
So one afternoon Joseph suggested that I knock off the idle fancy and head into the mountains to damn well see for myself.
I bought a sleeping blanket and some canned beans, and a truck picked me up just before dawn. With half-a-dozen market women and me aboard, we rattled out of town and headed toward Fond Parisien--first stop.
Sun and Dust
This Fond Parisien is a village made listless by sun and dust. It has no history, nobody knows who named it or when it was founded, or why. Yet it was at Fond Parisien that I had the rare fortune to meet Father Fils-Aime.
We had pulled up in a swirl of dust for presentation of identity cards, and were starting afresh with a desperate clashing of gears when a priest--a white man, black-robed, disheveled--trotted onto the roadway and waved us down.
In the Creole patois of the peasants, he meekly addressed our driver. He had, he said, no money for fare, yet urgently desired to travel into the mountains on business directly related to his flock. Might he ride without payment?
The driver spoke of the high cost of gasoline, the hard times generally, but added that he was, after all, a devout Christian and supposed that the awkward detail of fare could be overlooked--once.
The priest tossed his scarred Gladstone aboard, hoisted up his cassock and clawed his way over the side. Two or three of the peasant women knew the priest and called him by name: “Bon jou’, Pere Fils-Aime. " Seating room was scarce, and I offered the good father a place on my mat.
He had an odd accent, the priest. He told me he was Belgian, which accounted for it. He was stout, with heavy shoulders and a great prow of a nose.
He told me that he had once spent three days in New York, between ships, that he had recently read in translation a work by the great Thomas Jefferson, and that he hoped some day to own a battery-powered radio.
The truck banged around crazily on the rough dirt road. In time, the driver shouted back to us that we’d reached an elevation of a thousand meters. There was a spring off yonder in the bush, he said, “Cool, clean water.” We’d stop for a drink.
So we did that, and Father Fils-Aime and I sat under a mombin tree in a spot of shade. How long, I asked, had he served the parish of Fond Parisien? A long time, he said, “Four years.” At the moment, he added, he was also in charge of Ganthier Parish.
“Ganthier,” I said. “I know the place. I know Pere Leconte there. I called on him several years ago. Haven’t I heard that he’s ill? Gone to the United States?”
“Exactly,” Father Fils-Aime said. “We sent him three weeks ago to a hospital in Baltimore. Hopkins something. He underwent an operation for a sad condition of the kidneys.”
“You have word of him? How is he?”
“It was touch and go. He lacked strength,” the priest explained. “The operation was scheduled for one week ago today--last Saturday,” he said gravely. “Father Leconte barely survived it. Sunday he was very low, Monday at the door of death. On Tuesday he showed a trifling improvement, only to sink again on Wednesday.
“Thursday no better, but yesterday, thank heaven, he rallied. This morning he is much improved. This morning, for the first time, he is really out of danger.”
“Good,” I said. “That’s very good. But, mon pere. . . “
Fond Parisien is, in effect, wilderness. The telephone service cannot be counted on. In these days of rapid air mail, it was understandable that Father Fils-Aime might have had word from Baltimore covering events as recent as Wednesday. To have had yesterday’s news was unlikely; this morning’s, impossible.
I asked diplomatically, “You got through on the telephone to Baltimore?”
“Oh, no. No, no,” he said again. “But you are astonished that I have the news?”
“I am astonished.”
“I accomplish it,” he said, “with my so-called miraculous pendulum.”
I murmured that I knew nothing of a miraculous pendulum.
Based on Science
“You are not alone in that. Much of the world is ignorant of the pendulum. Though commonly called miraculous, it is, of course, nothing of the kind. It is based soundly on science, on the principles of electrical radiation, of impulses through the air.
“I hasten to confess to you that I am deeply ignorant of the forces involved, just as I am unconversant with the tenet, or dogma, of a man walking on the moon and sending instantaneous pictures millions of miles to a studio in Texas. I only know that the pendulum works with accuracy.”
“How?” I asked.
We were interrupted by a signal to return to the truck. When we were rolling again, the priest leaned close and went on. “About the pendulum. . . .”
Six years ago, he said, he was traveling on horseback to mountain missions in the south of the island when he suffered a recurrence of an old malaria. He had it bad. A peasant family gave him shelter, and by God’s grace he shook off the fever, but for a fortnight was weaker than a dishrag.
One day as strength began to return, he asked whether there might be, in the peasant community, a book he could read to pass the time.
Someone brought him a battered volume published in Paris in the 18th Century. It was a book about a marvelous pendulum, its construction and its uses. Pseudo-scientific nonsense, the father supposed; but time hung heavy, so he read.
Written With Peculiar Force
The book said that the pendulum, if built exactly thus-and-so, with precisely such-and-such measurements, could accurately diagnose illnesses, suggest remedies, and report on the condition of health of persons at any distance.
Father Fils-Aime told me he knew none of this could be true. Yet the treatise had sensibleness, and when he was well again and went on his way, he asked for and was given the book.
Weeks later, on temporary assignment in a south coast village and with much leisure at his disposal, he built a pendulum. “Just for amusement. Just to disprove the thing.”
He built the pendulum precisely as the old French book said: A circular hoop of copper for a base; two copper posts with a crossbar at top, like a miniature gallows; a heart-shaped lump of lead suspended by a silk cord at the center of the crossbar. The base he divided into 32 points of 11 degrees each.
In the sugar plain beyond the capital lived a peasant named Ti-bou who hailed the priest one afternoon. Ti-bou’s son was ill. Pain turned in him like a knife; he could hardly breathe. The docteur-feuille , local medicine-man, couldn’t help. Would the good father. . . ?
The good father would, and did.
“As I saw it,” he said to me, “I could hardly harm the child. On a sheet of paper I drew a rough outline of the human body, the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys and so on. This I placed squarely under the base of the pendulum, on a small table beside the boy’s cot. I leaned and touched with my forefinger the region of the boy’s brain.
Motionless as a Rock
“The pendulum stayed motionless as a rock. The throat--no reaction. The heart, lungs, kidneys--the leaden lump stayed immobile. But then--then--my finger traced a circle on the skin above the liver, and my eye detected a faint movement of the pendulum.
“Yes! A fluttering, a stirring! I pressed down more firmly on the boy’s skin and, slowly, slowly, quicker, quicker, the pendulum began a rotation. It moved!”
The priest’s breath was, he said, quite taken away. The country people of Haiti know a dozen herbs held to be beneficial to the liver, and at the priest’s order the family came with handfuls of them.
Inclining his finger to indicate the liver of the boy, Pere Fils-Aime passed one herb and then another under the pendulum. Five it rejected, for the sixth it quivered, but for the eighth it most violently agitated itself.
“Whereupon,” said Father Fils-Aime, clinging to the sideboard of the bouncing truck, “we dosed the boy liberally with the eighth herb and in three days he was out of bed, in five days taking care of the livestock.”
“Amazing,” I said.
He nodded. “Amazing, too, in the case of Pere Leconte in Baltimore. I placed his photograph beneath the instrument and watched the reactions of the pendulum. There are 32 points marked in the circumference of the base, you remember. On the day of his operation the pendulum indicated point 28. Since point 1 is the utmost of health, one knows that point 32 is the point of death. Monday the pendulum read 30, the doorstep of death.
“But early today, this morning, when I passed the picture of Pere Leconte beneath the pendulum, it paused at 10. Ten!”
“Then he’s almost well!”
The Machine Knows
“The pendulum tells us he is vastly improved. Somehow the machine knows, which is astonishing, yes, but in no true sense miraculous. There must be some arcanum, some scientific secret or mystery unknown to the likes of me.”
“Obviously, mon pere ,” I said.
I bought Father Fils-Aime a cup of coffee in a camp canteen, and we shook hands and parted. He said if ever he came to Port-au-Prince he would be pleased to take dinner with me.
He never did.
Time passed, and I’ve heard that Father Fils-Aime is back in Belgium. Also, Father Leconte is once more serving Ganthier Parish. I saw him the other day. He is quite well, with a good color.
He said that in Baltimore the doctors discovered that his kidneys were perfectly sound, no need to operate. His trouble was a tropical anemia, so they fed him vitamins for a while, no real problem.
Naturally, my friend, Joseph Nadal, was captivated by the pendulum story. He listened attentively, then passed me a cigar and spoke sternly.
“I am waiting,” he said, “I am waiting for your report on the wild horses.”
“Oh, that,” I said. “I never saw a Spanish horse or any trace of one.”
“Any sensible person could have told you so,” Joseph said, and gave me a light. It was a good cigar. Joseph smokes only the best cigars.
I was thinking: Maybe next year, if I can arrange a longer vacation trip to Haiti, I’ll spend a little more time in the mountains and prove there are Spanish horses up there.