I found the announcement for the exchange program in a wrinkled Le Matin newspaper on Papa’s oak table. Applicants, ages thirteen to eighteen, were invited to submit a 1,300-word essay in Spanish in which they justified their desire to become medical doctors. We will select the best applicants; these six students will receive a full-year scholarship for a magnet school in the Dominican Republic. The name of the magnet school had been left out, and so had the name of the sponsoring organization. A phone number was listed, but when Sœur —the better Spanish speaker—dialed the digits, there was no answer. There was no specific address on the ad.
My sister wore a sleeveless robe of flowing, peach-colored linen. “Since when do you want to become a doctor?” she asked.
“I’m serious about this. That’s what I’m meant to be.” I had just stepped out of the shower, my body fresh as a hibiscus after a good rain. “Particularly if it means leaving Haiti.”
I would make Mother proud. Everyone in Haiti wished their child a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer. I needed to do something—go somewhere, grow beautiful, have my sorrow drop off me like used-up skin.
“I will keep trying,” I said, taking the phone from Sœur.
And I did—the entire day. Once, someone picked up the phone, but all I heard was background noise.
My face tightened on itself, all line and bone.
Everyday, I called the phone number listed in the newspaper for the exchange program. Nothing. I also perused new issues of Le Matin, hoping to stumble upon an updated ad. No luck.
I worked on my essay. In my room, silence tied its knots. It swallowed me and I was suspended in the dark warmth of its throat. Writing allowed me to avoid the world, its endless conversations. I wrote until the gas lamp died, until the night swallowed everything, even an ant crawling across the floor. Outside, the sky wore black rags. I imagined dead men in the barbwire above the walls. They hung on the wires like scarecrows.
I wanted to leave Haiti—the violence, the fear, the rage.
My past, fanned out flat like a series of cards, would not make the proper sense when turned over.
I asked my Spanish teacher if she’d heard about the exchange program—no, she said with a heavy Castellano accent. I also called Instituto Lope de Vega, another Spanish-language school in Port-au-Prince, and later talked to the Dominican Consulate. They were clueless.
Someone finally picked up the phone for the exchange program. A man set up an interview with me on the following Monday. “Bring your essay,” the voice said. “Ask for Monsieur Gabriel.”
“Thank you,” I said, short and hot into the mouthpiece, the exhaled breath coming back at me smelling sour.
In the essay, I’d included the fact that I collected human bones. The undertaker’s assistant at the city morgue, a man with humongous breakouts on his forehead, sold me the pieces. I boiled them on the makeshift stove in the backyard to take out the gristle and other smelly cartilage still clinging to the bones. I polished them and kept them in my bedroom closet because they made our houseboy nervous and I didn’t want to scare him.
“How did you get these?” my sister asked one evening, looking for a pink top to match her multicolored shorts.
It had been a breezy, tulip-soft day. The sky had blinked into darkness, and outside my window a bird continued to make its call, two quick dips followed by a line of maniacal laughter.
“My friend Junior is resourceful,” I said. I showed her a random piece. “They tell me med students in Port-au-Prince keep skeletons at home to help them study. I’m not kidding.”
I had developed a fascination with death itself. Many Haitians shared it on some level. Why else would they walk through old cemeteries and read strangers’ headstones? At night, when I unlocked my closet and laid my bone collection on the carpet to study anatomy lessons, a tingle of some restless emotion snaked through my body. A presence both captivating and appalling.
For a long time, I was missing the most important part: the skull. When no one claimed a body, the undertaker’s assistant, who happened to be Junior’s cousin, buried the head in the backyard of the morgue. “They’re the cages of the souls,” he said. “They belong to the Baron.” Baron Samedi was the gatekeeper of the cemeteries.
One Sunday morning, Junior persuaded an intern to get me a cadaver’s head in exchange for movie tickets. “Fear the Baron’s anger,” the young man warned.
The skull was from a young man who’d died from pneumonia. I was not sure how long ago death had captured his soul. Two teeth remained and green powder covered the bone. I placed the skull in a plastic bag and put it in the closet.
Mother was furious. “C’est de la barbarie!” she said. It’s barbarous.
“I want to be a bone doctor,” I said. “Remember?”
“An orthopedist, you mean?”
“Yes—that. I have an interview for the exchange program.”
“You’re not going to the Dominican Republic.”
My fixation with the shapes and forms of nature was also about the power in storytelling. I was a goddess. Someone had died and I owned a piece of personal history. Each bone came from a different subject and was reminiscent of a scattered life. I found it fascinating to imagine what the lives of these people had been like. My pelvis was a prostitute on Rue Lamartine. My clavicle—a tonton macoute lynched by the chimères. My sternum—a handsome young man who strangled his unfaithful fiancée and later committed suicide.
At night, I wrote about it.
My life was a deconstructed text, and I was surrounded by words—their sustaining luxuries and dangers. Words have power; you never know what may come of them. Take this: I want to leave—the rest is a jigsaw of memory taking up space in my head. I want to escape to wherever else. I wrote about what I wanted: to become a doctor, to tell stories, to escape Haiti.
In the car, I mentioned the exchange program. Papa eyed me in silence for a moment, hands tight around the steering wheel.
“Santo Domingo?” he said. “You planning to become a prostitute?”
Mother cut in. “There are good med schools in the DR,” she said. “I’ve heard about UNPHU and UCAMAYMA. Sergo’s brother attended one of them, didn’t he?”
Papa nodded. “No one is going to Santo Domingo. I heard about that med school Frero attended. A concentration camp. Those dirty panyòl don’t like us. There was a curfew for Haitian students—some students almost got shot because they were hanging out in the streets after nine o’clock.”
He was making this up as he went. His speech sped up when he lied, and he stressed the end of each sentence. He was un mentiroso—a liar. On the radio, the well-intentioned voices of the announcers reported on the Haitian embargo’s absurdities, on the unprovoked slaughters. These voices, drained of certainty, caught themselves just short of assertion.
Mother wouldn’t take me to the interview. Papa wouldn’t hear of it.
I decided to sneak out of the house.
Papa was in his room—I could hear the TV and a soccer match. The excitement in my throat made it hurt to swallow. I found myself in a strange body, my own body as it turned out.
When I stepped outside, the world had stopped. The sky was a thick, padded gray, and everything was still and quiet. Felix, the houseboy, ate a banana in the vegetable garden. Next to him—a machete, wooden-handled, slightly rusted. The gatekeeper, he needed to let me out. I could see in his eyes that he was wondering where I was going, but he would never dare question the daughter of the house.
He had an uncomfortable giggle. “Be careful; there are thieves out there. Do not trust anyone.”
I was too excited to feel dread. My life was taking a new turn, and I didn’t want to think about danger.
“Around what time should we expect you back, mademoiselle?” Felix asked. He reached nervously for the Texaco cap on his round head.
I read concern in his eyes, but also something else—the question, What is this crazy, byen-li-twò-byen girl planning now?
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
I could see the hunger in him to know the details. It was the storyteller in him—he wanted to know the worst and shudder at it.
It was the longest conversation I’d had with Felix since that one night some October ago when we played basketball. When we leaned against the chicken coop, washed the tomatoes with our spit, and dried them on our soiled shirts. Before the embargo. Before the protests and the killings.
The iron gate radiated heat. Felix hesitated, the creases on his forehead taut. Then he opened the gate, reminded of my authority over him as one of the ladies of the house. My heart was alive and vibrant, beating with a loud thumpity-thump. I kicked pebbles, walked on an earth-beaten path, surrounded by mountains harboring secrets I yearned to discover, feeling the ancient presence of people who had walked here before me and worked the land. I looked at the patterns of ant-rich trees. I listened to the birds that sang indifferently. A child in an unbuttoned shirt was drawing rusty hills and stick-figure trees on a wall with chalky pieces of slate, his knees covered in gravel.
On the main road, cars whisked by. I stopped in front of Jean-Noel’s stand and bought a pack of cigarettes. Two things about Jean-Noel: He grimaced when he talked and he said yes in a singular way, with a huge effort of concentration. I wondered what would happen to him if he ever failed in his effort.
“A pack of cigarettes? Yes.”
I’d never smoked before, but maybe in Santo Domingo I would become one of these women who held a cigarette between manicured fingers, looking grave and ageless with an expression that said, “I know life. I’ve been there.” I didn’t know the meaning of what was happening to me, but I hoped the force or forces at work were satisfied with my decision to make the appointment despite my parents’ refusal.
I bought a lighter and shook one of the Comme Il Faut out. I rolled the cigarette around the palm of my hand and tried right there to light it. The tiny tongue of the lighter felt hard against my thumb and I couldn’t manage to create the flame. Jean-Noel’s puzzled stare wasn’t helping. I kept on trying, until he cleared his throat and said I was too slow. I tried a quicker move and the flame ignited. Holding the cigarette in my mouth, I put the flame against the tip, but I didn’t know about inhaling, so nothing happened.
I became aware that a group had formed. Conversation had stopped around the stand, and two kids leaning against Mr. Etienne’s house were quiet, their eyes pressed against me. The quenêpe and orange vendors looked at me as well. Girls like me did not walk around alone in town, and didn’t stop to buy cigarettes at the corner. Certainly not. Well-brought-up girls didn’t smoke, and they rode around in expensive cars.
One of the women broke the silence. “Fòk ou rale sou sigarèt la,” she said, her voice surprisingly sweet—a smoky falsetto.
I did what she said, pulling on the cigarette with my breath. Feet away, the freeway quieted and then picked up as if the vehicles traveled in packs. The cigarette tasted like dry grass and I almost choked. One of the kids laughed at my pained expression; the other clapped in excitement. I smiled, remembered to pay for my new acquisitions, and went on walking. On the side of the road, a mutt with a broken leg, a creature of sorrow, rested his head on his front paws. Half-curled, he flashed a tooth and wagged. Then he looked forward.
The kamyonèt that stopped was packed. The driver said, “Hop in the front so you don’t get squeezed.”
The special treatment. It wasn’t the clothes—these were simple jeans and a free promotional t-shirt from the grocery store. It was the color of my skin, a few shades lighter. It was the texture of my hair—maybe not as kinky. I was the tifi wouj, the red girl of Thomassin 38. When I walked around the neighborhood, other kids followed my steps, staring, just like you’d follow a strange animal to study its behavior outside its regular habitat. I tried to befriend some of the children once, and one of them laughed out of surprise: “She speaks Creole!” I was a peculiar species that didn’t belong in the streets.
I got in the front of the bus, and the driver turned down the music to ask me whether I was going to Pétion-Ville. I told him yes, but that my final destination was Place d’Italie, in the Bicentenaire, and could he please tell me how to get there? He nodded with a cheerless smile. He wore loose clothes and his hair had started to dread. He smelled of heavy sweat and faint cologne, but the open windows of the bus let in the smell of pine trees and wild flowers, too. The music was blaring again—some Haitian rap. I felt out of place in the overcrowded bus, with people who didn’t see me as one of their own. A woman passed on the street; she had wonderful dark skin I would have liked to wrap over myself, over my head.
The driver yelled at a passenger to throw away his cigarette, goddamnit. He didn’t want to get cancer. Then, to save on gas, he shifted to neutral and the bus rolled downhill—a roller coaster ride on a rickety bus. I was getting farther away from home, the bus making stops every two or three blocks, when a potential passenger waved from the side of the road. I started to sweat as the bus got more crowded. I asked the driver if I could smoke and he said, “Of course.” He didn’t look me in the eyes.
The kamyonèt stopped in Pétion-Ville. The driver explained how to catch a bus to Lalue and then a taxi to Place d’Italie. Teenage boys in the bus talked about an infant who’d nursed its dead mother at the hôpital général and choked when milk turned to blood. They talked about the embargo, pointed fingers at a militaristic government—“the de facto government that American president, Bill Clinton, and his pals are pretending to be punishing for the coup,” one of them said—had easy access to the expensive gasoline while the people could no longer afford bus fares. Daily life in Port-au-Prince was filled with thousand of details that exhausted any energy not already drained by the heat.
The boys warned me against a demonstration downtown. “Don’t go to Place d’Italie,” one of them told me. “They’re protesting the president’s return.” He had a scar on his forehead; it was shaped like an apostrophe. “The demonstrations have been sporadic since the gas embargo. Today is your unlucky day.”
His friends sang in unison: “OEA, OEA, lè m grangou, m pa jwe.” They tapped their feet on the bus floor. “OAS, OAS, hungry bellies don’t kid around.”
I bit my lower lip. “I’m meeting someone there,” I said, curling a piece of hair behind my ear.
A woman tucked a baby under her arm like a bread loaf.
The boy with the apostrophe knitted his brows. “Careful. It gets so hot you’ll want to take off your skin and walk around in your bones.”
Port-au-Prince was a miasma of gasoline and diesel fumes mingled with spicy food to create an acrid smell that on a bad day could burn the inside of your nostrils. And I was in the crowd, among strangers, trapped in the web of a giant spider, the air thick with beer, tobacco, hair oil, and Vaseline. Creatures snaked their way between the strands of my hair, slithering worms of sweat wriggling down into my neck.
At Place d’Italie, the sky hung heavy. A group of men surrounded an overturned car and on a corner tires smoldered from recent violence. The demonstration was still going on—behind the barricades, dozens of piétons shouted angrily against Aristide’s return, singing Si Aristide tounen, n ap pran les armes, Seigneur. The Port-au-Prince sun blazed overhead, the temperature reaching the high nineties; heat radiated from the concrete. Men were leaning against the barricades and burned-down cars—chimères or members of the opposition, I didn’t know.
“I need to go through,” I said. And I was surprised that I didn’t sound afraid.
The men eyed me. “Saw pran se paw,” one of them said, and I heard the threat in his voice. “At your own risk.”
He let me go through, and I plunged into the sea of demonstrators, avoiding the camera crews. OEA, OEA, lè m grangou, m pa jwe. I smelled aftershave: stinging, lively, the musty stench of old clothes and yet another smell: urine and rotted waste. Flies swarmed around the sweat-soaked bodies. I tried my best to avoid the mud that clogged the paved street. Sweat dampened my hairline and glued my clothes to my skin. I passed the brick houses that looked like small jails, the dirty men, the sagging women standing before a half-burned-down house. On the walls were spray-painted the words OEA, pa fè sa. A blan who looked European snapped a pink camera with a fat pink finger.
I reached the address—some kind of office duplex. When I pushed open the slatted doors, coarse laughter welled up from a corner of the room, which reeked of alcohol and stale tobacco and was in the shadows, as if the anger of Port-au-Prince could be trapped on the outside, behind closed windows. Two men and a woman played dominoes, slapping down the pieces in childish glee, black points dotting the poorly-shaven faces of the males. I politely asked the woman for Mr. Gabriel. She smiled, said, “Tout de suite”–right away—and disappeared behind a door.
The sun sewed heat in the room, not with needle and thread, but friction and swish. Sweat trickled a path down my neck, between my breasts. Sticky rivulets ran down beneath my t-shirt, into the waistband of the fabric of my jeans. I ran my tongue along my upper lip; the sun had parched me. I was dizzy from the heat and the stench coming from the street.
“I’m sorry,” the woman apologized, returning after a moment. “Mr. Gabriel did not come today. He’s back in the Dominican Republic. Maybe next month?”
I looked out the window—angry men rode in a dusty pickup with the rear doors flung open; they brazenly pointed wooden sticks at the demonstrators. Smoke rose from hills of trash, blanketing the air with a grayish pall. I took it all in—the mosquitoes, the flies, the hot sun, and the rising humidity. The woman kept talking but the words stopped making sense and I didn’t pay attention to them. I shook my head to clear the murkiness from my mind, but my dizziness increased. I pressed my forehead against my palm.
I’m stuck here.
When I stepped outside, my vision swam—it was the heat, the dust raised by the wind, the stench of the sewer and of stale urine, and the rage of my emotions. I took in the panorama of ancient wooden buildings, their facades and steep, tile roofs warped by the intense heat. People of all shapes and shades of black stamped their feet on the ground, their faces furrowed and tanned. Under the sun-drenched blue of the sky, the demonstration raged, and the crowd squeezed the breath out of me. Too much old sweat, too many bodies close to mine, too many people breathing down my neck. The crowd bustled and swirled, everyone touching, squeezing, groping. I wanted to be lifted by angels.
On top of a red pick-up in the middle of the crowd, a man with thick glasses and a green hat, draped in the red and blue Haitian flag, yelled to the protesters through a megaphone. “Aristide p ap tounen.” Aristide is not coming back! His voice was a rapid-fire staccato.
The sharp crack of gunfire broke his words. “Everyone down!” a startled voice yelled. Another shot. Closer. It cut through the crowd’s roar. Gotta get out of here. Everyone was on the run, but I was petrified; I couldn’t move. My heart was pounding, and I couldn’t breathe. Men wearing bandanas above their mouths and clutching automatic weapons were getting closer. My knees went weak.
Someone grabbed me from behind. I didn’t scream. Lost in the nightmare, fear pumped through my veins. “Get behind here,” a man said as he pulled me down behind a gigantic trash can. “You’ll be safe.”
His voice was calm, different from the one that screamed in my head for the nightmare to stop. I gagged at the stench from the waste; the ground was puke green. As I lay in the mud, I heard more screaming. I pulled my knees to my chest and wrapped my arms around my calves, trembling. But in the midst of this, the sky remained a beautiful blue. A dog barked somewhere in the distance. I didn’t want to die. The man lay behind me, and I felt his breath on my neck.
Was anyone dying out there? My stomach rumbled. My heart beat in my ears. A rat ran past my nose.
The chimères—or whoever—were gone. My knees were wobbly as the man helped me stand, and my heart beat in my throat. I inhaled a quick, gasping breath. I didn’t brush the dirt and gravel off my jeans. A woman was screaming; a bullet had hit her in the leg, and her blood swirled in patterns on the pavement. I was too terrified to help. A man with a chin beard pulled her up, into a kamyonèt. I clamped my hand over my mouth to kill the scream in my throat.
“Where are you going?” a man asked. He was the one who had rescued me. He was lean and bony, and ropy veins stood out on his neck and forearm. I couldn’t tell his age. Somewhere between twenty and fifty. He looked like a boy in a man’s skin. A slight man, no fat on his body.
“Thomassin,” I said. My head was still woozy and my stomach churned. The heat made it worse.
“I’ll get you there. Vini.”
I searched his face. It was not the face of a man with ulterior motives. It was just a face, stretched by smiles. Later, I would remember the careful driving of the Good Samaritan. He didn’t gun his Datsun through the potholes like the cowboys who usually drove around Port-au-Prince, whooping as they left the ground, ruining the shocks and having a good time doing it. He drove at a sedate speed—with an Old World dignity.
In the yard, Felix held a dead chicken in his grip, and drops of blood trickled down onto his bare foot. On the balcony, Mother mopped damp hair from her face with the back of her forearm and unsettled a gang of mosquitoes. She leaned back and pulled her legs up onto the chaise longue. The sunlight played on her face and her eyes blinked.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
“I was walking in the neighborhood; I fell in the mud.”
My parents thought I’d been writing in my room. I found my father slouched on a canapé, a clean white handkerchief peeking from the pocket of his shirt, today’s Le Nouvelliste in his hands. He saw me, and delight crinkled the skin at the corners of his eyes. How far apart we’d grown. I was no longer the child who folded myself into my father’s lap, his chin resting on top of my head, his newspaper folded the same way he folded it every day.
He smiled and took my hand in his, “Don’t get mad. But we threw away your bones. Too creepy.” I took my hand away, and yet he looked at me as if there were a bond between us, as if we understood each other. Sweat had turned clammy inside my shirt. I wiped away the fat drops that gathered in furrows on my forehead, crowned my brow, and glistened on my nose. The clock ticked loudly, clicking off each second with a jump.
 The Organization of American States (OAS), angered and frustrated by the defiance of Haiti’s military-backed government, tightened its embargo against Haiti as punishment for its continued failure to end dictatorial rule and permit the return of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Michèle-Jessica (M.J.) Fievre obtained her MFA from the Creative Writing program at Florida International University. She is the author of I Am Riding (One Moore Book, 2013). Her memoir, A Sky the Color of Chaos, will be released in November 2015. Her short stories and poems have appeared in Haiti Noir (Akashic Books, 2011), The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books, 2012), The Mom Egg, Saw Palm, The Southeast Review, and The Caribbean Writer. M.J. is the founding editor of Sliver of Stone Magazine, and she edited the Haiti anthology, So Spoke the Earth (WWOHD, 2012). She blogs at www.mjfievre.com.