I take a bus from a stop three blocks from our house in North Miami toward the hospital. The woman sitting next to me mumbles prayers over a Rosary. “All praise to Him,” she says as we pass Notre Dame.
I’m tempted to tell her of my first life, my death, and my return. Some things are not ordained by God, I think. Instead, I ask if Père Wesley still serves Mass.
“Monseigneur Wesley,” she corrects. “You haven’t been for a long time.” As she disembarks, she tells me to go with the grace of God.
At the hospital, I ask Micheline if she is feeling any better than the day before. At thirty, she prefers not to answer my questions about her bowel movements and her period.
“If the bleeding had stopped, would I still be here?” she says.
“You should drink more tea,” I say.
“Don’t bring any more of that,” she says. “I’m not seven and this isn’t the flu, so tea made from leaves off a goddamn tree isn’t going to cure this shit.”
“Everything is with God,” I say.
The only thing on television is news – of traffic on Biscayne Boulevard and I-95, of a store that got robbed, of a woman who left her baby in the car too long. A nurse comes in to take Micheline’s temperature and to ask if she’d been to the bathroom. A doctor asks about her bleeding and if she’d slept. She answers calmly. She offers thanks. When they are gone, she turns her back to the television.
She blames me for the way the seeds in her belly fuse, as if I should have shared the possibility of this. If it were simple, I would tell her the sickness comes from a grandmother with a face as round as hers. But as she adjusts the pillow below her lower back, wincing at the pain, I can’t bring myself to fabricate another family story.
All of the other stories she thinks she knows are made up. I’ve never been to Jacmel. My mother did not die in childbirth. There are no aunts, but there is an uncle, who did not die in a hurricane or a flood. Carlo’s family had money, yes, but they were from Saint Louis du Nord, not Okap. We did not meet in school. We did not marry at an altar with the blessing of a priest. I did not conceive on the first night in a hotel in Nassau.
I did not carry her. That joy remains only for those who’ve lived once.
“What I can give you,” I’d say, “I’ve given you and will give you.” I brace for a blow, but she cries. Anger cold and hollow with the news of the surgery that will make her barren.
I want to say, There are other ways to be a mother, cheri. Instead, I say, “You have to eat plenty. Food will make you strong.”
Years after my return to the living, when I’d settled in Miami with Carlo, I saw a movie about zonbies called Serpent and the Rainbow. Americans filmed this movie in Port-au-Prince. What they didn’t understand, they tried to explain with powder, poisonous fish and a bokor with no tongue for Kreyol. “Don’t bury me,” the doctor said. “I’m not dead.” Carlo and I laughed tears harder than when we watched a movie with Jesifra Lestomak wearing his straw hat and pink shoes.
Later, as we lay in bed listening to a feral cat yowl at the stars, my tears turned to mourning.
“Hush,” Carlo said. “Mesye took from you and he is rotting.”
He made me remember the space of our life together with kisses on my neck, with his body buried so deep in me I could not catch my breath to shed another tear.
God takes life swiftly sometimes, but his mercy, Père Wesley explained once, cannot always be understood. Other men leave children wherever they find a bed. Carlo fed Micheline mayi moulen and braided her hair those Sundays when Mrs. Rich had dinner parties that required my cooking. They say the cancer began in his sex, moved to his spine, chest, brain.
“Come home,” his mother says. “It’s been too long. Come home.”
But he’d made a promise to me, this man, this father, and he would not leave me or Micheline, how he dotes on her, how he complains only when he cannot keep the plantains down because of the chemotherapy. That she witnessed it.
“Oh, no worry,” he says above her tears. “I’m okay.”
In the ambulance, I remind him of what he’d said, that he’d stay. His body sticky, the hand I clutch like plastic. “You’re okay? You’re okay.”
This being a natural death, Carlo does not respond.
The television cycles through programs that neither of us watch. Micheline has adjusted her bed to a seated position. She wears the nightgown I bought on clearance. The color — bright red — makes her skin look orange. When Carlo died, I bought her a red nightie and underwear to keep him from her dreams. She said then she didn’t believe in superstitions.
I leave the room to give her privacy when the doctors come to examine her. In the hallway, the Haitian nurse with yellow teeth stops to ask if I am okay. I tell her it’s all in God’s hands.
She says, “God bless you, mummy.”
I smell antiseptic soap when she hugs me. Her body is warm like fever. I like the heat of her. For a moment, I want to ask about the sensation warm blood leaves under skin, if she can feel it coming and going. I don’t remember what that feels like. I can’t recall a fever or cold from the time before and I have not had either since.
I hold the nurse’s hand when we break. Her thick fingers wedge in the spaces between my own.
“You do good for her by coming here,” she says.
“Watch her for me,” I say.
“Ah, mummy, I do what I can,” she says.
I go back into the room after the doctors leave. Micheline is reclining. She’s pulled her sheet up to her chin and turned the TV’s volume down. I know she’s not asleep because her mouth is closed and I don’t hear whistling between her teeth. My mother used to say children’s lives are a series of habits, most bad. Finger to pacifier. Dolls to boys. Husbands to lovers. For Micheline, there was always this habit. I don’t know what came before. There were, of course, stages before me, like crawling and first steps, giving up the breast, maybe, and lifting a bottle. Spilling milk from a cup, discarding diaper for toilet.
She’d been asleep when I first saw her years ago. Her head hung to the one side. Mashed carrots smeared down the side of her face, coated the front of her yellow dress, even her socks. Her one arm hung limp at her side. The other lay folded under her head. I wanted to lift her from the high chair. Madame only stopped in the kitchen for a soda. I would do laundry three days a week, would have no cause in the kitchen if the cook did not need my help.
“The girls in the house have so much clothes,” Madame said. “The boy is like his father, one shirt, one pant a day. The sisters, umph, uniform for school, skirts in the afternoon, dress for dinner.”
She went on like this between sips, chatting about these other girls and the volumes that I would be responsible for. She didn’t seem to notice the child, whose head hung to the one side and who whistled in her sleep. When Madame finished her soda, she put the empty can on the table. She looked past the child.
“Madame,” I said, “and this one?”
Madame swept a coil of brown hair behind an ear. “Women have husbands,” she said. “Husbands are men.” Then she shouted out a name I don’t remember. A woman carrying a mop scurried in with apologies. “I don’t want to see it anymore. Take her,” Madame said.
I thought of the child as I walked home that day. I thought about her as I pressed plantain disks flat in the peel. As grease sizzled in the pan. When I replaced plantains with chicken wings. As they browned. As they cooled. When Carlo put his wet mouth on mine to say hello. As he chewed, open-mouthed, and told me about an old man who’d been hit by a car. In our bed. As he slept. As the night turned to morning.
I thought of her when I returned, as I hung clothes on the line to dry, folded them into piles of color and white, pressed the husband’s shirts. A young woman named Cecile, a soft-spoken girl who pins her hair under a white bonnet, had replaced the maid without the name. The child is always at Cecile’s heals. She’s a talker, this child, reciting letters, or talking to her dolls, or asking questions, so many questions—Why that polish? We sweep yesterday? Can you sing me that song again?
“Oh, petite,” Cecile chimes. If her hands are unoccupied, she’d scoop the child up, kiss a cheek or a forehead and whisper a secret. And the child would kiss her back.
It’s the kiss, I’d tell Carlo later, that makes me need her. That makes me yearn for what his protection can’t provide. For what death has taken from me. This child with no mother. With the father who pats her head sometimes, calls her Pitite Soyet, brings her dolls and new shoes. The father with the big hands and pressed shirts, who drinks rum from the bottle when Madame is not watching, who walks her out to me that Wednesday afternoon when Cecile was too sick to clean, too weak to watch the child. “Keep her for me until Madame comes home,” he said. He bends down to the child clutching the doll. He smooths the front of her skirt. “Be good, yes?” He kisses her cheek. To me, he said, “Just two hours. Keep her from the kitchen so Cook can do her work.”
This is how death comes:
My mother scolds me for giving strange men too much attention. I bend over. Food and bile pour from my mouth, hot and acrid, and I can’t breathe. I cry.
“Pitit, sak pase?” she says.
I say, “I don’t know,” but not clearly because I am heaving again, this time the rice and chicken, then thick gobs of brownish liquid. I can’t catch my breath. The tightness in my chest won’t let up.
She is crying. “What will people say?” she says.
“I’m not pregnant,” I say.
Many hands lift me to a flatbed. We are moving, I am home, and mother is scolding. “You walk around like you’re a princess,” she says. “Smiling and laughing with strange men on the street. Now look at you. This is punishment.”
I remember this, and then there is the fog. There is prayer, there are “Amens,” there is singing and wailing and voices that are faint and familiar, but the loudest is my mother begging God to take her in my place.
Pain comes after the fog has lifted. Salt on an unripe mango. This new bed in this new house. A bed piled with white sheets and blankets. Spiny feathers of a down pillow poke from the other side of the linen pillowcase.
I push myself up on elbows and fall back to my spot. Scanning the room, I see pictures of people I don’t know, and then I feel his presence next to me, see the necklace dangling, hear his breathing making its way past his parted lips.
I nod. “And my brother and my gran.”
He considers for a moment.
“You can’t cry for things you can’t have, petit.”
“I don’t want this,” I say.
He says, “Sometimes even when you want something bad enough, it’s not for you to have it.”
“Mwen anvi lavi,” I say.
“I can give you everything, pitit.”
My limbs, still finding their way to new life, don’t respond to his advance. It’s later, when he wakes me, that I feel the ache, that I am unsettled, that the violation is as certain as every sensation I had experienced in life: a burn, a scrape, the taste of condensed milk, a kiss.
Dressed in khaki linen, he smiles down at me. “Time for you to see your family,” he says. “Go see your grandmother. Have her take you to your mother. If anyone takes you back, then you don’t have to see me anymore. When they don’t, my door is open.”
When I reach Gran’s house, I don’t knock. I sit on the flat porch, toss my head back and look up at the blazing sun; the pain of this defiance makes me feel good.
The door opens behind me. I jump to my feet.
I start to say her name, but she puts a hand up and shakes her head.
“Sispann.” Her voice is firm, but not angry. Like it was when she used to chastise me for begging for a second plate at the dinner table, or when I cried on Christmas because there were no gifts and Papa was not coming home from the cane fields. “You come inside, eat something. Then we find a car and go to your mother. You stay quiet for me, pitit.”
Death comes. There is fog. Salt. Life. Then things that you once ignored, like the slow burn of skin in summer. How new life, except for the hollow, beats painful like natural life.
Then there is the voice. “Listen, you dropped this,” it says.
I turn to see a young man my age, taller, built wide as if his family never lacks for food. His nose is flat, barely visible against his black skin. He holds a white handkerchief that gleams white, as striking as the pink of his palm.
I look directly at him, but can’t help this.
“That’s not for me,” I say.
“I thought it fell from your pocket.”
I pat my sides. “Anyway, that looks too clean for something you find in the street.”
He pockets the handkerchief, extends a hand. “Carlo.”
His hand is rough.
“Come watch the fútbol match with me. You don’t have to say your name until you know I’m not a vagabond.”
I remember hating fútbol, but Carlo makes it interesting, shouting commands and reprimands to his friends on the field between long speeches about how pretty he thinks I am.
Time and appointments don’t mean much to me then, only that this stranger seems taken by me. At the end of the match, the sweaty men join us at the fence, each extending a wet hand to shake in turn.
“Why you want that skinny guy when you can have this?” one says.
“This sissy who don’t know how to play fútbol.”
“Too scared to play with the men.”
Carlo likes the jesting. It means his friends approve of me. He lets a hand slip around my waist and pulls me close to him. I let my head fall on his shoulder, turn into his neck, and whisper, “Bebette.”
When the sky turns pale orange and red with the setting sun, Carlo walks me back to where he found me and asks if he can see me again. I let my body fall into his embrace, and he kisses me, pressing his moist, wide face into my own. His breath is hot and sour, but the feel of his lips, of his nose pushing against mine, of his skin on my skin.
I meet Carlo in parks, once in a church, on the street, in the market. We talk silly things at first – how his mother cuts the crust from his toast still or the bad marks he’s gotten in mathematics. Only when we’re saying goodbye does he get serious. He wants to know where I live. He wants to know my family. He wants to know of this Mesye I mentioned once but won’t speak of again.
There are things I choose not to tell him: of the death, of course, but also of the house just outside of the village where I cooked and cleaned and prepared batches of kremas. Or the sweat that poured from Mesye in batches of sour. How he said my name as if we are familiar beyond our situation, or the oddity of his demand that I remove the hair from my sex so that it felt as if I were not old enough to have had my First Communion.
Our house in North Miami sits hidden behind a wall of tea, Australian pine, and mimosa trees. A strong wind scatters buds of the mimosa across the front yard and porch. When my daughter was younger, I’d make up songs to add music to her laughter. Who can produce a picture more beautiful than a child chasing pink buds floating beyond her stubby fingers, her braids and barrettes dancing as if to the music of my song? Little girls, however, grow into young women who cannot be controlled. Our troubles were not greater or less than any other mother and her daughter. Men who I did not approve of. Women who seemed too familiar for friends. Late nights that turned into weekends away. Dresses too small to cover all God has endowed her with.
I cry and I remind her of our sacrifices. “We took a boat for nobody else but you,” I say. “You don’t know the misery of Haiti.”
Sometimes her memories tug at the shroud. “It wasn’t that bad, damn! I don’t remember nobody looking Ethiopian. And who was that lady that watched me? Probably some underpaid maid.”
She had this way of laughing when she was a teenager: She’d throw her head to the side, whip her hair into a knot that was too short to tie, and cackle, like a street person.
When she got in her way, I found there was nothing I could do beyond my grief. Sometimes this grief would manifest itself in the thrust of a hand (a slap, maybe, or a book). The doctors had not yet found the disease in Carlo. If he were home, he’d intervene at sight of the first blow or of the pages rustling in flight.
“Micha, sometimes, goddammit!”
She’d silence at her father. Suck teeth. Slam bedroom door.
When it was just he and I, when I was myself absent anger, he’d remind me: “I saw you before you let me see you. I saw you because God made me love what needed love.”
A wall surrounds the property. At the entrance, an armed guard wearing fatigues tips his hat and waves us in. I suck in quick breaths when I see it: huge cylinder pillars along the front, a veranda that wraps partway around the second floor, where a thin, older woman with waves of silver hair stands waving. It is like a scene from a movie, her cinnamon arm pivoting, a white handkerchief, probably embroidered with flowers, flailing.
The woman is his mother, Madame Marc. She kisses each cheek when we meet. She runs fingers through my hair, which has grown past my shoulders. Inside, there are dozens more people — brothers, sisters, cousins, friends from the neighborhood, all people who’d assumed Carlo would live his life without a wife.
“Always with his work,” one woman says.
“Working his father’s silly store,” another says.
They are all casting curious eyes over my curves and angles. Asking pointed questions about what Carlo and I did in the bedroom. Carlo leads me through the house. Each time he introduces a new person, this world seems more real to me. How they smile at me. The way they touch my arm and kiss my cheek, asked if I planned to have children and why they’d never encountered me before.
I cry. Someone asks if I’ve been insulted. Carlo tells me to control myself. His aunt shushes him and takes me to the kitchen. There, his mother gives me tea and wipes my forehead with a towel. She asks if I am pregnant, and I cry harder. And before I can stop myself, I tell them of Mesye, his kremas, the funeral, and the fog.
Carlo hears only the end of my telling. I’m told he and his cousins found Mesye drinking with his friends on the porch. Whether it was a machete or a gun, I don’t know. Only that on the day Mesye was buried, Carlo and I were in Port-de-Paix finding new life.
This is how death comes:
I remember his white linen shirt, tufts of hair at his chest and neck, sweat bleeding through fabric. His eyes bloodshot, a silver necklace, a girl’s necklace, butterfly with an amethyst stone.
“Sel kremas,” he says, just kremas.
I say, “Anything for you Mesye,” because then I thought him handsome.
My mother shoves me, and tells him to go away because there are customers. He comes back when she’s away. He complains of spoiled kremas, tells me to taste if I think he’s lying.
I taste, I smile, I taste again to be sure. “This is good, Mesye,” I say. “There’s nothing wrong with the kremas.”
He turns away from me and is out my mind as soon as the next customer approaches.
Before the day is over, I’m writhing in bed. The tea mother feeds me does not settle in my stomach. When death comes, there is no clarity as in the Serpent and the Rainbow, no urge to speak out to the wailing voices around me. My body is not my body and my spirit is not my spirit. So that when they nail the coffin shut, I don’t panic or pray for protection from la lwa or Bon Dieu.
I knock softly.
“Sispann,” she say when she opens. She puts a hand against my face. I turn into the warmth and kiss the calloused web of her palm. “Fè silans tanpri.”
My grandmother and I arrive at my mother’s house in Anse-à-Foleur with the setting sun. Manman crumbles in a wailing heap in the doorway. Children, men, women and teenage girls of the neighborhood congregate around her doorway, some to console her, others to watch me with the kind of morbid curiosity that’s generally reserved for bodies rotting in the street after a demonstration.
They take her to her bedroom and I remain in the salon with the neighbors. They speak about me as if I am not there, give me furtive glances, look away if ever our eyes are on the verge of connecting.
I hear the talking from the bedroom:
“What is God doing to me?” Mother says.
“He’s giving you a second chance,” Gran says.
“I cried for her,” Mother says.
“She was my child.”
Gran loses her patience. “You have a second chance and you’re acting like a fool.”
“This is not a natural thing,” Mother says.
“You prayed for God to give you your child so he has,” Gran says.
“What am I supposed to do?”
“You don’t want your daughter?”
“My daughter died. I cried for her. I grieved for her.”
For a time, there is silence. Then my mother says, “I can’t have her. My daughter already died.”
Micheline spent the first few days under covers in her bed. I bring food to her. Sometimes she makes phone calls and speaks in a soft voice to a person I’ve not yet been introduced to. One evening she sits with me at the dining table. We eat in silence.
On the fourth day, we take a taxi to the hospital for blood tests before surgery. On the way back, we tell the driver to take us to a place in Little Haiti where they make fresh pikliz that burns. I ask if she remembers it from when we first arrived here.
She scrapes the pickled cabbage off fried port and bites. “I remember the one he liked,” she says chewing, “on Second Avenue, where they killed the owner. Remember I told you about it and you told Pa not to go there anymore?”
We are sitting at a table only half-lit by the sun shining through the storefront window. There is a radio playing in the back, some old kompas music, and I can hear the cook and his wife arguing about an electric bill or a woman. I put a mouthful of the peppers and cabbage on my tongue. She’s gone from the disappeared to some other memory of her childhood that I can’t place. I put another spoonful in my mouth and chew. Micheline pushes a glass of water in my direction.
“You want any meat with them peppers?” She laughs at her unfunny joke. She leans back in her chair and holds her center. With the back of a hand, she wipes moisture from her eyes. Her body rocks with the weight of revelry, happiness, in a way that I’ve not seen since before Carlo’s death. She seems unbothered for a moment, just a moment. The light cuts across our table and she remains in shadow.
When he first saw her, Carlo said, “Qu’est-ce que tu fais, Bebette?” The formality of the French. “To me?” he said. “You do this to me. After everything?”
“This is life,” I said. I’d been chopping onions. Micheline played with a doll on the floor. There was no air in the kitchen. The sweat felt like a damp sweater. I wiped my forehead to clear moisture. I licked my lips and tasted salt and blood and fear. His fear, I knew, was in his choice. He’d tethered himself to me, a girl who’d died, because he wanted to rescue, knew I needed rescue. The child, though, was another thing. He and I could recover alone, together. But to take? To take?
“We are not this,” he said.
“She needs a mother,” I said. “I need to be a mother.”
To say it felt obscene and selfish.
He took her hand. He said, “Come.” She followed him to the door. They went out. My legs melted under the weight of me. I sobbed, still holding the knife. I sobbed. Lamented the hollow, that which had been cut from me and the mother who would not have me. That men could be. That God remained silent.
The possibility of this didn’t seem real to me until I saw her, still holding his hand, when they returned, this gift from Carlo, and I didn’t ask why he’d taken her, this gift from Carlo, that last thing he gave me before the boat and the ocean and Miami. What God would not allow me to have because of the sin that brought me here, Carlo gave me. I regret sometimes that I can still taste air on my tongue, but I don’t regret the smile, how she laughs, and hangs her head, and says “Ma, stop with the pikliz!”
Sometimes, I remember home like summer and the families in the area like grass in a field or butterflies. But my mother’s face comes in fragments, her eyes sometimes, or the shape of them, and the taste of her kiss, salt on her cheeks. I see Gran more clearly. My face, her face, our mouths turning downward even when we smile. I think about how she would admonish my mother for the kisses she gave. “You worship children like idols and God will teach you where devotion belongs,” she said once. If my soul could be redeemed, I would drown the sound of those words with Acts of Contrition. The sin that resides in my heart, to taste, how condensed milk brought death, the shearing of my sex, this child, another woman’s child. Does Carlo suffer for this sin of mine? Against whom did I sin? The absence of him even in my dreams, how the vision of him never returned, but Mesye, always present, holding down my chest so I can’t breathe.
How silent the room after surgery. They’ve given Micheline heavier drugs to mask the absence of the feminine they’ve cut away. She’s still, unmoving like death, and I know life remains in her when I feel the warmth of her forehead.
I push the button for the nurse. She comes softly. She closes the door behind her quickly to shut out the light from the hallway.
“Everything ok, mummy?” she asks.
I cross the room to her. I take her hand. “I can hear now in your voice that your accent is Port-au-Prince,” I say. “Would you be offended if I ask that, as my daughter sleeps, you approach the Virgin on my behalf? Tanpri?”
Gariot Pierre Louima is a writer and college administrator. His short stories have been published in the journals The Caribbean Writer, carte blanche, and Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, and in the anthology So Spoke the Earth. He has an MFA from the Bennington College Writing Seminars.