Read Breath, Eyes, Memory Online

Authors: Edwidge Danticat

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Family Life, #Cultural Heritage, #General

Breath, Eyes, Memory (4 page)

Chapter 6

C
hildren, we are here." The woman was shaking both of us at the same time.

The plane was empty. We walked down a long passageway, the woman first, with the little boy's hand in hers, and then me. She rushed us by the different lines without stopping. She only waved each time and flashed a large manila envelope.

We soon joined a crowd and watched as suitcases filed past us on a moving mat.

"Do you see your bags?" she asked.

I saw my suitcase and pointed to it. She walked over and picked it up and put it on the floor next to me. We waited for the little boy to point out his, but he did not.

She leafed through his papers and said, "Jean-Claude, do you see your suitcase?"

He buried his face in her skirt and began to cry. She walked over and checked the stubs on the suitcases. He did not have any.

We walked down another corridor. Then a glass gate opened itself and we were out in a lobby filled with people holding balloons and flowers. Some of them burst forward to hug loved ones.

A woman moaned as she walked towards Jean-Claude. She grabbed him and squeezed his little body against hers.

"They've killed my brother," she cried. "Look at him, look at my brother's son."

She carried him away in her arms, his face buried in her chest.

My mother came forward. I knew it was my mother because she came up to me and grabbed me and begin to spin me like a top, so she could look at me.

The woman who had been with me looked on without saying anything.

"Stay here," my mother said to me in Creole.

She walked over to a corner with the woman, whispered a few things to her, and handed her what seemed like money.

"I cannot thank you enough," my mother said.

"There is no need," the woman said. She bowed slightly and walked away.

I raised my hand to wave good-bye. The woman had already turned her back and was heading inside. It was as though I had disappeared. She did not even see me anymore.

As the woman went through the gate, my mother kissed me on the lips.

"I cannot believe that I am looking at you," she said. "You are my little girl. You are here."

She pinched my cheeks and patted my head.

"Say something," she urged. "Say something. Just speak to me. Let me hear your voice."

She pressed my face against hers and held fast.

"How are you feeling?" she asked. "Did you have a nice plane flight?"

I nodded.

"You must be very tired," she said. "Let us go home."

She grabbed my suitcase with one hand and my arm with the other.

Outside it was overcast and cool.

"My goodness." Her scrawny body shivered. "I didn't even bring you something to put over your dress."

She dropped the suitcase on the sidewalk, took off the denim jacket she had on and guided my arms through the sleeves.

A line of cars stopped as we crossed the street to the parking lot. She was wobbling under the weight of my suitcase.

She stopped in front of a pale yellow car with a long crack across the windshield glass. The paint was peeling off the side door that she opened for me. I peered inside and hesitated to climb onto the tattered cushions on the seats.

She dropped the suitcase in the trunk and walked back to me.

"Don't be afraid. Go right in."

She tried to lift my body into the front seat but she stumbled under my weight and quickly put me back down.

I climbed in and tried not to squirm. The sharp edge of a loose spring was sticking into my thigh.

She sat in the driver's seat and turned on the engine. It made a loud grating noise as though it were about to explode.

"We will soon be on our way," she said.

She rubbed her hands together and pressed her head back against the seat. She did not look like the picture Tante Atie had on her night table. Her face was long and hollow. Her hair had a blunt cut and she had long spindly legs. She had dark circles under her eyes and, as she smiled, lines of wrinkles tightened her expression. Her fingers were scarred and sunburned. It was as though she had never stopped working in the cane fields after all.

"It is ready now," she said.

She strapped the seatbelt across her flat chest, pressing herself even further into the torn cushions. She leaned over and attached my seatbelt as the car finally drove off.

Night had just fallen. Lights glowed everywhere. A long string of cars sped along the highway, each like a single diamond on a very long bracelet.

"We will be in the city soon," she said.

I still had not said anything to her.

"How is your Tante Atie?" she asked. "Does she still go to night school?"

"Night school?"

"She told me once in a cassette that she was going to start night school. Did she ever start it?"

"Non."

"The old girl lost her nerve. She lost her fight. You should have seen us when we were young. We always dreamt of becoming important women. We were going to be the first women doctors from my mother's village. We would not stop at being doctors either. We were going to be engineers too. Imagine our surprise when we found out we had limits."

All the street lights were suddenly gone. The streets we drove down now were dim and hazy. The windows were draped with bars; black trash bags blew out into the night air.

There were young men standing on street corners, throwing empty cans at passing cars. My mother swerved the car to avoid a bottle that almost came crashing through the windshield.

"How is Lotus?" she asked. "Donald's wife, Madame Augustin."

"She is fine," I said.

"Atie has sent me cassettes about that. You know Lotus was not meant to marry Donald. Your aunt Atie was supposed to. But the heart is fickle, what can you say? When Lotus came along, he did not want my sister anymore."

There was writing all over the building. As we walked towards it, my mother nearly tripped over a man sleeping under a blanket of newspapers.

"Your schooling is the only thing that will make people respect you," my mother said as she put a key in the front door.

The thick dirty glass was covered with names written in graffiti bubbles.

"You are going to work hard here," she said, "and no one is going to break your heart because you cannot read or write. You have a chance to become the kind of woman Atie and I have always wanted to be. If you make something of yourself in life, we will all succeed. You can raise our heads."

A smell of old musty walls met us at the entrance to her apartment. She closed the door behind her and dragged the suitcase inside.

"You wait for me here," she said, once we got inside. I stood on the other side of a heavy door in the dark hall, waiting for her.

She disappeared behind a bedroom door. I wandered in and slid my fingers across the table and chairs neatly lined up in the kitchen. The tablecloth was shielded with a red plastic cover, the same blush red as the sofa in the living room.

There were books scattered all over the counter. I flipped through the pages quickly. The books had pictures of sick old people in them and women dressed in white helping them.

I was startled to hear my name when she called it.

"Sophie, where are you?"

I ran back to the spot where she had left me. She was standing there with a tall well-dressed doll at her side. The doll was caramel-colored with a fine pointy noise.

"Come," she said. "We will show you to your room."

I followed her through a dark doorway. She turned on the light and laid the doll down on a small day-bed by the window.

I kept my eyes on the blue wallpaper and the water stains that crept from the ceiling down to the floor.

She kept staring at my face for a reaction.

"Don't you like it?" she asked.

"Yes. I like it. Thank you."

Sitting on the edge of the bed, she unbraided the doll's hair, taking out the ribbons and barrettes that matched the yellow dress. She put them on a night table near the bed. There was a picture of her and Tante Atie there. Tante Atie was holding a baby and my mother had her hand around Tante Atie's shoulder.

I moved closer to get a better look at the baby in Tante Atie's arms. I had never seen an infant picture of myself, but somehow I knew that it was me. Who else could it have been? I looked for traces in the child, a feature that was my mother's but still mine too. It was the first time in my life that I noticed that I looked like no one in my family. Not my mother. Not my Tante Atie. I did not look like them when I was a baby and I did not look like them now.

"If you don't like the room," my mother said, "we can always change it."

She glanced at the picture as she picked up a small brush and combed the doll's hair into a ponytail.

"I like the room fine," I stuttered.

She tied a rubber band around the doll's ponytail, then reached under the bed for a small trunk.

She unbuttoned the back of the doll's dress and changed her into a pajama set.

"You won't resent sharing your room, will you?" She stroked the doll's back. "She is like a friend to me. She kept me company while we were apart. It seems crazy, I know. A grown woman like me with a doll. I am giving her to you now. You take good care of her."

She motioned for me to walk over and sit on her lap. I was not sure that her thin legs would hold me without snapping. I walked over and sat on her lap anyway.

"You're not going to be alone," she said. "I'm never going to be farther than a few feet away. Do you understand that?"

She gently helped me down from her lap. Her knees seemed to be weakening under my weight.

"Do you want to eat something? We can sit and talk. Or do you want to go to bed?"

"Bed."

She reached over to unbutton the back of my dress.

"I can do that," I said.

"Do you want me to show you where I sleep, in case you need me during the night?"

We went back to the living room. She unfolded the sofa and turned it into a bed.

"This is where I'll be. You see, I'm not far away at all."

When we went back to the bedroom, I turned my back to her as I undressed. She took the dress from me, opened the closet door, and squeezed it in between some of her own.

The rumpled Mother's Day card was sticking out from my dress pocket.

"What is that?" she asked, pulling it out.

She unfolded the card and began to read it. I lay down on the bed and tried to slip under the yellow sheets. There was not enough room for both me and the doll on the bed. I picked her up and laid her down sideways. She still left little room for me.

My mother looked up from the card, walked over, and took the doll out of the bed. She put her down carefully in a corner.

"Was that for me?" she asked looking down at the card.

"Tante Atie said I should give it to you."

"Did you know how much I loved daffodils when I was a girl?"

"Tante Atie told me."

She ran her fingers along the cardboard, over the empty space where the daffodil had been.

"I haven't gone out and looked for daffodils since I've been here. For all I know, they might not even have them here."

She ran the card along her cheek, then pressed it against her chest.

"Are there still lots of daffodils?"

"Oui," I said. "There are a lot of them."

Her face beamed even more than when she first saw me at the airport. She bent down and kissed my forehead.

"Thank God for that," she said.

I couldn't fall asleep. At home, when I couldn't sleep, Tante Atie would stay up with me. The two of us would sit by the window and Tante Atie would tell me stories about our lives, about the way things had been in the family, even before I was born. One time I asked her how it was that I was born with a mother and no father. She told me the story of a little girl who was born out of the petals of roses, water from the stream, and a chunk of the sky. That little girl, she said was me.

As I lay in the dark, I heard my mother talking on the phone.

"Yes," she said in Creole. "She is very much here. In bone and flesh. I cannot believe it myself."

Later that night, I heard that same voice screaming as though someone was trying to kill her. I rushed over, but my mother was alone thrashing against the sheets. I shook her and finally woke her up. When she saw me, she quickly covered her face with her hands and turned away.

"Ou byen? Are you all right?" I asked her.

She shook her head yes.

"It is the night," she said. "Sometimes, I see horrible visions in my sleep."

"Do you have any tea you can boil?" I asked.

Tante Atie would have known all the right herbs.

"Don't worry, it will pass," she said, avoiding my eyes. "I will be fine. I always am. The nightmares, they come and go"

There were sirens and loud radios blaring outside the building.

I climbed on the bed and tried to soothe her. She grabbed my face and squeezed it between her palms.

"What is it? Are you scared too?" she asked. "Don't worry." She pulled me down into the bed with her. "You can sleep here tonight if you want. It's okay. I'm here."

. She pulled the sheet over both our bodies. Her voice began to fade as she drifted off to sleep.

I leaned back in the bed, listening to her snoring.

Soon, the morning light came creeping through the living room window. I kept staring at the ceiling as I listened to her heart beating along with the ticking clock.

"Sophie," she whispered. Her eyes were still closed. "Sophie, I will never let you go again."

Tears burst out of her eyes when she opened them.

"Sophie, I am glad you are with me. We can get along, you and me. I know we can."

She clung to my hand as she drifted back to sleep.

The sun stung my eyes as it came through the curtains. I slid my hand out of hers to go to the bathroom. The grey linoleum felt surprisingly warm under my feet. I looked at my red eyes in the mirror while splashing cold water over my face. New eyes seemed to be looking back at me. A new face all-together. Someone who had aged in one day, as though she had been through a time machine, rather than an airplane. Welcome to New York, this face seemed to be saying. Accept your new life. I greeted the challenge, like one greets a new day. As my mother's daughter and Tante Atie's child.

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