Authors: Edwidge Danticat
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Family Life, #Cultural Heritage, #General
reat gods in Guinea, you are beautiful," the driver said as he stopped under a breadfruit tree in the middle of the sheds, stands, and clusters of women in the open marketplace.
I lowered my head and pretended not to hear, but he persisted.
"I would crawl inside your dress and live there. I can feed on your beauty like a leech feeds on blood. I would live and die for you. More than the sky loves its stars. More than the night loves its moon. More than the sea loves its mermaids. Strike me, thunder, it's no lie. We do not know one another, I know. Still I must tell you. You can be the core of my existence. The 'I' of my 'We.' The first and last letter of my name, which is 'Yours,' your humble servant and transporter."
It was a stifling August day. The sun, which was once god to my ancestors, slapped my face as though I had done something wrong. The fragrance of crushed mint leaves and stagnant pee alternated in the breeze. Body-raking soka blared from the car radio as passengers hopped off the colorful van in which I had spent the last four hours.
The sides of the van were painted in steaming reds, from cherry scarlet to crimson blood. Giraffes and lions were sketched over a terra cotta landscape, as though seeking a tint of green.
I wouldn't have gotten the coveted seat next to the driver had it not been for what he termed my "young charcoal-cloaked beauty." Otherwise, I would have been forced to sit with the market women, their children, livestock, wicker baskets, and the flour sacks that shielded their backs from the sugar cane stalks.
DIEU SI BON proclaimed the letters on the van's front plate. God is good indeed. Otherwise, my daughter, Brigitte, and I would have never made it this far.
"A wonderful trip, pa vrè?" asked the driver, as he unloaded my suitcase.
"At least we arrived," I said.
"It is not my fault, lovely star, if we rocked a little. There are dunes and ridges on the road that I did not put there."
"I am not blaming you for those. On the contrary, I am very grateful we've arrived safely."
"All my trips have not been safe. You must be an angel. You bring good blessings. I have been in a ravine or two in the past."
"And your passengers?"
"I would hope they are in heaven."
He peeled a white T-shirt off his chest. Sweat rolled in dancing ripples from his neck to his belly. His skin was a bright chestnut, like mine and Brigitte's.
"You hot too?" he asked.
"It's dangerous for a woman to undress in public," I said.
"Still, I would love to see if you look like a goddess naked. Is there any way you can be persuaded?"
"Mwin, I am a married woman."
"I see that," he said, pointing first to my wedding ring and then to my daughter. "She is as perfect as you are, the child."
"Ou byen janti." You are very kind.
"I find your Creole flawless," he said.
"This is not my first trip to La Nouvelle Dame Marie. I was born here."
"I still commend you, my dear. People who have been away from Haiti fewer years than you, they return and pretend they speak no Creole."
"Perhaps they can't."
"Is it so easy to forget?"
"Some people need to forget."
"Obviously, you do not need to forget," he said.
"I need to remember."
An old hunchbacked lady walked over to pay her fare. He straightened out the dirty gourdes and counted them quickly.
She walked to the back of the van and pointed out her load of sorghum to a sweaty teenage boy. The boy had a bouret, a handcart made out of two tires and a slab of plywood. He had a group of helpers, younger lads with dust-crusted feet. A young boy followed them with a kite. He ran ahead, tugging the kite string, trying to force it to fly above his head. The old woman nearly tripped over the kite as it crashed to the ground.
Brigitte stirred in my arms. She opened her eyes, fluttered her long eyelashes, and then closed them again. A mild breeze rustled the guava trees that now lined the unpaved road. The breeze swept the soil from the hills down to the valley, back to my grandmother's home.
Brigitte opened her mouth widely, stretching her lips to their limits as she yawned.
"I think Mademoiselle needs to eat again," the driver said.
He was looking across the road, at a woman sitting in a stand that was the size of a refrigerator. She was plump and beautiful with a bright russet complexion. She had a sky blue scarf wrapped around her head and two looped earrings bouncing off her cheeks.
It was Louise, Man Grace's daughter. At the window in front of her was a row of cola bottles.
"While you wait for your people, would you like something to drink?" asked the driver.
"I could drink an ocean," I said.
"If Mademoiselle over there is selling an ocean, I will surely buy it for you."
The female street vendors called to one another as they came down the road. When one merchant dropped her heavy basket, another called out of concern, "Ou libéré?" Are you free from your heavy load?
The woman with the load would answer yes, if she had unloaded her freight without hurting herself.
. . .
I sat in the shade of a crimson flamboyant tree, at the turn of the forked road. Brigitte quickly tightened her lips around the bottle of milk that I gave her. She sucked the warm liquid as though she hadn't been fed for days.
A few Tonton Macoutes climbed into the van and settled in the empty seats to eat their lunch. The steaming banana leaves and calabash bowls were in sharp contrast to their denim militia uniforms. They laughed loudly as they threw pieces of grilled meat and small biscuits at each other.
"I have a pig to sell you," whispered a voice behind me.
I was startled. My body plunged forward. I tightened my grip on Brigitte and nearly pushed the bottle down her throat. Brigitte began to cry, spitting the milk out of her mouth.
"Do you have all your senses?" I shouted at the woman.
Her face was hidden behind the flamboyant's drooping branches.
I raised Brigitte over my shoulder and tapped her back to burp her.
"Pardon. Pardon," Louise said, walking out from behind the tree. "I did not mean to scare you."
The driver was sitting at the stand, in her place, collecting coins and popping the caps off before handing foaming bottles to her customers.
I rocked Brigitte until she quieted down.
"I have a pig," Louise said, sitting on the rusty grass patch next to me.
The tree bark scraped my back as I tried to slide upright.
"Will you look at my pig?" she insisted. "I look at you, I see one who loves all God's creatures."
"I have no use for a pig," I said.
"It's a piyay, a steal, for five hundred gourdes."
"I don't need one." I said, shaking my head. "Please, have you seen my Tante Atie?"
"I know you. I do," she said.
"You know Atie too."
"For sure, I know Atie. We are like milk and coffee, lips and tongue. We are two fingers on the same hand. Two eyes on the same head."
"Do you know where she is? She was supposed to meet me here. I sent her a cassette from America."
"How is there?" Her eyes were glowing. "Is it like they say? Large? Grand? Are there really pennies on the streets and lots of maids' jobs? Mwin rélé Louise."
"I know who you are."
"My mother was Man Grace."
"I know," I said.
"Gone, my mother is dead now," she said. "She is in Guinea ahead of me. Now I know you too. You are Sophie. Atie can never make herself stop talking about you. I am teaching Atie her letters now and all she can write in her book is your name."
"I hope she will recognize me when she sees me."
"Folks like Atie know their people the moment they lay eyes on them."
"I have changed a lot since the baby. I bet she has changed too."
"Atie? That old maid, change?"
"You are friends, you say?"
"We are both alone in the world, since my mother died."
"What could be keeping Tante Atie," I wondered out loud.
"The wind will bring her soon. It will. Can I ask you a question?"
"What is it?"
"What do you do in America, Sophie? What is your profession?"
"I am dactylo," I said.
"You make money?"
"I haven't worked since I had the baby."
"Had enough for this journey, non?"
"I didn't plan on this journey."
I laid Brigitte on my lap. Her cheeks swayed back and forth like flesh balloons.
"I want to go to America," Louise said. "I am taking a boat."
"It is very dangerous by boat."
"I have heard everything. It has been a long time since our people walked to Africa, they say. The sea, it has no doors. They say the sharks from here to there, they can eat only Haitian flesh. That is all they know how to eat."
"Why would you want to make the trip if you've heard all that?"
"Spilled water is better than a broken jar. All I need is five hundred gourdes."
"I know the other side. Thousands of people wash up on the shores. They put it on television, in newspapers."
"People here too. We pray for them and bury them. Stop. Let us stop talking, so sad. It is bad luck in front of a baby. How old is your baby?"
She reached over and tickled Brigitte's forehead.
"The birthing? What it feel like?"
"Like passing watermelons."
"Wou." She cringed. "You look very meg, bony. Not like women here who eat to fill a hole after their babies come out. When you were pregnant, you didn't eat corn so the baby could be yellow?"
"I never thought of that."
"You should have eaten honey so her hair would be soft."
"I will remember that."
"The next time, maybe?"
"Your daughter? What is her name?"
"Brigitte Ife Woods."
"Woods? It is not a Haitian name."
"No, non. Her father, he is American."
She called the boy with the kite over and squeezed a penny between his muddy fingers. With a few whispers in the child's ear, she sent him dashing down the road.
She rushed across to her stand and came back with a bottle of papaya cola.
My whole body felt cooler as the liquid slipped down my throat.
"I know you will pay me later," she said.
Tante Atie was standing at the crossroads, with a very wide grin on her pudgy face. She had not changed at all. She walked with her hands supporting her back, as if it hurt her. A panama hat tightly covered her head. On her shoulder was a palmetto sewing basket, flapping against her wide buttocks.
"She must have been on the way," Louise said.
"Mim mwoin!" I shouted to Tante Atie. I'm over here!
Tante Atie raced towards us. She had to look at me closely to see the girl she had put on the plane. It seemed so very long ago. The years had changed me.
"You are already chewing off my niece's ear," she said, tapping Louise's behind. "Always trying to give away your soul."
Louise sprang back to her stand.
"I would throw myself around you," my aunt said. "I would, just like a blanket, but I don't want to flatten the baby."
I handed Brigitte to her, as I raised myself from the ground.
"Who would have imagined it?" she said. "The precious one has your manman's black face. She looks more like Martine's child than yours."
eaves were still piling up on the creeks along the road.
A tall girl passed us with a calabash balancing on her head.
I carried a small suitcase, mostly filled with Brigitte's things. Brigitte napped as Tante Atie carried her in her arms.
The women we met on the road called Tante Atie Madame, even though she had never married.
"I cannot see this child coming out of you," Tante Atie said, rocking Brigitte in her arms.
"Sometimes, I cannot see it myself."
"Makes me think back to when you were this small and I had you in my arms. Feels the same too. Like I am holding something very valuable. Do you sometimes think she is going to break in your hands?"
"She is a true Caco woman; she is very strong."
A woman was sitting by the road stringing factory sequins together, while her daughter braided her hair.
"Louise tells me you've learned your letters," I said to Tante Atie.
"She must think I want that shouted from the hills."
"I was very happy to hear it."
"I alway felt, I did, that I knew words in my head. I did not know them on paper. Now once every so often, I put some nice words down. Louise, she calls them poems."
An old lady was trying to kill a rooster in the yard behind her house. The rooster escaped her grasp and ran around headless until it collapsed in the middle of the road. We walked around the bloody trail as the lady picked up the dead animal.
"Have you brought your daughter to Martine?" Tante Atie asked.
"She never answers my letters. When I called her, she slammed the phone down on me. She has not seen my daughter. We have not spoken since I left home."
"That's very sad for both of you. Very sad since you and Martine don't have anybody else over there. And Martine's head is not in the best condition."
A man hammered nails into a coffin in front of his roadside hut.
"Honneur, Monsié Frank," Tante Atie called out to the coffin builder.
"Respect." He flashed back a friendly smile.
"We have always heard that it is grand there," said Tante Atie. "Is it really as grand as they say, New York?"
"It's a place where you can lose yourself easily."
"Grand or not grand, I am losing myself here too."
We passed Man Grace's farm, with the bamboo fence around it. The house was worn out and wind-whipped. There were large wooden boards on the windows.
"When did Man Grace die?" I asked Tante Atie.
"Almost the day I came back to live here," she said.
"What was wrong with her?"
"She went to bed and just stopped breathing. It must have been her time. It was very hard on Louise when her monman died. Louise and Grace, they had slept in the same bed all her life. Louise was in the bed when Grace went to Guinea. To this day, it tears her open to sleep alone."
My grandmother's house still looked the same. I dropped my suitcase on the porch and followed Tante Atie out to the back.
Grandmè Ifé was sprinkling water in the dust, before doing her sweeping.
"Old woman, I brought your children," Tante Atie said.
"Age and wedlock tames the beast," said my grandmother. "Am I looking at Sophie?"
I moved closer, pressing her fingers against my cheeks.
"Did you even have breasts the last time I saw you?" asked my grandmother.
"It has not been that long," Tante Atie said.
My grandmother's eyes were filled with tears. She buried her face in my chest and wrapped her arms around my waist.
"I called my daughter Brigitte Ife," I said. "The Ife is after you."
She stretched her neck to get a closer look.
"Do you see my granddaughter?" she asked, tracing her thumb across Brigitte's chin. "The tree has not split one mite. Isn't it a miracle that we can visit with all our kin, simply by looking into this face?"