Read Breath, Eyes, Memory Online

Authors: Edwidge Danticat

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

Breath, Eyes, Memory (9 page)

Chapter 15

T
he lights on a distant hill glowed like a candle light vigil. We ate supper at the small table on the back porch, A New York skyline was emblazoned in sequins across Tante Atie's chest. I had hurriedly bought a matching pair of i LOVE NEW YORK sweatshirts for her and my grandmother, forgetting about the lifelong deuil, which kept my grandmother from wearing anything but black, to mourn my grandfather.

My grandmother chewed endlessly on the same piece of meat, as her eyes travelled back and forth between my face and Tante Atie's chest. I swallowed a mouthful of soursop juice, savoring the heavy screen of brown sugar lingering on my tongue.

"Does your mother still cook Haitian?" asked Tante Atie with a full mouth.

"I am not sure," I said.

My grandmother lowered her eyelids, sheltered her displeasure, and continued chewing.

"And you? Can you make some dishes?" Tante Atie asked.

"You will have to let me cook a meal," I said.

A small draft blew the cooking embers through the yard. My daughter eagerly clawed my neck as I slipped her bottle into her mouth.

"Do you go there again tonight?" my grandmother asked Tante Atie.

"The reading, it takes a lot of time," Tante Atie said.

"Why do you not go to the reading classes?"

"You want me to go the whole distance at night?"

"If you had your lessons elsewhere," said my grandmother, "they would be during the day. The way you go about free in the night, one would think you a devil."

"The night is already in my face, it is. Why should I be afraid of it?"

"I would like it better if you were learning elsewhere."

"I like where I am."

"Can you read only by moonlight?"

"Knowledge, you do not catch it in the air, old woman. I have to labor at it. Is that not right, Sophie?"

My grandmother did not give me a chance to answer.

"You can only labor in the night?"

"Reading, it is not like the gifts you have. I was not born with it."

"Most people are born with what they need," said my grandmother.

"I was born short of my share."

"You say that to your Makers when you see them in Guinea."

"Do not send me off to my Makers, old woman. Besides, my Makers should hear me from this place." My aunt raised her head to the star-filled sky. "Hear me! Great gods that made the moon and the stars. You see what you have done to me. You were stingy with the clay when you made this creature."

"Blasphemy!" spat my grandmother. "Why can't the girl come here and teach you your letters?"

Tante Atie got up from the table and walked to the yard. She poured some juice over the cooking ashes as she came back to collect our plates.

She took the plates to the yard, scrubbed them with a soap-soaked palm leaf, then laid them out to dry.

"Before you go into the night, why don't you read to us from your reading book?"

My grandmother shut both her eyes as she twirled a rooster feather in her ear.

Tante Atie walked into the house and came back with a composition notebook wrapped in brown paper. She raised the notebook so it covered her face and slowly began to read. At first she stuttered but soon her voice took on an even flow.

She read the very same words as those I'd written on the card that I had made for her so long ago, on Mother's Day.

My mother is a daffodil, limber and strong as one.

My mother is a daffodil, but in the wind, iron strong.

When she was done, she raised her head from behind the pages and snapped the notebook shut.

"I have never forgotten those words. I have written them down."

She got up and began walking away. "I am off into the night," she said. "The spirits of alone-ness, they call to me."

They put me in my mother's room. It had the same four-poster bed and the same mahogany wardrobe with giant hibiscus carved all over it. The mirror on the wardrobe had a wide reflection so that you could see what was happening out on the front and back porches. Even as far as the tcha tcha tree out towards the road.

The mattress sank as I sat on the bed, changing my daughter by the light of a tet gridap, a tin-can lamp, named after bald-headed girls.

My grandmother was sleeping in the next room. She mumbled in her sleep, like an old warrior in the midst of a battle. My mother used to make the same kinds of sounds. Lagé mwin. Leave me alone.

I lay on the mattress with my daughter on my belly. Her breath felt soothing and warm against my bare skin. All we were missing was Joseph.

When I was pregnant, Joseph would play his saxophone for us, alone in the dark. He would put the horn very close to my stomach and blow in a soft whisper. Brigitte would come alive inside me, tickling like a feather under my skin. Joseph would press his ear against my stomach to hear her every move. He was always afraid that her sudden rotations would hurt me inside. We would both get real quiet, to give her a chance to calm down. Sometimes if she had trouble going to sleep, he would stroke my belly and both she and I would doze off immediately.

I put on one of Joseph's old shirts to sleep in. Tracing my fingers across my daughter's spine, I asked her questions that she could not possibly answer, questions that even I didn't know the answers to.

"Are you going to remember all of this? Will you be mad at Mommy for severing you from your daddy? Are you going to inherit some of Mommy's problems?"

My daughter was shaking slightly beneath her night shirt. I felt a sudden urge to tell her a story. When I was a little girl, Tante Atie had always seen to it that I heard a story, especially when I could not sleep at night.

"Crick."

"Crack?"

"Honor?"

"Respect."

There was magic in the images that she had made out of the night. She would rock my body on her lap as she told me of fishermen and mermaids bravely falling in love. The mermaids would leave stars for the fishermen to pick out of the sand. For the most beloved fishermen, the mermaids would leave their combs, which would turn to gold when the fishermen kissed them.

Brigitte woke up with a loud wail. She moaned, reaching up to touch my face. I picked up a wet towel and rubbed it over her body.

After her feeding, I opened the window a crack. My grandmother would scold me if she knew I was letting the night air into the house.

Tante Atie was standing in the yard, waving to an invisible face. I walked away from the window and lay back down on the bed with my daughter.

My grandmother was pacing loudly in the next room as Tante Atie giggled loudly in the yard. It sounded like she had been drinking. Tante Atie walked up to the house, her feet pounding the cement.

"Is the lesson over?" asked my grandmother.

"Old woman, you will wake up Sophie," Tante Atie said.

"White hair is a crown of glory," said my grandmother.

"I don't have white hair," said Tante Atie.

"Only good deeds demand respect. Do you not want Sophie to respect you?"

"Sophie is not a child anymore, old woman. I do not have to be a saint for her."

Chapter 16

I
got up to watch the sun rise. I sat on the back steps, as clouds of smoke rose from charcoal pits all over the valley. A few small lizards darted through the dew-laden grass, their gizzards bloated like bubble gum. A group of women came trotting along the road, sitting side-saddle on overloaded mules.

I walked into a small wooden shack, split by a wall of tin into a latrine and a bathing room. In the bathing room was a metal basin filled with leaves and rainwater.

Even though so much time had passed since I'd given birth, I still felt extremely fat. I peeled off Joseph's shirt and scrubbed my flesh with the leaves in the water. The stems left tiny marks on my skin, which reminded me of the giant goose bumps my mother's testing used to leave on my flesh.

I raised a handful of leaves to my nose. They were a potpourri of flesh healers: catnip, senna, sarsaparillas, corrosol, the petals of blood red hibiscus, forget-me-nots, and daffodils.

After the bath, I wrapped a towel around me and ran back inside the house. My grandmother was sitting on the edge of her canopy bed. Her mattress had open seams where she stuffed her most precious belongings.

"Sophie, sé ou?"

"It's me." I said, standing in the doorway.

Her room was crowded with old baskets, dusty crates, and rusting steel drums. On an old dresser was a statue of Erzulie, our goddess of love who doubled for us as the Virgin Mother. Her face was the color of corn, and wrapped around her long black hair was a tiny blue handkerchief.

I went to Tante Atie's room to get Brigitte. Tante Atie was bouncing up and down on her four-poster bed with Brigitte between her legs. Her room had no windows. Instead, she had large quilts with bird and fish patterns, over the louvers on her wall.

I took Brigitte back to my room for a sponge bath. She giggled as I sprinkled scented talc between her legs. Her body was a bit warmer than usual. I looked for the infant thermometer that I had brought with me. I found it, broken in its case, the mercury scattered in the container.

There was splash in the bath house outside the window. My grandmother was naked in the bath shack, with the rickety door wide open. She raised a handful of leaves towards the four corners of the sky, then rapped the stems under her armpits. She swayed her body several times, shaking the leaves loose from her buttocks.

My grandmother had a curved spine and a pineapple-sized hump, which did not show through her clothes. Some years earlier, my mother had grown egg-sized mounds in both her breasts, then had them taken out of her.

Chapter 17

W
e ate cassava sandwiches for breakfast. I dunked mine in a ceramic cup, steaming with dense black coffee. The cassava melted in the coffee, making one thick brew.

When I was younger, Tante Atie would always pass me more cassava once I had completely drowned my own.

Both Tante Atie and my grandmother ate their cassava properly. They chipped off the fragile ends with their teeth and then ventured a sip of the scalding coffee.

I kept my daughter on my lap as I dunked a spoon in the cup, trying to rescue the cassava. My grandmother glanced over at Tante Atie, then quickly looked away.

Tante Atie kept her head down as she ate. In the distance, a bell tolled from the cathedral in the town, the bell that early in the morning signaled indigents' funerals.

. . .

I abandoned the cassava and ran a small brush through Brigitte's hair, placing a small white barrette at the tip of a pigtail in the middle of her head.

My grandmother threw her head back and swallowed her coffee in one gulp. She reached into her blouse, pulled out a cracked clay pipe, and slipped the mouthpiece between her lips.

"I'm going to do the maché," announced my grandmother. She unhooked her satchel from the back of her chair as she got up from the table. One of her legs dragged slighdy behind the other. The inside of her lagging foot was so callused that it had the same texture as the red dust in the yard.

"Can I come too?" I asked my grandmother.

"Surely," she said. "You just follow my shadow."

Brigitte let out a loud cry as I handed her to Tante Atie.

"Mommy will bring you a nice treat from the market," I said, hearing Tante Atie's voice echo from my childhood.

Brigitte shrieked loudly, her face tied up in tear-soaked knots.

"Hurry, go," urged Tarite Atie.

I rushed down the road to catch up with my grandmother.

In the cane fields, the men were singing songs, once bellowed at the old konbits.

"Bonjou, Grandmè Ifé," they chanted.

"Bonjou, good men," replied my grandmother.

"This here is my granddaughter, Uncle Bazie," my grandmother said to an old man sitting on the side of the road.

He was slashing a machete across a thin piece of sugar cane. He took off his hat and bowed in my direction.

"Whereabouts she from?" asked the old man.

"Here," answered my grandmother. "She's from right here."

My grandmother shopped like an army general on rounds.

"Man Legros. Time is God's to waste, not ours. I want a few cinnamon barks, some ginger roots, and sweet potatoes to boil in my milk. Make the potatoes sweet enough so I won't need to put sugar in the milk."

"Only the Grand Master, He can do that," answered Man Legros, as she tugged at an old apron around her waist.

"I want me a mamit of red beans too," said my grandmother. "The beans don't need sweetness."

She watched closely as Man Legros dug a tin cup into a hill of beans, spread out on a piece of cardboard on the ground.

"Give those beans some time to settle in the cup," said my grandmother. "Let them rest in the cup. Between you, between me. We know half of them is pebbles."

"No pebbles here," said Man Legros. She had a blackened silver tooth on either side of her mouth.

My grandmother reached inside her blouse and pulled out a small bundle. She unwrapped a cord around the little pouch, fished out a handful of crumpled gourdes and paid Man Legros.

Louise was sitting at her stand, selling colas to a few Macoutes dressed in bright denim uniforms and dark sunglasses. They were the same ones who had gotten in the van yesterday. Louise was chatting and laughing along with them, as though they were all old friends.

One of them was staring at me. He was younger than the others, maybe even a teenager. He stood on the tip of his boots and shoved an old man aside to get a better look. I walked faster. He grabbed his crotch with one hand, blew me a kiss, then turned back to the others.

The kite boy was tugging at the young Macoute's starched denim pants, begging for a penny. The Macoute reached inside his pocket and handed the child a coin. The boy dashed across the road to buy a piece of sugar cane and mint candy.

My grandmother grabbed my hand and pulled me away. We walked up to a line of cloth and hat vendors with samples draped across their chests, and hats piled on their heads.

"I have this at home," said my grandmother, rubbing the edge of a white fabric against her face. "It will be for my burial."

"Have you come to buy my pig?" Louise asked. She followed us as we toured the fruit stands. My grandmother refused the mango chunks that the vendors handed to her, preferring instead to squeeze and pump the custard apples she wanted to buy.

"You well, Grandme Ife?" Louise asked, jumping in front of my grandmother.

"Oui, I got up this morning. I am well."

"And you Sophie, you well?"

"Very well," I answered. "Thank you."

"Will you buy the pig?"

"Don't you have things to look after?" snapped my grandmother.

The boy with the kite was sitting in Louise's stand for her. Louise kept following us, ignoring my grandmother's coldness.

"My foot, you see, you stepped on it!" The baby-faced Macoute was shouting at a coal vendor.

He rammed the back of his machine gun into the coal vendor's ribs.

"I already know the end," said my grandmother. She grabbed my hand and pulled me away. She wobbled quickly, her sandals hissing as the lazy foot swept across the ground.

Louise rushed back to her stand. My grandmother and I hurried to the flamboyant and started on the road home.

I turned back for one last look. The coal vendor was curled in a fetal position on the ground. He was spitting blood. The other Macoutes joined in, pounding their boots on the coal seller's head. Every one watched in shocked silence, but no one said anything.

My grandmother came back for me. She grabbed my hand so hard my fingers hurt.

"You want to live your nightmares too?" she hollered.

We walked in silence until we could hear the konbit song from the cane fields. The men were singing about a platon-nade, a loose woman who made love to the men she met by a stream and then drowned them in the water.

My grandmother spat in the dirt as we walked by Louise's shack.

"Are you mad at Louise?" I asked.

"People have died for saying the wrong things," answered my grandmother.

"You don't like Louise?"

"I don't like the way your Tante Atie has been since she came back from Croix-des-Rosets. Ever since she has come back, she and I, we are like milk and lemon, oil and water. She grieves; she drinks tafia. I would not be surprised if she started wearing black for her father again."

"Maybe she misses Croix-des-Rosets."

"Better she go back, then. You bring a mule to water, but you cannot force it to drink the water. Why did she come back? If she had married there, would she not have stayed?"

"If she had married there, then you would be living with her and her husband."

"Those are the old ways," she said. "These days, they go so far, the children. People like me, we look after ourselves."

"Tante Atie wants to look after you."

"I looked after myself all the years she was in Croix-des-Rosets. I look after myself now. Next when we hear from your mother, I will ask her to send for Atie, so Atie can go and see New York, see the grandness like you have."

"Don't you want to go?"

"I have one foot in this world and one foot in the grave. Non, I do not want to go. But Atie, she should go. She cannot stay out of duty. The things one does, one should do out of love."

"Do you tell her that you do not want her to stay?"

"I would tell her if she ever engaged me in talk. Your Tante Atie she has changed a lot since she was with you. The reading, it is only one thing."

"I think it is very good that she has learned to read," I said. "It is her own freedom."

"There is a story that is told all the time in the valley. An old woman has three children. One dies in her body when she is pregnant. One goes to a faraway land to make her fortune and never does that one get to come back alive. The last one, she stays in the valley and looks after her mother."

Tante Atie was the last.

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