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Authors: Edwidge Danticat

Claire of the Sea Light

BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
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THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF

Copyright © 2013 by Edwidge Danticat

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto
.
www.aaknopf.com

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc
.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Yale University for permission to reprint an excerpt from “Tell Me” by Jean Toomer from the Toomer Papers: Jean Toomer Papers, James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Reprinted by permission of the Yale Collection of American Literature at Yale University
.

Portions of this work were previously published, in different form, in the following publications:
The New Yorker
(January 10, 2005, and November 24, 2008);
Secret Desires,
edited by Carol Taylor (New York: Washington Square Press, 2005);
The Book of Other People,
edited by Zadie Smith (London: Penguin Group, 2008);
The Best African American Fiction 2010,
edited by Gerald Early and Nikki Giovanni (New York: Ballantine, 2010); and
Haiti Noir,
edited by Edwidge Danticat (New York: Akashic Books, 2012)
.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Danticat, Edwidge
.
Claire of the sea light / Edwidge Danticat.—First edition
pages    cm
eISBN: 978-0-385-34968-0
1. Girls—Crimes against—Fiction. 2. Missing children—Fiction. 3. City and town life—Haiti—Fiction. 4. Secrets—Fiction. 5. Haiti—Fiction. I. Title
.
PS
3554.
A
5815
C
57  2013
813’.54—dc23        2012043876

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental
.

Front-of-jacket photograph by Carl Juste
Jacket design by Carol Devine Carson

v3.1_r1

For my mother, Rose,
and my daughters, Mira and Leila

         
Tell me, dear beauty of the dusk
,

         
When purple ribbons bind the hill
,

         
Do dreams your secret wish fulfill
,

         
Do prayers, like kernels from the husk

         
Come from your lips? Tell me if when

         
The mountains loom at night, giant shades

         
Of softer shadow, swift like blades

         
Of grass seeds come to flower. Then

         
Tell me if the night winds bend

         
Them towards me …

         
JEAN TOOMER
, “Tell Me”

Contents
Part One
Claire of the Sea Light

The morning Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin turned seven, a freak wave, measuring between ten and twelve feet high, was seen in the ocean outside of Ville Rose. Claire’s father, Nozias, a fisherman, was one of many who saw it in the distance as he walked toward his sloop. He first heard a low rumbling, like that of distant thunder, then saw a wall of water rise from the depths of the ocean, a giant blue-green tongue, trying, it seemed, to lick a pink sky.

Just as quickly as it had swelled, the wave cracked. Its barrel collapsed, pummeling a cutter called
Fifine
, sinking it and Caleb, the sole fisherman onboard.

Nozias ran to the edge of the water, wading in to where the tide reached his knees. Lost now was a good friend, whom Nozias had greeted for years as they walked past each other, before dawn, on their way out to sea.

A dozen or so other fishermen were already standing next to Nozias. He looked down the beach at Caleb’s shack, where Caleb’s wife, Fifine—Josephine—had probably returned to bed after seeing him off. Nozias knew from his experience,
and could sense it in his bones, that both Caleb and the boat were gone. They might wash up in a day or two, or more likely they never would.

It was a sweltering Saturday morning in the first week of May. Nozias had slept in longer than usual, contemplating the impossible decision he’d always known that he would one day have to make: to whom, finally, to give his daughter.

“Woke up earlier and I would have been there,” he ran back home and tearfully told his little girl.

Claire was still lying on a cot in their single-room shack. The back of her thin nightdress was soaked with sweat. She wrapped her long, molasses-colored arms around Nozias’s neck, just as she had when she was even littler, pressing her nose against his cheek. Some years before, Nozias had told her what had happened on her first day on earth, that giving birth to her, her mother had died. So her birthday was also a day of death, and the freak wave and the dead fisherman proved that it had never ceased to be.

The day Claire Limyè Lanmè turned six was also the day Ville Rose’s undertaker, Albert Vincent, was inaugurated as the new mayor. He kept both positions, leading to all kinds of jokes about the town eventually becoming a cemetery so he could get more clients. Albert was a man of unmatched elegance, even though he had shaky hands. He wore a beige two-piece suit every day, just as he did on the day of his
inauguration. His eyes, people said, had not always been the lavender color that they were now. Their clouding, sad but gorgeous, was owing to the sun and early-onset cataracts. On the day of his swearing-in, Albert, shaking hands and all, recited from memory a speech about the town’s history. He did this from the top step of the town hall, a white nineteenth-century gingerbread that overlooked a flamboyant-filled piazza, where hundreds of residents stood elbow to elbow in the afternoon sun.

Ville Rose was home to about eleven thousand people, five percent of them wealthy or comfortable. The rest were poor, some dirt-poor. Many were out of work, but some were farmers or fishermen (some both) or seasonal sugarcane workers. Twenty miles south of the capital and crammed between a stretch of the most unpredictable waters of the Caribbean Sea and an eroded Haitian mountain range, the town had a flower-shaped perimeter that, from the mountains, looked like the unfurling petals of a massive tropical rose, so the major road connecting the town to the sea became the stem and was called Avenue Pied Rose or Stem Rose Avenue, with its many alleys and capillaries being called épines, or thorns.

Albert Vincent’s victory rally was held at the town’s center—the ovule of the rose—across from Sainte Rose de Lima Cathedral, which had been repainted a deeper lilac for the inauguration. Albert offered his inaugural address while covering his hands with a black fedora that few had ever seen on his head. On the edge of the crowd, perched on Nozias’s
shoulder, Claire Limyè Lanmè was wearing her pink muslin birthday dress, her plaited hair covered with tiny bow-shaped barrettes. At some point, Claire noticed that she and her father were standing next to a plump woman with a cherubic face framed with a long, straight hairpiece. The woman was wearing black pants and a black blouse and had a white hibiscus pinned behind her ear. She owned Ville Rose’s only fabric shop.

“Thank you for putting your trust in me,” Albert Vincent now boomed into the crowd. The speech was at last winding down nearly a half hour after he’d begun speaking.

Nozias cupped his hands over his mouth as he whispered something in the fabric vendor’s ear. It was obvious to Claire that her father had not really come to hear the mayor, but to see the fabric vendor.

Later that same evening, the fabric vendor appeared at the shack near the end of Pied Rose Avenue. Claire was expecting to be sent to a neighbor while the fabric vendor stayed alone with her father, but Nozias had insisted that Claire pat her hair down with an old bristle brush and that she straighten out the creases on the ruffled dress that she’d kept on all day despite the heat and sun.

Standing between Nozias’s and Claire’s cots in the middle of the shack, the fabric vendor asked Claire to twirl by the light of the kerosene lamp, which was in its usual place on the small table where Claire and Nozias sometimes ate their meals. The walls of the shack were covered with flaking, yellowed
copies of
La Rosette
, the town’s newspaper, which had been glued to the wood long ago with manioc paste by Claire’s mother. From where she was standing, Claire could see her own stretched-out shadow moving along with the others over the fading words. While twirling for the lady, Claire heard her father say, “I am for correcting children, but I am not for whipping.” He looked down at Claire and paused. His voice cracked, and he jabbed his thumb into the middle of his palm as he continued. “I am for keeping her clean, as you can see. She should of course continue with her schooling, be brought as soon as possible to a doctor when she is sick.” Still jabbing at his palm, after having now switched palms, he added, “In turn, she would help with some cleaning both at home and at the shop.” Only then did Claire realize who this “her” was that they were talking about, and that her father was trying to give her away.

Her legs suddenly felt like lead, and she stopped twirling, and as soon as she stopped, the fabric vendor turned to her father, her fake hair blocking half of her face. Nozias’s eyes dropped from the fabric vendor’s fancy hairpiece to her pricey open-toed sandals and red toenails.

“Not tonight,” the fabric vendor said, as she headed for the narrow doorway.

Nozias seemed stunned, drawing a long breath and letting it out slowly before following the fabric vendor to the door. They thought they were whispering, but Claire could hear them clearly from across the room.

“I’m going away,” Nozias said. “Pou chèche lavi, to look for a better life.”

“Ohmm.” The fabric vendor groaned a warning, like an impossible word, a word she had no idea how to say. “Why would you want your child to be my servant, a restavèk?”

“I know she would never be that with you,” Nozias said. “But this is what would happen anyway, with less kind people than you if I die. I don’t have any more family here in town.”

BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
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