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Authors: Edwidge Danticat

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BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
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When she went back to the room, she saw that he’d left his flashlight behind. It was still on. She aimed the light at her drenched face, in her confusion thinking somehow that it might have the same effect as a mirror, allowing her to see her eyes. She left the flashlight on and laid it on the floor outside her door in case he should return for it. There was no point in locking the door—she knew that now.

The rain kept on falling with a persistence that made
it seem it would last forever. Slipping back under her blanket, she felt the torment of the fabric scraping her skin. She could still feel the danger brewing both inside and outside the house, the scorched smell of lightning cracking open the surrounding palms and the echoes of swelling waves meeting the seashore. She imagined water pouring underneath the door, after rising over the flashlight, quenching its light, and carrying it away. It would be warm water, filled with leaves. She imagined seeing, as she had in other floods, fire-red ants floating in fist-size balls on the water’s surface. The house would then dislodge from the earth, and she would open the door and peek outside and the water would be like a black sheet all around her and she would not see land for miles.

She felt a stabbing pain in places where he had pummeled his body against hers. She had used all her weight to try to push him off of her, but could not. She had tried to slap his hands off of her, as though they were cloying animals, leeches or a jellyfish. He still had not spoken, was not making any sounds. He had been swimming earlier that evening and still smelled like the sea.

The house had rocked as his entire body covered hers, but the house had shaken before, during other storms. What was new was the water coming up so fast, with fire ants, which meant that it was coming down from deep inside the mountains and the hills, and not the sea. She smelled rum on his breath. She gasped for her own breath.

The next morning the sun seemed to rise even earlier than usual, as if in defiance of all that had taken place the night
before. Flore looked through a crack in the door and saw him and his father emerge from the orchid nursery by the gazebo in the middle of the garden. A hummingbird flew over the pummeled rosebushes, and Max Junior raised his fingers, as if to grab the minute wings. Both men looked solemn and stone-faced, their eyes focused on the hail-crushed flowers, as they inspected the storm damage.

While they were in the garden, Flore walked out of the house and took a taxi to Cité Pendue. The traffic, detoured from flooded areas, crawled, her bones throbbing with every lurch and sway of the car.

When she got to her mother’s house, her mother was not there.

She opened the door and waited inside. She was feeling too dirty to sit on her mother’s plastic-covered chairs. Instead she sat on the cool cement floor.

Her mother was a short but robust woman. When she finally walked in, she was carrying on top of her head a large wicker basket filled with aluminum bowls and cups that she used to sell breakfast foods at the market. As she approached Flore, her mother’s lips were rounded as though she were whistling.

When her mother got close enough, Flore helped her mother lower the basket from her head and place it on the floor. Before Flore could say anything, her mother made her stoop down again and, looking at Flore’s tear-swollen face, she traced her fingers over Flore’s cheek.

“If you’re home for good,” her mother said, “I don’t know how we’ll get by.”

Flore pulled herself up, reached into her dress pocket, and handed her mother the month’s salary that she’d hoped to use for her escape. Then she returned to the Ardins that afternoon, in time to cook their supper.

“You mean to tell me you went back there, back to the Ardins?” Louise finally interrupted Flore now as they taped her show.

Louise was dressed that morning in one of her signature A-line mauve dresses, her hair pulled back tightly, her chin pointed, her eyes narrowed, focused. She was determined to extract the entire story from Flore, along with every detail that she considered necessary. “Di mwen,” she said. “Tell me, tell everyone why you went back to the Ardins that afternoon. But first, a commercial break.”

There were no commercials played during the actual taping. They waited just a few minutes as Louise took a sip of water from one of the two glasses in front of them, then said to Flore, “Relax—you’re doing well.”

Flore raised her eyes from her intertwined fingers and looked around the studio, a square room not unlike the one she had slept in at Max Senior’s. On the triangular table were two microphones and the water glasses, Louise’s now only half full. Louise had bypassed the headphones, offering the ones she usually used to Flore’s son.

Pamaxime was sitting underneath the table at his mother’s
feet, taking turns doodling with a pencil and pad Louise had given him and quietly playing a game on Flore’s cell phone. Flore’s eyes traveled between her son’s headphone-covered ears and the man sitting at the large control board on the other side of the glass, but she made every effort to avoid looking at Louise George, the fierce but tiny hostess of the program.

Flore now picked up the glass of water that was meant for her and took a sip from it. She had called the station and asked for Louise George as soon as she’d learned from Max Senior that his son was coming home and that he wanted to meet the boy.

This was the premise of these personal interviews, Louise had explained to her—you are talking about one moment that changed your life. A moment that made everything that had come before it seem meaningless. A moment that had transformed you inside and out. That night in the maid’s room with Max Junior on top of her had been that moment for Flore. Beyond that, Louise had explained, you had to name names, and in this particular case the names had to be repeated as often as possible. Those whose names were mentioned on the program, those who were accused, could always come on her show the following week to defend themselves.

Flore initially had no trouble with the naming, but she was now finding it difficult to go on with the rest of her story. Even though Louise had allowed her to record the show early in the morning—to be aired later that evening and a few more times during the following week—Flore could not forget that
her son was right there, sitting at both their feet, under the table, and although he was wearing headphones, Pamaxime might still be able to hear.

“These commercial breaks take up a big chunk of the hour,” Louise said as she prepared to start again. “And they are long. But what can you do?”

The man at the control board on the other side of the glass signaled to them to continue.

“Go on, tell me.” Louise moved even closer now, their cheeks almost touching. “Tell me what happened next,” she urged.

“I became pregnant with his baby,” Flore continued in a steely voice that had long replaced the girlish voice she’d once had, the sound of which she could no longer remember.

This interview was good preparation for what was coming, Flore thought, for seeing Max Junior later that same morning. She wanted her son to see him too, if only this one time. Flore was curious to experience for herself how she would hold up in front of Max Junior. There would be no more tears, though. If anything, she would now do everything possible to drive him and his father to tears, with this show. Thankfully, she and Louise seemed to have similar goals.

“By his baby, you mean Maxime Ardin, Jr.’s baby?” Louise pressed her.

Flore nodded.

“This is not television,” Louise said. “You have to speak.”

These little remarks in the middle of a painful story
always made people in the listening audience laugh. Sometimes, while sitting in her house writing, on those nights that her show aired, Louise could hear laughter erupt from an entire row of houses. She never even had to turn on her own radio. She could hear the show blasting simultaneously from dozens of houses, and during those moments she felt she was the most powerful person in town. Her only regret was that due to the station’s limited capacities, the show aired only in Ville Rose and a few surrounding towns, not all over the country.

“Yes,” Flore continued, as if having paused for the expected laughter from the television remark.

Louise turned dead serious again. “I still don’t understand why you went back. Why would you go back there after something like this had been done to you?”

The words had not come out as clearly as Flore had hoped. She wanted to explain how her mind had been all mixed up that night after he had appeared in her room, how she hadn’t been quite sure whether or not she was dreaming.

“Why would you go back?” Louise insisted.

“I could not lose my job” was all that came out now.

“Are those the only choices you had?” Louise asked her. “Couldn’t you have gone to the commissariat and filed a complaint?”

Somewhere in the audience, Louise knew, someone would chuckle. Probably many would. What good would it have done to have filed a police complaint against Max Senior’s son? A few dollars to some low- or high-level police
official would get Max Junior off. Case in point, one of Max Senior’s best friends was the current mayor.

The audience would be aware that Louise was playing devil’s advocate, and when Louise played devil’s advocate the listeners enjoyed the show even more.

Flore answered the question anyway. “Tell me, how many people in my situation get justice?”

Louise scratched her gaunt chin and paused to ponder this. She moaned so that the audience might hear and take part in her contemplation.

“Couldn’t you have found another job?”

“I am—was—paying,” Flore said, “the rent for my mother’s house.”

“I’m sure your mother understood that you were in a bad situation and would have liked for you to get out,” Louise countered.

Flore’s feet jerked so fast that the sound of her knees hitting the table could be heard when the show aired. “If that is the way you want to see it,” she said.

Just then her son’s hands brushed against her calf. When she looked down, she saw the back of his neck and his hands as he placed his pencil to the pad Louise had given him to start his drawing.

“When did you realize that you had become pregnant?” Louise continued.

“I realized I was pregnant a few weeks later, when I started vomiting,” Flore said. She looked down and made sure the headphones were tightly wrapped around her son’s
ears, then added, “The vomiting was so bad that I sometimes vomited in the food I was preparing for them.”

Louise would be able to feel that question pulse through her listeners’ minds later on. She anticipated the collective gasp that would rise all over town. Has my servant been vomiting in my dinners? some would ask themselves.

They paused for another commercial break. Louise was smiling, the dark lines between her teeth showing. Flore looked down to check on her son, who seemed actively engaged in both doodling on Louise’s pad and tapping the keys on the cell phone very softly, as he had been admonished not to do. Flore couldn’t see what her son had drawn on the page because the phone and his hands were covering it.

When they started again, Louise asked, “Who did you first tell that you were pregnant?”

“I told the father first,” Flore continued.

“You mean not your son’s father. You mean Maxime Ardin, Sr?” Louise asked.

“Yes,” Flore answered.

“The owner and headmaster of École Ardin?”

“Li menm.”

“You told him first?”

“Wi.”

“And tell me, what did Maxime Ardin, Sr., say when you told him?”

“He said he couldn’t know that this was his son’s child. Then he gave me two thousand dollars American from him and his wife, to disappear, to go away.”

“Two thousand dollars U.S., which converts into sixteen thousand dollars Haitian or eighty thousand gourdes, from the father who’s here and the mother who’s in Miami, to disappear. Is that the going rate?” Louise let out a purposefully forceful laugh to make her point.

So much for Max Senior’s righteous indignation. It was just like him to make up his own rules for everything. She should have slapped him back after he’d made that woman slap her.

Louise imagined heads nodding all over town when her audience heard about the two thousand American dollars. That wasn’t so bad, some might mutter. Another family might have just thrown her out and not given her anything at all.

“I took that money and I did leave,” Flore went on. “I went to Port-au-Prince to live with one of my mother’s cousins, and while waiting for my son to be born, I started a business.”

Beauty had always fascinated Flore. She found it as resilient as wozo, the colorful weeds and wildflowers that grew, despite being regularly trampled, in the muck beside rivers and back roads. She liked to see women perfectly coiffed and garbed in elegant-looking, even if cheap, dresses. She believed that even the poorest and unhappiest of women could fight heartache with beauty, with bright or muted kerchiefs, head wraps, or hats, relaxed or braided hair, wigs, and talcum-powdered necks. Even while sitting across from Louise, Flore thought that Louise could look prettier if she did more than pull back her hair, which made her face look so
severe. She thought that Louise could use some lipstick in a pale shade and a black dot from an eyeliner pencil as a beauty mark.

“What kind of business did you start?” Louise asked.

“A beauty parlor,” Flore said.

Louise imagined cheers erupting all over town. “Even in their misery,” Louise purred into the microphone, “our women try to be beautiful.”

This was Louise’s favorite part of the show, the part where the horrible story began to take a positive turn. It was the equivalent of a first goal during an impossible soccer match, the moment where everything changes, if only for one side. This is why she was glad that this story had been plucked from the town rumor mill and landed on her lap, why she was thrilled, overjoyed, that this young woman had sought her out. That and to return Max Senior’s slap to him. No, she was not a turn-the-other-cheek kind of gal, and in that moment in his office, Max Senior had forced her to be. She believed in an eye for an eye, and though she had never used the show for revenge in the past, she was not above doing it.

BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
12.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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