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Authors: Edwidge Danticat

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BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
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Nozias put an end to the fabric vendor’s questioning by making a joke about the undertaker’s mayoral victory and how many meaningless speeches he would be forced to endure if he remained in Ville Rose. This made the fabric vendor’s jingly laugh sound as though it were coming out of her nose. The good news, Claire thought, was that her father did not try to give her away every day. Most of the time, he acted as though he would always keep her. During the week, Claire went to the École Ardin, where she received a charity scholarship from the schoolmaster himself, Msye Ardin. And at night, Claire would sit by the kerosene lamp at the small table in the middle of the shack and recite the new words she was learning. Nozias enjoyed the singsong and her hard work and missed it during her holidays from school. The rest of the time, he went out to sea at the crack of dawn and always came back with some cornmeal or eggs, which he’d bartered part of his early-morning catch for. He talked about going to work in construction or the fishing trade in the neighboring Dominican Republic, but he would always make it sound as though it were something he and Claire could do together,
not something he’d have to abandon her to do. But as soon as her birthday came, he would begin talking about it again—chèche lavi: going away to make a better life.

Lapèch, fishing, was no longer as profitable as it had once been, she would hear him tell anyone who would listen. It was no longer like in the old days, when he and his friends would put a net in the water for an hour or so, then pull it out full of big, mature fish. Now they had to leave nets in for half a day or longer, and they would pull fish out of the sea that were so small that in the old days they would have been thrown back. But now you had to do with what you got; even if you knew deep in your gut that it was wrong, for example, to keep baby conch shells or lobsters full of eggs, you had no choice but to do it. You could no longer afford to fish in season, to let the sea replenish itself. You had to go out nearly every day, even on Fridays, and even as the seabed was disappearing, and the sea grass that used to nourish the fish was buried under silt and trash.

But he was not talking to the fabric vendor about fishing that night. They were talking about Claire. His relatives and his dead wife’s relatives, who lived in the villages in the surrounding mountains where he was born, were even poorer than he was, he was saying. If he died, sure they would take Claire, but only because they had no choice, because that’s what families do, because no matter what, fòk nou voye je youn sou lòt. We must all look after one another. But he was being careful, he said. He didn’t want to leave something as crucial as his daughter’s future to chance.

•  •  •

After the fabric vendor left, colorful sparks rose up from the hills and filled the night sky over the homes near the lighthouse, in the Anthère (anther) section of town. Beyond the lighthouse, the hills turned into a mountain, wild and green, and mostly unexplored because the ferns there bore no fruit. The wood was too wet for charcoal and too unsteady for construction. People called this mountain Mòn Initil, or Useless Mountain, because there was little there that they wanted. It was also believed to be haunted.

The fireworks illuminated the mushroom-shaped tops of the ferns of Mòn Initil as well as the gated two-story mansions of Anthère Hill. They also illuminated the clapboard shacks by the sea and their thatched and tin roofs.

Once the fabric vendor was gone, Claire and her father rushed out to see the lights exploding in the sky. The alleys between the shacks were jam-packed with their neighbors. With cannonlike explosions, Albert Vincent, the undertaker turned mayor, was celebrating his victory. But as her neighbors clapped in celebration, Claire couldn’t help but feel like she was the one who’d won. The fabric vendor had said no and she would get to stay with her father another year.

The day Claire Limyè Lanmè turned five was a Wednesday, Market Day, so her father woke her up at daybreak. They
walked past a sandy pool that had formed near their shack, where a group of children whose parents could not afford schooling for them spent their mornings helping the fishermen or splashing inside the ring of brackish water, then plunging into the sea to rinse themselves. Claire wore the same pink muslin dress that Nozias had ordered from a seamstress in town but in a slightly larger size than the year before. The cloth came from the fabric vendor’s shop.

Dressed in a crisp white shirt buttoned to the Adam’s apple, Nozias felt the sticky air tickle his skin as though he were trapped in one of the many humid air pockets where the sea breeze met the stifling heat of the town. Even before they turned their backs to the sea, Claire knew that, just as they’d done the year before, they’d be visiting her mother’s grave that morning.

Pied Rose Avenue was already crowded with pedestrians either dodging or hailing motto taxis and tap taps. Nozias held his nose up and sniffed the air, breathing in the scent of morning coffee on streets lined with houses, whose pitched roofs were bordered with intricately carved wood that looked like his wife’s favorite lace. Nozias walked at a steady clip, as if daring Claire to keep up. They passed a Vodou temple whose outside walls were covered with images of Catholic saints doubling as lwas, and Nozias pointed out, just as he had many times before, the glowing face of a pale Mater Dolorosa with a sword aimed at her heart.

“The goddess of love,” he said, “Ezili Freda. Your mother liked her.”

Claire had never seen a picture of her mother. There were none. And if not for the class portrait hanging in the preschool wing of the École Ardin, a portrait that her father could not afford to purchase, there would be no pictures of her either.

They bypassed the center of town by getting off the main road and entering one of the épines, cutting through a narrow dirt track with wooden houses enclosed by cactus fences. Claire trailed behind her father as he followed the smell of burnt sugar in the air. A rubber-booted man returning from the cane fields with a cane-burdened mule called out to them, “Paying a visit to the dead, Msye Nozias and Manzè Claire?”

Nozias nodded.

The cemetery was enclosed by a wall of pale sea rock. Inside, under the bright-orange weeping willows, near the cemetery gate, were the earliest tombstones, most washed out and bleached by the sun. The marble headstones dated back to the early 1800s and belonged to the most prominent families in town, including the Ardins, Boncys, Cadets, Lavauds, Marignans, Moulins, Vincents, among others. Soon, in the newer part of the cemetery, they found the house-shaped pastel-hued mausoleums and the plain cement crosses, which rose out of the terra-cotta earth. Claire forgot at first which cross was her mother’s, but Nozias took her hand and walked her over to it. He bent down and, using the end of his shirt, wiped the light coat of red mud off the hollowed letters that had been carved on the cross. Claire could only this year read the letters of her mother’s name. Her mother’s name had also
been Claire, Claire Narcis. Her father had named her Claire Limyè Lanmè, Claire of the Sea Light, after her mother died.

Nozias’s most remarkable physical attribute was that, aside from eyebrows, eyelashes, and nose hairs, he was basically hairless. For reasons he’d never fully explored, he had never grown any hair on the rest of his body. A bald man, with sun- and sea-air-battered ebony skin, Nozias squatted with one knee lodged in the moist earth and spat on the end of his shirt, but couldn’t wet it enough to clean all the red dirt from his wife’s name.

Not far from Claire’s mother’s cross, on the indigo-colored Lavaud mausoleum, was a pink metal wreath with a gold name sash across the middle. Next to the wreath was a small bouquet of white roses. This was one of many times that Claire wished she knew how to read and write more than her own name. Her father didn’t even know that much, so she couldn’t ask him to read the name for her, to tell her who the child was who had been left such a pretty child’s wreath and white flowers.

The entire front of Nozias’s shirt was coated in red earth. He had cleaned his wife’s headstone as best as he could. Sitting down on the cement slab beneath the cross, he seemed at home among the dead. But when he looked up, he spotted the fabric vendor, who was heading toward them, wearing a white lace dress, a polka-dot scarf wrapped around her head.

“I knew she would come today,” Nozias said, standing up. He looked down at his soiled shirt and seemed ashamed.
He grabbed Claire Limyè Lanmè’s hand, gently placing her in the woman’s path.

“Do you remember my daughter?” Nozias asked while nervously patting Claire’s shoulder.

“Please,” the woman said, “let me remember mine.”

The day Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin turned four, the fabric vendor’s seven-year-old daughter, Rose—one of hundreds of girls who were the town’s tokays, or namesakes—was riding in the back of a motto taxi with her teenage caretaker when a car rear-ended them and sent Rose flying into the air. She landed headfirst on the ground.

Rose was plump and honey-skinned like her mother, and her hair was always perfectly coiffed. Her mother did it herself in playful and colorful designs, carving simple flower or geometrical shapes into the girl’s scalp. Those like Nozias who witnessed the accident swore that when Rose’s body ascended from the rear of the motorcycle, she seemed to actually be flying out of her primary-school uniform, an angel in a navy-blue pleated skirt and white blouse, raising both her hands and flapping them like wings, before she hit the ground.

It was not the first time Nozias had seen an accident like this. This was, he felt, a small and unlucky town, and the narrow, mostly unpaved Pied Rose Avenue was too crowded with motorcycles, public transportation vans, and private cars. But none of the previous accidents had been as shocking.
Nozias had expected little Rose to scream—just as the mothers and other spectators had as they rushed up to the spot—but the girl had not made even one sound. The motto taxi had nearly reached the mother’s fabric shop when the accident happened, so it didn’t take long for word to reach the fabric vendor, who, even before she was told the details, was bent over and retching as she made her way through the stalled traffic to where her child was lying, bloody and still, in the dust. Nozias had not seen such despair since the public high school in town had collapsed some years back, killing 112 of the 216 pupils enrolled there. The day of the motto taxi accident, though, the fabric vendor was the sole owner of that tragedy. The driver of the car, the motorcycle driver, and Rose’s caretaker were miraculously fine, like those students and teachers who had crawled out of the rubble of the collapsed high-school building. Nozias was grateful that Claire, after having visited her mother’s grave that morning, was safe with a neighbor, away from cars and motorcycles. Still, in that moment he missed his little girl more than he had at any other time since she was born. He missed her so badly that he even felt jealous of the way the fabric vendor was holding her daughter. At least she’d been able to look after her own child during the girl’s entire short life, he thought. But he was a man. What did he know about raising a little girl? Maybe if she were a boy, he could try to do it. But with a girl, there were so many things that could go wrong, so many hopeless mistakes you could make. He would always need caretakers he couldn’t afford, neighbors from whom he’d have to beg
favors, and women he could either pay or sleep with so they would mother his child. And even those most motherly acts, like bathing and dressing and plaiting hair, did not include embraces like those the fabric vendor was lavishing on a blood-soaked corpse. It took watching another child die in her mother’s arms to remind him once again how much he’d miss Claire if he gave her away for good.

BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
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