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Authors: Edwidge Danticat

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BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
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The day Claire Limyè Lanmè turned three, she was returned to Nozias from the mountain village where she had been living with her mother’s relatives since she was two days old. His wife’s death had been so abrupt that seeing the child’s tiny face had not only saddened but terrified Nozias. To most people, Claire Limyè Lanmè was a revenan, a child who had entered the world just as her mother was leaving it. And if these types of children are not closely watched, they can easily follow their mothers into the other world. The only way to save them is to immediately sever them from the place where they were born, even for a short while. Otherwise they will spend too much time chasing a shadow they can never reach. Children dying during or shortly after birth were common enough. Children and mothers both dying was also not unusual. But when the mother died and the child survived and the mother had shown no sign of sickness before, people assumed that a battle had taken place and the one with the stronger will had won. Nozias liked to think of it, though, as
a kind of loving surrender. Only one of them was meant to survive, and the mother had surrendered her place.

Still, as soon as his wife’s body was removed from the shack, there was the next most pressing problem—of feeding the baby. The midwife had dressed baby Claire in a yellow embroidered jumper from the extensive layette Nozias’s wife had spent months sewing. Nozias had picked up the baby, wrapped her in the matching yellow blanket his wife had made. After feeding the baby some sugared water from a bottle his wife had also bought for the layette, the midwife had left the baby with him and rushed into town, looking for formula or a wet nurse. Even from those very first hours, Claire was an easy and quiet child. It was as though she already knew that she could not afford to be picky or make demands.

During that first evening with baby Claire, Nozias had visions for which he detested himself, fantasies about letting her starve to death. He’d even imagined dropping her in the sea. But these were things he was thinking of doing to her because he couldn’t do them to himself. He could not poison himself, as he so desperately wanted, couldn’t leave her completely parentless and have her end up in a brothel or on the streets. Already he was worried that mosquitoes and sand flies might bite her, that she might get malaria or dengue fever. He feared for himself too. He feared being lost at sea or getting hit by a car, or being struck with a terrible disease that would separate them forever.

An hour passed since his wife’s body had been removed, then another hour passed, and when the midwife did not
return, he wrapped the yellow blanket more tightly around baby Claire and took her into town.

Evening had fallen quickly, and as he walked through the town, he felt as though he were seeing it anew. It was cloudy and the sky was grumbling, though there seemed to be no sign of rain. The sea had risen a few feet and was becoming agitated, pushing larger waves toward the shore. A few of the townspeople were cautiously lurching about, most with their backs to the wind, as they made their way home from work or the fields. Others were grabbing rocking chairs and planters from their filigree porches, moving anything that could be lifted and carried inside. The wind slowed his steps as he picked flying twigs off the baby’s blanket. He felt the baby squirm against his chest, and to avoid thinking about how hungry she must be, he thought instead of his wife, who, even on days when she didn’t have to go to work washing and dressing the dead at Albert Vincent’s funeral parlor, or have to go buy food, would walk through town sometimes, not to do anything in particular, but to look at people and faces and browse through the open markets and fancy shops and pick up things that both she and the vendors knew she would only put down again.

He and his wife had met when she’d come to buy fish for one of the food vendors in the covered market in town. She made her rounds three days a week, inspecting everyone’s catch before filling a small basket with snapper and cod. Soon
he began saving his best and biggest fish for her. On days when he was expecting her and couldn’t go out to sea, or days when he had a bad catch, he was doubly sad.

He called her “wife,” my wife, madanm mwen, when it should be really “woman,” except he didn’t like the words “fanm mwen.” “My woman” sounded illicit to him, like a mistress. They were never officially married. Still, it wasn’t hard to convince her to come live with him. She was sleeping in one of the sheds in the market while every day she’d go to the funeral home to ask if she could help there—work, just as she had been doing in the mountains before she moved to town, washing and dressing the dead. Whenever he told the story of their meeting to his fishermen friends, he often added that he was the only man she liked who wasn’t dead. So one day he asked her to come live with him and she said yes.

The day before she moved in, he cleaned up a bit, touching up the shack’s walls, replacing some rotting wood panels and plugging a few small holes in the tin roof. He even bought a brand-new foam mattress and cot. He changed the name of his boat from that of an old love’s to hers. From then on, all his fishing boats were named Claire.

Things were going all right, until they began trying to have a baby.

Nozias felt baby Claire stir again as he hurried past the white corner building that housed the town hospital,
L’hôpital Sainte Thérèse. For months after she came to live with him, Claire Narcis, the daughter of mountain undertakers and professional mourners, drank rum-soaked herbs and leaves that were supposed to make her pregnant. Instead they made her drunk, which increased the frequency of sex, but led to no immediate results. For a year, he kept wishing he had known before she’d moved in with him how much having a baby meant to her. He would have at least told her about his near-operation.

Fearful of being bound to a handful of children he couldn’t feed, he had always carried around his desire not to have them like an awful secret, something that made him feel like less of a man. That is until one day, he was walking by L’hôpital Sainte Thérèse, as he just had, and rather than the usual early-morning crowd of sick and dying people, he saw a long line of young healthy men waiting. Curious, he approached them and was told there was a simple way to prevent him from having children, something that would require him to still take precautions so he wouldn’t get sick from sex, but would keep him from being a father.

After a lengthy presentation in the hospital’s courtyard, and a short movie filled with the testimonials of grateful men, a white doctor who also appeared to be in his twenties told the men to go home and think about it. Of all of them, Nozias was the only one who’d said he wanted the operation that same day.

The doctor had wanted to do blood tests, but Nozias, through a translating Haitian nurse, had refused. He simply
wanted the operation, he said, and nothing else. The doctor relented.

He was told that he would be awake the whole time. A sheet was placed mid-waist so he couldn’t see what the doctor was doing to him. But when he felt the pinch of a needle on one of his testicles, he let out a loud screech and yelled that he had changed his mind. Nozias leaped from the table, put on his pants, and ran out of the hospital, feeling certain then that he would like to be a father one day.

He wished he could be as certain now as he hurried past the town cathedral with the infant Claire pressed against his chest. The bells began ringing the seven o’clock hour as if in alarm, while people rushed inside the church for the evening Mass and to seek shelter from the wind. Through a crack in the massive wooden doors, he glimpsed the crucified Christ, the stained glass and candle flames. Given the way that she was born and given what some people thought about children like her, he wondered if he should stop and have Claire blessed. But remembering how long she’d gone without being fed, he decided against stopping. Just at that moment, as he was rushing by, a white-haired priest held the church door open for him. It was Pè Marignan, Sainte Rose de Lima’s head cleric. The priest raised his hand and hastily blessed them from a distance. Nozias gave the priest a nod of gratitude and continued past the church toward Chez Lavaud, the town fabric shop. There, he saw the fabric vendor standing by her burly, armed, and uniformed night watchman as he chained and padlocked the shop’s metal gates. Next to her,
her three-year-old daughter was tugging at her skirt. Claire began to cry, and the fabric vendor turned to see where the cry was coming from.

“Madame,” Nozias said, walking toward her.

He could already see on the fabric vendor’s face that she knew what had happened. How could she not have? Nowhere does news spread faster than Ville Rose. Most of the women in town had probably heard how his wife’s heart had suddenly stopped toward the end of her labor, yet, fearful of the mother’s spirit returning to claim the child, no one but the midwife, who was used to such things, had yet rushed to his and the child’s aid.

For his part, Nozias had heard that the fabric vendor was still nursing her pudgy three-year-old girl. The fact that she had not yet weaned such a big child, whose name he knew was Rose, was so unusual for a woman of her stature that everyone knew about it. Proving herself kinder and braver than he thought, the fabric vendor asked her night watchman to reopen the front gate, and motioned for the watchman to wait for her outside and for Nozias to follow her inside. She pushed open another door, then flipped a light switch, turning on some lightbulbs dangling over the fabric-filled shelves and towering spools of cloth. Nozias, the fabric vendor, and her sleepy-looking daughter all sat down on a long wooden bench in the waiting area. The fabric vendor unbuttoned a silk blouse, making no effort to shield her large breasts, which were a few shades lighter than her face.

Claire latched on quickly and, first right, then left, emptied
both the fabric vendor’s breasts while Rose looked on awestruck and brokenhearted, as though she had not been aware until that moment that this was something her mother could do for anyone but her.

Nozias thought he might bring Claire to the fabric vendor every day, but after smiling and cooing at the baby, the woman tightened her face and handed his daughter back to him, giving him the scowl one might imagine she reserved for her credit-seeking customers. Pointing to the sleepy three-year-old sitting next to her, the fabric vendor said, “She needs my milk.”

He did not say it, but he was thinking that his child and hers were now milk sisters. The fabric vendor had offered baby Claire her breasts. Couldn’t he ask her to be his child’s godmother? She certainly had the means. She also had a long history in the town. One grandfather had been an engineer. He had built the Anthère Hill lighthouse and had helped rebuild parts of the town several times after hurricanes. Another grandfather had been a pharmacist and lay medicine man. One grandmother ran her own sugarcane business. Another had been a schoolteacher at the lycée. Her father had been the town magistrate and her mother, a potter, made clay vases for sale, which she was now selling in her own shop in Port-au-Prince.

The only thing Nozias didn’t like about the fabric vendor was her reputed loose ways, her rumored desperation for male companionship. Nozias knew that his wife had come to the fabric shop often to barter her hand-embroidered baby
blankets. He now wondered if the two women had ever spoken at length. Did they ever talk as more than just client and customer? As potential young mothers?

While he stood there, near the shop’s front door, rocking the warm, contented baby in his arms, he thought that if he waited long enough the fabric vendor might change her mind. Would she find his daughter so pretty or pitiful that she would let her come again to nurse? Instead, she reached into her skirt pocket and fished out a few bills and pushed them toward him.

“Do you have any other family?” she asked, stroking her own daughter’s perfect hair. “A sister?” Before he could answer, she added, “If you don’t have a sister, you should send her to your woman’s people.

“Do you have a place to bury your woman’s body?” she continued. “You can, if you like, make use of part of the plot we have in the cemetery.”

The wind had subsided. He thanked her and hurried home with the child asleep in his arms. The midwife was waiting for him on his doorstep.

“You took this child out after dusk?” she chided.

The midwife had bottles and powder and treated water and was frantic to feed them to the sleeping baby. Those bottles and powder, that water, along with the funeral expenses, would wipe out most of the money he and his wife had been saving for another place away from the sea.

•  •  •

The next day, the fabric vendor had one of her employees bring a package for baby Claire. It was the size of a small pillow and was wrapped in the brown paper and bound with the beige sisal rope the fabric vendor used to tie bundles of cloth from her shop. Inside was an embroidered green blanket bordered with white lace and some hand-embroidered baby jumpers. They were the type of baby layette items that his wife liked to sew and had made plenty of for her own child.

When Nozias’s wife’s sister arrived for the funeral, he gave her the two-day-old baby, along with the layette his wife had made and the fabric vendor’s package and the little money he had left.

He was relieved not to have to worry about baby Claire for a while, yet he didn’t leave Ville Rose. He kept his boat and shack. He worked harder and spent more time at sea so that he’d have enough money to send for her care. Yet he didn’t visit, nor did he ask for her to be brought to him.

Sometimes, in the months that followed, during his long hours at sea, he would wonder who and what she looked like. Would she be cross-eyed or bow-legged, fat or skinny? Was she serene or dezòd, an insolent child? Would she even know that she’d had a mother who was dead?

As her third birthday approached, he felt he was ready to see her again. So he sent word to his sister-in-law to bring her back to him on her birthday. And when he saw her, she was loose-jointed and gangly, heartbreakingly, a smaller version of her mother. He had a dress sewn for the occasion, one that he would have replicated by the same seamstress in
a larger size, but the same style, year after year. His wife had made one just like it, imagining that their daughter would wear it for her first birthday. He’d kept that very first dress when he had sent her away. Often he’d lay it across his chest at night, as he might have done with the child if she were with him.

BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
12.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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