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Authors: Edwidge Danticat

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BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
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Midday on Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin’s seventh birthday, Nozias rushed her to the cemetery for their annual visit to her mother’s grave. The sky had cleared and turned aquamarine, and if not for Caleb’s disappearance, that morning’s rogue wave might have already become a distant memory.

Claire was wearing her largest version yet of the pink birthday dress, and as Nozias watched her pull at it, tugging the fabric away from her skin, he told himself that this would be the last year he would get this dress made. Next year, for her eighth birthday, if she were still with him, he would let her choose what to wear. He might even take her to a vendor in town and have her pick out a ready-made dress for herself.

Guiding the girl past the large planter of red azaleas in front of the Lavaud mausoleum, past the bouquet of white roses that seemed a little bigger each year, he stood with her before the cement cross that was her mother’s grave. The girl shielded her face with her hands, squinting to keep the sun out of her eyes. Even though he visited the gravesite regularly, Nozias always felt the same rush of pain, almost like
being punched in the heart, each time he was there. He asked himself if his daughter felt the same way.

His daughter let go of his hand and lingered a few steps behind. She too seemed lost in her thoughts. Nozias feared that she was no longer interested in these visits to her mother’s grave. The girl paced back and forth, while still tugging at the hem of her dress. She raised her face toward his, removing her fingers from her eyes and allowing the sun to strike them.

It is time to leave, her eyes seemed to be saying. Now that it was clear to him that she wanted to go, he too became eager to return to the sea. A relay search party was being launched for Caleb, and he wanted to be part of the second group.

That afternoon, he and a few other fishermen put a fleet of canoes and dinghies and sloops on the water, with his boat and its colorful sail made from old advertising banners in the lead. He liked a festive sail and, over the years, once he had modified his rowboat, had collected from Msye Pierre, the editor of the town newspaper and also a party promoter, old banners for music groups. His sail was now a patchwork of band names and long-past dates for shows at the seaside speakeasies or the plaza in the middle of town. The other fishermen had tame, grasshopper-shaped, unicolored sails, but Nozias’s sails were like rare butterflies. If Caleb had been around, his would have been the lead boat, as he was the oldest of all the fishermen and his cutter,
Fifine
, had always been the biggest and strongest on the water.

The sea was windless that afternoon. From his boat out on the water Nozias saw Claire Limyè Lanmè standing next to a group of boys hanging a throw net to dry in front of one of the shacks. The boys were too involved in their work to notice her and she was too busy watching the water, trying not to lose sight of him, to pay attention to them. In the end, he spent more time looking at her than he did looking for Caleb, whom he already knew the sea would not surrender.

Claire walked back to their shack after a while, her gait sluggish in the afternoon sun. Now he could no longer see her. Even this far out at sea, he realized that he should never have told her that had he woken up earlier that morning, he too might be dead.

When he and the other fishermen returned from the water at dusk, dejected that their search had not yielded Caleb, although there was a full and dazzling moon on the horizon, some of the fishermen made a bonfire. Every once in a while one of the fishermen would throw a handful of rock salt in the fire to make sparks, hoping to draw Caleb’s spirit out of the sea. As Josephine, Caleb’s wife, silently wept, Nozias and the other fishermen sat on the warm sand next to her, drank kleren, and played cards, just as they would at an official wake.

In the distance, Nozias saw his daughter holding hands in a circle with five other girls, spinning one another in a dizzying game called the wonn. One of his neighbors had probably
brought her a plate of food, or had invited her in to eat, just as someone always did whenever he was at sea. As he watched her, sensing his daughter avoiding him, dozens of townspeople came by, bringing, as was the custom, small sums of money to Caleb’s wife.

Pè Marignan, who was often called on to bless nets and baptize new boats, came to offer a blessing. One of the town’s many Protestant ministers, Pastè Etienne, also came. He was accompanied by a group of elderly women who were dressed in white from head to toe. Caleb’s wife, Josephine, was a member of Pastè Etienne’s charismatic evangelical congregation. Before joining their hands together to lay on Josephine’s head, Pastè Etienne and the women helped Josephine drop to her knees. When they were done and had helped her back up, the mayor/undertaker, Albert Vincent, came by. During the few minutes Albert Vincent was chatting with Josephine, one of the fishermen around the bonfire said loudly enough for everyone to hear that the mayor part of him was investigating a disaster, but the undertaker side was trolling for corpses. In fact, Albert Vincent was looking around him, as if searching not just for a corpse, but a ghost.

Nozias got up and shook Albert Vincent’s unsteady hand. Even after all these years, he was grateful that Albert Vincent had given his wife a job at his funeral home when she was still new in town, a job that had meant everything to her. Albert Vincent was also the one who’d sought out a scholarship for his daughter at his friend Max Ardin’s school, in honor of Claire’s mother’s memory.

“How is Ti Claire?” Albert Vincent asked. He often referred to Nozias’s daughter as Ti Claire, Little Claire.

Nozias nodded, indicating that his daughter was fine. Despite his gratitude, he always found it hard to be in Albert Vincent’s presence and not feel a groundswell of grief, especially on a day like this. Even in the sea air, Albert Vincent smelled like his wife had smelled when she’d been working for him. His smell, like hers, was the smell of death, covered by fragrances intended to mask it.

Nozias also felt ill at ease with unsolicited kindness. He was ashamed that his need for charity was so obvious, especially to someone he could never repay, except with a fish here and there or with his humblest, meekest, most self-effacing expression of gratitude every time their paths crossed.

“I don’t know how to thank you again, Msye Albert, for all you’ve done for the girl,” he said, shortly after his hello.

“Then stop thanking me,” Albert Vincent said, patting him on the shoulder. “The girl’s mother was a part of our Pax Vincent family.”

On that particular night, Nozias felt that Albert Vincent was stretching the meaning of family so far that Albert Vincent, perhaps without meaning to, was debasing his. She was
my
family, he wanted to say. Not yours. Or the funeral home’s. Instead, he said, “Wi, Msye Albert. Mèsi anpil. Thank you very much.”

Walking away from Albert Vincent, Nozias realized that he’d lost sight of Claire. The kleren that had been passed around the bonfire had fogged his head a bit. Then there was
the throat-tightening experience of speaking with Albert Vincent, after which he was unable to even string together the words to properly ask the people he stumbled into whether they’d seen his daughter.

He wasn’t even sure now how much time had lapsed since he’d last seen her. But while approaching his shack, he spotted her. She was sitting next to a woman. It was a woman he knew, except he had never seen her like this. Her hair was wrapped in a black net, above some giant pink sponge rollers, and she was wearing a long silver-looking evening gown. It was the fabric vendor, and she was in deep conversation with his daughter.

He was afraid to walk up to them and would have been happy to stand where he was and just keep watching them, except the fabric vendor noticed him and he thought he saw her wave.

She and Claire were each sitting on a boulder. He crouched down and sat between them on the sand.

Why was life still able to surprise him like this? he asked himself. Maybe it was this day. This most impossible of days, this day of both life and death.

But wasn’t this what he had been waiting for, hoping for, some interest in his daughter from a woman of means, a woman who had been the first and only person to have nursed her? Suddenly the full moon seemed to have drifted directly above their three heads. He felt as though everyone were watching them, waiting to see what the fabric vendor would do, what the fabric vendor would say.

“Wi,” the fabric vendor blurted out, as though she and he were at the end of a very long conversation. “Yes. I will take her. Tonight.”

Claire kept her eyes on the sand, but Nozias could see a tear slide down the side of her face. He wanted to reach for her, bury his nose in her cheek just the same way she liked to needle hers into his when he was sad.

“Why now? Why tonight?” he managed to say.

“It’s now or never.” The fabric vendor reached down to wipe Claire’s face, but the girl pulled away. “I need another way to remember this day.” The fabric vendor brought her hands together in a fold in her long thin satin gown, between her knees. “Now or never,” she said again. She then moved her hands to the girl’s back and attempted to stroke it.

Claire’s body was shaking as she watched a second pile of driftwood being placed in her father’s friends’ spluttering bonfire.

“Claire Limyè Lanmè,” Nozias called out to her. Claire did not turn her face. He wished he could tell her a few things before she was no longer his, but most important this.

One evening after he’d learned that his wife was pregnant, they went out to sea together for some night fishing. That night, the wind seemed to be circling them, and he found himself going around and around the same small area before his sloop stalled as if it had reached a wall. He was afraid that they might be stuck on a reef, but he managed to push back. He had not yet switched on the lantern he had borrowed from his friend Caleb, when suddenly his wife removed her sundress
and was sitting there in only her panties, arching her body so that it could be aimed at him like an arrow.

He took note of her slightly larger belly and breasts and realized that she was trying to get him used to it. But before he could say anything, she slipped both her legs over the stern, nearly toppling the boat as she slid into the sea. Her body parted the moonlit surface of the sea, pulling her forward as she sunk her head in, then raised it up and out again. She was now gliding away from him, her long plaited hair floating on the surface as if separate from her face. He rowed faster, trying to catch up.

“Claire, reken, reef sharks,” he shouted. “There could be reef sharks!”

She pulled her head out of the water and let out a deep, breathless laugh.

“There will be if you keep calling them,” she said. “Come and look here.”

As he rowed toward her, his face relaxed, and he saw what she had swum out to observe. Surrounding her was a dazzling glow. It was as though her patch of the sea were being lit from below. From her perfectly round breasts down, she was in the middle of a school of tiny silver fish, which were ignoring her and feeding on gleaming specks of algae floating on the water’s surface.

He stopped rowing and rested his arms as he pondered her new body and what—who—might emerge from it, just a few short months later. The sea was calm but for the gentle lapping, as she circled her arms and legs to stay afloat. He
turned his gaze away from her, keeping it instead on the water. But soon his panic returned and he shouted her name again. “Claire, come back now, Claire!”

She backed away from the fish, splitting the shimmering school in half as she splashed and paddled toward the boat. And in that moment she was his Lasirèn, his long-haired, long-bodied brown goddess of the sea. With an angelic face like a bronzed Lady of Charity, Lasirèn was, it was believed, the last thing most fishermen saw before they died at sea, her arms the first thing they slipped into, even before their bodies hit the water. Like most fishermen he knew, Nozias, in his boat, next to his trap, net, hook, line, and tin can full of bait, kept a burlap sack in which he had a mirror, a comb, and conch shell, an amulet to attract Lasirèn’s protection.

Even the regular hum of the sea seemed menacing until his wife, swimming faster now, reached the boat. He leaned over and offered her his hand, and she took it and climbed back in, even as the twinkling fish and algae vanished, as though they had been only a mirage, returning the sea surface to an uninterrupted gray.

In his sloop, the water streaming down her body, his wife craned her neck to look up at Anthère Hill and its many large houses, their lights glowing in clusters in the distance. Above those houses, before Mòn Initil, was the Anthère lighthouse. Its stone tower was usually abandoned, but every once in a while, some young people, on a quest for adventure, would make their way to the steel door at its base, climb up the tower’s winding staircase, and shine flashlights from its gallery,
as if to duplicate its broken lamp. Tonight, it seemed, was one of those nights. Wiping the salt water from her face, Claire watched the flickering lights from the Anthère lighthouse, and then leaned toward Nozias.

BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
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