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Authors: Edwidge Danticat

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BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
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“If it’s a girl,” she said, “Limyè Lanmè. Limyè Lanmè.” Sea Light. She cleared her throat and in a louder voice added, “Claire like me. Then Limyè Lanmè. Claire of the Sea Light.”

“What if it’s a boy?” he asked.

“Then Nozias, like you. Then Limyè Lanmè. Nozias of the Sea Light.”

He laughed at the ridiculous possibility of that name for a boy, but the girl name he liked a lot.

Now, on Claire’s seventh birthday, up in the hills, in the gallery of the old lighthouse, there were once again lights. Some were flashlights. Some were hurricane lamps. But all of them were being lit, he knew, by young fishermen, as a tribute to Caleb, his friend.

Turning his eyes away from the lights, Nozias heard himself say to the fabric vendor, “You will not change her name?”

The fabric vendor shook her head no.

“You will not let her ride motto taxis?”

“Non.” Both the woman’s hands immediately rose to her chest, as though she had been struck there. “I would never do that again,” she said.

Even after all these years of wooing the fabric vendor for Claire, he had never expected this to actually happen. But there was no turning back: from now on his Claire would be the fabric vendor’s daughter.

“Before you leave Ville Rose,” the fabric vendor was saying, “there are papers you must sign.”

“I had a letter written for her,” Nozias said. “You can give it to her when she’s older.”

“All right,” agreed the fabric vendor.

“Thank you,” he added, feeling the same unrelenting ache he sometimes felt standing at his wife’s grave.

Nozias would later try to figure out where Claire got the courage to raise her skinny arms at that moment. He had underestimated her attachment to her few belongings and had assumed that she wouldn’t want them in her new life. But at that moment, she raised her hand and pointed to the shack.

“Bagay yo,” she said, “the things.” Not
her
things, but
the
things, as though she knew that nothing in the world was truly hers.

Nozias and the fabric vendor watched Claire make her way to the shack, weaving in and out of different groups of children, including the girls she had been playing with, and ignoring their attempts to catch her attention. From the time she had been returned to him at age three, Nozias had always been able to see her mother in her. Their lithe and limber bodies moved in the same way, their arms glued to their sides as they walked, their legs moving too slowly, languid from one step to the next. Nozias saw the girl pull open the wobbly door of the shack, then he turned away.

Claire did not have that many things, Nozias thought, only two navy-blue skirts and two white blouses for school,
the pink birthday dress she was wearing and the one he’d had made before it, her nightdress, her notebook and reading primers, and the foam mattress and patchwork blanket with which she covered her cot, the one that had belonged to her mother. She wouldn’t be able to carry everything by herself. The fabric vendor might not even want those things in her house. Gaëlle. The fabric vendor’s name was Gaëlle. Now he could think it again. Now he could even say it. He could at least call her Madame Gaëlle. Madame Gaëlle Cadet Lavaud. His daughter was now Madame Gaëlle’s daughter.

Madame Gaëlle was shifting the weight of her round frame from one fuzzy slippered foot to another. She looked over at the two wooden steps one had to climb to enter the shack, then turned toward the dimming bonfire, where Caleb’s wife, Josephine, was sitting, surrounded by her church friends.

Judging from the pattern of the stars in the sky, it was close to midnight. The lights from the hills had faded and the crowd was thinning out. The townspeople were drifting away, heading home. He felt sad that he had nothing more to say to this woman who was offering Claire a new life, this woman who from now on his daughter would call mother.

“How much is she bringing with her?” Madame Gaëlle now asked.

“I’ll find her,” he said.

He felt her possibly judgmental stare on his back as he headed for the shack. He was doing his best not to keel over, but each time his feet became lodged in the sand, he was certain he would. But even before Nozias entered the shack, he
sensed that Claire wasn’t there. He pulled open the door; he was right. Her cot was covered with its usual blanket, untouched since she had tucked the corners under that morning. Hanging from a wire hanger on the wall were her school uniforms. On her pillow in a neat stack were her notebook and school primers.

His feet sure beneath him now, Nozias ran toward the water and called Claire’s name. He then turned around and walked the dark trails between the shacks all the way to the entrance of the alley of coco de mer palms leading up to Anthère Hill.

Madame Gaëlle trailed behind him, joining him in the shouting of Claire’s name. Others did too, walking off in different directions. Msye Sylvain and some of his children and grandchildren left the flaming clay oven of their bakery to also look for Claire. Msye Xavier, the boat builder, dropped his tools and followed the crowd. Madame Wilda, the net weaver, joined the search too. She, along with a group of others, walked to the edge of the water, looking for any sign of unusual movement.

When after some time Claire did not surface, many of Nozias’s neighbors walked over to him and took turns telling him some variation of the idea that she had probably fallen asleep somewhere and would surely be home soon.

Caleb’s wife, Josephine, came to embrace him. Her face was swollen from her many hours of crying, and the mourning scarf around her coarse black hair slid toward the back of her neck. Josephine was mute and suffered from elephantiasis
in her right leg, which was double the size of her left leg. So Josephine moved slowly and spoke with her hands in a way that over the years Nozias and a few others who were close to Caleb had grown to understand. She touched her lips and mimed, “Mèsi, thank you.” For what he wasn’t sure. For spreading news of her husband’s death among their neighbors? For witnessing the death itself?

Pounding both hands against her chest, she signaled “kouraj, courage,” perhaps wishing it both for herself and for him.

As Josephine limped away from him, dragging the weight of her leg behind her, Nozias begged those heading to town to keep an eye out for his daughter. But inside of him was a new calm. He was certain that Claire would return, and he wanted to be there when she did.

Madame Gaëlle offered her white Mercedes. They could drive around town, looking for Claire, she said. But he was convinced that Claire hadn’t gone too far, and he wanted his to be the first face she saw when she came back.

“I can’t leave.” Madame Gaëlle reached over and squeezed his shoulder. “She left because of me.”

She was probably right. Claire had never done anything like this before. Yes, she would sometimes go off walking, wandering around town, as her mother used to. But someone—if not him, then one of the women who kept an eye out for her—always knew in which direction she was headed, where she was going, and when she’d be back. But he felt it wouldn’t be right to let Madame Gaëlle spend whatever
time it would take Claire to return standing out on the beach. She also sensed his unease and suggested she wait in his shack.

“Don’t worry, Nozias,” she said. “Haven’t I been here before?”

Madame Gaëlle’s pearly gown now seemed as bright as the shiny side of the moon. She smelled like gardenias, like the gardenia-scented pomade the fishermen’s wives who combed Claire’s hair sometimes used to grease Claire’s scalp. Madame Gaëlle walked in, just as she had the year before, when she’d come to see them. But this time she sat down on his cot. Her eyes were like two vacant pits, and in them he recognized a void that he could easily identify but could never soothe, not even in himself. She was there but not really. At one moment, her mouth opened and closed but nothing came out. She seemed to be recalling things she could not put into words.

He, though, was concentrating on his modest surroundings, on the way his cot caved in slightly under her weight. On the way the lamp was fluttering between shadow and light. Was it too hot in there? he wondered. Too cool? Too bright? Too dark? Her insistence on staying made him ashamed of his lack of comforts, of the smallness and feeble nature of his world.

“She will return, Madame,” he said. “Excuse me.”

He backed out of the door, as though to show her his behind would be the height of disrespect. Then he left her alone in the shack and walked over to wait next to the rocks where the two of them had been sitting with Claire before Claire had disappeared.

The Frogs

Ten years before the night she showed up to take Nozias Faustin’s child, Gaëlle Cadet Lavaud was expecting her own child. It was so hot in Ville Rose that year that dozens of frogs exploded. These frogs frightened not just the children who chased them into the rivers and creeks at dusk, or the parents who hastily pried the slimy carcasses from their young ones’ fingers, but also twenty-five-year-old Gaëlle, who was more than six months pregnant and feared that, should the temperature continue to rise, she too might burst. The frogs had been dying for a few weeks, but Gaëlle hadn’t noticed at first. They’d been dying so quietly that for each one that had expired, another had taken its place along the gulch near her house, each one looking exactly the same and fooling her, among others, into thinking that a normal cycle was occurring, that young was replacing old, and life replacing death, sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly. Just as it was for everything else.

After one sleepless night during which she’d been haunted by visions of frog carcasses slithering into her mouth and
down her throat, Gaëlle had lingered under the mosquito net draped over their mahogany four-poster bed, as her husband, Laurent, slipped out of the room.

It was only after she heard the jingle of silverware in the dining room and her husband’s effusive compliments to Inès, the housekeeper, about Inès’s fried eggs and herring, that Gaëlle opened her eyes. But she didn’t leave the bed until the engine of her husband’s old Peugeot Cabriolet had been started, signaling that he was leaving for the fabric shop.

Soon after he was gone, she got up. Without changing out of her nightgown, she grabbed the ceramic chamber pot, which she kept by her bed. With the ever-vigilant Inès out of sight, Gaëlle walked out of the house and followed the almond grove that veered into a field of wild vetiver grass, then into a brook.

The sun had not been up for long, but it was already blazing in the middle of the sky. Still, the rocks and pebbles around the brook felt icy under Gaëlle’s bare feet. She walked on them as she would a bed of dirt or grass, following the water’s flow downstream until she spotted her first frogs. Just a few inches from the nearest lily pad, she noticed a green-horned frog that looked like a leaf with horns. Its legs were like a chicken’s and it seemed to be almost frowning. Soon after, she found a brown dwarf jungle frog, which had the more ordinary look of a frog, except for what seemed like a long middle finger on its hind legs. The third was a tiny scarlet koki, whose melodious staccato song was believed to lull babies to sleep.

Gaëlle looked more closely. All three frogs, she saw, were dead, though of a more natural-seeming death than the frayed remains she’d seen in recent days. The three dead frogs were in crouching positions, as though frozen mid-jump or -crawl.

Rubbing her belly, she crouched down to pick up the frogs, then dropped them in the chamber pot. As she walked toward the base of a particular almond tree, where every day in the last week she’d performed a wordless burial for a handful of frog skins, she cradled the pot against her stomach. Most mornings when she’d reached the brook, she’d hoped to find at least one live frog, but carrying the dead frogs away made her feel useful, as though she were performing a crucial service that no one else would or could do. At times, it also felt like an extension of some of the childhood play she and her husband had relished as kids: the lizard burials in matchboxes, the butterfly and firefly trappings in glass jars. Though she vowed that each morning’s brief hunt would be her last, she couldn’t stop, so much had she convinced herself that the frogs needed her and she them.

She dug into the dew-softened dirt with her fingers, making a hole large enough to bury the frogs under the almond tree, then went back into the house and spent the day in bed. Some days, she felt so free that she hardly remembered the baby in her body at all. But on other days, days like today, she felt as though she were carrying a nest of snakes in her stomach. Inès brought her meals to her in bed on those days, but she barely ate anything: the breakfast of boiled plantains and fried eggs, the lunch of rice and beans, and the
baby-fattening fried fish and stewed meats all looking to her even less appetizing than the dead frogs she’d planted in the ground.

“This heat and all this trouble with the frogs is surely a sign that something more terrible is going to happen,” Laurent told her when he came home that evening from town. He bent over to kiss her cheek, his face soaking with sweat.

Laurent Lavaud—Lolo to intimates, Lòl to his wife—was a small man, thinner and shorter than Gaëlle in her bare feet. He had a head of thick peppercorn hair and a wide grin that he seemed unable to restrain even when he was angry. He was from a family of tailors and textile shop owners, and because of the abundance of fabric at his own shop in town, dressed very well, lately favoring airy custom-made guayaberas and loose cotton pants.

While sliding into one of the two rocking chairs on the porch, Laurent told Gaëlle how when leaving Ville Rose’s only radio station, WZOR, Radio Zòrèy or Ear Radio, where he sponsored programs and sometimes sat in the studio to listen to some broadcasts, he’d seen a group of young thugs hanging around the station entrance. Rubbing her belly with one hand, as had become a habit now, while fanning herself with a straw hat with the other, Gaëlle was only pretending to be listening when she said, “Don’t think about it, Lòl. It will ruin your appetite.”

He nodded, and then went back to talking about the frogs. “In all my life, I’ve never heard of creatures dying like this.”

BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
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