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Authors: Edwidge Danticat

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BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
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As an adolescent, Laurent had been a frequent hand-rolled-tobacco-leaf smoker. At times, when he made some pronouncement—for he had one of those voices that sounded as though it were always making pronouncements—he sounded a bit out of breath.

With their house in the middle of a notorious floodplain, near a tributary that joined several brooks, creeks, and rivers, Gaëlle thought that hundreds of rotting frogs might be an obvious catastrophe. But each morning, she made it a point to sniff the morning air and found no smell of dead frogs at all. As soon as their burnished skins and tiny organs were exposed to the sun, she realized, most of the frogs dried up, dissolving beneath the lily pads or into the riverbeds.

That there was no putrid odor was a lucky thing. At this stage of her pregnancy most things still sent Gaëlle retching. And yet two smells bothered her not at all: the clammy odor of dead frogs and the inky fragrance of brand-new cloth, which she enjoyed so much that at times her husband suspected her of secretly nibbling away at their merchandise whenever she was at their fabric shop.

A few weeks after they first began to die, the frogs and their cadavers disappeared altogether. The early-summer rains flooded the town’s creeks and rivers, drowning the remaining
frog population and depositing a tall layer of sandy loam near Gaëlle and Laurent’s house. The waters had been strong enough to unearth the lengthy roots of the young vetiver grass that grew wild near their home. Some years they’d actually made a profit from their wild vetiver, which was not only good for the soil but also much sought after by two perfume company suppliers in the nearby southern city of Les Cayes. Those years when the vetiver flourished, Laurent and Gaëlle would use the extra money to plant a few more rows of almond trees near the outer sections of their property. Gaëlle especially loved the almond trees, and before she was pregnant and developed an aversion to them, would crush their fibrous fruits with river stones to dig out the kernels.

One evening, noticing that Laurent had returned late from the shop yet again, Inès, the bold and barrel-chested woman who’d been their housekeeper since they’d gotten married, greeted him with a silver tray and a glass of lemonade.

“Will Msye be eating tonight?” Inès asked in a scolding voice as deep as Laurent’s.

Laurent shook his head no. He didn’t like to eat at night and often arrived home late, after his wife had had her supper.

It had crossed Gaëlle’s mind—as maybe it had Inès’s—that since Gaëlle had known her husband since she was a girl and had become pregnant only a month into their marriage, he might have already taken up with another woman in town. Gaëlle also knew of his interest in the radio—his eagerness to watch the program hosts and hostesses work from the control booth was as strong as his erotic desires—and she believed
him when he said that this was what he was doing in town after he closed the shop.

The next evening, Laurent came home early, carrying a handful of red azaleas for Gaëlle. Over the past few months, Gaëlle had learned that she could tolerate her husband’s errors and obsessions, as long as they ended with red azaleas. There was comfort in that.

To escape the heat, they got in his Cabriolet and Laurent lowered the top and drove into the oldest part of town, past the vine-covered lookout tower of a castle that had been started in the years when Haiti was still a French colony, as a gift for Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister Pauline. The castle, one of the town’s most remarkable relics, had been left unfinished in 1802, when Pauline Bonaparte’s husband died from yellow fever and she sailed with his body back to France. Some of its stone walls remained, although no one had seen fit to make any type of official monument out of them. Tubers were planted where Pauline’s drawing rooms and boudoir should have stood. Cows and goats grazed around them. Children played afternoon soccer games in what would have been the zoological park meant to house Pauline’s large menagerie of wild native animals.

Once they passed the ruins of the castle, which was called Abitasyon Pauline, Laurent drove over the old tracks behind the sugarcane fields and the umbrella-shaped roof of the kleren plant emerged. The smell of raw liquor filled the entire
street; it was said that if you stood long enough on that street you could get drunk just from the air. Laurent and Gaëlle had tried it many times and it hadn’t worked. They tried again that night to inhale some hazy happiness and forced light-headedness, but it still didn’t work. They then continued to the public lycée on the corner. The first floor was made of concrete and the second story was made of wood. Most of the structures in that part of town were built like this; construction materials were randomly mixed, creating a piecemeal that the people called achitekti pèpè.

Those drives, to her, were also journeys into their past. When they were students at this school, so few people had cars that dreaming about having one of your own was like wishing you had an airplane in your front yard. When Lòl was seventeen and his father bought him the black Peugeot Cabriolet they were still driving, he became the leader of their pack, the prince of their crowd. And she, being his intended, was the one scheduling the car, organizing trips, deciding who could or could not be a part of their inner circle. During the feast day of Sainte Rose de Lima, because roses were too expensive and she didn’t like lilacs, they would cover the front of the car with red azaleas and she would sit next to him in the passenger seat as he drove in the religious procession with the car’s top down.

They now drove farther uphill toward the old Anthère lighthouse, near where Gaëlle had spent her childhood. They parked in front of the bougainvillea-covered gates of her grandparents’ house, which had been empty since her mother
and father had moved to Port-au-Prince. Looking down at the dark horizon over the beach, her husband reached for the flashlight on the dashboard and turned it on before they got out of the car. They followed a long and narrow footpath through the alley of palms that led down to the water. Hand in hand, they walked between the canoes and sailboats, most of which were named after saints, mothers, lovers, or wives. The flaps of many of the fishermen’s windows were open, even at this late hour. Every few feet offered a glimpse of some private act by the light of a kerosene or hurricane lamp: a child being nursed or smacked, a husband and wife arguing, another pair undressing, a late supper of bread and tea being savored.

The fishermen’s wives called out greetings to her and Laurent as they walked by. This was both the blessing and the curse of a town like theirs, a kind of village, really, to which Gaëlle and Laurent and their families had always belonged.

“Sea air’s good for the baby,” many of the women called behind her.

The baby? What did they all know about the baby? Soon enough they would know everything, but for now the baby’s story was only hers, Laurent’s and hers.

Gaëlle hadn’t wanted to do it. But because he claimed the fetus was developing too slowly, the gynecologist at Sainte Thérèse had insisted on a sonogram. The baby, determined by the images to be a girl, was shown to have a cyst growing in her chest and down her entire spine. If she lived long enough to be born, the doctor said, she would probably die
soon after. Both the doctor and Laurent had thought Gaëlle should abort before she was too far along. But Gaëlle wanted to carry full term, to see the whole thing through.

The next day Laurent had some other business in town and asked Gaëlle if she could spend a few hours at the fabric shop in his place. Gaëlle welcomed the idea. She relished the thought of standing behind the counter and greeting customers, who’d offer her an excuse to roll out the massive spools of muslin, kaliko, organza, and gabardine that lined the shop’s crowded shelves. All of this, she hoped, would also keep her mind off the baby.

Gaëlle’s first customer that morning was Claire Narcis, a pretty young woman whose long, tightly cornrowed hair sometimes made her look like a child.

After Gaëlle had become pregnant, Claire Narcis, like almost everyone else, brought her a few small presents now and then when she came into the shop. Most of the time it was food, often fresh snapper, which Claire Narcis’s man had caught and which she would show Gaëlle in the shop and then carry to Inès so it would be cooked fresh. Other times it was mangoes, avocadoes, or yams. But every once in a while, Claire Narcis would bring her something for the baby, blankets or jumpers, neither pink nor blue, but yellow or green, almost as a way of quietly inquiring about the sex of the child. This time, Claire Narcis brought an embroidered green blanket bordered in a delicate bridal lace that Gaëlle
had sold her a week earlier without knowing its true purpose. That morning, with her pregnancy-sharpened sense of smell, Gaëlle could even detect on her the dead that Claire Narcis washed and dressed at Albert Vincent’s funeral home most days. She caught a whiff of the embalming fluids and lemon-scented disinfectant and tried to ignore them as she untied her own shop’s beige rope, unwrapped her own brown paper, to behold Claire Narcis’s offering.

“I know it’s bad luck to offer such a thing before the baby is here,” Claire Narcis began, lowering her gaze as people of a lesser station in life were expected to.

Gaëlle reached over the counter and raised Claire Narcis’s face, rocking it gently in her palm. There was no time to say or do anything else. Other customers were walking through the gate, and although Gaëlle had two salespeople helping her, she was the only one Laurent trusted to collect payment.

“Thank you for everything you’ve given me,” Gaëlle told Claire Narcis, looking into her eyes. “But no more.”

A gentle sheet of rain began to fall outside. As the sun dimmed and the air darkened and the sound of the rain grew louder and louder on the shop’s tin roof, a group of soaked passersby entered the shop’s front gallery and stood, packed next to one another, in the space between the counter and the door. They were quiet, strangely so, as the rain grew in intensity, pounding the dust into mud.

Gaëlle couldn’t help but worry that the rivers near her house might swell again, bringing mudslides down from the
hills. Hers and Laurent’s was now the only house so close to the rivers. The other houses, newer yet shabbier, had been dragged downstream year after year in flash floods, many with entire families inside. Soon after they’d gotten engaged, Laurent had chosen the land and location as a surprise. He’d sketched the plans for the house himself and had spent his nights after work at the shop updating and revising each detail as the house was built from the ground up. He had driven to the capital to purchase the gables and louvers himself. (He had refused to get married until the house was done.) So now, after all that, he wasn’t going to just pick up and move.

Many of the peasants living in the villages surrounding Ville Rose were just as stubborn. Laurent often held meetings in the shop with the peasants who lived up- and downriver from them, warning them that the rivers were swelling in response to the lack of trees, the land erosion, the dying topsoil.

“What do you want us to do, Msye Lavaud?” they’d ask him in return. “Help us find something to replace the wood we need for charcoal and we will stop.”

Sometimes, in Laurent’s attempts to get the villagers to stop cutting down trees, he’d reach for the basest of metaphors, the most melodramatic pleas.

“It’s like killing a child,” he’d say.

“If I have to kill a tree child to save my child,” they’d reply, “I’ll do it, sou de chèz.”

And now, because of the town’s and villagers’ needs, her husband’s dream house might soon be underwater. She and
Laurent might wake up one night floating in their bed, might have to climb on top of their roof to wait for the current to die down. Silently pondering all this, Gaëlle put her hands on the back of her widening hips. Might she even have to give birth in a tree?

“It’s terrible,” Claire Narcis declared in a now thunderous voice so that she’d be heard above all the others and above the pounding rain. “With all the heat and rain this year, we’ll either melt or be washed away,” she added, as though interpreting each layer of worry on Gaëlle’s face.

Gaëlle continued to measure Claire’s order, adding a few more yards as degi, in gratitude, and leaving it to the others taking shelter in the shop to continue the discussion.

“These frogs dying earlier this year weren’t a good sign either.” Suzanne Boncy, the octogenarian florist and a Miss Haiti during the Second World War, was the only one participating in the discussion in French rather than Creole. All the voices now came booming out, almost deafening in the shop’s small space, competing with hers.

“Not all bad the frogs died,” Elie, the town’s best car mechanic butted in. “Knew a crazy woman once. Would catch small frogs by the river, throw them in her mouth. Smaller and more colorful they are, more poison frogs have in them. Woman died from this, everyone said so. Better for the children and for crazy people the frogs are not around.”

Madame Boncy reached into the side pocket of her billowing pink dress and pulled out a folded copy of the town’s one-page weekly newspaper. She pointed to a story about the
dead frogs and, for those who couldn’t read, explained erpétologie, or the study of reptiles and amphibians, including frogs. The article in the paper had been written by a herpetologist who had come all the way from Paris to uncover the reasons for the frogs’ dying. According to Madame Boncy, the herpetologist had stated that, given his studies of the condition of the frog carcasses and the dirt and water samples he’d taken of their environment, and given the climate and blistering temperatures in Ville Rose that summer, the frogs had probably died from a fungal disease caused by the hotter-than-usual weather.

The rain was winding down, and soon it was sunny outside again. The people who’d come into the fabric shop to seek shelter were now making their way back into the street. The bells of Sainte Rose de Lima chimed the noon hour and the camions and other public transportation vehicles began circulating again, splashing muddy water everywhere.

“Mèsi, Claire,” Gaëlle said as she handed her the package.

BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
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