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Authors: Edwidge Danticat

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BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
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Claire’s eyes were once again lowered, her shoulders slouched. “Fòk nou voye je youn sou lòt,” she said before walking out. “We must look after each other,”

The next few mornings were dazzling, filled with splinters of daylight that, all over the house, crisscrossed the mahogany floors. These were the types of mornings—quiet, sun-soaked—that evaporated all of Gaëlle’s fears about the outcome for the baby, even about living in the path of dangerous waters.

One of those mornings, a few weeks later, Gaëlle was
planning to work with Laurent in the shop for the day and he was waiting for her in the car. She detested wearing muumuus, but at this point she had no choice.

The passenger seat had grown small for her as her belly had expanded. Though Laurent was already inside the car, looking pensively down the stone pathway leading toward the road, the passenger side door was locked. Before she was pregnant, she might have hopped over the open top, but no more.

He unlocked the door, then held out his hand and helped her squeeze her body into the seat. He reached back and placed his hand on her lap, tapping it gently, as was his habit, as though following a beat.

Before he could put the key in the ignition, she said, “I want the baby to be named Rose.”

“For Sò Rose?” he asked.

She nodded.

Sò Rose, a direct ancestor of Gaëlle’s, was the free colored woman, the wealthy affranchie, who’d founded the town after Pauline Bonaparte had left. Sò Rose herself had been named by her slave mother and French father after Sainte Rose de Lima, the patroness of the southern region.

Gaëlle wanted to tell her husband that, whether their child was dead or alive, maimed or perfect, she would always love her. She loved that this child would connect them through time and that she would be born during their very first year of marriage. She wanted him to know that she couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from this Rose sooner than
she had to. Instead she said, “It’s a good name. Rose is a good name.”

“Common, though,” he said. “She’ll share it with so many. And then there’s history.”

“A saint, a heroine, and a town. There’s no shame in a name like that,” she said. “She will carry it fine. It’s a good name.”

Under normal circumstances, choosing a name—especially the name of their first child—would have been a glorious task, an occasion for those pleasant types of arguments that families discussed for years. He wanted this name, you often hear mothers say, and I wanted another. I won, or we compromised. But her husband wanted no name in this case. Whatever she’d proposed would have been okay with him, because he was convinced, just as the doctor was, that the child would not live even an hour, much less a day.

“Don’t stay out too long tonight,” she said, covering his hands with hers on her lap.

“You’re not coming to the shop?” he asked.

“Non,” she said.

She had been feeling some cramping in her lower back and down her legs, which had intensified since she’d sat down in the car. The baby was using her head to pound against Gaëlle’s lungs and spine, and it didn’t seem as though she’d stop anytime soon. At least she was still moving, Gaëlle thought.

“Should we call the doctor?” he asked.

“Not yet,” she said.


“It’s not so bad,” she said, and he seemed to believe her.

“Are you going to the radio station after closing?” she asked.

“Tomorrow is payroll,” he said. “They’re expecting me.”

“Why don’t you have someone bring them the money?” she asked.

“I won’t stay long,” he said, then kissed the side of her neck. It had thickened and grown darker as her due date approached, and part of her was eager to see it return to normal again: long and thin with a slight dusting of talcum powder.

She pressed her head against his so that his face could remain buried in her neck awhile longer.

“I have to go now if I’m coming home early,” he said, and turned away.

She opened the door and stepped out of the car. He got out and rushed to the other side, helping her to land on her feet, as the baby weight pulled her forward. She was grateful to remain upright as, after she repeatedly turned down his offer to walk her back into the house, she watched her husband get in the car and drive away. Standing there, watching him disappear behind the almond trees, she felt the muscles in her back tighten. She took slow, careful steps toward the house, then crawled into bed. She fell into a deep, exhausted sleep that was not even disrupted by Inès’s occasional rumbling forays into the room to make sure she was all right.

•  •  •

When Gaëlle woke up, it was midafternoon and the pain in her body was gone, so she decided to go for a walk. A mound of stones had been brought down by a recent mudslide, turning the brook a deep brown. Some of the almond trees had prematurely shed their fruits and in many places her path was blocked by large branches.

Gaëlle stood on the edge of the brook and tried to imagine it filled, as it had been in better days, with crystalline water, rippling over the rocks. She imagined her husband and herself as teenagers, jumping in for summer-afternoon swims with their friends, splashing one another and muddying the flow in some spots. Then one of the regular afternoon drizzles would start, a sun shower, or ghost rain, as her husband and his friends—a year or two older and thus considerably wiser—liked to call it. The devil was beating his wife and marrying his daughter, they said. The drizzle was both the wife’s and daughter’s tears. The sun was God drying their tears.

Another sun shower was also starting that afternoon when Gaëlle saw a tiny red koki lodged between two rocks. It was a baby frog, smaller than the size of her pinky finger, and it was lying on its side covered in ants, its four tiny legs stiff and up in the air, as though it had made some effort to crawl away from the ants and had failed.

Squatting down, she picked it up, slapping the ants away. They scattered madly, while others crawled up and down
her arms, stinging her. The ants must have not been there for long, because the koki was still whole, its interior organs, which she could spy through its sheer skin, intact. Without thinking, she wiped a warm mist from her face and stuffed the koki into her mouth.

The frog stank of mold and decay and was slippery as it landed on her tongue. And though the koki was dead, she imagined it struggling as she pushed back her head and allowed it to reach her throat. Among the many dreadful, difficult things about her pregnancy, after the doctor’s dire verdict, was that she had grown to hate the smell of her own body. Most days she thought she smelled like a latrine. The very air that floated around her disgusted her. And sometimes, even though she had decided to keep it, the child growing inside of her repulsed her too.

Her body tried to resist the koki in her throat, her gullet forcing it back upward, nearly making her vomit. She took another vigorous gulp and forced it down farther until she could almost feel it land, somewhere deep inside of her.

Here they were, she thought, drawing the thought out in her mind. Two types of animals were now inside of her, in peril: her daughter, Rose, and now this frog. Let them fight it out and see who will win.

The sun shower ended and the sun peeked out brighter than before as she walked back to the house. She stopped walking now and then to fight the stirring in her belly, swallowing hard to dilute the bitter taste in her mouth. When she returned home, she was smiling more than she had for days.

“I was just going to come after you,” Laurent said, rushing to greet her at their front door. “Inès told me you weren’t feeling well. Did she prescribe rain?”

He was smiling his crooked smile. She was happy that he was smiling, but she was also happy that he had listened. He had come home early just as she’d requested. When he asked where she had been, she said, “Avec les grenouilles. Par le ruisseau. La douche solaire.”

With the frogs, by the stream, when the sun shower began, had been a good enough explanation for him. She needed to walk to help the baby drop, to make easier the labor that lay ahead, possibly in a few short days, she said. That’s why she walked to the brook every morning and sometimes in the afternoons too. He now understood that.

“But no more in the rain,” he said.

“It was not rain. It was a sun shower,” she said. But he no longer seemed to think there was a difference.

Her stomach now settled, she changed muumuus and that evening ate more of her cornmeal porridge supper than she had of anything else in weeks. She’d marveled at her own peaks of joy followed by self-pity, over the full course of her pregnancy. These dark moods, almost like strange premonitions, were normal, given the circumstances, the doctor had told her when she’d found it hard to trust that she and Laurent wouldn’t also die along with the baby.

“After we survive this, no matter what happens to the baby, our obituaries in
La Rosette
will say that we died after a
valiant battle with a long illness,” Laurent would try to comfort her by saying. “We have many babies in us still.”

The following evening, the evening Gaëlle and Laurent’s daughter, Rose, was born, was a clear and bright night with a full moon and a cloudless sky, crammed with stars. On one side of Gaëlle’s room was a giant mirror and a lamp, both powered by the loud hum of the house generator. Seeing her half-naked body in the mirror at the foot of the bed made Gaëlle think of a jellyfish whose hood was billowing onto itself. Having the mirror there was originally her idea. She wanted to see her daughter as soon as she emerged from her body. She did not want to miss a second of looking into her child’s face. But in the end, she changed her mind right before she began pushing, and she motioned for Inès to place a sheet over the mirror, just as one would after a death. She also refused to have either her husband or the doctor called.

“They are going to take her away from me,” she kept saying. Folding her body in two to push the baby out, Gaëlle felt flattened and weak one second and invincible the next. Soon after Inès reached down between her legs and pulled out her daughter, Gaëlle cut the umbilical cord herself with a pair of brand-new scissors from the shop.

Both Gaëlle and Inès wept at the child’s swift arrival, but most of all at her unexpected flawlessness, at how magnificently whole she looked. She was plump and gorgeous,
a swirl of tiny curls covering her perfectly round head. She let out a long wail when her bottom was slapped. Her arms flailed in the air with gusto. There were no cysts on her back, or anywhere else on her body.

She was perfect, a perfect little Rose, who nonetheless looked like her father. It was obvious that she would not grow up to be a tall or stately woman, but soon after her umbilical cord was clamped, her dark eyes were already open, and when her mother held her up to her breasts, she immediately opened her still blood-tinted little mouth and started nursing.

On that perfectly starry night, Laurent Lavaud did not make it home in time to meet his daughter, Rose. There had been a shooting at Radio Zòrèy, where, not knowing that his wife had begun her labor, he’d stopped for a minute to drop off more sponsorship money. The shots had rung out as Laurent was leaving the station, and he was struck by three bullets to the heart and died on the spot. Even before his body was cold and the pool of blood under it had been covered with limestone powder, people immediately began to declare that his shooting was related to a new, urgent plague in Ville Rose, one that was even deadlier than the frogs: gangs.


Bernard Dorien was living in Cité Pendue, a destitute and treacherous extension of Ville Rose. Some people called it the region’s first circle of hell.

In spite of its stark reputation, Cité Pendue—twenty-eight miles from Port-au-Prince and eight miles from the center of Ville Rose—was actually only a midlevel slum. After all, it had a few Protestant churches, many Vodou temples, some restaurants and bakeries, and even a couple of dry cleaners.

For a while, there were no gang wars, just one gang, whose headquarters was a former food-storage warehouse that the dozen or so young male inhabitants called Baz Benin. (The men of Baz Benin gave themselves the monikers of Nubian royalty, which also happened to suggest menacing acts in Creole—Piye, for example, meaning “to pillage,” Tiye, meaning “to kill.”)

Bernard’s parents were restaurateurs in Cité Pendue. They had a slightly larger yard on their pebbled street than most of their neighbors, so they’d closed it off with corrugated metal, and there they served at least thirty customers
per night, more if the turnover was fast. At the center of their business were four long wooden tables spread out beneath a string of generator-fueled lightbulbs. They sold rice and beans, plantains, and cornmeal, but their specialty was barbecued pigeon meat.

The place was called Bè, Bernard’s parents’ nickname for him. Bè also meant “butter,” and Bernard’s mother liked to say when everyone asked her how she was doing that she was churning butter from water—m ap bat dlo pou m fè bè—which meant that she was always attempting the impossible, trying to make something worthwhile out of little or nothing.

Bernard’s parents had moved to Cité Pendue from a village in the surrounding mountains at a time when Cité Pendue was being used by most people as a temporary perch while their peasant children finished primary school. But as the trees in theirs and other provinces vanished into charcoal and the mountains crumbled and gave way, washing much-needed topsoil into the sea, the Doriens stayed in Cité Pendue, much as their neighbors had to, and raised their son—and hundreds of pigeons that over the years they sold both alive and dead for breeding or for food.

Most of their customers at one point had been nervous young men who wanted to perform a Cité Pendue ritual before their first sexual encounter. They’d slit a squab’s throat, then let it bleed into a mixture of Carnation condensed milk and a carbonated malt beverage called Malta. Sometimes their fathers would come with them and, after the sons had held their noses and forced down the drink, the fathers would
laugh and say, as the pigeon’s headless body gyrated on the ground, “I pity that girl.”

BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
12.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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