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Authors: Edwidge Danticat

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BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
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It was a ritual Bernard’s parents didn’t approve of. But for each bird that was killed this way they were paid enough to breed more. They mourned the days when people had come to buy pigeons for racing, or to train as carriers, or as pets for their small children. Then they began missing the days of the fathers and sons, because suddenly their customers were beefy young men who’d gathered themselves into what were at first called “popular organizations,” then gangs.

The gang members were also called chimè, chimeras or ghosts, and were, for the most part, street children who couldn’t remember ever having lived in a house, boys whose parents had been murdered or had fallen to some deadly disease, leaving them alone in the world. Later, these young men were joined by older neighborhood men. These older men were “connected”—that is, ambitious business owners as well as local politicians used them to swell the ranks of political demonstrations, gave them guns to shoot when a crisis was needed, and withdrew them when calm was required.

Sometimes, before one of these demonstrations, so many men came for the milk-Malta-pigeon-blood mix that Bernard’s parents were tempted to close the pigeon-killing business for good. And finally they did.

Still, with the money they’d made from the pigeons, the Doriens were able to add to the menu. They bought the house next door to them, the one attached to the Baz Benin warehouse, and added a few more tables to serve their growing
clientele. Bernard’s father also bought a small camion that he drove back and forth between Cité Pendue and Ville Rose daily, packed with people and sometimes livestock. He was always at the restaurant for their busiest time, though, between nine in the evening and one in the morning, when the gang members, many of whom had brought the drug trade with them from the capital, would take over most of the establishment. Watching these boys drift from being mere sellers to casual users of what they liked to call the poud blan, the white man’s powder, watching these boys grow unrecognizable to anyone but one another, Bernard’s parents were repulsed and afraid. But they still kept the place open, because the same blight that was destroying Cité Pendue was allowing them to prosper, to send their son to school with the heirs and heiresses of Ville Rose’s tiny middle class, to make contacts that one day might help him get a good job or find a decent match for marriage.

To stay out of the gangs, Bernard had joined the regular national police force (not the Special Forces). Although he was just twenty years old, scrawny, and had the distinctive family trait of a disproportionately large head that gained him the nickname Tèt Veritab, Breadfruit Head, the police academy in Port-au-Prince had accepted him. But Bernard had found that, even though his training was in the capital, he couldn’t be a police rookie and have his parents survive in Cité Pendue. Every time a gang member was arrested in Cité Pendue, Bernard was blamed for it, putting his parents’ lives in danger. More than this, his parents were heartbroken
that he had left. His mother told him every time they spoke on the phone how she wished he’d return home. It was his first nearly fatal asthma attack in some time—he’d suffered from them since childhood—that forced the police academy to let him go during a particularly taxing training session. But while he’d been in Port-au-Prince, spending endless hours in traffic, in tap taps, communal buses, and taxis, he’d fallen in love with the radio, especially the news and commentary, call-in, and interview programs, which seemed to blast from every house, car, street-corner business, or shop. So now Bernard spent all the time he wasn’t helping out at his parents’ restaurant working as a modestly paid newswriter at Ville Rose’s only radio station, Radio Zòrèy.

Having grown up in Cité Pendue, and having seen many of the changes there firsthand, Bernard imagined himself becoming the kind of radio journalist who’d talk about what he preferred to call the “geto,” from the inside. An idea came to him one night while he was walking from his parents’ small concrete-block kitchen, which they had built close to the street to tempt passersby with appetizing smells, to the table where Tiye, a one-armed gang leader, was nursing a beer and a massive cigar. Tiye was wearing his plastic-steel-combination artificial arm under a long-sleeved peacock-blue shirt and was expertly raising and lowering the beer to his mouth with the prosthetic’s shiny metal hooks. Surrounded by three eager “lieutenants,” Tiye was laughing so hard about the way he’d once slapped a man, when he had both his arms—sandwiching the man’s head between his palms
and pounding both his ears—that he had to dab tears from his own cheeks. Bernard, eavesdropping, wished he’d had a video camera, or at least a tape recorder. He wanted the rest of Cité Pendue, the rest of Ville Rose, the rest of the country, to know what made men who were the same age as he, men who lived in the same place he did, men like Tiye, cry.

We can’t move forward as a neighborhood, as a town, or as a country—he’d thought as he brought Tiye and his friends another round of beers—unless we know what makes these men cry. They cannot remain chimè, chimeras, phantoms, or ghosts to us forever. His commentary segment at Radio Zòrèy, if he were ever given one, would be called
Chimè
, or
Ghosts
.

His only viable competition at the station would be a popular weekly program called
Di Mwen
, or
Tell Me
, a weekly interview/gossip show, hosted by a raspy-voiced woman named Louise George. Just as
Di Mwen
had been at first,
Ghosts
would be controversial, but soon people all over Ville Rose would tune in to it—Bernard was certain of it. A kind of sick voyeurism would keep them listening, weekly, monthly, however often he was on. People would rearrange their schedules around it. They wouldn’t be able to stop themselves from discussing it. What are the men and women in the geto up to now? listeners would ask themselves. They’d be encouraged to figure out ways to alleviate the gang problem. Also featured on the program would be psychologists, human-behavior experts, and neighborhood planners.

Max Ardin, Jr., who was Bernard’s friend and the host of
a rap music program at the station, liked Bernard’s pitch. But he was also skeptical. Though he was only nineteen and had gotten the job through his father’s connections, Max Junior still knew a lot about the radio business. Besides, Bernard trusted him.

“I’m feeling everything you’re saying, but the management won’t buy it,” Max Junior said while keeping Bernard company one afternoon as Bernard typed away on an old electric typewriter at the far end of a long desk in the newsroom. “Who’ll sponsor a program like that?”

“The government should sponsor it,” Bernard said, as he retyped that day’s news from the wires into conversational Creole for the announcer to read on the air. “We’d be offering a public service.”

“You should pitch it to our boss,” Max Junior said. “But I bet he’ll be too scared to take it on.”

Just as his friend predicted, Bernard’s program was not picked up, at least not with his involvement. But a few weeks later, while typing that afternoon’s news script, Bernard heard a taping for a program called
Homme à Homme
, or
Man to Man
. The program, announced the host, a former army colonel, would consist of in-studio conversations between gang members and Cité Pendue and Ville Rose business leaders.

“They’ll hash out their differences,” he heard the colonel say, “with the help of a trained arbitrator.”

The first program did just that, pairing an ice factory owner, who’d had his place broken into at least once a month for over a year, with another gang leader from Cité Pendue,
a nemesis of Tiye’s, who was believed to have vandalized the ice factory.

“What do you expect?” the gang member told the ice vendor. “You’re chilling in all this ice while we’re here boiling in hell.”

The arbitrator, a female psychologist, who’d called in to the station from Port-au-Prince, then suggested the obvious, that the businessman find some way to share his ice, sell it at a lower price to the people who lived near his factory, and that the gang leader respect the property of others.

What’s worse, Bernard was forced to hear the entire show again on the radio his mother sometimes had on in the restaurant, as he was serving drinks to Tiye and his crew, among others. Tiye and his friends had known about Bernard’s pitch for the show—he had approached them as possible guests—and, as he served them their beers, they teased him. “Hey, man, they stole your idea!”

A few of them tried to grab Bernard as he put the bottles on the table—as if to squeeze out the anger they knew was bubbling inside him. The more they laughed, the angrier he got. Tiye was still laughing when he said, “Bernard, bro, that show is kaka. I should find them all and kick their ass.”

“That’s right,” Piye, Tiye’s second lieutenant, chimed in.

“Bernard,” someone else said. “You should kick the ass of the guy who stole your show.”

Just then Bernard’s mother called him over to the kitchen, to pick up more beers, he thought. But on top of the old refrigerator in which they kept the drinks was his mother’s most
lavish personal acquisition, an old rotary phone. His friend Max Junior was on the line.

He thought Max Junior would be calling about the show, but instead his friend said, “I’m calling to say good-bye, man. My fucking father is sending me to Miami.”

“Really?” Bernard said, both incredulous and sad. “When are you coming back?”

“I don’t know,” his friend replied.

“Who’s doing your show while you’re gone?” Bernard asked.

“I’m not sure,” Max Junior said.

“Maybe I can fill in for you,” Bernard said.

“Maybe,” Max Junior said, then added, “Man, they stole your idea.”

“Truth is,
Homme à Homme
is not the show I wanted to do,” Bernard said, trying to contain his sadness over both his departing friend and his show. “I wanted something closer to the skin. Something more personal.”

Tiye and his guys were chanting from their tables, “Kraze bouda yo! Kraze bouda yo! Kick their asses! Kick their asses!” Their voices were so loud that Bernard could barely hear Max Junior anymore.

“I’ll call you from Miami,” Max Junior said.

After he hung up, Bernard stood with his head pressed against the concrete wall and waited for Tiye and his crew to leave before returning to the tables. His mother and the neighborhood girls she’d hired came in soon after to wash the dirty dishes. His mother’s stern expression never changed.
It was as if the heat of the kitchen had melted and sealed it. He thought, miserably, that even if she didn’t work again for the rest of her life, whatever beauty she’d had when she was young and wasn’t cooking for dozens of people every day would never come back.

He convinced his mother to go to sleep a little earlier than usual, before going to bed himself. In his room, whose walls and ceiling he’d painted bright red when he was a teenager, he felt both Max Junior’s sudden good-bye and the loss of the show deep in his gut. Now it would be much harder to pitch his idea to another radio station in the capital or somewhere else. The programmers could always say, “But
Homme à Homme
is already airing. We don’t want to give these gangsters too much of a platform.” He fell asleep thinking he’d have to redefine his idea, sharpen it, add music. When he came back from Miami, Max Junior could help him with that. They could play reggae-influenced hip-hop like Max Junior played on his show, while in between songs Bernard would let his neighbors speak.

Bernard was still asleep the next morning when a dozen Special Forces policemen dressed all in black and with balaclava-covered faces knocked down the front gate of his parents’ house, climbed up to his room, and dragged him out of bed. He was shoved into the back of a pickup even as his mother wailed uncontrollably and his father shouted that a great injustice was taking place.

When they reached the nearest commissariat, a small crowd of print, TV, and radio journalists, including his boss, were waiting for him. The night before, Ville Rose’s police spokesperson, a shrill-voiced woman, explained, there had been a shooting at Radio Zòrèy. Four men with M16s and machine guns had been seen jumping out of an SUV. They had shot at the front gates of the two-story building, killing Laurent “Lolo” Lavaud, a fabric shop owner and very generous Radio Zòrèy sponsor. The police had arrested Tiye, the notorious head of Baz Benin. Tiye had named Bernard as the auteur intellectuel, the mastermind, of the crime, the person who had sent him and his men to do the job. Bernard was not allowed to speak. He was only meant to stand there, like a menacing prop, surrounded by the hooded police team with his wrists handcuffed behind his back, while the same flashbulbs kept erupting and a video camera light pierced his eyes and questions were shouted at his accusers.

The box of a room where Bernard was then taken to be questioned was narrow and hot, with the stench of fresh vomit wafting in the air. In addition to the creaking metal chair, on which he was placed with his hands still cuffed behind him, the room had a cement floor and a ceiling light box whose flickering beams streamed past the black cloth that one of the policemen had placed over Bernard’s eyes.

During his questioning by the police, Bernard was repeatedly punched on the back of his head. This reminded
him of Tiye’s description of the two-handed slaps given to the men who’d once been hit by Tiye’s lost arm.

“You know Tiye?” Because of the blindfold, which also covered his ears, many of the voices sounded distant and distorted, until some of the officers moved their mouths close to his ears and began shouting so loud that he thought his eardrums would pop. One of them blew smoke into his face. In his brief police training, Bernard had not yet gotten to the classes on suspect interrogation methods. Were these the methods they would have covered? he wondered bitterly.

“Wi,” Bernard replied, coughing. “I know Tiye.” His lungs felt as though they were closing in a new way, as though they would never open again. The constriction forced out chunks of last night’s dinner onto the front of his pajama top, and when he was allowed to bend his neck, down on his lap.

BOOK: Claire of the Sea Light
9.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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