Transition 086 - Featured Article

Down By The River

 

Marilene Phipps

It is Saturday, eleven in the morning, so Angelina sits and waits by the phone. Most Saturdays she sits in the big office chair that used to be my father's. Her legs are stretched apart, her toes fan out in the hot October air. Her pigtails carry two barrettes each, one at the base and one at the tip, and she is wearing the white dress her uncle Noula bought her to wear at her father's funeral, back in May. The Saturday phone call is the big event of her week. Beginning each Wednesday, Maxènn, who volunteered to take care of her, tells Angelina that there are only three days to go. Friday evenings, while she settles on her mat to sleep, he tells her, It's tomorrow, and she always replies, I wish it were morning already!

Saturday mornings, Angelina wakes up early. Maxènn and his daughters, who are seven and nine years old, get her ready. The girls came from the provinces to stay with their father during the summer months. A clean dress—one of four—is ironed. Angelina is bathed, soaped, shampooed, teased, tickled, dried, and dressed. Maxènn's daughters compete to oil and comb her hair. They love her. Angelina has begun to develop bald spots on her scalp, particularly on the right side, where the girls start the combing, their energy fresh, their attention focused. Hair is important to little girls, but nappy hair isn't easy, it takes more practice. When eleven o'clock draws near, Angelina is ready. The little girl takes Maxènn's hand, and together they climb the steep and narrow stairs that lead through the garden to the big house with the telephone.

Angelina's father, Sovè, died spitting blood, undiagnosed, the way people in the slums die—suffering from an unnamed ailment for months or years until the body gives out. What is the point of a diagnosis if you can't afford the treatment? What is the point, when it isn't really the illness that kills you, but destitution, a lifetime of skipped meals and constant worry, watching your children die, more of them underground than jumping rope on the swept dirt in front of the one-room hut where sleeping mats are rolled up in a corner?

Sovè loved Angelina. Everyone who knew them says so. Angelina had been only eighteen months old when her mother, Fifi, died. Fifi wasn't even sick, she just collapsed one afternoon, complaining of stomach pains. Her neighbors carried her to bed. For long, worried hours, Angelina watched her mother's friend Elmita fetch water from the nearby stream, then offer a sip to her trembling lips, sponging a face Angelina would never remember, a face without a photograph. That same evening, Fifi died. Sovè was still at work.

Fifi came from the northern town of Cap-Haitien. “On bèl moun bouch ròz”—a pretty girl with pink lips, that's what the neighbors said about her. “Li te renmen chante”; she liked to sing. No one ever saw Fifi's family. None of them came to her funeral. The last words she managed to utter before dying were to Elmita: “M kite ti pitit mwen nan men w, li va rele w Manman.” I leave my baby in your hands, she will call you Mother.

That is how Angelina came to think of Elmita as her mother. Most days, she went next door to Elmita's while Sovè crossed the river to work in my father's garden. Every night, he cooked rice and beans for dinner. Just rice and beans. Some days, nothing. Some days she ate slum-dirt, though she says she was not allowed to. Sometimes he would bring her a mango from my father's garden. Sovè was a quiet man, and he liked to interpret dreams for people.

His brother Noula, on the other hand, makes up dreams, tells Bouki and Malis stories—tales of greed and trickery. And Noula drinks kleren. When he is drunk, noisy with songs, noisy in the head with noisy spirits, he likes to dance on top of the high wall that runs along my father's garden, overlooking the slums on the opposite hill. If you ask Angelina about the white dress she is wearing today, she'll tell you Elmita bought it for her father's funeral, but actually, it's Noula who bought it.

I didn't cry, she brags, remembering the day.

And what did you see?

“Anyen.” Nothing.

Maybe she really saw nothing. Or maybe a girl of three and a half has no words to describe what she saw. Maybe “nothing” was a wish. Or maybe the coffin was too high for her to see inside. Maybe the coffin was too scary, and she didn't want anyone to pick her up to look inside. The man she knew had nothing to do with the body that had been carried out of the house. She knew her father was in the box that sat in the middle of the church, but no familiar voice came out of it, no familiar hand reached for hers. Maybe she sensed that what was in the box was only an image, made to burn the eyes and sear the mind.

Elmita had told her to sit. So she sat. And now, stretched stiff in a box, the Power who every day had told her what to do was no longer telling her anything. Death meant stillness, black suits, the glimmer of black tears on black faces. But death also meant her first pair of shoes; her first dress, and a pair of red panties that she borrowed from Elmita's daughter, Jenny. Death, for Angelina, was also the beginning of Things in her life. Things wanted. Things needed. A white dress that eventually gets too small to wear. A white dress that gets folded up and put in a drawer. A white dress that is taken out, in time, with a feeling like a fire in her mind.

When Sovè died, Elmita took Angelina in. Jenny and her half-sister Nadine became Angelina's sisters. They were sitting together in front of their house the first time I met Angelina. She looked pensive then, and when I came back several weeks later, she looked pensive still. Some afternoons, I would send Onèl—my messenger boy—to ask Elmita if Angelina could come and visit me. Elmita would send her with the red panties on.

You see this dress, Angelina? No, not that one, the blue one here vvith ruffles and pink rik-rak ribbons. Yes? OK, I will buy it for you after we get back from the lab. Yes, there is going to be a needle again. Yes, ti chou, I'm sorry, I know it hurt the last time, but the doctor needs to check again. We need to make sure you don't get sick; Sovè would not want his little girl to get sick like him, and he is watching you, and he knows you are strong and brave, and he is proud of you. Do you like this blue dress? Yes, this will be the second blue dress I buy for you, blue like the sky. That's right, that's where your papa is.

Wi. Yes. That was the first word Angelina said to me, the first time I heard her voice. Wi! She did want the little white papier-mâché bird I was offering her—white, with a red spot on the head. She held that bird all afternoon, wherever I drove her, wherever we sat, wherever we ate; she used one hand, never letting go of the bird in the other. A few days later, I asked her how the bird was doing. The bird had flown away. I told her to tell Elmita that I said the bird must fly back to Angelina. It did.

Every day Angelina watched for Onèl on the trail leading to Elmita's. But Onèl did not come every day. When he did come, he never reached Elmita's before an excited Angelina burst out of nowhere, asking, “Se men menm ou vin chache?” Is it me you've come to fetch?

Seeing all this, Elmita started to hurt.

* * *

In my father's kitchen, boxes mushroomed out of every corner. The stove and the refrigerator seemed out of place. The kitchen table, which once occupied center stage, had been pushed against a wall. At one end, my father sat for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner, alone, served by Venant. He complained about her food, her torn dress, the trash that was never emptied, the ants that got in the biscottes, the silverware that disappeared. He complained about the noise the cooking pots made, the crows made, the street vendors made, the neighbors made, the neighbors' cars made, the motorcycles made. He complained that Venant complained too much: “Mon Dieu ce qu'elle peut babiller! Mais ce qu'elle peut babiller!” he would say to me in polished French. Venant was unimpressed. “Lamè, sispann babye, banm zorèy mwen!” he'd yell at her. Mother of God, stop complaining, give my ears a break! Yet it was Venant who picked him up off the floor when he fell out of bed, dragged him out of the shower when he had a dizzy spell, sat him on the bed, dried him off, got a clean shirt out of his closet, handed him his teeth. It was Venant, in tears, at my father's funeral, wearing a black dress, black shoes, black hat, dark glasses, standing in front of my father's corpse, scolding him, complaining that he should have known better than to get into that truck, known better than to get excited and scream at the workmen all morning under the sun without a proper hat. Hadn't she told him? Hadn't she told him? “Misye Dèlma, èske m pa t di w?” Venant, arms raised to the sky, beating her chest, hitting her sides, invoking God, telling him it can't be that she is standing here, midday, before Misye Dèlma lying in his coffin. Venant, ready to drop to the ground in protest. My mother, embarrassed, telling her to go and sit.

In the boxes were things my father had bought. Out of the boxes came Persian rugs, chandeliers, crystal vases, antique mirrors, Degas lithographs purchased in Paris, paintings of Haiti and French Provence and black girls' breasts and white girls' rumps, and bouquets of primroses, Tiffany lamps, porcelain dishes, glasses, silverware, embroidered doilies, linen and lace tablecloths, sheets, towels, pillows, silver corkscrews, coathangers, shoeshine sponges, batteries, light bulbs, artificial birds. You'd think he was getting married! And he was—to the mountain in Thomassin where he was building a house. He was espousing the mountain, the view from the mountain over Port-au-Prince Bay. Espousing a new life, away from the downtown heat, the dirt, the dust, the poverty, the slums climbing hills like fungus, away from his own depression, away from beggars who show up at your gate and wait there for days on end, hoping to outlast all your efforts to ignore them, waiting until exasperation finally drives you to ask what they want, and whatever they answer, you put a few cents in their callous hands, the way you might throw corn kernels at a chicken to send it pecking farther away.

My brother and I were unpacking the boxes in the kitchen with Michèl, a man who did odd jobs for our father. The house in Thomassin was two months from being finished when Father died: apple orchard planted, rocaille garden blooming. My brother stood at the gate and saw it happen. He saw the yellow truck speeding down the alley, wondered why Father was driving so damn fast, saw the truck hit a post, Father's head hit the windshield. Father was still fighting for breath when his right hand was pulled from the brake, his body carried out of the truck. Now we were unpacking all that he had carefully packed, all the things that he had dreamed of unpacking.

We need a strong man like Sovè to help us carry all that stuff to the depot, my brother said, out of the blue.

Michèl responded at once: “Pouki w nonmen non Sovè?” Why invoke Sovè's name?

Why not?

“Sovè mouri yè o swat” Sovè died last night.

I had only met Sovè a few days before. I no longer lived in Haiti; I had come home for my father's funeral. Sovè had come to speak to me after the burial. He asked if he could keep planting grass where my father had asked him to—he had not finished the job yet. I said, OK, let's discuss it later. Then I forgot about Sovè. But he came back. Waited through the morning. I still couldn't discuss it. He waited until the right day, came back again. I went down to the garden with him and he showed me the bald spots. We argued about a price and I won.

And now Sovè was dead. My brother told us of a dream Sovè had: Father had asked Sovè to plant a palm tree in the garden, and now he reproached him for not doing it. Sovè was not one to take a chance and ignore the dead—Misye Dèlma was fearsome enough when he was alive. Surely Sovè was also solicitous of Grann Ayizan—the ancient vodou, spirit, guardian of family, whose sacred tree is the palm.

My father lies in the darkness of his own grave, under the apricot tree by the river. That is where he wanted to be buried. You know, I said to my brother after he told us Sovè's dream, yesterday I saw Sovè, and he asked permission to plant grass around Father's grave. Now, that same day, he dies. It seemed that everyone was dreaming of my father. I felt abandoned—I never saw him in my dreams.

But when I heard there was an orphaned little girl somewhere across the river, something stirred. I knew that Sovè had meant to plant a palm tree in our garden. He had planted for the family. This gardener's seed was growing, across the river, and in my heart. I asked the man who told us of Sovè's death, “Ki jan ti fi a rele?” What's the little girl's name?

I found Angelina on the floor, in a faded, flowered dress that was too short, too tight, and torn. Her hair was disheveled, her legs and bare feet gray with dust. Yet this was not neglect. This was poverty, lamizè. Elmita, chin up, arms crossed, a yellow comb stuck in the uncombed half of her black hair, moved in front of me, barring the children from my view: “Ki sa w vle?” What do you want?

* * *

The blue dress from the Baptist mission became a measure of Elmita's feelings about me. After I had bought it from the mission shop, Angelina and I sat down in the cafeteria. Angelina was facing her very first hot dog. Across from us sat a family of Mennonites—father, pregnant mother, and eight blond children. They knew all about ketchup, milk shakes, French fries, and hot dogs. I had spotted the dress right away. There was only one left on the racks; it was just Angelina's size. I stood her on the counter next to the cash register and asked her if she wanted to try it on. She smiled. Back in my room that afternoon, I turned the radio on the vodou music station and Angelina danced on the bed.

Afterward, when I asked Onèl to go and see if Angelina could visit with me, Elmita sent her with the blue dress on. Then I bought sandals. So Elmita sent her with blue dress and sandals. Then, one day, it was the blue dress and a new pair of boots with matching socks. Wearing those boots, Angelina looked like a black marble angel anchored upright on the slick mosaic floor of our house. Next time, it was sandals and the white funeral dress. Then, the blue dress and the black funeral shoes. Eventually the blue dress disappeared, forever dirty. Then it was Angelina herself—either it was too late. Or she was sleeping, or she was too tired, or no one was there to get her dressed.

That was when Uncle Noula, Noulathe-drunk, intervened.

True, Noula's place is the poorest and shabbiest in the slums. True, you have to wait for the morning, when he is sober, if you need to speak to him. And true, some people laugh at him. Yet with his shaven head, sullen coal-black face, and shiny red scarf tied around the waist, Noula is no joke. He does not like small talk, and his head is not often clear, and he stutters. So Noula doesn't waste words. He knows he'll hit his mark better if he keeps his sentences short.

Noula had been observing the changes in. Angelina's daily routine. He saw that Onèl had been going up the path to Elmita's alone, and coming back down with Angelina. He said nothing. Neighbors questioned Onèl on his way, but Noula didn't say anything. He didn't have to—people gossiped. At first they laughed. Then they became resentful, and they no longer teased Onèl about his job. Then Noula came to see me. “Ki entansyon w?” he asked. What are your plans?

I told him about Sovè and my father. He said, Elmita is just jealous, don't worry about her. She wishes you were doing it for Jenny, for her own, but she is young, she will have others. They don't eat every day, and her man may leave her, or die, and what then? I have no work, I can't even help my own. Sovè had two other brothers, and I sent word he is dead, but nobody came, no one has money. If Elmita gives you trouble, you let me know. I am the uncle, and what I say is law. She knows that.

Elmita saw Noula on the path, walking up to her place. She knew he was coming for Angelina. She knew he would bring her to my house. He had done it before. But today, she would not let him. She grabbed Angelina without a word and took to the hills with her. She carried her until they were out of sight, then put her down and pulled her by the arm. The hills were worn down to a hard white sand that looked like bone; nothing grew there except low, thorny bushes. Angelina was shorter than the bushes, and they scratched her arms and legs when she stumbled and slipped. At the top of the hill, they sat near a donkey whose tail, wagging like a metronome, shooing away the flies, was the only thing in motion under the leaden, breathless heat of the midday sun. They sat without talking, without explanation. There was not enough air for words. Elmita was crying, but she could not feel her tears. They stay there, together, for three hours, until she feels it must be safe to go back down. So Elmita gives the signal to go. That waiting, in the timeless heat, was their last moment together as mother and daughter.

Noula was still there. He demanded all Angelina's things from Elmita. Then he showed up at my house, with Angelina and a small plastic bag. Everything is taken care of, he said. I asked her to give me the child back. You want her, just keep her.

The first thing I ever gave Angelina was a small white papier-mâché bird. Some men see their death coming. The last thing my father told me, over the phone, was that he had bought a large white bird, a statue. If only I could see it! A white embrace of open wings, beautiful on the rooftop of his house in the mountain. In the last photo ever taken of my father, the white bird opens its wings behind his head.

* * *

She had left with one dog and now she was coming back with fourteen. After twenty years in Petionville, divorced from my father, Mother was coming back. Angelina, Mother, and the fourteen dogs landed in my father's home on nearly the same day. Each one of them excited, greedy for this new life. “M ap dòmi! M ap dòmi!” Angelina kept repeating, jumping and dancing on the large bed I would share with her. I'm sleeping over! Angelina stood nose to nose with the dogs, outnumbered, protecting a peanut butter sandwich that could be snapped out of her hands or her mouth at any moment. My mother introduced the dogs to Angelina by name, showed her photos of her family in France—her mother at her piano, her father on his horse, her grandmother's house in Paris, her aunt Esther wearing a black dress and wide-brimmed hat with a plume, so that Angelina sees we are not dogs in this family, she explained. My grandfather was very rich and lived in a manor house. My mother gave Angelina one of her self-portraits, told her to call her Vivi: That's what my father called me, and I do not want to be called Viviane. Not aunt, not grandmother, and not Mother, either. But what Angelina saw, hanging on the wall above the family portraits, was the large crucifix. “Ki moun sa a?” Who is that?

It was the rainy season in Haiti. When something crashed on the floor, it was the wind that did it, either that or one of the fourteen tails. I gave my mother a large bouquet of artificial flowers—irises, roses, mimosas—in a vase decorated with swallows, all of which I had found among my father's boxed things. That same night, the vase was shattered onto the green mosaic floor. My bedroom became the place where Angelina could escape the dogs, a place I shared only with her. The room pulsed with vodou music, the magic of running water, a little girl snoring.

I cobbled together an altar in the living room, and the centerpiece was a wartime photograph of my father at twenty, wearing army shorts, standing next to his rifle. He fought with the French against Hitler. Troops from the Caribbean had been recruited in Martinique. They spent several weeks on the ship to France, and then they arrived at the time of the débacle—my father spent the war running from the Germans with his cavalry regiment, taking care of a horse. That black-and-white photo was his favorite picture of himself. In front of the photo, there was a bouquet of papier-mâché doves in a green glass vase, his black dress shoes, his eyeglasses, a knife, seven silver bassets hound figurines, a candle, and a red rose. Every day I dusted the shoes and remembered his feet. I had polished those shoes for his funeral, but then I found out they don't put shoes on corpses. When my mother asked if she could have one of the seven dog figurines, I dismantled the altar and gave the shoes to our night watchman.

The hearse, and my father's body, and his coffin, had arrived at the gravesite before we got back from the funeral mass. But generations of servants—maids, cooks, gardeners, masons, carpenters—were there, people who couldn't afford to attend the mass. They waited for my father, with their families, standing under the apricot tree, next to the river. Sovè was there. In a hearse filled to the brim with flower wreaths, Misye Dèlma was coming home after three days in the morgue.

Aramis was there. He had been a butler for my grandmother, a carpenter for my uncle, a gardener for my aunt; he had done odd jobs for my father. He had climbed mango trees for me. He looked tall, handsome as always, but bony—cancer was eroding his body, hidden under a blue suit and bow tie. He had come with his children and grandchildren. Boss Anol was there, with his wife and son—he had made all the doors, tables, cabinets, and chairs in our family house. Dyedònn—my grandmother's spinster maid—was there, grayed and withered, her once enormous breasts now limp pouches that hovered meekly, just above her waistline. Madan Sentayis was there, without Sentayis—he had made it to Miami on a boat, and he was sending money to her. Their three sons had brought sons of their own. They were all there: Monklè, Edit, Dann, Wilsonn, Maxènn. They were there to bury our dead. We were never there to bury theirs.

All the workers who built the house in the mountain were there. They had crossed the river from the slums. Digging up the grave, cementing its sides, that was their farewell work for Misye Dèlma. Michèl, who had been a painter, a carpenter, a mason, a gardener, a night watchman with a black gun bouncing on his left hip, Michèl was there. He stood down in the hole, helped 1ower the coffin. A chain of men was formed to pass the wreaths from the hearse to Michèl, who arranged them on the coffin. After a while, someone yelled that the grave couldn't take any more flowers. “Ki sa w vle di?” What do you mean? Send them down, I tell you! They are his flowers, send them down! “Chak grenn!” Every single one! He pressed and shoved until all the wreaths were in. The coffin had disappeared under a fragrant coat of many colors. The priest started the benediction and prayer.

Time to close the grave. But first, a solid roof had to be erected. The men who had worked in the mountain house were now mixing their last mortar for my father, tying their last iron grid, to support the cement roof that would cover the coffin. They were talking loud, joking loud, laughing loud, remembering loud, and imitating my father—his peremptory bearing, his inimical impatience, his verbal assaults. A boulder had been dug out of the earth at the site of the grave. Once the grave was covered over, the boulder was placed back on top of it. In a way, my father was now the boulder in the ground; it was the boulder that now felt the sun, standing on the earth where my father once stood, facing the apricot tree, telling me that he wanted to be buried there, on that very spot.

* * *

I bought No More Tangles at the supermarket, on my cousin's advice. When Angelina first saw the shower turned on, she said: “Ooh! Tout la pli on sèl kote!” All the rain, gathered in one place! Getting ready to go to the swimming pool, she put her panties on, and her plastic sandals, then grabbed a towel and a bar of soap. The slums where she was born, by the river, are more bearable than the Port-au-Prince slums like Site Solèy—water, that's the difference. For Angelina, a body of water was a place to fill a bucket or a place to wash. The idea of playing in water took some getting used to.

My mother says I should cut Angelina's hair short and speak French to her, like she does. One summer, when I was four, I went to visit my grandmother in France, and she took me to have my hair cut and bleached back to the blond it used to be. It was enough that I was an islander, I did not have to look the part, as well. Besides, she was a blond.

Angelina likes blondes, too. When she came in the bedroom one day and saw the pretty black affranchie doll I had just bought for her, sitting on the dresser, she said, “Pou ki moun sa a?” Who is that for? But when my cousin gave her a blond Barbie, she took it, and gave it a name, Ti Alika. She keeps it in the bedroom closet so my mother's dogs can't get at it. Angelina sits on her chair, and they watch TV together.

* * *

“M ap chonje manman m,” Angelina said to me. I'll remember my mother.

I know that, I said. You should, and I'm happy about it. Elmita was a good mother to you. But, you see, I can't stay here anymore. I live in another place, and I have to go back there. I came because my father died, like yours did. I live in America. Do you want to come with me?

“Wi.”

Will you go up in a plane with me?

“Wi.”

But you know, I have to go alone first. Get papers ready, lots of papers. It'll take a while. Will you wait for
me?

“Wi.”

I promise I will come back to get you. I will call you on the phone every Saturday. Do you believe me?

“Wi.”

Maxènn will take care of you here until I come and get you. My mother is too old, and she has too many dogs. But you can see each other every day. You are in the same place. Do you understand?

“Wi.”

Do you trust me?

“Wi.”

When I come back, I'll bring gifts. What would you like?

“Pen.” Bread.

So now, anything that flies, Angelina says it's hers. Every UN helicopter, every U.S. Air Force jet, every airliner, every bird. Anything in the sky over Haiti these days is coming for her. It's hers.

This Saturday, sitting in my father's swivel chair at eleven o'clock, she feels happy. This week has been special: her passport photos are ready, and going to the psychologist for an evaluation was fun. “Li fèm sote,” she had me jump, first on one foot, then on the other, she asked for my right hand, she asked for my left hand, she asked me to draw someone. Maxènn always waits with her. She loves him, she calls him Tonton, Uncle. She saves some candy for him when my mother gives her some. She told him that when she is on the plane, if it's a Saturday, she'll drop a mango on his head, at eleven o'clock. Last week, when he came back from an errand, he found that she had mopped his room and dusted the shelf. I am cleaning so you remember me when I am gone, she said, but when I am in Nou Yòk, I'll be white, and my hair will bounce down my back like a horse's tail and you . . . W ap rete menm jan. You'll stay the same.


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