Read Because We Are: A Novel of Haiti Online

Authors: Ted Oswald

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Because We Are: A Novel of Haiti

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BECAUSE WE ARE

A Novel of Haiti

by

Ted Oswald

BECAUSE WE ARE. Copyright © 2012 by Ted Oswald.

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Zafèn

 

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Dedication

TO KATHARINE

PART I

Die to the world by renouncing the madness of its stir and bustle. God created nothing evil. It is we who brought forth wickedness.

Those who brought it about can also do away with it again.

-Tatian the Assyrian

 

Bondye di ou fe pa ou, M’ a fe pa’M

God says do your part and I’ll do mine

THE VICTIMS

Lè ou kontre zo nan granchemen, sonje se vyann kite kouvri li

When you discover a bone on the highway,

remember that flesh once covered it

Pitit pa janm mouri pou manman; se manman ki mouri pou pitit

Children never die for their mothers;

mothers are the ones who die for their children

It starts with the crowing of roosters.

Well before the Sun plods along its well-walked course, Cité Soleil comes alive.

It is a slum, you see, one caught between the ocean and Port-au-Prince. A house divided, its thirty-four sections are turf riven by inherited animosities: Project Drouillard, Cité Boston, Wharf Soleil, and Belecourt, to name a few. But the most important for our purposes, the one at the center of all the heartache to follow, is Bwa Nèf, a runt on its northern edge.

Bwa Nèf betrays its name, for it is neither a forest, nor new. You can count the trees there on your one hand. The newest building is an abandoned toilet built by Lutherans from Minnesota some years ago. To walk its streets is to see as many homes broken and empty as occupied. Memories of gang violence and war with police are some of the unpleasant tenants squatting in residents’ memories.

But those days are past. This one seems to have the dull, aching appearance of any other.

To start early is life. Women put their houses in order, preparing wares for sale at the Croix-des-Bossales market or along roadsides. Some fry plantains and
pate
to fill stomachs that do not belong to their hungry children. Several young mothers tend to new babies. Several old mothers care for ten children. Sloth means hunger pangs, and tears.

Many men wake with nothing to do. Jobs are few, and few can be humbled to do work reserved for wives, girlfriends, and daughters. Some gather with friends, huddling on the streets to provide running commentary on the life passing by. Many are industrious. They build and mend, tear down and destroy—tailors, carpenters, masons, diggers. Some are even mistaken for beasts of burden, hauling carts loaded with sodas, ice, debris, or a combination of the three to destinations known only to them.

Children who must prepare for school awaken on hard mats, old mattresses, and floors, chilled in the cool late-December morning. For those for whom school remains a dream, today feels as any other. Such a little girl might stir because her hunger demands it. Such a small boy gets up to play in the streets because he has nothing else to do.

It is light now, and the Sun’s beams infiltrate around cracks and corners to expose what is hidden: people plaiting hair, milling about, hopping on
taptap
trucks to reach work, fetching water to bathe—all cycles that have no beginning and no end.

But away from this, there are signs of a brazen act that defies the life that goes on all around.

If instead of rousing your children and wiping the sleep from your eyes you were to follow the small waterway that divides Bwa Nèf and Wharf Jeremie, you might spy something out of place among the parched grass and garbage.

If you weren’t too busy as you went about buying your daily bread and greeting your neighbor along Route 9, you could barely make out what appears to be the crumpled form of a person—a woman, dark-skinned and young.

And, if you could spare the time to look more closely, you would see a small baby clutched in the woman’s arms—a pale, sorrel color, and beautiful.

At some imprecise moment while the world was waking, this mother and child breathed their last.

Both are dead. Both are victims.

And if this sight was not enough to make you flee, if you lingered to watch, not long from now you would see a pretty girl and an ugly boy come upon them. And from that moment on, these children—like you—will be made victims too.

**

The girl carries a small black plastic bag in her hand. The boy has a burlap sack four times his width and brimming with bottles.

They cross an open expanse of mud and knee-high grass, home to none but swine and seabirds. She runs up a mound to scout the messy terrain ahead.

— Hurry up! she calls. We’ll never find enough gold if I have to wait for you to catch up.

He buckles under the weight of his sack.

— This is too heavy for me alone. I need your help! You don’t have a single thing in your bag.

He was sweating even though the Sun was still low.

The girl turned around and the strap of her light-fitting, sky-blue dress slipped, hardly the clothes to scavenge for beer bottles and soda cans.

The boy was better outfitted for the task: shirtless (typical of young boys) and shoeless (typical of poor boys). His denim shorts reached down past his knees, cinched with a cord around the waist. His bare feet and ankles were already caked in mud.

Her naturally sweet face turned to a scowl.

— You forget that I, my friend, am the boss of this expedition. You are merely my assistant.

The boy heaved and dropped his sack. It made a large plop as it landed in the mud, the bottles clanking.

— This is stupid, Libète. You’re no boss and I’m no assistant.

The girl left her mound still scowling.

— What a mess you’re making! I am
not
touching that bag. Look at all the mud on it! That’s going to ruin my dress—I can’t even touch it. No, Jak, you’re only wearing rags. It doesn’t matter if they get any dirtier.

He shook his head.

— But that’s not fair!

— Fairness is no part of it. We need this gold if we’re going to buy our ship.

— You mean we need bottles. And we aren’t buying any ship.

— I
mean
gold and we
are
buying a ship. A fine one, with big sails. To get away from here, back home, back to La Gonâve. Don’t spoil our fun!

— Well, I don’t want any.

— You don’t want any what?

— Fun.

Libète’s face scrunched more as she stared down at Jak. She stood a full head taller than the skeleton of a boy. Though both shared the same age, ten years, he looked half that while she looked a year or two older.
He’s usually more agreeable
, she thought.

— Well, what does the assistant recommend? she asked, hands on hips.

— We leave the sack here. Anything we find, we’ll put in your bag and bring back to this one. That way I don’t carry it all over for nothing.

She feigned displeasure at the idea and followed with a relenting sigh.

— I
suppose
that will work. But you’re only boss for a few minutes. I don’t want your head getting bigger than it already is.

Jak’s head did appear large atop his slight body. His whole person inflated with the new responsibility and he lifted his chin up and broadened his bony shoulders, moving to the top of the mound to peer around, shading his eyes like the Spanish explorers who first landed on these shores five hundred years ago.

— Now, he said, where to begin? We searched along that part of the water only a week ago, so there’s nothing to find there. Let’s head further down, toward the sea, and away from those shacks. Maybe through the reeds? Lots of trash gets caught there when the rain washes this area out.

This was wise, as there had been much rain in the last few days.

— I’m following you, boss, came Libète’s reply.

Jak hopped down and set off toward the closest patch of swaying reeds. As the pair neared them, Jak came to an abrupt stop, motioning for Libète to do the same.

— What’s that moving over there? You hear that rustling?

Libète did not. Where?

— Straight ahead. Look! The reeds just moved!

— That’s the breeze, stupid.

— No, listen!

The children paused, holding their breath. Without the scraping of his shorts and crinkling of her bag, both could hear low, guttural sounds.

— You have your bag? Jak asked in a nervous whisper. Libète cocked her head and held it up with a curt sneer as if to say “of course, idiot.”

— You’re too scared, Jak. There’s nothing out here.

With characteristic confidence, Libète crossed the threshold into the reeds and was all but submerged. Jak spied only her head peeking above their tops before she vanished entirely.

— Hold on, I’m coming! Jak hollered. And remember, I’m still the boss! The boy walked up to the edge of the reeds, breathed deeply, and was soon swallowed himself.

Where Libète could peer above them, Jak could not.

— Li–Libète? the boy stammered.

— Over here, she sounded. Jak turned in her direction. She was deeper in than he would have liked. You were right about this! she shouted. I’ve already found two Prestige bottles in here!

Jak could hear her body rustling in the reeds, moving further from him. He paused in a small clearing.

— Wait, Libète, don’t move—let me find you! Jak could not hide his frayed nerves, his pulse’s quickening. He felt an inexplicable presence, something heavy and dark.

The sounds of reeds cracking nearby grabbed him, followed by bizarre breathing that conjured images of a horrible demon crashing toward him. He stood paralyzed in his panic, only able to cry out, Libète! Libète, help!

Before he could jump out of the way, a gargantuan sow broke through the thin barrier of reeds, knocking him to the ground. The animal let loose a distempered squeal, continuing its stampede. A moment later, Libète’s head broke through the wall, a smile spanning her face.


Gras a dieu
! Thank God, Jak exclaimed. I thought I was dead!

His remark rang with utmost sincerity.

Libète let loose in peals of laughter. You nearly peed yourself over a pig, boss! She extended a hand to help him up, laughing the words. Don’t worry. I won’t tell.

Jak wiped himself off, indignity in every motion.

— I don’t need to be ashamed, he said. Did you see that thing? It was bigger than me! A monster—twice my size! I could have been trampled to death and you’re here cackling like a fool!

Her laughter slowed.

— You’ll get over it. Look, I found a rum bottle. This is a good haul we’ve—


Shhh
, Jak interrupted her, his brow rigid. I think I see something.

He signaled with his head for Libète to turn around. She did, her smile fading. The sow had parted a path through the reeds permitting a line of sight to strange forms lying low in the grass.

— What’s that? he murmured.

Libète saw them too. She stepped forward in complete silence, now able to distinguish the two lifeless bodies among the noise of crowding greenery. A special kind of dread cascaded through her, causing her to shudder with each step forward.

The small girl takes a step down from the large rock. The Sun has sunk low making the sky a field of fire. She stoops down to gather a handful of small stones, pebbles really, pocketing them in her pink dress. A symphony of cicadas tries to keep time to no avail and they envelop her in a blanket of rhythm-less music. She forces her eyes closed, standing erect upon the rock, letting the music’s rise and fall transport her to a place other than here.

“Here” is a watering hole on the island of La Gonâve, far removed from Haiti’s mainland and its towering mountains. To the girl’s left is a trickling waterfall that feeds a long, spindly creek. On the right edge of the creek are her eleven goats, lapping up water furiously after a miles-long trek.

The hole is surrounded by palms, regally adorned with loose-hanging vines. They are dressed much more prettily than herself, she thinks.

She is
petit
. Her dress shows wear on the bottom. The lace running along its shoulders and the edge of the skirt have yellowed, its zipper no longer bringing the two sides of the back together. It’s no matter, though. It was free, inherited from an unmet cousin on the other side of the island, delivered by an unfamiliar aunt when she visited some time ago. Many children wear worn clothes, her mother had once said. And when all are threadbare, then no one is.

The goats have had their fill. It’s time to leave.

She takes the pebbles from her pocket and casts them at the feet of the goats, taking careful aim to not strike their bodies. There is no need for words. They know this sign well and gather while she collects her staff to lead them on the long path home. The youngest is but a month old and does not know what to do, and she scoops him up, stick in one hand, the kid cradled in the other. She steps to the front of the trip and they follow dutifully while she half-sings a hymn to comfort her against the gathering darkness:

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