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Haiti Noir_The Classics, Page 2

Edwidge Danticat

  Michel keeps his silence.

  “You’ve become more polite since, under the pretext of studying the Haitian soul, you began to visit the slums.”

  Her calls at Michel’s are usually short. It is as if this fat woman comes to see him from time to time just to feel insulted by remarks which sting, but which she herself provokes.

  “You’re wrong on that count. It’s not what I’m up to at all. I’ve been going there ever since that reception given by Monsieur and Madame Couloute, the uppercrust of Port-au-Prince elite. The straightforward seaminess of the slums compensates me for the rotten hypocrisy of those two.”

  “My son, this is really too—”

  “Leave me alone!” Michel interrupts her. “You make me sick, all of you! I know what’s beneath your slick surface, your aristocracy, etc., etc. The luxurious dress that hides the putrid flesh of the whore! I tell you I’ve had enough of your life. Your worldly whirl doesn’t attract me. I haven’t the least desire to live in a vacuum.”

  “Ah, it’s easy enough to guess where you got those ideas! And to think I entrusted my poor daughter to such a creature.”

  “It would have been a better show, perhaps, to have married her off to one of those oh-so-fascinating well-bred gentlemen, guaranteed against any excess by a Tartuffe-brand safety valve. The ones I’ve had the dubious pleasure to come across in your drawing room: so seriously interested in charity and in the general progress of mankind, their hands folded in their laps with that touching gesture foreshadowing the day when they’ll have become sector chiefs or members of the board and will only have to shift their arms a bit to twiddle their thumbs upon well-earned little paunches adorned by gold watch chains . . . Yes, my dear Widow Ballin, why in fact didn’t you choose such an exemplar—the dream of every Haitian mother—for your poor daughter?”

  “They’re a thousand times better than you!” she cries.

  Her face, green with anger, sweats out an oily film. Michel looks at her curiously, wondering how such a dried-up face can secrete all that grease. “Well, then, they’re not worth much, are they?” He gets up, pleased to have provoked such fury.

  At loose ends, his mother-in-law shouts: “You have no respect at all! You are cursed!” And louder, like a prophet: “You will go to Hell!”

  “Shit!” replies Michel heartily, and goes back to his room. But as other cutting remarks come to mind, he is sorry to have left so quickly. He decides to make up for it by going the very next day to the shopping district where his elegant mother-in-law has a flourishing hardware business.


  He knots his tie, leaning at the window as before a mirror. Beneath this Bolosse cottage, the sea is spread out gray and dirty like a corrugated roof beyond the palm trees, those feather dusters that sweep away the rain.

  This ocean view has for a long time left him unmoved. He now looks toward the sea with the eyes of a fisherman who regrets having run out of line. Something has snapped within him. Without it, how can he go in quest of that rare prey: enthusiasm?

  Michel Rey thinks that from now on his life will be like that bitter, monotonous, watery to-and-fro. No great storms. He is sinking deeper and no longer has the strength to rise to the surface. His descent will continue slowly until the day when, stretched out on the bottom, human waves will stir him no more.

  All that remains to while away his time until this final peace is insulting his mother-in-law, making his wife unhappy, and downing a rainbow of cocktails.

  “Well, let us carry on with this absorbing day,” he sighs, “by having a drink at Horatio Basile’s.”

  The bearer of this Shakespearean name is a “young man from a good family” back in Haiti several months now from a stay in France, where he studied law. With five thousand francs a month, it is easy to flunk your finals. Horatio Basile failed the first time around and, a persistent sort, went on to fail again. Bréville Basile, a coffee speculator and a man of solid common sense, sent his son a check without the usual row of zeros, accompanied by an order to hop the first boat back home. Horatio tore himself from the arms of his girlfriend and took his leave (like a good Haitian) with several off-the-rack suits and a suggestive one-piece outfit as souvenirs. But he had hardly reached the Azores when the elder Monsieur Basile, showing a kindly spirit of which none would have thought him capable, passed away leaving his son thirty houses and around two hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars earned in commodities and customs deals at Petit-Goâve.

  The process of selling off several huge coffee plantations keeps the latter here—far from Place Pigalle—under our tropical sky, where he lives an idle, scandalous, and aristocratic life.

  Physically, he exemplifies perfectly that sort of grimo Haitians call an “exaggerated mulatto”: tall, thin, with a tapered face the color of our red water jugs and that always seem to be in profile, dominated by a low forehead and unruly red fuzzy hair. He has a neck like a bottle, along which rises and falls his large and pointed Adam’s apple. Unbalanced and jerky, his hesitating walk and oversized feet which are too slow for the rapid movement of his arms make one think of a huge crustacean.

  He has three passions: cars, record players, and Michel, whom he insisted on meeting after reading a manifesto of his—“Lamartine, Crocodile Poetry, and the New Afro-Haitian Literature”—in a review called The Assassinated Crocodile.

  Michel amused himself immensely at their encounter, during which Horatio had said to him: “I understand you well, my good sir. We must destroy our weeping willows, the palm trees. We must from now on bear this scenery within us. Palm trees must no longer merely set the scene which makes us native. We must plant them, so to speak, in our very soul.”

  “Precisely,” Michel replied, deadly serious. “But we must never overlook the African drum which is made, as you know, from the skin of asses.”

  Then, having charmed the heir of Bréville Basile, he passed by every day at noon for cocktails chez Horatio and, toward the end of each month, borrowed rather considerable sums of money from him.


  “Hello there, Horatio.”


  When Michel came in, Horatio was dancing about among a buffet well-stocked with flasks and cocktail shakers, a huge divan, and nine different gramophones all arranged in a row by size, like children in family pictures.

  He was very drunk. His nose was shiny. In his eyes a flame flickered uncertainly, a fire the dampness of alcohol would soon extinguish.

  All the gramophones were going at once: coffee mills grinding the black beans of depression.

  Michel went from one to the next and, with the quick gestures of a father meting out discipline, stopped each one. They went silent, like good children.

  “Idiot!” he says, pouring a tumbler full of Manhattans and smiling contemptuously.

  Horatio tries to fix his eyes on the confused and staggering world within which Michel alone stands upright, preparing a second drink in the midst of that new miracle: the multiplication of gramophones.

  His tongue has the greatest trouble unsticking itself; but finally, with an overwhelming English accent, he says: “Whyyyyy?”

  His eyes half-closed, Michel drinks: each swallow is like a spider jumping toward his brain and drawing in the tangled threads of his thought.

  His glass empty for the fourth time, he speaks: “Have you ever seen a peasant girl come down the wine-red zigzag paths of our hillsides? She passes among leaning banana trees torn by the wind, musky mango trees heavy with the honey of their fruit, baobabs through whose branches stir garlands of parasites, and the sacred mapous with their tentacular roots. She moves like a tightrope dancer, her bust high and her arms swinging, her wide hips swaying dolce armonioso. Sometimes her hard foot strikes a stone, and it skips down the slope decrescendo. Music! Music! Music!

  “In front of a hut, I saw a brute beating his wife with a stick in a measured drummer’s rhythm; and his victim kept time and danced and sang and shouted out in her pain.

nbsp; “In Amsterdam I saw two Black acrobats, naked savages really, hanging from a trapeze like a sixteenth note. The music stopped, powerless. Their bodies wet with sweat, their nervous legs and the solid arms where the ropes of their muscles tightened were already a magnificent and insolent psalm to life.

  “When they came down from their heights and smiled, their native souls played on the keyboard of their shining teeth.

  “But you, Basile, are an idiot, an insensitive ass . . .”

  He stops. What giant droning insect zigzags through the sudden silence? Horatio, stretched out on the sofa, is sleeping with his legs apart. His wet lips open and close, trapping and freeing the buzzing bees of his snore.


  Jeanne was waiting in the modest dining room. He saw her dark, sad eyes.

  “Mother told me . . . oh, why, Michel?”

  She is soft and plaintive. He caresses her hair. Will she ever understand, my God, the horrible self-hatred which makes me torture the ones I love?

  “Oh Michel, Michel, how unhappy you are.”

  He rocks her.

  “My little one, my little one.”

  “Michel, listen . . .”

  He calms her with a gentle touch. His two children seated on a palm-straw mat play at cutting out pictures from a mail-order catalog. They do not look alike. What strangers they seem! When he tries to take them in his arms, they cry.

  This is his prison: this sad house. And the bars of his cell: his wife who cannot understand, his children who fear and refuse to love him.

  The whole of his future life rises up before him like a narrow horizon, like a thick screen behind which life—real and vibrant life—lies hidden beyond his reach.

  Ah, is it possible that this could be his irremediable fate: to grow old and gray, broken in body and soul, sitting in this cheap and ugly room by a steaming kettle and an old and fattened mate?

  Inside, a sharp taunt tears at him: “The whole future, waiting for rheumatism.”

  This time it is she who consoles him with a luke-warm embrace.

  He leans against her shoulder, almost won over, and lets tender persuasion take the upper hand.

  He gives himself over to a cowardly voice which repeats: Yield, yield. Yield to that calm current. Those who win out are the ones who know how to cultivate the cold and unfeeling patience of flotsam. Do not be ashamed to fail: it will lead to a normal sort of happiness. Besides, is it not absurd to pit your tiny flame against the infinite flood of life? You remind me of the madman who tried to ignite the sea with a match. Who are you, anyway, to want to win? Just look around you, and disgust will overwhelm your faint heart. For a while you were drawn to politics, but you were never more than a puerile demagogue. You thought you were a man of letters, and still do: you’ve written manifestoes, poems, and one book that no one reads. You’re a pitiful petit bourgeois, only too aware of your ugliness and your impotence. This clear picture you have of yourself is your only merit. The day your fellows stop deluding themselves, they too will revolt; and the world will suddenly be filled with herds of superb and bitter malcontents who take themselves for unrecognized geniuses.

  Come on. Straighten out. You’re what they call someone with everything it takes to succeed: a respectable family, no rent to pay, an opening in the Department of Internal Affairs. Accept it. With a hundred and twenty-five dollars a month, your debts will be paid and your household will be in the black. Your children will be happy. You’ll renew old friendships, make up with your family. Happiness and life will open up before you.

  You fought. You desired. But no more. Why struggle when you know you’re bound to lose?

  And then his wife spoke: “Listen, Michel, I saw Mother. She said she talked with Pralier . . . you know, Pralier, the minister’s friend. Just like that, the minister said to him: ‘Tell Madame Ballin that we are very well disposed to welcome her son-in-law. Tell him to write a proper letter.’ Michel, think of your wife, your children, of our lives.” And with a surge of anger: “All my friends live better than I do! Take it, Michel! It means so little to you. You’ll be as free as before, and nothing can stop you from thinking what you want. But you see, I’m still young. I love life. And here I live like a beggar-woman. Please, I implore you, accept it!”

  She goes on and on, and he sinks deeper into an ignominious lassitude.

  For God’s sake, if she would just shut up. He’s beaten, yes, and broken. But if only this woman would stop trying to bargain for her own happiness with his principles.

  He shoves her away, gets up.

  “Michel . . .”

  “Shut up!”

  His voice has lost its force. The sorrow which strangely hollows out his face reveals the depths of despair in his eyes.

  And he leaves, ridiculously stiff, like a drunk trying not to stumble.


  A dingy study welcomes his distress. It is cluttered with books, his final companions. But they too have been put aside, and are covered with a thin layer of dust which his movements stir up into golden specks in a shaft of sun.

  Blank pages are piled on the table. Others are filled with his writing, yellowed by time, the ink already faded.

  All his wasted life is here.

  His head between his hands, he goes over it all once again.

  Am I limited by my weakness? Or are my desires inhuman, far beyond the bounds of what I really want, more than I can honestly accept?

  Maybe it’s really sour grapes. I convince myself I have contempt for all the things I’m incapable of leaping up to take.

  Yes, it really is clear. I’m a failure, my teeth set on edge by life, by the sour grapes I cannot bite into.

  But why all this awful questioning? That final question—Why?—can never be answered. And any truth achieved through struggle carries ridiculously within itself the simplicity of its own explanation.

  Or else, everything comes down to: “What for?”

  But “What for?” to be exact, is not a question. It is an answer.

  And isn’t this very analysis the ultimate proof of my weakness, of my emptiness? The vain incompetent digs within his empty self, possessed by a wild (and all the more cruel, because he knows it is all so futile) hope of finding some unknown virtue. I agree with Carlyle, who said that a strong man—who knows what little one can know of oneself—never torments himself, but puts himself to the test. “Whatever you do, do it like Hercules.” Alas, I have never had that kind of pride. My pride was nothing but bitterness against myself, bile projected toward others.

  Having come finally to these moments of total and painful sincerity, Michel felt lighter and freer; but his relief did not last, and soon the poison began to spread again . . . to suffocate him. He was a vessel which fills and empties inevitably with agony.

  He remained immobile, his forehead in his hands.

  “Ah, to bring it all to an end, to get it over with!”

  He opened the drawer. The weapon was turned toward him. He stared at its black and shiny muzzle.

  One movement, a mere pressure of the finger, and I put a big red full stop at my temple, in my life, to all my pains.

  But cowardice welled up inside.

  He did not shut the drawer, but suddenly took up a blank page and began to write slowly and ponderously:

  My Dear Mr. Secretary of State, I am honored to . . .




  (Originally published in 1959)

  Translated by Nicole Ball

  O dead woman, half-buried . . .

  —Sully Prudhomme

  The sick woman was getting weaker, yet she was hanging on to life with superhuman strength. Her eyes were still sparkling in her mournful face and she kept staring at the door, as if waiting for something.

  Jeanne Marais didn’t want to die without seeing her daughter. Aunt Brigitte had quickly sent for the young woman, who’d gone to Port-Vent to collect an oxygen pump in case one was needed.

>   Outside, the tropical sun engulfed everything. The slatted doors that led to the wide, jasmine-covered balcony were closed, giving the room a welcome shade.

  Since no one was napping, the siesta hour dragged on. In fact, the house was in a state of alert, brought on by an unusual series of events.

  That morning, when the doctor left his patient, he’d shrugged his shoulders in defeat. He felt he could no longer keep Jeanne’s exhausted body alive. He had told Brigitte in the frank but sensitive language of an old family friend: “Your sister won’t live through the day. I must say she has amazing courage and lucidity, but don’t be fooled by it, it’s the end. She can’t fight it anymore. Go tell Lélia.”

  Although Dr. Poytevin had lived on the island for a very long time, he knew nothing of the darker forces of the country. Some cases were still beyond his realm of knowledge. He couldn’t understand the nature of the illness that had suddenly taken hold of Jeanne Marais and had consumed her, little by little.

  He had entertained all kinds of speculation. Strangely, the widow had always kept quiet. She seemed to be carrying a secret sorrow inside her. Remorse, maybe?

  No, Poytevin could not understand. No more than he had been able to get to the bottom of Mina Valpont’s death a few years earlier. She had succumbed to some mysterious illness in just forty-eight hours, and in this very same house!

  The death of that ten-year-old girl had taken everybody by surprise. The odd fact that the child’s body kept sweating profusely the day after she died was much talked about.

  It was bizarre, to say the least.

  * * *

  The door creaked and Aunt Brigitte turned around. Lélia Marais ran in and found her mother in a state of great distress.

  When Madame Marais saw her daughter come in, her dark eyes gleamed and she whispered, “Come here, dear girl, I want to talk to you alone.”

  Aunt Brigitte slipped away without saying a word and Lélia sat down on the edge of the bed.

  “Darling, don’t cry like that, we’ll meet again,” Jeanne Marais said as her daughter sobbed. “You were always gentle and kind, and I loved you more than anything. Now, I have to tell you a secret that has weighed on me so much it’s killing me—”