Before I became a writer, I wanted to be a photographer. I walked the streets of Haiti, looking for that perfect picture, always aware of light–the soft, gray light of a foggy or overcast day in Port-au-Prince, the light of a Jacmelian sunset, or the bright, harsh light of a noonday sun in Léôgane. The mere mention of these places ignited my imagination. I loved the very sound and shape of these words.

With my camera, I traveled from the mountains of Thomassin to lavil (downtown Port-au-Prince) in a taptap. As the van came down Kenscoff Road, the air thickened by degrees until, by the time we reached Pétion-Ville, I almost forgot the tonic of Thomassin, its cool, comforting, mossy silence.

On the pavements in Pétion-Ville, money changers waited to take foreign money in exchange for wads of Haitian gourdes. They sprang out into my path, grinning, waving the money.  On Place Boyer, relentless shoe shiners sat with their display of polish, brushes, rags, and shoe cream.  Travay, se libète. Work is freedom.

On January 12, when the earth broke up, shouting, crushing its fists on houses, lives and futures, what happened to the young man with the smooth and speedy brush work, careful not to miss a spot, careful not to get any polish on my shoelaces? Life is queer with its twists and turns. As the road sways and dips and rolls and swings and shakes, I’ll carry my shoe shiner with me.

Another taptap took me to an orphanage in Frères. In the backyard, the hummingbirds, living jewels sparkling in the sunlight, zipped by in a blur, chasing away dragonflies. One little boy, maybe eight or nine, showed me how to hold his homemade kite off the ground, the tail spread downwind. Soon, the phoenix was in the air, majestic. As I headed for Delmas, I could still feel in my hands the pull and tug of the wind. I was still watching the phoenix.

As the earth shifted its burden from one end to another, did it crush a little boy in its fury? I have his lovely memory as solace for my grief. Ayiti pap mouri. Haiti will not die.

In one of the labyrinths of Delmas, a small market bustled with customers haggling over the prices of bread, fried bananas, and grilled meats. Two old men sat on wood benches, a Thermos cooler placed between them, impervious to the mosquitoes, the flies, the hot sun, and the rising humidity. They played a domino game, slapping down the pieces in childish glee, flinging their fingers. Black points dotted their poorly-shaven faces and sweat matted their hair.

After the earthquake, police shot a woman as she scavenged on the roof of a grocery store in Delmas. She’s dead now. Other looters raided her pockets.

Strangely, when I heard about that woman, all I could think about were the men with their straw hats and their wooden dominoes. One afternoon, after I watched them bet money, drink and smoke in Delmas, I headed for downtown.

My old high school, Sainte Rose de Lima, was located in Lalue. When I was a child, Sister Therese stood at the entrance in her long navy blue habit, ushering in the children for morning prayer. As I entered the Sainte Rose de Lima Chapel, my eyes were drawn up to the statue of the Virgin Marie placed behind the altar, framed in the light of the sun. Paul was always at the guitar, and Sister Jeanne directed the singing as we recited the Seven Joyful Mysteries, the Seven Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Nicene Creed. When you spoke in the chapel, your voice turned in an eerie echo—flattened, otherworldly. It was hard to think a loving angel wasn’t hovering against the frescoes.

The chapel is gone now. But not the angel. We’ll brave the bitter grief that comes.

Only a few weeks before the earthquake, I took my camera to a restaurant down a street in Pacot. The cook spent a lot of time in the kitchen, preparing thick bouyon, rice and beans, poul peyi, a huge meal that required time to savor. She lingered near me asking if it tasted good and checking that I ate enough. Then she fried some more bannann peze, standing back from the pan to prevent grease from spattering her silky blouse.

Outside, in front of a lottery shop, children traced hopscotch patterns in the battered earth and played hide-and-seek; they jumped rope and played with knucklebones and lanyards. Merchants sold fresko and pistachio nuts, Haitian jewelry and crafts. Women with large and dirty straw hats, colorful aprons and big breasts displayed bananas and watermelons, while engaged in a heated battle against mosquitoes.

A beggar sang about God who makes no mistake. Bondye fè san l’ pa di. The sound of his singing drifted on the wind–a low-key chanting that was somehow sad and yet comforting.

I don’t remember now all the lyrics to that song. But on January 12, as I anxiously waited for news of my family, hours after the earthquake, I thought about the reassuring tone of this Haitian man. God makes no mistake. I prayed for the living and the dead, holding my rosary, hoping, knowing my words would fly to Heaven and be heard by the angels.

 

Originally published in Vis-a-Vis Magazine.

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Born in Port-au-Prince, M.J. FIEVRE is an expat whose short stories and poems have appeared in numerous publications, including Haiti Noir (Akashic Books, 2011), The Beautiful Anthology (TNB, 2012), The Southeast Review, The Caribbean Writer, and The Mom Egg. She graduated from the Creative Writing program at Florida International University. She loves coconut shrimp, piña coladas, her dog Wiskee, and a good story. Anton Chekhov is one of her favorite writers. Her author website is located at www.mjfievre.com.

19 responses to “Watching the Phoenix”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    This is truly beautiful, MJ.

    Haunting.
    Words like yours have to be heard by angels, don’t they?

    Watching the Phoenix indeed – From the ashes will rise a magnificent bird. Your words are its feathers.

  2. Readlyn says:

    That last part made me tear up, beautifully written

  3. Gloria says:

    This is beautiful and incredibly painful. It is written with so much heart. I just really love it.

    I also really love Anton Chekhov. I haven’t read him since college, but may now revisit his work.

    Thank you.

  4. karoll-ann fanfan says:

    And you did it again Jess ;-)Magnificent piece with all the emotions flying from the words like captived birds suddenly released…I love it!

  5. Irene Zion says:

    M.J.

    This line is stuck in my brain now:
    “On January 12, when the earth broke up, shouting, crushing its fists on houses, lives and futures,”
    What a perfect description of the earthquake.
    and this one just breaks your heart to read:
    “After the earthquake, police shot a woman as she scavenged on the roof of a grocery store in Delmas. She’s dead now. Other looters raided her pockets.”
    I am grateful that you can still see the Phoenix, can still believe in the Angel, can still taste the bouyan and the poul peyi and can still hear the beggar singing Bondye fè san l’ pa di.

    Beautifully written, as I expect from you.

    Can I ask you? We have had a restaurant for years here on South Beach, a Haitian Restaurant called “Taptap,” you used that word in what seemed to mean a walk or a journey. Would you explain the word to me?

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Yes, please, M.J., I’d love to get your definition/description of “taptap.” I thought maybe something like “schlep”, but that was just a feeble guess at something I can sense is much richer.

    • M.J. Fievre says:

      Hi Irene and Uche,

      The tapap cab serves as mass transportation in Haiti. It’s a small pick-up truck with benches and a sun cover. It looks like a gypsy caravan, painted with images of mermaids, animals, flowers, futuristic spaceships, famous artists, etc. Words of wisdom are usually painted on the sun cover as well. “Nothing is impossible to God” is a favorite. Music usually blares out the speakers of the taptap and the drivers are known to drive exactly in the middle of the road, honking fiercely to scare people, dogs, and pigs off the road.

  6. Judy Prince says:

    Eloquent, MJ. These two paragraphs did me in emotionally—-vivid foils to what happened next:

    “Only a few weeks before the earthquake, I took my camera to a restaurant down a street in Pacot. The cook spent a lot of time in the kitchen, preparing thick bouyon, rice and beans, poul peyi, a huge meal that required time to savor. She lingered near me asking if it tasted good and checking that I ate enough. Then she fried some more bannann peze, standing back from the pan to prevent grease from spattering her silky blouse.”

    “Outside, in front of a lottery shop, children traced hopscotch patterns in the battered earth and played hide-and-seek; they jumped rope and played with knucklebones and lanyards. Merchants sold fresko and pistachio nuts, Haitian jewelry and crafts. Women with large and dirty straw hats, colorful aprons and big breasts displayed bananas and watermelons, while engaged in a heated battle against mosquitoes.”

  7. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Thank you so much for this brilliant collage of color, colorful language, places, faces, and gestures. The news can overwhelm us with images of Haiti as ward, so that we forget that it is actually a god-sized basket of stories, customs, joy, pain, ingenuity, and sometimes, unfortunately, savagery. If you ever remember more snatches of “Bondye fè san l’ pa di” I’d be grateful to see it, with a bit of glossary, of course. I can work out some Creole, but probably not quite enough 🙂

    Ayiti pap mouri!

  8. Draven Ames says:

    I loved the story, but it certainly bummed me out. You made me feel it, you know. You showed me how to feel utterly sad. You have hope and you lift yourself high where many would not. I applaud that. I think you have the makings of a good writer.

  9. Simon Smithson says:

    “On January 12, when the earth broke up, shouting, crushing its fists on houses, lives and futures,”

    As Irene pointed out, this is a powerful line. It speaks of the overwhelming force of the earth itself shattering, and shattering everything else along with it.

    There’s something of the photographer in you as is, M.J, capturing these snapshots of life and Haiti and its people as you have.

    A friend went over to do aid work over in Haiti after the quake. She said that what she saw there humbled her completely.

    Such a tragedy.

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