In front of the school, I kiss Papa and he waits until I’ve bought a humongous gummy rat from the old woman with a straw hat. Then, my father’s gone and Sister Therese is at the entrance, rushing the students inside. She wears a long navy blue habit and a perpetual scowl on her face.
Sister Therese used to be my teacher. In her first grade class, we fingered an abacus to prove our arithmetic skills. We learned phonics by going to the blackboard and framing the sounds with our fingers. We memorized spelling words like Dieu and enfer and whole passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The nuns wear stiff white collars and I often wonder if they really have hair under their pleated veils, or if they are completely bald. The sisters can be stern and fearsome, but they also teach with humor and enthusiasm. I am notorious for asking questions the nuns can’t give good answers for and the other students marvel at that.
When the bell rings for recess around eleven, my friend Fanny and I hide behind the bushes near the chapel. Fanny is very short. Her face is round and she’s always smiling. We’re both ten years old and we’ve been best friends since first grade.
Fanny pours some red coloring on her hands and rubs the cool liquid on her arms before we join the other students on the playground. Suddenly, Fanny staggers and collapses on the dirt. Students surround us, two of them shrieking at the sight of the “blood” on Fanny’s body.
Fanny cannot hold it for long. She starts laughing. “April Fools!” she cries.
Cynthia and Nathalie do not appreciate our dark humor, but Anne-Caroline and some others join the fun by splattering the red liquid on their skin. Soon, Fanny is lying on the ground again. “Look, I’m dead.”And she does look dead, lying motionless, her neck stretched back, her hands and face and hair all covered with the thick, drying substance. Her brown eyes are wide, staring ahead in shock and pain.
I am the doctor. “We’ve done all we can for her,” I say in a dramatic voice, “but she lost too much blood.” I pause for a moment, as if to let the other girls before me process this information. “Normally we only allow family members to see the dying patient,” I continue, “but since Father Aristide had all her relatives burned alive, you may each see her, one at a time.”
“I’m sorry, I should have been there like a true friend,” Anne-Caroline whispers. She sits next to Fanny and picks up the girl’s hand. “You’ve lived a tough life, and never really been happy. I should have been there for you. May you rest in peace, my friend.”
We do not hear Sister Therese approach. “Whose idea was this mess?” she asks, looking in dismay at the stained school blouses.
Everybody shamelessly points at me.
“April Fools?” I suggest.
Sister Therese frowns from under her grey and shaggy eyebrows. She drags me to the classroom by my ear and I’m afraid that she’s about to spank me with a wooden ruler on the palm of the hand.
That’s when we hear the first shot—and people screaming in the street.
Students come running inside the classroom, and I help Sister Therese close the thick wooden doors that we chain from the inside.We all hide under the desks. The walls muffle the fusillade of shots, the babble of shouts and counter-shouts.
“Stay down,” Sister Therese says in a calm voice.
She lies next to me on the wooden floor. She has lost her veil in the commotion and her snow-white hair as soft as down brushes against my face. In her presence, I feel safe from the blood and gore and stink and whatever destruction in the town. She is praying.
As the shots continue, I close my eyes and pretend to be in the year 1804, battling the independence war. I am a woman version of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and those are my men outside, killing the slave owners. “Koupe tèt, boule kay” – “Cut off the heads, burn down the houses.”
But the cries outside, the children yelling, all is too real for me to keep the illusion for long. April Fools.