ForeshocksBy M.J. Fievre
June 08, 2011
Some things have not changed—the crunchy gravel of the dirt roads, the rooster’s crow, the buzz of bees, the bright yellow sun of the Haitian dawn. The rest is spooky in its familiarity, yet wrong in detail. A chill settles onto the top of my stomach. Even my skin has gone cold. I drive holding the steering wheel close, among the crowds of unwashed faces and men asleep against their stomachs, the makeshift tent villages. Sometimes, a humanitarian tuck comes barreling up behind me and rides my tailpipe.
In Turgeau, where rubble still blocks many streets, I slow down to look for the crumpling of recognizable memory. That’s probably the time when I should blame God, wonder if He got angry for being mocked, if His patience simply ran out—the moment when I should decide that He probably sees us all, unblinking. But I can’t stop believing in His love and am angry for this faith that I carry around like excess baggage.
As I park the car on Jean Paul II Avenue, I remember la Fête Dieu. In my childhood, many streets in Turgeau would be closed to traffic so that devoted Christians could assemble the magnificent carpets, meticulously made of flower petals, pine needles, and palm fronds. At six o’clock in the morning, a procession of Roman soldiers mouthing sorrowful songs, and of purple-robed penitents carrying a statue of Jesus on the cross, paraded in front of the houses, destroying the carpets, a great honor for those who worked all night creating them. One year, as a preteen, I took part to the procession and fell in love with one of the boy soldiers. That day, I beseeched God to allow me to marry a good man, a non-violent man, different from my father, so I could walk down the aisle of Sacré Coeur in a billowy white dress.
Now my city is lost, the ground covered in dusty dry blood, and the twenty-nine years old woman I’ve become might be getting a divorce. What angers me is how traces of my teenage longing for the “happily ever after” are gone with the concrete houses.
The burning sun toasts my body. I stand across the street from what used to be Dynamic Club, the place where I exercised as a first year med student. At the time, all I knew about health was stabilizing a broken limb or broken neck and bandage a sprain. I could do mouth-to-mouth and a bit of CPR. I barely knew how to find a vein and administer a drip. At lunch time, I drove to Dynamic Club with my friends Nelly and Janki to lift weight and run on the treadmill. I drove my first car around Turgeau, a red Isuzu Trooper that did not always break when you pushed the pedal.
It was in front of Dynamic Club one day that I noticed the small bullet hole in the rear window of the Isuzu. A silver filigree of cracks ran from the edges and into the safety glass. I dreamed of Jesus that night, dressed in a fine white suit, sitting in the passenger’s seat, bleeding. And, elated, I never ceased to believe that he’s the one who’d kept me safe from the sneaky shooter.
It was after a session at the Club one afternoon that I got sick over the death of the Roman Soldier, a loss which occurred years after I’d gotten over my adolescent infatuation with him. I got so upset that I puked on my new bed sheets. Then there was nothing left inside me; I gagged dryly—my bowels clutched and spasmed but all that came out of me was thin yellow liquid. I felt light-headed, losing the feeling of my body. I believed I would never love again, but later I met Hector, the man who would become my husband—quieter than his Jacmelian family, polite, learned. He waited for people to finish their sentences rather than shouting out his opinion. My father always made a point to sit next to Hector and talk to him.
So many years have passed, carrying their own blessings and curses. I’m known to dwell on the past, not to let things be, to worry about who what why when, so my mother often reminds me that everything in life is pre-ordained, that a correct order exists in the events of this world. I want to believe her. I’ve been driving around Port-au-Prince, looking for some sign that this—the earthquake, the desolation that follows it—is not random. I need a face to hold on to. I want to look an unknown person in the eye, past my own incoherent grief, my own futility.
A man stands next to me. He’s in his 40’s, wearing shorts and an engaging smile. “I’d just come back from Dynamic Club when it happened,” he says. “I’d changed into clean clothes and was playing the drums.” He turns to point at the house behind us. A pile of rubble. “This is my home,” he says. “I had to dig my way out.” He sighs. “The house is destroyed, but it’s still my house.”
A few pedestrians wave at the man. “Moscoso, sak pase?”
A wide, easy grin spreads across his face. “We’ve lived in Turgeau forever. Everyone knows me in the neighborhood. It’s good that they know that I’m still around. Otherwise looters would dig everything that’s been buried.” He is a jolly and playful man with a quick laugh and a ready smile. It seems like he simply erases the bad stuff. There is something about his posture, something dignified, quiet, and settled. In the reflection of my car window, he looks nice. I, on the other hand, look like somebody’s soon-to-be ex-wife on her way to a nervous breakdown.
Across the street is the collapsed funeral home Pax Villa, where I attended the viewing of the Roman Soldier. The mother blamed the father and she had to be restrained, pulled away by her other sons, physically lifted off the ground, her feet moving in mysterious ways. Oh, God, the father cried. Oh, God!
Lately, Hector and I mostly argue about God. Last night he said that I’m not pious enough; that I am a petit satan. Last night he said I don’t believe enough. This goes to show my husband doesn’t know me at all. “Don’t drag God into this,” I said.
I walk to the end of the street, hugging the curb, walking along the lip where the asphalt falls away into a narrow ditch. I reach Sacré Coeur, where so many Sunday mornings my mother and I kneeled and recited our Credo. Father André, the Catholic priest who blessed my marriage to Hector, said mass there. I tried Father André’s cell phone after the earthquake. I wanted to speak about religion and God, discuss the meaning of life. I remember he loved beautiful things. Shelves of leather-bound novels, poetry, and art books in his study. Father André had long, strong fingers like those that should play a harp.
He didn’t pick up. As the phone burned in my hand, I tried to remember the instant before I learned about the earthquake, the ordinary moment when I leaned against my pillows, watching Family Guy in my home in Florida. Until the door opened and Hector spoke of dead bodies and rubble, the moment was indistinguishable from the hundreds of other occasions when I’d turned on the TV and laughed at Stewie.
A large cross remains standing outside the church. Which is a kind of beauty, a kind of starting out. All of a sudden, I fear the Jesus on the cross, as I had as a child. He looks so peaceful, yet threatening. I study the smooth shape of his hands, his face with its beatific expression. I hope to stop believing then, and start cursing God. But the fear goes away.
The roof is still intact, but most of the walls have fallen in. I walk inside the ruins and take in the smell of rotten flesh. The pews are covered with dust. A cell phone and a New Testament have been left behind. Hot afternoon sunlight streams through a crack, and dust particles whirl and jig across the beam, thousand floating up with each new footprint on the powdery carpet of dust. A silver spider dines on a green fly.
The church is destroyed, but this is still the house of God. Eyes closed, palms pressed together beneath my chin, I mouth a Virgin Mary.
When we lived in Christ Roi, not far from Turgeau, my mother and I often visited Sacré Coeur, and every Sunday I hoped to emerge translucent and Catholic, clean as philosophy. The stillness of Christ crucified, candles smoking, Lenten draperies. Rosary clanking. One of the priests often paced the aisles during the sermon. When he stopped, my heart stopped. His eyes searching for sinners everywhere. I tried to be as still as a statue, unnoticed as a candle before it burns. For many years after that, I positioned myself at a safe distance between God and Satan, tempting both. Until I grew closer and closer to God because of that room in the human heart that’s older than the body. Sometimes, though, I wish I’d gone the other way so that I could freely cry, “Treason!”
I ache for the peace that faith doesn’t bring.
“There’s still a body stuck in that small hallway,” a voice says. The voice is that of a young man in cut-offs. His hands are thick-veined. He openly watches me, as he smokes a cigarette. He’s got some kind of growth on his neck, shiny and red—a smooth round lump.
He points at a cave in passage. “The body is right there.” His mouth splits into an exaggerated smile, rows of teeth. Then he hides his mouth behind his hand and giggles, head bobbing like a bobbin of thread on a sewing machine. Then I watch him inhale a slow drag, the sudden surge of orange at the tip, the cigarette firm in his lips.
“Any word about Father André?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Father André is fine. Just fine.”
Maybe it’s true. Or maybe he doesn’t even know who Father André is.
Some people begin to sing outside, huddled in the church garden beneath the hot glare of the sun. In another realm of reality, the hymns surrounding me would lift me up. Heat overwhelms me as I stand, still stunned, in the fierce, dry, completely still air. I go back to the street, walk around a little. Out here, the huge blue sky looms above us, bigger than ever, like it might swallow the rest of us up.
The naked crazy guy who walks by me does not see me. In fact, no one pays attention to me—not even the three-legged dog and the old beggar. I watch the slow breath of the dog on its side, stretched out, its legs raised a bit so that all threes touch the wall, each paw making little shivers. The place where is leg once was is healed over and covered with fur, weirdly beautiful. I wonder if the dog hates the missing leg for leaving.
I hear the flick of a lighter behind me and smell the stream of smoke as the man in cut-offs exhales. I can see into the channel of his ear, a narrow darkness spiraling deep inside his head. He tells me that dogs can feel earthquakes coming, and his voice is heavy with cigarettes. Before the ground shook, the dogs in Port-au-Prince barked and whined, nervous, restless. As he tells me this, the man’s eyes jump in the sockets, not completely focused.
I think about Cocoa. When we put the Dachshund to sleep, I held her head, crying, gently, whispering and caressing her fur, while the veterinarian snapped off her latex gloves and stowed her medicines and poisons in a tackle box. The dog strained, slowly convulsing, holding on, conscious but leaving. Hector had never cried over a dead dog before, but he cried for my sake.
“Not everything is lost,” the man with the lump says.
He’s not looking at me. But maybe he’s talking to me. Maybe I will heal, even without understanding or belligerence. I need a destination, if not an answer. I need a place in which every kind of story makes sense to me.
I always resist being taken in by you, resist your little siren song. To no avail. It’s like trying to resist breathing.
A siren… Mmmm… I like the sound of that 😉
Amazing the things you’ve come back to witness here. The moment entering the church is particularly powerful, as you describe suddenly fearing Jesus on the cross again. Yours is an important story too, as international attention has moved away almost entirely from this disaster, as though it effects have somehow vanished too. Thanks for sharing.
And thanks for reading, Nathaniel!
So sad, yet such beauty and depth in the details. <3
Thank you, Ms. Laura.
I liked this piece very much. It resonated with me.
A number of years ago, on the cusp of a divorce, I fled where I was living to go back to my childhood town for a few weeks. Of course it wasn’t in ruins, but I felt the same complex mixture of past happiness, current unhappiness, feelings of confusion and disorientation, and great uncertainty about the future that you describe so very well. It’s a potent combination.
Sometimes going back to your roots grounds you, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Oh M.J., this is so beautifully written and so captivating. A wonderful, sad and touching essay.
I imagine that being with you is bathing in your voice, in the pictures you form in the air.
Who would not want this?
Yikes. As always, M.J., your knack for creating whirls of depth and colour in a scene is superlative.
As Don pointed out, there’s a complexity of feeling and happening that you’ve captured without reducing it.