We hear the phone first, and then the rifle shots spattering the darkness of the night—a night that holds its breath in fear. Patricia doesn’t touch me. In the dark, I hear her urgent whisper into my hear, “Something happened.”
I come straight up off the bed and look at my sister’s brown eyes, where fear and excitement dance alternately. At first, she talks groggily, but quickly slips into her gentle, everything-will-be-all-right voice. “Aristide is leaving.”
She reports what she’s heard. Political prisoners have been shot in prison—one bullet in the head. On the battery-operated TV, they show women weeping softly, others wailing in loud bursts. I imagine prisoners in their cells, huddled and still, while shot and cut bodies lie among them. Some of the dead have had their skulls crushed from machete blows and others with their bowels ripped away by blades.
Soldiers are shooting in Nazon and Christ-Roi. Many are wounded or dead in Lalue.
“The trick when you’re under attack,” Patricia says, “is to pretend you’re dead.”
She teaches me how to make myself faint. As I lean over and hyperventilate, she grips me from behind and holds tight across my diaphragm, then drops me on the bed out cold. I come to, head spinning, thinking hours have passed.
The next time Papa gets mad, we both pretend we’re dead.
SCHOOL GIRLS, 1990
At recess, Patricia allows me to untie her curly black hair. One strand at a time, I braid my sister’s hair. I feel spectral, insubstantial, invisible, until Patricia pivots around and smiles. She tells me about the girl who, years ago, fell into the school latrine. The seat gave way, plunging the girl into the ooze below.
Patricia lets out a belly-laugh of astronomic proportions. She is skinny in her white cotton blouse and navy-blue pleated jumper.
Her friend Carole interrupts. “Tell me more about your father.” Carole scratches: her nails make a crispy sound as she works them against the rough skin on her wrists.
I stand up, furious, tears of betrayal in my eyes.
I can’t believe she told someone about Papa.
My head full of blood, I can almost feel the rotation of the earth.
PATRICIA RISING, 1990
A vertigo buzz of insects rises and falls in the heat, and the air is thick as a towel over our mouths. Sitting cross-legged in the hallway, my sister Patricia and I watch Bosfan at work—he swings the hammer against the door frame, pounding the nail in one blow. The carpenter’s roughened hands take the tools in a firm grip and glide smoothly over the wood.
Patricia and I share a secret: burglars didn’t put down the door. Papa did—in a feat of rage.
Patricia asks Bosfan about his lips, about his right cheek—bloody, swollen. Bosfan says a group of men beat him this morning at the voting center.
This is the year Father Aristide is sworn in as President.
This is the year Patricia tries to raise Grandma Clara from the dead. She scales the kneeler in front of where Grandma lies, pulls herself up to the coffin’s edge, touches her own face to that of her grandmother and whispers, “Wake up, Grandma!”
Patricia ascends instead—Papa lifts her up to take her down.
Papa says, “When my own mother died, I wanted to dive into the ground after her. I felt like my compass was all off.”
Patricia and I know the same stories and often share a bed with a dent in the middle of the mattress where our young bodies curl up together. As we sweat, our backs hot, damp, in the first morning breath, I don’t know where Patricia ends and where I begin. We are a pile of skin and soft breath beneath a field of afghan daisies.
She flips her feet over her head on the bed, allowing her bottom to soar to new heights as blood rushes to her head. Before school, we soak together in long baths until we raisin, skin pressed to skin.
Somehow, on her way to the tub, Patricia trips and falls straight to her knees. She whimpers, blood across her knee.
Up until this point, I never imagined my sister could bleed. In my world, a big sister that is vulnerable to bleeding can die at any moment.
When she sees how scared I am, laughter erupts from her throat, volcanic, watery—a cross between a giggle and a witch’s cackle. She loves that I am someone whose vision of the world depends on her version of it.
At church, on her birthday, Patricia’s face is solemn, though she hasn’t bothered to cross herself or kneel. Her blouse is made of a material that ripples like a puddle when she breathes and her hair sticks to her still-damp forehead. She rubs the swollen skin of her left arm, traces an imaginary line up and down the length of it. When Father Vincent says that God is our Father, Patricia looks at me, and I know she wonders how she’s supposed to believe in Him when she can’t see Him, can’t hear him, can’t crawl up on his lap. The only father she knows uses the belt around his waist.
The belt was meant for me this morning, but Patricia stood up for her little sister. She got the beating instead.
I tell Patricia it could have been worse. “Did you know that Melissa’s father hit her mom with a hammer the day of her first communion?”
When we come back home, there’s a goat that Papa has bought from a neighbor farmer and I name him Brutus. Patricia doesn’t want to touch it, but she watches me as I kiss his mumble, lipless mouth.
Patricia listens to the New Kids on the Block and when she sings, music curves out her mouth in a snaking stream, her eyes bright.
I cuddle in her bed and belt out Step by Step! along with her. The spit flies from my mouth and dries in shiny streaks along my cheeks.
I am off-key, but Patricia doesn’t complain. Her voice is rich and throaty and sweet at the same time.
REMEMBER WHEN, 1992
On the aged horizon, the sun punctures through thin, wispy clouds that turn pink, then melt into yellow. A soft roar accompanies dawn, a low growl that grows louder as the city awakes. The air is thick and warm.
In the family room, Patricia is reading with ceremonial concentration. I fold myself against her chest, her chin resting on top of my head. She suddenly laughs, and I wish the merry swirl was meant for me.
Somewhere, someone pulls a trigger, and the bullets soar up, their explosions trembling through our throats.
The book is abandoned. Sprawled on the sofa, we talk. Like sisters do. About silly things like which Haitian food tastes better after another no-school day or which word is the longest in the French vocabulary. Anticonstitutionnellement, Patricia says. We look up the meaning of “occlude” and banter the definitions. We wander past the “did you know?”s to the “remember when”s.
Patricia peels the potatoes over the sink, using a metal peeler with an orange plastic handle. Quartering the peeled potatoes, she places them into a bowl of water to keep the air from turning them brown. Then, she pulls out a metal hand-grater, and begins coarsely grating the first potato quarter.
I fiddle with the knobs and the antenna of the TV until the horizontal lines disappear and, on the TV screen, crowds dance and chant under victory arches of palm leaves and branches. The President is coming back.
Patricia is careful with her strokes, watching out to keep her knuckles unscathed. Against the wall, under the window, Papa now sleeps with his back to us. Every so often, a snore wakes him, but he chews his drool, mumbles, sleeps again.
Patricia, her hair in curlers, her slender, well-tanned body clothed in a sheer baby doll with frilly panties, tries to teach me how to form my thick, black hair into many styles, by skillfully using a brush, comb, and bobby pins.
“I’m trying to make you look older than fourteen,” she says. Her smile is toothy and warm.
Papa drops us off at a house party, but we have plans.
Later, outside the night club, the darkness is broken by rings of light under the street lamps. Patricia, lips parted in a half-smile, eyes ablaze, cheeks flushed, cranes her neck this way and that, and introduces me to her friends. The music is so loud I can’t catch anyone’s name.
I know Patricia is in love because the haunted expression clears from her face.
He and Patricia talk on the balcony while I watch HBO in the TV room. He leaves early but comes back the next day, and every day for a week, staying later each time—until Papa has to ask Patricia to make him leave.
I tell him I’m a ballet dancer and invite him to Casse-Noisette. That night, I long for the nervous excitement before the curtain rises, the hums and rustle of an expectant audience, the applause.
Patricia and Olaf are a no-show.
My eyes itch, and my hands shake with the desire to strangle him.
Then there’s the break-up. I put an arm around her, rub her back, offer tissues, push back the hair matted on her cheeks. But I’m sixteen. I have no words of womanly wisdom that can help her getting over the pain.
In my bedroom, the fishbowl is filled with dazzling turquoise and magenta pebbles, and the goldfish, the pair of them, translucent orange, undulate their diaphanous fins to hold steady in the weightlessness of water.
The bright lipsticks reappear, along with jangly earrings, necklaces, and nail polish. Her smiles return—small, shy sat first, then full ones that brighten her whole face, as if she’s trying her old self, a little at a time, to see if it fits. We still share perfume and curl each other’s hair; we confide about LSD and birth control.
The night before I leave Port-au-Prince, we make up games like we used to and share stories—after dark, by candlelight inside or moonlight out. Some are truths and some are tall-tales.
Patricia and I scheme, plan, dream, nurture secrets.
I tell her I imagine death as a spaciousness we don’t known on earth, another element—not water exactly or air. I tell her I want to float there.
Remember, she says, when times are bad, you make the best of them. I’ll pick you up if I have to—that’s what sisters do. Not when you think I should, but when you need me to.