After the shooting in Port-au-Prince, the Parent-Teacher Association decides that we, children, need some fun, and the nuns organize a school fair. They call it Journée de Couleurs. It is a blur of colors and smells and sounds. The sky is full with bobbing balloons, which dance around the sunrays poking through the clouds. Under the flamboyant tree, the hot dog lady covers the sausages with mustard, onion, pickle, tomato, cucumbers, celery salt and hot peppers. Breathing in the greasy goodness of ponmkèt cakes and the sugar rush of cotton candy, students, with their dark blue uniforms and white ribbons, spend their centimes and gourdes on popcorn, peanuts, homemade ice cream called ti Carole, hamburgers and a large orange soda. Deep-fried foods, shows and athletic tournaments, and rides and prizes.
The parents of the PTA man most tables and frown at students speaking Creole. “Mais, qu’est-ce que ça veut dire? Français, s’il vous plait, Mademoiselle Fièvre!”They discuss the drought in Plateau Central, where the riverbeds are just dust and cracked earth. The ground is a powder that turn feet and ankles light brown.
[On the left: MJ in school uniform]
In the elementary school yard, they have brought a mare named Madame. In my history books, I have seen Toussaint Louverture ride a horse in battle and explorers cross unknown lands on horseback, and every Sunday, I watch My Little Pony on the American channel. I’ve always dreamed of riding, although I’ve never seen a real horse before.
I approach the animal quietly and gently. She has a long, graceful neck, great solid legs, hooves like buckets, and a huge chest. Her skin is completely black, her tail and mane white, eyes dark and wide, and her coat is bright copper. She has white markings on the face and legs. I watch the girl who sits in the saddle and holds the reins. It could be me up there. Madame arches her neck proudly, and steps daintily around mud puddles, as if she’s afraid of soiling her feet.
“Five dollars,” a man says to me, squeezing the last sip of orange soda from a straw. He wears a stylish, hard hat—the kind especially made for riders, tight-fitting pants, boots, and a light vest. His name is Bernard and he is Madame’s trainer. “Five dollars and we let you ride for a few minutes.”
The girl jumps off the horse, a thick braid hanging heavy halfway down her back, and I notice that Madame seems very tense. She lays her ears back flat and squints her eyes. I feel a bit uncertain about getting on her now. However, I take both reins in my hand, reach up and grasp the saddle’s pommel. I wish I had a helmet, boots and long pants instead of my school uniform, but there are none of these available. My exposed skin will probably chafe from rubbing but I really want to get on the horse.
Bernard cups his right hand for me to step into, and as I pull with my hands and mount Madame, I accidentally kick her in the flank. Startled, the horse leaps forward, nearly unseating me as she runs blindly into the trees. The legs stretch far ahead; the entire body seems synchronized in a forward motion.
It is a wild ride—branches rip past my face, nearly sweeping me off the animal’s back—but somehow I hold on to the horse as I try to guide the animal. I know I am not big enough or strong enough to force the horse to stop; she hardly feels my hands tugging so desperately at the bit as she settles into a lumbering gallop toward the school church.
Under the animal’s labored breathing, the thudding hooves, I suddenly realize that Bernard just assumed that I was capable of riding—just like my mother just assumes that I am strong enough to deal with the horrors of Port-au-Prince and the horrors at home. Not once has she tried to explain to me why so many dead people are recorded on TV, and why my father is so angry all the time. My everyday life in Haiti is a mad ride, and no one bothers getting me a helmet for the falls.
It is also a lonely experience, the animal’s backbone hard against my thighs. My heart pounding faster than the horses hooves on the cement, I try to regulate my breathing so I won’t pass out, trying to hold this engine underneath me at a steady pace while Bernard is yelling, “Be in control!”
In front of the church, the horse suddenly stops with a snort and almost sends me out of my gig on the road. Snorting again, Madame rears up, trying to turn round first to the right and then to the left, but Bernard is waiting for her, his face melted into a shriveled scowl. The horse balks and throws his head up, but I hang on desperately, heart in throat, whispering all the while, “Gentle, gentle.”
I wait a moment, face flushed with heat, sweat streaking across my face, the whites of my eyes, I imagine, bright with adrenaline.
During the ride home from the fair, sitting on the scratchy gray seats of my father’s car, looking down at my dirt-encrusted tennis shoes, I recall with a tremendous and truly frightening clarity everything about my ride on Madame, how I really thought I’d be scraped off on a tree and lie winded and wounded on the ground waiting for Mother to come and rescue me.
My father yells because I spill some soda on the cushion. Clouds cover the city, immovable and oppressive. Thick, gray, massing, rolling, swollen-bellied clouds. The rains are gray solid sheets of water. The ride has changed me, and I know I can never go back to being what I was before, pretending to be untouched by the ugly things in this world. I am no longer a child. I am not yet a woman, and I can not see the point of being in between.