Nayu describes them to me. The haggard bodies covered with dust and blood, surging abruptly in front of the car. The limbs missing. The faces contorted in pain and disbelief. She tells me about the ranges of a scream—from the silent or guttural shock to the bellowing distress. She was riding shotgun with her grandmother in Pétion-Ville when the earth grumbled, dust engulfing the car, swallowing the surrounding mountains flanked by shanty towns.
Some of Nayu’s memories, I know, are real memories; others have been constructed from listening to her parents and siblings recount their own experiences of the earthquake, the goudougoudou as many call it in Port-au-Prince.
It’s been years now; schools have reopened and Nayu has finally started eighth grade at Sainte Rose de Lima, the Catholic school that I myself attended as a child. Nayu asks me about South Florida, the life I live there, then passes the phone to her mother, my sister, Nathalie.
Nathalie’s voice is languid. The school has called. Nayu left the classroom screaming in the middle of the lesson. Again.
“She says she hears voices,” Nathalie says. She pauses. “Hold on.” I hear her yell at Nayu to get out of the room and get some homework done. I don’t want you to talk about me behind my back, Nayu screams back. Get out of the room, Nathalie says. Then my sister is back on the phone. “Well, not voices. A voice. Coralie’s voice.”
Coralie was a flower girl at my wedding. Skinny little thing with a great smile. The color yellow suited her well. She was one of Nayu’s good friends. After the earthquake, she remained buried for hours under concrete. She died of internal bleeding the day after they dug her out.
“I don’t know how to deal with her,” Nathalie says. “Do you think she’s lost it?”
The child psychologist says PTSD, a type of anxiety disorder.
“Maybe she really does hear Coralie,” Nathalie adds.
She wants to believe that Nayu is an Indigo child.
Indigo children are believed to possess special, unusual and sometimes supernatural traits or abilities. They’re said to have reached the next stage in human evolution, being more empathic and creative than their peers. Indigo children are supposed to represent an expanded human consciousness that can see way outside the box of the earthly mind.
“I don’t know,” I say.
Accepting the PTSD diagnosis would be denying the possibility that the voice Nayu hears is real.
It would be denying the existence of ghosts.
It would be denying Etienne.
I didn’t just hear Etienne, though. I saw him, too.
I lived in the neighborhood of Christ-Roi, in Port-au-Prince, until I was nine years old. What I mostly remember about the house at the corner of Christ-Roi Street and Brutus Lane are my parents’ nightly fights, the sound of violent shoves and slaps, one of my sisters jumping off the balcony. Growing up, I tried to rationalize these experiences, telling myself that I must have dramatized my memories; that the fights must have happened only once or twice, but were so traumatic that they seemed to multiply. “No,” Nathalie says. “It was almost every night. You remember well.”
To compensate for the lack of emotional stability at home, my parents provided me with at least four dozens Barbie dolls, and every single Care Bare sold at the local K-Dis. Mother had Bòs Fan, the neighborhood carpenter, create miniature replicas of every single piece of furniture we had at home, so that I could play house with my dolls.
Because I was very imaginative, my sister Patricia, who is two years older than I, would often just watch me play. She called it “Jessica’s theater.” She usually just lay on the three-seater sofa, but one time decided to use the loveseat. “Not there,” I said. “Etienne usually sits there.”
She smiled. She thought I was making him up.
I knew Etienne wasn’t flesh and bones. I knew that I was the only one who could see him—a twelve year-old boy who looked a bit like Patricia, slender with sharp features. Somehow I knew I should never (never!) answer him. I also knew I shouldn’t tell anyone about him. In the first place, who would believe me? Plus I was afraid that once I shared that secret, Etienne would be gone. There was something about him—a something that radiated from his boneless being, engulfing me in warmth and hope; something I imagined to be love in its purest form. I needed him.
It never occurred to me that something might be wrong with my head. I guess a person aware that she is experiencing hallucinations is a lot different from one who thinks the things she’s seeing or hearing are real. Even as a child, I knew that Etienne was only real to me. PTSD? According to Nayu’s doctor, people with post-traumatic stress disorder sometimes hear voices that no one else can hear, or see things that are not really there.
Etienne first appeared to me when I was six. Several times a day, I would catch him walking around the house, opening and closing the wooden doors. Sometimes he whispered in my ear. “You’re safe,” he said one night as I awoke from a nightmare. He was tucked in bed next to me.
I loved watching his face. How amused he was when he watched me play. Euphoric when Patricia and I decided to turn the balcony into a sliding rink, splashing bokit of water and dissolving batons of laundry soap so we could slide on our butts. Disapproving when Patricia told me Santa Claus didn’t exist and showed me where Mother kept the Christmas gifts—dozens of packages carefully wrapped with rectangular stickers that read “Bisous du Père Noël.” Sympathetic when I cried myself to sleep.
Of course, I had theories. To explain Etienne’s resemblance to my sister, I figured that he must be that brother Mother had miscarried, back in 1977, before Patricia and I were born. I asked Mother about it once. “Oh, it was so early during the pregnancy,” she said. “I don’t even know if it was a boy or a girl.”
Sometimes I thought that he must have been a boy who’d lived in the house before us; he must have died there. One time when the landlord came to collect rent, I tried to ask him about the previous tenants, but Father interrupted me to ask Mr. St. Surin whether he could repaint the balcony.
At school, the nuns talked about saints and guardian angels; we all had our own. They loved us despite our despicable human nature, our ingrained sins and failures. Etienne must be my angel.
The idea that I loved best was that I had willed him into existence.
I was on the balcony one day, reading Comtesse de Segur, the sweet smell of cake batter drifting from the kitchen, when I became distracted by the shape of my thumbs holding the pages of the book. The fingers reminded me of my father’s hands, and a powerful self-hatred gripped at my nine year-old throat.
I felt Etienne’s presence then.
“Why are you here?” I asked. I was suddenly furious at myself, furious at the world, both physical and supernatural.
I didn’t get an answer. When Etienne disappeared that day, I never saw him again. And I’ve longed for him since.
Etienne’s face has become blurry in memory. But I do recall his voice.
Because I sill hear it.
It’s the voice I heard back in 1990 as I was about to cross a New Jersey street. I wasn’t paying attention, didn’t see the car coming full speed. Suddenly, I heard the strident “Jessica,” just in time for me to step back, the car only grazing my thighs.
It’s the voice I heard behind the wheel of my old sports car in 2005, after an eight-hour internship at Cushman School, followed by a six-hour shift as a clerical assistant at Barry University, and another four hours of essay writing. I fell asleep behind the wheel and let go of the brake pedal under a red light on 441. As the car started gliding, I heard someone calling my name, waking me from my slumber, leading me to the realization that I was in the middle of the intersection. Réveille-toi!
I’ve never told anyone about Etienne before. If he was, in fact, a figment of my imagination, a way for me to deal with the violence that rocked my parents’ marriage, how do I explain the warnings I continue to get from him? How do I explain the faceless, one-way conversations we sometimes have when I’m asleep, the monologues too detailed, too logical to only be dreams? He is the voice who addresses me directly in my sleep. What you feel, this emptiness, is longing for a connection that is difficult to find in your earthly body.
Nathalie lets me speak to Nayu again.
“Don’t answer her,” I say to my niece. “Coralie—I mean.”
I don’t know why it’s important. But it is.
“Okay,” Nayu says.
“Love you, baby,” I whisper.
Maybe Nayu and I simply share a genetic predisposition to imagining things, or maybe it’s that we’re simply dealing with the similar results of dissimilar traumatic events. Still, even if there is no such thing as an Indigo child, I know my niece is special. After all the horrible things that she witnessed on January 12, 2010, she started writing. When I read her poems, which are moving beyond many of the texts I read these days, I can’t help wonder about these “super humans,” born with a great capacity to connect to the true purpose of existence, which I assume to be love.