View Poll Results: Edwidge Danticat
- 0. You may not vote on this poll
Big Sister IS watchIng me Sleep
- from krik? krak! by Edwidge Danticat; pp. 36-40 (“Nineteen Thirty-Seven”): My mother
had grown even thinner since the last time I had seen her. Her face looked like the gray of a late
evening sky. These days, her skin barely clung to her bones, falling in layers, flaps, on her face
and neck. The prison guards watched her more closely because they thought that the wrinkles
resulted from her taking off her skin at night and then putting it back on in a hurry, before
sunrise. This was why Manman’s sentence had been extended to life. And when she died, her
remains were to be burnt in the prison yard, to prevent her spirit from wandering into any young
I held out the fried pork and plantains to her. She uncovered the food and took a peek
before grimacing, as though the sight of the meat nauseated her. Still she took it and put it in a
deep pocket in a very loose fitting white dress that she had made herself from the cloth that I had
brought her on my last visit.
I said nothing. Ever since the morning of her arrest, I had not been able to say anything to
her. It was as though I became mute the moment I stepped into the prison yard. Sometimes I
wanted to speak, yet I was not able to open my mouth or raise my tongue. I wondered if she
saw my struggle in my eyes.
She pointed at the Madonna in my hands, opening her arms to receive it. I quickly
handed her the statue. She smiled. Her teeth were a dark red, as though caked with blood from
the initial beating during her arrest. At times, she seemed happier to see the Madonna than she
was to see me.
She rubbed the space under the Madonna’s eyes, then tasted her fingertips, the way a
person tests for salt in salt water.
“Has she cried?” Her voice was hoarse from lack of use. With every visit, it seemed to
get worse and worse. I was afraid that one day, like me, she would not be able to say anything at
I nodded, raising my index finger to show that the Madonna had cried a single tear. She
pressed the statue against her chest as if to reward the Madonna and then, suddenly, broke down
and began sobbing herself.
I reached over and patted her back, the way one burps a baby. She continued to sob until
a guard came and nudged her, poking the barrel of his rifle into her side. She raised her head,
keeping the Madonna lodged against her chest as she forced a brave smile.
“They have not treated me badly,” she said. She smoothed her hands over her bald head,
from her forehead to the back of her neck. The guards shaved her head every week. And before
the women went to sleep, the guards made them throw tin cups of cold water at one another so
that their bodies would not be able to muster up enough heat to grow those wings made of
flames, fly away in the middle of the night, slip into the slumber of innocent children and steal
Manman pulled the meat and plantains out of her pocket and started eating a piece to fill
the silence. Her normal ration of food in the prison was bread and water, which is why she was
losing weight so rapidly.
“Sometimes the food you bring me, it lasts for months at a time,” she said. “I chew it and
swallow my saliva, then I put it away and then chew it again. It lasts a very long time this way.”
A few of the other women prisoners walked out into the yard, their chins nearly touching
their chests, their shaved heads sunk low on bowed necks. Some had large boils on their heads.
One, drawn by the fresh smell of fried pork, came to sit near us and began pulling the scabs from
the bruises on her scalp, a line of blood dripping down her back.
All of these women were here for the same reason. They were said to have been seen at
night rising from the ground like birds on fire. A loved one, a friend, or a neighbor had accused
them of causing the death of a child. A few other people agreeing with these stories was all that
was needed to have them arrested. And sometimes even killed.
I remembered so clearly the day Manman was arrested. We were new to the city and had
been sleeping on a cot at a friend’s house. The friend had a sick baby who was suffering with
colic. Every once in a while, Manman would wake up to look after the child when the mother
was so tired that she no longer heard her son’s cries.
One morning when I woke up, Manman was gone. There was the sound of a crowd
outside. When I rushed out I saw a group of people taking my mother away. Her face was
bleeding from the pounding blows of rocks and sticks and the fists of strangers. She was being
pulled along by two policemen, each tugging at one of her arms as she dragged her feet. The
woman we had been staying with carried her dead son by the legs. The policemen made no
efforts to stop the mob that was beating my mother.
“Lougarou, witch, criminal!” they shouted.
I dashed into the street, trying to free Manman from the crowd. I wasn’t even able to get
I followed her cries to the prison. Her face was swollen to three times the size that it had
been. She had to drag herself across the clay floor on her belly when I saw her in the prison cell.
She was like a snake, someone with no bones left in her body. I was there watching when they
shaved her head for the first time. At first I thought they were doing it so that the open gashes on
her scalp could heal. Later, when I saw all the other women in the yard, I realized that they
wanted to make them look like crows, like men.
Now, Manman sat with the Madonna pressed against her chest, her eyes staring ahead, as
though she was looking into the future. She had never talked very much about the future. She
had always believed more in the past.
When I was five years old, we went on a pilgrimage to the Massacre River, which I had
expected to be still crimson with blood, but which was as clear as any water that I had ever seen.
Manman had taken my hand and pushed it into the river, no farther than my wrist. When we
dipped our hands, I thought that the dead would reach out and haul us in, but only our own faces
stared back at us, one indistinguishable from the other.
With our hands in the water, Manman spoke to the sun. “Here is my child, Josephine. We
were saved from the tomb of this river when she was still in my womb. You spared us both, her
and me, from this river where I lost my mother.”
My mother had escaped El Generalissimo’s soldiers, leaving her own mother behind.
From the Haitian side of the river, she could still see the soldiers chopping up her mother’s body
and throwing it into the river along with many others.
- p. 43: When I went again, I decided that I would talk. Even if the words made no sense, I would
try to say something to her. But before I could even say hello, she was crying. When I handed
her the Madonna, she did not want to take it. The guard was looking directly at us. Manman still
had a fever that made her body tremble. Her eyes had the look of delirium.
Keep the Madonna when I am gone,” she said. “When I am completely gone, maybe you
will have someone to take my place. Maybe you will have a person. Maybe you will have some
flesh to console you. But if you don’t, you will always have the Madonna.”
“Manman, did you fly?” I asked her.
She did not even blink at my implied accusation.
“Oh, now you talk,” she said, “when I am nearly gone. Perhaps you don’t remember. All
the women who came with us to the river, they could go to the moon and back if that is what
- pp. 45-49: I let Jacqueline into the house. I offered her a seat in the rocking chair, gave her a
piece of hard bread and a cup of cold coffee.
“Sister, I do not want to be the one to tell you,” she said, “but your mother is dead. If she
is not dead now, then she will be when we get to Port-au-Prince. Her blood calls to me from the
ground. Will you go with me to see her? Let us go to see her.”
We took a mule for most of the trip. Jacqueline was not strong enough to make the whole
journey on foot. I brought the Madonna with me, and Jacqueline took a small bundle with some
black rags in it.
When we got to the city, we went directly to the prison gates. Jacqueline whispered
Manman’s name to a guard and waited for a response.
“She will be ready for burning this afternoon,” the guard said.
My blood froze inside me. I lowered my head as the news sank in.
“Surely, it is not that much a surprise,” Jacqueline said, stroking my shoulder. She had
become rejuvenated, as though strengthened by the correctness of her prediction.
“We only want to visit her cell,” Jacqueline said to the guard. “We hope to take her
personal things away.”
The guard seemed too tired to argue, or perhaps he saw in Jacqueline’s face traces of
some long-dead female relative whom he had not done enough to please while she was still alive.
He took us to the cell where my mother had spent the last year. Jacqueline entered first,
and then I followed. The room felt damp, the clay breaking into small muddy chunks under our
I inhaled deeply to keep my lungs from aching. Jacqueline said nothing as she carefully
walked around the women who sat like statues in different corners of the cell. There were six of
them. They kept their arms close to their bodies, like angels hiding their wings. In the middle of
the cell was an arrangement of sand and pebbles in the shape of a cross for my mother. Each
woman was either wearing or holding something that had belonged to her.
One of them clutched a pillow as she stared at the Madonna. The woman was wearing my
mother’s dress, the large white dress that had become like a tent on Manman.
I walked over to her and asked, “What happened?”
“Beaten down in the middle of the yard,” she whispered.
“Like a dog,” said another woman.
“Her skin, it was too loose,” said the woman wearing my mother’s dress. “They said
prison could not cure her.”
The woman reached inside my mother’s dress pocket and pulled out a handful of chewed
pork and handed it to me. I motioned her hand away.
“No no, I would rather not.”
She then gave me the pillow, my mother’s pillow. It was open, half filled with my
mother’s hair. Each time they shaved her head, my mother had kept the hair for her pillow. I
hugged the pillow against my chest, feeling some of the hair rising in clouds of dark dust into my
Jacqueline took a long piece of black cloth out of her bundle and wrapped it around her
“Sister,” she said, “life is never lost, another one always comes up to replace the last.
Will you come watch when they burn the body?”
“What would be the use?” I said.
“They will make these women watch, and we can keep them company.”
When Jacqueline took my hand, her fingers felt balmy and warm against the lifelines in
my palm. For a brief second, I saw nothing but black. And then I saw the crystal glow of
the river as we had seen it every year when my mother dipped my hand in it.
“I would go,” I said, “if I knew the truth, whether a woman can fly.”
“Why did you not ever ask your mother,” Jacqueline said, “if she knew how to fly?”
Then the story came back to me as my mother had often told it. On that day so long ago,
in the year nineteen hundred and thirty-seven, in the Massacre River, my mother did fly.
Weighted down by my body inside hers, she leaped from Dominican soil into the water, and out
again on the Haitian side of the river. She glowed red when she came out, blood clinging to her
skin, which at that moment looked as though it were in flames.
In the prison yard, I held the Madonna tightly against my chest, so close that I could
smell my mother’s scent on the statue. When Jacqueline and I stepped out into the yard to wait
for the burning, I raised my head toward the sun thinking, One day I may just see my mother
“Let her flight be joyful,” I said to Jacqueline. “And mine and yours too.”
- pp. 53-57 (“A Wall of Fire Rising”): “Listen to what happened today,” Guy said as he barged
through the rattling door of his tiny shack.
His wife, Lili, was squatting in the middle of their one-room home, spreading cornmeal
mush on banana leaves for their supper.
“Listen to what happened to me today!” Guy’s seven-year-old son—Little Guy—
dashed from a corner and grabbed his father’s hand. The boy dropped his composition notebook
as he leaped to his father, nearly stepping into the corn mush and herring that his mother had set
out in a trio of half gourds on the clay floor.
“Our boy is in a play,” Lili quickly robbed Little Guy of the honor of telling his father the
“A play?” Guy affectionately stroked the boy’s hair.
The boy had such tiny corkscrew curls that no amount of brushing could ever make them
all look like a single entity. The other boys at the Lycee Jean-Jacques called him “pepper head”
because each separate kinky strand was coiled into a tight tiny ball that looked like small
“When is this play?” Guy asked both the boy and his wife. “Are we going to have to buy
new clothes for this?”
Lili got up from the floor and inclined her face towards her husband’s in order to receive
her nightly peck on the cheek.
“What role do you have in the play?” Guy asked, slowly rubbing the tip of his nails
across the boy’s scalp. His fingers made a soft grating noise with each invisible circle drawn
around the perimeters of the boy’s head. Guy’s fingers finally landed inside the boy’s ears,
forcing the boy to giggle until he almost gave himself the hiccups.
“Tell me, what is your part in the play?” Guy asked again, pulling his fingers away from
his son’s ear.
“I am Boukman,” the boy huffed out, as though there was some laughter caught in his
“Show Papy you lines,” Lili told the boy as she arranged the three open gourds on a piece
of plywood raised like a table on two bricks, in the middle of the room. “My love, Boukman is
the hero of the play.”
The boy went back to the corner where he had been studying and pulled out a thick
book carefully covered in brown paper.
“You’re going to spend a lifetime learning those.” Guy took the book from the boy’s
hand and flipped through the pages quickly. He had to strain his eyes to see the words by the
light of an old kerosene lamp, which that night—like all others—flickered as though it was
burning its very last wick.
“All these words seem so long and heavy,” Guy said. “You think you can do this, son?”
“He has one very good speech,” Lili said. “Page forty, remember son?”
The boy took back the book from his father. His face was crimped in an
of-course-I-remember look as he searched for page forty.
“Bouk-man,” Guy struggled with the letters of the slave revolutionary’s name as he
looked over his son’s shoulders. “I see some very hard words here, son.”
“He already knows his speech,” Lili told her husband.
“Does he now?” asked Guy.
“We’ve been at it all afternoon,” Lili said. “Why don’t you go on and recite that speech
for your father?”
The boy tipped his head towards the rusting tin on the roof as he prepared to recite his
Lili wiped her hands on an old apron tied around her waist and stopped to listen.
“Remember what you are,” Lili said, “a great rebel leader. Remember, it is the
“Do we want him to be all of that?” Guy asked.
“He is Boukman,” Lili said. “What is the only thing on your mind now, Boukman?”
“Supper,” Guy whispered, enviously eyeing the food cooling off in the middle of the
room. He and the boy looked at each other and began to snicker.
“Tell us the other thing that is on your mind,” Lili said, joining in their laughter.
“Freedom!” shouted the boy, as he quickly slipped into his role.
“Louder!” urged Lili.
“Freedom is on my mind!” yelled the boy.
“Why don’t you start, son?” said Guy. “If you don’t, we’ll never get to that other thing
that we have on our minds.”
The boy closed his eyes and took a deep breath. At first, his lips parted but nothing came
out. Lili pushed her head forward as though she were holding her breath. Then like the last burst
of lightning out of clearing sky, the boy began.
“A wall of fire is rising and in the ashes, I see the bones of my people. Not only those
people whose dark hollow faces I see daily in the fields, but all those souls who have gone ahead
to haunt my dreams. At night I relive once more the last caresses from the hand of a loving
father, a valiant love, a beloved friend.”
It was obvious that this was a speech written by a European man, who gave to the slave
revolutionary Boukman the kind of European phrasing that might have sent the real Boukman
turning in his grave. However, the speech made Lili and Guy stand on the tips of their toes from
great pride. As their applause thundered in the small space of their shack that night, they felt as
though for a moment they had been given the rare pleasure of hearing the voice of one of the
forefathers of Haitian independence in the forced baritone of their only child. The experience
left them both with a strange feeling that they could not explain. It left the hair on the back of
their necks standing on end. It left them feeling much more love than they ever knew that they
could add to their feeling for their son.
“Bravo,” Lili cheered, pressing her son into the folds of her apron. “Long live Boukman
and long live my boy.”
“Long live our supper,” Guy said, quickly batting his eyelashes to keep tears from rolling
down his face.
- pp. 58-64: Guy tried to pluck some of the mushrooms, which were being pushed into the
dust as though they wanted to grow beneath the ground as roots. He took one of the mushrooms
in his hand, running his smallest finger over the round bulb. He clipped the stem and buried the
top in a thick strand of his wife’s hair.
The mushroom looked like a dried insect in Lili’s hair.
“It sure makes you look special,” Guy said, teasing her.
“Thank you so much,” Lili said, tapping her husband’s arm. “It’s nice to know that I
deserve these much more than roses.”
Taking his wife’s hand, Guy said, “Let’s go to the sugar mill.”
“Can I study my lines there?” the boy asked.
“You know them well enough already,” Guy said.
“I need many repetitions,” the boy said.
Their feet sounded as though they were playing a wet wind instrument as they slipped in and out
of the puddles between the shacks in the shantytown. Near the sugar mill was a large television
screen in a iron grill cage that the government had installed so that they shantytown dwellers
could watch the state-sponsored news at eight o’clock every night. After the news, a gendarme
would come and turn off the television set, taking home the key. On most nights, the people
stayed at the site long after this gendarme had gone and told stories to one another beneath the
big blank screen. They made bonfires with dried sticks, corn husks, and paper, cursing the
authorities under their breath.
There was a crowd already gathering for the nightly news event. The sugar mill workers
sat in the front row in chairs or on old buckets.
Lili and Guy passed the group, clinging to their son so that in his childhood naïveté he
wouldn’t accidentally glance at the wrong person and be called an insolent child. They didn’t
like the ambiance of the nightly news watch. They spared themselves trouble by going instead
to the sugar mill, where in the past year they had discovered their own wonder.
Everyone knew that the family who owned the sugar mill were eccentric “Arabs,”
Haitians of Lebanese or Palestinian descent whose family had been in the country for
generations. The Assad family had a son who, it seems, was into all manner of odd things, the
most recent of which was a hot-air balloon, which he had brought to Haiti from America and
occasionally flew over the shantytown skies.
As they approached the fence surrounding the field where the large wicker basket and
deflated balloon rested on the ground, Guy let go of the hands of both his wife and the boy.
Lili walked on slowly with her son. For the last few weeks, she had been feeling as
though Guy was lost to her each time he reached this point, twelve feet away from the balloon.
As Guy pushed his hand through the barbed wire, she could tell from the look on his face that he
was thinking of sitting inside the square basket while the smooth rainbow surface of the balloon
itself floated above his head. During the day, when the field was open, Guy would walk up to the
basket, staring at it with the same kind of longing that most men display when they admire very
Lili and the boy stood watching from a distance as Guy tried to push his hand deeper,
beyond the chain link fence that separated him from the balloon. He reached into his pants
pocket and pulled out a small pocketknife, sharpening the edges on the metal surface of the
fence. When his wife and child moved closer, he put the knife back in his pocket, letting his
fingers slide across his son’s tightly coiled curls.
“I wager you I can make this thing fly,” Guy said.
“Why do you think you can do that?” Lili asked.
“I know it,” Guy replied.
He followed her as she circled the sugar mill, leading to their favorite spot under a watch
light. Little Guy lagged faithfully behind them. From this distance, the hot-air balloon looked
like an odd spaceship.
Lili stretched her body out in the knee-high grass in the field. Guy reached over and tried
to touch her between her legs.
“You’re not one to worry, Lili,” he said. “You’re not afraid of the frogs, lizards, or
snakes that could be hiding in this grass?”
“I am here with my husband,” she said. “You are here to protect me if anything happens.”
Guy reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a lighter and a crumpled piece of paper.
He lit the paper until it burned to an ashy film. The burning paper floated in the night breeze for
a while, landing in fragments on the grass.
“Did you see that, Lili?” Guy asked with a flame in his eyes brighter than the lighter’s.
“Did you see how the paper floated when it was burned? This is how that balloon flies.”
“What did you mean by saying that you could make it fly?” Lili asked.
“You already know all my secrets,” Guy said as the boy came charging towards them.
“Papa, could you play Lago with me?” the boy asked.
Lili lay peacefully on the grass as her son and husband played hide-and-seek. Guy kept
hiding and his son kept finding him as each time Guy made it easier for the boy.
“We rest now.” Guy was becoming breathless.
The stars were circling the peaks of the mountains, dipping into the cane fields belonging
to the sugar mill. As Guy caught his breath, the boy raced around the fence, running as fast as he
could to purposely make himself dizzy.
Listen to what happened today,” Guy whispered softly in Lili’s ear.
“I heard you say that when you walked in the house tonight,” Lili said. “With the boy’s
play, I forgot to ask you.”
The boy sneaked up behind them, his face lit up, though his brain was spinning. He
wrapped his arms around both their necks.
“We will go back home soon,” Lili said.
“Can I recite my lines?” asked the boy.
“We have heard them,” Guy said. “Don’t tire your lips.”
The boy mumbled something under his breath. Guy grabbed his ear and twirled it until it
was a tiny ball in his hand. The boy’s face contorted with agony as Guy made him kneel in the
deep grass in punishment.
Lili looked tortured as she watched the boy squirming in the grass, obviously terrified of
the crickets, lizards, and small snakes that might be there.
“Perhaps we should take him home to bed,” she said.
“He will never learn,” Guy said, “if I say one thing and you say another.”
Guy got up and angrily started walking home. Lili walked over, took her son’s hand, and
raised him from his knees.
“You know you must not mumble,” she said.
“I was saying my lines,” the boy said.
“Next time say them loud,” Lili said, “so he knows what is coming out of your mouth.”
That night Lili could hear her son muttering his lines as he tucked himself in his corner of
the room and drifted off to sleep. The boy still had the book with his monologue in it clasped
under his arm as he slept.
- pp. 65-68: “What was it that happened today?” Lili asked, running her fingers along Guy’s
hairline, an angular hairline, almost like a triangle, in the middle of his forehead. She nearly
didn’t marry him because it was said that people with angular hairlines often have very
“I got a few hours’ work for tomorrow at the sugar mill,” Guy said. “That’s what
“It was such a long time coming,” Lili said.
It was almost six months since the last time Guy had gotten work there. The jobs at the
sugar mill were few and far between. The people who had them never left, or when they did they
would pass the job on to another family member who was already waiting in line.
Guy did not seem overjoyed about the one day’s work.
“I wish I had paid more attention when you came in with the news,” Lili said. “I was
just so happy about the boy.”
“I was born in the shadow of that sugar mill,” Guy said. “Probably the first thing my
mother gave me to drink as a baby was some sweet water tea from the pulp of the sugarcane. If
anyone deserves to work there, I should.”
“What will you be doing for your day’s work?”
“Would you really like to know?”
“There is never any shame in honest work,” she said.
“They want me to scrub the latrines.”
“It’s honest work,” Lili said, trying to console him.
“I am still number seventy-eight on the permanent hire list,” he said. “I was thinking of
putting the boy on the list now, so maybe by the time he becomes a man he can be up for a job.”
Lili’s body jerked forward, rising straight up in the air. Guy’s head dropped with a loud
thump onto the mat.
“I don’t want him on that list,” she said. “For a young boy to be on any list like that might
influence his destiny. I don’t want him on the list.”
“Look at me,” Guy said. “If my father had worked there, if he had me on the list, don’t
you think I would be working?”
“If you have any regard for me,” she said, “you will not put him on the list.”
She groped for her husband’s chest in the dark and laid her head on it. She could hear
his heart beating loudly as though it were pumping double, triple its normal rate.
“You won’t put the boy on any lists, will you?” she implored.
“Please, Lili, no more about the boy. He will not go on the list.”
“Tonight I was looking at that balloon in the yard behind the sugar mill,” he said. “I
have been watching it real close.”
“I have seen the man who owns it,” he said. “I’ve seen him get in it and put it in the sky
and go up there like it was some kind of kite and he was the kite master. I see the men who run
after it trying to figure out where it will land. Once I was there and I was one of those men who
were running and I actually guessed correctly. I picked a spot in the sugarcane fields. I picked
the spot from a distance and it actually landed there.”
“Let me say something to you, Guy—
“Pretend that this is the time of miracles and we believed in them. I watched the owner
for a long time, and I think I can fly that balloon. The first time I saw him do it, it looked like a
miracle, but the more and more I saw it, the more ordinary it became.”
“You’re probably intelligent enough to do it,” she said.
“I am intelligent enough to do it. You’re right to say that I can.”
“Don’t you think about hurting yourself?”
“Think like this. Can’t you see yourself up there? Up in the clouds somewhere like some
kind of bird?”
“If God wanted people to fly, he would have given us wings on our backs.”
“You’re right, Lili, you’re right. But look what he gave us instead. He gave us reasons to
want to fly. He gave us the air, the birds, our son.”
“I don’t understand you,” she said.
“Our son, your son, you do not want him cleaning latrines.”
“He can do other things.”
“Me too. I can do other things too.”
A loud scream came from the corner where the boy was sleeping. Lili and Guy rushed to
him and tried to wake him. The boy was trembling when he opened his eyes.
“What is the matter?” Guy asked.
“I cannot remember my lines,” the boy said.
Lili tried to string together what she could remember of her son’s lines. The words slowly
came back to the boy. By the time he fell back to sleep, it was almost dawn.
- pp. 70-73: “Listen to what happened again today,” Lili said when Guy walked through the door
Guy blotted his face with a dust rag as he prepared to hear the news. After the day he’d
had at the factory, he wanted to sit under a tree and have a leisurely smoke, but he did not want
to set a bad example for his son by indulging his very small pleasures.
“You tell him, son,” Lili urged the boy, who was quietly sitting in a corner, reading.
“I’ve got more lines,” the boy announced, springing up to his feet. “Papy, do you want to
“They are giving him more things to say in the play,” Lili explained, “because he did
such a good job memorizing so fast.”
“My compliments, son. Do you have your new lines memorized too?” Guy asked.
“Why don’t you recite your new lines for your father?” Lili said.
The boy walked to the middle of the room and prepared to recite. He cleared his throat,
raising his eyes towards the ceiling.
“There is so much sadness in the faces of my people. I have called on their gods, now I
call on our gods. I call on our young. I call on our old. I call on our mighty and the weak. I call
on everyone and anyone so that we shall all let out one piercing cry that we may either live
freely or we should die.”
“I see your new lines have as much drama as the old ones,” Guy said. He wiped a tear
away, walked over to the chair, and took the boy in his arms. He pressed the boy’s body against
his chest before lowering him to the ground.
“Your new lines are wonderful, son. They’re every bit as affecting as the old.” He
tapped the boy’s shoulder and walked out of the house.
“What’s the matter with Papy?” the boy asked as the door slammed shut behind Guy.
“His heart hurts,” Lili said.
After supper, Lili took her son to the field where she knew her husband would be. While the boy
ran around, she found her husband sitting in his favorite spot behind the sugar mill.
“Nothing, Lili,” he said. “Ask me nothing about this day that I have had.”
She sat down on the grass next to him, for once feeling the sharp edges of the grass
blades against her ankles.
“You’re really good with that boy,” he said, drawing circles with his smallest finger on
her elbow. “You will make a performer of him. I know you will. You can see the best in that
whole situation. It’s because you have those stars in your eyes. That’s the first thing I
noticed about you when I met you. It was your eyes, Lili, so dark and deep. They drew me like
danger draws a fool.”
He turned over on the grass so that he was staring directly at the moon up in the sky. She
could tell that he was also watching the hot-air balloon behind the sugar mill fence out of the
corner of his eye.
“Sometimes I know you want to believe in me,” he said. “I know you’re wishing things
for me. You want me to work at the mill. You want me to get a pretty house for us. I know you
want these things too, but mostly you want me to feel like a man. That’s why you’re not one to
worry about, Lili. I know you can take things as they come.”
“I don’t like it when you talk this way,” she said.
“Listen to this, Lili. I want to tell you a secret. Sometimes, I just want to take that big
balloon and ride it up in the air. I’d like to sail off somewhere and keep floating until I got to a
really nice place with a nice plot of land where I could be something new. I’d build my own
house, keep my own garden. Just be something new.”
“I want you to stay away from there.”
“I know you don’t think I should take it. That can’t keep me from wanting.”
“You could be injured. Do you ever think about that?”
“Don’t you ever want to be something new?”
“I don’t like it,” she said.
“Please don’t get angry with me,” he said, his voice straining almost like the boy’s.
“If you were to take that balloon and fly away, would you take me and the boy?”
“First you don’t want me to take it and now you want to go?”
“I just want to know that when you dream, me and the boy, we’re always in your
- pp. 75-80: Lili got up with the break of dawn the next day. The light came up quickly above the
trees. Lili greeted some of the market women as they walked together to the public water
On her way back, the sun had already melted a few gray clouds. She found the boy
standing alone in the yard with a terrified expression on his face, the old withered mushrooms
uprooted at his feet. He ran up to meet her, nearly knocking her off balance.
“What happened?” she asked. “Have you forgotten your lines?”
The boy was breathing so heavily that his lips could not form a single word.
“What is it?” Lili asked, almost shaking him with anxiety.
“It’s Papa,” he said finally, raising a stiff finger in the air.
The boy covered his face as his mother looked up at the sky. A rainbow-colored balloon
was floating aimlessly above their heads.
“It’s Papa,” the boy said. “He is in it.”
She wanted to look down at her son and tell him that it wasn’t his father, but she
immediately recognized the spindly arms, in a bright flowered shirt that she had made,
gripping the cables.
From the field behind the sugar mill a group of workers were watching the balloon floating in the
air. Many were clapping and cheering, calling out Guy’s name. A few of the women were
waving their head rags at the sky, shouting, “Go! Beautiful, go!”
Lili edged her way to the front of the crowd. Everyone was watching, watching the
balloon drift higher up into the clouds.
“He seems to be right over our heads,” said the factory foreman, a short slender
mulatto with large buckteeth.
Just then, Lili noticed young Assad, his thick black hair sticking to the beads of sweat on
his forehead. His face had the crumpled expression of disrupted sleep.
“He’s further away than he seems,” said young Assad. “I still don’t understand. How did
he get up there? You need a whole crew to fly these things.”
“I don’t know,” the foreman said. “One of my workers just came in saying there was a
man flying above the factory.”
“But how the hell did he start it?” Young Assad was perplexed.
“He just did it,” the foreman said.
“Look, he’s trying to get out!” someone hollered.
A chorus of screams broke out among the workers.
The boy was looking up, trying to see if his father was really trying to jump out of the
balloon. Guy was climbing over the side of the basket. Lili pressed her son’s face into her
Within seconds, Guy was in the air hurtling down towards the crowd. Lili held her
breath as she watched him fall. He crashed not far from where Lili and the boy were
standing, his blood immediately soaking the landing spot.
The balloon kept floating free, drifting on its way to brighter shores. Young Assad
rushed towards the body. He dropped to his knees and checked the wrist for a pulse, then
dropped the arm back to the ground.
“It’s over!” The foreman ordered the workers back to work.
Lili tried to keep her son’s head pressed against her skirt as she moved closer to the body.
The boy yanked himself away and raced to the edge of the field where his father’s body was
lying on the grass. He reached the body as young Assad still knelt examining the corpse. Lili
rushed after him.
“He is mine,” she said to young Assad. “He is my family. He belongs to me.”
Young Assad got up and raised his head to search the sky for his aimless balloon, trying
to guess where it would land. He took one last glance at Guy’s bloody corpse, then raced to his
car and sped away.
The foreman and another worker carried a cot and blanket from the factory.
Little Guy was breathing quickly as he looked at his father’s body on the ground. While
the foreman draped a sheet over Guy’s corpse, his son began to recite the lines from his play.
“A wall of fire is rising and in the ashes, I see the bones of my people. Not only
those people whose dark hollow faces I see daily in the fields, but all those souls who have gone
ahead to haunt my dreams. At night I relive once more the last caresses from the hand of a loving
father, a valiant love, a beloved friends.”
“Let me look at him one last time,” Lili said, pulling back the sheet.
She leaned in very close to get a better look at Guy’s face. There was little left of that
countenance that she had loved so much. Those lips that curled when he was teasing her. That
large flat nose that felt like a feather when rubbed against hers. And those eyes, those
night-colored eyes. Though clouded with blood, Guy’s eyes were still bulging open. Lili was
searching for some kind of sign—a blink, a smile, a wink—something that would remind her of
the man that she had married.
“His eyes aren’t closed,” the foreman said to Lili. “Do you want to close them, or should
The boy continued reciting his lines, his voice rising to a man’s grieving roar. He kept his
eyes closed, his fists balled at his side as he continued with his newest lines.
“There is so much sadness in the faces of my people. I have called on their gods, now
I call on our gods. I call on our young. I call on our old. I call on our mighty and the weak. I call
on everyone and anyone so that we shall all let out one piercing cry that we may either live
freely or we should die.”
“Do you want to close the eyes?” the foreman repeated impatiently?
“No, leave them open,” Lili said. “My husband, he likes to look at the sky.”
- from Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat; pp. 5-6: The bolet man was
coming up the road. He was tall and yellow like an amber roach. The children across the road
lined up by the fence to watch him, clutching one another as he whistled and strolled past them.
This albino, whose name was Chabin, was the biggest lottery agent in the village. He
was thought to have certain gifts that had nothing to do with the lottery, but which Tante
Atie believed put the spirits on his side. For example, if anyone was chasing him, he could
turn into a snake with one flip of his tongue. Sometimes, he could see the future by looking into
your eyes, unless you closed your soul to him by thinking of a religious song and prayer while in
I could tell that Tante Atie was thinking of one of her favorite verses as he approached. Death
is the shepherd of man and in the final dawn, good will be the master of evil.
“Honneur, mes belles, Atie, Sophie.”
Chabin winked at us from the front gate. He had no eyelashes—or seemed to have none. His
eyebrows were tawny and fine like corn silk, but he had a thick head of dirty red hair.
“How are you today?” he asked.
“Today, we are fine,” Tante Atie said. “We do not know about tomorrow.”
“Ki nimero today?” he asked. “What numbers you playing?”
“Today, we play my sister Martine’s age,” Tante Atie said. “Sophie’s mother’s age. Thirty-one.
Perhaps it will bring me luck.”
“Thirty-one will cost you fifty cents,” he said.
Tante Atie reached into her bra and pulled out one gourde.
“We will play the number twice,” she said.
Even though Tante Atie played faithfully, she had never won at the bolet. Not even a small
amount, not even once.
She said the lottery was like love. Providence was not with her, but she was patient.
The albino wrote us a receipt with the numbers and the amount Tante Atie had given him.
The children cringed behind the gate as he went on his way. Tante Atie raised her
receipt towards the sun to see it better.
“There, he wrote your name,” I said pointing to the letters, “and there, he wrote the number
She ran her fingers over the numbers as though they were quilted on the paper.
“Would it not be wonderful to read?” I said for what must have been the hundredth time.
“I tell you, my time is passed. School is not for people my age.
- p. 8: I only knew my mother from the picture on the night table by Tante Atie’s pillow. She
waved from inside the frame with a wide grin on her face and a large flower in her hair. She
witnessed everything that went on in the bougainvillea, each step, each stumble, each hug and
kill. She saw us when we got up, when we went to sleep, when we laughed, when we got upset at
each other. Her expression never changed. Her grin never went away.
I sometimes saw my mother in my dreams. She would chase me through a field of wildflowers as
tall as the sky. When she caught me, she would try to squeeze me into the small frame so I could
be in the picture with her. I would scream and scream until my voice gave out, then Tante Atie
would come and save from her grasp.
- pp. 12-17: I tried to listen without looking directly at the women’s faces. That would have been
disrespectful, as bad as speaking without being spoken to.
“How is Martine doing over there?” asked Stephane, the albino’s wife. She was a sequins piece
worker, who made herself hats from leftover factory sequins. That night she was wearing a gold
bonnet that made her look like a star had landed on her head.
“My sister is fine, thank you,” Tante Atie finally answered.
Madame Augustin took a sip of her tea and looked over at me. She gave me a reprimanding
look that said: Why aren’t you playing with the other children? I quickly lowered my eyes,
pretending to be studying some random pebbles on the ground.
“I would wager that it is very nice over there in New York,” Madame Augustin said.
“I suppose it could be,” said Tante Atie.
“Why have you never gone?” asked Madame Augustin.
“Perhaps it is not yet the time,” said Tante Atie.
“Perhaps it is,” corrected Madame Augustin.
She leaned over Tante Atie’s shoulder and whispered in a not so low voice, “When are you going
to tell us, Atie, when the car comes to take you to the airplane?”
“Is Martine sending for you?” asked the albino’s wife.
Suddenly, all the women began to buzz with questions.
“When are you leaving?”
“Can it really be as sudden as that?”
“Will you marry there?”
“Will you remember us?”
“I am not going anywhere,” Tante Atie interrupted.
“I have it on good information that it was a plane ticket that you received the other day,” said
Madame Augustin. “If you are not going, then who was the plane ticket for?”
All their eyes fell on me at the same time.
“Is the mother sending for the child?” asked the albino’s wife.
“I saw the delivery,” said Madame Augustin.
“Then she is sending for the child,” they concluded.
Suddenly a large hand was patting my shoulder.
“This is very good news,” said the accompanying voice. “It is the best thing that is every going
to happen to you.”
I could not eat the bowl of food that Tante Atie laid in front of me. I only kept wishing that
everyone would disappear so I could go back home.
The night very slowly slipped into the early hours of the morning. Soon everyone began to drift
towards their homes. On Saturdays there was the house to clean and water to fetch from long
distances and the clothes to wash and iron for the Mother’s Day Mass.
After everyone was gone, Monsieur Augustin walked Tante Atie and me home. When we got to
our door he moved closer to Tante Atie as though he wanted to whisper something in her ear.
She looked up at him and smiled, then quickly covered her lips with her fingers, as though she
suddenly remembered her missing teeth and did not want him to see them.
He turned around to look across the street. His wife was carrying some of the pots back inside
the house. He squeezed Tante Atie’s hand and pressed his cheek against hers.
“It is good news, Atie,” he said. “Neither you nor Sophie should be sad. A child belongs with her
mother, and a mother with her child.”
His wife was now sitting on the steps in front of their bougainvillea, waiting for him.
“I did not think you would tell your wife before I had a chance to tell the child,” said Tante
Atie to Monsieur Augustin.
“You must be brave,” he said. “It is some very wonderful news for this child.”
The night had grown a bit cool, but we both stood and watched as Monsieur Augustin crossed
the street, took the pails from his wife’s hand and bent down to kiss her forehead. He put his
arms around her and closed the front door behind them.
“When you tell someone something and you call it a secret, they should know not to tell others,”
Tante Atie mumbled to herself.
She kept her eyes on the Augustin’s house. The main light in their bedroom was lit. Their bodies
were silhouetted on the ruffled curtains blowing in the night breeze. Monsieur Augustin sat in a
rocking chair by the windows. His wife sat on his lap as she unlaced her long braid of black hair.
Monsieur Augustin brushed the hair draped like a silk blanket down Madame Augustin’s back.
When he was done, Monsieur Augustin got up to undress. Then slowly, Madame Augustin took
off her day clothes and slipped into a long-sleeved night gown. Their laughter rose in the night as
they began a tickling fight. The light flickered off and they tumbled into bed.
Tante Atie kept looking at the window even after all signs of the Augustins had faded into the
A tear rolled down her cheek as she unbolted the door to go inside. I immediately started walking
towards or bedroom. She raced after me and tried to catch up. When she did, she pressed her
hand down on my shoulder and tried to turn my body around, to face her.
“Do you know why I always wished I could read?”
Her teary eyes gazed directly into mine.
“I don’t know why.” I tried to answer as politely as I could.
“It was always my dream to read,” she said, “so I could read that old Bible under my pillow and
find the answers to everything right there between those pages. What do you think that old Bible
would have us do right now, about this moment?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“How can you not know?” she asked. “You try to tell me there is all wisdom in reading but at a
time like this you disappoint me.”
“You lied!” I shouted.
She grabbed both my ears and twisted them until they burned.
I stomped my feet and walked away. As I rushed to bed, I began to take off my clothes so
quickly that I almost tore them off my body.
The smell of lemon perfume stung my nose as I pulled the sheet over my head.
“I did not lie,” she said, “I kept a secret, which is different. I wanted to tell you. I needed time to
reconcile myself, to accept it. It was very sudden, just a cassette from Martine saying, ‘I want my
daughter,’ and then as fast as you can put two fingers together to snap, she sends me a plane
ticket with a date on it. I am not even certain that she is doing this properly. All she tells me is
that she arranged it with a woman who works on the airplane.”
“Was I ever going to know?” I asked
“I was going to put you to sleep, put you in a suitcase, and send you to her. One day you would
wake up there and you would feel like your whole life here with me was a dream.” She tried to
force a laugh, but it didn’t make it past her throat. “I had this plan, you see. I thought it was a
good plan. I was going to tell you this, that in one week you would be going to see your mother.
As far as you would know, it would just be a visit. I felt it in my heart and took it on Monsieur
Augustin’s advice that, once you got there, you would love it so much that you would beg your
mother to let you stay. You have heard with your own two ears what everyone has said. We have
no right to be sad.”
I sunk deeper and deeper into the bed and lost my body in the darkness, in the folds of the sheets.
The bed creaked loudly as Tante Atie climbed up on her side.
“Don’t you ever tell anyone that I cry when I watch Donald and his wife getting ready for bed,”
she said, sobbing.
- pp. 24-25: I slept alone in the third room in the house. It had a large four-poster bed and a
mahogany wardrobe with giant hibiscus carved all over it. The mattress sank as I slipped under
the sheets in the bed. It was nice to have a bed of my own every so often.
I lay in bed, waiting for the nightmare where my mother would finally get to take me away.
We left the next day to return to Croix-des-Rosets. Tante Atie had to go back to work. Besides,
my grandmother said that it was best that we leave before she got too used to us and suffered a
sudden attack of chagrin.
To my grandmother, chagrin was a genuine physical disease. Like a hurt leg or a broken arm. To
treat chagrin, you drank tea from leaves that only my grandmother and other old wise women
We each gave my grandmother two kisses as she urged us to go before she kept us for good.
“Can one really die of chagrin?” I asked Tante Atie in the van on the way back.
She said it was not a sudden illness, but something that could kill you slowly, taking a small
piece of you every day until one day it finally takes all of you away.
“How can we keep it from happening to us?” I asked.
“We don’t choose it,” she said, “it chooses us. A horse has four legs, but it can fall anyway.”
She told me about a group of people in Guinea who carry the sky on their heads. They are the
people of Creation. Strong, tall, and mighty people who can bear anything. Their Maker, she
said, gives them the sky to carry because they are strong. These people do not know who they
are, but if you see a lot of trouble in your life, it is because you were chosen to carry part of the
sky on your head.
- p. 51: My mother said it was important that I learn English quickly. Otherwise, the American
students would make fun of me or, even worse, beat me. A lot of other mothers from the nursing
home where she worked had told her that their children were getting into fights in school because
they were accused of having HBO—Haitian Body Odor. Many of the American kids even
accused Haitians of having AIDS because they had heard on television that on the “Four Hs”
got AIDS—Heroin addicts, Hemophiliacs, Homosexuals, and Haitians.
I wanted to tell my mother that I didn’t want to go to school. Frankly, I was afraid. I tried to
think of something to keep from having to go. Sickness or death were probably the only two
things that my mother would accept as excuses.
A car nearly knocked me out of my reverie. My mother grabbed my hand and pulled me across
the street. She stopped in front of a pudgy woman selling rice powder and other cosmetics on the
“Sak passe, Jacqueline?” said my mother.
“You know,” answered Jacqueline in Creole. “I’m doing what I can.”
Jacqueline was wearing large sponge rollers under a hair net on her head. My mother brought
some face cream that promised to make her skin lighter.
- pp. 54-55: Marc waved to a group of men sitting in a corner loudly talking politics. The room
was packed with other customers who shouted back and forth adding their views to the
“Never the Americans in Haiti again,” shouted one man. “Remember what they did in the
twenties. They treated our people like animals. They abused the konbit system and they
made us work like slaves.”
“Roads, we need roads,” said another man. “At least they gave us roads. My mother was killed in
a ferry accident. If we had roads, we would not need to put crowded boats into the sea, just to go
from one small village to another. A lot of you, when you go home, you have to walk from the
village to your house, because there are no roads for cars.”
“What about the boat people?” added a man from a table near the door. “Because of them,
people can’t respect us in this country. They lump us all with them.”
“All the brains leave the country,” Marc said, adding his voice to the melee.
“You are insulting the people back home by saying there’s no brains there,” replied a woman
from a table near the back. “There are brains who stay.”
“But they are crooks,” Marc said, adding some spice to the argument.
“My sister is a nurse there with the Red Cross,” said the woman, standing up. “You call that a
crook? What have you done for your people?”
For some of us, arguing is a sport. In the marketplace in Haiti, whenever people were arguing,
others would gather around them to watch and laugh at the colorful language. People rarely hit
each other. They didn’t need to. They could wound just as brutally by cursing your mother,
calling you a sexual misfit, or accusing you of being from the hills. If you couldn’t match them
with even stronger accusations, then you would concede the argument by keeping your mouth
Marc decided to stay out of the discussion. The woman continued attacking him, shouting that
she was tired of cowardly men speaking against women who were proving themselves, women
as brave as stars out at dawn.
My mother smiled at the woman’s colorful words. It was her turn to stand up and defend her
man, but she said nothing. Marc kept looking at her, as if waiting for my mother to argue on his
behalf, but my mother picked up the menu, and ran her fingers down the list of dishes.