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IN THE MANNER OF WATER OR LIGHT

My mother was conceived in what would ever after be known as the Massacre River. The sharp smell of blood has followed her since. When she first moved to the United States, she read the dictionary from front to back. Her vocabulary quickly became extensive. Her favorite word is suffuse, to spread over or through in the manner of water or light. When she tries to explain how she is haunted by the smell of blood, she says that her senses are suffused with it.
My grandmother knew my grandfather for less than a day.
Everything I know about my family’s history, I know in fragments. We are the keepers of secrets. We are secrets ourselves. We try to protect each other from the geography of so much sorrow. I don’t know that we succeed.
As a young woman, my grandmother worked on a sugarcane plantation in Dajabón, the first town across the border Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. She lived in a shanty with five other women, all strangers, and slept on a straw mat beneath which she kept her rosary, a locket holding a picture of her parents, and a picture of Clark Gable. She spoke little Spanish so she kept to herself. Her days were long and beneath the bright sun, her skin burned ebony and her hair bleached white. When she walked back to her quarters at the end of each day, she heard the way people stared and whispered. They steered clear.
They were terrified by the absence of light around and within her. They thought she was a demon. They called her la demonia negra.
After saying her prayers, after dreaming of Port-au-Prince and lazy afternoons at the beach and the movie house where she watched Mutiny on the Bounty and It Happened One Night and The Call of the Wild, after dreaming of the warmth of Clark Gable’s embrace, my grandmother would tear her old dresses into long strips so she could better bind the cuts and scratches she earned from a long day in the cane fields. She would sleep a dreamless sleep, gathering the courage she would need to wake up the next morning. In a different time, she had been loved by two parents, had lived a good life but then they died and she was left with nothing and like many Haitians, she crossed over into the Dominican Republic in the hope that there, her luck would change.
My grandfather worked at the same plantation. He was a hard worker. He was a tall, strong man. My grandmother, late at night when she cannot sleep, will sit with a glass of rum and Coke, and talk about how her hands remember the thick ropes of muscle in his shoulders and thighs. His name was Jacques Bertrand. He wanted to be in the movies. He had a bright white smile that would have made him a star.
My grandmother is also haunted by smells. She cannot stand the smell of anything sweet. If she smells sweetness in the air, she purses her lip and sucks on her teeth, shaking her head. Today, when we drive to our family’s beach property in Montrouis, she closes her eyes. She can stand neither the sight of the cane fields nor the withered men and women hacking away at stubborn stalks of cane with dull machetes. When she sees the cane fields, a sharp pain radiates across her shoulders and down her back. Her body cannot forget the labors it has known.
Now, the Massacre River is shallow enough to cross by foot, but in October 1937 the waters of what was the Dajabón River ran strong and deep. The unrest had been going on for days—Dominican soldiers determined to rid their country of the Haitian scourge went from plantation to plantation in a murderous rage. My grandmother did the only thing she could, burning through a long day in the cane field, marking the time by the rise and fall of her machete blade. She prayed the trouble would pass her by.
It was General Rafael Trujillo who ordered all the Haitians out of his country, who had his soldiers interrogate anyone whose skin was too dark, who looked like they belonged on the other side of the border. It was the general who took a page from the Book of Judges to exact his genocide and bring German industry to his island.
Soldiers came to the plantation where my grandmother worked. They had guns. They were cruel, spoke in loud, angry voices, took liberties. One of the women with whom my grandmother shared her shanty betrayed my grandmother’s hiding place. We never speak of what happened after that. The ugly details are trapped between the fragments of our family history. We are secrets ourselves.
My grandmother ended up in the river. She found a shallow place. She tried to hold her breath while she hid from the marauding soldiers on both of the muddy shores straddling the river. There was a moment when she laid on her back, and submerged herself until her entire body was covered by water, until her pores were suffused with it. She didn’t come up for air until the ringing in her ears became unbearable. The moon was high and the night was cold. She smelled blood in the water. She wore only a thin dress, plastered to her skin. Her feet were bare. When a bloated corpse slowly floated past her, then an arm, a leg, something she couldn’t recognize, she covered her mouth with her hand. She screamed into her own skin instead of the emptiness around her.
Jacques Bertrand who worked hard and wanted to be in the movies found his way to the river that ran strong and deep. He moved himself through the water until he found my grandmother. He tapped her on the shoulder and instead of turning away, she turned into him, opened that part of her herself not yet numb with terror. She found comfort in the fear mirrored in his eyes. His chest was bare and she pressed her damp cheek against his breastbone. She slowed her breathing to match his. She listened to the beat of his heart; it echoed beneath the bones of his rib cage. “An angel,” she told me. “I thought he was an angel who had come to deliver me from that dark and terrible place.”
My grandparents bound their bodies together as their skin gathered in tiny folds, as their bodies shook violently. Jacques Bertrand, who worked hard, who wanted to be in the movies, wrapped his arms around my grandmother. In a stuttered whisper, he told her the story of his life. “I want to be remembered,” he said. She cupped his face in her hands, traced his strong chin with her thumbs, and brushed her lips across his. She followed the bridges of scar tissue across his back with her fingertips. She said, “You will be remembered.” She told him the story of her own life. She asked him to remember her too.
My grandmother still hears the dying screams from that night. She remembers the dull, wet sound of machetes hacking through flesh and bone. The only thing that muted those horrors was a man she knew but did not know who wore bridges of scar across his back. I do not know the intimate details, but my mother was conceived.
In the morning, surrounded by the smell and silence of death, my grandparents crawled out of the river that had, overnight, become a watery coffin holding 25,000 bodies. The Massacre River had earned its name. The two of them, soaking wet, their bodies stiff and on the verge of fever, crawled into Ouanaminthe. They were home. They were far from home. My grandmother laced her fingers with my grandfather’s and they sought refuge in an abandoned church. They fell to their knees and prayed and then their prayers became something else, something like solace.
When night fell again, the Dominican soldiers crossed into Ouanaminthe, into a place where they did not belong. My grandfather was killed. He saved my grandmother’s life by confronting three soldiers, creating a window through which my grandmother could escape. Jacques Bertrand died wanting to be remembered, so my grandmother stayed in that place of such sorrow, took a job cooking and cleaning for the headmaster of a primary school. At night, she slept in an empty classroom. She gave birth to my mother and later married the headmaster who raised my mother as his own. At night, my grandmother took my mother to the river and told her the story of how she came to be. My grandmother knelt on the riverbank, her bones sinking in the mud as she brought handfuls of water to her mouth. She drank the memories in that water.
When my mother turned twelve, she, my grandmother, and the headmaster moved to Port-au-Prince. The school had closed and the headmaster took a new appointment in the capital. At first, my grandmother refused to leave her memories, but the headmaster put his foot down. She was his wife. She would follow. My mother recalls how her mother wailed, her voice pitched sharp and thin, cutting everything around her. In the front yard of their modest home, a large coconut tree fell, its wide trunk split neatly in half. The fallen fruit rotted instantly. My grandmother went to the Massacre River, her long white hair gathered around her face. She took river mud into her hands, eating it, enduring the thick, bitter taste. When my mother and the headmaster found her, my grandmother was lying in a shallow place, shivering beneath a high moon, her face caked with dry mud.
In the capital, my grandmother was a different woman, quieted. The headmaster consulted Catholic missionaries, houngans and mambos in case she had been possessed by a lwa or spirit, and needed healing. Finally, he resigned himself to living with her ghosts. He loved her as best a man whose wife loves another man can. He focused on my mother’s education and waited. Sometimes, the headmaster asked my mother if she was happy. She said, “My mother does love you.”
It wasn’t until the day my mother left Port-au-Prince that my grandmother became herself again. I’ve been told that the headmaster and my grandmother stood on the tarmac white with heat, the air billowing around them in visible waves. My mother kissed her mother twice on each cheek. She kissed the headmaster. She turned and headed for the staircase to board the plane, a heavy wind blowing her skirt wildly. My grandmother didn’t run after her only child but she did say, “Ti Coeur.” Little heart. My mother stopped. She didn’t turn around.
My mother is a small, nervous woman. Her life began, she says, the day she got off the Pan Am flight from Port-au-Prince in New York City. She sat in the back of a yellow taxicab driven by a man who spoke a language she did not understand. She stared out the dirty window and up at the tall steel buildings. She was twenty-one. My mother found an apartment in the Bronx. She took a job as a seamstress for Perry Ellis making clothes she loved but could not afford. She learned to speak English by reading the dictionary and watching American television. Once a month, she wrote her mother and the only father she knew a long letter telling them about America, begging them to join her. My grandmother always wrote back, but refused to leave Haiti. She would not leave the ghost of a man who could not be forgotten.
My mother went to doctor after doctor trying to find someone who would free her from the sharp smell of blood that has always suffused her senses. Each doctor assured my mother it was all in her head. She took the subway to Chinatown and tried acupuncture. The acupuncturist carefully inserted needles into the webs of her thumbs, and along her body’s meridians. As he placed each needle, he shook his head. He said, “There are some things no medicine can fix.”
When I asked my mother how she met my father she said, “I wasn’t going to marry a Haitian man.” She rarely answers the question she is asked. My father is an ear, nose, and throat specialist. He is the last doctor my mother consulted. When she told him she could only smell blood, he believed her. He tried to help her and when he couldn’t, he asked her to join him for dinner. Eventually he asked for her hand in marriage. She didn’t say yes. She told my father she would never return to Haiti, that he would have to accept that her life began a year earlier. She was a seamstress whose senses were suffused with the smell of blood, who didn’t know her father and couldn’t understand her mother. They were married in a Manhattan synagogue, nine months after they met.
My parents remained childless for many years but never discussed the matter. If my mother was asked when she would start a family, she would say, “I am very much in love with my husband.” When she learned she was pregnant with me, at the age of forty, it was a hot July afternoon in New York, 1978. She ran out to the street, threw her hands in the air, stared into the incandescent sun. She cried as the light spread over her. A joyful sound vibrated from her throat, through her mouth and into the city around her. She went to my father’s office and told him the news. He cried too. When I was born, I was crying lustily. We are a family unafraid of our tears.
My mother has never been able to accept that she will never know her real father. She worries that her mother has woven the story of her conception into an elaborate fable to hide a darker truth. My mother has an imagination. She knows too much about what angry, wild soldiers will do to frightened, fleeing young women. My mother looks in the mirror and cannot recognize herself. She only sees the face of a man she can never know. When I was a little girl and we sat together at the dinner table, my mother often stared into the distance, grinding her teeth. My father would take her hand and say, “Jacqueline, please stop worrying.” She never did. She was the keeper of her mother’s secrets. She was a secret herself.
Every summer, once I turned five, my parents took me to JFK and sent me to my grandmother’s for three months. I was dispatched to do the work of dutiful daughter in my mother’s absence. My grandmother and the man I know as my grandfather, the headmaster who took in a scared young woman whose skin had burned ebony, whose hair had bleached white, who bore a child with no father, they were kind to me. I brought them pictures of my parents and money my mother carefully stuffed in my shoes. I brought cooking oil and pantyhose, a VCR and videotapes, gossip magazines, corn flakes. I knew never to bring anything sweet.
My grandmother kept her promise to Jacques Bertrand. Each time she saw me, she offered new fragments of their story or, if my mother’s fears were correct, her story. I looked like him, had his eyes and his chin. Like my parents, my grandmother and the headmaster doted on me. When I returned to the States at the end of each August, I would try to ask my mother questions, to better piece things together but she would only shut herself in her room, rub perfume across her upper lip, lie on her back, her eyes covered with a cool washcloth.
When I was thirteen, the headmaster drove my grandmother and me to their beach property in Montrouis for the afternoon. Just before leaving New York for the summer, I had celebrated my bat mitzvah. The three of us sang along to konpa, and the adults listened to me chattering from the backseat. It was a good day. I longed for my mother to know there was so much joy to be found in the country of her birth. As we pulled into a gas station, beggars suddenly swarmed our car, a throbbing mass of dark, shiny faces and limbs needing more than we could possibly give. There was a man with one leg and one old, wooden crutch. His face was disfigured by a bulging tumor beneath his left eye. He planted his hands against the glass of the window, leering at me, the skin over the tumor rippling with his anger. It was the first time I understood the land of my mother’s birth as a place run through with pain.
Each time I returned to New York and the comforts of home, I brought pictures and long letters and special spices—these affections, mother by proxy. My mother always took me for lunch, alone, at the Russian Tea Room the day following my return. She had me recount my trip in exhaustive detail, inhaling from a perfume-scented handkerchief every few minutes, carefully probing so as to get the clearest sense of how her mother was doing. Once in a while, I forgot myself and asked my mother why she didn’t just go to Haiti to find out for herself. In those moments, she gave me a stern look. She said, “It is not easy to be a good daughter.”
When I turned sixteen, I went to summer camp in western Massachusetts because I was young and silly. I wanted to do normal things. Haiti was too much work. I was tired of the heat and the smells and the inescapable poverty, how my sweaty limbs caught in mosquito netting, how I had to go to the well for water when the cistern wasn’t working. I was sick of the loud hum of generators and tiny lizards clinging to window screens and the way everyone stared at me and called me la mulatte. Summer camp was a largely disappointing experience. I was a city girl and the Berkshires were far too rural for me. I wasn’t any kind of Jewish the other girls at the camp could understand. I spent the summer sitting on the lakeshore reading, lamenting that I could have been at a real beach in the Caribbean with people who loved me and looked like me. It would be ten years before I returned to Haiti.
The next summer, my father took me to Tel Aviv. He showed me the apartment where he grew up in Ramat Aviv. He showed me his parents’ graves, told me how much they would have loved me. I saw all kinds of people who did indeed look like me, who didn’t laugh at my stuttered Hebrew. We spent a week on a kibbutz, my father in his linen shirt and shorts, tanned, laughing, home. I felt a real sadness for my mother, who couldn’t take such joy in the land of her birth. We went to the beach. We went to Jaffa and looked toward the sea and Andromeda’s rock. We cried at the Wailing Wall. I understood that Haiti was not the only place in the world run through with pain.
The year after I graduated from law school, the headmaster died. I called my grandmother to ask how she was doing. She said, “I have been a good wife.” She was ready to return to Jacques Bertrand. I told my mother we had to go see her mother. She was lying on her bed, rubbing perfume across her upper lip. She had not taken news of the headmaster’s death well. He was the only father she ever knew. She turned to me and said, “This is my home, where I am needed.” I said, “You are needed elsewhere,” and she waved a hand limply, conceding the point.
My father prescribed my mother some Valium, and the three of us flew to Port-au-Prince. By the time we landed, my mother was sufficiently sedated. As we disembarked and walked into the terminal, she dreamily asked “Are we there?” My grandmother and her driver were waiting for us. I inhaled sharply as I saw her for the first time in a decade. She was impossibly small, a frail figure, her dark flesh much looser now, her features hollowed, her white hair swept atop her head in a loose bun. She and my mother stood inches apart and stared at each other. My grandmother took her daughter’s face in her hands, nodded. That night, in our hotel, I heard my mother whisper to my father that she could hardly breathe but for the smell of blood.
After a few days in the capital helping my grandmother settle her affairs and visiting the headmaster’s grave, she was ready to return to Jacques Bertrand. Despite our demand she stay in the capital or return to the States with us, my grandmother was resolute. We drove across the country to Ouanaminthe on the only passable road. It took hours and by the time we arrived, we were all tired, sweaty, sore, and irritable. Ouanaminthe was not the city it had once been. It was a sad, hopeless place, crumbling buildings everywhere, paint peeling from billboards, the streets crowded with people, each person wanting and needing more than the next. Most of the roads had gone to mud from recent flooding. The air was stifling and pressed down on us uncomfortably. As we stood in the courtyard in front of the small concrete house my grandmother had purchased, men hanging from a passing Tap Tap leered at us. My father stood in front of me, glaring. My mother rubbed her forehead and asked my father for another Valium.
My mother and her mother kept to themselves for the first few days, huddled together, trying to make up for nearly thirty years of separation. There was no room for my father and me in what they needed from one another. On the second night, I went to a local bar where everyone stared as I took a seat at the bar. I drank watery rums and Coke until my face and my boredom felt numb. I danced to Usher with a man named Innocent. When I snuck back into my grandmother’s house, I found her sitting in the dark. She nodded to me but said nothing. On the third night, the moon was high and bright, casting its pale light over and through everything. I lay beneath mosquito netting in a tank top and boxers, one arm over my head, one arm across my stomach, my body feeling open and loose. I listened to the sounds of everyone else sleeping. I tried to understand the what and why of where we were.
Just as I was on the verge of drifting asleep, I heard a scratching at the door and sat up, pulling the sheets around me. My grandmother appeared in the doorway. She curled her bent fingers, beckoned. Slowly, I stretched myself out of bed, pulled on a pair of jeans and flip-flops. I found my grandmother by the front door. My mother was standing next to her, fidgeting, shifting from one foot to the other, clutching at her perfume-scented handkerchief. “What’s wrong?” I asked. My grandmother smiled in the darkness. “Come with us,” she said.
We walked nearly a mile to the banks of the Massacre River, my grandmother pressing her hand against the small of my mother’s back. In the distance, we could see soldiers keeping watch at the checkpoint, their cigarettes punctuating the darkness. I heard hundreds of frightened people who looked like me splashing through the water, searching for safety and then, silence. My grandmother climbed down the damp, steep riverbank, my mother warning her mother to be careful. She waved for us to join her. I slipped out of my sandals, took my mother’s hand, helped her into the river. We stood in a shallow place. I curled my toes in the silt of the riverbed and shivered. I had pictured the river as a wide, yawning and bloody beast, but where we stood, the river flowed weakly. The waters did not run deep. It was just a border between two geographies of grief.
My grandmother pointed down. The hem of her dressing gown floated around her. “Here,” she said softly.
My mother’s shoulders shook but she made no sound. She gripped my arm. “I cannot breathe,” she said. Then she dropped to her knees, curled into herself. She said, “I must know the truth.”
I knelt behind her. I held her, tried to understand her. I said, “You can breathe.” My grandmother said, “You know the only truth that matters.” Again I heard hundreds of frightened people splashing through the water, keening, reaching for something that could never be reached. The ground beneath us trembled from the heavy footsteps of roving soldiers. I smelled their sweat and their confused, aimless anger.
We knelt there for a long while. My grandmother stood, whispering the story of how she came to know and remember Jacques Bertrand until her words dried on her lips. I stroked my mother’s hair gently, waited for her breathing to slow, her back rising into my chest with a melancholy cadence. We mourned until morning. The sun rose high. Bright beams of light spread over and through us. The sun burned so hot it dried the river itself, turned the water into light. We were left kneeling in a bed of sand and bones. I started crying. I could not stop. I cried to wash us all clean.

by Roxane Gay


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