WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED

NAOMIE JEAN-PIERRE

 


 
Can there be more than one doorway to the mountains? We are about to find out, Nadiyo. There is something they say when the flood comes. The house we are in is not ours, they say. The woods we are in are not ours to hide in. We are only borrowers. The owner is coming. The owner always comes and we have to leave. This old kamyon, with it’s colorful paint job, this is our home for the few days we hide from siklòn la, the hurricane. Papi has nailed the last of our furniture to the floor so that it won’t swim away with the water. When we were cleaned out before, we learned how to stack the bulk of our lives onto the back of this colorful kamyon. We learned how to tie down a goat and benches for seats, leaving a wide space for a rug in the middle. We learned how to let Papi enjoy the radio, listening to kompa for hours. We learned how to let Granpa narrate the trip so that there would be no arguing. So now we sit here, ready to make our voyage. He pointed to each tiny landmark we passed. This is where your mama cut her first chicken head. I pictured her holding the blade real still, the city girl in her making an art of it. I could see her holding the chicken by the legs and letting it’s blood drip down it’s blunt neck to the ground. That is where your Granpa buried his treasure as a boy. That is where your Gran caught her first kiss. He smiled like a school boy. I planted that kokoye, he said, and that one. I hoped it would survive the coming waters. I hoped it all would survive the waters, the young kokoye and the old.
 
We had painted this kamyon, Gracelle and me. Papi let us because we couldn’t do worse than what it already looked like, he had said. Manmi let us because she missed the city and a little paint on the kamyon would remind her of tap taps in Port-au-Prince. She missed riding them to and from school each day when she taught in the city. She wanted to us to use purple, because she had read somewhere that it was the color of royalty. But we only had colors that resembled fire. So it was yellow, orange, and red. It should have been purple now that I think of it because that was the only color that seemed to be ours. We were that kind of black, enough purple to be royal and enough brown to be ashy. I hung my arms out of the big caravan windows, there is your purple. Papi found a way to put plastic curtains up for the windows. He found a way to do everything. Take out the glass from the windows, attach the caravan to the back of the kamyon, make a road up the mountain. There was something for everything, he would say. Every tap tap has a name, Manmi said. What do you want to call it? Gracelle came up with Sitadèl. It will be like the great fortress on mount Bonnet a L’Eveque. And let Henri Christophe order us to replace our kamyon’s colors with harsh stone? I did not like it, but I agreed for comfort. “We will be secure, no doubt,” I said. We spent many nights resting our heads against the kamyon, our very own Sitadèl.
 
The road would be filled with people making their way to higher ground. A year ago, no one would have dared to make the trip, but Papi and Uncle Junio spent the last year clearing a roadway up the mountain. Many of them would be on foot and Gracelle and I planted purple hibiscus along the path to show them the way. We never thought we would need them for ourselves. Papi knew the way. He grew up in these mountains as an orphan boy. While other people feared the endless green of the mountains, Papi feared the city. He said there was no room for moun deyo nan kay kole, outside people in a cluttered house. He said the mountains mothered him. He said you could not go anywhere higher in all the world to heal. Je a pa ka wè nwaj yo san mòn yo. There is a place where the endless peaks of the mountains turn from green and brown to blue, until the eye cannot see the clouds without seeing the mountains in them. That is where Papi took Manmi to ask her to marry him. That is where Gracelle has been waiting for us for some time. That was where we were going.
 

 
“Osnel, the water is running down the mountain. Could we slide?”
 
I heard Manmi asking Papi this as I stirred awake. I awoke to the sound of the engine struggling up the mountain. Papi’s kompa was playing smoothly on the radio, but the world sounded like it was cracking beneath our feet. I slid the plastic curtain away from the window. I looked at the view. Everywhere, waters were moving in, surrounding the bottom of the mountain, shrinking our island. In Haiti, there are no trees on the mountains anymore. The ones we plant are too young and too few to stop the waters. I wondered if the island, long ago, had not been bigger. I wondered if the island was hidden underneath the waters that surrounded it each year. Maybe we were two, three times
our size. The winds came, and the kamyon rattled.
 
“Gracelle”, I whispered. “Can you see the Sitadèl from where you are? Red, yellow, and orange?”
 
“Mount the kamyon,” Manmi said anxiously. “Somewhere to the side. We can make due here until the ground dries.”
 
“Cheri, this is as dry as the ground will ever be. The ground will not dry for days.”
 
“Papi-Do . . . Nadiyo . . . we may have to throw things out of the kamyon,” she said, with the sound of water in her throat. Papi-Do and I made a game of throwing things out of the large windows. The more room we made, the more we collected water. Mama always hated the water. The Atlantic, she said, was merciless. Year after year it attempted to do what Europe could not do. It attempted to bring the island, like a ti baton, underwater. She turned to me between the slide window that separated us. She repeated a lesson she always taught. I knew it well. This is the same water that had claimed millions of our ancestor’s lives, she would say. If you are ever given the choice, do not trust it. This is our house, here. This is all we own, and she beat her chest. I heard the smack of her palm on the the skin of her chest, wet. I was afraid. Where do we go if we lose our bodies to the water, I thought. Will we belong to us? Gracelle was already atop the mountain with Uncle Junio. I knew they had chocolat waiting for us, mixed with cinnamon sticks and aniz. I knew the milk would be thickly layered on top, enough to pick up with your fingers. I licked my top lip and tasted the mustache of rainwater that collected on my upper lip. This is what millions of black bodies taste like.
 
“Papi-Do”, Manmi yelled. “Tie yourself to Nadiyo.”
 
She did not have time to say I love you. She gasped like the rest of us, the way you gasp to take in the last bit of air before the water comes. The way you gasp when you suddenly feel that you are not alone or when you realize that the earth is quaking beneath you. The kamyon began to slide backwards. Papi stepped on the gas. I could hear the tires whining. Granpa’s hands moved fast, shaking but strong. They were always my favorite hands to be in, hard like the oldest cedar. I wrapped my hands and legs around his neck and body the way Gracelle and I once played. I wondered if Manmi was doing the same with Papi. “This is how people drown,” I remember Manmi said. The time she slapped me in my face for holding on to Gracelle in the water, where the ocean gave me a choice and I trusted it. It had betrayed me and Gracelle. Our heads slipped under the water. Both our bodies jolted out of breath but somehow I came back to the surface. Manmi hates the water. I could hear it in her voice, “This is how people drown.” She said it like her own voice was filled with many waters and what she meant to say was “This is how my daughter drowns.” The kamyon screeched, going over a rock. I watched a tire bounce over the mountainside. Hands held tightly onto the kamyon as it began to slide, as it lifted off the ground, as it rolled. This is our house. The goat chewed frantically through the rope like mown grass. Her head and hooves jerked like something in labor with nothing to bring forth. I hoped for her victory when she loosened out of her knots. But bolting free, she broke her neck against the door. It crackled and rolled with the kamyon. Papi muttered through the glass between us, “Mwe la…Mwe la.” I am here. I am here. The sound of many waters was coming out of Manmi’s mouth now as she yelled.
 
“Gracelle . . . Gracelle,” I say between clenched teeth that remind me how easily we can crack. How easily we swallow too much water. The caravan slid and toppled down the mountain. Light and darkness filtered in through the windows. The goat’s dead body slid across the floor sprinkling it’s blood and urine into our faces. I once saw a basket at the ti marche drop from a truck. It was full of green and yellow plantains. All the plantains spilled out onto the floor and everyone grabbed them and ran. We were like the plantains in the basket, shaken and emptied out. About to be carried away. I held tightly to Papi-Do. The bins of food and clothes turned out of their places and flew out of the large windows. Our bodies took hits from the loose pieces of our home. Our mouths clenched against the coming blood and water until everything collapsed. “One day,” I had told Gracelle, “we will be strong pye bwa. We will tie our branches and our roots together, deep into the mountain. We would grow tall and no one could make us move.” But it is not this day.
 

 
I woke up first. I am an unclean girl. A dark girl. My lungs hurt. I think I taste my own blood. Are we dead, I said to Granpa. This is not a question. The rain was pouring through the window and a pool of raindrops had collected in the valley of Granpa’s eye. Our heads hung just outside the window, touching a bit of wet soil. Through my water-stained eyes, I watched a frog jump through the window, just between our heads. It must have thought we were a dry place, a refuge from the rain. It croaked so loudly that Granpa stirred alive, wincing in pain. The goat’s head slid down the caravan wall. She lay there, a stillborn in her own afterbirth. I noticed the little pieces of her skeleton, soaked in blood, falling from the roof of the caravan. We were covered in its blood and bone.
 
The rain began to pour down harder, sounding like footprints on the roof. I heard a dog bark in the distance. Then the sound of panting and more feet approached the window. Before I could yell, a mangey thin creature was sniffing my head and licking the goat’s blood from my face. So we are like Noah’s ark, I thought. Except our bodies are our ark and they have kept us alive through this perpetual flood. Tout tan, tout tan. Always coming in waves to cleanse us.
 
A man appeared, holding a light.
 
“Granpa, Papi . . . Papi-Do . . . wake up . . .”
 
“Gen moun la . . . Alo? Anybody there? Hello?
 
“Nou la!” Granpa cried out. We are here. He opened his eyes and looked at me with that look of gran moun whose eyes have seen more, and therefore have already resigned. They hang on only to finish one last work.
 
“O, Dieu. . . Tan. . . tan . . .Oh, God . . . wait. . .wait a second.
 
The light faded until the man returned with a knife. I looked intensely at Granpa, then at the dog that was now licking the goat’s head. This man was a mountain man, the kind who wait for people to wander into the bush. The kind who take people and eat their brains. They turn them into zombies to do their housework. The knife gleamed in the distance as I waited for the man to carve away my braided scalp. Instead, he grasped my ropes and struggled to untangle their knots. He breathed heavily, and I watched his dark skin stretch itself in the coming darkness. Suddenly, the island was alive. The rain was talking. The wind watching, the creatures moving in the bush. But the people were silent. Alive, but silent. I felt the ropes tighten before they loosened. I could not tell if Granpa was crying or if it was the rain coming down his face. Wounds opened up in his face as he grimaced, pulling free from the last of the knots. At the very top of his round head, a gash ran his own blood down his face.
 
We had to crawl out of the window like newborns, carrying only ourselves covered in goat’s blood. It turns out that the caravan was stopped by a large rock in the side of the mountain. It lay on it’s side, and we were all that was left of the kamyon. The kamyon’s head was completely gone, Manmi and Papi with it. The man said he watched it go over the side of the mountain. He said it took him longer than he expected to come down to help us. He would have brought blankets if he had thought someone were actually alive inside. He thought for sure there were no people, the way the caravan flipped. It should have been emptied out. He said this as Granpa and I looked over the side of the mountain, shivering in the rain. It was dark and we were under the shadow of the mountain, looking for the colors red, yellow, and orange. Looking for the words sit-a-del. My name is Josue, he says. You can come back to my house, he says. I have a daughter you can play with.
 
“Gracelle,” I say to the rain. “Gracelle,” I yell. “Cover this side of the mountain in hibiscus!”
 
Granpa shook my body. He shook his head violently at me as if to say that no amount of pain justifies lunacy.
 
“We cannot leave here. We need to find Manmi and Papi,” I shrieked.
 
“The waters are coming,” Granpa moaned. “We have to get further up the mountain.”
 
“How much water can there be?”
 
“Kenbe fèm pitit. Hold on little one,” he said. “We will not test it.”
 
The man whose name is Josue whistled and the thin dog came running out of our kamyon, blood on his mangey mouth.
 

 
Are we dead. When we come back to the village, they will say we are dead. They would want us to be dead because it is easier to think we are dead than to think about what really happened. I imagined Manmi and Papi, their bodies shattering through glass. The two of them soaring mid air, flying for just a moment. Then, I imagined their bodies being crushed into the mountainside. On the way to Josue’s house, the rain keeps poking us and prodding us, wanting to see if we are really alive. Wanting to know if we are really human or some kind of different species. Papi-Do says to stay here while he looks for the other piece of the kamyon. When he returns, he says we can leave this place now. We can go anywhere we want, anywhere in the mountain that is dry. I say I want to go to the Sitadèl. He says, good. Gracelle and Manmi and Papi are already waiting for us there. Wait, he says, until he fills a canteen with water. It is not long before we are moving again.
 

 
We are going to the Sitadèl in the sky. There are many of us en route. Granpa and I are on the way, with different people on our path. We share food and stories, advice and directions. Have you seen a kamyon with no back, we ask. It would be red, orange, and yellow. It would say Sitadèl on the front. No? Well then, have you seen bodies. One man about 6”2, purple black, with a smooth face and patchy beard. One woman, mid thirties, round but not heavy. No one has seen you. They ask me about the bodies they are looking for. Have I seen them? No. I see a pathway filled with people, going up to the mountaintop. I see purple hibiscus marking the trail and I pick some purple for you, Gracelle. I see extinct species of things trailing, hopping alongside us. Saying, go this way. I see bodies like a herd, people walking two by two. Each pair is the last of their house or their family or their kamyon. Perhaps you see a pile of bones. Perhaps you smell it, “smells of rotting flesh” 1. Perhaps you pick it up with two fingers. Perhaps you find a fracture beneath the ear, under the jawbone. These are no mere animal bones, you think. Enough here for seven bodies, seven human bodies. Here is my body, mixed up in the pile. School teachers, moun deyo, children playing in the water. They have fractures of their own and if someone who doesn’t recognize us sees us, they will see nothing but violence, shit, and bones. And that is our magic. There it is. Look at it. Perhaps you pull a bone from the pile. It looks like a broken pelvic bone. Once, it pushed someone out into the world of the living. Maybe, you “put it down with the jars containing preserved toads” 2. It must have cracked, going through glass and rock, fallen hard. But there you are. I have been looking for you. Mwe sonje’ou. Look, another. Another, another. Making our way up the mountain. Making the path easier for the ones coming behind us. We have always lived beyond abjection. And that is how we managed to stay alive. For if you knew who we were, in fact some part of you does know, you would only cut us open to understand us. You would only butcher us to know us. For you can only know us in part.
 

 
We are not the only ones walking up the mountain. The storm is raging and we are nearing the Sitadèl, but we hear whispers in the rain. There stirring bagan among the travellers that there was an American on the mountain looking for frogs. In this dark, in this rain and sorrow, they were conducting an experiment.
 
“It never surprises me,” Papi-Do said “that while Ayiti is drowning in sorrow. . . burying her children, etranje yo ap jwe nan san ak dlo a.”
 
Foreigners are playing in the blood and water. It was rumored that the American and his guide were oblivious to the siklòn. The winds had made a mess of their camp. Their tent had disappeared. Their sleeping bags torn to shreds. Jars lay broken and clothes tossed 3. So they blamed us and descended the mountain in fear. Finally, they felt that it had begun to rain and they disappeared behind some bushes . . . the rain grew heavier and they I resigned themselves to the idea of death. A wet, remote death on a mountain of lost children and elusive frogs 4. Some people think we are an island of zombies, an extinct people. Papi-Do says they say this because we should be dead. But we have always lived. We carry salt in our pockets. It flows from our eyes and through our veins, but they fear us all the same. They whisper they’re following us . . . if we leave now, they won’t kill us . . . they could have done it a while ago . . . They want to be sure we’re going . . . 5 They say no amount of salt can wash away the kind of living dead that we are. They say that is why the ocean rises every year to return the taste of salt to this island that is disappearing. And yet, the waters have not overcome it. Papi-Do says there is no amount of salt, or water, or blood that can erase us. We are a kind of living dead. Refusing to die. I say we are hiding what is most precious to us: ourselves. And if we must hide in shit and mountains, if we must disguise ourselves, we will. There are lots of men in these mountains. They come looking for pieces of themselves, a name, some fame, a toad, a woman, a terror.
 
“Gran . . . are we almost there? I want to see Manmi and Gracelle . . .and Papi.”
 
“We are approaching now. See, the tip there.” He pointed, breathing heavily.
 
I looked up. Even in the dark, I could see the stone fortress. The winds were stronger now, blowing palm leaves through the air and rocking the young trees. You could hear howls and prayers in the wind and you wondered whose they were.
 
“That is where Henri Christophe taught us to fear etranje yo,” Papi-Do started. “But it taught us something else . . . that even in our most free moments, we would have to pay for our free black bodies.”
 
I pictured the goat bolting free from her knots.
 
“We would have to protect ourselves. If it was not the French, it was the American. If not him, then it was the Dominican, the Macoutes, your neighbor, the herpetologist. . . after waves there are more waves.”
 
“. . . e dèyè mòn gen mòn. After mountains there are more mountains. The waters can not get us here . . .”
 
“No pitit, they cannot . . .” he smiled to himself in the darkness.
 
Tired, Papi-Do sat to rest his head against a large rock and closed his eyes for a moment.
 
“Papi-Do, come inside. Rest your head in the Sitadèl . . . ”
 
“Give me a moment, cheri. Pour some water in my mouth, tanpri.”
 
I screwed the lid off the canteen and poured. It sounded like something down a fountain, gurgled like a baby. Granpa soon fell asleep there. This time, I did wait around for Papi-Do to wake. Nadiyo, I thought to myself, means we will tell them.
 
“I will tell them we are here,” I whispered to Papi-Do. Running up the steps and letting my voice land softly against the darkness. I was finally ascended the steps of the Sitadèl. The corridors were covered in stone and moss, with the moonlight bouncing off the glistening granite. I walked up its maze of stairs, led by candles along the walls and floor. Who has lit them for me is a mystery. A final candle was lit before a long tunnel and a doorway. Can there be more than one doorway to the mountains? I heard a voice tip-toeing in the dark. My heart paced and I found myself afraid to go further.
 
“What is wrong, Nadi . . . ? Don’t you like the colors of our new kamyon?”
 
I knew Gracelle’s voice anywhere, cool honey dew on the skin. It echoed through the halls. Then all along the corridor, candles gleamed in endless red, orange, and yellow. They danced as Gracelle spoke. An endless wave of welcomes. I beamed.
 
“Tell Manmi, I have brought purple for you both,” I yelled out. I held the hibiscus out to them in my black arms. I let my voice echo down the tunnel chamber. It made it’s way through the dim tunnels, through the earth beneath my feet, and back to me. I heard the echoes of goat’s feet and the playing of kompa. I made my tiptoe into the dark, familiar unknown. What is the difference? We have always lived in Sitadèls, I thought to myself. We have always lived.
 

 
“That night, when Nadiyo returned to find Papi-Do, she learned that he had been taken. The other traveller’s reported that he had been found by two men, one surely a blan Ameriken and the other a vagabond. They thought him a very rare creature, one long extinct, an ancient survivor who had forgotten to die 6. They sought to save him so they zipped him into a plastic bag 7 and carried him onto their ship. Later, when news of a tragedy spread through Haiti, Nadiyo did not think it strange. Nearly two thousand people had died at sea, lost where the Caribbean sea meets the Atlantic. If you are given the option, do not trust those waters she thought. Others thought it strange that a siklòn would form in February, long out of hurricane season. They thought it even more strange that no survivors were found, and that purple hibiscus peppered the sea. It returned thousands of petals to the shore. Nadiyo spent that February resting her head against the new kamyon, rewriting the words Sitadèl. This time, she had managed to do it in purple.”
 
 
 
 
 
 
1 In the Palm of Darkness, pg. 40
2 In the Palm of Darkness, pg. 40
3 “The tent had disappeared, and all that was left of the sleeping bags were some shreds scattered around a tree. Jars lay broken on the ground, and singed journals and notebooks, empty cans, rumpled clothes were tossed everywhere…covered with a pile of shit” (44).
4 “It had begun to rain and he disappeared behind some bushes . . .the rain grew heavier and I resigned to myself the idea of death. A wet, remote death on a mountain of lost children and elusive frogs. The miserable death of a man who doesn’t know who is pursuing him or why they attack him” (46).
5 In the Palm of Darkness, pg. 43-46
6 In the Palm of Darkness, 172.
7 In the Palm of Darkness, Victor Gregg slips the frog into “a plastic bag filled with moss and ferns,” 172.
 
 
 
Author’s Note

San ak Dlo: In Search of Temwayaj in Haiti

The blood and the water speak.

 
 
This is a fictional response to Mayra Montero’s In the Palm of Darkness, where Montero narrates the brief partnership of an American herpetologist and a Haitian guide. Montero’s narrative explores situationships of terror, survival, and death. What readers find, however, is that the narrative of Haiti is the narrative of the haunted house. We Have Always Lived seeks to use temwayaj (testimony) to reveal some lesser known qualities of Haitian life. There is something more deliberate than survival in Haiti’s narrative. There is criticism. As Henri Christophe foresaw, the mountain has historically been a strategic place for Haiti to critique and evaluate those who engage it. Thus, it is only right that In The Palm of Darkness is critiqued from the mountain. Like Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, We Have Always Lived resets the haunted house narrative to a time and space before rumors and interpolation. It allows the reader to invest in everyday people navigating tragedy, othering, alienation, and oppression. In conversation with In the Palm of Darkness, We Have Always Lived attempts to reveal that the haunted house of Haiti is not so much haunted as it is misunderstood by those trying to understand it from the outside. When read alone, We Have Always Lived is an exploration of individual, communal, and national trauma and the power of the human spirit to overcome that trauma.
 
 

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