Like Fish, Drowning (Part I)

• June 2011

Emmanuel was always faster than I was. In the distance, I saw his shadow zoom past the bushes and trees, hopping from one spot to the other. I ran as best I could, but my breathing grew shallow and my heart raced. My shirt was sticking to my back. I’d been chasing him for a mile already under the scorching afternoon sun and my feet were tired of moving so fast in flip flops. I had already lost two pairs that way, trying to keep up with Emmanuel, and this time, my mother had warned me.

“Lose this pair and I’ll beat you with them,” she had said in a very calm voice that suggested a lack of sympathy. Like an idiot, I had muttered back what she wanted to hear, in all politeness.

Oui, ma tante . . .”

I called her Auntie, like everyone else in town, and her voice resonated in my head and I quickly stopped to remove my sandals. They were already coated with dust. Above me, a flock of green parrots zipped south, agitated by the rustle of two boys running wild. I followed my friend, my feet aching on the harsh terrain, wincing while stepping on stones and patches of grass. Around us, the thick woodland cleared up, and I began to smell the warm, familiar salted fragrance of the ocean. Emmanuel had disappeared, but I knew the way. I walked with my flip flops in my right hand and the wooden carcass of a toy boat in my left.

“Come on, stupid!”

I heard his voice call for me in the distance. He had left me behind and I was glad to be alone for a moment. We’d done nothing but argue all morning over that boat. The minute he had seen it, he had snatched it from my grip, his nails tearing at the surface of my skin.

“Hey, where’d you get that?”

I had reached on the tip of my toes, eager to seize my prize back. He was taller than I was, perhaps too tall for a twelve-year-old, and I had to swing my arms before he pivoted away from me to take a closer look.

“Get your own,” I had snapped, following him closely and waving my hands towards the boat. “Your mother can buy you one with all her money!”

He had chosen to ignore me, and my immediate reflex had been to kick him in the shins as violently as I could. Se piti nou piti, nou pa grenn pitimi, my mother always said. And to show him she was right, that I was only small in size and never to be underestimated, I had hurt him. My best friend had doubled over, his face contorted with a grimace I would have found laughable if I hadn’t been concerned about quickly claiming my toy back and stepping away from him. We’d been running all morning, and I was already exhausted, but I was surprised he hadn’t tried to take the boat away from me. Instead, I ate his dust.

By now, I knew he had already made it to the cliff, taken off his shirt and dived in. Since we learned to walk, toddlers in our backyards, he’d been showing off to me. He could catch a chicken in the coop before me, acquire the newest toys before me, even make the highest grades in school while I struggled to pass math. Always, my mother rubbed it in. She’d serve us a hot plate of rice and beans while reminding me:

“Eat! With more food in your stomach, maybe you can be like Emmanuel. Good in school.”

Before I made it to the cliff, I heard the roaring of the ocean. I threw my sandals onto the rock where Emmanuel’s shirt was bundled near his shoes and basked in the splendor of what lied ahead. The North Atlantic sprawled before me, a sea of turquoise merging with the horizon. Emmanuel and I dubbed it “the blue monster,” this immensity that dominated our lives in St. Louis du Nord, our town nestled between the greater cities of Port-de-Paix and Cap-Haïtien. Here, our days were spent fishing, bathing in the ocean, and collecting conch shells. Emmanuel and I often sat on this very cliff in the evening, before the sunset, and watched the sailboats arrive on shore, the fishermen pulling their nets in, filled with fish and crabs.

Our greatest pleasure, however, was diving from the cliff into the pool of blue below, something we tried to keep secret from our parents. Unfortunately, secrets aren’t always well kept here. Once, Madame Bruno, the spice shop owner, had seen us attempt such a risky move and had reproached us in a voice that sounded very much like that of an angry crow.

“Are you trying to kill yourselves? Wait until your parents hear about this!”

The adults we knew were never in the habit of making empty threats, and that same evening upon our return, my mother ordered Emmanuel to go home immediately before beating me with her shoe, a weapon she preferred over the belt. She then punished me by having me kneel down in a corner with my arms crossed, facing the wall.

“Small fish don’t swim in strong currents,” she mumbled as she squeezed her foot back in the shoe. “You’re only ten!”

She left me brewing in the corner, confused. Sometimes I was a small fry, sometimes I was stronger than a grain of wheat. Which was it?

My mother was ruthless with my brothers and me, especially since my father was never the strict disciplinarian she needed. He spent much of his time out playing dominoes and drinking, when he wasn’t chasing other women, leaving her to do the dirty job of raising four boys. Rigaud was the eldest, and as such he incurred more freedom than Patrick and Ricard. While these other two spent their time being obedient yet mischievous fools, I was more open with my rebellion. What Emmanuel did, I did too. If he dove, I dove with him. If he lied, I lied with him. No punishment was ever great enough to separate me from him.

Emmanuel’s parents let him get away with many more transgressions, probably because they were wealthier and had less time to survey his antics. His father, Mr. Benoit, worked as a carpenter and made most of our furniture as well as the wooden articles in our town. Most of his fortune was made in building caskets for funerals, since death was always looming over households in St. Louis and families marked the event with great pomp. Emmanuel’s mother, whom I had only seen from a distance, lived in Port-de-Paix with her parents, where they ran their own wholesale shop. Torn between both worlds, he spent summers in St. Louis with me, returning to his mother for the school year.

“I’m going to be an engineer when I grow up!” Emmanuel said to me earlier this summer.

“Is that so?” I laughed.

He had arrived fresh from Port-de-Paix in his khaki pants and sandals, and I remember envying his new toy, a yellow truck his mother had bought him in Port-au-Prince, the kind I saw men drive to the construction sites, carrying loads of sand and giant boulders. I wanted one for myself, but toys were never a priority in my mother’s world. What mattered most was that we were all fed and clothed and that we went to school religiously, even when we were sick.

“Yeah, I want to build things, kinda like my Dad. But I’d make more money with a degree and all . . .”

I smirked, knowing that out of both of us, I was the builder. That was the only art in which I prided myself in surpassing him. Lacking the pleasure of opening fresh plastic bags and cracking out new toys, I found joy in making them. At times, he would get tired of his truck and would need new things to play with. That was always my shining moment, when I’d collect all the plastic jugs and bottles I could and cut them out with kitchen knives before hoisting them on my mother’s threadless spools. Sometimes, I’d even use condensed milk cans, once slicing my fingers open against the lid. After rushing me to the hospital, my mother watched the doctors wrap my index and middle fingers in gauze, and she beat me in front of them. I held my tears as best I could, but they rolled down my cheeks and the snot ran down between my lips. I cried silently, out of shame, humiliated before other adults who didn’t even know me. Crying around neighbors was one thing, but doctors, people who didn’t know us and knew nothing about how we lived, that killed me.

But out of this pain came the ecstasy of seeing Emmanuel, for at least two days, fall in love with my toys and borrow them. Sometimes, he wouldn’t return them at all, and I felt too flattered to ask for them to be returned. I was content with his own shiny cars until he claimed them, his tiny green soldiers with pointed guns, and his plastic pistols.

Lately, I had learned from Mr. Benoit himself that I could make little wooden canoes with paddles. I watched him shape a couple of boats for the fishermen in town. He worked bare-chested, shaving the wood and polishing it under the hot sun. Beads of sweat shone on his skin like tiny jewels against charcoal, and he stopped only to drink or wipe his brow. He caught me spying on him, hidden behind a kitchen table he had finished the day before.

“Are you taking notes?” he joked, smiling at me and revealing a string of pearly whites under thick lips. I was too shy to answer, so I said nothing.

“You have to be gwo nèg to do this job, Yvon,” he continued, reaching for a halved coconut and gulping down its contents. “You have to be strong!”

I knew what he meant. Emmanuel’s father was never a large man, but even while measuring five feet ten inches, he had as many muscles in his body as the fishermen did. His arm, thighs and calves were strong and overly developed, like a soccer player on cleats. It wasn’t a result of regular exercise for the sake of exercise. His was a body worked and shaped by life, a direct result of his hard labor. He didn’t make that many boats, since fishermen kept their canoes for as long as they could, patching holes and caring for them thoroughly. Boats were too expensive to commission. But when he made them, he would spend an entire month perfecting the hull, painting the borders, inscribing inspirational thoughts throughout: Dieu est bon, God is good, or Grace et Misericorde, grace and mercy. Those prayers were his gift to the men who spent their lives at sea. His blessing was their protection.

The boat I held in my hand, the very one Emmanuel and I had argued about, was one Mr. Benoit had shaped for me, a wooden toy painted in blue with bright yellow trim. I couldn’t wait for it to touch the sea, for it to float on the surface of the blue waters where it belonged, and now, the occasion had risen. Before me, the Atlantic danced excitedly, scintillating in spurts of gold under the sun. I felt as though a thousand fire ants were crawling up my legs, and for a moment, I thought my heart had caught fire like the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

“Come on, already, jump! What are you, kapon?”

Every time I had to jump, the feeling was the same. There was always a brief moment of terror taking over the thrill, and quickly, like I always did, I shed my clothes without allowing myself to think. My shirt and shorts fell onto the ground, and I still managed to clasp the toy boat in my hand. The boat! I froze and stared at it, its bold indigo color cutting against my dark palm. How could I jump with the boat still intact? What if I lost it? Could I do it? I wanted to ask all these questions aloud, but I couldn’t shout them to Emmanuel. He was already diving under water, coming up for air and pausing, stroking the water frantically while waiting for me. From where I stood, I saw his dark shape in the ocean, shining like a wet coconut.

“Jump, you idiot! Otherwise, I’m leaving.”

I dropped the boat against my sandals, and the last thing I remembered before jumping was the cradling of its hull between two rocks where a small bush tried to grow. I took the leap with my arms wide open, like a bird spreading its wings for flight, and I tried to soar as far away from the edges of rocks as possible, hoping the wind would carry me right into the blue. Before hitting the water, my nostrils seemed to flare and I could smell the salt of the ocean as the air coursed through me. My lungs inflated, and I shut my eyes, held my breath, and recited a Hail Mary.

Underwater, there was nothing but quiet. I fell so deep below that the cries and laughter of children basking in the waves, the voice of Emmanuel calling out to me, every land form seemed to drown and fade away. I opened my eyes quickly for a glimpse of this new world, and saw nothing but blue. I remained there for a moment, waving my arms and legs, and blew bubbles as I searched for forms of life. It was as if I had fallen into a jar of ink like the one my teacher, Maitre Sejourné, kept on his desk and never touched, except to shake the ink inside it in a moment of boredom. The ocean looked just as thick and mysterious.

As my lungs started to compress, I pushed my way up for air. Above me, I saw the legs and bodies of swimmers swirling against bright light. I swam towards it, and when I emerged at the surface, I gasped for air. At a distance from me, I heard laughter, a familiar chuckle. I wiped the salt water away from my eyes which had already started to burn. Emmanuel was floating on his back.

“Took you long enough,” he said. “All this time, and you’re still scared of jumping.”

“I am not!” I protested, swimming towards him.

Kapon!” he teased, knowing this word would irritate me.

“I am not a coward,” I shot back, indignant. “I don’t like getting in trouble, that’s all. We’re not supposed to be swimming in the ocean without granmoun around and you know it.”

Emmanuel started to tread water. His kinky hair had absorbed the water like a sponge, and now it trickled down his brown face.

“I see plenty of elders around here,” he said, motioning to the shore. “Besides, how will your mother know?”

He then engaged in one of his underwater flips. I saw his feet come up like the tail end of a fish, and then he was up facing me again. He was a child of Agwe, I had heard many say in town. He was protected by the god of the sea, which probably explained why he loved the ocean so much.

“She always knows,” I retorted.

She could smell the forbidden from a distance, and if she had to humiliate me in public, she wouldn’t pass the chance, sniffing my hair, face, neck and clothes for the smells she thought she detected.

Emmanuel splashed me with water. Those were the water games we played. Sometimes, if there was a log on the surface, we’d try standing on it, shoving each other with it, even carrying it on our heads. But today the ocean was pure and clean of plastic bottles and algae, and I took advantage to splash him as much as I could.

Later, when we crashed in the sand, crushed under the weight of exhaustion, he said to me the words I had tried not to think about all summer.

“I’m leaving tomorrow.”

The sunlight had softened a bit, and the sky was tinted in a faint veil of gold. The fishing canoes were beaching near us, bringing in silver-scaled fish, frenetic crabs, and bunches of sea urchins. The smell of fish was distinct now, and from the corner of my eye I saw large groupers flipping against the tangled nets, gasping for . . . air? What a slow, horrible way to die, I thought. Drowning in air, gasping for oxygen and not finding anything but a foreign body. My heart broke in a thousand pieces and I looked away, avoiding the poor fish’s gaze, averting my eyes so it didn’t see my tears.

“Yeah, I know,” I muttered.

We stayed there, silent, listening to the waves crash on shore, and I thought of my boat, my little blue canoe on top of that cliff, and my clothes, and my sandals, and my best friend leaving for Port-de-Paix, and my inability to stop him, my inability to control life. I was going to miss him, and all we had to remember each other by for ten long months was a couple of borrowed toys.

The morning of Emmanuel’s departure, my mother cooked lavishly. I knew it wasn’t for the liking of my father. He always ate his food silently, moaning and nodding in approval, but never once looking up at me, my brothers, or my mother. Then, he’d light a cigarette and embark on a new adventure.

No, she cooked for Emmanuel. The break of dawn was scented with the comforting fragrance of Arabica. On her potagère, a cement countertop with three square holes fit for her aluminum recho, she had lit her lumps of coal with pine sticks, something she always made sure we were never short of. Three times a month, she sent me out to L’epicerie du salut.

“Buy me two gourde’s worth of bwa pen!” she’d order, folding my hands on the darkened bills, all frayed at the edges from heavy manipulation. “Don’t dilly dally, either.”

At the store, they always knew why I was there and who had sent me. Marie-Lourdes, the overweight shop owner with her face and neck covered in moles, always shouted to the personnel in the back, “Pine sticks for Tante Carmen!”

Those same pine sticks lit her coal, and when I got up, intrigued by the aroma, she was still fanning the fire.

“This morning I’m cooking ze peyi, your favorite. Go wash up, and then go tell Emmanuel.”

Always excited at the perspective of eating country-style eggs, I was first to wash and brush my teeth, beating my brothers to the bathroom. In the mirror that morning, my eyes were puffy and the corners of my mouth caked with crusted saliva. I was a drooler in bed, but to me, that was preferable to snoring. I didn’t want to be like my brother Rigaud, who often kept us awake at night with his snores. While I washed my face in the cold water, I realized that the excitement of breakfast would soon be trumped by sadness. Emmanuel was leaving. School was starting. Summer was ending. I felt an emptiness in my stomach but I swallowed hard. I was too old to be so sentimental.

I hurried down the street and tried to look ahead, but the sky was flushed with sunlight, bathed in a salmon hue. Everyone was up. On both sides of the streets, women were dumping their vases of urine diluted with water into the gutter. Through the cracks of wooden fences, I saw women, topless, washing in basins and soaping their armpits, attaching their bras and adjusting their underskirts, and wrapping scarves around their hair. I heard the scratch of wicker brooms against the pavement, the brushing of teeth through open windows, the morning throat scratches and spits of men who had just awakened. And then, I smelled coffee, the divine roast that flooded the corridors of town, the daily fuel that got us going.

Emmanuel’s father had all these chairs and pieces of wood and plywood scattered at the entrance. I hopped over a saw, kicked a hammer away from the alley, before making it to the door. I knocked and waited, and no one came. As usual, I went around the house and found Emmanuel still groggy from sleep, his legs apart, pissing against a papaya tree.

“Hey,” I called out.

Startled, he wet the tree trunk and his feet with is own urine. I laughed as he tucked in his shirt and shook his head.

“Man, what are you doing, sneaking up on me like that?”

“My mother’s cooking . . . Are you coming?”

Before leaving, Mr. Benoit called out to us from his window. His hair was not yet combed, and he was buttoning up his shirt. He quickly shut the door to the bedroom behind him and eyed us suspiciously.

“Your car will be here at three,” he said to his son. “Don’t make me send for you.”

“Oui, Papa.”

On the way to my mother’s, Emmanuel shoved me in the shoulder.

“Did you see that?” he asked.

“What?”

He looked at me, then laughed and shook his head. I felt ignorant, but quickly shook that feeling of inadequacy. I recognized well that one year’s difference in age between us set us widely apart in maturity. At twelve years old, Emmanuel saw and understood a lot more things than I did.

“You’re so stupid,” he said.

I felt the tips of my ears get hot.

“That woman in the room with him?” Emmanuel said.

“What?”

I stared at him quizzically, but without blinking, Emmanuel continued to hop down the street towards the sunrise.

 

Editor's note: Part 2 of "Like Fish, Drowning" will be published in sx salon 6 (August 2011).

 

Fabienne Sylvia Josaphat is an MFA student in creative writing at Florida International University. Her fiction has appeared in the Caribbean Writer and MiamiArtZine and in the forthcoming 2010–2011 issue of Mandala Journal. She is a fiction editor for Sliver of Stone, an online literary magazine, and is working on a novel and a collection of short stories.

 

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