Like Fish, Drowning (Part II)

• August 2011

(Part I available here)

My mother’s eggs were always a bright yellow, cooked with semiripe hot peppers and served with a side of boiled plantain and fresh avocado. The air was heavy with the smell of food early in the morning, and although we were ready to fall asleep afterwards, Emmanuel wanted to play. I gladly indulged him. Racing our toy cars down the street was always an adventure, since we had to watch out for incoming vehicles. Every so often, a truck honked from a distance, overflowing with a load of passengers who clung to the railings and racks for dear life. Sometimes they were laden with enormous sacks of charcoal, plantain, mangoes, and sugarcane. And sometimes, they were brimming with clothes and shoes to be sold in another town. Driving those trucks was an amazing feat Emmanuel and I both wished to accomplish one day, swerving abruptly to avoid pot holes and bumps in the road, and braking suddenly at a stop.

The remainder of the day was spent setting traps in the woods for birds, throwing rocks at mango trees to collect the ripe ones and filling our stomachs with them, and desperately trying to catch flocks of parrots hiding in the branches of a sablier.

“Let’s go to the beach,” said Emmanuel, licking the sticky mango juice off his arms. A river of orange goo followed its course down the very angle of his elbow that his tongue couldn’t reach. “I need to wash up. We can play with your boat.”

We picked up the toy boat from my house and ran through the woods. We deliberately avoided the route to his house, wanting to evade time as much as possible. Soon enough, we knew his mother’s car would be here waiting, and he would leave me. The ocean was calling us, each wave crashing on shore seemingly whispering our names. Our bare feet left imprints in the sand as we ran towards the rocks, pretending the waves were chasing us.

The water was warm and salty, and in the ocean floor I found spiraling shells with the inner walls completely translucent once held against the sunlight. Emmanuel was diving deep under, attempting to surpass me, bringing up odd-shaped rocks and corals he found there. I set my little blue boat afloat and watched it hold its own on the surface. I imagined that I was small, sitting in it like those fishermen did, and that it would be my home. I imagined myself against rain and winds, and brushed away the idea of moving into a real canoe, not knowing how I would survive in it.

“You could leave it on shore like the fishermen do,” Emmanuel said, treading water and watching the boat float past him. “You could cover it with tarp when it rains.”

“No one lives in their boat,” I said. “The fishermen don’t do it. They’re not stupid.”

The beautiful blue paint on the hull of my boat had started to fade in the salty water. I thought of repainting it, over and over again. Maybe I could borrow paint from Emmanuel’s father. I could paint it while he worked on a new project.

“Can I keep your boat?”

I looked up at Emmanuel and saw him staring at the toy, his eyes fixed on its movements, as if he’d never seen one before. He didn’t smile, didn’t even meet my eyes. I felt a jolt in my chest.

“Why? What would you do with it? You don’t live on the beach…”

“I can take it to the river…”

I shook my head vehemently. Rivers were never a good idea, especially the one in his town. It ran wild and once something got away, one couldn’t get it back. They said it was the Mèt Dlo, the water spirits, that confused drifting jewelry, clothes, shoes—and even children—as offerings. My boat could easily become one of those. The Great Spirit would easily find the boat’s blue and yellow colors and its elegant curves more than attractive.

“I like my boat,” I whispered, feeling my ears burn with shame. “Your father made it for me.”

I looked down, trying not to seize the boat and betray my emotions. Emmanuel stared in silence and so did I, and for a moment we only heard the song of waves and seagulls. Then, he took a breath.

“He’s never made me anything . . .”

He dove under water.

“We should go,” I said, rubbing my hands together.

My fingers were wrinkled and I had to get out of the water. Emmanuel was floating on his back and kicking water with his feet, splashing me in the process. Somehow I had convinced myself that he had done it on purpose. We hadn’t said much to each other since I refused him the boat.

“You go,” he said, not even glancing at me. “I’m not done . . .”

“But your father said . . .”

“Ki mele’m?”

I frowned at his sudden carelessness. Surely, it was just for show. As soon as his father came looking for him with a belt in hand, I knew he’d dash out of the water.

“You can have my boat,” I said, feeling my heart tighten in my chest.

“I don’t want it,” he retorted.

“Here,” I insisted, pushing the toy towards him.

“Leave me alone!”

Offended, I took my boat and swam away from him towards the shore. My toes were nearly numb from the warm salt water, and after I dressed, I sat in the sun against a lone canoe, arms wrapped around my legs. I stared at him as he dove into the water and came back up, and I was fuming inside, knowing he was purposely ignoring me. I waited for him to leave the ocean, and took the time to align all the pieces of broken shells I could find.

He finally swam back to shore, his blue pants sticking to his skin and the water dripping down his skinny legs. He saw me in the distance and walked past me.

“Where are you going?” I asked, seeing him fray a passage among the bushes.

I knew exactly where he was going. He was headed for the cliff, to jump, without me. I shot up and called after him.

“I’m going home,” I said.

Emmanuel didn’t turn around to look at me, not once, and furious, I walked away from the beach towards my house, clutching my boat in my right hand, clenching my left fist, and yet hoping that when his car came, when it would be time for him to leave, that I would get to see him one more time, that he would say goodbye without hard feelings, and that the summer would end without abbreviating our friendship.

His car came late to pick him up, because no one was really ever right on time, and his mother had several stops in her town before making it over to St. Louis. They came to my house first, where I was helping my mother in the back, feeding the chickens and roosters. My hands were still filled with corn meal when I saw his father arrive, striding in large steps towards us. Behind him, Emmanuel’s mother tried to keep up, nearly tripping in her white heels. She wore a pink dress, a color I only ever saw in wild flowers in the woods. Her hair was pressed and curled, her lips almost as pink as her dress, and she shaded her face from the sun with her hand. Her eyes were the same brown as the old oil my mother kept in a glass bottle in her kitchen.

My mother was sprawling our underwear and her underskirts on the fence of cacti that surrounded our house. She turned around when she heard Emmanuel’s father’s voice call to me.

“Yvon, Yvon, where is Emmanuel? It’s time for him to go . . .”

I looked up, puzzled for a moment to see both Emmanuel’s parents in our yard. I didn’t know why they were asking me the question, and I then realized that he hadn’t returned home, still, that he had really stayed back to spite me. I shrugged.

“He’s not with me,” I said.

“Where is he?” his mother repeated. “We have to go before it gets dark.”

The wind flirted with her skirt and carried over the scent of heavy florals lodged between the threading of her dress. My mother quickly dried her callused hands on her own skirt and kept them hidden in its brown fabric.

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling my blood freezing in my veins.

“You don’t know?” his father said. “Weren’t you together?”

“Yes . . . We were . . . I left him at the beach.”

“The beach . . .”

I looked down at my toes to hide my embarrassment. His father raised his arms and let them fall at his sides.

Tonnerre! I told him not to go! I told him to be ready on time . . .”

“Now we’re really late,” his mother mumbled.

She looked as if she were struck with a migraine. I didn’t dare look them in the eye. We did know better than to go to the beach, but yet we had disobeyed, eager to finish off the summer on a bright note. I felt guilty for giving away his location, ashamed for admitting our transgression, and also embarrassed for having left him there. We should have left together.

“You went to the beach?” my mother repeated, incredulous.

Her wet hand smelled like soap when she rested it on my shoulder, her strong fingers clawing at my flesh like a vulture. I grimaced as she pinched me. I knew she was going to make me pay for this mistake. From the corner of my eye, I saw Emmanuel’s father remove his belt and wrap it around his hand expertly. He walked away, trailed by his ex-wife.

M’ap ouvri’l ak baton!” I heard him grumble as he headed for the gate. “As God is my witness, I’m going to kill him with this very belt!”

My legs were suddenly heavy. I knew what the burning whip of a belt felt like, and although I was afraid for Emmanuel, I was more afraid for myself as I felt my mother’s grip tighten on my shoulder while they walked away.

At five o’clock, they still hadn’t found Emmanuel. I was on my knees in punishment when I heard voices outside and my mother’s voice came calling.

“Yvon! Vinn jwenn mwen!”

When I came outside, they were lined up under the tonnelle, neighbors and other children from the town, and Emmanuel’s mother. My heart leaped out of my chest. Something must have been terribly wrong.

Oui, ma tante?” My voice trembled with emotion.

“We can’t find Emmanuel,” a little boy shouted at me. His shirt was unbuttoned, and his feet white with dirt. I could see the rings of sweat under his armpits. His fingers were interlaced over his scalp and he tilted his head back as he looked at me, as if to show me all the snot built up in his nostrils. I’d seen him before at the well where he and other children often collected water. We had never played together, but he had always stared at us when Emmanuel and I kicked ball in the desert alleys.

“Yvon, where did you leave him?”

My mother’s voice was calmer than it was this morning, and she looked at me through her thick glasses. Her features had hardened with time, I could see. My mother was not old yet, but she was often pensive and worried, and I could see on her face that those emotions had left a deep furrow in her brow. She stared at me quietly, and I saw that she was afraid.

“At the beach, ma tante,” I repeated nervously. “He was going on the cliff . . .”

“On the cliff?”

My mouth went dry and I bit my lip to control its quiver.

“To jump in the water!” the boy shouted again, his eyes dancing with pride. He seemed satisfied with himself for revealing the truth and subsequently outing me to my mother. “They were jumping!”

“I didn’t jump!” I said immediately, glancing at my mother. “I left him there. He wanted to jump. I didn’t.”

My mother stared back and slowly, I could see the light dying in her eyes.

“We searched the beach. We didn’t find him,” a neighbor said.

I shrugged.

“I don’t know where he is, I swear . . .”

When the neighbors left, I heard them all whispering and grumbling, and my mother wiped her hands on a towel. I was frozen on the spot, unable to speak. I wanted to cry. Where was Emmanuel? Was he hiding? Did he not want to go home? Was he as sad as I was that he was leaving? I wasn’t sure whether my mother wanted me to return to my corner in punishment, so I waited for her orders. Instead, she sighed heavily and signed herself, and that was when I felt really terrified.

Ma tante, I don’t know where he could be . . .”

She looked at me as if I were a curious little animal, and in that moment I wanted nothing more than to feel her arms around me. She threw her towel over her shoulder and turned around, disappearing inside the house.

I knew that they had found him when a high-pitch shriek pulled me out of my reverie. It was six o’clock already. The chickens were finding their way up in the branches of our lime trees to sleep, and traffic had already dissipated in the streets. I was stepping out of a bath when I heard voices and screams outside in the street, and my heart seemed to fall from my chest into a deep, bottomless well.

I ran out to the front gate. My mother was standing there, grabbing her head, staring intently at the ground, as if she were summoning the dead back to life.

Jezu, Jezu!” she repeated compulsively.

Out in the streets, the neighbors had assembled to surround a woman who seemed overwhelmed with convulsions, and among the sea of people, between their legs and arms, I caught a glimpse of her pink dress moving on the ground. My knees wobbled briefly under me. I knew this person, I knew that voice, and slowly, I crouched with my hands on my things, tilting my head to the side. I saw Emmanuel’s mother in mid-seizure, a spectacle for the masses. Her dress, her arms, and her legs were now white with dust, her hair tousled, her eyes rolling to the back of her head. A corner of her skirt was tucked into her mouth and she was biting onto the fabric, revealing her underskirt bordered with lace.

Kenbe li, kenbe li!” I heard a woman shout.

As they scrambled to hold her, I quickly got up and turned towards my mother. Our eyes met, and I saw a tear streaming along the wrinkle in her cheek. I quickly covered my mouth with my hands, unable to control the trembling of my lips. She stood there, a statue of salt and tears, and I cried with her. I heard my own voice break free, pushing against the walls of my throat, and I was screaming in my cupped hands.

When they found his body he was floating in the water face down, I heard them recount, miles away from shore. The fishermen had found him, thinking he was a piece of debris or wreckage of an old canoe caught in their nets, and they spent hours struggling to pull him aboard their boat. I heard someone comment on his limbs, how limp he was, how the blackness had somehow drained from his body. Gray like a crayfish, they said.

“Agwe has claimed him,” someone said, shaking his head in sadness.

I heard the whispers behind me and buried my face in my mother’s skirt, clutching her for dear life. With an uncanny rapidity, she had started yanking leaves off the branches around her and pulled me into the house where she started a fire. She had sent my brothers out on a hunt for numerous stems and branches of vervaine. She forced me to drink a cup and stay in bed, but with my window open, I heard the wailing, the tears, the conversations, and as the sun set, I heard them all cry. Here, in this town, children didn’t die easily. Some died during birth, some right after being born into the world, and some in their teenage years, falling prey to mysterious illnesses. But at our age, boys and girls roamed free and healthily. They didn’t die, and they didn’t drown.

“Come with me to see the family,” my mother said later, entering my room to change to large almond leaf she had pressed on my forehead. “I’m bringing them some food.”

I couldn’t get up. I didn’t have the strength to walk with her, and I was too terrified of what I might see. I couldn’t bear to take a look at him, to see my best friend’s body lying motionless, lifeless. It was too much for me to bear.

“Emmanuel is gone, Yvon,” she said softly, forcing my lips to touch the edge of her teacup. “He’s with God now.”

I closed my eyes, hoping that falling asleep would take me away from this world as well, hoping to ignore the voice inside me, the voice of Emmanuel calling me, calling me a kapon, a coward for not wanting to jump with him.

“It’s not your fault, little one,” my mother said, as if she was reading my mind. “He should have followed you home.”

She stayed next to me until I fell asleep with her hand on my chest.

Emmanuel’s father did beat his lifeless body, so I was told. When the body was brought to him, he kept his promise made before God and whipped Emmanuel with his belt. It took two men to tear him away from his son. He was still whipping in a fit of rage before collapsing on the ground.

When I approached the house a day later, I heard the familiar sound of his saw in the front yard. I stepped forward and stopped at the threshold of the gate, right under vines of passion fruit. Emmanuel’s father was there, shirtless, working relentlessly while relatives and neighbors who had come with food and drinks watched him carefully. He didn’t see me coming, and I stood there, motionless, afraid that someone would see me and talk to me, question me, point a finger at me. I was afraid to speak and admit I had been a poor friend to Emmanuel.

Mr. Benoit continued to work. He was shaving wood, going with the grain, and when he finally rested to wipe his brow, he stepped away from the table. That’s when I saw it, what he was working on. I felt a chill down my spine at the sight of the small pine coffin, this box that would contain my friend’s body and lock him in forever. I looked down immediately, as if staring at it too long would bring a horrible curse upon me. Perhaps I was wrong to be there in the first place. I should have waited for the funeral, but I wasn’t sure I could make it there either. I had resolved to stay home, unwilling to see Emmanuel’s body buried. I couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing him again, and my ears felt hot with shame for ever whining that he was leaving me to start school.

When I looked up, his father was gone and the crowd had dispersed. I stepped forward and felt the crackle of gravel under my feet. I wondered where he had gone, if he had decided to take a break. I couldn’t bear to face him, so I walked rather quickly towards the coffin, feeling the strength leave my body with each step. The air was laced with the smell of pine wood. The coffin was lying on a bed of wood shavings and saw dust, and already it had a shape, a certain character. I stopped in front of it and thought I felt my throat clog up with fear.

In the house, I heard voices. A woman was singing, and the others followed. I heard utensils clinking and smelled the fragrant aroma of ginger and citronella. In the back, men’s voices arose, chatting and shouting directions, moving chairs and benches around, sweeping dust off the alleys. Someone had already carefully dangled white lace and lavender curtains, gathered purple and white flowers in small organic arrangements, and lit the lamps on the window sills.

I reached into the coffin, my heart beating furiously in my throat. I knew Emmanuel couldn’t be in there. I knew he was still at the morgue. Yet, the idea of putting my hand into his coffin, of possibly feeling the shape of his body was enough to fill me with dread. I wondered if his body would still be wet, if he would be swollen from having drowned, and if he was there standing next to me in spirit, staring.

Quickly, I dropped the content of my hand into the coffin. I heard it fall on the bottom of the box and rebound once, and, as if I had been set on fire, I turned around and ran back home, the gravel crackling furiously under my feet. I ran down the streets faster than I ever did, sandals flopping behind me, zooming past neighbors, past houses, past children, dogs, cars parked on the side of the road. I skipped puddles and went around pot holes, never turning back, thinking only of home, thinking of Emmanuel’s laughter, his white teeth glowing in darkness as he stood next to his father who would find, in the pine casket upon his return, the little blue boat with yellow trim he had made for me.

 

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 2010–11 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.