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SPINNING,  1991

We hear the phone first, and then the rifle shots spattering the darkness of the night—a night that holds its breath in fear. Patricia doesn’t touch me. In the dark, I hear her urgent whisper into my hear, “Something happened.”

Some things have not changed—the crunchy gravel of the dirt roads, the rooster’s crow, the buzz of bees, the bright yellow sun of the Haitian dawn. The rest is spooky in its familiarity, yet wrong in detail. A chill settles onto the top of my stomach. Even my skin has gone cold. I drive holding the steering wheel close, among the crowds of unwashed faces and men asleep against their stomachs, the makeshift tent villages. Sometimes, a humanitarian tuck comes barreling up behind me and rides my tailpipe.

Surrounded by the fresh smell of cotton steamed under the iron, I’m listening in a conversation between my mother and my husband, Hector. My fingers caress the cuffs and collars of Hector’s Guayabera shirts as I iron them. It’s Haitian Independence Day, and Mother, who is visiting us in Pembroke Pines, is helping Hector with the traditional Joumou soup. The two of them milling around, laughing and talking, the fragrance of garlic and piman—all this gives it an authentic Haitian feel. Their tongues roll around the Creole syllables with delight, and the warm cadence of their voices bring me back to the Caribbean mountains of my childhood. A soft, but unapologetic roll and clipping of words. Deep, modulated voices.

Mother has been working on her family tree.

The Wild Ride

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

After the shooting in Port-au-Prince, the Parent-Teacher Association decides that we, children, need some fun, and the nuns organize a school fair. They call it Journée de Couleurs. It is a blur of colors and smells and sounds. The sky is full with bobbing balloons, which dance around the sunrays poking through the clouds. Under the flamboyant tree, the hot dog lady covers the sausages with mustard, onion, pickle, tomato, cucumbers, celery salt and hot peppers. Breathing in the greasy goodness of ponmkèt cakes and the sugar rush of cotton candy, students, with their dark blue uniforms and white ribbons, spend their centimes and gourdes on popcorn, peanuts, homemade ice cream called ti Carole, hamburgers and a large orange soda. Deep-fried foods, shows and athletic tournaments, and rides and prizes.

April Fools

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

In front of the school, I kiss Papa and he waits until I’ve bought a humongous gummy rat from the old woman with a straw hat. Then, my father’s gone and Sister Therese is at the entrance, rushing the students inside. She wears a long navy blue habit and a perpetual scowl on her face.

The Freemasons come first because Papa Julio is an initiate.

The two gentlemen look solemn—Mr. Napoleon with his black suit and tie and shiny leather shoes and Mr. Gerard with his tan suit and brown shoes.

“What seems to be the problem?” Mr. Napoleon asks.

J.B. is quiet, talks in a soft voice. Built like Olive Oil, Popeye’s girlfriend, he could probably hide behind a flagpole with room to spare. Hair dirty and hanging in dreads, he suffers from an obvious lack of coordination. I think he’s cute, though not strikingly handsome. When he grins, full fleshy lips pull up over his teeth. He’s got a crooked kind of smile, and this makes me like him all the more.

I will let him kiss me today.

Couscous

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

My father is dozing on the balcony, behind the large hibiscus plant.

Papa sleeps better during the day because he’s haunted. Night haunted. And when the spooky things come—memories of his childhood, he haunts my mother. He tells her his nightmares, wakes her up—to pull her into his suffering, to taunt her into saving him.

I know because I’ve heard him.

Another Morbid Tale.

By the time you’re sixteen, you realize that most people hate when you dump on yourself. They simply can’t stand being part of your pity party. After all, last thing anyone needs is to be dragged into someone else’s bummer. Before your high school sweetheart, Junior, hangs up on you, he calls you a cry baby, which foreshadows that there will be no ever after—not for you two, anyway.

When they tell you about the car crash, you feel around for grief or sadness to match the horrific news but all that comes is a sense of something gone from the world. You remember Junior’s last words to you: cry baby.

Before I became a writer, I wanted to be a photographer. I walked the streets of Haiti, looking for that perfect picture, always aware of light–the soft, gray light of a foggy or overcast day in Port-au-Prince, the light of a Jacmelian sunset, or the bright, harsh light of a noonday sun in Léôgane. The mere mention of these places ignited my imagination. I loved the very sound and shape of these words.

Cycle

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

I.

I’m looking at the teacher’s carefully manicured hands as she clutches the Expo marker to write on the board. I’m aware of her shiny, high-heeled shoes, of her sculpted hairdo. She’s wearing a green suit—she told the seventh grade students that green is her favorite color. Green and brown.  Only she says maroon instead of brown. The teacher doesn’t smile; she doesn’t frown either. Sometimes she uses the smiley stamp on a satisfying assignment. Her student Michael tries to get something out of her. First, he cracks a joke. The teacher only says, ha. Then he pulls out a dirty joke. The teacher raises her eyebrows. She says, “Michael.” Her voice is flat, matter-of-fact. Michael cowers.

When I open the door to my house, a shirtless guy welcomes me. Some dude I don’t even know, who’s petting my dog. There are bottles of beer and vodka everywhere in the living room, on the coffee table, atop the television screen. I can smell Tostitos and salsa. The A.C. is on but the glass doors leading to the back porch are open, and three shirtless guys are having a heated conversation outside, their voices competing with the music, their torsos coated with thick sweat, their eyes red with alcohol. They have an audience of three or four people, giggling like Kindergarteners.

Bones

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

I used to boil human bones on the stove to take out the gristle and other smelly cartilage that still clung to them, the steam rising on either side of me. My dark hair tied into a ponytail, eyes crinkled in happy satisfaction, I polished these bones and kept them in my study room closet.

This story was first published in The Southeast Review (Issue 29.1)

On a sidewalk in Port-au-Prince, a girl wearing a golden evening jacket fried griyo in a pot of oil over a tiny fire and made jumbles of tablèt out of brown sugar and shredded coconut. Chickens squawked and pecked the concrete ground cracks, and children with bloated stomachs and orange tinted hair ran barefoot down the muddy path.

The children fled when the angry mob gathered in the street, yelling, “Kill the Macoute! Kill the murderer!” They were pushing a man whose body was covered with wounds, bruises and blood. A loud voice ordered to hold his legs and arms down as a tire was necklaced around him.

Before I could say, “Jésus, Marie, Joseph,” flames were licking his body and clothes with their burning tongues. Oh, the pretty colors, I thought before my brain finally registered that the man was screaming, jerking with flames that stripped flesh from his hands. He stretched his neck, wept and twitched.

I imagined his skin crackling from the heat, the fire sucking the oxygen out of his lungs to help feed his inferno. Sweat grew like crystals across my brow as the man’s hair shriveled and tore away.

From the balcony, I couldn’t see all of it, but I knew his muscles were melting, and that he would soon be a pile of dark grey ashes next to sewage washing through the shacks. His clothes burned and smoldered around the bare, erupted meat of his back.

I stood there on the balcony, gasping, throbbing and covered in sweat, and a weak sob leaked from me. I suddenly became aware of another warm, living body next to mine. My mother reached out and hugged me.

The man’s skin was gone. From his hands, his arms, his chest. His shirt had melted into him, taking skin with it as it dripped onto the ground. “Popular justice,” my mother murmured. “They kill all the Macoutes.”

I never learned who this man was. They didn’t reveal his name on TV that night, but they did mention that he had been one of Baby Doc’s spies.

That’s when I started having the dream. I’m always standing on the roof of the Palais National, watching the girl making tablèt. I know that safety lies behind me. But I always step off the edge and fall.