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Authors: Edwidge Danticat

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BOOK: The Farming of Bones
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“I don’t want this wood near me,” Sebastien said. Even though he was not speaking of the rumors, I could tell he was becoming as troubled as the others, distracted even. “Since we didn’t use it for the reason we took it, I want to return the wood to its owner.”

“There’s no taking it back.” Yves yanked a few sisal strands from the edge of his straw mat.

“Then, it is your wood now,” Sebastien said. “I give it to you. It’s yours to do with what you wish.”

Yves coiled his body into a ball and turned his back to us. “There’s no taking it back,” he repeated, his voice already fading with sleep.

“You sent Kongo with word for me,” I whispered to Sebastien.

“There are plenty of men who would have made a promise to you long ago,” he said.

“Should we go to Father Romain for blessings?” I asked, becoming more and more impatient about being promised in a time-honored way to Sebastien. “I know you don’t like priests and rituals, but Father Romain is our friend.”

A piece of cooking wood held ajar the slat of lumber that served as Sebastien’s window. The wood creaked as though about to fall. Sebastien got up and fixed it so the night air could freely enter and cool the room.

“We may not live together in the same house, you and me, until the end of this harvest,” he said. “I don’t want to bring you here, and I don’t want to squeeze myself into your room on that hill and live with those people. Can you please wait for me?”

“I can wait,” Yves shouted in his sleep.

“What can you wait for?” Sebastien asked him, laughing.

We walked over to Yves’ mat. His eyes were wide open, staring at the wall with a glaze over his pupils, like the cloudy gloss of river blindness.

Sebastien waved his fingers in front of his face. Yves did not blink.

“Ask him how he is,” Sebastien said.

“How are things with you, Yves?” I asked.

“Who is asking?” said Yves, still asleep.

“I have known him since we were both in short pants,” Sebastien said as we walked back to his mat. “I’ve lived here in this room with him for many years. Never before has he talked in his sleep, plus with his eyes wide open. It started only after Joel’s accident.”

Yves and Sebastien both mumbled in their sleep all night, as though traveling through the same dream together.

“Papa, don’t die on that plate of food,” Yves said as dawn approached. He rolled onto his back, his eyes fixed on the dirty ceiling. His voice was clear yet distant, as though he were reciting a rote school lesson for the hundredth time. “Papa, don’t die on that plate of food. Please let me take it away.”

Sebastien turned over on his side and mumbled through his own nightmares.

“Is he still talking?” he asked as he woke up.

“About his father dying on a plate of food,” I said.

“His mother liked to say that his father died over a plate of food,” Sebastien replied in a wearied voice. “The father was put in a bread-and-water prison by the Yankis and let go after thirty days. First thing done by the mother is to cook him all the rich food he dreamt about in prison. The father eats until he falls over with his face in the plate and he’s dead.”

A cock’s crow finally woke Yves. He jumped up and grabbed his work clothes, wanting to be among the first at the stream.

“Did you have bad dreams last night?” I asked Yves.

“Why do you want to know?” he asked, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down as though it were going to leap out of his mouth. “You want to use my dreams to play games of chance at Mercedes’ stand?”

“We couldn’t sleep,” Sebastien said. “You were squawking like a crazy parrot all night long.”

After most of the workers had left for the stream, Sebastien and I went to a mud-and-wattle cooking hut near a wooden fence where the compound met an open dirt road. He brushed two rocks against a dry pine twig and sparked a flame for our coffee.

We sat under the mesquite that leaned over the hut, and while he sipped the coffee out of one side of his mouth, I watched him and grinned against my will.

For some, passion is the gift of a ring in a church ceremony, the bearing of children as shared property. For me it was just a smile I couldn’t help, tugging at the sides of my face. And slowly as he caught glimpses of me between sips of his coffee, he returned the smile, looking the same way I did: bashful, undeserving, and almost ashamed to be the one responsible for the look of desire always rising in a dark flush on the side of his face. His eyes searched everything around him, the live coals and ashes under the coffeepot, the pebbles opening the soil to fit themselves in, the patches of dirt-brown grass dying from being too often trampled underfoot. When the morning breeze lifted his torn and leaf-stained collar, he pressed it back down with his cane-scarred hands. His eyes surveyed all the familiar details of his fingers, pausing only for an instant when our pupils met and trying to communicate with the simple flutter of a smile all those things we could not say because there was the cane to curse, the harvest to dread, the future to fear.



I dream of the sugar woman. Again.

As always, she is dressed in a long, three-tiered ruffled gown inflated like a balloon. Around her face, she wears a shiny silver muzzle, and on her neck there is a collar with a clasped lock dangling from it.

The sugar woman grabs her skirt and skips back and forth around my room. She seems to be dancing a kalanda in a very fast spin, locks arms with the air, pretends to kiss someone much taller than herself. As she swings and shuffles, the chains on her ankles cymbal a rattled melody. She hops to the sound of the jingle of the chains, which with her twists grows louder and louder.

“Is your face underneath this?” I ask. The voice that comes out of my mouth surprises me; it is the voice of the orphaned child at the stream, the child who from then on would talk only to strange faces.

“You see me?” she asks, laughing a metallic laugh that echoes inside the mask.

“Why is that on your face?” I ask.

“This?” She taps her fingers against the muzzle. “Given to me a long time ago, this was, so I’d not eat the sugarcane.”

I begin to think inside the dream that it is Sebastien who always brings her here, that she is the hidden image of some jealous woman or the revenant of some dead love he carries with him into my arms.

“Why are you here?” I ask her.

“Told you before,” she says. “I am the sugar woman. You, my eternity.”

I wake up, pounding the arm Sebastien has draped over my breasts to awake him.

If I mumble in my sleep, it is either about my parents or the sugar woman.

“What dream this time?” he asks. Sometimes, he is impatient with my shadows.



The high cement walls around Doña Sabine’s house were dotted with watchmen with deep brown peasant faces. Some looked too old, others too young to carry the ancient rusting rifles slumped over their shoulders, the holding straps digging flesh marks into their backs.

As I walked by, I looked up at the high patio doors, where a small cloister of men and women crouched behind fragile curtains while watching passersby on the roads.

Closer to Señora Valencia’s house, Luis was standing in the road, his head swinging back and forth with every movement, every bull cart or peasant merchant on donkey back, every child on his way to the parish schools, every cane cutter heading to the fields.

“The patrón is leaving today,” he said, smiling. “They come for him in a short time.”

The patrón had already stayed much longer than his expected time. His pressing operation, he had told his wife, had been delayed until now. Because we were all so accustomed to having the señora alone to ourselves, we preferred having him gone. Now I suspected the señor was tired of watching his daughter grow plumper and happier every day while he was thinking of the male heir he had lost.

“How long will he be gone?” I asked.

He didn’t know.

A burning piece of metal breezed past my face as I walked up the hill. I jumped aside, ducking my head. Señora Valencia and her husband were standing under the flame tree, each holding a short-barreled rifle aimed at the calabash trees in front of my room.

The air was filled with a gust of peppery smoke, some of which came to rest in the back of my throat. I closed my eyes to fight the feverish sting in my pupils.

“Amabelle!” Señora Valencia cried out, her voice hoarse with terror. She was in a loose housedress, leaning against the flame tree for support. Señor Pico had on all of his uniform except his cap, which was resting on the far corner of the bench where his wife sat between shots.

I waved my hand to show that I was still alive and then ran into the pantry where Juana was peering out, annoyed.

“I thought you’d caught the last one in your neck.” She handed me a cup of water.

“Which saint must I thank for saving me?”

“All of them,” she said.

Señora Valencia looked a bit depleted from the shooting but she pulled herself together in time to fire again. Looking towards the house, she appeared worried that the rifle blasts might wake her daughter.

“He should not make her do this,” Juana said, “not so soon after she has given birth.”

“The señora’s strong. She’s a good markswoman,” I said, after the water had settled in my stomach.

I remembered how, for lack of a boy child, in spite of his saddening memories of the war, Papi used to take the señora hunting with real rifles when she was only a girl. With Papi the hunt was for birds. With her husband, what would the mark be?

Señor Pico guided his wife’s hands along her rifle’s trigger guard. “Remember, do not aim too high, or you will shoot over the head,” he said.

He lined up her hands to fire once more. She shook her body free, leaned forward, lowered her eyes to the top of the gun barrel, then pulled the trigger. A calabash cracked from the tree across the yard and fell, toppling a few smaller ones on its way to the ground.

Señora Valencia lowered her rifle to her side and said, “No más.

With a towel draped over her shoulder, Juana brought out a large bowl of water. The señora washed her hands and wiped them dry with the part of the towel that fell down to Juana’s stomach.

“You must know how to protect yourself,” Señor Pico said as they walked back to the house. He held his wife by the arm as though they were reliving their wedding march.

“Papi and Luis will be here to look after Rosalinda and me,” she said.

“They cannot be with you at every moment,” he said.

“We have never had these fears before,” she said.

“This is a different time,” he told her.

Luis came into the parlor to announce that a truck full of Guardia had arrived.

Juana rushed off and came back with Rosalinda cradled in the arms of one of Señora Valencia’s distant cousins, who had come from Higuey to visit the baby; her name was Lidia.

Lidia had a narrow face with slanted downcast eyes and shoulder-length black hair that swayed back and forth as she patted Rosalinda’s behind.

Lidia stepped forward and held Rosalinda out to be embraced by her father. Señor Pico avoided the child and instead brushed his lips against the side of Lidia’s face before springing out the door.

As he marched down the hill to one of the open-back trucks, the men of the Guardia saluted and cheered his approach. He waved to his wife one last time, then jumped into the passenger seat next to the driver.

“It almost seems like we are at war,” Señora Valencia said, watching her husband’s three-truck military caravan pull away. She chose to ignore his avoidance of their daughter and of herself, as she did all the other things he did that were not pleasing to her.

“With your man, everything is the great expedition.” Papi walked back to the parlor with the señora. “Men like him have their names on plaques, on roads and bridges. Cities and villages are named for them. I came to live here in this valley because I wanted to escape such dealings, escape from armies and officers—”

“But your daughter loved the first soldier who strolled through your garden—”

“Love cannot always be explained,” Papi said, his voice filled with a desire to understand. “I have seen this before. Your man, he believes that everything he is doing, he’s doing for his country. At least this is what he must tell himself.”

“He’s a good man, Papi,” the señora said.

“If you say it, I must believe you,” Papi replied. “I’m going for a stroll now.”

“Take Luis with you,” Señora Valencia said.

“No, no,” Papi said. “This I do alone.”



The valley’s dust storms bring me joy. The dust rises in funnels from the ground and sweeps down the road. Like a sheet come undone from the clothesline, it makes its own shadow, along with the birds that circle above, trying to spot the humans cowering with their heads mashed into their chests.

In dust storms, I always imagine there are people walking ahead of me, people I cannot see, but whose forms I hope will emerge again once the air is cleared.

I see my mother and father and myself. I am with them, a child who still must hold a hand to walk, a child who must look up to talk, to see all the faces. After the storm has cleared, I find myself with my hands raised up, in motionless prayer, as though some invisible giants were guiding me forward, my face tipped up towards the trees covered with a veil of white loam.



Doctor Javier came by later in the afternoon to examine Rosalinda. Juana was in the pantry while Luis swept the yard outside.

Doctor Javier seemed tired, his high shoulders drooping as he entered the house.

“Please listen to me,” he whispered in Kreyol. “You must leave this house immediately. I have just heard this from some friends at the border. On the Generalissimo’s orders, soldiers and civilians are killing Haitians. It may be just a few hours before they reach the valley.”

It couldn’t be real. Rumors, I thought. There were always rumors, rumors of war, of land disputes, of one side of the island planning to invade the other. These were the grand fantasies of presidents wanting the whole island to themselves. This could not touch people like me, nor people like Yves, Sebastien, and Kongo who worked the cane fields. They were giving labor to the land. The Dominicans needed the sugar from the cane for their cafecitos and dulce de leche. They needed money from the cane.

“Is Pico here?” the doctor asked.

“He went to the border,” I said.

“Oh the border,” he said, as though this was the final sign he needed to confirm his tale. He was trying to make me see the truth in the pellets of sweat on his face, his knotted brows and hurried gestures urging me to trust him if I wished, believe him if I could. He had many more people to speak to besides myself.

“Will you go?’ he asked.

I wanted to have had more warning. I needed to know precisely what was true and what was not. Everything was so strange. What if the doctor too was part of the death plot?

“I cannot leave my man and his sister,” I said.

“A large group is crossing with me tonight,” he said. “We have two trucks. I can make a place for them. We’ll gather in front of the chapel. I’ve already spoken to Father Romain and Father Vargas. They are celebrating an evening Mass for Santa Teresa. It is almost her time. We will make it seem as if everyone is coming to Mass.”

I knew nothing about this Santa Teresa. Perhaps it would help me to know more about these saints that Juana adored, that this whole valley seemed to adore. Señora Valencia appeared in the long corridor leading to her room.

“Why do you whisper, Javier?” the señora asked.

“I didn’t know if your daughter was sleeping,” the doctor said. “If she was, I did not want to wake her.”

“My daughter is a deep sleeper,” the señora said proudly. Then she turned to me, with her fingers buried in her hair, scratching her scalp. She asked, “Amabelle, has Papi returned?”

Help me, Señora, I wanted to say, but what could she do? How much did she know? Would she be brave enough to stand between me and her husband if she had to?

“I’m uneasy about Papi strolling for this long,” she said before showing the doctor to the room where Rosalinda was sleeping.

I tried to think of a plan. Be calm, I told myself. I had to act calmly.

Just in case the doctor was right, I went to my room, sewed one of my skirts at the waist, made it into a sack, and threw a few things into it: Kongo’s mask of Joël’s face, Sebastien’s unfinished shirt from the day the señora’s children were born, and one change of clothing. If the doctor was wrong, I could always return. There was no harm in being prepared.

I walked down the hill and hid the bundle in a narrow gap between the banana trees in the lush grove behind Juana and Luis’ house and then went back to the main house.

Señora Valencia was in the parlor with the doctor.

“Papi still hasn’t returned?” she asked.

“No, Señora.”

“Please tell Luis to go look for him.”

First he would go the chapel, Luis said, where Papi sometimes prayed. Then he would go to the cemetery, where Papi might be visiting his wife, his son, and grandson’s graves. There was no need to be anxious about Papi’s wandering, but if the señora wanted him to go and search, this is what he would do.

I followed Luis out as if to help look for Papi, but I went to find Sebastien instead. He had just returned from the fields. His entire body was soaked with perspiration, as though he were sweating through a fever.-He leaned back against the wall to feel some of the cool air from outside. Papi’s cedar panels were still in the room.

I sat with Sebastien for a while without saying a word. I could tell that he was too tired to listen, and I did not want to speak until he was ready. Besides, I already didn’t want to say to him what I had to say.

“I have found three places for you, Mimi, and me in a truck crossing the border tonight,” I said finally.

“I’ve heard about the doctor’s Mass,” he said, “Santa Teresa, the little flower.”

“The doctor offered me work in a clinic doing what my parents used to do,” I said. “I think it’s best we go with him. If he is wrong, we can come back.”

“You never believed those people could injure you,” he said with a scowl that seemed truly hateful, as though he were talking to someone other than me. “Even after they killed Joel, you thought they could never harm you.” His hands were balled in fists the way they always were when he tried to hold in his anger. I reached for the fists and opened them to see the palms where the lifelines had been rubbed away by the cane cutting. Perhaps I had trusted too much. I had been living inside dreams that would not go away, the memories of an orphaned child. When the present itself was truly frightful, I had perhaps purposely chosen not to see it.

“Forgive me, please, Sebastien,” I said, “for believing too much.”

He released the tightness of his fists to my grasp. My chest was cramping with a kind of fear I had known only once before, when my parents were drowning: an unstrung feeling as when a gust of wind pushed a door shut behind you, as if to trap you inside.

“Let’s talk to Kongo,” Sebastien said. “He had a visitor in the fields this afternoon, the elder of your house.”


“He gave the field guards some money to let Kongo go away with him, and Kongo said yes.”

We went to Kongo’s room, where he was sitting with Yves. The two of them had a pile of almonds between them and were about to hammer them open. Kongo looked as rested as if he had not been to the fields at all that day. On his lap were wicker strands arranged in piles to make a basket.

Sebastien and I joined the circle around the wicker and almonds as though they were objects to be worshipped.

“Don Ignacio, Señora Valencia’s father, came to see you?” I asked Kongo. “Do you know where he is now?”

“He said he was going to stroll awhile before going back to his house.”

“What did he want with you?” Sebastien asked.

“He wanted to speak to me out in the woods, man to man, about my son,” Kongo replied.

“He was not worth your breath,” Yves said; his Adam’s apple rose and fell several times faster when he was angry. “Only killing him would make things even.”

“Things are never even,” Kongo said. “If it was so, his life and my life would be the same.”

“What did he say?” Yves asked.

“He asked me my son’s name,” Kongo said. “Wanted to make a cross and write my boy’s name on it, he did. He wanted to put the cross on my son’s grave. I told him no more crosses on my boy’s back.”

“You should have killed him and buried him in the woods,” Yves said.

“He told me he killed people in a war when he was a young man,” Kongo said. “He couldn’t remember how many he’d killed but felt like each one was walking kot a kot with him, crushing his happiness. For his woman to die on the night his only son was to be born, for my son to be killed the day his grandchildren saw the first light, he felt this was the doing of the people he killed in the war, people still walking side by side with him. He thought his grandson’s death showed this.”

“He wants you to carry your own sadness and his too?” Yves asked, his Adam’s apple bulging against the thin skin covering it.

Kongo reached over and tapped Yves’ shoulder to calm him.

“I want nothing more from him.” Kongo picked up a handful of almonds and pounded them with his fists to force them to surrender their kernels.

“Misery makes us appear small,” he said, “but we are men. We spoke like men. I told him what troubled me, and he told me what troubled him. I feel perhaps I understood him a trace and he understood me.”

“It’s only a masquerade of kindness.” Yves got up and paced back and forth in front of the mat where Joel had once slept. “Tonight I sell the wood in our room.”

“Tonight a truck is leaving,” Sebastien said. “Amabelle, Mimi, and me, we think of going.”

“All the same, I’m staying,” Yves said, running his fingers over his shaved head. “I’m selling the wood and I’m staying. There are many who believe the rumors are simply meant to chase us away.”

“Perhaps that is true,” Sebastien said, “but I wouldn’t like to sit like a dog in cage if they are true.”

“What will you do?” Yves turned back to the old man.

“I’ve been here fifteen years now,” Kongo said. “I’m too old for these types of journeys.” He reached into one of his pots and fished out a fistful of maize flour. Sprinkling the flour, he sketched a large letter V on the floor, each side spread far apart, like arms stretched out towards an invisible sky.

“This is something my old grandfather used to do before I went on a journey,” he explained. “‘I make this mark for you,’ he used to say, ‘because we’re one departing on two trails.’ Your trail is the trail of rivers and mountains, and on your journey you will require protection.”

Sebastien and Yves both seemed sadly content, as though their dead fathers had come back to offer them a benediction.

Kongo rubbed his hands together to brush off the maize flour once he was done. He looked up and winked at us. “Like a Saint Chnstophe,” he said.

Yves got up and left Kongo’s room. When I looked outside, a few moments later, I saw him heading towards the road in the dark with two of Papi’s cedar planks on his back.

“Wait for tomorrow to sell!” Sebastien shouted as he rushed after him.

“Tomorrow you may not be here!” Yves yelled back. “When we’re both home, we’ll have a Sunday meal together, you and me, except we’ll not eat too much, not enough to kill us.”

I bent down and kissed Kongo’s forehead good-bye. He kept his eyes on his maize-flour sketch on the floor.

Walking away, I couldn’t help but think that once I was gone, I would never hear about it when Kongo died.

Outside, Sebastien took my face in his hand and kissed me on the mouth.

“I’m tired of the harvest and all the cane,” he said. “Perhaps it’s time to see my mother. My mother, she did not think I would be gone this long. I’ll go find Mimi and we’ll meet you at the chapel.”

When I reached Señora Valencia’s house, I found that Papi had not yet returned. Luis was still out looking for him. After she cooked supper, Juana joined him in his search. Lidia stayed inside with Rosalinda while Señora Valencia sat out on the front gallery watching the road.

To make her go inside, out of the evening damp, I wanted to tell her what Kongo had told me, that her father was well, at least he had been that afternoon—but I didn’t want to reveal anything Papi might have wished to keep secret. Nor did I want to start talking and accidentally say more than I should about my own plans to leave her house, most likely for good. Where would such causene begin and where would it end? At this point it was a matter between our two countries, of two different peoples trying to share one tiny piece of land. Maybe this is why I’d never let the rumors engage me. If they were true, it was something I could neither change nor control.

I had decided that when it came time to leave, I would not say good-bye to the señora. But as soon as I was across the border, I would send word back to her with Doctor Javier.

While the señora was waiting for her father to return home, Beatriz came up the hill from her mother’s house. She sat herself down next to Señora Valencia, in one of the rocking chairs on the front gallery. Señora Valencia got up and leaned against the corner post overlooking the main road.

“Where is your brother?” she asked Beatriz. “Maybe my father is with him.”

“Javier is at the house preparing to leave for the border,” Beatriz said. “Your father is not with him.”

“I’d like to know what draws Javier to the border,” Señora Valencia said. “Perhaps it’s the same thing that keeps taking my husband there.”

“Pico and my brother are not the only people going to the border. Mimi is leaving us,” I heard Beatriz say. “Her brother took her away.”

I came out and asked if they wanted a cooling drink. It would be my last gesture of kindness to Señora Valencia. She asked for a glass of cool water.

“Amabelle, do you know Mimi is leaving us?” Beatriz asked me.

I feigned shock as best I could. “¡Que lástima!” A pity!

“My father has never disappeared for this long a time,” Señora Valencia said as I served her the water.

“You’re afraid for your father because you’re thinking of only bad possibilities,” Beatriz said in her usual nothing-is-ever-grave manner. “Perhaps he has a mistress.”

“Why would he hide it if he was friendly with a woman?” Señora Valencia slipped back into the rocker. “My mother has been dead for so long.”

“Maybe there is something scandalous about his mistress. She could be too young or already married.”

“This is not in Papi’s nature,” Señora Valencia said.

“Dies diem docet,” answered Beatriz, showing off her Latin.

“What do you say?” asked Señora Valencia. “What does this mean?”

“A man’s schooling is never complete,” interpreted Beatriz.

Señora Valencia asked for another cup of water. When I brought it, she drank again without stopping.

“Perhaps my father’s been arrested.” She scanned the property for unknown faces as she handed the cup back to me. “He may have said something to the wrong persons.”

“We will not think this now,” Beatriz said, her voice composed enough to soothe the señora. “Let us think of happier things while we wait for your father to return. Tell me, what will you paint to follow this portrait of El Jefe inside?”

It took the señora some time to switch from thoughts of her father to thoughts of painting.

BOOK: The Farming of Bones
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