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Authors: Edwidge Danticat

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BOOK: The Farming of Bones
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The next morning, before dawn, while everyone was still asleep, Juana and I watched from the doorway of the old sewing room as Señor Pico padded his son’s coffin with a pile of clean sheets from his wife’s armoire and placed him in the casket. The señor was wearing his ceremonial khakis with his cap set in perfect alignment with his seashell-shaped ears. When he looked up, he seemed surprised to see Juana and me standing there.

“You have not slept at all, Señor,” Juana reminded him.

“You should wake the señora now,” he said.

Señora Valencia got up to drape a web of fragile lace over her son’s colorfully painted coffin. Papi and one of the señora’s maternal relations held the other end of the heirloom lace-bordered sheets, helping her to fold the cloth small enough to cover the casket without trailing onto the ground.

Señora Valencia bent down to kiss the coffin through the sunflower design of the lace and then walked back to her room. Her daughter was sleeping in her cradle. She picked her up and took her to her bed.

Señor Pico and Papi together carried the coffin away.

Once the casket was in the first automobile, Señor Pico came back to the bed where his wife sat with her daughter cradled against her chest. He removed his cap and placed it between his right armpit and elbow. Brushing his lips against his wife’s forehead, he avoided his daughter’s tiny hand, which she intuitively held out towards her father as if in recognition of his face or to ward off the stinging expression of disfavor growing more and more pronounced on it each time he laid eyes on her. Her gesture was like her own way of making amends for having lived in her brother’s place, as if to say that she, too, wanted to be present for the burial and watch her brother’s descent into the nothingness they had once shared as two.

“Don’t be anxious, everything will go perfectly well,” Señor Pico assured his wife as though he was discussing yet another military operation.

Señora Valencia watched her husband march out of the room. As his Packard pulled away, she covered her ears with both hands to protect herself from the noise. She then raised her daughter’s face to her chin, closing her eyes to feel the child’s breath against her cheek.

Once Juana took over the care of Rosalinda, Señora Valencia defied Juana’s commands to lie in and rest and went out to sit on the rocker on the verandah outside her room. The sun had just risen over the valley, the dew still lingering in the curved petals of Papi’s prettiest red lantern orchids. On the balcony, Señora Valencia made an altar for her son with two handfuls of white island carnations—which she chose and I fetched for her from her father’s garden—and an unlit candle, which she had been saving to light in church, after a Mass.

We watched as Father Romain hurried past the house, as though on his way to administer last rites somewhere. Soon after him, my friends came drifting by on their way to the fields. Kongo led the group as usual, with Sebastien and Yves close behind.

Señora Valencia leaned forward on the balustrade as if to better see the orchids down below.

“Amabelle, you know some of the cane people?”

“Yes, Señora.”

“Go and ask them—the ones who just walked by—to come and have un cafecito with us.”

“All of them?”

“As many as will come.”

I was breathless when I reached the almond tree road. A few ripe almonds had fallen off the branches. The seeds were cracked open, half buried in the soil. The broken fruits oozed a ruddy juice, which made it seem as though the ground was bleeding.

“What’s chasing you?” Sebastien asked.

“The mistress of the house wants all of you to come for un cafecito with her,” I said.

“Your mistress?” Sebastien asked.

“Señora Valencia.”

Kongo raised his hand over his eyes and looked up at the house.

“It is not a place where we want to go,” Sebastien shouted into the hollow of Kongo’s ear.

Word of Señora Valencia’s invitation passed from mouth to mouth in the group. Shoulders were shrugged. Eyebrows were raised. Burlap sacks and straw hats were removed from heads for a better look at the house. Discussions began and ended in the same breath. What did she want with them anyway? Maybe they were all going to be poisoned. Many had heard rumors of groups of Haitians being killed in the night because they could not manage to trill their “r” and utter a throaty “j” to ask for parsley, to say perejil. Rumors don’t start for nothing, someone insisted.

A woman began telling stories that she’d heard. A week before, a pantry maid who had worked in the house of a colonel for thirty years was stabbed by him at the dinner table. Two brothers were dragged from a cane field and macheted to death by field guards—someone there had supposedly witnessed the event with his own eyes. It was said that the Generalissimo, along with a border commission, had given orders to have all Haitians killed. Poor Dominican peasants had been asked to catch Haitians and bring them to the soldiers. Why not the rich ones too?

“Tell me again the name of your mistress,” Kongo said.

“Señora Valencia,” I said. “Her son is being buried this morning, so she may not be fully well.” I tapped my temples to explain any rifts in the señora’s reasoning.

Kongo dug his broom handle into the red dirt and started towards the house. Most of the cane workers continued on to the fields, but some—at least twenty or so—were curious enough to follow us up the hill.

They crowded onto the porch, into the garden, any place where there was room to either lean or sit down.

Señora Valencia kept Rosalinda inside while Juana and I followed her orders. We poured coffee into her best European red orchid-patterned tea set and passed the first cups to Kongo, who handed them to the youngest in the group. Among the children was the boy I had given the goat bones to the night before. I poured him a full cup and then moved on to the others. Juana had rationed carefully, controlling the supply so everyone who wanted to could have at least a sip.

“We’ll have the day’s wages taken away if we don’t go soon,” Sebastien said. He did not want to participate in the señora’s feast.

As Juana was handing out the last cups of the coffee her sisters had sent her, Kongo moved away from the others and walked boldly into the parlor where the señora was sitting with her daughter. Kongo leaned over to peek at Rosalinda’s bronze face; he held out his hand as if to touch it. Señora Valencia reached up and blocked Kongo’s hardened old fingers. Kongo grabbed Señora Valencia’s extended hand and kissed the tip of her fingernails; Señora Valencia’s face reddened, as though this was the first time she’d ever been touched so intimately by a stranger.

“My heart is saddened for the death of your other child,” Kongo said in his best Spanish. He released her hand so that she could better grasp her daughter. “When he died, my son, the ground sank a few folds beneath my feet. I asked myself, How can he die so young? Did the stars visit him upon me in caprice? To teach me that a lifetime can be vast as a hundred years or sudden as a few breaths? Enjoy this one you have left. It all passes so fast. In the time it takes to draw a breath.”

Señora Valencia watched as Kongo walked out. I followed him with my eyes as he strolled down the hill. He laid his hand on Sebastien’s shoulder as if to summon the strength for one more step.

After everyone was gone, Señora Valencia went back to her bed and lay silently awake, watching her daughter sleep at her side. It seemed that she might have regretted exposing herself to the damp morning air and her daughter to outside forces that Kongo and the others might have brought with them, but her son’s death had made her heedless and rash.

When her husband returned, before he could tell her anything about the burial, she told him what she had done for the cane workers.

He did not scold her, but once he discovered that she had used their imported orchid-patterned tea set, he took the set out to the yard and, launching them against the cement walls of the house latrines, he shattered the cups and saucers, one by one.



At Christmas, the hills beneath the citadel are full of lanterns. Parents and children join hands to light each other’s faces by the glow of fragile paper shaped to the desires of their hearts. A fanal, a lantern, is like a kite, my father says, a kite that glows but does not fly.

My father always made me lanterns shaped like monuments, a task that took longer than most, the lantern of La Place Toussaint Louverture with a candle glowing inside, the plumed feather-capped hat of General Toussaint, the Cathedral of Cap Haitien with one set of paper used to dye another to look like stained glass, and of course the citadel, which takes twelve months of secret work.

I say to my father, Make me a lantern of your face to carry with me the whole year long.

He laughs, a chortle of paternal pride. It would be too vain, he says, to spend more time than God reproducing one’s self.



Rosalinda’s baptism took place only after Señora Valencia’s period of lying in had formally ended. On the baptism day, at the chapel, the pews were filled with a waiting brood of mothers, fathers, godmothers, aunts, and uncles. They had brought their children to Father Vargas for a group baptism. Many of the children were already six or seven years old and were being rebaptized so the Generalissimo could now become their official, albeit absent, godfather.

Señor Pico forced his way past the crowd spilling over outside as his wife carried their daughter to the front row, which was reserved for the more privileged families.

Señora Valencia wore a pale cream dress with a mantilla bordered with the same Valenciennes lace as the tablecloth that had been buried with her son. Papi followed behind her, then Doctor Javier, and Beatriz.

I watched from a distance as Father Vargas poured holy water on Rosalinda’s head welcoming her into the Holy Catholic Church.

After the baptism, I gave my space to the family of a nearly grown boy whose name was about to be changed to Rafael in the Generalissimo’s honor.

Outside the chapel, the valley peasants waited for their turn before the altar. A few playful toddlers chased a baby goat around the church. Their mothers shouted threats that went unheeded. No supper for the rest of their lives. No sweets. No love, never again. The children, with the dust like a flying rug at their heels, were willing to hazard anything that might only be taken away from them later.

When they came out of the chapel, Señora Valencia held Rosalinda out to me for a baptismal kiss.

“Amabelle, when you last saw her, she was a Moor,” she said. “Now, I bring you a Christian.”

I leaned forward and grazed Rosalinda’s cheeks with my lips. Her forehead was still wet where the priest had doused it with the holy water. Señor Pico yanked his wife’s arm and pulled her away, almost making the señora drop the child. Rosalinda was startled by the abrupt movement and began to cry as they piled into the automobile for the short journey to the house.

Juana cooked a giant baptism feast. We spent the afternoon serving the neighbors, those who came into the house and others, the valley peasants, who gathered outside in curiosity and hunger.

The celebration was stilled by the memory of Rafi, whose shadow would no doubt follow his sister all her life.

That night, after the baptism celebration, Kongo came to find me. He was wearing the yellow shirt and black pants that Sebastien had given him to dress his son for burial; the clothes fit him as though they had been cut and sewn for his body.

“I am looking for Amabelle,” he said through the crack in the door. Running his fingers over the verandah rail, he stood outside in the night and listened to the tree frogs croaking.

“Please come,” I said.

He eyed the pile of cedar that Papi kept stacked near the latrines. “Let me stand here a moment,” he said. “There is so much wood here. I’ve been on sugar land all over this country, and there’s never enough wood to spare for us. I’ve seen people take doors off hinges to make coffins for their dead.”

He reached through the doorway and handed me a papier-mâché mold of a man’s face.

“I bring this offering for your house,” he said. “I hope you will accept.”

I took the mask from him. The face hinted at his, but many decades earlier. The forehead was curved and wide, the raised cheekbones standing out above the hollowed space over the jaws. The lips were half open, between a grin and a scream; it was the death face of his son.

I showed him to the mat where I prepared to sleep. He sat down. Picking up my conch shell, he blew into it, forcing out a clipped lively melody, a carnival rhythm.

“You hungry?” I asked him.

He yawned to show he was hungry without having to speak the words. I had some rice from the baptism meal that I had been saving for Sebastien. I removed it from three layers of plantain leaves and served it to him with a wooden spoon.

“Back home I earned my living making masks for carnival,” he said between bites. “I was the only mask maker in my town. All I ever needed was a bit of flour and paper and I could make this type of mask. Had a woman, thirty years she was with me, the mother of my son. She loved masks, she did. The more of them I made, the more she seemed to love me.

I gave him a small calabash full of water. He pushed his head back and drank until it was empty.

“At my age, my memory won’t always serve me well,” he said. “Could be I knew you when you were young. Could be you’re one of those children who ran and hid when my woman and I came down the street with our masks to open the carnival parade. Could be you climbed the greasy pole in my yard to get the money at the top. I always had a big celebration for the children at carnival. Naturally one never remembers all the children.”

“What is your true name?” I asked. “The name you had before you came here?” This was something I suddenly wanted to know. I was hoping that in the remembering he would want to share this too.

“Some things are too wasteful to remember,” he said, “like burning blood in an oil lamp.” His breathing grew louder as though his stomach was getting used to being full.

“After my woman died, I stopped the mask-making to do carpentry. But I wasn’t good at making anything but masks, I wasn’t. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to go back to the masks without my woman. I sold all my land. My money went on things I thought I could buy to forget: mostly liquor, firewater, and happy people’s company. Couldn’t ever be alone when I was sad. Before you could tap your foot one time, I had nothing. Joel and I were used to working together. Both he and me, we would have been beggars if we did not come here. But I’m not here only to eat your food and tell you tales. I came because Sebastien sent me.”

“Has something happened to Sebastien?” I asked. Because of the baptism, I had not been able to go and see Sebastien all day.

“Sebastien’s well, he is,” he said. “He decided after what happened at the ravine that he didn’t want to waste more time. He sent me to ask you if you would promise yourself to him and keep yourself just for him. When a young man’s serious about a young woman, the old customs demand he bring his parents to express his intentions to her parents. Since both your parents and his parents are absent, I came to you on his word.”

I looked down at the mask in my hand. I couldn’t help but think of the night Joel had died, how for a moment I’d thought it was Sebastien who had been struck down by Señor Pico’s automobile. The old man glanced at me and then at the mask.

“Always hoped my son would find a woman like you,” he said, “a good woman.”

“Joel had a good woman,” I said.

“You think of that one with the big black mark under her nose. I did not want her for him.”

“She wanted your son,” I said. “She desired your blessings. She still does.”

“Blessings? What for? My son’s only a remembrance now, if even this. The one with the big mark under her nose, she is young, and the young do not stay young by keeping watch on the past. Soon she will find another man, and my son will slip from her mind.”

“She’s still very troubled,” I said.

“I hope Sebastien will let you keep the mask,” he said.

“Are you certain you don’t want to keep this face for yourself?” I asked.

“I’ve made many,” he said, “for all those who, even when I’m gone, will keep my son in mind. If I could, I would carry them all around my neck, I would, like some men wear their amulets. I give this one to you because you have a safe place to preserve it.”

“I’m happy to have it,” I said, “though ‘happy’ is not the proper word.”

“I’m glad to give it to you,” he said, “though ‘glad’ is also not the proper word.”

“Thank you for trusting me with something so precious to you,” I said.

“My son was precious to me,” he said. “This is only a sad reminder of him.”

As he got up to leave, I straightened his collar and removed a clump of rice that was clinging to the top button of his shirt.

“Now you look handsome.” I said.

“Sebastien, he let me keep the clothes,” he said. “I put in some pleats and made them smaller.”

“I am happy you were the one to bring this word from Sebastien,” I said.

“I don’t often have a chance to do these things,” he said. “I also had another thought when I came here tonight.”

“Tell me, please.”

“The elder of your house, Don Ignacio, he’s not asked again to come and see me, no?”

With Rafi’s death, Papi did seem to have forgotten about him and Joel.

“I’m not surprised,” he said, “that my son has already vanished from his thoughts.”

After Kongo left, I rushed out to see Sebastien. I didn’t go the ravine route but down through the footpath around the stream, which was a much cooler trail at night.

It was a dark night, but I knew the trail well enough to follow it in my sleep. I dashed around the stream, listening to the tree frogs and the cicadas trilling from far away.

I had been walking for some time when I heard the parting of tree branches and the flopping of footsteps landing in the mud holes behind me. The steps were faint at first, but slowly grew in force and concentration. They were coming closer, marching in perfect unison.

Jumping off the path, I tried to slip into the stream but landed on my bottom with a splash.

The night appeared clearer from the water. I reached down to the bed of the stream, feeling for a rock, something to use in defending myself. Looking back towards the footpath, I saw nobody there. Perhaps my fear had created all the noises.

“You in the water.” A man’s voice called from behind a shadowed tree. He spoke to me in Kreyol.

I anchored my feet at the bottom of the stream, reached under, and finally grabbed a rock. Three men were standing at the causeway, each holding a machete, the blades reflecting the water’s clarity.

“This is a time to sleep, not to swim,” the same man said.

I could see all their faces now. They were stonemasons who lived in the neighboring houses, on the road leading to the stream. I walked out of the water, shivering as the night air dried my skin. Among the men was Unèl, who had once rebuilt the latrines in Señora Valencia’s yard. Unèl handed me a blanket that he carried rolled up and tied with a rope on his back.

“Where are you going at this late hour, Amabelle?” he asked.

“To see Sebastien,” I said.

“Haven’t you heard all the talk?” he asked.

“What talk?”

“Talk of people being killed.”

“That is just talk, started since Joel died,” I said.

“You should tell Sebastien to come for you when he wishes to see you at night,” he said.

I walked back to the trail that encircled the stream. Unèl rushed ahead as the others stayed behind me.

“It’s not prudent to walk alone these days,” Unèl scolded.

“Thank you for your counsel,” I said.

“We want to protect our people,” Unèl said. “After Joel was killed, we formed the night-watchman brigade. If they come, we’ll be prepared for them.”

“I am going back,” another man spoke from behind me. “I won’t wait for things to go from talk to bloodshed, I’m going back to Haiti. I won’t take the automobile roads where all the soldiers are, I’ll travel through the mountains. I’m going back this very Saturday. I’m prepared to leave all this behind. Thank you, Alegría. Our time here has been joyful, but now I must say good-bye to you.”

“I will stay and fight,” Unèl said. “I work hard; I have a right to be here. The brigade stays to fight. While we fight we can help others.”

“All this because Joël’s been killed?” I asked Unèl.

The coolness in my voice must have startled him, for he paused and looked at me before taking another step to follow his companions, who had left him behind. It wasn’t that I had grown indifferent to Joël’s death, but I couldn’t understand why Unèl and the others would consider that death to be a herald of theirs and mine too. Had Señor Pico struck Joel with his automobile deliberately, to clear his side of the island of Haitians?

“Let me ask again. Haven’t you heard the talk?” Unèl asked.

“I’ve heard too much talk,” I said.

When we reached the compound, I returned the blanket to Unèl. He rolled it up, tied it with a short rope, and threw it back across his shoulder.

“Thanks to her, if I am cold tonight, I have a wet blanket to wrap myself in,” Unèl told Sebastien as they shook hands. “I will take this opportunity to warn the others,” Unèl said. “The times have changed. We all must look after ourselves.”

Unèl and his men walked from shack to shack cautioning everyone to be watchful, not to walk alone at night. He enrolled a few more sentries among the cane workers, some who promised that they would walk the valley with him the following night. Others joked that only a woman could get them out of their beds to walk the valley all night after they had spent a whole day on their feet in the cane fields.

I hurried into Sebastien’s room, my clothes dripping wet. Both Yves and Sebastien looked as though they’d been about to put out their lamp and go to sleep.

“I thought Kongo was still with you,” Sebastien said.

Yves got up, stroked his shaved head, and went outside. I stepped out of my clothes but remained in my slip. Sebastien went out to hang my day dress to dry. When he returned, we lay down on his mat. He raised an old rice sack sheet over our bodies. I could feel his boils and the sabila poultice sliding down his leg as he called Yves back into the room.

“Have you heard some talk?” I asked Sebastien.

“Unèl’s talking of an order from the Generalissimo.”

“Yes, that talk.”

“I don’t know what to make of it,” Sebastien said. “I keep hearing it, but I don’t know if all of it is true.”

“Just before you came, we were speaking about you,” Yves said, slipping back on his own mat across the room. “Did your ears burn?”

“What were you saying?” I asked.

“Yves was telling me I should sell the wood,” Sebastien said.

“Papi’s wood?”

“We can sell it,” Yves said, twisting his neck and turning his large Adam’s apple towards us. “I know someone who’s looking for good well-cured wood to make tables and chairs.”

BOOK: The Farming of Bones
2.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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