Image Courtesy of Breezy Baldwin. Shared via a Creative Commons license.
“The Streets are Still Askew” is an excerpt from MJ’s memoir, A Sky the Color of Chaos.
How pretty was Port-au-Prince on Saturdays, the streets still askew but drained of the crowds. No masses of people rubbing against each other. Port-au-Prince was not tremulous with busloads of school children. The shoeshine men huddled in front of the bakery, which smelled sweetly of pen rale, French bread, and beef patties behind its closed doors. Hands slapped knees when laughter erupted—volcanic, stretching the cheeks under straw hats. Soon the Epicerie de Lourdes would let the children wander in for bonbon lanmidon cookies and mints shaped like small boulders. Young men scrubbed the pavement with Mistolin ça fait la joie de mes narines. Someone wakened the drunk, slumped like laundry. In some front yards, clothes hung suspended from the lines.
Behind the wheel of his Jeep, Papa didn’t miss a bit of the city’s awakening, turning his head this way and then that way. The vendors of fresko slushies were out—grenadine was my favorite, with crushed peanuts on top. Never mind the flies and the mosquitoes. Mikwòb pa touye ayisyen . A girl at my school said the ice came from the morgue down the street. Never mind this girl. Sa je pa wè kè pa tounen . What you don’t know doesn’t slap you in the face.
“Look,” I said. “It’s one of those mad men.”
Port-au-Prince had a lot of crazies parading in ragged military garb, their faces mud-smeared, more bone than flesh, their eyes bottomless, their hair stiffened with dirt and lice. Women sitting behind their big pots of fasomur fed them because the good word said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.”
When I got out of the car in front of the school, a tall man trotting by knocked my leg with his briefcase and bustled on. A lone taptap idled at the light.
“I don’t understand,” Papa said, “why you can’t be well-behaved. Why do you have to speak your mind and get Saturday detentions with Madame Lemoine? You could be watching cartoons on Télévision Radio-Canada. What is that show you like? The one you enjoy so much you gave up Saturday ballet lessons on account of not missing it. Ah, I remember: Félix et Ciboulette.”
An old woman sat in front of the school, selling ripe and green bananas, tangerines and mangoes. I wondered where she spent the night. She didn’t ask you to buy a fruit, nor did her eyes condemn your wealth.
“Félix et Ciboulette? That was years ago,” I said, waving good-bye. “I’m too old for kiddie shows, Papa.”
I liked Saturday detentions. I liked the Latin déclinaisons Madame Lemoine made us study during the session. An hour into the detention she forgot how badly I’d misbehaved. I sat close to her desk and she told me about her own childhood teachers. About the one with the birthmark across the nose, who’d tied a student’s left hand behind her back, forcing the right hand to trace the loops and curves of cursive writing.
“Be good,” Papa said, adjusting his eyeglasses in the rearview mirror.
Another father dropped off his child, their complicity evident in the way she spoke to him, animated, the way she hugged him without reserve.
We could not be friends, Papa and I.
Madame Lemoine. Seventy years old. Always carried an umbrella. Kept her nails clean and well-manicured. Her tailor-made clothes smelled of Fab laundry detergent. Her head unbowed, her cheekbones high, she sat behind a desk stacked with Geology quizzes and French dissertations. She’d been teaching Mathematics, Philosophy, and Chemistry for more than thirty years, and had been manning Saturday detentions for that long, too. Students feared her because she was stern.
That was not the Madame Lemoine I knew, though—lost in laughter and exciting stories about summer vacations in Les Provinces, cooking recipes from Carrefour and Bwadchèn, and anecdotes about the days of Papa Doc and later Baby Doc. She knew about our history, about the Pompons Blancs and the Pompons Rouges, and the sordid details of the hanging of Queen Anacaona. She told me about Mother’s Day in the old days, about the flowery brooches sold in front of the Sacré-Coeur before and after mass, about the customary liqueur rose and ponmkèt pound cake consumed at lunchtime. As she reminisced about her younger years, her hands helped her do the talking. From time to time, she interrupted the flow of words to ask, “How’s that déclinaison going?” But she knew she’d spare me from reciting a-a-a-ae-ae-a/ae-ae-a-arum-is-is because she liked an audience and would rather speak about Old Port-au-Prince than trust me into silence and Latin.
As she told me these stories, I was the center of the universe.
I hadn’t fooled her—she knew I chose to be here. On Saturday mornings, I didn’t mind leaving my bed full of plotted dreams when the sky sat awake above us, when shoeshine men carried their world in a box slung across their shoulders, ringing their bells. Yes, the first time, I deserved the punishment for calling the English teacher an ignoramus. However, after some quality time with Madame Lemoine, I’d learned to orchestrate my misbehaviors so that I ended up in her detention room. I knew which teachers had a short temper and just how much to speak my mind to get a “Saturday” without La Direction creating a permanent file about me.
The other girl, Valerie, had a permanent file. She sat in the back of the room, away from us, her ears waxy, her shoelaces tucked under the tongues of her shoes. Uninterested. Uninteresting.
I shared some stories with Madame Lemoine too. I didn’t tell her about the knife I once owned, but I told her about Jean, my old neighborhood’s loony. In Christ-Roi, Jean always looked at his shadow, puzzled, and walked with a stagger, his skin bruised and crusted with dirt. I was visiting the neighbors one day but it was naptime and the house was asleep. Leaning over the railing of my neighbor’s balcony, I yelled, “Jean, oh, Jean! Over here!” How crazy could he be? Well, the first rock hit the choublak hibiscus flowers growing in Madame Ville’s giant brass pot. The other one Jean threw at me landed on the roof. When Jean left, Madame Ville brought out a belt. I knelt on the cold marble floor and extended my palms. When the punishment ended, I was sent home hot with shame.
From time to time police sirens howled outside, piles of garbage caught fire and smoke hugged the sky.
Madame Lemoine liked me. She liked my prose notebook, the doodles I traced around my poems as if they were memories of her own adolescence. I used to think I was the only one who stayed outside of my dreams, an intruder looking in my own sleep as people acted out scenes in stories, but Madame Lemoine said it was the same for her—she was an outsider in her own dreams. I glimpsed a smile on her face when I thumbed my nose at the other kid and laughed. She told me about the children in the neighborhood, the uncultured teenagers she worried about. The neighborhood of Lalue, she said, sauntered badly forth—rotten pilings, cocaine, quick sex. Some mad kid killed the neighborhood cat with an umbrella. The zenglendos—if they didn’t shoot you with a gun, they cut you with a knife. “Those are the real crazies,” she said. “Not your harmless hobos. These are criminally insane.”
She said once that maybe I loved stories too much.
When Papa picked me up, the sun was still shining. The shoeshine men had set up a table in front of Epicerie de Lourdes and they played dominoes, their faces frowning, but a smile only inches away.
It would have been impossible then to imagine Saturday mornings could come to Port-au-Prince, vacant of Madame Lemoine.
When I heard, years later, about the home invasion and the zenglendos, about the cords that tied her to a chair, about the gag, about the strangulation, my fingers touched reality’s face, my own face dirty with tears. The hands of clocks had spun to make me older then. I stood before the smudged bathroom mirror, toothbrush in hand, and I saw myself as I was then—a thirteen-year-old kid with a Latin book sprawled on her desk, displaying the wrong page. And Madame Lemoine still alive, telling the story of Remus and Romulus.
Her words still rise like a dream chorus in my head. I am left with a store of memories—the scent of her herbal rinse, for one—and a wave of longing sweeps through my body. Yet the absent face begins to tatter, fading, going out.
I think of rain clouds rising over the city, over the streets still askew, the afternoon giving way to cold rain and beaten down grass.
Rest in peace, Madame Lemoine.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, M.J. Fievre published her first mystery novel, Le Feu de la Vengeance, at the age of sixteen. At nineteen, she signed her first book contract with Hachette-Deschamps, in Haiti, for the publication of a Young Adult book titled La Statuette Malefique. Since then, M.J. has authored nine books in French. Two years ago, One Moore Book released M.J.’s children’s book, I am Riding, written in three languages: English, French, and Haitian Creole. M.J. holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Education from Barry University and an MFA from the Creative Writing program at Florida International University. She taught writing at Nova Middle School in Davie, FL, and is currently a professor at Miami Dade College. She’s the founding editor of Sliver of Stone Magazine.