It's twelve o'clock when I get the phone call from Madame Desmarais, the hospital administrator. I know something is wrong because she pauses in between sentences, as if choosing her words carefully.
"I'm very sorry to call you with bad news, Micheline. Your mother passed away this morning."
I'm still holding the phone when my husband walks in the kitchen, drenched in sweat, a screwdriver between his teeth. He's clasping a pair of pliers pried from the girls' hands. They'd been playing in his toolbox again, and he had just banished them to the family room.
"Are you okay?" he asks me.
"Yes, I'm fine."
Technically, Maman has been dead to me for a long time now, but Julien doesn't quite get it. After all, he always says, she is your mother. He's staring at me closely, expecting me to fall apart, but I'm still standing. I always am.
"Is there anyone we can call for you?" Madame Desmarais asks.
I remember meeting her about twenty-five years ago. Back then, she was a petite woman with stunning green eyes and flaming lipstick that tainted her front teeth when she smiled. How she kept her cool all these years working in a mental hospital is beyond me. I would have lost my mind already, but then again, I've lived with crazy all my life and I'm not out there "throwing rocks," like we say in Haiti. I'm very proud of myself for it. When I was little, it wasn't uncommon to come across schizophrenics and lunatics in the streets, and if you were smart you avoided them, especially when they talked to themselves aloud, or when they picked up rocks to fling at pedestrians. Living with crazy is different. You can't run away from it. Crazy lives in every corner of your house.
"Micheline, are you there?" Madame Desmarais asks.
Maman was committed to the University of Laval's Psychology and Mental Institute when I was sixteen, right after we left Haiti. I'm not yet thirty-five and already I feel ancient, old, and very tired of always thinking of her, of the past, and of always worrying about becoming like her... Somehow I sigh of relief and I hear Madame Desmarais breathe deeply into the phone. When I met her the first time, in the hallways of the hospital, she directed me to the waiting room, a vestibule with brown chairs, a television and a dying ficus in the corner. "I have some magazines over there. Would you like to read while I talk to your father?"
I watched silent television while they talked in her office with the door halfway closed. Papa had this air of melancholy about him, his pants sagging, his sweater and tie all ill-fitting. Papa, the man who had once been a strapping, tall-standing attorney with a striking resemblance to Harry Belafonte had shrunken in stature. He seemed feeble and effaced from the rest of the world, his hair graying at the sides and his skin wrinkled with strife. Even the dimple in his chin went unnoticed.
I haven't spoken to my father in over twenty years. He left my brother Pouchon in Haiti, moved me to Quebec, and we never heard from him again. That was his way of fleeing the past, fleeing people he knew, fleeing the shame. I wonder where he is now, what he's doing and what he looks like, but I only wonder this in brief moments, because most of the time I don't think about him. I want to forget.
"I don't know how to contact your father," Madame Desmarais says.
Julien is pouring me a drink and now he's eying me reproachfully.
"How can you say that, Michou?" he whispers.
I try to ignore Julien and he's red in the face. Red like his hair, and the shirt he's wearing unbuttoned over an undershirt, soaked in sweat from pretending to repair the heater before the harsh Montreal winter sets in. I tried to tell him for the past two days that he isn't a professional electrician, that he's just an intellectual newspaper editor, a nerd, and that he's not the "handy" type. But he never listens.
"Oh... I'm sorry, I didn't know," Madame Desmarais says.
She sounds convinced. It's much easier to think of Papa as dead because the truth brings too much shame. He'd dumped me here to be raised by a "friend." I barely knew Dédé, but later found out she was his ex-mistress. Papa said he was going to New York for a while. Said he'd come back. Never did. He sent money for school, and Dédé did her best in raising me. Now here I am, hating her, hating my father, staring the past in the face when I spent my adult life putting it behind me.
"Last I heard, he was in New York," Madame Desmarais continues. "I tried calling the number he had listed in the files but it seems to be disconnected."
"I'm sorry about that," I say.
Who knows? Maybe Papa is really dead. Maybe he's lying in the gutter somewhere or in a mass indigents' grave? He's never called us, not once, not even to talk to his granddaughters. I sent him letters and pictures at the same address listed on Maman's files - some place in Brooklyn where he was staying with a friend - and no answer. If he's still alive, perhaps he's out there driving a cab in New York. Someone once met me at the Metro and said they'd seen him driving a yellow taxi around, and then one time, someone else said he was a bus boy or dishwasher at a restaurant, that they'd seen him in a back alley smoking a cigarette on break. That made sense because Papa always smoked, but all I said was, "Ok, thanks." What was I supposed to do with information like that? Acknowledge that it was him? Be okay with the fact that my father had fallen from grace and was spotted in all his shame smoking in a back alley with a dirty rag over his shoulder? No thanks.
"We need you to come and sign release forms, and we will turn over the body to you."
I shake my head. "But... I don't want it," I mumble.
I don't take the drink that Julien has poured me. I don't drink Whiskey and he knows it. My head is beginning to hurt. It's not a real migraine, just a stuffy feeling as if someone is packing my brain with cotton.
"Micheline, I'm very sorry about all of this. Please be here by tomorrow evening."
When I hang up, I realize my throat is dry. Perhaps I will have a swig of Whiskey. The ice is swirling in it and hitting the sides of the glass.
"I'm so sorry," Julien says.
I drink, a little too fast perhaps, and I cough and grimace. The girls haven't moved, fully absorbed in their cartoons, oblivious to the world around them, just as I was at their age, when the Pink Panther was on and I was lost in the images, eating ice cream next to my brother, not noticing in the background that my mother was always busy talking to trees.
When I was five, I told my pregnant mother that I wished for it to be a girl. Maman rubbed her belly.
"Dieu en décidera, my little one."
She must have thought I was cute, but I think she was too busy worrying about being pretty for Papa.
"Look at you," he'd say when she asked to go out with him. "You're in no condition to go out. You're like a freight truck."
She always tried to hide her hips with large dresses, twirling in front of the mirror and asking me which one made her look smaller. I hated being that person to help her pick clothes because the ones I liked, the prints, the flowers, the pretty colors, never made the list. She always wore the dark ones that draped around her and never hugged her curves. In reality, my mother didn't need to worry. The Maman I know and remember was movie star material, with thick eyebrows that almost met in the middle, and full hair framing her beautiful face. There's a picture of her somewhere in the house wearing a light yellow dress, a beautiful contrast against her dark skin. She isn't smiling in the picture, not with her lips anyways, much like the Mona Lisa. But her eyes are shining like lumps of coal on fire. The more I think about it, she was more of a Diana Ross in her Supremes era, and pregnancy never altered her beauty, even when she got sick. She was always throwing up and complaining of vertigo, and the doctors prescribed her all sorts of medicine to ease the nausea. She spent most of her time in bed reading and spitting in a bucket of water.
When my brother came out of her womb on a month of July, Papa looked at him closely with a grimace. The baby was big, a squirming, pudgy black thing with slanted eyes and a contorted mouth, his head shaped kind of funny. Papa shoved him back in her arms.
"Apa se yon Mongol! Can't you do anything right? You had to go and fuck up my child?"
He went outside and lit a cigarette, and she started to cry. I looked at Pouchon and poked him a bit. I'd never seen a baby like that and quickly, I understood something wasn't right with my brother. He was very slow at doing things, at walking and learning. His mouth always open, he laughed at silly things that didn't warrant laughter. Papa always shouted at him.
"Close your mouth, you're drooling all over your food."
Papa said we shouldn't treat Pouchon any different than any other child. He always smacked him upside the head and gave him a good shove, and sometimes, he twisted his earlobe till tears came out.
"It's good for his character," he said one time after my mother pleaded in tears for him to stop. "He'll never feel sorry for himself."
At eight years old, Pouchon couldn't tie his own shoelaces without help, and one day, I decided Papa was right. I let him torture himself with the laces after showing him how I did mine.
"Why won't you help me?" he moaned.
"I already showed you, imbecile! Do it yourself."
In school, I never talked about my brother and when my classmates brought it up, it was always to tease me. They'd wait for my father to pick me up with Pouchon in the back seat, and they'd point the finger at him.
"Your brother's a retard!" they'd sing in unison while I sat alone eating a sandwich. "Your babies are going to be retards, too."
I hated my own brother for that reason, for the fact that I was perceived as small and unworthy, and if I were cruel to him, it wasn't just to forge his character. I just wanted him out of my life. And now he is, in some sorts, out of my sight and out of my life, living in Haiti in some sort of institute for the mentally challenged run by Catholic nuns, and no, I don't know how he's doing because I'm afraid to call. I don't want to remember the horrible person I was in the past. Five years ago, I got a phone call that he had escaped and went missing for days, that he had made friends with people of bad influence, that he had been caught stealing electronic appliances in a home and that the neighborhood had chased him down while throwing rocks. The Nun who called said he had been seen hiding on the rooftop of a house to avoid stoning, and when they caught him they tore his clothes off and nearly lynched him. He was taken to jail, covered in blood, and now they keep him in a room apart, locked away so he won't escape.
"I'm very sorry he caused all this trouble," I said. "How is he now?"
"He often asks about you," she said curtly. "He wants to know if you will bring him berries when you visit him..."
I was quiet. I didn't know what to say. I couldn't believe Pouchon remembered that, the days when I was nice to him, when we strolled in the backyard plucking blackberries--plump, soft, and juicy. Those were the only times we were brother and sister--amid the bushes where no one could harm us--and we laughed together. Most of the time he laughed at his own jokes and no one laughed with him, but when Papa wasn't around, when no one was around, I laughed. Sometimes, Pouchon even stood up and busted moves.
"Look, Michou, I'm dancing!"
And he would invent the strangest contortions, and I would laugh heartily. But when others were around, I'd smack him upside the head. "Stop behaving like a fat monkey!"
He always looked at me, confused, with tears in his eyes, and those were the moments when I hated myself the most.
"I will pray for you, my child," the Nun said before hanging up.
I hoped she did, without anger but much more with compassion, because I was well aware of all my sins.
I don't recognize my mother, lying there on a cold slab at the hospital's morgue under white sheets. Everything is white and metal, and I turn my head to not look at the countertop where all the contraptions and instruments are sprawled. The simple knowledge that they're there sends my entire body into a strange torpor, and I take a deep breath to compose myself. There's a strong, chemical smell in the air and I cover my mouth when I look at her, hoping the smell isn't coming from her. Maman has shrunken, shriveled like a prune. She lies still, void of life like a carcass, and me, my husband, the doctor and Madame Desmarais, we are the vultures hovering around her, eyeing her closely, making sure we haven't been duped. But it's her, alright. Here are the eyebrows, there is the mole near her ear, even if her hair is disheveled and her long nails broken at the edges.
"She fought the orderlies in the cafeteria," Madame Desmarais whispers to me when I point out my mother's hands. "She was never still long enough for us to clip her nails."
I should have been there to at least do that part... I can tell by the way she lowers her eyes and avoids my gaze that this is what Madame Desmarais is thinking. I feel Julien's hand on my arm and I squeeze it.
"Take me outside, please."
He walks with me to the courtyard in the back of the building. The air outside is warm, heavy with heat, but I don't care. I need to be away from the cold of that room. The day is slowly ending, but the sun persists in the fiery orange sky, glowing in the distance over tall, pointed domes and shingled rooftops. We sit on a stone bench under a large tree with pink flowers in full blossom. My shoes are almost buried in flower petals. Even the water fountain is brimming with pink. Doctors and visitors walk past us, but around here there are lots of patients walking in slow motion, staring into nothingness, touching flowers and talking to themselves. They remind me of Maman. That was her thing, shouting insults at trees while perched on the balcony, or begging them to be quiet. Sometimes, her conversations were so animated that she didn't hear me sneak up behind her.
"Oh! Micheline... Tu m'as fait peur," she'd then say.
I barely remember the sound of her voice, and this thought scares me. I feel her slipping away from me like a shadow one can never catch, and I become aware of my own mortality, of the uncertainty in everything. I shudder.
"It's alright," Julien says, holding me close. "I'm here."
I tell Julien that instead of burying her we should incinerate her. She wouldn't want to be ugly and devoured by worms and critters. She would want to be beautiful like she was in her youth, like a daisy in a field of weeds. Before she lost her mind, she was a school teacher at the very school I attended, a Catholic all-girls institution where the importance was centered on discipline. And discipline is what got her in trouble. She was fired for "roughly disciplining" students. Complaints were drawn against her for using her ruler to spank children in the palm of the hand or on the shoulder, and then the rumors grew about her being crazy.
"Your mother is a little sick," Papa said to us to explain why she would be in her room sleeping all day. "She will be home from now on. Try not to disturb her."
Maman's father, Papi Da, reassured me that she was like this when she was younger. "She's always been the oddball, your mother, screaming in class but screaming at no one in particular... Don't be afraid. She loves you very much."
When she became pregnant again, it was as if everyone around us breathed a sigh of relief. She seemed to have regained her senses, seemed to focus more, always rubbing her belly and eating healthy food, "doing what's right for the baby."
Once again, Maman had her morning sickness but I was here to help her. After all, someone had to be functioning as the woman in the house. I was only fifteen but I knew enough to direct the maid, to know that clothes had to be washed weekly, that there weren't enough groceries, that my father's sweaters and ties had to be organized in a certain way. I took care of my brother, my father, my mother who spent more time in her room than usual, and I made sure she took her nausea medication regularly.
Maman had begun to pray arduously for the health of this baby. "We wouldn't want her to turn out like your brother now, would we?" she whispered to me before falling asleep.
Camille was born on a beautiful April morning, and she came out of my mother's womb bathed in divine light. That's how I imagined it anyways because I wasn't in the delivery room. Before she even turned one, Camille developed as a beautiful child, so pretty that other mothers would turn their heads at her sight. It was the eyebrows, like my mother's, thick and black like coal, and her hair which grew like tufts. She inherited all my baby dresses, embroidered by hand, printed with daisies and roses, and her laughter resonated throughout the house.
"Isn't she beautiful?" my father said, picking her up to kiss her cheeks. "She's just as pretty as my Micheline."
I blushed. It wasn't common for Papa to pay compliments, but for once he was talking to us, talking to Maman again. For once, we actually existed, and all was well until Camille got sick.
It began with coughing, then wheezing, then, suddenly, she had difficulty breathing. She would hold the sofa to stand up on her little legs, take a deep breath and then another one, struggling for air. Maman spent days at the doctor's office, eating crackers for lunch and praying with her rosary. When they decided to rush Camille to the hospital, she called my father and tried to speak but lost her voice.
"La petite est malade," she managed to say. "They're saying it's pneumonia. It's bad."
It was too late to cure the damage that had been done to my sister's lungs. She died before seeing her second birthday, on a hospital bed, with her mouth open as she drew her last breath. Papa never said a word. The whole time, he sat in the hospital waiting room, his head down, staring at the floor. Somehow, I knew what he was thinking. I could hear thoughts whirring around in his head, thoughts of guilt, sadness, but especially, anger. He didn't talk to Maman once, and after we went home, took down the crib, folded up the clothes and boxed everything up, he loaded them into his car.
"Don't do this, I beg you!" Maman cried while he loaded the car. "Leave them here."
He drove away and returned empty handed. Since then, Maman was confined to her room and never got up from bed, except to talk to the trees from the balcony.
One afternoon, she woke up agitated, screaming and tearing at her nightgown.
"The blackberry tree is on fire, it's burning! It's burning. Get some water!"
I felt tears running down my cheeks as my father rushed her back to bed. He gave her a pill and minutes later she fell asleep, moaning and groaning for us to save the blackberry tree.
"Maman is crazy!" Pouchon said, rolling his cars on the tile floor and crashing them against the wall.
I was sitting on the sofa when he said it, crying, and in a moment of anger, I got up and kicked the car to the other side of the room, smashing it against the wall.
The first time my mother tried to kill my father, he was on the balcony, smoking a pipe while gazing at the endless undulation of mountains and pine trees that separated us from Port-au-Prince. He was wearing a red sweater over his shirt because in Kenscoff where we lived, in the peaks of Haiti, it was foggy and cold all the time. He still had his tie on. Papa never took it off immediately after work. He would come home, change out of his jacket, eat and stuff his pipe on the balcony. That was his meditation, his moment of zen, overlooking the fruit trees and cotton plants we grew in the wilderness of our sloped yard.
Maman came up behind him, disheveled and wide-eyed, her arms at her sides. I stood by the door and saw her hand, saw what she was clenching firmly, something shining in the afternoon light. I had a sense of what was happening, but somehow my body and mind froze as she approached my father. With one hand, she reached for his tie, brought it around in one swift move, and with the other, she plunged the blade of the knife in his side. My father's head jerked back, mouth wide agape, and he dropped his pipe before choking on the smoke and collapsing on his knees.
Maman was strong in her moments of insanity, her muscles flexing as she pulled on the brown silk of the tie. She sliced through my father's arms and back, and before me, the blood, the beautiful crimson color stained his white shirt like crushed hibiscus flowers. Papa's eyes bulged out of his head and he began to scream.
No one else was there, just us and the dogs out in the yard. The maids had gone home for the day, the sun was melting into the blue ocean in the horizon, and in the distance, women walked up a hill with fruit baskets atop their heads. They stopped when they heard his screams. Papa was now pale, if a Black man could get actually white in the face. His skin was ashy, his eyes rolling back in his head. I grabbed the edges of my dress and felt my blood turn to ice in my veins. I let out a scream.
"You're killing Papa! You're killing Papa. Stop!"
That's when Pouchon heard the commotion and ran out to the balcony. He stood by me and his mouth, always open, nearly dropped.
Maman turned and saw me, and she let go. Papa fell on the ground, coughing and gasping for air, and she stared at me as if she was seeing me for the first time. Her eyes were as wide as saucers, her eyebrows arched in surprise.
I was crying, wondering if she would turn around and try to kill us next, but she turned around and walked back to bed, moaning about her headache.
Papa was on the floor, still struggling to breathe. Pouchon snapped out of his dazed stupor and ran to my father. The blood was everywhere, sprawling across the terrazzo floor. Everything was red. Everything was wrong.
Papa didn't speak to us until he woke up from his sleep at the hospital. He held my hand in his and they were cold, and he searched for me in the dimness of the room. "Micheline, are you okay?"
"Is Pouchon okay?"
I nodded again. My face was caked with tears and salt, and I was terrified that through the door my mother would come in striding, brandishing a knife. I stayed at the hospital until my grandparents came for me.
"Your Papa needs to rest," Manmi Da said as she took me by the hand. "Pouchon is already waiting outside."
I turned to look at my father, lying in bed, ashen and dark. He attempted to smile. "Take care of your brother," he whispered as I exited the room.
In the car, Pouchon was asking a million questions. Behind his thick glasses, his eyes were animated. He smiled at me and I saw the odd shape of his teeth, and the space between them.
"Where are we going? Are we going home?"
"You're going to stay with us," Papi Da said. "Think of it as a little vacation."
My grandmother's eyes were wet with tears and she tried not to look at us. My grandfather said nothing, trying his best to avoid losing his temper with Pouchon as he bounced in the back seat and repeatedly wondered if we were "there yet." I looked out the window and saw trees, people, cars, and more trees unfurling, and I fell asleep with my forehead pressed against the glass, dreaming of blackberries.
I'm put on hold and I hear the Nun place the phone down. I tap my fingers on the table and I wait. I imagine it takes a while for her to actually reach my brother. He's in the arts and craft room and in the background I hear music, something classical with a piano and then violins. I imagine Pouchon sitting at a table with his tongue hanging out, his mouth open, dabbing a piece of construction paper with paint. I wonder if he's changed much, or if he looks the same. The nuns had always been nice enough in the beginning to mail me photos of him and letters he'd write me, but with time, the letters became rare, the photos scarce, even the phone conversations.
"It's really good for him to talk to you," the administrative nun said one time I called. "He needs to hear familiar voices."
"I've been terribly busy," I said, and it wasn't exactly a lie. I had just given birth to twin girls, and life had been incredibly different.
I tried putting the girls on the phone with him once, but they didn't say anything except a brief hello. They don't know him at all, and to them, their uncle is more of a myth, a person who exists only in stories, a goofball who breaks into silly dances that they can't even laugh at like I used to.
When he says hello, I realize how much his voice has matured.
"Michou? Oh! Comment vas-tu?"
He sounds excited, and now, he's a little boy again. He sounds like he's ten. I feel my stomach tighten.
"Pouchon, I'm calling with very bad news. It's about Maman."
There's a silence on the other line and I know he's waiting for me. Somehow, I can't speak. The words are stuck there, lodged in my throat. I try to picture him and close my eyes against the memory of him, dancing frantically around the room, his hips swinging right and left, his pudgy midsection drawing irregular circles. That's his dance, that's my brother's glory, and I see myself laughing at him, seated on the rug. Our parents are not there. They were never there. It's only us, together in a room where no one can see and we are children again. In the background, I hear laughter, coughs, people in this dimly lit room where they draw pictures and paint and cut away at their paper with plastic scissors.
"What's wrong?" he asks.
My mouth is open but I'm speechless. I'm still tapping my fingernails against the wooden table where my girls have left their dolls and crayons.
"Michou, are you there?"
I cover my mouth so he won't know I've combusted into flames, that I'm crying and tears are rolling down my face.
"I'm here," I manage to say, clutching the phone. "I'm here... What were you doing?"
"I was coloring..."
I take a deep breath and try to wipe my tears away.
"Coloring what?" I ask.
"A rabbit. I made him gray, but they didn't have gray crayons so I made him white first and then black, and it came out gray. Do you want to see it? I can send it to you..."
"You don't have to," I say, biting my lip and wiping tears away. "I'm coming to see you."
"Yes... I'm coming."
I wait for him to ask me questions, to ask me when, to ask me what's wrong, but instead, I hear a strange rustle, a breath into the phone.
"Allo?" I say.
"Are you still there?"
I hear a woman's voice. It's the nun, and I frown.
"Yes, what's going on?" I ask.
"Nothing," she says, laughing into the phone. "He's dancing."
Fabienne Sylvia Josaphat is working on her MFA at Florida International University. She has published a novel, Requiem pour Anaise, in France in 2002. Her short stories have been featured in the Caribbean Writer and MiamiArtZine.