Stillness in the mountains, in the way the mist clings, eternal, like suspended cobwebs on the prickly pine needles and limbs of green guavas, in the way the mountains curve like the rolling hips of the women hiking red dirt clearings far away. They’re balancing bread in baskets atop their tightly turbaned hair. Time, here, is crystallized against the mountains around my friends’ house. The stillness is abruptly broken, first by their adhan, a call and response weaving a song, their song a prayer, their prayer a call to persist, persistence to desire a right to live, to exist in the flesh among the fertile minarets of Haiti.
From the balcony, we watch this world stretch wide like a vintage post card of the days before we were broken by putsches and pillage, before we learned to turn our rage inward.
Stillness, first broken by song, now splinters like desiccated bamboo. The crack is irreversible. The clouds huddle overhead as frightened ewes in the approaching storm, but it does not rain. It’s just the sky bracing itself to cry over Port-au-Prince, as bullets crack the afternoon down its middle.
I hide behind the pillars of my father’s legs and plug my ears with my fingers. I’m thankful and aware, perhaps for the first time, for his height, finding reassurance in his stillness. He is unmoved and unimpressed. He is a mountain, too, arms folded on his chest. Next to him, his friend adjusts the butt of a rifle against his daughter’s shoulder and teaches her to aim, to seek out the peak of pines through the rear and front sights, to target the imaginary enemy who isn’t yet at their door. It’s only a matter of time, he says, showing her how to wrap that finger around the trigger, and pull.
“This is a necessity,” he says to my father. Foolish is the man who cannot provide safety for daughters and mothers in a country where men have morphed into wild dogs. They rape and hate and teach submissiveness, he says. They force the husband to watch as they take his wife, and force the father to rape his daughter and force the mother to watch, and the violence is now a flash flood rushing through our veins. Blood, blood in our eyes and blood in our mouths and blood on our hands, ready, aim, shoot, and try again.
The girl pulls the trigger. She is my age, and she wears a dress hemmed above the knee, and I can see her brown legs tensing with each blow of the gun, like chords on a violin before they snap. It’s only a matter of time before they come for you, or me, her father says. My father is still a mountain, unimpressed, deciphering for himself the silence of mountains around us.
I imagine what blood tastes like in the mouth when a bullet hits the flesh. I think it tastes like a shrapnel explosion would, like cold iron or peppered gunpowder. The clouds close in, thick layers of cotton dripping a milky, misty film over peaks, swallowing the songs of women.
He has four daughters in these mountains, and my father has just one in the plains.
We meet here on occasional Sundays to measure and compare the effectiveness of fathers.
Other families have both parents to shield them in the midnight hour when the werewolves come bursting through doors to feed. Violence now becomes a need, and we are teaching each other self-defense by arming babies.
It used to be that what we feared bumped in the shadows: hairy tarantulas, vicious centipedes, or the blind collision of bats in the night hunting for fruit, tossing almonds and custard apples against our windows. It used to be that we turned our clothes inside out or smoked our pipes upside down to ward off evil spirits, night walkers, zobop and chanpwèl and loup-garou roaming the dark, reaping innocent souls. We used to fear the unknown, the impenetrable mystery carried through the Middle Passage, woven in the cavernous hold of the Negrier ships, hauled through the oceans from coastal beaches of Benin, or the Congo.
Fear, for a while, was killing mothers by licking a table knife, or pointing to an owl at night, or letting a black butterfly flutter close. Fear was dying of a coup de poudre and living death to be zombified.
Haitians now fear two things in this world, they say: rain drops, and bullets. When they feel or hear both, they disperse and disappear, ducking for shelter.
Now, fear inhabits us during the day and at the onset of night. Now, each man, and woman, and child, learns to survive the edge of machetes and the fatal blow of machine guns, which seem to abound more than magic. Now, fear is sending a child to school with nothing for food but a rock of salt under the tongue for sustenance, or a glass of sugared water for breakfast. Fear is a rubber necklace that begins to melt into the skin when a tire holds a man’s arms in place and he is set on fire. Fear is the silence on the radio after the voice of the journalist has been silenced with bullets. Fear is the knocking on the metal gate. Fear is a man in uniform entering the house, asking to use the telephone. Fear is the men in khaki driving past homes, eyes hidden behind dark glasses.
I devise to hide under the bed, as if bullets cannot pierce my mattress. I devise to crawl inside the armoire, as if men with machetes cannot smash through mahogany and reap the limbs they came for. Violence is already in my house, in the way fear possesses my father at the thought of the task to raise children alone. There is no sleep tonight, or tomorrow, or any other night, for a long, long time, a never-ending time, for as long as those wolves persist in the dark.
On the way home, driving from the mountains, my father clutches the wheel and veers left, then right, to avoid the ghosts roaming the road. They walk through dusk as zombies do, fighting the density of the city, blending in with the darkness, barely grazing each other, arms wrapped around buckets of glorious gladiolas and sunflowers, around strings of leather masks and clusters of feathered hens and cocks. They pack the remnants of their day as the clouds descend lower onto the needling domes of cathedrals and fences, their midst opening a wide mouth to swallow them whole.
Night falls on Port-au-Prince at its own pace, yielding them with time for the final offerings of oranges and avocados, the fear of the dark already twining in their eyes. We’re all afraid of the same monsters, I think. But I wonder if we—my father and I—aren’t more susceptible, behind our oak doors, beneath our blanketed beds, inside our acacia armoires, than they are within the four walls of their slum villages, and somehow I manage to resent the world for that cold critter crawling up my esophagus as we arrive home and lock our gates.
There will be no sleep tonight, nor tomorrow, nor any other night, as long as fathers teach daughters to shoot, as long as my father teaches me to feel safe and still as he, in the dark, unpacks his own secret weapons and slips a pistol under his pillow.