national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2011

Sans Maman

Phoebe Rusch  • 
Princeton University

I am in Mme Guillaume’s class. She’s talking about Papa Dessalines and how he tore the white out of the French flag to make our flag and cut off the heads of white people who made us slaves. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but I’m too afraid to raise my hand and say anything because everyone gets so excited when they talk about Papa Dessalines. Mommy always says that I’m a thoughtful girl, that I see what is really there. She also tells me to keep my mouth shut and stay out of people’s way.

Then I’m outside, on my knees in the dusty schoolyard, and I can’t breathe, and everyone is screaming, and I realize I am too, and I can’t see anything because the air is white like a cloud, and then my friend Blessing comes out of the cloud and her face is white like a ghost’s and blood is running down her cheek and I wonder if it’s real and she falls into my arms.

Then I’m sitting on a mattress in the park with Tantine Emilie and my cousins. There are hundreds of people in the park. They are singing, praying, weeping, drinking rum. Candles waver in the night. A man attached to an IV machine stands up to take a piss. His bum shows through his hospital gown. Tantine Emilie doesn’t even notice. “Jezi,” she keeps murmuring, her head in her hands. “Jezi. Jezi.” The National Palace is missing its roof. I didn’t think that could happen.

I don’t remember what happens in between.

 

Tonton Joseph is under the house with Mommy. His right leg sticks out like the bad witch in The Wizard of Oz. Below his too-short pants leg you can see the little black caterpillars of his leg hair and his white socks and his good leather shoes that he always keeps polished to a high shine, now dull with dust. People point and stare. White people with cameras pay men from the neighborhood to show them Tonton Joseph’s right leg so they can take pictures. They are wondering, What can Tonton Joseph’s right leg do for me?

Tantine Emilie clutches their arms, her eyes bulging. They shrug her off. They are frightened of her.

“I’m just a journalist,” they say. “I’m just here to write about the earthquake. I’ll try to get you help.”

The bodies in the street are being wrapped up like mummies and carried away. They look like insects, on their backs, limbs frozen in the air. People smear toothpaste under their noses or put masks over their faces so they don’t breathe in the rotting-fruit smell. Two boys pass by, carting rubble in a wheelbarrow. Several houses away, their father is trying to dig his wife out with his bare hands. His arms are bleeding.

My little cousin Sandra won’t stop crying. Tantine Emilie wipes sweat from her forehead. We have been here, perched on the ruin of our house, all day. Occasionally we hear shouts of joy—someone has received a text message from Celestine, trapped under Caribbean Market! Someone has heard—or thinks she has heard—her grandma moan from under the rubble! But from Mommy and Tonton Joseph there has been only silence.

A U.N. van idles down the street by what was once the grocery store. My cousin Watson runs after them. “Hey!” he yells. “Hey, we need help! My father is trapped! Hey, you! You!” The van drives off. Watson throws a rock at its rear window, but misses.

When all the people under a house are dead, the Americans spray paint a red X on the rubble. There is no X on my house, which means that Mommy has only lost consciousness. In the hospital they will put tubes in her and give her water and she will wake up.

 

Mommy works for the Duponts. Mesye Dupont is very handsome. He lets me come to his house and once he let me watch The Wizard of Oz with his daughters until Mme Dupont came home and he apologized, it was time for dinner, no more movies for tonight please but you are a sweet girl here is a piece of candy for you.

I waited outside while Mommy finished cleaning dishes. I saved the candy to show her. She turned red like her face was on fire. Did Mme Dupont see this? She put the candy in her pocket and told me not to play with those children; I need this job so you can eat and go to school.

I don’t like Mme Dupont. She has soft flowy hair like a shampoo commercial and long red fingernails. Mommy doesn’t have enough money for fingernail polish. Her skin is darker than mine, darker than the Duponts’. Her hair is frizzy and her hands are rough like a man’s. When I look at Mommy’s hands, I feel sadness and love at the same time.

Mme Dupont does not approve of my playing with her daughters. This is what Mommy told me. But Mesye Dupont is very kind. He doesn’t wrinkle his nose when speaking to Mommy.

 

I ask Tantine Emilie where the Duponts are, if they are under their house. If not maybe they will help us talk to the Americans in orange vests, the ones with the red spray paint. If not maybe we won’t have to stay in the park.

“Nobody help you,” Watson says. He stops playing games on his Digicel, stretches out on his mattress, looks at me through one eye. “Sans maman.”

“Stop it,” says Tantine Emilie. “She’s your family.”

Watson shrugs and goes back to his Digicel. I wish Mommy would buy me a cell phone. She says it is a waste of money.

That night rain comes in through a hole in the tarp. Emilie gives us plastic bags to hold over our heads while she goes to ask her friends with the big white American tent if we can stay with them. Watson holds his bag over his phone. It is the one nice thing he has ever owned. Sandra stands on top of a chair.

The air smells like a toilet. Mud runs by my feet, thick with garbage, orange peel, goat skin, poop. I start to cry.

“Baby.”

I don’t like Watson. He’s mean.

 

I am not a sans maman. A sans maman is a nobody. A sans maman is dirty. A sans maman is like the one-eyed dog that wanders around the park. Part of its head is missing. Where its head got crushed, there is a yellow lump with flies buzzing around. The dog whines and paws at the dirt. People throw things at it to get it away. Sometimes sans mamans are rich though. They walk around in Adidas tracksuits and when they smile your mommy grips your hand tight so you know not to look them in the eyes. I wonder how they wear such nice shoes when they have no parents to keep them clean.

I have two pairs of shoes and one nice dress to wear to church. It is white with a pink bow. I’m not allowed to wear it except on Sundays.

 

It’s a long walk to the Duponts’ house in Petionville. I pass the iron workers and painters selling their work by the side of the road in Bourdon. All the houses have slid down into the ravine like an avalanche I saw on the Duponts’ TV. A man is following me. He’s wearing jeans and flip-flops and sunglasses but no shirt. He looks young but hes’weeping like an old beggar, or maybe laughing. I can’t tell which. I think he’s lost his mind. I walk faster.

Near Place Boyer I see a boy in his underpants holding a bucket to a burst water main. A pretty blonde woman approaches him. Her yellow hair is tied back. She is wearing a plain gray blouse and shorts the color of dirt. I don’t understand why the white people don’t dress nicely when they have so much money.

“Where are your parents?” she asks in French.

The boy stares at her blankly. She repeats the question.

“At home,” he says.

“What are you doing here?”

“Getting water.”

“Isn’t it dangerous for you to be wandering around the city like this?”

The lunatic, standing a few paces behind me, starts to laugh more loudly. The pretty white woman purses her lips.

“Your parents really should keep you under better supervision,” she says to the boy.

“Hey blan!” the lunatic calls. She does not look at him. “Blan! Blan! Hey you, I’m talking to you. I want to tell you something.”

Neither the lady nor the boy look toward him. He grabs me by the shoulder and grins, revealing a missing tooth. “It’s the end of the world,” he whispers. His breath is hot and foul in my ear.

I take off running.

 

The Duponts’ house is behind a wall of concrete. Shards of broken glass and coils of razor wire sparkle in the sun. The front gate is padlocked shut. The house isn’t damaged except for where part of the garage roof caved in. Mesye Dupont’s red convertible isn’t in the driveway.

I shake the iron gate and yell, “Mesye Dupont! Mesye! Mesye!” until my throat is raw, and I realize, suddenly, that the Duponts have left.

I remember Mesye Dupont looking over my math homework when no one was there to see and laughing with delight when I solved the problems quickly on my own. I remember him telling me, you are the smartest little girl I know. I remember him kissing the top of my head as if I were his own.

The Duponts are in Florida, or Paris. The girls are watching cartoons and eating cereal. Mme Dupont’s face is covered in green paste and her pedicure is drying. Mesye Dupont is reading the paper, perhaps absentmindedly patting Celestine or Margot’s hair.

Watson’s voice rings in my head. Dummy. Don’t you understand anything, dummy?

 

Today, instead of sitting outside the house and keeping Mommy company, I wait for cars to pass by the road so I can wipe their windows and maybe somebody pays me. Usually they don’t. If they’re Haitian they ignore me and if they are blan they look sad or they yell, “JESUS CHRIST KID WHAT ARE YOU DOING OUT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET YOU’RE GONNA GET RUN OVER!” I shrug. Across the water, where they come from, children don’t have to work. They go to school to learn about multiplication tables and Christopher Columbus. My school fell down.

I make a whole dollar. Watson tries to snatch it from me but Tantine Emilie sees and smacks the side of his head. We eat rice from the U.N. trucks and plantains for dinner. Watson drinks Barbancourt from a dirty glass bottle, the Coca Cola label worn off into sticky grayness. A few leftover slivers of plantain swim in brown oil on the edge of the pan. Tantine Emilie scoops them on to my plate and smiles.

“You look hungry, cheri.”

Watson exclaims, scowling. “Is she your daughter now?”

He pours more rum down his throat, the ball in his neck bobbing. Sandra begins to cry. She raises her little arms up in the air and Emilie picks her up, humming as if she were six months old. Sandra is three. I think it’s strange that she behaves like such a baby.

“Michelle,” Tantine Emilie says. “From now on, I’m really going to need your help. I’m going to need you to go to work everyday.”

Blan,” Watson whines, rubbing his belly. “Blan, mwen grangou. Blan, give me money please.”

“Hush!” Emilie looks like she is about to start crying. I have never seen Tantine Emilie cry.

“But what about school?” I protest. “Mommy works so I can go to school.”

“She’s dead,” Emilie says. “So is Joseph. The rescue squads pulled them out today.”

I look at Watson to see if she’s lying. He doesn’t smirk or wink at me. He just scowls at the pieces of Styrofoam washed in by the rain.

 

I see the same pretty blonde woman wandering around the park two days later in her ugly plain brown clothes, asking people questions. It’s dangerous for her to be wandering around without supervision, I think, but I don’t tell her this. I go to stand in the road and wipe windows.

When I get back to my family that night, the blonde woman is sitting in our chair, talking to Tantine Emilie. They see me and freeze. Tantine Emilie smiles unnaturally wide.

“Michelle,” she says, “how would you like to go live in Washingtown?”

“Washington,” the blonde woman says. “In America.”

“Yes,” Tantine Emilie says. “America. Would you like that?”

“I am from Iowa,” the woman says. “In the United States. My church helps children like you to find American families to live with, so you can have a better life.”

Watson won’t look at me. I wonder what he is feeling. Jealousy? Or is he happy to be rid of me, happy I am being given away?

“I made two dollars today,” I say.

Tantine Emilie’s smile dims for a second, as if she is confused, then returns. She holds out her hand for the money.

 

On the bus to the Dominican Republic we sing songs and clap our hands with the missionaries. I am sitting next to Sasha, the woman from Iowa. Her shoulders are freckled and brown. I wonder why she would want to stay out in the sun when she’s so pretty. Her face is milk-colored. She smells nice, like crushed flowers.

I’m tired, too tired to sing songs. A man burned red, his nose and forehead peeling, has been taking pictures of us all day. “Smile,” he says. “You’re going to America!” The little girl sitting across from me cheers, the muscles in her throat straining so they look like chicken bones. She smells like poop. The cut on her shoulder is yellow like the stray dog’s crushed head. She scares me. She is probably one of those children from Cite Soleil, the ones who lick trash out of the dumpsters to keep from starving, the ones my mother told me never ever to even look at.

I bury my head in Sasha’s shoulder. She lets me lie in her lap, running her fingers through my hair. In my dreams Sasha is married to Mesye Dupont. We go to the movies and drink Coca Cola. It is very pretty in Iowa. There are a lot of trees and no garbage anywhere.

 

I hear police sirens. A cop car pulls up to our house in Iowa. Mommy falls out of the backseat onto the sidewalk, screaming for help. Both her arms are bloody stumps. The police drive away.

Sasha pushes me off her lap. “Sweetie!” she says. “Sweetie, I need you to wake up, okay?”

A fat man boards the bus and yells at the photographer man in Spanish. I don’t know what he is saying. Flashing lights surround us. I can see the Dominican policemen with their large black guns through the window. The girl next to me, the one who smells like poop, begins to cry.

“What’s going on?” I ask Sasha.

“I don’t know, sweetie, I don’t know.”

The fat policeman pulls the photographer out of his seat. The photographer tries to break free and the policeman clubs him over the head, twice. He goes limp and the cop drags him out of the bus. The other policemen are hassling children and missionaries, making them get out of their seats. A little boy screams and bites a cop’s forearm, like a feral dog.

“Everybody stay calm!” Sasha says. “Stay calm and everything will be alright!” She grabs my hand and leads me into the aisle.

Outside, a cop asks me questions in badly spoken French.

“How old are you?”

“Eleven.”

“Do you know who these people are?”

“They’re from a church in Iowa. They’re taking us to Washingtown.”

“No, they’re taking you to Santo Domingo, illegally. Did they ask for any sort of paperwork when they took you?”

“Paperwork?”

The girl, the one who smells bad, is hiding under the bus. Her eyes gleam like a cat’s in the dark. She puts a finger to her lips.

“Legal documents, you know, paperwork?”

“I am going to Washingtown, in America. The nice lady from Iowa said so. She said she would find me a family.”

“Where is your family? In Port-au-Prince?”

“My mother is dead. I don’t know my father.”

The girl starts running, swerving through the dry, stunted shrubs, toward the dark shape of the tree-covered hills.

“Do you have any other family? Anyone we can contact?” the policeman asks. He has me cornered by his car. There is no way for me to get a head start on him.

The fat man chases the girl for a few yards, yelling, then gives up, letting his arms drop to his sides, winded by the effort. There’s no point. Like me, she has nowhere to go. Her small figure is swallowed up by the forest, is gone, and I wish I could escape with her, wish I could have one person in this world to call my own.