Wednesday, February 2, 2011
the sunday code
Memoir : chapter 2
THREE YEARS EARLIER, Port au Prince, Haiti 1948
Silverware chattered on china. Everything was white, imported and fine, and all observations were made at hand level. Ten small hands did their own communicating, as the rule was not to speak unless spoken to. The linen tablecloth covered the long table, as to even keep the table discrete. It was an innocent sheltered world and strict manners were adhered to with love and respect. Eight large hands did all the waving and talking- sometimes in a language the young Lacombe sisters didn’t understand. They knew it was English, but it was like a murmur from another world, and it had no semblance to the French they spoke, if they were allowed to speak at all. This other language was so brutal, so alien, and spoken to keep certain things private. Things like the war. So they sat in their handmade dresses and cylindrical curls wondering what the adults were talking about- keeping their small ears small.
No servant’s bells were to be heard. Always present, Elosia and the rest of the household staff were somehow part of the family. Each day at midday was the main three course meal. Sometimes it was a Creole dish but normally the cuisine was international and always well planned in advance. Sius was the butler and his gentleness carried into everything he did, rotating around the large table, letting each person serve of the heavy silver platter he held before them. Clicks and clacks of silverware on china mimicked the clicks of his steps on the gallery floor. Their first course was curried beef kidney and charred plantains. Without exception, every last bite had to be eaten. The main meal was fresh chicken, slaughtered in the yard that morning, served with eggplant. And the eggplant was reason enough to bring the youngest daughter, Sabine, into crocodile tears and hysterics. She despised that strange vegetable, and wished it were sliced egg with watercress, like yesterday.
“It itches! It itches!” Sabine cried. The eggplant was falling out of her six year old mouth. Everyone looked on; the young eyes with compassion, and the adult eyes with severity.
“You are going to eat it! Stop your foolery and eat!” Anne scolded. Her flickering red hair matched her fiery disposition, the mother of five with military standards. Each little curl was a flame of dignity, of pride, and she would have nothing less than impeccable manners from her daughters. And each red lock stood still, stood firm, like her red lips that didn’t budge once the orders were given. But her heart warmed over her children like the blooming roses in the archway. Her red fingernail waved towards Sabine, and that was enough to keep a slap away. She often put up a scene at the table, but when it came to eggplant- well eggplant just couldn’t go down her throat, how it itched worse than mosquito bites. A couple more threats of punishment and she swallowed past her tears, down her monster grimace, and down her little throat.
The last dish was always, without exception, rice with red beans. Traditionally on Sunday, the rice was cooked together with the beans making sticky, colored rice. In spite of repetition, everyone loved the last dish- it was familiar and binding, filling each person of the small portions. Rituals and discipline revolved around this table. A stark contrast ranged from those sitting to those standing, but no matter, there was a certain security and bond between them.
Chantal was always seated at the foot of the table between Aunt Mariette and her sister Juliane. Juliane was the oldest, tallest and by default, most eloquent. She was the first to be educated and first in stature. Muted in her world, not understanding the language spoken, Chantal sits and observes the mumbles of the room.
She had just finished her water and Sius came to replenish her goblet. He was always so attentive, warm like a flame, and looked after the girls like a sheep dog in the night. He versed water into her glass, a glass cut in fine facets- always worth looking at, especially when it reflected the sunlight from the tall gallery windows and baccarat chandeliers. Sius was clad neck to toe in bright white and between his gloves and cuffs was a peep of skin. It was as if his white clothes had been hiding a secret. The pop of that small black wrist caught her eyes and they fluted in jumbled noise and secrets, bringing her someplace else. She left the protection of the white linen and rules and flew into her memory of forbidden darkness. She again looked into the box at carnival, the dead bird no longer singing, laying in shadow, in voodoo, with its crimped dead feet. Big dirty hands held the lid of the box and slammed it shut, with a stripe of dust moving down his veins. The box man jumped in her green eyes with encouraging evil, and he’d jump in her imagination as tokens of fear. She recalled the people dancing like they were on fire, their hair tossing, as if to get rid of something painful, and how these people patted dust over themselves in furious demonstrations. They truly looked like ghosts. Or were these the zombies she would sometimes overhear the gardener and local fruit peddler talking about? She wondered if these ghosts disappeared in the dark, and maybe it was that powder that kept them visible. She wondered if they were in her room at night, hiding in plain sight. She wanted to tuck her eyes in the soft of her arm and dream her fear away.
She remembered the ride after school last Tuesday, shuffled in the car with her four sisters. Ribbons and lace and shiny shoes. The chauffer drove a 1942 Dodge, beige with a cherry wood dashboard, beige leather seats, and a distinctive motor that comforted their ears when they heard him approach. The doors made a solid clang once they filed in as if there was no mistake- they were in their safety zone. Again, like everyday, their white shoes tapped on the car floor, in the impatience of 5:00 PM to return home from a long school day. But this day was different. Their innocent faces asked Lucien to take them to carnival- a little detour from home. Their burning curiosity to see Mardi Gras was almost pathetic.
“Luthien, please take uth!” Martine pleaded in her adored lisp.
“No way missy! You best know I’ve been here chauffer for your mami and papi since my first drivin’ days. Ain’t no way I’m takin’ you girls to where yous don’t belong.” Lucien insisted.
“But its carnival! And you told us last year that when Juliane got old enough……and she’s now finally a teenager…….” Morgane persisted, her green eyes piercing his rear view mirror.
“Yeth, thath right!” Martine adds.
“Five lil’ flowers don’t belong on that dark side over there! I’m takin’ yous straight from school back home like any otha day!” Lucien kept a straight face and straight respect.
“OK. We’ll go home, but can’t we just driiiive by and seeeee the carvival?” Chantal was plotting her strategy.
“Yeah! We’ll take the long way home!” Sabine cried out. She was Chantal’s closest sister and younger by two years.
“Pfff!! Yous a gonna get me kicked right outta this here job!”
A series of “no”s echoed the car.
“No, oh no! We’ll never tell. We would be the ones getting in trouble if our parents found out, so it’s a secret! We’ll protect you.” Morgane was the bully of the bunch and had a way of getting what she wanted.
“Tho then, can we go?” Martine asked. Her blonde curls bobbing in curiosity.
“No harm done and we’ll be back in time for supper….. Please, Lucien, just this one time?” Juliane asked calmly.
The five sisters pleaded with the driver, pleading, pleading, pleading, until he was crushed by beauty and charm. It was Mardi Gras and, though strictly forbidden, he drove them through mysterious Croix-Bosal. He slowed, close to stopping: brake, release, brake, release, brake…the car danced and the girls giggled and jiggled. Living cadavers walked up to the car, some with painted faces, all with ominous glares, all too close. There was insanity and envy looking inside the car, trying to get in. In a flush of fear, clenching butt cheeks and open eyes, they pressed Lucien to move on. Passing through the streets on the way to Champs de Mars, there were floats bumping like larger-than-life piñatas. Each banana boat represented a different country. The Americans had a huge Coke bottle with lights and a waving queen atop adorned with bottle cap diamonds. France had a grandiose red, white and blue beret with cancan girls in endless skirts dancing around the tip. Spain had a bright green bull with big balls- a queen sitting on each horn, raising their staffs towards the crowd. The jewels were glaring, the music was thumping the lights were intoxicating; it was like a fairytale. Arriving at the heart of carnival, Lucien parked, and to their surprise he gave a warm smile and opened the car door for the sisters. He led them through the masses to a man with secret boxes. On the peripherals, everything was colorful and distracting, wild movements and dance were catching all corners. Everything was dirty and allowed to be dirty. Ten buffed white shoes clicked along and couldn’t have been more out of place. After paying the man a couple of centimes to see inside the box, their anticipation fluttered. Sometimes it was a doll, intact or mutilated with pins. Sometimes it was a headless bird. Or a dead mouse. They knew they shouldn’t have been there. If Mamichon found out, it would be a standing line of whacks to their bottoms….
A rush of water versed into her glass. Catching the sun, the long stream of water mimics the chandeliers. “Merci”, Chantal whispered. The gloved hand retracts with the silver pitcher and continues to orbit around the table. The sound of ice pouring into the crystal goblets rings further and further away.
None of the children knew they were in paradise. The five sisters lived in the simplicity of tropical seclusion. Of French and German descent, the elders cherished their good fortune to be settled here- in the jewel of the Antilles. It was 1948 and they made it a point to let the children be children in this war filled world. That included keeping them ignorant of politics.
Lunch was as usual; the five girls sat in respectful silence as the adults cackled in conversation above and around them. On occasion, the elders would break into confidential conversations in English.
“There were two more shootings today. It’s getting worse.” Silvere said. The girls called their father Papichon and always felt comfortable around his calm voice.
“Well, what do you want us to do? This is our home. We’re not going to just abandon everything like the Morceau’s did." Anne retorted. She was as fiery as her red hair and seemed to wear the pants in the house. In fact, she sometimes did wear pants, which was highly unusual.
“No darling”, Silvere whispered, with restful eyes and demeanor, “We have our angels looking over us. We’ll be fine.” He always had peaceful movements and a peaceful voice. There was something even assuring about his constant white clothes.
Anne's bright fingernail poked the air and in a loud laugh she said, “That is correct! The fox doesn’t leave its den unprotected!”
The girls listened to the murmur, wordlessly, in particular boredom. With all the movement at her eye level, Chantal watched Aunt Mariette’s familiar wrists: pudgy and firm, squeezed by a tight bracelet, reaching for her melon spoon. Fruit was the common dessert. It was usually melon, guava, fig or mango. Sometimes banana flambé. She wondered what fruit Aunt Mariette’s wrists most resembled. Papaya.
As any other Sunday, Mémé was over to see her grandchildren. Austere with grey features, she was a looming cloud over her seven children. Never cracking a smile, at least her pearls seemed to make teeth, at least they resembled a smile. And she stood up in her black dress, her haunches touching the table linens, “Take a walk with me?” she asked Chantal. It was like a code. The Sunday code. And she did a sort of wiggle with her neck, almost too quick to see.
In her shy and dreaded response, Chantal peeped, “Of course.”
Without fail Mémé singled her out every Sunday to take her ritual walk in the courtyard. Pure punishment! Taking her by the arm, she’d interlock and take Chantal for a long stroll of Hail Marys and Our Fathers all the way down the beads of the rosary until the final marathon prayer. That strong elbow was a reminder of how much she wanted to play with Sabine in their huge dollhouse. Mémé prayed out loud, slowly walking through the gardens, past big prickly rosebushes and hanging bougainvilleas, back up and around the pebbled walkway. All along, Chantal was wondering when this was going to end so she could get to the life-sized dollhouse her parents had built for her and her sisters. It had a kitchen with small dishes, chairs and a table, a crib for the dolls, miniature wooden doors and glass windows. She had tiny glass baby bottles and spoons. She and Sabine would mix water and white shoe polish to look like milk and put it in the doll’s rubber mouths. The fun was squeezing the dolls so they’d pee the milk out to their diapers. With her forearm in tow, they walked up the steps and under the archway. “In the name of the Father...” The magic words. Its over!
As soon as Mémé turned to walk back inside, Chantal dashed to the end of the yard, making sure Mémé couldn’t see her repugnant escape. She watched her muscular ankles disappear, then joined Sabine in the dirt and made potions and mud pies for the rest of the afternoon.