They arrived together, a pair of butterflies with green and yellow wings, dappled and tremulous. They landed here and there on the hibiscus blooms surrounding the pool, and the youth marveled at their casual grace.
His palms itched with the urge to paint. He yearned to take up the brushes hidden in the back of his closet, away from the scornful, jeering faces of his friends and the scathing comments of his father, who would much rather have seen him wielding an architect’s triangle and drawing sketches of shopping centers, in the tradition of the architectural engineers whose youngest descendant he was.
In his mind he visualized the colors he’d use, the forms he’d create, all the beauty and fragility of a composition that would bring the canvas to life. He was seized by the impulse to go into his bedroom and sit at the table with his painting materials spread out before him; perhaps then he would feel less downcast, less useless, less lonely. He hadn’t touched his brushes in the three months since his father had called him an ingrate for daring to say that there were other paths in life than being an architectural engineer.
Yes, it was time for him to follow his dreams and to quit trying so hard to please others. But first he would stop by the kitchen to grab a few of the cheese biscuits that Josette always left sitting on the counter
She was hungry, again. It seemed to her that the emptiness would never go away. A few slices of bread in the morning weren’t nearly enough to sustain her until lunchtime. And yet God knows the serving was large, and the generous slatherings of peanut butter made it even heartier. Nor did the cook stint on the coffee or sugar. Even so, she was constantly hungry, no doubt because her nourishment depended on someone else, it had to be given to her, the domestics had to wait for their meals until after the masters of the house and the children had been served. That’s just how it was. Complaining about it would change nothing. It was the natural order. Besides, she was paid fairly well and had a regular day off, a decent room where she could stretch out in the evening, and two weeks’ vacation every summer.
Her employers were upright people, not malicious, sometimes aloof like so many others, they looked at you without seeing you. It wasn’t their fault that they had tons of money, or that what they spent at the Caribbean Supermarket in a week almost equaled her monthly salary. She didn’t grumble, but still she never managed to get her fill. Even when she tried not to think about food, her mind was haunted by aromas of smoked herring with rice, visions of roasted yams, and images of vegetables simmering in a spicy sauce. As a child, she’d had to fight with her siblings for a share of the food. There were five kids in the family, plus two orphan cousins taken in by her mother. The oldest ones always positioned themselves to grab the choicest morsels for themselves, the biggest servings. Younger and puny, she would often end up with her eyes wet, her nose running, her plate only half-full.
She had finished the laundry. Tomorrow she would have to tackle the ironing, the children’s jerseys—both kids attended the American school like most others in this well-off neighborhood—followed by Monsieur’s shirts, except for those that didn’t need pressing, and then Madame’s innumerable cotton skirts, which made up an essential part of her practical and casual look. One day she had noticed the price tag inadvertently left on one of Madame’s white blouses. An absurd price, an unimaginable amount for that natural and simple elegance!
Once again hunger pangs knotted her guts. She could hardly wait for the evening’s supper, the little fried fish from the corner vendor and the cheering cup of ginger tea on the January evenings that were a little cooler than she liked. In the meantime, she’d go across the street to the neighbors’ house. Josette, their cook, always kept a pot of coffee hot, along with cheese biscuits and jam for the children. She offered her some whenever they met. Yes, she had time for a chat.
He didn’t understand why the walls of the dining room seemed to be swaying before his eyes. Standing motionless halfway between the front hall and the kitchen, he watched the paintings crash to the floor and an entire wall erupt in cracks. How much time passed before he thought of taking shelter? Where? How? The sound of voices reached him from the kitchen, a confusion of clattering, deafening movements. He dashed there, obeying the powerful instinct that drew him toward other humans in this universe where objects seemed to follow inscrutable laws and act in defiance of people.
In the kitchen, she was raising the coffee cup to her lips when the house began to tremble with such violence that the cup flew out of her hands and the scalding liquid spattered her feet. She didn’t have time to notice the pain. To her right, Josette murmured, “God is great,” before crumpling to the floor under a large, light-colored, wooden buffet that toppled over and landed with a crash.
The youth and the woman lunged toward the back door. She was closer to it, but he was younger and more agile, so they reached it simultaneously. Sections of wall, bricks, cinder blocks, fragments of the dishes that Grandma Yvette had brought back from Italy for his parents’ twenty-fifth anniversary, a left shoe—how had that ended up here?—so many obstacles were blocking their way. Fortunately, his younger brother wasn’t home, but where was he? And in what condition? Better not to think about it. A thick murk of dust obscured the space around him. “I have to get out of here,” he thought. He stretched out his hands and encountered a woman’s chest, a pair of breasts that were heaving, alive. The acrid smell of sweaty armpits reached him at the same time as the curious lemony scent of laundry detergent. It wasn’t Josette; he’d glimpsed her broken legs protruding from under his mother’s china cabinet on the tile floor of the kitchen. A familiar face, though, someone from the neighborhood. Yes, she worked across the street at the house of Michael and Sophia’s parents. So where was his mother? She’d been upstairs, doing her workout routine. Was there still a second floor? Don’t think about it. Again he touched the body of the woman beside him, long enough to confirm that she was very much alive. She pushed his hand away and let out a groan, more from irritation than from pain.
She had immediately recognized the son of the house, a scrawny little runt, always acting ill-at-ease and wearing clothes that seemed to have been chosen against his wishes. She could barely see him now in the tomblike darkness that surrounded them. The yellow ochre walls, the arched windows, the linen curtains—all these had disappeared. Where had the sun gone? She thought of her own five-year-old child, whom she had accidentally conceived at seventeen and who lived with her mother at Anse à Foleur. Would he be orphaned for good before the day ended? Was he alive? Her panic blunted her usual hunger and twisted her innards. She groaned reflexively, though she knew she had no broken bones. She wanted to stand up but realized she was pinned and only able to move her upper body.
How much time passed before his eyes adjusted to the darkness enough for him to see his surroundings and push aside objects and rubble, maneuver into a more comfortable position, make out the woman’s features, formulate a thought that wasn’t sheer terror? He had decided to strike out in a westerly direction, which by his reckoning had to lead to the back door. Since the collapse of the walls on the west side prevented him and the woman from standing upright, they worked from a crouched position, clearing away all kinds of debris: wooden shelves from a flattened closet, the shattered remnants of a ceramic countertop, shards of glass. His thirst disoriented him and he leaned briefly against the wall of what had been the kitchen. Visions of his brother and his mother brought tears to his eyes, but he quickly choked back his anguish. The woman, who kept muttering something incomprehensible, worked without let-up. At one point she told him in a categorical tone, “I have to find us something to eat!”
They sank into a rhythm of removal work interspersed with breaks of numb inertia. She had foraged almost everywhere and recovered cheese biscuits and cans of soda and fruit juice. He would often hear her munching, and he sensed something like exuberance in the noisy workings of her jaw. From time to time, after minutes or hours had passed, they would both slump to the floor. Quite spontaneously, he turned toward her. The woman’s breast moved closer and pressed against his torso. As he sensed its warm roundness, he forgot his exhaustion and fear. For the moment. Seconds later, they had both fallen asleep.
When he woke up, her back was turned away from him. With her sky-blue skirt wrapped around her legs, her curled-up body was a round splash of vivid color. He was astonished by the intensity of his desire. It was an uncontrollable urge, not like the lukewarm, unemotional attraction of his sexual experiments with a girl from school, punctuated by the whispered English words, “Fuck me please! Baby, oh baby, it’s so good!” Their encounters took place in deserted corridors, in his room while his parents were out, or at those parties where adolescents did whatever they wanted under subdued lighting, with the amused tolerance of the adults, who were convinced that this was chic since it was what sophisticated foreigners did.
He moved closer and placed his hand on one of her breasts, and immediately a powerful vibration arose somewhere deep inside him and gradually intensified as it spread through his body. The trembling was as gentle as the fluttering wings of the butterflies. Quite spontaneously, she slid under him and pulled up her skirt.
When they emerged from the ruins, three interminable days after the earthquake, into the pandemonium of reunions, grief, and horror, no one noticed that they were holding hands. She was the first to let go, and she walked away from him without a backward look.
January 27, 2010
© Evelyne Trouillot. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Paul Curtis Daw. All rights reserved.