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from the September 2021 issue

From I Am Alive

A wealthy Haitian family is thrown into chaos by an unexpected return in this excerpt from Kettly Mars's novel.

Grégoire knew that Alexandre would be coming home to live with them soon. He had a knack for this sort of thing. He had a knack for a lot of things, for as long as he could remember. He could've put money on it. But he never was a betting man. Everyone in the family trusted Grégoire’s intuition. Maybe the others thought about it too, sometimes––about Alexandre’s return––but in general, they spoke very little about Alexandre. Yet the idea of his return floated around in Grégoire’s head for a few months. So, in moments like these, he rationalized: “Under what improbable circumstances could Alexandre come home? For what unthinkable reason would he leave the Institution? How could they imagine the possibility of their brother’s presence in their midst?” This perspective was quite simply impossible. Alexandre had suffered from schizophrenia since adolescence and had lived inside the four walls of a psychiatric institution for more than forty years. What did they know about his life, about the voices that took away his reason and his speech, about the specters who, day after day, sealed his lips shut? How did he live in his own silent realm, on the very margins of life? What did he know about the wars throughout the world, about a Black man ascending to the rank of president of the United States of America, about the death of Michael Jackson? Did he know the name of the Pope in Rome, about gay marriage, about the internet and cell phones? He lived and breathed in the same city as they did, but their worlds had been separated for ages. The family no longer knew Alexandre, lost for so long in his illness. Forty years was hardly the same as forty days. There had been travels, studies, vacations, encounters, loves, marriages and divorces, births and deaths. There had been a whole life, a bundle of large and small moments that they hadn’t shared with Alexandre. The story of Alexandre was stuck in that golden afternoon, in that bizarrely tender moment when he left the shocked household with two nurses, stupefied by a shot of tranquilizer. Alexandre was an illness, an inconsolable regret, a tender but bitter memory, a veil not to be lifted. They preferred not to think about him nor speak of him. It was a way of avoiding the possibility of the impossible.

***

A fault line, to that point unknown to the island's geologists, ruptured on a Tuesday in January. January, that lovely time of the year, when the nights are cool and the stars appear like flecks of glass blown across the night sky. The houses on the Bernier family's property held up. No one died in their courtyard, thank God. The family could still communicate over the internet, and in the evening, the news exchanged hands between parents and friends in the rest of the world. But what of Alexandre? Grégoire tried without success to call the Institution. All of the telephone lines were blocked. Just like the city streets were blocked by monstrous traffic jams. The Institution called the following evening. Yes––everything was OK. The building had experienced a few jolts, but for the most part it managed to hold together––Alexandre had a few cuts and scrapes––a bookshelf had fallen––but nothing serious had happened. The head nurse spoke but Grégoire heard only a discordant echo, a subliminal message, the beginning of another story. The head nurse had nothing else to add, everything was fine. Grégoire sighed, but he couldn't tell whether it was a sigh of relief or of doubt.

***

The months went by. One October day, the media spoke of a few confirmed cases of cholera in the Artibonite River Valley, the river that runs through it and nourishes the fields and rice paddies of the Central Plateau like a flow of milk. The Artibonite isn’t just down the road. But the epidemic traveled quickly. And a few weeks later, when Grégoire saw the Institution's number appear on the screen of his cellphone, he felt that another earthquake was about to shake up their lives. The Institution only called once a month, on the last day of the month, to give brief updates on Alexandre. Always the same. He was in good health, he was generally fine apart from his cholesterol levels, which tended to be slightly elevated. It was the beginning of December. The Institution never called at the beginning of the month. Never. Grégoire listened to the words on the other end of the line, and he understood the meaning of every single word the medical director told him. This time the message was crystal clear, but he couldn't find meaning in what was said. Wracked with emotions, his brain refused to register the information he received. A slight tremor overtook his body, from head to toe, and tiny drops of sweat glistened on his forehead. At the end of the conversation he took a few minutes to steady his hands, then he called Marylène and Gabrielle, his two sisters, telling them to meet him at their mother Éliane's house that very afternoon. It was better to tell the old woman the news in person; with her heart condition, they had to be careful. He took his handkerchief out of his pocket and sponged his brow. Despite the shock of the news, Grégoire felt strangely relieved. The catastrophe had befallen him; he needn't wait for it any longer.

***

Forty-eight hours. They only had forty-eight hours to pick Alexandre up from the Institution. To bring him home forever. That much was clear, especially since there were no other private mental institutions in the capital, and the outdated public institutions were simply not an option. Given the current state of affairs in the country, one had to get creative and rely on solidarity in order to satisfy everyone's most basic needs. This new, unique, unexpected test required them to pool their energy and give their unadulterated attention to an emergency that touched them so profoundly. The medical director left no sense of doubt––the Institution was closing permanently. One of the boarders was sick with cholera and the Institution didn't have the means to handle a full-fledged outbreak within its walls; they had neither the space nor the personnel necessary to manage a quarantine. To make matters even worse, the medical director informed everyone that the earthquake had cracked the foundation of the old house, according to the recent evaluation performed by the specialized Hashimoto firm. For three months, the continuous aftershocks had weakened the structure and the residents were no longer safe. Soon, the Institution would need to be torn down. All of the boarders needed to leave and return to their families. Grégoire couldn't help but think spitefully that the aging medical director had finally found his golden opportunity to retire.


A few hundred yards from the Institution, the family could hear the muffled hum of the car engines and motorcycles that perpetually clogged the streets. Jackhammers and backhoes rumbled as well. In the refuge of Fleur-de-Chêne, it was hard to imagine all of those crumbling houses waiting to be destroyed, the mix of humans and machines. It was hard to imagine the many lives clustered together under tents in every nook and cranny of the city capable of accommodating makeshift shelters for displaced persons––people who would continue living like this for quite some time.


Livia finished serving coffee and was in no hurry to leave. She felt the intensity of the moment, the weight of the silences between each sentence. Something serious had happened to the Bernier family. She was sure of it. She had been with them through rough times like when one of Madame Gabrielle's twins was in a car accident, the kidnapping of Grégoire's second wife, Madame Béatrice, and even the death of Monsieur Francis, the head of the family, last year. But this time the reverberations came to the family in a different way. The danger had no name, not yet. The tiny metal spoons clanked against the insides of the hot china. They all drank their coffee, even Éliane, in spite of her blood pressure. They sat in the garden conversing in short and lively phrases, their tense little exchanges collided with one another. They looked at one another with disbelief lurking in their eyes. They still hadn't surmounted the invisible wall that stood before them. They evaluated it mentally. They skirted the issue at hand, superficially addressing it, asking each other about it, evoking it. They were at a loss. The day was the same as any other, a cool and bright December afternoon where the first breezes of the precocious evening caused the thick foliage of the old oaks to tremble in the courtyard. Grégoire was speaking, repeating the medical director's words as he ran his hands through his unkempt, graying hair. He cleared his throat before each sentence, as if he was trying to expel a cold. He did that when he was nervous. Marylène and Gabrielle listened to him attentively, glancing from time to time at the closed expression on Éliane's face. Sophia could not avert her eyes from Marylène's stare, all the while thinking that Grégoire really needed to go to the barber. Jules robotically smoothed the sharp crease in his black pants.

***

The old woman was shaken to the depths of her soul. At eighty-six years old, Éliane had to stand up and confront her own private nightmare. Her chest rose with greater effort than usual and her lips were stiff, a sign of great anxiety for her. Luckily her children were there, all around her. They were just as shaken, but they were present and attentive. Her children, who had not been children for quite some time. She glanced at Grégoire's graying temples, his protruding belly, his ever-escaping shirttails. She saw Sophia, Grégoire’s impeccably coiffed third wife, and the stretch marks in her cleavage, her straight lower body and generous upper body, with luscious lips, a nose with flared nostrils, and eyebrows that met in the middle. She observed Marylène's closely-cropped white hair, her eyes fringed with heavy lashes, her strong nose, her thick, stubborn, curled lips, her face without makeup. She didn’t look like anyone in the family except perhaps Irène, one of Francis's spinster aunts who died at the age of one hundred, lucid. With age, Marylène had gradually lost her feminine traits, her appearance mattered to her less and less, and she wore work clothes stained with paint practically all the time. It was quite possible that she did this on purpose to annoy everyone else. Old Éliane’s gaze lingered on Gabrielle's wild mane, the mass of hair she was so proud of, and on her square fingernails––her perfect manicure à la française. Marylène and Gabrielle were like night and day, two sisters as dissimilar as two sisters could ever be. And she saw Jules, the radiologist son-in-law, athletic and elegant with his ponytail held up by a rubber band, trying his best to not appear jealous of his beloved wife, Gabrielle, eighteen years his junior. Nearly old, them too, thought the old woman. But Éliane remained the mother, the one who always acted first, the one who always had the ideas, the one who found the solutions. She grappled with her emotions. She faced her fears. She went to battle. They had to pick up Alexandre, her son wandering in the twists and turns of madness, her son who had once threatened her with a butcher's knife, her son whom she had lost for more than forty years, her son of so much love and so much pain.

***

Leaning over him, she watches him sleep. Grégoire brought him back about an hour ago. The car ride was physically difficult for Alexandre, who constantly pulled at the seat belt Grégoire had buckled for him. The spectacle of crumbled houses and people huddled under tents in the streets made his skin crawl. Too many people in the street, too many stares that wouldn’t let go of him––eyes that begged from inside broken walls. Alexandre brought with him just one little suitcase and a feeling of confusion accentuated by a supplementary dose of medication before his departure from the Institution. Just after settling into the little house, he stretched out on the bed in his room and, without even taking off his shoes, immediately fell into a deep sleep. He didn’t seem interested in his surroundings, the house that smelled of fresh paint, the black and white pebbles that paved the ground outside the front door. He barely looked at Ecclésiaste, the employee who would be at his service from now on and who, himself, seemed quite shaken. He did not notice any of that. He just sought out his bed as though it was an abyss he could sink into. Éliane's heart beats wildly, her legs are weak, she holds a tight grip on her cane to keep her balance. Forty-two years, three months, and eighteen days was the length of his absence. And he came back one year, to the very day, after Francis died. My God, what message are you sending me? Alexandre has thinning gray hair like his father’s, a little bit of a gut, and skinny arms and legs. He doesn’t look like he’s in good health; his skin is pale. His lips droop to the side of his mouth where he’s missing a tooth. He was the only one who called her Éliane. A fantasy or a privilege that would not have been acceptable from the other children. When he said “Éliane,” he touched her where her wrists and knees weakened, where her heart melted. He reestablished the right to love her without measure, and that didn’t involve anyone else. Not even his father. He is almost an old man in her eyes, a body exhausted by illness, a body that never knew maturity and fulfillment––a fresh fruit that has faded. She is the mother of an old man. Does he still know who she is? Will he even recognize her after all this time? Should she be afraid of him even though Dr. Durand-Franjeune says that he no longer has violent outbursts, that the years and years of medication have broken the inner workings of his illness and filled in the cracks of his being? This makes her tremble. Does he remember the little boy who ran after her in the shimmering light of the oaks? Éliane felt the weight of old age on her shoulders like a heap of lead.

Even though Éliane will soon exit the room, Alexandre opens his eyes and looks all around him. He runs his hands over his face once, twice, three times, as if he could somehow change the scenery, and return to the Institution, to the life from which he had just been torn. He just went through an ordeal, the scale of which was overwhelming. He's feeling an emotion beyond fear, worse than a threat to his life. All the voices in his head go wild. A feeling of pure panic, like the one he tried to escape by running incessantly around the concrete pillar of the living room of the Institution. But here it was, the pillar was deep in the abyss, he saw it there and it must have weighed tons. He could never bring it back and replant it in the middle of his life. He doesn’t recognize the colors around him—they are too fresh, too lively. He’s somewhere else. He’s lost. The stench of the wet paint smacks him in the face, the odor is like a wall he's run into. Where are the others? Where are Joseph and Miss Laurette and Maria? Where are his friends, Gogo and Samuel? He hears the birds singing and fluttering in the trees outside and thinks about the cookies in his pocket. That is, if birds haven't stolen them from him. He'll have to kill the birds, all of them. This is not the Institution, and his legs feel the need to run and jump over the walls, but his legs feel weighed down, heavy. A herd of voices gallops through his head, causing him pain. He sees a woman with white hair leaning over him, looking at him intensely; he smells her perfume, he can hear her beating heart. The old woman can no longer leave. She is stunned and cannot run away, her knees are about to give. Alexandre sees her in the bright light that passes through the glass slats in the little window above his bed. The galloping stops for an instant, just an instant. He looks at her for a few seconds, for what feels like an eternity, and says, “Éliane?”

From I Am Alive. Translated by Nathan H. Dize. Forthcoming, with a foreword by Kaiama L. Glover, in Fall 2022 from the University of Virginia Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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