Love, I Am Ashes
A city of pieces, he thought. From the helicopter, croppings of stunted trees tufted from the wreckage like sidewalk moss. Building façades resembled peeling carrot skins. The sun was a white china ball; he expected the sky to knock it and let it swing.
When the helicopter descended on the makeshift landing pad – a patch of cleared ground the color of limestone, those who could still walk ran to them, arms and fingers all akimbo, stretching toward them. They converged in a circle from where the helicopter was to rest, as if following the steps of an absurd dance.
The survivors were expecting the rescue workers to throw supplies and then retreat back into the sky like hovering angels. It was almost a disappointment when the landing skids grazed the earth and settled, when the rotor system began to slow, when the emergency aid detail disembarked.*
Do not go anywhere alone, they told him minutes after he arrived with the rest of the crew, do not be alone anywhere, in disjointed, French-accented English. It was hard to be alone, even if you wandered off and didn't mean to.
People were lying on the streets, sprawled out in the dust like scattered pigeon peas spilled from a broken jar.
Stay with someone you know, they said, work in teams. The city prison had given out, crumbled like a mound of shale. The convicts were unexpectedly released, the ones that had survived, and who knew what that could mean. On the ground, buildings were slanted like a Cubist dreamscape. The colors were brightly moribund. An abandoned carnival. Even if a building looked sturdy, the crisscrossing fissures gave away its true motive. Roofs hinged on the tops of houses and reminded him of a gentleman bowing and tipping his hat. Houses the color of mustard seed, of palm leaves, of gumballs. They knew better.
The Presidential Palace had collapsed; it looked as if a giant had crushed it underfoot. The Caribbean Market was all shambles and rotting fruit. The university probably had no survivors, and the Holy Trinity Church was a sanctuary no more. But why are all the trees still rooted?, he thought.*
His name was Webster, and he hadn't known he was Haitian until he was eighteen. He had been adopted by a family in California as an infant, a couple who believed they couldn't conceive, until they did, and did again. But he was family; his mother had felt the same maternal pangs towards him as she did his sisters, almost guttural in their depth. His father's colleagues at UCLA always commented on his strong resemblance to his father, you have the same eyes, you have the same perfect teeth.
The family's Christmas portraits were handsome artifacts to hang on the mantel. So when he was seven their revelation hadn't fazed him, the sex talk that came at eight had been a lot worse. And when his mother, a lawyer, wrote and published a pulp romance novel, he had been both embarrassed and proud, and when his sisters annoyed him he pulled their hair. Schooled at Harvard-Westlake, where he was always the token black kid (Mom, why the hell did you name me Webster? ), there was never an additional otherness. He wasn't partitioned on top of partition. And when his eighteenth birthday crept upon him, slowly, with uninteresting promises of cigarettes and lotto tickets, he felt a compulsion to know what he was made of. It wasn't exactly an overwhelming urge, he didn't lose any sleep over it; it was more like a desire to wish he wanted it more than he actually did.
The agency that had conducted the adoption was forthcoming. There wasn't much to disclose. His birth mother, a teenager from Jacmel, had proffered him to an orphanage. She had begged. Two months passed, and then he was carried away in a Boeing, in his parents' arms. Father unknown, circumstances unknown – only that he was birthed out-of-wedlock. The only thing his first mother left him (he liked to think of her as dark but small, with two eyes like Brazil nuts), was a note. A wisp of paper in a barely-literate scrawl, written in French. The scrap had long since disappeared from his file, but the social worker from the adoption agency had translated it and tucked it away, between his American birth certificate and the release papers from St. Sebastian's.
His name Renaud. Authenticity intact. His name Renaud. *
Dust wimpled the sky. It had been a day since the last aftershock, but children clutched the ground, the only thing that couldn't fall, hoping they could hold it together, prevent it from splitting in pieces like a fragmented skull. They had been brought back to nature by their very fear of it. Inside was not an option, for fear of collapse. Hospitals had become obsolete. The clinics were set up outdoors, on the streets, in pavilions of cracked mosaic tile. Rotations at Cedars-Sinai had disciplined him in lack of want; he didn't think of the constant dust that crusted his eyes, or the thirst that made his throat feel like it was stuffed with dry reeds.
He wore a surgical mask and a hard hat, a cross sloppily painted on the front and back in red. And though the clinic (more of a compound, with four large tents set up, reminiscent of the wings of a hospital) was shaded, the heat clogged everything, making being awake the stuff of sinister dreams. The number of those wounded grew in number, mobbed and metastasized like cancer in the brain. Rescue team workers carried infants in their arms, clotted gauze wrapped around their heads and bellies. Women staggered, barefooted, shirts torn open from angry detritus, bewilderedly exposing their breasts. A man with two broken legs screamed in French-Creole; the oscillating, shuddering caterwauls were deeper than language.
Webster treated a girl with a gash from her cheekbone to her jaw. The laceration was as dark and vast as an eclipsed moon. As he dabbed her face with iodine, she pounded her fists on her knees, eyes silently howling. Not far off, there was a mural that had one been framed by the side of an oblong brick building. The complex had triturated into pieces that reminded Webster of moon rock, but parts of the mural had remained intact. Stipples and daubs of tropical paint.
There were changelings: a man with the mahogany arms and torso of a man and the legs of a large cat (his head was dismembered by the crumbling brick), a rooster with a strained neck, poised in mid-caw. And in the center, still preserved, a dandy with a sleek cane, dressed in a purple top-hat and tails. A skeleton. His skull grinned. All of his teeth showed, each a perfect square. He never stopped staring.*
To be black in America was one thing, but to be Haitian was another. Webster's father liked to point out that they had all come from somewhere at one point (he always talked about ordering one of those DNA swab tests from the internet, the kind that traced your heritage like thin threads of cobweb, but never did), but the idea never fully formed in Webster's mind. If you were black, you were black, with maybe a white ancestor five generations back, a forgotten man on a tintype with a stern mouth and a guilty conscience, or maybe an Indian chief, but that was about it. You were proud, you were unified.
But to know he was Haitian gave him a different sort of identity, one which he was reluctant to explore. He knew vaguely about the coup-d'états, the illiteracy rate, the intermarriage of Christianity and island religion. He remembered a name from somewhere – Papa Doc – and that it made him think of a necromancer. And there was blood, but he wasn't quite sure from what, or why. Researching it seemed laughable and false. He didn't want to yearn for what he didn't know.
There were passing thoughts, from time to time, mostly concerning the woman whose belly he nestled in for nine months, swaddled in membrane and birthing fluid. He wondered if they had the same lips (strangely thin), or the same hands (small, with deft fingers). At pre-med seminars and, years later, on rotation in the maternity ward, he couldn't help it, the traipsing ponderings.
But he would never find her – there was no way – so that was that. It was unproductive to harp on it. But when the earthquake hit Haiti almost two weeks after the New Year and the hospital immediately offered to send medical aid and able bodies, he found himself waiting in a queue to volunteer. He couldn't pinpoint the urge; he couldn't excavate it like a surgeon, or analyze it like he would a blood panel. It was more than philanthropy or rubbernecking. It was more convoluted than history, as simple and intrinsic as a pulse. Because he had two names, and there, he wanted to hear the one that had never been spoken.*
The stories in Port-Au-Prince felt like conjurings, felt like campfire voodoo. The Oxfam volunteers, the Red Cross workers, the triage officers, they all had stories, or stories of how they hear stories, who they heard them from.The nurse in the maternity ward at Saint Damien Hospital, surrounded by babies in incubators. Seconds before the earth began to rattle, the babies started to wail, all of them, all in cacophonous unison. Just like Jericho. Miraculously, the hospital stood. The babies continued to cry.
A Jehovah's witness who raised his arms, embracing the city between them, proclaiming that absolution had finally come. Wracked with joy, he began to sing, One generation passeth away, another to cometh, and was then crushed by a toppled spire.
An eight-year-old girl, pulled out of the ruins of the lean-to she had called a house.
When describing how it fell, she said that the world was dancing around her. She then asked for cornflakes.*
A fireman from Miami named Rico, Haitian-born, sat next to Webster when both were given permission to rest. Webster's arms and legs and spine felt like frayed rope. He asked Rico why the Haitians, the ones able enough to talk, were making strange sounds, calling out to each other in cricket chirps.
It's cultural. Before telling a story – more like a folktale? – the teller will yell, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Krik?Ã¢â‚¬Âù and the other one will yell, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Krak!Ã¢â‚¬Âù
They listened to the voices.
It's more of a traditional thing. You don't hear it so much anymore, only with the older set. It's not ceremonious or anything, it's justÃ¢â‚¬Â_like I said, cultural. But I think, right now, it's something...you know.
Something that wouldn't shake.
And they kept listening.
There was a woman trapped beneath the rubble of what had once been the Hotel Montana. Rescue teams from Israel and Spain had been clearing away the shards of roof beams and crown molding for over two days. The woman was a maid at the Montana and had been serving tea when the earthquake began, perhaps to a member of the Haitian elite as his bodyguard stoically looked on, or perhaps a foreign emissary and his wife. But when the world began to shudder and the walls began to moan, all of this became obseleted, The only thing that mattered was the breaking, shivering city and the permanence of earth.
And so she was entombed in the ruins, but still alive. Her groaning could be heard from under the remnants of the Montana. The firemen were cautious of which piece of stone to set aside, which structural pyle to remove. One mistake could intensify the damage, implode it, send it tumbling down like children's blocks. But now, they had reached their goal, that's what Rico told Webster. They were close to pulling her out.
Webster rushed over to where the Montana had once stood, grouping with the EMTs. The firemen were barking commands intermittently in Spanish and Hebrew. An ambulance blared (they had come, finally, from Galveston, airlifted that afternoon) circumnavigated the scene, and sojourned into a halt near a group of Red Cross aid.
One fireman descended into the man-made tunnel they had dug as two spotted him, holding onto his legs, so as not to slip and drop into the wreckage. They dipped him in and out like fishing line. And then the men began to heave, and he surfaced with something in his arms.
She emerged. She was spackled with dust from cracked plaster, and her skin was waxy from dehydration. Her maid's cap was still tied together with pieces of string and hung around her neck, dangling behind her back. She walked feebly, not knowing what else to do. She walked with wonderment, even though it was dangerous for her to do so in her state, bringing her joints back to life.
The EMTs rushed at her and the fireman let her go, transferring her to their arms. They prepared the gurney, unfastened the straps and snapped open the wheels and metal legs. Webster was unable to move, though his brain begged his feet to step. And then she began to sing.
Singing for what? Singing to death, to declare how she had spited it, even at the very end of the world.
Though there was no way he could reason it, Webster knew she was a mother. He saw it on the reel of his mind, like a lucid dream. Or maybe it was a lucid dream. She had a son. Webster glimpsed him, his head too large for his rail-thin body, his stomach puffed from hunger. He ran to his mother, her cap still hanging from her cot in the clinic tent, arms outspread with primal need. Though it could not be possible, music played in the distance, a strange mix of arcane African drums and a European waltz. She was still singing.
And though Webster could not understand her as her voice rose and fell in mellifluous, sorrow-tinged glory, and though they stood in a city that was no longer a city, as she chanted in a language that should have been his, he knew the words she brayed.