In the Shade of the Almond Tree

Author's Note: Two major obstacles to happiness remain constant throughout the history of Haitian society: social and economic injustice, and totalitarian tendencies. Poverty can be as cruel as dictatorship in its effect on the individual. When the two join forces against the human spirit, the choices are limited: violence and madness, hopelessness and revolt. Because even in the depths of madness, revolt can lie dormant, only to erupt, savagely and uncontrollably, against those who govern without attending to the common good. Against those who profit from the system without regard for the fate of others, those smug in the comfort of their good fortune who never bother to question prejudices or inequalities. Revolt against an unjust system that long ago abandoned the majority of the population to a life in which each day is a struggle to preserve dignity and humanity. Even when one must beg to survive.

I was born in the shade of the almond tree, halfway between nothingness and the unattainable light.

I have no age. I carry my years without submitting to the regimen of time and its chronology of dates and seasons. I recognize myself living, hands outstretched, in the shade of the almond tree, with white hair and staring eyes unconcerned with the passing hours. My tree and I have entwined our ages in the absurdity of the days. I stride from chapel to chapel between masses when silence prevails and the flames of the candles flicker beneath penitents' tears. I kneel each morning before the statue of the Blessed Virgin, but I don't pray. I find refuge there from the filthiness of existence. I imagine lives never exposed to the flavors of ripe mangoes and cherries in June, or to mild, starry nights and clear mornings, or to moments dissolving like hot, tender walnuts under the tongue.

Yet I have no memories except those of this bark that is the color of revealed time. No one ever lulled me to sleep with stories or tales. All by myself I invented a yearning for the myths and legends behind the featureless face of the one who brought me into the world and then left before I could settle accounts with her. "Why doesn't your mother come back to look for you," constantly asked the woman who took responsibility for keeping me alive through a pure reflex of basic preservation, just like the empty bottles and plastic sacks that she accumulated until her death. I survived with just enough nourishment to avoid dying from malnutrition, just enough hygiene to avoid succumbing to dysentery, typhoid and other infections that fill the space around us, just enough breath to not find myself six feet under. I have no memory of the belly I came from. Still, from childhood to adolescence, I let myself be carried along by an unusual need for gentleness and the dread of my hand and heart being snatched by a loving mother from beyond the grave. The only prayer I was able to murmur came to me from the very depths of hunger, when the urge to live was reduced to the next mouthful and the primal sensation of food inside my mouth after a period of aching deprivation. Why didn't you come back to find me and take me away with you, deceased mother, prisoner of my counterfeit memory?

My name hardly matters. It bears the imprint of my hand outstretched at the crossroad of the four seasons. The branches of the almond tree have colored my life green or autumnal red, with a velvety or grainy texture, a life irrevocably destined to hurtle brutally into the ground with a rapid and capricious momentum. Even as a little girl, I knew how to position my begging arm to reach out, draw back or move in parallel with the passerby. I learned to beg before I could form sentences. At least, that's what the woman who kept me alive told me. The only quality allowed to me was my ability to lie and take advantage, with my grimy palm upturned and my eyes staring at the purse or wallet. I had an unfailing capacity to recognize the guilt ready to submit, the naïve happiness derived from generosity and charity, and to pressure them on all sides with my subtly accusatory look. In the shade of my almond tree, I observed the contortions of this poor humanity. I recognized moral decay in all its guises. I have seen fine young ladies drawing the trains of their white dresses with the sprightliness of tinkling bells and satisfied ambitions. Ding dong, a living room with rattan furniture to dazzle the neighbors, ding dong, an apartment paid for in American dollars to brag about while pretending to complain, ding, dong, a dear little fetus to accelerate the wedding march, ding, dong, the ring on the finger and the pockets in a twirl.

Governments replaced one another without disrupting my mode of living. I never received an invitation to their ceremonies. The tree bark and I shared the scratches equitably. My skin was fissured from abuses and blows. Boots and bullets have scarred our roots, and for a long time my almond tree and I have intertwined our crossed arms. My hand has been covered with spittle, with kicks, sometimes with coins, and less frequently with new or threadbare currency. In the shade of my almond tree, among the distended stomachs in cramped lofts overflowing with mouths to feed, I have witnessed misery garbed in gruffness and insults, liberally sewing discord for mere trifles.

I have had my allowance of little buttered rolls and hot coffee, thanks to the feast days of patron saints and voodoo spirits, all according to the services provided by jealous or envious old women, or by fathers of families unable to find a solution to the anguish of their lives except by kneeling with their heads bowed in the glow of a whale deity. From Saint Anthony to Saint Michael, I succeeded in unraveling the realm of intervention of each heavenly power. While still little, I tracked the results of countless prayers to determine whether the Virgin or her son had the greater potency. Even when it was unacknowledged, I divined the presence of the voodoo spirits in the curve of the upraised arms and the inclination of the imploring heads. "Have mercy, Virgin, on my son who is about to leave and on whom rests the family's future. Have mercy for the $25,000 Haitian dollars that I paid for his American visa, as false as the name on the passport, have mercy for the $10,000 dollars more to be paid for his voyage. Close the eyes of the American immigration officer so that the forgery will go unnoticed. Don't be angry, Virgin, if I have prayed just as much to others in these circumstances, don't be angry because you know well that it is above all to you that I entrust my son since your power is immense. But it is not prudent to antagonize the mysterious powers. Amen." I saw in front of me a procession of jute religious articles, striped scarves and secondhand symbols of piety. Before the statue of the Virgin, all sorts of insincere mimicry paraded by in quest of a winning lottery number, or against a badly intentioned neighbor, for a money transfer coming from Miami for the little girl's First Communion. "Holy Mary, Mother of God, I beseech you, cure my daughter of the terrible sickness that they sent her because they're jealous of the little business I started with my husband. You know well that my daughter is a nice young girl, how could she have caught that plague reserved for perverts and libertines? Holy Mary, Mother of God, send back where it came from this deadly AIDS that haunts my daughter and return her to me as pure and virginal as I brought her into the world. Amen."

I have not studied history. All I know of it is the scarlet marks that it places on birds' wings and the mud-spatterings that it casts on the faces of statues. In the shade of my almond tree, little schoolchildren and bored older students have set down their burdens of memory, creating large gashes in the blue sky. Often, a whiff of sorrow rises from their schoolbags and their fatigued pace. The vehicles of death roar past us. Once again, they detest the young people for questioning their arrogance. The glare of their headlights tries to freeze our movements. The dictatorship vainly changes its outward aspect, but if you ever bump into its darkness, you will encounter there the blindfolds, the snarling of hateful dogs, and the brutal convulsions of unshakeable convictions. But my almond tree and I never have the slightest impulse to flee. Prisoners of our own disarray, we have woven our fears and distress into fearsome and innumerable vines that stretch into our innards and twist themselves into the ground.

My almond tree and I are not always aware of being part of the world and its patterns. We don't know where to situate our street bounded by immense ditches, forgotten by the Public Works Ministry, or where to place our old church that tilts its walls and its holy statues toward the sea. How do we insert this stinkpot of latrines and muck into the world's luminous and perverse framework of digital communications, capital cities, and missiles? Since words are exhausted, I can only use trickery in the face of dogma, even when it dresses up in glitter. My outstretched hands have learned to pry open the clamshells and to distinguish the unleavened bread. The downpours I've endured in the shade of my almond tree have covered me with tenacity and patience. My clear-sightedness arises from a long past of suffering, and it does not tolerate any inclination to chase after slogans or sing praises. I have put in my bag of tricks a wariness toward the fickleness of crowds and the murkiness of speeches.

At the far end of my memory, the lifeless bodies that I confuse with my own file past in silhouette. Dry, withered breasts, a mouth forever unsated, ungenerous loins, cruel eyes that learned early to look away, unobliging genitals. Each with an identically empty heart. I don't know, then, how the dream has been able to reach me. And to implant itself despite all my mistrust. A dream of love and of white flowers low to the ground, like a long streak of happiness that seemed to lead all the way to the sea, a phantasm of foam and light. All blue, without the aroma of fancy toilet water or the color of starched taffetas, but limpid and painful to see, like that child's smile I will never know, an incurable little wound, with softness at the corner of the eyes.

My clandestine dream of the Milky Way led me to the gleaming foam. My handsome almond tree became very old. I did not cry for the shade that had become more and more sparse, or for the breeze that had become less and less gentle, but I regretted that our intimacy had departed at the whim of the fallen leaves. Street noises invaded our secrets. Misery displayed itself irrevocably and assiduously. Then, one day I crossed the gray zone to plunge myself in the bedazzlement of renewal. Madness sometimes takes on a heroic aspect. My hand, exhausted from so much begging, calmly picked up a stone. I chose a very shiny one, with no cracks or unsightly gouges. Of a serviceable size, neither minuscule nor enormous. Just the size suitable to strike high and hard. It seemed to me to show on its surface the unknown features of a woman dead from having brought me into the world, along with the faces of phantom children claiming their share of laughter and the rainbow. I kept it for the necessary time in the crux of my rage. Then, on a morning of great ceremony, I took it from its hiding place. In the shadow of my almond tree eaten away by vermin, I cleaned it with the spit of several years of odious practices. On a morning of great pomp and fanfare, I launched it with all the strength of my arms tired out by unworthy gestures. Overcome by a fury that had for too long been stifled, I threw the stone against the howling sirens and the triumphant vehicles. The shattering window glass brought forth a spurt of bright, red blood. The boots dashed in my direction and shackled me in the agitated silence of the crowd.

I stopped begging on the first of January in a year lost in insanity.

Since then, my almond tree and I have followed a rhythm that is out of tempo with the surrounding chaos. Our bloody and denuded roots have glided over their dark subterranean asylum to pause halfway between the barricades and the stars. I think I'm a little closer to the light that waits to be born. Between the roots and the sunlight.