My mother was conceived in what would ever after be known as the Massacre River. The sharp smell of blood has followed her since. When she first moved to the United States, she read the dictionary from front to back. Her vocabulary quickly became extensive. Her favorite word is suffuse, to spread over or through in the manner of water or light. When she tries to explain how she is haunted by the smell of blood, she says that her senses are suffused with it. My grandmother knew my grandfather for less than a day. Everything I know about my family’s history, I know in fragments. We are the keepers of secrets. We are secrets ourselves. We try to protect each other from the geography of so much sorrow. I don’t know that we succeed. As a young woman, my grandmother worked on a sugarcane plantation in Dajabón, the first town across the border Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. She lived in a shanty with five other women, all strangers, and slept on a straw mat beneath which she kept her rosary, a locket holding a picture of her parents, and a picture of Clark Gable. She spoke little Spanish so she kept to herself. Her days were long and beneath the bright sun, her skin burned ebony and her hair bleached white. When she walked back to her quarters at the end of each day, she heard the way people stared and whispered. They steered clear. They were terrified by the absence of light around and within her. They thought she was a demon. They called her la demonia negra. After saying her prayers, after dreaming of Port-au-Prince and lazy afternoons at the beach and the movie house where she watched Mutiny on the Bounty and It Happened One Night and The Call of the Wild, after dreaming of the warmth of Clark Gable’s embrace, my grandmother would tear her old dresses into long strips so she could better bind the cuts and scratches she earned from a long day in the cane fields.
She would sleep a dreamless sleep, gathering the courage she would need to wake up the next morning. In a different time, she had been loved by two parents, had lived a good life but then they died and she was left with nothing and like many Haitians, she crossed over into the Dominican Republic in the hope that there, her luck would change. My grandfather worked at the same plantation. He was a hard worker. He was a tall, strong man. My grandmother, late at night when she cannot sleep, will sit with a glass of rum and Coke, and talk about how her hands remember the thick ropes of muscle in his shoulders and thighs. His name was Jacques Bertrand. He wanted to be in the movies. He had a bright white smile that would have made him a star. My grandmother is also haunted by smells. She cannot stand the smell of anything sweet. If she smells sweetness in the air, she purses her lip and sucks on her teeth, shaking her head. Today, when we drive to our family’s beach property in Montrouis, she closes her eyes. She can stand neither the sight of the cane fields nor the withered men and women hacking away at stubborn stalks of cane with dull machetes. When she sees the cane fields, a sharp pain radiates across her shoulders and down her back. Her body cannot forget the labors it has known. Now, the Massacre River is shallow enough to cross by foot, but in October 1937 the waters of what was the Dajabón River ran strong and deep. The unrest had been going on for days—Dominican soldiers determined to rid their country of the Haitian scourge went from plantation to plantation in a murderous rage.
My grandmother did the only thing she could, burning through a long day in the cane field, marking the time by the rise and fall of her machete blade. She prayed the trouble would pass her by. It was General Rafael Trujillo who ordered all the Haitians out of his country, who had his soldiers interrogate anyone whose skin was too dark, who looked like they belonged on the other side of the border. It was the general who took a page from the Book of Judges to exact his genocide and bring German industry to his island. Soldiers came to the plantation where my grandmother worked. They had guns. They were cruel, spoke in loud, angry voices, took liberties. One of the women with whom my grandmother shared her shanty betrayed my grandmother’s hiding place. We never speak of what happened after that. The ugly details are trapped between the fragments of our family history. We are secrets ourselves. My grandmother ended up in the river. She found a shallow place. She tried to hold her breath while she hid from the marauding soldiers on both of the muddy shores straddling the river. There was a moment when she laid on her back, and submerged herself until her entire body was covered by water, until her pores were suffused with it. She didn’t come up for air until the ringing in her ears became unbearable. The moon was high and the night was cold. She smelled blood in the water. She wore only a thin dress, plastered to her skin. Her feet were bare. When a bloated corpse slowly floated past her, then an arm, a leg, something she couldn’t recognize, she covered her mouth with her hand. She screamed into her own skin instead of the emptiness around her. Jacques Bertrand who worked hard and wanted to be in the movies found his way to the river that ran strong and deep. He moved himself through the water until he found my grandmother. He tapped her on the shoulder and instead of turning away, she turned into him, opened that part of her herself not yet numb with terror. She found comfort in the fear mirrored in his eyes. His chest was bare and she pressed her damp cheek against his breastbone. She slowed her breathing to match his. She listened to the beat of his heart; it echoed beneath the bones of his rib cage. “An angel,” she told me. “I thought he was an angel who had come to deliver me from that dark and terrible place.”
My grandparents bound their bodies together as their skin gathered in tiny folds, as their bodies shook violently. Jacques Bertrand, who worked hard, who wanted to be in the movies, wrapped his arms around my grandmother. In a stuttered whisper, he told her the story of his life. “I want to be remembered,” he said. She cupped his face in her hands, traced his strong chin with her thumbs, and brushed her lips across his. She followed the bridges of scar tissue across his back with her fingertips. She said, “You will be remembered.” She told him the story of her own life. She asked him to remember her too. My grandmother still hears the dying screams from that night. She remembers the dull, wet sound of machetes hacking through flesh and bone. The only thing that muted those horrors was a man she knew but did not know who wore bridges of scar across his back. I do not know the intimate details, but my mother was conceived. In the morning, surrounded by the smell and silence of death, my grandparents crawled out of the river that had, overnight, become a watery coffin holding 25,000 bodies. The Massacre River had earned its name. The two of them, soaking wet, their bodies stiff and on the verge of fever, crawled into Ouanaminthe. They were home. They were far from home. My grandmother laced her fingers with my grandfather’s and they sought refuge in an abandoned church. They fell to their knees and prayed and then their prayers became something else, something like solace. When night fell again, the Dominican soldiers crossed into Ouanaminthe, into a place where they did not belong. My grandfather was killed. He saved my grandmother’s life by confronting three soldiers, creating a window through which my grandmother could escape. Jacques Bertrand died wanting to be remembered, so my grandmother stayed in that place of such sorrow, took a job cooking and cleaning for the headmaster of a primary school. At night, she slept in an empty classroom. She gave birth to my mother and later married the headmaster who raised my mother as his own. At night, my grandmother took my mother to the river and told her the story of how she came to be. My grandmother knelt on the riverbank, her bones sinking in the mud as she brought handfuls of water to her mouth. She drank the memories in that water.
When my mother turned twelve, she, my grandmother, and the
headmaster moved to Port-au-Prince. The school had closed and
the headmaster took a new appointment in the capital. At first, my
grandmother refused to leave her memories, but the headmaster put
his foot down. She was his wife. She would follow. My mother recalls
how her mother wailed, her voice pitched sharp and thin, cutting
everything around her. In the front yard of their modest home, a
large coconut tree fell, its wide trunk split neatly in half. The fallen
fruit rotted instantly. My grandmother went to the Massacre River,
her long white hair gathered around her face. She took river mud
into her hands, eating it, enduring the thick, bitter taste. When my
mother and the headmaster found her, my grandmother was lying in
a shallow place, shivering beneath a high moon, her face caked with
In the capital, my grandmother was a different woman, quieted.
The headmaster consulted Catholic missionaries, houngans and
mambos in case she had been possessed by a lwa or spirit, and needed
healing. Finally, he resigned himself to living with her ghosts. He
loved her as best a man whose wife loves another man can. He focused
on my mother’s education and waited. Sometimes, the headmaster
asked my mother if she was happy. She said, “My mother does
It wasn’t until the day my mother left Port-au-Prince that my
grandmother became herself again. I’ve been told that the headmaster
and my grandmother stood on the tarmac white with heat, the
air billowing around them in visible waves. My mother kissed her
mother twice on each cheek. She kissed the headmaster. She turned
and headed for the staircase to board the plane, a heavy wind blowing
her skirt wildly. My grandmother didn’t run after her only child but
she did say, “Ti Coeur.” Little heart. My mother stopped. She didn’t
My mother is a small, nervous woman. Her life began, she says, the
day she got off the Pan Am flight from Port-au-Prince in New York
City. She sat in the back of a yellow taxicab driven by a man who
spoke a language she did not understand. She stared out the dirty
window and up at the tall steel buildings. She was twenty-one. My mother found an apartment in the Bronx. She took a job as a seamstress
for Perry Ellis making clothes she loved but could not afford.
She learned to speak English by reading the dictionary and watching
American television. Once a month, she wrote her mother and
the only father she knew a long letter telling them about America,
begging them to join her. My grandmother always wrote back, but
refused to leave Haiti. She would not leave the ghost of a man who
could not be forgotten.
Thank you for reading!
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