At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished Haitian village to New York to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child should ever know, and a legacy of shame that can be healed only when she returns to Haiti—to the women who first reared her. What ensues is a passionate journey through a landscape charged with the supernatural and scarred by political violence. In her stunning literary debut, Danticat evokes the wonder, terror, and heartache of her native Haiti—and the enduring strength of Haiti’s women—with vibrant imagery and narrative grace that bear witness to her people’s suffering and courage.
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A flattened and drying daffodil was dangling off the little card that I had made my aunt Atie for Mother’s Day. I pressed my palm over the flower and squashed it against the plain beige cardboard. When I turned the corner near the house, I saw her sitting in an old rocker in the yard, staring at a group of children crushing dried yellow leaves into the ground. The leaves had been left in the sun to dry. They would be burned that night at the konbit potluck dinner.
I put the card back in my pocket before I got to the yard. When Tante Atie saw me, she raised the piece of white cloth she was embroidering and waved it at me. When I stood in front of her, she opened her arms just wide enough for my body to fit into them.
“How was school?” she asked, with a big smile.
She bent down and kissed my forehead, then pulled me down onto her lap.
“School was all right,” I said. “I like everything but those reading classes they let parents come to in the afternoon. Everybody’s parents come except you. I never have anyone to read with, so Monsieur Augustin always pairs me off with an old lady who wants to learn her letters, but does not have children at the school.”
“I do not want a pack of children teaching me how to read,” she said. “The young should learn from the old. Not the other way. Besides, I have work.”
A blush of embarrassment rose to her brown cheeks.
“At one time, I would have given anything to be in school. But not at my age. My time is gone. Cooking and cleaning, looking after others, that’s my school now. That schoolhouse is your school. Cutting cane was the only thing for a young one to do when I was your age. That is why I never want to hear you complain about your school.” She adjusted a pink head rag wrapped tightly around her head and dashed off a quick smile revealing two missing side teeth. “As long as you do not have to work in the fields, it does not matter that I will never learn to read that ragged old Bible under my pillow.”
Whenever she was sad, Tante Atie would talk about the sugar cane fields, where she and my mother practically lived when they were children. They saw people die there from sunstroke every day. Tante Atie said that, one day while they were all working together, her father—my grandfather—stopped to wipe his forehead, leaned forward, and died. My grandmother took the body in her arms and tried to scream the life back into it. They all kept screaming and hollering, as my grandmother’s tears bathed the corpse’s face. Nothing would bring my grandfather back.
The bòlèt man was coming up the road. He was tall and yellow like an amber roach. The children across the road lined up by the fence to watch him, clutching one another as he whistled and strolled past them.
This albino, whose name was Chabin, was the biggest lottery agent in the village. He was thought to have certain gifts that had nothing to do with the lottery, but which Tante Atie believed put the spirits on his side. For example, if anyone was chasing him, he could turn into a snake with one flip of his tongue. Sometimes, he could see the future by looking into your eyes, unless you closed your soul to him by thinking of a religious song and prayer while in his presence.
I could tell that Tante Atie was thinking of one of her favorite verses as he approached. Death is the shepherd of man and in the final dawn, good will be the master of evil.
“Onè, mes belles, Atie, Sophie.”
Chabin winked at us from the front gate. He had no eyelashes—or seemed to have none. His eyebrows were tawny and fine like corn silk, but he had a thick head of dirty red hair.
“How are you today?” he asked.
“Today, we are fine,” Tante Atie said. “We do not know about tomorrow.”
“Ki nimewo today?” he asked. “What numbers you playing?”
“Today, we play my sister Martine’s age,” Tante Atie said. “Sophie’s mother’s age. Thirty-one. Perhaps it will bring me luck.”
“Thirty-one will cost you fifty cents,” he said.
Tante Atie reached into her bra and pulled out one gourde.
“We will play the number twice,” she said.
Even though Tante Atie played faithfully, she had never won at the bòlèt. Not even a small amount, not even once.
She said the lottery was like love. Providence was not with her, but she was patient.
The albino wrote us a receipt with the numbers and the amount Tante Atie had given him.
The children cringed behind the gate as he went on his way. Tante Atie raised her receipt towards the sun to see it better.
“There, he wrote your name,” I said pointing to the letters, “and there, he wrote the number thirty-one.”
She ran her fingers over the numbers as though they were quilted on the paper.
“Would it not be wonderful to read?” I said for what must have been the hundredth time.
“I tell you, my time is passed. School is not for people my age.”
The children across the street were piling up the leaves in Madame Augustin’s yard. The bigger ones waited on line as the smaller ones dropped onto the pile, bouncing to their feet, shrieking and laughing. They called one another’s names: Foi, Hope, Faith, Espérance, Beloved, God-Given, My Joy, First Born, Last Born, Aséfi, Enough-Girls, Enough-Boys, Délivrance, Small Misery, Big Misery, No Misery. Names as bright and colorful as the giant poincianas in Madame Augustin’s garden.
They grabbed one another and fell to the ground, rejoicing as though they had flown past the towering flame trees that shielded the yard from the hot Haitian sun.
“You think these children would be kind to their mothers and clean up those leaves,” Tante Atie said. “Instead, they are making a bigger mess.”
“They should know better,” I said, secretly wishing that I too could swim in their sea of dry leaves.
Tante Atie threw her arms around me and squeezed me so hard that the lemon-scented perfume, which she dabbed across her chest each morning, began to tickle my nose.
“Sunday is Mother’s Day, non?” she said, loudly sucking her teeth. “The young ones, they should show their mothers they want to help them. What you see in your children today, it tells you about what they will do for you when you are close to the grave.”
I appreciated Tante Atie, but maybe I did not show it enough. Maybe she wanted to be a real mother, have a real daughter to wear matching clothes with, hold hands and learn to read with.
“Mother’s Day will make you sad, won’t it, Tante Atie?”
“Why do you say that?” she asked.
“You look like someone who is going to be sad.”
“You were always wise beyond your years, just like your mother.”
She gently held my waist as I climbed down from her lap. Then she cupped her face in both palms, her elbows digging into the pleats of her pink skirt.
I was going to sneak the card under her pillow Saturday night so that she would find it as she was making the bed on Sunday morning. But the way her face drooped into her palms made me want to give it to her right then.
I dug into my pocket, and handed it to her. Inside was a poem that I had written for her.
She took the card from my hand. The flower nearly fell off. She pressed the tape against the short stem, forced the baby daffodil back in its place, and handed the card back to me. She did not even look inside.
“Not this year,” she said.
“Why not this year?”
“Sophie, it is not mine. It is your mother’s. We must send it to your mother.”
I only knew my mother from the picture on the night table by Tante Atie’s pillow. She waved from inside the frame with a wide grin on her face and a large flower in her hair. She witnessed everything that went on in the house, each step, each stumble, each hug and kiss. She saw us when we got up, when we went to sleep, when we laughed, when we got upset at each other. Her expression never changed. Her grin never went away.
I sometimes saw my mother in my dreams. She would chase me through a field of wildflowers as tall as the sky. When she caught me, she would try to squeeze me into the small frame so I could be in the picture with her. I would scream and scream until my voice gave out, then Tante Atie would come and save me from her grasp.
I slipped the card back in my pocket and got up to go inside. Tante Atie lowered her head and covered her face with her hands. Her fingers muffled her voice as she spoke.
“When I am done feeling bad, I will come in and we will find you a very nice envelope for your card. Maybe it will get to your mother after the fact, but she will welcome it because it will come directly from you.”
“It is your card,” I insisted.
“It is for a mother, your mother.” She motioned me away with a wave of her hand. “When it is Aunt’s Day, you can make me one.”
“Will you let me read it to you?”
“It is not for me to hear, my angel. It is for your mother.”
I plucked out the flower and dropped it under my shoes. Then I put the card back in my pocket.
Across the road, the children were yelling each other’s names, inviting passing friends to join them. They sat in a circle and shot the crackling leaves high above their heads. The leaves landed on their faces and clung to their hair. It was almost as though they were caught in a rain of daffodils.
I continued to watch the children as Tante Atie prepared what she was bringing to the potluck. She put the last touches on a large tray of sweet potato pudding that filled the whole house with its molasses scent.
As soon as the sun set, lamps were lit all over our quarter. The smaller children sat playing marbles near whatever light they could find. The older boys huddled in small groups near the school yard fence as they chatted over their books. The girls formed circles around their grandmothers’ feet, learning to sew.
Tante Atie had promised that in another year or so she would teach me how to sew.
“You should not stare,” she said as we passed a nearsighted old woman whispering mystical secrets of needle and thread to a little girl. The girl was squinting as her eyes dashed back and forth to keep up with the movements of her grandmother’s old fingers.
“Can I start sewing soon?” I asked Tante Atie.
“Soon as I have a little time,” she said.
She put her hand on my shoulder and bent down to kiss my cheek.
“Is something troubling you?” I asked.
“Don’t let my troubles upset you,” she said.
“When I made the card, I thought it would make you happy. I did not mean to make you sad.”
“You have never done anything to make me sad,” she said. “That is why this whole thing is going to be so hard.”
A cool evening breeze circled the dust around our feet.
“You should put on your blouse with the long sleeves,” she said. “So you don’t catch cold.”
I wanted to ask her what was going to be so hard, but she pressed her finger over my lips and pointed towards the house.
She said “Go” and so I went.
One by one the men began to file out of their houses. Some carried plantains, others large Negro yams, which made your body itch if you touched them raw. There were no men in Tante Atie’s and my house so we carried the food ourselves to the yard where the children had been playing.
The women entered the yard with tins of steaming ginger tea and baskets of cassava bread. Tante Atie and I sat near the gate, she behind the women and me behind the girls.
Monsieur Augustin stacked some twigs with a rusty pitchfork and dropped his ripe plantains and husked corn on the pile. He lit a long match and dropped it on the top of the heap. The flame spread from twig to twig, until they all blended into a large smoky fire.
Monsieur Augustin’s wife began to pass around large cups of ginger tea. The men broke down into small groups and strolled down the garden path, smoking their pipes.
Old tantes—aunties—and grandmothers swayed cooing babies on their laps. The teenage boys and girls drifted to dark corners, hidden by the shadows of rustling banana leaves.
Tante Atie said that the way these potlucks started was really a long time ago in the hills. Back then, a whole village would get together and clear a field for planting. The group would take turns clearing each person’s land, until all the land in the village was cleared and planted. The women would cook large amounts of food while the men worked. Then at sunset, when the work was done, everyone would gather together and enjoy a feast of eating, dancing, and laughter.
Here in Croix-des-Rosets, most of the people were city workers who labored like Tante Atie in baseball or clothing factories and lived in small cramped houses to support their families back in the provinces. Tante Atie said that we were lucky to live in a house as big as ours, with a living room to receive our guests, plus a room for the two of us to sleep in. Tante Atie said that only people living on New York money or people with professions, like Monsieur Augustin, could afford to live in a house where they did not have to share a yard with a pack of other people. The others had to live in huts, shacks, or one-room houses that, sometimes, they had to build themselves.
In spite of where they might live, this potluck was open to everybody who wanted to come. There was no field to plant, but the workers used their friendships in the factories or their grouping in the shared houses as a reason to get together, eat, and celebrate life.
Tante Atie kept looking at Madame Augustin as she passed the tea to each person in the women’s circle around us.
“How is Martine?” Madame Augustin handed Tante Atie a cup of steaming tea. Tante Atie’s hand jerked and the tea sprinkled the back of Madame Augustin’s hand.
“I saw the facteur bring you something big yesterday.” Madame Augustin blew into her tea as she spoke. “Did your sister send you a gift?”
Tante Atie tried to ignore the question.
“Was it a gift?” insisted Madame Augustin. “It is not the child’s birthday again, is it? She was just twelve, no less than two months ago.”
I wondered why Tante Atie had not showed me the big package. Usually, my mother would send us two cassettes with our regular money allowance. One cassette would be for me and Tante Atie, the other for my grandmother. Usually, Tante Atie and I would listen to our cassette together. Maybe she was saving it for later.
I tried to listen without looking directly at the women’s faces. That would have been disrespectful, as bad as speaking without being spoken to.
“How is Martine doing over there?” asked Stéphane, the albino’s wife. She was a sequins piece worker, who made herself hats from leftover factory sequins. That night she was wearing a gold bonnet that make her look like a star had landed on her head.
“My sister is fine, thank you,” Tante Atie finally answered.
Madame Augustin took a sip of her tea and looked over at me. She gave me a reprimanding look that said: Why aren’t you playing with the other children? I quickly lowered my eyes, pretending to be studying some random pebbles on the ground. “I would wager that it is very nice over there in New York,” Madame Augustin said.
“I suppose it could be,” said Tante Atie.
“Why have you never gone?” asked Madame Augustin.
“Perhaps it is not yet the time,” said Tante Atie.
“Perhaps it is,” corrected Madame Augustin.
She leaned over Tante Atie’s shoulder and whispered in a not so low voice, “When are you going to tell us, Atie, when the car comes to take you to the airplane?”
“Is Martine sending for you?” asked the albino’s wife.
Suddenly, all the women began to buzz with questions.
“When are you leaving?”
“Can it really be as sudden as that?”
“Will you marry there?”
“Will you remember us?”
“I am not going anywhere,” Tante Atie interrupted.
“I have it on good information that it was a plane ticket that you received,” said Madame Augustin. “If you are not going, then who was the plane ticket for?”
All their eyes fell on me at the same time.
“Is the mother sending for the child?” asked the albino’s wife.
“I saw the delivery,” said Madame Augustin. “Then she is sending for the child,” they concluded. Suddenly a large hand was patting my shoulder. “This is very good news,” said the accompanying voice. “It is the best thing that is ever going to happen to you.”
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, author biography, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory. We hope they will bring to life the many themes with which Danticat builds her story of a young Haitian woman's coming to terms with her country, her mother, and her own identity.