This novella is included in Reaps, available on Kindle.
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Children Of Death
© 2011 Jess Mowry
“I would not want to see a child of Death!”
"Huh?" said Nate, not sure he’d heard right.
The man went on, “I find little skeletons frightening, as if they might get up to play.”
Nate struggled to come back to life, or at least reenter the land of the living. He had been lost in a book, which sometimes seemed a better place than to be “found” in the real world. He wondered where the man could have seen a lot of little skeletons, but then he remembered where he was.
The man was as black as himself. His tattered blue work shirt was open, displaying a chest like obsidian bricks and a stomach like ripples of ebony stone. Like the four other people aboard the old bus, he was covered with dust and painfully poor. His trousers were patched in several places -- you only saw that in cartoons and in Haiti -- and Nate noticed now he was barefoot. There was nothing strange about that, though Nate could have sworn he'd been wearing old sneaks when he'd boarded the bus in Cap Haitien. But, maybe he'd just worn his shoes in the city to prove he actually owned a pair? At his side was a cheap little travel tote, a child's souvenir from Disney World that featured a smiling Mickey Mouse dressed as The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
“Children Of Death," added the man, obviously reading the book’s tarnished title in gold upon a black leather cover. "That could describe the children of Haiti where far too many seem destined to die.”
It took Nate a moment to realize that the man was speaking English, and then he had to think for a second to translate his own reply... which was weird. The words sounded almost strange to his ears, the first in English he'd spoken all day. "It's just a collection old ghost stories.”
"But about young ghosts?” asked the man.
Nate tried to come out of a moonlit graveyard where memories lingered of shadows and teeth. He hadn't been sleeping well for weeks so sometimes he wasn’t sure what was real. From what he'd learned of Haiti so far, few of the poor could even read French, and most spoke only Kreyol. It had been a daily struggle for him just finding rooms and a meal now and then with only the English he spoke, and to meet someone here on a bus in these mountains who not only spoke English but read it, too, should have made him feel less lonely. But, a lifetime spent in the West Oakland projects didn’t leave you much faith in the kindness of strangers, especially strangers you met on a bus who toted gleaming machetes.
Nate told himself this wasn't a dream, that he wasn't cursed or under a spell, and this wild-looking, barefooted dust-covered man wasn't a zonbi out of a grave.
Nate wasn't dressed in dope himself; his jeans were showing skin at the knees and their cuffs were in ribbons like zonbi rags. His Nikes were worn almost smooth on their soles, and his grimy wife-beater was soaked with sweat. He hadn't been trying to look like a street-kid, a typical Haitian ri-timoun, but he seemed to fit naturally into that role, and it saved him from curious questions.
Like, what in hell was he doing here?
This morning he'd stood in his guest house room -- rough concrete walls, and a single small window overlooking an ocean of rusty tin roofs -- and scanned himself in a chunk of mirror. He didn’t look different from most Haitian boys, small for his age by American standards, as black as midnight, slenderly-boned, and casually careless of posture. His face had a rounded unfinished look of being somewhere between boy and man, with a wide snubby nose and large bright eyes below a scruffy bush of hair. His front teeth were usually on display, and his full lips always pouted at rest. His chest was compact though well defined, but at age seventeen his body was still like a younger boy’s with hands and feet a little too large, and there was graceful sway to his back, which, combined with a prominent tummy, gave him the look of a older child instead of a young adult.
Low-riding jeans were his natural style on narrow hips and a slender behind, and usually showing a lot of skin between their tops and the tails of his shirts. Haitian heat and boxer shorts hadn’t been a compatible mix, and boys of the slums didn't often wear drawers... at least not under anything. Yet even a ri-timoun had style, and he'd bought a floppy old blue denim cap in a second-hand stall at a market. A Jamaican creation for crowning dreadlocks, it kept slipping comically over his eyes, which in his dark face were alarmingly amber and often seemed to startle people.
Dressed this way in Oakland he would have looked like a fool, a Buckwheat betrayer of everything "Black" -- or at least what was currently cool this week -- but here he was simply poor and proud, and the only curious looks he got were from people who found that he couldn't speak Kreyol.
He’d been trying hard to learn, but to learn anything you needed a teacher, and that brought it back to his childhood and all the dissing he'd gotten from people for being a little different. But, Haiti had been like shock therapy; it was hard to stay shy in the shantytown where everyone seemed to touch when they talked and hugs among males were as normal as breathing. Still, a lifetime of being on guard couldn't be laid to rest in a week.
The children had been his best companions, seemingly attracted to him like younger kids had always been, and none were suspicious of strangers here... or maybe not strangers who looked like them. But the words and phrases they'd given to Nate were seasoned by salty timoun patois and sassily peppered with little-kid curses. He knew seven dirty words for his dick, but not how to ask for directions or order a meal in most cafes without pointing to somebody else's plate.
Now, aboard this battered old bus, grinding along a narrow dirt road through patches of green-lit forest at times while steadily climbing a mountainside, Nate met the eyes of the dusty young man, who was really no shabbier than himself, and tried to offer a friendly smile from under the shade of his oversized cap. "I guess little skeletons would be scary. ...Or sad to see, anyway.” He closed the book and lay it down on the tattered canvas seat.
The man cocked his head as Nate spoke. "I thought you were Americain noir. I wondered why someone would read about death in a land where so many die young.” He studied Nate for a moment, maybe noting the necklace of amber beads and bits of bone on Nate’s sweaty chest. "Are you interested in Voodoo?" he asked. "Would you like to attend a ceremony? For twenty dollars... or perhaps less... it can be arranged. We have a powerful oungan... a priest... in our village.”
Nate had gotten many such offers... at least before going native. "My aunt believed in Voodoo," he said. "So I know a little about it. She never stuck pins in a doll, or called up a zonbi or nothin' like that, but she always burned a candle for Esu." He paused to picture his aunt in his mind and say he was sorry again.
"But," he went on, "She never tried to make me believe, an' I never been much into any religion no matter what flavor it is.”
Again the man cocked his head. "Have you never felt that believing in something can put you at peace in life?”
"I don't know what to believe," said Nate. "An’ it's hard to believe in somethin’ good when you see all this suffering.” He gestured toward a window, though there was nothing but forest outside. “Hungry kids without no homes, livin' in boxes an' piles of junk. An' there don't seem to be any way to help.”
"Alas, my young friend, one cannot save the world.”
"I know,” sighed Nate. “But, it seems like you oughta try an' save something . ...Somebody, somewhere, an' sometime.”
The man smiled. "You cannot say that in English.”
"Huh?" asked Nate.
"I know what you wanted to say,” said the man. “But, in English the heart is not in the words, and so they sound foolish or insincere. It is enfants perdus to say it in French. Or, timoun nan danje in Kreyol, meaning both a lost child and a lost cause. The child in danger. The child who lives by the mercy of Death. And nothing, as you say, can be done.”
Nate frowned a little. "You think tryin' to save kids is foolish?”
"Non, my young friend. To care about children is noble and right, as all good religions say. But English is too stark and precise. The heart, as I said, is not in the words, and people become the language they speak. ...English is like a photograph; someone took a picture of something, and so it must be what it looks like. But Kreyol is more like a portrait; you must understand both the art and the artist to know what he was trying to say." Again, the man smiled. "But here I understand the artist, and I do not think he is foolish.”
"I think I see what you sayin',” said Nate. “Um, 'scuse me, but, how come you speak English?”
The man sighed, a soft but sadly audible sound above the rattle and squeak of the bus. "I lived in America for almost a year. I was seeking political asylum there. Your government called me 'boat people,’ arriving with nothing but hope in my heart and the dream of building a better life. But, though I worked hard every day, and studied English at night, I was sent back here again. They said I was only an 'economic refugee,’ and there is no refuge from poverty." He touched his gleaming machete. “And so I cut sugar cane once more. For maybe one dollar a day.”
"...Oh," said Nate. “I’m sorry.”
"When I can," the man went on. "For it is a dying industry here. More and more Haiti’s land must be used by the poor to grow food." He waved the huge knife as if testing its balance. "This is why I went to the city. ...I do not like cities. But, to do a good job, one must have good tools, and I will do nothing badly." He offered the blade, handle-first, to Nate.
The weapon -- tool -- felt good in Nate's hand. He'd never held a machete before but was suddenly sure he could swing it... like the Grim Reaper’s scythe. He probably should have bought one himself, the poor man’s protection in Haiti. "Cool," he said, handing it back. "But, how can you still believe in somethin’ after you went through all that shit?”
The man's eyes warmed. "I have a son. And every child born is a wish from God that the world will go on. Look into the eyes of a child, and you will find something good to believe.”
"I get that feeling, too,” agreed Nate. “But, it's hard to say in English, ain't it?”
"How old is your son?”
"Seven. I love reading to him, watching his eyes make portraits from words. But I cannot afford to buy books.”
Nate thought for a moment then offered his book. "Here, my friend... um, mwen zanmi. Take it. Please... um, plé kontante. It's spooky stuff a kid would like, but I only brought it to read on the plane.”
Part of that was a lie: Nate had found the book in a Dumpster when he'd been about thirteen. The stories had given him nightmarish dreams of moonlit graveyards and shadows with teeth, which had naturally made them exciting. But now he knew all the stories by heart, and it suddenly seemed like a gift from the heart to this ragged man in a hungry land where owning a book was a luxury.
"Thank you, mwen fré, my brother." The man put the book in his Mickey Mouse tote, then offered his hand across the aisle. "I am Tristan Durrant.”
Nate gripped the dusty, work-hardened hand. "Nate Brown.”
"That is surely an American name.”
"Well... it's the one my aunt gave me. ...I never knew my parents." Nate might have said more, but it seemed a lot to explain on a bus. Or maybe in English.
Tristan reached out and touched Nate’s arm, which somehow said enough. "Are you going to see the Citadelle? There are many old ruins here in these mountains, but we Haitians call the Citadelle the eighth wonder of the world. Its walls are almost 120 feet high and twelve feet thick. It was built between 1805 and 1820 by King Henri Christophe to stop any attempt at reinvasion by the French. More than 20,000 free black people worked to build it.”
The bus jolted over a hole in the road and dust billowed in through the glassless windows. The cap slipped over Nate's eyes again for maybe the hundredth time that day. He pushed it up a little. "I ain't really a tourist.”
"I had wondered,” said Tristan, seeming to study Nate again. “There is something very... not tourist about you." He glanced at the pack on the floor at Nate’s feet. "But, of course I did not think you smuggled drugs." Then he added diplomatically, "Though some say it is better than starving to death.”
"I ain't no drug-dealer," said Nate. "Maybe, technically, I am a tourist. That's what I had to put on my papers. I just don't feel like one." He glanced down at himself... his ragged old jeans, his big battered sneaks, his sweaty shirt baring his big childish belly. "Do I look different here, too?”
Tristan laughed. "A ri-timoun of the city traveling into these lonely mountains is not a thing you often see. It is usually the opposite.”
Nate laughed, too. "Believe it or not, I don't look much different anywhere else.”
"I have no trouble believing you. Your clothes are too comfortably worn. What gave you away as American was that you could sit there for such a long time and not say a word to anyone.”
"I always been kinda shy.”
"Haitians would rather laugh with you than at you. But, how do you mean this 'different?’ If not for your unnatural silence and eyes always hidden under your cap, I would never have guessed you were not born here.”
Nate suddenly wanted to talk, but only smiled and said: "An’ you sound more like a tour guide than a sugar cane cutter.”
The four other people had smiled at their laughter -- two women, a girl of about Nate’s age, along with a gray-haired old man -- while the bus driver grinned in his dusty mirror.
Tristan shrugged. "Many people are not what they seem. Or wish they were. Or wish they were not. The pay as a guide is much better, and my English is an advantage. But, tourists are few in Haiti these days. Haiti was once the most beautiful country in the whole Caribbean. The Pearl of the Antilles, she was called. But, European greed, and later the greed of our own rulers for what the blanc had to offer... material things and money... have left her with almost nothing today. Now she is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.”
Nate sighed. "Makes me wish I could do somethin’. ...Is that a een-fants per-dooze?”
"Only in English.”
The bus bulled its way through a jungle of trees. Leafy branches invaded the windows, and the people casually ducked. A big golden lizard plopped onto a seat, then scurried away up the aisle. Tristan didn't give it a glance, nor did anyone else on board, so Nate assumed it didn't bite.
"Can you tell me somethin' about Savann Sou Zòkòs?" asked Nate. "It's somewhere near Terre Rouge, but I guess it's too small to be on a map.”
Tristan looked startled. "Now I know for certain you are not a tourist! No one goes to Terre Rouge if they can go anywhere else. And of Savann Sou Zòkòs...” He seemed to shiver in the heat. “...Valley Of Walking Skeletons! I have heard only whispers.”
Nate felt a chill himself. "Why? Did somethin’ bad happen there?”
Tristan seemed to consider. "I have heard no evil about it, though its name paints a very grim portrait. Only that it is a place in the mountains. It is probably as poor as bones, so perhaps its name describes its people.” His tone became more practical. “And no sights to see. There are bat caves to the north. And indian carvings, very old and mysterious. But they are nearer to Dondon, and there is a better road from Milot because of the Citadelle.”
The bus had emerged from what seemed to be the last of the forest, and Tristan pointed to distant mountains shockingly eroded by rain and barren except for skeletal brush with here and there the corpse of a tree. "See there a garden compared to the land when you have passed Milot. As I say I know nothing of Savann Sou Zòkòs, but Terre Rouge is grim enough. A few people scratch the earth for a living. Children starve and die as Zòkòs.”
Nate felt another chill in the heat. "Little walkin’ skeletons!” Then he made a shrug. “But I’ll just be passin' through Terre Rouge. An’ maybe Savann Sou Zòkòs will be a better place, even with its spooky name. ...But, besides bein' poor an’ grim, did anything bad ever happen in Terre Rouge?”
"How do you mean bad?" asked Tristan.
"Well...” said Nate, not sure himself what he meant. “Maybe somethin' that happened a long time ago, but people still remember it. Like, when the ton-ton macoutes was cuttin' people's heads off.”
Tristan shuddered. "The bloody reign of the Duvaliers are only grandfathers stories to me. ...Are you speaking of a past evil brought into the present? An evil that lingers on somewhere like bones unburied upon the earth?”
"Um... maybe," said Nate.
"You are a mysterious ri-timoun! But, how far into the past do you wish to go? Haiti is much older than America, which has many bad things in its own history... the burning of so-called witches, the slaughter of its native people whose souls still cry for revenge. There was slavery, of course, and other evils still not laid to rest." Tristan faced the distant mountains as the bus struggled up a winding grade. "If there are secrets unburied up there, they have stayed well-hidden, or perhaps well guarded. ...Though, as with all of Haiti, I am sure the Lanmo Timoun comes often.”
Nate felt another chill. "What kind of kid comes often?”
"You do not know the Kreyol word for death?”
"I thought it was mouri?”
"That is the dead. Or to be dead. Lanmo is death itself... the figure, the spirit, the spectre of Death.”
Now Nate actually shivered. "The Death Kid?”
"Or, The Death Child, or The Child Of Death." Tristan regarded Nate for a moment, seeming to study his eyes. "Wi, a very spooky name... one thinks of little skeletons. But, appropriate for the region. Is it not same in any country? There are many regional and cultural names for the spectre of Death in America... The Grim Reaper, The Dark Angel, The Pale Horseman.”
"Yeah,” said Nate. “Some of the kids where I grew up called him The Collector.”
"That, too, is appropriate,” said Tristan. ”Perhaps everyone sees Death with the face they expect to see. Or perhaps with the face they deserve to see.”
"I’d hate to see Death with the face of a kid!" Nate pictured hollowness and teeth, somehow more scary by being small. "I’d hate to look in the eyes of that child!”
"Wi, a grim little portrait," said Tristan. He glanced to the desolate mountains again. "But, you are going to a very grim place.”
"Are you goin’ any further than Milot?”
Tristan turned to the road ahead, peering through the grimy windshield. "Alas, my young friend, here is Milot, and here I must leave you. But, my faith in 'something, sometime... and someone’... has been rewarded today. Thank you for the book, mwen fré. When I read to my son you will be in his eyes.”
Tristan rose as the creaky old vehicle ground to a halt. Nate got up to shake Tristan’s hand, but the man embraced him warmly instead... almost embarrassingly for Nate, chest to chest and cheek to cheek. Tristan held Nate’s shoulders. "May I give you a word of advice, ri-timoun?”
"It is difficult to lie in Kreyol.”
"The book, mwen fré. It meant much to you.”
"...Oh,” said Nate. “But, I was speakin' English.”
"But I was listening in Kreyol." Tristan touched his lips to Nate's. "I will pass that on to my son from you. And I hope you find that something somewhere that will put you at peace.”
Nate watched as Tristan padded away with his wicked machete and Mickey Mouse tote. All the other passengers followed, nodding and smiling to Nate as they passed, as if by laughing he'd made their acquaintance. The young girl’s eyes seemed to linger on him as if inviting a question, but Nate’s eyes stayed in the shadow of his cap. He watched as she walked down the aisle with her dusty dress enticingly tight. He really wanted to talk to her, but his usual shyness held him back. The warmth of Tristan's embrace seemed to linger -- funny because the air was so hot -- and the scent him was earthy and good.
The bus driver was a muscular man in bib-overalls and tire-tread sandals. He shut off the engine and stretched in his seat, then slid from behind the steering wheel and paused to look back at Nate. He said a few words in Kreyol, then repeated them in French. Neither language enlightened Nate, but he heard the word tan... Kreyol for time. The wait could be hours: backroad busses and tap-taps in Haiti didn't seem to care about clocks. Sometimes they waited until they were full -- which didn’t seem likely here in these mountains -- but mostly they ran on the driver's mood; and this driver's mood seemed manje midi... Kreyol for lunch. Bye was the Kreyol word for beer -- one of the first that Nate had learned -- and he realized he was being invited. A beer would have gone down good, but he hadn't been sleeping much at night, and was tired of trying to answer questions, no matter how kindly intended, in a language he couldn't speak very well. He smiled and pantomimed a yawn, and the driver nodded and left.
Nate looked out at a shabby station with a pair of rusty gas pumps in front. Milot wasn't very big, just a few streets of wood and brick buildings painted in faded pastel colors. Nothing seemed to be moving except for the passengers walking away... including the pretty young girl. Nate watched until she turned a corner, and cursed his shyness again. It was close to noon and hellishly hot. The sun beat down on the roof of the bus as if trying to burn through the metal and bake Nate’s brain inside his skull. The sweltering air was unnaturally still to someone used to city sounds. The ticking and clicks of hot metal came from the engine compartment, and the brake system bled a perpetual sigh.
Nate lay back on the worn out seat in the slippery mud of his sweat. He heard no children's voices outside, though even the homeless ri-timouns would have found some shade at this time of day. He almost wished he was with them again, listening to their sleepy chatter, or napping and waiting for coolness of night. His eyes drifted back to the window, and he saw a family approaching the bus, a wiry father in cargo pants, the mother slim in a cotton dress and holding a baby in her arms, and slender boy who looked about eight. The boy was clad only in jeans, which were tightly outgrown and completely unzipped. The family climbed aboard the bus and took the two front seats. Nate wondered how far they were going; maybe to Terre Rouge? Or even to Savann Sou Zòkòs? He thought about introducing himself, but maybe he should stay cool. He still knew nothing about the place...
Except it had a Child Of Death.
He pulled off his cap to let his hair dry, then lay back and gazed at the roof. Flies buzzed in and out through the windows and landed on him to drink his sweat. Like a ri-timoun he ignored them. He thought about buying himself a beer, but he'd been drinking way too much, as the bulge of his belly attested. His shirt was like a sodden rag and clung to his body like slimy paint, but it seemed too much trouble to peel it off.
The boy in front began to fidget as all kids do when hot and bored. He slid from his seat and came up the aisle but stopped when he caught sight of Nate, and stared at Nate for at least a minute. He didn't exactly look frightened, but he didn't look not frightened, either. That was a little strange because kids had never been scared of him. Nate offered a smile, but that only seemed to unsettle the boy who spun around and ran back to his parents. Nate heard him say something like zòkò zyes. The word, zòkò, caught Nate's attention -- maybe they were going there? -- but he didn’t know what zyes meant. The boy’s parents turned around. Like their son they seemed to study Nate, but finally the father nodded politely and drew his son reassuringly close. The family faced the front of the bus and seemed to murmur together. Nate had the feeling of being discussed, but maybe that wasn’t surprising. They were rural people and anything new was... different, including a “ri-timoun of the city” traveling into these lonely mountains.
A few minutes later the driver returned with a half-finished bottle of Prestige beer. He started the clattery engine, and the bus rattled on out of town.
As Tristan had warned, the mountains grew even more barren and grim as the bus continued on. Sometimes it crawled at the pace of a snail, grinding up to a lofty pass, and then it would tilt steeply downward to go rocking and roaring like a runaway train. The driver didn't seem worried, steering one-handed through switchbacks and turns, though the brake pedal often thumped the floor without doing much to slow the bus. But the family looked frightened and clung to their seats... except for the boy who enjoyed the descents as if on a Disneyland ride. There were rickety bridges at bottoms of valleys that trembled and creaked as the bus rumbled over. Sometimes there wasn't a bridge at all -- or simply the ruins where one had fallen -- and the bus lumbered, splashing, through fast-flowing streams. There were only a few other vehicles, big rusty trucks and beat-up Jeeps, Nissan Patrols and battered Land Rovers. There were still a few clumps of trees here and there, showing this land had once been a forest, but the desperation of starving people had stripped the green flesh off its dun-colored bones. They passed through villages, tiny and bleak, but nobody seemed to be going their way. All had small churches and oversize graveyards with tombs and slabs that were colorfully painted, though most of the shacks and shanties were not.
Seeing all this poverty -- people struggling to grow little gardens, always guarded by children with sticks -- Nate wondered if what he was doing made sense. Did he really think he was going home? Home to what? Parents he'd never seen in his life? Parents he'd never known existed. Parents who, seventeen years ago, had smuggled him into America.
He still wasn't sure what to think about that, after living a week in the Haitian slums and trying to find a different perspective while spending his nights drinking beer with timouns and most of his days in their tumbledown dens. He'd definitely found a new point of view, but not himself in relation to it. Or maybe, lame as it sounded, his soul?
In America he'd had everything that a poor black kid was entitled to have -- and compared to Haiti that was a fortune, from free education to toilet paper -- though chances and choices were taken for granted, often ignored or thrown away, and usually valued the least of things. But, that was something he'd always known, like a child of the desert could swim.
He gazed out the window and fingered his necklace... something he'd worn all his life. Had they sent him away out of love, he wondered? There was nothing heartless in that... wanting your child to have better things along with the knowledge to use them. But, why had it all been a secret? His aunt had told him his parents were dead -- killed in a car wreck when he was a baby -- the only time, as far as he knew, she had ever lied to him in his life. It had only been after her passing a little more than a month ago, when finding a bundle of ribbon-wrapped letters he'd finally uncovered the truth.
He closed his eyes and lay back in the seat. If the reason they'd sent him away was love, then they should have told him! What good was love when you didn’t know it? Their letters were written in Haitian French, which also included a mix of Kreyol. It had taken him days to translate them. They were simple descriptions of village life, of raising crops and tending goats, of sun and rain, of moonlit nights, and funny things that children did. But each began with questions of him, everything loving parents would ask... his health, his teeth, his very first word, his grades at school, his favorite foods, and even the sound of his laughter. But, why had it all been a secret?
To say he'd been shocked -- devastated in French -- would have been mocking his misery. It felt as if something had ripped out his heart! And then he had raged at his aunt's memory, cursing her grave and the worms in her bones, spitting into her rotting face because she had hidden that love from him.
And yet he’d known this wasn't true -- if his parents had wanted him to know they would have written letters to him -- but at least it allowed him to tear things apart, stay drunk for weeks and cry like a child.
He could only guess how his aunt had replied by reading his parents’ responses. His aunt had sent them a lock of his hair, and also lots of pictures -- which explained why many of those she had taken had "never come out" to be printed -- but his parents were always happy to hear whatever it was she had told them.
The big golden lizard ran back down the aisle, but Nate only gave it a glance. Why, he had wondered in those ravaged weeks, would his parents want him to think they were dead? And, if that was what they had wanted, why would they care so much about him? But, after reading their letters again, the only thing that made any sense was danger in some kind of form... he wasn't supposed to know where he came from, so he would never try to return.
But, who was in danger if he came back? ...His parents, himself... or all of them?
End of excerpt. This novella is included in Reaps, available on Kindle.