“The Rainbow’s End” by M.J. Fievre (from Haiti Noir)
The Rainbow’s End
by M.J. Fievre
Kenscoff, Haiti (from Haiti Noir)
I’m sitting in my father’s chair—a tattered and tired office chair that I’ve lugged to the porch. It is showing its age: scarred faux leather, armrests sprouting prickly stuffing, scents of Papa in the fabric. Half shaded by an acacia tree, I am sipping rich, dark café au lait, scattering a bit on the ground first, just like my father does, to feed our ancestors. The air is soft with breeze and sweet with roasting coffee, the few clouds in the sky moving like fishing boats out on the Caribbean Sea. The voices of the neighborhood rise and fall in spurts. Outside the prisonlike gates of my parents’ house in Kenscoff, young girls balance buckets atop their heads, up and down the graveled roads. Sun-wrinkled women sell huge mangoes and homemade peanut brittle, while boys in cutoff jeans run in circles with makeshift kites or push around trucks made from plastic bottles.
Papa struts from the house. A dark beard nearly covers his entire face. This angled face is also mine. Only fear and distance make it seem less familiar. My father’s hair is still wet from the shower. His I-am-home clothing is worn and comfortable: a stretched-out sweater, blue chinos, and old wool socks. The skin crawls on the back of my neck and the pit of my stomach crashes into my pelvis. My father’s presence always makes me uncomfortable. He’s more of a jailer than a father. I don’t like his grim outlook on the world and the way he tries so hard to make a father and daughter out of us when we are in fact complete strangers.
He walks around behind me in his cramped, thin shoes, places his hands on the back of the chair, and asks, “What are you doing, Magda?”
I can’t see his face now but I know his eyebrows are furrowed in curiosity. I take a deep breath, push my wild furious loathing into a soft, horrible place inside myself, and I swallow. “Thinking,” I say.
He sits in the rocking chair next to me, elbows on knees, with his whiskered chin in the palms of his hands, and sighs. Then he picks up the magazine I have been reading, clutches it in his calloused and rough hands.
“I don’t think a girl should be allowed to go to nightclubs until she’s eighteen,” he says.
I nod my head up and down, like a bobble doll, pretending to be interested.
Papa looks at me. “You don’t like me much, do you?”
I raise my shoulders in annoyance. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
He takes a deep breath. “What if I let you go out with your friends tonight?”
Just like that. My life in Kenscoff becomes a dazzling succession of house parties, balls, gaieties, not only night after night, but also sometimes an afternoon gathering at one house followed by an evening party somewhere else. I dance, sing, and drink toasts with cheap beers. I wear trendy wide-leg jeans, white denims, belly shirts of neon colors, dresses with abstract, multicolored designs. At seventeen, I feel like I’m running my own show. I understand what it means to live at the rainbow’s end and have its colors shimmer about me.
Tonight, Lakoup Nightclub is crowded, noisy, and literally vibrating with the beat of music blasting through large speakers. The air itself is alive with energy, the crowd abuzz with anticipation. I walk into the music, into the shadows, and the hot, sticky night presses against my skin until perspiration beads my upper lip. People line up three deep at the bar, in the rez-de-chaussée of the old gingerbread house. The bartender is chatting with a woman. “What is so dreadful about your hair that someone would call it dreadlocks?” she asks.
I don’t know the number of gourdes required for a Coca-Cola or a Prestige beer. I let the sexy bartender get me a cocktail “on the house.” I explore the dark, empty rooms upstairs. I walk out on the balcony, the den of iniquity, where a couple is smoking something with a peculiar smell. The girl laughs and reaches up. She slips her hand under the boy’s blue shirt, up near the collar. Her hand is moving, rubbing the boy’s neck. They’re in search of privacy, but I just stand there. Then the couple leaves and I’m alone, under the stars, sipping my cocktail, watching people dancing downstairs, in the yard.
From the balcony, I can see the band in the backyard. Lead singer Michel Martelly’s voice is strong and unlabored even when reaching for notes in the upper registers. I love the grainy vocal quality that lends the band a tortured but familiar sound, as if one were remembering a bad day. Martelly keeps listeners hanging on every phrase, awaiting the next pause or streak or curve.
“Hello,” a voice says behind me.
There’s something boyish about the man standing there—the dimples and the apple cheeks. His hair is wild and shaggy, as if the wind has been playing with it. He’s probably in his late twenties, handsome, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist.
“Do you want to dance?” he asks.
He says his name is Ben and he is a lanky mulatto. As he moves me around in a circle, Michel Martelly sings, “Yon samdi swa nan lakou Lakoup, desten fè de moun kontre.” On a Saturday night, at Lakoup Nightclub, their destinies intertwined. The singer laughs and adds to the lyrics, “But he was a mad, mad man.” Ben’s hands leave damp spots on my back. He smells of oiled wood, and during the next dance he pulls back to look at me and says that I’m pretty. He gets me another drink.
Then we are lounging in the parking lot, his back against his beat-up Volkswagen, blowing smoke rings to the sky, watching them rise and disappear slowly. He calls me a wild grimèl. We can still hear the crunching guitar and the keyboard. They come together to create a sometimes sultry, sometimes dreamy, and sometimes raucous feel. I want to listen to Michel Martelly forever. His voice is both loud and strong and soft and vulnerable. His solos are the sound of supreme confidence: not aggressive or necessarily flashy, but casually assuring that every impulse will pay off.
“I’d like to see you again,” Ben says with a grin that crinkles the laugh lines around his eyes and deepens the grooves that bracket his mouth.
We meet again at another party in Pétionville, in a two-story brick house with an iron balcony. Ben’s eyes are chocolate-brown; his smile, easy and warm, makes me feel like the only person he’s ever truly smiled at.
While we’re dancing by the pool, a young man accidentally bumps into Ben.
“Watch it, fucker,” Ben says with a flash of recognition in his eyes.
“What did you call me?” the other man asks.
I give a horrible squeal, like a kitten under a rocking chair, when the stranger pushes both Ben and me into the pool. I don’t even have time to take a breath before I find myself underwater. Wild fear grabs the edges of my mind. Panic pounds loudly in my temples and twines my heart. I kick and squirm, fighting to get back to the surface. My lungs are screaming for air. I am choking. I am drowning. I gulp big mouthfuls of water; I can feel it going up to my nose and down into my lungs.
With one hand, Ben helps me out of the water. In the other hand, he’s holding a gun.
He fires toward the sky. Gunshots pop like firecrackers. The air is electric—people run around in circles and scream, boys hold their girlfriends’ hands. Leaving Ben behind, I plow through the madness to the side of the bar. I drop to the floor, crouching beneath the porch railing. There are too many people to see what’s happening; I am caught in a spiral of chaos and movement, charging, rushing, spinning, trampling. Just a sea of people and crashing movement. There is more running, sauve qui peut, and dizziness. I press my hands against my temples as two more gunshots shatter the air.
The other guy is gone. Ben calms down. He finds me in the crowd and asks me if I’m okay. There’s a dangerous flicker in his eyes.
I don’t go out that much anymore because Ben seems to materialize everywhere. Besides, there’s the embargo and the gas prices have skyrocketed, making it impossible to get around town. My father often spends half a day in a line to get his tank filled; no gas container allowed. I can only go to school three times a week. On school days, because of the traffic caused by the long lines, the alarm clock rings at four o’clock in the morning.
“C’est l’heure! C’est l’heure!” my mother chants each morning as she opens the windows for the mountain air to rush in.
We fetch water from a cistern built under the house for our bath and press our clothes with a smoky charcoal iron, whose hollow interior is filled with smoldering coals. High, spoutlike openings allow for the coals to be fanned when swinging the iron back and forth vigorously.
If there’s no electricity, I do my homework by candlelight. After I’ve studied a whole chapter on the French Revolution or read about la Négritude, there’s not much to do and I’m bored out of my mind.
I don’t remember giving him my phone number. But Ben calls.
We talk every night. I sit Indian-style, wringing, twirling the curly phone cord in my left hand, receiver tucked between my ear and left shoulder, until hours later it leaves hickeys on my ear. I tell him about my father. One moment Papa is normal, calm, quiet, in control, reliable; the next he is a wild-eyed stranger, screaming so loud my ears sting. His eyebrows join together in a frown line across his forehead. His thin face is stern, lips latched tight, and his black-rimmed glasses magnify his furious eyes.
“If you ever need me to kick his ass,” Ben says, “I’m one phone call away.”
Ben is not that bad, after all. He might be dangerous—but he’s also fun. He doesn’t try to hide his trying to get into my pants. We have phone sex once, or so he thinks. I am only pretending, playing Tetris silently on my Game Boy. Maybe he’s faking it too.
I want to learn how to drive. Ben knows someone who knows someone else who works at the Department of Highway Control. I get my driver’s license before I ever sit behind a wheel. I think that once I get the rectangular piece of colorful plastic, it will be easier to convince my parents to send me to driving school. Well, no. Papa says I am too impulsive to drive a car.
“Teach me,” I tell Ben.
Mom is okay with the lessons because I told her that Ben is a math teacher chez les soeurs. Truth is: Ben doesn’t exactly have a job. He was into stealing credit card numbers on the Internet for a while. Now, he admits just living off his mother’s retirement money.
That same afternoon, I am in the driver’s seat of his red Volkswagen. He spent the whole morning at a gas station, in an “embargo” line—his tank is full. The ashtray is polluted with cigarette butts; the floorboards have rusted out from summers at the beach.
Ben is distracted by my legs. I’ve been flirting with him out of boredom, wearing skimpy skirts and using words that my mother doesn’t know I know.
He shows me how to turn on the engine, how to back up. I chug and lurch two or three times in reverse before we make it safely out of the driveway. I spin the buggy in a one-eighty. Dried grass from the summer’s heat throws dust into the air and I narrowly miss hitting a parked pickup truck. I jump the curb, taking out several shrubs and a small tree, and then I regain control of the car.
We stop the bug and walk around it. The front bumper is wrenched downward; branches weave between it and the crammed wheel well. Ben starts pulling at the greenery and I join him. With one leg propped up on the slanted bumper so he can see some more skin, I tug on a particularly huge branch.
“I’m sorry,” I say. But I don’t really mean it.
Ben says I am a fast learner, and I tell him I don’t want to have driving lessons on a back road. I want the real thing, the treacherous Kenscoff Road leading to the mountains. This road is extremely slim and steep, with sudden turns and a ravine on both sides. There’s no way to survive a fall.
I want someone to temper my urges to look for trouble. I am expecting a No, are you crazy? from Ben when I mention Kenscoff Road. That’s how I usually deal with my impulsive, crazy ideas. I state them, and a saner person rebuffs them. Should I get a tattoo? Should I dye my hair blue? No. No. No!
But Ben says okay. So on day two, we are already on the main road. Tires spinning. Music blasting. The freedom! The excitement! I pop in a Bob Marley CD, crank up the volume, and punch the accelerator to the floor. The car makes a deep-toned hum and jolts forward with a squealing of the tires and a cloud of dust. I scream excitedly as we speed past the huge, honking trucks.
The first car I hit is a tap tap, a taxi full of people.
“Ben, you are in big trouble,” I say.
After all, I’m only seventeen; I’m still a kid. He’s the adult here. And it’s his car. Why should I care? He’s the one who was willing to let me drive.
The other driver is surprisingly unruffled, however. One look at Ben and the stranger is flustered, nervously running his short fingers through his hair. His eyes open wide, sending his bushy black eyebrows to the top of his forehead. He says his tap tap needed serious repairs even before we hit it.
The second car is a brand-new Honda. The woman looks angry for a minute, and then she composes herself and asks us if we’ve ever heard of Amway. She says there is a reason for all this to be happening, that God wants me to become a rich girl in Haiti. As she hands me her business card, she says, “Don’t worry about the repairs.”
So off we go again, down the mountains this time. We stop by my friend Nelly’s house. As soon as I park, the whole front of the car collapses. Nelly’s father gives Ben a hand to temporarily adjust the front of the vehicle. I let Ben take the wheel for the drive back—too much adventure for one day.
We fly up the road, kissing the embankment at speeds that test fate. Suddenly, Ben jerks the wheel to the right and sends us flying into a cow field. The headlights bob into an eternity of wheat-colored grass, the moonlight miles ahead. I can hear a million voices, like flies, buzzing at the back of my neck.
And then the engine dies.
I don’t expect fear to come at me so violently. I am alone with a grown man in a deserted area. He grabs me, tries to kiss me. I want to say, Oh no, you creep. Crank this puppy up and get me out of here or I’m . . . I’m . . . I’m walking! But I simply ask him to stop. He doesn’t; his hands are fumbling with my shirt. I can feel something in the air. Something nasty that is taking over. I have to think fast.
“I just need time,” I say. “I know you’re the one. I don’t want to ruin it by going too fast. I’ve been thinking about how special this has to be.”
Somehow, my hands remain steady and my voice unmarked by the fear that is overtaking me. There is something in Ben’s eyes, cold and animal—something I know I will never forget. He just sits there, listening to the loud ticking of the dashboard clock, his hands locked on the wheel, his foot still on the brake pedal. The smell of burnt rubber fills the cabin.
A muscle in his cheek twitches as he drives me home. And I can read his eyes. I know where you live.
When the embargo ends, the partying resumes. Somehow, I manage to avoid Ben for a few months. But then he shows up at my birthday party, with the clear brown eyes and dimples that complement his bright smile. He helps Nelly out of a red BMW, and she introduces him as her new boyfriend. Ben offers a strange smile, the corners of his mouth lift, but his eyes remain dead, without the slightest twinkle in them. Finally, he shows a set of pearly white teeth and helps himself to a glass of kremas at the outdoor bar.
“Did you miss me?” he asks.
My mother pulls me aside, to a corner of the patio. “Who is he?” I can hear suspicion in her voice.
“Nelly’s boyfriend, apparently.”
“I see that,” she says with a dismissive gesture of her right hand. “I meant, isn’t he the teacher who used to drive the beat-up Volkswagen? How come he’s driving a BMW now?”
I shrug. “I heard he’s a cop now,” then look absentmindedly at the azaleas and bougainvilleas lining the side of the house. “I don’t know, Mom.”
“Look at all the expensive jewelry around his neck. Smells like drug money to me.”
“I don’t know, Mom.”
I sigh and walk toward the deejay, a really handsome young man who smiles every time he catches me watching him do his thing. The music is good—mellow and sexy, and never overpowering. At the deejay’s table, I check the list of songs to be played next, smiling at the familiar faces on the dance floor. The boys wear Saturday-night smiles. The girls are in dresses and slinky tops, with their hair and makeup done to perfection. I shake hands, kiss cheeks, tousle hair, and hug. But something about Ben bugs me.
Ben and Nelly are French-kissing in a corner. Her chubby, short, and dark-skinned body and his gangly lighter one, merging. Nelly sees me and waves her arms high above her head. I gesture back, a very bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. Well, Ben is certainly the center of attention that night. He shows his police badge around and girls giggle, beaming in adoration. Nelly hugs him proudly.
I bump into my cousin Clement who’s spending a few days with us from Port-au-Prince.
“Do you know that guy over there?” he asks.
I look around, at the boys prowling and the girls flashing a lot of skin. The music is so loud I feel it vibrating in my eardrums. “What guy?”
“This guy making out with Nelly. Is his name Ben?”
I nod. “It sure is. What’s up?”
“I need to talk to you. Could you give me a sec?”
I follow Clement inside my father’s study. “What’s up?” I say again.
“Do you actually know Ben?” he asks gravely.
“Well, we used to be friends. He taught me how to drive.”
Clement scratches his ear. “Listen, I don’t want to scare you or anything, but Ben is out on a bail bond.”
I can hear my parents laughing in the kitchen. They drink cocktails, dark ones, often peeping through the venetian blinds to check on the “kids.” “I can’t believe my little girl just turned eighteen,” Mom says. “It seems like only days ago when we were playing koukou, ah!”
My heart is dancing the cha-cha. “What was he arrested for?”
Clement lights up a cigarette. “A drug deal gone bad. A fight at a pool party followed by a boy’s body being found in his trunk.”
A pool party, huh?
The cigarette hangs loosely from his lips. He lets it dangle there until the ashes fall off by themselves into a tiny gray pile on the floor. “Damnit!” he says. “I can’t believe this crooked cop is still walking around freely with his police badge.”
He lets me smoke some of his cigarette, and the gray smoke curls up toward the discolored ceiling. I slump down on a sofa, hoping that Clement is mistaken. The adults in the kitchen move on to talking about politics and the situation in Port-au-Prince. About the corrupt new police who replaced the army a few weeks ago.
“Are you sure about Ben?” I ask. “I mean, you know how it works here. Could just be rumors.”
“Believe me, ti cheri, I know what I’m talking about.”
My heart is skidding up into my throat. I need to find Nelly. Can it be true that Ben is a murderer? I remember the pool incident. I think about his broody eyes, his listen-to-me lips.
I look everywhere. Nelly and Ben are gone. Just gone.
It’s midnight. I dial Nelly’s phone number. No one picks up. The deejay belts out Bob Marley, and I chug my cup of cola champagne a little harder and realize how empty it is. The music is crisp in my ears, light and airy.
One in the morning. Nothing. At two o’clock, most of the guests are gone. I try Nelly’s home phone again. Nothing. While dialing, I get so many mosquito bites I take a pen and play connect-the-dots on my legs. Sleep crusts the corners of my eyes.
The last guests leave around five a.m. I finally get Nelly’s mother on the phone. She says her daughter hasn’t come home, and do I have any idea where she might be?
“We need to find Nelly,” I tell Clement in a coarse voice after hanging up. “Maybe she’s over at his house. He told me once where he lives. Would you please take me there?”
We don’t exactly give it a second thought. We get into Clement’s Honda. The sun is just waking up, and the wind whistles through the winged windows of the car. The cold air whips my hair as we pass houses patched with tin, cardboard, and plastic. Kenscoff smells of fresh leaves and donkey dung. The town is so quiet at this time of day that all I can hear is the jingle bells of ice-cream carts pushed by men on their way to Pétionville to sell sweet coconut popsicles. The road leading to Ben’s house is narrow and crooked. My heart is burning. I am haunted by the disturbing stories about Ben, and it’s nerve-racking.
Clement uses a rock to knock on the gate. We wait and listen; I think I hear the singing of psalms inside. A woman with heavy-lidded eyes and a red blouse comes out of the house. She looks at us curiously. “M ka ede w?” she asks. Can I help you?
“I’m sorry to bother you at this hour, ma’am, but we really need to see Ben,” I stammer.
She asks us to follow her, and we walk inside a room where four women are praying and incense is burning with a pleasant smell. All the shades are drawn. One woman lifts her head and nods. Clement and I nod back and follow the one in red down some stairs into a basement. She knocks on a door. “Ben,” she says, “there are some people here to see you.”
The door opens, and the smell of marijuana rushes out along with the rank odor of alcohol and stale cigarettes. Ben emerges from the room, his lids thick, his eyes red and watery.
“Hey, Ben,” I say, trying to sound casual even though I am sure my fear is visible. “How are you?”
His lips are drawn in a tight smile. His eyes are dead.
“I’m looking for Nelly,” I continue. “Is she here?”
He opens the door, and there are three other guys in his bedroom, all high on something. Two of them, their eyes set deep in their sockets, are watching TV. The third one has passed out. He is lying on a padded sofa, bathing in his own vomit, the smell of which almost makes me sick. There’s a faint lamp in one corner of the room, and no sunlight gets in at all. We walk in and Ben puts his hand out, laying it on my arm. “She won’t come out of the bathroom,” he says.
His hand is raw on my skin. The darkness in his voice makes me shiver. His expression is unreadable. How did I ever find him cute? I notice a gun on his desk. The danger in this room is sharp enough to make the air around us crackle.
“Seems like you had quite a party here,” Clement says with a detached voice. How can he sound so relaxed?
I knock softly on the bathroom door. “Nelly, are you in there?”
No answer. Clement gives me a quick glance over his shoulder. I knock again. “Nelly, it’s Magda. Please open the door.”
Ben pulls me near. His hand caresses my shoulder, slides down my back, and comes to rest beneath my armpit, at the swell of my breast. “I’m sure she’s okay.”
I hear someone’s faint crying. Oh God! What did he do to her? Then the door cracks open, and Nelly sticks her head out. Her dark hair hangs across her forehead in messy strands. She comes out of the bathroom and hugs me. Her eyes are dark, hooded.
“We’ll be going now,” Clement says then.
Nelly turns away from me to look at the men. Fear whisks across her face. Ben is tracing his finger along a scar on his chin. “No problem, man,” he says.
He doesn’t appear anything like the man I met months before. His good looks are gone. There is a stiffness to his face. He has an empty stare. When he kisses Nelly on the lips, she doesn’t kiss him back. Ben’s cheeks harden and his neck tendons engorge. There’s this dangerous look in his eyes again. The one I’ve seen in cats’ eyes while they play with their prey.
We make a quick exit to the car. I am about to get into the vehicle when a wave of nausea rolls over me too fast for me to feel it coming. I dry heave for several long moments. When the nausea finally abates, my temples are pounding, and the sunlight suddenly seems too bright. I pull myself inside the car, taking deep breaths to calm down.
On the cusp of morning, we ride into the sunrise, past the big old two-story houses with porch swings and flower beds along the front walks, the beautiful old flamboyant trees that line the quiet streets and hold on to their bloody leaves.
“I was afraid he was going to rape me,” Nelly says. “That’s why I wouldn’t come out of the bathroom.”
“I was afraid he was going to kill me,” I say. “But I couldn’t just leave you there.”
The bumpy Kenscoff Road is quiet, and the damp air raises goose bumps on my skin as I look ahead into the breaking clouds, warm colors coming in to soften the sky—pinks and golds that blossom against the horizon like jungle flowers.
But as I suck in my breath, I can’t taste the sunrise. I’m looking over my shoulder. Because Ben knows where I live.
M.J. FIEVRE’S short stories and poems have appeared in P’an Ku, The Mom Egg, Healthy Stories, Writer’s Digest, Caribbean Writer, Pocket Smut, and 365 Days of Flash Fiction. She is a regular contributor to the online publication the Nervous Breakdown and a contributing editor for Vis.A.Vis magazine. She is the founding editor of Sliver of Stone magazine.
Posted: May 24, 2013
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