The Company of Heaven: Stories From Haiti by Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell

from "Down by the River"

It is Saturday, eleven in the morning, so Angelina sits and waits by the phone. Most Saturdays she sits in the big office chair that used to be my father’s. I imagine her legs are stretched, her toes fan out in the hot October air. Her pigtails carry two barrettes each, one at the base and one at the tip, and she is wearing the white dress her uncle Noula bought her to wear at her father’s funeral, back in May. The Saturday phone call is the big event of her week. Beginning each Wednesday, Maxènn, who volunteered to take care of her, tells Angelina that there are only three days to go. Friday evenings, while she settles on her mat to sleep, he tells her, It’s tomorrow, and she always replies, I wish it were morning already!

On Saturday mornings, Angelina wakes up early. Maxènn and his daughters, who are seven and nine years old, get her ready. The girls came from the provinces to stay with their father during the summer months. A clean dress—one of four—is ironed. Angelina is bathed, soaped, shampooed, teased, tickled, dried, and dressed. Maxènn’s daughters compete to oil and comb her hair. They love her. Angelina has begun to develop bald spots on her scalp, particularly on the right side, where the girls start the combing, their energy fresh, their attention focused. Hair is important to little girls, but nappy hair isn’t easy; it takes more practice. When eleven o’clock draws near, Angelina is ready. The little girl takes Maxènn’s hand, and together they climb the steep and narrow stairs that lead through the garden to the big house
with the telephone.

Angelina’s father, Sovè, died spitting blood, undiagnosed, the way people in the slums die—suffering from an unnamed ailment for months or years until the body gives out—and with more children already underground than jumping rope on the swept dirt in front of the one-room hut where sleeping mats are rolled up in a corner.

Sovè loved Angelina: everyone who knew him says so. Angelina had been only eighteen months old when her mother, Fifi , died. Fifi wasn’t even sick; she just collapsed one afternoon, complaining of stomach pains. Her neighbors carried her to bed. For long, worried hours, Angelina watched her mother’s friend Elmita fetch water from the nearby stream, then offer a sip to Fifi’s trembling lips, sponging a face Angelina would never remember, a face without a photograph. That same evening, Fifi died. Sovè was still at work.

Fifi came from the northern town of Cap-Haitien. “On bèl moun bouch ròz”—A pretty girl with pink lips, that’s what the neighbors said about her. “Li te renmen chante”—She liked to sing. No one ever saw Fifi ’s family. None of them came to her funeral. The last words she managed to utter before dying were to Elmita: “M kite ti pitit mwen nan men w, li va rele w Manman”—I leave my baby in your hands; she will call you Mother.

Excerpted from "Down by the River" from The Company of Heaven: Stories From Haiti by Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell. Copyright © 2010 by Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, University of Iowa Press.