A wooden spoon. A green onion. A pot with three legs. One bottle of Florida water. Another of Champagne Andre. Three candles. A bag of “poud pa janbe” (“don’t-cross-here powder”). And most important, a young rooster.
I had been warned not to haggle over the rooster.
The merchant had five birds. One was old and orange. Three were adolescents, good for fighting but not much else. The last was energetic, almost enthusiastic. His red feathers looked gold in the sunlight.
“How much for him?” I asked.
She picked him up. “300 gourdes,” she said (a little over seven U.S. dollars). I paid her, tucked the bird under my arm and walked home.
It was April 2010. Four months earlier, an earthquake had killed hundreds of thousands of my fellow Haitians. My family and I were homeless again, sleeping behind a Mormon church, and I needed something to change.
Born in a town on Haiti’s west coast, I had lived with my father and mother and seven siblings in Ti Gine, the fisherman’s quarter, until our house was washed away in a flood. We slept on the floor of an aunt’s house, and then in a Baptist church. My father was a good man who could never get ahead. He left our family when I was 17.
My mother sold patties at a local school; we survived on her daily wages, which I now know were less than one U.S. dollar a day. Finding money for school was an ordeal. My sisters and I always wanted what we couldn’t have — dolls, shoes, a backpack or cellphone.
As the oldest sibling, I felt responsible for the others. I moved to Port-au-Prince for college, which I attended when I could get the money to pay for it, and I was there when the earthquake struck, on a bus on my way to class. I later learned that the school building collapsed, killing many of my classmates.
It took me 12 hours to journey by foot through the ruined downtown to my uncle’s house in Aviation, a neighborhood near the old airport. My aunt was among the first to make camp on the old runway, where she was joined by thousands.
With the cellphone towers destroyed, I couldn’t reach my family. For five days, my mother thought I was dead. It took me that long to travel the 67 kilometers (almost 42 miles) to Petit Goave. The highway bridges were out; we had to exit the busses and wade to the other side. I returned home to find my family sleeping in the street.
The next months were a nightmare. I slept as much as I could because I was hungry all the time. Finally, in the depths of despair, I accompanied a friend to visit his spiritual guide, a Vodou priest in the town of Leogane.
As soon as he saw me, he knew what was wrong: “There’s a shadow over your life.”
“What do you mean?”
“You might be the first in a room, but you’re the last to be seen.”
He wrote a prescription — green onion, wooden spoon, young rooster — and told me to return when I had gathered the items.
When I asked my mother for the money, she said, “I taught you the way of light. This is the way of darkness.” As a devout Christian, she disapproves of Vodou.
I told her that this was a deeper darkness than any I had faced, that I was desperate for change, and finally she gave in. I filled the prescription and left for the priest’s house with my sister.
The rooster was killed, and I was painted in his blood. Afterward, I bathed in water infused with citrus leaves and Florida water. When I offered my sister a piece of the cooked rooster, the priest said, “You eat your fill before anyone else.”
This accomplished, I was to go home and place a glass of water under the moon. Then I would wake before anyone else, take the water in my mouth and spit in the cardinal directions. The priest said I would be washed and bright as a new penny.
He was right.
A month later, when “the whites” arrived — aid workers, mostly from Europe — I was hired by Oxfam International to work as a hygiene specialist in the tent camps. I made more money in one month than my mother made in a year. In October, when the cholera epidemic started, I was transferred to the public health campaign, and went into the camps with iodine tabs and bars of soap, teaching prevention.
The hygienists were invited to tour the new cholera treatment center when it opened. We found a series of tents set up over white gravel. The incoming patients were stripped naked and then sprayed with a blast of chlorine mist. What I remember most about that day is not the smell of the place or even the morgue they were building — it was the man I saw exiting the tent carrying a five-gallon bucket; he was handsome and enthusiastic, blonde under the sunlight.
I had not expected my rooster to be white.
We made eye contact; that was all. When I got home, I told my sister I had seen my rooster and was afraid I would never see him again. But we did see each other again, at a concert. His name was Xander. When he asked, in Creole, for my phone number, I gave it to him.
I woke to find he had texted me to say good morning.
“Are you married?” I wrote.
“You have kids?”
My grandmother lived in the mountains. Every few weeks she would come see my family in the city, bringing cocoa and coffee she grew herself. Everyone called her Madam Ti Klis, or Mrs. Small Seed, because she was only 4 feet 10. When she came to see us over Christmas, she was amazed to hear I had gotten a job.
“The job’s not all she got,” my mother said, mentioning my white boyfriend.
My grandmother said she had never associated with a white person outside of church, and she didn’t think they were all that friendly.
She returned a few weeks later with her boyfriend, Emwa. They had been dating for 20 years and she wanted him to hear the story. Afterward, she insisted I bring Xander to their house for a visit. Emwa was worried about the bad road, the long hike and the sorry state of the house, which had become infested with termites.
“If he truly cares for her,” my grandmother said, “he’ll come.”
The invitation was a test, one I worried Xander would fail, not wanting to trek into the mountains to visit my poor grandmother. But he said he would come.
On Sunday, we left town in a “taptap” (a little truck) and made our way to my grandmother’s house. I was ashamed of the dirt floor, but Xander didn’t seem to care.
Our relationship deepened as the strife around us grew worse. Cholera ravaged the tent camps. Hundreds got sick, filling the morgue. Xander and I would meet for lunch, scrubbing our hands with Clorox soap, and then he would put his head in my lap, and I would play with his hair. He extended his stay once, and again, until his visa was about to expire.
The first thing Xander did when he landed in Miami, before he called his own family, was to call me. After that, we spoke for hours every day. Neighbors told me he would never return, that I was just a way to pass the time. But on the phone, he asked if I wanted to come live with him. I didn’t know if he was serious. I had never left Haiti or even flown on a plane.
“Why would he bring you to America?” my friends said.
But he did return, with a ring. He got on one knee and asked me to marry him.
That was 10 years ago.
In American movies, couples almost always have so much in common. Xander and I didn’t even speak the same language — he was still learning Creole when we met, and although I now speak English fluently, I didn’t then. But we know something that American cinema doesn’t: Love has its own language.
I was born in the tropics, a Black girl in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. My husband was born in the north, a white man from the richest country on earth. But from the day we first saw each other at the cholera treatment center, all of that fell away, and we were naked to each other as Naomie and Xander.
Ever since, for thousands of nights, we have said “I love you” to each other in the dark, and then we have fallen asleep, marveling that it took an earthquake, an epidemic, a rooster and a passing glance to bring us together.
Naomie Brinvilus lives with her husband, Xander Miller, a novelist (“Zo”) and physician assistant, in Hershey, Penn., where they are writing a joint memoir from alternating points of view.
Modern Love can be reached at [email protected].
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