Beautiful Madame Sylvie felt her lungs tighten and her throat burn. Her grey and wrinkled mother looked at her and asked if she was Ok. “No,” she answered. Then her eyes bulged and she gasped for breath. There was none to be had. She collapsed into her breakfast of fried egg and boiled plantain. A hummingbird passed by the window. An hibiscus fell open and a breeze moved the bathtub like air from the village center. Madame Sylvie was dead. A small boy howled for his mother.
~ ~ ~
Madame Mathilde already had a reputation.
The big brute Celestin lived next door. He waited until she had gone to the market before checking his corn garden, just so he wouldn’t have to see her. He never hung out by the gas station with the other young men anymore for fear she might catch his eye. On the second night of his marriage the bird-like woman had knocked on his gate until he stopped beating his bride. Pigeons cooed when the screaming stopped.
“What do you want?” He exploded at her after he had pulled the metal gate to the side. A foggy bottle of Prestige was in his hand. His pants were undone. He was all sweaty.
“Stop hurting the girl,” she told him. He spat on the ground and closed the gate. Instead of listening to the girl scream and wail through the night, Madame Mathilde walked to her brother’s farm far beyond the rice paddies. Just before dawn, while the air was cool, Madame Mathilde pushed Celestin’s gate wide and road the horse to his front door. An infinite number of roosters crowed and a group of barefoot farmers passed by carrying hoes. It was a big horse, gray and thick. Not like the work mules of the villages across the muddy Artibonite. She kicked at the wooden door with her brother’s giant work boots. They rode up nearly to her hips. She kicked until Celestin opened and squinted into the morning light.
“Stop hurting the girl,” she said.
“What?” he cried.
“Stop hurting the girl,” she said, “or I’ll chop off your cock and stuff it down your throat.” At that she raised a large machete and pointed it at his face. “Don’t ever touch her again.” To the girl whose skin was so black she nearly melted into the darkness of the house she said “Do you have a place to go?” The girl stared at her with creamy almond eyes and nodded. “Then go, fool,” Madame Mathilde told her. The girl gathered her things and passed by her husband, the horse and then through the gate. The crunch of gravel under running feet quickly melted into the air. A motorcycle beeped from the center of the village. “I will chop your cock off and stuff it down your throat,” Madame Mathilde repeated. Then she turned the horse and rode through the gate.
On Tuesday, Madame Mathilde met the mother of Madame Sylvie at the market. The old woman held the boy tightly to her chest. The funeral had passed nearly a week before. “Who did this?” she demanded into the din. “Who would take my Sylvie? Who would kill a mother?!” At their feet were baskets of lime and papaya, mango, bread fruit and avocado. Two women sat on earthquake buckets and waved at the flies. Men discussed the price of giant bags of American rice. A convoy of white UN vehicles full of scowling Brazilians pushed through the traffic. Boys in sunglasses laughed from their motorcycles. A mustached man bent down and scratched his ankle.
“Do you think someone murdered her?” Asked Madame Mathilde.
“The doctor said it was a heart attack.”
“A heart attack?” She squeezed the boy to her chest and kissed his head. “She was twenty-four years old, Madame Mathilde. No, she was murdered. The prettiest girl in town has a child with who-knows-who, she doesn’t want the father around…I want to know who murdered my daughter.”
A tap-tap named La Mere de Jesu parked and the driver quickly unloaded dozens of chickens bound by string around their ankles. Their eyes were wide with fear. Madame Mathilde took her bags and passed down her street and into her house. She locked her gate and turned on the radio she hadn’t listened to since the days of Radyo Soley. She made up a table for her ancestors and began to clean her home.
At dawn on Wednesday, Madame Mathilde put on her best clothes: a dark blue skirt and a dark blue button-up top with long sleeves and solid white circles. She left her doorway and stood under the Mapou tree near the gate. The wind swayed her hair. It brought molecules from the world over. Above, the leaves of the Mapou sang with the dead. “That’s right,” she smiled. Outside the gate she squatted against the wall and peed one more time. Then she sat in the muck on the side of the road and began to scoot her thin bottom on the roadway toward Notre Dame de la Caridad. The mambo asogwe passed by her carrying a basked of eggs and nodded. “Good morning,” she said.
“Good morning,” said Madame Mathilde. She didn’t stop scooting. “Look. My shadow comes with me.”
“These are the paradoxes of opposites,” said the mambo asogwe as she watched the small woman inch her way up the road. “Which is to say, there are none.” Madame Mathilde nodded and scooted on. The mambo asogwe walked into the Mapou. The side of the road was littered with dead animals, broken glass and plastic bags. A pile of broken trucks shipped from the United States to rot on broken land were being eaten by the jungle. They spilled oil into the water running next to the road. A group of children pointed at her. Women carrying water talked wildly before and after they passed her. They were silent as they moved next to her.
It didn’t take long before everyone was staring. Celestin saw her from down the way. He pitched his hoe up across his shoulder, patted the machete hanging at his hip and walked up next to the odd creature shuffling through the town on her bottom. He turned and stared into her face and shuddered when he realized who it was. He picked up his feet and moved quickly and silently ahead. A speeding old American Ford passed inches from his elbow coughing toxic smoke. A tap-tap blared its horn and roared past; then a small car full of sullen men. Celestin stopped. He shook his head. He turned and walked back to where Madame Mathilde scraped down the side of the road. He took up a position a meter behind her and between her and the vehicles on the road.
“What are we doing?” He called to her.
“Finding a killer,” she said. “If there is one. Which there is not.” He walked behind her at the same speed she moved toward Notre Dame de la Caridad, shaking his head the whole way. The air tasted of car exhaust. Celestin remained outside while Madame Mathilde made her prayers in the church. He yelled at a group of mouthy kids just to be sure of himself. He kicked at a small calabash. Inside Notre Dame de la Caridad it was dark. The priest was away. The air was damp. The electricity was out again. Madame Mathilde lit a row of candles instead of complaining and prayed for Madame Sylvie, for the small boy without a mother and for the men of the world who make the decisions that ripped at the soul of humanity.
There was no surprise that she blamed the men. Her thoughts were pure but her soul was flooded with indignation. Her work was to burn black holes in the darkest of memories. So she made her peace and crawled out of the church on her knees and, without saying a word to Celestin, she made her way through the cemetery to the hounfour to have a talk with Papa Legba. The walls of the hounfour were pink. A cement alter stood at the far end. It was covered in plastic babies, small jars, crosses, flowers and neatly folded strips of tinfoil. Two straw hats hung above the alter. In the corner the old man leaned against his crutches. The pockets in his jacket were full of holes. A thin trail of smoke curled up out of his pipe. The tamboulas were unavailable. The houngan paid her no attention. Madame Mathilde didn’t care. She wiped at her bloody knees with her skirt, winced and stood. Celestin squatted outside with a scrappy little white dog that liked to roll in the dust. He tickled its nose.
It took several hours but she finally convinced Papa Legba that it shouldn’t be a problem for her to talk to the Guinee. He left her then and, sprinkling water across the floor from a pocket in his jacket, he stepped out into the sunlight, placed a straw hat on his head and passed through Celestin, who shuddered. The dog followed. Celestine sat into the dust and fell asleep. To the Guinee, Madame Mathilde spoke of time that was too fast to fold and of the cages human beings purchase at birth to imprison themselves. She was honest with them and said that she didn’t believe anyone had murdered Madame Sylvie. But, if someone did, could they help her find out who? A boy was going to grow up without a mother and that goes against the right in the world. She asked that it not be allowed to stand.
“None of us benefit from such crimes,” she told them.
The Guinee sent her away without any answers. When she arrived at home she locked the gate. They day was over. She stripped naked and placed all of her clothes in a bucket of water. She boiled water on a little propane stove and cleaned herself from top to bottom. She plucked the rocks and shards of glass from her knees and buttocks. She rinsed her mouth. She scraped away the black muck from under her toenails. After a meal of rice and beans she crawled into her bed.
Celestin didn’t wake until the dog returned to lick his face. That was long after midnight. There were fireflies above the grass and when they climbed too high they melded with the stars above the mountains. Papa Legba laughed at him from somewhere among the gravestones. Papa Legba told him he was not lost yet. There was hope for him still. The dog tickled his nose.
The banging at the metal gate woke Madame Mathilde. It was dawn on Thursday. That morning, the Mapou was still. The air was heavy. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky but the morning promised a rainy afternoon. “Who can it be?” She said out loud. “I have offended no one.” A young man was standing outside of her gate. His face was streaked with tears. She recognized him from the group that hung out with Celestin near the gas station. She had seen him before, at Celestin’s house.
“I did it,” he told her.
“I put the poison in the food.”“Of the young woman?”He nodded.
“Yes. But why are you here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Wait a minute,” she told him and she went inside to dress.
“There were five of us,” he told her as they walked down the road. The merchants and farmers were just arriving at the tin market stands. They were red. The boys with the motorcycles sat in silence. It was too early for words. A water truck passed. Madame Mathilde held the young man’s hand and he cried, uncontrollably at times.
“I was the one who did it. But we all agreed. And they bought the poison.” Across from the police station she stopped and hugged the young man tightly. She cried with him. Then she sent him across the cracked and broken road. In the afternoon the rain turned the road to a torrent and as the soil washed off the hills the road ran orange and silty.
No one ever messed with Madame Mathilde after that.
Author’s Note: this story previously appeared in “Rise and Go”