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[een-spee-cho] the best of Miami arts

Our Lady of Clarity

Our Lady of Clarity

 

 

Botanica. Photo: Fabienne Josaphat, 2017

 

Editor’s Note: Although Inspicio has published fiction by James Gilbert in the past, we have decided to become more systematic in our approach, and we are pleased to introduce a new fiction section featuring short stories, excerpts from novels, excerpts from works in progress – all written by people with connections to Miami and South Florida. For our first offering, Inspicio fiction editor Jamie Eubanks selected a chapter from a novel in progress by Fabienne Josaphat, author of  Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow.

We meet Mary Marthe at a crossroads in her life. Her husband is leaving her, and her pregnant daughter has moved out of their family home. Desperate for answers, she visits a botanica for the first time in her life. Please enjoy this chapter from Josaphat’s Our Lady of Clarity.

 

Marie Marthe’s hands were damp when she placed her palms upon the white tablecloth. Manbo La Clairté insisted she relax, but how could she? Marie Marthe inhaled and exhaled to keep calm, but the walls were closing in on her, and with each breath, the spice of rum and Florida water burned her nostrils. She’d never been inside a botanica before.

“Speak what it is you want,” Manbo La Clairté said. Her voice was deep, her nostrils flared, her lips glossed black against the mahogany of her face. “The spirits need to hear it.”

Marie Marthe glanced to the right. Her eye caught rows of icons and statuettes of saints draped in colorful robes, their necks laced with rosaries and jewelry, cluttering shelves among unlabeled dark glass bottles, powder jars and sequined pots, miniature clay jugs and glasses filled with clear liquids. A large framed portrait of the Mater Dolorosa stood out, black and scarred, crying bloody tears from red eyes. The painting depicted the dark Madonna surrounded with seven swords. Her wide open mouth gushed blood. Above the cash register behind them, a smiling Barack Obama was staring back on the glossy page of a calendar.

Marie Marthe felt her armpits dampen with sweat.

“Speak! Why are you here?”

The priestess took her wrist and squeezed. Marie Marthe looked up, her heart thumping in the back of her throat. Manbo La Clairté was a beautiful woman, with thick, penciled-in eyebrows now knitted into a frown.

“My husband is leaving me for another woman,” Marie Marthe heard herself say. “I need a leson to know…” Her voice trailed off.

“Know what?” The Manbo let her wrist go and reached for a deck of playing cards stacked on a shelf. She splayed them on the table around a bottle of clear Barbancourt rum and a candle dripping wax into a white enamel bowl.

“I want to know why,” Marie Marthe whispered.

“You already know why.” Gold hoops dangled from the Manbo’s earlobes as she shook her head. “Don’t waste the loas’ time.”

Marie Marthe swallowed. “I want to know who he’s leaving me for.”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes it does!” Marie Marthe caught a fire in her own voice. “I want to know what she has to offer him that I don’t. After everything I’ve done for him, I deserve to know.”

“You already know that too.”

Marie Marthe held her breath. She knew. She was not as young and pretty as many women around her. Her face was old. She seemed to be perpetually stuck in her fifties, her face lumpy with years, her eyes grave as if they’d seen too much, and the corners of her mouth sagging from swallowing her share of grievances. She was not a pretty woman by any means. She was short, non-descript, with hairstyles that varied from wig to wig with every paycheck. Gesner had probably found a younger model.

Manbo sucked her teeth and scratched at an itch under the white scarf turbaned around her head. She was curvy, filling Marie Marthe’s vision in a white dress.

“You’re a nurse, correct?” She looked at Marie Marthe who nodded. “You’re smart enough to know you’ve given too much for too little. This man you’re here about, did he ever really love you?”

Marie Marthe offered no answer. He never loved her, no. He married her for a green card in the early nineties, and now he was making an exit.

“You’re here because you know he’s tossed you away like old, rotten fruit,” the priestess said. “You’re here because you are angry. Because fanm pa dra, that’s what our people say. A woman is not a set of bedsheets. You’re here because you want justice. You want revenge. You want your voice back.”

Coming here was a mistake. The word revenge terrified her. What was she doing here? She was a moun legliz, a church goer, a person of faith. She should be turning to God, not to loas. This was a sin, one of the worst kind.

But when she thought of the word sin, she thought of Father Isidore’s mouth and how it smirked when uttering the word, his eyes sweeping the female parishioners during Sunday sermons. She had gone to him for confession the day after her confrontation with Gesner. She’d fought hard for that meeting because Father Isidore was in high demand in the Haitian community, touring hospitals and homes for prayers, baptisms, communions and weddings. She sat next to him on the pews of Notre Dame and confessed that she was about to separate from Gesner, that he wanted a dissolution of marriage, a burning of that piece of paper they’d signed in the courthouse. A divorce.

“It wasn’t even a real church wedding,” Marie Marthe said. “So it doesn’t count, right? Map bay le gain, I’ll just give up and give him what he wants.”

“Foolishness!” Father Isidore scolded her, the way he scolded divorced couples and labeled them as adulterous. “You are married, so you are committed to him before God. Sure, our Lord would prefer a religious ceremony in his house, but you have sinned enough.”

Marie Marthe registered his words like one would a stab in the heart. She was the tearful Madonna on the Manbo’s shelf. She was Erzulie Yeux Rouge.

“But he’s the one who strayed,” she said. “He’s the one who wants to leave.”

“You are Christian,” Father Isidore said, dabbing the sweat off his moist forehead with a handkerchief that smelled of spiced bergamot. “God disapproves of you granting him a divorce. Shame on you. Mete fanm sou ou! Be a strong woman, suffer the consequences and give your heart to God.”

That afternoon, Marie Marthe sat in her car, hands clasped on the wheel, shaking. She wiped the tears smearing her glasses. It felt as if God had just dismissed her the way one would dismiss a servant, without even looking or listening. Why was it always her job to fix things that others had broken? She spent her whole life cleaning up messes for others. She was a nurse working at the Villa Maria Nursing Home changing bedsheets and inserting catheters and sanitizing everything, just as she’d done for her parents in Haiti. She spent her years of motherhood gluing back what her daughter Tiffany had broken out of anger, covering for the absence of her daughter’s deadbeat biological father who was probably somewhere in Miami sucking the life out of a vulnerable woman like the parasite he was. Before she met Gesner, Marie Marthe fixed her own termite problems with over-the-counter solutions, drowned colonies of ants in sugared water, and caulked the cracks behind her kitchen sink herself.

At work, she covered for others, correcting stupid mistakes of new nurses so young they seemed barely off their mother’s nipples, girls so incompetent it was a wonder they boiled water or buttered their own toast in the morning. And those same nurses piled on the work for Marie Marthe while they gossiped about new resident doctors, ran out to lunch with male orderlies and sashayed down the hallways like pageant queens while she covered for them. They couldn’t even remember her name, sometimes mindlessly calling her “Martha” or “Bahamian lady.” She’d never even set foot in the Bahamas.

Marie Marthe coughed at the wheel of her car that still smelled of onions and scallions she’d sold out of her trunk a few days before. It was the resentment, the saturation, the bitterness that clung to her throat. She wanted to expel it like a cat does a hairball but it wouldn’t budge.

She drove out of the church parking lot boiling with rage, stopping at the red light at the corner of Northeast Second Avenue and Sixty-Second Street. There, her eye caught a bold, hand painted sign: “Kat Kalfou Botanica.” The “crossroads” shop. Baths, divinations, love, luck, healing and more. Marie Marthe read the sign and giggled at the irony. This was the Haitian people, summarized. This was the battle of opposites: a Catholic Church across from a shop of mystique. One blue-eyed, bearded God facing a pantheon of African gods. How many times had Father Isidore shamed parishioners for this? What did he call it? A sacrilege, an abomination, a sin of the highest order. “Vaudou is what destroys the Haitian people,” he said. Marie Marthe had agreed like the rest of the lot, squeezing her rosary and her bible. Vaudou was evil, and there was no room for evil in their little lives. Life was hard enough.

But now, driving home, she couldn’t shake the sign from her mind, a sign offering to deliver what God kept denying her. She owed it to God, she thought, to try something different. Father Isidore had to be wrong. She owed it to God to fight back.

Marie Marthe tossed and turned that night and the next day, she drove down Second Avenue with a purpose. She needed to ask the loas for guidance. God could not be angry at her for that.

That was how she’d gotten here, sitting across from a woman who introduced herself as Manbo La Clairté, studying the cards before them in a deafening quiet.

“What is your man’s name?” the Manbo ask.

“Gesner,” Marie Marthe said. “Gesner Colimon.”

“Gesner Colimon has secrets,” Manbo La Clairté said, nodding over a nine of hearts.

“Secrets? What kind of secrets?”

“I see money, lots of it. Money you are tied to somehow, but I don’t see this money in your house or in your possession.”

Marie Marthe stared back. “You mean, he’s got it? Hidden?”

“He is preparing something big with this money,” the priestess said. “It’s really a shame you are not benefiting at all.”

Marie Marthe shook her head. Impossible. Where would Gesner get money from? Driving Jitneys was not paying more than twenty-five thousand a year, if he was lucky. What money could this be? They had a joint account, and she knew of no other jobs he ran on the side.

The Manbo fell silent for a moment, flipping cards. She turned over an ace of spades and jumped back slightly. “Hmmm.”

“What is it?” Marie Marthe asked.

Instead of responding, the Manbo grabbed a tcha-tcha from the table and rattled the instrument. The beads inside the hollow gourd broke the silence in the room. Marie Marthe felt a shiver down her spine as the woman rattled the tcha-tcha repeatedly, her eyes fixed in nothingness as if in a trance.

“Okay,” the Manbo nodded, as if speaking to an invisible entity. “Okay.”

The candle flickered between them. Marie Marthe was afraid to speak. What was she thinking, coming here in the first place? Her head began to spin. Or was it the room spinning? The Manbo looked as if she was falling asleep, her eyelids drooping and shutting completely, and then, startled, she awakened. Marie Marthe, herself exhausted, felt beads of sweat on her upper lip, her scalp. But she must stay awake; she must get out of this room where there was no air left to breathe. There was something here, a presence, something that frightened her and sucked the oxygen away.

Marie Marthe moved her lips, trying to remember the prayers she knew, but she’d lost her voice. The room seemed smaller. She could smell every distinct waft of perfume, of Florida water, of rubbing alcohol and rum, every offering left on shrines where candles burned to honor Saint James on his horse or Ogun Feraille, or Erzulie, the red-eyed goddess of the heart.

Rattle, rattle, rattle. The Manbo reached for the bottle of rum. With her teeth, she twisted the cap off, spit it out and brought her lips to the mouth of the bottle. Her head fell back, and Marie Marthe, through sleepy eyes, saw the liquid flood the bottle’s neck. She was drinking, but not swallowing, and right as Marie Marthe wondered why, Manbo La Clairté spit the rum out in a fine mist that landed over her face. Marie Marthe sat still, as if she’d been expecting this. She felt awake now.

Manbo La Clairté set the tcha-tcha and the bottle down.

“You can find this money,” the Manbo said. “It is your right to have it just as much as his. You work too hard, and Manman Erzulie Zye Rouge feels your pain. I can help you, but you must do exactly as prescribed. There is danger lurking around this money, and I can’t see further than what I’m telling you now.”

“Danger?” Marie Marthe’s ears perked up, and the hair on her arms stood instantly. “I don’t understand.”

“You came here to ask for a leson. You came to ask questions and you have answers, even if you don’t understand them yet. It is imperative now that you obey their instructions. If you don’t, you will incur the wrath of the loas. Believe me, madame, you don’t want that.”

Marie Marthe had heard stories. No, she didn’t want to anger the spirits.

“Are you prepared to do what you’re told? Speak now please.”

“Yes,” Marie Marthe said. Her voice wavered at first, and she cleared her throat. “Yes,” she repeated. “What do I do?”

The priestess rose from her seat. She looked down at Marie Marthe who remained seated. “Take off your clothes. We’re going to bathe you.”

#

Marie Marthe arrived home later that night and found Tiffany waiting on the stoop of the house. Her daughter looked tired, and perpetually angry, her foot tapping impatiently as her mother pulled into the driveway. Marie Marthe hadn’t expect her Tiffany to come back. The last time she visited she’d stormed off to stay with her boyfriend, Jerome, who was now being called “baby daddy” as if there were pride to be found in unplanned teenage pregnancy.  Jerome had become Tiffany’s sole priority since they met.

She hopped out of the vehicle with her purse sticking to her arm. Her skin was gooey with the molasses and bread Manbo La Clairté had mixed in a bath for her, and the smell of Florida water was still in her hair.

“Everything okay?” Marie Marthe asked.

“I’ve been calling you for hours!” Tiffany said.

“Have you?” Marie Marthe reached the steps and passed her daughter without glancing. “I was out. What do you want?”

“I couldn’t get in.” Tiffany rose to her feet. Marie Marthe didn’t look back, but knew her daughter well enough to know her lip was curled in a gesture of annoyance.

“I know. I changed the locks.” Marie Marthe searched her purse for her keys.

“What for? You know I might need to come back!”

Marie Marthe looked up beyond her glasses. Her daughter was taller than she was by just a few inches, skinny, her collarbone protruding beneath an oversized sweater she hoped would hide her growing belly for a while. Seventeen years old and so angry. That’s what Tiffany was, and for the first time, Marie Marthe didn’t care for it at all. Any other day, she’d worry about the girl. She’d offer her food, money, comfort, all to have Tiffany leave again or call her something hurtful, mock her speech and suck her teeth at her like she did last time when she referred to her mother’s accent as “boat people English.” Marie Marthe should have slapped her that day. She wanted to, but she whispered a silent prayer to Saint Michael and watched her walk away to Jerome’s. Any other day, she would have put up with Tiffany’s neck snapping. But not today.

“Are we talking about my house?” Marie Marthe snapped.

Tiffany rolled her eyes while her mother searched for the keys. Marie Marthe pulled them out and held them in the amber outdoor glow of a nude light bulb. Tiffany had broken the glass encasement months ago in one of her fits. Night spilled overhead like purple ink. The sky was devoid of moon, harboring only a Goodyear blimp dangling in the distance.

“You got something to eat?” Tiffany asked.

She was going to ask Tiffany about Jerome’s fridge, but decided against. She wasn’t in the mood to argue, and besides, her daughter, in her perpetual state of entitlement and first trimester of pregnancy, had probably already raided the boy’s parents’ refrigerator.

Marie Marthe turned the key in the lock. She didn’t know what was in the fridge, but she couldn’t abide the idea of cooking. Tiffany would have to help herself.

“What is that smell?” the girl asked. “Dang, what’d you do? Knock up a few Perfumanias on your way here?”

Marie Marthe entered the darkness of the house. She tossed her purse on the couch where Gesner kept his pillows and blankets since he’d decided they should sleep separately. She made her way to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water. Tiffany sat at the kitchen table and pushed off a stack of unopened bills. The clear plastic cover on her chair squeaked beneath her.

“You gonna fix me a plate?” She pulled out her cell phone and stared at the screen before texting a message to someone.

“No.” Marie Marthe imagined she was texting Jerome.

Tiffany flung a poisonous glare at her mother. Marie Marthe broke off a piece of Haitian baked bread from a paper bag and smeared it with peanut butter.

“Whatcha mean, no?”

Marie Marthe twisted the cap back onto the jar of peanut butter. She’d bought it from the Haitian bakery down the street. She loved her peanut butter spicy the way they make it back home, and she bit into the bread, feeling a fire spread against the roof of her mouth. She turned towards her daughter and stared at her.

“No, I’m not fixing you a plate. I’m not your maid, I’m not your restavek. I’m your mother. I’m not giving you keys to this house. I’m not welcoming you back. I’m not interested in your caca!”

Tiffany’s eyes widened, and her mouth dropped. The phone was still clutched in her hand, but she was no longer staring at the screen.

Marie Marthe had stunned herself. She said the word caca. Bullshit. Never in her life had she used those words. Not in English, and not in Creole. She was impressed, rather than remorseful, at how easily and naturally the word had poured out of her mouth. In fact, it wasn’t just the word itself. Today, she was halting abuse from her daughter, before halting the abuse from her husband. It was ending now.

She felt the habaneros tingle in her throat as she swallowed.

“What’s gotten into you?”

“You are a grown woman now,” Marie Marthe said. “Do what you want. I’m going to shower. When I come out of my room you better be gone.”

“Mama, wait.”

Marie Marthe walked to her bedroom without turning around to listen. She wasn’t in the mood. She grabbed her purse as she crossed the living room. She needed to sleep, and then later, shop for a list of distinct ingredients at the Food Giant bodega around the block. She needed those things to put an offering together and later, at midnight, place the alms at the center of a crossroad, just like she’d been instructed to do.

“Mama!”

Marie Marthe opened her bedroom door and glanced over her shoulder.

“What?”

“Mama, Jerome’s not home for a while.” Tiffany stood there by the door, imploring her mother. Seeing Tiffany so vulnerable was a rare sight, as rare as that apparition of Our Lady of Miracles at the sacred waterfalls back home, where pilgrims prayed every year without result. It had been over a century since anyone had seen the miracle occur.

Her daughter was now a silhouette in the darkness of the living room. “I was planning on staying here tonight, if…” She cleared her throat. “Can I stay here a couple of days?”

Marie Marthe smelled herself. She was desperate for a bath, but she was warned to keep the elements on her body until the morning. She smelled something else, too, on Tiffany. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but it almost broke her heart to see her daughter standing there like a puppet with her strings cut off.

She shrugged. “I suppose you can,” she said. “That is, if you can make yourself useful around here.”

Tiffany nodded, but said nothing. Marie Marthe entered her room, and just as she stepped in, she was seized with a powerful shiver, as if a light had been turned on in her brain, flooding the forehead and then her eyes. Clarity. She spun around and felt her brain buzz. “Tiffany!”

The girl was already walking away to the kitchen, but she turned around to face her mother. Marie Marthe noticed that Tiffany wasn’t wearing any makeup— her daughter who would never walk out of the house without a pair of door-knocker earrings and lip gloss. Her brown face was plain, too plain, and tired, her hair pulled back in a bun.

“Yeah?”

“Listen, your computer is still working?” Marie Marthe asked.  She didn’t know anything about technology except how to dial numbers and install long distance phone calls on her phone to reach Haiti. But she knew people did things on computers lately, amazing things, and she wondered….

“Yeah,” Tiffany said, raising her eyebrow. “Why?”

“I have a gleman,” Marie Marthe said. She chose her words carefully. A ruling, something to sort out. That’s what it was, after all. “I need to look into something. Can you check a bank account for me?”

Tiffany shrugged. “I guess.”

“Yes or no? Don’t tell me I guess.”

“I suppose I can, Mama, if you have the login information.” Tiffany’s neck swayed right and left the way she did when she was making a point.

Hein? Kisa? Login? What is login?” Marie Marthe scrunched her nose and squinted.

Tiffany sighed. Marie Marthe knew she was rolling her eyes. “Yes Mama, I can look for you.”

Marie Marthe nodded. “Okay. Good. We do that tonight.”

She closed the bedroom door and left the girl standing in the dark. Revenge. For the first time, the word sounded good. Because it was righteous. Because she was worthy. Marie Marthe stood in her shower minutes later, letting the molasses run down, the bathroom filling with steam and fragrance of leaves and perfume. When she wiped the mirror with her bare hand, wrapped in her towel, she caught her own reflection and stared at herself, for a long time. She’d never done that before. She’d always avoided herself, always erased herself. Tonight, she took the time to look. To see. Thoughtfully, she ran a finger over her eyebrows before she started to shape them over the redness of her eyes.