They say that in 1803 all Haitian roosters lost their ability to tell time—or at least to admit they knew how—when Toussaint L’Ouverture was betrayed at the hands of one of his own. It was the beginning of a new day, a new era, for Haiti. But as if to cry out against the coming of that day at the advent of many betrayals that were about to keep the Perle of the Antilles under siege for the next couple of centuries at least, all Haitian roosters began the practice of crowing in the middle of the night instead of at dawn, as if to confuse the enemy.
I was too agitated to give the roosters’ crowing more than a slight notice as I walked back toward the Dorcinvil clinic where I had established residency for the last two days. I had tèt chaje—a big load to carry—and matters were getting worse: the medical supplies that my colleague, Lee Patrick, should have delivered by now were nowhere in sight. A far as I had seen as I walked through the darkened streets for the last hour—both to stretch my legs and to clear my mind—there was not much traffic getting through from Petionville. The roads were broken and blocked by heaps of concrete. Nor had there been cell phone service since the earthquake of two–no, two and a half–days ago. So it was only the roosters who were calling anyone now, and they had no news to tell. News or no news, I felt in the small tight ball that was my stomach that unless the antibiotics arrived by before dawn, the littlest patient inside the clinic ahead of me would not see the sun rise tomorrow.
I knew it was not really about the missing antibiotics. I knew that, even in IV form, no medicinal solution would be likely to stop the crisis of devolution in the body of a little girl whose legs had been crushed and were rapidly succumbing to infection. The intervention of amputation—as brutal as that would be—might only result in further unimaginable suffering. If it were possible to consider it, the surgical equipment that was expected to arrive along with the medicines that, at this point, were apparently still trapped on the other side of the besieged city, would only delay the inevitable. But I was being cynical, I told myself. Perhaps there was still a modicum of hope.
As if to confirm my worst suspicions, as I approached the opening of the tent that was the clinic, I saw a stack of rectangular, plain wooden boxes that had been left outside the clinic. I’d seen them on my first day—all the way from Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport to here. I’d seen the Red Cross trucks delivering them, grim-faced men unloading the simple coffins to the side of the road every block or so along Delmas Avenue. For every person who was rescued from the concrete heaps that had trapped and injured them, five or six bodies would be pulled from the rubble. The stench had already started filling the air, mingled with smoke from the makeshift crematoriums outside of the city. The coffins were both evidence that someone cared and an infuriating reminder—it seemed to me—of the failure of the developed world to have recognized Haiti from the beginning. I swallowed hard, grief nearly erupting in spite of my effort to beat it down with anger. I stepped forward resolutely, commanding my spirit to attend to the matters at hand.
I crossed the threshold. I heard soft moans before I could begin discerning movement on the floor and along the walls. A sour odor of sickness and suffering rose in my nostrils. I felt myself breathe out slowly, was aware of the conscious effort it took to stay calm, something I had learned to do in the yoga classes I had taken in medical school as a way to deal with my stress
A child cried out in pain. “La, la, ti cheri, ti cheri,” a woman’s voice answered. From another part of the large tent, another woman began singing a soft melody in Kreyòl.
Slowly an image formed at the back left of my range of vision, a few wisps of white approaching. The wisps formed themselves into a recognizable form—first a lab coat, and then the small orb above it becoming the kind face of Sabine, a Haitian-American nurse who had come over from Florida with Lee and me, as part of the volunteer medical team. Even in the dim light inside the tent, I could see the beginnings of a panic in her expression, in contrast to the soothing song that continued softly in the wings.
“Doktè… Mwen regrèt sa, men Mari, tifi a, pa byen. Li trè, trè mal.”
So it was Mari I had heard cry out a moment ago, a little horizontal figure barely discernible among eight or nine supine bodies lying on sheets of cardboard along the left wall. I approached her. I knew exactly which one she was.
When I reached the low pallet where Mari lay breathing as if a boat anchor were resting on her chest, the small mummy-like body had already begun to transition, it seemed to me, to its next state of being. Its next state of being was, of course, lanmò. I knew this from having been at the bedside of hundreds of patients as they made their transition out of life—some frantically and fighting, others peaceful and accepting, even euphoric—into death. I knelt next to Mari, pressing my palm to her forehead. I was aware that Sabine was still standing next to where I was squatting.
I demanded ice wrapped in a towel. They needed to bring this fever down quickly.
“Nou pa gen glas, doktè, men gen yon ti kras dlo frèt.” She disappeared from my side for a moment, then returned to hand me a cool, wet washcloth. “Vwala.”
During the few moments when Sabine had stepped away, I stroked Mari’s hair with my open palm, gently smoothing it away from the burning forehead. I watched the little features in the dim light of one of the several battery-operated camping lanterns someone had tied to the huge tent’s rafters. I hadn’t noticed when it had been turned on but now could see its shine on Mari’s tiny face, which seemed smaller than my palm, her tiny body perhaps as long as my arm.
I heard the labored breathing become raspy. I heard the tiny rattle in the breath. I felt something cool being placed in my hand. Sabine had come back with what she could provide. I placed the cloth on the small forehead.
Then the child was still.
“Kote mama li? Papa li?”
“Nou pa janm jwenn yo.”
“Bondye se pè l.”
When I stood up, I saw in the shard of lantern light on Sabine’s face a reflection of the emotions that were coursing in my own. I touched Sabine’s shoulder as our eyes met, just for a moment, then turned back to the dead child. I heard the quiet shuffle of her skirt as she moved away. I noticed the myriad sounds coming from several of the other thirty-nine badly injured patients surrounding us.
I wrapped Mari’s body in the sheet that had covered her loosely before, wrapping an end around her head and under her chin like a scarf but leaving the miniscule face uncovered. I bent and kissed the little forehead from which the fever had already begun dissipating.
“Bondye beni ou, pitit fi m.”
I moved slowly through the tent, under the suspended lantern above me, and toward the canvas door of the clinic suspended on a shower curtain that someone had been prepared enough to bring along with their supplies. I would choose the smallest coffin from among the eight or ten I’d seen stacked outside the tent, ensure it were sealed securely before the pick-up truck would circulate in the morning to make its daily voyage to the new acres of graveyards on the outskirts of the city.
Dawn was still several hours away. From somewhere outside I heard roosters that were, apparently without interruption, still crowing.
Diane Allerdyce, Ph.D., is Co-Founder of the Florida-based non-profit organization Center for Education, Training & Holistic Approaches, Inc. (CETHA), which operates the Toussaint L’Ouverture High School for Arts & Social Justice in Delray Beach, Florida, and where she serves as Chief Academic Officer. She also serves as Concentration Chair and Faculty of the Humanities & Culture (HMS) track of the Cohort Ph.D. program in Interdisciplinary Studies at Union Institute & University, where she has taught since 2008. Diane holds the Ph.D. in English from the University of Florida. Her M.A. and B.A. in English are from Florida Atlantic University. Diane is the author of a scholarly book about Anaïs Nin (University of Northern Illinois, 1998). She has published articles, essays, book reviews, and poems in local, national, and international journals. Her poetry chapbook, Whatever It Is I was Giving Up, won the 2007 Red Wheel Barrow Prize by Pudding House Publications. Dr. Allerdyce was trained as a poetry therapy facilitator by and is a past-President of the National Association for Poetry Therapy (NAPT). Diane received the NAPT Distinguished Service Award in 2007 and the NAPT Outstanding Achievement Award in 2009. Her book House of Aching Beauty: Selected Poetry and Prose on Haiti, Heartbreak & Healing was released in 2012 by EditionsPerleDesAntilles. Diane’s current book project is called “The Journey In as the Journey Out: Lacanian/Feminist Perspectives on Literature.” In addition to Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, gender studies, feminisms, and poetry, her research interests include international educational outreach efforts, particularly in Haiti, where she has authored and cofacilitates a support program for teachers, Teaching by Heart in Haiti.