Salt on the Tongue
This piece was submitted by Nathalie Handal as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology. Echoing the focus of this year’s Festival, on the literary culture of the African continent and its diaspora, it features a variety of voices from Haiti.
Noir, une lumière
There is a sorceress in our night. A sky that only moves memory to make place for the mangoes of last month. There is an old man who says, Libère moi. And means, Take everything but my blackness. Only in the dark do doves find reason. Only in the dark do doves have reason to believe that vengeance is light hanging on fallen tree. After each fall, we ask, where is the island, the sugarcane that disappeared in our hunger, the water that emptied our thirst, the song that robbed our nightmare? They mock us. They tell us to whisper in their ears. They will obey. But curses beat the air wild. The air is faint. And they tell us, Stop plotting fire. You are in the wrong land even if the roosters recognize you. They hated our black. What they didn’t understand is that it illuminates their world.
A line of silver on the mirror. A bag of canella on the bed. Feux d’artifices outside. A ravin close by. A star hanging on the windowsill. Les fables de la Fontaine roaming her mind. No tanbou playing. Love is mostly misunderstandings. Hibiscus by her cerf-volant. She’s been told to be patient as she watches kites fly. Perhaps she needed to find the right place to love. After the birches, behind the burning and scattered leaves, laughter was looking at her upside down. Someone said you can’t plant origin—you’re where your heart is from. Then in the middle of the night she awakes in a sweat—no one knows the sound our stillness makes when the sheets fasten us to the bed.
I don’t remember what was written on the tap-tap we took from Petion-Ville to Delmas. All I could think about was how nothing resurrects except old bones. Some things aren’t true even if we try to believe in them. How can we build out of trauma a huge house? Why can’t we rewind our crying? I suppose when the time comes, I will open the bed to find sleep. I will remember the shoelace I hid at five, the stocking I stole from my mother. And when the time comes, I will tell you, my love: Console me. I still don’t know how to suffer. Still can’t figure out what time contemplates in the early afternoon. Damn history. Damn the soul and man and his endless obsessions. Damn pains and especially pleasures. And damn all those who point to some other place everyone keeps escaping to. We never learn how to organize our silences. Never learn how to get rid of the wild echoes in our mouths. But you learn how to leave. Wherever you are, handsome and dressed in evening, I hope you haven’t asked a beautiful woman to dance.
It’s red. Like the heart. If you place your hand on it, you will see cities from above. I’ve always been dedicated to Mars. On a clear night by a bare tree, a universe will lean away to allow stars to collect ghosts. I think of him. He had short legs but ran fast, deep into a history we won’t let go and keep carving in our mountains. Who belongs anywhere when love is elsewhere? I heard his breath slip past mine, and we were on the same bed. But pianos don’t cry in the afternoon. Neither can I. And Mars reminds me, there isn’t just one way to believe in a planet.
Notes to the Slave
I hear we are free. Tell me lady, is that true? She crosses her leg, and writes me a note: Small furies circle us. We are on an island divided by horizons and iambic pentameters. Daylight couldn’t bring a fist of heavy rain. The night, green and wet, wants a song from Africa. Glorious Negro, you might think I write nonsense. But I haven’t been spoken to since I was two. A few gray hairs tell me something of the years I’ve missed. Adieu, no more prisons in the rain. Adieu no more prisons in the air, in our buried heaven. No more white rain. The empires have left the shores. The sand is velvet again. Amen. Sea grapes cover our bodies now, glorious Negro. You are free but don’t ask me why we ever needed permission to walk the earth. And didn’t they know God gave us these harbors—everybody needs a small country, a place to be bruised in. Mandela said, Let freedom reign. I say, glorious Negro, come to the gold river, tell me how you imagine a poet.
This piece is excerpted from The Republics by Nathalie Handal, University of Pittsburgh Press (2015).