Haitian Houses, III
Here in this island we arrived; and here
Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit
Than other princes can, that have more time
For vainer hours, and tutors not so careful.
The Tempest, William Shakespeare
Of course it was never really ours. We rented it from Maître Baussan* for ninety dollars a month. An old gingerbread, not as elaborate as some, not truly grand, not well kept up, according to our landlord its singular charm. The rose garden no longer flourished, there were termites and rats in the walls, places in the wooden floor in my sister’s bedroom which gave way under high heels, woodpeckers destroying trees in the courtyard where grass grew between the cobblestones. “An old house, Madame,” gesturing, “a very old house.” M. Baussan was an old man, distinguished, light-skinned, white beard, walked with a cane which he used to poke into the exposed beams on the spacious front porch, perhaps it was a verandah, but we never called it that. He had been summoned because the whole place rocked when my father walked across the bedroom floor just above. A cloud of powdery white stuff, the beam had been eaten away, reduced to dust. ”A very old house, Madame.” Replacing beams reluctantly, one at a time, M. Baussan kept his strangely desirable rental property from falling down.
Many Americans had lived here before us. A few unwanted books had been left behind, two or three of the Captain Horatio Hornblower series I tried to read, but didn’t get far. A former Marine invader during the 1930s brought his family for a tour of the flying buttress, an added-on bathroom extending out over the ravine which rushed with water when it rained, might topple us in a tidal wave, the frightening shadow of a man cast after dark by the head-like shape atop the banister in the upstairs hall, the attic where an eighteenth century rifle was found, the armoires, the french doors, the balcony with its view of the bay. He wanted them to see it all, but his teenage children were unimpressed, I could tell. Only we who were living there everyday, communing with green lizards peacefully blowing out their sacs in the shower, who just last night had seen the man in the hall, only we could understand his emotion, the freight of each connected memory. We were the lucky ones without TV, with an imposing, high-necked telephone that never rang, with a garde-manger in which to keep cans of tomato soup under lock and key, with a crazy Cuban water heater: jigger of alcohol poured through a funnel, lit from below, five minutes of warm water, miraculous. We were the inheritors of royal palms. We felt the heat, swam in the unfiltered bassin fed by an icy spring, took siestas, read by candlelight during the blak-a-oot, heard drumming in the middle of the night, wondered where it came from and what it meant and found these mysteries comforting.
We lived on that verandah, where pois et riz (rice and beans), a pink and white flowering vine, made its way along some lattice work. We settled into the sagging swing and some white adirondack chairs with fitted cushions around a couple of round tables, also painted white, for our drinks and hors d’oeuvres: corn fritters, a spicy spread of tête de Mort cheese. Citronnades, rum soda or, more rarely, whiskey. One Christmas, I remember, a customer or company my father represented came through with a case of Johnny Walker Red. Who drank scotch in Haiti? A big shot, a gros nèg, as my father was sometimes called. We rejoiced. A case of Johnny Walker Red! Other furnishings were a square mahogany table used alternately for the Waring blender in which we made frozen daiquiris and the sewing machine our seamstress, who did mending, re-covered cushions, made our nightgowns and pyjamas, brought with her. A backless daybed, frame and mattress, belonged to our dogs, Napoleon (white West Highland terrier) and Dessalines (black cocker poodle mix). Its role was home base in their games of tag. The dog on the chaise was safe, could catch his breath, not be knocked off, only a second or two before the chase resumed producing a special skittery sound as the dogs tried and failed to get a grip on tile floors.
No doubt a decorator could have done a great deal with our living room with its high ceilings and knock-out black and white tile. The burgundy couch from our New York apartment made a fine background for a white cat; armchairs provided by M. Baussan were an absurd combination of red leather and mahogany, so deep we couldn’t bend our knees without sitting too far forward, two hulking empty presences, evidence of the Haitian maker’s failure to absorb a European concept. It pains me now to contemplate the waste of beautiful and precious Haitian mahogany now altogether depleted. Our living room was no place to sit; it was instead a kind of revolving theater: a hospital, a detective’s office, a schoolroom, an airplane, as my sister and I and our friends became characters in the books we were reading. Or practiced dance steps, or balancing baskets on our heads.
No windows downstairs, no door knobs. Every morning, back to front, floor to ceiling, double doors flung wide, iron hooks banging, gentle scratching of a sisal broom, coconut halves polishing (a servant on his hands and knees), bouteilles, bouteilles, amidon amidon, zoranges douces, cries of marchands in the street on the other side of the bushes posing as clothes lines, my father calling for his kettle of hot shaving water, or yelling fermez le robinet if the water in the sink was only a trickle. Later in the afternoon, arguments and laughter coming from behind the house where Eugène’s snorting black pigs might wander up from scavenging in the ravine, cocks crowing, frogs croaking, cards being shuffled, voices and music from the radio, Brossez vous les dents avec Colgate, Quel est le savon...? (The answer was Camay, but what was the question?), Allo, allo, blasting from a bull horn on top of a camion. Our hearts racing sometimes in the evening if a motorcycle spewing rocks bringing a cable with bad news arrived. But then it was only some fluctuation in the price of wheat or in the coffee market. The isle is full of noises, says Caliban in The Tempest.
Caliban, slave to Prospero, but native dweller and rightful owner, guide to the island’s secret springs, brine pits, barren places and fertile, without whom Prospero and his daughter could not survive. Modern critics find a hidden critique of colonialism, whether or not intended by Shakespeare, in this play, and I’m sure it is significant that some of its most beautiful lines are spoken by a savage, said to be got by the devil, just as I see that we, like Prospero, failed to take our servants’ point of view into account. Especially in the evenings, on weekends and holidays, we kept them from their real lives, their own families; our needs came first. M. Baussan, too, played his part. He could have given our house to his daughter and her family who lived in a dinky stucco in the sunken yard close to the road where our driveway began. They probably resented us, though they welcomed us kindly when we returned for a visit, children in tow, in 1983, occupiers at last of the big house.
An education, a better life, isn’t that what they all say, every new arrival seeking asylum? We received both, but we were migrants, sojourners, not immigrants, birds of a twelve year passage in the Baussan house, though we had taken pride in being permanent residents, year after year our permis de séjour renewed, our photographs deliberately clipped, pasted, and stamped. We lived in Rome like Romans, we ate the lettuce and never got sick, and yet our little lives were overturned, not by warfare or force majeure, but by a general changeover throughout Latin America from importing flour to milling wheat on site. Duties on imported flour went sky high; exporting coffee would not keep us. As my father put it, “Coffee isn’t grown in Haiti, it’s picked.” In 1956, President Paul Magloire, forced out in a bloodless coup, made his way past our house down the Rue Turgeau for the last time; a year later, U.S. backed Dr. Francois Duvalier began his reign of terror, subtle enough at first, roadblocks and rumors as far as we were concerned. Our revels now are ended, says Prospero. “The Haiti chapter is over,” my father said.
I think it was easier for him, old enough to see his life as a book with chapters, on to his new position (Commercial Attaché) at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador. My sister was away at school, but in 1961, I was back in Haiti, teaching sixth grade at Union School, my first job. My mother and I packed up, decided what to keep, what to leave behind, broken dolls, toys we’d long outgrown. But The Brimful Book. How could we have abandoned it? Well, what was it, nothing but a collection of nursery rhymes, our old Mother Goose, Mary, Mary and Little Miss Muffet, and yet a terrible mistake. The longing began with my first grandchild, for whom I found a copy online, which means nothing either to her or to me. I want the book we brought with us from New York though we were too old for it even then. Because sitting on the floor in the playroom, we wept over it, my mother and I, conspiring in our error, perhaps the only way to make us realize we were leaving.
Now Haiti is like that intractable person to whom you belong and who belongs to you, your child, friend, lover, next of kin, of whom you despair, who can’t get a leg up, who never does the right thing. A failed state, according to some, without infrastructure, its environment unrecoverable in our lifetimes (whose exactly is never made clear), mired in superstition, dreams of past glory, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, unpredictable, deeply mysterious. Who is to blame? Too many to point to, who wouldn’t acknowledge responsibility if you did. It’s all too tangled to unravel now. And yet you are attached, intimately related, to this person for whom you can do very little. You space out your visits accordingly, send your love via e-mail, small checks through the post, make observations, resolute pronouncements, seldom follow through, until finally you are too old, too worried about your own dubious circumstances to take meaningful action.
All along my mother had her eye on it: the Baussan house in Turgeau en haut was the address, up above, out of town. A friend’s father recalled going there on horseback when he first arrived, though we shot up from Union School or my father’s office in no time. Through the Champs de Mars with its billowing oleanders, little boys keeping the inner rims of bicycle wheels precariously in balance, past the Palais National, guarded and gleaming, the statue of Dessalines, the bandstand, waved through, the road narrowing, by the policeman directing traffic, on we roared, honking at school girls in braids with bows and uniforms to match, at drivers going in opposite directions stopped for a chat, past the Texaco station, the sacré
Coeur where the road widened, houses receded, bougainvillea in every color everywhere, calmer here, older, dusty and leafy, long driveways, wrought iron gates. Each time we felt it, the jolting bounce as we hit the cobblestones, in triumph, in anticipation, we might take a swim before lunch. We were hungry and tired. We were home.
* This was, I believe, Georges H. Baussan (1874-1958), a well known Haitian architect, trained in Paris, one of the inventors of the gingerbread style so well-suited to Haiti’s climate, designer of the Palais National and other government buildings as well as many splendid residences, our house probably among them. I wish I knew who the original owners were and whether it is still standing, just possible since the old wooden buildings survived the 2010 earthquake better than most.