FICTION The Sweet And The Saltby TATJANA SOLI
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TATJANA SOLI was born in Austria and now lives in Southern California with her artist husband. Her debut novel, The Lotus Eaters(St. Martin’s Press), will be published this summer.
MY MAMAN TOLD ME THE STORY of the olden days, when the sun was a sweet orange in the sky. All the days, she said, were buttery, the rivers ran rich like melted coin, and the people were happy as often as not. My maman, she told me that when the Troubles came, even God in his house could not help us, and he squeezed down on that orange sun, but the juice that should have been sweet, when it met this world, it turned to salt; it filled the oceans, and it came out of the people’s eyes. “Marie,” my maman said, “all your life you must look for the sweet. It is there for the finding.” Maman was such a fine chef because she knew that the best dishes use both the sweet and the salt, because that is our life. She told me when she was a young girl, the light in the deepest forest was gold, like the necklace around a rich woman’s neck, but after the Troubles, it turned the dark of iron. Since I was born, I knew only the time of iron, and everything else was like a fairy tale. Maybe that is why the men, they could do it to her in that black-purple forest, in that hate-filled jungle, while I waited up for her all night on my cot in the kitchen. They carved away her face, and I thought maybe this was better — God kept her from looking back on this hell.
After my maman gone, Aunt Josie took over cooking the dishes in the pink house on the hill, but my auntie was not a chef like Maman. She used too much salt, and she knew her days were numbered, so she looked around and offered up the sweet — not her own daughters, no, but me — to the house. She had me mop the floors, rub lemon oil deep down into the grain of the wood, but mostly she left me in the greenhouse on long afternoons alone with the old woman’s son.
But I don’t believe in the past. It’s just a story that happened to someone else.
THE HORROR OF THE BOAT TRIP from Haiti was forgotten when I saw the Florida coast, because I thought at last my life would change. Change, life. Change, I chanted under my breath to the rhythm of the waves, until the other girls thought I was singing, and they hummed along, searching for the melody.
I remember fear like the slosh and thump of water against the boat’s hull. The constant dread of hearing the mosquito whine of a Coast Guard boat coming to turn us back. Worry about the smugglers who ran the boat getting funny with the women. And, far off, the orange halo of light over the cities of south Florida like giant bonfires lit to signal us in. Magic names — Miami, Key West, Delray, Boca Raton — like incantations.
We stole in like thieves. Uncle Thibant had made calls, and my distant cousin Jean Alexi had driven down from Little Haiti to pick me up. Although I did not know this branch of the family so well, I was grateful to have someone take me away from the beach and the danger of police. My cousin also talked up some of the other women in our group — the thin, young ones — who crowded into the back of the waiting van with me.
Behind the tatty front seats the van was pure island: stripped out with nothing more than a filthy metal floor to sit on. At first the most fussy of us, who’d saved clean clothes to be worn after the landing — white blouses and dark, printed cotton skirts — tried to squat and preserve the impression of well-behaved convent girls. But the quick driving and the careless hard turns knocked us over and into each other. I had to brace my legs against the side of the van in order to avoid landing on top of or underneath other bodies. We were like chickens in a box on the way to the butcher.
The two moun, men, who crowded each other on the edges of the passenger seat did not follow island ways and introduce themselves. They were squat and muscled, with blue-black skin and hungry, rat eyes. Jean Alexi, my cousin twice removed, was different. He was tall and loose jointed, all arms and legs and head coming toward you, like a fighting rooster. His skin was light almond yellow, his face small and crowded, with a pointy chin that bobbed constantly as he chewed. (Gum? Tobacco?) But the main thing one noticed on Jean Alexi were his dreads — enormous and dusty-cocoa colored, billowing up like an engorged cockscomb, bundled with a tie like a huge crest. His hair both frightened and fascinated me. I had seen Rastas around the island but never up close. I reached to touch one braid, to see if it felt stiff and hard as rope or soft as fur. He grabbed my wrist tight.
“Now, little Erzulie, what kind of trouble you looking for from Cousin Jean Alexi? Huh, girl?”
“My name is Marie.”
“Your name is what I tell you. New name for new life.”
I tried to pull my hand back, but he held the wrist fast with surprising strength for such a lanky man. His other hand thumped the wheel, his eyes a spinning gold that didn’t seem right. Then he brought my hand to his lips, stuck out his tongue, and ran it along the inside of my wrist.
“Mmm, homegrown sugar. That’s what I miss most of the island.”
At this the other two men noticed me for the first time, appraising.
“Too bad you’re blood,” Jean Alexi said, and he threw my hand back.
“Not my blood,” one of them said.
Jean Alexi looked at him like a knife. “Way too precious for you, brother.”
When I heard that, I relaxed just the smallest bit, thinking that I had a protector. That being family made him different from the other men.
THE LAST TIME I’D SEEN Jean Alexi, I was a girl of ten. Our family was celebrating — a wedding or a new car; the extended clan used any excuse. No big luck ever happened to us, so we went all out for every little scrap of good. I played with the other children on the beach, and some boys stole the coins my maman had given me to buy ices with my friends. As I cried, Jean Alexi, all lean teenage muscle, walked by smoking a joint, looking at the pretty tifis, girls, and making loud noises to his gang. When he came alongside us, he saw my tears and bent down. “Ou byen?” You ok? “What make this little face go down, mwen piti fi?” My little girl.
“They took my coins.”
In short order the younger boys had their arms pinned back painfully, and the coins were sorrowfully handed over. “OK, little Erzulie, what you want happen to des boys?”
“Kill them,” I said.
He chuckled. “Oh, my Erzulie, she has a hot temper, moun.”
“Why you call me that name?” Erzulie is the Haitian goddess of love.
“’Cause you grow up to be like her.”
The thieving boys cried like babies.
“OK, tell you what,” Jean Alexi said to them. “You crawl to her, and you kiss her feet, and maybe we let you live.”
“Non!” I screamed. I jumped up and down on the sand, drunk on my new power. “That’s not what I said. Kill them! Kill them!”
“Enouf this,” he said. “You one spoiled girl-child.” Jean Alexi winked and threw me a piece of candy as he took off after a girl who shook her hips his way. The boys scattered free. Only later did I realize that Jean Alexi had never given my coins back to me.
NOW I FELT JUST A flicker of courage. “We’re hungry,” I said to Jean Alexi.
“Well, let’s feed you.”
His crazy eyes studied me in the rearview mirror, but I convinced myself that they meant me no harm. I remembered the candy he’d tossed me that day — a dried-out pink piece of taffy.
“Don’t you know,” he continued, “you’re in the land of plenty?”
The complete text of this selection is available in our print edition.