The Secret Island

Bee writes a school essay about her immigrant parents. Does that have anything to do with why her papa was stopped in his cab and arrested?

By Edwidge Danticat Nov 28, 2006

Bee, stand still and you’ll fall, run and you’ll fly. That’s what Ma says as we’re standing in the cereal aisle in the middle of the Key Food supermarket near our house on Flatbush Avenue.

She’s got it all wrong, I want to say. It’s "Stand still and you’ll fly, run and you’ll fall." At least that’s what Papa used to say when I was much younger and walking too fast in a supermarket aisle. And that’s what Ma used to say too, up to a week ago before Papa got arrested.

Now everything is inside out and upside down and Ma always says things opposite to the way Papa used to say them. She even has trouble remembering what kind of cereal I like, Raisin Bran, for all the dry raisins you can pick up with your spoon while they’re floating like real sun-baked swimmers in the middle of your bowl. Instead she reaches over to the shelf closest to her and picks out something called Muesli, that looks from the box like it’s full of nuts and tree bark, and while putting this strange thing down on top of the box of eggs in the cart in front of her, she begins to cry right there in the middle of the supermarket.

Ma keeps crying as she’s pushing the cart into the cookie aisle. The tears are rolling down her face and bouncing off the front of her dress and she’s not even acting like she wants to hide them. So I keep my eyes on a big tin of coconut pineapple chocolate chip cookies on special for $1.99 as Ma moves up and down the aisle with the cart.

Ma has already spent all her and Papa’s savings and borrowed tons more to pay a lawyer, Mr. Firmin, who’s promised us to bring Papa back.

"Now all we can do is wait and pray," Ma says every time one of her friends calls to check on her. Or cry, I want to add–since that’s what Ma does most.

I’m getting too sad watching Ma cry, so I hurry ahead of her cart to the fruit and vegetable aisle where I’m going to buy a crisp, green apple just the way Papa liked to eat them. While I’m running to the apple, I hear Ma shouting behind me in Haitian Creole.

"Betty, you’re too old to be galloping like a wild mare in a public place like that." This time there are all kinds of people staring at us like our hair is on fire: old ladies in flowered muumuus, the women from the beauty parlor next door with their hair half braided and half permed. They’re all staring at us because Ma is sobbing and yelling in a foreign language like she thinks I’m going to evaporate.

My parents, as you might be able to tell, are from Haiti. I was born right here in Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A., which my English teacher, Ms. Saint Fort, says makes me a first-generation American. Or a "newer American" as Principal Díaz likes to announce in assembly or during class visits with local politicians. (For some reason, local politicians like to come to our school with television news cameras even though we can’t even vote yet.)

It was Ms. Saint Fort’s idea that I read my quickly written the night before it’s due essay out loud during one of Principal Díaz’ visits with a congresswoman whose name I don’t even remember anymore. My parents are immigrants, I read. Some people would like to call them "aliens," which sounds strange to me too, because I always think of aliens as being from out of space. I didn’t realize that my father was an "undocumented immigrant" until last Election Day. I asked him why he didn’t go vote with Ma and he said that it was because he was not yet "legal." In Haiti, my father was a revolutionary. He organized invasions and tried to get rid of a bad president. Some of his friends died for that cause, but thank God he didn’t.

A few days after I wrote those words, Papa’s cab was stopped by the police at a busy intersection on Church Avenue and he was arrested. When Ma went to the station after work to get him, she found out that they’d already sent him to a Department of Homeland Security holding center, a place where so- called undesirables are held before they’re quickly deported.

The way our lawyer Mr. Firmin tells it, because of some anti-terrorism law that says you can deport people like my father quickly, (people with a so -called criminal past in their own country), Papa was gone even before Ma could be allowed to see him. When next we heard from him, he was in Haiti.

I hear Ma telling this story over and over to friends who call and visit her and to Mr. Firmin, who’s going to be asking the Department of Homeland Security to let Papa come back to the U.S. because he has a U.S. citizen daughter and a naturalized citizen wife.

"I don’t understand," Ma shouts to friends on the phone. "We don’t know how this could have happened. These things in Haiti were so long ago. How could they have known? Even the Haitian government doesn’t care. My husband’s not in prison there. He’s free."

My stomach churning with worry and shame, I unpack all the groceries while Ma sits down at the kitchen table near the window that overlooks the Parkside Avenue subway station train tracks. It’s funny how after a while you can stop hearing something even as loud as the D train passing under your building every fifteen minutes, day in and day out.

Ma covers her face with her hands while humming a song I don’t recognize. It must be an old Haitian song. There are many that she learned in her childhood, which she calls out of her memory every now and then. When she’s out of tears, she hums. When she’s tired of humming, she whistles. That’s when I usually realize that her sadness is fading, at least just a little.

After all the groceries are unpacked, I run the tap and get her a glass of water and a wet paper towel to wipe her face. She keeps her eyes on the ground and uses the paper towel for a compress on her forehead.

"What would I do without you?" she asks me.

What would I do without her, I’m thinking. What if I open my big mouth again or spill some bad ink and she gets deported too?

"What don’t you go and lie down?" I suggest.

She gets up and stumbles to the bedroom she and Papa shared. She’s not made the bed once since he left and won’t allow me to do it, either.

She climbs up on top of the crumpled sheets and curls up inside them like a baby in a crib.

"Betty, I had this very strange dream last night," she says, burying her head in the dirty sheets.

"Just rest Ma," I say.

"Please let me tell you," she says, "it won’t hurt a bit for me to tell you."

I crawl into the bed and lie next to her. She inches over and puts her head on my lap.

"I dreamed that your father and me, we were in the Japanese gardens in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. He had escaped from the police station where they first had him to meet me there in secret. I see him across that pond in the Japanese Gardens, watching the lily pads and the tourists taking pictures next to the boulders there. We’re standing on opposite sides of that pond and we look up and see each other and wave. It’s not an anxious wave, but the kind of wave where you know you’re going to be seeing someone very soon."

She is smiling as she drifts off to sleep, perhaps to be closer to her dreams, to be closer to Papa. A train is passing on the tracks under the building. I’ve lived in that apartment with my parents all my life and most of the time I don’t even hear the trains anymore. But just as Ma is about to fall asleep, the train comes to a screeching stop and jolts her awake.

"To think your father might never ride that train again," she whispers.

Papa calls us that night from Haiti, for the seventh time in seven days. He calls collect. He’s staying with some relatives–his father’s half-brothers–the only relatives he has left there.

Ma smiles from ear to ear whenever she’s on the phone with him. Sometimes she lowers her voice to say some things she doesn’t want me to hear. Other times, she stays very quiet to listen to what he has to say.

I press my ear against her chest–that’s how far as I could reach on her body–to try to listen to both their voices at the same time. I also try and pretend that he’s still with us, that he’s calling us from the bodega downstairs asking if we want him to bring home milk or cereal, both his and my favorite food.

"Go ahead, Betty, say a few words to your father," Ma says. Usually it’s hard to pull the phone away from her, but tonight she seems to want her own conversation with Papa to end faster.

Papa’s voice is strong and firm when I talk to him. "How are you doing, my little bee?" he asks. He likes to call me his little bee. Ma says it’s the first thing he said when he saw me in the hospital the day I was born. How are you doing my little bee?"

"I’m doing okay, Papa," I try to speak like everything is normal, just okidoki. "And you?"

"We have lots of orange trees in the yard of the house where I’m staying," he says for the seventh time. "You’d like it there."

"Can I come visit?" I ask for the first time.

"You need to stay there and look after your ma," he says. "Besides, you have school."

"Are you taking good care of your Ma?" he asks.

"Yes," I say.

He then seems to be choking up and losing his voice. He asks me to put Ma back on the phone.

"I love you Papa," I say before handing the phone back to Ma.

"I love you too, my little bee," he says.

I wonder if he’d still feel the same way if he knew about my essay.

Ma is quiet again, real quiet, when she gets on the phone. It’s like she doesn’t want to miss a single word Papa’s saying, like she’s trying real hard to hear his heart beating all the way from Port-au-Prince. I, too, am trying hard to hear what he’s saying to her. He’s asking her to send him some money so he can help pay for his share of the expenses at his uncle’s house. Ma’s face gets all knotted up like she’s scared. She’s bouncing her head up and down like she’s already trying to think up a way to get the money for this month’s rent and some to send to Papa too.

"I suppose," I hear her say, "that I have to work for both of us until you get back."

Ma gets up very early the next day. The way she’s looking, all sluggish and drowsy, I don’t think she got any sleep at all. She’s already dressed by the time I get up and has breakfast on the table: muesli.

"Bee, it seems like I have to get another job," she says.

Only Papa calls me little bee, I wanted to say. You always call me Betty, remember? But I don’t want to make a fuss.

"If I get a second job," she says, "you might have to stay with Mrs. Kim at night."

All the kids in our building called Old Mrs. Kim "the craft lady." Mrs. Kim had retired from her job as a social worker ages ago and stayed home all day watching soap operas and making crafts. People like to leave their children with Mrs. Kim because by the time they pick up the kids, they’ve always learned how to make a few things from Mrs. Kim; useful things too, like scrapbooks or dolls or beaded necklaces. Mrs. Kim usually has so many craft projects going that she doesn’t like having too many kids in her house, so she only accepts one or two on an emergency basis and avoids keeping anyone for too long.

Ma drinks nothing but black coffee while I sit there and gulp down my muesli, just to make her happy.

When we ‘re both done with our breakfasts, we head out for the bus stop, since Papa isn’t there to drive me to school and drop her off at work. We push our way onto the bus, and by the time we’re in front of my school, Alexandre Dumas Intermediate School, Ma already looks like she’s at the end of her day. Her white home attendant uniform is wrinkled and has a quarter-sized smudge from someone’s chocolate bar in the back. Still, she manages to give me a quick forehead kiss at my stop and watches from the bus window as I run inside the school.

I’m feeling like sneaking out of the building and running after Ma’s bus when one of the hall monitors spots me and calls out, "You’re late!"

The monitor walks me to class, letting me off with yet another warning.

When I get to class, everyone’s already seated, and Miss Saint Fort is taking attendance.

"Betty, you’re late again," she says. "That makes three times this week. Do you at least have your permission slip for the field trip?"

The field trip to the Botanic Gardens; I had forgotten all about it. Maybe that’s why Ma was talking about the Japanese gardens. Maybe she saw the permission slip and just started dreaming about the trip.

"I’ll have it tomorrow," I say.

"It will be your last chance," she says. "Otherwise you’ll have to stay with Mr. Dusseck’s class while everyone else who’s turned in a permission slip is on the class trip."

A few of the kids moan. Mr. Dusseck teaches English as a Second Language to kids who have just arrived from Haiti. It seems odd that even as some people, like Papa, are being sent back to Haiti, others are still coming and putting their children in our school. Still, I don’t want to spend my day with the kids in Mr. Dusseck’s class. Everyone teases them and tries to shove them out of lines in the cafeteria.

Instead of taking the bus from school that afternoon, I walk. I walk the entire thirty blocks to our apartment building. Thirty early spring blocks, where the near summer heat rising from the concrete forces enough sweat from my face so that even if I start crying, no one will notice right away. Walking past the only doorman-building on my route, the co-op where a soap star from All My Children lives, I think that if I were a cartoon and there was a balloon over my head, it would be so full of questions that there’d never be enough time in the world to answer all of them. Still, the more I walk, the more I try to forget my betrayal of Papa’s past by concentrating on how he and Ma fell in love.

Ma is young and beautiful. She is a student in her last year of secondary school in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. She wears a school uniform, an almond brown skirt and a white shirt. My father sits next to her in the same class. The students are quizzed, graded and ranked each week. My mother and father always take turns at being second and first in their class. One day my father writes my mother a letter saying, "I can no longer compete with you because I love you."

In my mother’s response letter, she writes, "Don’t try to distract me from my studies. I won’t be fooled by your tricks."

"No trick," my father responds. "I love you."

"What do you know about love?" my mother writes back. "You’re only a boy."

The next few weeks, my father falls behind in his studies. His grades slip and he’s third, then fourth, then tenth in their class.

"It’s your fault," he continues to write to my mother. "I spend so much time thinking about you, I can’t study."

"I’ve noticed that you’re losing weight," my mother writes. "Let it not be said that I not only caused you to be kicked out of school, but caused you to die of starvation, too. I’ll be your girlfriend."

My parents have all those letters tucked away in a small black suitcase on the floor of their bedroom closet. I found them one day while helping Ma look for the white tennis shoes she wears to work.

Every now and then, when I’m alone in the apartment, I look through these letters and use the yellowed French-Creole-English dictionary that my parents keep on their dresser to decipher them. I have looked up enough words to understand most of what these letters say, though not everything.

I let this story of the way my parents fell in love carry me home on its wings, then I go right into the closet and dig the letters out again. Most of them are written on lined notebook paper held together by a thick rubber band. Some of pages still carry the lingering scent of Florida water and the flattened red carnations glued to them. Some have only pictures of flowers pasted to them with glue made from cassava paste. Others are political leaflets and fliers in Papa’s handwriting.

Papa’s twenty years worth of love and political notes are written in red ink in a firm cursive that looks as though it has been practiced against a ruler. My mothers’ words are large, dark and disorderly, as if she couldn’t care less. Even with the new French-Creole-English dictionary I’ve brought home from the school media center, there are many things I can’t grasp. But there are others that I do get, phrases like "Armed Revolution," and "Destruction and Revenge."

I fall asleep with the letters spread out all around me on the bedroom floor. When I wake up, the windows are dark and Ma’s standing above me. I’m looking at her with my still-sleepy eyes when she asks, "What are you doing with those?"

It doesn’t pay to lie to Ma, especially when the evidence is scattered all around me.

"I’d like to see where Papa is, in my head," I say.

What I meant to say is that I’d like to go there, where Papa is, in my head, during my long walks home from school. I’d like to see the house where he’s staying until maybe everything is cleared up and he’s allowed to return to us again. I’d like to see the rooms where he spends most of his days, where he lays down at night.

"There are many sensitive things here," Ma says while quickly gathering hers and Papa’s letters. She carefully places the rubber bands around them, then puts them back in the suitcase. Her hand stays on the suitcase for some time until she reaches in and pulls out a shoe-shaped tourist map of Haiti, which because of Papa’s hidden revolutionary past, I now call "the secret island." On the map, each city is illustrated with a picture, beach umbrellas on the coast and small parks and houses where the capital is supposed to be. Ma lowers her index finger there and whispers, "This is where Papa is."

Along with the tourist map, letters and pamphlet in the suitcase, there are more things that I’m yet not yet able to make out, battle plans and journals with secret codes and jargons that don’t exist in any of the dictionaries I’ve used so far.

If I were to redo my quickly written the night before it’s due essay, this is what I would write.

My parents grew up in a time and place that they have always called "The Dictatorship." That is a time and place, unknown to others, but well known to them, where people who had different opinions and expressed them were thrown out or killed.

I remember spending entire evenings with Papa watching the news hoping to hear one word or see one image of The Dictatorship. When it came finally, it was always an image of a starving and dirty child or a soldier beating or shooting a passerby. Somehow these sights would both anger and comfort Papa. On the one hand, he was glad to know what was going on in his country, but on the other hand what he saw would break his heart.

Once the news was over, Papa would put his arms around me and say, "Bee, all of Haiti is not this bad. There are some beautiful things and good people there too. Only the bad people have more power. That’s what I was fighting for when I was young, to get the bad people out. And that’s why I’m willing to fight for again."

Now Papa’s on the other side of the silent television screen, where I can neither reach nor touch him.

I want to watch television, to wait for the same programs that Papa and I once watched together, but Manman won’t let me no matter how much I sulk.

We eat dinner while waiting for Papa to call.

For the first time in eight days, Papa does not call on time. And when Manman tries to call him, the line is busy. I feel like I’m being punished for writing my essay and reading it out loud, for outing my father to Principal Díaz and the visiting politician’s television cameras. But then Papa calls, and we talk, and until I can see him again, I will never stop feeling the deepest of this not- so-secret ache in my heart.