Whispers prowl through the rubble that surrounds the leaning house. Half-fallen buildings stand on either side, as though a careless giant strode through the town and only by chance missed the one house—surely when the gods choose to wreak destruction on all, they are not so capriciously merciful to one. An hour down the road, Haiti’s crushed and maimed capital, Port-au-Prince, is the center of a whirlwind of international assistance. But Bas-Le-Fond, gripped in the same fury and just as surely destroyed, has only a small aid station. And when darkness falls, the American volunteers remain in their tent outside the town to work, leaving Bas-Le-Fond to its residents, and to the whispers that stalk in the deep darkness hidden even from the light of the moon.
The whispers slide among the slabs of stone and concrete that have been scattered and torn like palm fronds, gathering around the one remaining house. They steal past the gate that hangs from a single hinge, passing easily through the twisted mockery its sturdy metal has become; they pass over the recent hand-dug grave without hindrance. Scraps of glass in the windows do not cut the whispers, nor does the torn tar-paper keep them out any more than it keeps out the moon, or the insects. The whispers dive through it into the living room where order struggles against the chaos that envelops the rest of the house. The floor, by the grace of a fine broom of bundled straw, is spotless, if one overlooks the streaks of dust that trickle in from the other rooms through empty doorways, and the congress of dirt that gathers in the dark corners, behind the couch where the woman sleeps.
Maisie, she is called, and the whispers pace around her crude bed, the torn and patched sheet that covers her. Her breathing is even, her eyes closed and at peace. The sheen of sweat gives her dark skin a glow in the paper-filtered moonlight, and gives off the smell of honest work. Her head lies on the armrest, with no cushion, and her feet hang over the other side.
As though hearing the whispers in her sleep, she turns to face the ceiling and lets out a long, low breath. Her hand falls across her lower belly, cradling a dream. Dust rises gently from the couch, but no other answer comes from the silent room.
The whispers have fled already, down the street, past the broken and ruined houses. In the makeshift tent-city of bed sheets and curtains built by the town and the aid workers, the whispers settle in to breed and grow fat on the stories of the richest house left in town.
She dines on djon djon and mais moulu, one dirty blanket whispers to another. Seen it myself.
She has servants, still, reply stitched-together coats and a pillow stuffed with dead palm fronds. She calls them from the grave and they carry her to bed.
Her house is cooled by the spirits of the night. She keeps the best breeze for herself and sends the hot island air down to us.
And cool mango nectar. Fresh, not maggot-laced.
The servants walk into the back yard at dawn and they disappear into the earth again.
And why are we in this misery, here? Why do we have shit-stained blankets and rat-chewed clothes while Queen Maisie keeps her palace to herself?
There is one woman who might, in the right light, be a younger Maisie. She lies with a bundle of blankets at her chest, in the protective curl of her arm. In the darkness, her eyes gleam at the currents of whispers swirling through the tent. A smile like a spider lies concealed on her face. This is Sirène, named for love.
At her side lies a tall, lanky man whose hands are linked behind his head, the heels of his palms cupping his ears toward the ceiling. He wears no shirt, only a necklace of colorful beads carved with faces. His dark eyes are wide open and fixed on the bright glow that is the moon behind the roof-sheet. His chest rises and falls with each whisper, though the beads around his neck do not stir, and his mouth remains still as the night.
The whispers slow, curling up, bedding down. Outside, insects whirr and rats scavenge; down the hill, small tents go dark one by one, as exhausted volunteers retire for the night.
Inside the remains of Bas-Le-Fond, the rustle of the curtains and sheets dies into silence. The man and woman still lie, eyes still open. The woman makes to get up, but the man stops her with a whisper. Not yet. She lies back, impatient.
Maisie. She breathes the name like a curse. The man does not reply, so she goes on.
Locks her own sister, her own flesh-and-blood, out of her house. And why should I not have what she has?
The man remains silent, his eyes not moving from the sky. He is following the moon as it creeps toward the edge of the roof-sheet. The cloth flutters softly, dips in the light.
Apre bal, tanbou lou, the woman mutters to herself. She stares into her bundle of blankets and then up, around the tent, eyes wide and teeth bared. Even when the stillness of the tent relaxes her, she does not let her guard down.
The man’s teeth shine in the dim moonlight. He, too, looks at the bundle of blankets. Quiet, Sirène, he says. You’ll wake him.
He sleeps well, she responds. I have enough milk for him still.
You and the doctors.
The truth of this is a sour pill in her mouth. The grimace she makes would certainly set her infant son to screaming, were he to see it. But he sleeps, and she clutches him to her chest. She watches the people lying still in the tent, and her breaths come harsh and rushed.
Is it time? she whispers to her husband.
For a moment, he does not answer. Then he says, Consider what you do.
Do? I merely show her to them as she truly is. Selfish, stealing the life from us and from our son. Is she not a jé-rouge at heart?
She gestures about her, and goes on: What punishment of the gods would be worse than this? Who would punish me further? Erzulie Dantor, the warrior mother? She would fight for my son as fiercely as I do.
Tread carefully, wife. The rumors are one thing, but to name the spirits…
Be quiet and play your part. Is it time yet?
Finally, he says, Non. So Sirène lies back to wait.
The moon has crept to the edge of the roof. It is sliding past. The tent grows darker, the faint glimmers in the night grow fewer. Silence reigns.
From beside the woman, a low whisper rises in a falsely high voice: give me your baby, let me take care of your baby.
She comes upright again, this time wrapping her arms around her baby. With convincing fear, she says, Non, non.
Give me your baby. I will take care of your baby.
(It is important that the whispers exist, in case there is someone awake to listen.)
Her shrill scream shakes the town, sets sheets rippling and eyes flying open, her own baby to wailing. What? Who goes? Is it the ground again?
They have become used to earthquakes, but not this. Their eyes, shining in the dim tent, cluster like fireflies around Sirène. The night is alive again.
The lanky man’s arm slides casually over the ground to a stick he has placed there. Propped up on his side, watching Sirène with a practiced look of the same hungry fascination that feeds all the other eyes on his wife, he pushes behind his back at the stick until it meets the wall of the tent. Then he jabs, a quick motion that parts the sheets and lets a ray of moonlight in.
What was it? he asks with just enough urgency and fear.
Jé-rouge! Jé-rouge! Sirène seems incapable of saying anything else, gulping breaths and clutching her infant to her chest. She pours terror into the words, striking at the hearts of her townspeople. Jé-rouge! And then, as if finding her tongue: It bewitched me! It wants my baby!
The lanky man springs to his feet and points to where he broke the wall of the town’s tent a moment earlier. It escapes! he cries, and folds his body to dive through the partition into the night. It runs! It is a shadow-wolf now, look! Look at the red of its eyes!
By the time the sleep-muddled men have struggled out of the tent, he is halfway up the street. We must not lose it! he calls over his shoulder. Come! Catch it!
The men hang back. Let the houngen catch it, they mutter. How powerful are we, compared to a Vodou priest? Who knows what the shadow-wolf might do if we surround her? Turn on us, eat us. Turn us into jé-rouges ourselves. Non, we suffer enough.
So they follow at a safe distance. They watch the houngen lope up the street over rubble and garbage, pointing at shadows ahead of him. His certainty and the trickery of the moon work a magic of their own on the trailing men.
Oh, I see it.
There, by the fence—no, it vanishes. Wait! There!
They hurry with deluded confidence. An invisible jé-rouge might be anywhere; in the shadows of their minds, they are certain they see this one running toward the house five steps ahead of the long-legged houngen. He sweeps aside the twisted gate, and the tortured screech of its hinge stops the following people for a moment.
Then he is through the door, the priest, with a clatter of wood frame and a pounding of feet and a cloud of dust. The men gather around the gate, murmuring that he is the best houngen they could hope for in these times.
The talk of bravery quiets with passing moments, as they strain to see glimmers of red in the dark house. No movement comes from within. The men exchange uneasy glances. Should we go in? Bah! What can we do? He will catch her.
Scuffling from the house. Sharp cries, a woman’s voice, cut by the sharp retort of the houngen. They emerge from the door, the priest’s hand a vise around the arm of Maisie.
Brother, brother, she wails, why do you do this?
Quiet, she-wolf, he snarls. My magic is more than a match for yours. Plead to your dark goddess all you like.
Jé—? Her voice falters. She looks up and sees for the first time the crowd of men, eager, surging toward her. Non, mwen pa!
Jé-rouge, jé-rouge! they chant, though her eyes are wide and brown, without even a glimmer of red. As the houngen brings her to them, her cries are lost in theirs, drowned as her body is tossed by the mob.
To the square! The priest releases Maisie to the care of the men and strides across broken ground down the street. The men pull her along behind them, opening cuts in her bare feet, more than once forcing her so quickly that she falls to the ground. When they arrive at the square, Maisie’s knees and hands are red with scrapes, her feet a bloody mess.
They push her across the wide crack in the paving stones, over the rough edges thrust up from the earth, to the center. To the statue.
The statue of Negre Marron, affectionately called Faithful Pierre by the village, reaches out across the hills to the sea. The aid workers think it a charming historical monument. They cannot see, looking up, the smoothly worn metal on the inside of the elbow, nor have they been present on a night when the statue dons a top hat and coat and smiles down on the town’s chants of Samedi, Samedi!
Maisie is brought to the statue, made to climb the pedestal. She resists, but one of the men seizes her arm and twists, sharply, until she cries out. She has seen people torn to pieces by a mob; whatever awaits her can be no worse than that. And still, there is a chance she may plead her case, may still return home to sleep on her couch this night.
There may be a shortage of housing, of food, of water, but there is no shortage of rope. The men fashion a loop, hand it to the priest. He places it around her neck and throws the loose end over the elbow of Faithful Pierre. The statue’s other hand is at its waist, and here the priest secures the rope.
Maisie stifles a sob in her throat. Faithful Pierre smiles down at her in bronze, pointing out over the slope of the hill to the sea, but she cannot follow him.
The women approach, and Maisie cries out here: Sirène! Sister!
Sirène approaches slowly, her expression hidden by the cloak of darkness. She picks her way across the pieces of rubble, one step at a time, delicately. Around her, the women call indignantly. Quiet, traitor! Creature! Cannibal! You never will have this child, never.
Sirène! Maisie pleads again as her sister enters the square.
The baby passes to one of the women flanking Sirène so that accuser may step forward to face accused. That is the voice I heard, Sirène says, her voice clear. It wanted my baby as dearly as it now pleads for its life. As dearly as it clung to its house, denying comforts to the rest of its town fellows, the house it stole from my mother on her deathbed.
She gave it to me!
Maisie’s cry is ignored. Stolen, Sirène repeats, from a dying woman, when it was mine by birthright. Stolen, like the health of the mangoes I tend! Stolen, like our lives!
She finishes with a sweeping gesture to the ruined town. Her eyes meet Maisie’s, and the spiders crawl out, just a touch. Maisie knows all the things that are not being said, the small jealousies and grievances that accumulate in a family like cracks, the larger ones that crush love into hate.
I have stolen nothing! Maisie raises her voice, trying to be heard. I tried to help!
The murmur in the crowd is not enough. Sirène raises her voice to match her sister’s. You tried to help! Pah! You became a werewolf, a red-eye, and thought you could go on dancing on our blood, she says. With a malicious curve of her dark lips, she adds, Apre bal, tanbou lou.
The dance is over; now she must pay. The murmurs swell, nods of agreement. The men shuffle, stamping their feet like drums, heavy on the broken plaza ground. The thick air muffles the terrible rhythm, but Maisie feels it through the soles of her bare feet, through the blood that runs from her cuts, sticking to the pedestal. She feels it in her temples, and she feels it pressing in on her chest and her belly, overwhelming the frantic racing of her heart. In this moment of terror, she remembers her dream.
I carry a child! she screams, pressing one hand to her navel.
The foot beats soften but do not stop. Sirène screams as loudly, Lies! She lies to save herself! For if she had a child, why would she seek to steal mine, the only thing she envied of me?
Strength returns to the crowd. Heat and noise and dust rise from their feet, though they speak no words. The houngen, who has watched these proceedings with a solemn expression, now turns to Maisie. She does not meet his dark gaze. Sister, he says, shaking his head, you should not have turned to the darkness. The best you can hope for is to be forgiven in the next life. Do not worry— he anticipates her fear, he thinks —nobody will make a zombie from a jé-rouge.
Do not do this, she pleads, her eyes still downcast. Her hand remains pressed to her belly. Shallow breaths shake her body.
It is too late for that, the houngen says. Baron Samedi, take this creature from our midst!
Erzulie Dantor! Maisie cries, lifting her head to the moon as the priest sets his hand to her shoulder. Ede m’!
The crowd falls silent at the appeal. As one, they turn to the houngen, their eyes aglow with moonlight, waiting for his judgment. Even Sirène waits for her husband’s response to the name. Only Maisie, staring up at the moon, does not look at his hard, dark face.
There is no help for you, he says, with a voice as cold as stone. He pushes.
Her bloody feet come away from the pedestal with a tearing of flesh.
The crowd stamps harder. Maisie struggles, clawing at her neck; she is not so heavy that her neck breaks. Each breath rasps louder, harder, shallower. The onlookers keep gruesome time with her struggles.
Her hands fall to her sides. One gestures weakly to her belly, then twitches and falls limp.
In that moment, a cloud passes over the moon. The square goes dark with shadows and the men grow silent; later, many will swear they saw the black shape of a wolf run down Maisie’s side and flee into the nearest ruins. The houngen, watching Maisie, sees her face darken, her eyes glitter with starlight, and shadows slither like scars across her skin. For a moment, the terrifying visage of Erzulie Dantor blazes out at him, and his skin chills.
Then the moon returns, and it is only Maisie hanging still and dead from the arm of Faithful Pierre.
Sirène breaks the silence. Quickly! Before the foreigners come up.
She takes her baby back and steps to the side as the men lower Maisie’s body. They carry it with gentle tenderness; the wolf is gone, and only the corps cadavre remains. There is a place for the dead, on the edge of town, where one more body will go unnoticed among the others.
Tomorrow, Sirène announces, we will take the house for all the town. As her nearest relative, it belongs to me now, and I will give it to all of you.
There are ragged cheers. The men take the women back to the tent, where the curtains and bed sheets do not seem so poor. The evil spirit is gone; their fortunes will change.
Only the priest is silent, remaining beside the pedestal, as still as a statue himself. Sirène approaches him, a smile on her face. Shall we go to our house?
He inclines his head. His eyes reflect the clouds grazing the moon.
What is it?
Sirène scoffs, her voice low though nobody remains in the square. You choose a strange moment to begin believing, husband.
I saw… He does not finish, looking up again, past the crooked arm of Faithful Pierre, at the moon.
What? A shadow? A spirit? A jé-rouge? Do not forget that Erzulie Dantor protects me as well.
Sirène hefts the baby in her arms, and her husband looks down at his peaceful face. He reaches out to touch the babe’s forehead, and then nods. Still, he says, Maisie has been wronged. She called for help.
Sirène’s voice sharpens, shrill in the muggy night. Wronged? What of me? What of all that was taken from me? If Erzulie Dantor exists— (here she has the presence of mind to whisper) —she has looked with favor on this night.
Be quiet, the priest says.
I will go with you. But you will be silent about Erzulie Dantor, and about the jé-rouge.
Sirène’s eyes flash. Have a care, she says.
The houngen’s eyes bore into hers. What has happened to one woman can happen to another, he says evenly.
Sirène’s lips tighten, web-thin. She turns and strides over broken bricks and splintered wood, up to the house. The priest looks up once more, and then follows.
Hours later, the moon hangs swollen over the lightening sky. No foreigners have come to investigate the midnight disturbance in the town square, despite Sirène’s worries. The town sleeps in its refuge, in the sheets and curtains that the people have taken from their homes to make one large home—all except for Sirène and the priest. They lie together on the couch, with Maisie’s blanket draped over them, pressed close together. The babe lies between them.
Twin red points show softly on the tar-paper at the window. Wind soft as a breath catches a torn piece, folds it backward, steals into the room. Sirène stirs, her sleep disturbed by the barest touch of air on her cheek, whispers from the night, dark and deep. Non, she whispers in return, though she is not yet sure what question she is answering.
But the whispers are insistent, persistent. Your husband threatened you, they say. You are not safe, they say. Your baby is in danger.
She turns, her arm around the mass of blankets. She squeezes. Not my baby.
Your husband has a son, he has a house; why does he need you? You, who know what he has done?
Non, she murmurs again. Weaker.
The whispers insinuate themselves into her blankets, slide around the fabric of the bed. They surround her, growing stronger. Come to the window. I am at the window. I will keep your baby safe.
Sirène’s eyes flutter open. She lies petrified while shadows flit around the room.
The window. Come. Hand your baby to my care.
Erzulie Dantor? Sirène sits. The world feels askew to her, as if there has been an earthquake in her mind, leaving its base uneven.
The room does not reply. Sirène clutches her babe to her chest and stands. The blanket slides to the floor; her husband sleeps on. She takes one tottering step toward the window, where a soft red light grows stronger.
She does not think of a jé-rouge and its bewitching voice. She thinks only of her sister calling on the goddess, moonlight shining on her face. She thinks of the name, the silence of the crowd, the troubled face of her husband. And now, now, too late, she can see the harsh woman outside the window, dark and forbidding, the tribal scars badges of honor on her face. She can see the woman as clearly as if there were no paper in the window, the woman who is sworn to protect mothers and daughters, the woman who fought for her people just as Sirène has.
Darkness hisses in her ears, silken words. Your husband is calling on the gods even now. He means to take your babe. He means to kill it.
She takes another step, glances back nervously at the dark form sleeping on the floor. His hand rests on the beads, the beads carved with faces. And the floor lurches below her, sends her stumbling, running to the window. The gods are angry, and her husband is calling them down on her. She loses her footing, drops to one knee, trembling more than the ground.
But she does not drop her baby. She carries him to the window, away from her husband, away from the dust falling from the ceiling and the ominous cracking sound drowning out the whispers. She thrusts the baby at the window, crying, Take my baby, take him, protect him, keep him safe!
The paper tears with a grinding sound, but no, it is the floor and walls that are tearing. Sirène’s arms thrust through the paper, but she cannot see what is on the other side. She feels only the weight lifted from her arms.
Clarity returns to her. What has she done? She tears at the paper. Her hands slice into glass shards, and blood stains the paper as she falls to one knee again. The ground is bucking now, throwing her against the wall, but she cannot reach the window. She cries out, her breath too short for a scream, and through the paper, the red glow taunts her, the whispers turn to a woman’s laughter.
Her hand grasps the sill, heedless of the glass slicing through her skin. She pulls herself to her feet and thrusts her head outside, tearing the paper.
The house is surrounded by shadows, set in illusory motion by the clouds crossing the moon. Sirène sees movement in every flicker and she draws back, clutching the curtain. Stupid, she tells herself, and then she glances at one of the deeper shadows.
Two red eyes gleam in the pre-dawn light.
She cries out, and they are gone, and there is only her baby, sitting on the makeshift grave where her brother-in-law is buried. Her baby is not moving.
Dead? No; in the time it takes her to think it, she hears him cough, hears the beginning of a cry.
Just a dream. Her babe is safe, and there is no such thing as a jé-rouge. Sirène laughs, and lifts her foot to the windowsill to climb through.
Apre bal, tanbou lou.
She hears the mocking voice clearly within her mind, a female voice as deep as history and as rich as Haiti itself. She has heard it behind her mother’s voice in reproach for wickedness; she has heard it in the strength of wives whose husbands gave them bruises and scars rather than happiness. But here, stripped of any human guise, it shakes her bones and rattles her knees, and leaves icy fingers around Sirène’s heart, echoing and echoing in the cage of her chest. After the dance, the debt must be paid, the words say.
The ground lurches again, sending her tumbling to one side. The grinding, tearing sound comes again, stronger. She sees her husband sit up the moment before the heavy wood ceiling drops. It crushes him beneath timbers and plaster, beneath the second story of the house, the empty bed in the bedroom above.
Sirène’s scream lasts only as long as it takes the wall to collapse.
Whispers prowl through the dust outside the ruined house. They circle the baby, safe on the pile of earth. For a moment they sit by the earth, and the glow from their eyes burns bright red. They strain forward, but a shadow with a scarred face and eyes that shine silver holds them back. The silver glow, so faint against the pack of red-eyed four-footed shadows, will surely be overwhelmed. But a small piece of stone on the grave catches the silver glow and reflects it back; a broken piece of glass shines like the moon. The red-eyed shadows hiss and growl, and turn their backs, loping away into the darkness.
The shadow-woman leans over the baby. He cries once and then looks up in wonder, at the bright eyes and the dark scars. Her face shows no smile, but the baby knows that she loves him. The gods, sometimes, are merciful.