Olivia Wilson stood in front of the gates. She remembered the lessons the nuns taught in Sunday school about the seven deadly sins. She was afraid she was about to commit all seven. Then she remembered her children back home drooping from hunger. She did not notice how the violet jacaranda blended into the crystal blue sky. Or the sweet birdsong that mocked the frantic chaos of the earthquake’s aftermath. The image of her children’s taut bellies and their wasted grey limbs blinded her. She didn’t care about hell anymore. She was in hell already. Hell burned in her children’s vacant rheumy eyes. She could see a demon laughing at her from within their depths.
‘Mummy I’m hungry,’ her children had mewed, before she left the house.
She had tried to distract them. Told them they were fasting to make Jesus happy. She danced and sang praise hymns for them. But they wouldn’t stop crying. Finally they lay down and went to sleep. Only then did Olivia let the pain that had been building up behind her eyelids slide down her cheeks. Tears formed bitter pools of sorrow in the hollows of her collar bones.
‘Never panic in front of the children.’
She couldn’t remember who told her that. Or was it one of those things she instinctively knew? One of those things in the blood, in the DNA?
She had been to The Big Man’s house before. Stood in front of these gates before. She came to beg food for her children yesterday. He had so much, much more than he needed and no children to feed. His skinny pale wife never had children. They lived alone in a palace of a house.
The Church told her givers never lacked. Before the Earthquake Olivia shared whatever she had. She shared with anyone she thought needed it. So when she had no more to feed her children, she went, timid and humble, to The Big Man in the Big House on the Hill to ask. She had heard from the other girls in Church that he was a generous giver.
I’ve been good to my neighbours, she thought to herself. I pray morning and night and go to church every Sunday. I am kind to the needy. I’m quick to forgive. And I was faithful to my Evens. Didn’t Jesus promise that ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’? And ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, for they will be filled’?
Jesus said, ‘Ask and you will receive’, so she went into The Man’s house, certain he would give to her. But he looked her up and down with a calculating gaze and asked, ‘What will you give me in return?’
At first Olivia didn’t understand his question.
‘I have nothing left to give but I can come and work for you. I can clean and cook and shine your shoes,’ she said.
‘I already have a house keeper and my valet shines my shoes. You’ll have to give me something else.’
She looked at him in confusion. ‘The only other thing I have is a small plot of land in the hills beyond the city. I can’t give it to you because I don’t have title papers to it.’
He laughed at her.
‘I have many acres of land. What do I want with your tiny plot? Come, you are still a beautiful girl. Don’t be naive. You know what I want,’ he said, while raking her body with his gaze.
Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open as the import of his words dawned on her.
‘But sir, your wife…’
She didn’t mention she was still mourning her husband. She had not seen Evens Wilson since the earthquake. He left their rented single room in the morning to look for work and never came back. Tears stung her eyes. He had been a hardworking man, ready to toil long hours to provide for her and the children. Even for the child that wasn’t his.
Olivia had prayed for his safe return. Twenty seven days after the earthquake the Red Cross pulled a man out of the rubble alive. They said his name was Evans on the radio. Olivia rushed to the Red Cross field hospital where they took him for treatment but it was not her Evens. It was a different man: Evans Monsigrace. Evans, not Evens.
The Man laughed again.
‘My wife? So what? She will not believe you even if you told her.’
Olivia remembered seeing The Man sitting in the front pew of the church with his wife every Sunday. His rich baritone rose above the other voices during hymns and the liturgy. It was a voice used to giving orders and receiving immediate obedience. Even from God. Olivia imagined God’s voice would sound like this.
The Man reached for her breasts but Olivia evaded his touch and ran out of the Big House. She ran through the great hallway and out through the grand doors. Down the long driveway lined with flowering jacaranda and out through the ornate gates. Two cherubs perched on fluted columns flanking the gates. The cherub on the left leaned forward from a crack in its concrete waist and the column it sat on tilted sideways. It was the only visible damage from the earthquake to The Man’s house.
Olivia ran all the way home where her children waited.
Later that night she cooked the last of her supply of rice and peas. While she cooked she told her children stories. She told them how Jesus saved mankind from sin. And how he was going to save Haiti. She didn’t eat with them but saved her part for them to eat in the morning. After they fell asleep she lay awake wondering what she would feed them with after that.
Who will I go to for help now, she wondered. Everyone is suffering. No one is more fortunate than anyone else anymore. We are all equal now. Even the church collapsed and the bishop died. The nuns struggle to feed the people who live at the parish now. They had no food and no water today. Yesterday they had only one meal. Maybe I am more fortunate. This old timber building did not collapse. I might have had to take my babies to the parish too. It is safe here. It is safer than at the parish or the tent camps. Here the men take turns to guard the building at night and they still know my name and remember my husband. At least I am better off than Anna. All her children died at St. Gerard’s. She does not recognise anyone anymore. She sits on the porch all day and all night rocking back and forth and moaning. Jesus why do you let her suffer like this?
Olivia remembered the last sermon the priest gave before the earthquake:
‘Do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For it is the pagans that run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will come to you as well. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and by prayer and petition send your needs to God.’
But the priest didn’t tell them what to do when the earth shakes and cracks. He couldn’t tell them what to do when dead bodies overwhelmed the streets of the living. Or how to escape the stench of death that wrapped itself about the city like a shroud. Or how to tell the living from the dead—because everyone looked like a zombie.
Olivia felt a crushing heaviness in her chest. Her stomach clenched into a knot. Her thoughts raced around in her mind like crazed monkeys in a cage. She wanted to scream but choked on a hard lump in her throat that slid down and settled under her sternum. She thought her heart was about to break.
My babies, my babies, her mind screamed. They didn’t ask to come here. They didn’t ask to be born. They didn’t ask for any of this. What kind of world is this? What kind of God is this? They say children are a blessing. Then it must be a curse to watch them wilt with hunger. It is too much to bear. I want to die. Maybe if I die someone will pity them and care for them. Maybe then they will stand a better chance. I don’t know what to do anymore. I have prayed. I have asked. I have knocked on doors. She felt an urge to tear out her hair and dash her head against a wall.
Moaning, Olivia fell to her knees in front of a small altar in a corner of her room that held a picture of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus and a plastic glow in the dark crucifix. Handel, Evens’ younger brother, asked once what made their altar different from his. Handel practised voodoo. His altar held several dolls and a plastic skull which he stole from the science lab when he was in high school.
‘Bless the Lord, O my soul. He is worthy of my praise. I will lift up mine eyes to the hills where my help comes from. Miracle worker, wonderful is your name.’ Olivia tried to soothe herself but dark thoughts continued to writhe in her mind like snakes in a pit.
What happened to your promises, Lord? Why have you abandoned me? Why have you forsaken me? I’m all alone. Why will no one help me? People rush past me, blind to my fear, my terror, my pain. Do I need to scream for them to hear me? Do I need to roll myself on the ground for them to notice me? When I raised my voice and asked them for help they asked me why I had a baby I could not afford to take care of. I tried to have an abortion when Mrs. Bertrand kicked me out. I swear I tried, but the old woman said it was too late for me. God forgive me for my wicked thoughts. I thought he would die when I pushed him out of my womb all alone in the alley behind the candy shop in the market place. I thought I would die. But we did not die and the babe cried and my heart returned and I suckled him. Two years we lived on the street and struggled for food with dogs. Till Evens came and found us. And brought us to you, Lord.
Why won’t the earth swallow me and these children now? How will I feed three children? How will I feed them now? Who will save us now?
Why can’t I be like those other girls? Their skin is shiny and smooth. Their babies are plump and happy. They wear pampers and drink Nan when everyone else is suffering. Now I know why the Man is generous to them. It is not for Christian love. What kind of mother am I if I cannot do whatever I have to do to feed my babies? But the thought of his cold wrinkled hands makes me cringe. And the thought of his shrivelled old penis makes me want to throw up. What type of God is this? This old white man. Is it not better to be a slave that cannot say ‘no’ when the master grabs you than to be free and forced to surrender like this? When Handel called white people and their gods wicked I argued with him. He said white skin covers a heart of darkness. He said it was their wickedness made Haitians mad and bloodthirsty. Life is expensive, he said.
The priest said we must smile and endure our tribulations if we will see the salvation of the Lord. How can I smile and pretend to be happy when my babies’ lamentations echo in my soul? If I must be happy before the Lord answers my prayers, I will be poor forever. How can a mother smile when her children are suffering? Oh why do these wicked thoughts torment me? No one owes me anything—life is not fair—who said it’s supposed to be? Am I better than the ones that go to the Man? Am I too proud? Proud of what? Will my suffering save my babies? They will still suffer unless they get an education and how will I pay for that when I cannot even feed them? Besides what will they learn if they are hungry? A hungry brain eats itself up.
Olivia couldn’t breathe anymore: the blood rushed to her head.
‘All I have left are my children.’
How Olivia loved her children. She loved them more than life itself. When she was only ten, Olivia lost her own mother Helene, to Hurricane Georges. She never knew who her father was. He left before she was born. Helene raised Olivia on a small farm outside Jacmel where they lived with Helene’s mother, Tata. Helene was a mild, hardworking woman who had big dreams for her only daughter. She sent Olivia to school every day and taught her to work hard and dream big.
Then one day in September the wind rose with a fury Olivia had never known before. Even Tata could not remember it having ever blown so hard. When the rain started, it came down in torrents as if from a giant bucket tipped over the land. The whole county was flooded. Olivia and Helene huddled with Tata in their dicky little cottage. Each gust of wind felt like it might carry them away. The pig pen collapsed when the wind and rain subsided and the pigs ran out squealing. Helene didn’t want to lose her valuable livestock and dashed out to drive them into the cottage with them. She never came back and nor did the pigs.
There was no funeral. Tata was too old and shattered to keep Olivia or work the farm. She sent Olivia to Port Au Prince to live with a working class family as a restavek. Amal the agent assured Tata that Mr. and Mrs. Bertrand would take good care of Olivia and send her to school. They never did. And Tata never knew. Olivia slept under the kitchen table. She woke up at dawn to sweep the house and yard. She walked the Bertrand children to school after they had breakfast, and then came home to eat their leftovers.
It was a hard change for Olivia. Helene had been a fair and loving mother. She had kept Olivia’s stomach full and her mind at ease. Mrs. Bertrand was as inconstant as the sun during the rainy season. Olivia never knew what her mood would be or what would provoke her. She lived eternally vigilant. Sometimes she expected the woman’s wrath. Like when she dropped a china plate and Mrs. Bertrand didn’t give her food for two days as punishment. Other times she didn’t expect it. Like when the youngest Bertrand child hit his older sister on the head with a rock. And Mrs. Bertrand horsewhipped Olivia for letting it happen. Olivia still had the scars on her thighs and butt. Olivia missed her mother and longed to return to Tata. A year after she moved to Port Au Prince Amal came back and told her Tata was dead. The farm was sold to pay for the funeral Olivia could not attend. And all hope died.
The growth of Olivia’s body lagged behind that of her soul. Finally when she was almost fifteen her breasts sprouted and she had her first period. Still she remained reed-thin and looked fragile. When Mr. Bertrand began to notice her Mrs. Bertrand’s beatings became more frequent. Olivia started to sleep in the pantry behind the sacks of rice and peas to hide from them.
A few days after her fifteenth birthday Mr. Bertrand walked into the kitchen alone. The rest of the family was in church. Olivia was plucking a chicken for Sunday lunch and didn’t expect any of them back for a few more hours. She looked up in surprise. The look on his face made her jump up to run away. He grabbed her and pulled her against him before she could. His large hand covered her mouth and nose. She blacked out. He raped her on the kitchen floor with a brutal force that ripped her back into consciousness. Then it was over and he got up and walked out leaving Olivia crumpled and bloody on the floor.
Mrs. Bertrand returned with her children an hour later. The half plucked chicken sat abandoned in the middle of the floor. Flies buzzed into the air as she came towards it. She picked her way through feathers, blood and gore smeared all over the floor. She found Olivia weeping in the pantry. Mrs. Bertrand took it all in and knew immediately what happened. She grabbed the horse whip and flogged Olivia out of the house. She shouted at Olivia with each blow.
‘Get out of my house. Prostitute. Jezebel. You want to steal my husband. Get out of my house before I kill you.’
She kept on flogging Olivia till she reached the end of the alley behind the house where it opened onto the road. Neither Mrs. Bertrand nor Olivia noticed curtains moving in windows along the way.
‘Never you come back here,’ she shouted at Olivia.
Passersby averted their eyes. That night and for many nights after that, Olivia slept on the streets of Port Au Prince. She learnt to ignore the men that called to her during the day. And to avoid the men that tried to sneak up on her during the night.
Evens found Olivia three years later. She was standing on the ledge of a bridge clutching her baby, Jack, to her chest about to jump off. Evens was passing on his way to morning service. The sun peeked over the horizon and splashed magenta, pink, and orange across the grey sky. Stars were still visible in the retreating darkness above. He could not see Olivia’s face but something in the stillness of her inky silhouette drew him towards her.
‘There is a place for you in the house of the Lord,’ he said when he was closer and held out his hand. His voice was kind. Olivia paused. She had not heard kindness in a long time. In the soft light his dreadlocks made him look almost feminine. For a moment she swayed. Evens feared that she was about to fall over into the icy river below but she let him take her hand and help her down. He didn’t ask any questions. Not yet. He knew the likely answer. Port Au Prince was full of abused and abandoned young women.
Evens let Olivia lean against the railings of the bridge. She cried as she nuzzled Jack’s neck. The dawn shadows receded before the rising sun. Evens noticed Olivia’s large haunted eyes. The gaunt angles of her cheekbones and the sharp bones of her shoulders stretched her skin. Meanwhile her baby looked healthy and bright-eyed.
‘She must have starved herself to feed the baby,’ Evens thought. ‘Whatever happened to make her want to end it now?’
When she calmed down he took her with him to his church and handed her over to the nuns.
Evens visited Olivia every morning after that. After mass he would stop by the convent of the Sacred Heart behind the parish priest’s house. Each day he brought her or the baby something; some fruit, a child’s rattle, a book. Then he would sit with Olivia for a while and talk before heading off to work. He didn’t ask her any questions at first. He told her about himself. How he came to Port Au Prince from the north, the family he left behind and how Jesus saved him. After a while Olivia let her guard down and told him about herself. He asked her to marry him eight months later. Olivia wondered if it was gratitude or love that made her say yes but she knew he made her feel safe. Like her mother did. Is that what love felt like?
Now she was alone again. With three mouths to feed.
Olivia stayed in front of the altar a long time. Jesus’ eyes stared back at her from the cheap framed print and reminded her of Evens’ eyes. They had the same kind, gentle gaze. Olivia knew she would never find another man like Evens. He had come to save her, like Jesus. He taught her how to love again, like Jesus. And then he left her to figure out the rest of it for herself.
The first cock was crowing when Olivia finally lay down beside her children to catch a couple hours of sleep. There would be no school for them later. All the schools remained closed. She would let them sleep late and eat their last meal as late as possible. Henri, her three-year-old son, mumbled in his sleep and rolled over. She patted his back to soothe him back to sleep and drifted off.
Olivia dreamt she was in a long white hall with high ceilings. Dense leafy gold vines climbed the walls and a huge ornate gold throne stood on a high dais at the end of the hall. A woman sat on the throne. The woman wore a crown as dazzling as the sun at noon and silk robes as luminescent as a full harvest moon. Diamonds twinkled against her ebony skin, around her neck and on her ears and fingers, like stars. The Lady stretched out a hand and beckoned for Olivia to approach. Olivia drew closer and looked into obsidian eyes as deep as the Universe.
‘Mother!’ Olivia cried in recognition and rushed into her arms.
The Lady smiled and engulfed her there. Olivia sank into the fragrant softness and started to sob.
‘There, my child. Stop crying. A Mother’s love is as infinite as the universe. You are never separated from it. Do not be afraid, my beloved. I am always watching over you.’ The Lady’s voice sounded like velvet whispering to itself.
Finally Olivia was calm again and relaxed.
Olivia woke up to the sun streaming in through the curtainless window. The children were awake already and playing on a corner of the bed. As soon as they saw her eyes open they climbed over her and asked for food. She warmed the remains of the previous night’s meal and fed them. She ate two spoonfuls to calm the rumbling of her stomach.
Calm but still unsure of what she was going to do Olivia asked a neighbour to look after the children. She took her time to walk back to the Big House and stood a long time in front of the gates. The gateman saw her and, smirking, opened the gates for her to enter but she couldn’t bring herself to go in. She sighed and turned away, her shoulders drooping and her head hung low. She couldn’t bring herself to go in and meet the Man again.
She took her time getting home. The sun was going down when she entered the hallway. She heard children’s laughter. Surprised, she realised that it was her children laughing. She hadn’t heard them laugh in a long time. She hurried towards her room and walked in. Handel sat on the bed playing with Jack. A large middle aged woman sat in the only chair in the room with baby Anna in her arms and Henri leaned on her knee. She looked up as Olivia walked in. Her face was full and kind and laugh lines radiated from the corners of her eyes.
‘Olivia!’ Handel jumped up and hugged her. ‘Finally, you’re home. We have been waiting for you. This is my Mother Celestina. She returned from Salvador two days ago. We have come for you and the children.’
Lesley Agams is a writer, lawyer and social entrepreneur. She currently lives in Abuja, Nigeria but moves often. Home is a little kingdom on the banks of the Njaba River in South-East Nigeria. She believes in the trans-formative power of storytelling. Her work has featured in Brittle Paper. She participated in the 2016 Farafina Creative Writing Workshop. You can read more about her at MzAgams on WordPress