“The Fire in Your Sky” by Ibi Zoboi
The pang of hunger is bitter, sharp, hot – familiar even. I don’t sleep. My feet and right hip ache from carrying the child up and down the sidewalks of this unforgiving city – this city that was supposed to take me within its bosom, cradle and rear me until I became its fully grown citizen. Imelba from down the hall has showed me her claim to this place – a card bearing a melancholy photograph of her, her name and some random numbers. It is the word PERMANENT that I notice most.
There is no need for the Creole translation of the English word I’ve spent my whole life running from. Taking with me what little I have to this village and that valley in my native country. Escaping the sleepless ones, the curious ones, the accusatory ones whose only evidence was the dawning sun and crowing rooster greeting their lifeless infant. In rural Haiti where hospitals are like the mountains beyond the mountains, and herbalists are a mix of scientific superstition, my sudden relocation from wherever I came to such a remote and destitute corner of the country gives way to suspicion and blame for the death of a newborn.
So I move, always. The brim of my large straw hat shields the deathly whiteness of my eyes days after I’ve had my fill.
It is morning again and my soul clings to my bones like a Fort Dimanche political prisoner at mercy’s gate. The child sleeps peacefully atop the folded clothes inside a very large suitcase – my only possession, save for the child. Imelba has offered me an old foam mattress. “Please, mija,” she pleads in her Dominican Spanish. “What are you going to sleep on?”
I only engage her with just a few Spanish words, not allowing her to know that I can hold a full conversation. That would only remind me of the months I spent on one of the bateyes, a cane field and sugar factory town in the Dominican Republic. It was not the promise of work in the more stable country that enticed me, but the many new cursed souls born to bodies with hungry mouths and weary, overworked mothers and bandit fathers who shirk blame like thieves in a crowded Port-au-Prince outdoor market. In the batey, death of an infant is a guilt-laden reprieve. With my smooth Spanish words rolling off my tongue, I would not want Imelba to know that the batey had not sufficed and with my aversion to permanence, I made my way to the wealthy parts of Santo Domingo and Santiago to satiate my hunger with the more European stock of new souls. I didn’t know then that with each soul gone missing in the night, one innocuous Haitian immigrant woman paid the heavy price.
“Lourdes, Lourdes!” I hear Imelba yelling from down the hall. “Don’t go into the toilet. There’s no hot water. We have to call 311 on that bastard slum lord. Mierda!”
I loathe the way she says my name, rolling the ‘r’ and emphasizing the ‘s’ that is supposed to be silent – LORD ESS. I’ve corrected her once, letting her know the French pronunciation – LOOD. I’ve always liked the weight of the sound of my name whispered softly in the dark of night like an invocation. But Imelba and the other Dominicans make it sound as if I am the other kind of woman of the night. Still, I allow her that one infraction. She, after all, has insisted that the child and I stay in the unfurnished back room of her fifth floor apartment.
The sound of Imelba’s grating voice wakes the child. I had hoped that she would sleep a bit longer allowing me the time to think of how I would feed her for the day, but my strength and acumen are waning with each passing night in this place. I glance at the bare walls with chipping white paint, the wooden crown molding, and the high ceiling that would have been perfect for spreading my flamed wings before planting my soul within my human skin left on the floor. The coppery color would’ve blended well with the hard wood. But there are no windows in the room from which to make my nightly escapes.
The child whimpers and I clench my jaw and grind my teeth wishing that I could leave this place right then and there. But Imelba has taken a liking to me and I want so very much to be like her – the English words obey the movement of her tongue, she is given a job to do and is paid enough money to send some extra to relatives in Santo Domingo. It was not the promise of work that made me come here either. When my sister had managed to get me a visa and insisted that I come stay with her in Brooklyn, I realized that leaving my skin anywhere in Port-au-Prince at night while I roam the skies in search of newness was a sentence to permanence – the perpetual burning flame that I’d become was too painful of an existence to bear. After the parting earth shook loose the many hundreds of thousands of souls from their bodies, skin lying around was an assured temptation.
Imelba flings open the door and she is already dressed in ill-fitting jeans and a sweater. “Mija, you haven’t given the baby… Dios mio! Why do you have her sleeping in a suitcase? You want them to call ACS on me? This is not Haiti, pobrecita. You give those maricóns any little clue that you are hurting your baby and they will ship you back to Haiti and give your little princesa to a barren blanca in Park Slope.”
The child’s eyes are open now, wandering and bloodshot – a tell tale sign of hunger. I shield my own red-tinged eyes from Imelba by casting them down, the way I had learned to do as a young restavek working in wealthy Haitians’ homes for the broken promise of an elite education.
“Estupido,” Imelba chides. “You don’t understand a word I’m telling. How are you going to make it in this country? You overstayed your visa, you have no money, and your sister, your only family, is married to a piece of shit she doesn’t want to leave. You have to grow some balls, pobrecita. Because if you make it here, honey, you can make it anywhere.” She turns and walks away, leaving the door open. Her large ass moves to the faint sound of reggaeton playing in the apartment below.
“Her name is Imelba and she owes me a favor after I worked pro bono to stop her brother’s deportation. That’s the most I’m going to do for you, Lourdes,” my sister had said after she’d thrown me and the child out of her four-story Brownstone that only housed her and her sickly doctor husband. There’d been more than enough room for me and the child – plenty windows, high ceilings, and open space to morph back from my fireball self. With her six bedrooms, three baths, and Haitian heritage, my sister, the immigration lawyer, threw me a party on the day I arrived to show her friends the earthquake survivor and her baby.
I was asked to recount the story. How had the child and I managed to survive beneath the rubble for so long? How had I come out unscathed with no broken bones or bruises? Such a miracle it was to not have died of hunger or thirst after fourteen days.
“God is good,” I said in my broken English. Then, “Gloire a Jesus!” in French. These words had saved me on many occasions. When by chance a grieving mother caught a glimpse of my glaring white eyes and yelled, “Loogaroo! Soucouyant!”, I had only the memorized words of the Bible as my defender. I let the villagers know that I am a woman of God and am prepared to die in the name of Jesus rather than be blasphemed with the name of a soul-sucking, fireball witch.
I do the same here in Nuyok where my half-sister, born of the same father but not of the same womb, had searched the Port-au-Prince hospitals for a Lourdes Mia Cantave, daughter of a peasant market woman and a wealthy, philandering businessman. She’s always known of me because my mother let it be known that she, a poor tar-black woman from the countryside, had managed to seduce the sunlight-colored, curly-haired mulatto from the affluent hills of Petionville. She is not like me, my half-sister. She and her friends would not understand that it was only my and my daughter’s skins trapped beneath the rubble. The Americans with their NGOs and their claims of donations to Haiti’s poor would not have believed me if I told them that the child and I had felt the shift rising from the earth’s hot core to the surface minutes before the streets cracked. So we left the skins behind to watch the chaos from the sky for fourteen whole days.
And she, my sister, could not have understood that I am like my mother – that men lose all forms of moral restraint when around me.
He’d been kind and genuine, my sister’s husband. Engaging me in conversations about Haitian politics, helping me with English words, offering to check my blood pressure. He could not have known that on one of the many nights his wife worked late and he’d been tired and needed some company, that he’d walk into my bedroom and be greeted by the overwhelming stench of burning flesh and stumble upon our copper brown skin. He had stood there, mouth agape, eyes widened as I flew back through the large floor-to-ceiling window as a whirling fireball with a smaller flame tagging along behind me. I had quickly slipped back into my skin, relieved that this Haitian, who was one generation removed from his culture, knew nothing of pouring salt onto skin lying around without its soul to rid the world of the likes of me.
It was the child that had been fed, sleeping soundly in her skin, and not me. So with the pang of hunger still burning at my core, I could not resist the soul of this man who stared at my naked body, panting, erect, and forgetful of the wife who was just minutes away in a taxi cab. I wrapped my long, thin arms around his neck. And as he caressed my back, kissed my breasts, slipped himself into me, and cried out in agony, I inhaled his being, drew in bits of his soul to feed my soucouyant self.
I had not averted my now glowing white eyes when my sister walked in and saw her husband on top of me, drained and listless. She had yelled, cried, pounded her fists on his back – not even noticing my loogaroo eyes. I had left him with enough energy to painfully get up from on top of me, bypass his raging wife to return to his bed, and wait for the days to pass as he slowly deteriorated.
It was not the fresh life I’d been accustomed to, but in this unfamiliar city with its perpetual night lights and sleepless dwellers, I take what I can as soon as it presents itself. I have the onus of having to feed the child now, and keeping her immortality intact takes precedence.
“I have to go in for surgery to remove my fibroids,” Imelba says as she pours colorful cereal into a plastic bowl for the child. “The longer I stay from my beloved Santo Domingo, the sicker I get with all the shit in this city. So I need somebody to take my place while I’m recovering so the family doesn’t go out and hire somebody else. Entiendes?”
“Sí,” I say, quietly seated at the small table, keeping the child on my lap and allowing her to rest her head on my chest so that the woman cannot see her eyes.
“There is some bacalao and green banana on the stove, but I can’t keep this up anymore, Lourdes. I can’t afford to feed two other mouths and send money to my poor mother in Santo Domingo, ” Imelba says as she moves about in the tiny kitchen reeking of the dried salt fish. “You shoulda cried rape at the top of your lungs. And the police woulda came and thrown that marícon in jail. But with money coming out of her coño, that bitch woulda bought his freedom and he woulda been back in the house in no time. And that’s when the party woulda started. Do you even hear what I’m telling you, míja?”
“I understand,” I manage to say. The English words I can decipher, but they weigh heavy on my tongue like molasses. So I simply listen.
“That’s when you woulda ran out into the streets yelling rape and the people woulda came out of their houses like cockroaches because they love that kind of stuff. Sex slave operation with earthquake survivor, they woulda accused your sister and her husband, and no amount of money coulda get them out of that shit hole. And you, pobrecita, woulda been sent to a decent shelter just for women in domestic violence and they woulda showered you with all sorts of government programs – WIC, food stamps, Section 8, free daycare. Hell, maybe even one of those brand new condos in one of those fancy buildings Downtown they gotta reserve for poor miserables like us. Do you hear what I am telling you, morena? This is how you’re gonna make it in this place!
“But because you are a little Haitiana from that hell hole on the other side of my island, you were not smart enough,” she says, poking at her temple. “So for now, you take over for a few weeks for me. I’ll pay you half of my salary. You can bring your baby to keep the old lady company.”
I smile at the prospect of food. This, I would enjoy slowly like sipping a cup of hot brewed bitter leaves to allow each gulp to satisfy every corner of my soul. Again, this is not the newness I am accustomed to, but it is life nonetheless, regardless of its proximity to death. It is the difference between fresh lamb and dry, salted fish – nourishment just the same. It will sustain me until I’ve reserved enough energy to explore the lay of the sky in this place.
The child does not go to her, this Mrs. Kowalski, who at seventy-five looked much older than the centenarians I knew back home. Though the child is lethargic and cranky, and hunger rages like the flame within her, she prefers her quenching to come from fledgling souls — I point to the cat that lazily roams the shiny hardwood floors of Mrs. Kowalski’s apartment, but she shakes her head – picky child, she is. So I instead help myself to this Lucy.
Mrs. Kowalski asks me to braid her hair like mine – two shoulder length plaits. Mine are midnight black, coarse, and thick. Hers are a thin, paper white. I rest each of my fingertips on her scalp. This is how I take my first sip.
“My son’s wife doesn’t let him come see me,” Mrs. Kowalski complains. Her voice is deep and raspy from decades of cigarettes. “I bet when I die, she’ll be all over this apartment.”
I don’t respond to any of her gossip, only cleaning the heavily furnished apartment, answering the doorbell when her gourmet meals arrive, changing her adult undergarments, and allowing the child to lie languidly in front of the wide flat screen TV. Each time I lay a finger on the old woman’s grayish creased flesh, I am renewed from within – doing my coveted job with more verve and a newfound sense of purpose.
“You’re not like the other girl,” Mrs. Kowalski says of Imelba who is twenty years my senior, and with much less vigor than in the days when I first started. “She’s too sassy and lazy.”
So, Mrs. Kowalski asks me to stay. When I tell her that Imelba has thrown me out of her house, she offers me a guest bedroom with a large window facing the East River. I can see the whole island of this Manhattan with its buildings teasing the sky. I’d have to soar much higher than I’m used to in this place.
“I’ll have to come over, say good-bye, and give her my middle finger,” Imelba says. “Eight years I worked for that punta. Wiping her ass, painting her crusty toenails – shit her own damn son will never do. But don’t worry, pobrecita. You’ll learn. You are now officially a Home Attendant. You’ll always have work because they’ll always be old people rich enough to be away from their own children; old people rich enough to have families who wait for them to die so they can have their money and apartment or whatever.” She sucks her teeth long and hard.
On the first night of my stay, the child and I slip out of our loogaroo skin, allowing our fireball selves to ease beneath the opened window and roam the city’s night sky. Souls are abundant in this place, but hardly as accessible as in my beloved Haiti. They are safe behind barred windows, bolt-locked doors, and smoke detectors. Still, the child finds her sustenance. She’s more lenient than I am, only nibbling and not swallowing whole the lives of her victims. Triggering only a sudden bout of faintness in a young child or a passing seizure in a toddler. Enough for the whiteness of her loogaroo eyes to shine dimly. I worry that it isn’t enough. We must adapt to other ways.
I sense Imelba’s presence in Mrs. Kowalski’s apartment upon our return just before the breaking of dawn.
“Mrs. Kowalski, you’ve been so good to me. I’m glad Lourdes is working for you now. She’s young and sharp, just what you need. Makes no sense for a sick lady like me to take care of you,” Imelba says.
“But what the hell are you doing here so early, Imelba,” Mrs. Kowalski responds groggily, having been woken up out of her sleep. “You hardly came on time when you did work for me.”
The child enters her skin, climbs into the fancily dressed bed – our very first bed ever – and sleeps, satiated. But my skin is nowhere to be found. I circle the room as a firelight, searching for the human covering until I spot it in a dark corner of the room – shrunken and withered by sea salt.
Imelba barges into the room, shielding her face. “Don’t you dare touch me, chupacabra! You think I didn’t see those Diablo eyes?”
I shift within my fiery self first, morphing into the last animal form I consumed – the cat, thin, long, and caramel brown. With my keen feline olfaction, I know that death awaits just outside the room. Imelba swings a broom at my newfound body and I move quickly enough to run out, jump and land on Mrs. Kowalski’s lap as she sits on her rocking chair.
“Oh!” Mrs. Kowalsi exclaims. “Lucy, you’ve come back to me!”
She strokes my fur-covered back and I purr, sated with each touch.
“Mrs. Kowalski, you should get rid of that stupid cat. It has rabies or something,” Imelba says, staring at me.
Mrs. Kowalski sighs feebly. Her life force is slowly diminishing the longer she holds me on her lap. “I think you should go now, Imelba. Please wake Lourdes for me so she can make me a cup of coffee. I’m not feeling so well.”
Imelba steps back. “I’ll make it for you, Mrs. Kowalski. No need to wake her.”
She goes back into the bedroom and I jump off Mrs. Kowalski’s lap and run in after Imelba to find her picking up the still sleeping child. I cry out, jump at her leg, but she flings me away. Before I could become my fireball self, she is out of the apartment with the child, closing the door behind her.
My mother’s instinct knows that the child will have her feed. It is inevitable when human life is so close to a loogaroo soul.
My original form, Lourdes, is gone forever. No matter, because her young body only attracted men whose souls I did not care for very much.
I climb back onto Mrs. Kowalski’s lap. She is sound asleep now, but within minutes her soul will make its passage out of her body to roam the ethers. I can sense the glowing whiteness of my eyes now – full. But this feline existence will not suit my purpose in this new place. I’ve heard the stories of the bitterness of life as a Haitian immigrant in Étas-Unis. As the young and beautiful Lourdes, I was given the advice of first starting out as a Home Attendant, going to school at night to learn English, then in a few years’ time move up to a Nurse’s Aide, with the ultimate goal of becoming a Registered Nurse and buying a modest home somewhere on the outskirts of the city. My sister would’ve paid for my education.
But I look around at Mrs. Kowalski’s huge apartment with her fancy belongings and expensive collections from all her years as an art collector and gallery owner. English words are not foreign to her tongue and she will continue to make money even in death – she has no card to remind her of her claim to this place. There is a shift within me again, a burning rage to move. This time, there is no need to take my skin along with me. I leave the feline coating behind and ease into Mrs. Kowalski’s body. I settle comfortably, the aged skin fits me like a perfectly tailored dress. I will her body to move with agility and grace. Only seventy-five years, her body was. But with me in it, she can outlive her selfish son and his greedy wife. Though I’ll have to be careful of where I leave her skin when I need my nightly fill.
I dial Imelba’s number. “Imelba, hon. That girl you sent me is nowhere to be found,” I say, relishing in the melody of my English words. “I need you to come back.”
She pauses. Then, “What’d you do with that stupid cat, Mrs. Kowalski? I can’t work for you if that cat is around. I think I’m allergic or something.”
“Lucy’s gone, too,” I say. “Everybody’s leaving me. I ain’t got nobody, Imelba. Why don’t you come and make me a cup of coffee?”
“Mrs. Kowalski, that girl left the baby with me. I can’t support a child on what you’ve been paying me.”
“Oh, that cute little girl? How could anybody do that? Bring her with you, Imelba, until you can get day care. I can pay you much more.”
If I taught the child well, she will know that in this new place, she must take what she can when it presents itself. I shake my head. Imelba, fifteen years removed from the shared stories of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, knows nothing of the new ways in which the loogaroo and soucouyant must survive. We move always. This is how we will make it in this place.
I wear Mrs. Kowalski’s vintage designer sunglasses to shield the deathly whiteness of my eyes.
About the Author
Ibi Zoboi was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and her short stories have been published in the award-winning Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, the highly acclaimed Haiti Noir (Akashic Books) edited by Edwidge Danticat, and The Caribbean Writer (Vol. 25). A graduate of the Clarion West and VONA workshops, Ibi has completed a Young Adult contemporary fantasy novel based on Haitian mythology and is at work on a new one. She’s a mom of three, married to a woodcarving illustrator, and is a teaching artist in New York City public schools. She likes mangos and avocados and is terribly superstitious.