Love and Its Concretions

Volume 2 ~ 2004

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The Chapel

Marilene Phipps

“God then, has to be absent in order to
be endlessly present, in our missing
Him.”

 Good Bye to you Whom I Love

I am a chapel. A simple white pentagon of roughcast cement blocks aired through two wooden doors and cedar shutters. The past haunts and decorates me. The present crosses me from one door to the other like someone running after a second chance. The future takes its cues from the sky. Over the mountain ridge in the near distance, clouds emerge, together with mist and light, in patterns reminiscent of smoke messages the likes of which one might fantasize were sent by Caribs, first inhabitants of our Haiti. When the evening comes, God’s face then is a nightfull of stars that lay to rest on the nearby tadpole water.

It rained a short while ago. A loud tropical downpour the way I love them. Sometimes, I hear its gallop first, coming down the mountain. Then, progressively, rain is like drapes being pulled from tree to tree. Behind its stage curtain, nature rehearses this stock piece: the earth’s cells become engorged with water; holes darken; great succulent plants bow their wide-leafed heads to camouflage and store deep green belly laughs; mahogany trees bend long blackened necks; drums are at my doors; cymbals percolate on my rooftop.

Rain stops as suddenly as it starts. Maestro made a final gesture. But silence rumbles still. The stream running below the garden terraces has swollen immensely. Water spirits who inhabit me want to be revered and their hopeful sighs ripple through my blood. My ears are attuned to every life murmur in this great park where the one who built me only planted fruit-bearing trees, besides mahogany. Everything breathes in a heavy, moist smell of moss musk. It is the time when dizzied breadfruits will let go of the branch and the thud on my roof vibrates inside me like an ill bee.

It is then too that roosters feel they must announce the end of rain. Here, they’ll kick up a din for any occasion. It is much too joyful a feeling this throatfull of shrill to be let out just for the once-a-day-at-dawn affair. Afterwards, dogs think they must respond with a throatfull of bark. And so it goes on with no respite, this back and forth banter, because here, island territory, it would seem that roosters don’t sleep at night, though they perch. Dogs neither sleep nor perch. They are tied down somewhere in the nearby slums whose gray fossils’ framework hangs amidst bushes at the foot of the mountain. It is as if everything is held, somehow, at the foot of something greater, be it dogs, slums, people or me. I lie at the foot of the one I love.

Late afternoon is the time when she comes to visit. The time when woodpeckers return their russet heads to the home-holes stacked up in a straight line they dig for themselves into palm tree trunks. And while parrots are having their nonsense riot in high branches, the same woodpeckers will then peek out of their holes, fly out to some close by tree, and cackle breathlessly. Up and down and around the Cayimitte tree, lizards have a game of tag which they stop now and then only to swell their throats as if to gloat over their feats of gravity. They scatter their free-running fun in defiant contrast to heavy-loaded and humorless ants working in two opposite streams of industrious lines. Vingt-quatre-heures—black-bodied, red-winged, bee-size flying devils whose sting children believe will kill you in twenty-four hours—like to buzz over the carpet of dry leaves where iguanas prowl. And, hidden beneath the purple underside of malangas whose large, heart-shaped leaves proliferate around the vanilla scented spring, I know there is a rat.

You can tell—I love this place! Specially, when she comes to visit the garden, she whom I love as if she were part of me, daughter of the man who built me here. She sits on the garden steps and lets her eyes float into me—God my heart, God my horizon, God much too vast for one to capture between two hands in a dream and so one looks for a being of flesh whom to tell words of love. The same words she used to tell him when he lived here—”You are my chapel”.

He was a foreigner, almost an old man already, an astrologer whom many people came to consult but that no one befriended.

“Haiti” he told her, “is the mystical island. It is my destiny.”

His solitude preoccupied no one because he seemed so full of what everyone thought they lacked—knowledge about the direction and meaning of life. How could he feel alone if planets surround his heart and families of the sky uphold him? Yet I know that sometimes, just the open door was a painful sight to him—like a ready welcome to no one, a reminder of his aloneness in a house peopled by the thin-air bodies of invisible beings that spoke to him but never touched him.

He had wanted to find the magic place where perhaps God himself would be awaiting him, and also a place where the beauty of the garden is not marred by memories unclear, undesired, unkind. Yet, the unspoiled clarity of the landscape he had wished for actually carried more emptiness than he could bear. He discovered instead how alone he stood in the distance that separated him from the God he had hoped to find.

So, when open doors and windows showed him the desolate vastness of this new world rather than his place in it, he would withdraw to the vastness in him that is filled with familiar feelings and the display of memory’s trompes l’oeils. At those times when he would shut all doors and windows, lock himself in with incense and the music of his birth place, it would seem to neighbors that these gestures were meant to keep the world out when actually it was to forget how outside the world he felt and was.

After he died, she came to live here—in me—as well, only for a short while until her life took her far away from us, far away from our story. People had thought it macabre that she’d want to come and live here, in the place where he had died. But instead, she saw me as the place where he had lived.

“There can be no better place to live than the chapel—the place most suited to remember him, an emblematic site,” she said to friends.

On her second day here, she opened wide the door of the large cage where he had kept mourning doves. They hesitated a long while before taking this chance to fly away. She let them go less out of noble feelings about freedom than out of the desire to be relieved of their mournful cries.

Her father brought her four parrots to replace the doves—he did not see the joy of an empty cage. The parrots’ early dawn cackle and shrieks jolted her out of bed and she grew to both need and resent their lively spirit.

She eventually realized that he was no longer here to be found either and that all that lingered here from him were just dream traces—her own. In the course of many months, she kept company with those traces and used them to imagine herself back to a kind of inner quiet and reconstruct the sense of her own being as reason enough to live. The air was no longer a carrier for incense as it had been. It was allowed to be tainted only by the heavy fragrances and subtle changes of tropical seasons. The sudden yellow outbreak of butterflies at the time of the yearly feast of Saint John became a season in itself—when the butterflies died out, she left.

Words from the apocalypse I often heard him read out loud came back to me.

“The light of the lamp will no longer shine in your house, and the voices of the husband and of the wife will no longer be heard there”.

The first morning after he had died and his body been taken away, she laid face down on the cold mosaic floor with arms open like a penitent. She did not cry, she screamed. She felt as if the damnation, curse, and abandonment of the whole human race weighed on her soul (“But the earth came to rescue the woman, it opened its mouth”). Yet, discomfort from the hard floor eventually forced her to get up and shift away from her despair. Giving in to the body can be a saving kind of humility.

Since she has left, the garden has come to a different rhythm, paced by the careful cadence of worm seeking hens and their yellow chicks, the brisk outburst of Mahogany nuts and tchatcha seeds, the crack of lightning, the dim thump to the ground of ripened mangoes hollowed by birds and rats. And the rain.

But for me, it is as if I live solely in her thoughts—no one else since has gone through my doors nor opened the cedar shutters. In her heart she carries my image, indivisible from memories of him. Because she does not forget, she is the country where I live, the lungs that lend me breath, the island that defines my shores. Lodged in her, I transform as she transforms, I know all that she knows as she knows it. Her lamp, if she lights it, will be mine.

We are again quite alone when she is back to visit the garden. She sits here—I sit in her. At those times when she remembers him most vividly, his favorite quotes from the Bible, like parentheses in a book of dreams, present themselves in my head with a peculiar resonance (“Listen, I have chosen you. Carry out the prayer so you remember me”). When she remembers him, she first sees images of him that she imagines—what she did not actually see when he lived, seems clearer in her mind, truer to who he was, more real than what he presented to her as himself, even though he loved her.

So she sees him put on all white clothes (“...and to him, was given fine linen to wear, shining, and pure; because fine linen stands for the just work of Saints.”), and then she sees him take a knife, the sharpest—he intends to kill the sheep with one sweep—because the animal must not suffer. Pain hardens the heart and spoils the meat. To most who met him, he seemed a brusque, private man. From his life, he had always kept something like the feeling of stone on bare back (“Those who wear white robes are those who come from great troubles.”). He came to believe his heart had been lost as well, until she appeared at his door for a reading of the future.

When he first met her, he was unprepared for what he said to be “just a broken bird, dear God!”

But she sees him in dismembered ways, so the prayer is important—it carries him back to her in a meaningful sequence. She sits on the steps. The mountain is ahead of her with clouds lighting old smoke signals she read as a child, sitting on the same steps.

She never forgets the mountain because the signals from childhood weigh inside her. At times, she feels like she is an offering that awaits the knife. Times when there is so much to give and no one in front of whom to stretch it all. So she wonders if the inner sense of waste in her is from the blood that has already emptied from the flesh. Perhaps this is the reason why the sequence of her remembering starts with an offering (“I have placed in front of you an open door that no one can shut”)—after he has killed the sheep, she sees him rinse the blood from the knife under the tap outside my western door. By then, the charcoal has reddened. While the meat cooks, he lowers all the shutters, closes both doors, locks himself in, puts music on—chants and drums he liked to record during Vodou ceremonies he attended throughout the countryside. She knows he danced, forgetting the meat over the charcoal, until he was as dizzy and sodden as the rain-soaked breadfruits that drop on my roof.

“Spirits wanted some” he’d say, and, smiling to himself, scatter the burnt pieces around the garden.

After he had done the first astrological reading for her, she had asked him for his own date of birth. On that date, she came to see him with a cake.

“No one has ever brought me a birthday cake,” he said as he took it, and forgot to offer her a slice.

She would have only liked to sing for him. She mumbled her birthday wishes and left. He used to say about himself that the solitude of the astrologer is in the image of John the Baptist’s, sent ahead of us to level the way for God—”he is the voice of the one who cries in the desert”.

Now that he is gone, she feels his voice in her own.

“Your territory is that of an arid mountain,” he had said to her. “Free yourself from all that is superfluous.” (“... The two wings of the big eagle were given to the woman so she could fly to the desert, to her own place where she is fed for a while.”).

He showed her how to pray—he knelt to the ground and raised his arms open:

“Oh my people! Enter the holy land for which God destined you!”

She came back to see him for prayer at regular times, smelling of fresh soap. Soon however, too soon, she found she was praying for him rather than with him. She knelt on the rug he’d woven for her. He had dyed the wool himself, with leaves and bark gathered from this land where she was born, daughter of the man who built me so that I could give her shelter and a home. To her first visits, she came with the complaint that her “life lacks horizon”.

“The fruits your soul desired went far from you,” he quoted to her, by way of welcome—he knew that by giving a larger spiritual frame to her visit, he would ease her timidity.

She grew accustomed to his speaking in quotes. Doing so was his way of showing that every human act decided on, each experience undergone, is understood through every holy book of every age and culture as being more meaningful, having broader scope, than it appears at first glance. It was his way of telling how these seemingly banal human acts are in fact connected to a larger design of significant, repeated patterns, a kind of unconscious undercurrent that, unawares, leads us to the understanding of the very reason for our existence and of what happens to us in it. She always felt new breath after he had “opened the sky for her” as he would say. She did not see how, nor when, she grew to love him, because it seemed the love was always there.

To explain himself, he once told her that “the one who emigrates onto God’s ways, will, on earth, find numerous possibilities and spaces.” She knew that, in the ways of the prophets he tried to emulate, in his youth he had left his birth place and the religion in which his parents raised him (“Do no harm to the earth, to the sea, nor to the trees, until we have marked the foreheads of God’s servants.”).

“In my youth,” he said, “I dreamt that one day I would manage to kill all base instincts so that in a new serene climate, the migrating people of my soul may visit the great temples and climb onto celestial territories.”

Yet, it is here, on her land, in her garden, that she found him, in his old age, in me, the chapel. She was too young to understand that she was young. She was young enough not to see that she was too young, yet old enough to know it did not matter.

The chapel came to house illness. He was to give his last breath in her presence. The lungs were ill. Breathing became dark and strenuous. The sky had shifted. The chapel was drifting. He refused to see any doctor, nor receive any care.

“I want to die all in one piece.”

Once he had become ill, she came here each morning and left early evening. On what turned out to be the last night of his life she had somehow refused to leave in spite of his insistence that she should.

Rising! Floods! Deluge! He sees he is Noah who appears on the arch’s deck and water covers the earth. Noah has broken all moorings with this world of illusions and sails on uncertain currents, but trusting in God’s will. Separated by a curtain, he laid in bed as she sat on a mattress stretched over the bare floor (“Let us watch over one another so love gets stirred”). He had pulled the curtain himself—he was always a man of great modesty. Waiting for death, struggling for breath and battling with fear, he felt more naked than ever before. When she, unawares, was dozing off in the early hours of dawn, it was not Noah she heard, but him, whispering in what she now knows was his last breath.

“God, make me land in a blessed place; in truth, it is you the sweetest of places.”

To allow the sequence of remembrance its own design, she tries to stand pure and free of all images or forms—the way she thinks God wishes us to be. They had known each other for only a short while, yet enough to last for what she imagined eternity could be (“He will live with them...He will wipe all tears from their eyes, and death will no longer exist; there will no longer be mourning, nor cries, nor pain.”). To remember him is to let his voice come, hear it when he sat at his work table and closed his eyes before speaking, as if truly he was addressing someone absent (“His face was like the sun when it shines in full strength.”). She wondered if this was a kind of death—the way he erased himself, serving as a mirror to reflect the stars’ will, in the hope of easing the anxiety for the future which had come to his door step in the heart of a stranger.

To remember him is to smell incense—myrrh and amber! It is to see him walking with sandals along the garden’s terraces, gather leaves and tree bark he’ll use to color wool. Later, when he pulls out the wool from large cooking pots full of boiling water, he’ll marvel and delight in the subtle hues that came out.

“Die before you die,” he said—an advice for her to remember.

And the image that now comes up in the sequence is that of his naked body pulled out of a drawer at the morgue.

“I do not want to go to the morgue. This kind of place is impure. Bury me straight away. Right in the earth. Plant a tree,” he had asked.

Before she understood either how it happened or that she could not have prevented it, he did end up at the morgue. And there also, she followed him to prepare his body for burial (“The body washed with water that is pure”). But when she stood in front of his nude corpse, she remembered his modesty. It was just the day before, that in the silence of the early morning, she had pulled open the white curtains behind which he had hidden his dying and saw what she was unprepared for. She saw he was dead (“The Lord is close to those whose hearts are breaking”). She realized she had not understood what had been happening all these past few days. Her lagging awareness had kept her in a time far behind the reality and time in which he lived during his dying. Time had already separated them long before he died. If time is ahead, one could believe it possible to run after it and catch up. But ‘space’, you can’t run after. Seeing him dead she gasped at the sense of the gap, the void, the immensity that now would keep them ever separate and unattainable to each other. Could she catch up on that space, she thought, if she learned to “die before she dies”?

How not to fear death when one must endure the way people behave towards it and handle the remains? She rented space in a private grave at the Port-au-Prince cemetery. Death as a farce with painted puppets has to stage its development in immured cells. Mortification and trial until “Lazarus! Rise! Come out of your grave!” When a year had passed, she went to get him out of the cemetery. Reclaim him.

The dilapidated and weed-choked downtown Port-au-Prince’s cemetery is given over to goats and homeless mendicants. The guardian at the gate let her drive in without so much a glance—one cannot watch over the dead, they watch us. The living cannot arbitrate what goes on in these dwellings. The Dead alone can govern there and let happen what must. So please, go ahead! Go face them; they know your heart (“Here, I come, oh God, to accomplish your will.”).

Sitting on top of a grave in the otherwise deserted cemetery she found an idle adolescent boy who needed a little money. So, to remember him, early dawn, with pickax and shovel, they opened the grave, pulled out the coffin, lifted the lid, carried him out.

She holds it in her hands—a little bit of paper, folded for so long it is breaking at the creases. Just a note, one among the many he had sent her—words scribbled in haste with a pencil though he had mulled over them a long time beforehand. From the steps where she sits, dazed by memories, she unfolds the note and reads it aloud:

“What is there to fear when you are my companion, and, while in absence, you remain my confidante?”

His retrieved body was to stay in me—the chapel—for three days, and wrapped in the same white cloth in which he had been laid in his coffin. Deposed such on the bed, he seemed reduced to a small unnecessary bundle. The only substance, the only weight left was the love (Zachary had cried: “Shout for joy, daughter of Zion, because here, I have come, I will live with you.”).

She succeeded in finding a new burial place for him in the high mountains of Seguin, on land owned by a friend who agreed to let her dig a grave.

“I know he will like it there,” she said to me, “to walk among pine trees, no longer feeling hot and ill as he was here. At dawn, there is a soft fog more like mist! Dew covers the grass and his sandals will get damp.”

 With his music playing through the loudspeakers, how he must have danced! Free, swirling loose, and drifting like incense through the cedar shutters—the day she set off to the mountain’s resting place with his remains.

Much later, after she had buried him this second time, she heard that people in Seguin say they sometimes see a ghost in the early morning mist.

“It is like an aurora,” they try to describe, “the light of his being is profiled on celestial light—it is light on light.” (“My angel will walk ahead of you. Watch him because he bears my name.”).

The sequence is running short and, still sitting on the steps, she closes her eyes to bring him back some more. Loving him has taught her the preciousness of bundles that weigh in the mind—unwrap them carefully lest the content spill fast like dust. Yet unwrap them knowing what’s inside flows like water and must not be held on to. And like Moses’ mother about to abandon him to the Nile, she will hear God’s words:

“Don’t be afraid. Let him fall. Because I have let my love fall on you and on him.”