The Company of Heaven
Stories from Haiti
Publication Year: 2010
Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell’s award-winning stories transport you to Haiti—to a lush, lyrical, flamboyant, and spirit-filled Haiti where palm trees shine wet with moonlight and the sky paints a yellow screen over your head and the ocean sparkles with thousands of golden eyes—and keep you there forever. Her singular characters mysteriously address the deeper meanings of human existence. They also dream of escape, whether from themselves, from family, from Vodou, from financial and cultural difficulties and the politicians that create them, or from the country itself, but Haiti will forever remain part of their souls and part of the thoughts of her readers.
Some characters do achieve escape through the mind or through sea voyage—escape found by surrendering to spectacular fantasies and madness and love, bargaining with God, joining the boat people. Marie-Ange Saint-Jacques’s mother sacrifices everything to ensure her daughter’s survival on a perilous boat trip, Angelina waits to fly away to Nou Yòk, Vivi creates her own circus with dozens of rescued dogs, Gustave dies a martyr to his faith. Throughout, the “I” who moves in and out of these dream-filled stories embraces the heavenly mysteries found in “the room where all things lost are stored with grace.”
We begin our journey to Haiti with images of a little girl in a pink bedroom reading by candlelight a book about the life of Saint Bernadette, surrounded by the bewitching scents, sounds, and textures of a Caribbean night. Each story stands by itself, but some characters can be followed from one story to another through the transformations they undergo as a result of their life experiences. In this way, the collection can be read as one story, the story of a family trapped in a personal and cultural drama and the story of the people with whom the family interacts, themselves burdened by the need to survive within Haiti’s rigorously class-determined society and blessed by their relationship to the company of heaven in which they live and for which they are destined.
Published by: University of Iowa Press
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Prologue: Saint Bernadette at Night
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My first recollections of story books come with the scents, sounds, and textures of Caribbean nights and with images of a little girl curled in bed over white sheets covering a small cotton mattress that retained her body shape impressed and deeply molded in it. She holds a thin, glossy, illustrated book about the life of Saint Bernadette...
Down by the River
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It is Saturday, eleven in the morning, so Angelina sits and waits by the phone. Most Saturdays she sits in the big office chair that used to be my father’s. I imagine her legs are stretched, her toes fan out in the hot October air. Her pigtails carry two barrettes each, one at the base and one at the tip, and she is wearing the white dress her uncle Noula bought her...
Life Outside My Own
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Inevitably, she fell. The drop from the southern side of the pool was a good two meters. Ingrid and I had always thought the narrow terrace around the water a perfect running track. Her basset hound, Valentino, liked the idea as well and raced alongside us, ears flapping, unconcerned that one of us might finally trip over him...
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My name is Marie-Ange Saint-Jacques and I got on that boat November third with my heart open and my eyes closed. My mother, Venant Saint-Jacques, also got on the boat. She too did this with an open heart since she got on that boat only because of me, but, unlike mine, her eyes were open—they had to, you see...
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Wednesday morning, an elephant walked the streets of Port-au-Prince after a visit with the president. The elephant was led by a dandy dwarf. This fellow had a large, red, heavily made-up smile on his clown’s face, which nevertheless looked grim under a green top hat. There were two camels walking along as well, and four tigers kept two by two in a cage...
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With three bullets stuck in his chest and still in his chair, the dead watchman at the downtown Port-au-Prince Bridgestone store got his shoes stolen from his feet less than three minutes after the zenglendo thieves killed him so they could rob the place for whatever small amount of cash was in the register...
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The day I stood naked under the midday sun with two land crabs Djez�l put on top of my head, there were a good twenty snakes sunning themselves in the fig tree behind me. Villagers say these tree-loungers were real people Djez�l put spells on and turned into snakes. They claim he works for greedy clients who want to appropriate land illegally and pay him great sums to get the owners out of the way by any means he can...
River Valley Rooms
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If I were to tell about Justin in a kind of present-day diary that also takes glimpses of the past, I would start with the time when he stood near the gate with his new green felt hat on. A grown man, he looked as if he were about to go out on business or just came back from it. But Justin is not going anywhere...
Grande Jesula Gets a Visit
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“Tita! Come here you dried up old cook! Get your face out of that chicken stew and bring the corn kernels to feed these pigeons before they start coming down on us and pestering this beautiful young lady who’s here to see me...
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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...
Venant Found It Hard to Know
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“Listen, this happened in our very own Haiti! As real as my name is Venant, there he was—Papa Gede! Standing in his specially-reserved-for-him black redingote and saying, That goat is missing a piece so I’m not taking it! Then he stomped and grinned. The oungan who was officiating called all the ounsi and told them to stop dancing...
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On the morning I was leaving Port-au-Prince for Dame Marie, stopping through Jeremie, a mourning dove paused an instant below my window, and when it flew away, it dropped an underbelly feather that descended to the ground calmly like a large snowflake. It was hot in the plane, so small that we had to bend down to get in and take our seats...
At the Gate
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There is a day I’ll never forget: November first, it was. I had started toward Camp Roussel early—the sun would get high overhead really fast and there were no shade trees, save for a few scrawny bayawonn. Their small leaves were always so parched and suffocated with dust that they seemed to...
Page Count: 204
Publication Year: 2010
Series Title: Iowa Short Fiction Award