Condensed Milk

 

 

Danielle Eigner, Fiction

 

 

The unpaved mud and dust road out of town had no proper bus stop and the tap-tap had no schedule, but if Maralah waited long enough and was lucky, one would pass that she could hail and ride to visit her sister.

The road was cluttered with vendors who used tarps with the letters “USAID” on them to display and resell surplus goods donated from foreign countries: cheap plastic combs that she knew would bend and break in coarse, curly black hair, piles of T-shirts with slogans in English that she could not read, and bottles of cooking oil with expiration dates that had long passed. Dozens of rubber flip-flops stamped “made in Taiwan” hung from recycled yarn strung across pieces of cinderblock. From a broken-down boom box with a bent metal hanger antenna, the high-pitched pressured speech of the British sportscaster announcing the semi-final World Cup soccer match of Mexico vs. France reverberated across Port-au-Prince.

Maralah slowly flexed her arthritic knees to step over the random stuff for sale as her eyes scanned the plastic baggies of drinking water and sticks of sugar cane piled high in a crate balanced on an upside-down salvaged plastic bucket. Fried plantains made grease stains in the tabloid section of a newspaper. The essentials were sold on every street corner: phone cards, lottery tickets, and cans of condensed milk piled in the shape of an Egyptian pyramid.

When she finally spotted the condensed milk, she approached the vendor, picked up two cans from the top of the pyramid, and handed him a coin. The vendor, while balancing a transistor radio between his shoulder and ear, gave her a look of empathy and then restocked the pyramid. The static could not subdue the sportscaster’s surprise as Mexico swung a free kick from the left and escaped France’s defense to score within the first few minutes of the soccer match.

Maralah stood tall, looked straight ahead and held the cans of condensed milk in front of her heart as if they were candles in a Christmas procession. She had a worn look in her eyes; not only weary but also wise. Her gray-streaked hair was pulled back in a bun and wrapped in a scarf. Her skin was not brown but deep dark black with wrinkles only in the areas of expression above her eyebrows and where her lips met her cheeks.

She waited for a tap-tap next to a boy too old to be a child and too young to be a man. His right pant leg was cut mid-thigh, folded up and pinned to the back pocket of his jeans where his wallet would have been if he had had one. The blue veins in his forearms bulged as he transferred his weight onto his unpadded crutch to swing his only leg away from the puddle that splashed with each passing vehicle.

A tap-tap came into view, a converted flatbed Kia truck, honking and swerving around a scooter upon whose single seat a father, child, and mother were squeezed. “Jesus Loves You” was painted onto the upper third of the tap-tap’s front windshield in bright orange bubble letters, partially obstructing the driver’s view. Yellow and red tassels draped down from the roof above the parallel benches of sardine-packed travelers facing each other. She would have attempted to fit her big-boned frame into any remaining crevice of space had the truck slowed down enough to board; but it did not.

The next tap-tap to pass was loaded with fewer people but with live poultry. She decided to let this one pass, as she was superstitious of feathered animals. The man-boy must not have been superstitious; he pulled himself into the tap-tap as if he were doing a pull-up in gym class. She boarded the third tap-tap that came, and wedged herself between a wrinkled old man and a breastfeeding mother whose infant did not appear to have the strength to suckle from the nipple between her tiny lips. From the driver’s radio, the trumpet-like blast from the vuvuzela blared triumphantly over the cacophony of street traffic.

She bounced up and down with each pothole until Mexico scored another goal against France, at which point the driver raised both hands off the steering wheel in a gesture of either joy or rage and the road flooded with cheering people. Traffic resumed when the sea of people parted enough so that vehicles could pass, if vehicles were more aggressive than the impeding obstacles. The tap-tap drove past the burning trash, past the piles of cement rubble with severed wires poking out, past the football fields of tents and tarps, past the stream of sewage from which a litter of pigs grazed, to the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

Maralah banged on the roof to signal the driver to stop, climbed over the sleeping mother and infant and out of the flatbed. She handed the driver a coin and began the mile walk to her sister’s hut. She walked with the same posture she had in the city: back straight as a rod, chin up, head high, two hands holding the cans of condensed milk in front of her heart.

Her sister must have sensed that she was outside with the intuition that sisters have for each other because she opened the door and greeted her before she even knocked. In her sister’s face Maralah saw her own reflection—a common past and shared losses. Maralah entered the hut through the blue tarp door and sat down on the floor where her niece Clementine lay curled in a fetal position. She tucked her knees under her round bottom and lifted Clementine’s head onto her soft lap. As she combed her niece’s matted hair, she softly sang the same melody her mother had sung to her many years ago when Maralah had thought that she had suffered more than she could bear.

Maralah had been probably about the same age as Clementine, nineteen, when she drank bleach, as people have done for years in Haiti. It’s hard to say how old she was exactly, as she did not know the year she was born, only that there was a great hurricane. The man she considered her husband had left. Her expectation that he would have stayed was naïve; he was not legally her husband, since they had no money to pay the officials for a certificate. Nonetheless, at the time she felt that she would surely die from sorrow. But that was only a small loss. She had not truly encountered sorrow until the loss of her son. She had not known then, as she did now, that even after such dreadful sorrow the heart continues to beat, the lungs continue to breathe, and that she would carry on, bear more children, bury yet another son, and still continue to live. As an old woman, she had made her peace with sorrow as one does with a schoolyard friend who betrays and is forgiven. They were no longer in conflict but had accepted each other’s presence.

Maralah’s sister poked two holes in a can of condensed milk with the sharp end of the metal stake used to secure the plastic tarp floor to the dirt floor. Then she tenderly poured the milk into her defeated daughter’s mouth.

After Clementine had drunk the medicinal condensed milk and the lullaby had calmed her to sleep, Maralah’s sister began to tell the story of her daughter’s dismay. Clementine’s baby had fallen asleep and would not wake up. At first Clementine thought he was just too tired, but after a day she began to worry and brought him to her mother. Together they tried to wake him by singing to him and rubbing palm oil over his small body. He would not take of his mother’s milk, and when they pried his eyelids open, they saw that his eyes were glazed and looking in opposite directions. They took him first to the local healer who chanted an incantation and prescribed an elixir. The baby would not swallow the elixir and it only dribbled from his lips, down his cheeks, and onto the dirt floor.

Then they took him to the foreign medical clinic of American doctors who came after the earthquake. In the tent with a red cross, foreigners wearing matching green pants and T-shirts swarmed the baby. They spoke loudly and poked the baby’s arms and legs with needles. A Creole nurse in the same green uniform mumbled something about the baby’s veins being too dried up for a water tube. They put stickers on the baby’s chest, attached wires to the stickers, and attached a machine to the wires. They attached a tube to a mask that covered the baby’s face and blew air into his nose and mouth. Through an interpreter they asked endless questions: Had anyone shaken the baby, hit the baby, dropped the baby? Did the baby have a heart problem, a lung problem, or a nerve problem? Did the mom take drugs, drink alcohol, or neglect the baby? After all that asking and all the machines, the interpreter said that the doctors did not know why this baby would not wake up from sleeping. The beds were full in the hospital and since they did not know how to wake the baby, they suggested going to the French clinic where there might be a doctor who could wake the baby.

Mother and grandmother swaddled the baby in a blanket, took a tap-tap across town, and walked the remaining distance until they found the French clinic. When they arrived, the French clinic was deserted. A blind beggar sat outside the gate with a guide stick and a tin can for coins. He must have heard them approach and by the sound of their steps knew that they needed the clinic. He said the French had left last week. The earthquake was five months past—the French had completed their mission.

Throughout the night the baby did not wake, while mother and grandmother did not sleep. They kept a hand on his chest to monitor its rise and fall. They prayed, praised, bargained, begged, sang incantations, made offerings, burned candles, shook rattles, rang bells, rubbed oils on his skin and potions on his lips. He did not wake. The next morning they took him back to the American clinic but the gate was closed and the armed guard said the clinic was closed for the World Cup. The USA was playing Algeria. By the time they returned home, the baby seemed too tired to sleep anymore. Soon after he just stopped breathing and his mother knew that he had left this world for another.

After Maralah’s sister finished telling the story, they sat together outside the hut in stillness and silence. When it was time for Maralah to leave and return to the city, her sister turned to her and said, “I think my daughter drank the bleach to travel with her baby. She wouldn’t have wanted him to travel to the next world alone. But she will be okay now.” Her sister handed her the remaining can of condensed milk and said, “Take it back with you, we don’t need another can. It’s bad luck to keep a remedy in the home. It may want to make itself useful again.”

Maralah kissed her sleeping niece goodbye, embraced her sister, and then walked with her remaining can of condensed milk to the road to wait for a tap-tap. She stood next to a farmer hauling a metal bucket full of sugar cane to sell in the city. His arms wrapped around his cherished harvest in a protective embrace.

As the tap-tap inched toward the city, Maralah saw the shanties become closer and closer together, so close that one tarp was used as the wall for two adjoined neighbors. The traffic was always heavy, but never this heavy. Ghana was tied against the USA in overtime of the World Cup quarterfinal match. Crowds engulfed radios that were no longer visible but heard as muffled static among exuberant fans. And then suddenly: GOAL! The mob burst into chaos. Fireworks were launched, guns fired, cars abandoned, bottles broken, and screaming children hoisted onto shoulders. Men ran around in circles, ripping their shirts off and waving them like flags, and the chanting grew louder until the trembling earth vibrated to AF-RI-CA, AF-RI-CA, AF-RI-CA…

Maralah’s fellow passengers had clawed over each other and out the window to become one with the crowd. The farmer who had moments earlier guarded his treasured sugar cane now dumped it onto the muddy road to use the metal bucket against his callused palm as a drum to the beat of AF-RI-CA, AF-RI-CA, AF-RI-CA.

Maralah found herself alone on the evacuated tap-tap with the lingering scent of perspiration and a discarded pile of rags that had been pushed under the bench towards the back of the tap-tap. Lifted by the energy of the city—once divided, now unified in jubilation—she took a deep breath, smiled, and looked out to bear witness to joy.

A faint squeak came from the bundle of rags under the bench. She did not move but waited and observed until the squeak became a cry and the cry began to move the rags. Maralah knew what she must do as only a mother would know. She reached down to the bundle of rags, unwrapped the newborn baby to see the light in his eyes. As she held him close to her chest, she prayed for the mother whose circumstance led her to abandon a child.    

Comforted by Maralah’s warm bosom and hypnotic heartbeat, the newborn’s eyes fluttered backward and it sank into a heavy sleep. Maralah opened the can of condensed milk. She remembered how her own son would fall asleep while breast-feeding and how she would rub the roof of his mouth to encourage him to suckle. With the padded part of her little finger, she gently tapped the roof of the abandoned baby’s mouth. She poured the condensed milk into her cupped palm and it dribbled down her finger into the tiny mouth, and the sleeping baby began to feed.