His name is Sebastien Onius.
He comes most nights to put an end to my nightmare, the one I have all the time, of my parents drowning. While my body is struggling against sleep, fighting itself to awaken, he whispers for me to "lie still while I take you back."
"Back where?" I ask without feeling my lips moving.
He says, "I will take you back into the cave across the river."
I lurch at him and stumble, trying to rise. He levels my balance with the tips of his long but curled fingers, each of them alive on its own as they crawl towards me. I grab his body, my head barely reaching the center of his chest. He is lavishly handsome by the dim light of my castor oil lamp, even though the cane stalks have ripped apart most of the skin on his shiny black face, leaving him with crisscrossed trails of furrowed scars. His arms are as wide as one of my bare thighs. They are steel, hardened by four years of sugarcane harvests.
"Look at you," he says, taking my face into one of his spacious bowl-shaped hands, where the palms have lost their lifelines to the machetes that cut the cane. "You are glowing like a Christmas lantern, even with this skin that is the color of driftwood ashes in the rain."
"Do not say those things to me," I mumble, the shadows of sleep fighting me still. "This type of talk makes me feel naked."
He runs his hand up and down my back. His rough callused palms nip and chafe my skin, while the string of yellow coffee beans on his bracelet rolls over and caresses the tender places along my spine.
"Take off your nightdress," he suggests, "and be naked for true. When you are uncovered, you will know that you are fully awake and I can simply look at you and be happy." Then he slips across to the other side of the room and watches every movement of flesh as I shed my clothes. He is in a corner, away from the lamp, a shadowed place where he sees me better than I see him. "It is good for you to learn and trust that I am near you even when you can't place the balls of your eyes on me," he says.
This makes me laugh and laugh loud, too loud for the middle of the night. Now I am fully disrobed and fully awake. I stumble quickly into his arms with my nightdress at my ankles. Thin as he says I am, I am afraid to fold in two and disappear. I'm afraid to be shy, distant, and cold. I am afraid I cease to exist when he's not there. I'm like one of those sea stones that sucks its colors inside and loses its translucence once it's taken out into the sun, out of the froth of the waves. When he's not there, I'm afraid I know no one and no one knows me.
"Your clothes cover more than your skin," he says. "You become this uniform they make for you. Now you are only you, just the flesh."
It's either be in a nightmare or be nowhere at all. Or otherwise simply float inside these remembrances, grieving for who I was, and even more for what I've become. But all this when he's not there.
"Look at your perfect little face," he says, "your perfect little shape, your perfect little body, a woman child with deep black skin, all the shades of black in you, what we see and what we don't see, the good and the bad."
He touches me like one brush of a single feather, perhaps fearing, too, that I might vanish.
"Everything in your face is as it should be," he says, "your nose where it should be."
"Oh, wi, it would have been sad," I say, "if my nose had been placed at the bottom of my feet."
This time he is the one who laughs. Up close, his laughter crumples his face, his shoulders rise and fall in an uneven rhythm. I'm never sure whether he is only laughing or also crying at the same time, even though I have never seen him cry.
I fall back asleep, draped over him. In the morning, before the first lemongrass-scented ray of sunlight, he is gone. But I can still feel his presence there, in the small square of my room. I can smell his sweat, which is as thick as sugarcane juice when he's worked too much. I can still feel his lips, the eggplant-violet gums that taste of greasy goat milk boiled to candied sweetness with mustard-colored potatoes. I feel my cheeks rising to his dense-as-toenails fingernails, the hollow beneath my cheek-bones, where the bracelet nicked me and left a perfectly crescent-moon-shaped drop of dried blood. I feel the wet lines in my back where his tongue gently traced the life-giving veins to the chine, the faint handprints on my waist where he held on too tight, perhaps during some moment when he felt me slipping. And I can still count his breaths and how sometimes they raced much faster than the beating of his heart.
When I was a child, I used to spend hours playing with my shadow, something that my father warned could give me nightmares, nightmares like seeing voices twirl in a hurricane of rainbow colors and hearing the odd shapes of things rise up and speak to define themselves. Playing with my shadow made me, an only child, feel less alone. Whenever I had playmates, they were never quite real or present for me. I considered them only replacements for my shadow. There were many shadows, too, in the life I had beyond childhood. At times Sebastien Onius guarded me from the shadows. At other times he was one of them.
© Copyright 1998 Edwidge Danticat
Back to the top