Writers-in-Residence Excerpts of Work

Patti Marxsen - Novelist, short story writer

The Dove and the Mango

The earth is dusty there, a soft dust like talcum powder that clings to bare feet until they look like clay statues. Green mangoes and coconut clusters open overhead. Riots of hibiscus and bougainvillea decorate the village houses, painted in thick coats of pink, yellow, and turquoise. The valley is lush down near the river with rice paddies and banana fields. But up in the hills, near the hospital, the roads are dry and rutted. Goats scamper everywhere, kept from the houses by barriers of cacti called candelabra. There is a fragrance of smoke and roasted meat in the air that begins shortly after dawn, after the pig has been slaughtered and the women have begun to gather in the market. All day long people will come to buy fruit and cooked vegetables and roasted meat. Bread and bananas are plentiful. Children run in all directions, leaving clouds of dust suspended in walls of heat. The smell of heat, fire, dust, and roasted pig rises to your nostrils. Overhead, there is a breeze in the green shelter of a thousand mango trees.

________________________

Dr. Sophia was talking as she arranged a spray of pink hibiscus in a blue vase, adjusting the leaves to conceal a hairline crack. "But it’s really not as bad as it seems," she said, glancing over her shoulder at Rosette whose large eyes filled to the brim. Dark eyes like melted chocolate. She wiped her hands on her apron, leaving a wet stain. "You see, I never really loved him. Not really. It was nothing like that." Dr. Sophia smiled weakly and turned to face Rosette. "My life is so much more than that. The hospital. The children. Now go along and enjoy your weekend. Are you still singing in church on Sunday?" Rosette nodded and smiled a little. She was known in the village for her deep, melodic voice.

Dr. Sophia moved quickly around the room, pale hands stroking the objects she loved. The linen curtains were smoothed, the painting of distant mountains aligned with the sharp edge of the door, an isolated butterfly specimen pressed in Plexiglas. She imposed a quiet order on everything around her, even the garden where doves were cooing softly at this hour from a dovecote high in the mango trees. Long vines of bougainvillea framed the curved arches of the garden wall. Thick green leaves shot from planters like fountains. At first glance it looked carelessly natural. But in the early morning hours there was a man with a broom sweeping the stone, removing seed pods, clipping away dead leaves and withered blossoms.

"Are you sure?" Rosette’s eyes were pleading.

"Yes, of course. It’s not important. C’est n’est pas grave. It was inevitable that he would find someone sooner or later, don’t you think? Someone more... energetic... less burdened. It is hard work being a doctor. A doctor is always a doctor, everywhere, all the time." She sighed and took a book from the mahogany shelf. "I must read more, Rosette. I miss my books." Their eyes met, woman to woman.

Rosette left the low, stone house with a feeling of sadness for the beautiful, white doctor. She wondered what on earth had ever brought Dr. Sophia to this place, what caused her to leave New York. And as for Dr. Bonnefoy, of course she loved him. What else does one call it? There is nothing as simple as a man and a woman together. Why do these people need to call it anything at all? It is God's will. That is all there is to say. Why do blancs need to pretend that something important is not important? Between a man and a woman, it is always important.

That evening, Dr. Sophia showered at 5 o’clock and oiled her arms and legs with mosquito repellent. She sat in the garden until seven o’clock reading about Renaissance art, trying not to think about him. ‘How is this different?’ she asked herself. He might have come by for a glass of wine or he might not. I might have gone there and cooked a chicken or a cabbage. It was not such a grand thing. A little wine, a little food, lovemaking, or whatever it was. And then, the hospital; in the hallways, on rounds in the wards, immersed in the stench and the pain, the hopeless wailing of new widows, the screams of mothers whose children are ill. He was there and would still be there. But they would no longer be there together. "Ah," she sighed, looking up from Raphael, "that is the real loss. Now I’ll be alone in there."

A hard ache rose in her throat. "That's the real loss," she said aloud to the trees. Because a man and a woman cannot remain friends after playing at love. And in such a small, insulated place, this would be especially hard. "So hard," she whispered, not even aware of her own voice. "Impossible."

Just then a sharp object flashed through the stone arch and hit the wall of the garden. Then another. She knew instantly what it was. Boys throwing rocks, trying to get the mangoes down. Tomorrow was market day and they needed something to sell. She stood and called out, "Arretez-vous! Stop it!" But another heavy rock shot into the trees, scattering a pair of doves. Their wings burst through the leaves as they lifted into the sky. Then another and a peculiar noise, a squeal and rushing sound all at once. "S’il vous plaît! Arretez-vous!" She hurried out of the garden, down the narrow path meandering through the cluster of Flamboyant trees and back around to the village. The dark-legged boys hurried away, torn shirts flapping like wings, hands clasping the golden-green fruit. She stopped and watched as they vanished, half-smiling at their resourcefulness. "Mes zanmis..." Her voice trailed off in Kreyòl. "My friends… " It was hardly a crime, but the rocks were dangerous.

Then, suddenly, something twitched in the darkening light. There on the path, a broken form, mangled and dirty as a lost glove. A dove, it’s silky head crushed by the blow of a sharp rock, it’s trembling right wing outstretched as if frozen in flight. Dr. Sophia bent down and studied the small eye, a perfect circle, like a tack pressed into the head. It was alive but shivering through it’s last moment of life. "Death everywhere," she whispered. The sharp object that had been in her throat all day pushed through and suddenly her face was streaming with tears. "Oh my dear God." She lifted the broken bird carefully and carried it back to the garden where she would bury it and light a small candle. There was, it seemed at that moment, nothing so sad on earth as a dying dove.

***

Rosette noticed the stone marker the next morning and asked what it was. "A dove died," said Dr. Sophia, sipping strong coffee in the garden from a bone china cup. "It fell from the tree."

"The children."

"Yes."

"Evil," Rosette said without blinking. Her dark head was balanced on an elegant neck and wrapped in a pink kerchief. "Birds are not supposed to die like that."

Dr. Sophia looked up at Rosette whose eyes were full of fear. "Yes, well, it is certainly a sad thing." Her eyes were swollen from weeping; she wondered if Rosette could tell. But of course she could tell. She knows everything.

Rosette looked away from the red eyes and placed a plate of toast in front of Dr. Sophia. "You would like more coffee now?"

"No, no thank you. And no toast. Sorry." She stood up and smoothed her skirt. It would be her first day at the hospital since Dr. Luc began sleeping with the new nurse, the one from California. Rosette knows this and keeps a solemn face out of respect. "I really must go. It’s a clinic day."

The words hung in the air. "It’s a clinic day," she repeated. It means hundreds of people would be lined up at the door with sick children. "I’m late as it is," she said. But as she stepped toward the door, something happened. The world tilted and Dr. Sophia fell to the ground, stumbling over the wooden chair .

Rosette tried to catch her but she was too late. The doctor was on the stone patio, rubbing her knee with long, white hands. To Rosette, these fingers looked like bones with no covering of flesh. She lifted her up and into the chair. But the world was still rocking. Dr. Sophia held her head in the palm of her hand, eyes shut, face folded in pain.

"I can’t stand up." She tried again and sank into the chair. "Water... a little water. Then I’ll try again--"

But the water did not help and she could not stand up or walk or do anything but hold her head in one hand and grab the edge of the table with the other. Rosette stood very still, watching.

"It’s like seasickness," she said. "Everything in motion."

Rosette knew in her heart that evil had entered this house and crawled into the body of Dr. Sophia like a worm burrowing in ripe fruit. She wanted to say this but held her tongue. These blancs believe other things; they even believe they can control such forces with books and machines. Let them believe what they like. They are, so many of them, like ignorant children. Rosette reached down and lifted Dr. Sophia into her muscular arms. "You must lie down," she said. As her body was placed on the bed, she fell into a deep sleep without a word.

***

Rosette sat in a small chair at the foot of the bed watching Dr. Sophia’s breathing. At first it was even, but after a while became punctuated with a small whimper, then a long exhaling sound, then silence. Outside, the cicadas rattled in the trees and in the distance there was music, Haitian music playing on a machine. It would be a hot day with rain coming later in the afternoon. Rosette thought about the washing that must be hung and dried and removed from the line before the rain began. At 10 a.m. a young visiting physician came to the door to inquire about Dr. Sophia. "She is sick in bed," Rosette said through the screened door.

The young woman was Swiss with bulging eyes and thick legs. "Sick in bed? Well, why didn’t you send a note? We have a lot of people who--" but she stopped, exasperated, as she met the solid, dark gaze of Rosette. Her English was British-accented, like other Europeans who had come before her. "Oh never mind. Just let me have a look and then we’ll cope as best we can. Come along now. Step aside."

Rosette gave in, leading the young doctor down the clean-swept hall, immaculate with polished mahogany walls and a potted palm at the end. From this corridor, the walled garden was visible and at the end of it, Dr. Sophia’s room opened like a window, pale and large. The space was filled with light now that the shutters had been folded back. On the low, square bed the doctor’s body lay fully clothed in a cream linen shirt and blue skirt. Her skin was pale, in spite of the flushed, dampness of the sleeping face. Strands of dark hair broke the softness as they outlined the forehead. The Swiss doctor peered at the quiet body with squinting eyes and listened carefully to Dr. Sophia’s lungs, resting her ear on the doctor’s chest, as if the dry breathing could tell a story. Then she rested her hand across Dr. Sophia’s forehead.

"It looks like malaria. But surely she was taking her pills--" She glanced over her shoulder at Rosette who stood with hands folded. "Do you know about any pills she might have taken?"

"Je ne sais rien," Rosette whispered. "I know nothing."

The Swiss doctor turned toward the door and charged down the hall, calling out over her shoulder. "I’ll send a nurse around later with some medication. Just keep her quiet." She stopped and looked back. "You do understand me don’t you?"

Rosette nodded, a dark silhouette in the hallway.

"Well, good then. Au revoir."

Rosette nodded again as she locked the screen door.

An hour later a Haitian nurse came to the house with medicine and told Rosette to go about her work, that she would sit in the doctor’s room and look after her. "Dr. Luc might come later, " she added.

"No," said Rosette.

"No?"

"That would be bad. Too much has happened." The Haitian nurse looked mysteriously at Rosette. Her mouth was painted with lipstick and her black hair was pulled into a shiny clip. The white stockings over her dark legs made them look silver, like winter frost. Rosette could see that she understood and wanted to hear more. They were from the same world, that much was plain. "Dr. Luc made pain for Dr. Sophia. Then the children threw rocks to get mangoes and killed a dove. Dr. Sophia buried the dove last night and made a marker in the garden."

"Ahhh," said the nurse. Wide-eyed.

"It is a curse. Evil. I know this is so. I know others will die because of it. You see?"

"Yes, I see what you mean." The two women stood over the bed, held together for a moment by these mysterious events. Finally, the nurse spoke. "But this medicine will make her better. Science has power too."

Rosette’s eyebrows lifted in a curious way. Maybe it was true, but she was not so sure. She felt evil in the house and shuddered, even though the room was warm. "Do not send Dr. Luc."

"He is probably too busy today anyway. And this should not be a long illness. Maybe a few days."

***

But Dr. Sophia did not get better in a few days. She slept fitfully in relentless heat and developed a mottled red rash along her neck. Her fever increased and subsided, then rose again, so that there was always someone sitting at her bedside with a cool cloth, a bowl of water, and medicine. The word of her illness traveled through the hospital and the village, and soon people came and sat in the yard, watching the house and wondering if Dr. Sophia would die. They talked about the good medicine she had offered their children and sisters and fathers and mothers. They brought baskets of fruit and cooked leaves in the yard over an open fire. They chattered like birds, echoing the Madame Sarahs, birds that consumed whole trees on the edge of the village with their ravenous nesting.

The best nurses came and went but Dr. Luc stayed away. Dr.Sophia’s absence had created much work for him, they said. He sent his prayers. The Swiss doctor came back twice and left quickly on her sturdy feet. At night, men played softly on drums and women sat on the steps of the house singing hymns until Rosette asked them to leave. "Dr. Sophia needs rest," she whispered. As they walked away, down the path, Rosette smelled the air and wondered when it would rain. It had not rained since the first day of Dr. Sophia’s sickness.

On the seventh day Rosette saw Dr. Luc standing in the path at the end of the gate early in the morning. He made no move to come closer, then left like an animal whose watch had ended. An hour later a boy came to the door. "Je m’appelle Espérance," he said under his breath. He trembled, unable to look Rosette in the eye. "My name is Espérance. I killed the dove and made Dr. Sophia sick." A tear escaped his downcast eye and traced a wet line over his cheekbone.

Rosette looked down at him through the screen. Espérance Mortel, she believed, the last son of the sister of Pastor Josèph. There were many children in that family and this was the last born, a skinny boy with large eyes and a smooth, curling upper lip. "Why do you come here now?" Rosette asked, searching his eyes. "There's nothing you can do here."

"To see Dr. Sophia. To bring her limes and tell her I am sorry." He pulled six limes out of his grimy T-shirt.

Rosette reared back, wiping her hands on her apron. "Dr. Sophia is ill. Too sick to eat or drink limeade. She only takes water and maybe some bread. Anyway, go away. If you made her sick, it’s too late to be sorry."

"No," he pleaded. "Please. Do not send me away. Let me see her. Let me speak to her for one minute."

Rosette took a deep breath. One minute was not too long. But what would he have to say? There was work to do in the kitchen and laundry to hang on the line. These days of extra people in the house had left her weary.

"I want to tell her that it was me and say that I will work for her now, as long as she likes."

Rosette sighed and opened the door and let him in, her eyes still and troubled. He was small but probably 16 years old, probably malnourished as a child and still not getting enough to eat. She would offer him bread before he left, but first she led him down the hall into the room where the pale blue curtains were drawn and the fan whirred slowly overhead. The room was warm and the warm air circulated like a bird flying in slow circles, stirring the curtains gently. Mosquito netting fell over the bed from one gathering point on the ceiling. And beneath it Dr. Sophia slept, dark hair pushed away from her feverish face.

"She is sleeping. She probably cannot hear you. But you may go ahead and speak. She may remember when she wakes up."

The boy winced as he gazed upon the still, closed face through the gauze of mosquito netting. He had never seen a blanc sick before, never seen the pale skin so bright and damp. It looked soft and spongy, like bread dough. He looked up at Rosette.

"Go ahead. Speak."

After a moment, he opened his mouth and spoke in halting English, even though Dr. Sophia spoke French and Kreyòl. It was a sign of respect, he had been taught, to try and communicate with blancs in their own language. "Dr. Sophia. I am Espérance. I killed a dove with rock. I throw the rock to get mango to eat. I am sorry for your sickness. I want to help you, to work for you for nothing but food. I do whatever you need. I hope I am make you well." He paused and added, "Please forgive me."

After he spoke he stepped back to stand next to Rosette and watch the still figure lying flat in the bed, covered with a light blue sheet, distant through the netting like a dark-haired fairy princess. Suddenly, the figure moved, a slight twitch of the left arm, then of the mouth. The mouth opened as if trying to speak, as if trying to form the "r" sound. The eyes fluttered.

"ro…ro…"

Rosette stepped forward and leaned over her, taking her hand. "Oui Madame. Je suis ici. I am here. Many people are wishing you well and praying for you."

"es…espé…"

"Espérance is here. He feel very badly, Madame, for your suffering. Do you want him to work around the house? To help me out for a while?" She cast a sharp glance over her shoulder at the boy who took in a quick breath.

Dr. Sophia nodded and a faint smile passed over her face.

"Ah, well, then," said Rosette, standing up, straight-backed with surprise. "I will put him to work today, cleaning up the garden." She squeezed the doctor’s hand. "You will be better soon. I can feel your strength."

Dr. Sophia nodded again, then fell back into silence.

***

After that day, the boy came early in the morning and swept the walk. He helped Rosette with laundry and hauled vegetables from the market in a macoute balanced on his small head. Rosette appreciated his help and fed him breakfast each day of bread with peanut butter, bananas, and juice from green oranges. After five days, Dr. Sophia was able to sit up in bed. The Swiss doctor came and read to her from a thick book and little by little, others came to visit. A note arrived from Dr. Luc: "Glad you are well. Luc." She smiled and put the note in a drawer.

"He is sorry now?"

"Sorry?"

"He stole your strength." Rosette's face went stiff as she placed a fresh pillow behind Dr. Sophia's neck.

Eight days after the appearance of Espérance, Dr. Sophia walked around the garden with Rosette cutting hibiscus blossoms with a kitchen knife. She sat in the heat drinking strong coffee. "Have I tasted this before? It is wonderful!" she laughed. Espérance placed large slices of melon on a wide leaf in front of her. "I honestly don’t remember coffee ever tasting so good. And you, Espérance, you have saved my life. You are my protector."

The boy smiled proudly, avoiding the doctor’s eyes.

Soon, Dr. Sophia went to the hospital and worked for half a day. Then a full day. Then she seemed well again and soon everyone forgot that she had been ill. Dr. Luc rushed past her in the hall. The nurses rolled their eyes at her demands like they used to, and the patients streamed into her office, dull-eyed and burdened with sick children, machete wounds, or inexplicable sores. One evening she was sitting in the garden, writing a letter when Espérance came out of the trees and stood nearby. "Bon soir, Madame."

"Bon soir, mon ami. It’s late for you to be here, n'est-ce pas?"

"You are well now, no?"

"Yes. I am well. But, you know, it was never your fault."

"Oh yes. I killed the dove to eat mango."

"I know. But I’m not sure that’s why I was so sick, even though it made me sad. I think it was something else, something called microbacteria."

He laughed. "You were sick with sadness, Madame."

She stared at the boy, saying nothing. His feet were bare and dirty, his arms muscular and fragrant with jasmine from clipping the bushes.

"Now that you are well, I must go away."

"Away?" She sat up straight.

"My uncle has a farm and needs help. He has goats and fields. If I work hard and earn money, he will send me to school."

Dr. Sophia stood up and walked to the edge of the garden where he stood, just over the wall, half-cloaked in feathery trees. "Please stay," she said quietly. "I need you here. You can go to school here. I can help you."

"I need to work like a man." He looked at the ground and then up into her eyes. "Je reviens. I will come back." He paused as if holding his breath, then disappeared into the trees, moving so fast, so suddenly that the trees shook and the branches released a fluttering of birds. Dr. Sophia stood alone in the garden, looking upward at the sound, at the rush of wings that carried everything away. She looked down the path and up again until her thoughts scattered like mist and disappeared in the evening sky.

"He is gone," Rosette spoke flatly from the shadow of the door. "Il est parti."

"Doves too. Gone with him."

"Tout change, mais on continue," said Rosette. "Everything chages, but we carry on." She turned back to the kitchen, wiping a bowl with a cloth.

Sophia remained in the garden, watching the sky. Soon the sky would turn dark and starry, cloaking the world in the healing silence of night. Drums would start around ten o'clock, eliciting the spirits who watch over the world and its people. Some would not survive this night, others would awaken with prayers of gratitude on their lips. Flocks of doves would return and, eventually, the boy would reappear on the path, transformed into manhood. When he did come, and even before that, Dr. Sophia remembered those feverish days as a crossing from one side to another, as if her body had become a small boat navigating toward the shores of survival. She had encountered this phenomenon before, the way patients often gain a mysterious immunity to suffering and disease after a long or serious illness. They walk away from the hospital every day like that, suddenly resistant to new viruses, miraculously cured, no longer susceptible to symptoms or pain. She knew that with or without faith, those who survive are often stronger than before, but closer to the presence of death.

Patti Marxsen
Salem, Massachusetts, USA

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