Ninth Letter is pleased to present Kyle Minor’s novella “In a Distant Country” serialized on our website, one section per week, for six weeks. Section three begins below; to start at the beginning, click here
In a Distant Country (cont.)
Rev. T.C. Johnson, Baptist Mission, Koulèv-Ville, Haiti, to Rev. Ervin Medlock, Caribbean Region Director, Foreign Mission Board, Richmond, Virginia, February 10, 1986.
I’m sure news of the regime change is getting to you in dribs and drabs, and I send this dispatch with fervent prayers that it will be received. My first obligation is to report whether or not the mission has weathered the change in government safely. I’m sorry that I don’t know any other way to be but direct. It is my devastation, telling you that the Lord has taken Brother Joe Waddell and Brother Sam Tillotson to be with himself in this hour. It was me and Brother Larry Garvey who found their bodies. It is no comfort to me that they passed while engaged in acts of service (trying to save the water station.) We buried them this evening beneath the mango trees behind the hospital. I pray the circumstances surrounding their passings might be comfort to their families as time passes, but to me it is nothing but sheer agony to write you and tell you about it. Our good Henri is at the gate waiting to courier this letter to the MFI pilot in Port, and time is short. I will try to write more this evening, but I do not know when I will next have an opportunity to get an envelope out. Please pray for us.
Rev. Larry Garvey, Jr., Baptist Mission, Koulèv-Ville, Haiti, to Rev. Larry Garvey, Sr., University Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Florida, February 13, 1986.
The first thing we saw was the black smoke. Not the thin reeds of cooking smoke that rise throughout the village, but a thick, wide swath of smoke. Then voices arguing loudly. Then much shouting. Sam came running in from the village and said, “It’s started.” Brother Joe told us to close the mission gates. We had trouble closing them because someone drove an old pickup truck in front of one of them and started a small fire in the truck bed and left it there. We had to put out the fire, and we had to move the truck. Some of the maids and some of the drivers and some of the doctors and nurses from the hospital helped. We all helped. People began to throw rocks, seeing us close the gates. Others were trying to get inside. Sam wanted to let certain ones of them in. Brother Joe said no. They argued. Brother Joe pulled rank. Sam cursed at him.
By then, the women were running out of the mission buildings to see about the commotion. Brother Joe told them to go back inside. Sam said men were burning tires out by the road. We heard pistol shots. Sam said there were men in the village who knew how to make Molotov cocktails. He worried the mission would be a target. Brother Joe said the people would be with us because of our good reputation for taking care of them. Sam called him naïve. Everyone knew it was us who had built the new water station. The rumor in the village was that we had taken money from the government to build it. Brother Joe said that wasn’t true and the people in the village knew it wasn’t true. Sam said some people were saying Macoutes had delivered us the money in burlap sacks.
I’ve never once so much as thought about disrespecting Brother Joe’s leadership. But who knows the talk in the village better than Sam? T.C. and I urged Brother Joe to listen to Sam. Brother Joe said it didn’t matter if Sam was right or not. All we could do now was hunker down, turn off the generators, get the doctors and nurses locked safely in the hospital, get the other workers into the buildings, get the women and the children as far from the gates and the walls as possible, and pray. Sam said we should take all the extra food we had–all the hundred pound bags of rice, all the vegetables, all the salted meats, all the boxed provisions–and set it outside the gate. Sam said he would go out there himself and tell everyone it was theirs to take, a celebration gift.
Brother Joe was very concerned about giving away the food. “The precedent,” he said. He forbid it. Like always, there was a standoff. Brother Joe must have thought T.C. and me would follow orders like always. But this wasn’t like always. This was an extraordinary circumstance if there ever was one. I looked at T.C., and T.C. looked at me. We decided that way. T.C. said, “Sam, let’s go on in there and start hauling that food out.”
Brother Joe gave me a Judas Iscariot look the way he can. He said, “Are you gonna forsake me, too?”
I said, “I’m not forsaking anybody, Brother Joe.” Then I followed Sam and T.C. into the storehouse and started hauling food.
Brother Joe stood there and watched us with his arms crossed. At first he looked angry, but then he looked scared. His foot was tapping. I felt for him. Real softly, I touched his shoulder. I said, “Brother Joe, we really need your help right now.”
He kind of dropped his gaze and went into the storehouse and came back out half-dragging a hundred pound bag of rice. He helped us and didn’t complain any more. The four of us hauled all that food out by the gate. Then Sam climbed up so his head was sticking up over the gates. He started calling names. Pierre, Carlo, Kenel, Michel, Victor. I did not see any of them standing nearby, but they were friends. Sam knew they would be watching over us. They came from the places where they were hiding, and told the other people near the gates to stand aside. Sam told them about the food. He said it was a gift to the village to celebrate the flight of the Duvalier family from the country. He said we were going to open the gate, and would the people stand back so we could bring the food outside?
Pierre and Kenel began to yell orders to everyone to stand aside, and because they are such big men and so respected in the village, people backed away as they approached. Sam came down from the wall, and he said, “Move fast, because there’s gonna be a crush.”
We opened the gate to about three feet wide. Pierre and Kenel stood guard at the threshold. Sam, Joe, T.C., and I lifted, carried, and dragged the various bags and boxes of food outside. Right away the people began to press in on us, to get at the food. Carlo, Michel, and Victor called for orderliness. Pierre and Kenel crossed their arms. At first, that was enough to slow the press, but now people were coming from all over the village. Others came from the direction of the road and the smoke. People running, people yelling, people whistling for more people. The noise of it was astounding. “It’s too much,” Brother Joe said. He was yelling over the din. Sam nodded his assent. I noticed that we were all waiting for Sam’s assent. When he nodded, we went back inside the gates. Pierre and Kenel helped hold people off as we closed them.
Plenty of the extra food was still inside the gate. “What now?” Brother Joe said. Now he was looking to Sam, too. It seemed to trouble Sam that Brother Joe was treating him as the leader, even though you would think it was what he had wanted all along. Maybe it wasn’t. He said, “Brother Joe, should we haul the rest back into the storehouse? In case somebody peeks over the wall and sees it?”
Brother Joe seemed to expand to full size again in response to Sam’s deference. “We don’t want them breaching the gates,” he said. We hauled it all back into the storehouse. It was probably half what we had hauled out.
Now Kenel was calling out from other side of the gates. Sam and Brother Joe, both, went running toward him. T.C. saw him running and said, “Would you look at that?” It was strange to see Brother Joe in fast motion, a man his size. We had never seen him at the gates before except to come and go. Now he climbed up alongside Sam, and they poked their heads over the top to speak with Kenel.
By now the noise from the other side was such that we could not hear what they were saying. After awhile, they both jumped down and headed toward the residences. Brother Joe went right past us without saying a word, but Sam put a hand on T.C.’s shoulder and mine and said, “Best get on in with your families now.” Then he went in, too.
Me and T.C. followed as far as the exterior doors to the residences. T.C. stopped me there. He had something to say. I encouraged him to come out with it. He said, “I keep a .22 in Thelma’s personal drawer. I keep it loaded. I love my children.”
I don’t think at the moment he was worried about the mission board’s rules against guns or any such thing. At the moment, I wished I had one, too. T.C. said, “You want, you bring Patty and the kids over, and we’ll hunker down together.”
I didn’t know what to do. “You think,” I said, “a little .22 is gonna keep us safe?”
“Nope,” T.C. said. He didn’t even blink. “Thelma’s in there with the kids praying, and I don’t know if that will make a difference beyond calming them all down some.” He was probably doing the recent missionary death tally, same as me. Luc Preval, in Gonaïves. Ed Reelitz, up in Okap. Ben Miller, in Les Cayes. Salvador Arruza, in Carrefour. Even the natural causes, like the heart attack that took Brother Joe’s Junie last fall. The Lord’s ways are not our own.
Brother Joe came out again with his canteen on his belt, and saw us and said, “Get on inside.”
“You, too,” T.C. said.
Sam came outside and said, “Brother Joe, you ready?”
Brother Joe nodded. “You fellas aren’t welcome to join us,” he said, “but they’re up there busting up the water station.”
“You think you’re gonna stop them?” T.C. said.
“I think we’re gonna go up there with Pierre and Kenel and tell them to come get the rest of our extra food,” Sam said. “Ya’ll better haul it out again.”
Brother Joe was nodding, even though he had just told us to get inside. The color was out of his face. I could tell he didn’t want to go up to the water station, but he didn’t want Sam to go when he himself wouldn’t go, either. It was a matter of his own pride working on him, I think.
T.C. tried to let Brother Joe off the hook. “Let Sam go,” he said. “Pierre and Kenel will take good care of him. We need you here. All this extra food is too much for me and Larry to haul out alone again.”
Brother Joe just shook his head. The two of them walked toward the gates, and then they scaled them together. They disappeared to the other side, their bodies first, then their heads.
T.C. said we better wait a little while to start hauling the food out. It took forty or fifty minutes to walk to the water station, and it seemed risky to leave the food very long in an open sightline of any heads that might raise themselves over the walls. The broken glass on top of the mission walls didn’t seem much a deterrent anymore. I went inside and got Patty and the kids and we went over to T.C.’s and brought some blankets and spread them out on the floor and we all lay down on them and stayed real still.
By then it was starting to get dark. With the generator out and the dark out the windows and all the truly terrifying sounds–the vodou drums unsettling, but the familiar uses of the human voicebox worse–it was all we could do to keep calm. The children, ours and the Johnson’s, were preternaturally calm. I feared some kind of shock had taken them. Thelma and Patty prayed in whispers, and T.C. and I spelled them here and there, just to keep soothing voices in play. Every once in awhile, the orange red of some roaring fire someplace up the mountain flared up high enough to be visible against the dark of the window.
None of us gave thought enough to Sam’s wife, Sheila. All that time, she was alone. It was Patty who realized it first. She leaned against me on the blanket on the floor and said, “Oh no, Larry. Sheila.”
T.C. overheard and said, “We got to go out and get the food, anyway, Larry.”
We went out into the hallway, toward the old housekeeper’s suite where she and Sam stayed. She didn’t answer when I knocked. T.C. said, “She’s scared.” I said, “Sheila, honey, it’s me and T.C.,” and right away regretted talking to her like a child, saying honey. Sam was always hair-trigger sensitive to anybody saying anything to her that made her feel like a child.
But when she came to the door, she looked for all the world like a child. Her face was ashen and tear-streaked, and her hair was disheveled, and she was a girl whose hair was never disheveled, even after whole days spent in the village. I felt the weight of conviction, looking at her, knowing she had been in there alone and afraid all this time. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” she said.
It was a spooky feeling, hearing words like that coming from her.
“Nobody’s dead,” T.C. said. He didn’t like her, but you couldn’t tell it in his voice, not then. His voice was gentle, fatherly. He reached out his arms and took a step toward her. She took a step back and shut the door softly. The wood grazed his fingertips.
A coldness came into us, then. Later, T.C. said it was the conviction of the Spirit resting on us because of how we had neglected Sheila, but I can’t shake the superstition I want to shake, which is that it was our spirits knowing Sam and Brother Joe were gone, before our minds could know it. What happened, in any event, was we picked up bags of rice and carried them to the place just inside the gates where we had carried them before. We carried the salted meats and the vegetables, and we carried the boxed provisions. Then we waited. This was the worst of it. We waited and waited, but neither Sam nor Brother Joe returned.
Sometime around dawn, Henri came knocking on the gates, calling for T.C. and me. When we saw his face, we knew. He said we better come help him collect the bodies. All I could think of was that old homeless lady Marie who died last year out in front of Le Dieu de Justice school and we thought she was just sleeping on the steps again, and how crazy old Jean Sitney covered her with his black blanket, and when her people never did come to take the body, he started dancing with it, round and round in circles, until the schoolchildren stopped him by throwing rocks at his arms and body.
T.C. went over to the place by the mission wall where Sam cultivated the sugar cane, and threw up into it. When he was done, he wiped his mouth, and said, “You gonna go tell Sheila, or you want me to?”
It didn’t seem right to make him do it. I knocked on her door again, and as soon as she saw my face, she knew. I could tell. Her voice was flat. “Where?” she said, and I told her the water station. She pushed me aside and took off running, flat-out running, past me, past T.C. and Henri, through the gate, and out into the village.
There was no catching her. Maybe Henri could’ve caught up with her, but maybe he was as soft as we were, spending his days driving that truck instead of walking up and down the hill for water, instead of walking everywhere, the way most people do who don’t live in the mission. The only person in the whole place who could’ve run from here to the water station was Sheila herself, because she was the only one out running around the village all the time.
The three of us didn’t say anything to one another. We just started walking. We walked in a triangle, me and T.C. up front, and Henri, watchful, bringing up the rear. We walked through the village, all the way to where the good dirt path ended, up the mountain, and down again, toward the fresh springs where the people washed and bathed.
You could see the water station busted up from far away. It looked like they had come at it with hammers and axes and pieces of wood. Whatever they could get their hands on. Later we found a young tree that had been pulled up by the roots and swung like a baseball bat. And from that distance, already, we could hear Sheila wailing. She did not sound like herself, but her voice was not strange. She sounded like almost any Haitian woman I had ever seen bent over the body of a lost father, a lost husband, a lost baby. Wailing.
We followed her voice to the far end of the water station. She was knee-deep in the stream. Chunks of concrete and scraps of wood and PVC pipe floated around her or lay in the shallows. Her whole body was leaned over what was left of Sam. Her arms were under his shoulders, holding his head out of the water. Her forehead dipped in and out of the stream. She was shaking with cold. When we came closer, we saw that the left side of Sam’s face was completely caved in.
I had to shout to be heard over the sound of the stream, and her wailing. I said, “Where is Brother Joe?” I asked three times, but she did not answer. She may not have known we were there until T.C. came behind her and put his arms around her. Even then, she did not let go of Sam’s body. Some ways downstream, I caught sight of Brother Joe bobbing face down among the reeds. I left Sheila with T.C., and waded toward him, to fish him out of the water. His face was caved in, too. Upstream, T.C. was saying, “He’s with Jesus, Sheila. He’s with Jesus.” I don’t think I’ll ever see a sight like it again, T.C. holding Sheila, Sheila holding Sam’s body, the three of them in the water, bobbing amid all that trash.