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 four begins below; to start at the beginning, click here
In a Distant Country (cont.)
Mrs. Linda Reelitz, Okap Baptist Ministries, Cap-Haïtien, to Rev. Ervin Medlock, Caribbean Region Director, Foreign Mission Board, Richmond, Virginia, May 10, 1986.
I’m sorry it has taken so long to get back with you about this Sheila Tillotson affair. MFI is only running every-other-Tuesday flights out of Cap-Haïtien, and those are Palm Beach hops, with Santo Domingo stops midway. So the fastest cheap way into Port-au-Prince is Okap to Santo Domingo on Tuesday morning, then the Thursday afternoon flights to Port with the Presbyterians. On the way back, it was the Presbyterians to Santo Domingo, then (lucky, this) a helicopter full of anthropologists from Johns Hopkins who thought it would be a hoot to pal around with a missionary woman for awhile. (Some anthropologists they were, too. One of them asked why I wasn’t wearing my habit. I asked him if I needed to explain to him the difference between the Baptists and the papists, and he held up his hand as if to say, “The vocabulary offends.” In my mind, he says it with a British accent, but we’re hard up for fun around here. In truth, his talk was Chesapeake Bay all the way.) All told, Ervin, and even with all the rushing around, this errand of yours cost me almost three weeks. I’d say you owe me, but I guess you can’t owe me if I didn’t come back with anything.
The Koulèv-Ville mission is in surprisingly good shape. I say surprisingly, because since the Duvaliers fled on that plane (smuggled out a little peasant girl with them, they did!, to do the cooking and cleaning no doubt), very little that has been in any way associated with the regime has been left untouched. All the way from the airport, through the city, through Pètion-Ville, Henri (their driver) pointed out the various signs of carnage. The burnt shell of a building here, the bourgeois house overrun by shanty people there. It made me fear for what I would find, because tensions in the country are still running high, and even in Okap it was known that Brother Joe had dealings with the regime.
But you and I know Brother Joe was a shrewd man, and he had his people do a shrewd thing. When the lawlessness flared up, instead of hunkering down right away, they first dragged much of their excess food and sundries outside–bags of rice, cooking oil, salted meats, vegetables–and let the people take them, knowing what goodwill would follow. Where Brother Joe went wrong, I would say, is in miscalculating the limits of that goodwill. This was a failing, I believe, to which he was prone, expecting big goodwill when all you are is a person who invites a little goodwill. Down there by the hospital are rows of mango trees, where me and Ed spent some pleasant hours back when I was young and Ed was still alive. That’s where I expected to find this Sheila, bent semi-comatose over old Sam’s grave. But all I found there were those two pet monkeys they used to keep in those tiny cages before they dismantled the mission zoo. They wore harnesses, and they had been tied to the tree trunks by the old man who parades them in the street with their tin beggar cups whenever any work groups–American or Dutch, he does not discriminate–are in town doing their good deeds. It’s a real breach of protocol, not to mention security, that the monkey man could get away with a thing like that, and it never would have happened in Brother Joe’s day. Nor would there be a hole in the mission wall near the garbage dump, so people could reach in and grab the trash bags and dump them on the property next door and claim their chicken bones and whatnot. Nor would there be dirty hospital needles in those bags like the ones I found among the wads of befouled toilet paper, the discarded food wrappers, the slit-cut burlap rice sacks I watched children carrying away at the direction of their mothers. Brother Joe would have stood over the shoulders of the orderlies as they dug a pit, built a fire, burned everything infectious, covered the hole with the dirt they had just finished digging. If he so much as saw something so useful as a burlap sack in a garbage can, he would have fired the cook on the spot, and made somebody’s wife finish making the meal.
When I got back from the mango trees and the graves and overseeing the dreary work of cleanup and the business of reuniting monkey with master, I marched into Larry Garvey’s office and said, “Where is she?” He just shrugged his shoulders and pointed vaguely in all directions. I met T.C. Johnson out in the co-op fields, and I said, “Where is she?” He turned his palms toward the sky and said, “Last time I saw her, she was headed toward the village.” I walked out into the village by myself and I asked all the women, and they would speak with me of everything but the girl. I walked all the way to the next town. No one would talk there, either. It was getting dark by then, and if I had any regard for my own life I wouldn’t have been out walking those mountain paths by myself, anyway, but, Ervin, this country has made me a tough old broad, and I like to think I could hold my own with any two machete-wielding teenagers. Somewhere between the Pentecostal church and the old French fort, a woman with whom I had spoken earlier in the day, name of Jilene, stepped out of her house and took my arm and walked with me for awhile. At first I thought she meant to be protective of me, but then she said, “You are looking for Madame Samuel?” and I said I was, and she pointed toward a house a few hundred feet away and said, “Do not bring her any more sadness.” Then she kissed me on both cheeks and we parted.
The house was made of stone and mortar, with a roof of corrugated tin with holes rusted through at irregular intervals. Here and there, the holes had been patched by laying a square of tin or aluminum on top and anchoring it with a large loose rock. Probably underneath the rock, inside the house, was a floor full of pots and basins strategically arranged to catch the rainwater. I’ve seen it plenty before. The outside of the house had been long ago painted a thick green, but time had washed the color thin at the mortar, and thinner where the stones protruded. Mortar and stone alike were dirtwashed and claywashed. Here and there the gray and orange overtook the green, so there was a shag carpet effect when you saw the place from a distance. An old dirty shag carpet from the floor of somebody’s doghouse, let’s say. I could only imagine what it was like on the inside.
Nobody answered when I knocked, but I could hear whispering inside, and soft clattering. I knocked again, and it got quieter. I knocked a third time, and the door opened a crack. I saw a white eyeball in a black socket. A man spoke to me in a broken-down English that sounded like Kreyol: “What do you want?”
The girl, I said. Is she here? Will she come talk with me? I came from Okap to see her. People are worried about her. Can I come inside?
“Wait,” the man said. He closed the door. More whispering inside. Perhaps some arguing. The door opened again, and the man came outside. He was tall, for a Haitian, and handsome. “There is no one here,” he said.
“But there is,” I said. “I heard the voices inside.”
“That is my family,” he said. “My brother, my sisters.”
“Are you a Christian?” I said.
He allowed that he was.
“Do you mean your brother and sisters from your father and mother, or do you mean your brother and sisters in Christ?”
He looked around, up and down the street. People were watching. He said, “This is not your country.”
I switched to Kreyol. “For many years it has been my country,” I said.
“Look at your skin,” he said. “You are a blan. This is a country of nèg yo.”
“You are a Christian,” I said. “Do you know the Scripture, the words of Bondye spoken through the Apostle Paul? In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.”
“And yet,” he said, “the missionaries have everything and we have nothing. Look at me. Look at where I live. I live very well, but next to the mission, I have nothing.”
“Is that what you desire for her, then?” I said. “To have nothing, like you say you have nothing? She is missing, and she is far from home. Her husband has died. Her mother, her father are worried about her.”
He scratched at a scab near his temple. “Her husband was a brother to me,” he said. “He baptized all my children. He paid for medicine for my mother. He told me if I died, he would take care of my family.”
“What is your name?” I said.
“They know my name at the mission,” he said. Already he was going inside. Already he was closing the door.
I put my foot between the door and the doorpost. He drew himself to full height. I said, “Sheila, honey, are you in there?”
“Please,” he said. “Do not put your foot in the door.”
I called out: “Sheila? Are you in there? My name is Linda Reelitz. I have letters from your mother and your father. I have documents from Brother Sam. There is property that is yours in Florida? Did you know? There are people who love you, Sheila, and they are worried about you.”
Nobody made a noise inside. The man put his foot against mine. He did not kick or push at my foot. He said, “Please, now you will go away.”
What else could I do? “Sheila,” I called. “I will be back tomorrow. Let’s talk tomorrow morning, okay?”
I took my foot away from the doorpost. He looked at me for a moment. What I read on him was mostly relief. He closed the door softly. I walked back to the mission in the darkness, alone.
A late night staff meeting was hastily convened. I described the shag carpet house, and Brothers T.C. and Larry right away exchanged one of those Didn’t we know it? looks, and in unison, like some quarter-throated choir, everyone in the room said Kenel, by which, I learned, they meant Kenel Depitor, a co-op farmer who had been close with Brother Sam. I asked the questions you’d expect: What’s going on here? How long’s she run off? Why this Kenel Depitor? What’s the relationship here? Is this a mere friendship, or might she have waded into something sexual?
Nobody seemed to know what to say, right off. Faces drew tight. Shoulders were shrugged. Glances, seemingly meaningful, were exchanged, but not with me. Eye contact of that sort was rare as a seven dollar bill. Things were said that didn’t mean anything: It’s hard to know, it’s complicated, Sheila’s a tough nut to crack, Sam could be a weird egg.
“Listen,” I said. “You people have been through a lot. Lord knows. You’ve lost a lot of people you love. Good people. In a short time. And here’s your last link to one of them, this girl who got dropped on you even though you probably didn’t want her, but here she is, and she was Sam’s, and you loved Sam, and Sam is gone, and she’s all you’ve got left of Sam. So you’ve got your loyalty to Sam, and you don’t want to hurt this girl, and neither do I. Neither does anybody. But there’s stuff going on here that doesn’t smell right. I’ve seen it all, and now I’ve got the spiritual gift of seeing through it all. I watched my Ed’s head crushed between the cab and the bed of an old pickup truck, and I watched my housekeeper fall off the side of a cliff with her house back when we still lived in the mountains. I don’t know what to do with any of it. All I know is there’s this girl, and one way or another she’s in over her head, and we’ve got to get her home so she can make some kind of life for herself and not have everybody just thinking of her as the widow at the ripe old age of fourteen or whatever she is.”
I went on like that for awhile, just provoking. It didn’t hurt me one bit to do it. I just beat on them like that. When an English word wouldn’t do, I used a French word, and when French wasn’t crude enough, I hammered them with Kreyol. I played the tired old widow and I played Ervin’s monster come down from the north to chew and spit. Finally, Sisters Patty and Thelma started talking a little. Yes, they said, Sam was a weird egg. Yes, Sheila was a tough nut to crack. It’s not that they knew things and were choosing to withhold them from me, their interrogator. They didn’t know, and it’s what they didn’t know that wore them at the edges. What they had to offer was gossip, idle talk, conjecture, theories half-formed. What they had was nothing edifying. What they had wasn’t much. That’s why the hemming and that’s why the hawing.
“Ladies,” I said, “if theory’s all we got, then theory’s all we got.”
The long silence. Then Patty: “Kenel and Brother Sam were very close.”
Like brothers, Thelma said.
“After Sam died, Kenel started to come around a lot more. Usually he kept to his fields, and that’s where he spent his time with Sam. But after Sam died, he was always bringing baskets to Sheila. Food, clothing, things he bought or his wife bought at the market.”
“Things he couldn’t afford,” Thelma said. “Not possibly.”
“Did you ask Sheila about these things?” I said.
“Yes,” Patty said. “Indirectly, but that didn’t get anywhere. Then directly. But she was just a mess. Her face turned witch ugly. It took so little to set off the waterworks. Once it started, she’d go off to her bedroom and shut the door, and you’d hear her for hours. She wouldn’t answer if you knocked. Such a horrible sound, and you could hear everything that came out of that room anyway, because the walls were so thin, and because of where it was. So we just stopped asking.”
“Where do you think he got the money?” I said. Their speculations were thin. Maybe she had some stashed away, and Kenel came and got it and made purchases on her behalf. Maybe Sam left some of his money with Kenel. It was no secret the troubles were coming. It was just a matter of when. Maybe he thought he ought to have a backup plan if this place got tore up. I said these were reasonable possibilities, and that’s why I didn’t buy them. They believed something darker, and might as well be out with it. They looked at each other. The men glared at the women. I had a pretty good idea what the women were going to say.
“We think maybe Kenel was his backup plan,” Patty said.
“But Kenel has a wife,” I said.
“Kenel has three or four wives,” Patty said, “stashed away who knows where.”
“What’s one more?” Thelma said.
By now, the men had stopped glaring at them. Some leaky water pipe was dripping every few seconds, and the men turned their heads in direction of the showers every time a drop hit the drain. The women seemed to be waiting for the men to say something, and I waited them out. They fiddled with their ears and they fiddled with the creases in their pants. Finally T.C. gave in. “It’s just a theory,” he said. “It’s just talk, and it’s not kind, and it’s probably not true.”
I didn’t have to say it was midnight, and Sheila was in Kenel’s house, and not in her own bed, and not for the first night, I gathered.
Well, Ervin, this story doesn’t end well or end at all, for that matter. The next morning I set off with Patty and Thelma for Kenel’s house. When we got there, the door was open, the bedsheet curtains were gone from the windows, the inside was picked bare. Everybody and everything that was there was there no more. We interviewed the neighbors, and the neighbors were predictably ignorant concerning these matters. We interviewed the relatives, and nobody had a thing of value to share with us. Somebody said maybe they went to Jacmel, somebody said Belle Anse, somebody else said Miragoâne. All of these were places none of these bodies have ever been, I can assure you. If I had to guess, I’d say they’re all some place three mountains over, sharing some uncomfortable space with some children Kenel hasn’t seen since they were born.
What to do? I guess you could call the FBI kidnapping squad if you want, Ervin, and let Kenel Depitor take a bullet for the crime of doing a favor for his dead friend. They call us colonialists, and that’s what anybody’d expect, right? My advice is wait it out. Soon enough, the money will run out, or she’ll get homesick or she’ll get sick sick, and one fine afternoon she’ll walk or be carried through the front gate, dehydrated and weak with diarrhea, and one of those nurses will run an I.V., and then T.C. and Larry will send her stateside. As for me, I want to wash my hands of the whole sorry affair. What I want to know is: What kind of man was Brother Samuel Tillotson, anyway? And what was Brother Joe thinking, letting him bring that girl here in the first place? And what kind of girl is she, to get mixed up in a distant country with one man she hardly knew, and now another? And what kind of parents must she have, to let us deal in fact-finding trips and bureaucratic reports instead of getting their old behinds down here on a plane and bringing their little girl home? And what kind of people are we, in a time like this, to let her grieve it out alone in that thin-walled bedroom? Why wasn’t she put on the morning plane to Miami the day after Brother Sam was buried?
As usual, the questions pile up like dug dirt, and the big ditch forms for lack of answers. Days like these I want to throw myself in it and sleep the long sleep, but that’s not what we do. As soon as I’m able, I’m gonna get myself back to Okap and lead some Bible studies and oversee some women’s meetings, and plant some trees, and teach some children to read.