Authors: Dany Laferrière
Copyright Â© 2009 by Dany LaferriÃ¨re
Translation copyright Â© 2009 by Wayne Grady
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Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
[Vers le sud. English]
Heading south / Dany Laferriere ; translated by Wayne Grady.
Originally published in 2006 under title: Vers le sud.
I. Grady, Wayne II. Title: Vers le sud. English.
8573.A348V4713 2009 C843'.54 C2009-903757-2
Copy editing by Pam Robertson
Cover and text design by Peter Cocking
Cover photograph by Steve Vaccariello/Getty Images
Printed and bound in Canada by Friesens
Printed on acid-free paper that is forest friendly (100% post-consumer
recycled paper) and has been processed chlorine free
Distributed in the U.S. by Publishers Group West
We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the British Columbia Arts Council, the Province of British Columbia through the Book Publishing Tax Credit and the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program (
) for our publishing activities.
I AM SEVENTEEN
years old (although because of my size and my easygoing nature I look much older) and I live in Port-au-Prince, on Capois Street, near Place du Champ-de-Mars. I live with my mother and my young sister. My father died a few years ago. My mother is still very beautiful. Large, moist eyes, bright flushed cheeks and a sad smile. The kind of tragic beauty that is very attractive to men. But as they say, she is a one-man woman. My father was not handsome (we have a large photograph of him in the living room), but he was tall and elegant. He always wore white and changed his shirt at least three times a day. They say women were crazy about him, which drove my mother to despair. According to her, what made my father different from other men was his great sensitivity and his keen sense of responsibility. “I can always count on your father,” my mother would say every time I forgot to do something. As far as she is concerned, my father is still alive. She talks about him every day. She quotes him every chance she gets. If I come home a bit late on a Friday night, my mother never fails to point out that I behave badly only because my father isn't there. She never says because he's dead. My mother talks so frequently about my father that often I find myself thinking as she does. Some days, at around two o'clock in the afternoon, a feeling comes over me that he's about to walk into the house and, as was his invariable custom, toss his hat onto the table.
“Madeleine, I'm hungry.”
“What have you been up to, then?” my mother would reply, smiling.
And he would sit down at the table and wolf down his dinner. No one ate faster than my father. After eating, he would take a short siesta. It was forbidden for us to make the slightest sound while he was resting. At five o'clock sharp he would go out the door and the house would return to normal.
My mother has never accepted his death, but I wasn't always like her in that regard. At times I was even glad that he was no longer around to prevent me from living my life. In a way, my situation wasn't so different from that of my friends. Most of them never knew their fathers (killed, imprisoned or just gone off). At least mine hadn't died in prison. We were all brought up by our mothers. My mother lost her job shortly after my father's death. She had been a junior clerk in the National Archives, behind Saint-Martial College. Now she works as a seamstress, at home. My sister is two years younger than I am. She goes to a snooty private school whose principal is one of my mother's clients. It's only because of this connection that my sister is allowed into her chic school. My mother insisted on it, because she wanted my sister to make “good contacts for later,” as she puts it. In a country like Haiti, where the rich barricade themselves in their fancy houses up on the mountainside, the only place we poor folk ever get to mingle with them and make connections is in the classroom. That's what my mother says. In any case, unlike me, my sister does well in school. And despite the two years' difference in our ages, she's the one who always does my homework. Everywhere she goesâbefore the chic college she went to the LycÃ©e de Jeunes Fillesâshe quickly becomes the pet of all the teachers. And since she is very giving, which is to say she does all her friends' homework for them, no one gets jealous. As for me, I'm not ashamed to say that school was never my thing. Honestly, I don't see the point in going to school. Only poor people like us knock their heads against the wall trying to solve airy-fairy problems that have nothing to do with real life. And after all these years of school I don't see that it has done them any good at all. People are rich because their parents are rich, it's as simple as that. And their parents are rich because their grandparents were rich. And so on. And when you get down to the source of all that richness, you'll always find someone who made their fortune by robbing from the public purse. That's Haiti for you, and it's not my job to change the way this country is run. My sister got her intelligence from my father. Me, mostly what I got is his size. “You're going to be as tall as your father,” my mother often tells me. And I get my delicate features from my mother. I have always been popular with girls. Ever since I was twelve I've known that I could do what I wanted with women. That's just the way it is. Nothing anyone can do about it. My sister's friends are always giving me the once-overâsome of them are bolder about it than othersâ but girls don't interest me very much. I like my women more mature. I like watching them lose their cool. Especially those who take themselves seriously. For some time now I've had my eye on a really choice bird: the principal of the school my sister goes to. I always make sure I'm home when she comes to see my mother for fittings. I don't do a thing. I know she's a respectable person, but I want to see her private side, what's hidden behind her mask, the dark side of her moon. So I sit very still in the room. I know she's spotted me. I've often caught her looking at me out of the corner of her eye. I play the innocent. I pretend I have no idea what's going on. I put on my angelic face, my mother's features. Except that my mother, as my father used to say, is a saint. I'm not. I'm rotten inside. I'm like a spider crouching at the edge of its web, waiting for prey.
My mother has just rushed out of the house to visit a sick friend who called her for help. She asked me to explain her absence to Madame Saint-Pierre, who is supposed to come at two o'clock this afternoon. My sister has gone to a friend's house in PÃ©tionville to study for her second-term exams. She won't be back before four. And then she has to join my mother at the hospital, the CanapÃ© Vert. So I have at least two hours at my disposal. I take a Carter Brown from the little bookshelf. I turn the pages mechanically, passing the time. The trap is set. Waiting is the hardest part. I get up, take a few deep breaths, then go out into the yard. A dead rat near the cistern. I give it a swift kick that propels it into the yard of the next-door neighbour, a kid of about twelve with the brains of a two-year-old. I smile at him and wave. He stares at me like I'm some kind of celestial apparition. Maybe he's not seeing me at all. A car stops in front of the house. Two o'clock on the dot.
She's a punctual lady. I open the door.
“My mother has gone to see a sick friend.”
“Oh!” she says, her voice deep and musical. “I hope it's nothing serious.”
“I don't know, madame, she didn't tell me what it was.”
“Did she tell you when she would be back?”
“No, but I don't think she'll be late.”
“Well, then, I'll wait for a bit.”
And so she has decided to stay.
“Not that chair, madame, it's not very solid. Sit here, you'll be more comfortable.”
She sits on the edge of her seat. Her way of letting me know that she has twigged to my little game and she isn't going to give me a lot of her time. I, in turn, do not fall for that: I already know that whoever controls time wins. I sit down calmly, across from her. I have all the time in the world. I look her straight in the eye, which I have not done to this point. And then I attack.
“Your dress suits you very well, madame.”
“Your mother is an excellent seamstress, it's true.”
She wants me to go on.
“It's the yellow that suits you, madame.”
Which is the limit of insolence. But my innocent face (wide-open eyes, bright smile) saves me. She blushes. I lower my gaze. A bit troubled.
“Your mother is very brave,” she says suddenly, to regain her composure.
I must renew my attack immediately.
“It is my opinion that in their own way, all women are brave,” I say, looking again into her eyes.
And again she blushes. She now understands that something is going on. I smile at her. Clearly she hasn't expected such a volley from the son of her seamstress, a boy with such sincerity in his eyes and such openness in his smile (or so I've been led to believe, anyway). But I've been playing this game since I was twelve. If I'd been playing tennis this long I'd be going to championships around the world by now. I love tennis, but it's too expensive. I can spend hours watching the endless matches through the green fence at the Bellevue Circle. Madame Saint-Pierre is watching me without smiling. She appears to have grasped something. What has she understood? That despite her intimidating behaviour and her social status (principal of a prestigious school), I have absolutely no fear of her. Not only am I not afraid of her, but I am playing with her as a cat plays with a mouse. She is vexed. She leans forward on her chair, putting on the severe expression with which she intimidates the parents of her students. But it is too late. In this game, there are no second chances. A long moment of silence. We stare at one another. She, furious. Me, calm.
“I don't think I can wait much longer . . . You'll tell your mother that I was here . . .”
“Of course,” I say, without standing up.
She stands for a moment at the centre of the room, her arms hanging by her sides.
Like a ship becalmed.
“Tell her I was here,” she says again, moving towards the door.
The back of her neck.
I get up quickly. Like a tiger in an urban jungle. She hesitates for a quarter of a second with her hand ready to turn the handle of the door. I go up to her and lightly brush the back of her neck. She stops dead. I don't move. I see the muscles in her jaw contract. Her hand turns the doorknob. Her body stiffens. With the tips of my fingers I caress the back of her neck once more, even more lightly than the first time. She emits a sharp cry, so muted that I am not certain I have heard it. This is the moment we love, we hunters, when we lift the rifle and the beast seems to hear the fatal shot.