I AM RENE Michaud. I am seventeen and Salé is fourteen. When the earthquake comes, we are in our home in Port au Prince, 12 Rue Galat. I am reading a book on chemistry from the local library for my school project and Salé plays her fan over the head of her beloved brother to cool him.
I say, “Faster Salé; it is too hot.” She laughs in that high giggle I love to hear and moves the fan more at my head and she ruffles the pages of my book with the wind of her motion.
This day is twelve January. It is late afternoon. I suddenly feel something and my vision becomes strange with movement, yet I sit in my chair and I have not moved. Then a low sound begins and then a rumbling and my house starts to sway and glass falls from the shelves and breaks on the floor.
We know then what it is. It is God’s vengeance. In school the teachers have said that one day God will come down from his Heaven and destroy the corrupt among us. They say many in my little country of Haiti are corrupt. I do not believe them when they say this, but what am I to think now? Surely He will save the good and the pious. Surely He will save the children.
Mama is at work by the sink. I look at her and I see she does not understand.
I call, “Mama, you get out, run!” I see her eyes get wide and she throws down her dishrag and turns to the door.
The door is open to let out the afternoon heat from our small dwelling and we are near to it because the light is good. Frightened, Salé drops her fan and puts her hand over her head and runs out, I behind her. The floor jumps up and down and moves from one side and another and it is hard to stand, but we get into the street.
I look up toward the blue and then to the declining sun, and I see clouds of dust rise toward it from buildings that break up and settle to the ground as I watch. The sun fades and becomes a bright round ghost and choking dust gets into my eyes and mouth. Salé coughs and covers her mouth with a hand, but it does no good. I pull my shirt up to cover my mouth and it is better. The blue above fades.
I turn to look back at my home and I see the roof fall in. I hear Mama shriek in fright and pain and it is a sound I will hear forever. Then dust roars from the door and Mama is gone. Salé and I run into the dust and try to pull away pieces of cement and mortar to find our mother, but already it is too late.
We weep the day and into the night. We are in shock, but even then I know I must take care of my sister on my life. It is the family way.
At first we stay to help others, but when night comes and the day follows and there is no food, I tell Salé we must leave Port au Prince. I know that the city will soon become a dangerous place for my fourteen-year-old sister and I address her.
“Salé, we must leave. We must leave now!”
“To Ganthier.” And she says nothing because she knows of our relatives there. She is sad, but she does not argue.
We walk on the road out of the city. We walk because we can do nothing else. Nothing moves but feet. We will seek out our mother’s uncles and cousins and tell them about our mother. We will ask for help.
Our bare feet find the smoothest way around and through the rubble. We hide when the gangs come through. Suddenly there is no law and the gangs will rape my sister and they will kill me because I will be dead before I let them do it.
So much damage! It frightens us all the more. It is like a war I read about in my history class, but these are not bombs that have destroyed the city and the villages and the roadways and torn my country apart, but God’s punishment for our corruption and evil is what has done this.
Ganthier is only sixteen kilometers from our home. It is true that it takes two days to go this short distance. We must hide often.
While we walk I think of home and Mama dead beneath our ruined house and pain comes to my breast again as it does in each day since we left the city.
Sometimes I help some we find along our way who are hurt, where others have left them to die. After some time I can do it no more and then after that there are no more that move and I no longer look closely, because we can find no food and we are very hungry and I must do a single thing only and it is to find our kin.
When we enter the town we see it is flat on the ground and the dead at the sides of the road are beginning to give a bad smell and we see something odd about these dead ones.
We go to the home of our kin and they are dead and they are also covered with large, open sores. I slap my head with my open hand because I believe this is plague! God is taking his vengeance upon many whom I would not think corrupt, and yet I see death everywhere. I hear one in the road crying for help, but he has great circles of pus on his body and though he staggers toward me I am afraid to touch him. I say to Salé he is sick and we must get away and this town is a dead place, and I grab her arm and pull her and we run and run and run until we cannot run more and then we fall to the ground so tired.
When I have caught my breath again, I say, “We must go to Jimani!”
Salé does not speak now. Her eyes are wide and her pretty mouth is open, but I do not think she knows this. There is too much horror, too much death, too much smell, and we now believe there is no one to turn to.
Jimani! We will go to our sister country. There are people at the border and they are Dominicans. They will take us in and feed us.
We are wrong. We have been friends but we are friends no longer. They have sent us away. They say we are cursed by the killing sickness. Even their Voodoo doctor casts his bones in the dirt and shakes his head and when he does the soldiers look at us in anger and sadness and say to run because if we don’t they will shoot us and one fires his rifle in the air to show they will, and then I know why they will kill us. It is because they are afraid.
I yell to them that we do not have the plague, but they will not listen. Live off the land, they say, and come back in one month if you still live. Then we will believe. So we leave the border at the gate to Jimani and go back into the country and search for food to eat.
We find enough to sustain us, but now I wonder what reason there is to go on.
My sister and I have walked for days and days and all we see are rotting corpses of the dead and I think we may be the last alive in my country. The smell is very bad. Even the flesh-eating birds avoid the dead. It is hard not to weep. It is hard to keep going.
We wander along the border beyond reach of the soldier’s bullet, beyond their sight, and we come to Etang Dumātre. I am amazed how big this lake is in my small country and that in my seventeen years I have never looked upon it before.
Here I sit on the green grass and throw stones into the water. I watch the ripples spread and disappear and I think the ripples are like what happened to my people. Salé lies on the ground. She cannot go further. I do not wish to. I have made her as comfortable as I can. We will die here.
Pustules have broken out over her body and they seem to grow as I watch. Her fever is so hot and she is restless and I can no longer rouse her. My arms itch and spots of redness have appeared. I have this plague, too.
This is a beautiful place. I wish that Salé could see it. Her breath labors now. In a few minutes I will be alone, the last of my countrymen. How long after will I join my sister?
Salé is an innocent. I have done nothing to warrant death. What is the reason for all of this? Where is the benevolent God Mama prayed to all her life?
I think I will die, but I do not think I will have my answer.