Amelie woke up early enough to watch the sunrise. She did not stop, though, to admire the sun’s delicate fingers reaching over the Haitian plains or the soft pink of the scattered clouds on the horizon. Instead, she strode to the real objects of her interest: two children’s dresses hanging over the ironing board, products of countless extra hours and overtime shifts. She inspected the pleats in Mika’s dress, her eyes scanning the fabric for any hint of an unironed surface, then, once satisfied, shifted to Danie’s dress. The clothes could have been acceptable for even a senator’s daughter. She moved on to their shoes, cream-colored Mary Janes that glistened with a shimmering reflection, clean enough that Amelie could see her reflection warped by their curving straps. She daintily tucked thin socks inside of the openings, frilly lace peeking up like a premonition.
After deeming her daughters’ clothes suitable for the day’s events, Amelie slipped on a silk skirt over her most tasteful blouse, smoothing the edges compulsively along her sides. She picked up the only perfume on her dresser and sprayed the scent of hyacinth on her neck and both wrists. Satisfied, she smoothed her skirt once more, taking a deep breath in and back out, steeling herself to wake up the girls. They were going to the doctor’s in Port-au-Prince.
She walked briskly, the rotting floorboards moaning below her as she strode to the girls’ room, two precious dresses draped over her arm and two bright pairs of shoes in her hands. “Mika, Danie,” she called, opening the door gently. Two girls stirred underneath the threadbare blankets of their shared bed. “It’s time to wake up.”
At the sound of her mother’s voice, Mika, the older of the two, sat up in the bed with her arms outstretched. She turned to smile at her mother, the light from the sunrise illuminating her face. “Good morning, mama,” she breathed. Danie, her younger sister, opened her eyes only briefly before flopping onto her stomach and positioning her hands underneath her head, pretending to fall back asleep. “Souple, Danie,” Amelie sighed as she walked to her bed and placed a hand on her shoulder, shaking her gently. Danie groaned and rolled off of her mattress.
Amelie helped Mika slip into her dress, a deep purple ensemble that complemented the five year-old’s smooth warm skin, golden-brown and rich. Mika beamed at herself in the mirror, giggling and running her hands up and down the dress’ satin skirt. Amelie presented the other dress to Danie, a charming cotton number adorned with lace on its short sleeves and a velvet bow wrapped around its small waist. “It will look beautiful on you, Danie,” she said. Danie, however, disagreed. “No! I don’t want to!” she shouted, balling her hands into fists and turning away from her mother. “Danie, please,” Amelie said, her voice smooth and tempered, as if she were in public. She crouched down and held the dress before her daughter’s face. “Look at how pretty it is. Look at how happy your sister is in her dress.” The mention of her sister only worsened the sourness of Danie’s expression. “I don’t care!” she shrieked. “Why won’t you listen to me!” Amelie swore under breath, quietly enough so that Danie could not make out her exact words but loudly enough so that she could sense her indignation. “You are putting this on right now, young lady, or so help me,” she said with gritted teeth and a firm hand on Danie’s shoulder. The child shriveled back at her mother’s sudden eruption, eyes wide. Instantly, Amelie’s face sunk in regret. How embarrassing it would be if I did this in the capital, she thought, letting a deep breath in and out. “Ah, I’m sorry, anmourèz,” she said, cupping her hand around Danie’s chin. “I didn’t mean to raise my voice. Could you please put this on? For mama?” she asked, her voice tender but strained. Danie, seizing her mother’s moment of mercy, let her eyes fill with tears and wailed fiercely enough to cause shudders.
Hot rage briefly seeped through Amelie’s veins at the all-too-familiar scene unfolding before her, but she took in another breath, reminding herself of the hours she would have to spend today making forced smiles to cover her nerves, laughing anxiously to prevent herself from saying something she didn’t mean, and breathing in and out to steady her heartbeat. She would just have to start smiling now. Resolving to keep her calm, Amelie weathered three more bouts of crying and managed to squeeze Danie into her dress. Triumphant, she stepped back to admire her ironing work, her eyes focusing on the folds of Danie’s dress and not the resentment on her daughter’s face.
After serving bread and roasted plantains for breakfast, Amelie led the girls to the Hautes Feuilles train station, a fifteen minute walk away. Barefoot men in soiled linen shirts and women with cloth bandanas wrapped around their heads stared as the girls passed them, their eyes locked on the sway of the brightly colored skirts as they walked. Amelie held her daughter’s hands tightly as they picked their way around holes in the dirt road, passing the long line of people outside the free testing center. She heard their rattling coughs and shuddered. “Ouch, Maman!” Danie was pushing her small fist ineffectually against her mother’s hand on her own. Startled, Amelie opened her grip to see the blood rush back into the white tips of her daughter’s fingers. They approached the station, a small shack held together by rotting planks of wood and cheap nails, marching towards the tiny ticket booth with its grime-covered glass window. Amelie strode towards the vendor, her chin held high and her lips in the small but proud smile she had rehearsed. The teenaged boy behind the glass blinked as his eyes ran over the three girls.
“Three tickets to the capital,” Amelie announced to the cashier, her voice stretching out each syllable of cah-pit-al. “Port-au-Prince,” she clarified after a pause. Just in case, she reasoned. The boy stood motionless for a moment before sputtering a yes ma’am and turning to procure three paper tickets, all of them coated with a gloss that glistened in the sunlight. Amelie slid a 1,000 gourde bank note to the boy in return. “Have a nice ride, ladies,” the cashier said, his grin nervous.
The girls’ eyes widened as they stepped inside the train’s compartment, taking in its high ceilings and rows of seats covered by cotton cushions. As the train moved forward, Mika watched the countryside morph into suburbs and cities outside of the window while Danie raced through the train car’s aisles, whooping an excited noise mimicking the train’s motor. An exhausted Amelie trailed behind her, apologizing to the car’s passengers as she took deep breaths in and deep breaths out.
An hour later, they were in the capital and sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, surrounded by the quiet children of politicians and bankers and their serenely composed mothers. Amelie watched the people in the waiting room with a hot focus, mentally comparing the make and quality of each girl’s dress to her own daughters’. Her heart clattered in her chest as she saw the affluent mothers look over Mika and Danie, wondering if they could tell those were the only presentable dresses they owned, wondering if they could smell her poverty under the scent of hyacinths. She breathed in, then out. Clear, clean breaths.
Finally, Mika and Danie’s names were called by a well-kempt nurse who led them to a check-up room with a padded counter for patients to sit on, three sleek wooden chairs, and a clean floor that reflected the long ceiling lights. The doctor, an equally neat man wearing stylish leather shoes, guided the girls through routine examinations and procedures, instructing them to step on scales and keep their eyes open as he shined a light back and forth in front of them. Amelie breathed tiny sighs of relief as Danie obeyed most of the doctor’s requests, only resisting slightly when the doctor placed a band around her arm to test her blood pressure. “You have two beautiful, healthy girls, Ms. Joulute,” the doctor declared after guiding them into chairs on either side of their mother. Amelie flashed a brilliant smile at the doctor, a genuine reflection of her delight. Her heart swelled with joy looking at the two of them, her early morning struggles with Danie forgotten. “We’ll just need to take blood from the two of them and you’ll be free to go,” he continued, taking out a needle connected to an empty packet with a tube, large enough to hold a pint of blood.
The words made Amelie’s heart jump in her chest, her mind sifting through the ways Danie would writhe under a needle and at the sight of her own blood. Danie, sensing her mother’s fear, shrank backwards into her chair and crossed her arms around her chest. Looking away from Danie, she flashed a prepared smile at the doctor. “Of course,” she said, doing what she could to conceal her worsening nerves. She breathed in, her throat twitching slightly.
Amelie sent Mika up to sit on the table first, mouthing a prayer under her breath. The doctor, as if he heard Amelie’s pleading, gave Mika instructions in a serene voice. “It’ll be just one prick and it’s over, okay?” he said to her as she set her down onto the table. Nodding, Mika opened her arm for the doctor as he guided the needle beneath her skin. Danie’s eyes widened with fear as she saw her sister’s blood ascend through the tube and fill the packet, but Mika sat virtually unperturbed. Her nose crinkled slightly, the only sign of the girl’s discomfort. “And that’s all,” the doctor said to Mika after a few seconds, his voice smooth and warm. “You are so brave,” he added. He brushed the side of her face with a tender hand, his awe of the girl’s calmness palpable. Amelie could have sat and watched the scene hundreds of times and felt the same pride.
Mika giggled as he wrapped a rosy pink bandage around her arm where he had placed the needle. “And that’s it,” he said. The doctor lifted her off the table, placing her in front of Amelie, who wrapped her arms around her after the toddler bounded towards her chest. “You make Mama so proud,” she whispered to her as the doctor placed the blood-filled test tube to the side, swapping it in his hand for an empty needle. Mika slid into the chair on her mother’s left side, her feet dangling innocently off the seat’s edge. “See how easy that was?” the doctor said as he turned to Danie. But he made the fatal mistake of keeping the needle in his hand, positioned at just the wrong angle, so that light shrieked off of the metal’s surface, illuminating its sharpness. The sight prompted a howl from the young girl at a volume even Amelie had never heard before. “No, Mama,” Danie sobbed, grabbing her mother’s skirt in fistfuls and burying a tear-soaked face in her lap. Amelie’s heart jumped to her throat as the fabric crunched underneath her daughter’s thick fingers, Danie’s tears hot and wet as they seeped through her skirt and over her legs.
“Danie,” Amelie said, embarrassment seeping into her words despite her attempt to conceal it. “The doctor is a nice man. Look at how happy your sister is; he wouldn’t hurt you.” Mika was still swinging her feet below her chair, unfazed. The doctor quickly hid the needle behind his back. “It’s all right,” he said, his smile somewhat pained, “we’re just going on top of the counter first. Just on top of the counter.” Danie looked up from her mother’s lap and at the doctor, her crying waning. He held a hand out towards her. “I might even have a lollipop for you.” Danie locked eyes with the doctor and, by the power of the bribe, held out her little hand to meet his.
Seizing the opportunity, the doctor scooped up the girl in his free arm and placed her onto the counter. The doctor had not been careful enough, however, to remove the packet filled with Mika’s blood from the counter and away from Danie’s vigilant eyes. Remembering the procedure her sister underwent, Danie’s eyes pricked with tears once more at the sight and she shook her little arms and legs in fear and defiance, begging to be taken off the counter. The doctor winced as he looked back at Amelie, as if he could find some sort of remedy for the screaming child in front of him on her mother’s face. But he only saw an equally desperate face staring back at him: her eyebrows knit with anger, her cheeks stained by shame, her eyes colored with exhaustion. “Danie, listen to the nice man,” she said, but all three of them heard the uncertainty in her voice. As Danie kept sobbing, the doctor continued to smile, but a glint in his eyes warned of a new exasperation. He glanced back to Amelie once more, disdain now obvious.
Hours of rehearsed smiles and deep breathing had not provided an answer, and nothing came to Amelie. “Do what you need to,” she finally said, looking away to hide her face. He turned back to Danie. “Just sit still, mon cherie,” he said, holding the girl’s arm with a robust grip that did not match the faux sweetness of his voice. His fingers squeezed along her dress’ lace sleeves without warmth, without his earlier tenderness. She turned to the side in an attempt to wrestle herself away from his grasp, but the doctor reached to grab her other arm and held it in an even stronger grip. “Come on,” he said under his breath. Positioning his body in front of Danie, he pressed her to his chest with one hand and in one smooth maneuver grabbed the empty needle. “It’s okay, Danie, please,” he said, but his words sounded like commands rather than reassurances. While Danie continued to struggle against his grip, Amelie bolted to her side. She held one of Danie’s arms and kept her chest upright while the doctor held her other arm unfurled, bringing the needle closer. Amelie’s arms shook against her will as she held her daughter. Mika’s legs kept dangling.
The shock of the needle’s insertion made Danie freeze. As the blood filled the needle’s vial, the doctor released a blissful breath of his own, believing he had won. Just before the doctor was ready to remove the needle, Danie thrashed against her mother’s and the doctor’s arms, like an animal thrashing against a net it has been caught in in a last attempt to free itself. The doctor jerked backwards in surprise, taking the needle and the girl’s arm with him. The puncture wound sliced open, releasing a thick burst of blood that claimed everything it touched with a cloak of red, coating Danie’s arm with crimson, piercing the pure white of her lace and soaking Amelie’s silk skirt, dripping down onto the polished tile floor and the doctor’s leather shoes as he cried out. Danie screamed.
“Danie,” Amelie said, her embarrassment bubbling over. Her cheeks were peppered with flecks of blood over their bright pink flush, and tears threatened to come loose from behind her eyes. She couldn’t breathe. The doctor said nothing aloud. Instead, he stepped back from the table and looked at Amelie with such a concentrated look of contempt that she shrunk back with fear. It was a command to leave. A look that told her “a girl like this does not belong here.” A look that told her she did not belong here. He inhaled through his nose, taking in the coppery scent of Danie’s blood and the smell of poverty underneath hyacinths.
Amelie suddenly felt dizzy. The sight of blood overwhelmed her body before she could register her unsteadiness, her vision growing blurry as she saw everything in front of her melt together into one. Her stomach somersaulted. She swiveled her head from left to right, desperately looking for anything she could see clearly. Mika—a swinging purple blur. The doctor—a fuming red blob. The shining floor—scintillating so brightly she couldn’t look at it for more than a second.
Finally, she saw the one clear thing her vision would allow her to see—Danie, Danie, a crisp face against the muddled mess around her. Amelie looked at her daughter, but did not see her ruined dress, her soiled velvet bow, or the blood drying on her arm. Instead, she saw her face: quivering, terrified, too young to understand what she had done or what the doctor was saying with just his eyes. She wrapped her arms around her daughter and cried. “Danie,” she said. “Anmourèz mwen.” She took a breath in and out.
“Port-au-Prince” by Alexandra Maloney appeared in Issue 38 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Alexandra Maloney, originally from Greenwich, Connecticut, is a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley, where she studies English Literature and Language. Her work has previously been published in Harvard Summer Review. In her free time she enjoys reading, eating, and meeting others’ pets.