Breath, Eyes, Memory
Section Three: Chapters 16–18
Sophie wakes early to see the sun rise, and then goes to the wooden shack in the yard that serves as a bathing room. Though months have passed since her pregnancy, Sophie still feels extremely fat. She scrubs her flesh with rainwater and medicinal leaves. The ritual completed, she wraps herself in a towel and returns to the house.
Later, as Sophie is giving Brigitte a sponge bath in her room, she hears a splash from the bath shack. Looking out toward the yard, she sees Grandmè Ifé naked, bathing with the door wide open. As she bathes, she raises leaves in homage to the four corners of the sky. Grandmè Ifé has a curved spine and a pineapple-sized hump, which are usually hidden by her clothes. Sophie thinks immediately of the double masectomy that Martine had during Sophie's adolescence.
In the morning, Sophie accompanies Grandmè Ifé to the market, leaving Brigitte with Atie. Grandmè Ifé shops efficiently, buying cinnamon, ginger and sweet potatoes. Sophie notices Louise at her refreshment stand, laughing with the Macoutes who have come to buy cola. One Macoute makes an obscene gesture at Sophie. Another gives a small boy with a kite a penny to buy candy. When Louise sees Sophie and Grandmè Ifé, she leaves her stand and follows them into the market, asking if they will buy her pig.
There is a sudden commotion as one of the Macoutes is heard to claim that a coal vendor stepped on his foot, and begins beating the man with his machine gun. Grandmè Ifé pulls Sophie hurriedly out of the marketplace, asking, "You want to live your nightmares too?" As they make their way out of the market, Sophie looks back to see the Macoutes gathering in a circle around the coal vendor, who is in a fetal position on the ground.
As they pass Louise's house on the way back, Grandmè Ifé spits in the dirt to show her disapproval for Louise's influence on Atie. Atie's melancholy and increasing alcoholism lead Grandmè Ifé to suspect that Atie has come back to Dame Marie out of duty and not love. She tells Sophie the parable of a woman who had three children: one stillborn, one who left and never returned, and a third who stayed in the valley to look after her mother.
As soon as Sophie and Grandmè Ifé return, Atie leaves for the marketplace on her own business. She has a lump in her calf and claims the remedy cannot wait, Macoutes or no. She does not come home for supper.
Sophie and Grandmè Ifé spend the day cooking. After dinner, Sophie feels fat and guilty. Grandmè Ifé asks her why she left her husband so suddenly, intuiting a problem with marital duties. Sophie explains that she has not left Joseph but is only on a short vacation. Sex is extremely painful and difficult for her, and although she loves Joseph very much, she does not desire him. Sophie hates her body and is ashamed to show it to anyone, even him.
That night, in bed, Sophie listens to the voice of Grandmè Ifé telling two neighborhood boys a story of a lark who wanted to steal a pretty child's heart. He guilt-trips the girl into get on his back, and flies away with her. When he warns her that she'll have to leave her heart with the king of their destination kingdom, the girl tells him that she has unthinkingly left her heart at home, and asks him to take her back so that she can get it. When the lark does, she runs safely away. When Atie arrives home shortly thereafter, Grandmè Ifé asks her to read something out loud, but Atie claims she is completely empty.
Sophie's discomfort with her face, her accent, her features and her sexuality have blossomed, by Chapter 16, into a full-blown disgust with her body. Her body's fat, a residue of fecundity, has left her feeling asexual and entirely undesirable despite glowing remarks to the contrary from Joseph and the van driver who brought her to Dame Marie. Sophie's bath is a study in self- avoidance, a quick scrub followed by wrapping herself in a large towel. Her grandmother's unselfconscious bath not long afterward provides a stark contrast. Grandmè Ifé bathes with the door wide open, shaking herself and offering leaves up to the four corners of creation. Her body, though worn and withered, is no longer a source of shame. Watching her from the window in amazement, Sophie remarks on her grandmother's curved spine and hump, and thinks of the double mastectomy which Martine had during Sophie's adolescence. Sophie mentions the cancer almost without emotion, as if she were unsurprised at another instance of the female body breaking down. Neither Grandmè Ifé's hump and spine nor Martine's lost breasts are visible through their clothes, suggesting a series of careful veilings with which women hide the disintegration of their body and form. Meanwhile, Sophie arranges her clothes to hide not a physical deformity but her body itself, in its problematic entirety.
The details of Sophie's return to Haiti suggest troubles beyond the remembered calm of Sophie's childhood. The novel's opening chapters contained no greater trauma than neighborhood gossips and Atie's failure to attend reading class, though the airport riot at Sophie's leaving suggested the trouble to come. Now, as Sophie and her grandmother go to market, the Macoute soldiers are a visible, volatile presence. Louise's desperation to sell her pig and leave the island by whatever means necessary points to a larger unrest. Instead of the reality of Martine's experience fading as she and Sophie get older, it becomes much clearer to Sophie and to the reader how Martine's rape might have happened. Symbolically, Sophie's trip to her grandmother's homestead allows her into the rural past and into her mother's history. Rather than a comforting recovery of Sophie's childhood, the trip becomes a journey inward, a slow unraveling of pain. The danger of such a voyage is not simply that Sophie will expose the horror of the past, but that it will become irrevocably her own, echoed by Grandmè Ifé's desperate cry: "You want to live your nightmares too?"
Finally, the character of Atie in these chapters is a cipher for the difficult struggle between love and duty. Grandmè Ifé's suspicion that Atie has returned to care for her only out of duty is supported by Atie's melancholy, her alcoholism, and her increasing disregard for personal harm, as she wanders the village at night or heads to the marketplace in a time of trouble. Throughout the novel, Atie has had the difficult task of loving what was not hers and of doing other people's duty. She cared for Sophie, and let her go out of love for Martine. She loved Donald Augustin, and swallowed her tears when he betrayed her for Lotus. She came to care for her mother knowing that Martine could not return to do so. In parallel to these difficult, defeating experiences, Atie became a master storyteller, delighting the young Sophie with a tale for every occasion. Her stories and her sense of duty both reveal a life lived outside the satisfaction of genuine experience, her creativity consigned to the vicarious realm of narrative. When Atie declines to read Grandmè Ifé a story at the end of Chapter 18, claiming she is completely empty, the loss of her storytelling suggests the depths of her despair. Without love, Atie has lost her creative power, having given of herself to the point of total exhaustion.
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