Breath, Eyes, Memory
Section Three: Chapters 22–23
The next morning, Grandmè Ifé goes to the cemetery to pay her last respects to the dead coal-seller, Dessalines. Sophie asks Atie about Louise. Atie says they are very close, and that when she leaves, she will miss her like her own skin.
When Grandmè Ifé returns, Atie has already left to see Louise, and does not come home for dinner. As Grandmè Ifé and Sophie eat dinner in the darkening yard, Grandmè Ifé points out a lantern moving beyond two distant points on the hill. The light belongs to a midwife taking trips back and forth between the shack with the birthing mother and the yard where water is boiling. After the birth, if the child is a boy, the lantern will be put outside the shack, and the father will stay awake all night with the newborn. If it is a girl, the light will be put out and the mother will be left all alone with her child. About an hour later, the light goes out.
Atie does not come home all night. The following morning, Atie returns with a sullen Louise, who retrieves her pig from the yard and leaves without saying a word. Atie tells Sophie that Grandmè Ifé threatened to kill the pig unless Louise took it away.
On the porch, Atie slowly applies leeches to the lump on her calf, grinding her teeth as they suck her blood, and trying to write in her notebook.
That night, Sophie volunteers to cook rice, black beans, and herring sauce for dinner, her mother's favorite meal. Atie takes her to a private vendor to get supplies. On the way, they pass the family graveyard. Atie tells Sophie that her family name, Caco, is also the name of a bird so scarlet that it gives the appearance of fire.
Sophie is surprised at how easily the cooking comes back to her. She recalls the proverb that Haitian men insist that their women are virgins and that they have all ten fingers, each of which has a use: mothering, boiling, loving, baking, nursing, frying, healing, washing, ironing, scrubbing. The meal is excellent, and Grandmè Ifé compliments Atie on her influence. Atie is touched by the compliment, but nonetheless retrieves her notebook and heads off for a reading lesson with Louise.
As they sit in the dusk, Grandmè Ifé reads the night's sounds for Sophie. A young girl, Ti Alice, fourteen or fifteen, had met a boy in the bushes, and is rushing home to her mother, who is waiting to test her.
Sophie reflects on the Haitian obsession with female purity. She remembers the story of an extremely rich man who turns down hundreds of pretty girls to marry a very poor girl who is completely untouched. When the bride does not bleed on the wedding night, the groom cuts her between the legs to save his honor. Instead, the girl bleeds to death, leaving her husband to parade the bloody sheets at her funeral procession.
When Sophie's mother tested her, she tried to distract Sophie by telling stories. Sophie learned to double during the experience, imagining pleasant things to avoid acknowledging what was being done to her body. The powerful vaudou skill of doubling was an old trick, used by the country's presidents who raped and murdered all day and could then come home and love their families. After her marriage, during sex, Sophie would continue to double.
Sophie asks Grandmè Ifé why she tested her daughters, and Grandmè Ifé replies that it is the mother's responsibility to keep her daughters pure. Sophie tells her grandmother that testing was the most terrible thing that ever happened to her, and that it has made being with her husband nearly impossible. Listening to the dark, Grandmè Ifé replies that Ti Alice has passed her examination. Later that night, Grandmè Ifé gives Sophie her statue of Erzulie:
"You must know that everything a mother does, she does for her child's own good. You cannot always carry the pain. You must liberate yourself .My heart, it weeps like a river for the pain we have caused you."
Grandmè Ifé's stories of the baby's birth and Ti Alice's rendezvous suggest a special literacy and access to a wider realm of experience. She can read the lights blinking on the hill and intuit an entire story from the night's whisperings. The stories she tells, of a baby girl born uncelebrated and a teenage girl pulled home for testing, are an odd echo of Sophie's own. What Sophie has experienced as intensely personal could, in fact, be the experience of a number of women she has never known. This revelation is reflected in the reader's experience of reading the novel, which remains a personal affair regardless of how many others have read it. Likewise, Grandmè Ifé's stories suggest that witnessing another's experience is intrusion enough. No amount of knowledge can make the solution to one's problems anything but a personal responsibility.
When Sophie doubles during sex, she allows the act of two people becoming one to manifest as one person becoming two. Doubling is an ambiguous process, variously a tool of safety, compassion and violence. It can be a way of escaping a painful present, as when Sophie doubles during sex or testing. It can be a way of protectively haunting someone loved, of mentally projecting oneself into their presence, as when Sophie imagines herself comforting Martine in her nightmares. And it can be a means of disengaging oneself from the consequences of one's actions, as with the presidents who double in order to stay human while committing inhuman crimes. In short, it evinces a consciousness split under the pressure of pain, morality, or distance. Doubling as a survival strategy is largely unsustainable, a powerful tool which is nonetheless symptomatic of a deep rift. Its place in the vaudou tradition suggests the practicality of magic, the pragmatic use of altered states by mothers and presidents alike, and the book's broader reconciliation of vaudou tools with orthodox Catholic teaching. But doubling is also a useful cipher for the book's emphasis on twins, lovers, doubles, halves, shadows and wholes. A mother's testing of her daughter is hurtful even as it expresses her own hurt and her mother's before her, as time crenellates to show a series of women, simultaneously testing their daughters, as far back as memory goes.
The Haitian obsession with virginity, an important theme throughout the novel, here becomes an object of explicit scrutiny. As the story of the rich man's wedding suggests, the burden of family honor falls upon the woman's body, and she will pay for this with her life. The female body becomes a unit of exchange between men, a repository of honor that must be carefully guarded lest its worth be lost. The strength of these beliefs makes the problems of Sophie's family painfully obvious. Martine was raped, and Atie never married; by community standards, neither is a proper woman. The Caco women's physical problems and addictions - Grandmè Ifé's limp, hump and swayback, Martine's cancer, Atie's alcoholism - echo the community's implicit judgment against their women's bodies with physical disintegration. More generally, as the proverb about the uses of every finger suggests, the woman's body is not her own. Just as the fingers are allocated to family tasks, the woman's body is assigned piecewise to duties and tasks, every bit put to the service of the family's honor. This broader allocation of the woman's body explains why it is the object of such control. At the same time, it suggests that any true liberation must begin with physical freedom, with a woman's reclaiming of her body as her own.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!