Breath, Eyes, Memory

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Important Quotes Explained

Quotes Important Quotes Explained

"Next time might be me or you with the Macoutes," said Louise. "We already had our turn," said my grandmother. "Sophie, you keep the child behind the threshold. You are not to bring her out until that restless spirit is in the ground."

This passage, from the middle of Chapter 21, occurs just after the Macoutes have killed Dessalines, a poor coal-seller, in the marketplace of Dame Marie. Several days previously, in the market on errands, Sophie and Grandmè Ifé had witnessed the beginning of the attack, as a Macoute suddenly accused the coal-seller of stepping on the soldier's foot and began to beat him. Now, the story has come to its logical conclusion. The word Macoute, Creole for bogeyman, is the popular nickname for the secret police, the Volontaires de la Securité Nationale or VSN, first organized under Duvalier. Throughout the book, the Macoutes are agents of brazen and arbitrary cruelty, affecting whatever torture they wish in broad daylight for a little amusement, with none of the stealth or shame of ordinary criminals. The incident with Dessalines is typical of their reign of terror. However, the coal-seller's name, Dessalines, is also the name of one of the popular heroes of Haitian independence, credited with declaring Haiti an independent republic in 1804. Thus, the symbolic force of the incident in the marketplace is also to suggest how far the country has fallen.

Grandmè Ifé's allusion to 'our turn' refers to Martine's rape in a cane field at the age of sixteen on her way home from school, which left her pregnant with Sophie and half-mad. Though the rape was clearly horrific, the phrase 'our turn' transforms it from an act of random violence into something tolerated and perhaps even expected. The Caco family's anger at the rape is tempered by a relief that it was not worse. Yet even in this climate of violence, in which she could not save her daughter, Grandmè Ifé hopes to save her great-granddaughter from the fallout of such brutality. In this passage, the residue of the Macoutes' violence is symbolized concretely by Dessalines' restless spirit, who will wander the world until he is properly laid to rest. Grandmè Ifé's exhortation to 'keep the child behind the threshold' expresses her wish to shelter the infant Brigitte within the safe, sacred space of home. But the language of children passing a threshold is also a thinly veiled reference to birth. In this sense, Grandmè Ifé's command is impossible to obey. However much a mother loves her children, she must eventually bring them into the world. She cannot postpone birth indefinitely until the world is pure.