The next day, whenever I was quiet, my fear rose up again as it had during the previous night when I’d heard the voodoo drums in the dark. So I tried to stay busy: I prayed and wrote in my journal, and I kept watching the neighborhood from the roof. I felt as though I was waiting, but for what?
As I sat on the roof and watched the sun go down on my second day in Haiti, I ate another energy bar for dinner. I felt so very alone. Am I crazy? My friends are right. I must be crazy to leave such a great life in the States for a place like this. I don’t even know why I’m here. Oh Lord. Did I make a mistake? Should I just go back home?
I needed to hear a familiar voice that night, so I made a quick decision to splurge on an expensive two-minute cell phone call to my mom. As soon as I heard her voice, the tears began to well up in my eyes.
“I’m fine, Mom.” I tried hard to keep my voice steady and to sound sure of myself even though I wasn’t. “It’s beautiful here.”
As I got off the phone I repeated the same routine as the night before, except this time my sobs and sniffles drowned out the beating drums in the distance as I cried myself to sleep.
I awoke the next day to the same goat-chicken-pig-people sounds and knew if I stayed around the house again all day, I would implode with fear and anxiety. I ate my breakfast energy bar, dried up my tears, and looked at David, the roof boy. We traded smiles, and I asked, “Bellevue Mountain?”
He said something in Creole and looked at me, eyes wide.
Okay, he doesn’t understand.
I pointed to myself, then moved two fingers like legs walking uphill and pointed toward the front of the house to show him I wanted to walk to Bellevue Mountain. It was the only place I had a name for in Gressier, and since I had holed myself up in the house for two days, I thought it would be refreshing to get out.
“Okay,” David said with a smile. He got it! I smiled, too, with a little jolt of happiness at having a plan, if only a small one. I ran down the stairs ahead of David and waved at Say Say and her family on the way out. David wrenched open the gate, and we pushed through a herd of goats nibbling on weeds by the side of the road.
Tons of children waited for their turn at the community water pump right outside of my gate. I looked at my feet as we walked, avoiding the gaze of dozens of dark brown eyes on me. As we strolled down the street, people yelled at me in Creole, and children ran up and grabbed my hands and clothes. David answered them back, his voice firm. Whatever he said made them laugh and stop touching me.
I followed close behind as he led me down the uneven brown road. We stepped onto a narrow footpath with clumps of weeds and bushes dotting the sides. We walked through a group of long-horned cows with tiny ropes around their necks, grazing peacefully. The path wound between a few decrepit houses and down into a small valley through a leafy green mango grove where the soil was rich and dark. As the path began to curve upward, we climbed a steep hill and came through some bushes to the top. It was flat and green, and my eyes followed the path that cut through the grass until I saw it. There, just as I remembered, stood the tamarind tree. It was a rich dark green, about twenty feet tall, with a single sturdy trunk and strong, supple branches that curved gracefully down at the ends.
I waved toward the tree and the land around it and asked, “Bellevue Mountain?”
I had chills. It was the same tree I’d stood under five months ago, the tree that kept appearing in my dreams. I was actually here, standing in the same place where I’d first heard the sweet whisper of my Father.
The top of Bellevue Mountain is a beautiful place. A cow relaxed nearby on the lush green grass, and I could see beyond the edge of the mountain all the way out to the turquoise sea. I smiled and took a deep breath, staring off into the distance.
A movement caught my eye, and that’s when I first saw her — a little girl, maybe six or seven years old. She was wearing a raggedy, soiled, yellow tank top that was too big, hanging off one shoulder down to her thin elbow. It must have been a woman’s shirt, and she wore it as a dress. She was barefoot with matted orange hair, and her bony figure screamed of malnutrition. I watched as she threw a rock at a blackbird.
I felt drawn to her. She was so little. What is she doing out here all alone? I remembered the girls I’d seen earlier that morning, walking to school. They each wore a uniform with their hair neatly braided and tied with bright ribbons. Why isn’t she in school?
The bird jumped up and flew a few feet away, and the little girl followed. She threw another rock.
I got close enough to call out, “What are you doing?” I was sure she didn’t understand me, so I glanced at David, and he repeated my question in Creole. His English wasn’t great, and I hoped he could figure out what I was saying.
The little girl answered back in Creole. “There are two blackbirds.” David turned toward me to translate, then turned back around and pointed to the birds in the sky overhead to make sure I understood.
“Yes, I see them. But what are you doing?” I asked again.
As she rocketed off in Creole, I received another loose translation from David. “Throwing rocks at birds.”
“Yes, I see. But why?”
Her beautiful brown eyes widened as she looked up at me.
“To eat!” She turned around and threw more rocks. A little boy I hadn’t noticed before approached and tugged on my arm. He looked up at me and whispered with a grin as David translated.
“It’s true. She eats birds.”
All of a sudden I got it: she was hungry, so she was trying to kill a bird.
She kept throwing rocks at the birds, and when she finally got tired, she came closer. I tried to find out her name, her age, and where she lived, but David’s translation skills weren’t quite enough. We all laughed a little.
Bernard arrived shortly after to help with translation; David had called him when we left the house. Bernard was fluent in Haitian Creole and English, which he’d learned from a group of deportees from Brooklyn.
A few moments later I saw an older woman walking up the mountain toward us. She spoke broken English and told me the little girl’s name was Michaëlle (Mick-kay-ell). Then, in an emotionless voice, she explained, “Mother dead. No father. Nobody wants her.” She looked at me, then turned to Bernard and began explaining in Creole that no one wanted Michaëlle, so she had taken her in. She called herself Michaëlle’s aunt, even though they weren’t related.
In that moment my heart broke. I wanted to press my hands over Michaëlle’s ears so she couldn’t hear what this woman said. I wanted to tell her, “It’s not true! You are loved and wanted and special!” But I noticed that Michaëlle didn’t even flinch at the harsh words. She must have heard them before.
Tears came to my eyes, and my chest grew tight as the reality hit me that this little raggedy girl was all alone in the world. I can’t even imagine what you have been through, I wanted to tell her. But I couldn’t.
The woman continued, telling Bernard her house had been destroyed in the earthquake and she’d moved from outside of Port-au-Prince to Gressier several months ago. “No one wanted Michaëlle, so I brought her here although I can hardly afford to feed her.” Bernard looked at me, his eyes sad as he translated.
“Does Michaëlle go to school?” I asked.
“No, she can’t go to school. No money,” she said.
I remembered hearing about Haitian schools. Private schools were available, but only the wealthier children could go there. Public schools cost money, too, for registration, books, paper and pencils, and uniforms. For many people, struggling just to get enough food to stay alive, $150 a year for school was far out of their reach.
Then the woman said something that surprised me. “I have four other children staying with me. They go to school, and that’s all I can afford.”
My chest tightened as I pictured everyone in Michaëlle’s house waking up for the day, getting ready to go to school, and only Michaëlle left behind. I could imagine her sitting alone, believing no one wanted her and that she wasn’t worthy to go to school. Impulsively I looked straight at Michaëlle, tuning out the old woman, and asked in a loud, clear voice, “Do you want to go to school?” Her eyes got big and shot over to Bernard. She could tell I was asking her a serious, yet exciting, question. In a quietly intense voice Bernard repeated my question to her in Creole.
“Yes! I would love to,” she said and quickly hugged us both.
With Bernard’s help I made arrangements with the woman to meet again the next day to get the little girl’s information. Then I looked back at Michaëlle with a big smile.
“Okay. Let’s go tomorrow to enroll you in school.” Michaëlle began jumping up and down. I was excited too. I’d been waiting for something to happen, and now I had a clear task before me.
I went to sleep that night and again heard the voodoo drums. Putting my earplugs deep inside my ears, I lay still, looking up at the ceiling.
Thump, thump, thump.
I squirmed in my bed, trying to drown out the sound.
Thump, thump, thump.
As I stilled my body, it felt as if my heart began beating to the drums. Anxious, scared, and unsure, I began praying out loud and eventually dozed off to sleep.
Early the next day I found the path and climbed Bellevue Mountain again, following the woman’s instructions to find Michaëlle in a big blue tent on the side of the mountain with the older woman, four other children, and several adults. The relationship this mishmash family shared was unclear and unsettling. Michaëlle was playing in front of the tent in the same ragged yellow dress she had worn the day before. When she saw me, she ran inside and changed into a blue-and-white princess dress costume with white shoes and ankle socks.
Her excitement propelled her ahead of me down the path. I had to walk fast to keep up with her. As I followed her down the mountain, I wondered who she was and why she was living in such a strange situation. Is it because of the earthquake? How did her mom pass away? Why was she trying to eat a bird? Was she really that hungry? Why isn’t she being fed? And why was she wearing that old yellow rag when she had a cute dress to wear? I had lots of questions, and I wanted some answers. But first, I needed to follow Michaëlle down the mountain.
I didn’t know then that Michaëlle was not just leading me down Bellevue Mountain but into a whole new purpose for my life.
I didn’t know that this hungry orphan girl wasn’t just living in a foster home in that blue tent; she worked there. And instead of going to school, she hauled water, scrubbed dirty dishes, swept the floor, washed clothes, and, exhausted at the end of the day, slept on a piece of cardboard under the table. She worked sick or well, fed or hungry, rain or shine. Michaëlle had no one to watch out for her, care for her, or make sure she got an education. At only seven years old she was alone, unvalued, and forgotten. But I didn’t yet know this. All I knew was I needed to run to catch up. The waiting was over, and there was work to be done.
Excerpted with permission from Miracle on Voodoo Mountain by Megan Boudreaux, copyright Thomas Nelson, 2015.
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