My Water Bottle
Croix de Bouquet, Haiti
The real thing he pulled was greater than the water bottle
turned toy—bottle cap wheels attached to a string—
as it followed behind him across the cracked cement.
In it had been rivers and rain. The strong force of a waterfall.
A stream winding through certain bodies. Another child came running out
the door asking to play with it. I watched the string exchange hands,
loop a finger as the children outran it and their creation rolled,
wobbled, tipped forward on its neck.
The speckled wings fluttered and rose, even as I hid somewhere
in my childhood basement, my mother shouting from the kitchen
to pick up all my toys scattered from their boxes,
toys I held in the darkness of night, clutched close in whispers.
The child without any stood beside me, followed me around,
stayed near, waited until my last sip and my bottle was empty.
He tapped it lightly and my heart burst. It took time
for me to understand. What did I not offer?
The water bottle my fingers gripped in heat so extreme
each knuckle swelled, my breath grew slow, my head pounded,
walking was difficult, thinking, how far can I make it
with nothing to pull along? I’ve nothing,
nothing behind me. No bottle turned toy,
no container empty enough to transform
into a caterpillar’s sixteen bouncing legs,
waiting to grow the wings to support it in air.
In a matter of moments, I could shed my old skin,
pupating my greediness over what I did not offer,
though the boy did not consider me greedy. He waited
so patiently for me to hold the bottle to my lips
and drink the very last drop, having waited under rubble,
himself a survivor, overwintering in ash.
He sat next to me on the cracked cement steps,
leading to the collapsed second floor.
Water could not sustain him. He required nectar
sweet between leaves. It was all over the news.
The water was contaminated. Peacekeepers defecated in water,
bringing cholera to the Artibonite River.
The world’s carelessness now set afloat.
I know. I was ready to discard my bottle,
set it on its journey of decomposition,
strip it of its corporeal form. My bottle,
held in the hands of so many people who will never
drink from it, those who delivered it from earth,
mined it, heated it, spun it a long while to become the axis
on which the day moves, wholly imaginary.
A boy waiting with a string in his hand.
Apart from the 2010 Haiti earthquake which caused an unprecedented natural disaster, the population suffered a man-made disaster when waste from a UN base leaked into the rivers and introduced a cholera epidemic. When I wrote “My Water Bottle” I wanted to depict the resilience of the people I’d met in Haiti. While Haiti is a victim of poverty and corruption, (according to a July 17, 2018 Miami Herald article, 80 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day), it is a place of beauty where everyday people engage in great acts of courage.
Since 2013, I’ve been traveling to Haiti as the leader of a Drexel University creative writing study abroad trip. On the trip we attend workshops at PEN Haiti and meet with renown Haitian writers, poets, artists and musician activists whose life and work cannot avoid representing change. Haitian literature has been compared to Russian literature before the Revolution, because it is that gorgeous, that rich, that filled with foment and despair. One great example is Marie Vieux Chauvet’s masterpiece Love Anger Madness. The early pages depict one of the main characters touching herself in her bed while she hears through her open window the screams of political prisoners who are being tortured in the nearby jail. These two actions are juxtaposed in a way that is uniquely Haitian and characterizes much of Haitian life and consequently its literature. Forrest Gander’s words in his new book, Be With, “the political begins in intimacy,” resonate here.
Besides meeting Haitian artists, our study abroad group fundraises for Love Orphanage, where we engage with the children for days at a time. Love Orphanage’s director Gabriel Fedelus is a father to eighteen children who were orphaned after the earthquake. Unlike the US, Haiti’s governmental agencies do not fund its orphanages. All assistance is received from overseas. The children lack basic needs such as soap and toothpaste not to mention medicine and meat. Needless to say, the children don’t own toys or games. Every penny that the orphanage receives goes toward sustaining the children’s basic needs. I was particularly awakened to this fact when I returned to the orphanage the following morning after one of the children, a six-year-old boy named Olson, asked me for my water bottle, to see he had constructed a pull-toy out of it. I could not help comparing his childhood to mine with its many toys. Are toys a kind of armor or shield against the imagination or do they give root to imaginative impulses? I think of Rilke’s idea of how necessary it is to be bored for the real imagination to grow.
Love Orphanage accepts donations at http://www.loveorphanage.org
No donation is too small.