The head flaps open and the crowd peers in. Barefoot, they go no further than the door. The air is dank, I breathe in little sips, thinking — tuberculosis. There is blood on the floor. Standing over the groaning man, his family hold him down while someone sews the scalp back on. Hard to say if he’s a doctor — his mobile phone goes off and a girl presses it against his ear. The needle whirls like a starling as he talks into the receiver. He could be mending a sail. A bottle of iodine seems to be the only medicine. Squeezed over the sewn up flap; little rivulets of tears roll from the forehead down the cheeks. Any minute now maybe gunfire — this is Providencia — the heart of the red-zone. Two kids hold disconnected telephones. Everything seems strangely natural. The hum of the generator. The crowd leaning in. This is the opposite of providence. Meaning, the hurricane is the obstetrician, and the flood water will come again. Protection takes the form of an incision. The needle goes back to work again.
The ice-maker hands us a clear block wrapped in straw. Across the road, a funeral hut with its pretty voodoo colours. Compassion is a hindrance here. Animals are butchered, bodies lie in gutters. We are the only ones with ice or beer. At night the soldiers with their night vision goggles watch as souls explode like shrapnel. Divisions of angels select tender cuts in the green moonlight. Even the dead are hungry. They mingle through the crowds like everyone else. Then gunfire. The Cuban doctors put down their beer — always the same calculation; a mile away, maybe two. The refugee camps are swelling. Everything is compressed and nothing, not even the moon, can get out of here.
Wires hang down like tongues but not a drop of electricity. The only electric light comes from a handful of whinnying generators that illuminate bare stores. The city is a labyrinth that has been blown to smithereens. The sky is left and the congregations chanting through the night.
In the dark, the magnetic fields of the gangs and the UN pull you this way and that. At the UN compound, a waterfall of fluorescent light pours down from the watchtowers. Flowing out into darkness.
Light is important here. It wards off the chimères like garlic. Their natural habitat is dark. Wherever spot lights are turned on they scuttle away like insects to the huts in the red-zone where the tanks can’t go.
This is probably the safest place to be. That is why young men pace up and down with books in their hands. Students — reciting their texts like monks. Around them children kick a ball, people buy meat from vendors. The muttering of lines. This is their library. This is the only light to study by.
The coin has the fat face of Baby Doc. 1985. A mutton head and double chin. His ear like an atoll that’s about to explode. In November security forces shot at anti- government demonstrations. By February his troops controlled only Port-au-Prince. The city was on fire. On the 7th he fled to France. The coin has the number 50. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. As a reminder to the people there is also a phrase, like a note left on the fridge door of the nation, the empty servants’ fridge: augmentation la production alimentaire. Two cannons under a palm tree. The flag with the white ripped out. The women selling vegetables at the market shake their heads when we give them this coin. They will not accept his mutton head, his double chin.
Laurence O’Dwyer has published poetry and prose in Ireland and Britain. In 2005 he won a Hennessy/Sunday Tribune New Irish Writing Award. In 2008 he received an arts bursary from the Arts Division of South Tipperary County Council. He holds a PhD in paradigms of memory formation in the hippocampus from Trinity College Dublin and is currently a research fellow in neuroimaging and Alzheimer’s disease at the Department of Psychiatry, Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany.