The Common Good
December 2004

The Indigo Girl

by Edwidge Danticat | December 2004

Between Haiti and the streets of Brooklyn.

The certain shade of blue of a particular toilet bowl cleaner is a blue I’d like to wear. Yet I never find it anywhere, not in fabric or eye shadow, in paint or paper. Not in people’s eyes. Not in the sky. Only in the toilet, every Saturday morning when it’s my turn to scrub it. I’m 16 years old and it’s hard for me to let anyone scrub our toilet because of it. My brother André claims that people like me, people who scrub toilets even though someone else is willing to do it, have what he calls Maid Mentality. If you don’t have to do something like that, if someone - like him for example - is happy to step in once in a while, why on earth would you insist on doing it yourself? He stands in the bathroom doorway as he tells once again the story of a little girl who lives next door to the two-bedroom apartment we share with our parents in Brooklyn. We don’t know the little girl’s name but my mother jokes that she is André’s girlfriend because he stops to chat with her whenever he sees her. It is from André that we learn that the little girl is 12, which we wouldn’t have guessed because she’s tall and chubby and has breasts and a baritone lower than someone three times her age. My brother’s fascination with the details of this girl’s life is endless. He does not understand, for example, why she can be a U.S.-born child living in mid-1980s Brooklyn and still work like a peasant in the Haitian countryside. As I scrub and scrub our toilet, he recounts his latest encounter with the girl. Heading out to the corner store one early Saturday morning, he saw her carrying a heavy bag of laundry to the corner Laundromat, on her head. "I ask her where she’s going with that and she says ‘Washing’ like she’s going to the stream to beat the clothes down with rocks or something." My brother also doesn’t understand why in spite of the little girl’s obvious load of responsibilities, she seems so cheerful during their conversations. To him, she’s a riddle, something to get to the bottom of. Why doesn’t she complain about all she’s asked to do? Call social services? Once a week she sweeps the section of the hallway between the elevator and her apartment. And every once in a while we see a woman, who appears to be her mother, call her "lazy," even as she’s pushing a cart filled with grocery bags. Once I helped her carry alarge bag filled with bargain detergent that she’s just carried two blocks from the supermarket. André cites a moment when we had both seen the little girl on the street with a long scarf wrapped around her head, the same way that our grandmothers wrapped their heads back in Haiti. We have also seen her with her hand cocked on her hips and her pelvis thrust forward and have both wondered if she’s not really a midget. However when we see her in the flawlessly ironed white blouse and plaid skirt of her Catholic school uniform, we are always reassured that she’s indeed a little girl, even if not any little girl, but a duplicate of some long-dead woman, in a place where people like her are no longer supposed to exist. Even as I crouch in the bathroom, pouring a large amount of blue into the toilet bowl, a blue that reminds me of amethyst mixed with turquoise and indigo, the kind of indigo my grandmother, Granmè Melina, used in her wash as she beat rocks on her clothes in the river in Léogane, the kind of indigo I carried with me in five tiny little balls when I took the plane from Haiti to New York and crushed when I sat down on the plane so that they stained my brand new dress, the kind of indigo I feared that if I didn’t take with me I would never see again. The kind of indigo I only see now in the toilet every week, but used to marvel at whenever it pooled near the wash in the water at Granmè Melina’s feet before flowing with the water to a place from which it would never return. This is the kind of indigo I’d like to wear, a shade between azure and teal, sapphire and cobalt. The only other person I’ve ever seen with that shade of indigo is this little girl. Her mother gets it sent to her from Haiti so the little girl can use it in the wash that she carries on her head to the corner Laundromat. I once asked the little girl if I could have one of those tiny balls of indigo and she laughed a quizzical laugh, an adult laugh that made her seem much older than she was and said that if she gave it to me, she would be punished. This is when I stopped feeling sorry for that little girl. She had something I didn’t have, tiny indigo moons that she could hold in the palm of her hand. This is a secret I have not even told my brother, one I am sure would shut him up about that little girl. I envy her. I too wish I could be trusted with a handful of pure indigo, not to wrap myself in the way the ancient Egyptians did their mummies, but to simply stuff in my pocket and not break. As for the girl herself, I am convinced that she is simply a recreation of the past, a remolding of whatever her mother’s memories are of her own riverside experiences in Haiti. So the mother has fashioned herself a little indigo girl just like I wanted to with the little balls in my pocket, except her little girl is able to breathe and talk and do everything that little American girls would never do.

Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti and moved to the United States when she was 12. She is the author of several books, including most recently The Dew Breaker. Her forthcoming novel is Anacaona, Golden Flower (Scholastic, 2005).

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