He is twenty-five years old. It has been years since he has lived here. At the Cap Haitien airport, there is no one to greet him. Whoever was entrusted with picking him up at the arrival gate has forgotten. He lingers outside customs and watches the taxi drivers and the porters squall over the new arrivals until he is left alone with the dusty whirring of the fan. A uniformed attendant in a crooked tailored shirt pushes a broom across the tile floor.

He wanders outside, past the one-eyed beggars with disfigured limbs who thrust upturned palms at his chest. He pushes past them, m’pa geyen ayin, he announces, nervous, but also elated that he has not forgotten his Kreyòl. The smell of rotting fish and garbage blows in from the sea and he feels a sudden tightening in his chest, a sense of exhilaration that he had not expected to find, here.

He continues down the dirt road with no particular destination in mind, though eventually, he knows, he will end up at the missionary hospital. He passes a wooden stand hung with elaborate ropings of inner tubes: tubes for bicycles, for motorcycles, for cars, for the wheels of the wooden carts that the men still pull through the uneven streets, a technology as old as the colonial era.

He feels strangely at home in the wet heat, surrounded by strangers. He smiles at the ribcage-thin dogs that skitter along the ditches in search of rotten food. A tap-tap bumps past him but he makes no attempt to flag it down. He has no Haitian money, though he has a wad of American dollars in his wallet in his backpack. He tightens his grip on the shoulder strap, which is slung over his shoulder like an experienced traveler (though in truth, he hasn’t left Florida in years). He eyes a pile of gold-green mangoes stacked on a scrap of burlap like Fabergé eggs in a department store display window. He feels as rich as a king.

He makes it all the way to the Iron Market in Cap Haitien before he breaks down and changes twenty American dollars for a fistful of gourdes. He is hungry, and wants a bowl of black beans and rice, with a thick ladle of scrawny Haitian chicken slow-cooked in tomato sauce and shallots until the meat shudders loose from the bone, but his mother’s dire warnings about tropical diseases keep looping through his head like a scratch on a record, so he buys a Coke instead.

The drink is cool from the melting ice and the vendor, a thick woman who squats in the late afternoon heat with her skirt hitched up around her knees, will not let him walk away with the bottle.

He drinks it standing in the street, his neck thrown back like a bird’s, his pale throat exposed. The taste is saltier, more tart, somehow, than the sickly-sweet colas he buys when he goes fishing in Lake Okeechobee. A crowd of barefoot boys in ragged T-shirts has gathered around to watch and he closes his eyes against the sun as he leans back to drain the bottle.

Eh blan, bum yon ti bagay, give me something, the boys pester, amused by their own temerity. He answers them in stumbling Kreyòl, but the words come out faster, more fluid, every time he speaks, as if his mouth remembers what his mind has forgotten: the texture and shape of words, the taste of language in his mouth. He’d been less than a year old when his parents had moved to the missionary compound where his mother, too, had spent her childhood. They lived in Haiti until he was seventeen, until the evacuation.

How do you speak such good Kreyòl, the soda vendor demands, eyeing him.

He smiles at her, embarrassed. He is unused to flattery. In his own country he has grown used to being invisible: a nondescript factory worker who fishes on weekends, reads sci-fi novels, tinkers with short-wave radios.

I grew up in Haiti, he tells her, warming to the attention.

Where? she asks.

In Milot, at the hospital, he says.

Dr MacKinnon’s hospital? she asks, her voice rising.

He nods, his pock-marked face flushing to pink.

He’s my . . . He stutters, forgetting the word: he’s my grandfather. He was my grandfather.

Then you are the grandson of Jesus Christ! the woman tells him, leaning her hands on her thighs as she heaves herself to her feet and claps her palms together.

Doctor MacKinnon was Jesus Christ! she says, reaching for his hand, which she clasps between her own warm fingers and bows her head, as if in fealty. The little boys take a step back, gauging the significance of this new information.

Dr MacKinnon saved my husband, he saved my son’s life, she announces, arms flung wide to draw in the gathering crowd. Dr MacKinnon gave me life – he gave me life!

She refuses to let him walk away after this confession, makes him sit, instead, on the dented cooler while she sashays down one aisle of the open-air market, hollering to a friend, and returns a few minutes later with a heaped serving of rice and beans with fried yellow plantain draped across the top like a coat of arms. She will not let him pay.

He eats furtively, his mother’s unheeded warnings growing smaller and tinnier with each bite. The vendor watches as he ladles the spoon hungrily into his mouth. The little boys watch too, but they have stopped calling him blan. Earlier, one of them had begged the blan for a ti morso but the vendor had reached over and swatted him with a rolled-up piece of cardboard. The boy darted out of the way, but now shows the foreigner a grudging respect. The startled looking white man with the sad smile and the nervous tic in his shoulders is, if this story is to be believed, the grandson of a man who performed miracles. The boy eyes him cautiously, trying to assess if he is capable of magic.

In Milot, the returning grandson settles quickly into his new role at the hospital laboratory. His white-haired grandmother, Dr MacKinnon’s widow, still presides over the noon meal at the old dining room table, her strident, dogmatically cheerful voice narrating stories of bygone glories to anyone who will listen, but it’s hard not to notice all that has changed. The missionary school, too small even to justify a full-time teacher, has shrunk from four classrooms to one. Half of the houses are empty, and the missionaries that remain have a haunted, exhausted aspect, as if they are sleepwalking.

Both of his uncles still live in Milot, both vying for control over the missionary hospital, although neither one lives on the compound. The MacKinnons have all moved, all but the adopted children, out to the retirement villas at Rivière du Nord. He could have moved out there himself, into his mother’s old house (which she never lived in, horrified by its unnecessary grandeur) but instead he has chosen to stay in a volunteer cottage on the compound. There are a few other single volunteers who live on the compound and he prefers their reckless company to the paranoid monologues of his uncles.

In the lab, he works alongside the other Haitian technicians, although he has no medical training. He studied electrical engineering at a technical school in Florida, and has the innate MacKinnon confidence that he will pick up what he needs to know on the job: the human body is, after all, the ultimate machine.

There are things that surprise him about the missionary hospital, after all of these years. The lab technicians do not have access to a toilet and must instead use a bucket when they need to relieve themselves. This is an even greater insult because the Haitian doctors have been given a flush commode, and the technicians implore him to argue with his grandmother and his uncles on their behalf. It is startling to him that in forty years, no one has thought to build public latrines at the hospital, but when he mentions it to his grandmother, she assures him in ringing tones that there are far greater priorities at the missionary hospital.

His soft heart has a tendency to get him in trouble.

Soon after he arrives, he makes copies of the keys on his grandmother’s keyring, just as he did when he was a punk 16-year-old, so that he has unrestricted access to the storage depots and the volunteer lounge, where he wanders upstairs to watch American movies after everyone else has gone to bed.

After weeks of pestering, he agrees to let one of the diabetic boys who does odd jobs around the hospital in exchange for free insulin take a shower in the lounge. Jonas has never in his life taken a shower, only bucket baths drawn from the public fountain, but he has fantasized his entire life about tilting his head back under the stinging droplets, invisible and alone under a clean, effortless deluge of falling water. Dr MacKinnon’s grandson shrugs. Why not, he says, and lets Jonas borrow a towel.

The next day, he receives a lecture from his grandmother. If Jonas brags about this breach of propriety then all the other Haitians will be jealous and want a shower too. We cannot afford to provide showers for everyone in Milot. We have already provided the water fountain, which is more than enough. She also confiscates his keys.

He is, at times, disgruntled by the missionary experience. When he asks for monetary compensation for his months of service – a token gesture: \$400/month (he still has bills to pay in Florida) – he is ignored.

On the weekends, he has to duck under the wires and cables in the living room of his mad genius uncle, the engineer, to ask if he can borrow one of the hospital vehicles to drive to the beach, but during the entire conversation his grizzled uncle never once lifts his wild beard from where it is bent over the computer tower.

Um, Uncle Joash?

What do you want?

I was wondering if I could go into town today?

No, not today.


Because I said so.

Uncle Joash’s sons are the ages that his brothers were when they left Haiti and he now recognizes, for the first time, the almost frantic neediness of missionary children. He senses in them a deficit, a hole. Their parents are too busy running the hospital, fixing the unreliable generator, typing up newsletters to raise money, saving lives.

He himself remembers his childhood with deep fondness. He remembers picking raspberries in the mountains above Kenscoff, where he once spent an entire summer poised on the ledge of a cliff learning to crack a whip into the void. When he was twelve, he trained a parakeet to wing down out of the sky and land on his outstretched arm, a trick that had required hours of solitary devotion to a half-wild creature.

But even so, one night he finds himself telling an American volunteer, half in jest, that he was actually raised by the Disney Channel. The volunteer laughs, and he feels both guilty, as if he had just disowned his family, and strangely accepted. The Americans have an innate confidence and chumminess that he alternately envies and despises. He has to work so hard to keep up.

He remembers that things felt different at the hospital when his grandfather was still alive. Whenever they would run into each other on the compound, Dr MacKinnon would lift his hat and say, as if flabbergasted: Man, you’re getting bigger every day. Is that my grandson?

His grandfather taught him to build kites, to stretch tissue paper taut over feather-light ribs and yank it gently into the sky, the tail flicking in the wind like a horse’s mane. They developed photographs together in an improvised darkroom.

Once, when the Doctor had caught him and another grandson, in a fit of boredom, attempting to chop down a mahogany tree with a dull machete, he came out and stood with them under the cacophony of cicadas and rocked on his heels with his hands in his pockets. He observed, gently, that the tree hadn’t done anything to warrant this ill treatment. His grandfather returned soon thereafter with a delicately penciled diagram and instructions for making a wooden bow and arrow, confident that boys were at their best when faced with a challenge. He never overtly reprimanded them.

It is Mrs MacKinnon’s widow who now plays the role of disciplinarian on the compound. As a teenager, he had managed to skirt her wrath by staying out of sight, but now that he works in the lab, he smarts under her scrutiny.

An eleven-year-old Haitian girl, skinny as a rail, has been tested three times for malaria, but every time the white-coated lab technician examines the slides she moves them so quickly across the microscope that she fails to observe the tell-tale signs. One of the doctors orders a blood transfusion anyway, concerned by the child’s hematocrit levels, but on Saturdays the lab techs only work a half day, so the transfusion is overlooked. When his grandmother learns of the oversight, she delivers yet another searing lecture about irresponsibility, which he takes personally, cutting short a trip to the beach to rush back and mix the acid to stain the slide. He has no medical training, so he has to hop on his bicycle to find someone to verify the lab results, then cross-check the tubes for a blood transfusion. When the little girl revives, he stumbles back to his volunteer cottage in a stupor of awe.

His grandfather, he knows, saved countless lives during his career as a medical missionary, but saving this one girl’s life is perhaps the most powerful thing he has ever done. He wishes that he could, but knows that he will never be able to do what Dr MacKinnon did: touch the human body with authority and restore it to health. He is far more confident when it comes to fixing machines: he understands voltage and induction and can troubleshoot, with a clear conscience, an ailing transformer. The human body is a thousand times more complicated, and therefore terrifying. He has no magic in his fingers. He trembles just to imagine that weight of responsibility.

Still, he savors the compliment when one of the nurses tells him that he has l’esprit Dr MacKinnon, the spirit of his grandfather, and the heart of his mother. He doesn’t trust that he can live up to the compliment, but he wants to believe that he is capable of it.

He falls in love, while on the compound, with one of the Haitian women he works alongside in the lab. Her name is Lovely and he suspects, presciently, that his uncles and his grandmother will not be pleased. He tells no one when he decides to spend the weekend with her in Cap Haitien. He leaves on Friday, after work, and takes the tap-tap to her family’s house, where he sleeps beside her on a narrow mattress on a creaking, iron frame and wakes to roosters and the rattle of charcoal in a brazier, the sound of popping oil. He feels her burrow against his chest then sigh in her sleep. For the first time in his life, he feels as if he belongs in Haiti.

He is most astonished by the bucket bath in the courtyard, where he strips to his underwear before a crowd of amused boys as water from the fountain splashes onto the wet concrete and flows out into the clogged gutter.

When he returns to the compound on Monday morning to report for work, the MacKinnon family is livid. One of his uncles has called the morgue, fearing the worst. He receives yet another lecture, this time on the mortal dangers of entrapment by Haitian women who only want one thing: a passport.

After the weekend in Cap Haitien, he finds himself pulling back from Lovely. He wishes, later, that he had ignored his uncle’s warnings. Uncle Absolom made it sound as if he had learned the hard way about Haitian women, and just wanted to protect his nephew, but in retrospect he doubts there was any kindness in the gesture.

When Lovely tells him that she wants to get married, he isn’t ready. He thinks he can do better.

One morning, over breakfast at the MacKinnon mess hall, his mad genius uncle, who has spent a lifetime on the hospital compound, announces that at the end of the month he and his family will be leaving Milot. Within weeks, the rest of the missionaries have followed suit, which surprises him. The school closes, the last of the missionary kids gone. He doesn’t understand what has happened.

He later pieces together that Uncle Joash had undergone an epiphany of sorts, and had tried, unsuccessfully, to restructure the hospital charter to remove the family veto power, which gave any member of the MacKinnon family the right to veto decisions by the remaining board members. As soon as Uncle Joash is gone, his grandmother and the one remaining uncle, Absolom, swiftly firm up control over the crumbling missionary enterprise.

Absolom is not a man to whom one voices criticism. Absolom does not deign to nod hello to those who are beneath him, such as a nondescript nephew. When Absolom fires Lovely, along with countless other employees who have been deemed unsuitable, Dr MacKinnon’s grandson finally works up the courage to protest.

He stands up to Absolom only once, indirectly. He tells his grandmother, Whatever it is you’re doing, I don’t agree with it.

The next day, Absolom informs him that his services are no longer needed. He flies home to Florida on the next plane.

In his late thirties, at a Florida diner, he confides to an old friend – a missionary’s daughter that he fell in love with, briefly, when he was sixteen – that he probably should have married Lovely.

Over bacon and eggs, they talk about Haiti, and Dr MacKinnon, and the ghost-town missionary hospital in Milot. He had wanted to shower before he saw her again, but the night shift at the electronic integrated circuits factory ran late so he is still dressed in his stained canvas pants and standard-issue cotton work shirt. His back is stiff and sweaty and he feels exhausted. Across the table sits the red-haired girl. He hasn’t seen her in years. He doesn’t know why he tells her about Lovely. Perhaps because he felt, a decade earlier, that he was too good for a Haitian lab technician, and he has always suspected that the red-haired girl believes herself to be too good for him (he judges himself, now, with the tired eyes of middle age: he is not the man he once imagined himself to be).

Later, back at his apartment, he cracks open a beer and pulls out his photo albums from Haiti. He has no photos of Lovely, but he can still close his eyes and remember waking up next to her in the house without electricity. He had not wanted to wake her, had leaned on his elbow to watch her thin chest rise and fall in the dim half-light where the sun came in through the holes in the tin roof. He could smell plantain frying in the courtyard.

He has no photos, either, of that first day back in Haiti, when a stranger fed him rice and beans for no other reason than that he was Dr MacKinnon’s grandson. There is a picture of his grandfather in the photo album, red suspenders looped over tired shoulders, his wrinkled face stretched into a thin-lipped grin. His mother and uncles, in a revolutionary mood, liked to refer to him as The Old Man, behind his back, but they would have done anything to please him. He had an aura that inspired loyalty. He liked to tell people that if he expected the worst, he got nicely surprised – sometimes.

He folds the photo album closed on his lap and takes another sip of his beer. He doubts that he will ever return to Haiti, although he still remembers it as the backdrop of all that is most important to him: the shrill, humid whine of the cicadas, the smell of burning plastic and mildew that he still associates with love. He has never learned his grandfather’s useful habit of expecting the worst, has never learned to steel himself against life’s inevitable disappointments, which is why he has to watch himself with the beer, and not start drinking too early.

His heart is a tired engine with too many loose screws and faulty wires, not weightless like the tissue-thin kites he used to fly with his grandfather as the string danced between his fingers, nor half-wild like the bird that once landed on his outstretched arm.

He no longer believes himself capable of miracles, but he wishes that he could. He would have liked to have been the grandson of Jesus Christ.


Photograph by Steve Snodgrass

Bird of Fire