“You live in a big house?” asked Judith.
“No.” I replied without thinking and then reconsidered. What I wanted to say was something like, “It’s not that big by my standards, but it probably is by yours.” But I wasn’t sure I knew how to say that in French, let alone Creole, and it might not have been the right thing to say even if we both spoke English. I hedged. “I guess so.” Judith wrinkled her brow in incredulity at this contradiction, so I changed the subject. She may have wanted to talk about America, but I wanted her to teach me to sign.
I had spent the morning with the deaf children of St. Vincent’s School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. There were perhaps a dozen of them between the ages of four and nine who mobbed me when I came down the stairs from my apartment, all signing frantically. I parroted them, not knowing what I was saying. They smiled, laughed, shook their heads in embarrassment for me, and took my hands to mold them into the unfamiliar shapes. It became a game where each wanted me to mimic his or her fingers next. Shoving each other out of the way and slapping each other’s hands out of the air, they squabbled for my attention. Despite the discord, there were three signs it seemed the whole group wanted me to know. Two of them I understood, eventually. They would draw one finger across their foreheads and point to themselves, and then draw two fingers down their cheeks and point to me: “black” and “white”, I realized with some discomfort. I went to Judith to confirm this hypothesis and ask about the third sign.
Judith was eleven, and, while her hearing was fine, she was at St. Vincent’s because her back was painfully twisted and she walked with a limp. The day before, I had let her go through three rolls of my film even though I knew she had no idea how to focus the camera, and now she was my closest friend at the school, as well as my translator. I showed her the first two fingers of each of my hands and tapped them together twice. “Ton nom,” she explained. Your name. No wonder the children had laughed. They were introducing themselves and asking me to do the same, and I just repeated every word they said.
I learned some of their names later at the free eye clinic our team was running. A few needed glasses and, while I helped them pick out frames, I glanced surreptitiously at the little white cards they carried that stated their names, ages, and prescriptions. Wilbert and Gilbert were the twins. Sabrina was the one with the beautiful smile who came out rather fiendish in the pictures. The little girl whom I decided was born for baby blue cat’s-eye glasses was named Stephanie. However, I knew none of them when I left Judith that afternoon, having resolved to try the morning’s silent conversation over.
When I next met the group I asked each one, “Ton nom?” They answered, but I found that I could not recall their names for more than a moment. The various contortions of their hands meant nothing to me; they all blurred into one. The children became frustrated with my failure to remember – as did I – so I mimed writing, hoping to learn that way instead. The reaction was immediate and inexplicable: sudden smiles; excitement; a general dash toward the dormitory with at least three children hanging on my arm, pulling me with them. They dragged me through their bedroom, down a long aisle of battered cribs that contained bleary-eyed, howling toddlers just woken from their nap by the commotion. I arrived behind the main stampede of kids, who were already on their hands and knees surrounding one empty crib, urgently beckoning and gesturing at something beneath it. I bent down with them and looked into the darkness. There was something small and white: a piece of chalk.
The children could not reach it because their arms were too short. They could not move the crib because it was a big, solid, wooden thing and they were not strong enough. I lay on my belly in the dust and found that even my adult arm could not quite grasp it Instead, I heaved up one side of the crib and strained to hold it while the smallest of the boys dove underneath, scattering spiders and geckos. He emerged, filthy and triumphant, with the chalk. It was the merest sliver, barely the size of the top joint of his little finger, but he and the other children each used it to write his or her name on the wall.
Then they paraded out of the room, pleased with their find and already tussling for ownership of the treasure. I stayed and turned to the wall with the names. I could not read them. The children were too young and their handwriting was poor and the paint was too slick for chalk to stick and the room was too dim to see. I thought of going to find Judith, not to ask her help in deciphering the cryptic scrawling, but to tell her, “Yes, I live in a big house. A mansion.”