“Children of the Sea” opens with an undisclosed man writing a letter to his beloved. Currently at sea on a boat with 36 other people, he looks at the sky and relives memories from their childhood. Looking around the boat, he notes that its sails are white bed sheets spotted with blood. They remind him of loss of innocence and his lover’s refusal to have sex with him. He tells her he was fine with her decision and that he just wanted to be close to her. The man ruefully remarks that his lover’s father will probably marry her off, now that he (i.e. her lover) is gone. He begs her not to marry a soldier, because “they’re almost not human” (Danticat 2).
Back in Haiti, the female letter writer despairs about her life. The sound of bullets floods the streets day and night. The schools have closed, the old president has fled, and the army has taken over. No one dares to leave their house. The girl’s father orders her to destroy tapes from the male letter writer’s controversial radio show, but she keeps a few. The other members of the male letter writer’s youth federation group have disappeared, and are presumed to be either dead or in prison. It becomes clear that the male letter writer fled Haiti via boat in order to avoid the same fate. His lover shares that she no longer draws butterflies because black ones warn of death.
The man reveals that their boat is bound for America, specifically Miami. He wonders how much farther they have to go and prays that they don’t hit a storm. He also writes about the other people onboard the boat. One of them is a pregnant girl with razor mark scars on her face. Seeing her makes the male letter writer happy that there aren’t young children on the boat, because it would break his heart, “looking into their empty faces” and remembering “the hopelessness of the future” in Haiti (Danticat 3). Other characters aboard include some Protestants who see themselves as Job or the Children of Israel. They say, “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away,” which causes the male letter writer to ask what more there is to take from him (Danticat 4).
Meanwhile in Haiti, the bodies of the male letter writer’s fellow radio personnel have been released. Madan Roger, the neighbor of the female letter writer and her family, goes to collect her son’s body. All that remains his head. To show what was done to her son, she carries the head all over Port-au-Prince. Once she arrives home, the macoutes stationed outside of her house taunt her and ask if the head is for her dinner. It takes a crowd of people to stop Madan Roger from attacking the militiamen. The female letter writer says events like this make her want to never leave the house again. She wishes there was a way she could know for certain if the male letter writer made it out of Haiti safely. She promises to continue writing the letters so that when they are reunited it will be as if they lost no time.
The first real day at sea sets in. Everyone onboard is sick, and their skin begins to burn from the sun. One man laments that soon they will be too dark to be mistaken for Cubans. The last time he tried to escape, he was on a boat with Cubans. Once they met with the US Coast Guard, the Cubans were taken to Miami while the Haitians were sent back to Haiti.
The pervasive smell of the sea is causing nausea. The male letter writer says it may be hard for his lover to understand, since she was raised in a "well-guarded house” with her genteel parents (Danticat 6). He’s jealous of her upbringing, and thinks that perhaps if his upbringing were similar then he wouldn’t have gotten caught up in Haiti’s political troubles. The pregnant woman, whose name is Célianne, is ironically the only one unaffected by the sea smell. She eats nothing and just stares into space, rubbing her belly. One night she wakes up screaming because the boat is leaking under her sleeping spot. The captain of the vessel plugs up the boat with some tar and hopes that the Coast Guard finds them soon.
The father of the female letter writer discovers that she didn’t destroy all of the radio tapes. He yells at his daughter, accusing her of being crazy and selfish. The female letter writer argues, and the situation escalates until the man begins to slap his daughter. Finally the girl’s mother steps in and takes her husband away. The female letter writer wishes one of the macoutes’ bullets would hit her.
The tar is holding up and there haven’t been any new leaks in the boat in 2 days. The male letter writer’s skin has turned very dark. He tries to buy a hat from one of the women on the boat with his remaining Haitian currency, but his money is worthless out in the middle of the ocean. The man realizes that he forgot where he was. He frequently dreams about a heaven that’s at the bottom of the sea. In one of these dreams, his lover was there with his family. He tried to speak to her, but only bubbles came out of his mouth.
If he could talk to the female letter writer, he would hear of the new atrocities being committed in Haiti. The macoutes are forcing mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, to sleep with one another. There are already stories of young women carrying their father’s children. The father of the female letter writer lives in fear of this happening to his family and plans for them to flee Port-au-Prince for Ville Rose.
The woman is still not speaking to her father because she thinks he’s partly to blame for the forced exile of her lover. Her mother tries to intervene and explains that her father never approved of the male letter writer because the young man wasn’t a social climber: he couldn’t provide anything for the female letter writer that she didn’t already have. The girl reasons that all she wants in a mate is love.
On the boat they are telling more stories and the male letter writer explains how the “Krik? Krak!” exchange works: someone proposes to tell a story by saying 'Krik?', and the audience accepts by answering 'Krak!'. They also listen to Bahamian radio stations using a transistor someone brought along. A woman says they treat Haitians like dogs in the Bahamas, even though they look the same and “had the same African fathers who probably crossed the seas together” (Danticat 8). The male lover wonders if the sea every ends, or if it’s endless, like his love for his beloved.
One night the macoutes go to Madan Roger’s house to interrogate her about her son’s involvement with the youth federation. At first the woman refuses to tell them anything, instead insulting the men and their mothers. However, the macoutes are relentless with their questions, and eventually Madan Roger caves. The men begin to beat her brutally with their guns, cracking her bones. The mother of the female letter writer tells her husband that he should go help Madan Roger, but he refuses. He says that tomorrow they will leave Port-au-Prince, and they cannot jeopardize their own safety. He argues that what is happening now has happened before in Haiti, and it will happen again.
The next day, a rumor is circulated that the old president is coming back. People are rushing to the airport to meet him. The female letter writer’s father says they will not stay behind in Port-au-Prince to see if this is true or not. Her mother says that the people going to the airport are “just too hopeful, and sometimes hope is the biggest weapon of all” (Danticat 10). Her father is determined to get his family to safety, and races out of the city.
Célianne has a beautiful baby girl, but the baby has yet to cry. The other passengers are calling the baby ‘Swiss’, because that was the word written on the knife they used to cut its umbilical cord. They also begin to speculate about how Célianne got pregnant in the first place. The boat has begun to crack heavily, and water is seeping in steadily. Nonessential belongings are thrown overboard to lighten the load. The captain whispers that something may have to be done with the people that never fully recovered from their seasickness.
The mother of the female letter writer turns out to be right: the old president didn’t return, and the people who went to greet him at the airport were arrested and shot at by the military. During dinner one night, the female letter writer tells her father that she loves the male letter writer. He says nothing in response and finishes his meal. Later on, the female letter writer and her mother talk about love, family, and relationships. The mother tells her daughter that sometimes you must choose between your father and the man you love. The woman learns that her own father was a simple gardener from Ville Rose and did not have the approval of his wife’s family when he married her.
Back on the boat, Célianne refuses to toss the body of her stillborn baby overboard. The male letter writer finally asks Célianne about the baby’s father, and she shares the horrific story. One night a group of macoutes came to her home where she lived with her mother and brother. They forced her brother to have sex with their mother at gunpoint, then tied Célianne up and took turns raping her. When they were done, they arrested her brother for committing moral crimes and took him away. He was never heard from again. That same night Célianne cut up her face to hide her identity. She didn’t know she was pregnant until her belly began to grow. She heard about the vessel leaving for the United States and decided to join it.
In Ville Rose, the female letter writer is finally settling in. There are many butterflies in the area, but none of them has landed on her hand; she hope this is a sign that her lover is safe. Her mother shares with her why her father has been so surly lately. The macoutes were going to come for the female letter writer and accuse her of being a member of the youth federation. In order to save her life, her father sold all of his land and property, including his inheritance from his own father, and gave the money to the macoutes. The female letter writer has no words, and doesn’t know how she can thank her father for his sacrifice.
On the boat, Célianne finally throws her baby’s corpse overboard. Shortly after it sinks below the waves, she jumps in after it, committing suicide. Everyone is in shock, but fear of the sharks in the area prevents a rescue mission. Besides, the boat is flooding in earnest now, the tar no longer holding up. Everything must go, including the notebook the male letter writer has been using for his letters. Though the other passengers remain hopeful that the Coast Guard will find them before the boat sinks, the male letter writer isn’t as optimistic. He imagines himself living as a child of the sea among others “who have escaped the chains of slavery to form a world beneath the heavens and the blood-drenched earth” (Danticat 29).
The female letter writer finally finds the words to thank her father for saving her life. As he waves away her gratitude, his hand moves quickly in the air, resembling a black butterfly. The woman tries to run away from the sight, but it is too late. The news comes via radio that another boat has sunk off the coast of the Bahamas.
The first story in Krik? Krak!, “Children of the Sea” is a tale of loss and the everlasting power of love. It establishes the historical and political landscape in which most of the book’s stories are set. Though no date is explicitly given, a plethora of little details sprinkled throughout the story, when considered within the context of Haitian history, suggest that the story takes place in 1957. The most important detail is the presence of the tonton macoutes. The militia of Haitian dictator François Duvalier, the macoutes helped Duvalier gain and hold onto power during the corrupt 1957 Haitian elections. Once Duvalier was elected to the presidency, the old president was ousted and fled Haiti. Anyone found to have materials supporting the old regime could be arrested and persecuted. That is why at the beginning of the story, the female letter writer and her parents destroy and/or hide their buttons and posters supporting the old president.
Life in Haiti under the Duvalier regime was violent and dehumanizing, a fact that is at the center of “Children of the Sea.” Through the alternating perspectives of the narrators we hear stories of senseless violence and horror. Parents were forced to copulate with their children, mothers walked the streets with the dismembered heads of their children, people were bludgeoned to death with guns, etc. Above all, political and intellectual freedom were nonexistent, causing many Haitians to flee their homeland. As we see in the main storyline of “Children of the Sea,” these dire circumstances heavily influenced the lives and decisions of Haitian people. Perhaps this will be a trend in all of the Krik? Krak! stories.
In addition to setting the scene, “Children of the Sea” also introduces many of themes that are present throughout Krik? Krak! The theme of brutality is central. The macoutes perform unconscionable and senseless acts of violence and terror on pedestrian Haitian people, purportedly for the sake of preserving power and order. While some Haitians, like the male letter writer, have the means to attempt fleeing the country, most must stay behind and withstand the atrocity. Some of them hope that things will improve, that the old president will return and end the violence. Unfortunately, events keep happening that suggest this hope is ill founded. For example, the male letter writer manages to board a boat to safety, but it begins to sink soon after departing. And yet, the other passengers remain hopeful that the Coast Guard will find them before they drown. This ability of characters to continue to hope in the face of adversity is another recurring theme of Krik? Krak!
The theme of love is exhibited in the refreshing structure of “Children of the Sea.” The story is told in the alternating perspectives of two lovers. Driven apart by the man’s anti-Duvalier radio show and the woman’s disapproving father, they promise to write letters to each other. That way if they are reunited, it will be as if they were never apart. The writers have no way of knowing if they will ever be able to exchange letters. Despite the possible futility of the exercise, they continue to write, driven by their love for one another. This is just one example of love’s many forms in Krik? Krak! Another is the love parents have for their children, such as Célianne’s for her unborn baby and the love between the female letter writer and her father.
On the boat, the theme of national identity is also alluded to during conversations about the Bahamas and Cuba. Despite Haiti’s geographical and cultural nearness to both of these countries, Bahamians, Cubans, and Haitians all see themselves as drastically different from each other. By highlighting these beliefs in her work, Danticat questions the importance we place on national identity and borders.
Aside from a multitude of themes, other literary elements used effectively in “Children of the Sea” include similes and exposition. Two particularly striking similes involve the macoutes and the male letter writer’s love for his beloved. The macoutes are compared to vicious vultures that swarm around the Haitian people as if they are rotting carcasses ripe for devouring. And the male letter writer describes his love for the woman as being as endless as the sea. This is particularly poignant, considering it is the sea that keeps the star-crossed lovers apart. The exposition occurs when the male letter writer explains what “Krik?” and “Krak!” mean, and how they are used in the storytelling process. This is a key explanation, since the title of the work is Krik? Krak!