Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the January 2013 issue

from “At the Borders of Thirst”

Fito looked at his watch. Ten to seven, he’d be on time for his appointment. The jeep’s headlights shiftily lit up the tortured trunks of the neems bordering Route 1. Traffic was fluid and the car was going fast. A sudden, liberating transition from the traffic jams that had held him up for almost an hour, all the way to the Bon Repos exit. Fito was a bit cold but he didn’t turn down the A/C. He was letting his blood cool down. In a moment he would be sweating out every drop of water in his body under a makeshift shelter. There was less and less vegetation as he went on. Soon he’d reach the Route 9 intersection—the crossing of all dangers—at the Cité Soleil exit. He saw them standing under an oleander bush. He knew he’d find them there, like the other times, but when he saw them his heart knocked hard against his chest and his throat tightened. He left the asphalt, drove the all-terrain vehicle onto the dirt shoulder and unlocked the doors. When the two men got in, the night swept into the car with them. There was almost no sound outside except for the loud whirring of cicadas in the tufts of the surrounding brambles and the engine of a powerful generator humming in the distance.

The three men exchanged a brief greeting in the car. About half a mile further on, the uncle said: Ralanti… vire la a, patron. Fito took a rocky path on the right. First they had to drive along the edge of Corail, the camp for the victims of the earthquake, with its ordered rows of tents set up by the foreign soldiers. Canaan, higher up, sprawled out anarchically, covering a succession of naked hills that towered over the North Road and met the foothills of Morne-à-Cabris on the other side, toward Route 3. A soil of volcanic tuff, hot and unrewarding. A few sparse clumps of neems and cactus where the displaced had ripped out sites for their tents. Canaan, a mix of women, children, men, of laughs and tears, hungers and thirsts. A chaotic conglomeration of plywood shelters and tents, mostly blue, stamped with the acronyms of international organizations. It had sprouted like a gigantic mushroom, crawling rapidly from one hill to another, covering them with a net of displaced lives. Beyond the apparent chaos, a subtle organization ruled the place. There was already Canaan 1 and Canaan 2, and as more people poured in, other Canaans would keep spreading out in the thirsty hollows of the earth. A few permanent structures were rising here and there, giving the place its topography of an official shantytown in the making. And dust everywhere—in hair, eyes, hands, between the buttocks, on legs, encrusted in the most intimate parts of people’s lives. Water as rare as blood. A dry, lonely spot. Canaan, invaded right after the earthquake by a few hundred disaster victims who proclaimed it the promised land. A year later, according to the rather unreliable statistics, there were eighty thousand of them. An NGO looked for water and promised to install a water supply system; they’d been waiting for several months now. Meanwhile, the precious liquid had to be purchased. At first, a few water-trucks sponsored by charitable organizations came to pour out their tanks into the people’s buckets and oil-drums. A struggle would ensue and most of the time, the strongest won. That water was then divided like little pieces of bacon and resold at the highest possible price. In Canaan everything had a price: the little patch of stolen earth; the water, so very rare; hardware, beauty care, bread, the Internet, marijuana, balls of crack, safety (ever elusive), and sex in all its forms.

The path stopped in front of a clump of bayahondas; they had to walk the rest of the way. Fito threw away his cigarette, which fell in a cluster of sparks. He put his keys into the right-hand pocket of his pants. He could feel his rubber soles digging into the pebbles of the path. A strong, sweet breeze was blowing, opening the sky. The Canaanites deserted the camp while the sun was out. Impossible to stay under a tent for an hour without dying of heat or going into a kind of thirst coma. Where did they go? Some of them had a steady job in the rare factories of Vareux, others sold all sorts of little things in Bon Repos, Damien, around Toussaint Louverture airport or as far as Port-au-Prince, still others were small-time dealers in illicit substances. But all the others, the old, the children—in what parched silence did they get through the day? Fito wondered about it sometimes but he never had the courage to ask a camp resident. When night fell and a cool breeze came up from the sea the place was reborn. Canaan seemed to live quietly, a few dozen yards higher, in the solitude of the hills: already, shouts and music were reaching him intermittently. It was a stiff climb and Fito was panting. Kerosene lamps and candles lit some of the tents; from far off you’d think they were on fire. Small generators hummed in a few rare spots, to keep business going—small businesses, honest or dishonest. The light around these points attracted the Canaanites. Behind the transparent canvases, each shelter was surviving in extreme conditions. There was a tent run by a Protestant pastor for religious services. Further on, a blind fortune-teller read her cards at twenty-five gourdes a shot. Canaan was organizing itself so it could look forward to some kind of future. A committee of concerned men and women in Canaan had even set up a supervisory body and served as political interlocutor. This committee was trying to establish its authority and make up for the absence of the government, which knew nothing of their existence. It was trying to set up security brigades, as thieves and rapists were sneaking around in the camp; all it took was a razorblade to get into a tent… Without material resources, though, all that was still only a pious hope. But they had already received visits from spokespeople for the candidates in the second round of elections coming up in two weeks. Canaan was a sleeping force, a male pandye, a time bomb. A potential breeding ground for the agendas of politicians and humanitarian aid organizations.

The little guy with the dreadlocks stayed there to watch the jeep. The other one, the uncle, walked ahead and went into an alley on the left. Fito followed him, stepped into the alley and toppled into another dimension. Everything was changing now. Every face he met led him to a paradise in hell, to an inexpressible happiness he was entering like a sleepwalker. He could lose himself in the dense promiscuity, the dangerous and fascinating proximity of the most intimate lives of the people, and forget himself at last. He was no one, he was nowhere. His pulse was adjusting to the pulse of the camp, to the sounds and shadows, to the smells of piss that rose at times with the breeze. Adjusting to the dull shock of blows hitting the flesh of women, to the cries from the belly, to banal pain, anesthetized by fear. The laughter of girls chatting among themselves, dreaming of love and of leaving one day to stay with a relative in the United States, Canada, or France were familiar sounds to him; he knew the dull eyes of the men sitting in boredom or waiting for the winning numbers of the borlette, the children in diapers clutching their mothers’ legs or playing with broken toys “made in China.” He rubbed shoulders with men and women whose job was to survive, from day to day, with their bible under their armpit, thanking God for the simple fact of breathing. There were children being prostituted in a few tents. There were gangs, weapons, and latent intentions to take lives, always for money. He knew he was in danger in this place but that very danger impelled him to live, slipped into his blood like a drug, gave him a boost. Fito knew the respiration of the camp, its shape, its smells, its bursts of shouting and its whispers. The Canaanites hadn’t made the streets narrow, in case a city was ever built there, or in case of a fire. Or in case of…

He was coming for the sixth time tonight; he always came on a Friday. Each one of his visits was its own beginning and its own end. Afterward, he would emerge from Canaan exalted, but ill at ease. The white dust of the camp covering his shoes. Burning from the stigmata of his own disgust. Already lonely. Already wrestling with his demons. Already knowing that his return was inevitable. Every time, his guide took him to a different alley, to a different part of the camp. A guide who didn’t talk much, except to point out to him the tricky parts of the path. Except to whisper to him sometimes, to moderate his impatience, Patron nou jwenn yon bon ti bagay pou wou wi. Bon zenzenn![1] Sometimes the uncle ran into men he recognized in the darkness of the night. A brief complicity. They greeted each other rapidly, striking their fists together:

Sak pase, baz? Gason ap mache?

Anfòm,bròdè pa m… nèg poze…[2]

Fito never knew beforehand to whom he was taking him. But the surprise was always worth the wait. To assess possible sites for the construction of housing projects, he had visited several camps, the ones in Port-au-Prince, the megacamp on the old Bowenfield Airport runway, another in Santo in the Plaine du Cul-de-Sac, and finally Canaan, the unspeakable one. He had made technical evaluations, topographical studies, he had interviewed displaced people about the way they were living, about how they got water, their transportation problems, about what they were looking for in a new place of residence. He understood the necessity of giving a local, rational response to people’s needs. You had to go about it in a different way, a way that would respect people’s suffering. There was no point coming in with readymade plans that didn’t work. You had to educate them, teach them to live under different conditions and in other types of housing. You needed the energy and faith that move mountains to fight the corruption that rotted away institutions and killed hope in the bud. Fito became enthusiastic, worked, proposed, tilted at the windmills of the system, persisted, and grew depressed. The weight of the status quo suffocated him. Canaan swallowed him up.

No stranger to the place could ever claim to find his way alone in this huge camp, this labyrinth housing close to a hundred thousand souls. There were too many ways of getting lost. You got into it through several paths that all looked alike. You needed a guide, one of those men who lived off the flesh and blood of the camp. Fito was following his scout, tense, attentive to every detail opening up before his eyes. He almost knocked into the man, who stopped short in front of one of those  boxlike shelters with plywood walls. A few steps away, a woman sitting on a tiny bench was boiling spaghetti in a pot. The smoke from the burning embers enveloped her and thickened the night. The man whispered a few words to her and she nodded, without looking at the visitor. The guide turned to Fito and pointed to the curtain over the door. Fito also avoided looking at the woman and, his forehead covered in sweat, ducked in under the cloth.

There was a candle burning on a saucer to the right of the entrance, a mat on the dirt floor of the narrow space, a chair stuck between the mat and the plywood wall, and Mirline lying on the mat, her head raised by a pillow, waiting for him. As Kétia, Fabiola, Rosemé, Esther, and Medjine had waited for him… He always asked them their first names, that’s all he kept from his daydreams in Canaan. The guide had told him that Mirline was around eleven, an orphan since the earthquake, and he was her uncle; he was doing this to feed the other children he was taking care of. He said the same thing every time. That man was surely the uncle of all the little girls for sale in the camp. A story among so many others. True or false, did it really matter? As long as there was a market for young flesh, that uncle would pull little nieces out of his hat like a magician of deviance. Fito paid in American dollars and in advance. He was sure he was fifty-five, but that was his age in another world, in another life. She was wearing denim shorts with a frayed hem and a pink sleeveless T-shirt. You could make out two buds in lieu of breasts, hard, tense with fear. Her slender limbs were moving imperceptibly. She did not yet have hair under her armpits. Fito noticed the peeling red nail polish on her toenails and it annoyed him.

The big eyes of the child absorbed the light of the candle. Her black skin was shining. A multitude of little braids crowned her head, her forehead, her nose with broad, trembling nostrils, and her wide mouth. She smelled of the basil leaves her mother must have rubbed her with as a protection against visible and invisible misfortunes. A green, musky smell that stirred him and provoked the hardening of his maddened member. Without touching him, Mirline was already instilling an unbearable sweetness into his palpitating veins. An elation that bordered on vertigo. He could have wept. She was beautiful, almost unreal. Fito knelt down next to her. He couldn't find anything to say to her, but his body was whispering so many words. His desire for her was intense but he absolutely didn’t want to hurt her. How could he make her understand that? She raised her legs and he absorbed the supple movement of her thigh muscles, her brand new flesh, like the source of a spring. Fito was sweating in big drops, his shirt already soaked. He could have watched her all night, touching her gently. But he had only one hour to touch eternity under the skin of Mirline. In Canaan too, time is money.

Aux Frontières de la soif © Kettly Mars. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by David Ball and Nicole Ball. All rights reserved.

[1] Creole: Boss, we’ve found a little jewel.

[2] Hi, brother. Out walking?

Everything’s fine, brother… take it easy…


Read more from the January 2013 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.