I felt Fénelon’s hands on my shoulder and pushed him away violently. He had traces of tears on his sunken cheeks from lamenting his lost virility. He was in a bad way. I took all his money; I left him only the exact amount he’d given me for the round trip to Le Lambi: fifty gourdes.
I bought myself a phone and an internet subscription. The phone was a ZTE. It was the best value in smartphones, a dreamed-of object Grandma never saw the importance of. Like Natacha, like Pierrot, like so many others, I too could now take photos, open Twitter and Instagram accounts. I put all of Fénelon’s money into that luminous object, a true window on things that up till now had been inaccessible.
I went around with the charger, the battery quick to drain from all the time I spent on social networks, but electricity was hard to find, and the network constantly down due to illegal poaching, standard practice in the Cité. We’d always had electricity in the house, as far back as I can recall, and never paid. Andrise, the pastor’s wife, congratulated me on my new phone; I dared not tell her I was starving. I told her I was doing well, that Grandma had left enough gourdes for now. Every day, she had me know, she prayed for me.
This phone connects me to a world I want. Grandma often listened to the radio. The news. Local music. Since she left Uncle Frédo and me, I’ve invented a life on Facebook. I am Cécé la Flamme. I came up with the name just like that, just for the fun of it. I said I wanted to burn the place down as the only possible redemption for the ghettos. My profile picture was an up-close selfie, my hair pulled back, my mouth painted in the blue lipstick I bought in Martissant. Just my face. I would never show my unattractive body unless I had to. Carlos said that I was slim and that was good, that it made him wonder why he wasn’t. But if I had a body as fully bloomed as Natacha’s, I’m sure I’d be seeing other men. Pierrot also came by sometimes. He would not shut up, always spilling what was on his mind, his fear of being no longer in Joël’s good book, a broken arm that never properly healed, his weakness. He was a year younger than I and wanted at all costs to prove he was experienced. To me it was clear that I was his first time, for all his talk of women he knew, all sorts and nationalities, all the while stroking the gun he kept near the pillow to impress me. But he did not hang on me the way Carlos did, who would call just to discuss his feelings. It was a conversation I could not have. I didn’t know what to say back. He was being too sincere and it bothered me. I thought of his round, beardless face, anxious, his shirt damp because he sweated all the time, and I hung up on him and returned to commenting on what people were posting, about subjects I knew nothing of. That’s how it was. All you had to do to be present was respond, and I desperately needed to exist.
A lot of people on Facebook asked me if I too was a member of a gang. I would not answer, and if they asked again, I’d unfriend them. There was nothing shocking or damaging about this mechanical way of unfriending—friending occurred the same way—but it was also serious. Here, we were all playing out our wished-for lives, decidedly more important and real than the ones we lived.
Fire. Fire. For purification, a fresh start. Fire to threaten flammable cités. I did not know how to write well. People sometimes made fun of me for mistakes I made, but everyone made them, in French and in Creole. Whether those years of schooling, Grandma’s efforts, amounted to anything was debatable. I didn’t have the impression I knew more than Soline, who had done no more than three years of school. Impertinence was the main thing, radicalism. I only half believed half of what I posted. Fortune simply fell into my lap. I mostly posted pictures of my feet, plates I bought at Morel’s, the gullies in the Cité, dead bodies I came across on the street.
Dead bodies did very well. Better than the living. The more sordid or violent the better. Hunger, cases of cholera, measles, or malaria, people couldn’t give a shit. Nothing got more attention than a good cadaver, nice and warm or already rotting.
Joël had summoned me. Pierrot was sent to get me. It was Saturday, only ten o’clock, and I was still sleeping. Snoozing at least. It was already very noisy, people passing with buckets of water, laughing, talking out loud. The music of the neighbors was also loud, from all sides. Uncle Frédo snored. As usual, he’d drunk too much.
There was a knocking, first soft, then louder, then very loud. I half lifted the pillow I’d put over my head to deaden the sounds. It had to be neighbor Soline, who thought since Grandma had died she could lord over me. I got up to open the door, barefoot, my hair a mess, in the short blue shorts I wore to bed and a T-shirt—I forget how I came across it—that read in green lettering, Ministry of the Environment.
Pierrot stood at the door, wearing dark glasses he couldn’t have had long because the sticker was still on them, an undershirt with suspect stains—Grandma would have been disgusted—an open jean shirt, navy-blue pants with big pockets on the sides like the police wore. It was clear he was packing a gun beneath his shirt.
“What do you want at this hour?”
“You need to come with me.”
“The boss wants to see you. Go change.”
“Why does he want to see me? What have I done?”
“I don’t know. Go get dressed. I am ordered to bring you to him.”
He was serious. I was afraid. I did not want him to see that. I’d heard so many stories of people summoned to Joël who never returned. Rumor had it that certain dismembered bodies, burned in the ravine, were theirs. Pierrot followed me into the bedroom, afraid I would attempt to escape even though the house had just one door. My escape would mean his death. I took off my shorts, pulled on a pair of jeans, and replaced my top with a white blouse Grandma had given me. I had to present myself well. These could be the last moments of my life. I was embarrassed to take off my top with Pierrot’s eyes on me; he could see my ribs, my too-small breasts. He looked like he had a lump in his throat. I avoided his eyes. I undressed always in the dark for my few customers, and it was mostly just my bottoms I removed.
I could no longer feel my legs. I wanted to see Uncle Frédo, even if talking to him was impossible. I was not going to be able to rouse him, but it might be for the last time. Pierrot was just as nervous and afraid as I was, and I could not tell if it was for himself or for me.
Everyone looked on as he escorted me from the house. When Fany saw us, she put her hands on her head as if she were about to cry. We had to walk about ten minutes from my place to “the base,” the two-story concrete building, unfinished and surrounded by high walls built from breeze blocks empty of cement, that only gang members could approach. They must have seen me coming from afar because a man in ragged clothes had already slid open the iron gate.
The courtyard was spacious. Parked right in front of the house, a heavy-duty Toyota, the ground still wet around it, had clearly just been washed. The second floor was a work-in-progress, walls in wait of a roof, just like all the concrete houses in the Cité. A wide terrace faced the courtyard and was furnished with an old cracked-leather office chair and a rocking chair with a yellow cushion. Between the chairs was a low table laid with cards and dominoes. The cream paint of the walls was chipped in places. Someone had written phone numbers on them in ink. A thick white curtain hid the interior from view, and I wanted to see the countless rooms it was hiding. There were cells in the house, supposedly, to detain those who’d been kidnapped, whose families were asked to pay a huge ransom, sometimes for no one in return.
Pierrot asked me to wait and took off behind the house. Several men armed with automatic weapons patrolled the courtyard while others sat on a wall around a tree that had its leaves. Behind this low wall were tens of empty beer bottles and cans of energy drinks. Used paper plates had been tossed there too. The men looked tired. Their shirts and T-shirts had holes in them from cigarette burns. They were just as young as Pierrot. One of them was ripped and had tattoos on his neck and arms; another had dreadlocks down to his waist. A bald, jittery guy would not stop clearing his throat and spitting. A tall and slim one had two revolvers in his belt and carried an automatic rifle.
I was not invited to sit so I stood there waiting for forty-five minutes. I’d not had a chance to wash my face that morning, and I was hot. My stomach growled, half from fear, half from hunger.
Suddenly I noticed some movement, the sound of steps coming in my direction. Two men I did not know, followed by Pierrot, opened the curtain for Joël to appear. He looked anxious behind his mask of cruelty and his mustache that made him look older than he was. Too much beer, probably, had given him a bit of a belly.
He sat in the office chair and swiveled lightly. He was wearing a white undershirt beneath a bulletproof vest, and blue jeans with gray-and-navy-blue Nikes. He took his gun from his belt and set it on the low table, knocking off two dominoes, which no one picked up.
“How’s it going?”
“It’s not going too bad,” I replied, surprised by the question.
“Cécé la Flamme?”
He closed his eyes halfway and continued to swivel gently in his chair, as if to cradle himself.
“Cécé, do you realize you post much more about Fanfan the Savage than about me? Is that acceptable behavior for someone living in the Cité of Divine Power?” He opened his arms and said, “What am I to understand?”
All of a sudden I had to go to the bathroom. I was sweating all over.
“I knew your grandmother well. This behavior is something she certainly would have frowned upon. However, you were born here, and we are the ones who protect you, who give you lots of privileges. We make it so the young of this Cité can prosper and keep their dignity. Thanks to me, no one can come here and harass the people. And you see fit to talk more about that mutt than about me?”
I crossed my arms like I did when Mister Jean-Claude and Madame Sophonie made me recite my lessons. I had no idea I’d talked more about Fanfan the Savage.
“I’m sorry. I was not aware. I try to talk only about his protection rackets and his brutality.”
“Do you think I’m some sort of choirboy, me?”
He went silent. Me, I stayed standing for what became more than an hour, and started fading. I twisted my hands, still moist, and was a breath away from peeing myself.
At last he said, “Tell Patience to come to me.”
The tattooed one immediately took off to find Patience. I’d never heard that as a name before. We waited for what seemed, probably because of the silence, like five long minutes. Joël stayed calm, looking straight ahead.
Finally, the tattooed guy ceremoniously pulled back the curtain to unveil a beautiful young woman. He looked uncomfortable with her. She perfumed the terrace; I’d never met anyone who smelled so good. She wore a long, tight violet dress, strapless, that showed off her smooth shoulders. She had long dreads made from extensions that she repeatedly gathered behind her ears, exposing creole earrings. Magnificent, flat, sequined sandals showed off her polished toenails. Her fingernails, also painted red, were too long to be real. The dress hugged her figure, and her butt, swelling beneath her tapered waist, jiggled when she walked.
Without looking at me or at any of the men who were gaga over her, she set herself up in the rocking chair. She was very focused on her own person. We did not see people that glamorous in the Cité. Joël placed his right hand on her thigh, and she did not turn a hair.
“How many times did she talk about the dog of Bethlehem, chérie?”
The chérie said a lot about the nature of his relationship with her.
“Twenty-three times,” she replied in a matter-of-fact voice, checking the screen of the iPhone in her left hand, as if the phone were supplying the answer.
I’d seen pictures of that new model online, and it cost more than the sum of all the money I’d ever had in my life.
“And about me?”
A disapproving murmur rose from those listening. I did not know what to say. I was afraid of what could happen. Patience remained completely indifferent as Joël started kneading her thigh. Solemnly he said, “You are going to repair all that. You are going to talk about me. You no longer have the right to talk about the knucklehead from Bethlehem, except to put him down. Pierrot and Cassave will relay information to you from time to time about all the good things we do for people in the Cité of Divine Power.”
“Yes,” I said.
The tall slim one took three steps forward when Joël said his name. He must have been called Cassave because of how skinny he was.
Joël took his weapon from the table, dislodging some more dominoes. Everyone stepped back. As he got up, the scent of Patience’s perfume shifted. She went on looking at her phone.
“Follow me, Patience,” Joël said, passing through the curtain as the bald man held it back.
I looked at Cassave and Pierrot, then at the muscled tattooed guy, who motioned to me with his left hand, his right holding the rifle. The same man who’d let me in opened the gate just a smidgen for me to leave, as if he had taken the small measure my body needed to leave the base.
I turned on the phone. It gave off a bluish light. I had dozens of messages and just as many friend requests, including one from Patience. In her profile photo, her locks framed her face. She had on blood-red lipstick that set off her large sunglasses and the black of her hair. All of a sudden, I smelled her perfume in the room and shivered. Joël had probably asked her to keep an eye on me.
Loads of comments had appeared. Some claimed I’d been killed, my body dangled over a ravine and burned. Others called for the police to open an inquiry, for the government commissioner to assume responsibility. People called in to the radio stations all day to denounce the gangs, the laxity of the State. A woman interjected on behalf of Joël’s gang to say I was just fine and, like all the residents of the Cité, I was protected by the boss himself. She was roundly insulted. It was one enormous cacophony, and I was at the center of it. I had to post something to put an end to the debate, find a way to say that I was alive. As lively as a story can seem on the networks, it can fade fast; another story would take over unless I fired back to keep it going. “Boss Joël,” I wrote, “wants to protect our Cité,” then signed off right away, a kind of flight before the scroll of hateful comments.
Patience wanted women to organize themselves and understand their importance, their role in the development of the Cité. She wanted to arrange an association meeting, and Pierrot was charged with delivering—to the most “valiant” —invitations for a gathering Thursday morning. It was more of a summons laced with threats than an invitation.
“The wife of the boss expects you on Thursday at 9:30 a.m. for a meeting.”
“How do you expect me to know? Just make sure you’re there. She doesn’t like anyone being late. Don’t say I didn’t tell you.”
I rarely woke before ten, but that day I was ready at eight, washed, hair done, dressed in my jeans and the same white blouse I’d worn when Joël summoned me. It was the most presentable outfit I owned. I sat on the edge of the bed. I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t want to be on my phone. I asked myself if I’d done everything necessary, then set off thirty minutes ahead, even though the base was only ten minutes away.
I’d been waiting for about fifteen when Soline arrived. She was fatter and walked with her legs apart, no doubt because of her weight. Then Andrise, the pastor’s wife, who was going to be hot in the purple velvet jacket she was wearing. She was always trying to show how proper she was, Andrise, and it made her look odd— comical, if you ask me. The velvet jacket was doing that right now, and I wanted to, but did not dare, take a photo. Yvrose looked tired. I’d heard that Fénelon was not well, his bulging eyes making his head bigger than normal. Fany had gone all out, she who was forever too busy nursing her grief to go anywhere. She wore a pretty dress that dusky pink color, with flat silver-colored shoes, and she’d straightened her hair. She even wore a little leather bag over her shoulder. It was a big-day outfit.
The gate slid open for us to enter, a little wider than it had for me the last time. You had to respect the volume of some of those passing through. The big thick fellow was not there. A tent had been set up and chairs arranged beneath it. We found spots. Other women had already arrived. Maybe ten. Natacha was one of them. I’d never seen her skin so rosy. She was a little younger than me and already had two children. She was sweating a lot and sponging her face with tissues that left little bits on her brow and cheeks.
The other women were all well known to me. They were vendors and homemakers, like Joe’s and Edner’s wives. Maybe they were valiant. What did I know? I wasn’t, even if I had no intention of saying that to Patience.
She joined us at 9:45, preceded by her perfume and followed by the tattooed guy carrying a machine gun. When she got to the middle of the gathering, she said hello and turned to see everyone. She started to talk to us the way one talks to very young children, dragging out each word, afraid we wouldn’t understand. If only I could have filmed her, I kept thinking, and given everyone on the networks a laugh! But everyone would have known it was me. The other women carried phones like Grandma’s—except Natacha, but no one would suspect her. Everyone’s attention would turn to Cécé la Flamme, and they’d find my charred body in one of the alleys. A fat drop of sweat slid down my back.
“Ladies, you are the pillars of the Cité. Boss Joël tries really hard to bring prices down so you can feed your families without hardship, and he wants to be able to count on you so we can live in peace. He needs your support to accomplish this. You should talk to your husbands so that they are devoted to him too. He is here to protect us all.”
It was getting hot. The spiel from the beautiful Patience was going nowhere. Soline had a knitted brow. The other women looked at Patience in astonishment without saying anything. The dreadlocked gang member appeared with a stainless steel tray arranged with plastic glasses of Coca Cola, Sprite, and Cola Couronne. Thankfully I was in front and was able to get one of the Cola Couronnes. It was cold and had ice in it. I heard Patience’s voice as if from afar, and patties arrived right after the drinks had been served, on a tray like the first, passed around by the nervy, bald fellow. I hoped he hadn’t spit on them, because I dared to take two, I was that hungry. I would have liked to take a third for Uncle Frédo.
The tray went back completely empty, so I wasn’t the only one to take two. Lots of the women had crumbs around their mouths now, so I used the front camera of my phone to be sure I didn’t.
“The boss cares about you and your families and is leaving you with gifts he’s confident you’ll like. You are, ladies, our mothers, our sisters, our friends, pillars of our community.”
The guy with the dreadlocks and the nervy one then placed in front of each of us a half-filled bag. I had an inkling what it held. It was the rice from the cargo seized three days ago on Harry Truman Boulevard. Photos of the operation had circulated on Facebook, and I’d recognized Joël himself, Pierrot, Jules César, and the nervous spitter.
“We will have another get-together soon. We’ll continue the battle for our Cité, for our country.”
I would love to have known what battle Patience was talking about, I hadn’t heard of any. The other women looked at each other, confused. They really had nothing in common with this woman, who lived surrounded by armed men, didn’t need to work, and had everything she wanted and then some. They were nonetheless pleased with the unexpected supply of rice, which they were going to valiantly eat or sell, or both.
As for me, I wasn’t much of a cook and intended to have Soline sell my half-sack for me. It was easier that way, less tiring, more costeffective for me to buy from other sellers, who were generous with the servings because of Grandma.
There followed fifteen goodbye, madames, very respectful, one after another, to which Patience, looking pathetic, replied, “Goodbye, dear,” soullessly, disincarnate, with a smile that lasted too long to be sincere. Her beauty, her ample figure complimented by a tight, white dress, didn’t help her connect in that moment, and she probably felt it.
Fénelon was sick. I’d heard several people talk about it. Soline helped out Yvrose as best she could, like lots of women in the neighborhood. She also asked me to help, seeing as I didn’t have much to do during the day, so that she could keep her shop open. She wouldn’t have understood if I explained that the social networks took time, that you had to look at a lot of photos, like them or not, comment on what was going on in politics or with the artists on HMI. I loved pronouncing those three letters, in English no less, that stood for Haitian Music Industry. Let’s not forget too that I had to occasionally sing the praises of Joël, all-powerful and generous boss. On Facebook I posted a photo of the sacks of rice Patience had given us. She was quick to like my status and to comment: “It’s only a beginning. For back to school, boss Joël will guarantee that all pupils in the Cité of Divine Power will receive a hot meal daily.” The government commissioner came on the radio to remind people that anyone who received stolen merchandise was an accomplice of the thieves. He was widely berated on the web.
Victor was belting it out in church, Soline was sweeping her porch, Elise had her earbuds connected to her phone radio and was dancing with an imaginary partner, and I was waiting for Carlos. It was near six when I heard shots ring out. We were used to gunfire in the Cité. But a few minutes later four armed men ran by, headed toward the base. A chill descended. Something was going on. Soline went inside and shut her door. Elise forgot her imaginary dance partner, removed her earbuds, and went indoors. I did the same. Uncle Frédo arrived shortly after. He must have run as fast as his alcoholic legs could take him because he was all out of breath. Hardly had he closed the door when the shots redoubled and continued until dawn. Clearly, something was being celebrated. I thought about Grandma. She would have died a second time from fear. At around 11 p.m. I got up to see if my uncle was okay. He was sleeping.
The sun had to come up, and the party animals had to go to bed. But in the meantime I didn’t sleep much, afraid as I was that a projectile would pierce the rusty galvanize. Such things had happened before in the Cité.
It was on the radio, at seven in the morning, that we learned of Joël’s death. He’d been killed by one of his own men, who was automatically proclaimed “boss.” It was ten o’clock, after I could finally recharge my phone at Andrise’s, that I saw photos on Facebook of what remained of Joël’s corpse. It could have been anyone, the face was so bloodied and swollen. His neck was destroyed, probably from bullets. His white undershirt had turned red, and both arms were missing. The lower part of his body had been burned. Beer cans and bottles surrounded the cadaver. His killers had partied into the night. I started erasing everything that I’d posted about him, so as not to have any trouble with the new master of the Cité.
It was Livio who told me the name of the new boss. He was known as Cannibal 2.0. He’d tasted a chunk of Joël’s flame-broiled penis, an act that provoked the real admiration of those gathered. It didn’t take long for the video of that tasting to circulate. I recognized him as the tattooed guy. His eyes were glazed over as he brandished the machine gun in his right hand and a piece of blackened meat that he brought to his mouth with his left. I vomited in disgust.
What about Patience? Had she too been killed? I dared not ask. I could have sent her a private message on Facebook, but was that wise? Maybe she’d been forced to give up her password? I didn’t want to call Pierrot, unsure if he was in the good graces of the new boss. I’d scanned all the photos for his mug, but to no avail. Maybe he was the photographer. I did pick out Jules César, however. He looked resolute, and held a Galil in one hand, a beer in the other.
The tattooed guy had an Asian cast to him. He had squinty eyes and pretty advanced hair loss. In the photo, he wore jeans, black velvet boots, and a shirt that was too tight. Other photos and videos wasted no time taking over the networks. He’d filmed and photographed himself. He opined on everything. Traffic, the high prices, the ghettoes. The news. He said he wanted women to join him in leading the fight for social justice. Cannibal 2.0, in a matter of hours, had garnered hundreds of friends and followers, one of whom was me. He’d made a spectacular leap from obscurity into the limelight, and already, I imagined, some of his men wanted to take his place.
In fact there wasn’t an adolescent in the Cité who did not dream of being a gang leader. It was one of the rare accessible dreams. Money came with it, and so did a kind of fame assured by social media, the traditional media, and the cowardice of elected officials.
Cannibal 2.0 wasted no time showing himself in the Cité. He strode around, surrounded by his armed men, one of whom was Pierrot, alive after all. Cannibal’s entourage included two women— Natacha, rosier than ever, sweating from every pore, maybe one of the side effects of the creams she used, and a young woman I didn’t know, dressed like a man, with a man’s manners. They let their pictures be taken. That, after all, was the 2.0 way.
The body had been decapitated. It lay in the alley between Edner’s and Joe’s. No one we knew was reported missing. The man’s wrists were tied behind his back, and blood had turned his red shirt brown. It had run down to the belt of his jeans, and wide red stains splattered his footwear—runners with soles edged in bright yellow. He was otherwise clean. The missing head had to be young. Good build. The shoulders were broad and the body muscled. A trickle of blood emerged from what was left of the neck, a body grieving its head.
Joe and Edner confined their none-too-happy little ones to the house. Joe’s nine-year-old eldest had come upon the corpse as he was going out front to piss, his toothbrush in his mouth. The others whinged and moaned to go see the body, and the squirmiest had already taken a beating to keep him quiet and dissuade the rest. They were trying to peek through little holes in the rusty galvanized walls of Joe’s house. On Edner’s stoop, Edner’s wife, who birthed a child every nine months, sported a well-rounded belly, a baby in her arms, and a little one clutching her skirt to stay upright.
I took out my cell phone and started photographing the body as well as the bystanders. That is what set my photos apart from others on Facebook: I showed not just the cadaver, but how destitute people are, their speechlessness, their resignation.
Edner’s wife shot off thick, whitish spit that contained her anger, her powerlessness. She brusquely pushed aside the little one hanging on her dress, which, truth be told, was no more than a piece of cloth knotted above her breasts. The baby, a little more than a year old, fell on its naked butt and screamed, its mother now screaming too, her mouth full of saliva—a side effect, it must be, of her pregnancy. It took me a while to realize I was the source of her disgust, stealing the show from the decapitated.
“Stop taking our photos, little one! You want to show our misery? Are you looking to make money with our images?”
I stopped right away. It was not the first time I’d been asked to stop taking photos, but the first time I’d met with such anger. People looked at me disapprovingly. I put my cell phone in the back pocket of my jeans and left the scene feeling bad.
As soon as I got home, I posted the pictures on Facebook. I was struck by what I’d captured. The baby in rags, sitting on the ground screaming, its too-skinny mother on her feet in anger, the child in her arms, the one in her tummy like a threat, the shacks, the curious standing around the dead man, the various colors of their clothing. All I wrote was, “We are all going to lose our heads in this country.” I received a cascade of friendship requests, some from well-known journalists, political figures, intellectuals.
A group of foreigners accompanied by a Haitian interpreter came to see me. They wanted me to talk, to give an interview, not just a yes-or-no-answer kind of thing, but information I didn’t have, could not reveal or make up, frankly. Really, what more did I know than any other inhabitant of the Cité of Divine Power, of Bethlehem, of Blessed Spring, of Hands of Jehovah, of the capital city, of the whole country, of the world?
And then it was weird to find myself in the alley with a white woman and two white men with their sandals and shorts and this local who translated everything I said. They stood out in this landscape. They felt it. Nor were they allowed to be there, they told me. Instructions from their embassy were clear on that, so they asked that we go elsewhere, sit down, have a bite to eat. I was eager of course, eager to eat, not because I was hungry but because I feared going hungry, hungers past and future. We walked to their car, which was parked at the entrance to the Cité.
The translator was also the driver. I sat in the back between the two men. Mimose told me once when I was little that white people were werewolves who ate children, put them on their backs and flew away with them to faraway cold countries, separating the children from their families forever. I looked at the man seated to my right, and he smiled. He did not look like he wanted to eat me, and they talked gaily in English. I understood none of it. The vehicle headed toward the upper part of the city; soon we passed the Faculty of Medicine, the Champ de Mars, Turgeau, Canapé- Vert Road. I knew this was Pétion-Ville, but I did not know the area, where pretty much all the businesses from the lower part of the city had gone to set up shop, at first for security reasons and again when the 2010 earthquake ravaged the historic downtown of Port-au-Prince.
We were in Boyer Square, the guide informed me with a smile. No sooner had he parked when four adolescents approached to see if they could mind the car and wipe it down, then asked for money from the whites, who smiled stupidly. They followed us as far as the entrance to the restaurant, but the expression on the security guard’s face ended it there. This was the first time I’d ever been in such a place. The only restaurant I knew was Morel’s, which properly speaking wasn’t even a restaurant. Morel’s, with its canopy set-up over plastic chairs that collapsed from customers’ weight, was just a click above what Grandma did.
A young man in black pants and a white shirt welcomed us and asked if we wanted to be outside or in the air-conditioned space. The man the others called Matt, who’d sat to my left, wanted to stay outside. It was all the same to me. I was thrilled to be able to come to such a place. One after another, they went to wash their hands, and they recommended I do the same. There was a toilet like you see in the movies, running water—it was a far cry from the Cité. I thought about Grandma. In her entire life, there was no chance she’d ever seen such fittings.
I took a long time, or it felt like it from the look the guide gave me afterward. They’d been waiting for me to return before ordering. I went for something I knew: poulet pays, free-range chicken. That had to be the same everywhere. I did not like surprises.
The woman, Susan, took a folder out of her backpack, from which she extracted a few typed pages. Drew, the man who’d sat to my right, asked the guide, whose name was Paul, to translate for me. The foreigners were asking me to sell them the right to use the photos I’d taken of the decapitated cadaver and the people around it. Susan spread two papers in front of me, at the bottom of which I needed to sign.
“How much are they giving me?” I asked Paul.
“One hundred dollars.”
“I want two hundred,” I said, starting to eat before everyone else.
They looked at each other, taken aback. I was playing big. When I posted photos, everyone and anyone, let’s face it, could take them, and it never interested me what they did with them. If they didn’t accept, I’d take the hundred dollars, which was a lot of money to me. I was the only one eating, and I ate fast. I wondered what it would take to be able to bring the leftovers home to Uncle Frédo.
Matt said something, which Paul translated: “They agree to the two hundred dollars.”
I wiped my hands with a paper napkin, pushed aside my plate, and wrote with the blue pen Susan held out to me, under the English text I didn’t understand: Célia Jérome. It had been a long time since I’d written my name, and it felt strange to me.
Matt settled the bill with a credit card. Drew withdrew a wad of hundred-dollar bills from his bag and gave me twenty of them, explaining that he wanted to use ten photos. I didn’t care how many he took. I squeezed the bills into the wallet I had with me. Never in my life had I held so much money.
On the networks, I featured the lives of women in the Cité. Élise was my first subject. She played the game well. It was less depressing than chronicling the deaths, even though I continued that. I’d offered her some trempé—rum punch, her tipple—and she was kind enough to sit in front of my phone and talk about her life. I was surprised to learn she’d always wanted a child, and that she wanted her sister Fany to have one, one day. Her video was a real hit. Then it was Soline’s turn. She described, modestly, how she ran her business, her insecurities, her fear of watching the Cité burn, that coop-like feeling here where gangs lay down the law. People started coming up to her in the streets to say they recognized her, and to ask more questions. She got into it and wanted me to record another. That made me laugh. Everyone, after all, courted celebrity.
More than 110,000 subscribed to my Facebook page. I got a private message from a woman who wanted to meet me. At first I thought she wanted me to interview her, but when she called, I knew right away that she was not from the ghettos. Well-spoken, surfing among English, French, and Creole, she explained that she was a marketing manager and wanted to bring me on as an influencer. It was the first time in my life I’d heard that word. I went to her office, in a spick-and-span building on Airport Road, and she explained to me how advantageous it would be, given the number of friends I had on the various networks, to post the same material to both my Facebook and Instagram accounts. She was so chic, that woman. She introduced herself as Catherine Paris and asked me to call her by her first name. “It will be better that way for working together,” she added. I put her at around twenty-five. She had long, smooth hair, and she smelled good, like Patience, but I had the feeling she’d never lived in precarious neighborhoods and had traveled. I felt small opposite her with my tired sneakers, my jeans, my second-hand T-shirt that read, “I love Las Vegas.”
She opened her computer and seemed pleased to tell me that my last video had received 72,000 views. She gave me an admiring “Congratulations” and winked at me. Coffee and water were brought in, and an older woman waited to serve me—the first time anyone called me Madame. Generally I got Petite. She asked if I wanted sugar. Of course I wanted sugar. Catherine did not take any. I was amazed to watch her drink her coffee bitter. Must have been an elegance thing.
“I am truly very happy that you agreed to meet with me, Célia. I do promotions for various consumer products, and I look to people like you, who have a following on social networks, to help me. Your work will be simple. I will give you samples of what I want you to show our target audience, people from your milieu (she blushed as she said that word). I will explain what I want you to do, and I will pay you a sum of money every month. One can earn a lot of money this way, you know.”
It was very good, the coffee. I’d put a lot of sugar into it. The cups were pretty, if a little small. Catherine got up to retrieve a folder. She wore very high heels. How could anyone walk on such stilts? Behind her desk she withdrew from a sleeve a photo of an energy drink in a plastic bottle, another of a lightening cream, one of a deodorant supposed to protect you for forty-eight hours, a pomade meant to make your hair grow.
I could have held back, but it came right out: “Do you use that soap yourself, Catherine?”
She blushed to her roots and brought the cup of bitter coffee to her mouth, leaving on it the imprint of her red lips. She shook her head and smiled before going on. “No, I don’t need to, but there is a huge market for these products, and this one is better for your skin. Women . . . are looking for the best, and that’s what my associates and I offer.”
She was one beat away, I mused, from saying, “Women from your milieu.” Catherine Paris was very assured. Clearly she knew how to make money. She paused, then carried on: “It’s a real gold mine you have here, Célia, believe you me. This is very lucrative work, and you will be very comfortable. Cécé la Flamme can be made into a business. You will just have to take a picture of yourself drinking this drink or using one of these products. Don’t worry about the lightening cream, you already have fairly light skin. You can just pretend you’re using it. That should work.”
She looked at my clothes while she talked. I imagine she felt a little embarrassed about her pitch for the lightening cream. The contrast between what she was wearing and what I was wearing was enough in itself to show the divides in this country.
“How much will I be paid?”
“I am going to give you thirty thousand gourdes every month, and of course you will have these products for free for your personal use. If you want, you can sell them. I’ll give you a special price, and that way you can make even more money.”
“I want sixty thousand gourdes,” I said, looking her straight in the eye.
As a matter of principle, I always multiplied an offer by two.
“No. Sixty. On top of the advantages you just mentioned. Even though, for now, I do not want to sell anything. To start work, I’ll want another telephone. Mine does not take very good photos.”
Both of us, at the same time, looked at the Samsung phone, the very latest, on her desk. She seemed to think about it and looked at the photos spread before her as if the answer would come from them.
“Okay. Sixty thousand gourdes and a phone more effective than yours. You start tomorrow.”
“I want an advance.” Catherine laughed out loud. I was very calm. I poured some coffee and added lots of sugar.
“You are a tenacious negotiator, Célia.”
“Thank you very much, Catherine.”
Right then a man came into the office. His skin was just as light as Catherine’s. She spoke to him in English, and he reached out his hand, which I shook. I think Catherine was talking about me because he looked at me all the while, smiling, until he left. I never found out if he could speak Creole or French. But what did I care.
“I’m going to have a check drawn up for you right away. You need to sign a little contract, to be sure we understand each other. I’m also going to have a box made for you of the different products. Is that okay?”
“Yes, but I’d prefer cash. Don’t forget the money for the transport.”
“That should be possible,” she replied, smiling.
I’d used some of the money earned from the sale of the headlessbody photos to pay for the moto-taxi that had brought me here and was waiting outside. It was expensive. Airport Road was pretty far from my place.
Straddling the motorbike on the way home, with the little box between the driver and me, I felt good. From time to time, I pressed my fingers to the envelope of 30,000 gourdes in my bodice, which did me good too. I was to return the following week to pick up the new phone.
The drink I photographed myself drinking was, actually, repulsive. To be honest, I cheated. I mixed it with water. In a comment on one of my tweets, someone informed me that abusing this kind of beverage caused high blood pressure. Didn’t matter what age one was. I staged myself using the deodorant, whose smell I liked, and featured the hair pomade and the cream to whiten skin. A lot of my “friends” accused me of prompting girls to bleach. They were right. This was my new job. I did not respond.
At the used-clothing market, I bought a new shirt and new pants for Uncle Frédo. He’d started to look too much like a tramp. He clapped his hands like a kid, probably feeling handsome in that lightblue, long-sleeved shirt and gray trousers. It’s true it gave him a new look. Seeing Uncle happy made me happy.
The noise outside must have had the effect of raising the thermometer and agitating the flies. It was no longer possible for me to sleep. Uncle Frédo snored softly. My phone showed 10:37, and there were three missed calls from Catherine Paris. I was tired of the same photos, the same products, writing the same stupidities, and had posted nothing in four days. During our last conversation she’d suggested that I show more shoulder, my bare feet. “And what else?” I replied. She realized she’d better not push it with me. I’d read the one-and-a-half-page contract, and at no point was there any mention of nudity. She’d been quick to appease, and our mutual silence revealed our embarrassment.
I would put in my earbuds and return her calls after eating. I had 273,000 subscribers, but she had 60,000 gourdes on which I could not spit. As a sign of good faith, I was perfectly fine showing my feet alongside the lightening cream, but I had the remnants of a darkblue varnish on my nails. When I’d put it on, I could not remember. I’d have to go buy solvent.
I lifted the mattress to take money for food and the nail-varnish remover. I’d opened a bank account, but had not yet found the will to deposit any of the 60,000 gourdes I’d received for my third month of work.
My feet sweated in my sneakers. I should have washed myself so as not to feel these tingles in my body. Maybe it was all in my head. I’d learned that women who whitened their skin with soaps like the one I was promoting felt tingling sensations when they went out in the sun. But I’d never used it myself.
The vendors were grouped according to what they sold. Those who sold cosmetics had cuvettes of every color with solvents, nail varnishes, and creams and soaps that promised cleaner skin, by which they meant lighter. You could tell from the black stains on the vendors’ faces, their too-dark knuckles, that they themselves discolored their skin. The brand I marketed on the social networks was in all the baskets, but the competition was fierce from at least six brands. I could not help but feel proud seeing Catherine’s products in all the basins, proof they were in demand. The soap cost fifty gourdes. Its glossy cardboard box was white with embossed gold lettering that read, “Baby White,” in English. I bought the nail-varnish remover, as well as a pink varnish, from a vendor who looked around the same age I was. She seized the opportunity to ask if I cared to smell a cutprice perfume. She took it out of its packaging by delicately removing the cellophane wrap from the cardboard, a motion she probably repeated several times a day. With the same dexterity she rewrapped the bottle when she saw my grimace.
I bought a small jar of concentrated milk, some bread, corn porridge, and some sugar. When I got back, Uncle Frédo was sitting up in bed with his shirt off. As usual, we said nothing to each other. We were very close strangers. To get up in the morning, I needed to know he was alive. I didn’t really know what he made of me, but I felt a connection between us. There was Grandma, this house, and a story neither he nor I could tell. Short of that, we went on expressing it in big strokes of silence and smiling, and that was just fine by us.
We dunked the pieces of bread into the porridge, sugary like we liked it, like Grandma taught us how to make it. Elise was in the middle of telling Livio he was a good-for-nothing, that he had yet to deliver the five buckets of water he’d already been paid for, and to this was added everyone else’s noise: Victor and his numerous faithfuls, Nestor, Fatal, vendors on foot, even Catherine, who just then made my phone vibrate. Uncle Frédo didn’t have a phone—he barely had a voice—and he did not move fast, but he added to the balance. At least he did to mine.
The pink nail varnish went a little over the edges of my toenails. The result was not great. With the photo taken sideways, my legs crossed, you couldn’t tell. It took me about ten takes. Grandma would have been amazed to see photos that sharp captured with a cell. The phone vibrated. It was Catherine. I had the feeling her eyes were always fixed on her phone or her computer. I’d only just posted the photo she’d suggested.
“Hello Célia! I just saw the photo, very pretty, very well done. The brand name can be seen very clearly on the tube of cream.”
Only Catherine called me Célia. Very few people knew it was my name; Natacha was one, but that wasn’t the sort of thing she’d think about. She was pregnant again—probably by one of the Cannibal 2.0 gang members—and bloated, her damaged skin turning several shades.
“Our sales have taken off. I love experimenting with new marketing strategies. I would love, Célia, for you to continue talking about things that happen in the Cité. That is why the number of your friends, subscribers, and followers goes up. You know what I mean, photos like the ones of the headless corpse, videos in which women talk about their lives.”
I was disgusted. I hated her shrill voice, her certainty, the Englishisms I didn’t understand, her self-involved manner, and her obsession with nothing but the need to see profits mount. I told her I had trouble hearing her, that I should hang up. It was totally plausible. Telephone signals were generally appalling.
Emmelie Prophète, born in 1971 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is a poet, novelist, diplomat, and activist. She is the author of two poetry collections and six novels, the first of which won the Grand Prix littéraire de l’Association des écrivains de langue française (ADELF) and has appeared in English as Blue (Amazon Crossing, 2022). Her most recent novel, published in French in 2020, won the Prix FetKann Maryse Condé, an award recognizing literature from the largely postcolonial global South that promotes human dignity. In 2022, high school students in Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Guyana awarded it the Prix Carbet de Lycéens for best new novel from a contemporary Caribbean writer. Prophète, a former director of the National Library of Haiti, is Haiti’s minister of culture and communications and lives in Port-au-Prince. (updated 10/2022)