Dark Days in Port-au-Prince
(Published with permission from Akashic Books. Contributors to Haiti Noir participate in an exquisite corpse style story—a serial story in which each participant builds off of what the previous participants have written—to create an original piece of fiction with a decidedly dark tone.)
Elsa had the gentle rise of a growing baby in her belly and a sharp anger toward the baby’s father, Gilbert, in her heart. He sat across from her at their small kitchen table, his head in his hands as he tried to explain why he couldn’t take a job at the new garment factory that had recently opened in the north. He didn’t want to leave his family. He knew nothing of clothes. He couldn’t spend all day hunched over a sewing machine, working his fingers to the bone. He didn’t want to leave her. He didn’t want to leave their child. This last thing he said, smiling softly and reaching for Elsa’s hand.
She threw a worn stack of bills at Gilbert and jabbed her finger into the table. “Always excuses with you and still, we owe so much to so many.”
Gilbert shrugged then sat up, trying to add some steel to his spine. “I will take care of you. Don’t worry about how.” Before Elsa could respond he stood, leaned over to kiss her warm forehead, and then disappeared into the night.
As he walked along the dark and deserted street, Gilbert whistled—a sad little song his father used to sing at the end of a long day of work. He was going to make something happen. He had to. And then Elsa would stop scowling at him all the time. She would stop turning her back to him in the narrow bed they shared and making idle threats about leaving him for a man who could keep his word and take proper care of a woman. “I can keep my word,” Gilbert muttered.
The bar was nearly empty when Gilbert slouched in and took a seat next to two of his boys—Sylvain and Jean Pascal. They barely looked up from their drinks. They too had difficult women waiting for them at home, where difficult meant women who expected anything at all. They weren’t bad men but sometimes, they didn’t quite know how to be good.
For months, Jean Pascal had been talking about a plan. In his head, it made sense. A great big cruise ship, the Madrigal, came into port every ten days and there was money to be made—all those Americans who could afford to get fat and drunk on a boat of all things. If they could sneak onto the boat while it was in port, they could make something happen. That was as far as the plan had gotten but now, Gilbert brought it up, newly motivated by his disgruntled woman.
“Maybe we could rob the casino, like in Ocean’s Eleven,” Gilbert said, thoughtfully, rubbing his chin.
Sylvain snorted. “And make our getaway in a wooden sailboat?”
Gilbert ignored his friend. “Hear me out. I know a guy who works for the cruise line.”
“You are making absolutely no sense,” Jean Pascal said, “But, let’s get serious. We need to meet with this guy you know.”
Gilbert nodded. He was going to suggest a walk to Adam & Eve, the brothel where his half-brother Locito usually stayed when the Madrigal docked in Port-au-Prince, when the woman entered the bar—a lost kitten in a lougawou’s lair. The light from a car outside poured through the dirty window like rice and lit her face. She was pretty, although it was difficult to pinpoint what made her so—something to do with the cheeks and the mouth and the eyes. Too pretty for this place, Gilbert thought as she looked up and caught his eyes. The stranger smiled and waved. She looked vaguely familiar, but Gilbert was unable to place her anywhere for the moment. She motioned him with a finger to come and talk to her, and then exited the bar.
“Oh, my,” Jean Pascal said. “Is there something we need to know?”
“I’ll be right back,” Gilbert said, intrigued.
As he walked outside, her face already burned into his mind, he could feel his buddies looking at him. He found the woman leaning against a car by the entrance, a cigarette between her full lips, and again he pondered where he knew her from. A big man wearing a baseball cap was behind the wheel, and the front passenger’s door was open, waiting for the stranger to climb back in. The motor was running and Caribbean Sextet was playing low on the radio—a dusty beat, vast and full. He thought about Elsa. She loved Caribbean Sextet, their music sweet and easy breezy.
“You’re Gilbert, right?” the woman asked. She was wearing very short shorts, a tank top that read Talk nerdy to me, and high heels. Her permed black hair half-mooned her face now.
“I’m Gilbert,” he confirmed.
And as soon as he did, two hulky men came out of the shadows. He felt the punch against his cheek first. Then, as they held his shoulders in an iron grip, something like a knee or an elbow crashed against his rib—three or four times. He was too much in shock to even cry in pain. He fell on his back, and the woman put the heel of her shoe against his throat. Her smile was predatory. “I’m looking for Locito,” she said. “And you know where he is.”
Gilbert felt the dampness of blood on his shirt. He felt pain shoot through his ribcage. Every inch of his face was raw, hurting.
“You’re going to bring him to me,” she said. “On the Madrigal. Nine o’clock sharp, tomorrow night.” She pushed her heel a bit deeper, and Gilbert started coughing. “I know where you live.”
Gilbert winced. She let go of his throat. “Bring him to the Luna Star Lounge. I’ll be waiting.” She took another puff of the cigarette, her face now impassible. “Oh, and don’t tell him about this. You can keep a secret, can’t you? I suggest you think about that very pregnant woman of yours. That ought to keep your tongue tied.”
(Ibi Aanu Zoboi)
Gilbert stayed put, his eyes tightly shut, the taste of iron in his mouth. He rolled over to his side and curled up into a fetal position, like his son in the womb. Or daughter. Not a daughter. With his luck, she’d be indebted to a life’s work at Adam & Eve. His unborn child was the only thing he could think of. Locito was disposable, but not Elsa and that thing they made together—the only thing in the world that would make him pull his dignity up from the bottom of his dusty sandals and stand to face Sylvain and Jean Pascal as they came running towards him. Finally. Had they seen what had happened? Gilbert thought. He would not ask.
“Shit, man!” Jean Pascal exclaimed. “You must owe some serious money!”
Gilbert caught a glimpse of Sylvain shaking his head. “Not possible. I will put my life on it, they’re after Locito. Am I right or am I right?”
“Heh. I thought you and Sirop Miel had a thing,” Jean Pascal said. “She doesn’t call any man out of a bar unless, you know.”
Gilbert tried his hardest to stand upright, but a sharp pain jabbed at his left side, as if that lady had the heel of her shoe still lodged in there. He coughed. “Sirop Miel?” he managed to ask.
Sylain laughed. “You mean you left the bar with her and you didn’t even know who she was?”
“Heh, heh! Carmel Sirop Miel! The sweetest pussy at Adam & Eve—and the whole town, if you ask me,” Jean Pascal added.
“I swear, that face, I didn’t know who she was. But I remembered that face from somewhere,” Gilbert said as he wrapped an arm around each of his buddies and they helped him down the road towards his house. They didn’t believe him. The rest of the journey home was peppered with stories of this Carmel Sirop Miel and how she would lure her clients into acting out their wildest fantasies in the dark rooms of Adam & Eve. The wilder the fantasy, the higher the price.
“Locito, I mean, sure he went to that place, but he is a good guy. I should know. He’s my brother. He walked a straight line all his life.” Gilbert was able to stand on his own now as Sylvain stood nearby with his hands shoved into his pants pockets and Jean Pascal lit a cigarette.
Sylvain started to tell another story of how Carmel Sirop Miel seduced a small town preacher when a bright stream of headlights flooded the thick darkness surrounding the men. The car sped towards them and came to a full stop just inches away from where Jean Pascal stood at the edge of the cinderblock wall guarding Gilbert’s tiny pastel-colored house. The lights blinded them and Gilbert could hear Elsa’s flat-footed steps heading for the front door.
Just as Elsa opened the front door, that woman, this Carmel Sirop Miel, appeared before the stream of headlights.
“Gilbert, what is going on here?” Elsa asked as she rested both her hands on her round, full, and bare abdomen.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” Carmel said in a voice as smooth as her ‘bee’s syrup’ moniker. “Gilbert, I thought I’d come back for a little collateral, in case you were thinking of skipping town before sunrise, eh?”
(Katia D. Ulysse)
Sirop Miel fluttered her eyelashes theatrically. Somehow she made the Glock in her left hand look elegant. Without a word she assured Sylvain and Jean Pascal that unless they quit playing their ‘innocent bystander’ game, she would flush them down life’s toilet without an ounce of remorse. Terrified, the men ran backwards. Jean Pascal nearly swallowed the lit cigarette between his lips.
“Aren’t you going to invite me in?” Sirop Miel strutted toward Gilbert, who was now even more unsteady on his feet than before. She shoved Gilbert into the house. Elsa stepped aside to let them in; her hands crossed over her belly—protecting her precious cargo. Gilbert said a silent prayer for his unborn child.
“Collateral, remember?” Sirop Miel said, eyeing Elsa disdainfully.
Collateral. The word seemed bigger than the entire house. Once when he could not pay the rent, Gilbert put up his old moped as collateral for cash. That was how he “lost” it the first time. When Elsa had learned out about the moped, she called Locito. He was the intelligent one; Locito—she loved his name—was fearless and much better looking. Gilbert had been furious with Elsa but was thankful when he got the moped back. The second time Gilbert used the moped as collateral and Elsa called Locito, he hung up.
Sirop Miel perched herself at the edge of a sisal chair; her eyes ping-ponged between Gilbert and Elsa. “You let him do this?”
Gilbert shivered with fear.
Elsa scanned the room for something that might change the odds in her favor. There was nothing beside the wooden handle of an old broom and a few aluminum plates. She cursed herself for settling for Gilbert. Locito never would have allowed this to happen. He had good, maroon blood. Gilbert—the half-brother, the “outside child,” was a foolish dreamer, a waste. And now she might die because of him.
Sirop Miel flicked her hair. “You two are starting to bore me,” she said. “Give me Locito, Gilbert, then you and baby-mama can get back to your pitiful happily ever after.”
Elsa inched close to Gilbert. The smell of his skin nauseated her. She cleared her throat and spat in Gilbert’s face. Stunned, Gilbert reached up to wipe off the saliva.
“Fool,” Elsa growled. The word ripped through Gilbert like a bullet. “You still don’t get it, do you?” Her voice was even. Her eyes like ice.
“Calm yourself,” Gilbert whispered. He worried about her and the baby who would have his eyes and his name.
“Calm myself,” Elsa’s voice ricocheted off the walls. “You want me to be calm, after what you’ve done?”
“Shut up, Elsa.” Gilbert said apprehensively.
“You’re worth less than the skin on a pig’s ass to me,” Elsa shot back. “You don’t listen, Gilbert. How many times have I told you this?”
“Quiet, Elsa.” There was moisture in his eyes now.
“Bastard,” Elsa’s words cut deeper. Gilbert had heard the rumors about Elsa. He never wanted to believe them. Locito walked a straight line all his life . . . He was not the “outside child.”
“It’s not yours,” Elsa rubbed her belly, smiling peevishly. “Did think you were ever man enough to do this?”
“You’re a lying bitch,” Gilbert said in spite of himself. Elsa wobbled toward Sirop Miel.
The women exchanged a sinister look; one tried to read the other’s mind to no avail.
Elsa leaned closer to Sirop Miel, wet her parched lips with her tongue. “What was it you were saying about collateral?”
“Enough!” Cried Sirop Miel. “Enough already! You spend too long talking, barking, pleasuring yourselves with the words of your domestic quarrels. Enough!”
Then, almost whispering: “Listen, listen carefully to what the wind has to say! Listen!”
Both Gilbert and Elsa looked puzzled.
“What,” declared Sirop Miel, “you don’t hear the words of the wind? Are you Haitians or what! If so, stop acting like such a silly duo! Don’t you ever listen to the wind of rumors? Don’t you follow what the neighborhood’s gossip has to say?”
Sirop Miel knew exactly what direction she wanted the conversation to take. In Haiti, using the medium of what is called Telediol, masters of rumors in each town—from the North to the South and, from there, way down to the Grand’Anse Department—women and men establish coteries of gossipers duly responsible for spreading and launching into the air daily winds of rumors.
“The wind today,” added Sirop Miel with a cynical smile, “is talking about collateral. Read my lips.” She silently mouthed C.O.L.L.A.T.E.R.A.L. “You understand? To make sure you dig what I’m talking about, let us turn the page and go to the second phase of my visit.”
She unclipped her phone from her ornamented belt and quickly pressed a button. “It’s time,” she said, and hung up. Jean-Pascal and Sylvain had already fled, shaking with fear.
It wasn’t a minute before a brouhaha started at the door. Loud knocking! Sirop Miel walked toward the entrance, throwing a joke in the air: “May I?” she asked. “May I?” she repeated, slowly opening the door.
Two headsmen, the SUV’s driver and another henchman, made their way into the house. One went toward Gilbert and the other, the most ruthless one, in the direction of the pregnant Elsa. There, he rapidly adopted his macho posture: squaring up his shoulders and lifting his shirt to expose his 9mm’s hammer. He quickly took Elsa in his strong arms, wrapping them stiffly around her shoulders.
“Let the show begin!” shouted Sirop Miel.
The henchman seemed to start to draw on Elsa’s body with the tip of his index finger, going from underneath her right breast and curving down until the finger reached the lower part of her belly, not far from her genitals.
Smiling, Sirop Miel threw an explanation: “C for Collateral!”
Enraged, Gilbert tried to jump toward his wife, but the driver got him in a lock, a strong arm tightly wrapped around his neck. Ready to strangle, he gradually tied up the lock. A muffled sound came out of Gilbert’s mouth, as if he were fighting for breath, his tongue sticking out of his mouth. That’s when Sirop Miel, looking more cynical than ever, took a stroll around Gilbert and shouted:
“Let the show continue!”
Kneeling beside the chair where the Elsa had taken a seat, no longer able to stand on her wobbly legs, the ruthless henchman gently slipped his right hand underneath her skirt. He looked cynically at the astonished Gilbert, his finger slowly crawling toward Elsa’s panty. An anguished cry then exploded in the room: “No! Oh God! No!”
The unconscious woman was finally half-carried to the front door, which was ajar. Sirop Miel mockingly launched these last words: “Remember, listen to the wind of rumors, for the sake of your Collateral!”
She was nearly enjoying herself now, watching this little domestic drama unfold, but she needed to get down to business. She needed Locito, and Gilbert was going to bring the coward to her. Sirop Miel walked over to Elsa, in the henchman’s clutches. Elsa glared, her mouth set in a hard line. She did not lower her chin and Sirop Miel admired that. There were two kinds of women, she always thought—the ones who looked up and the ones who looked down. Sirop Miel extended a long finger and began tracing Elsa’s face with a single, painted fingernail. Elsa spat in Sirop Miel’s face and the woman’s eyes narrowed.
“You will regret that,” she said, delicately wiping the thin stream of saliva from her cheek with a linen handkerchief. She sat on a nearby chair and crossed her legs. She lit a cigarette. Gilbert instantly worried about the baby and then wondered why he was worried when it probably wasn’t his baby. He looked in Elsa’s eyes, tried to find some truth there. She stared at him, her expression inscrutable, her chin still high, and with that, his decision was made.
When he was a boy, Gilbert remembered reading the Bible—Cain and Abel, brothers who did not know how to be brothers. He thought of Locito, the son who lived in the open, the son who had their father’s heart. He thought of how their father, a tall, handsome men with a too-sweet tongue, who only came to visit Gilbert and his mother late at night and never saw the rise of a new day from their small home.
He reached into his pocket for his cell phone and quickly dialed the eight numbers. “I’m with my girl. What do you want?” Locito asked.
“You need to come over, right away. I came into a big money, brother, and tonight, we are going to celebrate. We are going to make plans.”
“Yeah?” Locito grunted.
Gilbert nodded even though his brother couldn’t see him. “Yeah,” he said softly, surprised that he felt nothing, not regret, not sadness.
“I’m there in fifteen,” Locito said.
After he ended the call, Gilbert stared at his phone in the palm of his hand. When he looked at Sirop Miel, he shrugged. “It is done.”
She smiled, coldly once more, and he understood she was the kind of woman who never spared warmth. “I underestimated you,” she said. “You will not know harm from me, though I cannot say the same for Locito. He should know better than to try and sting a bee.” She held her gun in both hands, pointed the barrel at the front door.
“You are nothing like your brother,” Elsa said sharply, still struggling in the henchman’s arms. She began screaming and Sirop Miel nodded sharply to the side. The henchman covered Elsa’s mouth with his fleshy hand, and soon, the only sound in the room was Elsa’s muffled anger.
Gilbert still felt nothing. Or he did feel something. He felt closer to free. He waited. Fifteen minutes was not a long time, not when it was only that stretch of time between being hidden and stepping into the light. There was a knock at the door, and Sirop Miel raised her gun, released the safety.
“Come in,” Gilbert said, loudly.
As the door opened, Sirop Miel pulled the trigger over and over. She didn’t stop.