Into the Zombie Underworld
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy

I am not wealthy by American standards, but this article will probably pay me more than Madame Zicot could hope to earn in a decade. I wondered whether this money would not be sufficient to buy Nadathe's freedom, if she were still alive. Strip the story of its exoticism – replace the word "zombified" with "poisoned, kidnapped, drugged, and enslaved" – and you have a brutal crime. To profit from her enslavement, not having done all I could to liberate her, seemed to me to cross that narrow frontier that separates curiosity from exploitation.
So I arranged a meeting with Monsieur Val. I wanted to buy Nadathe's zombie.

Monsieur Val is 58 years old, stick-thin, the father of 21, the son of the former president of his large and powerful secret society, and the father of the likely next president of the same secret society. In his office, visible through a curtain, there was a human skull on the table, next to a foul-smelling poudre d'amour. But my eye was attracted to Monsieur Val's collection of plastic fruit, ceramic figurines, and teddy bears. One teddy bear wore a tiny T-shirt that read kiss me. i'm irish.

I said, "Monsieur Val, Nadathe Joassaint is worth nothing to anyone as a slave in the mountains. If we can bring her back and give her to her mother, she's much more valuable – because I can write about her."

Our conversation here detoured to the concept of being paid by the word. The general gist of Madame Zicot's story had convinced me that no appeal on humanitarian grounds was likely to be successful in obtaining Nadathe's liberty and would only arouse suspicion. So I made Monsieur Val the following offer: If he succeeded in obtaining Nadathe's zombie, I would give him every dollar earned on every word I wrote about her rescue. Monsieur Val agreed. The search began, naturally enough, with Madame Precieuse, and arrived about four months later at the mountain bungalow of a man whom I will call Monsieur H.

I met with Monsieur H. accompanied by Monsieur Val's son, Estime, who represents his father in dealings far from Jérémie.

I explained my proposal to Monsieur H. He was a mustachioed man in his early 50s, I reckon. He chain-smoked menthol cigarettes and played idly with a deck of tarot cards as I spoke.

When I finished he said, "I have never had a blan here in my home before. I would before today have never – jamais, jamais, jamais! – discussed these matters with a blan. Because your ancestors are not my ancestors!"
He looked at me for a long time.

"Mais…," he finally said. Then he said something fast in Creole, the only words of which I understood were Barack Obama.

Monsieur H. told me that the election of Obama had made him realize that blan were not the racist, venal, cruel creatures he had always imagined. This was about two weeks after the election.

He looked at me. His eyes were limned with a tracery of fine red veins.

"Did you vote for Barack Obama?" he asked.

Monsieur H. came so close I could feel his breath, smell it like a buzzard's. The silence was unbearable, yet only I could break it.

"Of course," I finally said.

This was not actually true – I had in fact forgotten to file my absentee ballot – but I probably would have voted for Obama had I voted.

Monsieur H. smiled.

"Bien," he said. "Très bien."

Monsieur H. told me that he was responsible for giving zombies laissez-passer throughout this zone of the Grand' Anse. All zombies who passed in or out of this region were required to come to his house and obtain the appropriate documents. According to Monsieur H., some months after Madame Precieuse's arrest, Predieu Dorval came to his house with Nadathe's zombie – a claim Dorval denies. Monsieur H. gave Dorval a laissez-passer to transport Nadathe onward. Monsieur H. told me that he saw Nadathe with his own eyes. Nadathe could now be found in the house of her new master, which, Monsieur H. said, was not far from where we were at that moment. If I wished to find Nadathe, Monsieur H. was willing to organize – at my expense – a large meeting of the secret society to discuss the proposal. He felt that my chances of success were good.

I agreed to his terms.

Because I was white, I was not allowed to attend the meeting. So Estime Val, with whom I had formed a friendship, was there to represent my interests, as was my Creole instructor Delzor, who though not a member of the society was allowed to attend the daytime sessions of the meeting. (The midnight sessions were limited only to initiates.)

I remained in contact by cell phone with Delzor for the next three days as the negotiations proceeded. I learned that the members of the society did not refer to one another by name, but only by number. Monsieur 17 was in possession of Nadathe's zombie. At first, Monsieur 17 was absolutely opposed to her release.

"I'll kill her before I give her up," he said.

But a few hours later, Delzor called back. The tide had shifted. Monsieur 17 was no longer threatening to kill Nadathe. Now he was asking precisely what I would do with Nadathe if they gave her back to me.

I had in fact prepared for these questions. In Port-au-Prince, I had found an organization, associated with an evangelical church group, that worked to rehabilitate zombies. I spoke with a pastor there, who had intervened in many cases of liberated zombies, sometimes after years of bondage. He told me that a healthy diet, medical treatment, familial affection, and prayer were almost always sufficient to return a zombie to proper health.

Over the course of the next two days, I could feel Delzor's patience beginning to fray. Each of the sorcerers was frightened of the others, he said, and only dared proceed with Nadathe's liberation if there was consensus in their decisions. Although each of these sorcerers was a member of the same society, they were also heads of their own smaller societies. And each of these societies, in turn, required unanimity before consenting to Nadathe's release. It was a decision-making structure guaranteed to fail.

Slowly, my hopes of winning Nadathe's freedom began to slip away.

The sticking point in the negotiations was the general fear that Nadathe or Madame Zicot would return to the justice system after Nadathe's release. Madame Zicot, after all, had gone to court twice so far. Now Monsieur 17 was frightened that Nadathe, returned to full possession of her faculties, would remember who he was and where he could be found.

I could not figure out a way to overcome this problem. I had spoken with Madame Zicot not long before and she had assured me that she had no intention of going to court – she had only visited Judge Etienne initially in the hopes of obtaining her daughter. Through Estime Val, I tried to convince Monsieur 17 that the justice system itself would have little interest in pursuing the case, given the reputation of the society. But Monsieur 17 reminded me that Madame Precieuse had certainly not been immune, and she had paid very dearly.

The sorcerers were by then very drunk. They went home. There was another meeting. Some sorcerers who had opposed freeing Nadathe now wished to free her; some who had supported freeing Nadathe had thought things over and decided it wasn't a good idea.

And that, more or less, was that.

I thought of going to court myself. But I was too frightened. Not for myself: As I write this, I'm far from Jérémie. But I was frightened that if the court got involved, Monsieur 17 would straightaway kill Nadathe and bury her in some remote corner. Or worse: Some members of the society had already accused Delzor of a kind of race-treason, representing a white man in these dealings. I was worried that if I went to Judge Etienne, they would turn Delzor into a zombie too.