Into the Zombie Underworld
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy

Over the course of the next year, i visited joseph, Nadathe Joassaint's village, at least a dozen times, usually traveling with my Creole teacher, Delzor. Joseph, a place of spectacular, claustrophobic beauty, was accessible only by foot. I spoke with Nadathe's cousins, her sisters and brother, her friends, and her father, but it was only after almost a year of research that I finally found Nadathe's mother, Madame Zicot Joassaint. (Madame Zicot was born Enette Paul but as per Haitian custom is known by her husband's first name.) After I met her, I realized that Nadathe's life, like her death, had been, after its own fashion, extraordinary.

Nadathe Joassaint was born in Joseph on June 6, 1980, the fourth of five children. The geographical center of the village is a dilapidated church, which doubles as the elementary school. Other landmarks include the cockfighting ring, a small shrine to Baron Samedi (the Lord of the Dead), and a spreading mango tree notable for the quality of the cell phone reception in its shade, within sight of the unmarked grave where Mano and Overne are buried. Otherwise the village sprawls: little tin-roofed house, fence, and garden after little tin-roofed house, fence, and garden. It is not quite one of the poorest places in the Americas, if only because of the coffee trees – coffee being a cash crop – but it's close: There is no electricity, and the nearest water source is the river, about a kilometer down the slope of a mountain.

When Nadathe was 14, Madame Zicot left her husband and moved to Port-au-Prince, taking Nadathe and the other children with her. There was no school in Joseph beyond the elementary grades, and Madame Zicot saw Nadathe's intelligence and ambition, saw a child who loved beautiful things and wanted them. Madame Zicot foresaw nothing for her daughters in Joseph but a lifetime of carrying water from the river up the big hill. Madame Zicot, working first as a domestic servant, then in the market, would eventually find the means to buy her own tiny cement house in a twisting warren of tiny cement houses, all with a dramatic view over Port-au-Prince to the sea.

The move to the city did just what her mother hoped it would: It transformed the village girl into a self-sufficient, sophisticated young woman. The girls left behind in Joseph talked about Nadathe and gossiped about her and wanted to be just like her. Nadathe wore beautiful, chic clothes, which she paid for with money she earned in the market. If life in the city and hard work hadn't made Nadathe rich, exactly, it had made her something equally rare in rural Haiti: It had made her free.

When she was 20, Nadathe returned to Joseph on vacation and went to a kompa dance in a nearby village. Ordinarily she'd rather have been working than dancing, her mother told me. But she went to this dance and there met her future fiancé, Ascqué Neville, 10 years or so older than her, very handsome, and very kind. He had a thick mustache, heavy shoulders, deeply inset melancholy eyes, and a shy demeanor, perhaps on account of his slight stutter. Ascqué followed Nadathe to Port-au-Prince and found work as a mechanic. They lived together in a little house of their own, not far from Madame Zicot.

I was able to find a few photographs of Nadathe. One shows her standing on the steps of a concrete house, about a year before she died. It must be in Port-au-Prince: There are no houses like this in Joseph, not with glass windows and cast-iron railings. She is light-skinned – people said she was as light as a blan, but in truth about the color of Barack Obama, another thing that gave her that air of big-city, faraway glamour. She is wearing sunglasses, a stylish blue jacket over a white dress, and sensible pumps. A small handbag dangles from the tips of her fingers: This might be a churchgoing outfit, a supposition consonant with her well-known piety.

Another photograph, which she had given to a relative, was passport-size and shows a teenage girl, self-conscious but nevertheless wholly self-confident, her chin balanced on a carefully posed forearm. On the back, Nadathe wrote in French, in a girlish cursive: "May this birthday be filled with those beautiful little photos that gladden the heart!" Then in English: "I Love you!"