Into the Zombie Underworld
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy

In the spring of 2006, Nadathe returned to joseph for an extended vacation. She had been working hard for years and was exhausted. Ascqué Neville's mother suggested that she come back to the village, where her fatigue could be treated with an herbal preparation. The treatment was successful, but Nadathe was in no hurry to return to Port-au-Prince.

Sometime in the fall, Nadathe attended a voodoo dance. In the course of the evening, Mano made a pass at Nadathe's younger cousin. She pushed him away and cursed him, calling him a "vòlè bèf" – a cattle thief. Mano hit her.

Nadathe stepped forward, pushed Mano backward – she was a large, strong young woman.

Nadathe shouted to be heard above the din of the drums and the cries of those possessed by the gods: "A man like you, how dare you love a little girl like that! How dare you beat her! She's a child!"

Mano was furious. He called Nadathe a whore, and then one of the most vulgar of all Creole insults: pitit, or a woman who has aborted her child. (This is a common Creole insult and does not imply that Nadathe had ever, in fact, had an abortion.)

"I'd rather be a whore, I'd rather have aborted my child, than be a cattle thief like you," Nadathe said.

He said, "If you're not dead Monday, you'll be dead Tuesday."

On that Monday, Nadathe spoke with her mother in Port-au-Prince. Nadathe told her mother just how successful the herbal treatment was, how much better she felt. She advised her mother to come down to Joseph to undergo the same treatment. It was decided: Madame Zicot would come down in December. This was the last time Madame Zicot spoke with her daughter.

Tuesday morning, very early: Sometimes the clearest, hottest days are in hurricane season, as huge storm systems brewing over the Atlantic suck up the local weather, leaving behind only clear blue skies and sharp yellow light. Nadathe dressed herself in a white T-shirt and skirt and wandered down to the pathway in front of the house, still stretching. She came back to the house a few minutes later, looking dazed. She told her sister Dina that Mano had been waiting for her in the path below. Nadathe had said, "Mano, what do you want?" Mano had touched her, on her shoulder, hard, and walked away. Nadathe then did something absolutely atypical: The energetic, industrious young woman went back to bed and slept until noon. She woke up and went to a prayer meeting at the church, where she complained again of fatigue, a vague but powerful sensation of feeling unwell – and an unusual sadness. That evening, Nadathe headed to the house of a Madame Manuel. She had promised to spend the evening with her in prayer.

The next morning, very early, Madame Manuel sent urgent word to the Joassaint family: Nadathe died in the night.

Madame Zicot was in Port-au-Prince when she heard the news about her daughter.

"They called me on Wednesday morning," Madame Zicot later said. "I said, Put an iron on her stomach so I can find her like she died. They told me that Mano killed Nadathe. I said, Mano is going to regret that; she's the only child Mano will kill. I'd rather have lost four cows, if I had them – even if I had only one cow, I'd rather he'd taken it – than kill my child."

She arrived in Joseph just after nightfall on Thursday. Her husband's little house was full of people: Some prayed; women made coffee. Others beat drums, and still others danced. Men played cards and dominoes. Nadathe lay in her elegant, expensive coffin, while paid mourners chanted canticles.

By Friday morning, Nadathe's body began to smell. The villagers carried Nadathe's coffin along the steep mountain trails to the village of Grand Vincent, where Nadathe was buried in the Neville family tomb, beside Ascqué's father.

I later saw the graveyard and tomb where Nadathe was buried. The graves were unmarked. Goats tethered between tombstones munched placidly at the high grass. The cement closing Nadathe's tomb was chipped and loose, but I saw no clear signs that the grave had been disturbed.