Venance Lafrance Is Not Dead
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy

A couple of weeks after the earthquake, the werewolves came down from the hills.

"It's serious!" one man said.

He was talking about the lougarou, a distant cousin of the werewolf. In Haitian lore the lougarou was a kind of sorcerer who had learned to transform himself into an animal – a cat, a goat, or even a cow. Thus disguised, the lougarou went out into the night to feast on the blood of small children. Two or three days after such a visitation, children would sicken and die. Now, with so many people in Port-au-Prince sleeping in the open air, the lougarou were believed to present an exceptional danger.

He told me that not here but farther up on the mountain the werewolves had already killed a number of small children. This was the way the lougarou story always went – not here, but not far away, the lougarou were prowling. Another man told me that a brigade vigilance was formed to keep an eye out. Our baby's nanny later said that the police in her neighborhood had instituted a policy of zero tolerance for looters and lougarou: Both were killed on sight.

We were in the hills of Carrefour Feuilles, a neighborhood above Port-au-Prince. Before the quake small cinder-block houses had been stacked steeply one upon the next, climbing the bowls of the mountain, the inhabitants maneuvering through tiny alleyways. When the quake came, one house took down the next, leaving the entire hillside a smear of concrete and rubble and fallen satellite dishes.

"But why do lougarou want to suck children's blood?" I asked.

The question provoked discussion. One man proposed it was a vice, like a taste for whiskey or smoking. Another man just shrugged. But a third man said, "Le lougarou – c'est le mal absolu." The lougarou is absolute evil. I suppose, thinking it over now, that it was easier to stay awake at night watching for werewolves than it was to stay on guard for lethal aftershocks.

The earthquake was still recent enough that every passing truck gave me the shivers. Very early one morning, my phone rang, but when I answered it, the caller abruptly hung up. This pattern irritatingly repeated itself perhaps five or six times. This was Venance Lafrance's way of saying he was not dead.

I had met Venance three years earlier, shortly after my wife and I moved to Haiti. She had found a job in the justice section of the United Nations peacekeeping mission here, working with judges, prosecutors, and lawyers to reform the Haitian legal system. I had just published my first novel, and I figured that I could avoid writing a second one as easily in Haiti as anyplace else; in this I would eventually be proven completely correct. Cristina was initially assigned to the town of Jérémie, only about 125 miles from Port-au-Prince but remote, like an island off the coast of Haiti, 15 hours of bad road between us and the capital. There were more coffin makers in Jérémie than restaurants, more donkeys than cars, and the paved roads petered out at the edge of town. We rented an old gingerbread house flanked by a quartet of sturdy mango trees. In the mornings merchants came down from the hills past our front gate with baskets of fruit balanced on their heads, and at night in bed under the mosquito net when the moon was silver and big, we heard voodoo drums and strange, spooky singing. I don't know if I've ever liked a place more in my life.

Everywhere I went in Jérémie, people asked me for money. Out front of the internet cafe, a woman who was almost obese looked up from her breakfast and told me she was hungry. At the market, on the beach, in the streets, people would throw up their palms and say, "Blan, ba'm cinq gourdes" – White, give me five gourdes. I've been in other places as poor as Jérémie – the slums of Calcutta, the highlands of northern Thailand – but I've never seen more persistent and aggressive begging. There is a Creole proverb: Degagé pa peché – getting by isn't a sin. Asking someone who had money for money was just another way of getting by.

Venance Lafrance asked me for money just a few days after I got to Jérémie. I was walking to the beach – think goats, chickens, cows, pigs, and wild turkeys; mud huts; a strip of white dirt road snaking along high cliffs diving down to a postcard sea – when a young man with a bag of sweet potatoes on his head accosted me and told me in broken French after some conversational preliminaries that he wanted to be an artist. He was 17 at the time but looked about 12. He looked a little like a space alien, with very big eyes, a wide, tall forehead, and high, prominent cheekbones tapering down to a narrow, angular chin. He was wearing a T-shirt that read life is short. eat dessert first. He was very skinny. I don't remember how he began the conversation, but the upshot was this: He was a student; he had no money; his mother had no money; his little brothers were hungry; and he wanted to be an artist. He had a terrific smile – chiefly what the good Lord gave him in exchange for all his troubles was this smile like an exploding sun. He asked me for money to feed his little brothers and I gave him the change in my pocket – about a buck-fifty. I wouldn't have been sad if I never saw him again.

In the weeks and months thereafter, no pretty lady has ever been courted by such an animated and constant suitor as I was courted by Venance Lafrance. He came by the house all the time. He was unshakable. My wife and I tried many schemes to convince Venance to leave us alone. I told him that he was allowed to visit only every third day. Every third day without fail he showed up at our door. We asked him to visit only between five and six in the evening, with the result that we had a standing appointment with Venance Lafrance at 5:01 pm. We told him not to visit us at all. Ha! He was resistant to hints, oblivious to suggestions. What did he want? Not just to ask for money, but also to say hello, or to eat a meal, or to hang around, or to ask a question. After I had known him a week, he told me that he loved me like a brother; after I'd known him a month, that he loved me like a father. What he wanted more than anything, I think, was to sit with us out on the terrace in the evening and belong.

In the end Venance wore me down. I came to like him. It was hard to be mean to somebody so young who wanted so badly to be liked. He was the kind of kid you could horse around with. He was always up for kicking around a soccer ball, or taking a trip to the beach. You could send him up the mango tree and he'd come down with a half-dozen fresh, juicy pieces of fruit. He had an easy laugh. You could read a book around him and he'd amuse himself, or you could tease him about girls and he'd laugh. After a couple of months in Jérémie, it got to be an accepted fact of life that two or three or five days a week, Venance Lafrance would show up at our house and hang around until we told him that he had to leave.

Brilliant smile aside, Venance wasn't very handsome. He had terrible body odor, and his hair was reddish at the roots, a sign of protein deficiency. He asked me for money to buy deodorant and shoe polish, which he rubbed on his head. Though he said he wanted to be an artist, I never saw him actually make art. He was functionally illiterate. He was one of the laziest people I've ever met – and I say this as someone who is quite lazy himself. He had been admitted to a free school of ironwork, which he often didn't bother to attend. We would later hire Venance and his younger brother to sweep our yard on Saturday mornings. His brother would arrive on time and work diligently. Venance would show up late, work halfheartedly, and leave early.

Venance Lafrance had only one real asset in life – but it was considerable. Despite every disadvantage that he suffered, despite every self-inflicted wound, Venance was nevertheless making his way in the world with radiant, unwavering optimism. One day he bought a hen whom he named Catalina. This was to be the start of a chicken-breeding empire. Then his family got hungry and ate Catalina. Venance was undismayed. He asked me for money to buy another starter chicken. If you gave Venance 50 gourdes, he'd give half to the kids on the street to buy candy – Venance saw himself as somebody who could afford to be generous. When he told us he wanted to be an artist, I think he chose the word almost at random from a list of grand words that to Venance were synonymous with hope. He would tell me later that he wanted to be a preacher, a doctor, an engineer. Step by step he went forward toward an opaque future that he was sure – absolutely, unquestionably sure – would one day be glorious.

In the meanwhile, he got by.