Venance Lafrance Is Not Dead
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy
On Tuesday, January 12, in the late afternoon, Venance Lafrance was playing dominoes out front of his friend Alfred's house. The board was balanced on the players' knees. They'd been slapping the bones for hours – days even. There was a big crowd around the board waiting to get in on the game. The board started shaking. The tiles started sliding. One of the fellows said, "Who's shaking the board?" Another fellow said, "Not me." Then the bricks started falling – ka-choo, ka-choo, ka-choo! Venance heard a noise like 10,000 trucks roaring up a steep hill. The street itself started making waves. Some of the fellows who'd been waiting to play dominoes started running – but Venance didn't run; he just stood his ground, watching the houses shaking and the street swinging up and down like a rubber hose, rolling up, down, left and right. The dominoes that had been on the board were on the ground, clattering like they were dancing. Right in front of Venance a two-story brick house leaned over on its side in a big cloud of dust, like it was tired and needed a break – penché.

When the ground stopped shaking, Venance's first thought was Cousin Maxo. He ran home through the streets. He passed collapsed house after collapsed house; the entire population of Port-au-Prince was in the streets.

Cousin Maxo's two-story house lay on a little alley. The cinder-block walls had given way and buckled outward. The first floor had come down, exploding massively as it made contact with the concrete foundations. Then the roof had come down also, staying largely intact. The house that had been two stories, or about 20 feet tall, was now just concrete slab on a waist-high pile of rubble. Krazé net.

Madame Maxo was outside. She was showing up at the house just as Venance was getting there. She was saying, "Where's Maxo?" Then she was saying it all over again: "Where's Maxo?" And again, "Where's Maxo?" Venance knew where Cousin Maxo was. When Venance had left to play dominoes earlier that afternoon, Maxo had gone upstairs to take a nap.

"Maxo's inside," he said.

"Are you sure?" Madame Maxo said. "Is it true?"

Venance thought a second. But he knew Maxo had been sleeping. He was sure of it.

"Yes," he said.

"Then he's dead," she said.

Venance stayed with Madame Maxo for two days in front of the ruined house. For two days he didn't sleep. Neighbors cooked and passed around food – only Madame Maxo didn't eat. Venance had never been responsible for anyone before. Now he washed the children and made sure they ate, and kept far from the rubble, and stayed far away from the burning bodies. When Madame Maxo cried, he consoled her, as best he could. Madame Maxo had a little money in her pocket when the quake hit – that's what kept the family going. Venance himself didn't cry for Cousin Maxo. The tears wouldn't come. He felt light in his head – like he had been transported to some strange new world.