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Letters From Haiti

Ghosthunter

In the Port-au-Prince neighborhoods of Turgeau, Bois Verna, and Pacot exist 300 “gingerbread houses”—derelict and endangered, never mind scary. Still, a good old-fashioned ghost story takes some looking for. Until it comes to find you.

Tatiana Istomina, White Bench, 2009. Courtesy the artist and 571 Projects.

It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood—musical, blue, and not too hot. I was lost, circling the Hotel Siren, marching up and down the steepest hill of Avenue N. There were gingerbread houses everywhere in this section of Port-au-Prince, but not the one I was looking for.

I called the phone number again and asked to speak to Monsieur P. so that he could lead me to his house. I knew he should be there, because the girl at the preservation office had just called him to let him know I was coming. “He doesn’t really go anywhere these days,” she assured me. “He’s always home.”

The man who answered said there was no Monsieur P. to talk to. He implied not that I hadn’t called the wrong number, but that the number I had called had not reached the right phone. “The lines get crossed,” he said.

Finally I came to the house with the double mansard towers, one of them listing heavily. At the gate I called again. Only without the phone.

“Hello! Monsieur P.?” I called, and he emerged from the slim, dim doorway of his fantastical house. I thought of a snail and of the oversize house he stays attached to and of the horns he wiggles independently, skeptical of the sun.

 

There are something like 300 houses clustered in the Port-au-Prince neighborhoods of Turgeau, Bois Verna, and Pacot that are wooden, gabled, shuttered, and of varying degrees of whimsy. They hide their turrets behind foliage and high walls, or bare their outsized windows and pastel porches brazenly to the street. They were elegant at the turn-of-the-century—these houses built by Haitians, influenced by French, and christened, as a group, in English fashion, “the gingerbread houses.”

“Ghosts” seemed the wrong terminology in a place where the spirits of the dead are expected to haggle with street vendors and where the undead are pressed into zombie chain gangs.

Today they are largely in disrepair. Their paint is peeling, their verandas are warped, their columbage is crumbling, and their beams are the dust left by insects. They are entrancing, exotic, overgrown, and derelict. In 2009, the gingerbread houses of Port-au-Prince were put on the architectural endangered species list, joining Afghanistan’s Old City of Herat and the churches of Lesvos in Greece, among others, on the World Monuments Fund’s watch list. Three months later, nearly all of Haiti’s gingerbread houses survived the earthquake that wiped out the concrete and rebar houses around them.

Appreciating their seismic resistance and their charm, I still wanted from the gingerbreads something as yet uncelebrated but so obviously inherent to their tropical gothic souls. I was looking for a real-life ghost story.

I figured one would not be easy to come by in Haiti. “Ghosts” seemed the wrong terminology in a place where the spirits of the dead are expected to haggle with street vendors and where the undead are pressed into zombie chain gangs. What are ghosts among a population that expects death always—up the tree, around the bed, under the surf? What are spirits in a culture that treats them as saints? But if there were to be a long-fingered haunting—a keening, drifting spirit keeping a greater distance from voudou than from its own grave—I was sure I would find it in a house whose physical nature promised bats in its belfries.

 

We are sitting on Monsieur P.’s front porch, small people under a soaring verandah with five different doors letting the outside in.

“I’ve come in search of a ghost story,” I tell him, and he starts talking. He talks for quite a while. He tells me about his grandfather, the provincial doctor who planned to bring his wife to the capital to a fine wooden house with two mansard towers and a bedroom that she could call her own. He hung her clothes in the room he had selected for her, but instead she died, and the doctor was left to live in the big house with his motherless daughter, his husbandless sister, and his fatherless niece.

“Grandfather was like me,” says Monsieur P., the son of that motherless daughter. “He never talked.”

Monsieur P. had met me at the gate with a warning. “I’m shy, introverted, and withdrawn,” he had announced.

That was a half-hour ago and already I am teasing him about his hollow claims of reclusiveness. “You are a paradox,” I remark more than once, always to peals of laughter.

“That’s me,” he hoots.

 

Monsieur P. was five years old when his father sent his mother a letter from Europe, where he was earning good money, saying that it was time for the family to join him. Monsieur P.’s mother replied that they would come just as soon as the school year ended. Instead what happened was that Monsieur P’s father died and his mother packed her boys and her things and moved back to her childhood home. Now the gingerbread house was full—of widows and widowers and cousins raised by single mothers.

I stand and peer into the quiet, cool space beyond the doorway. Inside, the ceilings are high, and the main room spacious. But it’s smaller than its shambling exterior suggests, its apparent expanse a result of its emptiness.

I try to imagine it full of Monsieur P.’s family. They are watching me from the mantel—all shades of class and caste and race. All dead. The mulatta from the Saint Marc bourgeoisie. Another female with the dark face of youth in stasis. She looks like a schoolteacher. Another grandfather, the one who did not buy his wife a gingerbread house, wears the pencil-thin mustache of a carefree Caribbean.

The radio is on. An antique clock keeps the correct time, though the pendulum is still.

On the second floor, Monsieur P. shows me the room that was meant for his dead grandmother. Her clothes stayed in the closet, he tells me, for many, many years. “Grandfather would go there from time to time. We didn’t know what he was doing there. He just closed the door.”

The he showed me a balcony on the other side of the house. Its doweled railing made shadows across the warped boards and a coconut rotted in the corner. This was where his brother had slept. Until his death three years ago.

 

Less than a third of Port-au-Prince’s gingerbread houses are of the size and faded grandeur of Monsieur P’s. Most of the gingerbreads are discreet—small shuttered shotgun houses squeezed between barbershops and empty ruins of the quake. The large ones, love children of Charles Addams and Key West, have been mostly abandoned by their owners, their upkeep impractical in such a fractured economy. Those that have managed to stay habitable do so as embassies, schools, or, in the case of the lovely specimen not far from Monsieur P., a headquarters for Doctors without Borders. The most famous gingerbread is a popular hotel, the setting of Graham Greene’s Duvalier-era satire, The Comedians. Next door is a collapsing beauty with rounded balustrades and a carriage drive under its double steps. Once home to a cosmopolitan bandleader and his legendary parties, it is now housing refugees of the quake.

I try to imagine the gingerbread house full of Monsieur P.’s family. They are watching me from the mantel—all shades of class and caste and race. All dead.

Preserving the gingerbreads is fraught with obstacles, not the least of which is the dissonance that comes from spending money to improve high-end housing in a city where a half million people lack shelter. They are a cultural legacy, yes, but many of the owners may be convinced to sell. Spending money to improve high-end housing in a city where a half million people lack shelter. The funds are not readily available, and many of the owners may be convinced to sell. Monsieur P. is among them, but his hesitancy is not just due to an attachment to the house. In a country like Haiti, he says, you can never be sure of your rights. Or your possessions. The state can easily claim the house, he figures, whether as a landmark, or as a post-disaster zone in need of state reclamation. He’s content to leave the hard decision till another day.

“I’m lazy,” Monsieur P. chortles, not for the first time.

 

Monsieur P. quit his job three years ago. He was always fatigued. He couldn’t work. He’s better now, but he doesn’t want to work. Not even to make money to hold onto his house. His family’s house. The house that his mother, with whom he exchanged very few words in the last seven years of her life, left him, though he was not her favorite son, he says.

We are back on the porch. I want to ask if maybe it’s not the lupus or the failure to make peace with his mother that is the cause of his malaise. If maybe it is the death of his brother that he has yet to recover from. The brother who spent 40 years on the southern balcony, listening for the sound of Monsieur P.’s footsteps. The brother who was mentally retarded and physically disabled, who never learned to walk or talk or feed himself.

I don’t need to ask. Monsieur P. is still insisting that he is a hermit. A man without friends, he laughs genially, his voice at a new pitch of amusement. He’s quiet for a moment and a cicada takes over.

Then he says: “Do you know who my best friend was all my life? My best friend was my younger brother. When the kids in the neighborhood would go to the movies, or to annoy girls, I would stay with him. On a mat on the floor on the balcony. I would lie with him and talk. He didn’t even understand what I was saying. Maybe that’s why I don’t relate well to people. Because the person I related to best—he didn’t speak.”

Monsieur P. sighs happily at the irony.

“That’s weird,” he says, and I have to agree. It’s as weird as a deeply personal discussion with a man I have just met, who fancies himself a recluse. It’s still sunny when I leave Monsieur P. with his ghosts. They are a good deal more real than I had hoped to find, and yet it is the man who sees me to the gate who will continue to haunt me. I thank Monsieur P. for his time and he slips back into his gingerbread shell.

But first he gives me his email address.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem