‘The Thing’

Haitians call it “The Thing” – “Bagay la”.  It is nameless, this monster, like the thousands of lives it stole in one brief moment. It is as if naming it more precisely would cause it to return.  And this is the fear you hear in people’s voices when they ask: “What have you heard about ‘The Thing’? What are they saying about ‘The Thing’? Is ‘The Thing” going to come back?

“The Thing”, zigzagging haphazardly, following a trajectory known only to itself, leveling one house, missing the next, lasted an eternity. How do you measure time when the ground undulates beneath your feet?  How do you mark time when the earth shakes and breaks? There are so many ways it is described, this ‘Thing’ that manifested itself that  January afternoon, leaving Haitians in such fear that even those whose houses are undamaged will not sleep inside.  When I finally reached Port-au-Prince a month later to connect with friends and family, these are the stories I heard, each a piece of the quilt that forms a whole.  I was told these things and repeat them here.  Take them as you will. There is no proof offered, there can be no refutation. The truth is, an earthquake hit my land, and each person lived this experience differently.


Ramize describes it as a dragon breathing fire: a quick flash of light briefly seen, rapidly extinguished. And Ramize has never ever even seen a dragon.

There were places the sea parted in Grand-Gôave I heard, leaving fish flapping loudly on the sand in an insane choreographed ballet.

“The earth opened”, Magaly said, “The earth opened and swallowed the house and the people as if it were hungry”.

“I saw my house sway side to side as if it were a branch dancing in the breeze, and then I screamed for my daughter to come out – Chloé!!!!”.  Carole relives this moment every time she tells the story.

Jacqueline describes a bombing even though she has not lived through any wars. She was driving when “The Thing” hit her car, bouncing it like a ball  in the street.

Elizabeth was seated at her terrace crafting a bracelet. Her chair bounced, or was it the street? “Avenue Christophe was bouncing” she says. Her black and white tiles have burn marks. From where? Where did this dragon breathing fire come from?  She says :  ”It is not the corpses in the street I will remember although I have never seen so many dead before; it is the silence that preceded the wailing of women”.

The building where Willy was attending a meeting collapsed . He took refuge under a portico. He survived unscathed. One of his friends did not.

Someone accompanies Gardy home. He is later found wandering aimlessly in the street, his eyes vacant. “Why are you back in the street? What happened?”  “I opened my gates and I did not see my house.” His entire family had been indoors at the time.

Raymond survived the National Palace crash because he took shelter under a desk.

At a street corner, Blanc in a cloud of alcohol was in the middle of a dispute with a man whose screams of “Filthy drunk” left him unmoved. “The Thing” is what moved him, plastering him with force against a wall. “The other man was hit so hard by falling debris, Mademoiselle Michèle, he died without saying “Ah”.”

Romel Joseph, the blind violinist, survived eighteen hours of entrapment with prayer and music: 40 minutes of Cesar Frank’s concerto in his head, 40 minutes of meditation.

And Janette who’s husband found her after 3 days under a collapsed bank building. Janette, eyes shut tight with white dust, white dust filling her mouth, telling her husband : No matter what happens, remember I love you. Janette singing when rescued: “Halelujah, Jesus is my light, Halelujah, Jesus is my savior.”

A friend’s mother, a patrician octogenarian, was found a few days later lounging in bed protected by walls among the rubble, marking prayers on her rosary.  How many Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s did she say before she heard the voices calling her name?  “I am here. I am thirsty.  Why make me wait so long for the glass of water I requested?” she asked with irritation.

Reggie’s office collapsed, his house was destroyed. How do you start your life over at 60?

At the ministry Marie-Yolaine worked, the building collapsed .  She jumped in stilettos through a second floor window. Not a scratch, not a sprained ankle. Just the trauma.

Haitians talk about the trauma of the interior and the trauma of the exterior. Depending on where you were at the time.  Which is worse?  Is there a Richter scale to measure fear? What is the magnitude of anguish?

Jessie says “We have had to armor ourselves against the fear, against the pain, against the dead”.  The morning after the quake, she saw eighty corpses in the street where she had been the afternoon before.  I started to cry when I hugged her “We have cried too much “ she said.”We have no more tears”.

Josie’s brother was hit so hard in the back of his neck, his eyes were projected out of their sockets.  She saw so many wounded and dead at the hospital where she brought him, she has lost her head.

Another family’s maid was found under the rubble.  Her poor body, so broken,was placed in a sheet.  When it was lifted up, it formed a lump of meat dripping blood through the fabric’s weave.

There are things human eyes should not see, human ears should not hear. You do not witness certain things, even second hand, even a month later with impunity. After visiting the downtown area, I felt feverish and laid down sick, two days after my return home.  There was little left of the Port-au-Prince I knew but rubble and broken buildings, still a few corpses in the streets, entire areas  where Godzilla seems to have stomped indiscriminately. Monster. “Thing”, which destroyed my city leaving the ghosts of more than two hundred thousand hidden among the smoke, the debris, the steel dust and sand.

These fleeing women stumbling out of houses, clutching children, these men caught under the rubble,  their deaths are no longer their own but ours. Whether their lives and their deaths were for hope, a new beginning or for nothing, we will decide. Let the dead bury the dead. The living must change the world.

Michèle Voltaire Marcelin (02-20-2010)

Listen to Michèle Voltaire Marcelin stage “The Thing” at a “We Will Stand With Haiti” event on January 14, 2012. The staging of “The Thing” is preceded by the staging of “The Rift.”


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