By Dennis B. Roddy
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The Ti Gasson died sometime in the small hours of Thursday. Stars were still in the sky and the cool, Haitian air offered the illusion that the day would not again grow hot, angry and ordinary.
He was born inside-out. His intestines were outside his abdomen. The condition is called Omphalocile or Gastrochisis, depending on its severity. Small distinctions of name do not much matter. Hours of surgery offer a slim chance where a respirator is on hand. They don't have one here.
"One of the nurses did a marvelous job of trying to breathe for him for half an hour," Zachary Hartman told me. She pumped a small air sack over and over. Small miracles of doctors in this place are not often followed by the large ones of Jehovah. So he died.
"It was a little boy," said John Judson, another doctor. "A ti gasson."
Literally, it means "little man," but nothing here is plain. The whole place is a parody of life, where things behave as if behavior does not exist. One evening, a rooster and a hen fluttered 15 feet from the ground and roosted in a tree. Chickens should not act this way, but who can reason with a chicken, especially one able to outwit the chef?
I was left to wonder at the pointless heroics of the place. Nobody had the equipment to spot the deformity that, in the states, might have been handled in the womb. They have x-rays here, not ultrasound. Doctors had no expectations but that the child would die, and so they spent hours in surgery, a quiet young woman from San Francisco tended to him before and after.
"Holding his own," he nurses would tell me when I asked. Then the word arrived in the morning. The absence of questions put paid to the matter. No one brought it up. This is Haiti.
Death is so companionable a specter here that Haitians have given him a name: Baron Samedi. He is the bouko, or spirit god of death for followers of voodoo. People here can decide whether to be Catholic or Protestant but it seems that their nationality is voodoo.
The Baron is said to dress in a black coat and pants, wear the thick, black-framed glasses the old dictator, Francois Duvalier, affected. He wears a top hat, smokes a cigar, carries a bottle of rum in one hand and a walking cane in the other, and trots the earth spewing obscenities. He is a hard man to satisfy, though the Haitians try.
They handed over 250,000 or so of their own when the earth shook a year ago. They left a 3,800 corpse tip with the cholera epidemic. Their infant mortality rate alone should satisfy the old bastard but children are loose change here. After Jean-Claude Duvalier, Papa Doc's fat and corrupt son, fled the country with his kracken of a wife, Michele, this story circulated: they had decided to put a curse on the palace and dispatched someone to grab an infant boy – for these things one needs a ti gasson. Over the presidential bed he was ritually slaughtered, his body cut and stuffed with sacred herbs. Then the Duvaliers loaded everything they could steal, threw a few fleeing cronies off the plane to make room for more booty, and jetted to France. The story was published in some of the papers here. It is widely believed if only because some sort of curse seemed to follow.
The palace was knocked down in the earthquake, along with the main cathedral, the United Nations headquarters, the hotels, even the funeral homes.
The place is a mess just now. The outgoing president, Rene Preval, is doing what he can to push his hand-picked successor, Jude Celestin, into the runoff election. In educated circles, the enthusiasm is for Mirlande Manigat, a lawyer and wife of one of Haiti's retinue of deposed leaders. In the slums the favorite is Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly, a folk singer. As the weekend neared, two young women were swimming in the pool at the Hotel Visa Lodge with a boy from Cite Soleil they'd taken to lunch so he could swim.
On of them is Tammy Babcock, a native of Kingston, Ontario, who runs a charity called Help Tammy Help Haiti.
The city was on edge because the runoff list was overdue for announcement. Only two of the three candidates could vie and Sweet Mickey's supporters had cried fraud. It is hard to tell, with so many street lists and voter lists and actual addresses lost in the earthquake how much of the November election was fraud and how much was incompetence. U.N. troops and national police were all over the place expecting a riot in the slums.
"We've been told – we're hearing – tomorrow, maybe both days. In the morning," Ms. Babcock said, making a slight roll in the water.
Morning? Who schedules a riot for the morning?
"Probably because it's not hot yet," she said.
On Sunday, Jean-Claude Duvalier jetted in to Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport 25 years after he jetted out of it on the last day it was Francois Duvalier International Airport. He arrived here with a new wife, a retinue of amnesiac supporters and threats of arrest hanging over his head.
Two days later, a posse of Haitian police [at right] walked him out of the upscale Hotel Karibe and took him to court. No one is sure if he'll be charged with corruption, charged with crimes against humanity, or charged with entering the country on an expired diplomatic passport. He could be sent to jail or sent back to Paris. For that matter, he could be returned to the Karibe and brought room service. It's Haiti.
I spent much of Friday afternoon on the patio of the Visa Lodge. Westerners use it as a sort of pre-lobby to the airport. The place is topped with a wooden roof to block the sun and an array of large, paddle fans beat ceaselessly against the heat.
A butterfly entered the enclosure and fluttered mightily toward the spinning blades of the fan. Perhaps it was trying to mate, perhaps it thought the fan a parent – it's hard to know. On a second try, it hit the blades, a wing fluttered loose and the maimed body was hurled over the railing. The feat was unimaginable. To reach death that butterfly had to use all its energy and all its will and all its luck.
Where chickens live in trees and butterflies are suicidal and the Ti Gasson arrives inside-out, there is nobody to breathe for Haiti.