In the chaos after the quake, Marie Lud Francois sent her two older children to an orphanage. But months later, her house remains in ruins, money is scarce, and hopes of bringing them home remain dim.She woke before dawn to get the charcoal going. The tents and rusted shacks on Ruelle Porcelaine were quiet. A faint mist drifted down on the tarps as she boiled a bit of fish and sweet potato in a tin pot.
She wrapped the food neatly in paper and packed a tote bag with hand towels, candies, tangerines, hair ties, pomade, a pair of pink sandals, secondhand T-shirts and little pants. She wished she could bring more. Bernardo’s flip-flops were wearing out, and Barbara needed a hair brush.
Marie Lud Francois had been thinking about this day for nearly two months, ever since she handed her two oldest children over to an orphanage.
Marie Lud ached to see them, but was wary. No emotion ran clean anymore. Nothing was right after the earthquake.
Her husband, Bernard Charles, gave her the money for the trip, about $3.50. He had been saving for several weeks. Bernard, who sews and fixes mattresses, had to stay behind and look for work. Marie Lud wished he could come with her. She wished that, for at least a moment, they could all be together.
Bernard was wiry and animated in a way that complemented Marie Lud’s quiet warmth. He found the humor in nearly everything, and his old foot-pedal sewing table had become a gathering spot on the block.
Their son, Bernardo, who is 13 and shy like his mom, would shadow his dad, emulating him, helping him sew, repeating his jokes. Barbara was 9 and more outgoing, forever delighted and gleaming, following her older brother the way he followed his dad. Marie Lud wondered how her little ones were coping at the orphanage. She knew Bernardo would do anything to protect Barbara. But both were sensitive children, not particularly tough. She hoped they weren’t getting picked on.
She listened to the noise of the city as it began to rise. The men down the street began their dominoes, thwacking the pieces down as they always did. The street below Ruelle Porcelaine sputtered with motorcycles and creaky jitneys and dump trucks filled with shattered concrete.
Marie Lud’s family lived in two rooms in an old row of wooden shops. Since the earthquake Jan. 12, they had barely stepped inside them. The adjacent four-story building was cracked and threatened to come down on top of them. They slept in a vacant lot next door.
Her friend Blanc and their neighbor Edner joined her. They were going to visit their children at the same orphanage, about two hours away.
Marie Lud put a white sunbonnet on her 5-year-old daughter, Bernardin, and Blanc picked up her 13-month-old boy. Edner’s teenage daughter appeared, and they all walked toward the bus stop on Rue Central. Edner, silver-haired and lanky, led in a pressed red guayabera, khaki pants and polished wingtips.
The neighborhood, Bel Air, was once a prosperous haven of little wooden homes with ornate fretwork and peaked tin roofs. The affluent had long ago moved away, but many of their ancient houses still stood, splintered and rickety, tilting this way or that.
The three parents and their children filed into a bus, with “My Insurance is God” painted on the windshield. When enough people had wedged in, the driver pulled away and Marie Lud gazed out the window.
They passed Place de la Paix, where in a past life the family had listened to the rara bands on weekends, or watched Bernardo play soccer. Thousands lived there now, in makeshift tents and lean-tos. Already, scraps of tin and wood were solidifying into something permanent.
For a brief spell after the disaster, Marie Lud had held a shred of hope for the future. Everyone was talking about rebuilding, creating jobs. But now the initial rush of grief and adrenaline was giving way to a silent horror that this was the future.
What if she could never get her children back? What if they were adopted by Americans? What if they forgot about her? What if they blamed her?
The sound came like the roar of a jet from the deepest earth, followed by tremendous jack-hammering — dou-gou-dou-gou-dou-gou. Within seconds, an otherworldly scream rose in every direction.
Marie Lud’s recollection of what followed that night of the earthquake comes in fragments: Running through the smoke and dust for half a mile to the National Palace. Seeing it collapsed like a smashed wedding cake. Standing all night with her children and tens of thousands of others in the open plaza of Champs de Mars. People clutching whatever random items they escaped their homes with. Chanting hymns. Swatting mosquitoes. Thinking that Bernard, who had been downtown on business, was dead. That ghostly scream with every aftershock.
The next morning, Marie Lud was desperate. It was as if all her points of reference had been wiped clean: no work, no school, no market, no home, no government. She didn’t have food for her children, and was frantic about losing one of them in the crowd.
Just down the street all the inmates of the main prison had escaped. She had long had a fear that some thug would one day try to rape one of her daughters and Bernardo would be killed trying to protect her.
She kept the three children within arm’s reach. A woman noticed them all, and introduced herself as a social worker. She told her that she knew of a local orphanage that sometimes fed, schooled and sheltered children whose parents couldn’t do it themselves. Some of her neighbors from Ruelle Porcelaine vouched for the place, called Centre d’Action Pour le Developpement. Edner had left some of his children there before when he couldn’t feed them.
Marie Lud didn’t know what to do. She wanted her children to be right with her. But she had no idea where this nightmare was heading. Corpses were littering the sidewalks, already gathering flies. The earth kept having its fits. She didn’t even know what this shaking was. People were calling it the goudoup-goudoup for the sound it made.
Marie Lud nodded and the social worker made a call. Soon a car came and Marie Lud told Bernardo and Barbara they would have to go with the driver.
They both started crying. “Where are they taking us?” Bernardo screamed. “I don’t want to go!”
Marie Lud couldn’t hold back her tears. Her eyes always betrayed her emotions.
“Cherie, things are going to be OK,” she told them. “It’s only for a short time and I’m going to pick you up.”
They got in, sniffling and wiping their eyes, and the car pulled away. They stared at her as they drove off.
Marie Lud didn’t sleep or eat that night. She just kept thinking of the betrayed look on those two faces that were as much a part of her as her bones.
Bernard appeared the next day, his face swollen and caked with dried blood and dust. He had been knocked unconscious by the falling blocks of a hotel, and then had wandered through the chaos in a daze.
When Bernard didn’t see Bernardo or Barbara, he immediately panicked, thinking they were dead. She told him what she had done. He didn’t understand.
“Why did you do that? he asked repeatedly.
He was furious. He wanted his children.
Later that afternoon, some thugs started screaming that a tsunami was coming, setting off a stampede. Some children were separated from their parents in the chaos, and the thugs stole whatever valuables were left behind: pots, toys, radios, portable televisions, picture frames, shoes, Sunday clothes.
Bernard then understood her decision.
The drizzle let up. Past the airport at Delmas 33, they got out of the bus and found a taptap — the workhorse of Haitian transportation, a floridly painted, covered pickup with benches in the back. They caught one and then another.
Marie Lud watched the city give way to an arid valley where peasants tended little plots behind tall cactus and hedges of candelabra plants. On a barren hill near the border with the Dominican Republic, Edner shouted for the driver to stop. The group crouched to get out, holding each other’s bags as they stepped down. Blanc’s little boy slept in her arms.
They knocked on the red iron gate of the orphanage, and an armed guard let them into the gravel yard. They stood frozen in front of a squat concrete building, wondering where to go. Marie Lud glanced nervously about. Two children spun around a squeaky merry-go-round.
The group shuffled tentatively around the back of the building where the rest of the children were playing in a courtyard.
“Bonjou!” Blanc sang.
The younger children erupted in excitement, swarming around them. A little boy scooped up Bernardin and hugged her. Blanc cried and clutched her four children. Edner heartily patted and hugged his.
Bernardo came to Marie Lud tentatively. He was barefoot. She squinted hard to hold back the tears.
“Bonjou, cherie,” she said quietly. She wrapped her arms around him as Barbara came running with a blissful smile.
“How are you? How are you?” Marie Lud asked.
She held their hands as she studied them, and they her, standing in the slim shade next to a UNICEF tent. Bernardo leaned against the canvas and stared off with a hard look, tears welling up.
“Why don’t you smile, baby?” Marie Lud said. “Why are you crying?”
He struggled to hold everything back.
“Nothing, I’m just happy,” he said, barely audible.
“I love you,” she said. “You know I love you.”
She squinted again and inhaled hard through her nose. Bernardo always made her cry.
Barbara started telling her about life in the orphanage. “Remember that last thing you sent me? They stole it.”
She caressed Barbara’s temples, ran her fingers through their hair. She gently kneaded Bernardo’s earlobes and felt the contours of his face. Barbara cupped her mother’s soft cheek as if to make sure she was really there.
Marie Lud knelt down and opened her bag. Her kids huddled over her as she sorted the clothes and food and sundry items she had brought. Barbara bear-hugged her little sister. “I love you. I love you.” Bernardin showed her a tiny thorn in her hand, and Barbara inspected it with concern.
“I brought face towels for you,” Marie Lud told her.
“Where am I going to put them? They’re going to steal them.”
“I want you to manage things together,” she said, giving her and her brother a solemn look.
She unwrapped the sweet potato and fish, and they picked at it. They didn’t say much.
“Do you remember me?” Marie Lud asked wistfully at one point.
Bernardo nodded and wiped his eyes with a rag.
“Sweetheart, it’s not all that bad here,” Marie Lud said.
“Somebody told us we are going to be here forever,” Bernardo said.
“Who told you that?” she shot back. “That’s not true, baby. The house isn’t ready yet, but it will be soon.”
No flimsy words could change the truth of Bernardo’s face. She had hoped, against her deepest instinct, that he would be lighthearted, happy to see her. And she had hoped that seeing him clean and fed would tamp down the guilt about the decision she had made.
They huddled together for about an hour, and then she told them that she had to go. The three adults gathered their bags.
“When I come back again,” she told Bernardo. “I’m not sure when … but I’ll make sure and buy you some sandals.”
She slowly detached herself and wiped his eyes. When she turned away, she furtively wiped her own.
“Goodbye babies, I love you.”
They left the children in the courtyard and headed back for the gate. The guard ignored them, annoyed that he had to leave his spot of shade to unlock it.
Bernardo came running from behind the building with a weak smile, tears still glistening, trying to show he was fine.
“Don’t worry, Bernardo. Everything is going to be all right. Now go ahead.”
When Marie Lud got home, she told her husband how sad Bernardo was, how he was walking around the gravel barefoot.
“What happened to the sandals I gave him?” he asked.
Bernard grasped the back of his head and sighed. “He has to have shoes.”
The next few weeks didn’t raise their hopes. They were eating less, rice mostly. Bernard found a few small jobs, but was making just a fraction of what he had earned before the earthquake. Crime was on the rise. Down the street, gangs and police got in a wild shootout, and one day Blanc was robbed at gunpoint while selling secondhand clothes.
The children were allowed to call home twice a month. In one call they complained that lougarous — people who turned into beasts at night and killed children — were lurking outside their tents when they slept. They kept hearing barking in the yard, yet there were no dogs at the orphanage.
Every day, this arrangement felt more unnatural to Marie Lud. A mother was supposed to be with her children.
They would just have to make do, as a family. They couldn’t wait for a happy ending that was never going to come.
They decided they would do everything they could to get them home when schools reopened in early April. Bernard had paid for the semester just before the quake. The real difficulty would come in the fall. He saw little chance that he could keep them enrolled. Then what would they do?
For the poor in Haiti there are few choices. There are no welfare or unemployment benefits.
Bernard had two options: hustle for work or die trying.
He kept going down to the shops on Rue Champs de Mars, trying to collect money he was owed.
Business was slowly coming back to life. The street mechanics were at work. Furniture makers were displaying some chairs on the rubble pile that was once the Hotel Air Fresh. Bernard picked up a couple of sewing jobs from a man who restored used mattresses sent from Miami.
At home, he pedaled his ancient machine, shirtless in the heat and humidity, stitching foam to muslin and polyester in overlapping waves. T-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t.
Various friends and neighbors hung around, listening to Bernard talk as he sewed. One day they were all laughing as he told them he had suddenly become a street preacher after the earthquake, shouting at random people to repent, before dropping his newfound faith three days later. Marie Lud looked up from her laundry and smiled.
They had planned to pick Bernardo and Barbara up in early April. But Bernardin got a strange rash and diarrhea that required a visit to the doctor and a prescription for some ointment. The foreign doctors didn’t charge them anything, but the pharmacy did.
They had to spend all their cash, leaving nothing for the trip to the orphanage.
But Bernard kept hustling and sewing. Six days later they had it.
“I cried this morning,” Barbara told her mother.
“Why were you crying?” she asked. “We’re going home.”
“I cried ahead of time, just in case we were not going.”
Marie Lud laughed. Barbara did a little sashay.
They gathered their belongings and said goodbye to their friends. Some of the other children sobbed because they weren’t leaving.
Marie Lud signed some paperwork and they filed out the gate.
The landscape was vast out here. The next town was two miles away.
Bernardo smiled and put his arm around his mom. Barbara bounded ahead, and they set off down the highway.
Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times