Photograph via Flickr by gt8073a
I’d managed to get access to a shower for the meeting in Citá, and borrow a fine suit from my old friend and neighbor Aimá, who still made me promise to wash it, but he knew that good things happened to anyone who was summoned, because when the Agency called they usually needed your help, and they would be willing to pay for it. I wasn’t entirely sure what service I could provide and walked to the office with a clear mind, ready to hear them out. Dr. Moses Mlungisi headed the department for community peace-building. His office overlooked the markets below, surprisingly humble compared with some of the other lavish offices I had seen perched over Jakmel and the green bay beyond. He was a squat man who wore a humble polo shirt, making me feel out of place in my suit. In the new Haiti, people in power dressed like they didn’t have it. He greeted me with a somewhat wobbly handshake and invited me to sit down.
“Bonjou, mesye Cap-Ferrat, ” he said to me.
He insisted that I call him by his first name, Moses, which immediately set me ill at ease. Then he began explaining in French about his work at the Agency quite formally, as if someone else was in the room with us, and even made me sign a confidentiality document in Kreyol. I couldn’t see how any of his work applied to me, and I racked my brain for some memory of him, wondering if I had seen him before. Eventually, he seemed to tire of his own words and inhaled deeply.
“You know, I’m familiar with your brother, Mr. Cap-Ferrat,” he said. “I caught him in an exhibition match against the Pretoria Callies, some fifteen or twenty years ago. The best midfielder that I have ever seen.”
“He was an excellent player,” I said.
“My mates and I still talk about his battle with Bantala Shigo. It was the first time we’d ever seen anyone beat him at the Tsamaya style!” He was smiling broadly now. “He dragged the ball to the left just so and Shigo fell over onto his arse!”
I laughed politely. “Fulgence was like that.”
“The whole world suffered when he retired so young. And now—well, now. I’m sorry about his loss.”
He grew serious again, officious. “That’s not why I invited you here, Mr. Cap-Ferrat. You yourself are an accomplished man. Of a different sort, I suppose.” He was looking now at a list before him. “You’re a certified soccer referee, isn’t that right?”
“Grade one. In Haiti, that is as high as you can go.”
“And I see you’ve also refereed international competitions?”
“Yes, two CONCACAF matches.”
I had been an assistant referee at those matches, but I saw no reason to clarify the point.
“We need an impartial, qualified referee for this match. No blowups. With your credentials, Mr. Cap-Ferrat, you can make sure that the game proceeds smoothly.”
“Excellent, excellent. We’ve been trying to end the enmity between the peasant villages and the city dwellers. Promote some solidarity. We’ve picked two communities—and they’re somewhat arbitrarily selected, mind you—but our psychosocial workers have identified some tensions. It’s more representative of the larger problems at stake, and if we play it right, we might get some of those funds released that are mired in bureaucratic mucky-muck. Really start rebuilding this place on your terms.”
“The people of Haiti, I mean. We need an impartial, qualified referee for this match. No blowups. With your credentials, Mr. Cap-Ferrat, you can make sure that the game proceeds smoothly.”
“What about my team, Moses?”
He seemed unaccustomed to hearing his first name, despite the fact that he’d asked me to use it.
“I will need two assistant referees and a fourth official, Moses. If you want to take this seriously.”
I could see him going through the calculations in his head. Then he smiled. “We’ve budgeted for it. Could you be ready in, say, two weeks’ time?”
He handed me a card and told me to arrange everything through his assistant. I turned to leave, admittedly growing excited at the prospect before me.
Any competent referee is actually the figurehead of an effective refereeing team composed of two assistant referees.
“Mr. Cap-Ferrat,” he added.
“I’m frankly not sure how you do it.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Referee. It’s a thankless job. Working here is no picnic, but I’d take it in a heartbeat over the abuse that you guys get.”
Reports of a looming hurricane filled the radio broadcasts and some people in my camp began to panic, but despite fears about flooding, the water fell at a steady, manageable rate on the tarpaulin, and actually washed away some of the grime and waste that had piled up between the tents. I was grateful for the chance to stay in and prepare for assembling my team.
There are celebrated referees such as Graham Powell or Pierluigi Collina, or even Horacio Elizondo, who ejected Zinedine Zidane from his final game, but their praise is misdirected. Any competent referee is actually the figurehead of an effective refereeing team composed of two assistant referees. If it is a significant competition, such as one with an international scope, then a good team has a fourth official or even a fifth official, not to mention at least four energetic ball runners who fetch the ball after it is has gone out of play.
I was busy scribbling down likely candidates for some of these positions, the rain pattering down upon the tent, when Béatrice lifted up the tarp. She was bearing a large plastic bucket full of clear water.
“Good afternoon, Béatrice. Have you brought me some water?”
“We ran out of tablets.”
“Ah, that’s great. I just happen to have some here.”
I took the bucket of water and dropped in a water tablet. It was rainwater, collected from a still, but we had learned during the epidemic that you couldn’t be too cautious. After mixing it thoroughly, I poured out enough to fill my sports bottle, leaving plenty for Béatrice to take home along with a few dozen more tablets.
“What is it, Béatrice?”
“Mom says that you should come join us.”
“I’ll be there for dinner tomorrow night, Béatrice.”
“She thinks the tent isn’t safe in the hurricane.”
“Your mom thinks everything is unsafe, doesn’t she?”
Ever since Fulgence had been buried in the mudslide, she had been pleading with me to move in with them. It’s what I was expected to do.
She muttered a yes, looking down at the items organized around my tent. I liked to keep them in neat piles. “It’s because Papa is gone.”
Then I realized that her mother was using her as a messenger. Ever since Fulgence had been buried in the mudslide, she had been pleading with me to move in with them. It’s what I was expected to do. Béatrice had seen her share of misery since the quake, but I didn’t think it was fair for her mother to use her to convince me, especially since she was so cute. Everyone wanted me to take over Fulgence’s old life, just settle right in as a replacement for him.
I removed my referee’s wallet from under one of the piles. “Know what this is, Béatrice?”
She shook her head. I snatched one of the cards and held it above her, making a whistle sound with my lips. “Yellow card!”
“I’ve got an idea, Béatrice.”
“What’s that, Uncle?”
“I’m putting together a team for this Agency competition. It’s a very important game. How would you like to be on my team? Be a ball runner?”
A smile spread across her face. Then it faded again. “Heliot would be mad.”
“Your brother has been a runner several times before. I think it’s time for you to have a chance.”
“He will hit me.”
“No, he won’t. Not after I talk to him.” I gave her a hug. “So, what do you think? Will you join me?”
“Babay!” She smiled happily, placed the bucket on her head, and ran out of the tent, on her way to offer the water to whomever else her mother wanted to pester.
It’s true that Fulgence had been one of the best soccer players in Léogâne, and probably one of the best players on the island. He seemed to have impressed Moses with his dribbling skills on that day in South Africa, but in reality, that wasn’t his strength. Fulgence was an excellent passer, and not just through crowds of defenders—he could pass above and around them.
Most island players learn to dribble with flair and that’s because we play in the streets or, if we’re lucky, at a gymnasium. We rarely play in spaces large enough to attempt a long pass of twenty-five or even thirty meters. When Fulgence won a scholarship to St. Michel, he suddenly had access to a large field and he practiced his long passes until he could send me the ball with various spins and I wouldn’t even have to move to trap it. Once, we practiced so late, I lost track of the ball in the darkness and it slammed into my chest, knocking me over.
I never visited the place where Fulgence was killed, as it was in the remote area of Mombin Crochu and I didn’t see any point—my brother’s body had already been transplanted to Léogâne by the time I learned of his passing.
Fulgence had gone on to tour throughout the Caribbean—and even made it to South Africa—but decided to retire early to be closer to his family. I’d never had Fulgence’s playing ability, so I became a referee.
The coroner told me at the morgue that the mudslide had crushed Fulgence quickly, and the density of the dislodged soil meant that there would not have been enough oxygen for him to suffer. He would have been knocked unconscious from the force of the tumbling earth and experienced a relatively painless death, he said. I never visited the place where Fulgence was killed, as it was in the remote area of Mombin Crochu and I didn’t see any point—my brother’s body had already been transplanted to Léogâne by the time I learned of his passing. Besides, mudslides plagued the rural areas where Fulgence had been traveling because the mountains had been stripped of trees. I’d never understood what he was doing there in the first place.
But there was plenty of time to worry about such matters; I needed to put together my team. The game was scheduled in two weeks time and, with the difficulties of traveling on the roads, I had to prepare as quickly as possible. My ideal team consisted of Jean-Marie Bathe and François Belkin, with perhaps Arturo Llosa as the fourth official. I had used this team before and it stood as a high-water mark in my career as a referee. All three of them offered a sense of professionalism, dignity and assertiveness, all great qualities in referees.
But it was more than that. Jean-Marie had developed a lazy eye when he was a child, and the eye doctors had noticed it too late to be able to fully correct it. He now wore glasses and easily passed vision tests, but it was unmistakable that his eyes did not always focus on one point. When talking to him, I would seek out the eye that seemed focused on me, usually the right one, and speak to him with my attention on that eye so as not to get confused. This impairment made him subject to vicious personal attacks from the fans and players when he served as a central referee, and he would be called such names as pwazon-chat (catfish) or karang (jackfish). As an assistant referee on the lines, however, his vision gave Jean-Marie a distinct advantage.
Any referee knows that it is virtually impossible to enforce the offside rule with a hundred percent effectiveness. This is because the moment at which you assess offside depends on the positioning of the players, and more specifically on the moment at which the ball is kicked in relation to the position of the players. It is extremely difficult to watch both the players and the person kicking the ball—especially when the kicker of the ball is quite far away. This is where Jean-Marie stood out. His lazy eye permitted him to watch both the kicker and the player receiving the ball at the same time. In my many games of working with Jean-Marie, I had not once seen him get an offside call wrong. The fans demand the impossible from referees, and he was one who could give it to them.
My problem was that Jean-Marie lived in Cap Haïtien on the north coast, and no one had seen or heard from him for some time following the earthquake. Rumor had it that the road to Cap Haïtien had recently been swept aside by a landslide, in an area not far from where Fulgence had been crushed, and the rain of the past few days would make traveling by road treacherous. If Jean-Marie were to join me for the game, I would need to set out almost immediately. Or perhaps I could have the Agency airlift him in one of their helicopters? I would have to jot that down and see if I could reach Moses by text message.
Even after the cholera had been eradicated, people didn’t trust water anymore.
I began sifting through my various piles, trying to dig up the phone number of Jean-Marie’s cousin, when I could see some sandaled feet outside the tent. The ankles were thin and melted into slender calves, and even in the rain, I could see that the toenails had recently been painted, perhaps even manicured. I pretended not to notice and continued sifting through the piles, making a good deal of noise in order to show that I was busy. I hoped that she would go away, but instead she said:
“Bonswa, bòfrè.” Constance always addressed me formally, when I had asked her to stop.
“Hello, sister,” I said, somewhat coldly.
We exchanged a few light greetings until she said: “May I come in?” But she lifted up the flap of the tent before I could say anything. She was wearing a low-cut blouse, making her chest push out as she leaned over. That combined with the rain trickling down her chest made me look away.
“I’m very busy.”
“Yes, I know, brother. Béatrice just told me.”
And then I realized that she could not have been very far away when I had sent Béatrice away, because it was at least a forty-five minute walk to the home in Léogâne. Constance’s dress was impeccably clean and I could see that she had gone to some length to have her hair braided. I offered her a pillow and she spread out her dress with grace and sat down opposite me on the tent floor.
“Did Béatrice take you the water tablets?”
She nodded, fixing her gaze on me. “Yes.”
“She’s a good girl.”
Now she smiled, a wry smile that had always excited me, as if she and I were holding a secret in confidence. “When she wants to be,” she said.
I fished in the corner of the tent and pulled out two tin mugs. I filled them both with the water that Béatrice had brought me. She accepted it politely, though she did not pretend as if she would drink from it. Even after the cholera had been eradicated, people didn’t trust water anymore. It made me slightly embarrassed. No one else in our tent city would have refused such an offer.
“Brother, you don’t need to stay here in this storm.”
“It’s perfectly safe, sister. We have the support of the Agency and we have real working toilets now. It’s not so bad.”
“The Agency can’t stop a hurricane.”
“They don’t need to. Look outside: it’s merely a drizzle.”
“We have a toilet at home,” she insisted. “And a room for you.”
I sipped from my water thoughtfully. “I thought that Heliot had moved in there.”
“Temporarily. He’s just keeping it ready, but we need a man in the house. To keep us safe.”
“What about Henri? I thought you hired him to watch over things.”
She laughed. “I catch him sleeping when I wake up at night. He’s getting on in years. We need someone stronger.”
Even though she was sitting down, she had somehow moved closer to me, and was leaning forward again, showing me the swell of her bosom.
“I can’t just skip out from here,” I said. “I’m the captain for this row of tents.”
“That’s what the Agency calls it. I’m in charge of the seed bank and I manage the tools for our plots. Besides, I have friends here and it wouldn’t feel right to leave them right now.”
She paused, considering this. “You could live with us and still be captain, brother. You could come down during the day if you liked.”
“I’m not sure, sister. Fulgence built that home.”
Her face grew stern, and her eyebrows furrowed, a furrow that I had seen so many times over the dinner table in that home, impetuous, hot. “Fulgence and I built that home. We built it together. He would have wanted you to look after us.” Then she grabbed my hands in hers, firmly. It had been so many years since I’d held her hands like this that I had forgotten the way her calluses scraped against my skin. “I want you to look after us, Alain.”
“I want you to look after me, Alain.”
I thought about the myriad preparations that would be required for me to referee that game, to bring about peace.
She gazed at me with an insistence that I had seen when I was younger, when I had witnessed that gaze upon Fulgence. He would inevitably soften before it, and I nearly did, too. Except this time all I could think of was betrayal, how in feeling about Constance like that, in thinking of her naked, that I was betraying him, and I could feel the earth crumbling down that hillside in Mombin Crochu, the scent of the damp, dark soil as it rushed to take him.
I saw the referee’s wallet resting next to the water bottle. I thought about the myriad preparations that would be required for me to referee that game, to bring about peace. Help Haiti rebuild on our terms.
“Didn’t Béatrice tell you?”
“What?” she said, her eyes growing wide in expectation.
“I’ve been asked to referee the Agency match.” At this her hands relaxed in mine. “It’s a very big game between F— and C—. Fully paid. It’s meant to inspire harmony. Promote peace between enemies.”
“Enemies? What enemies?”
“Between the peasants and the city dwellers.”
“But I live in the city and Lorraine lives in the country,” she teased. “We’re hardly enemies.”
“It’s dedicated to Fulgence,” I lied. “It’s an important match.”
She withdrew her hands now and for the first time her eyes no longer met mine.
“Officials from the Agency will be watching,” I continued. “I’ll be away for a few weeks to assemble my team, you see. I need to find assistant referees to run the lines.”
“Anyone can do that.”
“No, they can’t,” I said coldly. “It’s a highly skilled job.”
Almost unconsciously, I began gathering various items from the tent: my official registration card, a couple of Fox whistles, two pairs of black socks, a black undershirt, an armband, two flags, my kangaroo-leather turf shoes, and then three different jerseys that I had so painstakingly preserved. I stuffed all of this into an Agency sack, which I normally used for collecting my ration of nourimil cereal.
“I’ve asked Béatrice to be a ball runner.”
She raised to her feet. “She already told me.”
“Don’t be upset, sister. I’ve got to do my part.”
“What part is that?”
Constance could always out-reason me and make me feel stupid, so I said, blindly: “Haiti needs me.”
She pushed open the flap of the tent, and stepped into the mud, splattering droplets on her ankles. “He died two years ago, Alain. In a mudslide. Don’t let this storm take you too.”
“It’s merely a drizzle.”
Behind her, the Agency solar lamps began illuminating their strange blue light as a heavy dusk enveloped the camp. Parents scurried to their tents, urging their children to finish their business before dark.
“Sister?” I called out.
She ducked her head back into the tent, and at this, I could see she was crying.
“I’ll be back soon. I just need someone who can run the lines.”
Deji Olukotun graduated from the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. “Running the Lines” emerged from his work on Haiti at an international development organization. A lifelong soccer lover, Olukotun’s work has appeared in ESPN, World Literature Today and Words Without Borders. His novel The Moon Rock Thief (Nigerians in Space) is available at the Amazon Kindle store. He can be found at ReturnOfTheDeji.com.
Would you like to help Haiti “build back better”?
If you are interested in supporting grassroots rural farming organizations and local human rights organizations in Haiti, Deji recommends the Haiti page of American Jewish World Service. You can learn more about AJWS’s work or donate money that will actually reach affected communities.