Today's Reading

PART ONE

Whenever the day had been without incident or misfortune, the evening arrived with a smile of tenderness.

From as far off as I could see the approach of M'man Tine, my grandmother, at the end of the wide road that took the blacks into the cane fields of the plantation and brought them home again, I would rush off to meet her, imitating the flight of the mansfenil, the gallop of the donkeys, and with shouts of joy, carrying along the entire group of my little friends who, like me, were awaiting their parents' return.

M'man Tine knew that once I'd come to meet her, I must have behaved myself properly while she was away. So, from the bodice of her dress, she would take some tidbit which she would give me: a mango, a guava, some coco-plums, a bit of yam left over from her lunch, wrapped in a green leaf; or, even better than all that, a piece of bread. M'man Tine always brought me something to eat. Her work companions often made this observation, and M'man Tine would say that she could not put anything whatsoever to her mouth without keeping some of it for me.

Behind us there appeared other groups of workers, and those of my friends who, recognizing their parents, rushed off to meet them, doubling their shouts of joy.

While devouring what I had to eat, I let M'man Tine continue her conversation, and I followed her quietly.

"My God, thank you; I've made it back!" she sighed, placing the long handle of her hoe against the shack.

She then removed the small round basket of bamboo slats perched on her head and sat on a stony outcropping in front of the shack which served as a bench.

Finally, having found in the bosom of her dress a rusty tin box, which contained a limestone pipe, some coarse tobacco, and a box of matches, she began to smoke slowly, silently.

My day was also at an end. The other mamans and papas had also arrived; my little friends returned to their shacks. Games were over.

To smoke, M'man Tine occupied almost all the space this huge stone offered. She would turn to the side where there were beautiful colors in the sky, stretch out and cross her earth-stained legs, and seem completely engrossed in the pleasure of drawing on her pipe.

I remained squatting beside her, gazing steadfastly, in the same direction as she, at a tree in bloom—a completely yellow macata or a blood-streaked flamboyant—the colors of the sky behind the hills, on the other side of the plantation, whose glow was reflected even beneath us. Or else, I looked at her—on the sly—for she told me time and again, often vehemently, that children must not stare at adults.

I really enjoyed following the curves of her old straw hat, its form crushed by her basket, its rim water-soaked and made wavy by the rain. It would be pulled down over her face the complexion of which was scarcely any lighter in color than the land of the plantation.

But what amused me the most was her dress. Every morning, M'man Tine would have to sew something on it, all the while grumbling that there was nothing like cane leaves to eat away at poor black women's clothes. This dress was nothing more than a squalid tunic where all colors were juxtaposed, multiplied, superimposed, blended into each other. This dress which, originally, as far as I could remember, was one of simple flowered cretonne, intended to be used for communion, the first Sunday of every month, then for mass every Sunday, had become a thick, padded tissue, a heavy, ill-fitting fleece which nevertheless seemed to be the outfit most suited to the root-like hands, to the swollen, hardened, cracked feet of this old black woman, to the hut we lived in, and to the very habitation in which I had been born five years ago and which I had never gone far from.

From time to time, neighbors passed by.

"Amantine, you're having a nice smoke," they said by way of a greeting.

Without even moving her head, without so much as glancing at them, M'man Tine replied with a grumble of satisfaction, and remained imperturbably lost in the pleasure of smoking her pipe and deep in her reverie.

Can I say whether she was dreaming, whether she let herself go, at that precise moment, whether the smoke from her pipe carried her off somewhere else or altered in her eyes the entire panorama of the plantation?

When she was finished smoking, M'man Tine would say:

"Good!"

But it was rather a cry of great effort, a personal exhortation.

Then she would put her pipe next to her tobacco and her matches in the small tin box, get up, take her basket under her arm, and enter the shack.

It was already dark inside. Yet, in a wink, M'man Tine had examined the entire scene, deciding whether I had moved some utensil or done any damage.

But, after days like that one, I wasn't afraid. For lunch, I had had just the amount of cassava flour and the small bit of salt codfish she had left me. I had not used too much oil, and couldn't find the sugar tin which she must have stashed in a hiding place only the devil himself could unearth. I had not broken any plates, and had even swept the smoothened earth floor of the hut, so as to clean up the specks of flour that had fallen while I was having my lunch.

The truth was, innocence and reason had possessed me all the time that M'man Tine had been gone.

Satisfied at finding everything impeccable, M'man Tine asked herself under her breath (she often spoke to herself in this fashion):

"What am I going to do tonight?"

Standing undecided in the semidarkness, she yawned at length.

"Left to me," she said in a tone of complaint, "I wouldn't even light a fire, I'd put a pinch of salt on my tongue so the worms
can't attack my heart, then go straight to bed."

For she was tired, tired, she said.

But thereupon, breaking her torpor, she busied herself, taking from her basket a breadfruit which she cut in four, peeling each quarter which she then cut into two "squares." This operation was still amusing to my eyes—the filling of the canari, an earthenware cooking-pot, in the bottom of which M'man Tine placed first of all a layer of peelings, followed by the "squares" of vegetable, a pinch of salt, a piece of salt cod-fish, and finally filled with water.

In addition, she often brought back from the field where she worked a bundle of greens and this methodical filling was rounded off with a layer of this grass covered with peelings in a criss-cross fashion.

Outside, a leaping flame, pushing its way up between three black stones, already provoked in the inside of the canari a most healthy-sounding rumbling and shed in front of the shack a tawny, vibrant glow in which M'man Tine and I sat, she on the huge stone and I quite near to the fire in order to put bits of wood in it and kindle the flame upward into a roar.

"Don't play in the fire," M'man Tine shouted, "you'll pee your bed."

And all around us on the plantation, there were in the darkness of the night similar fires, cooking canaris, making the facades of the shacks and the faces of the children come alive with all those reflections that give fires at night so much seductive appeal.

M'man Tine hummed one of those monotonous songs that continually rose from the habitation and which I sometimes sang as well, along with my friends, when our parents were away.

I thought that the sun was an excellent thing because it took our parents off to work and left us to play quite freely. But night was also a marvelous thing when flames were lit and songs were sung.

Some evenings I didn't want to remain a long time waiting for my dinner. I was hungry and found that M'man Tine was singing too much instead of checking to see if the food in the canari was ready.

On such evenings, it was so painful to wait while M'man Tine prepared the sauce to go with the breadfruit. How slow she seemed to me as she took a small earthen saucepan, rinsed it (Oh! How M'man Tine loved to wash and rinse everything!), cut up some small onions, grated some garlic, went for some thyme behind the shack, took some black pepper from one of the many little bits of paper tied up in balls in a corner, some pimento, and four or five other seasonings! How long I found the time all this remained browning before the vegetable soup, the piece of cod, and the greens were poured in. And it was never good right away. Always a bit of clove to be added; and it had to simmer a bit more!

M'man Tine lit her kerosene lamp, and the table was lit up amidst all the shadows, including ours which, enlarged out of proportion, weighed on the wretched walls of the shack.

She was sitting on a narrow chair near the table; the large ware bowl with blue and yellow stripes from which she ate with her fingers, was between her knees, but she insisted that I put my aluminum plate on the table and that I use a fork, "like a well-bred child."

"Is your belly full?" she asked me when I was finished eating.

Three breadfruit "squares" had filled me till I felt about to burst; and I scarcely had enough breath left to say in a clear voice: "Yes, M'man."

Then M'man Tine gave me a small calabash full of water, and I went to the threshold of the door to rinse out my mouth, taking care to shake the water vigorously between my cheeks and to spit it out as violently as possible.

While doing the dishes, M'man Tine kept talking to herself under her breath, and I remained sitting on my chair listening to her as if she were speaking to me. In this way she went over her entire day: the incidents, quarrels, jokes on the plantation; she became so seriously indignant that I was afraid I'd see her break the canari or the bowl she was in the process of rinsing. Or, she sniggered so gustily that I too burst out laughing. And she would stop suddenly to ask me: "What are you laughing at, you li'l devil?"

At other times she was not angry, but talked on and on in a deep, vibrant voice; and not fully understanding what she was saying to herself, I leaned over to see if there weren't tears running down her face. For I felt myself in such anguish! . . .

I remained staring steadfastly at the lamp for a long time, and allowed myself to be entertained by the little moths that darted against the flame to tumble backward on the table, dead or singed beyond ever flying again.

And my eyelids grew heavy and my head at times seemed to slip off my neck down to the table, when I would catch myself just in time.

Now, M'man Tine was constantly drying and putting away her utensils. On more than one occasion, she moved the lamp in order to clean the table. When, oh when, would she get up from that corner where she had stooped to fix some bottles?

Then, I deliberately rested my head on the edge of the table. Finally, M'man Tine shook me by the shoulder, calling me in a loud voice so as to chase my sleep away. Holding the light in her hand, she took me into the bedroom.

I was drunk with sleep and nothing made any more impression on my senses. M'man Tine undid a large bundle of rags which she spread for me to sleep on over a sheepskin lying on the ground. She undressed me; I barely mumbled the words she had me repeat to the glory of God. I perceived everything as from the depths of troubled waters. When finally I said "Good night, M'man" and collapsed onto my bedding, I was like a drowned man coming back up to the surface.

* * * * *

But, on most occasions, the day ended badly.

On mornings, as soon as I was up, I picked up my mattress of rags and went to spread it out in the sun, on the huge stone in front of the hut, for it was nearly always wet in certain spots. M'man Tine, at that time crouching in the corner of the shack where there was a small earthenware stove, of the type that used wood coal, was preparing her coffee. Through the window of the room, the daylight poured onto her back, which showed a withered skin through the holes in an old dress that had become as perforated as a net, and that she slipped on to sleep in. On the fire, water was singing away in a small jelly tin, and with it M'man Tine sparingly wet the little filter on the ground.

After changing my nightshirt for a long drill smock which was what I wore every day, I moved beside M'man Tine so I could watch her draw the coffee.

She collected the first drops in a little porcelain mug, added a pinch of sugar, and then stood leaning against the door-frame, one hand on her hip. From this spot, running her eyes over the horizon, she described what the weather was like, or would announce:

"The folks in Petit-Bourg can count on eating fish today, for the fishermen from Diamant will come back with their boats full You see those little clouds: looks like the seines will be bursting "

And she punctuated her words with small mouthfuls of coffee which made her click her tongue.

At such times I knew how careful I had to be not to disturb her, not to ask her anything whatsoever. She would fly into a rage. She would shout: "The sun is scarcely up, I've not even had a drop of coffee in my stomach, and this child is already tormenting me!"

In a large, thick porcelain bowl with blue and pink flowers decorating it, M'man Tine had given me some cassava flour soaked in light, very sweet coffee, and with my little metal spoon I put it all away, sitting on the threshold of the shack.

All during this time M'man Tine kept turning over and over on her knees her working dress, examined the complicated patchwork and hastily did a few urgent minor repairs. She then became very zealous in her movements to and fro, thus appeasing my sneaking impatience to see her set off. For outside, the trees, the fields, the entire savannah were already bathed in sunlight.

Finally, M'man Tine said to me:

"At noon—you know? When the plantation clock is about to strike—you'll take a glass of water and pour it on this plate of flour. It already has oil and cod on it, all you have to do is to stir it up properly and eat."

She showed me the plate which she placed at the edge of the table, where I could reach it; then, once more stepping up her preparations, she made herself a similar lunch in a calabash bowl which she very carefully placed in her bamboo basket with a few other things—among them the old black stockings she used as mittens and covering for her legs to protect her from being scratched by the cane leaves and, at times, a calabash full of fresh water.

She then filled her pipe and lit it, put on her wild straw hat over her kerchief, pulled tightly around her waist a raggedy string, and said to me:

"I'm off to see if the Good Lord still gives me strength to struggle in the béké's canes! See how clean the shack is, and your clothes as well . . . no tears . . . and no mess in front of the shack? . . . And don't go knocking about. Try and behave yourself so I won't have to get vex tonight!"

Thereupon, she took two puffs on her pipe, filling the shack with smoke, bent down at the same time, raised the small bamboo basket which she placed on her head and, taking hold of the hoe as she started on her way, went through the door, saying:

"I'm off!"

Free at last! Free for the entire day.

But I did not dash outside to enjoy my freedom as yet.

Sitting on the doorstep, I allowed a few moments to pass. In her haste to leave, M'man Tine had very often forgotten something which she returned to fetch. In such a case, she must find me as well-behaved as when she left me. Then, assured that all was fine, I went outside, taking care to close the door properly.

Those of my friends whose parents had already left were in a group in front of the shack. They greeted me with great enthusiasm, and we waited for the others.


Black Shack Alley comprised some three dozen ramshackle wooden huts, covered with galvanize, standing at regular intervals at the side of a hill. To the top there stood, majestically, the house of the manager whose wife ran a little store. Between "the house" and Shack Alley, one found the overseer's little house, the mule compound, the manure pile. Below Shack Alley and all around, stretched vast fields of cane, at the end of which one could see the factory.

This whole area was called Petit-Morne.

There were large trees, groups of coconut trees, palm trees lining paths, a river lazily flowing through the grass of a savannah. And it was all so beautiful.

At any rate, we children enjoyed it immensely.

While waiting for the group to be complete, we had fun right there, and our shouts and our laughter called to arms those who were missing.

How many were we? I don't think we ever counted. We did notice when someone was missing: we each had our favorites and indicated their absence if they were not there; and we also sensed when everybody was present.

First of all the leaders: Paul and his two sisters, Tortilla and Orélie. Gesner, my good pal, and Soumane, his younger brother. Romane and Victorine, as fearless as boys; Casimir and Hector. And myself. For I was also one of the gang.

Then came a trail of urchins who could be rather cumbersome under certain circumstances. You know, just a bunch of noisy brats, who couldn't even run about without scraping their elbows and knees in the dirt, who couldn't even climb trees or jump over a stream.

But we "bigger ones" knew the paths and the spots where you could catch crayfish with your bare hand, under the babbling rocks in the streams. We knew how to pick guavas and husk dry coconuts. And cane ready for sucking, that was our specialty.

Now it was just the moment when we could extract the greatest pleasure from the sun-filled freedom afforded us by the absence of our parents.

Furthermore we were the only ones with clothes on. Old men's jackets floated on the backs of the other boys and were ripped asunder during their frolicking; or vests with so many holes in them that they in no way covered the frail bodies that pretended to wear them.

As for the girls' dresses: a cord slung over the shoulder from which fringes loosely hung that hid nothing at all.

And everybody bareheaded with woolly hair made red by the sun, noses running with a greenish substance like teams of slugs, knees skinned like fowls' feet, feet the color of stone dis- playing toes that were swollen with chiggers.

At 12 o'clock, Hector announced, "I'm having bananes naines for lunch, with codfish and oil. Maman cooked them before she left; it was still warm a li'l while ago."

The food question was always uppermost in our thoughts. "As for us," said Paul, speaking for himself and his two sisters, "we have a large canari full of rice mixed with red butter. And our maman told us we could have some flour if we're not filled."

"But you don't have any meat," Soumane pointed out.

"No, they don't even have a bit of codfish!"

"Last night, my maman made a good meal," Romane declared, gesticulating like a big woman: "breadfruit migan and a pig snout. It smelled real good! And that's what I'm having at midday."

When the menus failed to excite greediness, it was because we were not yet hungry. Besides, we were busy roaming from shack to shack. Not an adult left in Shack Alley!

Certain huts were even uninhabited, closed or wide open, for all the workers on Petit-Morne did not live in Shack Alley.

We were alone and the world was ours.

We examined everything, destroying this or that at our fancy, uprooting plants—the awful wormgrass especially, from which were prepared such bitter brews—and throwing pebbles in the barrels of drinking water. We could have pissed in them if we had wanted!

But often those who had plenty to eat, not being able to resist—and yielding to the desire of the other comrades, took the rest of us home and shared their meals with the most care-free generosity.

Then, finished, the entire gang would set off.

At random. From guava tree to plum tree, from coco-plum field to cane field. We crossed savannahs, joyously stoning the cows. We sometimes came across patches of greenery where the pomme-lianes grew in abundance.

"Ay, Trénelle far again?" Gesner inquired.

We came to a halt; those who were lagging behind caught up.

"Sure, it far. Why?"

"Because last night my father brought me some mangoes big so. Said he found them on the Trénelle road."

"Then it can't be very far."

"Suppose we go down there!"

"Why not?"

It was perhaps far in actual fact, but didn't we have the whole day to get there and back? And then, in a gang, just like that you covered a good bit of road without even realizing!

At the foot of the Hill, we met a cart full of manure and pulled by four oxen squeaking its way through the ruts. Gesner, Romane, and I immediately jumped up to the rear. The others, clinging as best they could, had themselves towed while the weakest among us followed in a trot.

Silence, so the driver wouldn't realize what was happening!

The driver, for his part, standing to the front of the cart, goaded on his oxen, swearing to high heaven. His invectives were too stinging for us to repeat.

Intoxicated by these forbidden words, Gesner added others of his own invention.

It was a maddening round of chattering.

But while the cart continued on its way with its harsh din of clashing wood, its clanging of chains, the squeaking of its axles mingling with the crunch of clumps of dry earth under the wheels, there suddenly appeared before us the driver, brandishing his goad.

"Bunch of li'l runaway niggers, you!"

The gang scattered, to regroup a little farther on.

And to help us regain our nerve, we showered insults at the disappearing team, all oblivious and bumping along the road. "This is not the right road," Gesner suddenly observed. "We should have gone down to the crossroad over there, behind, and taken the path going in the other direction, like that." Indeed, we were no longer headed in the right direction for Trénelle. That damned driver had led us astray.

We then retraced all our steps. So bitter was our annoyance that we did not even glance at the guava trees along the way. We knew from experience though that trees lining "traces" never kept their fruits.

We bigger ones walked so briskly that the smaller ones were soon out of breath behind us, just as they had trailed along behind the cart earlier on.

"The overseer!" Orélie shouted.

Everyone ground to a halt. Barely time to catch the white parasol just visible at the crook in the road before we dove into the ditches. And with a loud crackling of grass and scratching straw raking my head, I tried crawling on all fours to reach the deepest part of the cane field.

And such a noise rumbling all around as if the overseer's mule were galloping toward me scared me so much that my heart was about to burst.

And I rolled into a furrow, completely exhausted, lost.

Unable to move, I remained with my head buried in the undergrowth.

Gradually, my heart beat less quickly and I listened.

No further rustling of straw.

Faintly, the trot of the disappearing mule on the parched, porous earth of the road reached me. The last noise subsided. Nothing further. Nothing, but my heart still beating so loudly that it could give me away.

"Ay! Gesner, Romane, Ay!" I called quietly.

A slight rumble reached me.

"Can you still see him?"

"You can barely see his parasol."

It was Paul talking.

Then with eyes filled with wonder, I discovered the countryside. I had just lost all notion of where I was. My impression was that I had covered on all fours an infinite distance and I expected as I emerged from the brushwood to find myself in a faraway and unknown place.

Gesner and Romane were already on their feet and announced that the danger was over.

"Where is Tortilla, and Casimir?"

In vain we shouted in all directions, there were some who did not reply.

This was always the case when our outings underwent alarms of this nature! In the ensuing panic, some spurted off in the wrong direction.

In that case, too bad for them.

We returned to the crossroad to set off from there.

"But this time," Gesner proposed, "we're not following the road."

Instead we crossed a cane field lying fallow.

"I'm sure there are manger-coulies."

And, of course, in such an abandoned field we always would find bits of shriveled up sugarcane, good enough to be appreciated so late in the season.

But this hike, no manger-coulies, no canes. Nothing but weeds and wild flowers.

What of our missing friends? We now caught sight of four or five of them straggling toward Shack Alley.

As for us, all the obstacles cluttering up our plans could not keep us from pursuing our adventure to its end.

We were already far away when the lunch bell sounded at "the house." It was so far off that it was only faintly that we heard its announcement.

"They're going to devour their lunch," said Paul, alluding to those who had returned. "Perhaps they'll even go and steal ours."

"Makes no difference," said Romane, "they'll not have tasted all those lovely mangoes we're going to feast ourselves on. And we're not going to bring any back for them. Not one; not even the skin."

In the blazing sun, our rags flapping in the breeze, we crossed the field. We followed another trace, chattering away, stopping now at every shrub to raid its fruits—ripe as well as green—to quell a hunger that was awakening in us and which we were scarcely aware of, spellbound as we were by the perils we had so valiantly faced since our departure, and stimulated by the daring of our initiative.

We roamed idly about a great deal, then remembering what our aim was, we hurried on, resolutely taking one path to the right or another to the left as we came upon it.

It was a place where the road is nestled deeply between two red humid plots of land, with tall ferns rising very high above our heads, leaving just a crack to allow one a glimpse of the sky. It was so strange that we spoke in hushed voices, trying to walk side by side.

We had never seen a road like that!

Always, when one least expected it, small balls of earth would detach themselves from above and come tumbling down at our feet, taking our breath away.

We advanced slowly, not speaking, and couldn't help glancing back over our shoulders every two or three steps.

Wasn't it as if this half-tunnel threatened to come thundering down on us, or seemed to close up as we passed? Our march was more and more halting and unassured. As for me, I was choking from not daring to speak.

We were afraid.

Suddenly, a shout of terror, then every man for himself! Turning back we shot off using all the strength in our legs and multiplied the shouts of panic from our rest of the group with our own.

Long after coming out of the tunnel, we kept on running without once looking back, charging on straight ahead of us until we ran out of breath. But it was impossible to stop. We trotted, exhausted but urged on by fear. Our fright was so violent that we could not pull ourselves together. Fear had so shaken us that we were drained of all adventure, of any pride.

And running desperately we circled back toward Shack Alley. Once there, what heroism dominated the account of our exploits in the eyes of all those who had not gone along with us! Even our state of panic was proof of our bravery, for:

"We ran! Oh, how we ran! Look, feel my heart."

Wide-eyed, they admired us. It was we who had gone so far, who had come to know the terrible road they couldn't even imagine, who had avoided danger thanks to our bravery and endurance!

To our prestige were added the little fruits we had sampled, the watercourse we had discovered, the pois-doux we had come across, to which we would pay a return visit when they were ripe.

And to crown our happiness our parents would be none the wiser. That night we would not be beaten.

The fear was gone, we were hungry now.

No, our friends had not eaten everything. So, we began with the rice from Paul, Tortilla, and Orélie.

We had invaded the shack. Tortilla began the distribution, surrounded by our out-stretched hands.

How pleasant it was to be all back in the shack, in the absence of our parents! Orélie, beside herself with joy, showed us the bedroom whose appearance was enhanced since Symphor and Mam'zelle Francette, her parents, had bought one by one four boxes and some lengths of wood with which they had built a frame onto which were piled rags covered with cretonne.

Children always slept on the "front room" floor, on old clothes used for bedding. There was nothing else in the bed- room, but we were content to remain there as it was quite a privilege for us to crowd into this room reserved for adults. It was so dark and gave off a strange, intimate odor, an odor of perspiration—the smell of plantation workers!

* * * * *
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