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The mission.

The Mission

The child's feet were bare anddusty. In Haiti, between rains, the country roads are always dusty. She wore only a faded, blue denim dress and inexpensive hoop earrings, which she was proudly certain were made of gold. Manfully she marched along the road's edge under the pulsing midday sun, chewing on sugar cane to quiet the ache in her stomach.

Her name was Marie Therese YolandeSt. Juste, and she called herself Yolande. Her face was a cherub's face with bright brown eyes, soft, trembling lips, and a great deal of sadness. She was six years old.

In a ditch beside the road twowomen from a nearby village slapped away at their family wash with flat wooden paddles, creating a rhythmic clatter that carried far in the noon stillness. They were hot and tired. Their talk was querulous.

"Watch what you're doing, can'tyou? You're splashing dirt on my clean clothes. I think you're doing it on purpose. Yes, I'm sure you are!'

"I am not doing it on purpose. Ifyou're foolish enough to put your things where they'll get splashed, don't blame me for it. Blame yourself!'

"I don't know why I allowed youto come with me!'

"I didn't come with you; you camewith me. And I'm sorry you did!'

Yolande halted and looked down atthem. "Hello,' she said. Her voice was a song--a sad one, true, but still a song.

One of the women sullenly lookedup, flipping soap from long black fingers. "Hello, yourself. What do you want?'

"I don't want anything, thank you.Just--would you tell me if this is the road to Port-au-Prince, please?'

"The road to where?'

"Port-au-Prince. You know, thecapital.'

"Mes amis!' the woman exclaimedin wonder and thrust out a bare foot to nudge her companion. "Did you hear that? The child wants to know if this is the road to the capital!'

Her companion stopped work andfrowned at Yolande. "You are thinking of going to the capital, ti-fi?'

"I have to. My papa lives there andI have to find him. Maman died yesterday.'

"Oh-oh. Where do you live?'

"Nowhere now. I did live inAquin. Maman kept house for some people there.'

"Well, little one, you have come 16miles and have 75 more to go.'

"That far?'

"That far, yes.'

"I'd better hurry then,' Yolandesaid and put her dusty feet in motion again. Then, remembering her manners, she turned her head. "Thank you very much.'

The women watched her go downthe road, then looked at each other in silence and returned to their washing. As the paddles flew, a gob of soap sailed through the air and splashed against a dress spread out to dry.

"Oh-oh, that was clumsy of me,'the culprit said. "I shouldn't have let that happen, no. I'll wash it over for you.'

"A little soap won't break a friendship,'the other replied. "Get on with your work so we can walk home together.'

Darkness falls about six o'clock inHaiti the year round, a soft, warm darkness that frightens only those people who believe in werewolves and certain malevolent voodoo mysteries. Yolande was not afraid. When her shadow grew long on the road she looked for a place to sleep. Soon after she was settled in the deep grass by the roadside, a man with a lantern came along and discovered her.

"Oh-oh,' he said. "What are youdoing here, child?'

"Sleeping,' she told him, sittingup with a frown. "It's all right to sleep here, isn't it?'

"Who are you?'

She told him who she was, and hecame closer to peer into her face. "Have you eaten today?' he asked.

"Oh, yes, thank you. A lady gaveme some peanut candy, and I found some mangoes.'

"That isn't much for a little girlwho has walked all day,' he said. "Would you like to come home with me and have supper?'

Yolande hesitated, then stood up."Yes, I would.'

"First I have to find my children.'He had two children, he explained. They had left the house an hour ago to get water. He was annoyed with them. "Why is it,' he sighed, "that children always--'

Voices could be heard onthe dark road coming toward them. The children were quarreling. The girl, it seemed, had splashed the boy, and the boy had pushed her into the stream. Their voices were shrill, and the man groaned when he heard them.

At sight of him the childrenhalted. The girl was a year or two older than Yolande and the boy about 12. Both were wet and dirty.

"I have been looking foryou,' the man said.

The children began talkingagain, both at once.

"Wait! Wait!' the mansaid. "Must you always make my head ache?'

They were silent, peeringcuriously at Yolande.

"That's better,' the man saidwearily. "Now let's go home.'

Yolande said, "Please, could I goto the stream first? If it is not too far?'

The man looked at her and rubbedhis nose. His mouth shaped the word "Why?' but left it unspoken. "All right,' he said, "I'll show you.'

The stream ran under the road, andhe showed her a path leading down to it, then stood at the edge of the road holding the lantern high so she could find her way. Yolande descended to the water, took off her dress, and stepped in. She washed her legs, her arms, her cherub's face, her small dark body, then sloshed the dress up and down in a pool and put it back on, shivering as the wet cloth clung to her.

The man and his children watchedher in silence.

"Thank you,' she said when shehad climbed back up to the road. "I feel better now. I won't get your house dirty.'

The house was thatch-roofed, withno more than the usual few sticks of homemade furniture. "This is Yolande St. Juste,' the man said to his wife. "She will eat with us.'

His wife put her hands on her hipsthe way the market women do when they are preparing to argue. "Are we suddenly rich?' she demanded.

"The little girl has walked all theway from Aquin. She is tired and hungry.'

"Whatever you say. You earn themoney, what little there is of it.'

There was a table in the room, setfor four. The woman slapped a fifth plate down and snapped at her son to bring an extra chair. On the table she put a platter of red beans and boiled plantains, some slabs of cassava bread, and a dish of hard red jelly made from guavas. All this was accomplished with a great deal of angry muttering, while the man gazed at her in silence. The man motioned his family to be seated.

Yolande, sliding onto her chair,folded her hands over her plate and closed her eyes. The others looked at her curiously. The woman said, "Now what does she think she's doing --if I may ask.'

"I believe she is thanking God forthe food,' the man said. "Is that what you are doing, Yolande?'


"A lot we've got to be thankfulfor!' the woman said.

Yolande looked at her in surprise.

The meal was eaten in silence exceptwhen the boy and girl fought over the last slab of cassava bread. The man did not stop them; he only gazed at them thoughtfully and then glanced at Yolande, who sat beside him.

When Yolande slid from her chairand said, "May I wash the dishes?' he did not hear her, and she had to say it again. He nodded.

She washed the dishes and driedthem. "Thank you very much,' she said then. "I'd better go now.'

"Would you like to stay here tonight?'the man asked.

"No, thank you. I'd be inthe way.'

"Tell me something,' theman said. "Do you really think you can walk all the way to the capital on those two small feet?'

"Of course. I only have tokeep on walking, don't I?'

"Very well, Yolande.Good night and thank you.'

"Why do you thank me?What have I done?'

"For me, a great deal,'the man said, and when Yolande had gone out of the house and down the road, and he had watched her out of sight, he shut the door and faced his own two children. They were just about to quarrel over a chair that both wanted to sit on, but at sight of the expression on his face they desisted. It was an expression they were not familiar with. It puzzled them.

"Take a lantern,' the man said,"and go to the river and wash yourselves. You're dirty. Come straight back without fighting or you'll regret it. Don't tell me it's dark outside and you're afraid. That little girl isn't afraid. Furthermore--no, the rest can wait till tomorrow. Go!'

The children peered fearfully outthe door, but when they turned their heads in hope of a reprieve, the man was standing by the table with his arms folded, gazing at them with the same expression. They looked at each other, trembling. The girl whimpered. The boy caught hold of her hand. They went out together.

The man turned to his wife."Celeste.'

She, too, was puzzled by thechange in him. She came and stood before him, gazing up into his face.

"Have you ever been hungry?' heasked. "Or alone, with no one to look after you?'

"Well, no,' she said. "You've alwayslooked after me, Antoine. The best you can, anyway.'

"The best I can, yes, Celeste, and aman's best is a big thing. I'll thank you from now on to stop nagging me and give me a little help when I need it. Do that and before long we won't be so poor. You heard what that little girl said: To get to Port-au-Prince one only has to keep on walking.'

"Yes, Antoine.'

"One step at a time andyou get there, wherever it is you're going. But a man's wife should not keep knocking him down.'

"Yes, Antoine.'


"Antoine, you're right,yes, and I'm sorry.' The woman bit her lip and reached for his hands. "Go after her, Antoine! Bring her back!'

But Yolande was not sleepingbeside the road, and Antoine could not find her. Now that she had eaten she was not tired any more. She had decided to walk a few more miles before resting.

She walked until her legsached, then slept by the road until voices awakened her. It was still dark, but there was a streak of silver over the mountains, heralding the false dawn, and down the road came a string of lights. She knew what they were: They were lamps carried by country women on their way to market somewhere. She stood up and brushed the dirt from her dress.

The women stopped. There wereseven of them. They gathered around her and asked questions, then looked at one another and shook their heads. One, younger than the others, took Yolande by the hand.

"We're going as far as St.Michel,' she said. "Walk along with us. If I get a fair price for my vegetables, I'll buy you some bread for your journey.'

Emile Hector was a St. Michel merchant,71 years old: a bent-over man with a wart on his nose. His shop was a big one for a village that size. On one side he sold charcoal, hardware, cotton cloth, and feed bags for making work dresses, and on the other, red beans and rice, canned goods from the capital, and fresh vegetables. He was a shrewd man and, for St. Michel, a wealthy one.

He was weighing red beans intopaper bags, making sure that each bag contained just a little less than the pound he would claim it contained, when Yolande and her new friend entered his shop. The young country woman lifted her basket of produce from her head and placed it on the counter.

"I have some potatoes and yamshere that I wish to sell. Also some carrots and turnips.'

"I have all of those things I need,'Emile said with a shrug.

The woman looked around theshop. "Have you, yes? I don't see any.'

"Nevertheless, I have them. I don'tneed any more.'

"Very well.' She reached for herbasket.

"But I will look at what you have,if you want me to,' Emile said.

The woman emptied her basket insilence, arranging its contents on the counter, then stepped back, folded her arms, and waited.

"H'm-m,' Emile said. "Well, Idon't need anything, as I have told you, but I can give you eighty cents. That's certainly generous of me. The town is full of fresh vegetables this morning.'

"A dollar-sixty,' the woman said."These are the first carrots and potatoes from my district in over a week.' But she spoke with a sigh. If Emile said eighty cents, the most she could hope for was one dollar, and it would take half an hour of argument to get that. The vegetables were worth twice that amount.

She worked him up to a dollar and,when he paid her, slapped some money on the counter. "Give the little girl some bananas and bread,' she said.

Emile glanced shrewdly atYolande. He placed three small bread rolls and four small overripe bananas on the counter and dropped the coin into a cigar box. The woman took in a breath and glared at him.

"What? Is that all, for tencents?'

"Bananas are scarce andexpensive today,' Emile said calmly.

"Who says they arescarce? You're a thief, that's what you are! Just a common thief, yes!'

"Believe me, I am beingvery generous.'

The woman argued. Shehit the counter with her fist and screamed insults at him. It did no good. Emile only shrugged. The woman at last turned to Yolande, sadly shaking her head.

"It is the best I can do, ti-fi,' shesaid. "You see for yourself what kind of man we are dealing with. Take what the heartless thief gives you, and may God keep you safe on your journey.'

Yolande shook her head. "Thankyou, but it wouldn't be right. He's cheating you.'

"I know he's cheating me! Does heever do anything else?'

"I don't need anything, really.'Yolande looked across the counter at Emile Hector, and her head was just a little higher than the counter top, and her face was an indictment. "Please give back the money, m'sieu,' she said. "I'm not hungry.' Then she turned to the woman and held out her hand. "Thank you very much,' she said. "I'll go now. Good-by.' And she went.

The woman and EmileHector watched her go and then looked at each other. The woman found her voice first. She said, "Do you know where that child is going, M'sieu Hector? To Port-au-Prince, on those two small feet of hers. She has come all the way from Aquin, where her mother died, and is walking to Port-au-Prince to find her father. And she has nothing to eat and no money.'

The shopkeeper lookeddown at the bread and bananas on the counter.

"Give me my ten cents!'the woman said.

He took the coin from hiscigar box and handed it over.

"I hope the ti-fi thinks ofyou when she gets hungry!' the woman snapped. "I hope you are proud of yourself!' Angrily she marched out.

Emile Hector sat on the chair behindhis counter and stared at the door. He was still sitting there 20 minutes later when his wife came into the shop from the house next door. She brought a tray with coffee and brown-sugar candy on it. Emile was very fond of brown-sugar candy.

When he only looked at the tray,making no move to touch it, his wife said with a frown, "What's the matter? Don't you feel well?'

"No,' he said. "As a matter offact, I don't.'

"Are you sick?'

He stood up. "Watch the shop fora while. I'm going out,' he said, and then he quickly wrapped a dozen good bananas and a slab of bread rolls in paper and hurried out the door.
COPYRIGHT 1987 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Cave, Hugh B.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1987
Previous Article:The countess and the devil.
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