Thou shall not steal.
He turned around, glared at Paulette and spat on the dirt floor. She was wearing a pink muumuu and a wide brim hat, which one of the vendors had given to her in exchange for ten hot fritters. JeanJean thought Paulette ugly despite her pretty face with its soft brown skin and eyes that glowed like the shine of her fritters.
Paulette did notice JeanJean staring at her merchandise, but she tried to ignore the filthy street boy because he was keeping his distance. She was tired of boys wearing rags for clothes, walking in slow motion when they neared her golden heap of fritters, drooling spits full of germs, as though to attract flies near her out of spite. Paulette was especially annoyed when she noticed JeanJean because despite his frail appearance, there was a toughness to him that some of the other little boys did not possess. It was as though he and affliction had been intimate for so long that if you threatened to accidentally scald him with hot oil if he came near or tried to steal, he walked closer in slow deliberate steps.
Paulette gawked at JeanJean who was busy poking the dirt floor with a stick. She sucked her teeth and focused her attention on more important things. Besides, she was feeling lucky that morning, so she was prepared to greet her customers with more zest. More charm. She widened her smile, her twenty six teeth dazzling in the sunlight as she beckoned passersby to come sample her fritay for only forty cents apiece.
"Vin achte nan men m cheri m nan. Fritay yo cho! Yo santi bon! Come buy from me my darling. The fritters are hot! They smell good!"
JeanJean kicked the dirt, hoping some of it would scatter over Paulette's merchandise, even though he was too far away to do any damage. He watched as she settled into her usual routine and sat comfortably on a small, sturdy straw chair, covered with a few rags to keep the tiny bloodsucking bugs away. Her oil was sizzling and her fritters were turning a golden yellow. Before long, the customers began to make their way towards her corner and greet her heap of fritay with saliva-filled-lips.
The redolence of garlic and parsley and herring wafted through the air and stung his nose. He opened his palm and looked at the two coins and wished she made smaller fritters for only twenty cents apiece. He kicked the dirt harder upon remembering the last time he approached her to ask for half a fritter. He had waited for the other customers to walk away before approaching her.
"Bonjou Machann," he said, politely, but she pretended he wasn't there. "Bonjou Machann."
She had ignored him and had waived at a woman carrying a basket of oranges on her head, chanting, "Vin achte zoranj! Yo dous! Yo dous!"
JeanJean considered chasing the vendor to ask for a sweet orange instead, but changed his mind. He needed salt. He sometimes sucked the few grains, which he collected from the ones that fell on the ground while the salt vendor was measuring it out of a large tin can, but he knew this simply would not do. So he yelled, "Machann, why you don't answer my good morning? Why?"
But Paulette sucked her teeth louder, scrutinized the boy with venomous eyes and said, "You really wish me good morning? Then run from here and stop bringing flies near my delicious fritters. No beggin' here, you hear? We have nothin' to give for free, so go!"
JeanJean fought the urge to knock Paulette's fritters off the large tray before heeding her advice and running away. He didn't know anything about that wicked woman, but he imagined her having a family who was depending on every single fritter, so he walked away, his eleven year old body shaking with anger and resentment.
Paulette's livelihood did depend on the fritters. Sometimes, she even thought the business of preparing and frying fritters to be therapeutic. She liked watching the way her customers usually stopped simply to ingest the smell, which by now was like a film on her glistening supple brown skin and in the thick mane of her scalp. It was in her pores too, in the cotton of her calico dress and, two years ago, in the milk that leaked from her breast.
This smell she took home six days a week. And even on Sunday, the day she spent sitting in her rocking chair in her tiny backyard, shooing her seven children away intermittently, chewing her fingernails, which tasted of spicy herring despite the fact that she had had a good soak in her tin tub earlier, the smell was a stubborn perfume. Both a gift and a curse. It was those fritters and their enticing lingering smell that fed her kids and bought them clothes and Sunday shoes and paid for notebooks for the free school the white missionaries had built about two miles away from their home. It was also those fritters that sustained her parents who lived on the mountain behind other mountains.
Before long, the market place was bustling with activities. Most of the merchants wore umbrella-broad-rimmed hats to protect their eyes from the sun, which glared down at the people from above and sizzled patches of visible flesh as though it had a mind to cook them.
This was an area in Raboteau Gonaives where the locals could find just about everything they needed to get for the week. In one section of the marketplace, vendors were selling cooked foods, such as rice and beans, legumes, fried pork, fried chicken, fried fish, beef stews, and other treats such as peanuts, water, sodas, lemonade, coconut cakes, and, of course, fritters.
To the left of Paulette, some merchants had displayed some sleeping mats, made of straw. Just last week, Paulette bought one of those sleeping mats for her eldest daughter Mirlande who complained that since she was thirteen years old and started menstruating, it was only fair she should get a mat of her own because TiFre, her eleven year old brother, was always rolling on her and putting his smelly crusty feet in her mouth and feigning to be in deep slumber even when she tickled his feet. Besides, she was also tired of having him pointing out the blood stains on the back of her nightgown in the morning, saying how it reminded him of a red choublak flower or someone who'd sat in beet juice.
Paulette didn't like the idea of spending six gourdes on a sleeping mat, especially when she was saving it to buy some fabrics to send to her mother to resell to the mountain folks to make dresses, shirts and trousers to wear on Sundays in case their feet or their donkeys were not too tired to make the nine mile journey to church.
Mirlande had since become a different person. Instead of sleeping in the bedroom with the others as she usually did, with the three youngest on the bed with their mother and the other four sharing two mats on the floor, she slept in the little room which had a wooden table and four straw chairs, a sepia-toned wedding picture of her manman and papa on the wall, and a large clay water-jug filled with cool water in the corner. On the table were some delicate China plates and cups and spoons, used only to serve guests visiting from Port au Prince. City folks were used to glamorous utensils, Paulette reasoned, and were worthy of them. She and her own children used tin plates and cups and spoons. And her husband too before the sea, agitated by Hurricane Jeanne, had gulped him down the year before.
In other areas of the marketplace were raw goods, such as millet, wheat, ground corn, and rice grains, long and delicate looking like French ballet dancers.
Some of the female customers were wearing bright colorful clothes. Every now and then, you could hear One-legged Joe whistling before saying, "Cheri, look at you, look at me. Don't we make a fine match?" If the woman grinned, he added, "You want to go to cinema with me?"
Most of the women walked away smiling and he would stop intermittently to encourage a customer, saying what better way to get revenge on the sweltering heat than buying one of his large straw hats. One-legged Joe came to the market place twice a week in a coal-truck on its way to a nearby town. His brother was the driver and though he insisted that One-legged Joe sit next to him, it was to no avail. Rather, he preferred to sit on the back of the truck on sacks of coal piled hill-high in open air where his one good foot dangled in space next to other starchy feet. When the truck climbed a steep hill, some of the passengers, particularly the women, moaned and made the sign of the cross; others whispered psalms of comfort because in one tilt, they could all be tossed aside and fall to their deaths or worse, suffocate slowly under sacks of coal.
While One-legged Joe enticed another smiling customer, she told him she was not in the mood for his pleasantries with the sun being so mean and so overbearing. He flipped his crate over, took an old radio that was hidden beneath it, sat down and tuned to his favorite station, one that entertained its listeners with songs in French, in Creole, in Spanish and in English. One-legged Joe stopped and listened to the ending to a Wyclef Jean's song that felt familiar to him even though he didn't understand the lyrics save for the ending:
Mezanmi, yo tuye Diallo Se menm jan yo te tuye Martin Luther King Amadou Diallo ...
He sang along and spread his arms to heaven, as though Diallo had been the product of his womb, as though to inform the sky and his friends that they had murdered his only son.
Paulette couldn't make out what One-legged Joe was saying, but she was annoyed nonetheless because her potential customers were paying too much attention to him. A few circled him and she wondered if they felt sorry for him and why. To herself, she said, "It's a mystery why he missing a leg. Who knows what or who he be running from? I got no time to feel sorry for no one."
Not everyone was consumed with One-legged Joe. Some of the women purchased their goods in a hurry because they wanted to be done with the business of cooking before the evil burning sun had its way with them. Every now and then, you could spot a few men who had the strut of former Tonton Macoutes. It was evident that the fall of Duvalier had not crushed their arrogance. One in particular was walking with a slow gait, as though his crotch were made of lead. He wore dark sunglasses and a pipe rested between two rows of what looked like false teeth. A homeless boy no older than eight bumped into him and he bellowed, "Watch that you don't rub against clean people you dirty thing!"
The poor boy muttered his apologies and ran in the opposite direction, holding his oversized shorts with one hand lest they should fall to his feet and slow him down.
From a distance, you could hear customers haggling, hoping to drop the pound price by a few cents. There was one woman by the name of Georgette who liked to haggle as though it were a hobby. She was the director of a primary school a few miles away and was the only female in town who owned a car. She was in the process of buying some wheat from a woman named Madan Bobo.
"Se konbyen gwo mamit lan?" she asked, pointing to a large recycled tomato can.
"Two dalla," the merchant replied, revealing two big square teeth.
Georgette sank her slender hand in the mountain of wheat and let its texture massage her palm. She spotted a few grains of ground corn and knew just how to save a few cents. She knew it was common practice for some merchants to mix the dry goods in a subtle fashion, hoping to get more for their machandiz. She also knew the ground corns were selling for one dollar for a large can filled to the brim.
"Machann, e pa ou melanje mayi ak ble a?" She said as both a question and a statement.
"Se konsa yo ye," said another customer, known as Madan Pierre, startling Georgette who didn't notice her before. "They always tryin' to mix thing. They mix rice with millet. Grind com with wheat. White sugar with light-skin sugar. White flour with wheat flour. What really get on my nerve is they all call theirself protestant. They give Jesus a bad name."
Georgette nodded her head in agreement, but was afraid to encourage Madan Pierre's ranting. She squeezed past Georgette to also finger the wheat, while putting a few pieces of ground corn in the corner of the container as evidence.
Madan Bobo was indignant.
"You buy mix food from me? She asked Madan Pierre who responded she had better things to do than argue with a liar and a thief, before walking away in a hurry.
Georgette suppressed a grin, which did not escape Madan Bobo's glaring eyes. She looked at her prospective customer up and down before saying,
"Madan, you try to disrespect me too?" Madan Bobo proceeded to explain that she used the same can for both goods and wasn't it obvious that that was the case?
Georgette knew this and smiled and said, "Oh don't pretend as if this has never been done before."
"Wi. Men pa mwenmen m. Since you find a few grain of mayi moulen in the wheat and you my first real customer, I take off ten cent. The other come and buy from the cannot fit enough to satisfy a newborn if you fill it with milk. But you, you real customer." At that, Georgette grinned and busied herself with removing some grains of ground corn. Madan Bobo got annoyed because Georgette was not paying fast enough.
"If you don't want it, stop fingerin' my machandiz."
So Georgette paid the vendor and winked at JeanJean who was watching from a distance. Madan Bobo snatched the money and sucked her teeth as Georgette walked away. And to herself she said, "She probably marry government man and she think she important. They never want to pay full price them air squeezer. Always got to dry up some poor folk. One day, they gonna get chop limb by limb."
She amassed her thick lips and sucked her teeth some more until Georgette's red rayon dress was swallowed up by the crowd. She quickly ironed out her facial expression when she noticed another potential customer. "Vin achte my darlin'. Vin achte!"
Closer to JeanJean, Georgette tossed him ten cents and he smiled and smiled. And looked at her purse with greedy envious eyes. While she shoved a few bright orange dollar bills in her purse, Georgette looked at the boy and wondered if he was a thief in addition to being poor.
She flashed JeanJean a smile and headed north. He was grateful for the ten cents, but by the polished appearance of Georgette, he knew she could afford to give him more. He couldn't decide whether people like her were worse than Paulette who wouldn't sell him a fritter even if he had forty cents. He concluded that life for people who couldn't buy a forty-cent fritter was a bother and he wished the daylight didn't last so long and the sun wasn't shining so hard.
JeanJean lived behind Raboteau Cemetery in a makeshift shack, which didn't belong to him, but he was grateful for the uneven tin walls and roof that gave him something that resembled shelter for close to a year. Most of the houses behind the cemetery were thatched huts that sat in clusters. Some were covered with straw and others with dried palm leaves.
A few of the houses were made of whitewashed walls and covered in tin sheets, which leaked on rainy days. Some people let their clay floor soak up the rain; others used buckets to collect the water, which they later used to cook or to bathe if they did not want to walk a few miles to the river or use a neighbor's well. On some nights when it rained JeanJean stayed awake to listen to the rain-pearls hitting the tin-roof. When he was alone, he didn't mind the steady stream that formed puddles on the dirt floor or sometimes in the water jug which he dragged from one leaky corner to the next. He loved dreaming on such nights where he was transported to the mountains of his childhood days with his grandmother, who, he heard, fell to her death, after hearing the news of her daughter and her son-in-law's demise. He used to think if you stood on your tippy toes, you could grab a shimmering star while you bathed in the milky waterfall, listening to echoes of distant ceremonial drumbeats.
JeanJean's grandmother once explained how some people celebrated their harvests by killing pigs and goats and cows to cook up feasts as offerings to the spirits, afraid their crops would shrivel up in the following season if they didn't. She was also quick to remind him that when God gave something to His children, He wanted a simple thank you. And if you had a job like the few who do, God wanted them to give ten percent to the church, which He'd store as blessings for future generations.
JeanJean wondered if anyone did store some blessings for him: a fritter or two would be very convincing.
Every now and then, when he went there to sleep, JeanJean found a drunk sleeping inside the shack on the dirt floor. The first time JeanJean went in the shack and saw a dark figure curled up on the floor with quarter-sized holes in his pants, revealing bony flesh not meant to be exposed, he wondered if he was better off sleeping behind one of the mausoleums, adorned with bright red hibiscus. JeanJean decided this was his home and this tangled-haired man, who, he suspected, was infested with lice (even though he was not scratching his skin off), and who smelled like cheap rum was not going to put him out.
He bent down, shook the man's scrawny shoulders vigorously and said, "Mister, you're not welcome here in my home. How do you barge in here when the door had a brick in front of it?"
The drunk grumbled and shooed JeanJean away.
"Mister," JeanJean persisted. "I don't want to hurt you so leave before I lose my temper."
The drunk straightened his haggard body, peered at JeanJean through foggy sleepy eyes and mumbled, "I live here first. I be on vacation now I back. Stay or go. No matter. You no matter."
JeanJean sighed and said, "Look, I live here now. I let you stay the night but next time, you go by the river and wash up so you don't stink up the whole place."
The drunk became more of a regular, sleeping in the shack about three times a week. JeanJean wished to be left alone. But more than that, he wished for a straw mat so the hardened dirt floor wouldn't bruise his bones so. Sometimes, he covered the dirt floor with a few rags. But when he was tired enough, he collapsed next to the drunk and soon started snoring. Once, he tried to drag the drunk by his two stubby toes because of the loud farts he was releasing and the drunk slurred some threats, which sounded like, "Ikillyouifyoufoutdon't go away. This here myhouse. Me here first."
But JeanJean was not afraid of Death. Didn't he wish he had been buried in the mudslide with his parents? Didn't he curse Hurricane Jeanne for leaving him stranded behind the graveyard where skulls sometime greeted him with grinning teeth? Once, he took a short cut through the cemetery and stumbled on a woman who, he thought, was sleeping. He said excuse me and turned for another look and puked a phlegmy liquid on her when he saw maggots crawling out of her nostrils and her eye sockets.
It was common knowledge that the minute you buried a loved one, there was someone eager to dig up the grave, make the sign of the cross, throw the body aside and steal the coffin.
JeanJean had also blamed Grann Anne for convincing him to stay on the mountain that fateful November day. The mountain that saved his life. His grandmother had a dream in which she lost one of her Sunday shoes, a prized possession, the night before and she was convinced it was about JeanJean in a symbolic way since he and his parents lived next to a woman named Mande, who, they said, was a lougawou. Mande had brown mutilated dolls in red and purple dresses hanging way on top of her coconut and avocado trees. She also had little knots that were tied with red and purple fabric all around the cacti fences in her backyard. This was her mark. Her message was clear: Stay off my property or you could end up like one of my dolls. Her house was made of brick and mortar like most of the others. It was painted a sunflower yellow, which complemented the yellow daffodils that were growing in large clay pots on her front porch. Rumor had it she used a magic potion to make her flowers bloom year round when others were limp from heat strokes.
Most of the children in the area were warned to steer clear of Mande's property; she occasionally displayed shredded rubber balls and chicken bones on her cacti fences; many of her neighbors were convinced if she had a bad day at the market, somebody's child would pay if he came within reach. Mande was never able to conceive a child of her own and despite her soft amber skin and curly hair which graced her shoulders and light brown eyes, her husband ran off with a coal-skinned woman who some people said didn't have an ounce of Mande's stunning beauty and wasn't that a shame?
JeanJean's parents, her next-door neighbors, were kind people, so they always greeted Mande even though they didn't agree with what they called her foolishness. One day, JeanJean was bored so he threw a rock, which knocked one of her dolls on the ground. When Mande came home from selling live chickens in the open market, she saw her broken doll and vowed to replace it on her coconut tree with whoever was responsible. "People don't mind their business, I show them something," she mumbled under her breath. "Let them hang from the trees."
Two weeks later, JeanJean's parents didn't need much convincing when Grann Anne insisted that he stay on the mountain for a while. JeanJean had stopped going to school the week before because of the constant rain leaking from the angry sky, in need of some serious patching up according to his parents.
It had been two hours since JeanJean had gone to the open market. He ambled about until the hunger created a chasm, which, he imagined, must be stretching and stretching in his belly. He ate a few half-rotten oranges that the vendor who was chanting about their sweetness and juiciness kindly sold him for ten cents, so he was fingering the twenty cents in his one good pocket and wondering if he might have better luck if he asked a kind-faced customer to buy a half fritter for him. He rejected the idea, however, when he remembered the many times so-called kind-faced people were mean to him, walking away when they saw him coming with an outstretched hand.
JeanJean's stomach crumpled inside of him in complaint of the edible mud-cakes he greedily consumed the day before for two pennies each--coins that he stole from the drunk's torn pants' pocket. He wished he knew where to find the special dirt used to make the mud cake. He had watched on occasion some women behind the cemetery mixing the dirt with salt, water and margarine to form a doughy paste, which they shaped into discs before placing them under the sun to bake. The first time he tried one, he had a bellyache and diarrhea that left his belly touching his spine. After a few times, he got used to the pain and he didn't make so many trips to the public latrine which had cockroaches bigger than the drunk's stubby toes.
JeanJean heard one of the vendors explaining it was a special kind of dirt found up north and, because of its raw and irresistible smell, some pregnant women dug tiny holes in their homes looking for it, craving its starchy taste. He even heard one vendor explaining with innocent eyes that it had "a spsyal vitamin naming casyum."
He pushed thoughts of mudcakes from his mind, telling himself he had more important things to think about. He hadn't had much salt in his sixty something pound body since he stole a piece of fritter which fell to the ground when he bumped into Paulette while she was wrapping it in a wide piece of banana leaf two days ago. That day, the marketplace was fairly crowded with people buying this and that and using "philosophy" to get the vendors to reduce their prices. He was able to escape without any harm done to him. He was glad there were no police or any former Tonton Macoutes around because they could be more vicious than the hunger that throbbed in his belly. Especially to parentless "vagabonds" like him.
A vendor named Sister Veronique could be heard taunting Georgette who told her she ought to be ashamed of herself for mixing the millet with the white rice. Minutes earlier, Sister Veronique told Georgette that she was a "Christian woman" and that her customers could purchase her goods with their eyes closed.
"Leave my sight philosopher," she yelled as Georgette walked away, dropping the gentle tone she used minutes before. "Philosopher, where you be when Duvalier and the Macoute was drinkin' our blood all raw and salty." She tightened her thin lips and added, "Philosopher be gone!"
Standing there within smelling distance of the delicious fritters, JeanJean was reminded of the angry look on Paulette's face when she screamed, "Bare vole! Catch the thief!" even though he had only picked up what had fallen in the dirt. There was something about the transformation on her face that made him think of the female corpse lying in the cemetery not far from a tomb with an engraved message that read, My dearest friend, you were made out of dust and spent your life eating dust, so Hurricane Jeanne finally quenched your thirst. Isn't she wonderful? But don't you worry because I am one step behind you cheri m nan.
When JeanJean first read this message, he tried to figure out what it meant but the hunger pangs made it hard to think. The following day, after having eaten a few rotten mangoes that had fallen on the ground, he thought about it again and could only conclude that the person who wrote the message must be smart and melancholy.
So JeanJean contemplated his next move and rubbed his sweaty palms. Suppose she catches me this time, he thought. Suppose she uses a machete to chop a finger or my whole hand? Non, she won't do that. Too many people watchin'.
He shook the thoughts away and approached a few steps, but the thoughts were persistent. Suppose she throws some hot oil on my face and my skin melts off?
He rubbed his face and winced and backed away a few steps.
But a howling stomach can only wait so long.
JeanJean considered asking Paulette for half a fritter for twenty cents, but he knew she would rather spit in his face than let him have the half. He was reminded again of the time he actually had forty cents and she told him that he smelled of animal carcasses and had but seconds to vanish from her sight. "Off with you!" she yelled after him. "Dirty vagabond!"
He continued to back away but then realized the smell of herring and fried onions and garlic were becoming faint and, without thinking, he dashed to Paulette's direction, reached for and grabbed a fritter and kept running.
"Bare Vole!" Paulette cried, abandoning tens of fritters, oblivious to the mouths that only ingested polluted air for supper the night before.
Minutes later, she reappeared with JeanJean, a firm grip on his collar and--upon witnessing the burial of her livelihood--swore to become a cannibal. Her fritters, heaped in a large tin tray, were gone. The tray, the deep frying pan, the cooking recho, her big, shiny spoon, the sack half-filled with flour, the half-gallon of oil, and her straw chair were all gone. Passersby made haste in taking what was available, including several vendors who sent their helpers to fetch some fritters to be tucked away in pockets, in cloth-purses, and in the crevices of Yanique's large breasts (wrapped in a fig leaf) for Junior to nibble on when she got home before her beans could soften up in time for supper.
Paulette wanted retribution, so she sank her teeth in JeanJean's left cheek and only found a jutted bone. The other vendors watched from afar. They didn't budge from their merchandise.
A few onlookers shook their heads sadly and went about their business. A few stayed behind to see how far Paulette would go for her fritay. One-legged Joe leaned on his cane, a dozen or so hats sitting on his head. His eyes were liquid with tears and they stared past the scene at something distant and forlorn. It was as though he were trapped in a bleak painting and waiting for someone to remove the glue from under his foot.
Madan Pierre was among the spectators, watching intently, her dark eyes reflecting her chagrin.
JeanJean too was curious to see if Death had come to honor his wish. He quivered inside, but kept a blank expression on his face. Paulette took it to mean he was a sociopath to be, like the police who set on fire the family of four who lived in the seaside neighborhood of Raboteau, killing a one year old baby girl because the man of the house owed him some money he won on a cock fight. She even thought she saw a resemblance to the evil policeman's ghostly face as some people eager for Death pointed accusing fingers at him one afternoon while purchasing some fritay, inches away from her brown face.
"Delenkan like you have to go," she mumbled under her breath. "Because of you I have nothing. Everythin' gone!"
Paulette welled up her dormant rage and blamed the boy for everything that had gone wrong that day and for days and years to come. In JeanJean's black face, she saw what could become of her own seven children if she were to die and leave them nothing. The fritters were everything and now because her goods were stolen, it would take her a lifetime to recover.
The others kept watching. They watched as she tied JeanJean's hands behind his back and flattened his face to the ground. They watched as she spat on his peppercorn hair, before using her left foot to turn his face to face hers. A trickle of blood ran from JeanJean's forehead and he grimaced with pain. With the same foot, Paulette smeared the blood upon his gentle face, which, for some strange reason, was identical to the policeman's as far as she could see. The policeman was evil and so was JeanJean for trying to steal what little she had.
As JeanJean lay on the ground, he could barely breathe. He looked like a scared embryo, afraid of the world outside his mother's womb. He thought of making a plea to possibly spare his young life, but he couldn't shake the feeling that this was all for the best.
JeanJean was reminded of another time when Death greeted him. He was still sleeping when he heard someone screaming. He jumped up, followed the scream down the corridor and saw a girl no older than he running barefoot. She was wearing an underskirt, stretched to cover her nipples while she shouted, "Snake! There be a serpent on the roof of my home! Please somebody kill it!"
JeanJean went back to the shack, shook the drunk and said, "Mesye, a girl needs our help. Wake up!" But the drunk waved him off and mumbled,
"Have no girl. Have no boy. Have me and my friend."
With that, he faced the cold tin wall and the snores came soon after.
So JeanJean dashed down the corridor where the girl was still screaming, "Somebody help me. It be me and my three sister and we's scared of the snake! Everyone gone to the market and we's scared!"
The girl, who was known as Fifi, screamed louder upon seeing her scrawny rescuer who promptly picked up a rock that made him stumble backwards. JeanJean smiled reassuringly, dropped it on the dirt floor and picked up two fist-sized ones. By then, the snake, to JeanJean's surprise, was curled up in the narrow corner where cooking was done, under a tent made of four poles and some straw, its head basking in the sun. It had more flesh in its body than JeanJean who wondered whether he could actually kill it.
JeanJean's heart beat wildly as he approached the snake, a rock in each hand. He lifted a trembling hand, aimed for the snake then threw the rock. Before it landed on the snake's head, it unfurled its slithering body and lunged for JeanJean who quickly threw the other rock, injuring it on its tail. The snake sped up and just as JeanJean was thinking he didn't stand a chance while strangely admiring the snake's dried-leafy camouflaged leathery skin, someone pushed him aside and threw a machete, which severed the snake in two almost equal halves.
Fifi found her voice when she whispered, "Mesi. When Manman m ak Papa m come from the market, I tell them what you did."
The drunk muttered something that sounded like, "I should come soon. Sleepbegood. Sleep be verygood."
Lying there, JeanJean could hear the drunk's voice, whispering, "Sleepbegood. Sleep be verygood." He realized that he missed his mother's sweet smell. She liked to make tea. Bazilik tea. She sometimes washed her long, black tresses with the rest of the tea after the three of them had had their fill of bazilik tea with thick doughy bread for supper. He missed his father too. Tall, dark slender man with eggplant-shaded gums--a kind man with an oily-rich laugh. It would be so nice to finally see them again. JeanJean wondered if he should thank Paulette for making him remember how much he missed and yearned to be with his manman and papa in heaven. He wished too he could find the drunk to tell him "yes sleep be verygood. Very very good."
He then tried to open his mouth, as though to thank Paulette who pressed her left foot on his face making him gag, her leather throng sandal, leaving a spiral-like imprint on his smooth bony cheek.
"Shut up you filthy little thief!" she yelled, glaring at the crowd, daring the onlookers to rob her of her right to justice. She knew some of them had returned to watch the spectacle after having stolen and hidden her precious goods in some dark places, so a spectacle she would give them. "You steal no more. Next time when little dirty vagabond like yourself come to steal, they remember the story."
And they watched as she lit a match and solved her problem. Madan Pierre mouthed the word no, her eyes wet with tears. The people scattered and watched the flame from a distance.
JeanJean writhed in the dust and squealed like a pig being butchered. He closed his eyes and pretended the heat simmering his flesh was emanating from the steam rising from bazilik tea. He opened his parched lips as though to whisper, "Thank you Manman."
Paulette stood over the dying body with hunched shoulders and whispered, "See what you make me do? You was just a thief who would grow into a big thief. Everyone here should thank me. Including you."
She straightened her shoulders and faced the crowd, pointing with trembling and accusing fingers, "Wi. I say you, you, you, and you should thank me because if we rid ourself of them one by one, we need not watch our back no more."
The fire sizzled and cackled until JeanJean was reduced to a heap of roasted bones. The aroma of Paulette's fritters still lingered in the air, but it also smelled of barbecued flesh that could make hungry mouths water.
One of the vendors did come forward to offer her condolences to Paulette for losing her livelihood, her basket of peanuts resting against her narrow hips. Her head was tied in a piece of black rag and she was one of the many vendors whose toes were thick and coarse from walking several miles barefoot to the market place. She swallowed a gulp of saliva before muttering to the charred remains. "Good riddance."
And to Paulette who was staring at JeanJean's ashes with eyes devoid of life, the peanut vendor, known as Selyan, whispered, "Pran kouraj zanmi m. Pran kouraj. Take heart my friend. Take heart."
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|Author:||St. Fort, Yolaine M.|
|Publication:||Journal of Caribbean Literatures|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
|Previous Article:||Grant us brave and enduring hearts.|
|Next Article:||Review of Artists, Performers, and Black Masculinity in the Haitian Diaspora.|