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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 8568

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Following the Rue Victor Hugo in the direction of the Fort,-crossing the Rivière Roxelane, or Rivière des Blanchisseuses, whose rocky bed is white with unsoaped linen far as the eye can reach,-you descend through some tortuous narrow streets into the principal marketplace. [1]

A square-well paved and well shaded-with a fountain in the midst. Here the dealers are seated in rows;-one half of the market is devoted to fruits and vegetables; the other to the sale of fresh fish and meats. On first entering you are confused by the press and deafened by the storm of creole chatter;-then you begin to discern some order in this chaos, and to observe curious things.

In the middle of the paved square, about the market fountain, are lying boats filled with fish, which have been carried up from the water upon men's shoulders,-or, if very heavy, conveyed on rollers.... Such fish!-blue, rosy, green, lilac, scarlet, gold: no spectral tints these, but luminous and strong like fire. Here also you see heaps of long thin fish looking like piled bars of silver,-absolutely dazzling,-of almost equal thickness from head to tail;-near by are heaps of flat pink creatures;-beyond these, again, a mass of azure backs and golden bellies. Among the stalls you can study the monsters,-twelve or fifteen feet long,-the shark, the vierge, the sword fish, the tonne,-or the eccentricities. Some are very thin round disks, with long, brilliant, wormy feelers in lieu of fins, flickering in all directions like a moving pendent silver fringe;-others bristle with spines;-others, serpent-bodied, are so speckled as to resemble shapes of red polished granite. These are moringues. The balaou, couliou, macriau, lazard, tcha-tcha, bonnique, and zorphi severally represent almost all possible tints of blue and violet. The souri is rose-color and yellow; the cirurgien is black, with yellow and red stripes; the patate, black and yellow; the gros-zié is vermilion; the couronné, red and black. Their names are not less unfamiliar than their shapes and tints;-the aiguille-de-mer, or sea-needle, long and thin as a pencil;-the Bon-Dié-manié-moin ("the Good-God handled me"), which has something like finger-marks upon it;-the lambi, a huge sea-snail;-the pisquette, the laline (the Moon);-the crapaud-de-mer, or sea-toad, with a dangerous dorsal fin;-the vermeil, the jacquot, the chaponne, and fifty others.... As the sun gets higher, banana or balisier leaves are laid over the fish.

Even more puzzling, perhaps, are the astonishing varieties of green, yellow, and parti-colored vegetables,-and fruits of all hues and forms,-out of which display you retain only a confused general memory of sweet smells and luscious colors. But there are some oddities which impress the recollection in a particular way. One is a great cylindrical ivory-colored thing,-shaped like an elephant's tusk, except that it is not curved: this is the head of the cabbage-palm, or palmiste,-the brain of one of the noblest trees in the tropics, which must be totally destroyed to obtain it. Raw or cooked, it is eaten in a great variety of ways,-in salads, stews, fritters, or akras. Soon after this compact cylinder of young germinating leaves has been removed, large worms begin to appear in the hollow of the dead tree,-the vers-palmiste. You may see these for sale in the market, crawling about in bowls or cans: they are said, when fried alive, to taste like almonds, and are esteemed as a great luxury.

... Then you begin to look about you at the faces of the black, brown, and yellow people who are watching at you curiously from beneath their Madras turbans, or from under the shade of mushroom-shaped hats as large as umbrellas. And as you observe the bare backs, bare shoulders, bare legs and arms and feet, you will find that the colors of flesh are even more varied and surprising than the colors of fruit. Nevertheless, it is only with fruit-colors that many of these skin-tints can be correctly be compared; the only terms of comparison used by the colored people themselves being terms of this kind,-such as peau-chapotille, "sapota-skin." The sapota or sapotille is a juicy brown fruit with a rind satiny like a human cuticle, and just the color, when flushed and ripe, of certain half-breed skins. But

among the brighter half-breeds, the colors, I think, are much more fruit-like;-there are banana-tints, lemon-tones, orange-hues, with sometimes such a mingling of ruddiness as in the pink ripening of a mango. Agreeable to the eye the darker skins certainly are, and often very remarkable-all clear tones of bronze being represented; but the brighter tints are absolutely beautiful. Standing perfectly naked at door-ways, or playing naked in the sun, astonishing children may sometimes be seen,-banana-colored or gulf orange babies, There is one rare race-type, totally unseen like the rest: the skin has a perfect gold-tone, an exquisite metallic yellow the eyes are long, and have long silky lashes;-the hair is a mass of thick, rich, glossy the curls that show blue lights in the sun. What mingling of races produced this beautiful type?-there is some strange blood in the blending,-not of coolie, nor of African, nor of Chinese, although there are Chinese types here of indubitable beauty. [2]

... All this population is vigorous, graceful, healthy: all you see passing by are well made-there are no sickly faces, no scrawny limbs. If by some rare chance you encounter a person who has lost an arm or a leg, you can be almost certain you are looking at a victim of the fer-de-lance,-the serpent whose venom putrefies living tissue.... Without fear of exaggerating facts, I can venture to say that the muscular development of the working-men here is something which must be seen in order to be believed;-to study fine displays of it, one should watch the blacks and half-breeds working naked to the waist,-on the landings, in the gas-houses and slaughter-houses or on the nearest plantations. They are not generally large men, perhaps not extraordinarily powerful; but they have the aspect of sculptural or even of anatomical models; they seem absolutely devoid of adipose tissue; their muscles stand out with a saliency that astonishes the eye. At a tanning-yard, while I was watching a dozen blacks at work, a young mulatto with the mischievous face of a faun walked by, wearing nothing but a clout (lantcho) about his loins; and never, not even in bronze, did I see so beautiful a play of muscles. A demonstrator of anatomy could have used him for a class-model;-a sculptor wishing to shape a fine Mercury would have been satisfied to take a cast of such a body without thinking of making one modification from neck to heel. "Frugal diet is the cause of this physical condition," a young French professor assures me; "all these men," he says, "live upon salt codfish and fruit." But frugal living alone could never produce such symmetry and saliency of muscles: race-crossing, climate, perpetual exercise, healthy labor-many conditions must have combined to cause it. Also it is certain that this tropical sun has a tendency to dissolve spare flesh, to melt away all superfluous tissue, leaving the muscular fibre dense and solid as mahogany.

At the mouillage, below a green morne, is the bathing-place. A rocky beach rounding away under heights of tropical wood;-palms curving out above the sand, or bending half-way across it. Ships at anchor in blue water, against golden-yellow horizon. A vast blue glow. Water clear as diamond, and lukewarm.

It is about one hour after sunrise; and the high parts of Montaigne Pelée are still misty blue. Under the palms and among the lava rocks, and also in little cabins farther up the slope, bathers are dressing or undressing: the water is also dotted with heads of swimmers. Women and girls enter it well robed from feet to shoulders;-men go in very sparsely clad;-there are lads wearing nothing. Young boys-yellow and brown little fellows-run in naked, and swim out to pointed rocks that jut up black above the bright water. They climb up one at a time to dive down. Poised for the leap upon the black lava crag, and against the blue light of the sky, each lithe figure, gilded by the morning sun, has a statuesqueness and a luminosity impossible to paint in words. These bodies seem to radiate color; and the azure light intensifies the hue: it is idyllic, incredible;-Coomans used paler colors in his Pompeiian studies, and his figures were never so symmetrical. This flesh does not look like flesh, but like fruit-pulp....

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