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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 2793

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


At a very early age-perhaps at five years-she learns to carry small articles upon her head,-a bowl of rice,-a dobanne, or red earthen decanter, full of water,-even an orange on a plate; and before long she is able to balance these perfectly without using her hands to steady them. (I have often seen children actually run with cans of water upon their heads, and never spill a drop.) At nine or ten she is able to carry thus a tolerably heavy basket, or a trait (a wooden tray with deep outward sloping sides) containing a weight of from twenty to thirty pounds; and is able to accompany her mother, sister, or cousin on long peddling journeys,-walking barefoot twelve and fifteen miles a day. At sixteen or seventeen she is a tall robust girl,-lithe, vigorous, tough,-all of tendon and hard flesh;-she carries a tray or a basket of the largest size, and a burden of one hundred and twenty to one hundred and fifty pounds weight;-she can now earn about thirty francs (about six dollars) a month, by walking fifty miles a day, as an itinerant seller. Among her class there are figures to make you dream of Atalanta;-and all, whether ugly or attractive as to feature, are finely shapen as to body and limb. Brought into existence by extraordinary necessities of environment, the type is a peculiarly local one,-a type of human thorough-bred representing the true secret of grace: economy of force.

There are no corpulent porteuses for the long interior routes; all are built lightly and firmly as those racers. There are no old porteuses;-to do the work even at forty signifies a constitution of astounding solidity. After the full force of youth and health is spent, the poor carrier must seek lighter labor;-she can no longer compete with the girls. For in this calling the young body is taxed to its utmost capacity of strength, endurance, and rapid motion.

As a general rule, the weight is such that no well-freighted porteuse can, unassisted, either "load" or "unload" (chagé or déchagé, in creole phrase); the effort to do so would burst a blood-vessel, wrench a nerve, rupture a muscle. She cannot even sit down under her burden without risk of breaking her neck: absolute perfection of the balance is necessary for self-preservation. A case came under my own observation of a woman rupturing a muscle in her arm through careless haste in the mere act of aiding another to unload.

And no one not a brute will ever refuse to aid a woman to lift or to relieve herself of her burden;-you may see the wealthiest merchant, the proudest planter, gladly do it;-the meanness of refusing, or of making any conditions for the performance of this little kindness has only been imagined in those strange Stories of Devils wherewith the oral and uncollected literature of the creole abounds. [3]

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