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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 9461

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


St. Pierre is in one respect fortunate beyond many tropical cities;-she has scarcely any mosquitoes, although there are plenty of mosquitoes in other parts of Martinique, even in the higher mountain villages. The flood of bright water that pours perpetually through all her streets, renders her comparatively free from the pest;-nobody sleeps under a mosquito bar.

Nevertheless, St. Pierre is not exempt from other peculiar plagues of tropical life; and you cannot be too careful about examining your bed before venturing to lie down, and your clothing before you dress;-for various disagreeable things might be hiding in them: a spider large as a big crab, or a scorpion or a mabouya or a centipede,-or certain large ants whose bite burns like the pricking of a red-hot needle. No one who has lived in St. Pierre is likely to forget the ants.... There are three or four kinds in every house;-the fourmi fou (mad ant), a little speckled yellowish creature whose movements are so rapid as to delude the vision; the great black ant which allows itself to be killed before it lets go what it has bitten; the venomous little red ant, which is almost too small to see; and the small black ant which does not bite at all,-are usually omnipresent, and appear to dwell together in harmony. They are pests in kitchens, cupboards, and safes; but they are scavengers. It is marvellous to see them carrying away the body of a great dead roach or centipede,-pulling and pushing together like trained laborers, and guiding the corpse over obstacles or around them with extraordinary skill.... There was a time when ants almost destroyed the colony,-in 1751. The plantations, devastated by them are described by historians as having looked as if desolated by fire. Underneath the ground in certain places, layers of their eggs two inches deep were found extending over acres. Infants left unwatched in the cradle for a few hours were devoured alive by them. Immense balls of living ants were washed ashore at the same time on various parts of the coast (a phenomenon repeated within the memory of creoles now living in the north-east parishes). The Government vainly offered rewards for the best means of destroying the insects; but the plague gradually disappeared as it came.

None of these creatures can be prevented from entering a dwelling;-you may as well resign yourself to the certainty of meeting with them from time to time. The great spiders (with the exception of those which are hairy) need excite no alarm or disgust;-indeed they are suffered to live unmolested in many houses, partly owing to a belief that they bring good-luck, and partly because they destroy multitudes of those enormous and noisome roaches which spoil whatever they cannot eat. The scorpion is less common; but it has a detestable habit of lurking under beds; and its bite communicates a burning fever. With far less reason, the mabouya is almost equally feared. It is a little lizard about six inches long, and ashen-colored;-it haunts only the interior of houses, while the bright-green lizards dwell only upon the roofs. Like other reptiles of the same order, the mabouya can run over or cling to polished surfaces; and there is a popular belief that if frightened, it will leap at one's face or hands and there fasten itself so tightly that it cannot be dislodged except by cutting it to pieces. Moreover, it's feet are supposed to have the power of leaving certain livid and ineffaceable marks upon the skin of the person to whom it attaches itself:-?a ka ba ou lota, say the colored people. Nevertheless, there is no creature more timid and harmless than the mabouya.

But the most dreaded and the most insolent invader of domestic peace is the centipede. The water system of the city banished the mosquito; but it introduced the centipede into almost every dwelling. St. Pierre has a plague of centipedes. All the covered drains, the gutters, the crevices of fountain-basins and bathing-basins, the spaces between floor and ground, shelter centipedes. And the bête à-mille-pattes is the terror of the barefooted population:-scarcely a day passes that some child or bonne or workman is not bitten by the creature.

The sight of a full-grown centipede is enough to affect a strong set of nerves. Ten to eleven inches is the average length of adults; but extraordinary individuals much exceeding this dimension may be sometimes observed in the neighborhood of distilleries (rhommeries) and sugar-refineries. According to age, the color of the creature varies from yellowish to black;-the younger ones often have several different tints; the old ones are uniformly jet-black, and have a carapace of surprising toughness,-difficult to break. If you

tread, by accident or design, upon the tail, the poisonous head will instantly curl back and bite the foot through any ordinary thickness of upper-leather.

As a general rule the centipede lurks about the court-yards, foundations, and drains by preference; but in the season of heavy rains he does not hesitate to move upstairs, and make himself at home in parlors and bed-rooms. He has a provoking habit of nestling in your moresques or your chinoises,-those wide light garments you put on before taking your siesta or retiring for the night. He also likes to get into your umbrella,-an article indispensable in the tropics; and you had better never open it carelessly. He may even take a notion to curl himself up in your hat, suspended on the wall. (I have known a trigonocephalus to do the same thing in a country-house). He has also a singular custom of mounting upon the long trailing dresses (douillettes) worn by Martinique women,-and climbing up very swiftly and lightly to the wearer's neck, where the prickling of his feet first betrays his presence. Sometimes he will get into bed with you and bite you, because you have not resolution enough to lie perfectly still while he is tickling you.... It is well to remember before dressing that merely shaking a garment may not dislodge him;-you must examine every part very patiently,-particularly the sleeves of a coat and the legs of pantaloons.

The vitality of the creature is amazing. I kept one in a bottle without food or water for thirteen weeks, at the end of which time it remained active and dangerous as ever. Then I fed it with living insects, which it devoured ravenously;-beetles, roaches, earthworms, several lepismaoe, even one of the dangerous-looking millepedes, which have a great resemblance in outward structure to the centipede, but a thinner body, and more numerous limbs,-all seemed equally palatable to the prisoner.... I knew an instance of one, nearly a foot long, remaining in a silk parasol for more than four months, and emerging unexpectedly one day, with aggressiveness undiminished, to bite the hand that had involuntarily given it deliverance.

In the city the centipede has but one natural enemy able to cope with him,-the hen! The hen attacks him with delight, and often swallows him, head first, without taking the trouble to kill him. The cat hunts him, but she is careful never to put her head near him;-she has a trick of whirling him round and round upon the floor so quickly as to stupefy him: then, when she sees a good chance, she strikes him dead with her claws. But if you are fond of your cat you will let her run no risks, as the bite of a large centipede might have very bad results for your pet. Its quickness of movement demands all the quickness of even the cat for self-defence.... I know of men who have proved themselves able to seize a fer-de-lance by the tail, whirl it round and round, and then flip it as you would crack a whip,-whereupon the terrible head flies off; but I never heard of anyone in Martinique daring to handle a living centipede.

There are superstitions concerning the creature which have a good effect in diminishing his tribe. If you kill a centipede, you are sure to receive money soon; and even if you dream of killing one it is good-luck. Consequently, people are glad of any chance to kill centipedes,-usually taking a heavy stone or some iron utensil for the work;-a wooden stick is not a good weapon. There is always a little excitement when a bête-ni-pié (as the centipede is termed in the patois) exposes itself to death; and you may often hear those who kill it uttering a sort of litany of abuse with every blow, as if addressing a human enemy:-"Quitté moin tchoué ou, maudi!-quitté moin tchoué ou, scelerat!-quitté moin tchoué ou, Satan!-quitté moin tchoué ou, abonocio!" etc. (Let me kill you, accursed! scoundrel! Satan! abomination!)

The patois term for the centipede is not a mere corruption of the French bête-à-mille-pattes. Among a population of slaves, unable to read or write, [48] there were only the vaguest conceptions of numerical values; and the French term bête-à-mille-pattes was not one which could appeal to negro imagination. The slaves themselves invented an equally vivid name, bête-anni-pié (the Beast-which-is-all-feet); anni in creole signifying "only," and in such a sense "all." Abbreviated by subsequent usage to bête-'ni-pié, the appellation has amphibology;-for there are two words ni in the patois, one signifying "to have," and the other "naked." So that the creole for a centipede might be translated in three ways,-"the Beast-which-is-all-feet"; or, "the Naked-footed Beast"; or, with fine irony of affirmation, "the Beast-which-has-feet."

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