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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 13991

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


?a qui pa té connaitt Yé?... Who is there in all Martinique who never heard of Yé? Everybody used to know the old rascal. He had every fault under the sun;-he was the laziest negro in the whole island; he was the biggest glutton in the whole world. He had an amazing number [52] of children; and they were most of the time all half dead for hunger.

Well, one day Yé went out to the woods to look for something to eat. And he walked through the woods nearly all day, till he became ever so tired; but he could not find anything to eat. He was just going to give up the search, when he heard a queer crackling noise,-at no great distance. He went to see what it was,-hiding himself behind the big trees as he got nearer to it.

All at once he came to a little hollow in the woods, and saw a great fire burning there,-and he saw a Devil sitting beside the fire. The Devil was roasting a great heap of snails; and the sound Yé had heard was the crackling of the snail-shells. The Devil seemed to be very old;-he was sitting on the trunk of a bread-fruit tree; and Yé took a good long look at him. After Yé had watched him for a while, Yé found out that the old Devil was quite blind.

-The Devil had a big calabash in his hand full of feroce,-that is to say, boiled salt codfish and manioc flour, with ever so many pimentos (épi en pile piment),-just what negroes like Yé are most fond of. And the Devil seemed to be very hungry; and the food was going so fast down his throat that it made Yé unhappy to see it disappearing. It made him so unhappy that he felt at last he could not resist the temptation to steal from the old blind Devil. He crept quite close up to the Devil without making any noise, and began to rob him. Every time the Devil would lift his hand to his mouth, Yé would slip his own fingers into the calabash, and snatch a piece. The old Devil did not even look puzzled;-he did not seem to know anything; and Yé thought to himself that the old Devil was a great fool. He began to get more and more courage;-he took bigger and bigger handfuls out of the calabash;-he ate even faster than the Devil could eat. At last there was only one little bit left in the calabash. Yé put out his hand to take it,-and all of a sudden the Devil made a grab at Yé's hand and caught it! Yé was so frightened he could not even cry out, A?e-ya?e. The Devil finished the last morsel, threw down the calabash, and said to Yé in a terrible voice:-"Atò, saff!-ou c'est ta moin!" (I've got you now, you glutton;-you belong to me!) Then he jumped on Yé's back, like a great ape, and twisted his legs round Yé's neck, and cried out:--"Carry me to your cabin,-and walk fast!"

... When Yé's poor children saw him coming, they wondered what their papa was carrying on his back. They thought it might be a sack of bread or vegetables or perhaps a régime of bananas,-for it was getting dark, and they could not see well. They laughed and showed their teeth and danced and screamed: "Here's papa coming with something to eat!-papa's coming with something to eat!" But when Yé had got near enough for them to see what he was carrying, they yelled and ran away to hide themselves. As for the poor mother, she could only hold up her two hands for horror.

When they got into the cabin the Devil pointed to a corner, and said to Yé:-"Put me down there!" Yé put him down. The Devil sat there in the corner and never moved or spoke all that evening and all that night. He seemed to be a very quiet Devil indeed. The children began to look at him.

But at breakfast-time, when the poor mother had managed to procure something for the children to eat,-just some bread-fruit and yams,-the old Devil suddenly rose up from his corner and muttered:-

-"Manman mò!-papa mò!-touttt yche mò!" (Mamma dead!-papa dead!-all the children dead!)

And he blew his breath on them, and they all fell down stiff as if they were dead-raidi-cadave!. Then the Devil ate up everything there was on the table. When he was done, he filled the pots and dishes with dirt, and blew his breath again on Yé and all the family, and muttered:-

-"Toutt moune lévé!" (Everybody get up!)

Then they all got up. Then he pointed to all the plates and dishes full of dirt, and said to them:-*

[* In the original:-"Y té ka monté assous tabe-là, épi y té ka fai caca adans toutt plats-à, adans toutt zassiett-là."]

-"Gobe-moin ?a!"

And they had to gobble it all up, as he told them.

After that it was no use trying to eat anything. Every time anything was cooked, the Devil would do the same thing. It was thus the next day, and the next, and the day after, and so every day for a long, long time.

Yé did not know what to do; but his wife said she did. If she was only a man, she would soon get rid of that Devil. "Yé," she insisted, "go and see the Bon-Dié [the Good-God], and ask him what to do. I would go myself if I could; but women are not strong enough to climb the great morne."

So Yé started off very, very early one morning, before the peep of day, and began to climb the Montagne Pelée. He climbed and walked, and walked and climbed, until he got at last to the top of the Morne de la Croix.*

[*A peaklet rising above the verge of the ancient crater now filled with water.]

Then he knocked at the sky as loud as he could till the Good-God put his head out of a cloud and asked him what he wanted:-

-"Eh bien!-?a ou ni, Yé fa ou lè?"

When Yé had recounted his troubles, the Good-God said:-

-"Pauv ma pauv! I knew it all before you came, Yé. I can tell you what to do; but I am afraid it will be no use-you will never be able to do it! Your gluttony is going to be the ruin of you, poor Yé! Still, you can try. Now listen well to what I am going to tell you. First of all, you must not eat anything before you get home. Then when your wife has the children's dinner ready, and you see the Devil getting up, you must cry out:-'Tam ni pou tam ni bé!' Then the Devil will drop down dead. Don't forget not to eat anything-ou tanne?"...

Yé promised to remember all he was told, and not to eat anything on his way down;-then he said good-bye to the Bon-Dié (bien conm y faut), and started. All the way he kept repeating the words the Good-God had told him: "Tam ni pou tam ni bé!"-"tam ni pou tam ni bé!"-over and over again.

-But before reaching home he had to cross a little stream; and on both banks he saw wild guava-bushes growing, with plenty of sour guavas upon them;-for it was not yet time for guavas to be ripe. Poor Yé was hungry! He did all he could to resist the temptation, but it proved too much for him. He broke all his promises to the Bon-Dié: he ate and ate and ate till there were no more guavas left,-and then he began to eat zicaques and green plums, and all sorts of nasty sour things, till he could not eat any more.

-By the time he got to the cabin his teeth were so on edge that he could scarcely speak distinctly enough to tell his wife to get the supper ready.

And so while everybody was happy, thinking that they were going to be freed from their trouble, Yé was really in no condition to do anything. The moment the supper was ready, the Devil got up from his corner as usual, and approached the table. Then Yé tried to speak; but his teeth were so on edge that instead of saying,-"Tam ni pou tam ni bé," he could only stammer out:--"Anni toqué Diabe-là cagnan."

This had no effect on the Devil at all: he seemed to be used to it! He blew his breath on them all, sent them to sleep, ate up all the supper, filled the empty dishes with filth, awoke Yé and his family, and ordered them as usual;-

-"Gobe-moin ?a!" And they had to gobble it up,-every bit of it.

The family nearly died of hunger and disgust. Twice more Yé climbed the Montagne Pelée; twice more he climbed the Morne de la Croix; twice more he disturbed the poor Bon-Dié, all for nothing!-since each time on his way down he would fill his paunch with all sorts of nasty sour things, so that he could not speak right. The Devil remained in the house night and day;-the poor mother threw herself down on the ground, and pulled out her hair,-so unhappy she was!

But luckily for the poor woman, she had one child as cunning as a rat,-*

[* The great field-rat of Martinique is, in Martinique folk-

lore, the symbol of all cunning, and probably merits its

reputation.]

a boy called Ti Fonté (little Impudent), who bore his name well. When he saw his mother crying so much, he said to her:-

-"Mamma, send papa just once more to see the Good-God: I know something to do!"

The mother knew how cunning her boy was: she felt sure he meant something by his words;-she sent old Yé for the last time to see the Bon-Dié.

Yé used always to wear one of those big long coats they call lavalasses;-whether it was hot or cool, wet or dry, he never went out without it. There were two very big pockets in it-one on each side. When Ti Fonté saw his father getting ready to go, he jumped floup! into one of the pockets and hid himself there. Yé climbed all the way to the top of the Morne de la Croix without suspecting anything. When he got there the little boy put one of his ears out of Yé's pocket,-so as to hear everything the Good-God would say.

This time he was very angry,-the Bon-Dié: he spoke very crossly; he scolded Yé a great deal. But he was so kind for all that,-he was so generous to good-for-nothing Yé, that he took the pains to repeat the words over and over again for him:-"Tam ni pou tam ni bé."... And this time the Bon-Dié was not talking to no purpose: there was somebody there well able to remember what he said. Ti Fonté made the most of his chance;-he sharpened that little tongue of his; he thought of his mamma and all his little brothers and sisters dying of hunger down below. As for his father, Yé did as he had done before-stuffed himself with all the green fruit he could find.

The moment Yé got home and took off his coat, Ti Fonté jumped out, plapp!-and ran to his mamma, and whispered:-

-"Mamma, get ready a nice, big dinner!-we are going to have it all to ourselves to-day: the Good-God didn't talk for nothing,-I heard every word he said!"

Then the mother got ready a nice calalou-crabe, a tonton-banane, a matété-cirique,-several calabashes of couss-caye, two régimes-figues (bunches of small bananas),-in short, a very fine dinner indeed, with a chopine of tafia to wash it all well down.

The Devil felt as sure of himself that day as he had always felt, and got up the moment everything was ready. But Ti Fonté got up too, and yelled out just as loud as he could:--"Tam ni pou tam ni bé!"

At once the Devil gave a scream so loud that it could be heard right down to the bottom of hell,-and he fell dead.

Meanwhile, Yé, like the old fool he was, kept trying to say what the Bon-Dié had told him, and could only mumble:-

-"Anni toqué Diabe-là cagnan!"

He would never have been able to do anything;-and his wife had a great mind just to send him to bed at once, instead of letting him sit down to eat all those nice things. But she was a kind-hearted soul; and so she let Yé stay and eat with the children, though he did not deserve it. And they all ate and ate, and kept on eating and filling themselves until daybreak-pauv piti!

But during this time the Devil had begun to smell badly and he had become swollen so big that Yé found he could not move him. Still, they knew they must get him out of the way somehow. The children had eaten so much that they were all full of strength-yo tè plein lafòce; and Yé got a rope and tied one end round the Devil's foot; and then he and the children-all pulling together-managed to drag the Devil out of the cabin and into the bushes, where they left him just like a dead dog. They all felt themselves very happy to be rid of that old Devil.

But some days after old good-for-nothing Yé went off to hunt for birds. He had a whole lot of arrows with him. He suddenly remembered the Devil, and thought he would like to take one more look at him. And he did.

Fouinq! what a sight! The Devil's belly had swelled up like a morne: it was yellow and blue and green,-looked as if it was going to burst. And Yé, like the old fool he always was, shot an arrow up in the air, so that it fell down and stuck into the Devil's belly. Then he wanted to get the arrow, and he climbed up on the Devil, and pulled and pulled till he got the arrow out. Then he put the point of the arrow to his nose,-just to see what sort of a smell dead Devils had.

The moment he did that, his nose swelled up as big as the refinery-pot of a sugar-plantation.

Yé could scarcely walk for the weight of his nose; but he had to go and see the Bon-Dié again. The Bon-Dié said to him:-

-"Ah! Yé, my poor Yé, you will live and die a fool!-you are certainly the biggest fool in the whole world!... Still, I must try to do something for you;-I'll help you anyhow to get rid of that nose!... I'll tell you how to do it. To-morrow morning, very early, get up and take a big taya [whip], and beat all the bushes well, and drive all the birds to the Roche de la Caravelle. Then you must tell them that I, the Bon-Dié, want them to take off their bills and feathers, and take a good bath in the sea. While they are bathing, you can choose a nose for yourself out of the heap of bills there."

Poor Yé did just as the Good-God told him; and while the birds were bathing, he picked out a nose for himself from the heap of beaks,-and left his own refinery-pot in its place.

The nose he took was the nose of the coulivicou.* And that is why the coulivicou always looks so much ashamed of himself even to this day.

[* The coulivicou, or "Colin Vicou," is a Martinique bird with a long meagre body, and an enormous bill. It has a very tristful and taciturn expression.... Maig conm yon coulivicou, "thin as a coulivicou," is a popular comparison for the appearance of anybody much reduced by sickness.]

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