Whenever the day had been without incident or misfortune, the evening arrived with a smile of tenderness.
From as far off as I could see the approach of M'man Tine, my grandmother, at the end of the wide road that took the blacks into the cane fields of the plantation and brought them home again, I would rush off to meet her, imitating the flight of the mansfenil, the gallop of the donkeys, and with shouts of joy, carrying along the entire group of my little friends who, like me, were awaiting their parents' return.
M'man Tine knew that once I'd come to meet her, I must have behaved myself properly while she was away. So, from the bodice of her dress, she would take some tidbit which she would give me: a mango, a guava, some coco-plums, a bit of yam left over from her lunch, wrapped in a green leaf; or, even better than all that, a piece of bread. M'man Tine always brought me something to eat. Her work companions often made this observation, and M'man Tine would say that she could not put anything whatsoever to her mouth without keeping some of it for me.
Behind us there appeared other groups of workers, and those of my friends who, recognizing their parents, rushed off to meet them, doubling their shouts of joy.
While devouring what I had to eat, I let M'man Tine continue her conversation, and I followed her quietly.
"My God, thank you; I've made it back!" she sighed, placing the long handle of her hoe against the shack.
She then removed the small round basket of bamboo slats perched on her head and sat on a stony outcropping in front of the shack which served as a bench.
Finally, having found in the bosom of her dress a rusty tin box, which contained a limestone pipe, some coarse tobacco, and a box of matches, she began to smoke slowly, silently.
My day was also at an end. The other mamans and papas had also arrived; my little friends returned to their shacks. Games were over.
To smoke, M'man Tine occupied almost all the space this huge stone offered. She would turn to the side where there were beautiful colors in the sky, stretch out and cross her earth-stained legs, and seem completely engrossed in the pleasure of drawing on her pipe.
I remained squatting beside her, gazing steadfastly, in the same direction as she, at a tree in bloom-a completely yellow macata or a blood-streaked flamboyant-the colors of the sky behind the hills, on the other side of the plantation, whose glow was reflected even beneath us. Or else, I looked at her-on the sly-for she told me time and again, often vehemently, that children must not stare at adults.
I really enjoyed following the curves of her old straw hat, its form crushed by her basket, its rim water-soaked and made wavy by the rain. It would be pulled down over her face the complexion of which was scarcely any lighter in color than the land of the plantation.
But what amused me the most was her dress. Every morning, M'man Tine would have to sew something on it, all the while grumbling that there was nothing like cane leaves to eat away at poor black women's clothes. This dress was nothing more than a squalid tunic where all colors were juxtaposed, multiplied, superimposed, blended into each other. This dress which, originally, as far as I could remember, was one of simple flowered cretonne, intended to be used for communion, the first Sunday of every month, then for mass every Sunday, had become a thick, padded tissue, a heavy, ill-fitting fleece which nevertheless seemed to be the outfit most suited to the root-like hands, to the swollen, hardened, cracked feet of this old black woman, to the hut we lived in, and to the very habitation in which I had been born five years ago and which I had never gone far from.
From time to time, neighbors passed by.
"Amantine, you're having a nice smoke," they said by way of a greeting.
Without even moving her head, without so much as glancing at them, M'man Tine replied with a grumble of satisfaction, and remained imperturbably lost in the pleasure of smoking her pipe and deep in her reverie.
Can I say whether she was dreaming, whether she let herself go, at that precise moment, whether the smoke from her pipe carried her off somewhere else or altered in her eyes the entire panorama of the plantation?
When she was finished smoking, M'man Tine would say:
But it was rather a cry of great effort, a personal exhortation.
Then she would put her pipe next to her tobacco and her matches in the small tin box, get up, take her basket under her arm, and enter the shack.
It was already dark inside. Yet, in a wink, M'man Tine had examined the entire scene, deciding whether I had moved some utensil or done any damage.
But, after days like that one, I wasn't afraid. For lunch, I had had just the amount of cassava flour and the small bit of salt codfish she had left me. I had not used too much oil, and couldn't find the sugar tin which she must have stashed in a hiding place only the devil himself could unearth. I had not broken any plates, and had even swept the smoothened earth floor of the hut, so as to clean up the specks of flour that had fallen while I was having my lunch.
The truth was, innocence and reason had possessed me all the time that M'man Tine had been gone.
Satisfied at finding everything impeccable, M'man Tine asked herself under her breath (she often spoke to herself in this fashion):
"What am I going to do tonight?"
Standing undecided in the semidarkness, she yawned at length.
"Left to me," she said in a tone of complaint, "I wouldn't even light a fire, I'd put a pinch of salt on my tongue so the worms can't attack my heart, then go straight to bed."
For she was tired, tired, she said.
But thereupon, breaking her torpor, she busied herself, taking from her basket a breadfruit which she cut in four, peeling each quarter which she then cut into two "squares." This operation was still amusing to my eyes-the filling of the canari, an earthenware cooking-pot, in the bottom of which M'man Tine placed first of all a layer of peelings, followed by the "squares" of vegetable, a pinch of salt, a piece of salt codfish, and finally filled with water.
In addition, she often brought back from the field where she worked a bundle of greens and this methodical filling was rounded off with a layer of this grass covered with peelings in a criss-cross fashion.
Outside, a leaping flame, pushing its way up between three black stones, already provoked in the inside of the canari a most healthy-sounding rumbling and shed in front of the shack a tawny, vibrant glow in which M'man Tine and I sat, she on the huge stone and I quite near to the fire in order to put bits of wood in it and kindle the flame upward into a roar.
"Don't play in the fire," M'man Tine shouted, "you'll pee your bed."
And all around us on the plantation, there were in the darkness of the night similar fires, cooking canaris, making the facades of the shacks and the faces of the children come alive with all those reflections that give fires at night so much seductive appeal.
M'man Tine hummed one of those monotonous songs that continually rose from the habitation and which I sometimes sang as well, along with my friends, when our parents were away.
I thought that the sun was an excellent thing because it took our parents off to work and left us to play quite freely. But night was also a marvelous thing when flames were lit and songs were sung.
Some evenings I didn't want to remain a long time waiting for my dinner. I was hungry and found that M'man Tine was singing too much instead of checking to see if the food in the canari was ready.
On such evenings, it was so painful to wait while M'man Tine prepared the sauce to go with the breadfruit. How slow she seemed to me as she took a small earthen saucepan, rinsed it (Oh! How M'man Tine loved to wash and rinse everything!), cut up some small onions, grated some garlic, went for some thyme behind the shack, took some black pepper from one of the many little bits of paper tied up in balls in a corner, some pimento, and four or five other seasonings! How long I found the time all this remained browning before the vegetable soup, the piece of cod, and the greens were poured in. And it was never good right away. Always a bit of clove to be added; and it had to simmer a bit more!
M'man Tine lit her kerosene lamp, and the table was lit up amidst all the shadows, including ours which, enlarged out of proportion, weighed on the wretched walls of the shack.
She was sitting on a narrow chair near the table; the large ware bowl with blue and yellow stripes from which she ate with her fingers, was between her knees, but she insisted that I put my aluminum plate on the table and that I use a fork, "like a well-bred child."
"Is your belly full?" she asked me when I was finished eating.
Three breadfruit "squares" had filled me till I felt about to burst; and I scarcely had enough breath left to say in a clear voice: "Yes, M'man."
Then M'man Tine gave me a small calabash full of water, and I went to the threshold of the door to rinse out my mouth, taking care to shake the water vigorously between my cheeks and to spit it out as violently as possible.
While doing the dishes, M'man Tine kept talking to herself under her breath, and I remained sitting on my chair listening to her as if she were speaking to me. In this way she went over her entire day: the incidents, quarrels, jokes on the plantation; she became so seriously indignant that I was afraid I'd see her break the canari or the bowl she was in the process of rinsing. Or, she sniggered so gustily that I too burst out laughing. And she would stop suddenly to ask me: "What are you laughing at, you li'l devil?"
At other times she was not angry, but talked on and on in a deep, vibrant voice; and not fully understanding what she was saying to herself, I leaned over to see if there weren't tears running down her face. For I felt myself in such anguish! . . .
I remained staring steadfastly at the lamp for a long time, and allowed myself to be entertained by the little moths that darted against the flame to tumble backward on the table, dead or singed beyond ever flying again.
And my eyelids grew heavy and my head at times seemed to slip off my neck down to the table, when I would catch myself just in time.
Now, M'man Tine was constantly drying and putting away her utensils. On more than one occasion, she moved the lamp in order to clean the table. When, oh when, would she get up from that corner where she had stooped to fix some bottles?
Then, I deliberately rested my head on the edge of the table.
Finally, M'man Tine shook me by the shoulder, calling me in a loud voice so as to chase my sleep away. Holding the light in her hand, she took me into the bedroom.
I was drunk with sleep and nothing made any more impression on my senses. M'man Tine undid a large bundle of rags which she spread for me to sleep on over a sheepskin lying on the ground. She undressed me; I barely mumbled the words she had me repeat to the glory of God. I perceived everything as from the depths of troubled waters. When finally I said "Good night, M'man" and collapsed onto my bedding, I was like a drowned man coming back up to the surface.
* * * * *
But, on most occasions, the day ended badly.
On mornings, as soon as I was up, I picked up my mattress of rags and went to spread it out in the sun, on the huge stone in front of the hut, for it was nearly always wet in certain spots. M'man Tine, at that time crouching in the corner of the shack where there was a small earthenware stove, of the type that used wood coal, was preparing her coffee. Through the window of the room, the daylight poured onto her back, which showed a withered skin through the holes in an old dress that had become as perforated as a net, and that she slipped on to sleep in. On the fire, water was singing away in a small jelly tin, and with it M'man Tine sparingly wet the little filter on the ground.
After changing my nightshirt for a long drill smock which was what I wore every day, I moved beside M'man Tine so I could watch her draw the coffee.
She collected the first drops in a little porcelain mug, added a pinch of sugar, and then stood leaning against the door-frame, one hand on her hip. From this spot, running her eyes over the horizon, she described what the weather was like, or would announce:
"The folks in Petit-Bourg can count on eating fish today, for the fishermen from Diamant will come back with their boats full . . . You see those little clouds: looks like the seines will be bursting . . ."
And she punctuated her words with small mouthfuls of coffee which made her click her tongue.
At such times I knew how careful I had to be not to disturb her, not to ask her anything whatsoever. She would fly into a rage. She would shout: "The sun is scarcely up, I've not even had a drop of coffee in my stomach, and this child is already tormenting me!"
In a large, thick porcelain bowl with blue and pink flowers decorating it, M'man Tine had given me some cassava flour soaked in light, very sweet coffee, and with my little metal spoon I put it all away, sitting on the threshold of the shack.
All during this time M'man Tine kept turning over and over on her knees her working dress, examined the complicated patchwork and hastily did a few urgent minor repairs. She then became very zealous in her movements to and fro, thus appeasing my sneaking impatience to see her set off. For outside, the trees, the fields, the entire savannah were already bathed in sunlight.