Raphaël Confiant

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

Our neighbor Hermancia (m'man Cia to her intimate enemies) is molded from the stuff of a rare nastiness. We have always known her, enrobed in a solitude full of defiance, a clay pipe dangling from her mouth, her look insolent, and her words threatening devastation. Some suspect that she gives herself over to the art of Quimbois sorcery, not only because she knows the medicinal uses of even the most unusual plants, but above all because she has the power to interpret omens in the sudden flight of a flock of green cayali herons or in the shifting colors of clouds . . . M'man Yise claims that she refuses to treat the elephantiasis that swells in her legs expressly for the purpose of impressing the world.

For you, her heavy footsteps trigger an irrepressible terror. If you are playing on the gravel path in front of her house you suddenly become frozen to the spot. You feign to be absorbed by some little animal on the ground, or you bolt from there as fast as your legs can carry you, your heart beating wildly, as if it would tear from your chest. M'man Cia guffaws:

"Ou pe mwen! Ha-ha-ha!" (You're afraid of me! Ha-ha-ha!)

You have forever listened to her song. She chants and chants the same nursery rhyme for whole afternoons, so you believed she was hiding a baby in her room's abyssal depths:

"Sleep sleep, little girl.
for if you don't
the devil will come
and swallow you whole . . . "

Her voice, full of an incredible gentleness, enraptures you, and you find yourself listening for hours and hours, refusing to go fishing for crayfish with the other little gentlemen. How can a black woman, so fat, so blue, so ugly, so evil-spirited, sing a song full of such tenderings?

M'man Cia prepares bowls of cassava flour mixed with sugar water which she sets upon her windowsill.

"Hooooon! That's good, my baby, that's good, my little baby. You need to eat, to grow into a beautiful little girlygirl and make your mama so happy," she proclaims.


When you ask m'man Yise why no one ever sees m'man Cia's baby: she gives you a slap, as usual. Leonise, for her part, tosses you one sentence:

"All eating is good eating, chaben, but not all talking is good talking."

Then, at the full pique of your six years, you violate the unwritten law, which dictates that the business of grown-ups is the business of grown-ups, and the business of kids is the business of kids. You take a stroll around m'man Cia's hut and hide yourself in the guava shrubs and prickly bushes. With quiet patience, you bore a small hole into the wood of her hut with the help of a rusty nail: the type farriers use to fasten new shoes to horses. It's a fairly easy task, and the woodlice, combined with the permanent humidity of the place, have already weakened the wall. When you peer in, there is nothing but pitch darkness and an elephantine shadow that barely stirs. The next day, your eyelid swells and the white of your eye turns red. Incredulous and suspicious, m'man Yise, Aunt Emerante, and Leonise hasten to press hot compresses against your body. They make you swallow down a special drink that's meant for purging, and sprinkle you with holy water. You hear them muttering together:

"Hope it's a mosquito that got into his eye! Pray to the Good Lord that it's only that . . . "

The next day, the swelling switches to the other eye. It throbs. You choke out little whimpers of sorrow. Finally, it disappears as swiftly as it came, at the end of the fifth day.

You let a period of time pass before you venture again behind the sorceress' hut, especially since she has not changed her habits. As night falls she still receives crowds of souls in pain, in search of cure-all remedies, herbs, and other abracadabra-potions. She uses candles to light her goings-on, and her hut resembles a mysterious cavern where strange creatures come and go between endless consultations.

"It's only right that God took her child away!" Aunt Emerante grumbles, before tightly closing the shutters of the window that look toward m'man Cia's hut.

It also takes you some time to understand why that frizzy-haired black woman never misses anything, even though absolutely no one is able to boast that they've seen her out working anywhere. She's never been seen cutting sugar cane in the fields, nor picking up bundles of dirty laundry to beat against a flat rock in the river. During the day, she pampers her invisible baby, cooing to it in the French they speak across the ocean. At night, she divines courses of destiny in Creole, for hard cash. Oftentimes, she hollers you down, presses money into your hand, and tells you to pick something up for her at the shops. Trembling, you obey and, with an extra dose of care, deposit a bottle of oil, a tiny vial of rum, or a pint of sugary tafia on the wooden bench at the front of her hut ("Ah, she's got a head full of tafia!" Leonise banters). This bench serves her as a kind of throne.

"Pa pe! Pa pe, non!" (Don't be afraid!) She encourages you, but in the same instant you turn your heels and run, and become the laughingstock of Sonson and the other black boys of the quarter. But they all fear m'man Cia, and with the utmost insolence refuse to do her any favors. She has promised the ringleader of them all, Sonson, that she will cut off his penis if he continues to expose himself in front of her every time she solicits him to do an "odd job."

Ten times, twenty times you gather all the strength of your heart and walk toward the back of the sorceress's hut without ever truly reaching your goal. The moment you step into the shrubs, you hear the mules bucking in their pen and can see the sun melt out of the sky, taking with it the last rays of daylight. A very long time elapses (measured, of course, with childish impatience and not by the calendar) when at last several fleecy white hairs grace m'man Cia's tresses and a cyclone rages over the land, spreading devastation and suffering. We are surprised that our neighbor's fragile dwelling emerged unharmed from the storm, while our own house suffered damage to the kitchen roof and a good portion of the veranda, even though m'man Yise set the altars for Candlemas.

Having survived thunder, fierce gusts of wind, torrents of rain and mud, you feel courageous, courageous enough to crouch before the hole you bore into the wall of that big lump of a woman's hut. She is singing her endless song:

"Sleep sleep, little girl

Your roving eye hardly has time to focus: a chamber pot is emptied over your little self and paints you in a yellow piss that must have been sitting there for several days. Your howl is joined by a wellspring of curses that pour from m'man Cia's toothless mouth:

"Sakre vye chaben ki ou ye! Sakre chaben prel si! Chaben, tikte kodenn! Chaben tikte kon an fig mi! Foutem walikan, chaben se an move ras Bondye pa te janmen dwet mete anle late!" (Evil race! Chaben with a face as freckled as a turkey's! Chaben mottled like a rotten banana! Chabens are a race with sour skin! Go to Hell! You chabens are a devilish race that God should never have put on the earth!)

For the first time in your existence, the word petrifies you: chaben! Ordinarily, your friends and family pronounce it with gentleness. Chaben, they call you, but never "black" or "mulatto," words that don't match your complexion . . . You sense that the chaben is an otherness, apart from other beings. At once black and not black, white and not white. But you have never realized the expanse of distance that the color of your skin and your hair has created between normal people and you.

After m'man Cia's babbling, you seek refuge in the folds of your grandmother's creole dress and hiccup:

"I want to be like everybody . . . "

"Ah! . . . That's impossible, poor little fella', since you're a chaben."

"A chaben . . . What's that?" you ask.

M'man Yise remains thoughtful for a short moment, then bursts into a sly anger:

"Oh! Lord-Father-Virgin-Mary, what's going on here? What in God's name do I see before me here: a weak little chaben? No! That's impossible! IMPOSSIBLE! A chaben kicks, and fights, and stomps, and hollers, and threatens. Never goes weak, my God!"

From that day on your ferocity breathes life.

Sonson, the arrogant black boy who has ruled over you all with his extra twelve inches of height, loses his "pack-leader" title in a two-three knockout, thanks to a couple of well-placed punches. You become commander of a troupe of little vagabonds in the Macedoine and Fond Gens Libres that pillages the orchards and attacks the most beautiful Malavoi sugarcane on the white men's farms. You swell up with importance when a grown-up comes to the shop to complain to your family:

"Mi move chaben, fout!" (That's one rotten chaben, dammit!)

Deep down inside you reassure yourself as soon as the smallest doubt threatens to pounce: "I am a chaben. A chaben! I'm tough! I'm strong! I'm mean! The entire world trembles at the sight of the chabens! We are a macho race." But, some nights, on your pillow, when the other kids are nowhere to be seen, you let your warm tears make paths down your cheeks. In the morning, you contemplate your freckles, which people call little turkey bumps, in front of the bathroom mirror. You have pressed and squeezed them with all your strength, but it has changed nothing: you remain the ugliest specimen of dirty chaben alive.


M'man Cia, at least, no longer hassles you—having rediscovered her habitual composure—and does not attempt to jeopardize your newly-gained role among the little vagabonds, envied all over the Macedoine. Sons of Papa Loulou's farmhands, they are in no way duped by your show of friendliness, expressed in the form of stolen sweets shared out at the edge of the Courbaril ravine. They know that—just like their older brothers—they, too, will be tossed onto your family's sugarcane fields, or into the banana plantations for a pitiful salary. As for the little coolies, they almost never protest when their football team makes a goal against ours and then, full of authority, you grab the ball, place it on the center-line, and declare:

"That's a coolie goal, guys, it doesn't count! Come on, we'll restart the match at nil-nil."

You secretly fantasize about forming a team composed entirely of chabens, because you're sure and certain that it would be invincible. But even though the Macedoine quarter is nicknamed "chaben country," your kind is not quite numerous enough to realize that dream. So instead, you give the members of your damned race the most prestigious positions (at least in your eyes): the center-forward, goalie, or center-back, and leave whatever is left to the little black boys who would rather hide their repressed anger than defy your orders. Even some of the grown-ups seem to fear you, as if hypnotized by the red flush your skin takes on when a hell-high anger rises up. They seem to tremble at the sight of you, waiting for you to unleash the lightning fury of God over their souls. They exclaim as they turn their heels:

"Pa mwen epi chaben-taa!" (Oh lordy, that chaben is not for me!)

They have taught you, damn it all, how to become a chaben.

Bad chaben . . .

translated from the French by Patricia Hartland