Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Paule Barton’s “Emilie Plead Choose One Egg” has no plot to speak of; it is simply a slice of life, and it gives the reader the sense of its having been lifted from the world of folk tale or myth. But in this gentle short story by a Haitian goatherd, both the hopelessness and the hope of Caribbean culture are embedded, and it offers its readers an inescapable challenge: take hold of your life and make choices, or watch life kill you.
Early in the morning, while looking at a “gathered loud of nesting birds,” Emilie asks Belem which bird he thinks is going to “hatch today’s woe”; whichever one it is, she will fry it up for the tax man who has taken her donkey, and thus dissuade him from taking her table and chair too. Belem, thinking it is a game, turns her persistent queries first into a song and then into a riddle— “It’s like asking does water from the same well taste more better after carried in buckets to your thirsty mouth, which one? It’s like asking which of two sticks the same size to knock a lemon down with, which one?”
But it is no game to Emilie, and she insists that Belem make a choice. She will not let him say that all the eggs have woe in them; one has “got to make choices in this life,” and by refusing to do so Belem, by implication, also refuses to accept responsibility for whatever happens as a result. Nonetheless, he will not choose.
Emilie seems disappointed in Belem but not angry at him; instead, “she soothes” him by saying, “All right Belem friend, it’s all right” as she covers her table and chair with fronds to hide them from the tax man.
The story ends, not with the expected appearance of the tax man, but with Belem’s complaint that he has a sudden pain but no discernable wound. We know, as Emilie does, that this is no ordinary pain: “Belem he says, ‘The salt sea will find this wound on me, it always does when I swim in it, always clean my wound.’ But Emilie knew this wound of confusion and no-choice was too deep inside for the salt sea to sting it clean for Belem right now.”
Belem’s choice is obviously very important; it carries, in fact, an almost supernatural quality. It would seem that there is some deep meaning involved with the fact of Belem’s being male. If Belem, the Caribbean male, would just rise up; if he would just say something; if he would just take responsibility, make a decision, take a step, then everything might turn around. Emilie might not lose her possessions to the tax man, and, in a larger context, the indigenous Caribbean population would not be forced to live in a squalor that shames the world.
But he doesn’t. He can’t; Caribbean men who have tried have been beaten down too many times. And in the end, because Emilie pities and loves him, she soothes Belem’s confusion and tells him it’s all right, knowing it isn’t. His moral paralysis is, of course, the source of Belem’s mysterious pain that develops in the last few paragraphs of the story. Belem himself is puzzled by it, and asks Emilie whether she sees any wound; she doesn’t, but she knows why it is there. It is there because the hurt of not being able to do something so seemingly minor as choosing an egg is agonizing, and it is literally eating away at him on the inside.
It is interesting that Belem thinks that going down to the sea and washing himself in the salt water will cure him. Belem’s ancestors arrived on that island by water, and thus water assumes an even more profound importance for him than it would for most people—it is both a tie to his ancestral land and what separates him from it. He does not know what is wrong with him, but he instinctively feels that whatever it is can be washed away, somewhat like a baptism, by the waters across which his ancestors came. But it can’t. Those waters, in a sense, caused his predicament, and it is on these shores and from deep within his own soul that the cure must come.
Barton’s story, like many stories of his people, uses the language of myth to describe the deep tensions of Caribbean existence. His strong-willed women and despairing, irresolute, dreamy men find their counterparts in the real life of his own Haitian village. And Barton, for all the gentleness of his storytelling, has a powerful cure for what ails the Caribbean culture: personal empowerment, particularly among men. Women like Emilie cannot do it alone, because they are only half of the equation; if colonialism has robbed Caribbean men of their moral and emotional virility, it is high time to get it back. Barton’s story, although it borrows the language of folktale, delves down into the deeper regions of myth to provide both the diagnosis and the cure for his culture’s ills.
“Emilie Plead Choose One Egg” can be found in the collection Sudden Fiction International, available from Amazon here.
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