Over here on Planet Nancy I’m remembering a Sunday morning, the second or third day of a four-month stay in the Haitian countryside. The day I met Zakari and he gave me The Look, probably not the first time someone did that—it’s certainly happened since—but the first time I noticed.
I couldn’t speak the language yet and was awkward and unsure of what to do with myself, running on a high level of trust—that in time I would learn to bob along in the stream of daily life. Living in someone’s home–a tiny concrete house, 8 people. Somewhat less cramped than it might seem, because most of the activity of the household took place outdoors. Like the rowdy confusion the mother of the family was overseeing, getting the kids bathed in buckets and dressed in the clothes she laid out for church.
That’s when Zakari, a cousin, wandered by. In his twenties, perhaps. A machete hanging loose in his enormous hand. Lean like a panther. Corded sinew stretched over knobs of bone.
He was here to meet me. An obvious opportunity. Maybe I would take a liking to him, feel a family connection. Work could develop. Maybe I would take a special liking to him and all sorts of economic possibilities would develop. Even if none of that happened, it would be more interesting to know me than not, because I was a foreigner, someone new. Everybody in the area was coming around to check me out by engaging me somehow, so they could see how I would respond. When I was the center of attention, unable to talk, and didn’t know what was going on onlookers were entertained.
So my mind was probably racing a mile a minute, straining for the details to track, working out a theory of the situation, reviewing my options for what to say next or if I should be doing something else now, and what was I going to do all day and giving myself pep talks to keep the old self-esteem up and calm myself down.
That’s when Zakari saw a dead spider in the corner by the step and scooped it up onto the side of his machete to show me. He said it was a krabzarayen. “A spider as big as a crab,” to my ears.
I had already met this spider when it crawled into the middle of my room in the middle of the night and died, and I wanted to know if I escaped a serious bite or if these enormous hairy spiders were something I’d better start getting used to.
So I asked—or thought I asked—“Can those things hurt you?”
“Nah,” he said, “That thing can’t hurt you, it’s dead.”
And then I thought I asked, “Yes, but the ones that aren’t dead, can they hurt you?”
That’s when he gave me The Look, a certain kind of double-take you would give while trying to reconcile how much you thought you wanted this person to favor you, with how appallingly stupid they are. These white people, so weak and strange—can’t talk, can’t work—look at their hands!—so much money—they all have cars—they make airplanes for god’s sake!— You might get ahead if you can make friends with one—but the effort is huge—is it really worth it?
He heaved a sigh and failed to keep the exasperation out of his voice, enunciating every careful word. “That thing is dead. When a thing is dead, it stays that way. Dead things don’t stand up and be alive. Ever. That spider is not going to hurt you.”