Sunday at 5:00 am, when I got up, Kasann was sweeping the dirt yard outside my patio. No one else was up yet. No one told her to get to work. This was Sunday, and she would spend nearly the whole day doing homework: memorizing French passages in textbooks she barely understands and going uncomprehendingly through math problems. Again, in French. No one, as I say, had told her to get to work, but her first instinct upon arising was to take a broom in hand and sweep.
What I first think of when I think of Kasann, what I first see when I look at her, what I first imagine when she comes to mind, are her two enormous, sparkling eyes. Even as small as she is, they may be the largest I’ve ever seen. They seem to see and respond to everything. Everything. And they respond with such laughter as can reside in our eyes. She is a beautiful, beautiful little girl. She loves to laugh. To laugh at me in particular. She imitates my clumsy Kreyol, and then giggles herself into a fit. It’s hard not to laugh with her. I’ve mentioned Kasann before. She is the oldest of Madanm Anténor’s three children, the oldest child in my family here. She’s twelve.
I’ve known her since she was ten, a tiny little thing. But from the very first, she struck me as nothing of a child. She often seemed and seems old beyond her years, decades more mature than her brother, Ti Papouch, who is only two years younger. This situation is familiar to me. I have some experience with oldest sisters, with one in particular, and it seems very much worth talking about.
It may be merely a difference between what we expect of little girls and little boys. Biology, and the different rates at which girls and boys grow up, may also play a role. There may also be a special burden on any oldest child. Whatever the reason, there is something very special about an oldest girl.
Even at ten, Kasann was working constantly, helping her mother with the housework. Though Ti Papouch might be told to do a specific chore on a given day, Kasann does many chores all the time. Ti Papouch mostly plays. He’s the kind of child who seems unable to walk: He either runs or skips. He can’t see a branch overhead without taking hold and doing a pull-up. He can’t cross our yard without doing a couple of flips or walking on his hands. He can’t carry something for his parents without tossing it in the air, twirling it on his fist, or dribbling it with his feet. He’s part of a small, elite group: one of only two boys in the neighborhood able to climb a coconut palm. The other, Petrus, is 22. Papouch can climb, but he doesn’t. If he’s caught climbing a palm tree, he gets a thorough whipping. His parents are worried he could fall. He’s a giggling, laughing, shouting, whining, jumping little fireball.
Kasann, on the other hand, rarely plays, even though when she does get into a game – of tag or hide-and-seek or whatever – she plays with real gusto. She squeals her delight. But on the whole, she’s much too busy: washing dishes, helping with cooking, sweeping the house and the dirt yard. And that’s during vacation. During the school year, she may do a little less work around the house, but she spends every free moment studying: copying or
chanting her lessons or going to her father or to the local teens for help.
What I see in Kasann is the unenviable position an oldest sister is in. Madanm Anténor, her mother, sees her as something of an extension of herself. She expects Kasann both to be extremely responsible and to take a lot of responsibility for her younger siblings. Her brother and sister, however, see her more as one of them. They resent the authority Kasann is expected to exercise. They don’t listen to her most of the time. This is true even though they expect her to do things for them that they feel unable to do: Getting
them snacks out of the locked pantry or making them fresh juice are examples.
Mèt Anténor and Madanm have both spoken to me about this. They think it extremely important to teach Kasann everything she needs to know to run a house. I suppose they are thinking prudently about her future, but they may also be thinking about their own. Life expectancies are short in Haiti, and Madanm Anténor works herself weary. She seems to worry a lot about her own health, though I can’t judge whether she has reason to. I wonder whether they are hedging against a need they could have, God forbid, to have someone else capable of running the house. I don’t know.
I think about Kasann’s future whenever I see her eyes. Because her eyes always remind me of her namesake. “Kasann” is a nickname; her full name’s Cassandra. Cassandra was the daughter of Priam, the last king of Troy. Cassandra’s eyes could see the future, though this was, for her, nothing but a curse. She was doomed to see all, but to be incapable of convincing anyone else of her vision. We watch her in Aeschylus’s great play //Agamemnon// walking knowingly to her own miserable death.
I think about Kasann’s future. She comes from a family that is, by Haitian standards, far from poor. But they’re also far from rich. They can hardly assure her what we like to call “a better life.” She is a good, hardworking student, but by no means an outstanding one. Competition for advancement in Haitian schools is fierce. She seems unlikely to get very far via that route. In all probability, she will marry someday and spend her life working from before dawn until after nightfall to feed and cloth her family, and to keep a household running well to make a house a home. Like her mother.
Of course, it is impossible to be sure. Cassandra’s curse is not our gift. But I wonder about the future that little Kasann sees. I don’t know what she imagines for herself. I can’t guess what her future holds. It is, however, hard to imagine one that’s very bright without real change in this land.