Reality check

Vitalien’s mother summoned her to Castries when she turned thirteen. The days and nights before the journey to the town Vitalien had heard so much about, but never seen, were filled with a combination of trepidation and excitement. By day, she carefully selected the personal items she would need for her new life in Castries, and breathlessly recounted to one friend after another her imminent departure from Canaries. At night, she lay awake, sleepless, tormented by questions nobody could give a firm answer to. What was Castries like? Would she make friends there? What was life going to be like for her? Unconfirmed stories suggested that Castries was a magical place where every conceivable dream or desire could be fulfilled. A place where one could rise out of anonymity and be somebody; a place where it was not that difficult to become rich.

Castries was indeed a place of wonder. Vitalien walked on paved roads for the first time in her young life, and the streetlamps that lit up the night filled her with awe. She noted with gushing pleasure the presence of a couple of strategically located public standpipes, and the architectural design of some of the private houses and public buildings was unlike anything she had ever seen. She observed, however, that the people were less friendly and hospitable than those in her Canaries village, and tempers flared easily.

Vitalien took care of the household chores while the rest of her family was out working. She cooked, washed, darned torn clothing, swept the house spotless and dealt with other odds and ends that needed attention. When she was done for the day, and before her family returned home, Vitalien would acquaint herself with the town. She memorized streets by mentally establishing landmarks on each one, and identified places of business according to street and the product offerings of each entity. Six months later, she was placed at the home of a retired nurse.

Placing young, rural girls newly arrived in town at the homes of respectable people of some means was a time-honored tradition in Castries. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement that suited the parties perfectly. The parent or parents of the girls received weekly, fortnightly, or monthly wages from the girls’ employers, the girls had an opportunity to learn the social graces required to smooth their rough edges, and the mistress of the house had a workhorse from morning to night for five, six, or seven days a week. Some benevolent mistresses even taught their girls the art of dressmaking or cake mixing and decorating—which served those girls in excellent stead when the placement arrangement finally ended.


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