[This is one of six Tales and Legends, from Louise Michel's 1884 collection of the same name.]
There are some beings so disgraced by nature, so strange to look at or hear, that their aspect alone is a subject for sad studies for some, of wild mockeries for others.
Some have not always been this way: some of them have had some accident, whether moral or physical, while others, by letting themselves idly go from fatigue or laziness, are brought low to some degree and, on that slope, there is no reason for them to stop.
Others still (and this is dreadful for humanity) become thus under the pressure of persecutions.—The majority have not been afflicted from their birth.
Chéchette was a poor woman who had always been seen as old and always seen as mad. Two poor recommendations for the little rascals who are far from respecting either.
The house of Chéchette was the woods; her store was the woods; the nest of her childhood and the sanctuary of her old age, were always the woods.
Where did she come from? Nobody knew anything about it, nor did she. The first time she had been seen, already old, she came from another wood where her mother and raised her, and had just died.
Chéchette loved her mother in her way. She went to another village and settle there in the middle of the forest.
She was a strange creature, no doubt the last offspring of some nomadic race.
As long as they lasted, she nourished herself with wild fruit; and, during winter, she had her storehouse, where the red berries of the rowan trees, the oily beechnuts, acorns, and all the riches of the forest were heaped up.
Sometimes the squirrels, boars and rats visited her storehouse, for the rock that served her as a shelter was generously covered… If, on her return from some long promenade, she no longer found anything there, Chéchette began her provisioning again. When the accident happened in winter, she went as far as the village and asked for bread.
Some pitied the poor madwoman and generously filled the rages that served her as an apron or gave her other clothing; to those she wished, in her own language, a multitude of good things.
The others mocked her. Then Chéchette let our a very expressive grunt; it was her way, perhaps, of wishing evil.
The food that was given to her, a bit less coarse than her own, seemed to her a series of feasts as long as they lasted. Sometimes, having taken too much in the beginning, she slept for a long time, after the manner of snakes and lizards.
The shape of the clothing was of no concern to her; male or female, it mattered little; but she loved trimmings very much, especially when they had things that shone.
Malicious children sometimes offered her clothes adorned with bells and other ridiculous things; but if they had the misfortune to laugh, Chéchette threw their present in their face; often she even divined their bad intentions without them needing to laugh, for she had a well-developed instinct.
Those who have seen the grimacing statuettes of the middle ages may perhaps get an idea of Chéchette.
She was horribly lame and so one-eyed that her left eye had nearly disappeared.
Her mouth, open wide, showed all her teeth, in the manner of an orangutan—or a gorilla.
Her hands, enormous, gnarled and hairy, her big feet, the thick mane of red hair that hung down almost to her eyebrows, everything about her recalled the ugliest gnomes, the most hideous apes.
This being clung, she loved like a dog; it is true that she would have bitten in the same manner.
She never turned back from her sympathies or antipathies.
As for the wild animals, they never attacked Chéchette, doubtless taking her for a member of their own family.
The person to whom she had shown the most affection was a poor widow, the mother of three children.
When Madeleine Germain went to gather dead wood, Chéchette always found way there to help make up the bundles, or rather to make some enormous ones, which she carried to her house with an incredible ease.
The woods were her domain; there she had an entirely different air than in the village. Chéchette seemed a supernatural being, rather that a grotesque one.
The bad sorts in the village teased Madeleine a great deal about that friendship; they laughed especially when she allowed the horrible old woman to cradle the little children in her long arms, who played with her as with a faithful dog.
The children laughed no less joyfully, and Madeleine worried very little about the bad sorts.
One summer night, when everyone slept deeply, after the fatigues of a hot day spent working in the fields, they heard ring out the only cry that roused everyone in the countryside: Fire! Fire!
Why do all the other perils that can affect their peers leave the inhabitants of the countryside unmoved?
It would be horrible to think that is it a feeling of selfishness, because in a fire each fears for their own home. But the fact is that often the unfortunate have cried out for help for a long time and have died without help.
That night, as someone shouted “Fire!” everyone was up immediately.
Madeleine’s house blazed like a torch;—one of the children had, while playing, lit a small fire near a door, and, during the night, the poor cabin of wood and thatch had caught fire.
Although they lined up to man the pumps, the fire did not slacken.
Madeleine held two of her children in her arms and struggle, in desperation, against those who wanted to prevent her from seeking the third in the flames.
Where he was believed lost.
Suddenly they saw someone enter resolutely into the middle of the fire; it was Chéchette. She had seen that one of the children was missing. The charred roof collapsed with a crash, the flame swirled splendid and triumphant, beaming its thousand tongues toward the heavens.
Some moments passed. Chéchette reappeared, the child in her arms, and set him down before his mother.
She was beautiful thus, the poor madwoman, in that act of devotion that had cost her life.
Her hair, her face, her whole body was covered with large burns; her eyes shone with an infinite joy.
Chéchette, exhausted, fell to rise no more. As for the child, he recovered easily from his swoon.
Even today, Madeleine and her children often carry to the cemetery, and lay on the grass that covers the poor madwoman, flowers from the forest that she loved so much.
Never mock the mad or the old.
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]