The story starts with the sounds of a cockfight. The main character, Princesse, has just finished her school day and must pass by the cockfights on her way to her daily appointment. One of the cockfight spectators, an old man, is a former schoolteacher from Port-au-Prince and is rumored to have studied at the Sorbonne in France. As Princesse passes by he tries to make small talk with her, but she brushes him off and continues on her way.
Princesse’s daily appointment is with Catherine, a 27-year-old painter from Guadeloupe. As a reward for getting good grades, Princesse’s school introduced her to Catherine. Unbeknownst to her school, Princesse has begun modeling for Catherine’s nude portraits. It took a while for Princesse to grow comfortable exposing her body, but Catherine has learned how to coax her. As long as no one in Ville Rose sees the portraits, Princesse is okay with being Catherine’s subject.
Catherine has Princesse recline on a white cloth, and begins to paint her. The pair talks about a variety of topics, including Catherine’s past in France and the art of painting. When Catherine is done painting for the day, she gives Princesse two gourdes and sends her home. By now night has fallen over Ville Rose. The cockfights are over, and a man weeps over the body of his fallen rooster. He begins to bury the rooster, chanting “Ayïbobo” over the grave. The old man from earlier shouts at the man and asks him why he’s burying the rooster, when he could be eating it. The other man replies that he is returning the rooster to his fallen father. Just then, the old man catches sight of Princesse and remarks that he is lucky to see her twice in one day. Princesse agrees with him, and hurries on her way.
Princesse goes back to Catherine’s house the next day and the day after that for two more painting sessions. During the first of these sessions Catherine has Princesse pose fully clothed on the beach, and the two of them talk about light and how small entities can evoke big changes in the universe. The second session is in Catherine’s bedroom, and the discussion is about Catherine’s mentor, a French man who died recently. Princesse offers her condolences, but Catherine seems fine.
The following day Princesse visits Catherine again, but Catherine doesn’t paint. Rather, they sit and talk on Catherine’s veranda. Catherine says she wants to hear Princesse talk, and asks her what color the sky is. Princesse replies that the sky is an indigo blue, like the kind used in laundry. Catherine responds cryptically to Princesse’s answer.
The next afternoon when Princesse visits Catherine, the painter is not home. Princesse waits until nightfall for her, walking along the beach and gazing at the ocean. Looking out over the distance, she wishes that she could paint the night skies, the full moon, and the stars. Princesse goes back to Catherine’s house again the following day to find that the painter is still missing. This time she walks around Catherine’s house three times before going to the beach. On the beach she finds a conch shell and blows into it, creating a “dissonant melody” (Danticat 135). She thinks to herself that she would love to paint the sound created by the shell, and a portrait of herself as a mermaid.
Catherine returns a week later. She had been in Paris, selling her finished portraits and visiting the grave of her mentor. When Princesse arrives at her house, Catherine serves her some iced rum and gives her a portrait as a gift. The painting is of Princesse lying naked on a rock. Princesse is transfixed by the painting, and realizes this is why she wants to make pictures: so that she could leave a piece of herself and the way she observed the world behind when she died.
After visiting with Catherine, Princesse walks home with her portrait. She passes the old man, who says again how lucky he is to see her twice a day. The old man’s wife comes along and attempts to drag him home because he is drunk. Princesse watches them for a few moments before sitting in the grass and sketching them in the dust. She finishes their outlines, but leaves their faces blank for someone else to fill in. As she continues home, the sounds of another cockfight pierce the air.
“Seeing Things Simply” has a cyclical, repetitious, and slice-of-life feel to it. The cyclical and repetitious feeling of the story can be attributed to a few sources. The first is the fact that the story begins and ends with the sounds of a cockfight. This gives the sense that the story has gone full circle, that it has arrived back at the beginning. The second source is the lack of diversity in the actions of the characters. Day in, day out, Princesse just goes to school and then goes to model for Catherine. She poses, the two women talk, and then Princesse goes home; she wakes up the next day and does it all over again. Catherine, the second main character of the story, also has a repetitive schedule. She waits for Princesse to get out of school, paints the young girl in the afternoon, sends her home, wakes up, and repeats it all over again. The moment that Catherine moves outside of her tightly kept regiment by going to Paris is the only true moment of conflict in the story.
Speaking of conflict, “Seeing Things Simply” has a distinct lack of it, especially when compared to the other stories in Krik? Krak! There is no military presence in the story, no mention of the corrupt Haitian government, and no questions about old or new regime. The only physical violence that occurs in the story is between the roosters fighting in the cockfights. Even the lone instance of verbal violence, between the old drunken man and the man with the dead rooster, has a comedic element.
The absence of violence and sweeping, momentous events in “Seeing Things Simply” forces the reader’s attention to other aspects of the work, like its use of similes and imagery. One of the first notable similes in the story is the comparison of the cockfight noise to music. This is an apt description of the role the cockfighting itself plays in the overall story. If Princesse, Catherine, and the old man are the stars of the show, then the cockfights are the background music. Another important simile is Princesse likening the sound of a blown conch shell to an SOS call from a distant ship. This figure of speech ties in with the sea and ocean imagery that is scattered throughout “Seeing Things Simply.”
This imagery comes alive in Catherine’s absence. With her painter friend gone, Princesse pays more attention to the world around her, making observations typical of someone with an artistic eye. She notices how the sky “blends with the sea, stroking the surface the way two people’s lips would touch each other’s” (Danticat 138). She pays close attention to the feel of the sand and the sound of the ocean as she waits on the beach for Catherine to return. The minute sensory details of the sea and the beach add texture and depth to an otherwise simple story.
“Seeing Things Simply” is a startling departure from the other tales in the Krik? Krak! collection. Its lack of violence, different from the other stories, allows for a different side of Haitian life to take center stage–a side not marred by the machinations of a corrupt government or the brutality of an aggressive military force. As we approach the end of the collection, it’ll be interesting to see what new directions the remaining stories take us in.