some days are better than none
The Woman Who Danced the Vaudoux
She arrived in a fury, spewing a torrent of gibberish, which sounded like swearing in the French language or some personal patois spiced with Spanish and English. Her dark brown eyes fixed upon me, and I could see the anger flare and then recede. Acknowledging the absurdity of the moment, she began to laugh in a tone rich as coffee sweetened with sugar cane. She was a beautiful young woman of African descent, her skin shaded to rich brown, and tall and slender-limbed. Like the others she wore an elegant dress, hers a royal purple wrap trimmed with a trail of golden lionesses at the collar, sleeves, and hem. Rings of gold decorated the fingers on both hands, as well as the second toe of her left foot. A thick golden chain encircled her ankle, and enormous gold hoop earrings, round as saucers, hung to her shoulders. Hiding her hair, a cloth not unlike a turban was knotted at the base of her skull. “J’arrive trop tard,” she said. “Merde.”
“Ah, you are French,” the old man said, and then seeing the confusion on my face, he asked, “Parlez-vous anglais?” With a wave of disdain, she turned her face from him. “Speak French to me. It is the universal language.” The old man chuckled softly to himself. “Ce fou-là ne sait rien au français.” Clearly exasperated by his reply, she said nothing, but simply undid the clasp of her gown and let it fall to the floor. Naked and unashamed, she closed her eyes and reached back to untie the knot of her headdress, and as she lifted the cloth, a torrent of black ink washed down her face and covered her body like a waterfall. When the last drop dripped into the dress at her feet, a pattern remained behind on every inch of her skin. “Don’t be suddenly modest,” she said in halting English. “Come closer and have a look.” Written on the surface of her body were thousands of words in a small and spidery hand. I studied the sentence running along her collarbone before surrendering to my ignorance. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to read French.” “I do!” the old man shouted, rubbing his hands gleefully. He approached and stood in front of her, his nose inches from her forehead, already inspecting the beginning of the story stamped there. “I will translate for you,” he told me, and then he kissed the first phrase inked on her skin and exclaimed, “Avec plaisir!” He began in French. “Il était une fois… Are we to have a fairy tale?” “No,” she shook her head. “This is a true story. Every word.” From the breast pocket of his robe, the old man retrieved a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles and perched them on his nose and, peering through the lenses, he leaned in closely, inches from her skin, and translated as he read. “Once upon a time there was a crocodile so hungry he could eat the world. Along the bank of the river, the crocodile would hide in the water and when the other animals came to quench their thirst, for it is very hot all the time in the old motherland, wham, he would catch them in his enormous jaws and chomp, chomp, eat them for his supper. First the zebra, but the crocodile did not like the taste of stripes. Then the giraffe, but he did not care for the spots. He even tried the poppo—” The naked woman said, “Hippopotamus.” “Ah, I see. But the poppo was too fat and the crocodile’s mouth was too tired after all that chewing. He would like to try the elephant, but no elephant ever came to this part of the motherland. “All of the animals came to fear the crocodile with the enormous appetite, and they hesitated to go to the river, even though the sun shone brightly in the summer sky and no rain would fall. A great thirst fell upon them. We cannot be free, said the animals, until the tyrant is vanquished. In desperation they approached the king of the jungle, the lion, but he could not be bothered to leave the shade or disturb his nap. Only a pair of lionesses, who had been listening nearby, were moved to pity, and they agreed to see what could be done about the terrible crocodile. “The two beautiful lionesses, who happened to be mother and cub, went down to the river to spy upon the monster as he dozed in the mud. A hundred daggers stood in his jagged mouth, and scaly bark, thicker than that of a monkeybread tree, covered him in armor. If those defenses were not dangerous enough, he had a tail most formidable that could knock a gnu off its feet. A dry throat overcame the daughter, and she dared take a sip. At once, the crocodile stirred from its slumber and like a flash was at her nose, the water white and churning with his fury. Just in time, she jumped away, roaring in surprise. Off they went back into the bush to discuss their strategy. He is too fast, said the mama. And too hungry, said the baby. Maman said then we shall fatten him until he becomes lazy and slow. “So they took a share of all they hunted down to the river. Wild pigs and antelope, and he grew bigger still. And then they had the monkeys gather mushmelons and yams by the score and cook them up with spices, and the crocodile loved their recipes and ate and ate. Now bloated like a thundercloud, he slept all but one hour of the day and then rose only to eat some more. He grew so big that his belly dragged on the bottom of the river and his petite legs and feet could not touch the ground, and still they fed him, those lionesses, more and more till he was just like a fat log idly floating on the surface. He no longer had the speed to catch so much as a turtle, and then they had him. The mama jumped on his back, but he could not even turn his head, he was so fat, and she sank her teeth into his snout and clamped shut his great jaws, and the daughter seized his formidable tail, which he could not so much as swish, he was so lazy, and stilled it with her great paws, and the old crocodile, he thought gallant thoughts, but he was no match, and so, phtt!, the end of him. When they heard the news, the animals danced in jubilee, for they were now free to come to the river whenever they pleased.” The tale, written across her face, disappeared into the hair at the base of her skull, and the old man had to search a moment to pick up the narrative at its proper place, circling the woman as the words wound around her neck. “This is the first story I can remember. My mother’s face appears before me when I tell it, for I heard it first at her knee, and my mother had learned the tale as a girl in Africa, before she had been stolen and transported to Senegal and sold into slavery and shipped to the new world. She was a girl herself, aboard a ship of 150 Africans, that landed first in Havana to unload half and then in Saint-Domingue to discharge the rest. So many stories my mother told, and the songs of the Bambara people were on her lips day and night whenever the Buckra folk were not around. She was a household servant. . .” He turned to the woman. “Do you wish me to say slave?” “This or that,” Marie answered. “In those days, we called ourselves servants, though in truth we were common property with no more rights than a barnyard hen and often not treated any better.” She chewed on her bottom lip. “Yes, slave is the bon mot.” “And the Buckra? Comment-on le dit en français?” “The Frenchmen,” she said and turned her face so that I might feel the brunt of her stare. “The whites.” “She was a domestic slave on the plantation of Monsieur Delhomme in Saint-Domingue, and my papa was a slave in the sugarcane fields, and he fathered me and my younger sister Louisa, though for the youngest, Claire, who knows, perhaps my papa or perhaps Monsieur Delhomme, impossible to say, though even as a baby, Claire looked lighter than the rest. Makes no difference, I suppose. The master never claimed her as his own, and my papa never treated her as anything but his. Madame Delhomme may have suspected that her husband had something to do with the pickaninny, though truth be told, when you are young the attitude of adults is difficult to measure, being so subtle, especially for a girl like me whom every adult, black or white, mystified. Their moods changed as quickly as the late summer sky, bright to cloud-dark, in a trice, and best to be neither foul nor fair yourself, but on constant alert. “Madame had few opportunities to come in contact with Claire or Louisa, for they had no natural place in the household, while I was constantly there as the companion to the Delhommes’ baby child, a girl named Anna about my age, or a year or so on either side. In all the world, she was my only friend, and I hers. For eleven years, we grew up together, playing, sometimes eating the same meals, even bathing together, and sharing a bed on the nights when she could not bear to part with me and would beg her mother so. Under the netting, she read me fairy tales and Bible stories, and while we were alone the many years, she taught me how to read for myself, though servants were not supposed to know, but we had our school behind the privy or hidden among the canes as they grew, and it was in the dust of Saint-Domingue where I first wrote my own name and more. Anna loved me more than the little dog who followed us around everywhere, and she dressed me and held my hand and nursed me whenever I fell ill. She treated me like her doll, and I was blissfully unaware, as most children are, that things could or should be otherwise. This is the way of the world. All of that changed suddenly when Monsieur Delhomme fell ill to the fever and died in the sugarcane fields and was gone from this world without notice. He was a good man and treated us most kindly, and the slaves of the plantation mourned him not only out of duty but with some genuine affection. My mama cried all afternoon, and even my papa shed a tear, though perhaps, in hindsight, not only out of grief but with the knowledge of the change to come. Sure enough, the ranger—who is that?” “Like the overseer,” she said, “but a slave. A slave above the slaves.” “The ranger came to our house not one month later with the news that Madame Delhomme, now the widow, was to sell the property and return to France, for she was dearly homesick and felt also that her little Anna had missed all proper society by living in the new world. I ran straight to the big house. Anna had heard that we, too, were to be sold. Can you not take me with you to France? I cried to her, and she cried that she could not, and it was like to break our hearts, and when we parted I sobbed myself to sleep and thought life would be best to end right there. I cannot forget my mother’s face that night at supper when she told us that we would be taken to auction in Port au Prince, to go to the man willing to pay the highest price, and that God willing we should not be parted, but parted we were. The auction took place in the town square. My papa went first, sold to another sugar farmer, and though I was shocked to see him go, I did not really know the man all that well for he was rarely at home. And then my mama and her three girls went on market. Louisa and Claire were still young enough that the man who purchased my mother took all three as a lot, but I was made to bare myself and be pinched and prodded by several Buckra men who kept shouting numbers, until at last a price of many sols was reached, and suddenly I was handed over to a fat man in a white suit with a waistcoat colored apricot. He asked, How old is this negress? Fifteen, the auctioneer said, perhaps seventeen years. “Fourteen, I said to the man, who seemed to be glowing in the bright sunshine. I am fourteen years old. Just as I spoke those words, I saw my mother and two sisters being led away by their new master, and I broke free, running to them, anxious not to be parted. My mother wailed when I embraced her and she hugged me to her breast. Please don’t beat her, she said to the auctioneer. Ma chèrie, she cried, be a good girl. Do as you are told, and then the man pried me out of her arms, screaming in tears, and I did not ever see her again, though I can still picture the three of them walking away until all that remained were their bare footprints in the dust, and then I felt the hand of the master fall upon my shoulder. “M. LaChance was his name, which made me smile against my will, and he said he was sorry to have only enough money for one and asked if I had lived all my fourteen years in Saint-Domingue, and I answered, Oui. He asked if I had ever ridden on a boat, and I answered, Non. We climbed into a cabriolet and were whisked off to the docks, and when I began to weep once more, this strange round man patted me on the knee. He said, We shall have an adventure in that case, for we are bound for Orleans, and I asked if that meant we would be going to France, thinking that at least I should see Anna again, but he just laughed till his face turned red. No, M. LaChance said, New Orleans in Louisiana, and I burst into bitter tears at the cruel irony embedded in the very name of our destination. “The journey across the Gulf was a long one, and I traveled below decks with eight other blacks, slaves one and all. In the daytime, we were allowed to stand on the deck across the open waters, but once we neared the port at the mouth of the Mississippi, the mosquitos would like to assassinate a body with their bites and they showed no pity upon any breathing thing. Clouds of gnats, too, would swarm and some flew into my mouth and nose and lodged themselves in the corners of my eyes. I was relieved to be off the ship. Waylaid in the country of the Tchatas, we disembarked in an Indian village, and the chief there dressed just like a Frenchman and spoke the language of the traders, as do many other tribes along the river. In the chief’s cabin, a white man from faraway Canada looked stricken when he first joined eyes with mine. He could not stop from looking at me. He was the biggest and tallest man I ever did see, with a red beard that made his face look afire, and I heard him offer M. LaChance a good price if he could buy me and make me his bride. Had not the master thought the whole matter a mere peccadillo, I may have had a different history, but he just laughed at the Cajun, and we moved on in the morning and reached Nouvelle Orleans in a week’s time.” The old man stopped abruptly, for the last phrase had been written along the length of the little finger on her left hand and the chapter ended in mid-air. He had to locate the beginning of the next part of her story and so began to delicately search along her skin for the proper place. Perhaps by accident, he stepped too close and lost his balance, and reaching out to break his fall, his hand landed squarely upon her breast. “Pardonnez-moi,” he said, but she just chuckled softly and replied, “Je connais la chanson.” He withdrew his hand and resumed his investigation by sight, exclaiming voila when he had found the spot. The story continued across her clavicle and next ran down the length of her right arm. “We arrived in the biggest city in all of Louisiana on the 8th of December, 1768. Some folk in the old part of town followed the Lyonese custom of celebrating la Fête de la Lumière for on the windowsills of their houses burned candles in colored glass jars, a magical sight, like stars glowing red and yellow and blue. It was like walking in a rainbow at midnight. On the corner of a pretty little street stood the house, two storeys high, with an iron rail fence running the width of a mezzanine, and facing the street, a black walnut door opened to a front parlor. He lit a candle and placed it in my hand. The flame danced like a phantom in the darkness. No one greeted us, perhaps because of the lateness of the hour and our unpredictable arrival date, but the quiet inside unsettled me. M. LaChance had told me all about his family and the domestic situation during our long travels from the island, and I had hoped for some greeting other than this ghostly absence. Instead, the Master whispered a good night and pointed with his walking stick to a room beyond the kitchen. You will find Hachard down there, dead asleep, he said, but you rouse her and she will show you to your bed. We will get to work in the morning. With that, he toddled toward the staircase. With each step, the floorboards creaked and groaned beneath his prodigious corpulence. “Is that you, my angel? Hachard asked when I entered the tiny room and shook her from her slumber. No, it is me, Marie, the new girl the Master has brought back from Saint-Domingue. She stepped into the candlelight, close enough for me to see the grey in her hair and the dark circles around her eyes. Four of her front teeth had escaped from her mouth, and the wind whistled in her words. Confusion danced in her gaze, but at last she figured out just who I was. I have been waiting for you, she said, but you are just a young girl. Old enough to marry, I said, old enough to care for myself. Hachard laughed at my audacity, revealing more empty spaces at the back of her mouth. We shall see, but first some rest after your long journey. Taking the candle in her claws, she guided me to a cot at the foot of her bed, and I fell into the blankets without undressing. I was nearly asleep when I heard her disembodied voice rise in the darkness. Do you know how to cook? Oui, I answered. We shall see, we shall see. “In the morning, we rose and dressed before the dawn, and I met the rest of the family LaChance. The mistress of the house, Madame Dominique, proved the opposite of her husband in every respect. Where he was fat and jolly, she was thin and dour. Where he favored white linen and played the fop, she dressed in black. Revêche. But perhaps all the children made her so, for though she could not have been but thirty, she had squeezed out six, the oldest a boy two years younger than me, and the youngest but a baby. One and all they were round like their father, little balls of dough. “My job was to be a nanny to the children and to apprentice to Hachard in the housekeeping. She had been in service to the family from the childhood of M. LaChance and was now an old woman near fifty and could not move about as quickly for the pain in her joints and a stiffness in her hands and feet that left her fingers and toes twisted and gnarled. The Mistress insisted that Hachard continue to cook the meals, but every other household chore fell upon me—the cleaning, the slops, sweeping, washing, and serving the dishes, and besides all that, to help look after the little ones. That duty was my easiest burden. Lazy creatures on even the finest days, they barely moved when the rainy season arrived, and come July and August, in the oppressive heat, they lounged behind the heavy draperies, reading their books or quietly playing cards or other games of chance. The two little girls had their dollies, and the boys would sometimes chase each other with wooden swords, but mostly they ate and slept and did their lessons with an old white woman who came to the house. The babies napped in the shank of the afternoon up until they were five or six years. But the mere presence of the children was a blessing, for they reminded me of my own Anna and my sisters and thus relieved in small measure the anguish in my soul. “Very quickly—that first day in fact—I realized why Madame made Hachard to continue preparing the food, for she cooked most exquisitely in the French manner, unlike many of our neighbors who seemed to ape the worst of English—or merciful God, colonial—cuisine. No, Hachard performed magic with simple, fresh ingredients, and drew on a kind of cooks’ club of her neighbors in the Quarter. Old slaves who actually ran the homes would be entrusted to visit the stalls in the square to buy fish or meat or produce from the cartmen who rolled along the street calling out their wares. Hachard above all was the best, cooking with touches of the Creole and Cajun, of France and Africa. I had not eaten so well in Port-au-Prince and, I imagined, not even King Louis himself ate so well in Paris. Though my heart was empty, my stomach was full. “In this way the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months. I was kept very busy. All that Hachard could no longer manage, she assigned to me. The simple things—the sewing and mending, plucking a hen or shucking corn, cleaning the dishes or dusting and polishing—did not trouble me, for my mother had shown me and often enlisted my assistance. Even the ordinary washday was tolerable, if, with so many children, never-ending. Worst of all, when we stripped the beds and took down the curtains and the soiled linens, perhaps once each season of the year, my back would like to break from the heaviness. Poor Hachard could not bear to steep herself in hot water which would linger in her joints and pain her fiercely. Recompense for every odious task was time in the kitchen as sous chef to Hachard—chopping ingredients or making the sauces or roux. As she cooked, Hachard spoke aloud each ingredient, every step—a pinch of salt, three spoons of butter, keep stirring till the sugar melts and thickens, and I seized every word, memorizing in spite of myself all of her secrets. Perhaps she was consciously passing the traditions, or perhaps she was merely grateful for the company. Someone to talk with despite having little to say. “Once a month, Madame LaChance granted Hachard a day to herself, and the old girl would spend half the morning making herself ready, changing from her work clothes into a dress of faded cornflower, then having me comb out her hair, and she’d powder beneath her arms till she smelled sweet as a baby. I asked her the first few occasions where she was going and if I could go with her, and she just hushed me and said, Never you mind, child. Or Maybe when you are old enough to keep yourself clear, Marie, but those rascals would be on you now like wasps on a sugar stick. Late those Sunday evenings, she would return and sneak in through the back door, careful not to make a sound, hair wild and unkempt, her dress circled with sweat, her mouth bruised and swollen as a ripe peach. A few times she smelled of spirits and smoke, and once, in that first year, she cried out as she lay her body down upon the bed. Oh, the brute he would have liked to kill me. I sprang to her side to see if she was indeed hurt, and in the darkness, she touched her rough palm against my cheek and whispered, Ma chérie, I would not quit this kind of night for anything. With him, I am toujours gai and it is the only reason to keep on living. “The next morning she woke early and had me draw a bath outside, despite the torpid weather. Even at dawn in July, the air hangs heavy and presses down upon a body till you can hardly breathe. She undressed slowly and eased herself into the water, mindful of every aching bone. I sat beside her on the lip of the trough and dipped a cloth into the water and wrung it onto her hair, rubbed the knob of her spine, and massaged her shoulders. That feels nice, child, you are a good girl. For the first time, I noticed the scars on her skin. Where did you get these welts, Miss Hachard? From being whipped, she said. Why did they whip you? For asking too many questions, she said and slid further into the water. We are to have a new governor, she said at last. The Spaniards are to send someone to replace Ulloa at last. The whole town will be overrun with the Spanish. “The lords of misrule were in charge, yet rumors persisted that the Spanish king would send in a new man, and indeed, the Master and Mistress spoke of the prospect nearly every week. I asked Hachard in the tub, Who do the men say it shall be? Mon Dieu, she spat out the words, they say it is an Irishman. She shivered in the cooling water. Now help me out of this bath before I die of pneumonia.” The old man had come to the end of another little finger, but this time he thought to ask where to look for the continuation of the story. Marie pointed toward her heart, and he could see the first line rise and fall along the curve of her breasts. Feigning a storyteller’s professional disinterest, the old man stared at the words inked on her chest and began again: “A dozen ships came sailing up the river, flying the Spanish ensign, and the whole town turned out to the levee to make them welcome. The Master and Mistress wore their finest linen suits, despite the heat, for they were to be on the dais with the other gentry in a place of honor for the official ceremony. Hachard and I were to bring the children along later and watch with the assembled on the grounds overlooking the square, and I never saw such a spectacle and a throng. As the Spanish arrived, there was singing and dancing and drinking and smoking and gaming and Lord-knows-what going on, the lid off the pot and the ragout boiling over. The youngest baby, Georges, raised such a fuss that I must needs carry him in my arms the whole time, so I was tamed, and it seemed like forever for that first ship to dock. While we waited, an older man sidled up to Hachard, and they exchanged habitual pleasantries, and I am sure I saw his hand upon her shoulder more than once that whole time. I wondered if this Big Fella was the man who made her toujours gai, but I dared not ask. The first to disembark from the ship were black sailors, and I said to the Big Fella, I did not know they allowed slaves to sail the boats. And he said, They are not boats, but ships, and they are not slaves, but freed men from Habana in Cuba. How can this be? I asked, and he said, Little Chick, not all black men are in chains. “I pondered this assertion as the sailors and soldiers spilled down the gangway, and last the entourage of the governor made its way to the stage that had been erected in the center of the square. From my vantage, I did not get a close look, but I could see the Irishman at last, no powdered wig but black hair like a raven set against his pale skin, and the fine coats and breeches of a gentleman, festooned with ribbons and medals on his chest. Warm applause greeted him, a few rowdies hooting in the anonymity of the crowd. M. LaChance and the others sat to listen to the speech, and the rest of us held our space and strained to hear. The new governor spoke to us first in Spanish, and a few words that echoed our own language made sense to me, but then he repeated his oration in French, bestowing upon the people of New Orleans blessings from God and felicitations from King Carlos, a surprise to hear that name, and to announce not only a new prosperity ahead but a return to law and order as well. And then he started again his greetings, but the third language made no sense, though his voice bore the words as if in a song both natural and sweet. What is that tongue? I asked. Is Governor O’Reilly speaking Irish? The Big Fella laughed at me and said, No, that is the language of the English passed through an Irish mouth. Sort of like a fart passed through a flute. Hachard slapped him on the shoulder at that remark, but she was secretly smiling. We all were happy that day, though it was the only time I ever laid eyes upon O’Reilly, yet I was to hear more of him in the months ahead, and he was to change my life entirely. He gave me hope.” A low chuckle from Marie interrupted the old man’s recitation, and he straightened his back and raised his eyes to inquire as to the source of her levity. He had been poised at a spot just below the curve of her breast. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but your hair was tickling me.” He flattened the silver cock’s comb sprouting atop his head. “A thousand apologies, mademoiselle.” When he removed his hand, his hair sprang straight up. With a curt, proper bow, he bent to his work. “Not four days after the arrival of O’Reilly and his black freedmen soldiers from Cuba were posted the broadsides around town announcing the arrest of the Acadian ringleaders of those who had chased the former governor Ulloa from New Orleans. I had to beg the Master to be let go into town for the execution, and at first he refused my request, saying it was not fit for a colored girl to see. More clever by far, Hachard simply informed the Mistress that she must needs go into the markets that morning and I was to accompany her to fetch home the parcels. What is that you are buying? Madame asked. Is it so heavy that you need the girl? Tabac, said Hachard, from Habana, and my friends tell me coquille d’huître big as a small hen are to be found, and you know how the Master loves des huîtres.” Puzzled by the word, the old man stopped. “Oysters,” Marie volunteered. “Yes, Madame answered, every time he eats the oysters, he fills me with another baby. She reached into her purse and produced another coin. If you must buy oysters, she said, buy a surfeit of fat ones so the old goat will be too stuffed to move and will leave me alone tonight. Merci, Hachard curtsied, and we were on our way. “The French thugs had been quickly tried for crimes against the Spanish king when they kicked out his governor, and O’Reilly had ordered some rebels exiled for life at Morro prison in Habana, and their lands were confiscated by the government. The five ringleaders were executed, perhaps—I don’t know—as an example to others with treason in their hearts. We were desperate to see the firing square. A great crowd shielded the scene as we arrived, but word ran from person to person that the prisoners were bound and blindfolded and made to stand like stalwarts against the wall. No sooner had this news reached our ears than the loud volley of muskets, several shots all at one command, and then another solitary ball as if some man who suffered the first round had been dispatched with a second. The crowd parted in a moment, and the troops marched past, their elegant uniforms clean and menacing, and I was shocked to see that three of the eight musketeers were black like me and two others mulatto of some mixed blood. A black killing a white was unthinkable, but such are the changes brought by the Spanish Irishman. “From that moment on, he became known as Bloody O’Reilly, though I do not know how he is called in Spanish. Eight slaves dragged away the bodies from the wall until all that could be seen were pocks in the soft plaster where the balls had either missed their targets or passed through the victims. A few handfuls of sawdust blotted the blood on the ground, and I confess that my heart was sore for those men, whatever sin on their souls, and in my imagination, the Irishman darkened any sense of liberty I may have felt at being at the market. “But do not judge the chess match by an opening gambit. Stories about the governor’s actions sifted through the whites and eventually settled upon our people, where the news was most welcome. He would stand no disrespect from the French and expelled the foreign merchants from the city with the sole exception of Oliver Pollock, another Irish. How they stick together. But most of all, the governor seemed to be on the side of the downtrodden. The Big Fella explained to Hachard, who passed the notion to me, that O’Reilly, being a member of a long-suffering people, could not bear to join the service of his nation’s oppressors, the English, and so he became a Wild Goose and flew off to Europe, first to Austria and then to Spain. Hachard said, He is like us in one respect, to have known the heel of the boot. “The Master and Mistress quarreled often about the man and whether the Spanish or French were better for Orleans. In all my years with the family LaChance, little else caused such rows. The Master was a genial sort; keep him fed and laid in bed, and nothing would ruffle him. We cannot change Kings at will, he would say. Better to prosper in New Spain than pine for Old France. But Madame behaved like the nombril du monde. . . The old man asked, “‘What would we say?” She shrugged and pointed at her belly button. “Let’s say she was ‘the center of the universe,’ and for her it was French or nothing. She would say, Who does O’Reilly think he is, that great Ass of Dublin. I had to hide my laugh behind my hand at her words, for she did not like any show of understanding on our parts. “After the Creoles were put down, O’Reilly sent many of those black soldiers back to Cuba, but those remaining behind made their presence felt every morning and evening with a drum tattoo and the playing of their fifes and horns. Many times the troops marched down our street, and through the window, a smarter and finer dressage was not to be found. And they went to work supervising gangs of men to shore the levees and build a bridge and to construct the banquettes so folks would have someplace to walk without dragging their hems through the muck and mire. In short, the governor brought a sense of discipline that had been missing to the fair city. It was so good to see law and order imposed upon those who for so long imposed upon us. Even the Master has his Master to obey.” With a creak and a groan, the old man unhinged his spine and slowly straightened from his crouch to a full standing position. He had been bent over to read the part of the story that began at the hip and ran into the problem of the nether lands, the words disappearing into a thicket covering her pubis. I empathized with the delicacy of his conundrum as he looked my way for moral support or some technical instruction, but all I could do was shrug. Marie rolled her eyes as she intuited the cause of the old man’s indecision. “Zut de flûte! You have been ogling and objectifying me thus far. Be a man and read on.” She reached out and grabbed him by the ears, and then tugged him to his knees. He cried out and accepted his subjugation. Clearing his thoughts with a long sigh, he read on from hips to toes without hesitation. “The greatest change was to the Code Noir—the legal protocols by which the French kept control of their slaves. O’Reilly, governed by the precepts of the Spanish code—Las Siete Partidas—and by his long experience in Puerto Rico and Cuba, gradually liberalized the rules. As with every other civic law that made our lives better, we only learned of this by word passing mouth to ear, yet in time, four things became clear even to us slaves. “First, he freed the red man. No Tchacta, Tanikas, or Natches, or any other Indian would be enslaved. There was a woman of Hachard’s acquaintance, who lived further along the levee, long thought to be African, and she made her claim by speaking without stop in the mother tongue of her tribe, and her master, whether from guilt or merely to shut her mouth, freed her on the spot. For the second part of the new code allowed masters to free their slaves without obtaining permission of the cabildo or governor or anyone at all. Under the Code Noir, an official decree for just cause was required for emancipation, but this put the matter in the master’s hands. The third great change was to allow the person to own their own property and not, as the French had it, forfeit their rights to the master. After O’Reilly, we could now own money, make a contract with anyone for services on our own time, or receive an inheritance. A girl of my own age, the daughter of a freedman parted from her and living in Pennsylvania, was sent a note upon the unfortunate man’s demise that she was now the owner of a farm larger in acreage than her own master’s plantation. The irony would have been unbearable if not for the fourth part of O’Reilly’s reforms. She was able to buy her freedom by selling a parcel of land and paying her owner. The governor had granted the right of coartación to all slaves in Louisiana, just as the blacks of Cuba had enjoyed. Contracts were allowed with our masters to set a price for our freedom, and in essence, we could now purchase ourselves. A special council had been established to hear our cases and take our complaints and judge any abuse. If a master refused a contract of manumission, he could be brought before the court. If a master overstepped his bounds most cruelly, he could be ordered to sell that slave to someone kinder who might treat us as genuine humans and not mere chattel. “One year after I had first met Hachard, on the night of the Festival of Lights, we talked in her little room about our plans for freedom, with our voices low, so as not to wake the children, but she could scarce contain her enthusiasm. The Big Fella, she whispered, says there are many people who would pay a king’s ransom for the treat of a Sunday dinner from the pot of old Hachard. And he says that Mr. Pollock, the Irish merchant who is friend to the governor, will pay a handsome price to unload the ships when the wheat comes in, or the cider barrels. We have made a pact, Marie Delhomme, the first to acquire the money shall save for the other. He must love you very much, I said, and you him. A quick laugh lit the darkness. My dear, you are a child with a view of life that is too romantic for an old crow, but we like each other well enough. I felt foolish, but excitement overpowered my shame. How much will you need to pay to buy your life? Phtt, I am an old woman of little use, and the Master should pay me to go. She mentioned a figure in French money, and I asked her for the amount in Spanish currency, for I no longer understood the French sums. We shall see, said Hachard, what M. Foiegras has to say, but I hope it is low. “The matter was settled at Christmastime, after the children had been sent to bed, and the Master and Mistress lingered over the roast goose. Madame LaChance sat like a stump, her arms crossed over her breast. But his lips and fingers glistened with grease, and Monsieur wore on his face a look of utter contentment. Perfect, he told Hachard as we cleared the bird from the table. Delicious, as usual. Merci, she said. Since it is the day of thanksgiving for our Lord’s birth, she said, perhaps you have given thought to our conversation? With the sharp point of a knife, he picked at his teeth and sucked in the bits of meat as he talked. Our conversation? The coartación? The price, monsieur? Leaning back in his chair till he nearly toppled over, he said, We could never let you go, Hachard, for how then would we eat so well? But Master… One hand rose in the air to silence her, but she pressed on: I shall teach little Marie my every secret. Fat chance, he said, but let’s say you do. Ce n’est pas un perdreau de l’année. How is 100 piastres? A fair price, no? “If the amount stunned her, Hachard betrayed no emotion, though of course I knew it well beyond her speculations. She simply bowed and removed more dishes from the table, wiping her nose on the shoulder of her dress. Curious and emboldened, I approached the Master and asked what price was upon me. You are but a kitten. He eyed me from head to toe. Shall we say 350 piastres? That’s less than I paid for you in Port-au-Prince. I could do little more than nod, but the sum might as well have been ten times as much, for I had never heard of anything to cost as much as freedom. Back in our room, Hachard and I cried together. Such a fine Christmas. “What else can you do when life sets such obstacles before you other than to persevere and rely upon God’s will and your own wits? Hachard at least had the reassurance of her man and the secret knowledge that he toiled on her behalf. I had no one in the world but my own self. I bent to my work. There was enough to do raising six children, running the household, and squeezing every recipe from Hachard. “Once he had shown the French and Creoles and Acadians the iron will of Spain, Governor O’Reilly departed the next February, and another Spaniard took his place. No matter. The codes had been reformed, and we were not to go back to the old ways. I had my contract for manumission tucked beneath my mattress, and on free days, took the wash of some less fortunate households to the laundry along with the LaChances’, and by the end of one year, I had five piastres to my name. Since she could hire herself to cook every night she managed, Hachard fared much better and made triple my wages. More and more she brought me into the kitchen as she had promised and showed me her techniques, those acquired over long years at a hot stove, but also a touch of Cuba in some dishes, for she picked up recipes from the Habanans who now resided in New Orleans. Very hot, with lots of cayenne and other peppers, and M. LaChance loved the new flavors. The hotter the better, and when the summer came and the sun bore down in July and August, he thrived on some smoke on his tongue. His favorite dish was épicé écrevisse.” “Every other day, I would cook for him and thus became so skilled that no one could tell the difference between my pot and Hachard’s. Just as well, for in seven years—about the time of the American’s revolt against the English king—Hachard had earned enough to execute her contract. Of course, I had known for a long time that her savings had grown, but the day came when she showed me the money, the last piastres earned for a mid-summer banquet, and the finality seemed sudden. Tomorrow, she said, I will go to the Master. Listen to me, tomorrow he will no longer be Master, just M. Foiegras. We laughed a little, but the melancholy swept over me like a late summer storm. Hachard had been a mother to me ever since my own mother and sisters were so violently taken away, and my emotions mixed the two events till I was fourteen again and alone on the docks of Saint-Domingue. Yet I was happy for her as well, for she had endured a long servitude and could now rest her bones and find some ease from care. With her thumb, she wiped the tears from my face. Ma chérie, she said, do not cry. We shall always be friends, and I will visit as long as the Goose and his wife allow. We will not be far. The Big Fella has a place near Point Coupeé, and you will go now to the dances in the square on Sundays and meet us there. Look at you, all grown into a woman. Time for a little love, shake your tail feathers, and let the good times roll. And you will have your freedom yet. Who knows, maybe the Big Fella and I will get rich, and then we can buy you from the old Goose. “Promises made in passion are the most difficult to keep. After she left, Hachard became a stranger, though I missed her as much as my own mother. We met maybe five times that first year, four the second, two the third, and then not at all. A bend in the river separated us but it may well have been an ocean. We did not see each other for years. A few months after the Good Friday fire in ’88, when it seemed like all of New Orleans burned, I brought little Clothide with me to the Perseverance Benevolent and Mutual Aid Society, for all of my money had gone up in flames, and there was Hachard, old and grey and sunken into herself. Like a dying tree, but a few lonesome leaves. She wept when I kissed her. “Maman Hachard, I asked, what has happened to you? The spark had left her eyes. Even the child in my arms failed to interest her. I have nothing, she croaked, not a tooth in her mouth. Not one peso. All gone. Nothing to be done. Setting the baby on the bench next to her, I fetched a scupper of water. Drink, maman, your lips are cracked from thirst and it is hot enough to fry the Devil.” As he had reached the tip of her toes, the old man stood and circled around Marie, finding the continuation at her shoulder blades, the words running like stripes across her back. “Once she had managed to swallow a few mouthfuls of water, Hachard related the events since leaving the family LaChance. I knew, of course, that she had married the Big Fella and they had gone to live among the maroons in Point Coupeé, but I had not heard of their troubles there. He had broken down early on, the victim of too many years toiling on the docks and too much rum and sugar. All my life, she said, I’ve been taking care of someone. First my own papa, and then thirty-odd years for the old Goose and his children, and then ten years nursing the Big Fella, watching him shrivel like a cornstalk and die. No one would have me, and I had so little left. I went to my friends in the Tremé, and cooked the once awhile for Mr. Puckett. My anger got the better of me. The Tremé? You were back here in Orleans and you never came to see me once? I was ashamed, Hachard said. And then I took ill myself and bound for heaven, and my friends were burned out like everyone else, and here I am, seeking charity. Oh, what shall happen to me? She grabbed my hands. Do you think LaChance would have me back? I shook my head. There are three of us, now, and the baby. For the first time, she seemed aware of Clothide beside her. Whose is this child? I pointed to my heart. And who is the father, surely not the old Goose? I bowed my head, Non. Do you remember little Georges? Phtt, he is just a young lad. No, maman, he is all grown up and full of what every man is full of. He had a little dog that followed him everywhere, and one night I heard the barking outside my door and knew it was Georges and why he had come, and I tried to say no, but he insisted himself upon me. More than once. And I thought, okay, perhaps he will keep me in plaçage like some other black women are kept by the whites, but no. Came to it that I heard that yip-yap and I just wanted to die. Georges is as fat and white as buttermilk, and when the baby came, his mother chased him out of the house with a broom. He’s up in Baton Rouge, carrying on with some Cajun girl knows no better. But he left the little dog behind, and I’d like to kick it every time I pass by. Left his baby behind, too. “She slid her hand and petted the baby’s hair. What brings you to this place, Marie? The fire, I told her, same as you. The whole house burned, even my room and my money hidden under the same mattress you slept on. Deep sadness skittered across her features. What has become of the household? We have moved till the place can be rebuilt, but nothing can be done about my 300 Spanish dollars, enough almost to buy my contract. Without warning, Hachard closed her eyes and kept them shut so long that I worried she might have fallen asleep or the Good Lord come in like a thief and steal her soul. When I touched her hand, she like to jump out of her skin. Don’t do that to a body, she said. I was cogitating and you frightened me. Bending closely so that her words fit in my ear alone, she whispered, Do you ever go to la Conga in the square a Sunday evening? I laughed and nodded toward the sleeping baby. I go nowhere now, but there was a time when a young man fancied me and we danced the bamboula to hear the drums and the contredanse to show the whites how it is done, and oh, the eau-de-vie. You are not the only one who has a wild side, but alas, he was Cuban and back to Habana he did go, such a beautiful boy. Have you, Hachard asked, ever danced the Vaudoux? For years I had heard about the secret dance and the magic gained by all who dared the initiation, but I never risked go myself. Some scheme lay behind her question, her voice betrayed her, and though I knew not what she had in mind, I supposed my best course was to encourage her. No, I have not, but I should like to learn. That’s good, very good, she said, for there your prayers will be answered. You shall either have your money or your freedom, we will ask the King and Queen what to do. With her gnarled hands, Hachard stroked Clothide’s hair as she slept. And perhaps, you will say a prayer for me, too, not so? “On a hot night in June, I left the baby with a neighbor and found Hachard by the Place Conga and together we went to a darker part of town where an empty stables stood and no eyes could profane the holy ceremony. Two women bound me in strips of purple cloth and put sandals on my feet, and I entered the cell with twenty others, men and women both. At the end of the room stood the King and Queen at the altar of the snake. Do you believe, said the King, in the power of the Vaudoux? He tapped the cage with the end of a stick and the snake slithered to the other side. Will you keep secret its most sacred magic? At each question, the assembled shouted Yes to these and to many more tests of faith. The crowd was made to bow before the snake and a fire was lit, and the Queen, she walked right through the flames without burning, and other marvelous feats were performed in the name of the Vaudoux. Now, I was raised a good Christian by the nuns in Saint-Domingue, but even so, such wonders cannot be explained away. When the show ended, the petitioners separated and waited patiently in two lines to confer with the King and Queen, as children will queue to speak to their mama or papa. And their wants were as ordinary as children’s. “Ask the Vaudoux, one young woman said, if my man be stepping out on me, and if he be, may his own snake fall off between his legs. An old man asked for three more years of life so that he might outlive his younger brother. A third person wished to be made more beautiful in the eyes of her beloved, for he finds her too plain to marry. Others asked for to be cured of their ailments, and others still wished ailments upon their enemies. When my turn came to speak to the King, I was afraid. He was no Domingue man, but out of Africa, a Kongo man, back broad as a bull and a chest wide and deep, out of which boomed his voice, even when he spoke softly, asking What can the snake do for you, daughter? I told him my tale of transport to Louisiana in service of the fat M. LaChance and his six chubby children. And the contract of manumission, the fire that ate my money, and the ill treatment of the son Georges. Even the story of the pet dog who is a constant reminder of my shame, and the King let out a yip-yap, just like Georges’ monster, and I was convinced the King knew already of my sorrows. You must take the oath, he said, are you ready? I was ready to hope in something more than what had seen me through so far, and I nodded. The King framed my face in his huge hands. Daughter, feed the master corn boiled with fat, and fry his meat and fish in mounds of butter. Sneak more andouille into the gumbo and backfat bacon for his breakfast. Make cakes and have him wash them down with ale and cider. At every meal, serve the lagniappe, the unexpected treat, but make sure it is rich or fat or clotted. Stuff the old goose and you will win your freedom. I will give you a sign of the power of Vaudoux this very night. Against my better sense, I said amen. “As soon as the last petitioner finished, the King and Queen became very agitated. He took the snake from the altar and set the cage on the ground, and the grand lady who is the Vaudoux Queen stepped up on top of the cage and made to act like the snake itself had climbed into her and she began to speak in a strange language I never heard here in Orleans or Saint-Domingue or anywhere on earth. She pointed her finger at me and bade me come to her. “The King, he drew a circle with a lump of charcoal and motioned for me to stand inside and wear around my neck a small gunnysack decorated with hair and horns. Upon my head, he struck a stick and chanted another sing-song in words of the Kongo, and all the people there echoed back to them, and then I was told to dance, and thus I did, slowly at first, but then some mood or spirit came into me. I felt the weight of all my troubles drag me to the earth and I must push and pull myself out of it, and then I was moving all in a frenzy and everyone in that stables was dancing around me in that circle, urging me to stay inside. Not sure at all what possessed me, not aware in the least of how my body moved. Faster than the bamboula, driven by a drum only I could hear, I felt so completely free. Soaked in perspiration, my lungs heaving like a bellows, I collapsed in the euphoria. The Queen and one of her acolytes helped me to my knees. Dipping her thumb into the liquid at the bottom of a wooden bowl, she then laid her print across my lips. With this seal of blood, she said, you are sworn to keep the secrets of the Vaudoux. And then it was over, and everyone dispersed like taking leave from Sunday church, the King and Queen disappeared, and every dancer. I was alone with Hachard, who hung upon my arm, still panting from exertion. I feel better already, she said. Good to loosen the old bones. “Monday morning at the new house, the Mistress cried out for me first thing. On the foot of her bed, the yippy dog lay stiff and cold as February. Take this wretched creature from me, she said, quivering in her nightgown. Light raced through the window and the thin fabric of her clothes. I had not thought in some time what a scarecrow she was, and how she was becoming a bundle of twigs. Gathering the poor dog in my apron, I took it outside and dumped the body in the alley, reminding myself to ask some young boy to fetch the thing to the refuse heap or toss it over the levee into the Mississippi. No satisfaction filled my soul that morning, for I shook in dread over the power of the dark custom. “Into the breakfast skillet, I dropped another egg to make a half-dozen and another spoon of butter for the Master, and he never noticed but ate every bite and complimented me afterwards. Thus commenced the stuffing of the Old Goose. Gumbo ya-ya a-swim in fat, and more fat in the roux. Jambalaya thick with hock and sausages. Étouffé brightened with the extra yellow fat of the crayfish. Cassoulet, maque choux easy on the vegetables and heavy on the bacon, sweetbreads and tripe, potato dumplings taught to me by Frau Morgenschweis on the Rue Charles. Meatpies and fruitpies, beignets de carnaval any time of the year. At the market, I would lay in a supply of beer and ale, and just as the King ordered, with every meal the lagniappe, which M. LaChance came to favor and anticipate as a dog longs for the meatbone or the children their sweeties. Oh, I fed him those too, the pralines and toffees till his teeth ached. I shoveled the food into that man, but he just got fatter and fatter as the years lurched by. Let me tell you, he popped the buttons off his breeches more than once after Marie’s dinners, ya, yet still I slaved. Not that I said nothing about the money. I begged him to show mercy if not for me then for my daughter, but he was steadfast as to the terms of our contract, though in truth, I think he kept me for his voracious appetite and would never let me go. “Seven years passed this way. Clothide grew into a girl, and the Master grew into a prize hog. He even got the gout, but on he ate, hollering about his foot as he stuffed his mouth with a mess of alligator tail seasoned and slick with butter sauce. And though I went to the Vaudoux and danced with the snake King and Queen, nothing ever changed. There were times of waiting when I felt I could not go on, yet I went on. “And then it happened, just like in a fairy tale. All of the children had long left the house, and the Master and Mistress dined alone, she living on red beans and rice, he facing a table crammed with bowls and dishes. Just an ordinary crust of bread caught between two fingers, his mouth open to receive the morsel, when the Vaudoux struck. The heel slipped from M. LaChance’s grasp. His other hand shot to his chest in panic over the vise pressing his heart. Like a big snake squeezing and squeezing. The pressure. His pale skin flushed claret, and his lips quivered as if to say something—adieu, perhaps, and then he died before his face hit the plate. He was too fat for the household slaves to lift, and we had to call in three more men just to lay him out in the parlor, a hearse with an extra pair of horses to pull him away, and God knows how heavy the stone to stop his corpse from sinking into the swampy ground of New Orleans. “All through that summer and into the fall, the prodigals returned to make their claims on their late father’s fortune. First, the four girls, all of whom lived nearby, each with a dandy husband on her arm, and each one chagrined by the paltry remains of the estate. Their mother, the Mistress, had nothing but disdain for her girls and told each fancy man to go out and make his own money. Then the eldest, named after the father, arrived only to discover that there was little left in his name. We had to build a new house, his mother shouted at him. Did you expect me to live on the street? Her son left four days later, bound for the Argentine. Lastly came Georges driving in a carriage from Baton Rouge with his young bride. The poor woman, she had no idea what kind of man she had married. I kept my distance but could not avoid her when she came into my kitchen to find my daughter and me at the stove. Who is this enchanting girl? Hardly more than a child herself, she had never been told, it seems, about Georges’s black bastard. Clothide bowed with a grin at the compliment. Is she yours? the woman asked. Is your husband one of the men who works here as well? Gaston? I took hold of Clothide and covered her ears from behind. I am not married, I said. Her father is a Buckra man. She took my baby’s hands in hers for a moment, and then excused herself. As for Georges himself, he refused to even look at his daughter or speak one word to me. He was only here to court favor with his widowed mother, but she would have none of it. Over dinner that last night, Madame told her son and daughter-in-law, There is nothing left. I have barely enough to pay my own bills. From where I stood, facing Madame with a tureen of rice in hand, she spoke as if in a trance. Your father ate it all, she said. Like a pig, every scrap. “Next day, after they had gone, Madame called me into the parlour. Marie, how long have you been in my employ? Near thirty years, Madame. And your girl, she is already eight, is she not? I nodded. Till this week, she said, I had not noticed how much Clothide resembles her father. “I had no answer, for the admission of her son’s behavior toward me had never before been brooked, though I was certain she knew at the time of my pregnancy and had held her tongue all along. To speak of the matter would have meant shame on her part and on mine. My husband, she said, treated you most grievously, Marie, as has my son. Both could not control their appetites. Oui, Madame. Had he lived, she said, the Master would have never given you the terms of your contract. Not while you kept his belly full. I made the sign of the cross as she mentioned his name and felt a brief swell of remorse over the use of the Vaudoux to get rid of him, but that quickly passed. How much money do you have? Nearly three hundred Spanish dollars, Madame, but I had that amount when the big fires came. Yes, I know, enough to buy your freedom and Clothide’s, too. She stood before me, but I could not bear to look in her eyes. Marie, she said, we shall go to the courts tomorrow, you and I. We shall sign the papers for you and your daughter, and when you are ready, you are free to go on your own, and you are to keep what you have earned and saved, and I will make amends of one hundred more. But Madame, I protested, you said you have nothing—She held up one finger to her lips. I cannot bear the sins of my husband and my children. Now, come give me a kiss, for I shall miss you. “Clothide and I went to the Tremé and found a place with Hachard, an ancient crow now, but enlivened by our presence. Mr. Puckett gave me her old job cooking in a tavern for the Cajun people, and on Sundays, I went back to the old church, though Sunday nights I still danced the Vaudoux. When the yellow fever struck the following summer and so many died throughout Orleans, I worried mostly for my child and for old Hachard, but they escaped the plague. My misfortune was to contract the fever in June of ’96 and quickly wither. Do not worry, ma chérie, I told my daughter weeping at my bedside, Hachard will take care of you and besides, you are a free person. Don’t go, she cried as I left this world, don’t go, and the last thing I remember was the sight of my mother being led away as I shouted the very same words.”
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