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Archive for October, 2012

The Choctaw village was orderly with rows of neatly arrayed log houses and planted fields, outlying. Within the village, there was whirlwind of activity as a party readied to march east and join the fighting. The British had a new strategy and were moving south, expecting to find more support there.

The Choctaw would support the colonists, Marie learned, though the great military captain Joseph Brandt of the Six Nations had joined the British. It is like betting on cards, she thought dreading the outcome either way. The Choctaw had been allied with the French whom they traded with and now that the French supported the colonists, they would so as well. But the French were very different in nature, Marie thought, not at all like the British or the rough colonials. Yet these people had heard that the great chief Washington would support them and honor treaties, and they themselves said the colonists were too numerous for the British to subdue and too numerous for the Indians to fight off.

The previous year Don Bernardo de Galvez, the governor of the territory of Louisiana had joined the colonists against the British and had traveled up and down the Mississippi burning British forts and driving their armies eastward. Now after winning a victory in Mobile, he had sailed for Florida where the fighting had intensified.

Marie had not known what to expect when a war party traveling east had come across them. She had been ready to barter her jewels for their freedom, but it had not been necessary. The Choctaw were prepared to guide them, they were allies and so would do the honorable thing. Marie and Seraphine waited while they provisioned themselves in the village and were told a small party would break off from the main group and bring them to a point where they could find their way back. And so they set out, the two women on horseback with a scout and three warriors.

The scout was a mature man and serious and although the three warriors tried to emulate him, Marie could see they were exchanging glances with Seraphine. It’s normal at that age, Marie thought, and who am I to deny them the semblance of a normal life? But even she became worried when she noticed the energy between the girl and the tallest young man when he accompanied her as she gathered wood for their evening fire.

‘It wouldn’t do to become entangled with him,’ she said to the girl, pulling her aside.

‘No Madame,’ The girl agreed all too readily. But the following evening, Marie woke up in the middle of the night and saw that the boy and the girl had left their sleeping places near the fire. She raised her head and noticed that the scout was awake as well. He looked at her, as if to say, it is nothing to do with us and lowered his head and went to sleep. Marie said nothing. In the morning they reached the shores of the river and when the boat approached, Marie gave both horses to the scout. He smiled and drew a necklace of blue stones off his neck and presented it to her.

‘Say your goodbyes,’ she said to Seraphine, turning her back.

She waited, looking at the river, brown and churning, until the boat approached and then with the girl at her side, she boarded.

‘Will you miss him?’ she asked.

‘A little,’ Seraphine replied.

‘I hope we will not have complications.’

‘I have herbs for that.’

Marie raised her brow, remembering that the girl’s grandmother was a healer of some sort. Well, my dear, she thought, let us hope you won’t need to make use of them because they don’t always work.

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They had returned to Pierre’s after some time, after the parties and the dances and the card games were done, and Marie’s purse was full. Pierre was morose, his fevers had returned and passed, and he was thinner and more jaundiced than ever before. The slaves were taciturn and the girl, Seraphine, was afraid but of what she would not say.

Pierre was too weak to ride, and Marie took over the running of the house and ordered chickens to be killed and broth to made and the bed chambers to be cleaned and aired. Pierre barely suffered her ministrations.

‘Leave me alone,’ he said, but when she packed her bags to go, he begged her to stay, and so she unpacked once again and watched the interminable rains.

 

‘What is the matter with this house?’ Pierre had gone to bed early, and Marie was waiting for dinner to be served. She rose and walked out back to the kitchens but no one was there. She felt a bolt of fear shoot through her and rushed into the house shouting for Seraphine.

The girl came up on her in the darkness, and Marie could see that she was rigid with fear.

‘Where are they?’ Marie asked.

‘They’ve left.’

‘What?’

‘Their houngan ran off, but when the search party captured him, they beat him to death. Oh Madame, they will come for Monsieur Pierre now.’

‘Where is the overseer?’

‘He is dead.’

‘The horse master?’

The girl shook her head.

‘Seraphine, dress Pierre immediately, get my jewels and my purse, leave everything else behind. I’ll bring the horses. And be quick.’

Marie went to Pierre’s study and removed a flintlock pistol. She loaded the barrels and prayed that it would not misfire if she needed to shot. On the landing, halfway down the stairs she felt a hand on her arm that made her jump out of her skin. The horse master put his finger to his lips and drew her back into the shadows.

‘Bring Pierre and the girl out front. Go down the path, I’ll be waiting with the horses,’ he said.

She nodded her head, and he was gone in an instant.

She took Pierre’s arm to support him, and Seraphine brought up the rear carrying their things. She rushed Pierre and he stumbled, righting himself. The night was eerie, silent, and thick with moisture, and she was afraid, though she stood firm for the girl, she said to herself, knowing she would not be as brave if she did not have to set an example. The horse master emerged from between the Live Oaks like an apparition of a long dead thing. Seraphine stifled a scream. The horse master held the animals, who sensing fear snorted and reared, the whites of their eyes showing.

‘Seraphine, watch me and do as I do,’ Marie instructed her, knowing the girl had never been on horse and was unsure of herself. She took her purse and jewelry roll from Seraphine to free her hands. The horse master went ahead walking his horse, searching out the path. Pierre lurched, waves of nausea overcoming him. ‘Over there,’ he said, indicating the way, but in the night they did not see the crowd closing in until it was upon them, torches glowing in the fog. The horse master, now mounted, spun his horse around, but they were surrounded.

‘I’ll draw them off, ‘ he said to Marie. ‘You and the girl ride for your lives, into the woods.’ He did not say what they both knew, that they were coming for Pierre and that is who they would go for first, which would give the women a moment to escape though they would be sacrificing Pierre. Marie acknowledged him, but her soul was uneasy and tormented. She sidled up to Seraphine and nodded, showing her how to take the reigns closely. ‘Kick him when I say so and follow me,’ she said.

The horse master readied himself and drawing a sword, spurred his horse riding through the crowd and scattering it.

‘Now,’ she shouted, and they were off before anyone could could catch them. She rode blindly into the night and turned to see Seraphine at her side, wild eyed and terrified. They rode until they were well into the woods, and then slowing she shouted, ‘Pull on the reigns!’ to Seraphine who had passed her.

‘Pierre?’ she asked when she caught up.

‘I saw Monsieur Pierre ride in after the horse master. Oh Madame,’ Seraphine was wracked with tremors.

‘Fool.’

‘Where will we go now, Madame?’ the girl asked looking around them at the wilderness.

‘We’ll find the river. Unless the Indians find us first.’

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A cool cloth was laid on Marie’s head. Seraphine said:

‘In the beginning, the water was below and the sky above. Obatala asked permission from the other gods to create dry land for beasts to live upon. And so the gods gave him a gold chain to reach the place below, and they gave him a white hen, a palm nut, and a sack filled with sand. When he came to the end of the chain, the gods told him to cast down the sand and to free the hen. And when he did, the hen began to scratch and scatter the sand, and where it landed, hills and mountains were formed and in between, valleys and plains. And when Obatala came down on the land, he planted the palm nut and everywhere great forests sprang up.

‘But soon Obatala grew lonely and so he gathered clay to make beings that were like him, but before he got far, he grew thirsty and drank enough palm wine to make himself drunk. And the beings he formed were not in his image but very flawed.’

Marie smiled. ‘Who told you that story, Seraphine?’

‘My grandmother.’

‘She is a wise woman.’

‘You would call her so.’

‘I see.’

‘Are there mountains where you are from?’ Seraphine asked.

‘Yes, there are mountains, yes, there are.’

‘They say you came all the way from France.’

‘They can say what they will, but I have never set foot in France. I came here from Martinique after the great hurricane that killed six thousand.’

The girl was quiet, listening.

‘A hurricane is a great wind that levels all in its sight and leaves only ruins behind. But even before, we were ruined by my father’s gambling debts. After the storm my brother could not hold on to the land, and so we left with the intention of coming to our relatives, but he was laid low with a fever in Havana and died.’

‘You have had a sad life Madame,’ the girl said.

‘Yes, but so have many others and much worse than mine, and my father did leave me his legacy,’ Marie touched her deck of playing cards.

‘You have had no husband?’

‘No and I do not wish for one.’

The girl considered this for a time and wanted to ask why that was, but thinking it best not to, wondered aloud what a mountain was like.

‘It is like this.’ Marie crumpled the bed sheets and pulled up peaks. ‘The land in Martinique is green and lush with forests and flowers. There are waterfalls and pools and all around there is ocean, water the color of my aquamarine stones. The ocean is vast and deep and across it lies the rest of the world.’

‘The slaves came from across the great water, they say.’

‘Yes, from a place called Africa that is bigger and vaster than any other place.’

‘Will we stay here long?’ the girl asked wistfully.

‘We never stay long. It is the secret of being a good guest. We go from house to house, and in the off season, we have a little place of our own in New Orleans.’

Seraphine twisted this way and that. She had something on her mind, but she was afraid to ask.

‘Yes?’

‘Will we return to Monsieur Pierre?’

‘Always. I want you to put all that nonsense about the devil out of your mind. There is no such thing.’

‘But Baron Samedi -‘

‘No. People are responsible for the ills in this world. Not the devil, not Baron Samedi or Baron Cemetaire. Do you understand? There is no such thing. God may have made the world, but that was a long time ago, and God does not concern himself with us any longer. The story you told me is just a story, it is no more real than…’ Marie snapped her fingers.

The girl pressed her lips together and said nothing for a time. ‘Will you play cards tonight?’

‘Yes. I’ll wear my green dress.’

‘I’ll ready it,’ the girl set to work.

‘Seraphine, the world is a terrible place, it’s true. But there is no reason to make ourselves even more afraid than we need be. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, Madame, I understand you very well,’ the girl said not looking up from her task.

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The house was built in the new style, Greek, columned, white and shining. They walked up to the house gradually, on a winding road, the perspective shifting, trees and shrubs obscuring the edifice until they were upon it. The gardens transitioned from orderly to wild- scaped as one went further from the house itself, and there were classical pavilions and gazebos in back close to an artificial lake which was spanned by a bridge, and gardens filled with old fashioned English flowers that Marie had no name for.

Phillip Augustus Percy, an indigo planter, had come from a Virginia family, come all the way to this part of the world, escaping an unknown scandal which was speculated upon in drawing rooms in hushed voices. Phillip was well read and cultivated, with modern ideas about the rights of man and justice. He had many ideas how to improve the lot of his slaves, though he did not free them. His home was orderly, clean and neat, his ideas well organized, his English furniture new and polished to a high gloss. Once a year and on Christmas, he held a grand party, though this year he had been delayed due to the inclement weather.

Marie was ensconced in a guest bedroom with a canopied bed of worked yellow silk, swagged curtains and a fine Turkey carpet. Blue and white Chinese vases flanked the fireplace and a watery landscape with cows surmounted it. There were flowers on the dressing table and notepaper on the desk.

Marie wore a much simpler dress than she had at the house of the Madame Gres, and the effect she wanted to achieve, one of simple naturalism, suited her. She was reading a book, one that she had gotten from Percy’s library which was fine and well stocked.

‘They say he desires to marry you, Madame,’ Seraphine said, fingering the silk bedspread, ‘and it is such a grand house.’

What could the girl know of such things, Marie thought. ‘Percy is my friend. I am a free woman, and one day I will have my own house.’

‘Oh,’ Seraphine said, lingering, but noticing Marie’s preoccupation with the book, was suddenly gone.

Percy was a friend, in a sense, Marie thought, and though he did not have true feeling for her, she knew that he was principled and would always do the right thing, rather than the correct one. She couldn’t help thinking about the horse master, and though she had known he was the man she had met on the boat recently, she had said nothing. She hadn’t seen him again, but she knew why he haunted her. It was only a resemblance, nothing more. Yet she couldn’t concentrate and the words were swimming on the page in front of her. She reached for the tarot deck and laid out the cards.

Who is the man? she asked, pulling a random card. The King of Pentacles, the tarot responded. What motivates him? The nine of cups. A rich man motivated by love. But he was neither rich nor interested in women. What can I expect from him? The two of swords, a clash of ideas. Why had she asked what she could expect? Did she hope to meet him again, interact with him? She put her cards away, and then she put her book away.

There would be a long dinner first and much talk, because that is what Percy enjoyed and that was why she was invited, and then, only then, would they sit down to play cards, some of them at least, while the others chattered and took turns about the great room.

She was suddenly drained and did not feel like seeing a soul. She wondered if she wouldn’t rather sit the evening out, pleading a headache, and rejoin the party tomorrow when she felt more herself. She lay on the bed like the dead, not thinking, not looking at anything but the pattern worked into the silk draperies, and then she pushed herself up and straightening her hair, forced herself outdoors.

She walked for a long time, past the gardens, past the slave quarters, past the indigo works and drying platforms, away from the cultivated land toward the wilderness where she knew Indians who moved into the distance with every successive encroachment, but could be seen occasionally in Congo Square, still lived. She wondered what she was doing not for the first time, traveling from house to house, trying to amass enough money to open her own salon where gaming would be open to the public. What did she hope to achieve, to buy security, a place for herself in old age? Why shouldn’t I strip off this dress now and run to the Choctaw or whoever will have me and get off this treadmill for I am tired of it, she thought.

And what does the rest of this land look like? she wondered. The Spaniards who ruled now after the French had ceded it, though few and far between in their parts, knew. They knew the land from the Rio de la Plata to Peru, from New Granada to New Spain and now they had Louisiana as well. How long could they hold on? Marie wondered. Many young men were thinking new thoughts about freedom from the tyranny of king and church, freedom from the countries which ruled from across the sea, freedom from the old order. A war was being fought in the east and it was spreading south. Something new was being born here, and she had a taste of it and knew she would not run into the forest but would see how things would play out, and that is what she thought to do for now. Dusk had fallen. A multitude of birds rose from the trees, and she saw when they were overhead that they were not birds at all but bats, flying into the night to feed.

She walked back to the house and was joined by Seraphine, who had come looking for her, but who did not reproach her for being out in the evening air without a shawl or attempt to make conversation. A night owl hooted and called. Seraphine shivered and moved closer to Marie.

‘Do you miss your mother?’ Marie asked.

‘No, I did not know her. She died young. But my grandmother, I miss.’

‘You will see her again. I am a frequent guest at Bellevue.’

‘Perhaps.’

The utter desolation of the girl and the doubt in her voice angered Marie. ‘Of course you will, if I say so.’

But the girl was afraid and said nothing.

Marie was dressed, the guests assembled, Percy waiting. She could dazzle him, enchant him and she meant to do it for no reason at all, except that the girl had made her feel the weight of her sins.

Her gaiety was false, she encouraged him to speak, and so encouraged, he pushed himself to make bold declarations which caused a spark in the discourse, but Marie laughed it off, laughed off the common notion that despite the rights of man, the Indians were heathen and the blacks and colored were children who had to be ruled, though equitably.

She asked all the right questions, made witty pronouncements, but never said a thing that was real or heartfelt. She did not play cards but rather in her cups, trying to maintain her dignity, sat near Percy, while he lost at whist, allowing her leg to graze his, allowing her arm to brush against his, allowing him to inhale the perfume she had put on so discreetly. When she returned to her room, she fell face down on the bed and had the terrible dream of the empty house.

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The live oaks formed a canopy that led down an alley to the house and a mist lay over the land. Seraphine shivered but said nothing until Marie looked at her.

‘It’s a bad place, Madame.’

‘What have you heard of it?’ Marie inquired, thinking that she had to stay in control and calm the girl.

‘I have not heard, but I can feel something in the air.’

‘The master and the overseer are rigid men, but the master loves card games, and we will not be here long. Keep your eyes open and your lips sealed and you will be fine, I assure you.’

‘Of course, Madame.’

The house was sturdy and well designed but inside there were few comforts and no luxuries. The master of the house, a taciturn and dessicated man, laid low at first by fevers then by his obdurate nature, waited for Marie with an impatience bordering on the unforbearing.

‘Finally, you’ve arrived,’ he said not bothering to conceal his irritation.

‘Calm yourself, Pierre. I’m here at last and I’ll make you wish to see the last of me,’ she replied.

Pierre’s mouth twisted into a semblance of a smile. ‘You have no idea how dull life is here and how slowly time passes.’

Pierre was a hard, uncompromising man, Marie thought, but at least she did not have to make conversation with him or pretend to be anything other than she was. He had no interest in her other than her ability to play cards. His only other passion apart from his cane fields were his fine horses.

The afternoon promised to be sunny and cool and Pierre wanted to go riding, and so Marie changed into her costume and joined him at the stables. A gray was brought out to her by a white man who looked at her sharply and then, uninterested, through her. He handed her the reigns and propped up her foot while she mounted.

Pierre spurred his mount, and only when they had gone some distance did he slow down, and she rode up beside him wondering if she should ask where Anatole was.

‘I sold him, he was nothing but trouble,’ Pierre answered, and Marie said nothing because Anatole had been a man with horses in his blood.

‘And the new man?’

‘A queer sort, an Englishman. Keeps to himself but he knows horses.’

So, he fits this place, she thought and rather than continuing the conversation, she urged her horse forward, and Pierre, galloping, gave chase over the flats.

Marie napped before dinner and when Seraphine came to dress her, she asked if the girl had heard anything about the horse master. Seraphine seemed unusually quiet and then she said, ‘The slaves fear him, Madame.’

‘Is he a cruel man?’ she asked.

‘I couldn’t say, exactly.’

‘Does he beat them?’

Seraphine shook her head.

‘The master says he is good with the horses.’

‘Yes, he is good with the horses.’

‘Is it the girls?’

‘No, they say he has no eye for the girls.’

‘What is it then?’

Seraphine looked down at the floor, she was silent for a minute but knew her mistress expected an answer. ‘They say he is the devil, Madame.’

‘Oh, no less than the devil, himself. On what grounds, Seraphine, can they claim that?’

But Seraphine did not know how to explain it herself, it was just a feeling that overcame you when you saw the dark man with his grim countenance, that there was something about him that was wild and infernal.

‘Has there been any unrest? Is that why you sold Anatole?’ Marie asked Pierre that evening as they sat down in his sparsely furnished salon to play cards.

‘You never know what these black devils are thinking. The way they look at me sometimes…’

She wanted to ask questions but knew from his closed expression that he was ready to play and that there would be no more conversation between them. Halfway through the evening, Pierre drained his wine and went to the window for air since he was losing badly and needed to refresh himself. But when he opened it, they heard the sound of distant drums. The air smelled of swamp, and though cool, was humid.

‘Those are Congo drums,’ Marie said quietly.

‘It’s nothing, a fete, don’t get nervous.’

‘What sort of fete? There are no holidays now.’

‘The birth of a son and heir on the neighboring plantation. They’ll be celebrating into the night.’

‘I see,’ Marie said, resuming her place. It was her deal. They played a simplified form of poquet, without a board, throwing their chips into the center of the table and alternating deals.

‘When will you be leaving?’ he asked.

‘Early. I have to be at Bel Aire by evening and L’Esperance in a few days.’

‘You’ll stop on your way home.’

‘Yes. I always do.’

Pierre played grimly and she could see him heating up when he lost. He had a terrible temper, she knew, so she loosened her control over the cards and let him win before beating him again.

Her purse was heavy, but she was unquiet, the drums mingling with her sleep, alternately lulling her and making her afraid. The sound mixed with her dream and she was back in the house only it was night and the drums were closer and her heart began thundering.

‘Madame, madame,’ Seraphine was shaking her awake. ‘You were screaming in your sleep.’

‘It was nothing, a nightmare. The drums brought it on.’

‘It’s silent now,’ Seraphine moved toward the window and opened it. The moon was hidden behind a heavy cloud cover and lightening flashed in the distance. For an instant she could see across the flat expanse of land but there was nothing out there. No signs of life. ‘Shango will be throwing stones from the sky soon,’ she said, before thunder shook the house.

‘Seraphine! You can’t speak of the Orisha in front of whites.’

‘But I can with you.’

‘Don’t forget yourself.’

The girl shook her head and pointed toward the door. Marie turned to the wall as she left.

In the morning, Pierre had already ridden out and Marie and Seraphine boarded a boat north.

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