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Archive for November, 2012

They met in passing at house parties as if by chance, though I was vain enough to think he followed us so that he could have a chance to tryst with me. She did not pay undue attention to him, aware that many women’s eyes were upon him, for his lithe figure and handsome countenance was much admired. But he watched her play with great attention, trying to understand her power over the cards.

‘I can’t understand your system,’ he said to her as they promenaded through Percy’s gardens, with me one step behind, holding her parasol.

‘What do you mean by system?’ she asked, distracted by the spring blooms.

‘Oh, I see, ‘ she said, once he had explained. ‘No, I play entirely by feeling. You see I can feel the emotions of others, their sudden shifts, the changes in their mood.’

‘But you may get taken in by a liar,’ he said.

‘I think there is little chance of that,’ she laughed lightly. And then he asked her to teach him her method, whatever it might consist of. ‘That sort of thing cannot be taught,’ she explained, ‘but I can teach you the rules of the game, and we can play against each other until you acquire your own style.’

He was eager to begin, but she said, ‘Not here. When the season is done, I will receive you in my own house and then you will learn.’ He saw the wisdom in that and readily agreed.

That night when we lay side by side, the breeze of the night drying the salt off our wet bodies, I asked why he was eager to learn gaming.

‘I’d like to take you away, my girl. But I am low on money and need to make my way in the world.’

‘The two of us, only, do you mean?’

‘Yes, just us. No more prying eyes or boring conversation with these stultified mummies. We’ll go elsewhere, Brazil or the Indies where we can live in the open. I’ll cover you with silks and jewels and you will no longer have to trot when Madame Marie calls.’ He sealed his lies with kisses so deep that I felt the stars coming down to earth and settling in my body.

When the season was over, we went back to New Orleans and she prepared the house and prettied it up. ‘I don’t receive people normally. I live poorly compared to my friends and…’ she trailed off. And then she asked, ‘Do you think that man can be trusted?’

And I said, yes, because he had saved our lives, hadn’t he?

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Madame Marie, sharp at the gaming tables, was an innocent when it came to human nature. True, she knew how to flatter and ingratiate herself with compliments, but she believed it made people like her. Those women with their nasty claws would have ripped her apart as soon as she showed the smallest sign of weakness. They invited her because she was entertaining, but they loved to talk and speculate about her behind her back. Who was she really, a poor nobody, with no house and no fortune and no servants or slaves save a little black girl. She never suspected a thing, not once. It was not in her nature to think ill of others, and so she could not conceive what malice lay behind those fans, those painted smiles, those eyes that looked askance.

He knew. He was one of their kind. But she did not see that in him. She gave him the benefit of the doubt. He had saved our lives, she said. And Pierre, he went to his death that night, but it had been no fault of the horse master. It occurred to her that that Devil had profited from Pierre’s death, that he had taken Pierre’s hidden gold and made himself into a gentleman, but she would not expose him.

‘Pierre is dead. He had no family. His wealth is of no use to him, and if that young man uses it to better himself in this world, it should be none of our concern,’ she said, admonishing me not to speak of his past.

You see, she thought he was like her, after he had told her his story in the long afternoons. As a homeless boy taken in by a kind benefactor but turned out after the man’s death by a cruel heir, he had come to soldier in the new world. And when the war began and the British forts were burned, he had sympathized with the rebels and with freedom and had deserted and fought alongside them. And when the armies had left the area, he had found work with Monsieur Pierre.

She pitied him, and she taught him. He was a good mimic but sometimes missed the finer points of etiquette, she said. She was patient with him, and I could see that earnest expression on her face as they sat on the veranda, and he talked of things which must have meant something to her, of loneliness and longing and losing his place in the world though it was no fault of his own. He did not make romantic overtures which I could see made her suspect other men and brush them off with her light inoffensive charm.

She thought they were friends, but besides Pierre, she had no real friend in this world who could help her. And I fool that I was, I was blinded by passion, too blind to warn her of his perfidy.

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We were at Madame Gres’. I was sitting out front of the smokehouse while my grandmother was curing meat for the slaves when he approached. At first I did not recognize him, for he was dressed as a gentleman, and it came upon me as a shock that it was the same man. I was sitting open mouthed with wonder when I felt my grandmother beside me.

‘You girl, your mistress is ill. Why are you hiding here?’ he said.

I was confused, having seen Madame Marie that morning in good health. She had wanted to read and gave me liberty to be with my grandmother. I stood to follow him, as he clearly expected me to. Something made me look at my grandmother for guidance but her expression was closed, the way it always was in front of the white masters. As I passed, she said in her language, ‘Ọ̀nà irọ́ kì í pẹ́ẹ́ pin.’

He waited for me to go first, and I could feel his eyes on my back. The skin on my neck rippled like an animals. He held open the door to the house and asked, ‘What did the old woman say?’

‘She said to come back and help her. She is too old to do everything alone.’ I did not tell him that she had said, ‘Deceit is soon exposed.’

I should have been wary of him for she could see inside of people. I rushed up the back stairs, but he was faster and waylaid me. I tried to push him away, but he had a serpent’s tongue and told me many lies, and he knew how to touch me in such a way that I felt I was drowning and that always left me hungry and pining for more. I tried to push him away, but he was the one who stopped me and then laughed and sent me on my way.

Madame Marie was happy to see me but required nothing and sent me back to my grandmother, who looked at me askance. She did not ask. She merely said, ‘Mú wá, mú wá” lapá ẹyẹlé ńké.’ Bring, Bring is the sound of the pigeon’s wings. I did not know what she meant and asked her to explain. And she said, ‘Some people know only how to take, never how to give.’

But I was young and foolish and did not want to listen to her. Whatever she told me I dismissed. When I was little I thought she carried herself with the dignity of a queen, but now I saw an old woman who was black as coal and who moved slowly because of her great bulk and rolls of fat.

I went to that devil night after night and saw his true face, and during the day he walked through salons, elegant and well spoken, and none of those white ladies suspected a thing.

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Madame Marie’s dresses were shipped to her without a note. We heard nothing from Pierre, and thought that he had survived, because of the trunk that was sent. She was happy, she had felt bad about leaving Pierre, and she had already been fretting about getting dresses made and the expense and time it would take because we had to take advantage of the winter season, which was the time for house parties.

Of my lover she said nothing and when time passed and nothing happened, she was relieved, but she did not treat me as a little girl any more and gave me harder tasks to carry out, and she showed me how to shop and cook and take care of the household finances. She had a little house with wrought iron balconies and an inner courtyard, heavy with plantings and a fountain in the center and there she would sit in the afternoons, sometimes for long hours, looking into space or into the heart of herself, though I do not know which, considering what befell her later.

Sometimes, she was open and was to me as a friend or a mother and other times, distant. I did not know when these moods would come upon her or how to proceed, but in time, I let her take the lead and did not trouble her with small or grave matters unless she approached me. But she was kind and treated me well and had her clothes that were not in fashion cut down and restyled for me, and she too realized that heads would turn when we would pass.

‘It’s good thing,’ she said, ‘for you have beauty to fall back on.’ She would teach me in time how to keep the books and run the business once she was established, but even then if something went wrong, I could place myself well. I knew what she meant. There were many such women in the city who were maintained by French planters and lived well, but they were light, and I was dark as the chocolate she loved to drink. But she thought I was beautiful enough and perhaps that was so, because many times I would catch sight of us in the looking glass, I tall and slender and she honey colored, fuller and more sensuous, and for a flashing moment before familiarity set in, I could see what others saw.

The devil, wise serpent that he was, approached me first, though I shrank from him, until he won my trust. But it was her he wanted all along.

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