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Archive for January, 2013

I did not find her. They had disappeared from the face of the earth. I went to the river boats and to the quay but got no answers. His house had been closed. I looked for his servant who had gone as well, and then I looked for the Frenchman. I finally found him, drunk and penniless in a saloon, caked in the mud of the streets and his own urine. He couldn’t talk or stand, much less recognize me, and so I took him to his miserable lodgings and watched for three days while he shook and trembled and screamed for brandy.

‘It’s you, my girl,’ he said when he finally awoke. He was lying on his filthy pallet, one eye open, the other crusted with tears.

‘Where is he?’ I sank to my knees by his side.

‘The devil only knows,’ he said after a while.

‘What happened to her?’ I asked, but he wouldn’t tell me. Finally he saw that I wasn’t going to leave, and he said, ‘Where she is, no one can help her.’

‘Where?’ I shook him, ‘tell me, where is she?’

‘She’s with the Virginian.’

‘With Percy?’ He must have heard the relief in my voice because he looked at me and knew that I hadn’t understood yet.

‘The blackguard sold her. He sold her to the Virginian.’ He turned his back to me and I could hear his muffled sobs, and I knew he had been part of it, but somehow that Devil had betrayed him too. I left a few coins by his bed and departed.

 

The money was in a sack under my skirts when I got on the boat, though the blacksmith and his wife had warned me not to go. ‘You free here, on dat man land you still slave. Why he sell her back to you, when he be rich enough to buy ten of her?’ they asked, but I could not let her go. I sailed up the river and walked down the allee where we had landed so long ago. But when I got there, the house was dark and everything was still and hushed. I went around to the back and knocked and the cook let me in. She was a formidable woman in size and manner, and when she looked at me I thought I would blow away in a puff of smoke. But when she recognized me, she took me by the arm and sat me down and gave me a cup of buttermilk to drink.

‘Mr. Percy, he real bad. He don’ come out of him room fo’ days now. Him man say he have fever and he sunk real low,’ she said.

‘Is she here?’ I said in a small voice, knowing that I was too late.

‘She die, honey. She done kilt herself.’

I sobbed and sobbed and that woman rubbed my back and held me, and then she took me by the hand and led me to the place where they put Marie into the ground, where I stood for a long time thinking about what had happened.

 

When I got back, the blacksmith said that he had word that the Frenchman had been making inquiries about me. I went to his lodgings but found him at a nearby tavern. He was about to disappear into a haze of forgetfulness and only by repeating my name over and over again and that of Marie and that Devil’s was I able to jar him.

‘I know who you are, ‘ he said, ‘and I know where he is,’ he held his finger to the side of his nose and laughed.

‘Where is he? I insisted.

‘I’ll take you there,’ he said, reeling out into the street. I followed close behind until we came to a fine house.

‘What is he doing there?’ I asked doubtfully.

‘He’s playing a big game. With the money he made off her.’ Staggering away, he fell in the street, but I was transfixed by the house, and when I looked over, he was gone.

I waited all day and night and into the next morning. My heart was thundering when he emerged, and I followed him a way because he was on foot. He was buoyant, and I knew he had won the pot. I followed him to a shipping office and waited outside until he concluded his business. I was certain that he was going away now that he had gotten what he wanted.

I waylaid him when he came out. I could see he was surprised, but then that old look overcame him, and I knew he meant to twist me and use me to his advantage.

‘She dead, you know. Suicidee,’ I said the word in French, but he understood me. ‘But you kill her with your cruelty.’

He brushed past me as if I wasn’t there. I trotted after him, and when we were clear of the docks and people, he grabbed my arm and pulled me into an alley. He pressed his body into mine and held me tightly against the wall. He nuzzled my neck, but I turned my face away.

‘I’m leaving, come with me now. I’m rich, and soon I’ll be even richer.’

‘You just want her money. When I go with you, you take her money and get rid of me just like you get rid of her,’ I said. He saw his power over me had faded and looked at me mockingly.

‘You kill the Congo woman,’ I said.

‘She was about to curse me,’ he spat.

‘She don’t need to curse you. You already curse. Everything you do, evil. Everything you touch turn bad. Your baby dead,’ I lied.

‘Well, what’s it to me,’ he growled, turning away from me.

‘You not a man. You not human!’ I shouted after him, but he had gone and did not hear me. I heard he left New Orleans shortly thereafter, and I never saw him again.

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Madame Marie didn’t die, but I wasn’t thinking too clearly when I left her behind. The baby was silent, and I understood  I was heading the wrong way,that there was no milk for him at the edge of town. I went to Laetitia, a woman I knew, who was kind and had many children, now grown. She was a seamstress and her husband, a blacksmith. She brought me inside and looking at the baby, sent her youngest girl for a wet nurse. I was exhausted and could not tell her the story, but she did not press me. ‘I take care lots of babies. You be fine here girl. Rest now,’ she said.

When I woke up, I went to the bank and drew out enough money to pay for the wet nurse and the baby’s keep. I told the banker that I would be back once I knew when I would be leaving, since I could not take the baby on the trail until he was bigger. The whole time I was afraid that he would find me, but he wasn’t anywhere to be seen.

I sent Laetitia’s daughter to the undertaker and told her to be on her guard. I knew he wouldn’t spend money to have Marie buried, and we would have to do it ourselves. But when the undertaker’s assistant came back, he said Madame Marie was gone.

‘Gone where?’ I asked the girl since she was telling me the story.

‘The gentleman took her away, her servant said. She left this for you,’ the girl held out a book wrapped in a silken scarf.

Then I knew it was only a matter of time before Marie would tell him where the money was, because he would treat her cruelly when she was so ill, so I rushed to the bank and drew it all out, and I forgot all about the book. I hid the money with the blacksmith, and then I said I had to leave, for if anyone saw me with them they would know where to find the baby and the money. I said I would go to the police and make them look in his house for Marie, but Laetitia stopped me.

‘Girl, you a free woman of color, and you have money, but no police gonna take yo word again’ a white men’s.’

‘I can’t leave her there,’ I said.

‘You don’t leave her. My man take care of dis.’

The blacksmith organized the raiding party, six strong black men who pulled scarves over their faces; but when they got to his house, it was already empty.

‘Where could he have taken her, sick as she was?’ I wailed and Laetitia held me to her firm bosom and comforted me like a mother.

I left them the next day and went to get my things and say goodbye to the Congo woman, but when I got there, the place was empty and all her pots had been broken and spilled onto the floor. I knew he had been there, looking for me and the money. I thought the Congo woman was hiding in the swamp, and she’d curse him well and good when she saw he had desecrated the alter where she worshiped, but when I stepped out back, I saw her body and saw that her neck had been broken. I put her in the ground under her sacred tree, though I do not know if that is what she wanted for herself.

I took her Prenda, the consecrated cauldron of iron, which was filled with the things she called the spirits with, bones and earth and sacred trees and herbs, for I did not want it to fall into the hands of others. Then I started my search for Madame Marie.

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When her lying in time came, I went to stay with her, and when the labor pains came, I went for the mid-wife who was delivering another child elsewhere. She promised to come as soon as she could. Marie was sick, sickly white. She panted and struggled. I sat her up and pushed on the baby the way I had seen my grandmother do, but nothing happened. I left her alone to find a another midwife and when I couldn’t, I found a doctor, drunk and filth,y who promised he would follow me in his carriage. I started back on foot, but as I was about to turn toward the direction of her house, I suddenly changed my course and went to fetch that Devil.

He wouldn’t hear me at first after I forced my way in, but in time, he made sense of my story, and his face darkened. He ordered his horse to be saddled and rode out at once. I was running alongside and asked him what he meant to do, but he looked at me like I wasn’t there and rode off. I followed, and when I came in to the house, he said, ‘Get in there, the midwife needs help.’

The midwife looked at me, and I could tell she had lost hope. Marie’s sobs died down ,and then a piercing scream rent the silence, and she muttered things I could not understand. We sat her up and massaged her belly and pushed and pushed. I never heard anyone scream like that, She screamed until she fainted dead away. We worked all night, then I fell asleep in my chair.

I was woken by a cry and could see the midwife take the baby, but she did not wipe and wrap it. I went over to the bed, and then I saw that Marie’s child was alive. And I saw he was black, though not as black as me. I could see the midwife was disgusted,and I took the baby and told her to go. I cut the cord and wiped and cleaned him and bundled him up. I placed him in Marie’s arms, but her eyes were dead pools.

He had come in to see his son, but when he saw that child, he flew into a black rage.

‘Who did you lie with you miserable doxy?’ he shouted at her, while she turned her face away from him. He made a motion to snatch her baby, and I was not fast enough to stop him. ‘I’ll smash your bastard against the wall,’ he threatened. I screamed for him to stop, to have a care for his immortal soul, but he pushed me away. I rushed at him again to take the baby away, since I could see she would not tell him. I could see the madness in his eyes, and I knew he would do it, and I shouted, ‘Tell him, Marie before he kills the child.’

‘Then he’ll be killing his own son, because he’s his and mine and nobody else’s,’ she said quietly, turning to face him. The look on his face altered from fury, to shock, then comprehension. He put the baby down on the bed and flew out of the room.

‘You’ve killed me, Seraphine. You killed me when you went to him,’ she said quietly.

‘No,’ I denied it, shaking my head.

‘Take the baby and the money, but don’t go to the witch, because he will find you. Go to the Indians, they’ll shield you and my son. Tell them who I am and pay for your freedom with them. Get away from here when my son is old enough to travel and begin a new life, somewhere where he won’t find you.’

‘Where can I go? I don’t know any other place,’ I protested. When she wouldn’t relent, I said, ‘Come with us, come now.’

But she pulled back the coverlet to show me that she was bleeding out. ‘I’m finished,’ she said.

‘I’ll take care of him, Madame Marie. I promise I will, I promise.’

She smiled weakly at me and touched her baby’s head. I don’t think she believed me then, but she did believe she had done everything she could to shield her child.

I started for the Congo woman’s house because it was too early for the bank, and I needed to put the baby somewhere safe until I could get the money.

 

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When Marie called for me again, I could see things had not gone well with her. Her body was cadaverous and distended at once, as though she had been starving herself, but her baby had been growing despite of it. Her thick hair had lost its luster and hang lankly around her face, which had thinned giving her eyes more prominence in her face.

‘Seraphine, if something goes wrong with me, if I die, take my baby, but don’t let him get it. My banker and lawyer have instructions, they have the money. It will be in your name. I know you must hate him as much as I do. Promise me he will not get the money nor his hands on the child.’

I couldn’t believe she would trust her money or baby to me and told her no matter how bad he was, the baby would be better off with a white father. Then I added that nothing would happen to her, but we both knew I was lying.

‘You still love him,’ she said with wonder in her voice.

I didn’t say a word, but I couldn’t look her in the eyes. ‘You must know in your heart that he is evil and rotten to his core. I knew it the moment I found out about you two. The only thing he wants is money. How he’s harangued me these last months for it! You must promise you won’t have anything to do with him ever again.’

I promised her, but when the time came I betrayed her.

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She looked for me all over town, and finally she found me at the house of the witch woman. We lived outside of town, and the place was hard to reach. The witch woman’s house was made of sticks and stones, and around the porch she had hung bones which rattled in the wind. We slept on pallets far from the alter with human skulls and blood offerings, where she kept her precious things. She was a Congo woman, the witch, and had great powers. She told me that I should work with the light, but I watched everything she did and said.

Marie stood outside of the house, as if her silent presence was enough to call me forth, and finally the Congo woman pushed me out, saying, ‘She here fo’ you.’ I crossed my arms and tapped my foot, waiting to hear what she had come to say.

‘Why didn’t you come back to me when the Frenchman got tired of you?’ she asked. She still did not know a thing.

‘It was not the Frenchman who got tired of me, ‘ I replied coldly.

‘I don’t understand you,’ she said. ‘You left him?’

I laughed in her face, but she still did not understand. ‘Why are you here, Madame Marie?’ I asked her.

‘I need help. I need your grandmother’s help.’

She looked ashamed when she said this, and then I noticed how yellow she was, thin and drawn and sickly with blue shadows under her eyes.

‘I can’t help you.’

‘Oh, you must help me, you must,’ she pleaded and made a motion to take my hand, but I pulled away. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ she asked.

I narrowed my eyes and hissed, ‘Ask the man who put that baby in your belly.’ In her eyes I saw comprehension before her legs gave way.

 

‘You wait too long, girl,’ the witch woman said, feeling her belly after we had brought her inside.

‘I bought herbs from a woman at Congo square. There was bleeding, and I thought it was done,’ Marie said.

The Congo witch scoffed, and I knew she despised false healers who sold useless things.

‘Go home. You baby be strong and healthy,’ she said.

‘You must give me something to drink. I can’t have this baby. I can’t,’ Her eyes were like two black holes in the ground.

‘Too late for drink to work.’

‘No,’ she said, ‘I can’t, I can’t…’

‘Girl, you coward, go home. Dat man marry wit’ you.’

‘No,’ she said shaking her head, ‘he only wants my money. I see it now.’

‘Girl, you rich and beautiful. You get any man you want. Tell him, his baby, come early.’

‘No, you must do it another way.’

‘What other way?’

‘You can do it with knitting needles.’

‘No. I see many woman die dat way, bleed out, inside too much damage.’

‘You must help me, you must.’

‘Girl, no one can help you.’ The Congo woman stood up.

‘Please, please, ‘ Madame Marie begged.

The Congo woman considered, then she said, ‘I give strong herbs that make you sick. You tighten belts and girdles round you belly, then you ride horse hard, do heavy work.’

‘Thank you, thank you. I’ll do everything you say.’ She took a purse full of coin and gave it to the Congo woman, who took a few small ones out and gave it back to her. But when she was gone, I saw that she had left the purse behind. We didn’t mention her or see her again for a long time.

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