CANE RIVER, LOUISIANA—1834
On the morning of her ninth birthday, the day after Madame Françoise Derbanne slapped her, Suzette peed on the rosebushes. Before the plantation bell sounded she had startled awake, tuned her ears to the careless breathing of Mam’zelle above her in the four-poster bed, listened for movement from the rest of the sleeping household, and quietly pushed herself up from her straw pallet on the floor.
Suzette made her way quickly down the narrow hall, beyond the wall altar, and past the polished mahogany grandfather clock in the front room, careful to sidestep the squeaky board by the front door. Outside on the gallery, her heart thudded so wildly that the curiosity of the sound helped soften the fear. Her breath felt too big for her chest as she inched past the separate entrance to the stranger’s room and around to the side of the big house where the prized bushes waited.
Barefoot into the darkness, aided only by the slightest remnant of the Louisiana summer moon, she chose Madame’s favorite, a sprawling rosebush with delicate pale yellow flowers and visible roots as long as her father’s fiddling bow.
The task didn’t take long, going and coming back, and Oreline’s breathing was still soft and regular when Suzette slipped back onto her makeshift mattress at the foot of the bed. The only evidence that Suzette had been gone at all was a thin, jagged scratch on her bare arm from a thorn she hadn’t seen in the darkness.
The day before had started with midsummer Louisiana predictability, so smotheringly hot that the spongy air seemed to push down on Suzette as she hurried to the cookhouse after church. Once there, she slipped a clean apron over her good dress, a loose-fitting dark calico with a yoke neck, one of Oreline’s last-season castoffs her mother had altered to fit the girl’s small body. Her mother had left room in the dress for a growth spurt. Every last item of Suzette’s clothing from undershift to leggings and shoes had first belonged to her mam’zelle. Although the girls were the same age, Oreline was taller than Suzette by half a head. They made an odd pair, the pale white girl, long legged and gangly as a young colt, and her tiny cocoa-colored nurse, Suzette, with skin like strong coffee after the splash of cream. Suzette’s eager smile showed off a gap between her two front teeth. The space was almost the width of a full kernel of corn, and Suzette used it to give more force to her whistle. It came in handy for calling chickens or pigs or for impressing Oreline and Narcisse when they ran the woods together in play.
The added heat from the blazing cookhouse fires made Suzette’s dress stick to her as she worked the paddle of the butter churn. Built at a distance from the main house because of the risk of fire, the cookhouse belonged to the Derbannes, along with the cotton and cornfields, the swamplands, the facing rows of eight slave cabins in the quarter, four on each side, and every other living thing on Rosedew, their plantation along Bayou Derbanne.
Suzette looked over to her mother Elisabeth’s strong, quick hands as she pulled a gray white dough ball toward her, kneading air into biscuits for the master’s breakfast table. When her mother finished the cooking, it was Suzette’s job to run the food to the big house while it was still hot and to serve the table.
Der-banne. Fre-dieu. She silently practiced her speaking voice in time to the paddle, hoping her mother would make conversation.
Elisabeth hummed as she worked, her tune deep, slow, and plaintive. Suzette wasn’t sure of her mood. Her mother had never taken to Creole French, even the rough version they spoke in the quarter. Elisabeth never achieved the same slurry rhythm that everyone else from the house used.
“How was church?” Elisabeth finally asked.
“St. Augustine was beautiful.” Belle, Suzette pronounced carefully, wrapping her lips around the word, hoping her French sounded as refined as Oreline’s, imagining her words flowing as smoothly as those she had heard this morning at the church. “Old Bertram and I stood outside, but he found us a place where we could see into the sanctuary.” Sanctuaire. “M’sieu, Madame, and Mam’zelle sat behind a row of gens de couleur libre.”
Suzette could still feel the wonder of the morning, the long ride in the wagon pressed between Oreline and Narcisse Fredieu, seeing for the first time the broad bell of St. Augustine above the vestibule, the shimmery waves rising off the sun-baked tiles on the gabled roof, the brightly colored glass. But mostly the clusters of people. White, colored, Negro, free, and slave, all dressed fine, all in one place.
Elisabeth grunted. “The free people of color who built that church own more slaves than the Derbannes. They go by their own rules,” she said.
“I saw him, Mère. When he came outside, I saw Augustine Metoyer himself. I was as close to him as I stand to you now. You should hear him talk. More proper than M’sieu Louis. And his top hat was silk.”
Suzette closed her eyes to bring back the images of the morning. Augustine Metoyer was the most famous of all the gens de couleur libre. The closest she had ever been to Cane River royalty before was her godmother, a free woman who had married into that famous family.
“I wanted to go inside. Old Bertram went in for a few minutes and took communion while I waited.” Suzette was sorry her mother had never seen St. Augustine, that she and Old Bertram were the only slaves who had been allowed off the plantation.
“Just do your work, Suzette,” Elisabeth said. “We have ten to feed this morning, and I still have Mam’zelle Oreline’s birthday supper to make.”
“Mam’zelle promised to leave some of everything on her plate for me tonight since it is almost my birthday, too.”
Elisabeth said nothing, began to hum again.
Suzette wished her mother would send her on an errand, away for a time from all of the eyes that sought her out night and day. She would slip off her shoes and walk, with the rich Louisiana soil under her feet and between her toes, and carry back a pail of fresh cow’s milk without spilling any, or bring in more wood for the fire, or gather green beans from the big garden to string and snap later. She was eight years old today, would be nine tomorrow, and she was meant for the house, not the field. Everyone, white, colored, and Negro, told her how much pride there was in that.
On good days Elisabeth would tell Suzette interesting things, mostly about cooking or preserving or flavoring, and sometimes she would compare Rosedew with the plantation she had come from in Virginia.
“This big house is puny next to some,” Elisabeth would declare. In Virginia, her mother said, the big house had an upstairs, a downstairs, and thick white columns in the front. There were separate servants for every task, and each one of them had assistants. The big house on Rosedew was slung low, a one-story house of wood and brick frame, stuccoed in white, and topped with a long, sloping roof. There were six rooms that Suzette helped clean and a special bedroom for visitors, the stranger’s room, with its own separate entrance from the outside for passersby on the river who might need a place to stay overnight. More often, as when the entire Fredieu family stayed over, it was used for the Derbannes’ relatives who came calling by the day or week or month.
Beneath her madras tignon, Elisabeth’s broad, dark face was streaked with a mixture of sweat from the heat of the cookhouse fires and a film of fine white flour from her morning baking. The sleeves on her long calico summer dress were pushed up above her elbows, and Suzette could see the old leathery burn marks on the brown skin of her mother’s arms from her many years as cook, from boiling kettles and the big smoky fireplace and sizzling skillets. Suzette looked down at her own skinny arms, wishing they were pale and white like Oreline’s instead of the color of cocoa.
“Mam’zelle and I went down to the quarter yesterday.”
For Suzette there were real smells in the quarter no one tried to mask, loud sounds no one tried to quiet, and large motions no one tried to subdue. Weekdays only the smallest children were there, along with those too old for the field, the sick, new mothers, and the old woman who took care of all the little ones. Everyone else was gone, working sunup to sundown. After dark everyone was usually too tired from the day in the field to do much more than prepare their evening meal of ground cornmeal and their ration of bacon. A handful of meal, a little water, a pinch of lard, into the ashes to cook, and fall into bed exhausted after eating. But Saturday, after half-day labor, the quarter came alive with each household working their own patch garden, washing clothes, trading gossip, and bringing back fish or game along with stories of how they had caught it. Children mixed at will, white and black, broadcloth and homespun, nearly masters and nearly slaves not yet fully grown into their roles. Suzette’s family lived in the quarter, including two sisters and a younger brother. There were moments when she wondered what it would have been like to live there instead of the big house.
“Papa made up two songs. One for Mam’zelle’s birthday and a different one for mine.”
Her father, Gerasíme, never gave Suzette hard looks when she used her house voice, unlike some others in the quarter. He was coppery brown, small framed, and always glad to see her, no matter how tired he might be. With his booming laugh, he called her his “big-eyed gal.” Geras?me’s wild mane of springy black hair couldn’t decide whether to stay down or curl up, so it did both, and his face was so smooth that he didn’t have to shave like the other men. When Suzette had asked him about it, he’d said it was because he was half Indian. Her father was a favorite in both the quarter and the big house because he played the fiddle, and Louis Derbanne often got requests to rent him out for the frequent parties held up and down Cane River.
Suzette grew quiet when Madame Françoise Derbanne swept into the cookhouse, the silk of her pale green visiting dress rustling. Françoise’s heavily corseted build was typical of well-fed Creole ladies, and her fading brown hair had been darkened with coffee-grounds water and upswept in calculated curls. Both her pointed nose and chin were inclined slightly, and her feet were nestled in black hightop shoes with leather-covered buttons. Usually she had Elisabeth come to her in the dark back room of the big house to decide on the menus for the week. But from time to time she appeared in the cookhouse unannounced, being careful not to let anything touch her or her fine clothes. It was an old ceremony between the mistress and her cook, and they had been acting it out since Elisabeth had come to the plantation fifteen years before.
“Elisabeth,” Madame said, crinkling her nose as if she had caught wind of something slightly foul, “I’ve just talked to Oreline, and I want today’s supper to be special. I have promised her a birthday treat of her favorites. There will be ten of us in all.”
“Yes’m, Madame Françoise,” said Elisabeth, eyes still on her worktable, hands never stopping their rhythm.
Suzette tried not to smile as she watched the two women, one tall, with skin the color of day-old grits, the other short and dark. She had already told her mother each of the choices she and Oreline had decided upon.
“We will have chicken and tasso jambalaya, sweet-potato pone, green beans, cala with the gooseberry preserves we put up last year, and peach cobbler,” Françoise instructed.
Suzette was surprised Madame could not smell the peaches hidden in the pantry. Their aroma still lingered in the air of the cookhouse, competing with the sharp yeast smell of the starter sponge for cala they had concocted the night before, holding the promise of the rice fritters to come. She had peeled the potatoes for her mother and had been careful to watch how Elisabeth combined the boiled potatoes, cornmeal, flour, and cooking soda and left it in the night air to ferment before mixing in the boiled rice to make the sponge. Just before mealtime would come the flour, eggs, butter, and milk, the stiff batter to beat, the dropping of the calas by the spoonful onto the blistering skillet.
“I give you my permission to go to the smokehouse after breakfast and get the ham and one jar of preserves,” Madame said with a slight nod of her head.
Madame Françoise walked a few steps toward the doorway and then turned back. Her tone had a scolding edge.
“You used far too much sugar in your last peach cobbler, Elisabeth, and Monsieur Derbanne got an upset stomach. Use less sugar this time.”
The last time Suzette had served her mother’s peach cobbler, she had spent half of that night cleaning up after Louis Derbanne. Elisabeth herself had told Suzette that M’sieu was ill because he had drunk too much bourbon. Her mother had done nothing wrong.
Suzette stood to her full height, the butter paddle still in her hands.
“Madame,” she said eagerly to Françoise Derbanne, “it was the bourbon that made him sick, not the sugar.”
Suzette’s words fell into the damp, dead air and hung there. Each of the three stood rooted in the cookhouse, the white woman’s lips reducing to an astonished slim line, the black woman’s face turning in on itself, her eyes closing briefly, and the suddenly uncertain little cocoa-colored girl letting her arms fall limply to her side. A fly buzzed sluggishly toward the open doorway.
Françoise Derbanne’s eyes flickered hot. She turned, took three quick steps toward Suzette, and slapped her hard with her green-gloved hand across the right side of her face, fingers spread wide.
She squinted at Elisabeth. “I won’t be contradicted,” she said, her voice wavering slightly. “You need to teach the girl her place.” She wheeled around and walked deliberately out of the cookhouse.
Françoise Derbanne had never slapped Suzette in the face before, and it took a moment for her to start to cry. After the first startled tears, she looked toward her mother, who continued working the ball of dough.
“I didn’t mean to be bad, Mère.”
Elisabeth sprinkled more flour on the worktable and roughly pulled down the rolling pin. “Your little-girl days are done.” At first her tone provided no opening, but then it softened. “Come over here, Suzette.” Suzette obeyed slowly, sniffling.
A single plump tear stood perched on the high ridge of Suzette’s cheek, refusing to drop to the red outline below where Madame had slapped her. Elisabeth reached over and with her broad thumb pushed the wetness away, leaving a thin trace of white flour in its place.
Elisabeth had returned to her dough, humming.
Suzette felt the stinging on her face, the heat of the fires, the stickiness of her shift against her skin. She stared at the old burn spot shaped like a quarter moon on the inside of her mother’s exposed arm, fascinated by how perfectly the tips curved in toward each other. She was tempted to reach out and touch it.
“How many times have I told you to keep that mouth from running?” Elisabeth said. “There’s lots worse than slapping.” She didn’t often look angry, but now she pounded at the dough as if she were scrubbing clothes on the washboard.
“It wasn’t fair,” Suzette said stubbornly.
“There is no fair. Just do your work, Suzette.”
Suzette went back to the churn. Der-banne. Der-banne. The paddle resisted more with each movement until she had butter. She spooned it out, rocking herself in place where she stood, her face settling into a dull ache, while Elisabeth’s big wooden rolling pin gave out stubborn squeaks with each pass over the dough.
“Mère, I finished the butter.”
“Is the table set?”
“Then come watch,” Elisabeth said. “Your time’s coming soon enough to make the biscuits.”
This seemed like safer ground to Suzette, and she held on to it. “Can I help you today if Mam’zelle Oreline doesn’t need me?”
Elizabeth showed the beginnings of a rare smile, partially exposing the gap between her two front teeth, a gap that matched Suzette’s own.
“I’m going to make you a little secret peach cobbler for your birthday tomorrow. No telling anybody else, even Mam’zelle.” Elisabeth reached out and touched Suzette’s arm, insistent, the almost smile fading. “Understand?” she said. “Not even Mam’zelle.”
Suzette nodded. “Should I run and get more peaches?” she asked.
“First use those young legs to go get me some more sugar. One extra cup and we’ll make sure this peach cobbler bubbles up nice and sweet for Mam’zelle Oreline.”
The ache had faded from her cheek by the time Suzette served the breakfast of tamales, tortillas, sausages, blood pudding, and biscuits to the Derbannes and their visiting houseguests. They were ten around the long dining room table, and the adults seemed in high spirits. She dished the sausages out of the platter for everyone around the table, coming last to Oreline’s cousin Narcisse Fredieu, a pudgy boy with light brown hair thick clumped in waves hugging his head.
Suzette stayed close to the table, hoping to hear the Derbannes and the Fredieus talk about St. Augustine. For a long while the breakfast conversation meandered lazily from the price of cotton and old people’s ailments to the poison grass creeping up from the marsh, what the weather was likely to be, and the heavy responsibilities of the planter class. She’d heard all of that before.
“I tell you, brother, the seating arrangement is improper at St. Augustine. White sitting behind colored,” Narcisse’s mother complained. “We were meant for better.”
Suzette waited to see what would happen next. Oreline had told her that the Fredieus were not exactly de la fine fleur des pois, not the most select blooms of the sweet-pea blossom, and the marriage of Narcisse’s mother to a Fredieu had been below her place. On many of their visits Suzette had overheard Narcisse’s mother, a Derbanne, talk about her family’s quality, with history and distinction in the bloodline. She passed on her family stories, bold and proud tales of the original French settlers in Louisiana. She was silent on the subject of the Fredieus’ background.
“They reserve the eight rows for their betters, sister,” Louis responded. “Only Augustine’s
family is in front. He did pay for the church, after all.”
Françoise cleared her throat to speak. “We should go to the Natchitoches church,” she said, and her voice rose slightly. “It dismays me to have to consort so closely with the gens de couleur libre.”
Suzette knew she really meant her godmother, Doralise. Even the mention of Doralise Derbanne could trigger an ugly mood in Françoise. Louis Derbanne had freed Doralise when she was still a nursing baby, acknowledging her so openly as his daughter that she had taken his last name as her own, even in public, making it impossible for Françoise Derbanne to deny the obvious, as she had done with the others. Suzette’s godmother, her marraine,
occupied a middle place, not as high as the white Derbannes or the Fredieus and not as low as any of those she sponsored as godmother from the house or the quarter. She was a woman of color, and free.
All eyes at the table shifted from Françoise to Louis Derbanne. He looked the part of the older-generation Creole French planter, from his pomaded thinning gray hair to his black suit and riding boots. The role had been handed to him whole on the day he was born. “We have had this conversation before,” he said. “I will not drive all the way to Natchitoches when there is a perfectly acceptable chapel on the river.”
Françoise gave ground in the face of opposition from her husband. “With the infidel Creoles around Cane River, we were lucky our eight rows were half-full.”
“I understand your discomfort, my dear, but the best church is a church nearby.” Louis waved Suzette over for more blood pudding, and she hurried to his place at the head of the table.
“At least St. Augustine draws the best of the gens de couleur libre,” Françoise conceded. “They do have the proper respect for whites so crucial for the smooth running of a community. Thank goodness they don’t consider themselves white, but they certainly don’t consider themselves Negro, either.”
The children at the table, including Oreline and Narcisse, sat quiet, as demanded, listening to the adults talk, joining in only for the singing after the meal.
Midday the Fredieus left Rosedew to return to their own plantation.
Later that evening Suzette helped Oreline undress for bed.
“Mam’zelle Oreline, would you teach me reading?”
“I cannot, Suzette. You must stop asking. You know as well as I do that you are not allowed. Besides, it is no good for you to try to learn something so hard. Your ideas are wicked.”
“Just a few words? My name?”
“I will not,” Oreline insisted.
“What if we don’t tell?”
“No. Aunt Françoise would be very angry if she found out. Why would you want to read, anyway? Even Aunt Françoise doesn’t know how.”
Suzette stopped to consider. The Derbannes had taken Oreline in when her parents died, and Oreline would never disobey either Françoise or Louis. Still, she persisted. “In church today, I could not follow what the priest said.”
“He talks most of the time in Latin,” Oreline said. “Nobody understands.”
“But I want to take communion. Old Bertram went inside the church today, like everyone else.”
“You do not have to know how to read to take communion. I can ask Aunt Françoise to give her permission for you to take classes when I do. Besides, I will always be around if there is something to be read.”
Oreline gave Suzette a secret, reassuring side glance when Françoise came in to lead the two girls in bedtime prayers. “Aunt Françoise, can Suzette take communion with me?”
Françoise looked from one girl to the other. “First communion is not until you are twelve, and requires serious study to get ready.”
“I would help her,” said Oreline.
“Your behavior today did not show you as a very good follower of Christ, Suzette,” Françoise said. “You have failed to be properly obedient.”
“I can be good, Madame Françoise. I do want to take communion, like Mam’zelle Oreline. Old Bertram told me he was confirmed when he was a boy.”
“We will see how you conduct yourself.” Françoise sat in the cane-bottom chair beside the four-poster bed, perched tentatively, as if prepared for any turn of events. “Oreline, tonight you will start to learn the Lord’s Prayer.”
Oreline repeated each passage after her aunt, and then Françoise kissed her niece lightly on the forehead. “When you are ready to be confirmed, you will wear a beautiful white dress and a veil, and I will get you your own rosary beads.” Françoise looked to Suzette, standing near the foot of the bed. “And you, Suzette. If you apply yourself, you can rise above your mother and the others in the quarter.” She straightened her skirts and prepared to retire to her own room. “Time for bed. Good night.”
Suzette made her rounds of the big house, pulling the drapes, emptying the spittoons, and gathering everyone’s dirty laundry. She checked on each member of the household to see if they needed her for anything before she returned to Oreline’s room, where she blew out the candles and pulled out her pallet from under the bed.
Copyright © 2001 by Lalita Tademy