Cane Riverby Lalita Tademy
Mingling historical fact with fiction, Lalita Tademy's epic novel is based on the lives of four generations of African American women and is the result of years of exhaustive research and an obsessive odyssey to uncover her family's past.
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Chapter 1"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..."
Meet the Author
Lalita Tademy lives in Menlo Park, California.
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