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Six days out of seven, the ten thousand or so people in the city of New Orleans whose bodies were the property of other people were kept pretty busy. Having no legal right to choose what they'd rather be doing, they tended to get the dirty jobs, like mucking out stables, cleaning the always-horrifying three-foot gutters that rimmed the downtown streets, cooking everybody's food in sweltering kitchens, and washing everybody's clothing, and getting damn little thanks for any of it--they were better off doing white people's chores than living in heathen villages in Africa like their ancestors (said the white people).
Sunday afternoons, the slaves got together in what was officially called Circus Square--unofficially, Congo Square--next to the turning basin where the canal-boats maneuvered, and close by the old St. Louis Cemetery. Those who had garden plots sold their surplus produce: tomatoes and corn, this time of year, and peaches whose scent turned the thick hot air around them to molten gold. Old women peddled gumbo for a penny or two a bowl, or bread, or pralines: brown, pink, or white. Old men sat under the plane-trees around the square's edge and told stories to the children, about Compair Lapin the rabbit and ugly stupid Bouki the Hyena, and High John the Conqueror, who always got the better of the whites.
Always, someone played the drums. Ancient rhythms flowed and leaped through the American dust, rhythms passed down from mothers or fathers or grandparents who'd been taken from African shores--even the modern tunes were quirked into African syncopation.
Always there was dancing, the men turning the women under their arms, leaping and slapping their feet, wriggling in doubled and quadrupled rhythms, styling to show off what they could do. Ankle-bells jangled, hands clapped. Voices shouted encouragement, and when the sun glanced low over the slate roofs of the pastel town and flashed like a burning sword blade on the river, then Mamzelle Marie would come--Marie Laveau, the Queen of all the voodoos--and dance with her snake, and sing the songs of her power and her triumph.
At the gates of the paling fence that circled Congo Square, Benjamin January stood watching the voodoo queen dance in the twilight.
I walk on pins,
I walk on needles,
I walk on gilded splinters;
I want to see what they can do. . . .
January had met the voodoo queen soon after he'd returned to New Orleans from France, where he'd lived for sixteen years. Then, as now--three years ago, that was--the summer heat had lain on the town like a damp and itchy blanket, but in that summer three years ago had come not only the usual yellow fever, but the cholera, too. It was the cholera that had brought January back to New Orleans, the cholera that had taken the life of his wife in Paris, that had driven him, half-crazy with grief, home to this city of his birth. When he'd gone to France in 1817 to study surgery, he had vowed he'd never return to the land where he'd been born a slave, where, despite his freedom, the color of his skin still dictated what he could and could not do.
Yet here he was, he thought as he watched Mamzelle Marie raise the seven-foot kingsnake high above her head--as he watched the reptile slip and coil down her arms to wrap around her bronze throat and the bosom half-covered by her red cotton blouse.
Back in New Orleans.
Back with his family--with the mother who strove to pretend she'd never been a slave herself, or borne two children to a slave. With the one sister who was a rich white man's mistress, and the other sister whom he now hoped to find here, somewhere, in this moving mass of dancers.
Back home. And married again--the thought still filled him with wonderment--to a lady named Rose, who'd been no more than a gawky, nearsighted schoolgirl when he'd left New Orleans all those years ago.
He slipped his hand into the pocket of his scruffy corduroy jacket, touched the thing Rose had handed him that morning, bony and nasty even through wrappings of bandanna and newspaper.
The gallery where they customarily had breakfast overlooked the narrow courtyard of that creaky old Spanish house on Rue Esplanade that for eight and a half months now had been their home. Rose had been upstairs, helping Cosette pack--Cosette, who had boarded with them for four of those eight months as a pupil in the school Rose had established. So far they'd had only three pupils. One--Marie-Anne--had departed a few days previously, to join her mother in a cottage by the lake rented by her mother's white protector. The youngest, Germaine, shared bread and coffee with January on the gallery. Ten years old and a fragile little miracle of ladylike deportment, she had a creamy dark complexion and African eyes that made her look like some ancient Pharaoh's daughter inexplicably masquerading in ruffles and lace. Germaine's mother, also a rich white man's placee, was coming for her that afternoon. The morning air was silky, before the day's brutal heat began, and scented with cafe au lait.
"I found this in Cosette's room," Rose had said, coming out onto the gallery, and handed January the thing that was now in his pocket. It was a rooster's head, the eyes and much of the flesh gone, but black wax still visible clotting its bill.
And so he had come here.
Tiqui li papa. . . .
Men sang as they heaped wood in pits gouged in the dust, kindled fires to light the shadows that gathered thick beneath the trees. A few of the stinking little saloons on the other side of the turning-basin had lit their lanterns; smoke from the gumbo-lady's fire scratched January's eyes. Someone jostled him from behind, and glancing back, he saw a couple of young white ladies, with an elderly female servant in tow to lend them respectability, staring through the fence with avid eyes. One of them whispered, "Which one is her?" in English.
They weren't the only ones staring. Looking away from the firelight, January saw white idlers strung all along the fence, peering in: Creole French and Creole Spanish in starched collars and well-cut coats of Bath superfine; Americans from the other side of Canal Street, with the greedy, restless eyes of those who view everything as a potential source of income. In the winter Carnival season, and on up through late spring, young ladies in their bell-shaped skirts and wide sleeves would come to gaze, though by this time of year most of them had left town. The two young women who whispered behind him were clearly of the class that didn't have summer houses by the lake.
January went back to scanning the faces of the dancers in the leaping yellow firelight. Men and women who had to return the next day to being what the whites wanted them to be: stablemen and laundresses, stevedores on the wharves or milliners in the tiny shops on Rue Chartres. People who had to pretend to be white in their hearts if they wanted to get money from the whites who were its only source.
Beyond them in the shadows beneath the plane-trees January picked out others, though it was rapidly becoming too dark to see clearly. After three and a half years back, he knew most of the voodoos, the root-doctors and ouangas and the lesser queens with their bright-colored headwraps worked up into five points, like gaudy flame around their faces. Some he knew from before he'd left, all those years ago. He saw withered old Dr. Brimstone, and John Bayou with his expressionless reptile eyes. Saw hugely fat Queen Lala, and Queen Regine like a dessicated black ant, strings of peeling glass pearls rattling around her withered neck.
Behind him he heard the young women still whispering, wondering if, later, they dared to go to Mamzelle for a love-ouanga or a spell to drive a rival away.
Roaches the size of a child's hand dove on roaring wings at the fires. A shift of air too sluggish to be termed a breeze filled the hot night with the sewage stink of the basin, and smell of the cemetery beyond it.
In the shadows near Mamzelle Marie, January glimpsed the woman he'd come looking for.
She was called Olympia Snakebones among the voodoos, a tall woman and thin. She swayed with half-shut eyes, and sweat shone on her dark African features: strong wide cheekbones and firm mouth, and despite one white grandparent, that glossy darkness the slave dealers called le beau noir lustre.
January edged past the two white girls and into the torchlight. His clothes weren't fancy--rough wool trousers, good boots, a blue calico shirt, and a short corduroy jacket--and many of the slaves were dressed far better than he. The men wore their best liveries if they were butlers or valets, the girls, bright dresses or satin skirts if they'd saved up the money from tips and gardening sales. Many greeted him, recognizing him from the wintertime Carnival season, when he'd play piano for the white folks' balls and parties, or knowing him as the man they'd call in for a difficult childbirth, or an injury they didn't want their masters to know about. Even in France he'd been unable to make more than a bare living as a surgeon, and had had to return to his first love--music--when he wanted to earn enough money to marry. In New Orleans the libres--the free people of color--followed white society in preferring professionals of lighter skin and more European features than he.
Even his mother, January reflected wryly, sometimes passed him on the street without acknowledgment if she was with someone she wanted to impress. God forbid she should admit that a man who looked every inch of his enormous height to be a full-blooded African (not to mention being forty-three years old) was her son. He sometimes wondered with amusement what she'd do if she needed a surgeon: call in one of the lighter-skinned libres as all her friends did, or send for her son because he'd work for free.
Like a chameleon set down on plaid, he supposed she'd simply die of vexation.
"Olympe," he said, and Olympia Snakebones turned and smiled up at him with a white slash of protuberant teeth.
"Brother," she greeted him.
They drew a little aside to one of the fires, and January dug out the bandanna with its ugly secret.
Olympe flicked a corner of the cloth aside with the back of her fingernail, and made a face. Above her glittering forehead the tignon she wore--the headscarf mandated for all women of color, libre or slave--was dark with moisture: Olympe loved to dance and would have done so in the heat of noon-day, let alone the sticky magical warmth of evening. Her great dark eyes rose again to his.
"Somebody good and mad at you." Like January, when their mother had been bought and freed by St. Denis Janvier, Olympe had been given a tutor to eradicate the casual African sloppiness from her speech. It hadn't worked, of course. Nobody could teach Olympe a thing she didn't want to learn. Having discovered early in life that she could annoy her mother by saying "tote" for "carry" or "niame-niame" for "food," Olympe still spoke like she'd been cutting cane all her life.
"Not at me," said January. "Rose found this in the room of one of the girls at the school. The girl's been sick, on and off, for weeks."
"That's no surprise." Olympe pulled a pin out of her tignon and used it to turn over the half-rotted head in its crumple of newspaper and cloth. "When Queen Regine puts a cross on somebody, she follows up with poison if she can."
January's face hardened. "I thought it was something like that."
"Who is it?"
Olympe nodded. Voodoos dealt in secrets, and the free colored community of New Orleans throve on gossip and the intimate knowledge of everybody else's business. "That mother of hers been takin' her older girl, Fantine, to the Blue Ribbon balls all last winter an' this one," she said. "And she ain't got a place yet."
January nodded. The information wasn't new to him. White men would come to the Blue Ribbon balls--the quadroon balls--to dance with their free colored mistresses, their placees, and to gamble and chat with their friends away from their wives. Fathers would bring sons there to meet the young ladies of the free colored demimonde, quadroons or octoroons sometimes as fair-skinned as white girls themselves, carefully educated in fashionable accomplishments but, unlike the white girls, educated also in the techniques of pleasing men.
The men sought mistresses, not whores, quasi-wives who would live in their shadow for years, sometimes decades. A woman like Cosette's mother--or January's, for that matter--could parlay the house and housekeeping money that were part of the arrangement into serious investments and a good living even after the protector was long gone.
Most placees taught their daughters to follow in their footsteps, a necessary education when the alternative was a life of sewing other people's clothes or doing other people's laundry to put food on the table. It was sheer Quixoticism for January's wife, Rose, to open a school for girls of color that taught science, mathematics, Latin, and literature, as well as music, drawing, and just enough poetry to be able to converse with men, and Cosette Gardinier had wolfed down this heftier intellectual fare with the hasty guilt of one who knows she'll be forced into a more acceptable feminine mold on the morrow.
He said, "Fantine is how old?"
January pressed his sister's shoulder. "Thanks."
There was no sign now of Queen Regine's bright red bodice and red-striped tignon in the groups beneath the trees. The gate on the upstream side of the square opened into a muddy lane that ran past the basin and on beside a high brick wall whose top was a fringed jungle of resurrection fern. The smell of the basin was bad, with the privies of its plank-built saloons draining into it, but the stench from beyond the wall was infinitely worse.
January saw the flicker of Queen Regine's striped tignon as she turned a corner of an even muddier lane--the municipal gutters didn't extend farther inland than Rue des Ramparts, and it had rained that afternoon, as it did nearly every afternoon in summer. He followed cautiously, boots slurping in the ooze. The iron-barred gate that led into the cemetery stood ajar.
Once inside the cemetery, visibility dropped to two feet. Though light lingered in the sky, January knew it would fade fast. The ground was even wetter here, and sent up, with each step, a ghastly reek of mortality. Around him tombs rose like little brick houses in some silent, horrible city. Because the ground-water in south Louisiana lay so close to the surface, even a shallow hole would fill, and corpses buried in New Orleans earth had a way of working to the surface in the winter. After the first flood or two brought coffins bobbing down the streets--giving a new meaning to the phrase "Grandma's coming to visit"--tombs began to be built above the ground.
From the Hardcover edition.