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It went in white, but it will come out a mulatto in a few months' time, yes?"
I was right; the oven of Georgine's belly was swelling up nice with the white
man's loaf it was cooking to brown. I cackled at my own joke like the old woman
I was becoming, stretched my neck a little to ease its soreness. A deep breath
brought me salt-smelling air, blowing up from the cliffs at the foot of the
plantation. Good to get away for a few minutes from stooping over sugar cane.
Sixteen hours each day they had us working to bring the sugar in, and old Cuba
the driveress would still push the first gang to pluck weeds sometimes into the
deep of the night.
Georgine just stared at me in fear, never mind it was she had brought herself to
me by her own will. Then she whispered, "No, Auntie, not just mulatto. I'm
griffonne, my mother was sacatra. The baby will be marabou."
Eh. I ignored her, poked again at her belly, at her lolling on the flour bags
that made my bed on the floor of my hut; she got to plant her behind in a softer
bed nowadays-even had a mattress, I bet. I wondered if the ticks didn't bite her
when she put her head on Mister Pierre's straw-stuffed pillows. I knew
Georgine's type. Made her road by lying down. Lie down with dog, get up with
fleas, they say. Silly wench, with her caramel skin. Acting the lady because she
worked in the great house, washing white people's stained sheets till her
fingers cracked and bled from the soap.
Free-coloured Philomise had been making eyes at her; well-off brown man with his
own coffee plantation and plenty slaves to work it, but no, our master didn't
want a coloured to have her. Gave her instead to that yeasty-smelling carpenter
imported to San Domingue-him from some backwards village in the ass end of
France. And Georgine was puffing herself up now she had a white man, never mind
he didn't have two coins to rub together. True, she had cause maybe to be happy.
Pierre was looking after her well. She might get two-three free children out of
it too, and if she gave him enough boys, her Pierre might release her from
slavery finally. When she was old.
But now she needed tending, and now that that flat-behind raw dough boy they
called the plantation surgeon was too shy to even lay his hands on her belly to
feel the baby, who did she come to? She didn't trust him. She wasn't an entire
fool. Instead, she had found her high-coloured self to my hut.
And her carpenter had come with her too. Got time off from mending the wain
carts as they burst under the weight of the cane they were carrying to the
factory. Waiting outside, he was; screwing his hat into shreds between his big
paws. Frightened I would poison his Georgine, his goods. All the backra round
these parts were frightened of poison nowadays. Black people's poison was
showing up in the food and bad ouanga in their beds. But Mister Pierre was more
frightened to see woman's business. So outside he stayed, saying it was more
decent. Eh. What decent could mean to we with black blood? Who ever feared for
Niger woman spoiled fine as any lady. She'd best watch herself. Slightest thing
she did that mispleased that backra man, he'd pack her off, out of his little
house. I went to turn up the hem of Georgine's dress. She gasped, flinched. I
sighed. "Can't examine you with all this cloth in the way."
She considered, set her mouth firmly. "Proceed, then." Proceed. Stupid wench.
Pampered pet parrot, talking with backra's tongue.
I touched her dress again. A soft cotton hand-me-down from some backra's wife,
and dyed a yellow pale like ripe guavas. The fabric caught on the calluses of my
hands. I ruched it up around her waist, exposed her smooth legs, her pouting
belly, her bouboun lips covered in black crinkly hair. She was even paler where
the sun didn't touch her. Bleached negress.
Oh, but she was thin! Meager like the chickens scratching in the yard outside.
"Eh," I muttered, on purpose as though my patient wasn't there, "would think the
hair on the little bòbòt would be pale like the skin."
Georgine gave a small sound, made to push the dress back down with her hands,
The clean salt scent of Georgine's body came up in my nose, mixed with sweet
rosewater. Me, I smelled of sweat. Her thigh under my fingers was velvet smooth
like my baby's, long lost. My body was dry wood after years of work; the brand
that had got infected and nearly killed me tunnelled a ropy knot on my thigh.
Her yellow dress reflected the sun back in its own eye. My one frock was a
colourless calico cut from a flour sack, washed a thousand times, that Tipingee
had darned for me over and over again, for my hands were impatient with needles,
unless it was to sew up a wound. Georgine's skin was steamed milk with a splash
of high mountain coffee. Me, the colour of dirt in the canefields.
I poked and prodded at Georgine's belly while she tried not to squirm. I took my
time, in no hurry to get back to the fields. My back was thanking me for having
a rest. "When did you get pregnant?"
"I don't know, Auntie," she said in a small voice. Know-nothing girl child.
"When did your courses stop?" I asked, trying another way to get the answer from
"Stop? They only started"-she was frowning, looking up into the ceiling while
she did her figuring-"ten months ago. My first blood. Then I bled three times,
three months, then pretty soon I started puking a lot, then I realised the
bleeding had stopped. I thought it was going away and I was glad, for I didn't
like the pain and the blood. I felt like the whole thing was only fatiguing me.
When the bleeding came every month, I didn't have the strength to lift the
washing down to the river. Marthe beat me one day, told me I was too lazy. So I
was glad when the bleeding stopped, yes? It's Marie-Claire who told me I was
pregnant." Her face got red and she smiled, glancing down. "For Pierre."
Seven months, maybe more. But the child under my hands was too small for a
seven-month baby. "How are you feeling?" "I'm tired all the time, matant. Even
more than when I used to get my courses."
I went and looked under her eyelids. Her colour was poor. Her blood was thin.
"You and Pierre are eating good?" "Yes, matant! I'm keeping a nice garden
Sundays when I have the day off. I'm growing cassava and pumpkin, plenty
pumpkin. Pierre says I don't have to take none of it to market, for Master's
paying him a wage we can both live on, if we're careful. Pierre says-"
"Pierre says, Marie-Claire says. I'm asking about you, not about them."
She looked chastened. "Yes, matant. What should I do, then?" Back in my home,
back in the kingdom of Dahomey, every Allada girl child and woman would know
what to do if a woman wasn't strong enough to carry her baby. Eat foods to
strengthen the blood. "You have beets in your garden?"
"No, matant. I should grow some?" "Yes. I wish if you could get liver too." "I
get meat sometimes."
Eh. Maybe she thought her Pierre was a fine hunter as well as all his other
talents? "How do you mean, meat?" "Sometimes Pierre gets meat left over after
the great house is finished eating dinner." "Don't eat that meat!"
She jumped, startled to hear me speak so strong. "No, child," I said, "I don't
mean nothing by it. Just that white people don't know about food. Plenty times
their meat is spoiled and they're still eating it."
"Oh. It tastes nice, though. Boeuf au jus with red wine sauce." Little bit of
girl was making airs that she got to eat great house food. "You can't stay weak
and tired like this and have a baby." "Oh," she said fearfully. "I'm going to
Pride made me speak to her as I did to other women. "You've ever seen an African
live more than ten years once he set foot on this island?"
Georgine shook her head no. Too right. Sickness and torture killed most of us on
the journey across the bitter water, then the backra worked the rest of us to
death when we got here. Plenty more were coming on the ships to replace us.
"Well, I've been here twelve years. Was apprentice to my midwife mother before I
came. That's why they made me doctress. Don't you worry. I've taken dozens of
babies on this island live from their mothers' wombs and put them in their
She smiled. So I didn't tell her how many of those mothers had died of fever
soon afterwards. Didn't tell how many of the babies had got the lockjaw, never
breathed again. Didn't talk of my little dead one, so many years ago. Returned
beneath the water to the spirits before his ninth night, so he had never really
existed. No name for him. Except in my head. He was so beautiful, I called him
Ehioze, "none can envy you." Should have been Amadi, "might die at birth."
Back in my home, we cared for women when they were breeding, gave them the best
foods. They rested for days afterwards with their babies, getting to know them.
Here I must help starving women squatting in sugar cane whose children were
fighting their way free of their wombs. Afterwards, I strapped their children to
their backs and if they were lucky, they got a day's rest in the slave hospital
before they had to get their black behinds back to work.
A footfall came outside the window. A small face looked in on us, grinning. Then
a shout came from outside: Georgine's owner man. Georgine screamed, "Who is it?"
and shoved her clothing down over her thighs.
"Just one of the little boys," I told her, loud so the carpenter would hear.
"Get dressed." O Lasirèn, let him not beat the child. I stepped outside. It was
Ti-Bois, all of his skinny six-year-old soul case quivering with excitement.
"Sorry, Mister Pierre," I mumbled at the carpenter. He grunted, nodded, his eyes
searching within my hut for Georgine. Ti-Bois had gotten off light this time.
I hissed at Ti-Bois, "Why did you push your face in my window? Little door-peep.
If you make the backra man vexed, you and me both could get whipped. Maybe we
should call you Ti Malice, hein?"
His face twitched a frightened, apologetic smile. "Sorry, matant, sorry Auntie
Mer. It's the book-keeper who sent me. You must come quick; Hopping John stepped
on a centipede in the sugar cane and it bit him. He's in the mill house, no time
to take him to the slave hospital. Quick, Auntie; come!" He turned on his heel,
running back for the canefields. I shouted for him to wait for me, then said to
the carpenter: "Mister Pierre, Georgine's coming out now."
He was frowning. He really looked fretful for his Georgine. "How is her health?"
She was living; Hopping John might be dying. "She will be well, Mister Pierre. I
already told her what she needs to do." His face cleared a little. "Good. You're
to be with her when her time comes, at our house."
"How ...?" "Your master gave permission." "Yes, Mister Pierre. I will send her
out to you now." I dashed back into my room. "Someone's sick," I told Georgine.
"I have to go and help." "But-"
"You must grow beets and eat them, make yourself strong for the birth. And get
ginger root and make a poultice, put it down there every night, on the opening
to your bouboun." She got a scandalised look. I didn't have time for that. "Not
strong enough to burn, mind. It will make the skin supple so the baby will pass
through without tearing it. And tell your carpenter not to touch you until after
She gasped. "So long?" "So long. Or your milk will be weak and your child won't
Georgine looked down at her big belly like she was just now thinking of all that
"Your baby is coming in two months, not more. When your birth time comes, I'm to
be there with you, Master says. I have to go now." I ran through the door,
leaving her questions on her lips. Maybe they would let Tipingee come with me to
Lasirèn, pray you a quick death for Hopping John. Pray you no more of this life
for him. Even though no gods answer black people's prayers here in this place.
Halfway to the mill house, I had to pass under the big kenèp tree. I just had
time to hear a rustling in the leaves, when a body jumped down out of it in
front of me. It landed on its two feet, then overbalanced, but only had one hand
to put to the ground to steady itself. Makandal. Come all the way from Limbé to
"Salaam ale ikum, matant," he greeted me. Peace be upon you. I didn't give him
back his blessing. "Get out my way," I panted. "Someone's sick."
He straightened, cradling the long-healed stump of his right arm in his left
hand. After his accident, he wouldn't take food from the same pot with us any
more. He was a Muslim, and they count the left hand unclean.
Makandal stood tall. Grinned at me. "Tales flow from Hopping John mouth the way
shit flows from a duck's behind," he said around a kenèp fruit in his mouth.
"Always talking my business. Nayga-run-to-backra sometimes is in such a hurry to
tell tales, he doesn't look where he's walking. Steps on something nasty. Gets
piqué." He jabbed with a fingertip, a thorn biting into flesh. He put a fake
sadness on his face. "It's a bad way to sicken, matant."
"It's you made Hopping John ill!" Not a centipede, but a piquette in the fields;
a piece of sharpened bamboo the brute had jammed into the ground, smeared with
his poison on the tip. His smile brightened like the day. "I told the piquette
to catch whoever was talking my business. Looks like I aimed it true." He spat
out the pale ball of the kenèp seed. "Where's Marie-Claire?" he asked. "In the
kitchen, you think? I have a new herb for her to flavour your master's food
I skinned up my face to think of him sticking that left hand he used to wipe his
ass with into the cook pot. All the Ginen thought Makandal was so powerful, that
he was our saviour. Me, I didn't trust him. I made to shove past him. "Get out
my way and go!" Runaway. Thief. Hiding in the bush and making off with the yams
the Ginen must grow to feed themselves and their children. Calling himself
"I'm gone, matant Mer." And just like that, he disappeared. Turned to air? No.
There he was, a manmzèl now, doing its dragonfly dance level with my nose. So
like Makandal, playing games when I was about serious business. The manmzèl
landed on my hand, its wings flicking like when you whip your back skirt hem to
contempt somebody. It was missing half a front leg.
"Get away, or I feed you salt!" I told him. Fleur had told me that Makandal's
mother back in Africa had been djinn; a demon from the North, the desert lands.
Me, I thought I knew how he strengthened the djinn half of him. Every man jack
of us as we got off the slave ships, the white god's priests used sea water to
make the magic cross on our foreheads and bind us with salt to this land. Maybe
Excerpted from THE SALT ROADS
by Nalo Hopkinson
Copyright © 2003 by Nalo Hopkinson.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted November 10, 2003
Early in the nineteenth century, on the French colonial Caribbean Island of Saint Domingue, three female slave women, led by Doctress Mer, inter a stillborn baby. During the burial ceremony, they pray to Ezili, the Afro-Caribbean Goddess of love and sex, to ¿use¿ the infant¿s 'unused vitality'. Mer knows first hand how Ezili resides inside them as the goddess lives within her to use her when needed for that is how she has the healing hands.<P> Ezili employs other female African or Afro descendents as her channel. In the nineteenth century in Paris, Ezili lives inside mixed blooded Jeanne Duval, lover of poet Charles Baudelaire. In the fourth-century Nubian Meritet, changes from a prostitute to the founder of a religion when Ezili enters her. However, even Goddess¿ have fears that they will expire as Ezili worries will happen to her now that Jeanne' is dying from syphilis. Escape may be through Mer¿s prays, but at a moment when the Saint Domingue slaves seek freedom at any cost could still endanger the Goddess.<P> Extremely complex in terms of the time paradox, Nalo Hopkinson shows why she is the leading fabulist of Afro-Caribbean mythology, religion, and folk tales filled with Mojo today. The plot spans time and place yet seems so right though readers will struggle with non-linear events (string theory anyone) connected via salt and the Goddess. The three women are fully developed, but surprisingly in a mystical sense so is Ezili. Nalo Hopkinson provides another winner with her insightful look at Afro-Caribbean mythos.<P> Harriet Klausner
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