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When someone ties you naked to a tree in the yard and beats you unconscious with a broom handle, you don't soon forget it, or him.
"Ben, you remember Monsieur Fourchet," said his mother.
Standing in the doorway of her parlor, Benjamin January felt the hair lift on his nape at the sight of the man beside the window.
In the nightmares, he was taller.
Fourchet turned from the long French door that looked out onto Rue Burgundy, and January saw that he was, in fact, just slightly under six feet tall: more than three inches shorter than his own towering height. That he was wide through the chest and shoulders, but without January's massive strength. In the nightmares his hair was black, not streaky gray and thin, and his face, although creased with a lifetime's rage and cruelty, didn't have the broken network of lines that gouged the sunken cheeks, bracketed the harsh mouth, accentuated the sag beneath the chin.
The eyes were the same. Arrogant, dark, and cold.
But the man had grown old.
"I remember," he told his mother.
"You've grown." Fourchet took a seat in one of the straw-colored chintz chairs of which January's mother was so proud.
Between seven and forty-one I'd belong in a raree-show if I hadn't. January couldn't resist saying, "Monsieur Janvier fed me very well. Sir."
Fourchet hadn't. The slaves on Fourchet's Bellefleur Plantation, where January had been born, had what were called provision lands, small plots where they could grow corn and yams. On most plantations these augmented whatever rations of cornmeal and salt pork the planter saw fit to distribute. On Bellefleur, Fourchet had skimped the women and the children; even out of harvest time, he had demanded extra work after the conch shell was blown at sunset, so that the provision grounds were neglected and choked with weeds. January remembered his aunts and uncles were always being whipped for stealing food.
Fourchet sniffed. "Educated you, too, so your mother tells me."
By the way the man said the words January knew that Fourchet had had his mother, probably many times in the years before he'd sold her to St.-Denis Janvier. Anger rose in him like vomit, and like vomit he swallowed it down. He glanced at Livia Levesque, slender and beautiful still at sixty-four, neat in her fashionable frock of yellow mull-muslin, on her head the tignon that New Orleans statute required all women of color to wear, striped yellow and white to match, and trimmed with lace. Her slim strong hands in crocheted house-mitts rested easy around the cup of pink-and-green German porcelain that held her coffee, and her dark wide beautiful eyes moved from man to man with an alert calculation that held not the smallest whisper of embarrassment, self-consciousness, or anger in the presence of her former master.
The situation simply didn't bother her at all.
"Monsieur Fourchet has come to ask our help, Ben," said his mother. Outside, in the Rue Burgundy, a brewer's dray rattled past, driven far too fast by a young man standing to the reins like a Roman charioteer; two women walking along the brick banquette squealed and sprang aside from the water thrown by the wheels. Even so far back from the levee the hoots of the steamboats could be heard, and the dim stirring of stevedores' shouts and vendors' cries. After summer's gluey horror, the autumn air was crisp. The city was resuming its wintertime bustle and prosperity. "Your name was given him by that dirty American policeman you take up with, but perhaps it's all to the best."
That dirty American policeman was Abishag Shaw, lieutenant of the New Orleans City Guard. Though as a rule — like most of the citizens of the French town, white and colored alike — January mistrusted Americans profoundly, particularly those in positions of power, he liked Shaw and respected him. Still, his mother spoke no more than the truth.
January folded his powerful arms and waited. He had not, he noticed, been invited to sit in the presence of a white man and his former master. Nor had his mother said, Get yourself some coffee, Ben.
It was one thing for a white man to share coffee with a velvet-brown mulatto woman. White men did it all the time, in these small cottages at the rear of the French town. The custom of the country. For generations French and Spanish Creoles had taken free women of color as their mistresses, as St.-Denis Janvier had thirty-three years ago freed and then taken her. It was another thing — January could see this in her eyes, hear it in her artfully artless silence — to ask a white gentleman to sit in the same room drinking coffee with the coal-black son of a mulatto and a slave.
In the eighteen months since his return from sixteen years in Paris — years in which he had practiced both surgery and music — January had never been permitted to forget that this house was his mother's, not his.
If Simon Fourchet was conscious of any of this, he didn't show it. Maybe he accepted it as natural that a grown man wouldn't be permitted to drink coffee in the house where he lived, should a white man be seated there.
"There's a secret campaign of deliberate destruction going on at Mon Triomphe," the planter said, glancing up at January from under the grizzled overhang of his brows. "Spoliation, arson, wrecking, ruin — and murder. And maybe open revolt."
Mon Triomphe, January recalled, was Fourchet's other plantation. When Fourchet had sold Bellefleur — years after January, his mother, and his younger sister had been sold and freed — the planter had gone there permanently. It lay upriver in Ascension Parish, some twenty miles southeast of Baton Rouge. Twenty miles, that is, if you wanted to hack your way through cypress swamps and untamed woodland, instead of journeying twice the distance in half the time via steamboat on the river.
Forty-two years ago — in 1793, the year of January's birth — Fourchet had managed Mon Triomphe himself and left Bellefleur in the care of his brother-in-law Gervase Duhamel, only returning there after the grueling hell of the roulaison — the sugar-grinding — was done. Bellefleur had lain close to the small, walled city of New Orleans, to which Fourchet brought his Spanish wife and their two children every year for the Carnival season. They lived in the big house at Bellefleur for the weeks between Twelfth Night and Easter; entertained guests there, something impossible in the isolated fastnesses of Ascension Parish. St.-Denis Janvier, who had eventually bought January's mother, had been one of those guests.
In 1798, when January was five, there'd been a slave revolt on Mon Triomphe. It may have been fueled by rumor, hope, and the example of Christophe's rebellion in the island of Saint-Domingue, though the aunts and uncles and cousins whose cabins January had played in said that it started when a drunken Fourchet beat a young girl to death. Fourchet's wife and daughter died under the machetes of the infuriated slaves. The revolt was crushed, of course, but after that Fourchet sent his sister and her husband to Mon Triomphe, and ran Bellefleur himself.
"It began with a fire in the sugar-mill." Fourchet's harsh voice summoned January back to the present, back to the grim-faced man sitting in his mother's yellow chintz chair drinking coffee, while he himself stood. "We hadn't started harvest yet — you lose half your sugar if you cut too soon — and the hands were still bringing in wood from the cipriere. My sugar-boss managed to get the fire put out, but the beams that held the grinders were damaged. They broke two days later, and that put us back another week. Men found voodoo-marks in the mill, on the sugar carts and the mule harness. The cart axles were sawn, the harness cut, or rubbed with turpentine and pepper. The whole of the main work-gang was poisoned one day, purging and puking and useless."
"And I suppose you put the women out to cut?" said January quietly. "Sir," he added, as he had been taught — as he nowadays had to force himself to remember to say, after sixteen years in Paris of saying "sir" to no one who did not merit it.
Fourchet's dark eyes flashed. "What the hell do you think? We had to get the harvest in, damn you, boy."
"Let M'sieu Fourchet finish his story, Ben," chided his mother, and Fourchet swung around on her with a flaying glare.
Then after a moment he looked back at January. "Yes," he said. "I put the women's gang to cutting the cane as well as hauling it, and kept most of the second gang in the mill. They know what they're doing with the fires. Fool women put 'em out raking the ashes, and smother 'em putting in wood and every other damn thing. We couldn't lose a day, not with the frost coming. You know that, or you should."
January knew. Can't-see to can't-see, they'd said in the quarters. The men shivered in the morning blackness as they started their work, and again as they returned from the fields with the sweat crusted on their bodies, once it became so dark their own hands and arms and bodies were in peril from the sharp heavy blades. He remembered loading cane onto the carts by torchlight, and the constant fear he'd step on a snake in the shadows among the cane-rows, or find one had coiled itself into the cut cane. Remembered how the babies cried, laid down by their mothers at the edge of the field, to be suckled when they had a chance. Remembered the men's silence as they stumbled back with the final loads of the day, and how it felt to know that there would be no rest. Only hours more work unloading the heavy stalks at the mill, feeding the dripping sticky billets with their razor-sharp ends into the turning iron maw of the grinder. Remembered exhaustion, and the sickening smell of the cane-juice and the smoke and the burnt-sweet stink of the boiling sugar.
Cold meals and provision grounds gone to weeds and the cabin filthy, hearth piled high with ashes and walls surrounded with trash. He and his sister itching with lice and driven nearly frantic by bedbugs at night because their mother had no time to wage the slave's endless battle against those pests. His mother falling asleep sitting in the doorway, too tired to undress and go to bed.
"Yes, sir," he told Fourchet. "I know."
"Then you should know how devastating this kind of thing can be at such a time. And it's not the first time. God knows blacks are always doing one thing and another to get out of work. Breaking tools, or crippling a mule or a horse. You'd think they'd have the sense to know that a poor harvest will only hurt them in the end, but of course they don't."
No, thought January, silent. Sometimes they didn't. Sometimes when you were that tired and that angry you didn't think very straight. When he was a child he'd wanted to kill Fourchet, after the man had flogged Mohammed, the plantation blacksmith's apprentice, nearly to death in one of his fits of drunken rage. Remembered how the drivers had untied the slim youth's body from the post and dropped him to the ground in the stableyard, and how the flies had swarmed around the bloodied meat of his back. Mohammed was a favorite of the children — the hogmeat gang, as they were called — a storyteller and a singer of songs. January had wanted to kill Fourchet and even at the time had known that if the big man died, at least a couple of the slaves would end up being sold to pay debts while the man's son was still a young boy. Maybe all of them.
And he'd known then, for the first time, that taste of helpless fear, the awareness that some things had to be endured for the sake of the slender and priceless good that endurance bought you. Being in hell wasn't as bad as it might be, if you could sit with your family in the hot dark of summer nights, listen to the crickets and the soft sweet wailing of singing along the street of the quarters, in those short lapis hours between supper and bed.
The thought of losing that — even that — was usually enough to make a man or a woman think twice about open revolt.
Still he said nothing. But he felt as if the whole core of him had shrunk and cured to a rod of iron, ungiving and utterly cold.
"Then yesterday morning the servants found Gilles, my butler, dead in the storeroom under the house." Fourchet's mouth hardened. "Beside him was a bottle of liquor, cognac. My cognac. The cellaret in the dining room was unlocked, the keys lying beside Gilles's hand."
Bitter hatred froze the old planter's face as he gazed unseeing at the bright slim slat of Rue Burgundy visible beyond the window louvers, remembering whatever sight it was that he had been brought down to see.
"Livia will have told you I used to drink," he said. "And that when I drank, it was as if there was a devil in me."
"My mother never spoke of you, sir," replied January, and the dark eyes slashed in his direction again, then cut toward the straight cool figure in the yellow muslin, sipping her cafe creme. But since January hadn't actually said, What makes you think she gave you a moment's thought after she wiped your spunk off her legs and went about her business? there was nothing with which Fourchet could take issue.
"Just as well. I'd like to say that all the evil in my life sprang from drink, but I don't think even that's true." He took a cigar from his pocket, bit off the end with carnivorous-looking teeth. "For eight months now I have not tasted a drop. Nor will I. But I've spoken of this to no one. Only my wife knows of my decision to put it out of my life, to make some reparation for the harm I've caused. Not so very long ago poisoning my liquor would have been the quickest way to get shut of me." He was silent again, as if he expected praise or admiration for this abstinence — as if every slave on Bellefleur hadn't known to stay out of the master's way when he'd been at the bottle. As if even the scullery maid hadn't held him in fear-filled contempt.
"Well, it's clear to me what's going on this time." The planter shook his head. "I don't think it's revolt — they're taking too goddam long over it. No — someone's set out to destroy my land. To destroy me." His hands balled into fists upon his knees, his face like a storm-scarred stone.
From the Paperback edition.