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FRENCH WEST INDIES, ISLAND OF MARTINIQUE, 1785-1860
Sitting here under this grand old tree, her skirts spread about her in a wheel. The blue cloth carries up the earth in light red dust and so the earth is part of her cloth. The children come. They lay their cheeks against it, now that they've had their midday maize. They cast their eyes up at her, waiting for a story.
A hot breeze stirs the long grasses and the broad leaves that shade them. It makes a whistling noise in the high arc of branches and hushes for a moment the whirring of the insects. She brushes those tender plump cheeks with her rough old fingers. She tells them of the one-eyed dog and the three-legged cat. The gourd that ate a man and kept him prisoner, until it rolled into the ocean and was broken by a sea-goddess. Of the sugar estate that grew people, the cloud boats, the toads that wore clothing, and many other things.
She has more than eighty years, she knows. Among her people few live even half as long as she. These little children are among the first born out of bondage. But as their mamans must work the fields, they still need Mémé Abeje, and so she goes on living.
Darkness lay close around the child, save for the light of the cooking fire and the canopy of stars.
"Abeje!" called Iya, stepping out of the hut and closer to the firelight. "Where is yourbrother?"
The little girl had been charged, for the moment, with looking after the cooking pot, but had become distracted, playing at throwing twigs into the embers. She stood up and pointed at the foliage that edged the Quarters.
"To-to, Ma'a," she said. Iya laughed, scooping up the child and setting her on her lap as she sat down at the fire. The boy had gone to pass water.
The boy returned and crouched beside Iya. He smiled up at her, showing the gaps where his milk teeth had newly fallen out.
To Abeje, Iya's face was the most beautiful thing. She and her brother Adunbi hardly saw her in daylight. Iya's arms wound around them and Abeje soaked up the humming her voice made, and her dry-grass smell every night before sleeping. When the fire was out and it was too dark to see, she reached up and touched Iya's face. Her fingers traced the two grooves on her broad cheeks. Each had two shorter grooves springing off to the side, like the sticks for threshing grain. The grooves were smooth, like river water carved into stone. These were the marks of her people.
Iya's voice was high and sweet like a bird. Every night she named the fire, and the children said after her, "Fire!" She named the cooking pot, and they cried, "Pot!" Iya named their feet, the ground, the food, and she named her two children, Adunbi and Abeje.
Adunbi already knew Iya's counting song, the one they sang with dancing fingers. Abeje followed the movements with her hands, stumbling over the words she longed to master. Each finger had a name in the song. The thumb was a fat man with a big belly. Iya said Adunbi had six threshing seasons and Abeje had four. Then Iya held the children on her lap, as she always did, and sang their other songs, quietly, to make them go to sleep.
This night, after they had eaten, Iya untied a corner of her sash and brought out a handful of colored stones and seashells. She got them while at the bay by the sugar estate when she and other women were helping bring in the shrimp and the conch. It was for Young Monsieur's wedding party, the conches for the feast. It was rare that any hands were spared from the cane fields, and even rarer for Iya to touch the Sea, or have anything pretty to bring them.
Abeje was entranced at once with the treasure hunt, and from then on searched for little stones all across the sugar estate. The older people laughed and said that she scratched and pecked like a hen. Now and then one of them would say, "Come, ptit," and slip into her palm a little gem that they themselves had found. Some stones were black, some yellow or white. Once Abeje found a shell in the dust of wagon tracks, far from its salt-bed of the Sea. She rubbed it against her dress, and under the red dust it was pink and smooth, with a blue line that spun a tight spiral on the top. Iya made small holes in the ground by the fire and showed the children a game with the stones, scooping them up and dropping them round and round, one by one like single drops of rain. They dropped Abeje's new shell there. They sang the words that were the names of numbers.
Abeje learned more than numbers. She learned that Iya was also once a child, and that when she was a girl, they stole her away from the Old Land, a place far away. Iya was carried over the Big Sea all the way to the Island, and so she was called a saltwater slave. There were other saltwater slaves on the sugar estate, but none spoke the tongue of Iya, and so she spoke it only to her two children. These were their first words, their language before they learned Creole.
Abeje loved Iya's stories about her village. It was not like the sugar estate. There Iya had her Iya and Baba and brothers and sisters, and though there were chiefs and elders, none were Monsieur nor slave. Abeje understood that in the village there were also a great many animals. There were plants and spirits. The animals spoke as people, and tricked or aided one another. Some were very silly and some very shrewd, some were brave and some too proud. Abeje supposed that it was a pack of wild dogs that had captured Iya near her village, and carried her off to their cruel béké King, and took her so far away from her home that she could never go back again.
Adunbi asked Iya one night, "Where is our Baba?"
Abeje stared at him. It had never occurred to her that they had a Baba. The vague form of a tall, broad man took shape in the back of her mind. She looked up at Iya, and then felt terribly afraid, because she saw tears start from her eyes, and spill down her cheeks to meet under her chin. Iya made not a sound, then at last she whispered, "Stolen away." The children did not ask her more.
Abeje's favorite story was about herself and her brother, and she asked Iya to tell it over and over again. In this story, Abeje was a baby and her brother was just weaned. She was playing at the edge of a cane field, when a snake dropped upon her from a clump of shrubs above. Adunbi took up a stick in his small hand and drove it away. Iya heard him shouting and ran to them. She found him shouting at the snake to keep away. He didn't want comfort, but raised the stick and threatened the snake, who was surely far away by then. Adunbi shone with pride when Iya told this story, and Abeje sucked in her breath so with admiration that it flew out again with a great "Pah!" Then they would all laugh.
Iya told Adunbi that Abeje was his to protect. They had no Baba to protect them, feed them, clothe them, teach them. All this Iya had to do by herself, with the crumbs from the Monsieurs' table. Adunbi nodded, his sister was his charge, his face so serious that Iyalaughed.
One day an older, light-sknned girl, Lise, took Abeje up to pull weeds in the kitchen garden of the Great House, saying that Marie was now old enough to work. But Lise was in a hurry and Abeje had to run to keep up. She kept her eyes on the dusty hem of Lise's skirt, and the feet that flashed out beneath, as they sped up the path.
Adunbi had gone to help two of the big boys with the pigs and the hens. In the garden of the House all who spoke to Abeje called her Girl or else they called her Marie. Her brother they called Guillaume. And so Guillaume and Marie followed orders and worked the long day, and then Adunbi and Abeje went to sleep at night with their Iya.
That first day Abeje felt so alone without her brother. She sat on her little heels in the dust between the rows of green plants, taking out the smaller plants Lise said were weeds. Abeje drove a sharp stick into the earth at the base of the little plants, as Lise had shown her, and pulled with the other hand at the stems. The roots tumbled out with a shower of soil, sending little insects scurrying, and the plants began to wither. She felt them shiver, as if each uttered the tiniest of cries when separated from the earth. She looked at the green strands laid over her palms, and said with a voice from deep inside, "Adu, the weeds are crying." And then, as if he were really there, she heard him answer, Never mind, Beje.
The second day Abeje discovered that she could still be with her brother, even when she was somewhere else. She knew it when a horse nipped her brother's finger, and when the groom, who was in charge of the barns and stables, boxed the ears of a boy next to Adunbi, for letting one of the pigs loose. And Adunbi knew things too, about Abeje, such as the fear that filled her when Lise came down the garden path in a blaze to gather broad beans for supper. Lise whispered to Abeje that Young Monsieur was angry again. Young Madame was ill from childbirth, that was the reason. Abeje and Adunbi didn't yet know why they feared Monsieur. Neither of them was ever close enough to him to even see the color of his hair.
Until their last night with Iya.
Abeje woke from sleep when the tread of heavy boots shook the ground. She had been dreaming. Lise was running down the garden path shouting, Young Monsieur is coming! Young Monsieur is coming! Now the silhouette of a man crowded the doorway of the hut. A lantern illuminated the strands of his hair. They stuck out from his head like straw.
The others in the hut stirred.
"I want the wenches up," said Young Monsieur.
The girls and women got to their feet, including Iya.
He held the lantern closer to them and then with his free hand pointed at Iya.
"Come out," he said.
Adunbi made to follow Iya but she hissed at the children in their language, "Stay here!" Abeje froze. Adunbi wrapped his arms tight around her, and though they could not see or hear her, they felt their mother. Abeje struggled to breathe, a hand had closed over her face, the sound of a heart beating thundered in her ears, and a monstrous flash of anger tore at her throat. It was Iya, her back arched, the muscles hardening like stone, and with all her strength she pushed away the heavy shoulders that bore down on her.
A brilliant pain.
The sound of boots running off.
Abeje began screaming. The others in the hut flew out the doorway and many others ran by. There was fire from where Young Monsieur dropped his lantern, and soon many people rushed there to stamp it out.
"He has killed her!" someone shouted.
"Holy One!" wailed another.
"There is his knife!"
"Bring it to Monsieur, he will know who has done it."
"He will know it by its handle, the ivory."
Adunbi jumped up, pulling Abeje by the hand out of the hut. A cluster of men leaned over something and together picked it up, then hurried away in the direction of the Great House. Adunbi followed, and Abeje ran after him, her feet striking many wet places on the ground.
The crescent moon hung like a white blade in the black sky, cutting the path to the Great House, to the dooryard where clumps of flowers gave out a heavy, sweet smell that turned Abeje's stomach. She put her hands down on the earth and crouched low. She was conscious of more shouting, and then of large arms gathering her up, carrying her, a heart beating low, and long legs beneath, bearing her back in the direction of the Quarters.
The man who carried her brought her back to the hut and told her to stay there, but she became frantic.
"Ma'a!" she wailed, and wept so piteously that he begged her to quiet, until Adunbi appeared and held her again. The man went away, toward where people were still shouting.
"Shh, Beje," Adunbi said.
Finally when Abeje could speak she asked her brother where their mother was.
"She is sleeping," he said. "I saw them carrying her."
It was a very strange idea, that their mother should be sleeping at such a time, that Abeje nearly laughed. But then, as dread overcame her, she knew that everything was terribly wrong.
Now the people were going toward the Burying Place and Adunbi pulled Abeje's hand so they could follow. Adunbi pointed to a cluster of men laying something down and said, "Iya is there." Several others were busy digging a great hole in the earth.
Someone began singing and other voices joined in.
Back to the dust Coming over the mountains Like a crawling snake My heart is in a hurry My feet don't walk
Abeje clung to Adunbi, smelling the broken earth. She wanted to tell Adunbi to wake Iya, but she feared to upset him. Abeje stayed quiet, even when they laid Iya down in the deep hole, folded her arms across her breast, and covered her.
The people stood by, some sang, some wept and swayed. An old woman raised her hands up and declared, "Holy One deal with him!"
And all answered, "Hear it now."
The woman's eyes stayed on the sky, the last stars. Tears fell over her cheeks and she said, "Sister gone on, fly away to home." Abeje felt the wind whip her skin. She held tighter to her brother and felt his body shaking.
"Hear it now," said all.
"Mercy on her children ..."
"Hear it now."
Old Joseph came carrying a large clay cooking pot. Old Joseph had much grey in his hair, though his shoulders were still broad, and he was lame in one leg. He worked up at the stables grooming the horses, mending harnesses, and fixing carriage wheels. Abeje once heard the older people say that an overseer had made example of him for eating a piece of sugarcane, when he was young. Joseph never walked right after that. He had to swing the whole weight of the lame leg forward to take one step, and then jump forward with the other.
Now he raised the clay pot high into the air, and swiftly brought it down on a stone, where it broke into many pieces. One by one the people placed the shards onto the grave. The dawn came slowly. Abeje heard the tolling of the work bell, ringing as if this day were like any other. Soon she and Adunbi were left alone on the grave mound. They lay so still that vultures circled over. They could not be separated from that place.
By nightfall Abeje's mouth was so dry she couldn't swallow. Adunbi took her hand and they found their way back to the Quarters. As they crouched by a fire someone gave them a gourd of water. Someone else set a bowl of maize porridge before them. They looked up and saw Old Joseph. His mouth was set in a bitter line and the firelight glinted in his eyes.
"Nyam," he said, "eat." When they made no move toward the bowl, he said again "Eat!" so fiercely they dared not disobey. From that day on Old Joseph kept them by his side at the cooking fire, feeding them of his own meager rations. Others, when they could, gave them a bit of vegetable, salt-fish or potato.
Despite the care of the old man, in the time after Iya, the children were lost. Abeje waited for Iya to return, to wake at last from her earthen bed, but she didn't come and so the sun no longer rose. Abeje's terror grew and she began to see her brother behave in strange ways. His eyes, before so clear and bright, became clouded. His fresh, alert expression, confused. He sometimes sat in the hut at night, hugging his knees and rocking back and forth, or he wandered in circles around the cooking fire. Old Joseph could make Adunbi eat, but could not otherwise reach him. When Adunbi fluttered around the fire like a moth, Old Joseph would pat the ground beside him and say to Abeje, "Come, ptit. Come sit by." Abeje would creep toward him, to lean a little against his heavy side.
One day Lise brought Abeje with her to help carry a set of baskets to one of the barns, where some women were working. A bat came loose from the rafters and tried to attack them. The creature was mad, they knew because it came out in the daylight. It would sicken and kill anyone it chanced to bite. The bat flew frantically to and fro, circling in the rafters, hypnotizing Abeje until Lise dragged her outside by the hand. The bat was like Adunbi when he circled the fire, shaking his hands, not knowing where he went. At last the women beat it from the air with their brooms and buried it in a hole.
When Abeje woke in the night to find her brother sitting up and rocking, she threw her arms around his neck and cried. Slowly he would become still, his arms would unwind from his knees and encircle her instead, and no women came to beat him with brooms.
Now and then when Adunbi was away, and when she was not pulling weeds at the Great House, Abeje still looked for colored stones. She began to venture into a little grove of shrubs and trees near the Quarters, wondering what lay behind that green curtain. It was a different place. The plants were unlike those in the Great House garden, where the green things grew tame and limp, and unlike the cane fields where the cane stalks bent together in the wind. The shrubs and trees and vines of the Grove grew in a great mix-up, threading roots and branches together with leaves that rattled or caught pools of water or pierced other leaves with spines. Birds hopped and called and argued like women. Insects hummed and bore tiny trails.
Abeje liked to sit among the shrubs with the small golden flowers. There was something about them that reminded her of Iya, her dry-grass smell. One day Abeje collected a handful of the tiny flowers. She brought them to her nose and sniffed them, longing for Iya. As the smell faded she began eating them, crushing the golden petals and the green hearts with her teeth, tasting a sourness on her tongue. When the flowers were gone she looked for more, even though they had begun to burn at her throat, pricking like pins in her belly, and making her sleepy. Soon she forgot them and wandered away, toward other flowers.
Excerpted from "House of Rougeaux"
Copyright © 2018 Jenny Jaeckel.
Excerpted by permission of Raincloud Press.
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.
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Nelie & Azzie 81