"A Million Nightingales"

In an excerpt from Susan Straight's new novel, a mixed-race slave girl tries to outwit her captors.


Susan Straight
March 18, 2006 4:46PM (UTC)

Even as the new Msieu spoke, not looking at us, the new slaves, but at his own hand moving over the paper as he wrote, I didn't listen.

I don't belong to you. My mother always said I didn't belong to the old Msieu, and I wouldn't belong to God until I died. I belong to her. I am hers.

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"What is your name?"

We stood in the yard between the kitchen and the house. The wind had grown colder as we came further north from New Orleans and the Barataria, where he'd gone to Lafitte to buy the stolen Africans. He said we were near Opelousas now. The trees here were bare of leaves, their branches dark as though burned.

"Can you speak any French?" the new Msieu called out.

None of the Africans answered.

The new Msieu sat down at a wooden table. He took papers from his coat and spread them out. He wrote January 19, 1811.

"Athenaise is your name," he said, toward the first African. "Sometimes they learn words on the ship," he said, turning toward a driver on a horse, a man with a sparse red beard like ants on his cheeks. "Not this group. So expensive. I even had to buy the chains from Lafitte," he said.

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"Athenaise." The finger stabbed the air before the first African. "Athenaise." Then the finger moved sideways, to direct the African to shuffle slightly nearer the driver.

"Gervaise. Apollonaise. Helaise. Livaudaise." Each time, his finger stabbed toward a face, then tore sideways through the air.

A white woman stepped outside now. Her dress was calico, fine figures not faded by too much washing. Not as fancy as the old Madame.

She swung her head slowly around to each figure in the yard, peered toward the backs of the leaving men. "I heard you say Lafitte. You went to Lafitte, the privateer?"

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He said dismissively, "For the Africans. Not the girl. She was nearly given to me, south of New Orleans."

Given to him. The old Msieu had not wanted to see my face again, after his daughter died. His child was gone. My mother's child would disappear, too.

He pointed at me. "I don't like African names. But certainly you are not African."

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I was half Bambara. He knew nothing. He didn't know I could read a little.

The Madame said, "What can you do?" She sounded as if she were choosing cloth. "How old are you?"

"Fourteen, madame," I said. The small Msieu's pen scratched again.

If I said washing and ironing, what my mother had taught me, I would stand every day in this yard. I would smell someone else's soap, not my mother's, and hear someone else's words at my ear, and I would never be able to run from the closeness of this yard.

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"The field," I said.

He had already written Creole mulatresse, 14.

His finger drew the same slanting line toward the driver. "Name?"

"Moinette," I said.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

A blanket, a bowl and spoon made from gourd, and a cape. That was what the woman named Sophia handed me. She said, "You from south? Past New Orleans? Get cold here. Cold and ice." She showed me how the hood lifted up, for when wind scoured the fields.

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Hers was the second house on the street that ran down le quartier. Across the barnyard was the drivers' house - Mirande and Baillo, fox-haired brothers from France. "One sleep, one ride all night keep a eye on us," Sophia said.

Inside Sophia's door was a front room: a fireplace, a table and three chairs. In the back room were six wooden sleeping shelves, two on each wall.

Sophia put her hands up to her face and rubbed. Her fingers disappeared in the hair at her forehead. "Why they put you here with me? So tired. I don't have time for someone else."

I didn't belong to her, either, so I didn't answer. I held my apron in my lap, my fingers on my mother's stitches.

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Two girls entered, picking splinters from their skirts.

"All that wood we carried," the smaller one said.

Sophia said, "This Fronie. She ten. She mine."

"Fantine," the older girl said. "I my own."

Sophia heated water in the fireplace and poured it into a washtub. "You wash. Moinette. Don't want bugs in here."

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"I don't have bugs."

"You got something."

I had my bundle - my apron tied around the coffee beans and clothespins my mother had handed me that morning for my work in the house, before the old Msieu's daughter died, before he sold me. She gave me coffee beans before she knew I would disappear as if drowned, taken away by the river.

I pushed my apron to the far corner of my sleeping shelf. I didn't know yet who stole here. When I took off my dress, sand fell like sugar around my feet.

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"Yellow girl," Fronie said. "What color your blood?"

I pushed myself down into the hot water. Then I bit at my thumb until the red dripped to my palm and held it out so they could see.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The next week, men in pirogues brought moss. They left the boats, piled high with gray tangles meant for mattresses.

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We walked from the fields. Sophia said, "They say two men argue with Msieu up there, bring all that moss to sell, but Msieu tell them cure it first and bring it back. My people too busy for moss."

It was my turn to grind our corn. I took my other dress off the peg, rolled it with my clothespins into a bundle and tied it to me with my apron strings. I wrapped the bag of corn into my cape, turning away from Fantine.

I walked behind the privies, to the narrow ditch where they were perched. The ditch ran to the little bayou in Msieu's woods. The smell of our leavings was strong.

At the bayou, a smaller pirogue trailed behind the larger. I got in, untied the rope, hunched myself into the moss up to my waist. It was high enough to hide me if someone saw the boat. The sun was hot red in the trees. I picked up the paddle. The pirogue slid fast down the narrow bayou.

I needed a story. Someone would see me, someone would have to take me south, and I would have to tell a story. Or pay with my own skin, with what all the men wanted, to get back to New Orleans.

The trees were lit from behind as if on fire. No one would be looking for me yet. The moss-sellers were having coffee with Msieu and Madame now.

The water pulled me of its own strength, until the sun disappeared as if it had died. The boat moved of its own accord - black air, black water, and I was invisible.

When I was this afraid, as when the old Msieu's daughter had stopped breathing after the doctor removed the leech, when he forced me off the landing into the new Msieu's boat, my heart hurt so badly that there must be a tear, a gash. Did the heart repair itself? Were the scars raised and shiny like those on our skins?

The boat moved for a long time, until I was afraid to keep floating in the dark, not knowing where I was headed. I saw a caved-in place in the bank, where roots dangled. I held on tight to a root, listening to evening birds in the branches. Finally my stomach beat hard with hunger. I put three dried corn kernels in my mouth, trying to cook them with my saliva. Hot liquid. I was an animal now.

Then I felt the rope. A rope was looped around my neck.

Crime against God. I couldn't breathe. They would kill me and then punish my body.

The rope scratched my throat, pulled from behind. I tried to hold the sides of the pirogue. No one would punish my body. It wasn't theirs. It belonged to my mother. Then God. I rolled over the side of the boat into the bayou.

The rope went slack. I worked my fingers between it and my skin. But the water pulled me, too. My eyes opened. I breathed the water through my nose. The water in my hair, like floating in Mamere's washtub when I was small.

Wood hit me on the back. Then my hair was pulled hard, my dress, my arm wrenched. I was in a boat.

An Indian man. His fingers twisted my hair to turn me back onto my stomach, and he put a foot on my back. His eyes were black as pot bottoms. He was the same man who had brought back Athenaise. He tied my feet to a ring set in the bottom of the boat and put his rifle over his legs and began to paddle again.

After a long time, we entered a smaller bayou through a tunnel of water oaks and cypress. The pirogue stopped at a raft of cypress trunks. Beyond them was a clearing, where a man in a boat pointed a long rifle toward the sky, but stared at eight black men up to their waists in murky water, swinging axes in the cypress trees. They were lit by his torch.

The Indian whistled.

The man swung around. Reddish beard and blackened teeth when he grinned. A crushed hat, a smear of mud around his eyes like raccoon, but the fingers holding the gun were white.

"A favorable expedition, I see," he shouted.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I had never heard a voice like his. Rolling and slurring. He spoke English.

The white man said, "Where did you run from, dear?"

I sat on the ground in front of a low shed with four doors. An Indian woman said something in another language to the Indian man. She held a rifle of her own, and nodded toward the black men who had walked up from the swamp.

The white man said, "I don't want to hear those guttural Indian words, Sally."

"I didn't run. I belong to Msieu De La Rosiere," I said, trying to remember all the English words. I hadn't spoken English in a long time. "He sent me to gather moss."

"Rosiere is north by five miles or so," the man said. "Sure there are plenty of trees close to there for moss. You see, Joseph finds people when they run. Not when they gather moss for a few hours."

He slanted his head to study my dress, my hands. Bayou mud clung to my face and neck. "You've been working in the fields, dear. What else can you do?"

I didn't answer. I waited for him to hit me or tear my dress.

"Tie her up, then, Joseph," he said to the Indian man. "If she just ran last night, they won't have been looking long."

They left me chained to a ring in the first room, the wooden door propped open. The Indian woman left a dish of boiled corn near me, as if for a dog. After a time, I smelled meat. Eight men sat around the cooking fire. The tallest -- his back with grin-scar on one shoulder, fleur-de-lis on his other. Athenaise.

The Indian woman came in. Her hair was straight, to her shoulders, and a faint line was tattooed from each corner of her mouth to her jaw, like a strange dripping of blue.

She brought me back toward the fire and chained me to a post. Athenaise kept his eyes on the flames, the only man not staring at me.

"Have you decided what it is you're good for, dear?" The white man threw animal bones into the fire.

When I didn't speak, he said, "I left Ireland with nothing, dear, just as you ran with nothing today. But now I own this little enterprise. Sally, though, isn't the best of cooks. And as she's my legal wife, I can't really let her sell her other useful wares. But a bright girl like you, on the other hand, could make yourself comfortable here. You're meant for one thing. All these men are working for money, to buy themselves freedom. We take them to New Orleans when they've earned it. Work for a year, and you'll be free to go. The men can pay you. I'll deduct it from their wages, dear."

The Indian woman spat into the fire.

The white man's boots were black with mud, like a second skin over the leather. He drank from a flask. I had to gamble. It would be safer to tell him a story away from the other men.

"I can tell you inside," I said softly. He motioned to the Indian woman. She led me back into his room. He shut the door and chained me to the rings.

"Don't think to try anything brilliant," he said.

The smell of alcohol wafted from his skin, and the burned meat on his fingers.

"Msieu de la Rosiere bought me in New Orleans, just a while ago," I said. "I'm a -" What was the English word?

"You're a high yellow thing," he said softly.

"Cadeau," I said. "Gift. A gift for his son, when he returns from Paris."

"A slave can't ever be free from the master." His voice was soft and reasonable.

"But if you work hard, you can be free here."

Behind him, the Indian woman shook her head slightly, twice.

I said, "Take me back, and he will pay you. I wasn't running, just gathering moss and got lost. I left my jewelry and my good dresses at Rosiere. I am not to wear them until I am given as the gift."

He swallowed again from the flask and flicked at my dress with his walking stick. "You'd be better off here. The men will pay you. They won't argue."

Then he dropped the empty flask and said loudly, far too loudly for our conversation, "I'm first. And then everyone else can pay."

He wanted the other men to hear.

He put his head down to study the opening to his trousers, and the Indian woman named Sally came up behind him and pulled a sash around his neck. She tightened it quickly, and he fell to the floor. She pulled him to the bed, and his mouth sagged open like dead fish. She slid the sash from under his throat, and he drew in a huge shuddering breath and remained unconscious.

But she backed herself into the wall near the bed and knocked against it, grunting and moving against the wood. Her face was as blank as if she were grinding corn. She screamed.

Then one man laughed outside, and one spoke in a murmur low and long, and I knew what she was doing. The men thought they heard his pleasure. They thought their turn would come tomorrow.

She unlocked the chain. Then she opened the door, holding the rifle, and motioned to the men at the dying fire. They breathed heavily and one said, "Not time for sleep yet," but she pointed the rifle at him. They filed into the other room, and she fastened the huge padlocks on the door.

One man cursed inside, and another whispered like boiling water.

When we had walked silently, far into the cipriere on a narrow path, she took a candle from her pocket and lit it. Her eyes were so black that the small flame danced in her pupils when she leaned toward me. After what he'd said about her, maybe she would kill me herself now.

Her throat worked and she spoke awkwardly in French, not English. "No one is free," she said. We stood near pools of dark water and huge cypress stumps, some so old their centers had collapsed into hollows. No one had been back here for a long time -- the brush caught at my skirts, and she slashed at vines with her rifle.

"Jamais," she said. Never. "Never free." She pointed to the ground, and then held up eight fingers.

In the trembling circle of candlelight, the earth was rucked up in places. Footsteps of a giant who'd traveled in the woods. A water god.

I bent closer, and saw an edge of cloth.

Graves.

The Irish man pretended to take the men to New Orleans when they'd worked long enough, but he killed them here. Her voice was flat and harsh. "Two years of work. Then he cut with the knife." She ran her fingernail across my throat. "No shot. No one hears. My brother hunts for new ones."

The Indian man stepped out of the trees, and I screamed. She moved forward so quickly that the candle caught the edges of my hair, and she clapped her hand over my mouth.

"No, no," she whispered. "No screams."

She took her hand away. "No other woman. I know to work him." She put her finger on her own chest.

I spat the burnt-hair taste from my mouth. "Why do you stay?"

She leaned close to me, breath of clear water, somehow sweet. He is my husband. He has papers. My uncle sold my brother for a slave, but he gave me for a wife. We cannot go. Our names are on the papers. We go to jail."

Her brother came forward, holding a piece of cloth and a rope.

She said, "My brother take you back for gold. And I say to my husband that you ran." She pulled my wrist up. "I want gold money. For me. For New Orleans." When I tried to talk, she sliced the cloth into my open mouth, tying it tight behind my head. "Don't run again. Money is you."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The drivers, Mirande and Baillo, left both pieces of cloth tied. I couldn't see the doorways, but heard people gathering. No one was cooking yet. The only fire I smelled was the one behind me.

I heard the ringing ache of iron in the coals. I made myself see my mother's fireplace.

"The old man said lightly," Mirande murmured behind me. "Don't hold it hard as for the African. Didn't teach him anything."

I heard it only as a falling away of ash. A sparkle.

Then I tasted black, saw black, felt the sear on my shoulder. Blacksmith. Molten. Red in my throat.

Sophia's sharp fingers took my wrist. She tied a piece of salt pork on the burn, using the cloth from my mouth, wrapping it under my arm, over my shoulder. "That was my meat," she whispered in my ear. "On your shoulder now."

In the field, my hoe moved the earth in rows around the cane. The sweat dripped in my eyes. Salt. Sea water. Salt meat melting on my skin. Meat tied to meat.

I lay on my shelf, and blood rushed to the burn and then rushed away. So hot. A steam burn on Mamere's forearm, from a kettle -- then after a week, the whole piece of dried skin lifted off, thin and crackling.

Leather.

Underneath the burn, Mamere's skin had been pink as a puppy tongue. I seized her arm to look. Every day, more etching appeared, new skin tinted with smoke and dirt -- with the very air -- until that large oval was only a bit lighter than the rest of Mamere.

I didn't know what my skin did, at the burn. Under my shift, it dried and the skin fell off, the fleur-de-lis crumpled into flakes of my body that disappeared into the canerows.

Mamere was wrong.

I belonged to anyone who could catch me or buy me. But I would never love anyone, and no one would love me but her. I knew each night and morning, her fierce African prayers rose and drifted into the water, the rivers and bayous and the rain, and stayed damp in my hair.


Susan Straight

Susan Straight is the author of "A Million Nightingales," "Take One Candle Light a Room," and "Between Heaven and Here."

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