I am haunted by two things: Maman’s death and Papa’s lies.
Having been firstborn I was doted on by Maman and women for most of my childhood. Unfortunately, Papa was not around often enough to put a stop to such goings-on or my life might have turned out differently.
I called her Maman as she was French, though she had lived in Savannah, Georgia, after her parents escaped the Troubles in France. “Troubles” was the only way Maman and my uncle referred to their mysterious childhoods in that country. We never met our grandparents, from either side.
Maman said I had a too active imagination. She had no idea how right she was because “Troubles” and “childhoods” went together with both her and Papa’s family to conjure all sorts of scary thoughts in my head. Would these Troubles affect me? My sister? Us here in our house? Who were these mysterious grandparents who had Troubles? They must be terrible Troubles because no one would speak of them.
Our people, which is what Papa called them, were polite and quick to answer my questions, calling me, “young marse” or “little master.” But they had no answers about the Troubles.
Then Maman taught me how to count, and counting things made me feel safer. Naming things made me sure of them. I counted the rooms upstairs and the rooms downstairs. I counted chairs and sofas in the rooms and chairs on the porch. I became sure of Maman’s love. Of the safety of my bed in the nursery with my little stuffed dog.
Maman told me more about the thing: “I brought this with me from Savannah or, “This used to belong to my maman and I shall keep it always.” Some things were so beautiful I looked at them again and again—and touched them, stroked them, carefully. They made me special, that the house I lived in included so many beautiful things. The things were almost always still there when I checked the next day. If not, I would have to find out why.
Maman showed me her sewing basket where she kept colored threads and buttons made of ivory, bone, silver, shell, porcelain and glass. I loved the words that went with such wonderful things and learned to print them in a book I kept on a desk made just for me in the nursery. My desk had a special carved place to hold the ink stand and one for the pen. Maman said I would learn patience by using that pen. She was correct. That pen spit ink before I got control of it.
I liked an enameled button with tiny blue flowers so Maman gave it to me, and this was the first of a collection I kept in a box beneath the bed I shared with Isaac. Isaac and I had always been together, sharing Betta’s milk, sharing Maman’s lap, sharing our bed. Was it any wonder I believed him my brother?
Maman also gave me a porcelain button of a pretty lady’s face to give to my sister. Maman said both buttons were from France, so now Bernadette and I had something from where Maman was born. Though I kept mine in a special closed box to be sure it did not bring any Troubles with it.
Every morning after breakfast I stood in the open doorway on the front porch and watched Papa and my big brother, Lucien, ride away with Marcus, our overseer. I was five that spring and would not be six until August. Lucien was fourteen and rode a big horse like Papa. Where did they go? They disappeared for a long time. All day. I did not want Papa to go. Sunday was the only day he stayed home.
No one said anything about flies that flew in when I left the door open, because when it was hot the double doors front and back were often left open to let air blow through. I had traced the cut glass leaves twining around the edge of one of the glass panes with my finger. There were eight panes in each door.
On a certain warm morning—I had learned it was spring and they rode south into the sun—I felt Maman’s hands on my shoulders.
“Where do they go, Maman?” I was squinting with my hand above my eyes. Our front porch faces pretty much southeast. This early, the sun streaks right under the eaves and into your face, especially when you are maybe three feet off the floor.
“We live on a tobacco plantation, Adrien, and tobacco takes work. All the people you see around us work in the tobacco fields or somewhere on this plantation. They take care of the animals, the buildings, and the crops we grow so we and the animals can eat. Every living thing has a part to play. ”
I turned and looked up at her. “What is my part?”
“You are too young to have a part. One day you will grow into your part, just as Isaac and Bernadette and Jules will. But that is many years away. Right now you must learn.”
Jules was my brother and smaller than me. Thank goodness somebody in this family was.
“But how do I learn if I do not know what my part is?”
“You must trust me and your Papa to teach you.” She lowered to the floor, her skirts ballooning. “Do you trust me and your Papa?”
“I love you so much, chérie.” Maman often used French words and taught me new ones every day. She hugged me and I hugged back as hard as I could because I loved her. I loved hugs, usually.
Papa did not hug. I watched Papa. I watched him from the back door on evenings when he returned to the porch with wet circles under the arms and back of his shirt. He tossed his wide-brimmed hat onto the hook on the wall and collapsed onto a chair while our house man, Simon, pulled off his mud-covered boots. Simon polished Papa’s boots every night. Lucien took the second chair and repeated everything Papa did. Papa removed his shirt and leaned over a metal tub, scrubbing with soap and splashing while Simon stood by with a towel. Papa sometimes turned his head, hair dripping, and winked at me. My heart leaped. Then Papa went upstairs to change, trailed by Lucien. Lucien did not hug either.
At breakfast and supper I watched Papa drink his coffee. I watched how he held his spoon and fork and knife when he sliced his food. I watched how Papa wiped his mouth with his napkin. I watched how he held Maman’s chair when she sat and when she rose from the table. Papa placed his hand ever so lightly against Maman’s back when they moved together and when they went upstairs. He opened doors for her and always let her enter a room first.
Papa’s head nearly reached the top of doorways. He would sometimes carry me on his broad shoulders. His long fingers tickled my ribs. Maman said Papa could have been an excellent piano player. Maman ought to know because she played the piano in the parlor nearly every afternoon and evening.
The sound of Papa’s voice drew me, as did the tread of his footsteps. Our people smiled and nodded, curtseyed and said, “yes, sir.” Visitors listened when Papa spoke, they shook his hand and women smiled, their eyes sparkling. Even Marcus, a tall man, himself, and bigger, stood slightly behind and to Papa’s left. Months and months passed and I never saw Papa lose his temper or raise his voice.
* * *
A whole year had passed since the last time I looked in the oval mirror in the nursery. The mirror stood on four clawed feet, like a cat’s, only bigger, so if I stood three feet back, I could see all of myself as well as the doorway and blue-striped wall. My hair and eyes were as black as Papa’s. My skin was almost like his, which is darker than Maman’s, but not nearly as dark as Isaac’s or Betta’s or many of the other people who lived at Blue Hills. I was much smaller than Papa. Maman said I would grow, but I was going to be seven soon and looked the same as last time when I was almost six.
“What are you doing?” Bernadette had walked up behind and looked back at me in the mirror. Her black hair and eyes matched mine, but she looked even less like Papa than I did. She looked like Maman because she was a girl, even though Maman’s hair was red-brown. I looked more like Bernadette than I did Papa. I should not look like a girl.
“Do you think we look like Papa?” I spoke softly so as not to wake two-year-old Jules, who slept in the crib. Though Ruth, Jules and Bernadette’s mammy, said Jules slept “sounder than her ole grannie Adeline.” Ruth was likely downstairs in the hall swapping tales with Simon, who sat in a special chair in the hall until “duty called.”
Bernadette made a funny ha, like a hiccup. “No-o-o. Papa’s a man and much bigger.” She raised her hands up high over her head but not high enough.
I spun to face her. “You are only thinking of size, Bernadette. Think of hair and noses and eyes and the rest.” Girls can be silly. But Bernadette is not as silly as girls who sometimes came visiting us with their families. They either sat about in silence or giggled at one another.
“Our hair and eyes are the same color, but my hair is longer and so is yours.”
“But I could cut mine like Papa’s.”
“That would upset Maman, and you still would not look like him.”
I huffed. My silly sister says true things which sometimes make me feel good and sometimes make me feel not so good. “I watch what Papa does and one day I will be just like him.”
“You mean like Lucien?”
“Lucien’s hair is light brown and his eyes are gray. How is he like Papa?”
“Papa takes him everywhere with him. Lucien has his own horse and room and rifle like Papa. He must know something we do not.”
She was right. Maybe my sister was not silly. I took her hand. “You are clever, Bernadette, and sometimes I am not clever. I am glad you are my sister.”
She grinned, her black eyes flashing in the light streaming in from the east window. The way she looked now made me feel light, like jumping up and down and running. I liked having a clever sister more than a silly one.
“Ain’t I clever, too?” Isaac said from where he sat on the floor indian style with his ankles crossed.
“You are in, in—”
“corrigible,” I finished for her, grinning. Maman had called Isaac that before, and Maman was always right.
“Thank you,” Isaac said, smiling so big I saw nearly all his so-white teeth.
* * *
Lucien was even harder to pin down that Papa. I tried to keep up with him, but my legs always left me rushing up to where my brother had disappeared. Lucien was nearly as tall as Papa, and strong with curly hair he pushed back from his thick brows.
During breakfast two mornings later Papa said our hostler was injured and they must saddle their own horses. I sneaked out of the house to follow my brother to the stables.
I had never been to the horse barn before, but I knew where it was: out the front door, past the large oak, across the front drive, across the new grass wet with dew as it was April and cool early in the morning—I had forgotten a coat, hugged myself and hurried to catch up.
I finally got to the big, open doorway of the barn and looked back. The house looked small and far away. I went into the barn. The smell: warm horse and hay and shadowy where the sun from the open door stopped. Nice. After a minute I could see better. Rows of stalls on either side and a horse peeked over a few stalls down. In an open area maybe eight feet away, stood Lucien, his back to me, throwing a saddle over his horse. A really big horse this close. As usual, he did not see me. I jumped up to fetch the bridle from a high peg on the wall. No use. My highest jump could not reach it.
A shove from behind knocked me face first into the side of the barn. My nose!
“You cussed little pup. Stay clear of me!” I felt pinned to the wall like a bug in Esther’s kitchen.
“I only . . . I wanted . . .” Hand at my throbbing nose, I turned.
Lucien grabbed the bridle and made as if to swing it at me—a terrible look on his face. “Skedaddle!”
I spun and ran for the house, heart and nose pounding, eyes burning.
I ran and ran across the yard up the stairs across the porch, inside and upstairs grasping the banister until flopping stomach down onto my bed and pushing my face into the fluffy counterpane. Disappear, clutching at the covers, gasping for breath.
Someone pulled at my shirt. “You was outside, all the way to the stables, wasn’t you.”
I turned, breathing hard, one hand on my runny nose, and sat up to face Isaac. I seized this. “Yes. But were goes with you and you used a, a . . .”
“Con-trac-tion,” Bernadette said. She rocked astraddle on the rocking horse at the southwest window, her dress pushed up around her knees exposing her pantaloons. My sister, Bernadette.
Isaac crawled up on the bed beside me. “So I did. I get mighty tired of all these rules about how to talk. And you got a bloody nose.“
“Maman says we must always behave like true ladies and gentlemen, which includes our diction.” I looked at my hand. Not so much blood on it. Only a little. My hand.
“You went to the barn after Lucien,” Isaac said, handing me a kerchief.
Creak, creak, went the wooden rocking horse on the carpet.
“I do not think he likes me.” I cringed all over and took a big breath. Blew carefully in the kerchief. Wiped my hand.
Isaac leaned against me. “I like you.”
“Me, too,” Bernadette said, still rocking.
I turned toward Isaac, carefully wiping the blood from my nose. “Are you sure there is nothing wrong with me?”
Isaac looked me up and down, picked up my free hand and turned it over. Then pulled my head down and scratched through my hair. “Nothing wrong, I would never lie to you, but if I look maybe I’ll find something.” He was being silly which made me feel better so I pushed him over, grabbing onto him which made me feel even better. I poked him in the ribs to make him laugh.
“Me too, me too,” cried Bernadette and she was off the rocker and scrambling between us. We all tickled, shrieked and rolled across the bed.
The nursery door flew open. “What’s this noise goin on in here?” Betta, her hand on the knob, stood in the doorway, her eyes wide open.
“We are playing,” I said.
“Playin. Look at you. You’s all look like you been in the brambles with Brer Rabbit. Good thing baby Jules and your mama downstairs, though how she don’t hear this racket Lord only knows. Don’t you leave this here room fore you straighten yourselves out. Hear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Isaac said.
“And no more playin of that sort less you be quieter about it.” She turned and closed the door.
We did not move for the longest time. I had feelings going through me I could not describe. Then I turned, and took Isaac’s hand. “You are the best brother, Isaac, truly.”
“We been together from the beginning, ain’t we, like mama said, me on one tit and you on the other.
“You are the best sister, Bernadette. Besides Maman and Papa, I love you all best, forever.” I grasped Isaac with one arm and clutched my sister in the other. “Let us make a pact to be best friends, forever.”
“Forever,” Isaac said, like them miskeeters,” wrapping an arm around my back and breathing into my neck.
“Musketeers,” I said.
“Me, too.” Bernadette snuggled between.
Forever . . .