Always & Forever: A Saga of Slavery and Deliverance (The Plantation Series Book 1) (4 page)

BOOK: Always & Forever: A Saga of Slavery and Deliverance (The Plantation Series Book 1)
7.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The peace Maman and Bibi had achieved over the years was
easily strained by personal contact, so when Bibi returned, Josie lifted her
mother’s swollen ankles and slid the red velvet stool under her feet.

“You may dismiss her,” Maman said. Josie glanced at Bibi,
who picked up her darning basket and left them.

Maman held her hand out. “Let me see your embroidery,

Josie sighed and yielded the linen square to her mother.
Here she was nearly seventeen, and still her embroidery was at best mediocre, even
on the days she made an effort to be precise. Maman demanded such tiny
stitches, and anything that tiny was a blur to Josie.

Reading was difficult, too. Some of the books Mademoiselle
Fatima left with her were printed in such dense type they gave Josie a
headache. Bibi suggested she ask her Papa for reading glasses like the ones he
wore on the end of his nose, but Josie balked. Ladies did not wear glasses, not
if they wanted to be beautiful. Instead, she secretly handed the books to Cleo
to read to her.

Maman shook her head. “Josephine, you don’t apply yourself,
my dear. You must pick out these stitches in the bluebird’s tail and do them

No use to complain. Whether she stitched or restitched,
Josie would have to spend the morning embroidering. When she saw Cleo striding
from the house, free from the tyranny of the needle, Josie envied her.

Cleo curtsied to Celine. “Madame sends me for Mam’zelle
Josephine,” she said.

Josie suppressed a groan. From one chore to another.
Grand-mère no doubt wanted to go over the account books with her again. It was
expected that, as the only heir, Josie would become president of the family
business someday, that she would manage Toulouse all by herself as her
grandmother did. Her papa had long ago proven himself unfit or unwilling, it
hardly mattered which, to handle the plantation. Even if the new baby were to
be a male, it would be years before he could take over. When Grand-mère grew
too old, Josie would be responsible for the plantation until he was of age. But
the accounts bored Josie more than embroidery did, and anyway, someday she’d
have a husband who’d take care of business.

Cleo’s playful look over Maman’s head gave Josie hope that
it wasn’t the account books this time. She folded her embroidery into the sewing
case and excused herself. As soon as they were out of Maman’s hearing, Josie
said, “What does she want?”

“You know the old Cajun, Monsieur DeBlieux?”

“The one who brings gator tails.”

“Only today it isn’t gator tails. It’s hearts of palm. But
listen, M’sieu sent his son instead. Your Grand-mère is busy, and she says it’s
time you learned to buy and sell.”

Josie, far enough away from Maman to escape censure for
unlady-like behavior, snorted in disgust. Josie aspired to be a fine lady, to
dress well, to host grand parties and be beloved and pampered by a man like
Papa. Buying and selling were not part of that vision.

When the girls entered the cool underhouse where much of the
Toulouse Plantation’s business was conducted, the Acadian boy was leaning
against a brick pillar with his hat pulled low on his face. He seemed so
relaxed, Josie wondered if a person could actually sleep standing up. She took
in his faded work pants and bare feet, but his shirt was clean enough, and
neatly mended at the elbow.

 “Monsieur?” she said.

The boy breathed deeply and raised the brim of his hat. He
had been asleep. Abruptly, he pushed himself from the pillar and swept the hat
from his head. “Mademoiselle,” he said.

Josie stared at the brown eyes fringed with thick black
lashes until the curve of his lips told her she was making a fool of herself.

“You have something to sell, Monsieur?”

. I have the heart of the palms. A basket of

“How much do you want for them?”

Mon père
, he say…twenty picayunes for all.”

Josie realized she had no money. She roused enough presence
of mind to turn to Cleo. She would send her for the household purse. But Cleo,
without taking her eyes from the tall, lean figure of M’sieu DeBlieux’s son,
pulled the purse from her apron pocket and held it out.

“Twenty picayunes?” Josie said. She had no idea how much
hearts of palm were worth, but Grand-mère had lectured her often enough about
never paying the asking price for anything. She looked the boy in the eye and
nearly lost her sense of purpose when he held her gaze.

“I think,” she began. She cleared her throat. “I think
fifteen would be a fairer price.” She glanced at Cleo, but Cleo’s mind was
obviously not on the transaction.

The boy smiled. “Fifteen it is, then, Mademoiselle.”

She’d been right. He’d asked too much, and she was shrewd
enough to catch him. Grand-mère would be pleased. Josie loosened the string and
peered at the small collection of odd coins. It was bewildering, this
assortment of an English shilling, a Russian kopeck, and various coins of
Spanish mint. She sifted through the reales, half-dimes and elevenpenney bits
to sort out the picayunes.

She counted out the coins into the boy’s palm. It was
calloused, but the fingers were long and slender. As he accepted the picayunes,
his fingers whispered across her palm and she felt a jolt clear down to her

Merci, Mam’zelle
,” he said. He tipped his hat,
looking Josie right in the eye, and then ran his glance over Cleo as he
swaggered to his wagon in all his adolescent glory.

The young Cajun was hardly out of sight around the house
when the two girls leaned into each other, hands over their mouths, giggling.
Josie put a hand to her breast. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to breathe. Did
you see his eyes?”

Cleo grinned and fanned her face with a handkerchief in mock
heat. “He must be the devil’s child, to be that good looking.”

“Oh. I should have asked his name,” Josie said.

Grand-mère appeared from the shadows of the underhouse.
Josie and Cleo both dropped their hands and stood soberly. “It’s Phanor. Phanor
De Blieux. And he is an Acadian.”

Josie glanced at Cleo. They’d heard Grand-mère’s discourse
on the Cajuns before: still living in the swamps after three or even four
generations in Louisiana, more interested in Saturday night dances and fishing
than hard work. They’d never amount to anything.

“A good Acadian family,” Grand-mère said, “but Acadian. You
would do well to remember that while you are admiring Monsieur DeBlieux’s son.
What have you bought from him?”

Josie picked up the basket and pulled the cloth aside.
“Hearts of palm, Grand-mère. The whole basket, only fifteen picayunes.”

Josie withered under her Grand-mère’s stare. “How much did
Phanor ask?”

“Twenty picayunes, so you see I drove a hard bargain,

“And how many of these will you eat at supper?”

“Just a piece of one, but --.”

“And how many of us sit at table?”

“Well, Maman, Papa, you, and --.”

“After dinner, you will help Louella in the kitchen. She’ll
have to pickle these to keep them from going to waste. Until then, I think we
might review the account books to see what we have paid Monsieur DeBlieux for
hearts of palm in the past.”

Josie followed her grandmother into the house, already
counting the minutes until she’d be free. The actual ciphering involved in bookkeeping
came easily to Josie. She could even multiply double digits in her head, which
meant she didn’t have to strain her eyes to see Grand-mère’s tiny figures.
“Expenses vary with the seasons,” Grand-mère was saying, “and you’ll need to
account for that in your yearly forecasting.”

No, Josie’s distaste was for the actual application of the
arithmetic. She could do that, too, if she had to, but like Papa, she’d much
rather gaze at the river rolling along toward New Orleans. Or be in the
cookhouse. If she’d been born to another life, she often thought, she’d want to
be a cook. She wondered if the hearts of palm would be good seared in the pan
with a little butter and rosemary.

The heady scent of summer roses drifted in through the
office window. From her seat next to Grand-mère, Josie could see the climbing
roses wrapping the gazebo in a blanket of deepest red.


Josie jumped.

attend, Josephine.” Grand-mère’s
exasperation made her snippy. “Unlike your father, you will not have the luxury
of depending on someone else to run Toulouse.”

“I’m sorry, Grand-mère.”

At noon, Grand-mère released Josie to help Maman dress for
dinner. With all her other pregnancies, Maman had suffered from nausea, and the
smells of bacon or pickles repelled her. With this pregnancy, though, Maman was
spared those symptoms. A good sign; maybe she would finally carry this one to
term. Yet she had no appetite. Her belly grew and her legs swelled so that she
walked with difficulty; at the same time, her face was becoming thin and drawn.

The others had not yet arrived in the dining room. Bibi was
filling the water glasses when Josie stood behind Maman, ready to push her
chair in. With an odd groan, Maman swayed and grabbed the table for support.

“Maman . . . .” Josie pushed the chair aside and took hold of her
mother’s arm, but Maman’s weight pushed her off balance. Bibi rushed to help,
and for once, Maman did not shove her away. Together Josie and Bibi sat her in
the chair. Bibi dipped a napkin in a water glass and began to bathe her face.

Josie fetched the stool in the corner. She took her mother’s
ankle to lift her foot, but the warm wetness startled her. She pulled her hand
back – it was blood. She moved Maman’s skirts away. Streams of blood flowed
down both legs.

Josie looked to Bibi. Her wide eyes were signal enough, and
Bibi fixed on the growing red pool under the chair. “Get your father,” Bibi
told her.

Papa rushed into the room, swept Maman into his arms and
carried her to the bedroom. “Bibi, get the old woman,” he said over his
shoulder. “Josie, tell your Grand-mère to send for Dr. Benet.” He began piling
pillows under Maman to raise her hips. “Hurry,” he told her.

When Josie had found Elbow John, Grandmère handed him three
folded notes. “This one with the bent arm on it is your pass. This one is for
the priest; see the cross on the paper?”

The priest, too? Josie pressed her hand to her mouth.

Grand-mère handed Elbow John the third note. “This one for
Dr. Benet has a medicine bottle drawn in the corner.”

“Yes’m. I sees it. Me and dis ol’ mule go fast as we can.”

Josie followed Grand-mère, taking care to touch the
of holy water on the doorjamb of her mother’s room, but Grandmère put a hand

 “Please –,” Josie said, but Grand-mère shook her head and
closed the door.

Josie put her ear to the door panel. “You’re only in the
way, son,” Grand-mère said. “Leave us.”

When Papa opened the door, Josie saw the old midwife from
the quarters hovering over Maman. For the last thirty years, Ursaline had
delivered every child on Toulouse Plantation. Surely she could stop the
bleeding until the doctor arrived.

Papa’s face was very pale and his hands shook as ran his
hands through his hair. “I fear she will lose the child again.”

“I’m sorry, Papa. I know you want a son.”

He took her in his arms and held her tight a moment. “Come
with me to the gallery. We’ll watch for Dr. Benet.”

Papa paced. Josie ran her rosary through her fingers over
and over for comfort, but her mind was not on prayer. “Can you sit down, Papa,”
Josie finally said. “It’ll be a while yet.”

He shook his head. “Go speak to your grandmother again.”

“She won’t let me in.”

“Just ask her if the bleeding has stopped.”

Josie reported Ursaline had staunched the bleeding. Still,
Papa watched the river road for the dust cloud Dr. Benet’s carriage would
raise. If the doctor had been out on another call, it might be hours more
before Elbow John even found him.

The day dragged on, Papa becoming more and more morose,
alternately pacing and sitting with his hands steepled under his chin.

“You need to eat, Papa,” Josie said. He nodded absently, and
Josie walked through the strangely quiet house and down the back steps to the
cookhouse. She’d fix a plate of cold meat and bread, and maybe some preserves
to tempt him.

Josie stepped into the shadowy kitchen. “Louella?”

“Come in,
,” Louella called to her, “but I warn
you it hot in here wit all dese kettles cooking. Madame Emmeline want hot water
and mo hot water ready fo when
le médicin
get here.”

Louella’s brown face glistened with sweat, and the bandanna
on her hair was wet. When Josie felt the full force of the fire, she tugged at
the embroidered scarf around her neck.

“I’ve come for a plate for Monsieur, Louella.” She flushed
when she saw the big earthenware jar on the table. Louella had somehow found
time to trim and slice the hearts of palm for pickling without any help from
her. All that remained to do was to pack them in the jar with vinegar and oil.

“I’ll come back and finish the hearts,” she said. “After I take
Papa something to eat.”

. Don’ worry yo’sef bout de hearts.
Boiling water no work at all. You sit wit your papa.” She sliced bread and
meat. “You need to eat, too,

Bibi came in with an empty basin and Josie jumped up. “How
is she?” When Josie saw the stains on Bibi’s sleeves, she sat down again

“It not fresh blood,
ma chérie
,” Bibi said. “Ursuline
stop de bleeding.”

Josie caught the glance Bibi exchanged with Louella. “What
is it?”

Bibi shook her head. “Wait fo de doctor, Josie.”

Josie insisted. “I’m not a child, Bibi.”

BOOK: Always & Forever: A Saga of Slavery and Deliverance (The Plantation Series Book 1)
7.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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