Authors: Attica Locke
The slave village had always been a dark distraction, its craggy, crooked shadows blackening many a morning at Belle Vie. It was the part of the job she liked the least. For Caren, the dread usually started before she even set foot on the dirt road, and today hadn’t been any different. It was still dark out when she’d started to the south. Not black, but cold and dim, a heavy, leaden gray. And from the time she set out this morning, she’d fretted over the task of inspecting the quarters, putting it off until the last possible second, until, finally, she parked the golf cart near the guest cottages, walking the rest of the way on foot. She folded her arms tight, putting the bulk of her down jacket between her body and the wind. The air in the quarters was always a few degrees cooler. Even in the dead of summer, more than a few people had reported feeling a chill on this very path. A sign of spirits in their midst, Caren had been told her first day on the job. Among the staff—the ones who didn’t know the first thing about her background, the plain facts of where she was born and raised—it was a perverse kind of hazing, a way to test her resolve, perhaps, to lay bets on how long she would last. That she refused to walk the quarters the first few weeks she worked here was a fact greatly whispered about. Anytime she came within even a few feet of the slave village, her chest would tighten to a point no wider than a pinprick, and she felt she couldn’t breathe. She would get as far as the dirt road and stop.
They all gave her a week, tops.
But they didn’t know the whole story.
Truth is, avoiding the slave village was an old, old habit of hers, and one that long predated the job. Caren had grown up in Ascension Parish, in the shadows of Belle Vie; she had grown up with the ghost stories, childhood rants, and the rest of it. They were almost as old as the plantation itself. She had no proof, of course, that the quarters were haunted, but it is absolutely true that one morning during her first year back, she stood at the mouth of the village, staring down the length of dirt road. And in the morning fog, the graying clapboard cottages lined up on each side, she said a short, fervent prayer, and the spell was effectively and immediately broken. The space opened itself up to her only after she privately acknowledged its power. It was the only way forward.
She repeated the prayer this morning, mumbling the words softly.
The wind lifted and changed direction, pushing at her back, nudging her on.
She passed the bronze marker first, the heels of her boots sinking into the soft, damp earth. Raised some three feet off the ground and set just inside the gate to the first cabin, it dated the village to 1852, the year Monsieur and Madame Duquesne bought the land from the Mississippi all the way to the back swamp, christening it
La Belle Vie
. The six cabins were all that remained of what was once a
THRIVING VILLAGE OF PLANTATION WORKERS
. She wiped the words with her jacket sleeve, clearing the dew. Inside the first cabin, she paused long enough for her eyes to adjust to the darkness of the one-room shack. The air was thick, even the halest breeze unable or unwilling to cross the threshold. Caren gave the cabin a quick survey: straw pallet on the dirt floor; antique field tools hanging from rusty nails on the walls; a pine table with a tin cup and a kettle resting atop; a broom of twigs and brush; and a crudely made bench with a threadbare quilt lying on one end. It was neat and clean and ready for showing. Caren backed out, ducking her head beneath a low beam.
The others were all the same: four leaning walls beneath sagging, shingled roofs, each with an open doorway but no actual door, and out front a tiny, square patch of dirt and weeds where vegetables and wildflowers once grew—a historical fact which Raymond Clancy had pointedly refused to re-create, even in a nod to verisimilitude, for fear of being accused of painting too pretty a picture of slave life, of being called an apologist or worse. Raymond hated the slave cabins, hated every damn thing they stood for, he’d said, and had more than once made a fervent pitch to tear them down completely, fairly begging, knowing that this was one curatorial decision he’d have to run by his father, Leland, a man beloved in the parish for preserving an important piece of history, for Louisianans, and black folks, in particular. Raymond had tried to rope Caren in once, asking her to author a memo on company letterhead stating all the ways it would boost the plantation’s bottom line if the unsightly cabins were done away with. They could build a second reception hall, he’d said, or expand parking. It was the only instance, in all the time Caren had worked for Raymond, maybe even in all the years she’d known him, that she ever told him
Raymond, she remembered, the one they used to call chicken.
Caren and his baby brother, Bobby, used to spend long, rain-soaked afternoons daring Ray to walk alone through the slave village, daring him to spend even ten minutes inside the last cabin on the left, the one Caren was standing in front of now.
Jason’s Cabin, they called it, because that was her mother’s name for it.
She could still hear her hot, honeyed soprano.
She could still hear her mother whispering that name.
He was some kin to her, so the story went, some distant branch on the Gray family tree, thin and reedy as it was, pruned by time and circumstance; Caren was an only child, as was her mother before her, great-aunts and -uncles long gone. Jason, her great-great-great-grandfather on her mother’s side, she’d been told, had been a slave, born across the river on a neighboring plantation, brought to Belle Vie when he was just a boy. Her mother had always said he was a man to be proud of, slave or no slave. The stories her mother told, bits and pieces of history passed on from one generation to the next, painted a man who had lived with his head up and his back straight, a man who had lived a life of peace and fidelity . . . until he went mysteriously missing sometime after the Civil War. No one really knew what happened to him, but plantation lore was ripe with speculation. Some said he had tired of cutting cane and walked out of the fields after the war, leaving a wife and child. Some said he had problems with drink and women and that’s why he ran. And still others, like Caren’s mother, thought he had likely met trouble here on the plantation; that he’d died at Belle Vie, and his soul never left the grounds. Bobby’s tales were the most gruesome, often involving knife fights and fisticuffs and blood in the cane fields, anything his twelve-year-old mind could conjure to color his ghost stories, his proof of a real plantation haunting, a man without a final resting place. He would whisper in Caren’s ear, tap-tap her shoulders to the beat of spectral feet wandering the slave village, messing with her until she either screamed or fell into a fit of laughter, chest burning as she ran and ran, always looking back, hoping Bobby Clancy would catch her. Tall and lean, it never took him more than a few strides. He would throw himself down, rolling on the grass at her feet, strands of his black hair pasted against his damp, pink forehead. “Honest,” he would say, panting to catch his breath, staring up through a tangle of trees. Jason’s Cabin was haunted.
Caren rested her hand on the cabin’s low-lying gate.
It was washed over with rain, and the door was standing wide open.
She paused over that, thinking it odd, that one detail.
But it wasn’t until she crossed the dirt yard and stepped inside the cabin that she felt something was really wrong. Someone had been in here, she thought, inside this very cabin. It was the stillness that spooked her. Not the kind of emptiness that comes with actual vacancy, but rather a kind of strained quiet that was trying too hard, the tightness that comes when someone somewhere is trying very hard to be still, to restrain every twitch and wayward breath.
She felt, for a moment, that she wasn’t alone.
She couldn’t see two feet in front of her, the daylight stingy and withholding and stopping stubbornly at the door. She was standing in utter darkness, the air thick and dusty. She felt her chest close, her head go light. She’d had moments like this before, in this very cabin, when she’d felt overcome with dread, a heavy weight pressing in on her sternum. But today the feeling was worse. And Caren did something she’d never done, not in all the years she’d worked at Belle Vie. She didn’t wait for her eyes to adjust, didn’t wait until she could actually see . . . the tools on the wall and the rusting sugar kettle made over for laundering, a bar of lye soap and a hand wringer inside; the straw bed and pine table and the shallow pit in the floor that was dug out for cooking. She simply turned and walked out, cutting her inspection short. This cabin, the one set closest to the fields, was exactly the same as the others. At least that’s what she told the cops.
er last stop was the staff kitchen, located in a squat, stone-and-brick building a few yards from the main house. In the old days, a chance kitchen fire could mow down a Southern mansion in a matter of minutes, and the distance between the two buildings was meant to provide a measure of protection, and keep the big house cool in the worst summer months. The kitchen was an eight-hundred-square-foot box, one room that was bigger than any of the places Caren had lived in with her mom when she was a kid: guesthouses and garage apartments and one unbearably damp and hot summer spent in a two-room trailer parked on the back of somebody’s land. They were cheap rentals that provided shelter, but little else, places Helen Gray cared little for. The plantation’s eighteen acres were the whole of Caren’s only real idea of home, the only constant in her life. Belle Vie
home, her mother would say.
It’s in our blood, ’Cakes
. Caren had spent part of her childhood in this very kitchen, thumbing through her schoolwork or watching television. She’d learned to write her cursive letters in a single afternoon, sitting at one of the small tables by the stove, waiting for her mother to get off work.
The kitchen’s door was propped open. Inside, Lorraine, the current cook, had her feet up on a card table covered with vegetable scraps and newspapers and discarded oyster shells.
“Morning, baby,” she said, seeing Caren at the back door. Lorraine called everyone
, and Caren had long learned not to take it personally.
In the hot, steamy kitchen, she unzipped her down jacket.
“You have a menu for me, Lorraine?”
“Now, what you think, baby?”
Lorraine had a bottle of hot sauce sticking out of the pocket of her stained apron and was sucking down raw oysters for breakfast and watching
Fox & Friends
on a small black-and-white television set. Caren could have stood there all day before she moved an inch. “Lorraine,” she sighed, because they went through this every time.
“Yes, baby?” she said, in a way that suggested she had already carried this conversation farther than she intended to. Lorraine was openly suspicious of Caren and her sudden return to Belle Vie four years ago. It was possible that she even held an irrational belief that Caren had come for her job, to claim her rightful place in line. That Raymond Clancy had made her general manager, Lorraine’s boss essentially, certainly didn’t help things. Lorraine delighted in small acts of insubordination, putting through purchase orders without Caren’s permission, serving pickled chow-chow out of crusty jars from her home kitchen, and often changing menus at the last minute. She considered herself an artist, and not one to be tied down by fixed pricing. To Lorraine, Caren was a nuisance, with her little clipboard and her endless list of questions. Worse, she saw Caren as a woman who was rootless and unsure of where she belonged—and therefore not someone who, by Lorraine’s standards, ought to be consulted about the intricacies of local cuisine. Lorraine was tall and black and unabashedly fat, carrying most of her excess weight around her middle, wearing it as a walking billboard for her talents, and she likewise regarded Caren’s relatively lean frame as further evidence that she shouldn’t be trusted in a kitchen. She was nothing like her mother, Lorraine was fond of saying.
“Lorraine, we have eighty-five guests due here at five o’clock.”
“Plenty of time.”
“The host is expecting a five-course meal,” Caren said, repeating a fact of which she knew Lorraine was well aware. “I’d like to be able to tell them just what all that might entail.”
Lorraine pondered the request before deciding, impulsively, to grant it.
“What’d we say, Pearl?”
She glanced over her shoulder at her line cook, a child-sized black woman in her sixties who had to stand on an orange crate to man the stove, which she was hovering over now. She didn’t bother to look up from the pot that was fogging her glasses.
“ ’Gator,” Pearl said.
Lorraine turned, reporting this news to Caren. “ ’Gator.”
Lorraine sighed then, making a grand show of being ordered onto her feet. She crossed the kitchen to a large, stainless-steel fridge. There, she planted one hand on the curve of her right hip and stood in front of the open refrigerator door, searching the stored contents with her eyes. After a few moments of silence, she ticked off the night’s menu: “Grits, rolled with smoked Gouda, spinach, and bacon; chard out of the garden, with garlic and lemon; and potatoes creamed with butter and drippings.” She bent down a little, checking a lower shelf. “And I guess I could do a mushroom soup to start.” Then, nodding to her assistant, she added, “Pearl did a cobbler last night.”
“Peach,” Pearl said.