Authors: Amanda Hughes
The Grand Masquerade
By Amanda Hughes
This book is dedicated to everyone who helped us escape
Natchez Trace, Mississippi
Sydnee was worried. Margarite was too drunk to conjure the spirits. She had fallen asleep in the shed with her head on her arms at the table used for divination. Her Madras
was askew, and she was snoring loudly.
Sydnee looked at the old slave and bit her lip. It was obvious the woman had been drinking for some time because candle wax was running down onto the altar cloth. She would have to set things up for the reading all by herself and do it quickly.
The fourteen-year-old girl looked around the shed frantically. In the corner, she found a burlap bag and took out statues and skulls arranging them on the altar in front of a standing crucifix. Next she ladled water from an earthenware jar into a wooden bowl and then scattered fresh flowers everywhere from a basket, all to prepare for a Hoodoo reading, a blend of Roman Catholicism and Voodoo.
Sydnee Sauveterre looked up. The rain was drumming hard on the shed behind The Devil’s Backbone tavern on the Natchez Trace. Her father had opened the tavern on this heavily traveled, dangerous thoroughfare almost twenty-five years ago. His customers were flatboat men, nicknamed “Kaintucks” who brought goods down the Mississippi River to sell in New Orleans.
Sydnee worked frantically to get ready for the customer who was up at the tavern drinking. Everything had to be set up in proper Hoodoo fashion before Margarite could begin her divination. The most difficult part would be to shake the whiskey from the old woman’s brain. Margarite had been sneaking more and more “white lightning” lately, and Sydnee did not want her father to give the slave another beating.
“Margarite,” Sydnee said, shaking the old woman’s shoulders. “Margarite, Papa will be angry. You must wake up.”
Beads of perspiration broke out on the girl’s forehead. She pushed the damp, brown hair off of her forehead and stepped over to an earthenware jar. She took a ladle of water, pulled back the collar of the slave’s threadbare gown and poured water down her back.
Margarite jerked her head up, slurping her drool. Wiping her mouth with her sleeve, she mumbled an oath in French and looked around with bleary eyes. Her face was lined with wrinkles and ritual scarring from her early days in Martinique.
“We must hurry,” warned Sydnee, placing a chamois bag of cat bones on the table. “The man will be here any minute. Here are the bones for the reading.” The girl reached out and straightened Margarite’s
you tire yourself,” the old woman said, pinching her chin.
Wind chimes by the altar flooded the room with an eerie jingling. They looked up at the decoration made out of old keys swaying in the corner. Margarite murmured in French, “The spirits are here. They will protect me. Now go, child.”
Reluctantly, Sydnee nodded. She cast one more look around the dark room. A crucifix was set out and seven candles were guttering on the white altar cloth. Water was in a bowl ready as a medium for the spirits to enter the room, and floral offerings were strewn for the ancestors.
Sydnee looked up at the chimes. She too felt the presence of the spirits and was comforted by it. The moment she opened the door to leave the shed, several cats raced toward the steps trying to get inside out of the rain. She slammed the door quickly behind her and dashed for the woods. Squatting down in the wet brush, she watched the man enter the shed.
The rain ran down Sydnee’s face and soaked her clothing, but she did not notice. She had grown up in the elements and was accustomed to all kinds of weather. Put to work from the moment she could walk, Sydnee grew slowly. At last, she was the correct height for her age, but she was as thin as a skeleton and as dirty as a street urchin. Her hair had been washed only a few times in her life, and her clothes were nothing more than shreds hanging on thin bones. Quiet and withdrawn, taking to animals rather than people, Sydnee was reclusive and shy. With wispy hair, freckles and high cheek bones, the girl was a mere waif with large, brown eyes.
“The eyes of a doe,” Margarite would say affectionately.
When Sydnee’s mother died giving birth to her, Victor Sauveterre purchased Margarit
It was a convenient arrangement for him in every way. He could use the slave to do the heavy work and satisfy his sexual needs as well.
From the first day Margarite arrived at The Devil’s Backbone, she had been a mother to Sydnee. She fed her, nurtured her, and taught her, but as a slave, their relationship was limited. Sydnee’s father exercised complete authority over the two females and dominated all decision making in the household. He firmly believed women, slave or free born, were his property, and he did not hesitate to punish them with violence if necessary.
The only source of power for the females was through Hoodoo, and Margarite and Sydnee were proficient at it. Margarite learned it as a child in Martinique and carefully schooled Sydnee in the arts from an early age. Victor Sauveterre encouraged the divination because it made him money at the tavern or “stands” as they were called on The Trace.
For years The Devil’s Backbone thrived. The Kaintuck boatmen traveled downriver in flatboats loaded with goods from Nashville to New Orleans. Once unloaded, the men would break up their boats, sell them as lumber and then come north again on foot to drink and carouse in Natchez. After their revelry in the bordellos and taverns of Natchez Under-the-Hill, they would start their four hundred mile overland journey on the Natchez Trace back up to Nashville. Along the wilderness trail, they would patronize stands like The Devil’s Backbone for food, drink and whores. Once in Nashville, they would purchase flat boats and goods and start all over again. The journey was dangerous, and the men were too.
A rush of wind blew into the room as the customer stepped into the shed for his reading. The candle flames blew horizontally, and the wind chimes jangled nervously. The moment Margarite laid eyes on the man, she sobered up.
He stepped into the doorway and stopped for a moment, looking at Margarite with his head lowered. His grey eyes glowered at her under a heavy brow. The stranger was tall and lanky with rounded shoulders and sunken cheeks. He wore a long, threadbare greatcoat with the collar up, and heavy boots. Although he was bald, he had a ring of long, thin hair at the base of his skull.
Margarite met his gaze and swallowed hard. Something did not feel right. The man shut the door, never taking his eyes from her. She felt the hair rise on her arms. Sitting down at the table, he continued to stare at her.
Margarite pushed the chamois bag toward him. When he reached out for it, his long, bony fingers swept lightly across her wrist. Margarite jerked her hand back.
Still watching her, the stranger shook the bag and threw the cat bones onto the table. He was obviously familiar with Hoodoo. Margarite looked down at the bones and stared with horror at what she read.
Suddenly, she felt sick to her stomach, and dizzy. She clutched at the table to steady herself, and her eyes rolled back. Like a black veil dropping over her head, darkness enveloped her, and she slipped into a swoon.
Something felt wrong to Sydnee as she waited in the woods. She could feel it. Squatting like an animal in the brush, she watched the shed, her knees apart and her bare feet on the soggy ground. The spirits were trying to tell her something. She pressed her eyes shut, straining to see into her mind’s eye. Nothing came to her, nothing but darkness. She closed her eyes again. This time she clutched a charm around her neck and murmured a prayer. Over and over she chanted, “Hail Mary, full of grace--”
A blur of light came to her at last, and gradually, it sharpened into the image of a flame. Sydnee could see candles on a white cloth. She heard something scatter on a table. Her breathing quickened. There was danger. But what was it? She must relax. She must relax or the visions would not come. Sydnee put her head back and opened her mouth to breathe slowly. Over and over she petitioned to the saints for second sight and protection for Margarite.
“St. Michael, stay with her,” she murmured. “Our Lady of the Assumption protect her. St. Gertrude watch over her.”
Sydnee hesitated a moment, feeling the chill of danger. Summoning the greatest of Hoodoo powers, she uttered, “Danbala, I invoke you.”
The mist lifted instantly, and Sydnee saw Margarite sitting in the shed with the stranger. Cat bones were scattered on the table. The guttering candles cast dancing shadows across the room. She saw Margarite’s head roll back, and her jaw drop open. Then like a rag doll, she slumped back into her chair. Sydnee’s heart jumped. She knew she must run to Margarite, but she could not move.
The stranger put his hands on the table and stood up slowly. His body unfolded like a mantis, and he took a gutting knife from his belt.
“I must go to her!” Sydnee’s mind screamed, but she was paralyzed, a prisoner of her vision. She saw movement on the floor of the shed. The long body of a snake slipped under the door and began to glide toward the stranger. As it stretched out to its full length, Sydnee could see the diamond pattern on its back.
“Cumptico!” she cried. Her head snapped forward, and her eyes opened.
Sydnee jumped to her feet and bolted toward the shed, her feet splashing in the mud. When she threw the door open, she saw the stranger standing over the body of Margarite. Between the man and Margarite was the coiled form of Cumptico, ready to strike. The front portion of his body was upright as he challenged the stranger; his tail rattling ominously, and his tongue darting out.
Margarite raised her head and screamed.
From the doorway, Sydnee said with strained reserve, “Cumptico, my thanks to you. Your job here is done.”
The snake did not move, nor the man. The stranger looked at Sydnee with hate in his eyes.
“Danbala, I beseech you,” she said, with her hands upturned.
At last, the snake dropped down and slithered out the door.
With a crash, Victor Sauveterre stormed into the shed. “What the hell’s going on here?” he roared. Grossly overweight with a shock of red hair and skin the color of a fish’s underbelly, Sydnee’s father was massive. “What happened?”
“It was a snake, Papa,” Sydnee said quietly.
He turned to Margarite and roared, “I told you to keep your goddamned creatures out of here!”
Suddenly assuming an obsequious air, he straightened up and said to the stranger, “I apologize for my nigger. She will be punished for this. How can I make this up to you, sir?”
Putting his knife away, the stranger pushed past him toward the door.
Victor Sauveterre grabbed Sydnee. “You may have my daughter for no charge tonight.”
Sydnee dropped her eyes to the floor. This was her job, but tonight she was afraid.
Margarite blurted suddenly, “
, Master! The girl is about to give birth.”
The innkeeper turned and back handed Margarite across the face. “Shut up!” The force of the blow sent her staggering.
Changing back to faux gentility, he added, “Have the girl, with my compliments, sir. She is a little bigger than normal but I assure you, she will satisfy.”
Sydnee held her breath and waited. The wind chimes moved slightly, sending a tinkling sound through the room.
The stranger looked at Victor Sauveterre and then at Sydnee. He shook his head and left The Devil’s Backbone.
All was quiet at The Devils Backbone the next morning. Sydnee tiptoed past her father who was on his pallet snoring in the corner of the cabin which doubled as a tavern. After his drunken rampage, he passed out and would not be awake again for hours.
She glanced at the tattered blanket thrown over a rope in the corner where he slept. Sauveterre talked about adding bedrooms onto the cabin one day, but it never happened. Sydnee slept in the loft and Margarite in the shed. The cabin was furnished with a table and a few rickety chairs, but the room was used seldom by customers. They preferred sitting on the front porch since the Mississippi backwoods were often oppressively hot.
Today promised to be another suffocating summer day. When Sydnee stepped outside, two dogs crawled out from under the porch to greet her, a large English mastiff named Baloo and a powerfully built terrier named Atlantis. As she sat down on the step, the dogs dropped down beside her. Sydnee treasured her mornings. It was the only time she had to herself, and today in particular, she dreaded her father waking. She knew that he would be in a foul mood.
After the stranger left last night, Victor Sauveterre raged for hours. “You and your creatures!” he bellowed at Margarite. “A goddamned rattler!”
Then he turned to Sydnee. “And if you weren’t such an ugly slut,” he roared. “I could have made some money!”
With eyes lowered, the females stood before him on the porch listening to him rant until he dropped into a chair and began guzzling from a jug of whiskey. “Now get the hell away from me, both of you!” he roared, flinging his meaty arm in the air.
The past few years, business had been slow at the stand. The stranger last night had been the first Kaintuck to stop in days, and Sauveterre blamed the two females for driving him away.
Taking a deep breath, Sydnee looked up at the morning sky. Already the air was thick as pea soup. She reached down and stroked Atlantis’ head. Sydnee loved the dog’s pink nose and the matching pink skin inside her ears. Although she was bred for bear baiting and exhibition fighting, the lean muscular bull terrier was anything but vicious. Victor Sauveterre won Atlantis in a card game a few months ago, but when she did not perform well in the ring, he had beaten her senseless. It took weeks, but Sydnee nursed her back to full health and was rewarded with a loyal loving companion. Sweet and sensitive, Atlantis took everything to heart.
Baloo was another matter. Slow and plodding, always several paces behind everyone, he was easy going and gentle of nature. He appeared at the stand one evening years ago and never left.
Margarite named him “Baloo” which means bear. With a dark wrinkled face and a fawn-colored coat, the dog was soft to the touch, slow to anger and born old. He had been with Sydnee as long as she could remember. Baloo loved to be hugged and was always ready to lend an ear when she was feeling gloomy.
A large crow swooped down out of a tree and landed on Sydnee’s shoulder. “Good morning, Vivian,” she murmured to the bird.
Vivian was a large, bossy crow that she fostered as well. One morning, some months ago, Sydnee heard a terrible outcry in the oak tree above her head. Looking up, she saw a snake gorging himself on baby crows in a nest. The mother bird was gone, and the hatchlings were squealing with terror. Outraged, Sydnee showered the serpent with rocks. She missed repeatedly, but at last, she managed to smash it squarely on the head. Stunned, the snake dropped out of the tree, hitting branches all the way down until it tumbled into the grass, and then it slithered away into the woods. Sydnee hiked up the tree finding one baby crow left. Nestling it in her gown, she took it to a safe place and nursed the hatchling back to health. It found a perch on a tree near the cabin, and Vivian remained there ever since.
Much to the dismay of the dogs, Vivian had an indomitable maternal instinct. She believed it was her duty to supervise and reprimand the canines at all times. Whenever the dogs would romp or play, Vivian would swoop down and peck at them parentally, reminding them to act with maturity and mind their manners.
All day long, Sydnee would have to break up their fights. This morning was no exception. After settling in on the girl’s shoulder, Vivian looked down at the dogs.
“Nooo,” Sydnee warned. “Let them be.”
Even though the bird looked away, the canines stole glances at her warily. They were afraid of Vivian.
A light breeze blew Sydnee’s cinnamon-colored hair. “Let’s go,” she said, slapping her hands on her knees. Vivian flapped her huge wings and returned to her favorite tree. Sydnee rolled off the step clumsily. Her belly made navigation difficult lately.
She started down an overgrown path. The Sauveterre claim was a heavily wooded piece of land on the Natchez Trace in southern Mississippi. Their one room cabin was nothing more than a shack, covered with a crumbling moss covered roof. It had one window and crooked front porch. The cabin faced Plum Creek which was spanned by a rickety bridge that Victor Sauveterre built twenty-five years earlier.
Plum Creek was a picturesque little waterway lined with weeping willows and swamp grasses. It drifted lazily along, twisting and turning until it joined the Pearl River to the East and eventually the Gulf of Mexico to the south. The terrain was flat and thick with tangled underbrush, oaks, claw footed cypress, soggy marshland, and a myriad of water fowl and wildlife.
Hacked out through this wilderness, the Natchez Trace ran in front of the Sauveterre stand. After twenty-five years of heavy traffic, deep ruts had been ground into the thoroughfare. In spots, a man could not see over the banks of the trail because the path had been carved so deeply into the earth.
In fourteen years, Sydnee Sauveterre had never left her father’s homestead in the Mississippi backwoods. The child’s knowledge of the world beyond The Devil’s Backbone was limited, and she had experienced more than a lifetime of privation. Hard work and using her body to earn a living was a way of life for her.
In 1807, her father erected the stand along The Natchez Trace to sell food and liquor to travelers, but the past few years, business had declined.
“Those rich bastards in New Orleans ruined everything,” Sauveterre raged. “Their goddamned steamboats took my living. No one uses The Trace anymore.”
It was true. For years, stands like The Devil’s Backbone prospered along the 400 mile path from Natchez to Nashville. “Coon Box Stand”, “Buzzard Roost”, “Shoat’s”, “French Camp”, over fifty stands in number, dotted the rugged trail. But with the invention of the steam engine, there came a new and easier way to travel on the Mississippi; by paddle wheeler, and the golden years of the Natchez Trace came to a close.
Sydnee walked over the little bridge and then up a path alongside the creek toward her favorite spot under a willow tree. She brushed aside the long green tendrils of the tree and sat down. Baloo and Atlantis ducked in after her.
Sydnee eased herself down onto the moss. The verdant chamber was the only place she felt safe. With the green curtain surrounding her, she could lower her guard and allow her imagination to soar. Ever since she was a small child, she would come to this hideaway, armed with stories from Margarite about Martinique and a city called New Orleans.
“The ladies gowns are the color of the finest flowers,” Margarite told her. “Fabric as blue as cornflowers, reds like christmasberry blossoms, and yellows as brilliant as the flowers on lily pads.”
Sydnee would listen with her chin cupped in her hand, memorizing every word.
“And the houses, child,” Margarite would continue. “They all have balconies bordered with lacey iron railings and courtyards filled with magnolias and camellias.”
Sydnee would try to imagine the big river to the west, called the Mississippi, where the “Trace” began in Natchez. She had never seen a cake, but Margarite told her that the paddle wheelers on the river looked like gigantic, white layer cakes, all trimmed in gold.
“Someday I will see it all,” she murmured to the dogs.
As she mused, a crane caught her eye. She could see him just beyond the green strands of the tree, strutting in the shallow water. Sydnee loved all creatures but particularly birds. It was because of her love of birds that Vivian had come to her.
Sydnee dropped back with her hands behind her head, thinking about life in the city to the south. Margarite had spoken also of her life on the sugar cane plantation in Martinique. Sydnee knew this was where Margarite was born and where she received her training in Hoodoo, and her ritual scarring. These stories were not as beautiful though. In fact they were frequently disturbing. They often ended in talk of cruelty to slaves and people using Voodoo for dark purposes, a practice which Margarite abhorred.
Suddenly she heard the bell ringing from the porch of the cabin. It was her signal to return to the house. As she rose, she felt the muscles of her abdomen spasm. She recognized this feeling from her first pregnancy. It was her belly practicing for birth.
As she headed down the path with the dogs, she stopped to check her turtle traps. She had six holes, about ten inches deep, along the banks of creek to lure turtles. Sydnee would entice them with worms around the ridge of the hole, placing the juiciest morsels at the bottom of the hollow. Greedy for the best worms, the turtles would drop down to the bottom of the hole and be trapped. The catch was small today. She scooped up the few turtles she found and held them in the skirt of her dress. She would take them home to Margarite for soup.
As she walked down the path in her bare feet, Vivian landed on her shoulder. Baloo lumbered behind her as Atlantis dashed in and out of the creek, scaring up waterfowl. The birds would burst out of the marshy grasses with their wings thundering. On one occasion, the terrier put her nose underwater and then yelped. She was investigating a snapping turtle too closely.
When Atlantis returned to shore, she stood in their path and shook her coat, spattering Sydnee and Vivian with water. Sydnee blinked but Vivian swooped down giving Atlantis a punitive peck on the head. The dog immediately dropped into a crouch and ducked into the bushes.
When Vivian landed back on her shoulder, Sydnee commanded, “Come!” and Atlantis came out to the path once more. Sydnee reached up to dry her face with her sleeve. Her dress was nothing more than a rag. It had been a well-made gown at one time, but now it was threadbare, faded, and ragged around the hem. Her clothing came from a Kaintuck whose wife died along The Trace several years back. The man gave them three dresses, a sun bonnet and an apron. Prior to that, Sydnee had worn only the garments left by her mother. Victor Sauveterre did not think it was necessary the females have fabric for clothing. He thought they should make-do with sack cloth or burlap and that footwear was a luxury, so Sydnee never owned a pair of shoes.
Margarite was hanging Victor Sauveterre’s clothes up to dry. She was wearing her faded turban or
and a brown gown with a dirty, white apron. A string of shells hung from her neck, and she had one hoop earring in her ear. Sydnee could smell the rice and gravy simmering in the Dutch oven on the campfire near the cabin. It was too hot to cook inside the house this time of year.
Chickens scattered as the dogs raced up to greet the old woman. She bent down stiffly to pet them, murmuring endearments as she scratched their ears. Margarite always moved slowly, but lately her crippled hip caused her to move even slower because of increased pain. Sydnee knew this was one of the reasons she was drinking heavily.
Sydnee and Margarite managed to hide the drinking from Sydnee’s father thus far, but her failing health was hard to disguise. Sydnee noticed the woman’s appetite was decreasing and that she was drinking more and more corn whiskey instead of eating. Margarite had access to the alcohol from a still in back of the cabin. Since it was one of her tasks to make “white lightning” for customers, she was around it constantly.
Sydnee dropped her skirt full of turtles into a bucket of water and started toward the cabin to see if her father wanted breakfast.
“He is gone to Buzzard Roost already,” Margarite called to her in French.
Sydnee was relieved. Victor Sauveterre went to George Broussard’s stand frequently to play horseshoes and drink. Many days he was gone from sunrise until sunset.
She turned and came over to help hang up clothes instead. Margarite put her wrinkled hand to Sydnee’s cheek and said, “Good morning, my leetle girl.”
Sydnee murmured, “Are you well after last night?”
Margarite shrugged her shoulders, not wishing to discuss the incident with the stranger. She changed the subject. “I picked an egg for my reading today.”
Sydnee lowered her eyes and frowned.
Margarite looked at her and dropped her arms from the clothes line. She continued in her French patois, “What is it?”
Sydnee thrust her jaw open and strained to speak, but no words came. Mute until the age of nine, Sydnee had been speaking for only the past five years. When she at last spoke, Margarite was amazed at her mastery of both English and French. It was further confirmation that Sydnee had a fine mind.
“Why don’t you want to do my reading?” Margarite pressed.
“I-I am not good at egg readings,” Sydnee said in English, but she was lying. The truth was that she was afraid of what she might see in the woman’s future.