Of Sugar & Blood
The morning the wagon came to take Monette away, the air was biting crisp and a sheen of frost covered the cane fields.
Awakened before dawn, Monette rubbed her eyes, yawned and stretched, asking her nurse, Heloise, what was the matter. Instead of the usual kiss and the mug of chocolat chaud, Heloise threw back the covers and said, “Hurry, ma petite. Get dressed while I start a fire in the grate. There is only cold water for washing this morning.”
Normally in the brightness of the day the child’s bedroom was filled with color—the lemon yellow of the walls, the lavish courtepointe on the tester bed, its indigo cloth embroidered with metallic gold thread, the dollhouse in the corner, orange, pink, and cream, painted with both precision and whimsy. But in the vague light of predawn, all was gray and ugly and cold, as if the colors lay exhausted.
Heloise knelt beneath the marble mantel, lantern beside her on the floorboards. At the first hiss of flame, the plantation bell pealed through the semi-darkness. Any other morning, hearing the bell, Monette would roll over, burrow deep under her covers and close her eyes, letting the resonance of the bell wrap around her in low, undulating waves. But on this morning Monette was confused. Why had Heloise awakened her so early? Before a fire roared in the grate, warming her room and her wash water? Tired, shivering, fumbling with countless ties, buttons, and hooks, and frightened by Heloise’s silence, Monette began to cry. A soft, delicate whimpering.
The nurse sighed and stood to help. “Do not cry, ma petite. Hush now.”
The nurse’s voice, quiet though it was, filled the bedchamber. Monette allowed the words to soothe her, to scatter the confusion, the fear, like a fire dispelling shadows. They were words of comfort, as caressing as if Papa Léon held Monette in his arms once again and pressed his lips into her hair. Monette closed her eyes while Heloise fussed with the back of her dress, pretending Papa Léon was still here and that she could sit on his lap anytime she wanted. Wrap her arms about him. Feel his warmth, the tickle of his whiskers, the smell of tobacco as he laughed. . . .
She had stared at her father, that day . . . that day. . . . She had crept around the casket, slowly, making no sound. Surrounded by dozens of flickering candles, she stared at his pale, thin body, at the glittering gold coins on his closed eyes, the red rosary in his hand. She wondered why Papa Léon did not sit up and take her on his horse to the cane fields. Wondered why he did not want to have supper with her, with guest after shimmering guest while Monette sat beside him, a tiny sapphire among diamonds. There in the parlor she had pressed her cheek against his hand, quickly pulling back, startled at the coldness, the hardness, the rosary clattering to the floor. Her nostrils suddenly filled with the fragrance of greenhouse roses. She fled the room. Fled from the horrible gold coins, from the sickening smell, from his cold, hard hand. . .
Since his death, Monette was frightened. So many whispers. So many people looking at her, then quickly away, as if she were now a ghost. “Heloise—”
“Hush, ma petite.”
“Heloise, do I look like a ghost?”
“Mon dieu! What kind of question is that? You invite the evil spirits with such talk. Even your gris-gris cannot protect you. Now, if you hush and be good, I shall give you a gift.”
“What is it?” asked Monette. But she saw her nurse’s eyes close in secrecy beneath her colorful tignon and knew it was useless to ask again. She could only stand patiently while Heloise smoothed and whispered, clucked and buttoned until all was done and nothing remained but to sit.
It seemed hours later when Monette heard the rumble of wagon wheels. She set aside her new rag doll and crept to the dormered window, careful not to awaken Heloise who dozed an old woman’s slumber in her chair before the fire. Monette drew aside the velvet curtain. At the far end of the allée, draped under the canopy of live oak, a wagon approached, pulled by two mules. Even from a distance, Monette heard the clank and groan, the din growing louder and louder until Monette was amazed Heloise could sleep at all. Finally, the wagon stopped in front of the Grande Maison. The driver, a stranger to Monette, handed the reins to Uncle Lazare, climbed stiffly out of the wagon, glanced around once, then ascended the steps and disappeared under the eave of the galérie.
Pierre Auguste Domingue drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair, listening to nothing but the click of his manicured fingernails, the snap of the fire, and the tick of the mantel clock. The parlor was vast, heavily furnished, the ceiling soaring fifteen feet above his head, designed for coolness, as was typical. The home was old, built even before the colonies rose in arms to wrest their independence from England, a struggle concerning not at all those in French Louisiana, those who owed their allegiance to France and none other (dismissing the rumor that their new monarch, King Louis XVI, was considered dull and ineffectual as a slug). It was early still, the corners of the room yet dusted with shadow. Sunlight filtered from between the pulled-back drapes. It was a weak sun, a winter’s sun, despite the fact it was mid-March, a time of year when Louisiana should burst with warmth and wisteria.
Up until his father’s death three weeks ago, Pierre had been a banker, not a planter. As the only son, he’d always known that someday, someday, he’d inherit this home of his childhood. For all of Pierre’s twenty-eight years the plantation had been an exemplar of elite society, known throughout the region and even as far distant as Paris for the fine fêtes, the banquets, the extravagant balls, the soirées on the banks of the bayou, all delicately spiced with gentle laughter and delicious conversation. There were days at the bank—stuporous, drugged days that made Pierre almost long for the clamoring, desperate days of recession—he’d consoled himself with dreams of Papa’s plantation. For weeks on end, each time he closed his eyes he saw fields ripened with cane, blackened with laborers, the landing piled high with hogsheads of sugar and molasses. What red-blooded man wouldn’t dream such a dream? An entire plantation devoted to one’s livelihood, one’s comfort. It was only natural for Pierre to long for the day when he could trade in his ledger and ink stains for a wine glass and a riding crop.
Now Pierre tightened his jaw and stared at the fire, thinking, but nothing has been the way I imagined. Never, never in my darkest dreams could I have pictured this. Oh, Papa, I always knew you were a foolish man, but the extent of your foolishness was, until now, unknown. How could you do this to me? To me—your son. Flesh of your flesh.
Yes, he’d known of his father’s debt. After all, hadn’t Papa Léon come into the Bank of Louisiana every year, always needing more money? Pierre smiled wryly. Rare was the planter who didn’t borrow money. It was common practice. Borrow money to build a sugarhouse, harvest the crop, purchase more land and slaves, borrow money for a new steam mill. Expand, expand, expand. And hadn’t these last few years been hard on everyone, forcing all to run to the banks for help? The financial panic of ‘37. Yellow fever outbreak in ‘39. Worms in the cotton the following year, coinciding with a ruinous flood. And now, in 1843, the winter’s unusual severity.
Instead of a fantasy of wealth and ease, his father’s death was the beginning of a nightmare from which Pierre still had not awakened. Two weeks ago, cloaked in the stillness of Papa Léon’s dusty, shuttered office, Pierre had unlocked the drawer and opened the ledger. He studied the figures, nodding, understanding. But Pierre’s empathy soon melted into horror as he turned page after page. No, no, it cannot be! After spending all night pouring over the account books, loosening his cravate, mopping the sweat from his brow despite the chill, there came a knock upon the door. A representative from Citizens Bank handed Pierre a claim against the estate for forty thousand dollars, payable in thirty days. Forty thousand dollars! A fortune! How would he ever get enough money? But it was only the beginning. An avalanche of creditors soon arrived from every banking institution in New Orleans. While Pierre had known Papa was in debt, he’d never imagined the extent. A nightmare . . .
Pierre’s fingers tightened around the arms of the chair, squeezing, strangling, his knuckles turning white. It was time to put things back to their natural order before he lost everything. All unnecessary expenses must be trimmed away. Now. Today.
Another hour passed before he heard the distant rattle of a wagon approaching. He waited, unmoving, until he heard the man’s tread upon the galérie, heavy and cloddish. Pierre stood to greet his visitor, smiling through his impatience, trying not to scowl when the man crushed his hand in the vulgar way of all Americans. “Bonjour, Monsieur Finney. You had no difficulties finding the plantation, no?”
“Was right where you told me.”
“Wine?” offered Pierre, extricating his hand.
“Well, if you got whiskey, I’d be much obliged to you.”
Pierre gave orders in French to a servant. To Finney he said, “You wish to sit?” motioning to a set of chairs. Pierre sat opposite Finney and smiled, thinking, An odious man. A true American. “I understand from your advertisement you pay cash.”
“Yes, sir. You understand correctly.” Finney smiled and Pierre resisted the urge to stare at the man’s huge, tobacco-stained teeth. They reminded him of a braying jackass.
Being forced to sit opposite a speculator with jackass teeth tested even Pierre’s cultivated manners. Having to sell negroes was a situation every planter—every respectable planter that is—dreaded and avoided. It was mortifying. Pierre would have preferred dealing with a Creole, someone who understood discretion, but that was impossible. Such an occupation was too base. A Creole would never stoop so low.
“Top dollar for prime negroes,” Finney was saying. “Less for older or younger ones, you understand of course. And I don’t take no sick ones. Bad for business.”
Two whiskey tumblers later, Pierre led the way to the barn, unaware of a succession of black faces at each window, peering from behind every building, a gaggle of children, pointing, whispering, flitting from one magnolia to the next like phantom butterflies. Pierre closed the barn door behind him, shutting out the sharp chill, closing in the smells of cypress, hay, and axle grease. Thirty negroes, men and women, stood in a line—scrubbed and shining, fingernails cleaned, woolly hair combed through—all wearing their Sunday best.
Pierre heard Finney say, “Strip,” and watched the American shove a plug of tobacco between his lower teeth and lip. Abruti. He sensed the hesitation of the negroes, saw the threatening scowl of the overseer, the tightening of his hand on the butt of his whip.
The examinations took twenty minutes, no more. A contemptible process that made Pierre sigh with relief when it was finally over and he and Finney stepped out of the barn into the cold sunshine. The distance to the Grande Maison was a half mile, and along the way they talked.
“Now Monsieur Domingue, no offense now, but some of them is older than thirty. You know I didn’t advertise for no negroes older than thirty or younger than ten.”
Pierre frowned. In fact, by all accounts, the oldest servant was only twenty-nine. All were of good stock—gardeners, laundresses, seamstresses, coachmen—spoiled as they were. “Monsieur Finney, I had my first gray hair at age sixteen, yes? Gray hair does not necessarily mean old age.”
“That sure is true enough. Yep, true enough. You don’t have to tell me you’ve got yourself a fine crop of young negroes, gray hair or no. But it ain’t me we’re talking about here, it’s the buyer. And sometimes the buyer’s eyes ain’t so good as mine, ‘cause, you see, I got years of experience. Now if I can’t get top dollar at the market ‘cause the buyers don’t know no better, well then, I can’t give you top dollar, now can I?”
“What kind of offer are you willing to make?”
“Well now, let’s see here.” Finney took off his hat, ran a hand through his greasy, limp hair, and spat a stream of tobacco juice. “Considering them gray hairs and all, I just don’t think I could pay you more than eighteen thousand dollars for the lot and still sleep at night.”
Pierre did not have to pretend surprise. “Why, Monsieur Finney, if I did not know you better, I would think you were insulting me, no? That is a trifling $600 per negro. You and I both know they sell for much more in New Orleans, especially with such skills.”
“Last year, maybe that was true. But this year’s winter hit hard. Not just you, but everybody’s got darkies to sell. Too many sellers and not enough buyers. Now you’re a smart enough man, Monsieur Domingue, to understand that when you got too many sellers and not enough buyers, prices drop. It may not be purty, but it’s the godawful truth. Simple economics is what it is.”
Pierre walked on. Unfortunately, the trader was right. Half of Papa’s livestock had died of cold this winter, and Pierre knew the same was true elsewhere. Once again, planters were in desperate trouble. And negroes brought quick money. “Twenty-seven thousand,” said Pierre, thinking he must sell some land as well.
“Twenty-six.” Although loathe to converse more than absolutely necessary with the slave trader, Pierre haggled some more, listing reason upon reason why these negroes were worth more than Finney was willing to pay. Such bargaining was, after all, custom, and an insult to both parties to do anything less. “Twenty-three thousand,” Pierre finally said, “and if you refuse I shall be forced to contact another speculator. You understand, yes? How did you say . . . simple economics?”
“Well then, when you put it like that, I guess you got yourself a deal.”
But when Finney thrust out his hand to conclude the deal, Pierre shook his head. “Síl vous plaît,” he said with a bow. “I must beg your indulgence. I have one more negro to sell. Come. She is in the great house.”
As Theophilus Finney followed the Frenchman into the Grande Maison, he could scarcely contain his excitement over his good fortune. Such a deal! Twenty-three thousand dollars for thirty of the healthiest, finest-looking negroes he’d ever seen. Not a scratch, limp, bad eye, or snaggle tooth among them. Buyers would scramble over themselves in New Orleans to scoop them up. Even at scrape bottom prices, he figured to make three to four thousand, minimum. Considering their skills, possibly as much as ten thousand dollars!
Finney accepted another glass of whiskey, furrowing his brow, anxious to be on his way, wondering whom Monsieur Domingue was going to try and pawn off on him. A hundred-year-old washer woman? A blind seamstress? A cook with no arms and one leg out sideways? Damned Frenchmen. For men of such honor, they sure were a crafty bunch. No telling who or what they’d sell.
Monsieur Domingue gave an order to one of the servants. Finney heard footsteps ascend a staircase. A door opening. Overhead, an old woman’s soft, muffled cry.
Finney shifted uncomfortably, watching Monsieur Domingue lean against the marble mantel, his wine glass in his hand, firelight leaping upon his legs. The tick of the mantel clock sounded especially loud. He heard nothing more until, of a sudden, a small child was standing in the doorway, shyly glancing back and forth at the two of them. Monsieur Domingue motioned her to go stand before Finney. With only a slight hesitation, she obeyed, stopping just out of Finney’s reach, her little boots making no sound on the floral rug beneath.
She was about six years old, by his guess, a mulatto, her skin the color of coffee with cream. Finney recognized in her delicate frame the slender features of Monsieur Domingue, the rosy, sensitive lips—so effeminate on a man, yet becoming on such a small female child—the tender, dainty fingers, the slender nose, so unlike the splayed-out noses of full-blooded negro wenches. She was dressed in the clothing of a planter’s daughter, all flounces, frills, and ruffles. The child watched him with large, amber eyes, an unusual eye color even for a mulatto.
Finney cleared his throat. “Now Monsieur Domingue, you know well as I do that it’s against the law in Louisiana to sell a child under ten years of age without its mama.” Finney licked his lips. If the mother was as pretty as the daughter . . .
“The mother is dead. I believe she died at childbirth, or shortly thereafter. A Congo slave.”
Finney was surprised. He did not pretend to know much about Creoles and their arrogant, foppish ways, but this much he knew. Creole men did not mix with full-blooded African slaves. It was a social disgrace. A violation of caste. No wonder the Frenchman wanted to be rid of the child. “I’m supposing you have written proof of the mother’s death?”
“Oui. You shall have it before you leave.”
“Your child?” Finney didn’t usually ask such personal questions, didn’t care really. After all, it was bad for business. But he was curious. The Frenchman was a peculiar sort.
Monsieur Domingue pierced him with a haughty look. “Of course not. She is an unwanted expense. And I am tired of unwanted expenses.” The Frenchman hesitated before saying, “Besides, the child should follow the status of her mother. It is in her blood and cannot be helped.”
Finney looked back at the girl. A child like this would not be difficult to sell. She would make someone a fine pet. White women were fond of that sort of thing and sometimes spent extravagant amounts of money. “Most I can offer is a hundred dollars. She’s too young and has weak blood. Won’t be able to work none. Carry a glass of water maybe.”
“Three-hundred dollars,” the Frenchman replied with a snap to his voice, disdain flashing in his eyes. Without waiting for confirmation he said, “So the total is twenty-three thousand, three hundred dollars, no?”
Finney pretended not to see the disdain and answered in the affirmative. He rose from his seat and shook hands with Monsieur Domingue.
Damned foppy Frenchman. Shakes hands like a fish.
Huddled in the back of the wagon, Monette hugged her doll to her chest, wrapping it beneath her woolen cape to keep it warm. “Hush, ma petite,” she whispered, glancing up at her bedroom window. She could see nothing beyond the velvet drapes. Where was Heloise? Never before had she traveled without her nurse. She hugged her doll tighter. “Do not worry, little baby. Heloise will come. She is only fetching her walking stick.”
Monette watched as the man with big teeth fastened a line of men and women to the back of the wagon. Chained together two-by-two, they stared at her, and she looked away. So many of them, only a few of whom she vaguely recognized. She shrank against the side of the wagon, the rough planks hard and unforgiving, meanwhile searching the windows and doors of the Grande Maison. Heloise! Tout de suite! I am alone!
The wagon lurched forward and Monette cried aloud. The groan of the wheels. The heavy clank of chains as the men and women trotted after. The thumping of her heart. Heloise! Where are you?
The bouncing jarred her teeth. She collided against the side of the wagon, bruising her shoulder. Tears stung her eyes. One of the black men spoke to her, but she pretended not to hear, turning away and sobbing harder. Oh, Heloise, what is happening?
Then, from far away, she heard a rumbling. At first she thought it was a distant thunder, the beginnings of a storm, a deluge, but soon realized the sound came from the cane fields. For a moment she stopped crying and listened as the rumbling became a full-throated roar. Then she saw them. A seething mass of black poured like heavy smoke toward the wagon. Closer . . . closer . . . men, women, children, casting aside farm implements as they ran, stumbling over furrows, weeping, shrieking, arms outstretched. My wife! My son! Maman! The men and women chained to the wagon cried out. The mules moved faster, forcing the men and women to trot.
Then the roaring crowd enveloped Monette like fire. Black fire. Fire that screamed, crimson screams. No! No! Fire that clung to the men and women, refusing to let go, pulling against the chains, begging, wrenching, until the skin ripped and the blood flowed. No! No! A whip cracked the air. A gun fired, belching black smoke. She heard the smack of leather on flesh and shrieked, throwing herself to the floor of the wagon. She plugged her ears with her fingers. She rocked back and forth. Papa Léon, oh, Papa Léon. She began to sing a nursery rhyme—sung to her many times by Papa Léon—as if he held her in his arms once more, as if he buried his lips in her hair and whispered, My daughter, ma chérie.