Watching the shell that remains of my maternal Grandmother, devoid of her vibrant life, her encouraging smiles and constant conversation was the final factor in my decision to vote with the rest of the family to let her expire. We could not allow her to continue to endure so much pain.
Throughout her entire life this woman took good care of any and everyone who came into her world. It just does not seem fair. Then again, how often was fair a factor for black people?
Anyone who had ever been in the company of her spirit would know that she would not want to exist this way- her body twisted from multiple strokes, her limbs failing, and the cancer eating away at her spine. This was more than any soul should have to bear. To starve her to death seemed so cruel, yet it was the only legal way to let her pass on. The fate of someone who had fed half of Los Angeles was to starve to death.
Helen, whom everyone called ‘Mother,’ would feed anyone who was hungry. She always said, “Anything I give, God will make sure I get back tenfold.” You had to know her to understand her way of thinking. Maybe this book will help to clarify and glorify a woman who is certainly an angel in heaven. When she died, she left seven children, twenty-four grandchildren, and thirty-eight great-grandchildren.
Mother was the kind of woman that no matter what you did she is “gonna” still love you unconditionally. Don’t get it twisted now, she would be the first to tell you when you did wrong, but still be there for you.
Anyone could knock on Mother’s door or come into her café, and say they were hungry and she would feed them. If you needed clothes, she would take you to her second-hand store and clothe you. Many people took advantage of this, but she knew exactly what was going on. More often than not, when these people got on their feet, they always came back to repay her. Some said they could never do enough for her. Her good deeds were often the catalyst in helping them get their lives together.
Mother always said, “Folks is folks. There are good white folks and good black folks. There are bad white folks and bad black folks. She also said, “Every person’s life is like a pot of gumbo, you get out what you put in.”
Gumbo is a very popular Louisiana dish, a kind of soup. There must be a million variations on how to make it. Every person who makes it thinks theirs is better than the next. I have seen people arguing over what is the best way to make this dish. Just like life, everyone has some input on what would make the next person’s life better. Some people want more sausage, more shrimp or no shrimp. Some want crab or oysters. Some prefer more spice, more file’ (feelay). One thing they all have in common is a Roux (Roo). Roux is the gravy base and the foundation of this dish. It gives the soup its flavor and is what makes you get that second bowl. Everyone has a Roux in his or her life. Someone who influenced every step they took, and in some way gave their life direction. Mother was my Roux.
To see photos of the people in this book go to my website. www.Kim-Robinson.com, then Click on the book cover of the my books page.
In order to see into this incredible woman, you have to know what came before and what came after. That is where we are going in this book. Let’s go, it is going to be an adventure.
Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler
NOTE: There is a family tree in the back of this book.
3 lbs. snow crab, cleaned and washed
15 chicken wings, cleaned and washed
1 lb. chicken gizzards, chopped fine
4 lbs. diced smoked sausage (Hillshire Farms). Fry lightly to remove some fat
3 lbs large shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 packs dried shrimp
2 lbs. baby shrimp
4 stalks of cleaned and diced celery
3 diced onions
3 packs of onion soup mix
2 cans of okra; preferably “Trappeys” brand. Drain off liquid and fry in ¼ cup of oil. This removes the slime.
gumbo file’ (ground sassafras leaves)
1 cup of vegetable oil
1 cup of flour
If you prefer a thicker soup, add more flour. Heat the oil over medium heat. Sprinkle flour over grease while constantly stirring, so as not to scorch, based on your preference. I prefer a nut brown or caramel color. Some people like a darker roux. You can always taste as you go along. Set aside.
Use a large stockpot. Fill half way with water and set on high to boil. You can divide ingredients into 2 or 3 smaller pots. I prefer this method, because it takes a while to get the water to boil. It will also decrease the chance of your Gumbo sticking to the bottom. There is nothing worse than a burnt pot of Gumbo. “Chile just thinking about it makes me want to cry, Gumbo is something that every time it’s made it just gets better as you add or take away ingredients to tailor to your taste, much like a fine suit of clothes. Other variations have bell pepper, tomato puree, oysters, crawfish, rabbit, turkey or chicken, parsley, green onion and garlic. I could fill this book up with various ways to prepare this dish. Do not be afraid to experiment. Add gizzards, onion, celery, onion soup mix, dried shrimp and sausage.
When it reaches a rapid boil, reduce flame to low and cook for an additional 20 minutes. Add Roux and stir. Add chicken, crab legs, okra, black pepper, seasoning and celery salt. Be very careful with celery salt, it can overpower the other flavors. Add 1 teaspoon to entire pot. You can always go back and add more. Boil for 35 to 40 minutes. Add shrimp and boil 5 minutes more. Remove from heat add 1 teaspoon of gumbo file to each pot.
Serve in a bowl over rice.
Sprinkle file’ to taste. Do not be afraid to get your fingers dirty. Also, do not forget to suck the gravy out of the crab legs before you open them up.
You have to let the gumbo cool down all the way before you can refrigerate.
It can be frozen for up to three months. I prefer in Tupperware containers or Ziploc freezer bags.
Enjoy and drop me a line and let me know how you like it. email@example.com
Life is what you make it
To be a woman around times of slavery
You are subject to acts that are unsavory
In order to keep your head up through the depravity
You command from your soul a certain kind of bravery
The only true freedom that you have, no one can enslave
With your brain you fight back
Even if outwardly, you behave
For the people who keep you back and bound in chains
You pray to god that one day they will know this pain
They can put chains on your arms, your legs,
and even your behind,
But the thing that can’t be restrained is your mind.
Keep the curtains drawn on the windows of your soul,
Your eyes …
Don’t let them see the strength that is inside, your pride
Say your prayers every day; hold on to your faith
Just in case, the after life is the place
The place where you get your taste
Of the good life our oppressors don’t appreciate
But with some hustle and creativity
You might not have to wait
And the days and nights in this life don’t have to go to waste.
Life is not how you take it,
Don’t spend all your time looking for answers
Your life is what you make it.
Gizelle welcomed the feel of the cool sheets against her skin. She crawled exhausted into her bed, naked as always during the humid summer. As Gizelle slept, her subconscious took her back to a night twenty years ago in 1850. She was twelve years old and alone in the middle of the night. Scared, tired, hungry, and sick, she sat crying and shivering under a huge magnolia tree in driving rain, deep in the bayou near Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Gizelle decided to sit and wait. Surely, one of the water moccasins or some deadly spider would put her out of her misery. No matter what, she was not going back to the plantation.
Before Gizelle was old enough to be weaned, she had been wrenched from her mother’s breast and sold to the Sunrise Plantation. They should have called it the Graveyard because so many slaves were buried there. They worked clearing the bayous so the boats could navigate through the waters to bring in materials to build plantation homes and slave quarters. They also brought in seed and supplies to cultivate the fields of cotton, rice, and sugar cane; anything that was agriculturally profitable.
The overseers did not allow slaves who labored in the fetid water to get out as they watched others pulled under by the alligators. If the poisonous snakes and spiders did not kill them, the elements would. They worked regardless of rain or snow. Those who fell ill were left on the bank to die. The owners could always buy more slaves.
During the epidemics, cholera and yellow fever laid claim to many. Hundreds expired from colds, croup or the many diseases that thrived in the swampy water. The soles of their feet split open from the fungus brought on by standing in dirty water for too long. They bound their feet with bandages but without proper treatment, the cuts developed gangrene. The limbs were amputated. Cripples sat in pirogues to transfer the debris from the water to the bank. A slave was lucky to make it through a year working at Sunrise.
Gizelle’s dark skin dictated that by the age of four she was sent to the fields to pick cotton. When she was nine years old, the overseer gave her a gift. He raped her. He had been doing so for three years now. He had very strange and unnatural desires, and she could not take it anymore. She would prefer death to the tortured existence she was living.
Each time lightning brightened the sky, Gizelle prayed for God to end her life. Finally, the storm passed. She gathered Spanish moss from the trees and made a pallet. She closed her eyes, hoping they would never again open.
“Cher, Cher, Wake up chile! What are you doing here? Get up Cher you are soaking wet. Come with me. Open your eyes,” the voice said.
Gizelle heard the words but did not want to open her eyes. She did not want to be alive. Maybe God was a woman, or maybe he was busy and had sent an angel for her. She peeked out with one eye. Nope it was not God; God did not have long white hair that hung down to his waist. She opened the other eye and looked into eyes that looked like a cat, colored a greenish-gray. Her face was soft with what seemed to be concern. No one had ever looked at Gizelle with such kindness.
“Can you stand, Cher? Are you hurt?” The woman touched Gizelle’s forehead and found it burning with fever. “You poor chile, you come with Tallulah; I will make you better,” she said.
Gizelle rose shakily to her feet and leaned against the strange woman. Tallulah was the tallest woman she had ever seen. When Gizelle got dizzy and could not walk, Tallulah carried her.
Tallulah took her to a cabin built three feet above the ground alongside a creek, allowing the water to flow under rather than through the house when the water was high. It was a cozy habitat.
Three large rooms were more than adequate for Tallulah. One, a large inviting kitchen kept warm by the stove where she prepared her food. Another was the bedroom, which boasted a four-poster bed with night tables and an armoire that covered an entire wall. The custom furniture would have done any mansion proud. The last room had a massive desk on one wall. The other three walls were bookshelves, overflowing with books and mementos of her life. The collection of Indian and French artifacts spoke volumes about Tallulah’s heritage.
Gizelle dreamt that someone removed her wet clothes and placed her in a large metal basin filled with lavender scented water that had been warmed in a teakettle that sat on the top of a big pot-bellied stove. Her hair was gently washed and braided. She was spooned hot soup; the tastiest she had ever eaten, nothing like the slop at Sunrise. The woman held a cup for her so she could sip delicious honey-sweetened herb tea. It soothed and warmed her from the inside out.
When she was out of the tub, Gizelle’s body was rubbed down with oils that made her skin feel smooth and soft like a baby. The towel was soft, like freshly ginned and cleaned cotton. She wondered if she was dreaming, or maybe this was heaven. Wherever she was, this was where she wanted to be.
Gizelle awoke in the comfort of a soft feather mattress. This must be how the people in the big house slept, she thought. She was afraid that if she moved, her surroundings would disappear and she would find herself back on the floor of her cabin. Tallulah warmed the sheets by filling a bottle with hot water and rolling it between them. The quilt smelled as if it were filled with fragrant flowers. She drifted back to sleep.
As Tallulah bathed the child, she noticed scars, welts, and burns. Tortured slaves were a familiar sight for her. She spent her days making rounds to plantations in the area. Some plantation owners believed in caring for the blacks that worked for them, not that they considered them human, but just as horses or dogs could get sick, so could slaves. They did not mind the small retainer. It was much less than the cost to care for a sick slave or replace a dead one.
Tallulah worked wonders on slaves and animals. It seemed she always knew which herb would revive her patient. Many physicians who refused to work on blacks came to her for advice on perplexing cases. Some white people found her much more effective than the college-educated doctors; before long, they joined her list of exclusive clients.
The fullness of Gizelle’s breasts, and the life-giving milk that leaked from her swollen nipples, along with the slight roundness of her stomach alerted Tallulah. She would wait for Gizelle to get better to ask if she wanted to keep the baby. If not, she would prepare a brew from the black cohosh plant. If taken early in pregnancy, it causes the necessary bleeding to bring down the period and abort the fetus. She had prepared this for many women with great success. Tallulah lay down next to Gizelle and went to sleep.
Tallulah was French and Indian; the result of an affair her mother, Jennifer, had with a tall Muskogean (Black and Indian) warrior named Sachwaw. She was nearly five feet, eleven inches tall. She had bronze skin and a slim figure that even at her age of fifty, was statuesque.
Tallulah came into the world amidst great tragedy. Jennifer’s husband, Jacques Boneaux, a French Diplomat with blonde hair and blue eyes, could not deal with the horror of his wife’s betrayal.
Jacques rushed home after receiving word from one of his slaves that Jennifer had borne the child. Upon entering the foyer of his massive plantation home, he saw the doctor coming down the stairs. “Congratulations Jacques,” he said as they shook hands. Jacques offered him a flask of bourbon.
“Let’s celebrate, Doc.”
Doc took the flask, closed and returned it without taking a sip. “Your wife and daughter are resting, both healthy and fine.” He put on his coat and hat.
Jacques could not help feeling something was amiss. Doc’s eyes never met his. He seemed nervous and in a hurry to leave, much as a man with something to hide.
Jacques had never known him to refuse a drink. Yet, he had begged off, saying that he had to get home to his wife as he hurried out the door. Jacques had spent many a night in brothels with Doc and he had never seen him in a rush to get home. Actually, it was just the opposite, and who could blame him? Jacques had met the good doctor’s wife and she was far from attractive. Pictures in their home professed to the great beauty she once was. When she got pregnant with their only son, she had put on quite a bit of weight and after the birth, she continued to blow up like a balloon, which distorted the once pristine features of her face. No, he thought, Doc just said they were fine. Then he remembered he had a baby. He took the stairs two at a time.
Jacques stood at the bedside watching Jennifer in her slumber. He could not help but smile at the blissful serenity of her sleeping, angelic face. They had been married exactly one year ago during this very month, December of 1800. Their fathers had been childhood friends in France and had come to America to make their fortunes in slaves and cotton. From the day Jennifer was born, their parents spoke of their marriage.
Growing up, Jacques and Jennifer rarely saw each other, as he was away at boarding schools. When they were together on
holidays and gatherings, he was so enchanted with her that he did not quite know how to act. She was a lady, born and bred.
Jacques remembered deflowering Jennifer on their wedding night. For a moment, he felt guilty and even considered not consummating their marriage. When he entered the room and saw her slim figure, so blonde and beautiful, her creamy skin accentuated by the glow of the candlelight, he had to have all five feet six of her. Jacques felt just as eager as he had when he was twelve and his father had arranged his first encounter with a slave girl named Riva.
Jacques had fantasized about being with Jennifer for so long that he lost all self-control. He showed no consideration for her feelings. His father’s instructions about the delicate task of handling a virginal bride left him. He laid her down on the bed and thrust himself into her. As he entered her warm moist flower, before he could pull out of her, he spent himself. My God! he thought. This had never happened before. He was grateful she was a virgin and knew nothing of the way sex should be. Even a whore on Bourbon Street would have laughed herself silly over his performance. He was ashamed and hated himself for being such an inconsiderate buffoon.
Jacques mistook Jennifer’s tears as an indication of pain. He held her close, all the while telling her, “It will be easier and much better next time, Cherie. I rushed so as not to hurt you,” he lied.
My God, Jennifer thought, as she lay there crying, just as she and her mother had rehearsed. Had she blinked she would have missed the entire act. She could not believe what had just happened or, to put it more bluntly, what had not happened. Had Jacques only known her tears were not of pain but disappointment; what he thought was the blood of a virgin was actually her monthly period. It had been so easy tricking him since he had not bothered with foreplay, or any preparations for her benefit. He had simply pushed her down, entered, and it was over.
Jennifer had not been a virgin since the age of twelve when her body had begun to change. Her father, Marcelle could no longer be satisfied with fondling her, something he had been doing since she was the tender age of five.
Jennifer was under the impression that all fathers played with their daughters in this manner. Until one day, she found the courage to broach the subject with her mother, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth questioned her fourteen-year old daughter, Jennifer, at great length. “Never speak of this to anyone but me.” She listened to every detail, before explaining to her precious child, “What your father is doing is a heinous, terrible sin. I want to make it abundantly clear to you that it is definitely no fault of yours, and you must do what you can to prevent it from happening again.”
Elizabeth gave Jennifer several excuses to use when her father approached her in the future. She warned her, “Do not let your father know that you have spoken to me. I promise you that in the near future, I will make everything all right.”
Elizabeth held Jennifer for a long time as she confessed how dirty she felt. Marcelle had told her, “The only way it is a sin is if you tell anyone. If you do, God will never be able to forgive you, and you will burn in hell.”
Elizabeth took her distraught daughter to bed and tucked her in. She sat with her until she fell asleep. Blinded by tears of rage, she felt her way along the wall. When she finally made it to her bedroom, she crumpled in a heap on the floor next to her chamber pot and threw up. Marcelle would pay. Elizabeth swore on everything she held dear that she would see him punished.
For Marcelle and Elizabeth, marriage had been a necessity when they found themselves expecting a child. It was bound to happen one day and they were happy about it. She was seventeen and Marcelle Le Croix was twenty. He went directly to both their parents and told them the predicament, knowing what the outcome would be. This was what everyone had always predicted for them.
Marcelle and Elizabeth had summered and played in the surf together on a stretch of private beach in the South of France. It was only natural for them to fall in love. They had been playing doctor since Marcelle was five, but when he was thirteen years old, they became intrigued with sex after hiding in the closet and watching his parents through the French doors of the closet. There was plenty of opportunity for them to experiment because their parents were often abroad, leaving them to be raised by servants.
When the time came for Marcelle and Elizabeth to go to boarding school, they chose schools close to each other. They spent all their spare time together. He paid a townsman handsomely to let them use his small flat for privacy.
After the marriage, things seemed to get even better. Marcelle was patient and loving during sex. He had traveled with his father to Japan when he was fourteen. By the time he returned, he knew everything about making a woman achieve orgasm after orgasm before he would finally take his own release. He enjoyed the preliminaries more than actual intercourse. He would massage and lick every inch of her body, awakening every nerve in her being. Elizabeth, in turn, took instruction quite well.
Elizabeth thought she knew Marcelle. She loved watching him in the evenings while he sat telling Jennifer stories until they both fell asleep. He spent countless hours teaching her to ride the horse he had given her on her eighth birthday. Package upon package arrived at their door whenever he was away on business. Her love and desire for him had never once waned until this day-not until this hour. How could he have violated their wedding vows by doing something so egregious and Machiavellian to Jennifer? She felt a hatred for him that she never imagined possible. She had to calm down, think of what to do. She prayed to the Lord for strength.
Elizabeth began to complain to Marcelle. “You never take me anywhere.” She bade her time. Two weeks later Marcelle invited her to accompany him to New Orleans.
While Marcelle was occupied conducting his business and purchasing new slaves, Elizabeth sought out a voodooiene. One of the housemaids had told her to go to Congo Square and ask for Marie. She had no trouble finding her. She explained her predicament.
“What would you like to see done to him?” Marie asked. Elizabeth did not hesitate. “I want him to suffer and then I want him to die!”
“You come back tomorrow, I will have something ready that will help you, Madamoiselle,” said Marie.
When Elizabeth returned Marie gave her a pouch. “Add one teaspoon from this pouch to his food at each meal. Stir it in well. It will not take long and you can be sure he will suffer,” said Marie.
Elizabeth asked, “What is it?” The voodooiene put her fingers to
her lips, rose and left the room, indicating that their business was finished. She did not tell Elizabeth that the pouch contained finely ground glass and a touch of dried and powdered White Oleander.
Elizabeth could not bring herself to do the deed for two weeks. Each time she started to prepare Marcelle’s meal some tender memory would pop into her head and stop her. She put it off, telling herself that she would wait until tomorrow. Despite everything, Elizabeth still loved him, but she loved her daughter more.
“Maman, I cannot stop the alarming feelings. My mind tries to fight it but my body cannot. I try to avoid father’s attentions but he does not hear me when I say no,” Jennifer said. Elizabeth knew that she must rescue her tormented, confused child.
The first few days, every time Elizabeth added the fine powder to Marcelle’s food, she cried. Soon her tears were not borne of remorse, but anger. Each time Jennifer came to her in tears telling of another time that she was unable to keep her fathers roaming hands and mouth off her body before he violated her, it got a little bit easier.
Elizabeth cried when she looked upon her daughter’s sad face and noticed the sparkle was gone from her eyes. Jennifer was withdrawn and sullen. She never laughed anymore. Now that she knew what her father did to her was wrong, she swore she could not be around her friends. In her mind’s eye everyone could see her sin. She would not go to school or church. For a while, Elizabeth let her stay home.
After a month of Jennifer’s depression, Elizabeth called her to the kitchen to witness as she prepared Marcelle’s dinner and explained what she was doing. As miraculous as it may have seemed in the days that followed, the weaker Marcelle grew, the stronger and happier Jennifer grew.
Elizabeth never turned Marcelle down when he came to her bed and she hated herself for not being able to control her body from the multiple orgasms any more than Jennifer could. She wondered why she still succumbed to his attentions even though she hated him so. Afterwards, when he fell asleep, she would leave the room and cry.
Marcelle complained about his stomach. He threw up after each meal. After a month he was throwing up blood, the pain got so severe that he could no longer put off seeing a doctor. The doctor could not figure out the problem. He had blood in his stool and urine. He could not keep solid food down. His diet consisted of cush-cush (cornmeal mixed with water and fried, then placed in a bowl with milk and sweetened with honey) or mashed potatoes or plain rice. So much for the spicy cuisine he preferred.
Elizabeth was the perfect, loving, concerned, stoic wife. She showed just the right amount of distress as the neighbors and friends filed in daily to visit poor Marcelle, bringing remedies they swore would help.
Everyone loved Marcelle. He had been a successful businessman and was known to be quite generous with anyone in financial distress. Marcelle, with his best friend and business partner, Francois Moreau, had done well since they had invested in the business fifteen years ago. They married in a double ceremony and honeymooned abroad on their move to the United States. They had made their fortunes within months, not that they needed it mind you; they were both of wealthy families, but it was an adventure, and a profitable one.
Marcelle’s parents came and brought doctors from Europe, but to no avail. Family, friends and acquaintances traveled from across the water to see Marcelle before his inevitable funeral.
Elizabeth, being the understanding wife that she was, sent invitations to women who she knew Marcelle had slept with over the years. She invited his mulatto mistress, Lizette, and the two bastard children she had by Marcelle. Elizabeth had known about them for years. There were no secrets among the blacks and she was so kind to her servants that she was privy to any gossip about the master’s affairs. She always gave them coins for their confidences.
When Lizette arrived, she was visibly nervous because she did not know what to expect from Marcelle’s wife. Elizabeth was glad to meet her after all this time. She had often wondered what she looked like. “You can take the children upstairs to see their father and afterwards I will mind the little darlings while you have some time alone with Marcelle. The doctor said he doesn’t have much longer so please, take your time saying your good-byes,” Elizabeth said.
Lizette’s apprehension dissipated as she looked into this woman’s eyes. There was no deceit and the touch of her hands was as comforting as her mother’s had been.
When the children came out, Elizabeth came from her seat in the hallway with Jennifer. Her heart bled for the tearful children; she sat and consoled them. She introduced Jennifer to them. Lizette’s daughter, Jeanine, was twelve years old and the boy Marcus, was eight. Marcus was a bronze duplicate of Marcelle when he was a young boy. Jennifer and Jeanine took an immediate liking to each other. They went upstairs to Jennifer’s room with Marcus in tow.
After a few hours, Lizette came downstairs. Elizabeth saw the tears in her eyes. She went to her and put her arms around her and let her cry on her shoulder. “Come, Lizette, please join me for a bit of libation, I am sure you can use it as much as I,” Elizabeth said. She poured them both a generous glass of sherry.
Two bottles later, Elizabeth and Lizette knew everything of each other’s lives and the history of their relationships with Marcelle. They laughed raucously as they compared notes about his sexual prowess. Neither harbored any animosity for the other. They understood their roles in his life and felt lucky to have had someone as good as Marcelle. Elizabeth forgot for a minute that she was the reason he was dying.
Jennifer came downstairs. It appeared she was pulling Jeanine along against her will. The poor child was begging her. “Please don’t tell, I don’t want to go to hell,” Jeanine said.
“It will be all right, trust me,” Jennifer reassured her. She whispered in Elizabeth’s ear, “Maman, Jeanine also.” Elizabeth understood immediately. This young child had also been a victim of Marcelle’s perversities.
Elizabeth looked at the poor girl who stood before her. Tears streamed down her face. She had the same eyes as Jennifer and at this moment they brimmed with tears of fear. Elizabeth could not ignore the child’s pain. She pulled her to her bosom and held her tightly. “Do not cry; everything will be fine. I promise you will not go to hell for telling and you have done nothing wrong. It is his sin, not yours,” Elizabeth whispered.
Lizette was puzzled. “I demand to know what is going on,” she slurred.
“Jennifer, take Jeanine and Marcus upstairs and provide them with something to sleep in.” She turned to Lizette. “Be patient. Please accept my invitation to stay here tonight. It is much too late for you to travel back to the city and we have much to talk about.” Lizette agreed without protest; she liked this woman and instinctively knew that she meant them no harm.
Jennifer pulled Jeanine toward her and put her arm around her. “Come little sister, I will take care of you,” Jennifer said.
Lizette expected to hear Elizabeth reprimand the child for calling a Negro her sister. When she dared to look at her from beneath her long lashes, she was relieved to see Elizabeth was smiling. “We must swear to let them spend time together. Jennifer is lucky to have a sister and a brother. I always longed for siblings when I was a child. Unfortunately, for some reason God never blessed my mother with another child.”
“Come let us retire to the great room where the cushions are more comfortable and the brandy is stronger,” Elizabeth said, and proceeded to explain the nature of Marcelle’s misdeeds.
Lizette’s nostrils flared in rage and tears fell from her beautiful eyes. “I had my suspicions … a feeling that I stupidly refused to acknowledge. I have been saving money for years and was going to send Jeanine and Marcus away to good schools where they could acquire an education that would take them far away from any life shadowed with servitude or compromise. I even keep them out of the sun, hoping that they will both stay light enough to be able to pass as white, if necessary. I never dreamed that it was already too late to protect my baby.”
Lizette lowered her head and cried. She was lying to herself -she had known. She had been jealous of the attention that Marcelle paid to Jeanine. He had taken her out for long carriage rides and shopping trips. He never invited her or Marcus to accompany them. The gifts he gave Jeanine were not appropriate. A father did not give expensive jewelry and frilly undergarments to a child so young. She kept quiet for fear that if nothing was going on, she did not want to put the idea in his head. If it was happening, what could she do about it? She wished she could kill him.
Lizette had explained to Elizabeth earlier in the evening that she herself was only eleven years old when Marcelle solicited her aunt, the proprietor of one of the more prominent brothels in town. He saw her one morning coming from her small bedroom on the third floor. Clients did not go up there.
Lizette’s aunt had been her guardian since her mother had died of cholera. She had only planned to wait one more year before auctioning off Lizette’s virginity to the highest bidder. After that, she would preview her at one of the balls. It was a Louisiana custom called pleassage. Prosperous men entered into sponsorship of young girls of mixed race. There was a ball held every year. The guardians of the girls chaperoned them.
When a man chose a girl, the guardian would negotiate a contract for finances and trust. Should something happen to the man, or if he tired of the arrangement, the girl and any children that resulted from the relationship would not be left with nothing.
This arrangement included education for the children. A generous protector would grant them their freedom, some at birth, but usually they held out until the eighteenth birthday to ensure the fidelity of his mistress. Many men did not honor these commitments. A good lawyer in any other era could have made them honor their signatures, but in times of slavery they were dependent upon the good graces of the man. Many watched as their children were sold.
Lizette’s aunt knew a good deal when she saw one. It could do nothing but help her business to have Marcelle La Croix as her niece’s protector. The association would afford her many benefits. If she ever needed a favor, he would not turn her down; not to mention the monies she would receive before he took possession of Lizette. She negotiated a handsome arrangement for Lizette, and an even more handsome one for herself.
Lizette knew that her life was destined for the same direction as her mother’s. She dreamt of running away, but had nowhere to go. Lizette often heard the girls talk about Marcelle. He was a favorite. He only saw young girls … the younger the better. Every brothel in town knew that if they acquired a virgin to contact him immediately. He was always the highest bidder at the virgin auctions.
Lizette could have done worse for herself. Marcelle was generous with money; she had a fine home with servants and he was kind and considerate. He made her feel things she never thought possible. He also gained pleasure from watching her response. He taught her how to please him from the moment he awoke until he left her at night to sleep in his own rooms or return home.
Marcelle’s seed gave Lizette the children she adored more than life. She had even fallen in love with him. She settled into her position and focused her energies on making a better future for her children. She wanted Jeanine to grow up, find a free man, and marry for love. She never wanted her daughter to know what it was like to be at the mercy of someone else’s whims. Just the knowledge that you could find yourself standing on an auction block at anytime was a terrible feeling.
What Marcelle had done to their daughters was worse than any slave auction or ball. Any child forced to become sexually active before her time was wrong, but with her own father, despicable. He should burn in hell and if she had not been concerned about their futures, she would have told him so.
Elizabeth swore to Lizette, “If Marcelle has not put his affairs in order and given you and your children freedom before he dies, I myself will see that it is done.”
The two women sat on the couch and finished a decanter of brandy. They fell asleep holding each other, just as sisters would.
When Lizette left the next day, it was with emancipation papers for herself and her children, along with a large bank draft that would keep them in luxury throughout their natural lives. All signed by Marcelle’s own hand.
That afternoon, the doctor told Elizabeth that Marcelle would not make it through the night. She sat quietly by his bed; he slept fitfully. He woke coughing blood. She sat on the edge of the bed and looked into his eyes. “I have loved you ever since I can remember Marcelle. You have been such a wonderful husband,” she said.
He squeezed her hand in gratitude and looked up at her with eyes that said he loved her and was sorry for leaving her like this. He could no longer speak; the tissue in his esophagus had torn from the constant vomiting.
Elizabeth stood. “I am glad that you are dying. You are a vile, insufferable beast and the world will be much better off without your kind. The doctors never had a clue that I was poisoning you. When I served you supper, I was serving you your death,” Elizabeth bragged.
Marcelle’s eyes widened and through the pain he asked, “Why?” Blood rose and dripped over his lips. He attempted to sit up, but the sudden movement left him strangling on the blood that was rapidly rising in his throat. She could see the question in his eyes. “Any man who sleeps with his own daughters should be made to suffer for eternity. Death is more than you deserve,” Elizabeth said.
Marcelle never imagined that Elizabeth knew. He closed his eyes in shame and they never opened again.
As Jacques looked down at his beautiful wife and mother of his child, he could not help but realize how much he loved her. He picked up the small bundle wrapped in his exhausted wife’s arms and gingerly pulled back the hand-crocheted blanket. His heart stopped.
The child that he assumed was his clearly was not. Thick black hair and olive skin told the true fraternal story. He grabbed Jennifer by the hair and pulled her out of bed. “You will tell me who the father of this bastard child is!” Jacques screamed.
Before Jennifer was fully awake, Jacques was dragging her out to the barn. He strung her up, and beat her as if she were a slave. She had no choice but to confess the details of her secret assignations with the Indian. She realized he could very well kill her at this moment. She had nothing to lose. “Had you been more considerate as a husband and lover, I would not have found it necessary to look elsewhere for satisfaction. You are an idiot Jacques. You were no comparison to my father who had been bedding me since I was twelve. I missed the feelings that you never once took the time to give me. I found them with someone else while you were on your many whoring trips with your mistresses. I wonder if they are as disappointed with your skills as I have been this past year. The moment you cut me down from here, I am taking my beautiful daughter and going to my lover,” Jennifer said. She spat in his face.
The overseer had reported to Jacques that Jennifer had been spending a lot of time with the local Indians. He had assumed it was something she had been doing for amusement. He had not given it a second thought; he should have.
Jennifer told Jacques, “I never loved you the way I love Sachwaw.” These words were more than he could bear. He had no control over the rage that consumed him, or the arm that held the whip. When he finally regained his composure it was too late. Jennifer was dead. Jacques cracked his whip at the slaves who ran forward to cut her down. “I forbid anyone to cut her down.” He left her wide-eyed body tied to the post for all to see.
Elizabeth ran past Jacques into the barn. She was taken aback by what she saw.
She could not believe what he had done to her beautiful child. “My God, you monster! What have you done to my baby girl?” she screamed.
No matter what Jennifer had done, she did not deserve this fate. Elizabeth knew about her daughter’s frequent clandestine meetings. She did not blame her one bit for her actions. Jacques had several children by slave women, the result of the many nights that he left Jennifer’s bed to go to the slave quarters. He had never given Jennifer any attention. He did not know the first thing about being a husband. He spent months at a time away from home under the guise of business. When he returned to town, he stayed with his mistresses for days before coming home to his lonely wife.
Elizabeth and Jennifer had known about Jacques and his two mistresses before they were married. One a Mulatto, the other a Quadroon, he had fathered seven children between them. They had every comfort that the white wives had and more, a fair trade for not being able to have his name. They lived in fine town homes located in the center of town. Their clothes were of the finest quality; they never missed an opera or play and often traveled with him, while Jennifer stayed at the plantation house in the country, cut off from the world.
Elizabeth cried for her daughter’s soul.
The next morning Jacques was waiting in the area where the overseer had seen Jennifer with the Indian. It was not long before he heard a whistle and saw a dark, muscular figure. He raised his gun and shot the form as it got out of a small pirogue. The tall Indian fell at the water’s edge.
Jacques approached with caution and when he looked upon the fallen man, he was delighted to see that he was still alive. He had only clipped him in the shoulder. He did not want the savage to die without knowing why. He cursed the man and even though he knew he probably could not understand a word of the French he was speaking, he knew that the man knew who he was. “You filthy savage, you will not live to defile and rape another white woman,” Jacques said.
Jacques shot him again in the stomach. He wanted him to suffer a slow, painful death. He walked back to where he had been hiding and picked up the bundle he had left there. He opened the blanket the child was swaddled in and placed her next to the Indian. “The both of you will be eaten by alligators; it is what you deserve,” Jacques said.
It was not until Jacques returned and saw the slaves standing and looking into the open barn that the finality of his actions made him sit down on the ground and cry with remorse. He spoke aloud, “How could Jennifer betray me? I worshipped her in every way. She was my fine porcelain doll, her beautiful features, and hair as soft and shiny as corn silk.
She was to be worshipped, not touched. I gave her everything I possibly could. Did she not have the finest wardrobe? The best house? The best slaves? Why had she done this?”
When Jacques had bedded her, she had lain like a perfect, southern-bred lady. She never moaned or showed any enjoyment; not like his mistresses or the slave wenches. This was as it should have been for a southern woman. It was common knowledge that women of breeding did not enjoy sex. It was something they did only to reproduce.
The things Jennifer had said when questioned, Jacques could not believe his ears. He thought that he was sparing her the unpleasantness of sex. To listen to her describe the passion that she felt for this Indian was unendurable. The savage was not even human. No more than an animal, yet she had enjoyed being with him and described sexual acts that he had never experienced. Could she have been telling the truth about her father?
There was obviously something wrong with Jennifer and he had fixed it. There was no way to change it now. He was not worried about legal action. No one would blame him, least of all the law in Louisiana. He felt justified in what he had done.
Sachwaw had passed out and woke to a searing heat in his stomach. But there was something else, something that needed urgent attention. There was a baby lying next to him crying.
Sachwaw rolled over onto his side, and saw Jennifer’s beautiful eyes looking at him from the face with olive skin. The situation became clear; this was his child, his and Jennifer’s.
Sachwaw felt a surge of strength. He would not die this way. He had a child to look after and a woman to rescue. He struggled to his feet and took the blanket from beneath the child. He tore it in two and tied one strip tightly around the wound in his stomach. The first shot had gone straight through his shoulder and the bleeding had stopped. He picked up the child and with much effort tied her to his back with the remaining strip of cloth.
It took Sachwaw a few minutes to manage to climb back into his pirogue. He tried to lift the paddle but the effort was too much for him. He thanked God that the current of the water was in his favor. When finally he got close to his village, he rolled out of the small craft and crawled to the edge of the village.
A squaw passing by the water heard the baby crying. She placed her gourd on the ground and went to investigate. When she saw Sachwaw, she screamed out. Many villagers ran to help. Sachwaw’s mother, Weena, immediately started giving orders.
The medicine man instructed four men to carry Sachwaw carefully to his tent. Weena took the child. She looked upon her granddaughter’s face. Many times, Weena had seen Sachwaw with the blonde woman. She had begged him to stop seeing Jennifer and spent many nights praying about it. She knew this relationship was destined for disaster. For three nights Sachwaw was delirious with fever. He called out for Jennifer the entire time. He dreamt of the day he met Jennifer. He had been fishing when he saw her stumble to the ground after tripping over a fallen tree limb. He ran to her aide. As he turned to walk back, her hand on his arm stopped him. She found him intriguing. They sat and fished that afternoon. Sachwaw taught her how to bait her hook and she was eager to throw her line into the water. When she caught a fish she was as excited as a child.
After catching five fish, Sachwaw made a small fire. He taught Jennifer how to scale and gut the fish in preparation for cooking. She watched with interest as he skewered the fish on sticks and stuffed them with herbs that he had searched out. As the fish cooked he taught her words from his tribal language and she in turn taught him English. He enjoyed basking in her beauty. He ate two fish himself and watched with much amusement as she devoured the other three. As she returned to the plantation she thought only of meeting him the next day.
Jennifer had been lonely for male attention and Sachwaw was every inch a man. She had never felt this comfortable with Jacques. Sachwaw aroused those feelings that her father had first stirred in her, and more. She did not feel she was doing anything wrong and when she found she was with child she just assumed that the child growing inside of her was Jacques.
Jennifer knew the truth when she suckled the beautiful child to her breast for the first time. She did not expect Jacques to return for a few days and by then she and her daughter, whom she had named Tallulah, would be gone. She would take her mother, find Sachwaw and they would go away somewhere and disappear. She had discussed her plans with her mother. Elizabeth’s only comment was, “Do what makes you happy my child; if you love him go to him and I will be there for you. We have more than enough money to sustain us for ten lifetimes.” She fell asleep making plans for her escape, but it was not to be.
One week later when Sachwaw recovered enough to walk, he was on his way to find Jennifer. Every day the medicine man had to stop him from getting up. He had seen her spirit several times, but thought he was hallucinating; regardless, he knew that she needed him. He arrived at the plantation in the early morning and waited.
Sachwaw saw Jacques driven away in a carriage. He waited for hours, never seeing one sign of Jennifer. He made his way to the barn and entered through the back door. He would wait here for a chance to get into the house. He smelled something that made his stomach turn. He entered the dark barn and stood still while his eyes adjusted. He looked for a way to get up to the loft so that he could study the second floor and find the best way to enter the house undetected. He saw someone leaning against a post. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he realized he was looking at Jennifer’s beautiful hair. Open welts covered her bare back and her hands were tied around the post. He called to her. Why did she not move or answer? Why were all these flies in here?
Sachwaw looked into her lifeless eyes. Maggots crawled over her blood-crusted back. He wanted to scream out. He could not stop the bile that rose into his throat. He ran to a corner and threw up. This had been her fate because she had loved him. Had he any notion that the child was his, he would have never let her remain.
What kind of evil spirit could possess a man to do something as terrible as this to someone so kind and beautiful? Sachwaw knew the answer: the white man’s greed and desire to own and control everything.
Sachwaw cut Jennifer down and waited for the cover of night to bury her remains. He now knew that he had not been hallucinating; it was her spirit that he had seen. He found a blanket and shovel, wrapped and carried her to the place where they had met. He returned to the barn and cried in silence as he waited for Jacques to return. The shock of losing Jennifer coupled with his weakened state; it was no wonder he soon fell asleep.
Sachwaw woke to the sound of the carriage returning. Jacques lurched into the house and back out again. He had not had one sober day since his wife died. He went to the slave cabins and after a few minutes returned with a very young girl. He waited for about an hour and went into the house through the back door, silently making his way through the kitchen and up the stairs. He found the bedroom where he had seen the candlelight from outside.
Sachwaw entered the room. Jacques was asleep, lying face down on the bed. The girl was sitting up in the bed, tears flowing from her eyes. She could not have been more than twelve years old. There was a piece of bloody cloth between her legs. Her eyes widened when she saw Sachwaw move from the shadows. He put his fingers to his lips, warning her to be silent.
In one fluid motion Sachwaw sat on Jacques’ back and grabbed a handful of his hair, pulled his head back and cut his throat. Then he left as quietly as he had come.
The young slave girl, Effie, got up. She smiled to herself as she made her way back to the slave quarters. She was happy about what had happened to the master. She had always liked Mistress Jennifer; what he had done to her was cruel.
Effie knew what Jacques had done with her was a sin. Jacques had grabbed her arm and pulled her from her bed and she was on her way to the big house before she knew what was happening.
Effie’s mother, Riva, rose from her bed in a panic. She knew better than to try to stop the master. She jumped from her bed, begging him not to take her little girl. “But Master she’s your own daughter. Don’t do this. I’ll go with you instead. She still be too young,” Riva said.
“Go back to bed, Riva. She’s the same age you were the first time I bedded you; what difference does it make if she’s my daughter? You were my father’s offspring, which makes you my sister. That just means any children she has will fetch a higher price. I made a tidy sum off the other four that you birthed for me. You say one more word and I will sell you.”
When Jacques got Effie to the bedroom, he made her drink a snifter of the strong horrid tasting brown liquid, then pulled her dress up, lay on top of her and took her. After three painful minutes it was over. He was snoring before she could roll him off. It took her forever to get out from under him. She had wished him dead and gotten her wish. Ha! Ha!
Effie had always thought that one day her father would free her. That dream had been shattered right along with her hymen. She picked up a bag that he had placed on the nightstand when he had come in. She twirled the bag that contained two hundred dollars in gold coins around her finger, and despite the pain between her legs, she smiled and hummed her way back to the cabin to tell her mother what had happened. They ran the next morning.