He slipped his hand into the pocket of his scruffy corduroy jacket, touched the thing Rose had handed him that morning, bony and nasty even through wrappings of bandanna and newspaper.
The gallery where they customarily had breakfast overlooked the narrow courtyard of that creaky old Spanish house on Rue Esplanade that for eight and a half months now had been their home. Rose had been upstairs, helping Cosette pack--Cosette, who had boarded with them for four of those eight months as a pupil in the school Rose had established. So far they'd had only three pupils. One--Marie-Anne--had departed a few days previously, to join her mother in a cottage by the lake rented by her mother's white protector. The youngest, Germaine, shared bread and coffee with January on the gallery. Ten years old and a fragile little miracle of ladylike deportment, she had a creamy dark complexion and African eyes that made her look like some ancient Pharaoh's daughter inexplicably masquerading in ruffles and lace. Germaine's mother, also a rich white man's placee, was coming for her that afternoon. The morning air was silky, before the day's brutal heat began, and scented with cafe au lait.
"I found this in Cosette's room," Rose had said, coming out onto the gallery, and handed January the thing that was now in his pocket. It was a rooster's head, the eyes and much of the flesh gone, but black wax still visible clotting its bill.
And so he had come here.
Tiqui li papa. . . .
Men sang as they heaped wood in pits gouged in the dust, kindled fires to light the shadows that gathered thick beneath the trees. A few of the stinking little saloons on the other side of the turning-basin had lit their lanterns; smoke from the gumbo-lady's fire scratched January's eyes. Someone jostled him from behind, and glancing back, he saw a couple of young white ladies, with an elderly female servant in tow to lend them respectability, staring through the fence with avid eyes. One of them whispered, "Which one is her?" in English.
They weren't the only ones staring. Looking away from the firelight, January saw white idlers strung all along the fence, peering in: Creole French and Creole Spanish in starched collars and well-cut coats of Bath superfine; Americans from the other side of Canal Street, with the greedy, restless eyes of those who view everything as a potential source of income. In the winter Carnival season, and on up through late spring, young ladies in their bell-shaped skirts and wide sleeves would come to gaze, though by this time of year most of them had left town. The two young women who whispered behind him were clearly of the class that didn't have summer houses by the lake.
January went back to scanning the faces of the dancers in the leaping yellow firelight. Men and women who had to return the next day to being what the whites wanted them to be: stablemen and laundresses, stevedores on the wharves or milliners in the tiny shops on Rue Chartres. People who had to pretend to be white in their hearts if they wanted to get money from the whites who were its only source.
Beyond them in the shadows beneath the plane-trees January picked out others, though it was rapidly becoming too dark to see clearly. After three and a half years back, he knew most of the voodoos, the root-doctors and ouangas and the lesser queens with their bright-colored headwraps worked up into five points, like gaudy flame around their faces. Some he knew from before he'd left, all those years ago. He saw withered old Dr. Brimstone, and John Bayou with his expressionless reptile eyes. Saw hugely fat Queen Lala, and Queen Regine like a dessicated black ant, strings of peeling glass pearls rattling around her withered neck.
Behind him he heard the young women still whispering, wondering if, later, they dared to go to Mamzelle for a love-ouanga or a spell to drive a rival away.
Excerpted from Dead Water by Barbara Hambly Copyright© 2004 by Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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