Roaches the size of a child's hand dove on roaring wings at the fires. A shift of air too sluggish to be termed a breeze filled the hot night with the sewage stink of the basin, and smell of the cemetery beyond it.
In the shadows near Mamzelle Marie, January glimpsed the woman he'd come looking for.
She was called Olympia Snakebones among the voodoos, a tall woman and thin. She swayed with half-shut eyes, and sweat shone on her dark African features: strong wide cheekbones and firm mouth, and despite one white grandparent, that glossy darkness the slave dealers called le beau noir lustre.
January edged past the two white girls and into the torchlight. His clothes weren't fancy--rough wool trousers, good boots, a blue calico shirt, and a short corduroy jacket--and many of the slaves were dressed far better than he. The men wore their best liveries if they were butlers or valets, the girls, bright dresses or satin skirts if they'd saved up the money from tips and gardening sales. Many greeted him, recognizing him from the wintertime Carnival season, when he'd play piano for the white folks' balls and parties, or knowing him as the man they'd call in for a difficult childbirth, or an injury they didn't want their masters to know about. Even in France he'd been unable to make more than a bare living as a surgeon, and had had to return to his first love--music--when he wanted to earn enough money to marry. In New Orleans the libres--the free people of color--followed white society in preferring professionals of lighter skin and more European features than he.
Even his mother, January reflected wryly, sometimes passed him on the street without acknowledgment if she was with someone she wanted to impress. God forbid she should admit that a man who looked every inch of his enormous height to be a full-blooded African (not to mention being forty-three years old) was her son. He sometimes wondered with amusement what she'd do if she needed a surgeon: call in one of the lighter-skinned libres as all her friends did, or send for her son because he'd work for free.
Like a chameleon set down on plaid, he supposed she'd simply die of vexation.
"Olympe," he said, and Olympia Snakebones turned and smiled up at him with a white slash of protuberant teeth.
"Brother," she greeted him.
They drew a little aside to one of the fires, and January dug out the bandanna with its ugly secret.
Olympe flicked a corner of the cloth aside with the back of her fingernail, and made a face. Above her glittering forehead the tignon she wore--the headscarf mandated for all women of color, libre or slave--was dark with moisture: Olympe loved to dance and would have done so in the heat of noon-day, let alone the sticky magical warmth of evening. Her great dark eyes rose again to his.
"Somebody good and mad at you." Like January, when their mother had been bought and freed by St. Denis Janvier, Olympe had been given a tutor to eradicate the casual African sloppiness from her speech. It hadn't worked, of course. Nobody could teach Olympe a thing she didn't want to learn. Having discovered early in life that she could annoy her mother by saying "tote" for "carry" or "niame-niame" for "food," Olympe still spoke like she'd been cutting cane all her life.
"Not at me," said January. "Rose found this in the room of one of the girls at the school. The girl's been sick, on and off, for weeks."
"That's no surprise." Olympe pulled a pin out of her tignon and used it to turn over the half-rotted head in its crumple of newspaper and cloth. "When Queen Regine puts a cross on somebody, she follows up with poison if she can."
January's face hardened. "I thought it was something like that."
"Who is it?"
Olympe nodded. Voodoos dealt in secrets, and the free colored community of New Orleans throve on gossip and the intimate knowledge of everybody else's business. "That mother of hers been takin' her older girl, Fantine, to the Blue Ribbon balls all last winter an' this one," she said. "And she ain't got a place yet."
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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