Cane River, Louisiana, 1834
On the morning of her ninth birthday, the day after Madame Françoise Derbanne slapped her, Suzette peed on the rosebushes. Before the plantation bell sounded she had startled awake, tuned her ears to the careless breathing of Mam'zelle above her in the four-poster bed, listened for movement from the rest of the sleeping household, and quietly pushed herself up from her straw pallet on the floor.
Suzette made her way quickly down the narrow hall, beyond the wall altar, and past the polished mahogany grandfather clock in the front room, careful to sidestep the squeaky board by the front door. Outside on the gallery, her heart thudded so wildly that the curiosity of the sound helped soften the fear. Her breath felt too big for her chest as she inched past the separate entrance to the stranger's room and around to the side of the big house where the prized bushes waited.
Barefoot into the darkness, aided only by the slightest remnant of the Louisiana summer moon, she chose Madame's favorite, a sprawling rosebush with delicate pale yellow flowers and visible roots as long as her father's fiddling bow.
The task didn't take long, going and coming back, and Oreline's breathing was still soft and regular when Suzette slipped back onto her makeshift mattress at the foot of the bed. The only evidence that Suzette had been gone at all was a thin, jagged scratch on her bare arm from a thorn she hadn't seen in the darkness.
The day before had started with midsummer Louisiana predictability, so smotheringly hot that the spongy air seemed to push down on Suzette as she hurried to the cookhouse after church. Once there, she slipped a clean apron over her good dress, a loose-fitting dark calico with a yoke neck, one of Oreline's last-season castoffs her mother had altered to fit the girl's small body. Her mother had left room in the dress for a growth spurt. Every last item of Suzette's clothing from undershift to leggings and shoes had first belonged to her mam'zelle. Although the girls were the same age, Oreline was taller than Suzette by half a head. They made an odd pair, the pale white girl, long legged and gangly as a young colt, and her tiny cocoa-colored nurse, Suzette, with skin like strong coffee after the splash of cream. Suzette's eager smile showed off a gap between her two front teeth. The space was almost the width of a full kernel of corn, and Suzette used it to give more force to her whistle. It came in handy for calling chickens or pigs or for impressing Oreline and Narcisse when they ran the woods together in play.
The added heat from the blazing cookhouse fires made Suzette's dress stick to her as she worked the paddle of the butter churn. Built at a distance from the main house because of the risk of fire, the cookhouse belonged to the Derbannes, along with the cotton and cornfields, the swamplands, the facing rows of eight slave cabins in the quarter, four on each side, and every other living thing on Rosedew, their plantation along Bayou Derbanne.
Suzette looked over to her mother Elisabeth's strong, quick hands as she pulled a gray white dough ball toward her, kneading air into biscuits for the master's breakfast table. When her mother finished the cooking, it was Suzette's job to run the food to the big house while it was still hot and to serve the table.
Der-banne. Fre-dieu. She silently practiced her speaking voice in time to the paddle, hoping her mother would make conversation.
Elisabeth hummed as she worked, her tune deep, slow, and plaintive. Suzette wasn't sure of her mood. Her mother had never taken to Creole French, even the rough version they spoke in the quarter. Elisabeth never achieved the same slurry rhythm that everyone else from the house used.
Copyright © 2001 by Lalita Tademy.
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