"How was church?" Elisabeth finally asked.
"St. Augustine was beautiful." Belle, Suzette pronounced carefully, wrapping her lips around the word, hoping her French sounded as refined as Oreline's, imagining her words flowing as smoothly as those she had heard this morning at the church. "Old Bertram and I stood outside, but he found us a place where we could see into the sanctuary." Sanctuaire. "M'sieu, Madame, and Mam'zelle sat behind a row of gens de couleur libre."
Suzette could still feel the wonder of the morning, the long ride in the wagon pressed between Oreline and Narcisse Fredieu, seeing for the first time the broad bell of St. Augustine above the vestibule, the shimmery waves rising off the sun-baked tiles on the gabled roof, the brightly colored glass. But mostly the clusters of people. White, colored, Negro, free, and slave, all dressed fine, all in one place.
Elisabeth grunted. "The free people of color who built that church own more slaves than the Derbannes. They go by their own rules," she said.
"I saw him, Mère. When he came outside, I saw Augustine Metoyer himself. I was as close to him as I stand to you now. You should hear him talk. More proper than M'sieu Louis. And his top hat was silk."
Suzette closed her eyes to bring back the images of the morning. Augustine Metoyer was the most famous of all the gens de couleur libre. The closest she had ever been to Cane River royalty before was her godmother, a free woman who had married into that famous family.
"I wanted to go inside. Old Bertram went in for a few minutes and took communion while I waited." Suzette was sorry her mother had never seen St. Augustine, that she and Old Bertram were the only slaves who had been allowed off the plantation.
"Just do your work, Suzette," Elisabeth said. "We have ten to feed this morning, and I still have Mam'zelle Oreline's birthday supper to make."
"Mam'zelle promised to leave some of everything on her plate for me tonight since it is almost my birthday, too."
Elisabeth said nothing, began to hum again.
Suzette wished her mother would send her on an errand, away for a time from all of the eyes that sought her out night and day. She would slip off her shoes and walk, with the rich Louisiana soil under her feet and between her toes, and carry back a pail of fresh cow's milk without spilling any, or bring in more wood for the fire, or gather green beans from the big garden to string and snap later. She was eight years old today, would be nine tomorrow, and she was meant for the house, not the field. Everyone, white, colored, and Negro, told her how much pride there was in that.
On good days Elisabeth would tell Suzette interesting things, mostly about cooking or preserving or flavoring, and sometimes she would compare Rosedew with the plantation she had come from in Virginia.
"This big house is puny next to some," Elisabeth would declare. In Virginia, her mother said, the big house had an upstairs, a downstairs, and thick white columns in the front. There were separate servants for every task, and each one of them had assistants. The big house on Rosedew was slung low, a one-story house of wood and brick frame, stuccoed in white, and topped with a long, sloping roof. There were six rooms that Suzette helped clean and a special bedroom for visitors, the stranger's room, with its own separate entrance from the outside for passersby on the river who might need a place to stay overnight. More often, as when the entire Fredieu family stayed over, it was used for the Derbannes' relatives who came calling by the day or week or month.
Beneath her madras tignon, Elisabeth's broad, dark face was streaked with a mixture of sweat from the heat of the cookhouse fires and a film of fine white flour from her morning baking. The sleeves on her long calico summer dress were pushed up above her elbows, and Suzette could see the old leathery burn marks on the brown skin of her mother's arms from her many years as cook, from boiling kettles and the big smoky fireplace and sizzling skillets. Suzette looked down at her own skinny arms, wishing they were pale and white like Oreline's instead of the color of cocoa.
Copyright © 2001 by Lalita Tademy.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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