Elizabeth showed the beginnings of a rare smile, partially exposing the gap between her two front teeth, a gap that matched Suzette's own.
"I'm going to make you a little secret peach cobbler for your birthday tomorrow. No telling anybody else, even Mam'zelle." Elisabeth reached out and touched Suzette's arm, insistent, the almost smile fading. "Understand?" she said. "Not even Mam'zelle."
Suzette nodded. "Should I run and get more peaches?" she asked.
"First use those young legs to go get me some more sugar. One extra cup and we'll make sure this peach cobbler bubbles up nice and sweet for Mam'zelle Oreline."
The ache had faded from her cheek by the time Suzette served the breakfast of tamales, tortillas, sausages, blood pudding, and biscuits to the Derbannes and their visiting houseguests. They were ten around the long dining room table, and the adults seemed in high spirits. She dished the sausages out of the platter for everyone around the table, coming last to Oreline's cousin Narcisse Fredieu, a pudgy boy with light brown hair thick clumped in waves hugging his head.
Suzette stayed close to the table, hoping to hear the Derbannes and the Fredieus talk about St. Augustine. For a long while the breakfast conversation meandered lazily from the price of cotton and old people's ailments to the poison grass creeping up from the marsh, what the weather was likely to be, and the heavy responsibilities of the planter class. She'd heard all of that before.
"I tell you, brother, the seating arrangement is improper at St. Augustine. White sitting behind colored," Narcisse's mother complained. "We were meant for better."
Suzette waited to see what would happen next. Oreline had told her that the Fredieus were not exactly de la fine fleur des pois, not the most select blooms of the sweet-pea blossom, and the marriage of Narcisse's mother to a Fredieu had been below her place. On many of their visits Suzette had overheard Narcisse's mother, a Derbanne, talk about her family's quality, with history and distinction in the bloodline. She passed on her family stories, bold and proud tales of the original French settlers in Louisiana. She was silent on the subject of the Fredieus' background.
"They reserve the eight rows for their betters, sister," Louis responded. "Only Augustine's family is in front. He did pay for the church, after all."
Françoise cleared her throat to speak. "We should go to the Natchitoches church," she said, and her voice rose slightly. "It dismays me to have to consort so closely with the gens de couleur libre."
Suzette knew she really meant her godmother, Doralise. Even the mention of Doralise Derbanne could trigger an ugly mood in Françoise. Louis Derbanne had freed Doralise when she was still a nursing baby, acknowledging her so openly as his daughter that she had taken his last name as her own, even in public, making it impossible for Françoise Derbanne to deny the obvious, as she had done with the others. Suzette's godmother, her marraine, occupied a middle place, not as high as the white Derbannes or the Fredieus and not as low as any of those she sponsored as godmother from the house or the quarter. She was a woman of color, and free.
All eyes at the table shifted from Françoise to Louis Derbanne. He looked the part of the older-generation Creole French planter, from his pomaded thinning gray hair to his black suit and riding boots. The role had been handed to him whole on the day he was born. "We have had this conversation before," he said. "I will not drive all the way to Natchitoches when there is a perfectly acceptable chapel on the river."
Françoise gave ground in the face of opposition from her husband. "With the infidel Creoles around Cane River, we were lucky our eight rows were half-full."
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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