"I understand your discomfort, my dear, but the best church is a church nearby." Louis waved Suzette over for more blood pudding, and she hurried to his place at the head of the table.
"At least St. Augustine draws the best of the gens de couleur libre," Françoise conceded. "They do have the proper respect for whites so crucial for the smooth running of a community. Thank goodness they don't consider themselves white, but they certainly don't consider themselves Negro, either."
The children at the table, including Oreline and Narcisse, sat quiet, as demanded, listening to the adults talk, joining in only for the singing after the meal.
Midday the Fredieus left Rosedew to return to their own plantation.
Later that evening Suzette helped Oreline undress for bed.
"Mam'zelle Oreline, would you teach me reading?"
"I cannot, Suzette. You must stop asking. You know as well as I do that you are not allowed. Besides, it is no good for you to try to learn something so hard. Your ideas are wicked."
"Just a few words? My name?"
"I will not," Oreline insisted.
"What if we don't tell?"
"No. Aunt Françoise would be very angry if she found out. Why would you want to read, anyway? Even Aunt Françoise doesn't know how."
Suzette stopped to consider. The Derbannes had taken Oreline in when her parents died, and Oreline would never disobey either Françoise or Louis. Still, she persisted. "In church today, I could not follow what the priest said."
"He talks most of the time in Latin," Oreline said. "Nobody understands."
"But I want to take communion. Old Bertram went inside the church today, like everyone else."
"You do not have to know how to read to take communion. I can ask Aunt Françoise to give her permission for you to take classes when I do. Besides, I will always be around if there is something to be read."
Oreline gave Suzette a secret, reassuring side glance when Françoise came in to lead the two girls in bedtime prayers. "Aunt Françoise, can Suzette take communion with me?"
Françoise looked from one girl to the other. "First communion is not until you are twelve, and requires serious study to get ready."
"I would help her," said Oreline.
"Your behavior today did not show you as a very good follower of Christ, Suzette," Françoise said. "You have failed to be properly obedient."
"I can be good, Madame Françoise. I do want to take communion, like Mam'zelle Oreline. Old Bertram told me he was confirmed when he was a boy."
"We will see how you conduct yourself." Françoise sat in the cane-bottom chair beside the four-poster bed, perched tentatively, as if prepared for any turn of events. "Oreline, tonight you will start to learn the Lord's Prayer."
Oreline repeated each passage after her aunt, and then Françoise kissed her niece lightly on the forehead. "When you are ready to be confirmed, you will wear a beautiful white dress and a veil, and I will get you your own rosary beads." Françoise looked to Suzette, standing near the foot of the bed. "And you, Suzette. If you apply yourself, you can rise above your mother and the others in the quarter." She straightened her skirts and prepared to retire to her own room. "Time for bed. Good night."
Suzette made her rounds of the big house, pulling the drapes, emptying the spittoons, and gathering everyone's dirty laundry. She checked on each member of the household to see if they needed her for anything before she returned to Oreline's room, where she blew out the candles and pulled out her pallet from under the bed.
Early the next morning, on her ninth birthday, before the household stirred, she made her way to Françoise Derbanne's favorite rosebush.
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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