Six days out of seven, the ten thousand or so people in the city of New
Orleans whose bodies were the property of other people were kept pretty busy.
Having no legal right to choose what they'd rather be doing, they tended to get
the dirty jobs, like mucking out stables, cleaning the always-horrifying
three-foot gutters that rimmed the downtown streets, cooking everybody's food in
sweltering kitchens, and washing everybody's clothing, and getting damn little
thanks for any of it--they were better off doing white people's chores than
living in heathen villages in Africa like their ancestors (said the white
Sunday afternoons, the slaves got together in what was officially called Circus Square--unofficially, Congo Square--next to the turning basin where the canal-boats maneuvered, and close by the old St. Louis Cemetery. Those who had garden plots sold their surplus produce: tomatoes and corn, this time of year, and peaches whose scent turned the thick hot air around them to molten gold. Old women peddled gumbo for a penny or two a bowl, or bread, or pralines: brown, pink, or white. Old men sat under the plane-trees around the square's edge and told stories to the children, about Compair Lapin the rabbit and ugly stupid Bouki the Hyena, and High John the Conqueror, who always got the better of the whites.
Always, someone played the drums. Ancient rhythms flowed and leaped through the American dust, rhythms passed down from mothers or fathers or grandparents who'd been taken from African shores--even the modern tunes were quirked into African syncopation.
Always there was dancing, the men turning the women under their arms, leaping and slapping their feet, wriggling in doubled and quadrupled rhythms, styling to show off what they could do. Ankle-bells jangled, hands clapped. Voices shouted encouragement, and when the sun glanced low over the slate roofs of the pastel town and flashed like a burning sword blade on the river, then Mamzelle Marie would come--Marie Laveau, the Queen of all the voodoos--and dance with her snake, and sing the songs of her power and her triumph.
At the gates of the paling fence that circled Congo Square, Benjamin January stood watching the voodoo queen dance in the twilight.
I walk on pins,
I walk on needles,
I walk on gilded splinters;
I want to see what they can do. . . .
January had met the voodoo queen soon after he'd returned to New Orleans from France, where he'd lived for sixteen years. Then, as now--three years ago, that was--the summer heat had lain on the town like a damp and itchy blanket, but in that summer three years ago had come not only the usual yellow fever, but the cholera, too. It was the cholera that had brought January back to New Orleans, the cholera that had taken the life of his wife in Paris, that had driven him, half-crazy with grief, home to this city of his birth. When he'd gone to France in 1817 to study surgery, he had vowed he'd never return to the land where he'd been born a slave, where, despite his freedom, the color of his skin still dictated what he could and could not do.
Yet here he was, he thought as he watched Mamzelle Marie raise the seven-foot kingsnake high above her head--as he watched the reptile slip and coil down her arms to wrap around her bronze throat and the bosom half-covered by her red cotton blouse.
Back in New Orleans.
Back with his family--with the mother who strove to pretend she'd never been a slave herself, or borne two children to a slave. With the one sister who was a rich white man's mistress, and the other sister whom he now hoped to find here, somewhere, in this moving mass of dancers.
Back home. And married again--the thought still filled him with wonderment--to a lady named Rose, who'd been no more than a gawky, nearsighted schoolgirl when he'd left New Orleans all those years ago.
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.
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