Tipingee stood a minute to enjoy the sight of Mer laughing, laughing as she watched Oreste and Belle dancing the Kalenda, twitching their shoulders at each other, making eyes. Mer didn't laugh much. This one day each year, when the blans were feasting the birth of their god, they let the Ginen rest, let them have some little joy. A few times today she and Mer had hid behind the cabins and Mer had smiled for her, put her lips in between Tipingee's and chortled sweet pleasure into them. The taste of Mer's mouth had danced in Tipingee's like the Kalenda. The Christmas sun was hot, the music nice, and the smell of the sweet potatoes that Papa Kofi was roasting in the fire nearby was making Tipingee's belly rumble.
Ti-Bois and his sister Ti-Marie came struggling up from the beach, each of them bearing three green water coconuts the men must have chopped down. The little ones put down the coconuts and began imitating Belle and Oreste, jigging about and laughing, till Hector shooed them back to get more coconuts.
"Tipingee!" Oreste cried out. Belle had gotten tired, was fanning herself, coming to sit by her and Mer. This day, Belle was turned out in petticoats and a fancy gown of bleached calico. That Georgine could turn a flour bag into a wonder, oui. Belle looked like a queen.
"Tipingee, you forget how to dance?" Oreste said.
"Ouf," huffed Belle, planting her behind on a rock. "He wore me out. Go and dance with him, Tipingee?"
"Yes, Tipingee, go," Mer said to her, touching her shoulder lightly, so lightly. Oreste was dancing a little pattern towards her, moving his head in time to Hector's playing of the menuet. Georgine and Pierre were both clapping in time. It was strange to see a backra here. The Ginen were watching themselves, cautious with him around. But he didn't belong at the great house either this day; only the rich ones were invited there. Pierre was a man without two sous to rub together, and Georgine was his only family in Saint Domingue.
Tipingee marked how Georgine's belly was big like a watermelon again. She would soon have another porridge-coloured baby to replace the one she'd lost.
Oreste was still imploring Tipingee, holding his hands out to her. She could see Babette's jealous face behind him in the crowd. But it was Tipingee that Oreste wanted, not that ugly Babette. Tipingee rolled her eyes. "Oreste's feet are like two big [End Page 170] yams," she told Belle and Mer. "If he steps on my toes, he might break them. Patrice now, he could dance. Lighter than breathing. You remember, Mer?"
Only with Patrice would she dance the kalenda. She wondered if he was making Christmas in the bush with the maroons? She wondered if he had a new woman now?
The music was sweet, oui. Mer looked down at Tipingee's feet and smiled; her toes were tapping to the music. Tipingee curled her rebellious toes under, but the music just went dancing along her spine, begging it to move and sway in time.
"Tipingee, soul," said Mer, "I think you want to dance. Your feet want to dance."
"Yes, go, Tipingee!" Belle said. "You're spry enough to keep out from under Oreste's feet if they mash you."
Belle and Mer laughed and pushed Tipingee into the centre of the dance. The music was sweet and Oreste was handsome, and she let them do it.
Oreste's face was glowing with sweat, his steps nimble. She knew she'd only been bad-mouthing him. She smiled, set her body just so, challenged Oreste with her eyes. And she began to dance.
He was good, this Oreste: the way he twisted and turned to the music; the little flourishes he made with his hands. He gave a little jump and Tipingee heard the crowd say, "Ah." She quirked her lips at him and matched him, move for move; made up some of her own into the bargain.
When the "Ah" came again, Tipingee thought it was for her, stamping out a rhythm with her feet, faster than hummingbird wings. But the music fell silent. "Hector, what's wrong with you?" she cried out, gesturing at him to continue. "Play, man!"
But Hector was staring past her, to the path. Everyone turned to look. Tipingee spun around. It was Father León striding by, black cossack dragging in the dust, putting backra magic on them all as he went by signing the cross and murmuring backra incantations at them in his Spanish-flavoured French. He was smiling, pleased with himself.
And beside him . . . "Patrice!" she shrieked, and ran to him. Patrice, her Patrice, her dancing man.
He embraced her. One of his wrists had rope tied around it. Father León was leading him by it, but Tipingee could see that the knot was deliberately loose enough that Patrice could slip it off if he wished. He'd come back of his own desire, then. Any runaway could do this; find someone to intercede for them, and return in the peace of Christmas time. The masters would usually be lenient.
Patrice smelled of the green bush where he'd been living and of man sweat. His sweat. Tipingee felt her belly go soft with desiring. "Patrice."
"I'm home, Tipingee. Miss you too bad."
Yes, it's so his eyes used to crinkle when he smiled. So he would catch up his bottom lip between his teeth. More than a year she hadn't seen him. She sobbed into his neck, inhaling the smell of him as hard as she could.
"Let him go there, girl," said Father León. "Don't writhe on him in so heathenish a manner."
Tipingee drew away, her hand still on Patrice's shoulder. This day, Father's word would have to be law. [End Page 171]
"Tipingee is my wife, Father," Patrice told him. And her Patrice grinned and winked at her.
His cheeks were hollow. What, did the maroons never feed him?
Father smiled a thin smile, tugged on the rope at Patrice's wrist. "Your wife? How quaint. Well, she must wait to perform her wifely duties until after we see what Simenon will do with you. Come along."
So along they went; Tipingee, Patrice, and Father León, with two or three of the small children running after them for a chance to get inside the great house. Little Ti-Bois was yelling and jumping with the excitement. Tipingee felt she could do the same; leap and kick like a young goat. Then she looked behind her. Hector had started playing his music again, looking a little sadly at Patrice. One who had got free had gone and put the coffle back on his own neck. Some of the escaped did this, sometimes. Couldn't make treat with the maroons, and were starving, so they came back. Or couldn't live in the torment of the bush, so they came back to the torment they knew. Or missed their fellows too much. Patrice said he had come home for her. Tipingee could have wept with the joy of it, and the sadness.
Georgine with her heavy belly started trying to teach Pierre the dance steps. Pierre was jigging from side to side like a grasshopper. All red his face was, like the blans could get. His mouth was fixed in a shy smile. He looked embarrassed.
And there was Mer, just standing there on the edge of the circle, sad eyes staring after Tipingee. Tipingee beckoned for her to come, that half of her heart, but there she remained. The other piece of her heart was Patrice. A whole year she hadn't seen him, and now he had his hand in hers again. So Tipingee went with him this time. Mer must understand.
By the time they reached the walkway to the great house, they had become quite the procession; bunches of the Ginen came with them to see what would happen. Some still singing the Christmas songs, carrying and drinking the portion of rum, distilled from their labours, that they got for this day. There were poor blans there too, the ones that Simenon employed. All come to see the fun. Even Mer had come, following along in the back of the crowd where she thought Tipingee wouldn't see her.
"Hey, Patrice," the book-keeper called out cheerfully. "Got tired of those jug handles you call ears, eh? Come to get them lopped off?" Then he and his compères laughed, slapped each other on the back. Tipingee held tight to Patrice's hand, the unshackled one. She glanced at him. He was biting his lips, but no other sign did he give.
"Shush, fellow," Father León scolded the book-keeper. "Unseemly behaviour for our Lord's birthday."
"Yes, Father," the man muttered, tugging at his hat.
Patrice never said a word to the book-keeper. Tipingee knew why. If he responded now, the book-keeper might imagine that a slave dared to make sport with him. Better they think you sullen than insolent. Heart aching with fretfulness, Tipingee squeezed Patrice's hand, but said nothing either. Too many blans around. She wasn't going to show them any weakness. By the Code Noir, Simenon could sever Patrice's ears for running away. He shouldn't have returned, shouldn't have risked the agony and disfigurement. Not for her. She jittered along beside him, vibrating with fear for him. [End Page 172]
The gravel of the pathway felt harsh beneath Tipingee's bare feet, not like the moist earth of the cane fields she was used to walking on. Rose bushes edged the path, open and panting in the late afternoon heat. That smell of flowers; that the world should have such sweetness in it! The only flowers in Tipingee's life were the scratchy yellow blossoms of her pumpkins. Butterflies and fat bees floated amongst Simenon's roses, gorging on nectar. The steaming Christmas air hummed with bees.
The great house loomed in its whiteness before them, like a large albino toad on the path. The verandah that wrapped around it looked cool and shady. Tipingee felt her heart beating warning. She'd never set foot on its steps before; never had business that gave her permission to be here. Suppose they made Simenon mad with their impertinence, accompanying Patrice like this? Suppose their master decided to punish them all? Only Father they had to intercede for them, and him a chancy saviour. She closed her eyes briefly and made up her mind to stay with Patrice, to brave Simenon's whips so that she might be with Patrice when his fate was decided.
Father led his flock gravely up the stairs. The only sounds were their feet thumping on the stone steps. If there are gods still, Tipingee prayed, help us now. She looked back. Yes, Mer was still there. Tipingee felt a little better. Not reassured completely, but a little more comforted.
"Do any of you heathens know 'Venez, Divin Messie'?" Father asked. By the look of disdain he directed at the whole bunch, it was clear that he included poor whites and blacks both in "heathen."
"Yes, Father," said a few voices.
"Good. Be ready to sing it, then. When I tell you, mind."
He sighed, set his shoulders. He banged the knocker on the huge wooden door. It clunked like an axe biting into the chopping block. He knocked again, and favoured Patrice with a small, grim smile. "All will be well, Patrice." He sounded to Tipingee like a man trying to convince himself of what he was saying. He frowned at her, but she kept her hold on Patrice's hand. Patrice squeezed back. His palm was damp and slippery.
In a little while a young métisse, beach-sand coloured, pushed the heavy wood doors open little bit and peered through. Her eyes took in Father León, his black prisoner, the woman with them, then got big as she saw the rest of the ill-matched crew shuffling its shod and bare feet on her master's verandah.
"Well, child?" Father said impatiently.
"Sorry, Father," she whispered. She bobbed her head, pushed the door open, and held it for them to pass through. As Tipingee made to get in the door, the girl blocked her way. She barely glanced at Tipingee, as one might at a stray dog scrabbling in a midden. "All of them, Father?" she said, looking to him as a sunflower would to the sun.
Chuh. Tipingee sucked her teeth in disgust. Little bit of girl forget part of her is African.
"Yes, girl," Father said impatiently. "Step aside."
A triumph, but it was like clay in Tipingee's mouth. She wanted to talk of it to Patrice, but Father would probably object. So she bit on her lips and stepped for the [End Page 173] first time inside the great house where her daughter toiled every day, but where Tipingee had never been.
She heard Mer gasp, saw her look around her, the amazement on her face like one who'd died and gone to the land beneath the waves. The smith took his cap off, clutched it to his chest. He managed to make himself look smaller. Tears sprang to Tipingee's eyes. The smell inside the master's house; that smell, where did she know it from? Why did it make her want to weep? No weeping. Not here. She wondered would she see Marie-Claire. She thrust her chin higher and looked all around her at the high ceilings with their massive wooden beams, at the yards and yards of lace covering the long, tall windows. How many hours of toil to weave all that lace? Enough fabric to make dresses for her and Mer and Marie-Claire for the rest of their lives. White dresses. Or maybe the blans had machines to do that work for them. And an army of Ginen, doubtless to work the machines. Wondering, Tipingee barely felt herself being nudged further into the foyer as the rest of the crowd piled in with them. She heard Mer behind, shushing the three small children.
Father gathered everyone around him into a little knot. "At my word, now," he said, "you begin to sing." Then he turned to the young métisse. "Lead us to Monsieur Simenon."
Looking doubtful, she turned. They started off after her. "Now," said Father, and except for the book-keeper and the smith, who had stepped back a bit from the crowd and were nudging each other and laughing, the group began a tattered chorus of 'Venez, Divin Messie.'
"Sauvez nos jours infortunés . . . "
They went deeper into the house. The Ginen's words began to falter as they gaped around, taking in the sights of Simenon's house. A narrow brown face peeked out of an open door. Marie-Claire! The child saw her father Patrice and made to run to him. A stern voice from inside the kitchen called her back. Marie-Claire watched them go, her face drawn with longing and worry. Tipingee ached for them all.
The group drew level with another open room. Tipingee looked in, to sounds of consternation. A gaggle of white women, pale and odd as swans, gaped back at them. The women were raising cut-crystal glasses, clear as water, to their narrow lips to drink cask-aged wine. No burning rum for them. Their delicate hands were gloved, white throats exposed. Their gracefully bustled behinds would put any African woman's high, round rump to shame. And their hair! Twisted, piled and pinned. Tipingee found herself touching her own hair and flushing hot at the cane-rowed plaits that Marie-Claire had spent the night doing for her. Hers looked nothing like the spider-web creations that were the hair of the backra women. She had been so proud of them, but now they felt like turds on her head.
The women kept staring. One of them started forward. "What . . . " She was slim as cane stalks, her bosom full and firm.
"My apologies, ladies, for disturbing your apèritif," said Father.
The book-keeper and the smith were red in the face from laughing, though they straightened up and dipped their heads when they saw the backra woman. "'Day, Mum," they mumbled. She never answered them.
Even the damned wench leading the group of them was biting her lips. Father scowled at them all and nodded to the white women. "Just some quick business with [End Page 174] the master of the house, and we'll be on our way." She frowned, and withdrew back into the room. With one long, smooth hand she closed the door in their faces. But Tipingee could still hear the room of women laughing, their voices tinkling as though someone had thrown all the crystal glasses to the floor.
The group moved on, their singing only a lonely whine now: come, Divine One; come.
Ah! descendez, hâtez vos pas,
Sauvez les hommes du trépas,
Secourez-nous, ne tardez pas.
Venez, venez, venez.
And now they could hear the deep voices of men, drunken men. Father's lips were moving as he silently implored his white god. Tipingee clung to Patrice's hand, reached unhappily behind her for Mer's. She could have sobbed when she felt the dry rasp of Mer's palm against hers. She held on, held on to her loves.
An explosion of mirth came from that room of men; the deep, sure voices were full with assurance, with power. They spoke in arrogant France French, not the Saint Domingue French, and not the Kreyòl for the daily work of cutting cane and weeding and whispering to your fellows when the book-keeper was out of earshot. The sound of those voices struck Tipingee like shot, and not her only. The clump of pauvres blans and black slaves gathered in closer.
"The accursed man thinks that he can get sugar from beets," said one voice.
"He never does!" exclaimed another. "Why, what will we do then?"
Father took a deep breath, and led them into the room.
"Wai!" Patrice murmured under his breath. Tipingee understood his wonder. Even dreams were not so odd. Tipingee could never have dreamt the extravagance of the velvet and cord justaucorps jackets that corseted the figures of the nine or ten backras standing or sitting around the empty fireplace. Some of the men even wore black! So much money for strong black dye. Damask and linen shirts exploded forth like froth from under their gilets. They all wore white wigs, pigeon-winged or pony-tailed, and small tricorne hats. A bevy of blans, as embroidered as their women. Ten backra men, all dressed as fine as any city ruler, but bleached as bodies pulled from weeks under the river. Tipingee's skin prickled. All heads had turned as Father had entered with his entourage.
"Ah," said Simenon from his armchair where he lounged, a glass of something deep red in his hand. Not blood, Tipingee remembered, but a kind of wine. "Father Leòn, is it? And what a flock you have brought with you."
The other men smiled and laughed at his joke, slapping each other's shoulders. Simenon's demon's eyes of sky glittered. Father bowed his head slightly. "A good Christmas day to you, gentlemen. I was pleased to see some few of you in church this morning on this blessed day of our Lord."
One of the men coughed. "Ah, yes. Indeed. Fine sermon, Father. Most uplifting." Another glanced sideways at one of his fellows. They both grinned. [End Page 175]
Father seemed to stand taller. "If you came away uplifted, it was God's work, not mine. As I do God's work now, Seigneur Simenon."
Simenon only lifted an eyebrow. "As I suppose you must, since Mother Church so zealously commands it. What is that fellow you have brought with you, Father?"
Patrice tilted his chin up high and bit his lips together. So the Ginen did rather than say words that would condemn them. Tipingee clutched her loves' hands tight.
Father put an arm around Patrice's shoulder. "This, Seigneur, is one Patrice, of your plantation, a runaway since last Christmas, he tells me."
"The Devil you say!" Simenon leaned forward and looked hard at Patrice. "This is that Patrice? A year this wretch has had my men searching for him! Do you know how much I paid to find you, you brute? Eh? Do you?"
"No, Sir," Patrice mumbled. He cast his eyes down.
"Seigneur," Father said, "Patrice regrets the mischief he has caused. No more than must be expected when you allow the slaves in your charge to lack for Christian instruction."
Simenon glared at the priest, and now it was Father's turn to draw his chin up in the air. Father continued, "Patrice wishes to return to his labours, and he has bade me to make intercession for him on this most holy of days."
One of the blans made an angry noise. "The nerve of the devil, Simenon! He takes advantage of Christmas day to run away, and now he wants to take advantage of it again to return? You'll never let him, will you?"
"Hmm," was all that Simenon replied.
Gods, you gods, it was all going to go wrong. They were going to kill her Patrice, or maim him. Tipingee couldn't stop the two tears that rolled down her face. Mer touched her shoulder, gently.
A timid knock came from outside the door, and in came Marie-Claire, bearing a tray, silver, with the clear-water crystal on it; dishes, this time. Eh. These backra lived in little islands of heaven, a magical world that Tipingee had never before conceived.
"Ah," said a man in a deep gray justaucorps as he took one of the desserts from Marie-Claire, "Mango Fool." Eager pink hands reached for the dishes.
Father frowned a little as he regarded the confection of spiced, puréed mangoes and sweetened milk. "Truly? I would call that 'Mango Divinity.'"
Again that raised-up eyebrow from Simenon. "Much of a muchness perhaps, eh Father? They sometimes say that the maddest fools have been touched by God." He leaned back in his chair, legs wide, and began to spoon the confection out of its dish. Tipingee watched yellow mango disappear into his maw as he ate of the good of his plantation. Simenon looked at Patrice as he chewed, considering. The Ginen huddled closer together. Marie Claire kept darting glances over to her mother and Patrice, but her child needs must stay where she was, at service to the men, eyes bowed down.
Simenon ate the last spoonful of sweetness from his dish and let the spoon fall back into it with a ringing clatter. The tinkling echoed and swooped in Tipingee's head, round and round. Marie Claire rushed to take the dish onto the silver tray. Simenon licked his lips. "What must I do with such a brazen runaway? Must make an example of him." [End Page 176]
"Exactly," said one of the fine gentlemen in his turkey-buzzard suit of black. He gave Patrice a long look. "Set him to dance at the end of a whip. Teach him obedience." The others nodded, murmured, except one, who looked silently out the window at the butterflies dancing there, his lips pressed firm together.
"Christ forgave the sinners in the temple," Father Leòn said bravely. Another blan clattered his spoon into his dish.
"I am not so holy, Father," growled Simenon. "There's no profit in it, and France clamours always for more sugar, more rum, more indigo, and taxes me past bearing. I cannot have compassion on a wretch who flees his labours to gallivant in the bush."
Tipingee shut her eyes tight and prayed for Aziri to deliver Patrice, prayed for miracles she feared would not happen. She could hear Mer behind her, muttering in her own tongue to Lasirèn. They said the names of their gods together, and the chiming of spoons on crystal came a third time as a few more of the blans finished their desserts. Venez, venez, venez.
The door creaked, the same note as the spoons on the glass. "Ah," said a high woman's voice with amusement in it. "It seems you brave fellows are having your own entertainment here." Master Simenon looked up, and the frown fell from his forehead as a salted slug falls from a leaf. He stood, smiling, and extended his hand. Marie Claire, bustling about to collect the used ware, looked to see who had come in. Dismay creased her brow.
The collected crystal tinkled like the gossiping river, and, to its music, a lady white as the moon was wafting towards Simenon, almost gliding in her beautiful lace-trimmed dress. She laughed gently, waved a languid fan before her face. With the light behind the vision of her, she seemed a thing of another world. The scent of sweet perfume came with her. The door whispered shut behind her, and in the faint breeze of it Tipingee thought she could just smell the sea. Tipingee closed her eyes. How strange a day this was! She opened them again, and finally recognised the lady; one of the backra women who had been with the first little room. But she was different now. Her eyes were too intent, as though they looked on more than men's eyes could see. And so odd, the way she moved! Like when Ti-Bois got piles of sticks and called them soldiers, and walked them with his hands to make them march.
The lady's gown rustled as she moved. She put her hand, white and slim as candles, into Simenon's own. Carefully, she said, "It is so dull in that parlour with the other women." She looked around again with those wide eyes; eyes drinking everything in as though for the first time. "Monsieur Simenon," she enquired, "what matter is at hand here?" She looked with a hungry curiosity from face to face. She fanned herself, gracefully.
"Please sit down, my dear," said Simenon. "You look a trifle overwarm. Do you feel well?"
One of the other backra men rushed to offer her his chair. "Oh, entirely well, Monsieur." She floated over to the chair, graceful now, as a manmzèl floats on the air, and folded herself and her wide skirts into the seat.
Simenon sat again, still smiling at her. He gestured at Patrice. "This fellow is a runaway. Can you imagine, my dear? A whole year of labour he has cost me! And now . . . " [End Page 177]
"Now," interrupted Father Leòn, "He has repented of his marronage and wishes to return."
The lady rapped her fan delightedly against the heel of her hand. "And you intercede for him, Father! On this holy day! How Christian of you."
Father bowed his head a little. "Thank you, my lady. Christian charity is my duty and my calling. I would instruct the blacks on this plantation in the ways of our Lord, for then I am sure that they would be less restless, but Seigneur Simenon claims that he cannot spare their time of a Sunday."
The lady turned wide eyes to Simenon; eyes blue as the shifting sea. "Is this true, my darling? Do your slaves work on Sundays as well?" She fanned herself, and the breeze from the fan made wisps of curls shift prettily about her face. Tipingee wondered at how that hair flowed like water. Backra women's hair was cornsilk fine.
Simenon looked uncomfortable. He grumbled, then: "Of course not, dearest. They have one day of rest each week. It is law," he admitted.
"Seigneur," said Father quietly, "It is also law that they should receive the word of our Lord. Please allow me to conduct chapel here on Sunday mornings. It will cost you nothing, I promise you, and will make your slaves more meek and ready to accept God's saving grace. A profit to yourself and to God."
Simenon didn't reply. He weighed Patrice out with his eyes; transparent demon eyes. Oh, you gods. When Tipi had been young, her mother telling her stories back home, back home where her name had been another name that she couldn't remember now, for that name had drowned in the salt sea of the Middle Passage; back home, listening to her mother's voice, could Tipingee ever have imagined that the monsters from the old tales were real? Yet here she was, living that nightmare tale, while a demon decided what to do with her beloved husband.
"What was it like?" Simenon asked Patrice.
"What, sir?" Tipingee could feel how still Patrice had gone. Was it a trap?
"You had a year in the bush," Simenon said softly. "You came and went as you pleased."
"Sorry, sir," said Patrice imploringly, but Simenon spoke over him.
"You transported yourself free as any wild beast in that bush for a whole year, mocking your master." And Master Simenon leaned closer, so close it seemed he might tumble from his armchair. "What was it like?" he whispered. "Was it glorious? No fretting about how many acres of cane harvested, or how many lazy wretches you need to buy to replace the ungrateful ones who've died on you? What was it like to be free? To dig in the soil with sticks for your food, or to hunt wild beasts of the bush for your meat?"
"Sir?" said Patrice uncertainly.
"Simenon, what ails you?" asked the turkey-buzzard man. He put his hand on the master's shoulder. Got it shrugged off for his pains. The backra who had been silent was smiling a little now.
"No juggling and juggling to make the books balance," Simenon said. "No weevils in the flour, eh? No accursed frock-coats plastered to your body in this hellish heat and no mildew in your wig! No wig, for that matter, eh? Eh? Come now, you can tell me! Was it not fine?" And the master laughed, regarded Patrice as though he might be a dear friend to sit and share palm wine and stories with. [End Page 178]
The backra must be insane! Tipingee saw Patrice's eyes go wide. He opened his mouth to reply, but no words came out. It was the lady who laughed like the tinkling of bells. "Then you will grant him clemency, my dear! I thought you might!"
Simenon looked surprised, as did the men around him. He frowned at the lady, who reached a long white hand to him. "Oh, what a fine man I have picked for my fiancé!" she said.
And so Tipingee learned that their master was taking this woman into his house. Then Simenon was smiling again, grinning at his men friends and puffing himself up like the toad who has croaked and croaked and found him a wife. "All right, dearest," he said. "I will let him keep his ears. And yes, Father, you may have your nigger church."
Patrice would be all right. Tipi's body went cold with the relief of it. She marked the sudden drop of Patrice's shoulders from about his ears. Father sighed and made the sign of the crossroads on his chest. The backra men coughed and shuffled, but they said nothing to gainsay their friend.
"Oh . . . " gasped the lady. She sagged forward a little in her chair.
Simenon leaped to her side. "Élisabeth, are you well?" He touched her shoulder.
She straightened up again. "A little dizzy. It's nothing." She looked around her, dazed, at the backra milling around her. "But this is the men's parlour," she whispered. Her eyes were less bright now. She was no longer looking into another world. She fanned herself and slumped back in her chair, staring in confusion at Simenon.
She was not so beautiful, Tipingee could see now. That elaborate coiffure was plumped out with hair rats to make it look thicker. The powder that she had used to whiten her face ended in a line at her chin, and from beneath its pallour, two angry red bumps glared on her jaw. And she had a nervous manner of looking from face to face of the men in the parlour, as though waiting for them to tell her what to do.
"Girl," Simenon said to Marie-Claire, "bring us more wine. The port. And hop quick, now."
"Yes, Monsieur." Marie-Claire curtseyed with the tray still in her hands, and left quickly, still casting that look of fear at the backra woman. Did she fear the woman, or the spirit that had come riding in her? Tipingee would have to ask Marie-Claire about that later.
Simenon waved a dismissing hand at Father Leòn and the clustered Ginen. "Go on now. Out of my sight, and let me enjoy the rest of my Christmas day."
Relief washed over Tipingee: at last they could leave that evil place. Soon Patrice would be back in her bed. Soon she could find Mer alone and ask, who was it who had come as Patrice's saviour, hiding in the white woman's head? What ancestor, what spirit?
They were almost out of the men's parlour when Simenon called out, "Wait."
Now it was Patrice with his eyes closed. Tipingee could see how his body trembled. Father turned back to the plantation owner. "Yes, Seigneur?"
"Thomas," Simenon said to the book-keeper, ignoring the priest, "see that our runaway there gets five lashes tomorrow."
Patrice made a small sound. Tipingee put her forehead to his shoulder; held the length of his arm tight against her breast.
The book-keeper grinned. "Yes, Sir!" [End Page 179]
"Just a kiss of the whip, mind," Simenon told him; "a reminder that he must not cross me. But don't hurt him much. I want him fit for work."
Tipingee could not be another minute in this house. Furious, she dragged Patrice and Mer towards the door. As they walked through it, she heard one of the backra men say, "They mean to raise another balloon into the air tomorrow, on the beach. This ballooning science is all the rage in Paris now, they say."
So many rooms, and all those corridors. She didn't know if she could find the way out. But they were leaving. The rest would follow her.
As they pushed through the door, Tipingee heard Patrice say to Simenon, "Thank you, Sir; thank you. God bless you."
She knew he meant the god of the blans. Yes, Master Léonard Simenon, she thought. Let your god bless you as He blesses us.
Rare, to have a rain shower in dry December. At first Patrice had welcomed the cool sprinkle of the passing shower on his whip-burned shoulders as he weeded the ratoon fields of young cane. Thomas had followed orders and the whipping had been over almost before Patrice could gasp from the pain; but his back was still sore, and the rain felt cool on the bruised skin.
So long he hadn't had to bend every day over sugar cane, feeling the ache like iron in his curved spine, the hot sun crisping his skin, the palm of his hand that grasped the machète stinging as its blisters burst. His back would be raw tomorrow from sunburn, so the rain was a blessing. He threw back his head and took sweet, clean water from the sky into his mouth. Rain trickled through his hair and down his naked body, washing the sweat away. Patrice tossed a clump of weeds into the sack tied around his shoulder and advanced, doing his best to keep up with the rest of the gang. So long his arms hadn't burned from digging, digging, digging in the earth or cutting down the razor-leaved cane from sunup till sundown. He blinked rain out of his eyes and pulled a wet clump of weeds. He shook the earthworms out of it back into the soil.
A small snail with a cream and beige-coloured shell fell from the clump onto his hand. Come out to keep from drowning in the downpour. Ignoring that the rest of the Ginen were moving on ahead of him, Patrice held the snail by the tip of its shell and regarded it. In a little while the gray, glistening mass of it wormed its way out of the shell again, trembling. It pushed out eyestalks, tried to see where it was. Patrice put it into his palm and it sucked itself inside again, alarmed. He reached into a patch of young cane that had already been weeded and put it down there, out of the way of trampling feet.
The drizzle had stopped. Patrice caught up to the rest and set about weeding again. The book-keeper hadn't noticed him stop, for he was in the shed, sheltering from the downpour. The sun was back out now, but probably the book-keeper was enjoying a quiet smoke of his pipe.
The cloudburst had been cooling, but now Patrice was shivering and wet, his feet slipping in mud, worms and damp leaves. His back felt clawed. It burned.
A flock of gaulin birds, garde-boeufs, descended on the field and started snapping up the frogs and worms flushed out by the rain and the weeding. The bright white birds fluttered and danced amongst the Ginen, mud people. Beside Patrice, Oreste [End Page 180] misstepped and shouted as he fell heavily. Patrice, light-foot Patrice, barely danced out of the way of Oreste's machète as it swung wide. The overseer came running from the shed to see what the commotion was. He was fastening his fly. Slouching behind him was Phibba, pulling down her flour bag dress. She was knuckling at her eyes, her face sad. Patrice helped Oreste up, and back they went to weeding again. Phibba found her machète and bag and took up her place in the gang once more.
In the bush, in the accompong the Maroon runaways had made, the hard labour Patrice did was to put food in his own mouth, a roof over his own head. Madness, it had been madness to come back. Sometimes he wondered why he had listened to Makandal. The Ginen could never win freedom here, on backra's soil. Why was he here? His baby was going to be born soon now, up there in the bush. That was where he could be free. Here he would bend his back long days into nights, and in between times of dodging the backra's whip, he would try to be a husband to Tipingee again. Try to avoid Mer's anger. And always, always there was an image in his mind of other hands digging cassava beside their hut in the bush, of other twitching hips, of young breasts hard and round as oranges, and a bright, trilling laugh. His Curaçao, his unborn baby's mother.
A gaulin bird stepped boldly into his path. "Away!" he said, shooing it with his hands. The bird fluttered up into the air, awkwardly, and landed on his shoulder. He made to brush it off. Some of the Ginen laughed and pointed. The book-keeper grinned, indulgent for the moment.
"It's me," whispered the bird, clacking out words its beak wasn't shaped to make. Makandal. His flight was clumsy because one wingtip had been clipped.
"What do you want?" Patrice hissed resentfully. The bird's clammy toes dug painfully into his sore back. It smelt of raw meat; worms and lizards. Patrice felt his stomach roll.
"Meeting tonight. In the old cabin by the river. Come in darkness. No torch."
It leapt off him, flew on its graceless way. It had shat on his
shoulder. Patrice bent the burning iron of his back to weeding again
and tried to remember the scent of Curaçao's body, the feel of
her skin warm beside him in the night.
From the book Griffonne by Nalo Hopkinson. Copyright © 2003 by Nalo Hopkinson. Reprinted by permission of Aspect, an imprint of Warner Books, Inc, New York, NY. To be published in September 2003. All rights reserved.
Nalo Hopkinson, who lives in Canada, has won a number of awards for her fiction, which includes Brown Girl in the Ring, Midnight Robber, and Skin Folk.