Remembrance…It’s a rumor, a whisper passed in the fields and veiled behind sheets of laundry. A hidden stop on the underground road to freedom, a safe haven protected by more than secrecy…if you can make it there.
Ohio, present day. An elderly woman who is more than she seems warns against rising racism as a young woman grapples with her life.
Haiti, 1791, on the brink of revolution. When the slave Abigail is forced from her children to take her mistress to safety, she discovers New Orleans has its own powers.
1857 New Orleans—a city of unrest: Following tragedy, house girl Margot is sold just before her 18th birthday and her promised freedom. Desperate, she escapes and chases a whisper…. Remembrance.
Far Water, Louisiana
Far Water sat on the far eastern edge of the vast Atchafalaya Basin, wedged on a narrow spit of land between seemingly endless miles of swamp and marshland. The estate was far enough away from the poisonous air of the city for safety, yet still close enough should James Hannigan have the need to rush back and attend to his business empire.
The big house was invisible from the main road. Perched at the end of a long, curving drive, it appeared suddenly to visitors—with its heavy stone walls, tall, white pillars, and ornate shutters—rising like a massive wedding cake between the trees.
Catherine Hannigan had filled Far Water’s rooms with crystal chandeliers and heavy velvet tapestries. The windows and doors were trimmed in gold leaf. The bureaus and cabinets overflowed with silver. Far Water was as grand in every way as the Prytania Street mansion back in the city, thirty-five miles to the northeast. During the long, hot months of summer, the Hannigans entertained often. Those who made the trek from their plantations along the great River Road that ran beside the Mississippi or from their mansions in New Orleans or Baton Rouge, were feted like the cotton, coffee, sugar, cattle, slave-holding royalty that they were.
Margot was on her hands and knees in the foyer, giving the floor of the great hall a final scrubbing before the family arrived. The marble glowed in the sunlight streaming through the tall windows on either side of the front door.
“You missed a spot.”
Margot jerked, nearly overturning the water pail. She hadn’t heard Veronique come down the stairs.
“What are you doing?” she asked over her shoulder, dabbing at the spilled water.
Margot rolled her eyes. “Well, what are you supposed to be doing?”
Her sister didn’t answer and Margot sat back on her heels to look at her. Veronique sat with her tiny hands clenched in her lap, her lips pinched tight.
“What is wrong with you?”
Veronique reached up and began to worry the scarf knotted on her head. Grandmere had tied it there just this morning, and already most of her pale, thick curls had worked themselves free.
“Is something bad going to happen, Margot?” she asked finally.
Margot inhaled sharply through her nose. “What are you talking about, goose?” She forced a smile.
“Grandmere. I woke up. Really late. And she was gone.”
Margot looked away.Sunlight danced on the gleaming marble steps.
She sighed. “Yes, chére. She went out last night.”
“Then something bad is going to happen.”
“Perhaps not, Vee.”
Veronique fixed her with a look and Margot felt a chill spiral up her spine. She remembered the fear she’d felt hours before out by the creek with Grandmere, and she searched her memory for a time, any time, when Grandmere had wandered in the world of the spirits and the words they’d whispered in her ear had been anything other than a warning of something terrible to come. She shivered.
“Remember the flood?” asked Veronique.
Margot nodded. She’d been ten, Veronique had just turned six—but she remembered clearly how they’d woken to find Grandmere gone, the tiny room off the kitchen they all shared, filled with flickering candles, the door to the outside wide open. Mistress Catherine had been frantic. She hadn’t believed for a moment that the old woman had run away. Fortuna Rousse would die before she abandoned her granddaughters. And what reason would she have to leave? Weren’t she and her girls treated just like family? Girard had finally found her, wandering Magazine Street in the dead of the night, her white hair wild around her face. She said she would speak only to Master Hannigan. She never shared what passed between her and her master, but James Hannigan had, suddenly and without explanation, moved a large share of his stored cotton out of his warehouses in the business district. Two days later, a levee broke upriver. Water roared down the Mississippi, flooding the district. The stench of the muddy river lay over their neighborhood for weeks, nearly paralyzing the city. But while the other white businessmen wandered the sodden Garden District with pale, pinched faces, stunned, bankrupt, the Hannigans were little more than inconvenienced by the flood. At Christmas that year, Mistress Catherine had slipped three gold coins in Grandmere’s apron pocket.
And that had been a good thing, yes? Money in Grandmere’s pocket? The Hannigan’s fortune spared? Except that James Hannigan had become oddly distant after that, watching Grandmere from across the rooms, his expression wary, fearful.
“And the fever?” Veronique went on. A cloud seemed to pass across the golden floor. Margot nodded, her mouth dry.
“I remember,” she murmured.
1853. Just four years before, winter had seemed to last forever, cold rain lashing the muddy streets of New Orleans. A dank fog hovered over the rooftops, the stink of raw sewage choking every breath.
Then suddenly, without warning, it was blazing hot, the fog burned away. The city had been joyous. People poured into the streets to warm up and dry out, everyone’s spirits high in anticipation of Mardi Gras.
Everyone except Grandmere.
Once again, she began to wander. One night, then two. Fortuna Rousse moved through the house as if in a daze, lips moving in silent prayer. The bread she baked was thick and tasteless, her stews thin and bland. Margot struggled to get up earlier and earlier every day, trying to cover for her grandmother, while Veronique drifted behind her, anxious and silent.
And then, the Sunday before Mardi Gras, Grandmere had stalked into the dining room and slammed a platter of fish onto the table. Catherine Hannigan’s brother, his wife, and their seventeen-year-old son were visiting from Natchez. They’d been discussing plans to have the mistress’s nephew start in James Hannigan’s business. They all stared in silence as the platter skidded across the tablecloth.
“New Orleans will be filled with death,” declared Grandmere. She fixed her eyes on her master. “Get the mistress and the little ones to Far Water. Now.”
The whites said nothing. Margot gripped a pitcher of iced wine and glanced at her master. Master Hannigan’s Adam’s apple bobbed wildly above his silk collar. Time seemed to stretch, then warp, like hot taffy. Margot saw her sister trembling in the doorway, a basket of biscuits in her hand. She shook her head, warning her to stay quiet.
Finally, Catherine Hannigan laughed. A short, quivery bark. “Fortuna is so superstitious. You know these Louisiana Negroes.” Her voice was shrill, pleading, as she addressed her guests. “But she makes the best beignets and biscuits in all New Orleans.”
“Mistress,” said Grandmere turning toward her. “It is the fever. It will come this year. . . .”
“Some fever or another comes every year to this maddening city.” James Hannigan had found his voice at last. He rose slowly from his chair and Margot read danger in his eyes. She was certain her grandmother saw it, too, and yet . . .
“This will be like no fever before, or after,” insisted Grandmere, her voice hard. “This will become a city of ghosts before it ends.”
“Fortuna . . .” Hannigan growled a warning.
From the doorway, Veronique whimpered, so softly that only Margot heard. James Hannigan was a bear of a man, quick to laugh and quicker to anger. He brooked no nonsense: not from his employees, not from his wife and children, and certainly not from his slaves.
Margot stood frozen, staring at the table, shoulders hunched, waiting for the explosion. The fish lay partially off the platter, its dead eyes glazed, as if plotting its escape across the sea of lace and cutlery.
“You will all die,” said Grandmere, her voice flat. “Corpses will float in the street like—”
“Enough,” roared Hannigan. A fist came down on the table, sending a crystal glass crashing to the floor. “Enough of your voodoo, black magic, witchcraft! Get the hell out of here, old woman, before you make me forget you belong to my wife and not to me.”
“James!” His wife was on her feet, her normally pale face as red as her hair.
Grandmere turned and left the dining room without another word, pulling Veronique with her. Margot would have followed except that she had taken root to the spot, heart racing, hands welded to the wine pitcher. Hannigan stood glowering at the door for a long moment, then he turned his great, bearlike head and caught Margot’s eye. He blinked slowly, then visibly shook himself.
“Bring me some a’ that wine, Margot,” he called to her. He plopped in his chair and laughed. “Damn Louisiana negroes. Superstitious as hell with their curses and their ghosts.”
“James,” said his wife weakly, sinking back into her seat, her face still flushed.
Her brother and his wife sat wide-eyed and pale. Their son, Alain, looked amused. Margot managed to pour the wine without spilling it.
Hannigan raised his glass. “Ain’t no saffron scourge can ever get James Hannigan.” He drank from the glass and smacked his lips. “And I’m staying right here in New Orleans all summer long just to prove my point.”
But he hadn’t.
Catherine Rousse Hannigan may have been quiet, and skittish as a rabbit, but she believed to her core in what she called Grandmere’s visions. She had made her husband’s life a nightmare of tears and pleading and slammed doors. The entire Hannigan family was at Far Water by Easter.
By the end of that summer, fourteen thousand souls had succumbed to yellow fever, including seventeen-year-old Alain Rousse. James Hannigan would never again allow Grandmere in the same room with him.
Now, remembering, Margot tugged nervously at her hair.
“Do you remember . . . ?” began Veronique.
“Enough, oie,” cried Margot. She’d had enough remembering. Each memory twisted the knot in her stomach tighter. “You’re a goose. With all this foolishness. And if Grandmere catches you lazing about on these stairs . . .”
A movement on the landing above them caught her eye. They both looked up, and there stood their grandmother, silent, wreathed in light from the round, landing window.
“I am almost done here, Grandmere,” said Margot pulling the pail closer. “And Vee was just . . .”
She stopped abruptly. Grandmere was not looking at them. Her attention was riveted elsewhere. The old woman descended the stairs, stepping absently over her youngest granddaughter.
Their grandmother strode across the still-damp marble floor as if she hadn’t heard, and flung open the front door.
“Come,” she snapped.
Frowning, Margot glanced at her sister, who shrugged.
The two girls sprinted after their grandmother, who stood at the edge of the wide porch staring down the drive.
“Grandmere?” Veronique reached a hand toward her grandmother, then pulled it back.
The old woman was trembling. Margot followed her gaze, but except for a wild pheasant pecking in the dirt, the drive was empty. She felt her sister’s hand clutching the back of her blouse.
“It comes,” whispered Fortuna Rousse. “It comes now.”
“Grandmere. Come in,” pleaded Margot. A blade of fear pressed itself between her shoulder blades. Sunlight poured onto the porch, and yet she felt frozen to the bone. “There is nothing out here. Come in now. I will put on fresh coffee.”
“Shush,” said Grandmere.
The three slaves stood in silence, waiting, time having seemed to slow to a standstill in the thick bayou air.
Margot couldn’t bear it, the stillness, the crushing sense of dread. The beating of her own heart. She opened her mouth to say those words, to say that there was work to be done, to ask what they were doing standing there like statues in the sun. But before she could speak, she felt Veronique stiffen beside her, saw Grandmere step from the porch, her hands clasped tight over her heart.
And now, Margot could feel it—through the soles of her feet—the faintest vibration. Could feel it before she could hear it.
Horses. Moving fast.
Someone was coming.
Veronique fumbled for her hand and Margot grabbed it, holding tight.
“Mère Vierge,” whispered Grandmere. “Sweet Virgin, help us.”
And then, Catherine Hannigan’s barouche hove into view.
Girard, James Hannigan’s groom, valet, jack-of-all-trades, sat high in the driver’s seat, his waistcoat flying wild behind him, his caramel-colored face gray with road dust. They could just barely make out the huddled figures behind him. The large carriage swung wide, and Grandmere crossed herself, muttering a prayer, as one of the back wheels caught in the gravel that marked the edge of the drive, skidding into the sloping grass on the far side. The horses, eyes wild, heads thrown back, seemed to stumble as the barouche pitched crazily from side to side. For a moment, it looked as if Girard might be hurled from his seat, as if the carriage itself might go over. But Girard fought for control, and until the horses finally regained their footing, and dragged the carriage back onto to the drive.
“Miss Fortuna! Miss Fortuna!”
Margot heard the desperation in Girard’s voice as he screamed for her grandmother. Yanking hard on the reins, he stopped the carriage less than a foot from the old woman, before tumbling from the seat.
“Miss Fortuna, hurry.”
Grandmere shot her granddaughters a look, a silent command to follow. Veronique moved to her side, but Margot stood fixed at the edge of the porch, staring openmouthed at the barouche. As wide and long as a boat, the black metal carriage gleamed in the sun. It had been imported all the way from Paris as a gift from James Hannigan to his wife. Catherine Hannigan rode it to the theater, to the balls, to her grandmother’s house in the Vieux Carré. It was fancy and expensive and completely unsuited for the rutted, unpaved country roads that ran between Far Water and New Orleans.
Her grandmother’s voice yanked her from the porch and she hurried forward. Three feet away, she skidded to a stop once again. The oldest Hannigan child, thirteen-year-old Marie, was already standing in the drive. Thin and pale, eyes pinched closed, her mouth open in a silent scream. Inside the carriage, ten-year-old Lily lay sprawled, half on, half off the forward facing seat, her lavender silk dress covered in black vomit. She had soiled herself as well—Margot could smell it from where she stood—but the girl was beyond caring. Her blue eyes were open and she stared unblinking, unseeing at the hot, blue sky.
But it was the sight of the mistress that froze Margot in her tracks. Catherine Hannigan had clearly gone mad. She was crouched on the floor of the barouche, her skirt up past her knees, legs spread wide, as if preparing to give birth. Her red hair was tangled, stray tendrils plastered against her forehead. Her blue eyes, so like her daughter’s, were wide, crazed. She was shrieking, making high pitched, unintelligible sounds. In her arms was her youngest child, Alexander. He was wrapped, head to toe, in a pink coverlet, but one hand had come free, and Margot could see that his skin was the color of cooked butter.
“Miss Catherine, give him to me,” Grandmere was saying. “You got to give the boy to me now.”
Catherine Hannigan drew back her teeth and snarled, spit flying from her chapped lips. Margot flinched. Her grandmother did not.
“Come, mistress,” pleaded Grandmere. “It’s going to be alright now. But I got to take that baby. Let me take him so I can tend to him, oui?”
The white woman blinked and seemed to see the old slave woman for the first time.
“Fortuna,” she whimpered. She grabbed Grandmere’s wrist. “Save my baby. Save my son.”
“I make no promises, mistress. But you give him to me and I swear I try.”
“No!” Catherine Hannigan screamed.
The word ricocheted off the house, the trees, fracturing the air. Veronique cried out. Marie Hannigan gripped the barouche and silently shook.
“No,” screeched the mistress again. “You will promise me. You save my baby. You can do that. I know you can do that. Don’t think I don’t know what you are. Don’t think I don’t know what you can do. You save my baby. Do you hear me? You save my baby or else.”
Bile rose in Margot’s throat and she locked eyes with her sister.
“Mistress,” said their grandmother, her voice still calm. “You give me le petit.”
The white woman clutched the bundle that was her son to her chest, the yellowed hand flopping limply against her thigh, then, with a sob, finally released the child to Grandmere’s waiting arms.
Grandmere whirled from the carriage, her face hard, the dying boy pressed against her.
“Put the carriage away and take . . . Miss Lily to the root cellar,” she commanded Girard.
“Veronique, you get the mistress and Miss Marie into the house and cooled down. Margot come with me now. I need you.”
Margot tasted the bile once again climbing into her throat. Her grandmother turned to look at her.
“Ma petite,” she said. “You come now. We must try and save this baby’s life. Before it is too late.”
With a last look at the dead girl in the carriage, Margot followed her grandmother into the house.
Copyright © 2020 by Rita Woods
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