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.
Nearly a half mile up, through thick stands of banana and coconut trees, so high that sometimes, especially in the rainy season, it was covered in dense clouds, was her place, her secret place.
The air was clean here, free from the smoke and stench of the coffee camps. But the air was also thinner, and she was forced every so often to stop and catch her breath. High above, in the bright tree canopy, she heard the screech of an island parrot and smiled.
“Se bon,” she murmured. “The bird of luck.”
She climbed faster, pushing herself. She wanted to have time in her secret place before the sun set. It was Sunday, and the Code Noir—The Black Codes—decreed that slaves must not work on Sundays, but the royal commissioner was far away, in Cap-Français, and the colonies across the seas were mad for their coffee.
“Lajan avan lwa.” Abigail spit into the trees. “Money always over the law.”
Still, Monsieur Rousse was better than most of the other planters, the ones who worked their slaves to death because it was cheaper to replace one than to rest one. On Eau Lointaine—Far Water—slaves only worked the groves for two hours on Sundays and were given an extra ration of pork and raw cane on that day. Far Water slaves were not whipped, and Thierry Rousse believed it was a sin to sell a child away from its mother before the age of twelve. The master even freed the old ones—the ones wrung dry from all the years of forced labor in the brutal sun of Saint-Domingue’s coffee fields—“so that they could spend their last years knowing the grace of French citizenship.”
The other planters thought Monsieur Rousse a fool. They predicted that one day his nègres would cut his throat while he slept. Rousse merely smiled. “I am a good Catholic,” he told them; “God will protect me.” He was a good Catholic and he held to the Code Noir as closely as his profits would allow.
Abigail pressed on, her legs aching, her heart fluttering in her chest like the jeweled hummingbirds that flitted in the shadows.
Suddenly, the forest opened up and she was there: at her secret place.
She was standing on a wide ledge of stone, a break in the dense blanket of trees that covered the cliffs surrounding her. High above, the mountain continued up and up, vanishing into the clouds, while below, the forest ran downhill, all the way to the sea. Hibiscus flowed down the mountainside, swaying in the thin air, like pink and white silks.
Abigail flung herself to the ground and fanned the sweat from her face with a palm leaf, before pulling a small coco vert from her skirt pocket. Slicing open the top, she threw back her head and drank, openmouthed, the coconut water warm and sweet.
Far below, rimming the edge of the jungle, she could just make out the red roofs of Cap-Français and, just beyond, the small, pale dots scattered on the surface of the sea that she knew were ships.
She hated it. Hated the sight of it, its warm, salty smell like the breath of a great beast. Abigail squinted. The water was so blue that it seemed to swallow all the light of the sky.
When the blancs, the whites, had come for her, when they’d snatched her from the banks of the shallow river that ran near her village, she couldn’t have understood then, would never have believed, that there could be so much water in the whole of the world, and that on the other side of that huge water was a world so foreign, so far away, that she would never see her family again.
Ama, her second sister, had been collecting reeds on the riverbank with her that day, and they’d both been taken and thrown into the same dark place on a ship to cross the never-ending water. Ama never spoke another word. She sat rocking back and forth in the stinking darkness, silent, arms wrapped around her long legs. On a cool, windless night, when the blancs brought them out of the dark place to throw salty water on their skin and make them walk back and forth, yelling at them in their strange language, Ama had jerked away and clamored to the top of a railing. At the last minute she turned and smiled at Abigail. And then she was gone. As if she had never been in the world at all.
A sob escaped from somewhere deep inside, and Abigail began to punch herself in the face, her fists striking her cheeks, her eyes, harder and harder until that memory and all memories that came before, were beaten back into that dark, unreachable part of her soul. There was no “before.” There was only this place of sky and water and trees, this place of endless work, this place in which there were a hundred ways to die a horrible death.
And now Hercule was gone.
Eleven days and more. He had come to her that Sunday, come to see her and their sons. Hercule. Her blessing from the gods. Her piece of dry land in this cursed place. Henri and Claude had tumbled like monkeys between their father’s feet, laughing, as he’d tried to show them how to shape wood with heat and water. He was a cooper, the best on the island, and it gave him a freedom few other slaves enjoyed. But his sons were only five and too restless to pay attention, so Hercule had finally given up and tossed coconut shells for them to chase while she fried the plaintains and the bit of fish he’d brought.
She gnashed her teeth. She should have known. When it had come time to leave, he’d held her face a little too long, stared too hard into her eyes.
Hercule’s master came racing into Far Water three days later, tumbling from his horse, yelling for the master.
Monsieur Rousse had been having dinner and he came to the door, shirtsleeves undone. Abigail saw it all from the door of the cookhouse. She gripped a bag of rice so tightly that it ripped, the white grain spilling into the dirt at her feet.
“That boy has run off,” bellowed Monsieur Quennelle. “I told you, things are out of hand. We must crack down now, or it will be our ruin.”
Monsieur Rousse spoke softly, too softly for her to hear. He leaned into the sweating Quennelle, his dinner napkin still in his hand.
“You’re a fool, Rousse! The nègres are arming themselves against us, and that Hercule is with them.”
Abigail cried out, and the two planters turned just as her knees buckled. Hercule’s master was a big man, fat and soft as a maggot. He stormed toward her, yanking her roughly from the ground.
“You are his épouse, no? His wife?” He shook her. “Where did he go? What did he tell you?”
In the next instant, her master was there. “Assez!”
Quennelle shook her harder and she gritted her teeth against the pain, forcing herself not to yank away, not to slap his doughy face.
“This woman knows something,” he cried. “They all know something. We are French men, non? Should we let these animals simply turn on us like rabid dogs? Have you forgotten that fils de chienne Macandel in ’fifty-eight? The women and children he slaughtered in their beds? Or do you think your kindness, your extra bit of porc, will protect you and your pretty white wife?” He spit.
“I said, enough!” Rousse grabbed Quennelle and spun him around. “This girl is my property and, as far as I know, has done nothing to warrant this rough handling.”
The fat planter glared at him. Rousse returned the look, then shook his head before turning toward Abigail, who stood trembling, clutching her throbbing arm in one hand, the shredded rice sack in the other.
“Do you know anything about Hercule, Abigail?” he asked. His voice was firm but gentle.
Abigail shook her head. “Non, Monsieur.”
Rousse nodded and started to turn away.
“But . . .”
He stopped, waiting.
“He would not just run off, Monsieur.”
“Ha!” cried Quennelle.
Abigail stiffened. She was a large woman, tall, broad through the shoulders, and muscular from years of hard labor. She glared at Hercule’s master, defiant. He would not touch her again, not with Monsieur Rousse standing there.
“He would not just run off, Monsieur. Not without a word.” She spoke the words in French, not Creole, speaking slowly to make sure the words were right. “He is husband to me, father to my sons.”
“Husband.” Quennelle spit again in the damp earth. “As if that means a thing to a nègre.” He stomped back toward the house.
Abigail dug her nails into the soft meat of her palms to keep from throwing herself on his back and sinking her teeth into the fat, sweaty neck.
Thierry Rousse watched him go in silence. He sighed.
“Abigail . . . ,” he began finally.
“I swear on the Virgin that I know nothing,” said Abigail. Her voice shook, all defiance gone.
Her master worried the dinner napkin between his fingers for a moment, then patted her lightly on the shoulder. Ça ira. It will be alright.”
He sighed again, then turned to follow after his uninvited guest.
* * *
But it wasn’t going to be alright. Eleven days and now the sun was preparing to set on yet another one. And still no word of Hercule. He had gone to join the rebels. She was sure of it.
There were more of them every day, slaves running into the mountains, deserting the coffee and indigo fields, fleeing the sugar plantations. There were rumors, murmurings in the slave quarters, in the cookhouses, behind the laundry sheds. Slaves exchanging furtive glances as they picked coffee cherries from the trees: the mountains have claimed another, they whispered.
Abigail slid down on the ledge and closed her eyes.
They were called maroons: those slaves who escaped into the wilds of the forests high above the plantations. They crept down from the mountains like smoke—raiding the plantations, stealing food, weapons, even white enfants, to turn them into slaves, it was said, or maybe to hurl them into the sea as an offering to the orisha, the gods. Abigail had heard both.
And now Hercule was one of them, Abigail felt that as surely as she felt the breeze on her skin. Hercule had become a maroon.
She lay there on the ledge and held herself still. Her grandmother had been an honored priestess of their people and, more times than Abigail could count, had forced her to lie silent in the grass and listen. “The world will tell you secrets. But you must be still and ready to hear.”
It was a lesson Abigail had had little patience for. But now as she lay on her little wedge of rock, she tried. She closed her eyes, stared at the dark space behind her lids, focusing. From where she lay, the distant sea was silent, its voice lost in the trees far below, but she could hear monkeys arguing in the treetops, the wind rustling the palm branches. Somewhere above her, a coconut fell to the ground, and she felt the vibration beneath her hands.
She stared at that dark place and felt the air moving around her skin, felt the roughness of her shift, the grains of dirt beneath her back, felt the humming of the earth, its energy.
Then she was no longer on a rocky ledge high over Cap-Français. She was moving, sliding through space, the air around her warm then cool, as she passed in and out of shadow.
She felt something fold inside herself, and the world bloomed like a flower, its many petals each a perfect world in itself. In one, she saw a huge bird made of metal roar through the blue sky over where she lay; in another, a glass box with people singing inside. The images confused her but she forced herself to lay still, watching but not feeling, the way her grandmother had taught her.
Suddenly, her breath caught in her throat.
There. Imperfect. As if through dust-streaked glass. But there. Her Hercule. His skin the blue-black of a coffee bean, his lips full and soft. His face seemed thinner, bruised. But his eyes . . .
Abigail gasped and for a moment felt herself spiraling away from him, hurtling toward a crack in the universe, toward one of those other worlds, and she struggled to calm herself, to see but not feel.
Hercule’s eyes . . .
They were hard, cruel. Where was the laughter that she knew? Where was the kindness? This Hercule was not her Hercule. This Hercule was a stranger.
“Kiyes ou ye,” she whispered. “My heart. Kisa ou ap fe? What are you doing out here?”
Hercule’s head shot up and he frowned. He seemed to search the trees, the shadows around him.
“My love,” she whispered. Her husband caressed his throat, the last place she had touched her lips before he’d run down the mountain trail, away from her. She reached for him, even as she knew that she would feel nothing beneath her hand. And then the world exploded, throwing her out of that seam between worlds, slamming her back onto her high mountain ledge.
Abigail lurched upward. “Hercule!”
She sat blinking in the lowering sun, confused. A thick column of black smoke rose from the hills above Cap-Français, appearing like a feather on the mountain’s cap of green. As she watched, a pinpoint of bright orange formed at its base, growing wider inside the trees with each passing second.
The sun was setting over the city there at the edge of the sea, and at first the orange glow seemed to be just a reflection of the sunset. And then she saw that it was not.
“Bondye,” Abigail cried. “My God.”
Fire. Saint-Domingue was on fire.
Another explosion rocked the countryside. She felt it in her teeth. Whirling, she began to race back down through the jungle, back toward Far Water. Back to her children.
Copyright © 2020 by Rita Woods
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