In late summer, I collected the moss with the same long poles we used to knock down the pecans in fall. I waved the pole around in the gray tangles and pulled them down from the oaks on the land beside the house, not far from the clearing where we washed and sewed.
I couldn’t take the moss from the two oaks in front of the house, where the windows faced the river, because Madame Bordelon liked to look at that moss. It was a decoration. She watched me from the window of her bedroom. Everything on the front land at Azure was Madame’s, for decoration. Everything in the backlands was Msieu Bordelon’s, for money.
And me—she stared at me all the time now. She stared at my hair, though she couldn’t see it. My hair was wrapped under the black tignon my mother had made last year for me, when I turned thirteen. I hated the weight on my skull. My hair was to be hidden, my mother said. That was the law.
The cloth at my forehead felt like a bandage. Like it was holding in my brain. A brain floated in Doctor Tom’s jar, in the room where he always stayed when he came to treat Grandmère Bordelon, for her fatness, and where he stayed now to treat Céphaline, for her face. The brain was like a huge, wrinkled, pale pecan. One that didn’t break in half. Swimming in liquid.
When I came for his laundry, he sat at the desk and the brain sat on the shelf, with the other jars. He said, “You can hold it.”
The glass was heavy in my hands, and the brain shivered in the silvery water.
“I bought that brain in 1808, yes, I did, and it’s been two years in the jar after spending several years inside a skull. You seem unafraid to hold it or examine it, Moinette,” he said in English. He was from London, and his words made his thin lips rise and twist differently from Creoles. “Your lack of fear would indicate that your own brain is working well.” Then he returned to his papers, and I took his dirty clothes away.
How could brains be different? I measured heads the same way Mamère had taught me to measure a handful of fat to throw in the pot for soap, cupping my palm; the heavy handful had to reach the second bend on my fingers. The other side of knuckles—the little pad of skin like oval seed pearls when a person held out a hand to get something. I stared at my palms so long, clenching and straightening them, that Mamère frowned and told me to stir the soap.
At the edge of the canefield when the cutters were resting, I hid myself in the tall stalks and fit my bent fingers over their heads. The grown people’s heads wore hats and tignons, but the skulls were nearly all the same size under my curved hand. It was not exact, though. I made a loop of wire from a scrap and measured Michel’s head when he was in the cane. He was a grown man, same as Msieu Bordelon.
The cutters held very still when they rested. Their backs were against the wagon wheels and the trees.
When I took clean laundry to the house, I stood near the dining room and quickly measured those heads at the table. The same loop for Msieu’s head, the only time he didn’t wear his hat, while he was eating.
All our heads were the same size according to our age and sex: mine and Céphaline’s, Mamère and Madame’s, the men cutting cane and Msieu Bordelon’s. Under their hair, all their skulls were the same, and so the pecan brains floating inside that bone would be the same size unless the head was wrong, like Eveline’s baby who died. The baby’s head was swollen like a gourd grows in summer when it’s watered too much and then splits.
By September, I pulled down the last moss from the side-land oaks. They were the most beautiful to me. Their branches lay along the earth so that I could walk on the bark. The bark was almost black, damp under my bare feet.
I could hear the field people working in the cane near here, when someone shouted or laughed, the hoes hitting a rock now and then. They were weeding the rows. The cane was so tall, everyone was invisible. I piled the moss on the little wagon we used to take laundry back and forth from our clearing to the house. I pushed down the springy gray coils with my palms.
When the bell rang for lunch, I pulled down one more dangling clump, and then Christophe was behind me.
“Boil it and kill it and then it look like your hair. Then I sleep on it.”
He hated me now. He had always pulled my hair when we were small, but now that he was sixteen, he hated me. His hair was damp and separated into black pearls on his head, from the heat. His faded black shirt was white with salt around the neck. We wouldn’t get new clothes until Christmas.
He held up his torn sleeve. “I got a girl on Petit Clair. She sew it. You useful for nothing.”
I shrugged. “We can’t sew for you. Only Bordelons.”
He imitated me, shrugged much more dramatically. “Cadeau-fille,” he said. Gift girl. He always called me that, adding, “Yellow girl only good for one thing, for what under your dress. All you are. Don’t work. Don’t mean nothing till he give you away.”
“Your head looks small,” I said, moving back so I could hook my fingers into a circle, like the wire, and measure.
But he moved forward and pushed my hand down.
“Somebody come for you soon. Just like your mother.”
“Close your mouth.”
My mother had been a gift for one week, a nighttime present for a visiting sugar broker from New Orleans. I was what she received. But Cadeau-fille was not my name.
I pulled the wagon down the path from the side yard toward the clearing near my mother’s house. The moss had to be boiled.
Christophe followed me. He spoke low and constant, like a swarm of bees hovering near my shoulder. He said he was a horse, at least pure in blood and a useful animal. He said I was a mule, half-breed, and even a mule worked hard. He said I was nothing more than a foolish peacock that les blancs liked to keep in the yard to show people something pretty. Then he said, “And the men, you are only there so they can think under your . . .”
At the clearing, fire burned low under the pots, but my mother was not there. I threw a bar of soap at him. I didn’t want to hear it again.
He picked up the soap and threw it from the clearing. “Go in the cane and get it. Then cadeau-mère can’t see you. You have to lift up your dress when Msieu pick someone for you. Lift it up now. Hurry.”
In the heat and my anger, my eyes felt underwater. He’d told some of the men I went in the cane with him. Just to let him look. The women had told Mamère.
“We’re all animals,” I said. “Hair and skin are like fur.” I had nothing else to throw at him.
He shoved me against the pecan tree where we hung our washline, and then ran into the cane. The stalks shifted and then stayed still.
I found the soap. The bar was soft and wet from Mamère’s using it all morning. I worked off the dust with my fingers, underwater.
My mother and I made the soap for Azure, and each bar was measuring and stirring, to me. Christophe was a man, so he didn’t think about his clothes being clean or the soap washing the cane juice from his hands. He didn’t think anything except cane was work, and he hated my face and especially my hair.
My hair fell to my waist, in the same tendrils as the moss from the branches, but black. But now no one ever saw it except my mother. On Sunday nights, she washed it with soap made from almond oil and boiled gourd, rinsed it in the washtub, and formed the curls around her fingers. We sat near the fire. When my hair was dry, she braided it so tightly my temples stung and covered it with the tignon.
Hair only protected my scalp. The thin cover protecting my skull. And my brain. My hair was only a covering. Céphaline Bordelon’s hair, too, like every other human.
But hers was thin and brown, her braid only a mousetail down her back. Her eyes were bright and blue, and I knew inside her brain was perfect, because she learned everything each of her tutors taught her and even questioned the lessons. But her pale skin was speckled with crimson boutons.
Madame had to marry Céphaline to someone with money, and for weeks, she had cried until her own blue eyes were rimmed as with blood. None of the men who visited could see Céphaline’s brain. Only her face, and her hair, and her mouth never closed or curved in a smile. Her mouth always talking, arguing, reading to people from her books.
The moss was soft in my hands, in the basket. I liked to look at each strand and feel the covering, like the velvet of Céphaline’s brown dress. My mother would be angry if she saw me studying the moss. She wanted me to boil it and lay it out to dry. It was not a lesson. It was stuffing. Every fall, we made new bedding—this year, seventy-two pallets for slaves and five mattresses for the Bordelons.
We lived between. Le quartier was one long street, houses lining the dirt road to the canefields and sugarhouse, but a grove of pecan trees separated the street from the Bordelons’ house. Tretite, the cook, lived in the kitchen behind the house, and Nonc Pierre, the groom, lived in the barn.
But my mother’s house was in a clearing near three pecan trees at the edge of the canefields. A path led from the main road to our yard. Madame Bordelon could see us from her second-floor gallery, could see what color clothes we hung, or whether we had washed the table linens, but she couldn’t hear what we said.
Under the trees, my mother spoke to me every day, but only when she had something to teach me and only when we were alone.
When I was young, I asked her the same thing many times, until I understood.
“Who do I belong to?”
“Me.” She never hesitated. “You are mine.”
“No one else?”
Then she would pause. I watched her pour another dipper of water onto the wood ashes held in a wooden trough over the big pot. The gray sludge dripped into the boiling water.
“No,” she said then, stirring the lyewater. I knew to stay away. One flying drop could burn the skin. Brown to pink. Pink and shiny-raised as mother-of-pearl buttons on my mother’s forearm. Like she had sewn them to her own skin, as if she had finished mending the Bordelons’ clothes and then decided to decorate herself.
“No!” My mother’s voice rushed from her throat, harsh like she was chewing coffee beans. “Here on earth, you belong to me. If you died, then you would belong to God. Là-bas.” She lifted her chin to the sky above the pecan trees. “Eh bien, I would die, too, because I would need to be—gone with you.”
“There. Not here. Là-bas—with you.”
I wouldn’t look up. I didn’t want to see that sky, là-bas. I looked down, at the fire under the pitted black iron of the washpot, until I could speak. “God would kill you, too? Because you let me die?” I whispered.
“No!” My mother’s eyes were fierce and slitted under the tignon covering her hair and forehead. The cloth had slipped up, so a stripe of gleaming undusted skin showed above her brows. “God will not kill you, or me. No. My only work here is to keep you alive.” She spat into the boiling water and stirred; her arm disappeared in the steam so that I was frightened for a moment. “This is not my work. This is how I pass the time while I keep you.”
When I was small, and she said that, I would fling out my arms and spin under the fine muslin cloth hanging to dry in the low branches of the sweet olive. She had patched the torn mosquito netting from Madame’s bed, sewing in newer, whiter muslin, and my mother’s work floated like tiny clouds above me.
My mother’s throat would calm again, and she poured more water over the ashes, her face a mask under the sweat and dust. She took a turkey feather from her apron pocket and dipped it into the bubbling lyewater. After a few seconds, she pulled out the quill, like a stripped white bone.
I watched the blue flame under the pot. “What is my work?” I used to ask, before I understood that my work would be every moment.
“You wash and sew and be cautious. You do what I say, exactement.”
“But I am a mule. I will carry things, no?”
She turned with the feather like a toy sword. “What? A mule!”
“Christophe says I am a mule. And he is a horse. He is better.”
“He is orphée. He is angry that you have a mother.”
Christophe was cutting cane already, living with three other men. I didn’t understand the mule yet. I touched the clouds in the muslin and said idly, “How would you get there? Là-bas? With God? With me?”
My mother stepped away from the pot and wiped the gloss from her forehead. “The way I do everything else,” she said, angry, and I took my hands from the cloth and backed away. She spat lye steam from her mouth, fixed her eyes on me, and didn’t smile. “Myself. I would do it myself.”
I believed her. I was all she cared about, except for the coffee she loved so much she hoarded the beans inside a special tin in our room. She counted the beans during the night, before she came to sleep, when she thought my eyes were closed.
But before she held them under her nose with her palm flat, her nostrils almost touching the dark beans, she prayed, and I listened. She lit two small candles, ones she kept hidden because we weren’t supposed to have them. She made them for herself when we dipped all the others for the Bordelons. She poured a sip of the day’s coffee into a tiny blue dish on the washstand and laid one bean on a piece of cloth so blue it was almost black. She put one gold piastre on the cloth, too, and a circle of my hair braided like a bracelet.
She glanced at me, and my eyes were closed.
She prayed in French, and African words crept in. Words I knew she had learned from her mother, but words she never said to me. She prayed to all the gods, of water and earth, and to God above, mon Dieu, that I would be healthy in the morning, alive all day, protected until the next night, when she would ask again.
When she was finished, she blew out the candles and laid them on their sides next to our wooden plates, and they looked cold and small. Then she put them with the cloth scrap, the bracelet of hair, and the piastre in a pouch inside the kitchen safe, where we kept our spoons and cups. If anyone ever came looking, they wouldn’t think that collection of things was special to anyone. They might take the piastre, but they wouldn’t know the rest was her church.
She slept in her chair for much of the night. I would wake to see her slumped against the rush backing, her right cheek propped on her bent hand. The night was far gone, the fire lessened to ruby chunks.
Toward morning, she would be beside me in the bed, her breathing rough like the file rasp the men used to sharpen their cane knives. She woke me before dawn, when she stirred the fire. She roasted her coffee beans in the black pan and then ground them in the metal grinder she clamped to the table’s edge. She poured boiling water on the coffee, in the dented pot, which was one of the first things I ever remembered seeing as a baby. Then she reached into her basket of rags for the tin cigar box. From inside, nested in brown paper, she took out the hard cone of white sugar, which glittered in the firelight.
Green cane crushed and boiled and brown molasses drained out and then the sugar bleached white and formed into a cone hard as a cowhorn by some magic in some faraway place. Slaves had molasses, measured out in pails during the week. Tretite, the cook, had stolen the sugar for my mother weeks ago, in exchange for a white wedding dress. Only the Bordelons had sugar.
My mother cut two large pinches with the ancient sugar scissors. She stirred the hardness into her coffee and opened the wooden shutters. She stared out the window at the pink or gray of day, and her throat worked as she swallowed the black.
The smell rose like bitter strong dirt. I didn’t understand how she could drink that liquid, how she could chew the beans during the day. And once when I said that, she told me her own mother used to chew something that made her teeth orange. A nut or seed.
“Did the nut taste good?”
She shrugged. “Never taste it.”
“You were in Africa?”
“I was little child on the boat. Only remember the boat.”
“But how did she die? Your mother?”
My mother lifted her chin at me, exactly as she did to Madame and everyone else, and for a moment, she didn’t even see me before her. Her lips were pressed together so tight they disappeared, and her face was like something floating in Doctor Tom’s room, like the air was a silvery sharp liquid.
But then her eyes dropped back down to me, and without a sound of breath, her bosom rose high and then fell.
“She die from the smell. Soldier blue. That indigo.”
Today when she turned from the shutter, the sky was still dark. She put her cup on the table and tightened her tignon. From the tin, she took out my peacock plate.
My mother had exchanged fine soap and cloth to a bayou trader for the small plate. I was seven. She told me if I ate my biscuit or cornmush, a whole world would appear underneath.
A tree with dangling branches. A gate, and past it a river with a small boat. And on the gate a peacock, his head crowned, his tail a dragged flourish.
Faint voices rose all the way from the street. The work bell would ring soon. She wrapped the cone of sugar in paper and closed the tin, against ants and rats. Just then, someone tapped at the shutter, and my mother whirled around with a look on her face as if she’d seen a snake.
Nobody came unannounced to visit my mother. She went to see women in le quartier, sometimes bringing favors for trade, but even Tretite the cook always let my mother know beforehand that she was coming.
“Marie-Thérèse,” an urgent voice whispered near the opened shutters. “C’est moi.”
Eveline. I propped myself on the bed. The sunrise was only a silver breath over the trees. Two women stood at the door.
Eveline came inside, but the other woman, a stranger with scars high on her cheeks, stayed in the doorway. “That monthly visitor come when I was out in the field by Petit Clair,” Eveline said. “So far to walk my whole dress gone.”
My mother opened the bundle, and I smelled the blood.
Eveline sighed and looked over at me braiding my hair. “I know Moinette get her monthly now, too. I know you have so much wash, Marie-Thérèse. I bring you something from Michel for thanks.”
She opened a cloth bag at her feet and showed the gleaming head of a duck, its bill yellow green. Bone? Was a bill made of bone?
Her husband, Michel, trapped on the weekends and traded the rabbits and birds. Eveline and Michel cut more cane than anyone else on Azure. Eveline straightened again. She was round in the arms and face and stomach, from all five children, she said, leaving behind their baby fat on her. But Eveline’s neck was the most beautiful part of her, when she lifted her head. Her throat was long and perfect as a vase with three etched lines of decoration, three lines of paler brown skin from where she bent at the cane all day and at her cooking all night.
“We come in so late. Say maybe a freeze coming. Can’t wash, and can’t leave the dress in the house. That smell bring rats.”
My mother winced. “I do it today,” she said. Then she lifted her chin toward the doorway at the strange tall woman.
Eveline said, “She new. Buy for the grinding. Want to see you.”
When Eveline left, the new woman stepped inside and stopped politely. My mother lifted her chin again, like she did to everyone. Her jaw and chin were most of my mother’s language, how she slanted her face to indicate anger or curiosity, how she raised that shelf of bone directly toward someone to show she was listening.
The new woman’s face was narrow and dark, like Mamère’s, but her eyes were surrounded by more lines. The two scars on each cheek were raised and shiny as oval inserts of satin. She leaned against the wall.
“Just get here,” she said in English. “Me and my children.” She held up four fingers.
My mother nodded. “Speak little English, me. But she speak some.” She moved her chin toward me.
“M’appelle Hera,” the woman said.
Hera’s eyes moved quickly from the bed to the chairs, from the washboards hanging on the wall to the three mattress tickings we had finished sewing last night, to me.
“Someone leave you a bright hardship.” She studied the hair I hadn’t finished braiding.
Mamère didn’t answer. She moved the mattresses toward the door. We had to take them to the house.
“Him up there?”
I bit my lips. Mamère hated this part, and so did I. When people saw us for the first time, traders or new slaves or visitors to Azure, they tried to establish who we were, where I had come from.
Hera was quiet, having heard the anger in Mamère’s answer. She rubbed her arms and glanced at my sewing. A sleeve of Céphaline’s.
Hera was staring at us. Seeing what we had. Measuring, the way humans measure one another all the time, every minute. She wanted to see what we looked like, what we owned, compare it to hers, think of how to get us to give some, or take some, or trade something for her own room, on the other side of Eveline’s. She had nothing, maybe. Or more than we did. No. Look at her eyes. Like Madame Bordelon’s when she evaluated the carriages and coats and china of other women.
Then Hera looked at me again. “Your only?”
My mother glanced up. “Take but one candle to light a room,” she said.
Hera nodded and rubbed her arms again. I could smell the blood from Eveline’s clothes.
Mamère put down the washbasket with the black clothes and said, “Quoi besoin?” She frowned at me. She wanted the English words.
“What do you need?” I whispered, to both of them.
“Not me,” Hera said.
“What they need?” My mother meant Hera’s children.
“Say you sew.”
My mother moved her chin up an inch.
“Say you trade.”
She lifted her brows.
Hera said, “My girl fifteen. She need a dress for the New Year. I hear he only give black dress. She need pretty dress, to find someone and set up.” She nodded toward me. “Mine ain’t bright, like that one. How old?”
Her tribal scars shone—she was from Africa, I knew. How old had she been when someone cut her? Had her own mother done it? Cut open her daughter’s skin?
“Just turn fourteen,” I said.
“Not long,” Hera said. “Bright one like that, someone come for her soon.”
“Long enough,” my mother said, her eyes slitting to nothing. She opened the door. The sky was silver now, and Hera shouldn’t be walking outside the quartier unless she walked in a line toward the canefields. “That bell ring soon.”
But Hera paused. “You think on a trade?”
My mother inclined her head to the left, and I hoped Hera saw that meant possibility.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight Copyright © 2006 by Susan Straight. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.