I was about to do murder. I had been practicing for weeks. Measuring gunpowder, driving the powder down with a ramrod, shooting old cans, chunks of wood, and finally vaporizing grasshoppers.
Isaac, the Negro boy I considered my brother, lay to my left. His papa and our overseer, Marcus, to my right. We had crept down here in the dark to sprawl under the trees and thick brush behind the hen house, whose pale, gray boards appeared to glow in the light of the moon that had just risen behind us. Deep blue shadows stretched across the yard, a few long enough to climb up the side of the hen house like contorted vines. The silence was peppered with constant soft peeps of tree frogs and occasional call of a nightbird. The hot July day had, by now, cooled into a balmy night and a now-and-then capricious light breeze made its way to us from the river a mile east.
In case the breeze changed we had rubbed ourselves with wild garlic that grew along nearby Oak Creek. Our own garlicky smell did not quite cover the powdery odor of the hens that had bedded down earlier. We might be lying here on our stomachs unmoving for hours, thence, I had chosen as comfortable a position as possible. But after what seemed hours my legs ached. I wiggled my toes in my boots, slowly turned my head to relieve a crick in my neck, and wiggled my fingers to assure myself they had not become numb.
Of a sudden there he was, to the left of the hen house, having somehow slipped inside and out again without even the sleeping hens being aware.
Having been given first shot by Marcus, I breathed in, out, sighted along the barrel as the wary coyote hesitated, a hen hanging from its mouth, one forefoot raised in perfect profile. Moonlight clearly showed the critter’s ribs protruding through its ragged fir. Starving, yet so clever and wild, belonging right here on our plantation before any person. Well before any of us. His head turned and yellow eyes stared at me. Through me. Breathless, I could not move or blink, much less pull the trigger. When I did blink, the critter was gone.
Of course, neither Marcus nor Isaac uttered a word.
I relaxed my trembling fingers, lowered the rifle—a fine Cub Dixie with a walnut stock Papa had given me on my eighth name day. An entire year later and I had once again played the fool. I rose, pointed the barrel toward the ground as I had been taught and slunk my way to the main house where I would empty out the powder and clean the bore. Isaac followed, as always. I had once again proven I was only good for shooting cans and grasshoppers.
And I would have to tell Papa.
You may well wonder how a boy nearly nine years old raised in Texas could consider killing a raiding coyote murder. Dear, sweet Maman. How I loved her, and later grew to resent her, avoid her, and lug guilt upon my back for doing so.
She had been raised alongside her closest confidante, Betta, in Savannah, Georgia, to stories told by her family’s Negro slave, stories of talking animals—in particular, the trickster, Br’er Rabbit. She raised me and my younger sister on the same stories. Hence, my head contained many extraneous and worthless thoughts for a young man on a Texas plantation. And these ideas about animals were only a few of them.
I had to scrub the mud from my boots before entering the house and stood on the thick Turkish carpet of the parlor facing Papa. The light from the lamp on the round table in the corner and the dying fire on the hearth left his face in half darkness. No matter, I knew well this particular look.
My heart raced but not from fear . . . from shame. I had again disappointed him. He would not yell as some did; Papa never found raising his voice necessary. Not with our people, as he called them, and not with his family.
“Do not forget to remove the shot from your gun,” was all he said, and turned away.
Removing myself from the room, I crossed the hall and, head down, headed up the stairs to my room, not noticing my older brother, Lucien, until I was nearly upon him at the top landing. Of course he would not move aside and I brushed his arm getting by.
“Failed again, did you?”
How my blood rushed as I grasped the Cub rifle tight in my left hand and pictured swinging the weapon at his head followed by my fist. But by the time I reached high enough he would likely knock me across the hall. He had been waiting here at the top of the stairs, like, like a vulture, waiting for his chance to pounce.
“For once can you cease goading me?”
“Why should I? You always give me reason.”
Perhaps I should have walked away. Instead I made as if to strike high with the rifle and, as he reached up to grab it I lowered my head and butted him as hard as I could in lower quarters. His oof and thump into the wall was highly satisfying. Maman’s voice declaring my name was not.
Lucien’s bent legs and wheezing breath—were well worth my sore head and dizziness. I caught Maman, hastily joined by Papa, out of the corner of my right eye at the bottom of the stairs.
“Go to your room, Adrien.” Not the first time I had heard such statement from Papa—in that same disapproving voice.
Two disappointments in one evening. Was this a record?
Having slunk my way to my corner room at the end of the hall, I looked around for something to throw, to break. Perhaps the lantern one of the slaves had lit next to my bed? A resulting fire, imaginable for one angry second. The rocks I had collected would do but would only get me in more trouble with the sound they would make . . . too satisfying by far. Instead I emptied and cleaned my rifle over a pile of old newspapers. I kept my emotions in check long enough to wash my face and hands in the bowl on the dresser left earlier by some house slave. Likely Mintie. The water had cooled, but she had thought to bring this fresh bowl after removing the old one before supper. I must remember to thank her.
I dropped to my knees at the east-facing window and pushed up the bottom casement to let in whatever slight breeze might find its way from the Brazos River a mile away. At times I thought I could smell willows and fish. The moon had risen high overhead and floated among the leaves of the pecan tree that grew close to my window and higher than the house. More than once in the night Isaac and I had climbed out onto its branches to sit and dream. Not tonight, though. I expected Papa.
Why did I let Lucien provoke me?
When younger I had thought him like Papa, with his own gun and horse and riding with Papa to the tobacco fields every morning. Though he paid me scant attention, I tried copying him in all things. Was it only four years ago I had thought to help him ready his horse?
I had never been to the horse barn before that morning. In fact, had never stepped past the porch alone. But I knew where the barn was: out the double front doors, across the porch, past the massive spreading oak I saw from the front parlor window every day, across the circular drive, the new grass wet with dew—cold, I had forgotten a coat—hugged myself and hurried to catch up. I finally got to the big, open doorway of the barn and looked back. The house looked smaller and far away. I hurried inside. The smell: warm horse and hay. Soft shuffling of shod hooves. Shadowy where the early morning sun from the open door ended—hazy as the door faced north. After a minute I could see rows of stalls on either side. A few stalls down a black horse looked over his stall at me, his ears pricked forward. In an open area maybe eight feet away, stood Lucien, his back to me, throwing a saddle over his horse. A really big brown horse this close. (I was perhaps five at the time.) As usual, he did not see me. I jumped up to fetch the bridle from a peg on the wall. No use. My highest jump could not begin to reach it.
A shove from behind knocked me face first into the barn and the dry wood smell flooded my nose.
“You cussed little Nancy-boy. Stay clear of me!” I was pinned to the wall like a bug in our cook’s kitchen. “I only . . . I wanted . . .” Hand at my throbbing nose, I turned.
Lucien grabbed the bridle and raised his arm as though to swing it at me—a fierce, scrunched look on his face. “Skedaddle!”
Even now, the memory had me clutching the windowsill.
Memories were part of my problem. I thought too much. At the wrong time. If I had shot that coyote without thinking—
A knock—the door swung open—my stomach lurched.
Papa was dressed in black but for his white linen shirt and satin brocade waistcoat. The glow from the lantern next to my bed made the ruby pin in his cravat wink, and my room seemed to shrink in his tall presence. I sprang to my feet.
He walked forward, placed a hand on my shoulder and released a great sigh.
“Do you recall once before when we talked about your temper? You were still in the nursery.”
That talk had changed a great deal about my home, my family and nearly everyone I knew. Papa told me my companion from babyhood, who I slept with and loved as my brother, was a slave. Fancy that.
How naive, to have to be told.
“When you told me about Isaac.”
“Exactly.” I could not hold his eyes. That long ago evening Lucien had called Isaac a pickaninny and shoved him against the wall at the top of the stairs.
Papa had said they were all our slaves, all those I had thought . . . I do not know what I had thought. “Our people” he always said, not “our slaves.” And we always said, “please” and “thank you” when they did for us.
I recall noticing how Papa made the floor creak when he left the nursery. How he walked across the floor with his head and shoulders lowered: Slaves must be heavy to have.
Curious how that occasion had involved the stairs as well.
“You must learn to control your temper, Adrien. Allowing your temper to take over will only cause you trouble. I know, as I have the same temper.”
“You have a temper?” I had never seen sign of it.
“I do. I regret the terrible things I have done by allowing my temper to get the best of me. Which is why I have had to learn control.“
“Nothing Lucien did will be solved by losing your temper.” He took a step back, sat on the edge of my bed and waited for me to do the same. I still jumped a little to get up on the bed, as I had insisted on removing the little stool last year.
“Think,” he said, “all the times you have been angered by Lucien, has losing your temper ever solved anything? Even once? Did you feel better afterward?”
I looked down to think, I truly did think about all the other times, plenty of them, and picked at one of the threads in the quilt. The release felt good, but afterward?
“No, not after.” I looked up and had to say, “It felt good during, though.”
I swear I saw a sparkle in his eyes, but his mouth tightened all severe-like. “Were those few moments worth what came after?”
“I suppose not.”
He kept looking at me, not saying anything.
“No.” They were not worth this—his and Maman’s disappointment.
He leaned forward and put a hand on top of mine. “I have spoked to Lucien. This abusing of one another has got to stop. It is no way for brothers to behave. Tomorrow you will remain in your room with no breakfast or lunch and consider how to control yourself.”
After Papa left and I changed into a bed gown and crawled under the covers I wondered if Lucien would stop his tauntings. I would likely give him too many opportunities to resist.
* * *
I was nearly nine years old that summer night. Old enough. Enough to shoot coyotes, rabbits, and other defenseless critters. Only the thought repulsed me. Alas, Maman’s stories, again. I suppose I should have thought more of the poor, defenseless hens in the hen house.
My middle name, Denys, is from Papa’s French Creole grandfather who Papa said was clever and powerful and Papa hoped those traits would be passed on to me. Esther, our cook, pinched my ear and declared I was too clever, by far, which was generally after I managed to snitch a couple of molasses cookies still warm from the oven for me and Isaac.
Powerful? I was not much to speak of, being rather puny, though the girls who visited us at Blue Hills Plantation with their families were friendly enough. It was the boys who found me wanting. The feeling was mutual as I had little interest in knives, guns, one-upsmanship, and scrambling in the dirt.
Papa never spoke of the rest of his family back in Louisiana. Never doing so was a matter of contention between him and Maman.
Isaac, my Negro “brother,” was supposed to sleep on a pallet at the food of my bed, but I convinced him to join me in my German-made four-poster once cold, wet winter set in. No one knew but the girl who brought water, emptied the chamber pot and lay the fire early every morning. Mintie would not tell. On punishment nights (mine, not his) he slept with his folks in their cabin out back.
I grew up with women. While my older brother, Lucien, went off with Papa to work in the fields, I was kept home with Maman, my exceptional sister, and our house people—the slaves who worked in the house rather than struggled in the fields. Years later I credited this experience as contributing to my “cross to bear,” so to speak. Contributing, mind you.
I now know God made me the way I am. I blame Him for it all.
Maman named our plantation Blue Hills for the hills covered in bluebonnets every spring. When I was young I attempted to write poems about that East Texas country: the rolling wildflower-covered hills dotted with oaks, pecans and yellow-blooming huasache, the winding creeks filled with fish and buzzing with dragonflies. What a dreamy, foolish fellow I was.
Maman was a Fortier, and lived in Savannah, Georgia, after her parents escaped the Troubles in France. She and my uncle Charles, who presently lived in Houston and was Papa’s tobacco factor, referred to their mysterious early childhoods in France as full of Troubles. Troubles conjured scary thoughts in my four and five-year-old head. Troubles haunted me and my sister.
Our people were polite and quick to answer my questions. Betta, who was Isaac’s mama, Maman’s lady, and my mammy said, “We all’s got troubles, now and then, young marse. Oh, you mean your mama’s French Troubles. You too young to worry bout them. Them’s past. Never you mind, now. Go see if Esther got one a them molasses cookies for y’all.”
Which made me forget about Troubles until that night when I lay in bed curled up with Isaac. I thought about many things lying in bed at night. They popped into my head without my asking. Most thoughts whipped through fast, until I was older when they hung around in my mind like moss on trees.
Maman told us stories, taught me to count and pointed out the many lovely things in our house: “I brought this with me from Savannah or, “This used to belong to my maman, your grandmere, and I shall keep it always.”
Some things were so beautiful I looked at them again and again—and touched them, stroked them, carefully. They made me feel special, that the house I lived in included so many beautiful things.
Maman showed me her sewing basket where she kept colored threads and buttons made of ivory, bone, silver, shell, porcelain, and glass. She gave me an enameled button with tiny blue flowers, and this was the first of a collection I kept in a closed box beneath my bed. She gave my sister a porcelain button of a pretty lady’s face. Both buttons were from France, so Bernadette and I had something from where Maman was born. They were not part of the Troubles.
When I was five, after breakfast I would stand in the eight-paned double doors on the front porch—how the birds chirped and sang—and watched Papa and my brother, Lucien, ride away with Marcus, our overseer.
One morning I felt Maman’s hands on my shoulders.
“Where do they go?” My hand above my eyes, I squinted at them disappearing down the grassy road past the horse barn and into the rising sun.
“We live on a tobacco plantation, Adrien, and tobacco takes work. All the people you see around us work in the tobacco fields or elsewhere on this plantation. They take care of the animals, the buildings, and the crops we grow so we and the animals can eat. Every living thing has a part to play. “
I turned to look up at her. “What is my part?”
“You are too young. One day you will grow into your part, just as Isaac and Bernadette and Jules will. Until then you must prepare and learn.”
Jules was my brother and smaller than me. Thank goodness somebody was.
“But how do I learn if I do not know what my part is?”
“You must trust me and your Papa to teach you to be a gentleman.” She lowered to the floor, her skirts ballooning. “Do you trust me and your Papa?”
“Je t’aime, chérie.” Maman often spoke to me in French. She hugged and I hugged back as hard as I could.
“Is Papa a gentleman?”
“He most certainly is.”
“Then I will be a gentleman, too.”
* * *
From the time I was small, I watched Papa. I watched him from the back door on evenings when he returned to the back porch with dark circles under the arms and back of his shirt. He tossed his wide-brimmed hat onto the hook on the wall and collapsed onto a chair while our house man and butler, Simon, pulled off his mud-covered boots. Simon polished Papa’s boots every night. Lucien took the second chair and repeated everything Papa did.
Papa removed his shirt and leaned over a metal tub, scrubbing with soap and splashing while Simon stood by with a towel. Papa sometimes turned his head, hair dripping, and winked at me. My heart would leap. Then Papa went upstairs to change, trailed by Lucien.
At breakfast and supper I watched Papa drink his coffee. I watched how he held his spoon and fork and knife. I watched him wipe his mouth with his napkin. I watched him hold Maman’s chair when she sat and when she rose from the table. Papa placed his hand ever so lightly against Maman’s back when they moved together and when they went upstairs. He opened doors for her and let her enter a room first.
Papa’s head nearly reached the top of doorways. Sometimes he would carry me on his shoulders and have to duck. His long fingers tickled my ribs.
Our people smiled and nodded, curtseyed and said, “yes, sir.” Visitors listened when Papa spoke, they shook his hand and women smiled, their eyes sparkling. Even Marcus, our overseer and Isaac’s papa, a tall man, himself, and bigger, stood slightly behind and to Papa’s left.
The sound of Papa’s voice drew me, as did the tread of his footsteps. Mostly, he walked away.