I was about to murder. After practicing for weeks. Measuring gunpowder, driving powder down with a ramrod, shooting old cans, chunks of wood, and, finally, vaporizing grasshoppers.
Isaac, the colored boy I considered my brother, lay to my left. His papa and our overseer, to my right. We had crept down here in the dark to sprawl under the trees and thick brush behind the henhouse, whose pale, gray boards glowed in the light of the moon that had risen behind us. Deep blue shadows stretched across the yard, a few climbed up the side of the henhouse like contorted vines. The occasional call of a nightbird and constant peeps of tree frogs peppered the night. The sweltering July day had, by now, cooled into a balmy night, and a 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 bedded hens. We might lie 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, turned my head to relieve a crick in my neck, and wiggled my fingers to keep them from turning numb.
A night haunt, he stood, left of the henhouse, having slipped inside and out without sleeping hens being aware.
I breathed in, out, sighted along the barrel as the wary coyote hesitated in perfect profile, one forefoot raised and a hen dangling from its mouth. Moonlight revealed the critter’s ribs 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; yellow eyes stared at me. Through me. Breathless, I could not move or blink, much less pull the trigger. When I did blink, he was gone.
Neither Marcus nor Isaac uttered a word.
I relaxed trembling fingers, lowered the rifle—a fine Cub Dixie with a walnut stock Papa gave me on my eighth name day. An entire year later and I yet played the fool. I rose, pointed the barrel toward the ground as Papa 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 was fit only 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 would 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.
Her family had raised her alongside Betta, her closest confidante, in Savannah, Georgia, to stories told by one of her family’s slaves—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 grew full of worthless ideas of no use to a young man on a Texas plantation. Certainly not to the majority of Texas men. This sentimentality toward animals of all sorts was merely one of many.
I had to scrub 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 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,” he said, and turned away. Had I expected more?
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. He would not move aside, and I brushed his arm in passing.
“Failed again, did you?”
He had been waiting here at the top of the stairs, like, like a vulture, waiting for his chance to pounce.
I grasped my rifle 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.
“For once will you cease goading me?”
“Why should I? You always give me reason.”
I should have walked away. Blood rushed to my head. I made 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 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 second. My rock collection would do, but would only get me in more trouble with the sound they made . . . 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. She must have brought 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. Could I smell willows and fish? The moon floated high overhead among the leaves of the pecan tree that grew close to my window. Isaac and I liked to climb out onto its branches to sit and dream. Not tonight, though. I expected Papa.
Why did I let Lucien provoke me?
When younger I believed him like Papa, with his own gun and horse. Though he paid me scant attention, I tried copying him in all things. Was it only four years ago I tried to help him ready his horse to ride to the fields with Papa?
That was a morning of firsts. I had never stepped past the veranda alone. But I knew where the barn stood: out the double front doors, across the veranda, past the massive spreading oak seen from the front parlor window, past the circular drive, across the new grass wet with dew, and . . . shivering—I had forgotten a coat—hugged myself and hurried to catch up. I finally reached the tall and wide, 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, a nicker. Shadowy where the early morning sun from the open door ended—hazy as the door faced north. Rows of stalls on either side. A few stalls down a black horse looked over his stall, his ears pricked forward. In an open area nearby, 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, Lucien did not see me. I jumped up to fetch a 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 wall and a dry wood smell flooded my nose.
“You cussed little Nancy-boy. Stay clear of me!” Pinned like a bug in our cook’s kitchen, I could barely speak.
. “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 changed a great deal about my home, my family and nearly everyone I knew. Papa told me my companion from babyhood, with whom I slept 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 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 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 yet pushed a little to get up on the bed, as I had insisted on removing the 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, I truly thought about 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 declared, “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 unwaveringly regarded me, saying nothing. I felt the urge to squirm under that gaze.
“No.” They were not worth this—his and Maman’s disappointment.
He leaned forward and placed his hand on top of mine. “I have spoken to Lucien. This abusing one another must 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 taunting. I would likely give him too many opportunities to resist.
I was eight and eleven months old that summer night. Old enough to shoot coyotes, rabbits, and other defenseless critters. Only the thought repulsed me. Alas, Maman’s stories. I suppose I should have thought more of the poor, defenseless hens.
My middle name, Denys, is from Papa’s Creole Papa, who Papa said was clever and powerful and Papa hoped these traits would be passed on to me. Esther, our cook, pinched my ear and declared I was too clever, by far, after I managed to snitch a couple of molasses cookies still warm from the oven for me and Isaac.
Powerful? Not to speak of, being rather puny, though girls who visited us at Blue Hills with their families heartily accepted me. It was the boys who found me wanting. The feeling was mutual, as I had little interest in knives, guns, one-upmanship, 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.
Once cold, wet winter arrived, the pallet at the foot of my bed got little use once I convinced Isaac, my colored “brother,” to join me in my German-made four-poster. 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 Isaac’s) 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 remained home with Maman, my 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. While young I attempted to write poems about that East Texas country: the rolling wildflower-covered hills dotted with oaks, pecans and yellow-blooming huasache, winding creeks filled with fish and buzzing with dragonflies. What a dreamy, foolish fellow.
Maman, a Fortier, lived in Savannah, Georgia, after her parents escaped the Troubles in France. She and my uncle Charles, who lived in Galveston and was Papa’s tobacco factor, referred to their mysterious early childhoods in France as full of Troubles. French Troubles conjured frightening haunts in my four-year-old imagination.
Our people politely evaded half 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.”
When I was five, at dawn after breakfast I would stand in the eight-paned double doors on the front porch—how the birds chirped and sang—and watch Papa and my brother, Lucien, ride away with Marcus, our overseer.
One morningI 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.
“We live on a tobacco plantation, and tobacco takes work. All our people 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?”
“One day you will grow into your part, just as Isaac and Bernadette and Jules will. Until then, you must learn.”
My brother, Jules, was smaller than me. Thank goodness somebody was.
“How do I learn if I do not know what my part is?”
“Papa and I will 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.”
I watched Papa. I watched him evenings when he returned to the back porch with damp 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 while Simon stood by with a towel. Papa sometimes turned his head, hair dripping, and winked at me, making my heart leap. Then Papa padded 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. He opened doors for her and guided her into a room first. These were signs of how a gentleman treated his lady, the one he valued above all else.
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, 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.