Obscurity, The Twenty-Third Chapter
In which the widow is discovered in a rather unusual part of town.
In the northeast corner of town, tucked behind le Couvent des Ursulines, an old woman sat on her stoop, her skin darkened by her ancestors and hardened by her memories. She wore her hair in a turban, a richly colored dress hanging from her shoulders. Her fingers were callused from years of hard labor, her bare feet dusted with red clay. Dried tobacco leaves hung smoking from her lips, each exhalation potent with fragrant earth.
Without turning her head, her eyes watched as a white woman walked by—a ghost amidst the living. The woman was dressed in black, her dark veil obscuring her pale face.
Songs followed where the woman walked, drifting from one kitchen to another, sung like spells by those preparing their evening meals. Metal spoons clanked against cast iron pots, the fires infusing the warm summer air with a smoky bouquet. Somewhere there was the sound of a fiddle strumming the kind of tune that can only be found in the South. It was something lost from a past life but found in this new one. Passersby knew the words, singing the song beneath their breath as they walked by, greeting one another in the street as friends do.
They laughed with the easy mirth of a Sunday afternoon, freshly returned from Church and now attending to their afternoon leisure. Some sat smoking in rocking chairs, some shined their shoes. Men played cards on wooden stoops and women pinned freshly cleaned sheets to the clothing lines that were strung between houses. Children played games in the streets and emptied dirty bedpans in alleys.
The widow walked among them, navigating the boulevard with the memory of one who had been there before. The old woman watched from her stoop as a slight stiffening occurred in her wake. Men tipped their hats as she passed and women curtseyed, all of them adjusting their mannerisms from the joviality enjoyed among kin, to the formality reserved for their employers.
Where the silence brewed behind her, the evening turned gently to dusk, until at last the veiled woman slipped through an open door, out of sight of the old woman on the stoop, and into the home of the cooper.
The cooper was a man of some thirty years, whose occupation it was to make barrels for the city’s thriving import and export business and who, in his spare time commanded the free Black militia, a battalion of some two hundred men.
The militia was the pinnacle of respectability, with uniforms that were impeccably creased and guns that were polished as silver. Every month they mustered at Place d’Armes, their role calls flawless, their formations perfected, and their marksmanship precise. They were men of a higher order, a class built not by economic station but by the integrity of their being, and the commander was the master of all of these, holding himself to the highest standard and commanding the utmost respect.
As a child, the commander was enslaved on a sugar plantation, but alas, it was his father’s belt that left the most tremulous scar. The welt left behind was of an emotional sort, handed down to him by a father who was beaten by his father who was beaten by his father, a weakness that now condemned him to endure the legacy of slavery until one evening, after he had been whipped within an inch of his life, his father was found drowned in a barrel of cane syrup, his drunkenness blamed for his most unfortunate condition.
The commander spent every day since in direct opposition to that life. He saved his money, he purchased his freedom, he started his own company, he volunteered his time to the militia. His body became forged into thick cords of muscle and his mind hammered into the most impregnable steel. He spent every day in the pursuit of self-mastery, strengthening his body and mind against the perils of his youth and the realities of his present.
Indeed, when the widow entered his shop that evening, it was a most formidable man she met. Steam billowed from wooden casks and every iron implement of the commander’s craft hung on the brick wall behind him. It was an artillery of the most primitive order, and he their most expert wielder. He wore no shirt at his breast, and his skin gleamed with the sweat of hard labor. His hands worked a plank of steamed oak, bending the wood to his will as he secured it with metal fittings.
He seemed, to the widow, the rock against which every wave will break and he stood when she entered his shop, polishing some metal tool on his breeches as he held her eyes with a most deserved scorn. For a moment, it appeared as though he might not let her enter his home, and then, without saying a word, he stepped aside, watching her pass so the widow might meet with his wife.
Séverine stepped into the courtyard where she found an open hearth, okra and collard greens bubbling in a rich tomato roux as the rusted pot infused its brew with the coppery twinge of dried blood.
A woman stirred slowly with a wooden spoon, a low melody drifting from her lips, a memory of the more pungent one sung outdoors. “The devil am a liar and conjurer too,” she sang. “If you don’t look out, he’ll cut you in two.”
Her body swayed, her chemise falling from her shoulders as it drifted idly about her. Her feet were bare and earthen, her hair wildling away from her in reckless abandon. Heavy gold jewelry hung from her ears and draped from her neck, and a bangled wrist rested on her stomach, now six months round with child. “I’m cooking him nice and slow,” she said as the widow approached. “With all the fixings of a fine stew.”
“Then he’ll turn out just like his maman,” Séverine answered.
The couturière turned to face her. There was a darkness about her, and yet also a strength—as though she’d been stirred into the shadows and yet sweetened by them. Her eyes appeared darkened, the creases around them deepened. She did not appear older, only longer brewed, like the blackstrap molasses that fortifies a dark rye, a raw understanding of a world now fermented and stewed, aged and baked.
Hatred is the irksome shadow lurking beneath anything the light touches. Indeed, hatred is the most infectious of diseases for it is most difficult to be touched by it without hating in return. In this way it spreads—one person hating another, one family hating another, one city hating another, until the fissures of hate have separated community from community for generations on end—with no reason for their hate except that they descended from it.
A solemn silence slipped between them. A wary tension between two women, two communities. A rift between humanity that might never be healed, that might remain torn apart as the earth does where the gods break it, and yet, for all the chasm that existed between them, there also existed a child. Who knew nothing of the chasm and yet would exist within it.
Crafted from both molasses and buttermilk, from Caribbean spices and Spanish, with the blood memory of his mother’s people and the blood memory of his father’s, he would be baked into a tender young baby, and born a Creole tried and true.
“You do not have to work for me again,” the widow said at last as the smoke from the fire consumed her. “I will pay you severance for your service.”
“No,” the couturière answered firmly. Lifting her lashes to look squarely at her employer. “I will work. I will make a better world for my son.”
We next read The Twenty-Fourth Chapter, in which a young debutante is to wed the philanthropist.