Marie Deshotels was not a name bore any familiarity, however, the look upon Josephine’s face did. I’d seen that same look of wonder on my own face when I first sat down in my boudoir at the Velvet Inn.
“You reckon you know these gals?” Duncan asked. He took the last milk can from my hands and placed it on the carriage.
Josephine pulled my sweat-tangled hair from my face. “Well, I never seen ‘em befo’,” she said, shaking her head. “Lawd as my witness, I knew this ‘ns mother when she ‘s a chile.”
Duncan looked at me and scratched his head with his hat. “You reckon she’s a Deshotels, do you?”
Mae got down from her seat on the carriage while we talked and Duncan set our bags on the drive.
“Not a doubt in my min’!” Josephine said.
“I’ll be hog-trussed and spitted,” Duncan said. “It’s a damned small world ain’t it?”
“Lilly says my mama’s name ‘s Mary Fairbank,” I said a little more doubtfully, thinking back to John Westley carving it that way.
Josephine nodded. “Mary way it sound when she say it, I s’pose. Fairbank prob’ly be her married name… but Lilly say? Chile wha’ happen’ yo’ mama?”
“Walter killed her, I expect. I don’t rightly remember. I ‘s only six when we buried her.”
Josephine began to cry. Not like any crying I’d seen before though. Her beautiful lips trembled some. Tears came to her dark eyes. But she made no sound of it. I pictured Cole, hugging that tree, refusing to cry out in front of his little ones. Josephine pulled my face into her breasts, soft and full like Marie’s, and hugged me. She had a scent about her sweat tickled me inside, like Leon only different.
“My Marie, my po’ li’l Marie,” she said, her voice unfaltering. “I’s so sorry, chile.”
“It ‘s a long time ago,” I offered. “I expect I know her better from my looking glass ‘n from my rememberin’.”
Mae came to stand behind me, clearly more at ease with Josephine than with Mr. Duncan. Marvel to me how carrying a little paper money around changed her so from the sassy, flirtatious girl in the bar room. “You knew Kate’s mama?” she asked.
“Knew her? Chile, I raised her! In that very house right there.”
“I best be on my way,” Duncan said.
Josephine eyed the bags he’d set on the drive. “You deliverin’ mo’ than milk, this week?” she asked.
“These gals ‘s lookin’ for a plantation,” Duncan answered. “Les Clochers they said. Rode ‘em a ways tow’ds Baton Rouge… ‘s the best I could do.”
“Baton Rouge? You ailin’ in yo’ min’ Massa Duncan?” Josephine snatched his hat from his head and swatted him with it like she was killing a fly. “Po’ things ‘ll haves no feet lef’ time they walk so far! An’ this ‘n with a baby, no less!”
Mae and I looked to each other in surprise. Mae barely knew of it herself.
Duncan retrieved his hat and climbed to his carriage. “Best I could do, now, Josephine. And how ‘s I to know she ‘s pregnant? I never left ‘em layin’ in no thicket, now. Did I! I best be seein’ you next Tuesday. I got a dairy to run.”
“Tend t’ yo’ cows, Massa Duncan. Lawd knows, He done give you the min’ fo’ it.”
Duncan’s grin showed through all the brush on his face. He tipped his hat, a first sign of manners having been swatted into him. “Mornin’ Josephine… Ladies.”
“How’d you know Mae ‘s carryin’ a baby?” I asked, as we watched Duncan’s carriage ride off and turn back east up the highway.
“Mae,” Josephine smiled. “Tha’s a pretty name. And I might ‘ve known yo’s ‘s Catherine. Grab yo’ bags, now.” Strong hands picked up the milk can with ease. “Yo’ mother had a sister Catherine… died when she a baby of the new monia. Marie haves a doll she give that name. Catherine. Carry it with her everywhere ’til it so ragged it fall apart.”
Mae and I exchanged glances. I shrugged and we took up our bags and followed after Josephine.
“How’d you know Mae was carryin’ a baby?” I asked again.
“Woman bearin’ a chile, her face shine with two lights, ‘stead o’ jus’ one.”
Mae wrinkled her nose at me when I looked. I didn’t I see any lights shining from her face at all. She looked less pristine than any day I’d seen her. It was clear something told Josephine she was pregnant though.
“Ain’t you wonderin’ about Walter?” I asked.
“When you get my age, you learn,” Josephine puffed. “Some things better off ‘thout you knowin’ ‘em.”
The wondrous white structure at the end of the drive grew larger and larger as we walked up. Anticipation of it made me nervous. Closest I’d ever come to setting foot in a real house was the night they hanged Leon, standing out on Judge’s porch with my whole world swinging at the end of that rope inside my head. The shade trees sheltered a railed porch, with a view nothing like one from Judge’s porch.
“You said you raised my mama in this house?”
“Yes Ma’am. Her father… yo’ gran’father… he own it up ’til he die’ two winters back. Be hers now by way of inheritance, if she alive t’ take it.” She stopped at the stair and set the milk down. “I s’pose that ‘d make it yo’ father’s, now wouldn’t it? …but I doubt L’isiana ‘low a murderin’ man a ‘heritance.”
“Hunh!” She looked at me curiously. “What you know ’bout that?”
I’d read about inheritances in Miss Lady’s book without understanding a word of what I read.
“If Kate’s grandpa’s died, why are you still working his property?” Mae asked.
Josephine smiled a broad smile. I loved her lips, so full and sweet. “I s’pose you could say I come with the estate,” she said. “Massa Deshotels, he say in his will ‘n testament no one ever run me out ’til his money do.”
“You’re living here for free?” Mae was more shocked by that than I was by the wonder of the house.
“Free a funny word to choose, Miss Mae.” Josephine picked up the milk and marched up the stairs. “I ‘s the same age as Kate here when Massa Deshotels fus pay my price. Tha’ back fo’ the ‘Mancipation. I work my whole life fo’ that man, raise his chil’n, care fo’ his missus when she come ill… Now I s’pose the Lawd done chose me t’ watch over his gran’chile too.”
She set the milk down again at the top of the stair and held the door for us.
“We meant no burden,” I said. “We’ll be on our way to Baton Rouge.”
“Hush up yo’ nonsense ’bout Baton Rouge,” Josephine said softly. “Turn yo’sef aroun’, chile.”
I did. September’s first rains had ripened the grasses and wildflowers. The trees were changing their color. The drive stretched out through it to the highway, where buggies made their way now in the mid-morning.
“Wha’s you see when you look out?” Josephine asked.
“I don’t know. It’s pretty, I reckon.”
“Yes, Ma’am. I’s a pretty sight from yo’ front porch.”
“Mine?” I glanced at Mae. Her eyes were wide as when I dumped my bank notes in front of her. Then all at once I could see the fear rush out of her and she commenced to silly laughter.
I looked back at Josephine, and took the door from her.
Josephine shook her head as she picked up the milk. “You somethin’. Hol’ the do’ fo’ a Negro woman.” She hollered out as she stepped through the door. “Hebert! Junior! Matthieu! Make yo’sevs presentable! You gots company!”
A scrawny cat skittered at the door, afraid of our feet, and then darted past them through the door and down the steps, as I stepped in. The house took my breath inside. The furnishings were more lavish than Le Grande Hotel. A fine sofa and chairs, tables, pictures on the walls, all beyond what I could have dreamed. Awe filled me, imagining my mother growing up in such a place, how it must have been for her to leave it.
We followed Josephine to a kitchen near the size of Walter’s whole cabin. We watched as she stirred the milk and then transferred it to smaller jugs. In short time, there were heavy footsteps on inside stairs, and a man of average height, older than Judge by years, stood in the door to the kitchen. His appearance was well kept. He was heavy, but not obese. White hair flowed from his head, though there was some color still to his mustache and beard.
“Mornin’ Hebert,” Josephine said without looking up. “Hope you’s clothed. This here’s Kate an’ her friend Mae. They’s gon’ be stayin’ with us.” Then addressing me, she said, “Hebert an’ his boys been carin’ fo’ yo’ gran’father’s estate.” She passed a glaring eye his direction. “When they not too busy carousin’ an’ sleepin’ half the day.”
Hebert offered no words at the introduction. He studied my face quietly as he took my hand and Mae’s in turn. Josephine finished pouring and turned her jugs to refrigeration, while the silence poked at me like little pins. The sounds of the two younger men finally broke it, the older, Hebert Jr., bearing more resemblance to his father than the younger, and more handsome Matthieu. Both men were clearly quite taken with Mae at a glance. Introductions were made and Josephine tasked Matthieu with showing us up the stairs with our bags while she returned to finish hanging her linens.
Much as Alice and I had in New Orleans, Mae and I enjoyed the luxury of being ladies, the disrepute of our pasts being unknown to these men. It was clear, Hebert was unhappy at making my acquaintance, but his son held no such disappointment. Rather he seemed excited by the prospect of young ladies in the house, and he was eager in his showing not just the upstairs, but the entirety of the house.
Josephine had chosen not to mention Mae’s condition, though an impossible one to remain undisclosed for long. Mae, with her fears behind her now, was taken with our escort as I was with the furnishings he showed us. By the time, we had reached the stair, her arm was in his, and her head was falling often upon his shoulder in feigned laughter at modest humor.
Matthieu allowed me pause at the bottom of the stair, while he enjoyed Mae’s flirtations, to ponder a long time a painted portrait hung there on the wall. There was no mistaking, even in a painting, that his eyes were were the reason Hebert had studied me so. His unflinching gaze stared at me way my mother did from my looking glass, transporting me in dream.
The small collection of books I had left behind at Abbie’s brothel had torn my heart when I abandoned them. My grandfather’s library quickly mended that tear. He had books by the hundreds in shelves on the walls, higher than I could reach. I was sure I could read my entire life and never read them all. But it was the book I discovered upon reaching the upstairs was to turn a dream come true.
Matthieu led us to the most beautiful bedroom I could ever have imagined, with a window looking out to the south. I dropped my bag and ran to it to take in the same view shared by the broad porch below. I threw it open and the fresh air from outside brought the grasses and the flowers into the room, thrilling me with excitement, cleansing my lungs of the stuffy smells of rotten sex I’d slept in for as long as I could remember.
I turned to admire the room, lit by real daylight, and adorned in the beautiful things of a girl. It was so much more than the minimum Abbie afforded her whores. There were no plain linens. The furniture was not drab. I sat on the bed, soft to my sitting, and kicked my feet to make it bounce. To my side was a fancy end table with twin drawers. I drew open the top one playfully and inside was a small leather-bound book, not unlike my letters to Mary. I opened it up and the sight before me brought my heart to a stop and sent my mind empty into dizzy delirium. There, hand-written, neatly and precisely upon its pages, were my mother’s words.
© 2013 Anne Schilde