Originally published in FIYAH Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction (2018) and Dimension Uchronie Ahistorical Anthology (2019)
There’s a monster masquerading as a man in Manman’s bedroom. Sometimes I hear Manman speaking to him, hushed voices in the night. She’s warned me not to enter her bedroom. Up until now, I’ve obeyed her. It wasn’t always her room. A year ago, it belonged to the master of the Andre Plantation: Mr. Louis DeVille and his pinch-faced wife.
But they’re dead. Dead by my Manman’s hands. Dead by the hands of the people that they had once “owned.”
I turned thirteen a week ago, and everything feels so different. I feel like there is a weight on me, like there is a chain around my leg that I cannot see or touch. Manman’s face has the lines of a woman who carries the same weight, who keeps many secrets. She thinks that I don’t know about this man in her room. But I do. I am learning her secrets.
And I intend to learn more.
The floor in front of her room is cold beneath my stockinged feet. I jiggle the doorknob and it twists side to side with ease. Unlocked?
I press my lips together, running my tongue over them as I enter the room.
An uneasy part of me wonders if Manman has deliberately left her room unlocked. Her room is enormous. Across the floor is a carpet of rich, deep red whose colors match the velvet bedspread, the silk throw that tops the bedside table, and the curtains’ trim. I’m drawn to a glass-front bookcase filled with porcelain figures and books. One of Manman’s oil paintings adorns one of the walls. It’s a self-portrait and her dark eyes stare at me. Warning me away? Despite this, I press on and enter, stiff-legged and cold.
I proceed on tiptoe where the carpet gives way to hardwood flooring. Her closet is the size of a small chamber, and inside sits a man. A white man. When I look in his gray eyes it is like I am staring into my own. We share those eyes, we have the same curl and blond color to our hair despite his being stringy and rank. The familiarity of his face frightens me. He is dressed in ratty clothes: a grimy black shirt with frills at the throat and his sleeves with their stained ivory ruffles set off the sickly paleness of his skin. He doesn’t try to move — no point in doing that, his wrists are shackled together with a chain, connected to a bolted plate in the wall. He looks up at me, eyes bright in the dark and smiles, baring his white, straight teeth. I flinch, snapping backwards.
“Fine seeing you this morning, Heloise,” he rasped. “You are Heloise DeVille, aren’t you?”
Heart racing, I thrust myself out of the room, dashing to my bedchamber where I crouch down in a dark, safe corner. My thoughts scurry like wild, deadly things.
He’s a prisoner, I think. What is there to smile about? And why are his eyes like mine? And he knows my name!
As I climb into my own closet to hide, and perhaps sleep, realization settles on me: That man is Louis DeVille, the former master of this house. And Louis DeVille is supposed to be dead.
“Heloise!” Manman calls. I hurry to her. Today, she’s hosting a Quilting Bee. It’s some boring social event where local gentlewomen get together in their fine party clothes just to make a quilt. Sometimes I help Manman’s Quilting Bee by serving tea, lemonade, and other refreshments like tea cakes. In between serving I sneak in a few sips and nibbles.
Oh, but the quilts! Some of the women’s quilts are abstract, with unexpected colors and surprising patterns. Other quilts told stories: weddings, funerals, and births. My favorite quilt is the one lying on my bed. Not only because Manman and I made it, but because of the Senegalese girl we embroidered piece by piece on it. Her dark brown arms are lifted to the blue sky. Birds fly around her and flowers bloom at her feet.
Jean-Marie is always at every quilting bee. She’s one of Manman’s rivals, and she speaks flawless French, enunciating each vowel-laden word. Jean-Marie isn’t a great beauty. She isn’t even ugly. She’s what Manman calls “tragically plain” with her straight nose and too round eyes. Her skin may be several shades lighter than Manman’s—or as the white people used to say, “brighter”—but she’s missing something, some spark to usher her beyond plain into beautiful. I’ve overheard people talking because sometimes I listen to grown folks’ conversations even when I’m not supposed to, so I think the real reason these two are like water and oil is because of Charles Deslondes. He used to be the most eligible man (colored or white) until he and my mother freed our people and fell in love.
Today, Jean-Marie’s lustrous, kinky hair is adorned with peacock feathers. It’s no match for Manman’s hairdo though; her hair is bright and dark, and held up with pearl pins like a crown. Only a few of the other guests—mostly older women—are showing off elaborately tied tignons, or scarfs over their hair. Even though the days of the “Tignon Laws” that made black women wrap and cover up their hair done gone, some women willfully hold onto their tignons as if still in rebellion to the whites who wanted them to hide their beauty.
While handing out tea cakes, my mind goes back to the White man in my mother’s closet. Whites weren’t to be trusted. Especially the poor ones. Though the rich ones who thought they owned her had whipped my mother’s back, leaving terrible, deep scars; it was the poor ones who feared that once we slaves were free we’d take the little that they had.
Hmph. Little did the white man know about the power of women. Especially colored women.
Jean-Marie cuts her dark eyes to my mother as she stabs her needle into the quilting cloth. “Être con comme un balai.”
Dumb as a broom, she says, seemingly in Manman’s direction.
I must’ve missed something while I was deep in thought. The two women often argued, but Jean-Marie is usually not vicious enough to send cutting words toward Manman in full view of the public.
Jean-Marie tilts her head to the side and laughs, all the while giving Manman the side-eye.
Without missing a beat, Manman grins, countering in Haitian Creole, “Pal franse pa di lespri pon sa.” I duck my head, hiding my snickers at my mom’s retort: “Speaking French doesn’t mean you are smart.”
Manman isn’t Haitian, but she and most of the people of the United Tribes of Mother Africa, (formerly the southeastern part of the United States of America) speak Haitian Creole in honor of Haiti’s (formerly called Saint-Domingue) successful slave revolt, a revolt that has been mirrored in New Orleans and throughout all the southeastern United States.
The other women burst into laughter, nodding, their voices rising in excited “ahhhh, ahhhhs.” With an elegant nod, Manman gestures at Jean-Marie. “I’ve told you before, I don’t want to hear you speaking that shit language here. It’s not allowed. You’ll respect my house, or you’ll leave.”
Some of the women nod as they continue drawing their needles in and out of the fabric. Jean-Marie sucks her teeth. “Such senseless pride, Seraphine. What’s wrong with speaking French? We won! Dieu est bon or Bondye se yon bon bagay!” What difference does it make? God is good no matter what language we confess it in. The whites are gone. Utterly exfluncticated! Who cares if we use their language?”
My mother narrows her eyes. “I don’t need to answer to you. Or anyone.” She thrusts her needle at Jean-Marie. “Sew. Or get out.”
Jean-Marie shrugs. “I don’t know why you just don’t get over what has happened. It’s in the past. Besides,” she continues, brandishing her own needle, “you were able to bear two beautiful—”
Like the coming of a storm, my mother rose, quiet and intimidating. She’s not a tall woman, but her presence emits what I can only call power. Her voice is as cold as a punchbowl of ice. “You’ll never learn. I’m done with you. Out.”
Jean-Marie seems stunned and doesn’t move for several moments. I fidget in the sudden silence, my stockinged legs terribly itchy. I scratch at the back of my calf with the toes of my shiny, black dress shoes. A couple of my Manman’s guests shift their weight in their wooden chairs. The only sound in the room is the whispering of needles as they are threaded with expert precision in and out of the layers of fabric.
Jean-Marie lowers her part of the quilt and rest it in her chair. She stands up, hands clenched and stalks towards the front door. I follow her and open the door. It’s the polite thing to do.
She looks me full in the face and for a split second, narrows her eyes, then parts her lips as if to say something. With a shake of her head, she falls silent, then leaves.
I close the door behind Jean-Marie, but my mind is wide open with questions.
By the time we light our candles and settle into our late evening routines, Manman’s quilting bee friends are all gone. Manman dips her paintbrush in water before turning back to her project: a watercolor portrait of my brother, Etienne, and me. Etienne is gentle strokes of warm, tan tones and swirls of lustrous black curls crown his head. And me? In the painting, my hands rest protectively on my little brother’s shoulders, my gray eyes peeking like rainclouds under a sunburst of dandelion yellow hair framing a heart-shaped face.
Her vivid paintings stir great feelings in me. It’s as if she has touched, caressed, and analyzed every shape, wrinkle, and curve of our being with the tips of her skilled fingers before capturing the images on the canvas.
“Tell us a story,” my brother Etienne pleads, clapping his hands.
“What kind would you like to hear?”
Manman regards her painting before looking at me. “I’ll tell you about how Charles Deslondes and I saved our people.”
Etienne waves a dismissive hand. “Oh no, Manman!” he whines in a squeaky voice that could have only come from a spoiled five-year-old. “We’ve heard that story about you and Papa before! It’s so old!”
I scowl at Etienne. He can be so thick sometimes. Everything in the room feels tight and hot. I want to scream, Tell us about the man hiding in your closet. Tell us what Jean-Marie was talking about. Tell me, is that man my father?
Etienne huffs and crosses his arms against his chest. Papa, he said. He’s been raised to believe that Charles Deslondes is his father and I don’t blame Manman for letting him believe this fantasy. Etienne and I don’t share the same surname, and mine—DeVille—doesn’t mean devil, but it’s only a few letters shy of it. If I could cut off that part of myself I’d be much happier.
Our mother smiles. “No, my sweet. You do not know the whole of it. You were too young to understand. But now,” she pauses, rising to her feet. “Yes, now, I know you are ready.” Her dark brown eyes seize mine and dread fills me because I know her last words are meant especially for me.
“On January 8th, Charles Deslondes, a mulatto slave driver and 25 slaves slaughtered Gilbert, son and heir of the Andre plantation. Ours was the first plantation we hit, Gilbert the first white man we killed. I was with Charles. I fought alongside him. As I have always said, Heloise, these people are not to be trusted. Ever.”
Next to me, Etienne yawns. We could always count on Manman’s soft voice to make him sleepy. I am not sleepy at all, though. I feel like I have swallowed a star, my chest is so warm. Etienne snuggles up to me and I lean into him. Manman, her lips tight, continues.
“As Deslondes and his men moved toward New Orleans like magnets, more men and women joined them. Songs of Creole protest swelled around us. Everywhere the electric feeling of hope was so potent, everybody could taste it.” Manman paused, nearly breathless in her memory. “This hope nourished us. Onward, we marched, men and women pillaging plantations. Five hundred strong, we pressed on, killing whites who had tried and very nearly succeeded in murdering our souls.”
Etienne’s snores were soft against my arm, his breath hot and wet. I wanted to move, but couldn’t.
“Did I ever tell you how I used to dream?”
I shake my head, replying, “You told me that Grandma used to dream.” My grandma had been a slave from Nigeria and died shortly after giving birth to my mother. Other than that, I knew nothing else about her, except that when Manman mentioned her she grew quiet and misty-eyed. Even though I’m thirteen and nearly grown, my mother is a mystery that often causes me to question myself. Right now, I want answers more than ever.
“Now, Heloise, let me tell you about who you truly are,” Manman says, as if picking up my thoughts. She hoists sleeping Etienne on her shoulder, beckoning me to follow with her free hand.
We tuck Etienne into bed upstairs and say a prayer over him, hoping that the good God blesses him with sweet dreams. Afterward, we return to the parlor downstairs. “Weeks leading up to the war, we used crows,” Manman whispers as she lights candles to ease back the dark. Moonlight bleeds through the large parlor window. She pats the chair next to her, inviting me to sit down. I sink into the chair and we both prop our feet on the generously stuffed ottoman.
I feel like I’m going to burst and finally blurt out, “What’s that white man doing in your closet? How long has he been there?”
Shouldn’t he be dead? I wonder, but am too afraid to ask aloud.
She slowly raises her bowed head and lifts her index finger to her lips. The pearls in her black hair shine in the moonlight. “Shush. I’m getting to that, Heloise. We used crows,” she repeated, “to send messages. Most of us couldn’t read. Nor write. So, we drew symbols, pictures. Drawings of where to hide tools like machetes and hoes to use as weapons. Freedom or death. We would have one or the other.” Smiling, she laughs now, like a little girl who has discovered a delicious secret. “I find it funny that the very bird those white people feared as a symbol of death is the same creature that helped us into gaining our independence.”
Manman stares off into the distance, tilting her head as she studies the wall before her. I wonder if she’s seeing something that I can’t.
“A week before Charles began our revolution, I had a nightmare. I dreamed that we ran out of ammunition,” she says. “In quick succession, whites executed over 100 survivors in retaliation. The last thing I remember before I was frightened out of my dream was the decapitated heads of fellow slaves I had once known. They were erected along the road to New Orleans, looking like crows sitting on long poles. I told Charles none of this. I didn’t want any doubt to spoil his mission. But, I knew that when the time came, I’d have to intervene. It happened in the swamps behind the Picou and Trouard Plantations. We were outnumbered. It was well before the sun was due to rise, and the world was dark and heavy. Hungry, we hunted and found a wild pig. It would’ve been our last meal, except I think God intended it for something else. You see, I also had visions of Charles being shot, tortured, and burned alive. I couldn’t let that happen.”
She shook her head, dark brown eyes wide, and continues. “I raised my machete to the sky and lifted my trembling voice into the night. Heavy with fatigue, I shouted my pleas: ‘Father God, Bon Dye, we reject the white man’s gods of torment, greed, and death. We turn our backs on them. We lift our voices to you. Bring us aid. Give us victory.’ I turned and nodded to Charles. He slit the pigs’ throat. Its squealing cries came to an abrupt stop and red rivers of blood spilled. ‘Give us aid!’ I continued to cry. It was raining, but we were also weeping. I couldn’t tell the rain on my face from the tears. We kept praying.
“‘Bondye, allow our murdered brothers and sisters to avenge themselves.’ I slammed my hands on a patch of land, squeezing mud between my fingers.” She looks at me with tears in her eyes. “Heloise, something was there, I am telling you. I could feel it. A vibration or a humming against the palms of my hands. Bondye’s response was swift and at first struck fear in the hearts of all who stood there.”
Manman hands me a brush and removes the pins from her hair. I take the brush and slip out of my seat, pick up nearby a jar of palm oil from the incidental table and dip my fingers into it. I section her hair into four parts, loving the feel and warmth of each coiled strand through my fingers. She falls silent as my expert fingers knead and manipulate her hair.
One of the lights on the candelabra whispers away. Manman stops me and crosses the room to relight it. “We had to win. And I knew that God was on our side. Not the god of the white man that drank our blood and mocked our tears. So, when the dead began to rise from the very soil beneath our feet, I knew my cause was just.”
I stare at Manman. “You raised the dead?”
She shrugs her narrow shoulders as if this supernatural feat was some small thing.
“There’s a Haitian Creole saying about the undead and white teeth, Heloise. Dan blan tankou zonbi. The dead rose. They didn’t stink of rot. Their limbs were intact. Even corpses centuries old moved with full use of their limbs. I’ll never forget the look on Colonel Manuel Andre’s face when he showed up with his guns and militiamen. For what could he and his mere mortal men do against a blessed legion of dead?” Manman threw back her head and laughed. “By daybreak, not one white person remained. Those who chose to be wise, fled to New Orleans. But not wise enough. I wasn’t finished. Oh no. We marched on and took the city. And I had no intentions of stopping there. Once word got out that we had revolted, more whites would come. And fearful Blacks would join them in the fight against us. I had to end it all. End. It. All. There and then.
“I split my energy, my very spirit into several directions. Like fog, it traveled over the ground, awakening the dead and calling them to fight. I wasn’t a puppet master and these newly raised bodies weren’t my marionettes. I was their leader and they were my soldiers. And as their catalyst and conduit, we acted with one accord and with one goal:
“To kill as many whites before they had a chance to regroup and slaughter us. Bondye granted me sight. I was able to look through the eyes of one newly resurrected body, who relieved a white planter of his gun, broke his neck, and crushed his skull with the heel of his own weapon. Through the eyes of another, and another, and another resurrected body, I could see the battlefield more clearly. We slew whites still asleep in their beds. We spared the cattle, the sheep, and other livestock because we would need them for ourselves later.
“After a while, I realized that there was only so much my mortal shell could withstand. I was drawn back to my body, opened my eyes and there was Charles, leaning over me and caressing my face. ‘We did it,’ he was crying. “We made it! New Orleans is ours. The soldiers are abandoning the city!’”
“But how?” Is all I’m able to say. My breath is gone from my chest. Manman kisses me on the forehead.
“I had arrived in this world stillborn. Some say that it was the dip in ice water that shocked my tiny heart into beating. Others say that it was my mother’s—your grandmother’s—doing, for my mother prophesied “She will save our people,” shortly after giving birth to me.
“I have lived with this gift, these visions, just as my mother had, and her mother, and all of our mothers since this gift came to us. I know that my mother saved me, for her words lived on, and so did the power that she gifted me.”
Manman reached out to me, stroked my face with a finger.
“In our homeland, our mothers were vodun priestesses, great in power and humility. I am my mother’s legacy. You will inherit that legacy. If you are so willing.”
My eyes are full of tears. I open my mouth to speak, but I only yawn, long and loud.
“And now you must sleep, ti cheri.” Candelabra in hand, she holds my arm and leads me to my bedchamber.
It’s still dark, not quite morning, when I am awakened by the shattering of glass. Voices carry down the hallway.
“I wanted her to see you for what you are. Helpless. As helpless as I was when—” Manman’s voice is loud and shrill, no longer having any trace of softness.
“You won’t win. Not forever,” another voice says. I recognize this voice—it is the same one that said my name, the same one hidden behind those stark white teeth.
There is a shattering sound, like glass being broken, and then several loud bumps, all from the direction of Manman’s bedchamber, which is three doors down the hallway. For several moments, I cower under my covers before I swallow my fear. I hurry first to Etienne’s room and see that he’s sleeping. I wake him up and tell him to hide. I seize up one of the wooden toy guns that he has lying around his room and rush out.
Once I make it to my mother’s room the coppery scent of blood dizzies me. I push open Manman’s door and see her writhing on the floor in a struggle of life or death against Louis DeVille, the dead man in her closet.
My racing heart threatens to pound out of my chest as I watch my mother wrestling with the monster, blood slick against her dark skin. He pins her to the ground, wraps his white-knuckled hands around her long, slender neck and squeezes.
“No,” is all Manman can manage to gurgle. Her eyes flicker to me and before he can take notice of my presence, I bash the back of his head with the wooden gun. Whack-whack! It takes two more strikes before he lays still.
Manman rises and smooths the wrinkles out of her nightgown. She puts her hands on her hips and sucks her teeth.
“Manman, this . . . man,” I almost choke on the word, “is my father, isn’t he?” I don’t include Etienne in the question. Just in case he’s listening, I don’t want him to know. Not yet. My voice drops to a low whisper: “Did he force us on you?” I can’t look at her as I ask it. I know a little about how babies are born. My stomach aches and bile rises in my throat. I’m sick. I hate Louis. I hate him, I hate him, I hate him!
Manman turns to me and strokes my cheek. For a long while, she doesn’t speak. “I love you both. I don’t blame you for what he did to me.”
“Why is he still alive?”
“Because I wanted revenge.” A horrible light shines in her eyes as she speaks, and she pulls her lips back over her teeth like a struck dog. “So, I resurrected him. I burned him with cigars. I beat him. I spewed spirits in his eyes. I retaught myself that he was just a beastly man and he learned to fear me.”
Louis lies prone on the floor, his skin ashen. “But tonight was different. He attacked you. He no longer fears you.”
Manman falls silent again, thinking deeply before she nudges the side of Louis’ head with her foot. “Okontrè, cheri mwen, when the mouse attacks the cat, it’s not being brave. It’s impatient and desires only to speed death along.”
I look to my mother. “What now?”
It takes Charles Deslondes less than an hour to arrive. In that time, Manman and I have cleaned up our bodies and our spirits.
“That was a fool thing you did, Serpahine,” Charles chides my mother after he loads Louis DeVille’s unconscious bod into his brougham. “Keeping that white man? For two years?” He chucks her under the chin and they stare into one another’s eyes. “Though, I don’t quite understand why you did it, but I know why you did it.” He’s the first to look away. He regards me with a curt nod. “Good thing you came to the rescue, Heloise.”
I don’t smile, nod, or even reply. Things could have gone very differently for Louis DeVille if Manman had been able to make it to one of the stashes of weapons that she and Charles keep throughout the house . . . just in case their ghosts come back to haunt them. My fingers fidget around the handle of something hard and deadly in the deep pockets of my riding cloak. In a silence of understanding, we three travel far from the Andre Plantation while Louis sleeps off his injuries.
“Okay. This is a good spot,” Charles says, drawing the horses to a stop. We have come to the wild lands at the edge of the Andre Plantation, where no one will see us. First, he eases Louis out of the carriage and lays him on his side on the soft earth. Then, Charles slaps Louis across the face, jolting him awake. Louis struggles in his bonds, teeth bared like a wolf. Spots of spittle dot his chin.
“We’re leaving you here,” Charles says, his voice bouncing from the trees. “You have a choice: go your way. We don’t care where you go, but you must go and leave us in peace. Or, we’ll have to kill you. Understand?”
Louis inhales a deep, shaky breath. He seems to relax. “I understand,” he replies in a whisper. Then, suddenly, his voice is harsh and grating. “I understand that I won’t rest until I have your heads!”
He keeps snarling, crying about what we’ve taken from him and how he wants his life back. I step from behind my mother, pistol in hand. With a smile, I point the gun at the man who sired me. “Keep talking. Give me an excuse to end you.”
“Heloise,” Manman pleads softly, reaching out to lay her hand on me but drawing back at the last second. “Don’t do it. Death is too good for him. I’d prefer he suffer knowing that our lives will continue. But,” she pauses, baring her teeth in a contemptuous grin at Louis, “if living proves too difficult for him in this new world then by all means, he’s welcome to eat shit and die.”
Manman’s gaze returns to me and she knows what I’m capable of. I glare at Louis, who is trembling, his brow glistening with sweat, eyes filling with water, and most likely praying to a god that no longer hears him. He couldn’t possibly be crying. And if he is? I don’t give a fart. His remorse isn’t remorse at all. He’s crying for himself and his pathetic, little life.
I draw back the trigger and fire. Louis sags at the crack of the shot. The bullet smacks harmlessly into the tree behind him.
“Go on,” I command. “Go your way. We’ll go ours.”
Manman rest her hands on my shoulders and Charles’ strong arms embrace us both. My mother kisses the top of my head and gingerly removes the pistol from my hand. “You heard her. Do what you want with your life. The life I gave you.”
We board the brougham. I watch my “father”, a kneeling mass of contradictions, until he’s nothing but a tiny speck in the distance. We are free and Bondye Bon. Yes, God is good.