He is here, he is well. He is beautiful.
We arrived three days ago, but it was only this morning that Madame P fulfilled her promise and allowed me to spend time with him. I can hardly write for agitation and joy and dread. Today he was mine for a while at least, but tomorrow is unknown.
I held him for an hour, in the shade of the veranda that overlooks the Bayou St. John. He is your son, from the shape of his toes to the way his hair grows in a whirl at the crown of his head. He looks at me so calmly, this son, this child you and I made. He looks at me as though he is trying to remember where he saw me last. He has not yet smiled at me, but then the young slave woman who cares for him, Jacinthe is her name, tells me that he has always been solemn and thoughtful for such a young infant. You see, in this he is your son as well. He will not take after his rash mother, whose reckless behavior has exacted so great a price.
I walked with him and talked as I would, in Scots, which I may not do when I might be overheard, for fear word will get back to Madame Poiterin.
The old lady is much as we were led to believe she would be. The small indignities she thinks up for me are bearable; anything, anything is bearable if it brings the day closer when I can leave here and put the boy in your arms.
river when the waters ran high, but that also served as a thoroughfare for all kinds of traffic. Hannah hardly knew where to look first.
She stood for a long time at a spot just opposite the central plaza that was the centerpiece of the old city. A cathedral flanked by two imposing buildings faced the river from the far side of the Place d’Armes; neighborhoods were laid on three sides of the plaza on a grid of narrow lanes as neat as a needlework sampler. The plaza itself was run-down and gave the appearance of a sawyer’s yard. It seemed the building trade had claimed the whole Place d’Armes as a place to pile their bricks and boards and great heaps of charcoal, with dozens of slaves busy moving things from one place to another.
The wharves were just as crowded and frantic. Hannah worked her way along the levee through crowds of sailors and boatmen, merchants and slaves, oxen and horses and mules. A small black man passed her with a crate of chickens clutched in wiry arms, a dog trotting at his heels; another man, his skin a deep glossy black and a scarf tied around a shaved head, pulled a cart heaped with coils of rope. The two men greeted each other in Portuguese. Hannah heard Spanish and French, Scots and Dutch, a smattering of other languages she couldn’t identify, and less often, English.
There were fewer soldiers and militia than she had expected, but there was no mistaking the fact that trade had been put to a stop by the war. There was a great wall of merchandise piled outside of every warehouse and in every
corner: bales of cotton and barrels of sugar and rice, mountains of bundled furs, a mile of lumber. A fortune in hard goods left to cook in the sun.
There was still a lot of traffic on the Mississippi, a forest of masts, ferries, and barges. Hannah stopped a slave woman.
“I thought there was a trade embargo.” She pointed with her chin to a great fleet of flatboats with dozens of slaves crawling over them, bearing the cargo away to waiting carts.
The woman looked, her dark eyes moving up the river. “Flatboats come down the river,” she said. “All the way from Ohio, some of them.”
This river could take her back to Ohio territory, where she had lived with her husband, where she had borne her son. Where she lost everything. If she began walking today and followed it, it would take her back through time to another life.
The woman was saying, “When the flatboats get down here they break them up for firewood or lumber. Some day soon, they say, we going to see one of them steamboats go upriver. But then folks will say just about anything. I’ll believe it when I see it, me.” She looked harder at Hannah. “Who you belong to, girl?”
Hannah had been warned about this question. “You are neither fish nor fowl,” Giselle had said. “Not a slave, clearly Indian, but you are nothing like the Indians they know, in speech or bearing or dress. Some will assume you are a
servant, others will assume you are some exotic African and ripe for plucking. In New Orleans you are a free woman of color, you must remember that. You wear a scarf over your hair whenever you are out on the street, or a hat. Pay me heed, Hannah, this is very important.”
“I was born free,” Hannah told the woman. “Up in New-York State.”
“You got papers?” asked the woman. “You best got papers, ’cause if one of them freebooters stop you to ask and you can’t show your papers, you find yourself on the auction block soon enough. Them freebooters ain’t fussy about the difference between red and black, them. The only color they know is white, and that ain’t you.”
Hannah had papers, drawn up for her by Lacoeur and sewn carefully into the lining of her shawl, carefully folded away in her satchel. She thanked the woman for her concern and continued on her way, feeling light-headed suddenly, her mouth sour and dry. The marketplace must be just ahead, where she could buy something to eat. With something in her belly she would feel better, she told herself. It sounded so reasonable, if only she could convince herself.
There had to be a hundred stalls in the long open building that served as the main market, and every one of them was filled to the brim. Leather raw and rough or finely cured, sewn into boots and shoes and harnesses, a tinker’s cart laden with pots and pans, knives and forks that winked in the sun. A dozen kinds of fish, oysters,
shrimp, sides of pork, and beef crawling with flies in spite of the young black children who had no work but to fan them away. A half dozen alligator tails in a pile, with a dog standing watch over them. Bushels of carrots, potatoes, kale, cabbage, melons, okra, beans, apples, peaches, pears, other crops that Hannah didn’t recognize. In the last year she had made many meals out of foods she never knew the name of.
She paid a butcher a few coins and got in return a thick slab of bread spread with butter and piled high with crackling hot, salty pork sliced off the spit. There was a long row of men selling drinking water out of barrels, and Hannah took her place in a line that had no white people in it at all. She paid a penny for three dips of the tin beaker, the last one of which she poured over her face and neck. Finally she bought a ripe peach and ate it as she listened to the merchants hawking their goods: chickens, eggs, goat’s milk, thread and needles, straw brooms, boots and slippers, fine muslin and huck-aback, tinware, nails, baskets, candles, medicines sure to cure everything from ulcers to broken hearts.
She listened to well-dressed men talk of crops and rain and the embargo, of funerals and baptisms, of bankruptcies and new buildings, in French and Spanish and English and German. Mostly she heard talk of the war.
Two Spanish men had been arrested as possible spies and were sitting in the Cabildo awaiting trial. The fort at English Turn was falling into the river. There were a hundred British warships in the Gulf and more on the way.