The white man believed her, too, because he went away.
In the morning her fever had broken. She felt light-headed when she went in search of water, and then paid too much for the privilege of drinking her fill. She paid more for a bowl of it to wash her face and neck and hands. The glands in her throat and armpits and in her groin were swollen and hard, and she had the idea that the fever was not finished with her yet.
She left the old woman’s shack with all her belongings and the intention of never going back, and found her way to the little chapel that had been described to her near the Turning Basin near where the Canal Carondelet ended. Inside it was cool and dim, and Titine was kneeling in front of a very old statue of the Virgin Mary carved out of darkened oak, riddled with woodworm.
Hannah touched her on the shoulder, and together they went outside to talk in the shade of a hanging oak.
Hannah said, “Jennet?”
“You just missed Miss Jennet, she went straight back after early Mass.”
But she was alive, and well, and Hannah was satisfied to know that much. When Titine was done telling her the rest of it—none of it a surprise, and some room for guarded optimism—the tone of Titine’s voice changed.
“How long you been sick like this?”
The expression on her face told Hannah denials would do her no good. “Since yesterday afternoon.”
“You about to fall on your face. Where you staying?”
She made a deep sound of disapproval when Hannah told her, bowing her upper body over her arms and shaking her head.
“Somebody looking out for you, that’s for sure,” she said. “Some angel keeping watch. It’s a plain miracle nobody put a knife in you last night. What was the man thinking, sending you there?”
It wasn’t a real question, and Hannah didn’t try to answer it.
“We got to find you a safe place, and right now,” Titine said. “Someplace they look after you when the fever come down again. Your brother here yet?”
“No,” Hannah said. “Not yet.”
Titine’s mouth twitched in irritation or worry. “There’s someplace that might just do, but it won’t come cheap. I hope you ain’t the kind who looks down on working women.”
Much of the rest of the day was lost completely to Hannah, who let herself be led like a placid child through the back alleys of the city. It felt to her as though her skin were dissolving in the heat and wet of the air, as if she would soon float through the lanes, bumping against walls and trees. When Titine spoke to her it came in a slow echo, the words drawn out and wrapped up in gauze and unrecognizable. Very soon she gave up trying to understand; she gave up on language altogether.
When she woke again she thought it must be evening by the quality of the light on the walls around her, which otherwise told her nothing of the place where she found herself. A small square room with windows on two sides, a row of hooks on the wall, her clothes and shawl on one of them. A table, a stool, and the bed in which she found herself, made up neatly with linen that was rough but clean.
She had on a thin lawn nightdress she didn’t recognize, and everything—sheets, pillow, nightdress—was soaked with her own sweat.
“I can’t fall sick, not now.” She whispered these words to the walls and was marginally comforted by the sound of her own voice, even when the things it said were clearly false. She could be sick. She was sick. If her head weren’t aching so, she would be able to make sense of her symptoms and figure out what needed to be done.
As it was, she couldn’t even reach for the pitcher of water on the table beside the bed. Her arms wouldn’t obey her, nor would her legs. She stank of thin vomit, and sweat.
Hannah remembered Titine quite suddenly, Titine who had come from Pensacola with Jennet and had been visiting the chapel every day, waiting for Hannah to arrive. Titine had brought her to this place, and she must be nearby. She tried to raise her voice to call and succeeded in making only a very small sound. And yet the door opened, as if someone had been listening for exactly that.
It was not Titine who stood there or anyone Hannah had
ever seen before, but a woman of middle age, painfully thin and with a tiny pursed mouth. The red stones in the earrings that swung beside her neck worked brighter and bigger than her eyes, two small dull peas pushed into the hard flesh of her face. Some part of Hannah’s mind realized that this woman who was looking at her with such distaste was wearing a great deal of jewelry of substantial value.
Behind the woman, who had still not spoken, was a smaller and much younger woman, plainly dressed. A far prettier woman, though her skin was golden and her tilted black eyes were cast down in the way of servants everywhere. Hannah had come across a few Chinese in the last year, but all of them had been male.
“Girl,” said the older woman in a clear, carefully modulated French. “You will see to it she drinks as much water and broth as you can force down her throat. You will wash her. You will see to it that she does not soil the bed. If she dies in the night, fetch Tim and he will dispose of her body.”
The Chinese girl bent her whole body in a nod. “Oui, madame.”
“Missus,” Hannah said, her voice as steady as she could make it. “Where am I?”
A thin lip curled. “I am Noelle Soileau, and you are in my establishment. The mulatto who brought you here paid rent on this room for a week, and hired the part-time help of Girl.”
“Where is she?” Hannah asked.
“If I thought you were contagious I would never have allowed you in, and if you forget your station, I will cast you out without hesitation.”
Then she closed the door behind herself, and Hannah was left with the young Chinese woman called Girl.
Hannah could already feel herself slipping away, down into the boiling fever. She wanted to ask questions, but the girl was lifting her head with one small, very strong hand while she held a tin cup to her mouth with the other. The water was clean and warm and tasted of metal. Hannah drank, and drank, and drank, and slipped away into sleep.
Hours passed, or days; she could be sure of very little except that she was still in the same room. Sometimes the Chinese girl was sitting next to her on the stool and sometimes she was alone. She roused at different tastes in her mouth: water, weak tea, salty beef broth.
This is swamp fever, she tried to say. Call an apothecary.
There was music in the night, a piano, a fiddle not so far away, the sound of women laughing. Doors opening and closing, a man crying out in pleasure or pain. There were gunshots, too, and artillery fire in the distance, the low coughing boom of cannon, but whether these things were real or part of her dreams she was never quite sure.
Nausea overwhelmed her so that even broth and water could only be taken by the spoonful, and still sometimes she brought them up. When the fever was at its worst she sometimes heard other voices, a jumble of languages,
Mahican and Scots and English and Kahnyen’kehàka, the languages of her girlhood. Her father’s voice, her dead husband’s. Her stepmother’s, reading from Shakespeare.
The Chinese girl went on with her work placidly, undisturbed by the universes tumbling through the room. Hannah woke once to find her sweat-caked skin being bathed in a solution of water and vinegar. Now and then Hannah heard her speaking to someone at the door. She spoke French in the same accents as the woman who owned this place, with no hint of any other language.
Finally the day came when Hannah could whisper a question and be understood.
“The mulatto? She has not come back.” The Chinese girl never smiled, but her face was an expressive one.
“How long have I been here?”
“Today is the first of October.”
The room began to spin, slowly, grandly. Hannah closed her eyes and tried to make sense of the idea that she had been in this room for so long, and that Titine had never returned.
The girl had worries of her own, which she shared freely. If her mistress was not paid another week’s rent tomorrow, Hannah would be put out, sick or not.
There had been money, money enough to rent this room for months, and more than that, there had been the letters. Her pack, guarded so carefully, was nowhere in the
room that Hannah could see. She asked about it, her voice hoarse.
“The mulatto woman took it, for safekeeping.”
By her tone Hannah understood. The girl believed that Titine had stolen Hannah’s pack and run away. Hannah herself did not believe this, would not believe it, but that didn’t matter. She fought back panic through the throbbing of her head, thinking through the things that must be said before the fever made talk impossible.
“You must go to an apothecary and get me some cinchona bark,” she said. “I have swamp fever.”
“With what money?”
She forced herself to breathe deeply. She said, “Is there an almshouse in the city, or a clinic where they would take me in?”
“There is no place for someone like you.”
“And the negroes, where do they go when they’re ill?” Hannah asked.
The girl shrugged. “The free colored have their own doctors and healers and midwives.”
Hannah’s head began to swim again, but she bit down on her lip to make herself focus. “Do you have another name besides Girl?”
“It is the only name Madame allows me. I was born in this house to one of her whores. I belong to her.”
Hannah said, “If you can get me paper and pen, and if you can deliver a note successfully, I will buy you from
Madame and give you your freedom. And you can choose your own name.”
Girl looked at Hannah calmly. She said, “This is the only place I know.”
“Do you want to be a whore for all your life?”
The girl blinked at her in surprise, as if Hannah had asked whether she was in the habit of breathing. She turned her head on its long stem of neck and looked out the window. “To be the servant of Redbone woman is less than I am now.”
“You would be free,” Hannah said.
There was a long moment’s silence, filled in only faintly by the sound of a horse and carriage passing on the cobblestones outside.
Girl said, “I will try.”
But the fever came roaring back, so that her fingers could not command the quill, and her head was too heavy to lift. The sickness dragged her off to the shadowlands where her grandmothers sat together, the ones she had known in life and others she knew only by the stories their daughters had told, all of them offering advice. The other world pushed at her now and then, voices she did not recognize, blurred faces the color of the earth, of the night sky, of whey. Arms lifted her and she flew through the air, her hair swinging around her head, wind on her face. A voice, low and murmuring.
She spoke to the dead. Long ago—months? years?—she
had made peace with her husband and her son, and now they came to sit beside her, sometimes together, but most often it was just Strikes-the-Sky. She said, It is very kind of you to sit with me while I die. I’m sorry I could not do the same for you.
Sometimes her grandfather Hawkeye was with them.
I have missed you so, she said. And: Did you find the death you were looking for?
Other faces flickered around her like fireflies in the night. Men on battlefields, bleeding to death of wounds she could not staunch, children dead of fever, an old man whose name she could not recall in a river, red maple leaves caught in his hair.
Let me sleep, she told them all. Let me sleep, I have done all I can.
Sometimes Jennet was with her, as she had once been, bright and full of life and stories. Kit Wyndham came, too, and asked her questions in languages she did not recognize, the same question, it seemed, over and over, until he grew impatient and asked in English: Are you content to be a whore for the rest of your life?
She answered him in Kahnyen’kehàka: I am who I am.