An Excerpt from Book I, Chapter Two of The Cages of Marionneaux.
Columbia Navarre, New Orleans, 1873
The cloth done gave me fits. With raggedy ends, it was not ripping in good lengths. Could be because my hands shook so terrible awful, but the more I ripped, the more heat I took in my face and in the darkness under my arms.
For true, I knew I shouldn't have been using that blue silk. But, I had no choice. I needed something and all the other rags were already used up. Who had time for to be washing rags? I had new cloth to dye if we were gonna eat. And, when I wasn't sweating over a boiling tub, I had to take up my grandmama's duties. I had to take care of everything for both of us.
Seemed powerful shameful to use the blue silk--'specially after all the work it took to get that color. I had to dye it three times. Dip and wring, dip and wring, dip and wring--it made my arms hot and hard. My hands cracked like hot walnuts. But, that color...
It needed just the right amount of real indigo in the tub to make it shine the right blue. Oh, but it was beautiful. So beautiful when I was done with it, I wept. If I could, I would have wrapped my body in it and slept on it that night. Wouldn't that have been something? A poor dye girl, sleeping on silk.
It was dear and cost such a price that only the richest ladies and gentlemen could spare the money for it. Those new dyes--I don't understand them. Sure, I could have used one of them false dyes like those other trashy folks, but the color just isn't the same. It isn't as rich. It isn't the color of the river when the sun's high at noontime.
I watched my shaky hands tear the fabric--my fingers were stained a rainbow. But, that was part of my work. They would be stained my whole life--I was sure of it then. Those stains were the marks of my toil and I done wore them with pride. To me, they were like the war paint of the Indians that used to live where the levee is now. How simple it all was then.
But, looking back now, I can see that the worst stains wouldn't be on my hands.
For true, just then, while Grandmama hissed and moaned like the devil, my fingers were a sickly green. Shaking green like leaves or the long swords of grass before the rain beats them down.
I tore the silk into long squares as neatly and evenly as I could. Silk just doesn't hold water the same, but, I didn't have any cotton to spare, and Grandmama's head needed soothing. Those wide blue strips wouldn't take the water as a cotton rag would, but they'd hold the coolness well enough. Silk rags--I had to laugh. Oh, but it wasn't as if anyone would have been wanting to claim that fabric from us--not then. Not after we got hit with the devil's own fever.
My grandmother, Marjani Caruthers, had been nursing those poor souls stricken with Yellow Jack since the very first terrible outbreak in 1853. For twenty years, she washed and held those lost people's bodies from their first mad ramblings until their mouths bled and their hollow, yellow bodies lay spent and wasted in pools of their thick, black vomit. Twenty years and she never took ill--until the day of my twenty-third birthday.
When it first started, Grandmama stayed in our section of the crescent, nursing only our people. She stayed with the negroes, coloreds, quadroons and mulattos and would only go as far as Esplanade. There was enough to attend to with our own folk. She needn't go on a trip to St. Charles for to find people to nurse. They had people to tend to them. They weren't forgotten--not at the first. But, even they were lost at the last.
Just when we thought that the Yellow Fever had all but died out, the city would be struck with another wave and another and then another. Hundreds would die and then it would stop again for awhile. Year after year after year--the same thing.
After a time, Grandmama took to not only nursing our own people deep in the Quarter, but also those moneyed Creoles whose shops, offices, banks and galleries we would walk by on Royal Street during the good times. And, soon after, she would help the rich, white, American people in those big houses on Jackson Avenue, past Magazine Street and beyond St. Charles.
I never knew anyone braver than my grandmama. When she was away from me--sometimes for days at a time--I had to look after myself. She was my only family. You see, when I was a babe of three, my mama and daddy both died from the Yellow Jack. I think that's why Grandmama took to nursing. She wanted to save people from what became of us. She wanted to help.
She wanted to help somebody because she couldn't help mama and daddy. On some of the long nights when she was away I would stay with my bosom friend, Sophie Routhe, at her mama and daddy's place above the dress shop. Sophie and I were plumb like sisters. Even though the house was safe and the food high-tone, I still wanted nothing more than to see my grandmama walk through those doors and come to take me back to our little place in the world--our little part of the now.
I was always powerful worried that she would get the fever. Sure, I was. You couldn't walk on the streets without seeing the dead stacked on the banquettes--sometimes with no cover on them at all. I would see those poor folks and could imagine Grandmama's face on all of them.
Sometimes I done cried by myself at night when I wondered what I would do if she died, too. But, then the smell of the dye and the new cloth would soothe me to sleep.
Grandmama dyed cloth for to make us some money. When I got to be old enough, she taught me how to do it, too. For true, I loved it--probably because I wanted to be like Grandmama. I would plunge my hands into the hot water until they turned the color of lobster and little pieces shook off like the snow you see in picture books.
A little girl with an old lady's hands--but, the work made me closer to my people.
I used to like to think how I was making the cloth pretty colors--me, little Columbia.
I'd think how some rich white lady that I'd never meet would wear that cloth. I could see her in my head. Her gold-haired friend would say to her, "My, my what a pretty color." And, she'd say, "Why thank you, Trudy." Then, they'd go off together, hand in hand and humming a sweet, soft song.
Oh, but I did feel the heat in my face--worried it might be vanity to think so high of my own self. But, Grandmama done told me it was fine to be proud of what you are and what you can do.
I did try always for to do that.
And, for true, my colors were pretty. Yes, they were. Grandmama used to say that if it weren't for us, those white ladies would have no color at all.
For sure, I would laugh and laugh and laugh--even if it wasn't right to make someone my fun. And, Grandmama done laughed with me. I loved to hear her laugh. So for to make her laugh all the more, I done made up songs about those pretty rich ladies, and in those songs, it was my colors that made them beautiful.
I remember one--my favorite:
See that girl? There she goes
With feathers 'stead of fears
All tickling her nose.
The emeralds in her ears,
Just below her crown
Their fire melts like tears
Against her brilliant gown.
Deep orange on her arms
And, purple on her back,
My color gave her charms
Her pale body did lack.
Oh, how we'd laugh---Grandmama and me. I grew on that like a tree does light.
The older I got, the better I got with the colors, too. I had a good eye for mixing and I came up with some plumb unusual shades that made for some right pretty dresses for the ladies and waistcoats for the men.
Sometimes, in the evenings if I walked into the Quarter, I'd see a fine Creole gentleman or a Quadroon girl in a beautiful color and I knew that it had come from my hands. Those times--those were the easiest to feel proud. My colors. Sure, I made them beautiful...with His help. That was so very important to me. I couldn't forget Him.
To forget Him would be a sin for God gave us everything--the grains of earth I used to make my colors and the colors themselves . For Him alone, I didn't want any bit of those false things--that grit and those potions that folk called 'chemicals.' I wanted to know that my colors were straight from Heaven. That made me proudest of all.
Oh, but, I was proud then--maybe because Grandmama felt so, too.
But, there I was, ripping up my finest blue silk all so my grandmama would be comfortable before she went to Heaven to meet God--the same God that gave us this fever...and my colors. Some God.
I gathered up those blue silk rags and some gold ones that I done tore up earlier and I went to sit beside my grandmother's bed. I dipped the rags in the basin and wrung them out one by one. The water was cold-nearly frozen over it was so cold outside and since I hadn't had time to build up the fire. It didn't matter much. Grandmama was so overcome with the fever that the chill was welcome to her.
Gold and blue ribbons of dye leaked out of those rags into that cold, cold water as the left over color freed itself. The colors married and settled to the bottom--a bright green. I hadn't had time to rinse the cloth right. I should have plunged it into cold before I set it to dry.
I wet my hands in the freezing green water and put them on Grandmama's burning lips. Good--there was no blood. Taking one silk square from the water, I wrung it out and pressed it to her wrinkled mouth. Grandmama moved her lips back and forth, in and out, under that blue rag. Seemed like she was trying to talk, or maybe she was trying to taste the water. Who could know? She wasn't talking powerful much sense the last two days. All I could do was make sure she was comfortable.
I put one rag into the wash basin and took another one out of the water, wringing it out and placing it on Grandmama's head. It wasn't near as hot as the last time, but wasn't quite regular. I felt the tears well up in my eyes. Her fever was going down. Most folk would say that's a good thing. But, not with this fever. No, not with the Yellow Jack.
I pressed the blue silk against her head for to cool her--some of the fresh dye that I hadn't rinsed out ran down the light brown leather of her skin--blue drips leaving a trail on her cheeks like tears painted on. Mardi Gras tears. I wiped those blue lines off her face and looked deep into it. Her eyes looked like the glass in the windows of the cathedral. And, her skin was the color of the stone.
I was like her--lighter. I was always told how my granddaddy and my mama were both dark--almost the color of the earth. I didn't remember what my daddy looked like, but in my head, he was light skinned like me.
"Where da Lady Mother?" Grandmama cried like a babe.
"We made her safe," I said soft as down.
"Yes, yes, yes. Don't be afraid." I dabbed at her head. "You feelin' poor?"
"No, no child." Her voice was scratches on satin.
"You just rest," I told her.
"List'n a me, Columbia," I could barely hear her. I leaned in so I could see the words in her lips before I heard them in my ears. She put a limp hand on my arm.
"Now, now, now" I tried soothing her, but she wanted no part of it. Her eyes looked awake, but far away still. I studied her mouth--still no blood.
"Ya nee' ta go, chil'. Ya nee' ta leave N'awluns. Ya go find yo'daddy." She shut her eyes and sucked in air.
"But, honey." Oh, but how could I argue with her? Fever or no, she was still not talking sense. "Soon, darlin', you'll be with my daddy and my mama and I'll see you all again real soon." I just let myself cry. I was powerful afraid it would be many years before I saw them all again in the Kingdom of Glory.
"No," She coughed, "'Dat man ain't yo' daddy. Yo' daddy..."
I shook my head at her. "Yes, ma'am. Gilbert Navarre was my daddy."
"Mah lil' girl, your mama..." She wouldn't stop, "She done lie wid a white man...he wa' da mastuh and he took mah lil' girl and lay wid her. He wa' yo' daddy. Manuel. Manuel Fontanals."
I done shook my head, but she continued with her ramble.
"Fine, fine...high-tone," she spit. "Fine Creole mastuh."
For sure, I couldn't remember a thing of our time on the plantation. I was so much a small babe when Mr. Fontanals freed us and we moved to New Orleans to start lives as free negroes. To me, Marionneaux seemed like some other world down the river. And, yet for true, some part of me never felt easy in the Crescent either.
Even aged twenty-three years, I did, for certain, find myself made plumb dizzy by the smells of the city and by the strange dance and swirl of the colors--the people running like chickens with baskets on their heads; the negro ladies with their brick powder, reddening the clay steps that shoot straight up from the banquettes. At times, I could only take in so much of it before I felt like I'd go mad. Was that how my grandmama was feeling?
"What sort of things are you sayin'?" I asked her.
"When ya wa born, Gilbert Navarre married yo' mama. Soon aftah, we was free and we come here. Gilbert give us a good life, chil', but he wudn't yo' daddy." She coughed again. I felt her forehead. It was cool to the touch.
"Shhhhhh, shhhhhhh, now." I said. "Just be quiet and still."
"I know ya think I'm talkin' sick. But, it's true. Ya go, honey, ya go ta Marionneaux and fin' him. Ya fin' Manuel Fontanals and get what he owe ya." Grandmama pleaded with me.
She moved her lips--pushing them in and out, in and out, in and out...in...and, then there was the blood.
I wiped it away--it stained purple on the silk. First purple, then black as more blood rose around her lips and teeth. Black. It wasn't long before she vomited her life in a thick, stinking wash of black.
I done said a prayer to our Lady and wiped my tears away with the fresh, blue silk--my face streaked the color of the night sky, too.