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The Salt Roads
By Nalo Hopkinson

An excerpt...  

 

BEAT...,

It went in white, but it will come out a mulatto in a few months' time, yes?"

I was right; the oven of Georgine's belly was swelling up nice with the white man's loaf it was cooking to brown. I cackled at my own joke like the old woman I was becoming, stretched my neck a little to ease its soreness. A deep breath brought me salt-smelling air, blowing up from the cliffs at the foot of the plantation. Good to get away for a few minutes from stooping over sugar cane. Sixteen hours each day they had us working to bring the sugar in, and old Cuba the driveress would still push the first gang to pluck weeds sometimes into the deep of the night.

Georgine just stared at me in fear, never mind it was she had brought herself to me by her own will. Then she whispered, "No, Auntie, not just mulatto. I'm griffonne, my mother was sacatra. The baby will be marabou."

Eh. I ignored her, poked again at her belly, at her lolling on the flour bags that made my bed on the floor of my hut; she got to plant her behind in a softer bed nowadays-even had a mattress, I bet. I wondered if the ticks didn't bite her when she put her head on Mister Pierre's straw-stuffed pillows. I knew Georgine's type. Made her road by lying down. Lie down with dog, get up with fleas, they say. Silly wench, with her caramel skin. Acting the lady because she worked in the great house, washing white people's stained sheets till her fingers cracked and bled from the soap.

Free-coloured Philomise had been making eyes at her; well-off brown man with his own coffee plantation and plenty slaves to work it, but no, our master didn't want a coloured to have her. Gave her instead to that yeasty-smelling carpenter imported to San Domingue-him from some backwards village in the ass end 2.of France. And Georgine was puffing herself up now she had a white man, never mind he didn't have two coins to rub together. True, she had cause maybe to be happy. Pierre was looking after her well. She might get two-three free children out of it too, and if she gave him enough boys, her Pierre might release her from slavery finally. When she was old.

But now she needed tending, and now that that flat-behind raw dough boy they called the plantation surgeon was too shy to even lay his hands on her belly to feel the baby, who did she come to? She didn't trust him. She wasn't an entire fool. Instead, she had found her high-coloured self to my hut.

And her carpenter had come with her too. Got time off from mending the wain carts as they burst under the weight of the cane they were carrying to the factory. Waiting outside, he was; screwing his hat into shreds between his big paws. Frightened I would poison his Georgine, his goods. All the backra round these parts were frightened of poison nowadays. Black people's poison was showing up in the food and bad ouanga in their beds. But Mister Pierre was more frightened to see woman's business. So outside he stayed, saying it was more decent. Eh. What decent could mean to we with black blood? Who ever feared for my decency?

Niger woman spoiled fine as any lady. She'd best watch herself. Slightest thing she did that mispleased that backra man, he'd pack her off, out of his little house. I went to turn up the hem of Georgine's dress. She gasped, flinched. I sighed. "Can't examine you with all this cloth in the way."

She considered, set her mouth firmly. "Proceed, then." Proceed. Stupid wench. Pampered pet parrot, talking with backra's tongue.

I touched her dress again. A soft cotton hand-me-down from some backra's wife, and dyed a yellow pale like ripe guavas. The fabric caught on the calluses of my hands. I ruched it up around her waist, exposed her smooth legs, her pouting belly, her bouboun lips covered in black crinkly hair. She was even paler where the sun didn't touch her. Bleached negress.

Oh, but she was thin! Meager like the chickens scratching in the yard outside. "Eh," I muttered, on purpose as though my patient wasn't there, "would think the hair on the little bbt would be pale like the skin."

Georgine gave a small sound, made to push the dress back down with her hands, stopped. Good.

The clean salt scent of Georgine's body came up in my nose, mixed with sweet rosewater. Me, I smelled of sweat. Her thigh under my fingers was velvet smooth like my baby's, long lost. My body was dry wood after years of work; the brand that had got infected and nearly killed me tunnelled a ropy knot on my thigh. Her yellow dress reflected the sun back in its own eye. My one frock was a colourless calico cut from a flour sack, washed a thousand times, that Tipingee had darned for me over and over again, for my hands were impatient with needles, unless it was to sew up a wound. Georgine's skin was steamed milk with a splash of high mountain coffee. Me, the colour of dirt in the canefields.

I poked and prodded at Georgine's belly while she tried not to squirm. I took my time, in no hurry to get back to the fields. My back was thanking me for having a rest. "When did you get pregnant?"

"I don't know, Auntie," she said in a small voice. Know-nothing girl child.

"When did your courses stop?" I asked, trying another way to get the answer from her.

"Stop? They only started"- she was frowning, looking up into the ceiling while she did her figuring-"ten months ago. My first blood. Then I bled three times, three months, then pretty soon I started puking a lot, then I realised the bleeding had stopped. I thought it was going away and I was glad, for I didn't like the pain and the blood. I felt like the whole thing was only fatiguing me.

When the bleeding came every month, I didn't have the strength to lift the washing down to the river. Marthe beat me one day, told me I was too lazy. So I was glad when the bleeding stopped, yes? It's Marie-Claire who told me I was pregnant." Her face got red and she smiled, glancing down. "For Pierre."

Seven months, maybe more. But the child under my hands was too small for a seven-month baby. "How are you feeling?" "I'm tired all the time, matant. Even more than when I used to get my courses."

I went and looked under her eyelids. Her colour was poor. Her blood was thin. "You and Pierre are eating good?" "Yes, matant! I'm keeping a nice garden Sundays when I have the day off. I'm growing cassava and pumpkin, plenty pumpkin. Pierre says I don't have to take none of it to market, for Master's paying him a wage we can both live on, if we're careful. Pierre says-"

"Pierre says, Marie-Claire says. I'm asking about you, not about them."

She looked chastened. "Yes, matant. What should I do, then?" Back in my home, back in the kingdom of Dahomey, every Allada girl child and woman would know what to do if a woman wasn't strong enough to carry her baby. Eat foods to strengthen the blood. "You have beets in your garden?"

"No, matant. I should grow some?" "Yes. I wish if you could get liver too." "I get meat sometimes."

Eh. Maybe she thought her Pierre was a fine hunter as well as all his other talents? "How do you mean, meat?" "Sometimes Pierre gets meat left over after the great house is finished eating dinner." "Don't eat that meat!"

She jumped, startled to hear me speak so strong. "No, child," I said, "I don't mean nothing by it. Just that white people don't know about food. Plenty times their meat is spoiled and they're still eating it."

"Oh. It tastes nice, though. Boeuf au jus with red wine sauce." Little bit of girl was making airs that she got to eat great house food. "You can't stay weak and tired like this and have a baby." "Oh," she said fearfully. "I'm going to die?"

Pride made me speak to her as I did to other women. "You've ever seen an African live more than ten years once he set foot on this island?"

Georgine shook her head no. Too right. Sickness and torture killed most of us on the journey across the bitter water, then the backra worked the rest of us to death when we got here. Plenty more were coming on the ships to replace us.

"Well, I've been here twelve years. Was apprentice to my midwife mother before I came. That's why they made me doctress. Don't you worry. I've taken dozens of babies on this island live from their mothers' wombs and put them in their mothers' arms."

She smiled. So I didn't tell her how many of those mothers had died of fever soon afterwards. Didn't tell how many of the babies had got the lockjaw, never breathed again. Didn't talk of my little dead one, so many years ago. Returned beneath the water to the spirits before his ninth night, so he had never really existed. No name for him. Except in my head. He was so beautiful, I called him Ehioze, "none can envy you." Should have been Amadi, "might die at birth."

Back in my home, we cared for women when they were breeding, gave them the best foods. They rested for days afterwards with their babies, getting to know them. Here I must help starving women squatting in sugar cane whose children were fighting their way free of their wombs. Afterwards, I strapped their children to their backs and if they were lucky, they got a day's rest in the slave hospital before they had to get their black behinds back to work.

A footfall came outside the window. A small face looked in on us, grinning. Then a shout came from outside: Georgine's owner man. Georgine screamed, "Who is it?" and shoved her clothing down over her thighs.

"Just one of the little boys," I told her, loud so the carpenter would hear. "Get dressed." O Lasir?n, let him not beat the child. I stepped outside. It was Ti-Bois, all of his skinny six-year-old soul case quivering with excitement. "Sorry, Mister Pierre," I mumbled at the carpenter. He grunted, nodded, his eyes searching within my hut for Georgine. Ti-Bois had gotten off light this time.

I hissed at Ti-Bois, "Why did you push your face in my window? Little door-peep. If you make the backra man vexed, you and me both could get whipped. Maybe we should call you Ti Malice, hein?"

His face twitched a frightened, apologetic smile. "Sorry, matant, sorry Auntie Mer. It's the book-keeper who sent me. You must come quick; Hopping John stepped on a centipede in the sugar cane and it bit him. He's in the mill house, no time to take him to the slave hospital. Quick, Auntie; come!" He turned on his heel, running back for the canefields. I shouted for him to wait for me, then said to the carpenter: "Mister Pierre, Georgine's coming out now."

He was frowning. He really looked fretful for his Georgine. "How is her health?"

She was living; Hopping John might be dying. "She will be well, Mister Pierre. I already told her what she needs to do." His face cleared a little. "Good. You're to be with her when her time comes, at our house."

"How...?" "Your master gave permission." "Yes, Mister Pierre. I will send her out to you now." I dashed back into my room. "Someone's sick," I told Georgine. "I have to go and help." "But-"

"You must grow beets and eat them, make yourself strong for the birth. And get ginger root and make a poultice, put it down there every night, on the opening to your bouboun." She got a scandalised look. I didn't have time for that. "Not strong enough to burn, mind. It will make the skin supple so the baby will pass through without tearing it. And tell your carpenter not to touch you until after you wean."

She gasped. "So long?" "So long. Or your milk will be weak and your child won't thrive."

Georgine looked down at her big belly like she was just now thinking of all that it signified.

"Your baby is coming in two months, not more. When your birth time comes, I'm to be there with you, Master says. I have to go now." I ran through the door, leaving her questions on her lips. Maybe they would let Tipingee come with me to Georgine's birth.

Lasirèn, pray you a quick death for Hopping John. Pray you no more of this life for him. Even though no gods answer black people's prayers here in this place.

Halfway to the mill house, I had to pass under the big kenèp tree. I just had time to hear a rustling in the leaves, when a body jumped down out of it in front of me. It landed on its two feet, then overbalanced, but only had one hand to put to the ground to steady itself. Makandal. Come all the way from LimbZ to make mischief.

"Salaam ale ikum, matant," he greeted me. Peace be upon you. I didn't give him back his blessing. "Get out my way," I panted. "Someone's sick."

He straightened, cradling the long-healed stump of his right arm in his left hand. After his accident, he wouldn't take food from the same pot with us any more. He was a Muslim, and they count the left hand unclean.

Makandal stood tall. Grinned at me. "Tales flow from Hopping John mouth the way shit flows from a duck's behind," he said around a kenèp fruit in his mouth. "Always talking my business. Nayga-run-to-backra sometimes is in such a hurry to tell tales, he doesn't look where he's walking. Steps on something nasty. Gets piqué." He jabbed with a fingertip, a thorn biting into flesh. He put a fake sadness on his face. "It's a bad way to sicken, matant."

"It's you made Hopping John ill!" Not a centipede, but a piquette in the fields; a piece of sharpened bamboo the brute had jammed into the ground, smeared with his poison on the tip. His smile brightened like the day. "I told the piquette to catch whoever was talking my business. Looks like I aimed it true." He spat out the pale ball of the kenèp seed. "Where's Marie-Claire?" he asked. "In the kitchen, you think? I have a new herb for her to flavour your master's food with."

I skinned up my face to think of him sticking that left hand he used to wipe his ass with into the cook pot. All the Ginen thought Makandal was so powerful, that he was our saviour. Me, I didn't trust him. I made to shove past him. "Get out my way and go!" Runaway. Thief. Hiding in the bush and making off with the yams the Ginen must grow to feed themselves and their children. Calling himself "maroon."

"I'm gone, matant Mer." And just like that, he disappeared. Turned to air? No. There he was, a manmzèl now, doing its dragonfly dance level with my nose. So like Makandal, playing games when I was about serious business. The manmzèl landed on my hand, its wings flicking like when you whip your back skirt hem to contempt somebody. It was missing half a front leg.

"Get away, or I feed you salt!" I told him. Fleur had told me that Makandal's mother back in Africa had been djinn; a demon from the North, the desert lands. Me, I thought I knew how he strengthened the djinn half of him. Every man jack of us as we got off the slave ships, the white god's priests used sea water to make the magic cross on our foreheads and bind us with salt to this land. Maybe not Makandal. Never chained with white man's obeah, never fed the salt of the bitter soil of this new world to tie his earthly body down to it, never ate the salt fish and the filthy haram, the salt pork that was the only meat the Ginen got. A miracle. But he was still too much of this world to be able to fly back home. No, he was going to stay here and make mischief instead. I went to clap the nasty fly dead like the vermin it was, but it scooted away, wings buzzing that tune: "Wine is white blood, San Domingo; we going to drink white blood, San Domingo. . ."

A black wave of retribution was set to crash over Saint Domingue, and its crest was François Makandal. I ran to tend Hopping John.

Sometimes Mer seemed to Tipingee like the hands of Papa God himself. "People talk but do nothing," the Ginen people said. "Papa God doesn't talk, but he does plenty." Mer, her words remained in her head, but her actions went out into the world. There was healing in her hands. Release.

Standing on the factory floor with sugar cane leaves pricking her calves, Tipingee watched for Mer to come and see to Hopping John. A cockroach waddled out from under some leaves. It was longer than her thumb, fat and drunk on rotting cane. It spread mahogany-brown wings and flew towards the mill. "Pardon, Tipingee." It was Jacques and Oreste, bringing in cane from the wain carts and feeding it into the crushers. Tipingee moved out of their way.

The sugar stench was making her head pound today. The whole six months of crop time, she could never get that heavy sugar smell out of her nose, or the stupid lowing of the oxen pulling the wains, or the hammering, hammering, hammering of the wainwrights and carpenters mending the carts and the troughs the cane juice flowed along. Everything was always breaking, everybody was always working. No free time to go and sit by the clean, peaceful wash of the salt sea and pray to Aziri near her waters.

The book-keeper, overseer of the fields, had made them carry John inside here. Then he'd sent everyone but Tipingee back to work. "Stupid, dumb black," he'd said to her as he stared in horror at John's leg, the flesh of John's heel swollen and discoloured. "Why'd he go and step on that thing?" He'd bent, groaning, to lace his boots tighter. Thick leather. It came up to his calves. Hopping John was in bare feet. "Tipingee, you stay here until matant comes, then you get right back to work, hear?" "Yes, sir."

He started walking out, stopped in the doorway. Looked back at John. Bit his lip. John had been making him laugh just before the centipede stung, telling him the story about the screech owl who went a-courting. The book-keeper shook his head, jumped onto a cart that was heading back to the fields that were being cut. Tipingee watched until the book-keeper was well gone before she went to kneel by John. Handsome, he was. Strong and tall with dark, smooth skin. Vain, too; she could smell the coconut oil he had used to make his hair gleam. "John? Hopping John?" No answer. John was curled up into a ball, breathing in little sips. Not good. Mer had taught Tipingee to look out for that. Nothing to do till she got here, though.

For all that he was good-looking, John's breath was bad, like boiled rice that had gone rotten. From eating poorly, most of the slaves lost their teeth, one by one.

Oreste came to Tipingee with a stick of cane, hiding it in front of him so no one would see. He could get punished for helping himself to his master's produce. Last month the book-keeper had caught Babette chewing on some cane to refresh herself while she cut, and he had put her all night in the stocks with cane juice smeared over her naked body. Mosquitoes and ants had driven her nearly mad before he loosed her and Mer could tend to her swollen shut eyes and the itchy raised bites that covered her. Oreste peeled back the hard rind from the cane with his knife and gave Tipingee the stick to chew. She smiled him thanks, set about gnawing the sweet juice out of the tough white fibres. He smiled back, tucked his knife away. He went and touched Hopping John on the shoulder. Hopping John never moved. "He's going to be all right?" Oreste asked.

"Don't know. Mer's coming." The overseer shouted at Oreste, so he got back to loading the crushers. Before the overseer could see, Tipingee tossed the gnawed cane trash onto the floor and kicked leaves over it. She looked through the door that led deeper into the factory. The heavy odour of hot syrup from the big copper boilers climbed up inside her nose. Over by the boilers, Martinique dipped her thumb and forefinger into the smallest copper, testing the teache inside to see if it was thick enough. She was skilled at it, was training Hector. No chatter in the factory this time. Everyone was waiting to see if Hopping John would live.

Tipingee peered outside again. There she came. Ti-Bois was dragging her by the hand, like he didn't realise she was getting old. Sometimes Tipingee forgot too; could only remember Mer's strong hands, her eyes deep, the muscles of her thighs as she scissored her legs around Tipingee's waist. Mer always been there for her: shipmates; sisters before Tipingee's blood came; wives to each other after, even when they had had husbands. Tipingee stepped out the door. "Honour, matant!" she called out over the racket of the sugar-making. "Hopping John's in here!" "Respect!" Mer cried, returning Tipingee's greeting. In a sudden trough of silence, Tipingee heard when John pushed out one quiet breath.

All of the Ginen on Sacré Coeur plantation were grateful to have Mer as their doctress. Belle Espoir further down the way had only Jean Rigaud; the young, timid white man whose job it was to treat the Ginen on both Belle Espoir and Sacré Coeur when they sickened. People died faster on Belle Espoir; after six years of labour, maybe eight. Living twelve years in this land- the time it had taken for Mer to lose a child and a husband- meant that Mer had earned her place among the Ginen as one of the elders. So if she and Tipingee wanted to play madivinèz with each other like some young girls did while they were waiting for marriage, well, plenty of the Ginen felt life was too brief to fret about that. So long as Tipingee was doing her duty by her husband, most people swallowed their bile and left them be. Tipingee esteemed her Patrice for that, how he had never tried to take the joy of Mer from her. Another man would have beat her. Patrice had gotten to know that her love was bigger for having so many to love: him; her child Marie-Claire; Mer. She thought about Patrice often; hoped he was happy on his grand marronage, run away from the plantation and left her more than a year now. She missed his laugh and the feel in their bed of his strong hand on her hip. She missed dancing the kalenda too with her sweet light-footed man, but she hoped he was still free.

Mer came in, took one look at John, shooed Ti-Bois back off to the field to pick up cane trash. He whined he wanted to stay, but she got that voice. Tipingee knew that voice well. You never thought but to obey it. She'd seen the book-keeper himself hop quick sometimes when Mer used that voice. So off went Ti-Bois. Mer looked around. People could see them, so she just touched Tipingee on her shoulder, quick and then gone.

"Tipingee, soul." That warm touch would stay with Tipingee till evening, when she could see her Mer again, run her hands under Mer's dress, feel the smooth hard of her flesh.

Mer knelt by John, called his name, put her cheek to his mouth to feel his breathing. His lids were slack. Tipingee could see crescent moons of his eyeballs, peeking out. Not good. Mer touched John's cheek and his eyes fluttered, opened. He grasped Mer's wrist, tried to lift his head. Mer helped. Tipingee could see John's lips moving, but she couldn't hear over the racket. What was he saying?

He stopped talking, but didn't close his mouth. His stare stayed planted over Mer's shoulder. Mer lowered him back down, put a gentle hand on his chest. She stayed so a little while, then looked over at Tipingee, grinning a smile sharp enough to cut. "Gone," she hissed. A tear oozed down her cheek; another. "Gods be praised, Tipingee! Another one has escaped."

"Mer! He's dead!" Mer always had that strange way of talking about death that made Tipingee's stomach heavy; about how it was their living souls flying back home to Guinea Land and freedom. About how it was good to leave life and flee away from this place where the colourless dead tormented them daily. Mer straightened Hopping John's shirt, touched his face. "I didn't even have to ask him if he wanted to slip away," she said. She dashed at her eyes with her hand heel.

Healing hands, sickened spirit. Mer, whom Tipingee loved like life, hated this living. How not to? Many days Tipingee hated it too.

Tipingee looked over at the Ginen working the rollers and boilers, shook her head no, Hopping John's not here any more. Even from where she was standing she could see some faces tighten at that head shake. The gang boss had his whip, so no one dared to stop working, but one of the men began a song, a gentle one about resting when evening came. The raggedy voices filled the air along with the sweet cane juice smell.

Tipingee went back to the fields with Mer to tell the bookkeeper the news. Hopping John's woman Belle would be working there in the fields too, waiting to know.


Copyright © 2003 by Nalo Hopkinson

© 2003 21C Magazine