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 b˜b˜t 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
"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
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
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
"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
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 LimbZ¹ 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
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
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
"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
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
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,
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
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
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