Archive for January, 2017
Phillipe watched Tomas descend the stairs, smiling and sipping brandy from the window of his study. He saw Tomas mount his horse and ride down the allee of trees leading to the river road. He chuckled once Tomas was out of sight.
“Mabel!” he shouted, turning away from the window. “Bring your ass in here!” A negro girl scurried into the room, eyes downcast as she smoothed dingy white folds of her wrinkled cotton dress.
“Yassah, Marse Bourgeois,” she said. “What can I do?”
“Fetch Marguerite,” Phillipe said, opening an engraved wooden box situated on the outer edge of his cherry wood desk. He lifted a cigar from within, held it to his nose and sniffed its length. “I want a word with her.”
“Yassah, Marse Bourgeois,” Mabel said, turning to run – her feet scuffling across the wooden floor.
“And stop that running!” he said, using ornate, silver sheers to clip the end from the cigar. “You’re gonna break something, and then you’ll wish you’d walked.”
“Sorry, Marse Bourgeois,” she called back once in the hallway. “I’za be careful.”
Phillipe nodded, struck a match and lit the cigar – puffing clouds of smoke until it was fully lit. Tilting his head back as he sucked in the fumes, he blew a cloud toward the ceiling and sighed.
“Here she be, Marse Bourgeois,” Mabel said, standing behind as Marguerite strode into her father’s library.
“Daddy?” Marguerite said, looking around the room. “Is Tomas still here?” Phillipe nodded toward Mabel.
“Shut the door, Mabel,” he said. “And don’t show yourself unless I call, you hear me?” Mabel nodded and shut the pair of tall double doors, latches clicking into place as they thudded closed.
Marguerite crossed her arms and pursed her lips. They exchanged looks, then Phillipe puffed a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling and held his cigar in one hand.
“He left,” Phillipe said. “In a bit of a hurry, I might add.” He nodded. “He’s got plenty to consider before coming back again.”
“What did you do to him?” Marguerite said, narrowing her eyes as she tapped her foot.
“Do?” Phillipe said. “Nothing. I merely informed him of his options, as well as the requirements for marrying you.”
“You’ll allow him to ask?” Marguerite said.
Phillipe nodded. “I will,” he said. “But I need you to do something for me first.”
“You’ll require him to list you as the benefactor to the entire Laiche estate,” Phillipe said. “That means the shipping company, the Willows – everything.”
Marguerite smiled. “Okay,” she said. “But won’t he do so anyway?” Phillipe shook his head, taking a final puff of his cigar before smashing its smoldering tip into a silver ashtray.
“Doubtful,” he said. “I sure as hell wouldn’t. However, this insures you have ownership, should something tragic happen.”
“What if he refuses?” Marguerite said. “Then what?”
Phillipe smiled, walking over to pat his daughter on the shoulder. “He won’t refuse. Tell him you convinced me this was the only way you’d marry him.”
She frowned. “Will this get me the Willows?” Phillipe pulled her into a tight hug.
“My dear,” he said, patting her back as she smiled against her father’s chest. “The Willows is already yours.” He looked out the window.
“It’s simply a matter of when and how.”
“Tomas!” Phillipe said, offering his hand after Tomas climbed the curving steps to the veranda where the master of Emerald Oaks waited.
“It’s so good to see you, my friend.” Tomas shook hands. He offered his coat and hat to a servant waiting behind Phillipe. Before Tomas could thank the man, he’d turned – his eyes glued to the floor as he departed.
“And you as well, Phillipe,” Tomas said, allowing the man to lead him through a towering pair of white, double doors. Green and gold light sprayed across the foyer’s floor, pouring in from stained glass transom windows over the entry. He glanced up, noticing the same light playing in the dangling crystals of a massive, three-layer chandelier.
Everywhere Tomas looked, opulence, wealth and power stared back, challenging him to do better if he dared. In fact, it seemed as if two Willows might easily fit inside this one house.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been here,” Tomas said, glancing upwards. Clusters of emerald green and brown acorns were cast into the plaster crown molding. They ran the length and breadth of the entry foyer, laid as if real leafy branches had been used.
“We’ve made a few changes,” Phillipe said, following Tomas’s eyes. “Like the crown molding. Celeste demanded we honor the name of our lovely place.” Tomas nodded.
“We hired an Italian sculptor to create the casts,” Phillipe continued, pointing a thick finger toward a cast shield bearing a script letter, ‘B’. “Then had one of our best niggers install them.”
“I’ve never seen its equal,” Tomas said, shaking his head. “The work is exquisite.”
“Yes,” Phillipe said. “We think so as well.” He motioned toward the open room to their left. “Come into the library. I’ll have drinks and food brought.”
He snapped his finger and two slaves scurried forward, eyes cast downward as their bare feet flapped over the wooden floors. Young, Tomas thought. Sixteen, maybe?
Checkered red wraps wound around their heads, like the Creoles wore in the city, though not nearly as fine. The pattern matched the faded gray print of their simple, cotton dresses. Tomas figured they must be sisters.
“Yassah, Marse Bourgeois,” one of the girls said, the tallest of the pair.
“Brandy and shrimp in the library,” Phillipe said, his tone quiet and hard. He looked at Tomas. “Fruit?”
Tomas looked at the two girls, then nodded. “Pineapple would be nice,” he said. “Perhaps some melon, if you have it.”
“You heard Monsieur Laiche,” Phillipe said. “Bring it with the brandy and shrimp.” They bobbed their heads. “Yassah, Marse Bourgeois,” the smaller one said, her voice quiet, with a hint of mouse-like squeak. “We get it now.”
“This way,” Phillipe said, leading Tomas through a carved pair of white double doors, and into a luxurious library. Opposite the doors and in the corner sat a black, baby grand piano. It accentuated floor to ceiling bookshelves towering twenty feet to a coffered ceiling.
A fireplace graced the long wall to Tomas’s right, brick with a marble mantle surround. It was so deep, he could crouch inside without bumping his head. Tufted and over stuffed wing backed chairs surrounded a round table, while a dark mahogany wood desk sat in front of a pair wall-sized windows. These were framed by emerald green drapes.
Before they could sit, the two serving girls returned. One carried a polished, silver salver covered in shrimp and melon, while the smaller girl carried a silver tray with brandy and two crystal glasses.
“Where’s the pineapple?” Phillipe said as they placed the platters on the table.
“Theys ain’t none left, Marse Bourgeois,” the younger girl said, wringing her hands while keeping her eyes down. Tomas saw the other sister step backwards. Phillipe’s sudden slap to the young girl’s face explained why.
Staggered, the girl grasped her face, crying out in pain. “I said, where’s the pineapple?!” Phillipe exclaimed, his face reddening as his raised hand prepared another blow.
“They’s ain’t none-“
His backhand cracked against her face, spinning and slamming her to the floor with a meaty thud of flesh against wood. Whimpering, she curled into a ball near the fireplace.
“Phillipe!” Tomas said, stepping forward. “That’s not needed.”
He rounded on Tomas, eyes bulging white in stark contrast to the puffed redness of his face.
“I’ll treat my niggers how I want, Laiche,” he bellowed, pointing a fat, thick finger at Tomas.
“This is my house, not yours.” Tomas nodded once, but didn’t back away, instead grimacing toward the quivering girl.
“Get her off that floor,” Phillipe said to the other girl, who quickly followed his order. She knelt beside her sister and lifted her by the arm. “Now, I want you to find Monsieur Laiche some pineapple, do you hear me?”
The older girl bobbed her head while clasping her sister underneath the shoulder. Blood smeared the young girls face, trickling down from a wicked gash on her cheek – opened by a green-stoned ring on Phillipe’s right hand.
“Yassah, Marse Bourgeois,” she said, backing out of the room while supporting her sister. “I gets it for ya.”
“Phillipe,” Tomas said. “I-“
He was halted by Phillipe’s raised hand.
“We will HAVE pineapple, Tomas,” Phillipe said. “We have it. I know we have it. They’re always hiding things from me, but they won’t this time.”
The large man took a deep breath. He rolled his shoulders as if tossing off a blanket, and turned toward Tomas – his face now calm and serene.
“They simply must learn who’s master,” Phillipe said. Lifting the ring to his mouth, he sucked it dry of the girl’s lingering blood.
“If I want something, I’ll have it.”
“Of course,” Tomas said, slowly releasing his breath. He’d heard Phillipe was brutal, but never witnessed it. If this was any hint, then life at Emerald Oaks must be a horrid experience.
“So,” Phillipe said, motioning to the chairs where the food and drink was placed. He filled the two cut crystal glasses with brandy from the decanter. “What brings you all the way out here?” He handed the glass to Tomas.
“Surely not the brandy?”
When I want something, I’ll have it. The words ran through Tomas’s head as he lifted the glass to toast his host. It’s as if nothing happened.
“No,” Tomas said, sipping the deep, dark drink. He caught his breath, gaining control of his breathing after the horrific excitement. “A more important issue, in fact.”
“Really?” Phillipe said. “Have a seat and tell me all about it.”
Tomas sat, his mind still focused on the scene he’d just witnessed, as well as the ominous words. Had they meant more? Or were they just the ravings of a brutal man?
“Well, Monsieur,” he said, placing his glass on the table. “I’m here to ask for Marguerite’s hand in marriage.”
Phillipe leaned back in his chair, grinning over the top of his brandy glass. He swirled the liquid while he watched, remaining quiet for a long moment.
“Go on,” Phillipe whispered, finally taking a sip. Not the gulps he’d had at the Willows, Tomas noticed. This brandy he savored.
“I think we’ll make a good match,” Tomas said. “I’m of the means to take care of her, offer her the life she deserves.”
“And where will this life be?”
Tomas nodded, expecting this part of the conversation. He knew exactly what Phillipe wanted. What he didn’t know, was whether Marguerite had talked to him yet.
“We discussed this during your visit,” Tomas said. “We’ll live at the Willows, and I’ll turn over operations of the Two Oceans to my manager, Riley Mac.”
“Indeed?” Phillipe said, leaning forward. “And what makes you think you can run a sugar plantation?” He twirled his hand in the air.
“It’ll just come to you?” He chuckled. “A huge mistake, and you know it.”
Tomas shrugged. “Marguerite suggested it,” Tomas said, inspecting his brandy. “She assured me she’d discuss it with you.”
“She did nothing of the sort,” Phillipe said. “The last thing I heard, you were selling the Willows to me, so your mother could remain in her home while you ran your company in New Orleans.”
Tomas nodded, leaning back in his chair. It creaked as if complaining. “True,” he said, speaking slowly. “I did mention those things when we last talked.” He took a drink.
“However,” Tomas said, continuing. “Marguerite and I think we can run the Willows ourselves.” He lifted a finger. “She has experience in the places I don’t.”
Phillipe rubbed his nose with a fat forefinger, then leaned back, matching Tomas’s posture. His chair moaned in agony from the man’s weight.
“Last season was the worst year on record for the Willows,” Phillipe said. “And now, you’ve had severe flooding and might just lose an entire crop.”
He has a point, Tomas thought to himself as he reached forward to pour himself another brandy. Instead, Phillipe snatched the decanter and smiled, offering to pour. Tomas nodded and allowed his glass to be filled.
Three bad crops in a row would put them under the bank, and the Company was already leveraged as far as possible. If this season failed, he might lose both ventures to bankruptcy.
Thanks, father, he said to himself as he leaned back in the chair and eyed Phillipe.
“Might,” Tomas replied. “It’s not certain.” Phillipe shrugged.
“Is it worth betting everything on?”
Is it? Tomas thought. What would happen if we failed?
“I’ll tell you what,” Phillipe said. “Here’s what I can offer.” He took a sip of his brandy, then settled back in his chair.
“You agree to sell me the Willows, and I’ll assume all of the debts.” He smiled. “AND, your mother can stay on at the house.”
A smile grew as he continued. “In fact, Madame Laiche will never need to know.” He opened his arms. “We’ll do the deal once you marry Marguerite, and you can live in New Orleans.”
“How do you mean?” Tomas asked, cocking his head.
“It’s simple, really,” Phillipe said. “I put a manager in place, someone like Brody for instance, and call him a wedding gift.” He twirled his wrist, keeping his drink steady in the other while he did so.
“We’ll say I’m doing it so you both can live in New Orleans, and run the company.” He drank.
“Your mother won’t have to know,” he said, continuing after the sip. He licked his lips dry of the brandy. “Neither will Marguerite. It’ll just be between you and I.”
“Are you serious?” Tomas said, staring at Phillipe as if he were deranged. “Of course they’d find out!” He shook his head. “Besides, you’d have complete control over the Willows, leaving my family with none.”
Phillipe shrugged and sipped his brandy while Tomas continued. “Sure, maybe now you say mother can stay, but what about after Marguerite and I are married?”
“I can’t do this,” Tomas said.
“You’ll lose everything if you don’t,” Phillipe said. “There’s nothing you can do to save the Willows if the crops fail again.” He sipped his drink, nodding.
“And since you don’t know a thing about growing cane, nor manufacturing sugar, you’re all out of options.”
“Only I can save your family’s legacy,” Phillipe said. “And the way it happens is by marrying Marguerite, and accepting my terms.”
Tomas felt drowned, as if the room was filled with water through which he couldn’t see, nor breath. He’d come here to ask for Marguerite’s hand, finally accepting that it was a good thing to do. Now, he was being FORCED to sell the Willows.
Rubbing his forehead, he stood, turning to look out the window. He needed time to consider the possibilities. How could things have gone into the swamps so quickly? He shook his head.
“If my father could do it, so can I,” Tomas said, watching a pair of squirrels run across the lawn, then scamper up one of the large oak trees.
“Your father did it at a time when sugar was just beginning,” Phillipe said. “Now?” He shrugged. “Competition is too fierce, and the banks too stingy. You saw what happened to the Boudreaux’s.”
The Boudreaux family once owned one of the older plantations along the river. When they experienced a bad season, the bank foreclosed, kicked them from the property and promptly sold it to Phillipe Bourgeois.
Antille Bourgeois, Phillipe’s youngest son ran it now, while the Boudreaux family moved into the swamps with the Acadians. Is that where we’re headed, Tomas thought. The swamps?
Tomas took a drink, watching the squirrels spiral around a thick, draping limb of the live oak. Must be nice being a squirrel, he thought. Total freedom to do as they wanted.
“Tell you what, Tomas,” Phillipe said. “What if I draw up a contract stating your mother has complete control of the house?”
Tomas smirked, glancing to the side as he heard Phillipe walk his way. That might work, he thought. If it’s in writing, he can’t break it.
“Once she passes,” Phillipe continued. “God willing it’s a long time coming, then the entire property moves into my control.”
“We both get what we want from this deal, Tomas,” Phillipe said when Tomas remained quiet. “You get to stay in New Orleans, your mother gets to stay at the Willows and the plantation remains productively debt free.”
And you finally get your hands on the Willows.
“I need time,” Tomas said, turning to glare at Phillipe, who now joined him at the window. “This is too much to consider in one sitting.”
“Of course, Tomas. Of course,” Phillipe said. “Take all the time you need.” He patted Tomas on the back and led him toward the foyer. “So long as you only need a week.” He shrugged and smirked.
“Marguerite’s impatient. She might find another suiter by then.”
Highly doubtful, Tomas said to himself, wondering if she had any clue what was happening.
Tomas nodded. “A week.”
“Fair well, lad,” Phillipe called out as Tomas walked through the front doors onto the veranda. His horse was tied to a post at the base of the stairs, as if in anticipation of his departure.
“The Belle won’t be back around for a few hours,” Phillipe said. “Might I suggest you ride back to the Willows? Clear your mind while enjoying the lovely countryside.”
Tomas nodded, said nothing and descended the stairs – saving one last, painful look for the footman holding his horse. “Thank you,” he whispered. The man nodded, but said nothing.
Instead, the look was lifeless, matching the feeling inside Tomas’s chest. Tight. Cold. Dead.
Tomas draped over the bow railing of the Creole Belle. He stared down into the plowing wake, as wind from the river washed his hair with breeze. Now that he’d accepted his fate to marry Marguerite, he was somewhat excited.
Making the initial decision seemed horrid, yet when he saw her walk up the steps of the Willows, desire drove his decision. No longer the bratty girl from several years past, she’d now grown into a beautiful woman – one he could see himself with forever.
Breathing deep, he allowed her image to fill his mind, feeling the river’s cool, moist air seep into his nose.
What a powerful word. According to the Church, marriage was supposed to be that long, or at least until death did you part. It had been for his parents, so it must be truth. Sure, they’d had their difficulties. Yet somehow, they’d always managed to get beyond them – keeping the common goal of the Willows first and foremost in their minds.
Damn, he thought, looking into the brown, churned waters of the Mississippi. A lifetime of marriage. That’s frightening.
He’d never committed to anything other than his business, with competition being the motivation for his success. That, and building something like his parents had done with the Willows. The rest of his life was about freedom, and living how he chose.
“I suppose marriage is similar,” he said to the river. “Building something together, lasting.” Not the freedom part, though. Marriage tasted like slavery.
He imagined being married to his manager Riley Mac. Chuckling a giggle, he wondered how long that would last. The giant Caribbean WAS almost his spouse, considering how much time they spent together. The manager of the Two Oceans Trading Company was indispensable to Tomas, using his skills as the former captain of a privateer to insure that the Company ran as well as his ship.
Tomas smiled, watching a log float past with a seagull perched atop a broken stump of a branch. He remembered the first time he’d met Riley Mac. Striding down the gangplank of the Lady Thera with a red and yellow macaw atop his shoulder, he’d been grinning from ear to ear – his bald head glistening in the sun. Eight years ago, and their friendship had grown ever since.
Shirtless and covered in gold chains, the man certainly captured attention. The fact he offered his vessel to the Company astounded many along the docks, and the discovery of his managerial capabilities was an added bonus. Within two years of his arrival, Riley was second in command of the Company.
What if marriage was like that? He thought, imagining his commitment to Marguerite turning into a friendship similar to Riley Mac’s. He nodded to the passing seagull, noting its keen ability to weather the wake of the passing riverboat. It’d be perfect, wouldn’t it?
“Listen to me go on,” he said, shaking his head. Just up river, about fifteen minutes out, he could see the dock to Emerald Oaks on his right. “You’d think Riley was going to be my wife.”
He looked around, hoping none heard his comment. Horns blared, echoing off the trees across the river and bouncing through the skies above.
“Em-Ralllllllld Oo-ooooooaks!” the pilot sang from the bridge deck above, his deep baritone voice singing the words like only a Negro could.
Near the dock, a flight of ducks exploded from the marshy grasses of the riverbank, quacking their way into the cloudless, blue sky. Deckhands scrambled to the bow to work the gangplank’s wench, so when the riverboat was sufficiently close, it could be lowered to the dock and the boat secured.
Today, only one other person disembarked along with Tomas, and their horses were brought to the bow – eyes covered with burlap sacks.
“Em-Ralllllllld! Oo-ooooaks!” the pilot sang as the boat churned closer to the dock, its paddlewheel reversing to slow the turn.
The gangplank had a grappling hook that clamped against the dock, so when it dropped, the boat could be locked in place against the strong current of the river. The hands were already lowering the wide ramp, so when the time came, it could drop.
“Em-Ralllllld! Oo-ooooooooaks!” the pilot sang, this time louder and longer and deeper – holding the last word until…
The plank fell, the latch secured against the dock and the riverboat stopped. The massive red wheel at the rear slowed to a churn, holding the boat in place just enough to maintain position.
Remarkable, Tomas said to himself as his horse was brought forward. Deckhands trotted to the dock and tied lines to large, wooden pilings. They pulled them taut, thus anchoring the vessel in place. No matter how often he traveled by riverboat, he loved docking.
“Where are you off to, Monsieur Laiche?” the other man disembarking with Tomas said, gathering his reigns. They led their horses down the gangplank and onto the cypress wood dock.
“Emerald Oaks,” Tomas said. “Yourself?”
“The same,” the man said, known among planters as ‘le vieux Champomier.’ “I need an accounting of Monsieur Bourgeois’s sugar production.”
He lifted a small, leather-bound book from the courier pouch slung over his shoulder.
“Since I have you here, Monsieur Laiche,” he said. “How is production at the Willows?” Tomas cocked his head.
“The floods hit you hard this spring. Will you be able to match last year’s yield?”
“Monsieur,” Tomas said, leading his horse from the ramp to the wooden pier. The Bourgeois family had built it parallel to the levee, thus making docking easier.
“I appreciate your zeal, but surely you know my father passed earlier this year.”
Champomier nodded but said nothing. Instead, he flipped pages in the little book. Licking the tip of his pencil, he made a notation.
“Of course,” he said. “My condolences. He was a good man, always accurate with his tallies.”
He looked up at Tomas, halting on the gravel path leading toward the plantation’s Big House. The river road crossed just in front, a muddy, rugged track that few other than couriers used. Across the rutted road, marched an allee of thick trunked, ancient Live Oaks which gave the plantation its name.
“Will you be staying on at the Willows,” Champomier asked, holding a small stub of a pencil ready. “Or will Madame Laiche step in for the late Francois?”
“That’s yet to be decided,” Tomas said patiently. “I’m on my way now to discuss options with Phillipe.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Tomas knew they were a mistake. Champomier could destroy the Willows with a flick of his pencil, so hinting at possibilities regarding sugar production was not a good idea.
The man’s yearbook on plantation sugar yields, as well as projections based upon previous years was second to none. Everyone, from planters, to bankers and the exchanges used his information as the key reference in setting prices and approving loans.
It also gave other planters the opportunity to see how well, or how poorly their neighbors were doing – especially since every planter was in the book. The man was relentless in his pursuit of information – dedicated to extreme accuracy and never failing in his recommendations. His written word was taken as Gospel, to which the Bishop of the local diocese would agree.
“Is everything well at the Willows, Monsieur Laiche?”
Tomas sighed, giving himself a moment to gain his bearings. Perhaps the truth? He’d find it out anyway, especially if they were both going to visit Phillipe.
“Well, Monsieur,” Tomas said. “I didn’t want to say anything just yet, but I’m planning to ask for Mademoiselle Marguerite’s hand in marriage.”
“Indeed?” Champomier said, smiling suddenly. “Congratulations are in order, then.” Tomas nodded, as did the older man.
“And will the Willows be a part of the exchange?”
Tomas chuckled. “I hope not,” he said. “But I’m certain, if Phillipe accepts me as his son in law, that I can use his expertise to help make a smooth transition into the planting community.”
“Ah,” the old man said, making a notation in his book. Tomas fought the urge to crane his neck to look, pursing his lips and smiling as hard as he could instead.
“Phillipe Bourgeois is one of the more successful producers along the river.”
Tomas nodded. “I couldn’t agree more.”
“His advice could prove advantageous to your success, Monsieur Laiche,” Champomier said. “Should he choose to share it, that is.”
“He’s already said as much,” Tomas said, recalling the conversation in the library. Maybe not completely accurate, but it was good enough from the old man in the moment.
“Well, then,” Champomier said, making another notation. “That will bode well for the Willows.” He smiled wanly.
“As we all know Monsieur, your time in New Orleans hasn’t exactly prepared you for taking over sugar production from your father.”
“Oh,” Tomas said. “I’m acutely aware, monsieur. You may trust me on that point.”
Champomier mounted his grey mare, and instead of trotting across the river road toward Emerald Oaks, he turned south – downriver.
“Since you’re offering proposal Monsieur,” he said. “I shall delay my discussion with monsieur Bourgeois until later this evening.”
“Very kind of you, Monsieur,” Tomas said, tipping his hat before mounting his own horse: a dark brown stallion named Bean. “I’m as nervous as a rabbit next to an alligator.”
“Wise,” Champomier said. “Phillipe Bourgeois isn’t an easy man to get along with.” He tipped his straw hat, clicked his mouth and eased his horse down the road.
“I shall visit the Willows in a few days, Monsieur,” he said. “Perhaps you will know more about your yields then.”
“We’ll have tea and pastry for you, Monsieur,” Tomas said. “Bonsoir.”
“Bonsoir,” Champomier said, then trotted down the road.
Tomas watched the man ride away until the bend in road and river took him out of sight. Heaving a large, heavy sigh, Tomas heeled the horse and trotted up the long allee of trees toward the mansion named Emerald Oaks.
With the Bourgeois family on the Riverboat to Emerald Oaks, the Willows returned to normal. Finery was replaced by every day clothes, and Tomas prepared to leave for New Orleans. While the plantation needed his hand, the Trading Company still had to operate as if nothing had changed.
Riley Mac might be a good manager, as Marguerite hinted, but the Two Oceans needed Tomas’s guidance. Without the firm hand of a Laiche at the helm, the Company would sink fast – especially with their busiest time of the year upon them.
Fate, Tomas said to himself as he descended the stairway to have breakfast with his mother. Marguerite said it was fate that brought them together, made them one – a couple. What a funny creature, fate. In a world where freedom was his normal choice, he now accepted fate in marrying Marguerite.
For some reason, though, it made him smile. One less issue to deal with. His mother would be happy, Marguerite would be happy and, perhaps, even Phillipe.
“Tomas!” his mother said from the end of the dining room table – shortened now that it was only two of them. The way she pounced when he walked through door made her seem like a waiting spider. “Good morning.”
Tomas kissed his mother’s slightly wrinkled cheek, though the French creams she used hid them well. No matter her age, he still saw her as if he were twelve.
“Bonjour,” he said, choosing a chair next to her instead of the opposite end. A servant poured chicory darkened coffee into a white china cup. Tomas nodded in thanks, then lifted it to his lips.
“I hope the morning finds you well?”
Mammie narrowed her eyes in curiosity as she studied Tomas. “It does indeed,” she said. “Though I think it finds you better.”
She lifted her tea cup and sipped, holding the white saucer underneath the cup. Tomas chuckled. “What makes you say that?” he said, reaching for a piece of fresh pineapple from the white china fruit platter between them.
“I understand you and Marguerite had quite a lengthy conversation in the garden,” Mammie said. “Anything of interest?”
“Mother,” Tomas said. “You could have at least waited until I had my breakfast.” She shrugged.
“At my age,” she said, “time is in short supply.” He chewed his fruit and waved a dismissive hand.
“Oh come off it,” he said. “You sound as if death has you in its grasp.”
“It might,” she said, setting her tea cup on the table. Sounds of clinking plates came from an adjacent room, as the servants prepared the main course. “You haven’t been around here long enough to know.”
Tomas heaved a deep, chest-filling sigh.
“Alright,” he said. “We did have a pleasant conversation.” How to say it? All night he’d practiced how he would tell his mother, and now, when the time came, it was more difficult than he imagined.
“I’m going to ask for Marguerite’s hand in marriage,” he stated, feeling the weight of the words in his chest: tight, thick and breathless.
Mammie gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. “Oh, Tomas!” she exclaimed. “Are you serious?”
He nodded, as if it had been an everyday topic. “Yes, mother. Very.”
Tears poured from her eyes, blinking as if trying to stop the flood and failing. She threw her arms open. “Hug me!”
Tomas did, pulling her close as they both stood by the table. “I’m so happy for you,” she whispered into his chest. Her sobs of joy bouncing in rhythm to his heart.
She pulled away to look into his eyes. “Did you propose last night?” He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I still need to talk to Phillipe before I do, but he’ll agree.” To what, was the real question. The man wanted the Willows, and Tomas suspected that his marriage to Marguerite wouldn’t make things easier.
“Well, then,” Mammie said. “We need to prepare an engagement announcement as soon as you ask Phillipe.” She leaned past Tomas as Mammy May walked into the room carrying a silver salver of spiced, link sausage and roasted, red potatoes.
“May?” Mammie said. “Did you hear the good news?”
“What news is that, Miss Mammie?” May said, placing the salver on the dark mahogany sideboard. His mother waited, looking to him to explain the news.
“I’m asking for Marguerite’s hand in marriage,” Tomas said, this time with more confidence.
“Well I’ll be!” May said. “That the best news I hear all day, Marse Tomas. When you gone do it?”
Tomas opened his mouth, but his mother beat him to the words. “He has to ask Phillipe first,” Mammie said. “And then, once he says yes, we’ll host an engagement party right here at the Willows!”
“Mmhmm,” May said, pursing her lips and grinning. “We gotsta have a party, Miss Mammie. I better get to tellin the staffs so they ready.”
“And I’ll make a list of invitations,” Mammie said, nodding and placing a finger to her lip. “We’ll need Jim to deliver them personally, of course,”
“You got that right, Miss Mammie,” May said. “Won’t be proper otherwise.”
Tomas watched the pair go back and forth on plans for HIS engagement party, listening to them talk as if he weren’t involved. Every time he raised a finger to say a word, one of the two cut him off.
“Mother,” he said, shaking his head when she didn’t respond. They were discussing food at the moment. “I’ll be in the library.”
“Tomas,” his mother said just before he left the dining room. “Be sure and catch the Creole as it passes. You don’t want to be late to Emerald Oaks.”
“Excuse me?” he said. “I have to be in New Orleans.”
“Right, dear,” Mammie said. “Stop in at the Bourgeois on your way in.” She tapped her lips with a finger. “And take Jim with you, as well. He’ll need to return with the date for the engagement.”
“Hurry along, Tomas,” Mammie said. “We have a party to plan, and you have a question to ask of Monsieur Bourgeois.”
She turned to May just as the kitchen staff entered the room.
“Whats all tha ruckus?” one of the maids said, looking at May and then to Mammie. “I heard yellin.”
“Marse Tomas gettin’ married!”
The Willows exploded in squeals.
The sun had set on New Orleans by the time Simone arrived at Sister Maria’s ‘chapel’ as she called it. A shop off Rue Toulouse, it was an aged, brick building with flaking, green shuddered windows. To most, it looked more like a rubbish barn than a church.
Once inside, scented candles greeted Simone, filling her nose with the smells of exotic spice. Colorful parakeets twittered in cages lining the walls.
Passing from the foyer into the main room, four wooden chairs with animal hide seats surrounded a hand-tooled, rectangular table. Centered in the space, nine thick candles melted into its surface – lighting the room with flickering, yellow light and staining the top with thick, oily wax.
A heaviness hung in the space, heightened by blacked out windows and flickering shadows. Hollow masks, grinning animal skulls and stone carved idols peered from barely seen thick, wooden shelves.
“Simon-eh!” Maria called out as she entered the church. “I got da tea brewin in da back. Seet tight, I be dere in de mo-ment.”
“Okay,” Simone said, pulling a chair from the thick table and claiming a seat. She’d been here often enough to know where to take tea. Maria’s special readings required patrons arrange themselves in particular ways. Therefore, Simone knew exactly where to sit and why.
“Do ya be wantin’ a readin?” Maria asked, emerging from the back. She carried two cups on saucers, and a brown pottery teapot on a wooden tray.
“May-be we find dat man for ya.”
Simone took the tea cup and smiled, sniffing the aromatic flavor before drinking. Jasmine with a hint of spice; perhaps cinnamon. The scent tickled like a feathery touch across her tongue. Always something different, Sister Maria’s tea never failed to delight.
“Of course,” Simone said, taking a sip. “You know I never turn down the opportunity to learn whose heart I’ll wreck.”
“Doan chu be talkin’ dat way,” the priestess said, her chair creaking from the weight. “Ju bring da hoodoo upon ya wits talk like dat.” She sipped her tea.
“Ya best tink bout whatcha be wantin and who it be wits at all time.” Simone nodded.
Maria pulled a deck of cards from seemingly nowhere, stacking them next to a thick, mostly melted red candle whose wax had spread around its base like moss from an ancient tree.
She drew three cards and arranged them on the table directly across from Simone. Then, whispering soft unknown words, sprinkled dust across the tops – candlelight casting glittering glows on the cards themselves.
She flipped one, then another and then a third – each one coming with an “ahhh” from the large priestess.
“Dis be good, Simon-eh,” Maria said. “Very good indeed!” Simone peered over the cards, inspecting each of the figures and shapes. After a year of watching, she’d never quite figured out what all of the little creatures on the cards meant to the Caribbean priestess.
Simone looked up. “How do you mean?”
“Da fates be smilin’ on yas,” Maria said. “Da man a ya dreams be coomin to ya life very soon. Very soon. By da next moon.” She smiled up at Simone.
“Whatcha tink bout dat?”
“Sounds good to me,” Simone said. “But who says I want the man of my dreams coming into my life? Maybe I’m happy with the way I am?”
“Dat be up to ju, Simon-eh,” Maria said. “I just be readin what da cards be sayin’.”
“Well,” Simone said, sipping her tea. “If I see him, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, why not see what the cards have to say about opening my art school.”
“Doan cha want ta meet ya soulmate?” Maria said. “We all ‘ave one out dere, Simon-eh. Dey only coom by once. When ya miss it, dey gone for-evah.”
“Why would I want that?” Simone said. “Men just tell women how to live their lives. If I want a man, I know where to find one. They only want sex, anyway.”
Maria laughed, her cackle slow and drawn out. “So ya be tinkin,” she said. “Maybe dis one want soom-tin more for yas?”
“I doubt it,” Simone said. “I feel what every one of them thinks when they walk by my easel.” She shrugged, smirking to match.
“There’s no doubt, Maria. It’s all about them and what they can take.” She took a sip of tea, staring at the table top as if seeing through it.
“I’m happy with where I am.”
Maria stared at Simone, watching her carefully. Finally, a smile crept over her face and she laughed. “I doan believe a word dat ju be sayin,” Maria said.
Simone waved her hand in the air and sighed, rolling her eyes. “What makes you the expert on what I’m thinking?”
Maria leaned close. “Cause I see, Simon-eh,” she said slowly. “I can feels da loove ya be wantin deep wits-in ya ‘eart.”
“Ya see it, yet deny da troots.”
Maria pointed to the spot on the table where Simone had been staring. “What dat ya be seein in dere?” Maria asked. “Ya look an see. What it be?”
Simone followed Maria’s finger and looked at the spot again. What had she seen? She inspected the table as if it were a mirror.
Memories, really. Past times in Paris where she’d given her heart and had it smashed. Men she’d loved, truly felt close to – ones she wanted to share her life with; an eternity with. Joy flooded her, fueling an energetic burn in her abdomen for finding that which was missing.
Dancing on the bridges over the Seine, hand in hand with one she loved – each sharing the other’s flow of life. Harmonious movement of being, neither dominating – both leading, sharing. That was love, the dance was passion and the creativity of it was life itself.
Moments in fields, in galleries, in forests; all filling her heart with warmth. Uplifting, the feelings carried her over heights and into misty spaces where only her and her lover lived. Pure connection, complete love – passion through partnership.
Maria’s softly spoken, “yes,” brought her back, Paris became the table and she sucked in her breath, breathing deeply as if she’d held it the entire time.
“It’s not real,” Simone whispered, pushing away the feelings as she returned to the moment. “It’s just a fairytale. Imaginary, like tales told to children.”
She lifted her tea and drank, staring straight into the opposite wall – listening to her inner voice saying the dream was a sham; all fake.
“No, Simon-eh,” Maria said. “Dat no what ya tink.” She nodded, her smile becoming more entrancing. Simone turned and met her eyes.
“What be makin ya paint?”
“Why?” she said, cocking her head to the side.
“Because I love doing it, and I’m good at it and people like what I paint.” Maria shook her head slowly, tinkling the beads attached to her tignon.
“You share da ‘eart of yaself, Simon-eh,” Maria said. “Ya spills it across da canvas wits ya paint, mixin ya emotions and feelins into da pick-cha for all ta see.”
Maria pointed at the table, the exact spot that took Simone to Paris. “What ya saw dere, is where ya art lives.” Maria lifted her hand to her chest. “Where da ‘eart is.” She nodded, and Simone matched.
Simone clasped the deep purple pendant she wore around her neck, allowing Maria’s words to sink in as she considered what they meant. Was she hiding her heart inside of her art? Funny how Maria made them sound the same. Perhaps they WERE the same?
When she painted, she stepped into the space, allowing whatever feelings she felt at the time to guide her brush. Was she connecting into her heart? She’d never considered that. She thought it divine intervention, some sort of muse moving her hand. What if it was her soul instead?
She blinked, seeing Maria studying her. Simone giggled, like Lucette posing to be a seagull. Flying.
“Now ya see, Simon-eh,” Maria said, nodding. “Now ya open to da possibility.”
Simone shook herself. The way her chest tingled, it certainly felt possible. “I don’t know,” she said. “If my art is my heart, then why do men only see my body; take what they want without returning the gift?”
“Dey ain’t da ones ya be lookin for,” Maria said. “Da day one-a dem look atcha art, den ya know he be seein ya ‘eart as well.”
Simone shrugged. “Maybe,” she said. “But they turned out to be the same. They pretended to like it, yet in the end only wanted what they could own.” She sighed.
“My art was only a means to an end.”
“Den ask em what dey see when dey look,” Maria said. “Do dey see the rivah, or do dey see Loo-set-eh?”
Simone lifted her eyebrows and nodded. That made sense. If they only saw the color and brush strokes, they weren’t looking deep – only the surface. Maybe that was the key. If her heart was in the artwork, then a TRUE lover would see and reflect it back.
“Interesting,” Simone said, leaning back in her chair. She threw one arm over the back and twisted into a sideways, cross-legged casual manner.
“Speaking of Lucette,” Simone said. “I finished her painting. Would you like to see it?” Maria sighed, then shook her head, eyes lowered and sad.
“No, Simon-eh,” she said. “I be seen it already.”
“But I didn’t finish it before you left,” Simone said.
She looked toward the door, where she’d left her easel, paints and canvas. Lucette the Gull was wrapped in brown paper, protecting its surface from the elements. She used a certain type of pigment allowing for quick drying oils, making it easier to sell completed works on the street.
Maria’s expression didn’t change, the sadness remained and she stared straight at Simone.
“What is it?” Simone said. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I see dem all da time,” she stated quietly. “Maybe it time yas be goin. Make sure ya be givin dat paintin to da lit-lun.”
Simone nodded, slowly standing. “I will,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow then?” Maria nodded but said nothing more.
“Very well, Maria,” she said. “Bonsoir.”
“Bonsoir, Simon-eh,” Maria whispered. “Sleeps wits ya angels.”
Luncheon finished, Tomas and Marguerite found themselves alone on the veranda, watched over by Marguerite’s nanny, who sat some distance away knitting.
“Thank you for inviting us for luncheon, Tomas,” Marguerite said as the pair looked out toward the river. Her warmth matched that of the day, radiating heat like the afternoon sun had set beside him. “It was delightful.”
Tomas bowed his head. “As were you,” he said, suddenly feeling the humidity. The temperature must have risen, he thought, tugging at his collar. It was near-stifling. “The, uh, conversation that is.”
She giggled, dipping her head and smiling. “I knew what you meant.”
“It’s been a long time since were last together,” Tomas said. He twisted toward her. “Maybe eleven years?” She bobbed her head, cheeks flushed pink.
“I was just a child, then.”
“We both were,” Tomas said, filling his nose with her rose-laced scent. It matches her hair. “It was Easter. We chased ducks.”
“You pushed me in the pond, you rascal,” she said, placing her hands on her hips. “I hated you so much for that, Tomas Laiche! That was my favorite dress, and you ruined it.”
His eyes widened. “I, uh,” he stammered. “I don’t remember that part.” She nodded, smirking.
“Uh huh,” she said. “Sure you don’t.” She sniffed, but from pretend tears. Her smile said otherwise.
“You said you were going to marry me,” Tomas said. “In front of the Gaudets.” He shrugged. “I had to defend myself.”
She tossed her hair. The thick, shining auburn curls sent rose-laced scent rising into the air and into Tomas’s breath. “Would that have been so bad, Monsieur Laiche?”
“It would have been then!” he exclaimed, head swirling with her intoxicating essence. “You were eight years old, for Christ’s sake.” He released a wistful, pleasurable sigh. His eyes took her fully in, feeling the sudden urge to moisten his lips.
“Perhaps not so bad now, however.”
“Perhaps?” she said sharply. Her eyes flashed. “Perhaps I don’t want that ‘so much now,’ Tomas.” She waved her hand to emphasize the point.
“Perhaps, I’ve found someone else, and simply came for the etouffee.”
Tomas laughed, shaking his head. He adjusted his hat, stuffing his bangs underneath, thus insuring a snugger fit. “I’m certain that’s it. May’s etouffee is renowned for its allure.”
“It pulls people from all over the parish.”
“Humph,” she snorted and crossed her arms. “I’m going for a walk.” Tossing her hair once more, she made sure it slid its silky threads across his face. Spinning away from his touch, Marguerite marched toward the steps.
Rose, Marguerite’s nanny, shook her head at Tomas then followed, keeping her distance as Tomas watched them go.
He sighed, smiled to himself and looked toward the river. He did catch her glance back as she descended, a twinkling cue to follow after she had reached a ‘fair’ distance away.
She was feisty, he gave her that. And passionate, too. He felt that with every look she gave. Was it from love, or from desire to be his wife? He wasn’t certain there. However, the entire time they’d known one another, she’d always stated she was going to marry him.
Perhaps she knew more than he did. There was a lot of that going around these days: a sense of perhapsness. His mouth curled into a wry smile. Is that even a word? He thought. Where does certainty play into all of this?
Not knowing the answers, he followed Marguerite from the veranda, but only after she was halfway to the Willow grove.
“You steppin’ into a wasps nest with that one, marse Tomas,” Jim said, meeting Tomas’s eyes once he reached the bottom of the steps.
“What do you mean?” Tomas said, cocking his head and stopping.
“Just sayin’. You watch yaself, hear?” Tomas nodded, not quite understanding what the coachman meant. He patted the man on the shoulder.
“I’ll be careful,” Tomas said. “I know what I’m doing.”
Jim looked up the stairs, then back to Tomas. “Uh,” he said. “That’s what got me worried. Thatun ain’t right for you, and you knows it.”
Tomas shrugged, glancing across the lawn toward the grove, where Marguerite was just slipping through the dangling, green willow fronds. His chest felt heavy, as if pulled toward the pond’s dark depths.
“I’m alright,” Tomas said, grinning his finest smile. “It’s all part of the game.” He took a deep breath. “I’d best see to her, lest she think I’m rude.” Jim shook his head.
“Do whatcha gots ta do, marse Tomas,” Joe said. “Just ‘member what I done tolt ya.”
Tomas patted the man on the shoulder. For as long as he could remember, Jim had been part of the household staff and a friend. For some reason, he’d felt like an uncle and Tomas never questioned the elderly man’s openness when it came to opinions.
“I won’t,” Tomas said. He walked across the grassy lawn toward the pond, where clusters of purple blossoms just peeked amidst the deep, green leaves of nearby crepe myrtles.
“Why Tomas,” Marguerite said, fanning herself with a white and pink silk fan as he pushed through the stands of willow branches. Her wide-brimmed bonnet matched her fan’s color, trailing a pink, beaded ribbon down the back and across her shoulder.
“Whatever brings you here?”
Rose stood just outside of the willow grove, and while able to hear everything the pair said, she was just enough out of sight to remain proper. How she managed to knit while standing was beyond Tomas, but there she was, clicking away with those wooden needles – trying her best to NOT pay attention.
“Brings me here?” he said with a smirk. “Last time I looked, this was MY home.” She fanned herself faster and scooted to the side of the bench. There was enough room for him to sit, if he chose.
“And my bench.”
Smiling, he walked to the edge of the pond and knelt, settling on his haunches. Lifting a half-buried pecan from the spongey soil, he heard a heavy, single-breath sigh come from Marguerite. That brought a sly smile to his face. He could play this game, too.
“Besides,” he said. “I like to come here and think.”
“Oh really?” Marguerite said, her voice sing song light. “Whatever do you think about?” He stood, looking for an open lily blossom to aim his pecan. What do I think about? That’s a good question.
“Lots of things,” he said, launching the dark brown nut toward a distant flower. He missed, plopping the pecan into the waiting water – sending round droplets of water sliding across a grass-green lily pad.
“Life, the Willows, New Orleans…”
He turned toward Marguerite.
“That’s all?” She said, cocking her head. Her eyes bored into his like arrows. His heart leaped, racing into body-felt beats.
“You,” he said softly, reflecting the arrow back toward her as his breath thickened. The flushed red of her face said he hit his mark. Did he mean that? Hadn’t he called her a witch a few hours earlier? What changed?
Until today, he’d always seen her as a spoiled, eight-year-old, pig-tailed girl who incessantly annoyed him during plantation galas. Eleven years apart seemed like an ocean – vast, distant and no ship in sight. Back then, it was inconceivable for them to be together.
Now, the sea became a peach orchard, no distance at all and she was the perfect fruit – full, ripe and begging to be picked. All he need do was reach out, pluck and she would be his. Imagery faded as her alluring scent of roses overwhelmed his senses.
She fanned herself, hiding her smile behind its fluttering motion. “Why Tomas,” she said, glancing down, but not quite. “You’re making me blush.”
He breathed deep, allowing the life around the pond to fill his senses. The willow branches weaved in the breeze, swaying to and fro in rhythm. Pink and red Azaleas covering the shoreline. Soft, moist earth between her and himself – a promise of what would come should he choose her for his wife.
The cypress bench seemed made for her, its curving legs sprouting like roots rising from the ground. It was sensuous and seductive, just like her.
Jim’s words crept into his head as he glanced toward Mammy Rose. Her clicking needles sounded louder, and she carefully avoided his gaze through the draping limbs.
“You said it yourself on the veranda,” Tomas said, taking one step closer to Marguerite, his boots barely leaving a mark in the moist soil. “Would it be so bad?”
“My, aren’t you the forward one, Monsieur Laiche,” she said. “Here we are, not having seen one another in eleven years, and you’re already talking about marriage.”
“Whatever happened to courtship?” She snapped her fan closed. “And I thought you were gentleman.”
He closed his eyes and nodded. Of course he was. What was he thinking? Must be the cicadas. They were louder, it seemed, buzzing in cadence to his heartbeat.
“My apologies,” he said. “Of course you are correct.” He turned toward the pond again, noting the number of lily pads were less this year. Maybe more in the summer.
“It’s just with my father gone, I’m beginning to feel the pressure of responsibility.” He bit his tongue and took a deep breath. “I’m not thinking straight.”
“It’s I who should apologize,” Marguerite said. “I should have realized the tragic death of your father would weigh heavy upon you.” She patted the bench, causing him to turn.
“Please,” she said. “Sit with me.” He nodded. “We might not have seen one another in eleven years, but I still feel the same.” He stared at her a moment, narrowing his eyes.
“You were eight, Marguerite,” Tomas said, sitting where she patted. “How could you still have the same feelings?”
“A girl knows,” she said. “Trust me. We know when we meet the man we’ll marry.”
Tomas chuckled. “Who’s being forward, now?” he said.
“It’s a woman’s right to be forward,” she said, twisting on the bench to see him better, though her hooped dress covered her entire half like a pink, chiffon blanket. “Especially when dealing with men.”
“Indeed?” Tomas said, as if insulted, though his breathing and heart rate said otherwise. She nodded.
“Tell me about your father,” she whispered, cutting him off before he could continue. “I only remember him from when I was younger.”
Tomas took a deep breath, as the depth of memory filled his soul. He searched Marguerite’s eyes for hints of purpose, then looked away.
“Heart failure, supposedly,” he said, watching a turtle pop its head above water. It amazed him how still those things could be. How do they stay in the same spot for so long? Why can’t I?
“He was found floating in St. Johns Bayou on the backside of New Orleans,” Tomas said. He shook his head, closing his eyes as the images came back.
“Alligators had gotten to the body, but there was enough left to identify him.”
Marguerite covered her mouth with her hand, and tears moistened the corners of her eyes. “Oh, Tomas,” she breathed. “I’m so sorry.”
He nodded, hearing her, but not really. He clasped his hands on his lap as he leaned toward the pond. Why did I stay away for so long?
“He was a good man,” he said. A blue heron landed on the edge of the pond, sending the turtle into its dark depths. “He treated me well, mother loved him. He even treated the darkies fair.” He chuckled.
“The entire household staff is free, as are mine in New Orleans.” He shook his head. “You won’t find much of that these days.”
“No,” Marguerite said. “No you won’t.”
“How else was he good?”
“He worked hard, built the Willows into what it is; he and my mother, that is.” He rubbed his hands together, noting how rough they were. “Hand in hand…” His eyes teared, and he sniffed, rubbing the outer corner of his eye. He turned to Marguerite.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said, holding back the building sobs of anguish. “When he was alive, he ran the Willows and left the trading company to me. Now that he’s gone…” he shook his head.
“I just don’t know.”
Before he knew it, her hand was in his – emphasizing his rough against her softness; cold pressed into heat.
“What DO you know, Tomas,” she whispered. Her lips lifted into a concerned, soft smile. Those eyes… her touch. If Rose wasn’t close, he would kiss her in that very moment – pulling her mouth to drink within those delicate lips. Instead, he licked his own, pretending as if they were hers.
The way she asked questions that made him think…
Could she be the one? Is it possible? Light, but she was beautiful. He breathed her in, closing his eyes as he did – imagining life with Marguerite as he clasped her hand tight, yet gentle. Her intertwined fingers caressed his, dancing together as they wove between the other.
Life at the Willows, children running around the grounds, chasing frogs and throwing pecans. Laughter on the veranda, smiles at the table. Passionate love under the nighttime canopy of stars and sleeping in a down-filled bed. Auburn hair tossed in such a way to make his heart sing.
It could work. It could.
You ‘membah what I be tellin ya, Jim’s voice said in the back of his head, breaking the trance as the coachman’s face replaced that of Marguerite. He pushed it away.
What does Jim know? He’s just a coachman. A former slave who knows nothing about tough decisions, nor whom he should marry.
He opened his eyes and met hers.
“I know I can’t make this decision alone,” he breathed, placing his other hand atop of hers, He felt her heart and his beat as one rhythm. Her chest rose and fell in time to his, building the desire to know more with every breath.
“And what decision is that?” she said softly, her eyes never leaving his. He swallowed. Dare I say it?
“Whether to sell the Willows,” he said, taking a deep breath. There. It was out to someone other than her father. “Or to stay here and sell the Company.”
She stiffened, yanking her hand from his. It was like a wall was thrown between them, so strong the withdrawal.
“Business?” she stated. “This entire conversation was about BUSINESS?” He shook his head violently.
“No!” he said. “No, it’s about, it’s about…”
“Christ, I don’t know. You asked me about my father, and then my mind went to what to do.” He stood, marching toward the pond’s edge, shaking his head and pursing his lips.
“Marguerite,” he said to the water, his back to the auburn haired belle on the bench. The heron remained on the opposite bank, silently staring into the dark water as it stood beside a stand of cattails. All the while, the rising and falling buzz of the cicada filled the trees with music.
“You have no idea how difficult things are,” he continued. “Up until now, I’ve been free. Free to run the Company as I chose, free to go where I wanted, when I wanted – even with whom.” He stuck his hands in his pockets.
“Now?” he said, shrugging. “I feel trapped. Locked into a decision I never wanted to make, and forced into servitude at the whims of others.”
“What others,” Marguerite said from beside him. Surprised, he looked down to see her concerned face shining up at his. They reached hands and clasped, her cool fingers mixing into the heat of his own. He yearned for their caress.
“Mother,” he said, smiling and turning back to see the heron. It’s free, at least.
“Father and his legacy. Riley Mac, my manager at the Two Oceans. The Willows.” Jim, he wanted to say, but didn’t. Mammy May. Hell, all of them. Everyone.
Marguerite followed his eyes and smiled, seeing the heron as if for the first time. “What do you want?” she said, lifting her eyes back toward his.
“What I can’t have,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“I don’t know anything about running a plantation, Marguerite,” he said, looking down at her. He fully turned to face her, yet still clasped her hand, feeling its soft, soothing warmth.
“How can I give this up?” He motioned with his other hand, as if waving at the heron. It didn’t budge, just took one step forward.
“I grew up here, Mother and Father built this place from a swamp. I love it here…” he shook his head, and looked into the sky. “Christ but I do.”
“Then stay,” Marguerite said. “Run the Willows and sell your Company.” She reached for his other hand, clasping them both and bringing them together. “I know how to manage plantations. I can help. Together, we can keep the Willows great.”
Her words and manner of speak filled his heart with hope. Together, she said. He wanted to say yes, his heart ached to say yes – he burned to say yes.
“Or,” she continued. “At the least let your manager run the Company while you get things in order here.” She tugged on their hands in excitement.
“Controlling both ends of the sugar trade isn’t such a bad idea, you know.”
He cocked his head. Not a bad idea at all, he thought. Riley Mac was an honest and respected man around New Orleans. An impressive feat, considering he was a free black in a white dominated world.
“Since when did you care about business?” he said, narrowing his eyes at Marguerite. She grinned, her sparkling eyes made his pulse race.
“Since when did you claim to know the thoughts of women?” she said. “In fact, your previous comments were around what you didn’t know.” She giggled, allowing him to lift her hands to his lips.
“Fortunately for you,” she said, smiling warmly as he kissed the back of her hand. “I’m here to bring clarity to those thoughts.”
“Yes,” he said, laughing and suddenly feeling free. “I can see I underestimated you.”
“You have no idea,” she said, pulling her hands away and smoothing her dress. She adjusted her bonnet, insuring the ribbon fell just so – drawing her fingers down its length.
“You know your father wants to buy the Willows, don’t you?” Tomas said, feeling that the time was proper to say such a thing. She dismissed the comment with a wave of her hand.
“Let me deal with Daddy,” she said. “I have him wrapped around my little finger.” She lifted her hand so the back was up. “You just make sure the Two Oceans remains in your hands.”
He nodded, losing himself in her words and eyes.
“Now, Monsieur Laiche,” she said. “If you would be so kind as to escort me back to the house?” She placed the back of her hand against her forehead, closing her eyes as she did.
“The humidity is making me faint, and if I were to remain much longer, I shall expire from exhaustion.”
He cocked his head, impressed with her change in demeanor and tone. Where once an astute business woman stood, now re-appeared a typical, charming Louisiana Belle.
“As you wish, Mademoiselle,” Tomas said, offering his arm to rest her hand upon. “The heat can be ever so horrid this time of year.” She smiled and he met hers with a wink.
“And when next I see you, Tomas,” she said, her voice quiet so Rose couldn’t hear. “I expect a proposal. A romantic one, with roses, music and jewels.”
He nearly burst out laughing, grinning brightly at her jest. Her tight-lipped frown pulled him up short.
“You’re serious,” he said, just before they exited the canopy of Willow fronds. She nodded once.
“I am,” she whispered. “And so are you. We were made for one another.” She patted his arm, and stared deep into his eyes.
“We’ve always known this. You feel it, and I feel it.” He nodded quietly.
“I’ve loved you since the day I laid eyes upon you, Tomas. Even as a child, I knew deep within my heart, we were meant for one another.”
She did. He felt it in her soft, sensual gaze. The warmth of her hand on his, as if it were part of him; merged together – natural.
He nodded slowly, his eyes melting into hers, matching her breath as if it were his own. Yes. He loved her too, it seemed – even when calling her a hag or pushing her in the pond. This was right.
“I’ll talk to your father,” he said. “Though he already suspects we’ll be together. He said as much in the library early today.”
“Of course he does,” she said, leading him from the secluded grove of the lily pad pond to where Mammy Rose waited, knitting.
“Monsieur Laiche,” Phillipe said once everyone was inside of the house. The women had withdrawn into the parlor, where Mammie was entertaining Celeste and Marguerite with tea and pastry.
“Might I have a word?” he said.
“Of course, Monsieur, so long as you call me Tomas.” Phillipe nodded, as Tomas continued. “We’ve known one another long enough to drop the formality of title.”
“As you wish,” Phillipe said. He lifted an eyebrow. “Shall we?”
Tomas turned to one of the household staff, just as old as Zeek. “John, please inform mother that Phillipe and I will be in the library discussing business.”
The gray headed man nodded and walked into the parlor without a word.
“This way,” Tomas said, motioning Phillipe into the library. It was just across the foyer and opposite the parlor. Once inside, he slid the white, wooden door closed. “Brandy?”
“Of course,” Phillipe said with a nod. He turned toward a wall of books, scanning the mahogany shelves as if looking for a specific title. “Your father built a fine collection here,” he said, pulling a large, leather-bound tome from the shelf. “Homer, Plato. Impressive.”
“Yes,” Tomas said, pouring brandy from an Irish crystal decanter into two crystal glasses cut with an ivy motif. “Father loved to read. I admit to enjoying a good book myself, every now and then.” He offered one of the glasses to Phillipe, who then lifted in toast.
“To Francois,” Phillipe said. “May he rest in peace.” Tomas returned the toast. “To Father,” he said, then drank – watching Phillipe over the top of his glass.
“Let me get to the point, Tomas,” Phillipe said, throwing back his brandy in one, massive swallow. “By taking Marguerites hand in marriage, you’ll be tying yourself to the largest string of plantations in southern Louisiana.”
“Only through marriage,” Tomas said, sipping his brandy.
“Still,” Phillipe said, walking over to the decanter. Before Tomas could offer, he poured himself another drink. Tomas frowned at both the pouring, as well as the size of the pour.
“It will give you quite an advantage, especially for your trading company.”
“Perhaps,” Tomas said, shrugging, trying not to show too much interest in what Phillipe was saying. “I’ve not given it much thought, to be honest. I’m more concerned for Mother’s health and well-being at the moment.”
“Of course,” Phillipe said, sipping his brandy this time and waving a hand. “How is she these days?” A feint. It made Tomas smile. He’d never had the opportunity to haggle with Phillipe himself. Always the manager.
“Well enough, I suppose,” Tomas said. “With Father gone, her work load has dramatically increased.” He sighed, whether from the game or from reality, it felt the right thing to do.
“She wants you back here, running the Willows?” Phillipe said, watching Tomas with hawkish eyes. Laughter slipped under the door, causing both men to turn in the direction of the parlor.
“Sounds like they’re enjoying themselves,” Phillipe said. “Good. It gives us more time to get to know one another.” Tomas smiled and nodded once. His glass now empty, he refilled it, making sure to keep himself near the decanter.
“The Willows is important to Mother,” Tomas said. He motioned to an over-stuffed arm chair. “Have a seat.” Phillipe nodded, then sat. Tomas chose a rosewood, high-backed armchair with green, velvet upholstery.
“It’s why I’m back.”
“The Two Oceans is doing quite well,” Phillipe said. “I imagine it’s a difficult decision you’ll need to make regarding which will be your focus.”
“Indeed it is,” Tomas said, looking into his glass as if lost in memory. Let’s see where Phillipe is leaning. “One I’ve yet to make.” He looked up at Phillipe.
“You manage quite a few enterprises. Any thoughts on the matter?” Phillipe’s mouth lifted into a ‘slight’ smile.
“Well,” the older man said, nodding and looking into his glass. “Now that you mention it, I do have some ideas.” He leaned back in the chair, creating a creaking, complaining crack from the wood.
“The way I see it,” Phillipe said. “You have one of two choices: divest yourself of the Willows, or of the Two Oceans.” He shook his head. “I can’t imagine you’d have success managing both.”
“Ah,” Tomas said, nodding as he took a sip of brandy. Matching one’s opponent was a trick of the trade. It created a physical impression of agreement. “Divest one. Interesting.”
“That’s a terribly difficult choice,” he said. “The Willows is home, the place I was born. Mother and Father bled on this land building it into what it is today.”
Phillipe nodded. “Very true,” he said. “Not many along the river can say that these days.”
“Whereas I had an instrumental hand in building the Two Oceans,” Tomas said, swirling his brandy in the glass – watching it spin. “Father may have started it, but I built it.”
He sighed, feeling tension build behind his temples. “It would be painful to give it up.”
Phillipe opened his arms, holding the almost empty glass in his right hand. “A tough choice,” he said. “Family or self? You can’t have both, it seems.”
Tomas stared at Phillipe, who seemed to be pleased with the direction of conversation. Tomas ran his fingers through his hair, smoothing it back several times. Let’s see what he’s after.
“Family is thicker than blood,” Tomas said, repeating something he heard once along the wharf. “Perhaps I sell the company and move to the Willows.” He looked into his glass, yet watched Phillipe’s reaction over the rim.
“I’m sure I could get a good price for the Company, especially with New Orleans being named the fourth largest seaport in the world.”
“Madame Laiche would like that,” Phillipe stated just a bit too short. “And it IS your home.” He smiled and sipped his brandy. “Perhaps that makes the most sense.”
“However,” Tomas said. “She’s getting old, Phillipe. Life in the city might do her some good. Free her from the responsibility of taking care of so many people.”
“It would be difficult,” Phillipe said, leaning forward, his face suddenly serious. “Do you think she’d agree to such a thing?” Got you, Tomas thought. The man’s tone was too pleased. You want the Willows.
“It would take time,” Tomas said. “Perhaps a year or two.” He waved his hand. “After my marriage to Marguerite, of course.”
“She could assist with the transition,” Phillipe said eagerly. “Help smooth things over with Madame Laiche.” Tomas nodded.
“She’s good that way, my Marguerite. Handles politics almost as well as your mother.”
“Why, just the other day, she helped stop a near riot between Brody and the field hands.”
“Indeed?” Tomas said. Marguerite did something other than gossip? Phillipe nodded.
“That she did!” Phillipe said. “Marched herself up right between the drones and Brody, then held up both hands – stopping each side in their tracks.” He waved his glass in the air.
“Why would she do that?” Tomas said, cocking his head. Interesting.
“Come to find out,” Phillipe said. “Brody was holding back rations.”
“You don’t say,” Tomas said, nodding as he listened.
I do,” Phillipe said. “He was mad because one of the field niggers hid his daughter from him.” Phillipe laughed, then drank the last swallow of his brandy.
“Brody likes his meat dark, if you know what I mean,” Phillipe said. “So there was no way some nigger slave was going to stop him from getting his meal.”
“How did Marguerite settle the dispute?” Tomas said, reaching back to grab the decanter. He took Phillipe’s glass, filled it then filled his own.
“She made Brody promise to ask,” Phillipe said. “And if he didn’t, she would fire him and make him work the fields with the niggers!”
Tomas almost spit his brandy as his sipped. “She did what?”
Phillipe nodded. “She did indeed,” Phillipe said. “That’s my Marguerite. Feisty as one of my prize thoroughbreds. The niggers got their rations, Brody begged for his treat and the revolt was settled.”
“Impressive,” Tomas said. It was. He had no idea Marguerite was skilled in negotiations. Maybe she wasn’t that bad of a choice after all. Phillipe laughed as he drank, pausing to look into the glass as if remembering a joke.
“What is it?” Tomas asked. Phillipe shook his head.
“Nothing, really,” he said. He chuckled again
“Well,” he continued. “After she left, Brody came to me.”
“I see,” Tomas said.
“Let’s just say, I made certain Brody never had to beg for what he wanted. Ever again.” He looked up at Tomas and winked.
“Though you have to admit, she was good, wasn’t she?” He laughed.
“She was at that,” Tomas said slowly, swallowing his brandy hard. What a bastard.
“Now back to the Willows,” Phillipe said. “Have you considered a selling price? The quality of production, the location and the land you have here should bring top dollar.”
“Do you think so?” Tomas said. He took a drink, his mind still focused on the brutality of Phillipe. While he’d never seen the man mistreat his slaves, rumors claimed it was a daily occurrence. Now he had confirmation.
Phillipe nodded. “Of course,” he said. “Hell, I might even buy it myself.” Tomas froze mid thought, meeting Phillipe’s eyes as he considered what the man was saying.
“If I did that,” Phillipe continued. “Mammie wouldn’t have to leave. She could stay here, while you and Marguerite resided in the city.”
“That is,” Phillipe said. “If you marry Marguerite.” He shrugged. “What do you think, Tomas?”
“It’s an interesting idea,” Tomas said slowly, allowing his mind to process the thought. He scanned the library, taking in various details that he’d grown up with – details that would belong to Phillipe if he sold.
Wooden bookends, carved in the shape of baying hounds, held a row of classical, leather-bound literature. A hand-sized, white marble bust of Caesar – from Rome, his father once said, sat atop the mantle. The Irish decanters, a painting of two clipper ships and a drawing by James Audubon of three fox squirrels chasing one another beneath a Willow tree. That was his favorite.
“I must admit,” Tomas continued. “The notion of mother staying on the land she loves is enticing.” He took a drink. “Assuming I care to sell.”
“How could you not?” Phillipe replied. “Your company will collapse without you at its helm. Like you said, you built it from nothing.’ He shook his head. “There’s no way I’d ever sell that golden goose.”
“It’s quite profitable,” Tomas said. “I’ll give you that.” He cocked his head. “But what if I could run both? Why would I sell?”
Phillipe laughed. “What do you know about running a plantation, Tomas? Just because your father managed well, doesn’t mean you can.” He shook his head.
“You know shipping, my boy. Stick to that, it’s what you’re good at.” He smiled, taking another sip of his brandy.
“Leave the plantations to the planters.”
“I could always marry someone else,” Tomas said. “Connect myself to another legacy planter. Perhaps the Gaudet’s. They know sugar quite well.”
“Theophile Guadet?” Phillipe said, blurting out a snorting laugh. “That man’s an idiot of the highest order. The only reason he’s successful is because he has an intelligent manager.”
He waved a dismissive hand. “Besides, his daughter is the size of a barn and has the face of a horse.” Phillipe shrugged.
“But if that’s what you want, suit yourself, Tomas,” Phillipe continued. “It still doesn’t solve the issue of managing two different companies.”
On this, Phillipe was correct. He didn’t know a thing about running a plantation. The ten years he’d lived in New Orleans was spent building the Two Oceans Trading Company. He knew the price of sugar, how to sell at market and ship it overseas.
Growing sugarcane, harvesting it, dealing with slaves – everything associated with plantation life was beyond his knowledge.
It was a serious dilemma, and Phillipe knew it. In fact, Tomas was certain the only reason he considered offering Marguerite to Tomas was to gain control of the Willows.
Tomas slammed back his brandy, more from anger at being beaten in the game, than from the choices he faced. Losing burned him in the stomach like cheap rotgut.
“No,” Tomas said. “Mademoiselle Gaudet is the kindest woman I know, but that doesn’t inspire me to marry her.”
“Your mother understands the issues,” Phillipe said. “It’s why we’re here.” Tomas narrowed his eyes.
“My mother,” he said. Phillipe nodded.
“By linking yourself to me,” Phillipe said. “You gain allies and strength. By pushing us away…” He let that question hang and shrugged.
“The Willows will be in good hands,” Phillipe said. “Your mother can stay here and you can come visit anytime you wish. This is the only way that both the Two Oceans, and the plantation remain strong.”
Phillipe opened his arms. “Not too difficult a decision, if you ask me.” Tomas opened his mouth to speak, but stopped – choosing to nod quietly instead. It made sense, Christ but it did.
A bell hanging from a red, silk sash near the fireplace jingled, filling the library with soft, church-like chimes.
“Lunch,” Tomas said. “Shall we join the ladies?”
Phillipe nodded, his cheeks significantly rosier than before. “Of course, my boy! I’m famished.”
Marguerite Bourgeois had been coming to the Willows since she was a little girl, and had been friends with Tomas since they were old enough to walk. She was the only daughter of Phillipe Bourgeois, who was master of Emerald Oaks – the largest and most profitable plantation along the Mississippi River.
It comprised nearly three hundred thousand acres of sugar cane, cotton and maize, as well as fields for commodity livestock and prized racehorses. Like the Willows, it was completely self-sufficient – feeding the household, as well as two hundred eighty-two slaves.
The family operated four plantations along the river, all bought when the original ownership failed. Phillipe snapped them up and gave them to his sons, thus increasing his own personal holdings and power. Only Marguerite was without property, being a woman and just coming of age to marry.
That was about to change.
As Tomas was being dressed by his valet, an elderly Negro named Zeek, his thoughts drifted to all of the times he’d spent with Marguerite. She’d been pleasant, lovely and overly flirtatious for most of the time he’d know her. However, with their age difference of ten years, he’d always felt like an older brother.
She had constantly demanded his attention, especially when other girls came to balls at the Willows. She forced most of them to abandon their pursuit by informing them she was going to marry Tomas, not them.
Not that he’d ever had a desire to marry back then. Most times, he had laughed off Marguerite’s attempts as a childhood crush, which invariably brought forth her famous Bourgeois temper.
Yet here he was now, being coerced toward the very girl he’d avoided, as if Fate had already made up its mind.
“The dark green or the lightah one, Marse Tomas?” Zeek asked, holding up two coats for Tomas to inspect.
“This one,” Tomas said, pointing to a grass-green colored wool jacket. Cut high in the front with long, hammer-claw tails in the back, it reminded him of a grasshopper – especially the polished brass buttons up the front. “It’s Marguerite Bourgeois I’m supposed to impress, so I might as well look my best.”
“The lightah one?” Zeek said, scrunching his eyes, lifting his bushy, gray eyebrows into a wiggle.
“I don’t know about dat,” Zeek said. “Seein’ the color of Miss Marg’rite’s hair an’ all.”
He hung the grasshopper coat inside a walnut armoire, then offered Tomas the hunter green coat. “There ya go,” Zeek said, steeping aside so the pair could look in the mirror. Using an ebony backed brush, Zeek gave the jacket a swipe, swishing imaginary lint from the shoulders and sleeves.
“Mm, mm, mm,” Zeek said, shaking his head and smiling.
“Sleek as a prized racehawse. Miss Marg’rite’s gone pounce on you like a swamp cat!”
“That’s why I wanted the other one,” Tomas said, not feeling too pleased at his appearance. Oh, he looked fabulous, alright, fit for a night out on the town with the Governor.
“Miss Mammie say you gone live here once you married,” Zeek said as he brushed Tomas’s jacket again, before working down the back of the legs. Once finished, he kneeled and helped Tomas pull on his knee-high, black leather boots.
“Mhmm,” Zeek said. “Den we gone have a house full a chill-ren, just like when you a child.”
An image of little hoop-dressed Marguerites holding galas, demanding ponies and buying gowns filled Tomas’s vision, sending a shiver along his back.
“Them was the days, I tell ya,” Zeek said, using a tan cloth to shine Tomas’s boots. “You runnin’ round like ya owned the place. Mammy May chasin’ ya all over the yard an’ all.”
“Yup, this place needs more chill-ren alright,” Zeek said. He stood to admire his handy work. He was a free black, yet continued to live at the Willows doing what he’d always done – taking care of Tomas.
“Eh, too, Zeek?” Tomas said, placing his hands on his hips. He felt alone on an island, with no one caring to listen to what he had to say. “Not even my valet thinks this is wrong?”
“Pardon, Marse Tomas?” Zeek asked. “What wrong with you gettin’ married?”
“What about marrying the one I want?”
“You got someone else in mind?”
Tomas paused to think. “I, uh,” he stammered. “Not at the moment. But that could all change. I just have to meet the right woman.”
“Is dat right?” Zeek said. Tomas nodded, grinning like a little boy with a handful of picayune candy.
“And when you gone do that?” Tomas shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he said, his grin grew brighter. “One day, I reckon.”
“You been lurkin’ round New Orleans for ten year, Marse Tomas. You ain’t found none yet.”
I know, Tomas said in his head. That’s the point. Outwardly, he simply shrugged.
“Miss Marg’rite’s been after you for years,” Zeek said. “What you got again her anyway?”
“Nothing,” Tomas said. “Well, not too much, really. She’s supposedly beautiful.”
“Oh she dat, alright,” Zeek said, walking around Tomas, eyeing the clothes. “She be round here several time since you done left.” Using a small pair of scissors, he snipped a loose thread from Tomas’s jacket.
“I bet she has,” Tomas said, imagining Marguerite as a blue heron stalking her prey.
“And dem hips,” Zeek said, whistling. “Woo-wee! If’n I was a youngah man, I’d nevah stop lookin.”
“Zeek!” Tomas said, shocked at his valet’s words. “You’re old enough to be her grandfather.”
“I ain’t dead, marse Tomas,” Zeek said, laughing. “Just old.” He stood up tall. “What mo you want? If it ain’t her, den who?”
Tomas shook his head. “I’m not certain. But when I see her, I’ll know.”
“Miss Mammie ain’t gonna like dat one bit,” Zeek said “She want you married into another plantation like it always be.”
“You know me,” Tomas said, looking in the mirror and fiddling with his bangs, pushing them back over the top of his head. He liked the way his hair fell across his shoulders, but hated it dangling in his eyes. “I’m not one to do what’s always been done.”
“I know dat’s right,” Zeek said.
Tomas chuckled, then reached for his hat. Three hung from a pronged, wooden coat tree next to his armoire. He chose the tan one. It matched his pantaloons, while the low crown and slightly curved brim highlighted his hair.
At that moment, a distant horn sounded, washing the house with its sharp, echoing call. It was the Creole Belle announcing its arrival at the Willows, delivering his future fiancé and her family to the dock along the levee.
Traveling by river boat was many times easier than riding a bumpy carriage along the mud-rutted river road. Therefore, most planters took one of the many passenger packets steaming up and down the Mississippi. The Creole Belle was just such a vessel.
Three decks rose above the river’s surface, held atop one another by white iron columns and railings. White steam puffed from a pair of gold crowned smokestacks, while a massive red paddlewheel pushed the boat from the rear.
Meals, music and gambling took place inside the main halls, with each devoted to serving Louisiana’s finest. Some people rode the Belle just for the adventure of it, while others used it to get from place to place. Planters were its main source of revenue, and whenever hailed from the levee, the boat would pull to shore.
Tomas glanced out the window, watching a pair of slave-led mules pull a wooden rail cart along iron tracks. One of the more unusual details found at the Willows, the tracks ran from the docks to the Big House, then continued onward to the sugar mill, four miles from the river. Mostly used to deliver supplies, it also provided comfort to arriving guests.
Seated in two rows of carriage seats, the Bourgeois family rode the distance from the river to the house. Their house servants followed behind with the baggage. In the distance, steam from the Belle rose over the willow trees in puffs of white, fluffy clouds as it churned upriver toward a new destination.
As the family stopped in the courtyard, Tomas sucked in a deep sigh. Thanking Zeek for his help, he made his way down the stairs and onto the main floor.
“You look fabulous, Tomas,” his mother said, smiling with pride as her son stepped into the long hallway foyer. Painted family portraits lined the walls, while a crystal chandelier hung near the double front doors. A map of Louisiana’s great river plantations held a prominent position, highlighting the power and prestige of the planters.
“Thank you for seeing the sensibility in all of this.”
“I see no sense at all,” he said, kissing his mother on her the offered cheek. “However, I’m also not about to be rude to the most influential family on the river.” He held back a smile as his mother lifted an eyebrow at his comments.
“Phillipe gives us a tremendous amount of business, mother. I’m forced to be grateful.”
“And Marguerite?” his mother said, grasping his offered arm so he could lead her through the pair of green double doors. Sunlight poured through the stained glass transom, dancing its colors across their faces as they passed through.
“You’ll be kind to her as well?” Tomas smirked.
“Mother,” he said. “I’m a gentleman. She’ll get nothing but my best behavior.”
“Very good,” his mother said, waiting to time their exit through the doors just as the family arrived at the base of the steps.
“You’ll see I’m right in the end,” she said. “Combining our resources with those of the Bourgeois will insure our legacy for decades to come.”
“Of course, mother,” he said, stepping through the doors and onto the covered porch. “That IS what’s most important.”
They stopped at the top of the landing just as Phillipe, Marguerite and his wife Celeste made their climb up the fourteen cypress wood steps. The man’s boots thumped heavy on the treads, as if each step might snap the wood in two.
“Ah,” Tomas said. “Here they are now.”
“May I present Monsieur Phillipe Bourgeois,” the footman said in near-elegant French, having accompanied the trio to the veranda. He held out his hand as if offering the red-faced planter to the Willows.
“Shut the hell up,” Phillipe panted, practically pushing the footman from the stairs. The servant bowed when Mammie nodded, and backed away.
“I can introduce myself,” Phillipe said. “Marguerite, get up here.” The young lady gathered her gown and hurried to stand beside her father – head dipped, eyes focused on Tomas.
Phillipe bowed, reaching for Mammie’s offered hand, He kissed the back of her knuckles. “Madame Laiche,” he said. “You look as delightful as ever.”
“Monsieur Bourgeois,” Mammie said, smiling like a goddess. “It’s such a pleasure having you and your lovely family at the Willows.” He nodded and smiled, though painful to watch. The walk up the stairs must had gotten to him, Tomas thought, noticing the mans flushed face.
She turned toward Marguerite. “Goodness me, is this beautiful, young Mademoiselle Marguerite?”
Marguerite curtsied, grasping her pink chiffon hoop dress by the edges and batting her eyes closed.
“Madam Laiche,” Marguerite said, her eyes finding Tomas once they fluttered open. “Merci for your compliment, but I am ever so close to nineteen.”
Mammie covered her mouth and looked at Phillipe for confirmation. The man rolled his eyes, using the moment to inspect Tomas from head to toe.
“Indeed you are,” Mammie said, turning back to the young lady after a moment.
“Tomas? Don’t you think Marguerite looks lovely this afternoon?”
He bowed with a flourish. “As magnificent as the sunset,” Tomas said, earning a blush from Marguerite. Fake or not, her eyes simmered like the heat of the sun, filling his chest with the warmth of interest. Marguerite extended her hand for Tomas to kiss, which he performed perfectly.
“Welcome to the Willows,” Tomas said, straightening and looking into her round, nut-brown eyes. “Our household is blessed to have you back in its presence.”
Marguerite was perfectly petite and barely taller than his mother. Dark burgundy hair flowed over her shoulders like a silk waterfall, cascading down the back to splash near her waist. Tomas remembered something she said when he’d asked why she wore her hair was so long.
“It’s my soul,” she had said. “The longer it gets, the more radiant I become.”
He could see that, now. It shone under the bright sunshine, accentuating her full lips and bright, brown eyes. How had he missed seeing this when he was younger? No longer a girl, she was now a blossoming woman.
“Yes,” Phillipe huffed, pulling his wife forward “Radiant. I know. Might I present the lady of the Emerald Oaks, Madame Celeste Bourgeois?”
Younger then Phillipe by at least ten years, Celeste appeared to be much older. Age didn’t grace her, though many felt it had more to do with the brutality of her husband. It was the stress of living with him that made her appear the way she did.
Still, she dressed in the finest clothes from Paris and looked every bit the Louisiana Matron. Tomas took her extended hand and kissed it, bowing as he did so.
“Madame Bourgeois,” Tomas said, seeing his mother smile from his manners.
“I see where Marguerite gets her beauty.” She curtsied, as was proper and smiled. “Welcome back to the Willows. I hope you enjoy your day.”
“Monsieur Laiche,” she said, fluttering her eyes. “Thank you for having our family for lunch. It is such a lovely place.”
“Quaint,” Phillipe said, interrupting the fineries. He bowed his head at Tomas, as was normal between two planters. Tomas noted its lack of enthusiasm.
“Monsieur Laiche,” Phillipe said. “Congratulations upon the position into which you have now been placed. I hope you do your father proud.”
“Monsieur Bourgeois,” Tomas said, dipping his head in return while deciding whether to match Philippe’s sarcasm with his own.
“Welcome to the Willows. It’s a shame my father isn’t here to welcome you, but I will do what I can to make you feel at home.”
“Excellent,” Phillipe said. “See that you do.” He pushed forward toward the door. “When do we eat?”
Tomas sighed, then smiled – recovering enough to regain his composure.
“Madame?” he said to Celeste, offering his arm. “Might I escort you into the parlor? I believe we have tea and pastry waiting.”
“That would be lovely, Monsieur,” Celeste said. She rested her hand upon Tomas’s forearm and allowed herself to be led inside. He did save a smile for Marguerite, which she accepted, returning it with a bright grin and batted eyelashes.
Mammie motioned Marguerite forward with a sweeping gesture of her hand. “That leaves just the two of us. Shall we? I hear the pastry are blackberry tarts.”
Beneath the bright sun of a blue sky morning, Simone Plachette danced with two Creole girls in Jackson Square – laughing and twirling like a flock of gulls spinning toward tossed bread. Sunlight sparkled in her raven-black hair, as its shining ribbons splaying in time to the spin of her billowing, lavender skirt.
“Simone,” one of the girls said between giggles, grasping the woman’s hands as they spun in opposite directions. “You’re so much fun!”
“Oui!” another girl said. She took hold of Simone’s other hand and twirled, using Simone as the fulcrum. “I love when we dance!”
“Me, too,” Simone said, laughing. “I wish I were twelve, like you!”
The sisters’ parents watched from the steps of New Orleans famed, Lower Pontalba building. It was one of two newly constructed row houses bordering the formal gardens of the Square. Laughing along with the trio, the parents clapped when the imaginary music stopped. They smiled when the sisters hugged their twenty-six-year old playmate.
“Who wants to be in my next painting?” Simone said. Her eyes darted between each as she leaned down. She placed both hands on her knees, grinning at the girls face to face.
“ME!” one of the sisters said, throwing her hand up before the other could say a word. “I want to be! I want to be!”
“You win, Lucette,” Simone said, smiling at the sister who was first. She glanced at the girl who had not raised her hand as quickly. “Alise? I’ll paint you next time, oui?”
The girl nodded. “Oui, Simone!” she said. “Tomorrow?” Simone shrugged.
“Perhaps,” she said. “If I finish Lucette by tonight.”
“Do I get to keep the painting?” Lucette said, her wide, brown eyes eager with hope. Simone’s eyes drifted toward the parents and they nodded.
“You do indeed, Mademoiselle,” Simone said, motioning toward an easel placed beside the iron fence surrounding the Square. “Now, shall we begin?”
“Yes!” the girls said as one, jumping up and down like rabbits hopping in place. Simone brought her hands together in one, cracking clap.
“Good,” she said. “Let’s get started.”
Saturday morning brought hundreds of people into Jackson Square, especially on a mild, late spring day. Once an ignored military parade ground, it now thrived as a block-sized park. Black iron fencing enclosed stone-paved walkways, lush landscaping and even a small menagerie filled with exotic birds.
Opposite the river and across the gardens stood St. Louis Cathedral, with its trinity of tall, pointed gray spires forming the centerpiece of Catholicism in New Orleans. It, along with flanking buildings called the Cabildo and matching Presbytere, created a civic and religious backdrop to the formal gardens of Jackson Square.
Most people visited to enjoy the day, choosing to picnic, promenade or people watch. Some came after morning prayers, while others arrived early to take advantage of the vibrant markets filling the lands between Levee Street and the river.
Packed with fresh produce, exotic goods and vendors from around the world, the markets bustled with activity from sunrise to sunset. With available choices in a state of constant flux, they offered unique experiences found only within the French Quarter.
Ships covered the river behind the markets – either tied to the docks, anchored in the strong current or steaming up and down the thick, tan waters of the Mississippi River. Tall-mast sloops, steamships, paddle-driven riverboats – all plied the river delivering goods or people. At times, they were stacked so deep, that one might cross the river by walking deck to deck – never wetting a foot.
Even on Saturday, shipments continued. Slaves stacked bales of cotton into thick towers of white puffy cubes. Others unloaded hogsheads from mule-drawn wagons, each filled with anything from sugar to rum to sorghum syrup. Men sang, others yelled and foremen hollered instructions, filling the air with the human music of work. Neighing horses, stamping hooves and the jingle of tack; all contributed to the symphony of the docks.
Overhead, seagulls wheeled and cried, searching for food scraps either tossed or fallen onto the streets. Women with flowery, silk parasols strolled beside cane-toting lovers. They discussed news of the day, what might be best for breakfast, or anything in between. Street vendors unpacked carts, musicians prepared their instruments for mid-morning performances and artists put brush to canvas.
Simone’s easel sat on the lower corner of the Square, just outside the fence and across Rue St. Ann from the lower Pontalba Building. Across Levee Street from the market, her spot basked in shade given by low-hanging limbs of the live oaks, draping haphazardly over spear-tipped, wrought iron fencing.
“Simone,” Alise and Lucette’s mother said, having walked over after the girls joined her at her easel. Simone looked up with a smile, one that brightened moods with its dimple-forming radiance.
“Would you mind watching the girls while we go to Market?”
“Of course!” Simone said. She cast her gaze upon the sisters. “You don’t mind helping me, do you?”
“YAY!” Alise said. “Can I paint, too?” Simone nodded, lifting a small, stretched canvas from her nest of supplies leaning against the fence. She handed over a pair of brushes, as well as a palate for paints.
“Oui,” she said. “You shall learn to mix colors.” Alise clapped her hands and grinned at her mother.
“I’m going to be an artist, Ma-Ma!” The woman nodded at Simone.
“Tres bien, Alise,” her mother said, sharing a knowing look with her husband. Dressed for a Saturday stroll, the man tipped his tall, lavender top hat to Simone as the mother finalized instructions.
“Behave yourselves, mes cheris,” she said. “We shall return later this afternoon.”
“Oui, Ma-ma!” the girls said at once. “Bonsoir, Pa-pa!” Both parents nodded, then strolled arm in arm toward the market, leaving Simone with their daughters.
“Now, Lucette,” Simone said once the couple departed. “Sit still and we shall get started.”
“Oui, Simone,” she said, sitting on her stool.
“I want you to watch the seagulls as if you were one of them,” Simone said. Lifting her brush, she considered the little girl, then daubed the brush into a blue-green mixture of paint.
“What do I paint, Simone?” Alise said, inspecting a small, wooden palette, a knife and a tin of paints. Seated cross-legged against the fence, Alise had the supplies laid on the ground before her.
“Use the knife to daub paints onto the palette,” Simone said. “Choose red, the yellow and the cyan.”
Alise nodded, dipping the knife into the yellow. With a gleeful grin, she smeared the paint onto the palette.
Simone lost herself in the art, creating blocks of color that resembled nothing discernable. A couple stopped, spending moments inspecting Simone’s work. The woman, dressed in orange as if ready for a ball, grinned at the two girls. Alise returned the smile, yet Lucette remained focused and perfectly still.
The beaux, however, didn’t appear interested in the painting at all. Instead, he stared down Simone’s open-topped smock, which revealed ample cleavage as Simone leaned forward.
Before she could say bonsoir, the woman noticed her beaux’s eyes and snatched him away by the arm – muttering about harlots as they walked away. By the look on the man’s face, Simone realized he was getting an ear full for his eye full.
“Ya no be temptin em like dat, Sea-moan-eh,” a husky-voiced woman said from behind.
“Dey may tink ya da devil, an cast ya out da city.”
Simone laughed, shaking her head while streaking a blue-green swath across her canvas. Alise giggled, yet continued mixing paints into colorful blobs. Lucette pretended to be a seagull.
“That’s the plan, Maria,” Simone said seductively. She narrowed her eyes. “Tempt them with my art, then steal their souls for eternity.”
An elderly woman passing by gasped, then scurried away – her fingers fiercely working a set of black rosary beads clutched in her gnarled, wrinkled hands.
Sister Maria, all three hundred plus pounds of her, leaped into the air and cackled, pointing a thick, bejeweled finger at the retreating lady. Multiple strands of gold and silver beads hanging around Maria’s neck clinked together, as if they, too, were laughing at the frightened woman.
“Ya put da fear in ‘er, Simon-eh!” Maria said, still chuckling. “Just as I be tellin ya.”
Simone brushed a streak of yellowish paint onto her canvas, pulling it down in a thick, feathery motion. Two other children, a girl and a boy, dashed across the street toward Simone and Maria, calling out, “Sister Maria!” “Sister Maria!”
“Just as you be telling me,” Simone said, replacing her brush with a thin, charcoal pencil. This she used to outline the area through which a river would flow.
“You’d think they’d have gotten used to me by now.”
“Dey don’t like seein what dey don’t undah-stand,” Maria said. “People be blind like dat.”
“What do you see?” Simone said, glancing over her shoulder at Maria. “What do you understand?” Maria cackled again, causing the children to cheer.
She plucked pieces of picayune candy from within the pocket of her ankle length, burgundy dress. A wide, black silken sash wound around her waist. Clasped tight with a golden buckle, it hid the candy’s location from the children.
“I know many tings,” Maria said, offering the candy to the children. “I see many tings.”
“I undah-stand many tings.”
She ruffled the hair of the boy and girl as they thanked her for the candy.
“It be takin more dan dis con-vah-sation for ya ta know what Maria know.”
Simone found it fascinating the way her friend talked. R’s became ah’s, and h’s didn’t seem to exist. They painted a lyrical language that tickled Simone’s heart with musical pleasure. Turning her name into three syllables was a delight, as if each was a separate word – with moan being her favorite.
She chose a color for the river, or rather a mixture of colors unique to Lucette. Something the children wouldn’t expect – a color matching the little girl’s spirit and essence.
Sparkling sea-foam green came to mind.
“But ya do see many tings, Simone-eh,” Maria continued. “Ya paint like da mojo be flowin true ya and on to da canvas.” She nodded, leaning closer to inspect.
“Ya see da girl as if she be da water and da gull at dee same time.”
Simone stopped, her brush lingering over the canvas without making a stroke. She turned. “You can see that in my painting?”
The woman nodded, her multi-colored tignon shaking its beads and bones in agreement. Covering her hair, the linen wrap spun around her head, spiraling upwards in swirls of burgundy and black.
Simone pursed her lips and smiled, completing her mark on the canvas.
“Lucette?” she said, turning the easel so the girl could view the work in progress. “What do YOU see so far?” The girl cocked her head in thought, placing a finger to her mouth.
“I see myself flying away to a new, magical land,” she said, her voice soft and quiet. So much so, that the chattering gulls flying overhead almost drowned her out.
“Some place beautiful, just beyond the water!” The children nodded.
“Really?” Simone asked.
Maria’s face went still as she stared at the little Creole girl. Lucette bobbed her head, almost laughing.
“I bet it does,” Simone said, twisting the easel back. She daubing paint onto her brush from the palette.
“I wish I knew how to fly.”
Morning turned toward noon, with warm, cooling breezes flowing in from the river. By the time the parents returned, Alise had mixed a colorful mess on her palate and Lucette was squirming like a trapped squirrel.
“LUCETTE?” their mother called out, standing inside the garden and beneath the oaks. She held a basket, while in the distance her husband was spreading a blanket atop the green lawn.
“ALISE! Time to go. Tell the lovely artist good day and come along!”
“Bonne journée, Simone,” Lucette said, gathering her skirts and standing. “Will you be here tomorrow painting my picture?”
“Oui,” Simone said, smiling. “I might even be finished!”
“Oh goody!” Lucette said. “Then I shall see you tomorrow! Au Revoir!”
“Au Revoir,” Simone replied. Maria said nothing, simply staring at the two girls who dashed toward the gate with pigtails bouncing.
Maria mumbled, opened a small, cloth bag and took a pinch of powder from within. Bringing it to her lips, she kissed it then tossed the powder into the air.
Simone watched, fascinated by the ritual. “A blessing?” she said, cocking her head. Maria smiled, though only in response.
“Soom-ting like dat,” she said quietly. “Ya coom by latah, Simon-eh. We be avin tea.” Simone smiled, her face lighting up like Lucette’s colorful form on the canvas.
“I would like that!”
“Den I see ya soon.”
“Au Revoir, Sister Maria!” the other children said, almost as one.
“Come, lit-luns,” she said, opening her arms wide. “Let Sister Maria be givin yas da hug.” The two children jumped into her arms, allowing themselves to be absorbed into her bosom.
“Dere ya be,” she said, rocking them back and forth. “I be keepin ya safe. Ya be okay dis night.”
Once she let them go, Maria waggled an amethyst-ringed finger at Simone. “No be late,” she said. “Da tea’ll go cold if ya be.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Simone said, smiling after the departing priestess. She returned to her painting.
Lucette the Gull.
That would be the title. A beautiful one, about soaring and flying free.
Hello Lovely Readers!!
As promised, I am honored and proud to present my first novel, “Beneath the Willows” for your reading enjoyment. It’s been revised to the point of presentation, yet has NOT been professionally edited. Therefore, if you find a typo, or misplaced word…. well, that’s the way it is. Comments are welcomed and encouraged, an please LIKE and Share with others. Tales are meant to be shared, and I hope you find this one worthy of such an endeavor.
Beneath the Willows was inspired by an envelope, a family artifact left over from a passed down, now lost stamp collection I once had in my possession. The physical address simply states, “The Willows – Port Gibson, Mississippi.”
The Louisiana portion comes from the father’s side of the family, where a strong French connection with New Orleans continues from the 1700’s until this very day. Laiche` is my grandmothers maiden name, and while I’d always know it, I never realized the depth until doing research with Ancestry.
Finally, while family names are used in this story, this is a work of complete fiction, and all references to said families are fantasy and not to be considered real. Where possible, I used historically accurate places and people not associated with the characters. Also, this work is protected by Copyright © 2016 by Stephen R. Gann. No portion of this story may be used without the expressed, written consent by myself, the author.
Madame Olympe, for instance, was a real shop keeper in New Orleans, selling hats (chapeaux) to the wealthy elite of the city. I give credit for this information (and many of the historical references and dialect) to the book, “Social Life in Old New Orleans, Being Recollections of my Girlhood: Ripley, Eliza Moore Chinn McHatton, 1832-1912.”
There are many people I wish to thank and express gratitude for helping to bring this story into our reality, so I’ll simply say THANK YOU to everyone all at once. You know who you are, and when this book is officially published, I’ll put your names in the credits.
This book is dedicated to my son, Carson. You dared me to walk the walk, do as I preached and write a book. Without your challenge, I would have never felt inspired to complete this novel. Thank you.
Therefore, without further adieu, I present:
BENEATH THE WILLOWS – A Historical Romance by Stephen R. Gann
Beside still, dark waters of a lily pad pond, Tomas Laiche hid beneath the Willows. It wasn’t exactly hiding, because everyone knew he was there; more like avoiding the situation into which he’d been tossed. His mother played an important part, pulling him from the freedom he relished running his New Orleans shipping company and back into the plantation life from which he’d fled.
His father was dead, supposedly from heart failure, but Tomas knew better. No one found floating in a backwater bayou died from something so benign. His family plantation was on the brink of bankruptcy, both from bad luck and bad decisions. This left his aging mother to manage the vast holdings alone.
Well, he was about to tether his soul to a Louisiana sugar baron named Bourgeois. And while he might not be hiding, he damned sure was avoiding.
“Marse Tomas?” a woman called out from the direction of the Big House. Less than one hundred yards away, his mammy’s voice boomed as if she were right behind him.
“Damn that woman,” he muttered, leaning forward from the hand-made bench upon which he sat. Lovingly crafted by his father from the fallen boughs of an ancient cypress tree, it had always been his favorite thinking place since he was a child.
An equally ancient Willow tree draped its spindly limbs around Tomas and his bench like yellow-green hair from a wood sprite. Depending upon the season, the locks either sheltered the chair in cool, delightful shade, or highlighted it with colorful ribbons of leafy, free-spirited fronds.
He bent over and dug a moist, year-blackened pecan from the spongy soil beneath his feet. Rolling the nut in his hand, he tossed it toward the closest lily pad. It thumped and slid across the pads green surface, plopping into the water at the end of its journey.
The pond reflected truth, revealing the bench and Willow for what they were: a requirement of each, one defining the other; shared sentiments of both the bench and the Willow. Rarely clear enough to see into the depths, the pond waters soothed its visitors with soft ripples, croaking frogs and the occasional plopping splash of a hungry fish.
Azaleas, clematis, monkey grass and rushes enveloped the pond, holding it close like a protective mother. Three pecan trees draped their arching limbs over the water’s edge, dipping the trailing tips of Spanish moss into the darkened waters.
“Marse Tomas!” The voice was closer. “I knows you in there!”
Above it all was the song of the Cicada. An effervescent composition of buzzing – rising to a crescendo, then softening into silence. At times, the winds through the Willow branches was all that was heard, filling the pond with feelings of place and purpose. Then there would be silence, and all was quiet; only the shimmering of willow leaves – certainly not the bellowing of Mammies.
“I’m not coming out, May,” he said, calling back over his shoulder toward the approaching housekeeper.
“And I’m not hiding!” He pushed reddish brown bangs from the front of his eyes and tucked them under the brim of his gray, felt planters hat.
The willow branches rustled as May pushed her large body through, taking up position behind and to the side of Tomas. She crossed her arms across her white ruffled blouse and scowled.
“I ain’t never said you was.”
“Sure sounded like it,” Tomas said. He picked up another pecan lying at the toe of his black riding boots. He heaved the nut toward the farthest lily pad and missed – finding one of the dozen or so red-blossomed azaleas surrounding the pond. Two mockingbirds burst from the bush, crackling in protest as they sought shelter in a nearby tree.
“Them’s your words, not mine,” May said, watching the birds fly toward freedom.
Tomas shrugged and leaned back against the fan-shaped spokes of the cypress bench – feeling the hard, aged wood press against his spine. Nestled beneath the umbrella-like cascade of Willow fronds, the bench provided Tomas a perfect view of the oasis spread before him.
“Sides, Miss Mammie’s fit to be tied,” she said, shaking her head. Multi-colored beads dangling from her dark blue, turban-like tignon clicked together like rattling dice.
“You supposed to be dressed for Miss Marg’rite’s arrival.” She placed her hands on her hips, forcing her ankle-length blue skirt to billow outwards. Tomas grunted.
“Why you lurkin’ like some scared child? Ain’t like she gone bite-cha.”
“She might,” Tomas said, tossing another nut. The Pecan trees scattered around the plantation created a never ending supply for the squirrels, who deposited them in the grass beneath the bench.
“Besides,” he continued. “Who said I wanted to see Marguerite, anyway? Don’t I have a choice in the matter?”
He heard the beads rattle again, as the massive May shook her head. “Nope,” she stated. “You ain’t got no say atall, Marse Tomas. If Miss Mammie’s invited em, you gone be there.”
The rhythmic buzzing of Cicada’s filled the trees, urgently building, then fading into quiet. Tomas imagined the winged locusts descending upon May and carrying her off, perhaps dropping her into the nearby Mississippi River.
Faint hope in that happening, he thought. They’re probably scared of her, too. That made him laugh
He turned, scowling at the Negro housekeeper. She’d earned her freedom almost ten years ago, yet ever since he was a little boy, she’d ruled over him like HE was the slave and she the master. Well, mothered was more truthful. She treated Tomas like he was her own.
“May,” he said. “I’m twenty-nine-years old. One might think I could choose what I did with my life without being told.”
“What gaves you that idea?” She chuckled. “Since Marse Francois up an died, you ain’t got no choice.”
“You gotsta do whats good for tha Willows.”
Tomas sighed and looked toward an algae-stained marble statue across the small pond. Tucked between two blossoming azalea bushes, the stone boy held a tipped bucket streaming water into a marble, birdbath basin. Red petals from fallen blossoms floated in the water, bobbing over ripples formed by the tiny waterfall.
“I reckon,” he said, seeing his life trickle away like the bucket’s water. “That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
How does it refill? He ran his fingers through his reddish brown bangs, lifting his wide brimmed hat as he did. He’d come to the pond for as long as he could remember, and not once had he asked that question of the fountain.
“Now I don’t blames ya,” May said. “The Willows ain’t New Orleans.” She brightened.
“But miss Marg’rite? She’s a gorgeous girl. All the folks say so.”
“She’s a witch,” Tomas said, turning to toss his final pecan. He aimed for the farthest pad and missed, landing it next to a partially submerged turtle, who ducked and swam into the depths of the pond. “I’m sure she hasn’t changed since the last time.”
“I don’t know ‘bout dat” May said, shaking her head, eyes watching where the pecan landed. “But your momma’s right fond of her.” May nodded. “Says she’s a God-fearin woman.”
“I’m sure it’s the other way around,” Tomas said, muttering under his breath.
May frowned and crossed her arms. “Now I ain’t gone hear no more lip from you, Marse Tomas.”
“You get yourself up to tha house and get ready, you hear me?”
Tomas grinned, his eyes twinkling like he’d heard a joke that no one else had. He stood and wiped his hands on the bright, green pantaloons he wore tucked into knee-high, black leather boots.
“Yes’um, massah,” he said, dipping his head like one of the field hands cutting sugar cane. “I’za be a comin right now!”
“Don’t you be sassin’ me, Tomas Jacques Laiche!” May said, her scowl growing deeper along with her voice. He knew that tone well, and when he was younger, it’d been followed by a switch across his backside.
“Go on, now,” she said, pointing a thick, dark finger toward the house. “Get!”
Tomas scurried from the lily pad pond as if he’d been swatted, bursting through the branches and hustling toward the house. Looking over his shoulder, he slowed to a walk. Straightening his dark green, knee-length planter’s coat, he brushed away any leaves that might have clung on his escape.
With a final adjustment to his gray hat, he tucked his bangs beneath the brim, smiled, shook his shoulders and sauntered toward the house.
He was ready.
He’d walked the path to the Big House from the grove so often, he no longer saw the beauty that made up the manicured grounds of the Willows Plantation. Having grown up here, the beauty was now background scenery, nothing more.
He didn’t see the fourteen billowing Willow trees guarding the grassy carriage path flowing from the river to the mansion’s front stairway. Groundskeepers kept the streaming limbs over the path cut high, so as to create a leafy-green tunnel which whispered shimmering welcomes when breezes rustled through the dancing fronds.
He didn’t see the white, Greek Revival mansion rising from the lawn. Three stories were supported by thick, round columns standing atop the roman-arched, brick wall of the first floor. Rose vines clambered up wooden trellises placed between the arches, coloring the foundation in shades of pink and red. A near perfect square, the house stood like a sparkling gem atop a field of floral green.
He didn’t see the four triangular dormers perched atop the gray slate roof, their green shuttered windows gazing toward the river – winking at riverboats steaming along the Mississippi’s tan, muddy waters.
Tomas noticed none of this these days.
What he did see, was his mother waiting at the top of the sweeping stairway. Her hands pressed firm against her slender waist, forcing her frilly, dark green hoop dress to swirl over the veranda like a French parasol.
A coachman in full green and white livery of the house waited at the base of the stairway, observing Tomas’s approach. Tomas stopped next to the Negro servant and glanced up at his glaring mother.
“How angry is she, Jim?” Tomas asked without looking at the servant. “Dare I venture upwards?”
“If you value your life you will, Marse Tomas,” Jim said, his eyes darting between Tomas and his mother. Tomas nodded, chuckling quietly before making the ascension.
“Glad it ain’t me,” Jim muttered.
Tomas stopped halfway and cocked his head at the comment. Smirking and shaking his head, he completed the climb to his glaring mother.
As Tomas arrived at the veranda, she tilted her head, eyes sweeping toward the distant levee.
“Good morning,” he said, bending down and kissing her on the now exposed cheek. “I hope the day finds you well?”
She pursed her lips and lifted her eyes to Tomas, though not until she offered a slight smile from her only son’s kiss.
“Finds me well?” she said, her tone saying the kiss did nothing to staunch her annoyance. “How well do you THINK I am, Tomas Jacques Laiche?!”
The second time his full name had been used. Was the entire household angry with him? He inspected the wooden decking of the veranda, noting two of the boards were beginning to lift.
“The entire Bourgeois family is coming for lunch,” she said. “Including that lovely daughter of theirs, and you go off to hide.”
Tomas grimaced, wincing at her biting tone. “I wasn’t hiding,” Tomas said, though not as powerfully as he would have liked.
He caught a glimpse of a doorman’s widened eyes. The man looked away when Tomas challenged his look.
“I had to think,” Tomas said, feeling as if he were twelve years old. Her looks were one thing, but the tone of her voice sunk him to childhood in an instant.
“Hopefully about your place at the Willows,” she said, her tone growing more intense; if that were possible. “You spend all of your time in New Orleans while the heart of what your father and I built is wilting away.” She sniffed, as the corners of her eyes filled with moisture.
“Ever since Francois passed, God rest his soul,” she said, crossing herself. “You’ve avoided me like I had the yellow fever.” Moisture turned to tears.
“Even when you DO come to visit, you hide away in some remote part of the property; thinking as you call it.”
Tomas met his mother’s eyes, feeling her anguish wash over him. A ploy to tug at my heart, he thought to himself. She was quite adept at it, and if she intended to make him feel guilty, it was working.
“Do you hate me that much, Tomas?”
Tears turned into all out sobs, and the French powders she used to color her face began running in drizzling streaks of black.
“Oh, mother,” Tomas said, pulling her dainty frame against his chest, her head resting just beneath his chin. Tomas wasn’t a massive man, standing just under five foot six inches. His mother, though, was much smaller at four foot eleven. She was like a child to him, though in stature only – especially now.
“It’s okay,” he said, patting the top of her head. “It’s okay. I’m here. I’ll be ready for their arrival.” She sniffed and nodded, glancing up with water-filled eyes.
“Thank you,” she sniffled. “I’m so glad. You’ve no idea how difficult it’s been with your father gone.” She sniffed three times, as if trying to stop the rain.
Pulling away, she gazed into his eyes as his hands rested atop her shoulders.
“The Willows is failing, Tomas,” Mammie said, sadness and sincerity filling her face. “I’m getting old, and with the two years of ruined crops, I can’t see it surviving much longer.” He nodded and sighed, cocking his head as she spoke.
“If we don’t keep up, we’ll lose everything we’ve worked so hard to build.”
“I know,” Tomas said.
“Do you?” She said, searching his eyes. “Do you, really?” Tomas looked toward the river, allowing the Willow trees to guide his view. “Your father and I built this plantation from cypress swamps more than thirty years ago.”
“This is our life’s work. You were born here, raised here.” She gently poked his chest, right atop his heart.
“You’re a part of the Willows, Tomas. It’s time you came home.”
“More and more companies are hiring us to ship their goods,” he said, gasping her hands in his as he turned to face her full on.
“We’re not just transporting our own sugar these days” he said. “We’re shipping cotton, timber, textiles. It’s 1853, and the South is blossoming.” He sighed and shook her head.
“We’re positioned to bloom with it, mother.”
“Riley Mac can run the Company,” she stated, shaking free from his grasp. For as far back as he could remember, his mother could change moods faster than a Gulf storm appeared from clear, blue skies.
“I need you here.”
He sighed again and shook his head. He loved the land, yet loved New Orleans more. The vibrancy of the growing city was like a cultural gumbo, filled with flavors, scents and tastes pouring into him like breath itself.
It was a delicate balance he walked, and if not for his father’s death, he’d not have come back to the plantation. For him, the Willows felt like the past, like chaining himself to an old, never-changing ideal. New Orleans was the ocean – open and free, even a little dangerous. It was dynamic.
“I’m here now,” Tomas said, turning his mother toward the door by placing a hand at her waist. “That will have to do.” She nodded.
“I suppose,” she said. She looked at him as they passed through the opened pair of green, cypress-wood doors and into the mansion’s foyer.
“Marguerite’s coming, so look your best for her, dear. She’s always adored you so.”
“Ah, so the truth of the matter comes out,” Tomas said, laughing. “Marry me off to Marguerite so I can be settled down, is that it?”
His mother gasped, as if she’d been caught in a monumental lie. She placed her hand over her heart.
“Why, Tomas!” she said, drawling the words like a young, Georgia Belle. “What-evah do you mean?” Laughing, Tomas kissed her cheek, then left to get changed.