Archive for February, 2017

Beneath the Willows – Chapter 14

The lily pad pond was quiet and still, as a warm, breezeless mid-May afternoon settled atop the Plantation. Not even the willow leaves rustled, so calm was the wind. Tomas draped his arm over the smooth, polished surface of the bench back. Built from a solitary cypress limb, it curved just in the middle, creating a comfortable, natural swale. He’d often wondered if it was a happy accident, or simply cut so the curve was properly centered.

The seat was a solid cross-cut plank of cypress, with its flame-shaped age rings clearly visible beneath the dark polish. His father made it himself when the house was first built, using the remains of various trees to assemble it. The intention had been for the front porch, but his mother refused – seeing its natural beauty better suited for the gardens.

Tomas trailed his fingers down the fan of wooden spokes supporting the back, feeling the smoothed over knots on the wood – places once covered with bark. His mother was correct: it belonged here by the pond, nestled perfectly beneath the willow tree’s leafy curtain of dangling fronds.

Four days had passed since his meeting with Phillipe, and he was no closer to a decision. His mother knew nothing of the situation, thinking instead that the wedding was still on and that the Willows would soon be hosting a ball for the engagement.

He’d hoped that sitting by the pond would bring clarity, that the dark water would give him what he sought. In storybooks, frogs croaked the answers, as if they were the magical voices of reason – filled with infinite knowledge. The greenish-black frog seated atop a lily pad had so far shown no such ability. Perhaps he was as confused as Tomas; or preferred flies instead of wisdom. Regardless, it held no answers.

“Tomas?” a soft voice said, accompanied by the swooshing rustle of willow leaves. He spun, sitting up with wide eyes toward a purple-gowned Marguerite.

“What are you doing here?” he said, hopping to his feet. He glanced past, seeing that Mammy Rose stood outside the grove with her back to the couple.

“Hello to you, too,” Marguerite said, crossing her arms. Sprigs of lavender wound through her chapeaux, rippling with lace down one side of her head – weaving into her shining, auburn hair.

“Forgive me,” he said, rushing forth to grasp her hand and lead her toward the bench. “I was startled.”

She extended her hand, knuckles up so he could kiss. Her eyes fluttered as he did. Scents of lavender, thick, soft and sensually delightful, swirled around her.

“You are forgiven, monsieur,” she said, then giggled. “Mammy May said I might find you here.”

“She would know,” Tomas said, helping her to the bench. He then sat next to her. “That woman’s always been able to find me, no matter where I hide.”

“She said exactly the same thing,” Marguerite said. She twisted on the bench, yet somehow kept her body straight.

“How are you?” she asked, cocking her head and smiling. Tomas matched her, gazing into her soft, bright brown eyes. “Father says you’re conflicted.”

Tomas snorted. “He said that?” She nodded, brushing a wrinkle away from her gown, glancing down to see it done properly.

“I’m not very well,” he said, shaking his head and gazing over the pond. The frog had moved, Tomas noticed. It now perched on a broken limb sticking from the water near the opposite shore. Any answers yet, monsieur frog?

“Your father made a tough choice near impossible.”

She smiled and placed her hand on his thigh, gathering his attention.

“Father can be blunt when making decisions,” she said. “It’s allowed Emerald Oaks to flourish in tough times.” She squeezed twice, and Tomas placed his hand atop hers, her cool skin mixing with his warmth.

“Blunt is a nice way of putting it, Marguerite,” Tomas said. “He informed me I could not, nor should not keep the Willows.” She nodded, twisting one finger to caress one of his.

“He told me the same thing,” she said, then sighed.

“Oh?” he said, narrowing his eyebrows at Marguerite. “I was under the impression this discussion was between him and I.”

She shrugged and shook her head. “Daddy always confides in me, especially when needing an additional opinion.” Tomas watched Marguerite carefully. He sounded damn sure of himself when talking to me. He looked toward the pond again, seeking the frog’s silent advice. It didn’t budge.

“So what did you offer?”

She caressed his thigh, rubbing back and forth beneath his hand. If his future hadn’t been on the line, he might have enjoyed it.

“Well,” she said. “I told him there should only be one requirement from you.”

“And that is?”

“Being named benefactor of your estate,” she stated, meeting his eyes straight on. Tomas pulled his hand away and sat up straight, considering her eyes and words.

Phillipe stated he’d have to sell him the Willows if he was to marry Marguerite. Now, this was all he wanted? Her to be named benefactor? Tomas stood and walked to the edge of the pond, his hands clasped behind his back.

Monsieur frog, he said to himself, seeing that the fat creature had moved to the shoreline. What do you think about that? The frog hopped once, in the direction of a stand of cattails. A heron slammed its beak into the frog, gobbling it up before it ever saw the dark gray, long legged bird.

“So he doesn’t want me to sell the Willows?” Tomas said. The heron took one step into the water and froze in place, continuing its hunt.

“He did,” she said. “But I convinced him otherwise.”

“Really?” he said, turning to face Marguerite. She twirled her bangs with one of her dainty fingers and nodded.

“Yes,” she said. “Surprised?” He frowned.

“No, actually, I’m not.” He bent over to pick a pecan from the soft, mossy soil. “You seem more capable than you put on.” She nodded.

“Indeed I am,” she said. He nodded and turned, tossing the nut at the heron. Sensing the projectile well before it arrived, the hunter launched into the air, crying out as it flew off toward the river. The pecan plopped harmlessly into the dark waters, sending small ripples cascading toward the shore.

He smiled, but having turned away from Marguerite, she didn’t see it. She was feisty, no doubt about it. And the fact she convinced her father otherwise, said something about her ability to manage. Maybe, just maybe this would work out.

Yes, he thought. He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, nodding as he did so. It might as well be now.

Turning, he marched up to the seated belle and dropped to his knee – reaching for her hand and grasping it inside both of his.

“Marguerite Bourgeois,” he said, gazing into her shock-widened eyes. “Will you do me the honor of being my wife?”

“Why Tomas,” she said with gasping breath. Nodding quickly, her smile grew into an excited grin. “I thought you’d never ask.”

“Is that a yes?” he said, lifting his eyebrows. She nodded quickly.

“Yes, Tomas,” she said. “Yes! I’ll marry you!”

She leapt into his arms, almost tumbling him backwards from his knees. Standing, he lifted her from the ground and spun – sending her legs flying around as she squealed with delight.

“Lawdy be!” Mammy Rose said, bursting through the dangling willow leaves. “Marse Tomas! Whatchoo do ta Mistis Marg’rite?”

Tomas stopped the spin, setting her down with a deep, happy sigh of pleasure and smiled at the negro maid. Leaning up, Marguerite pulled his mouth to hers, kissing him hard against his lips; right in front of Mammy Rose.

“Mistis!” she exclaimed. “You stop dat rite now, y’here?”

“Oh, Mammy!” Marguerite said once she finished her kiss. “Tomas just asked me to marry him!”

“Lawdy be!” Mammy Rose said again. “You gone be married?”

Marguerite nodded. “I am,” she said, rushing to wrap her arms around the older woman. “And we’re going to live right here at the Willows!”

“Lawdy be!” Mammy Rose said, holding the girl and rocking her in her arms, closing her eyes as she did.

“My lil girl gone git married!”

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Beneath the Willows – Chapter 13

Simone slumped atop her stool, lost in the gray, dappled paving stones of her street corner. Alise, having long since returned to her parents, still wailed at the loss of her sister.

Lucette’s parents huddled with the Archbishop beneath the porch of the Lower Pantalba building, just across the street from Simone’s easel. News had quickly reached his ears, and he arrived with a retinue of priests and nuns – all to say prayer over the fallen girl and to console the parents.

With the crowds dispersed, Simone stared into nothingness. She had loved the little girl like her own, teaching her art while she painted in the Square. Lucette’s excitement had inspired her search for the art school’s location. Now that the girl was dead, all she could think of was that she had caused her tragic death.

A police officer dressed in black boots and a helmet-style hat approached, holding his flip pad at the ready.

“Mademoiselle,” he said, readying his pencil. “I understand the little girl was with you when she ran into the path of the carriage?”

Simone looked up, using her knuckle to wipe away tears from the corner of her misty eyes. “Pardon?” she said, blinking.

“You were painting her?” Simone shook her head.

“No, monsieur,” she said. “I was revealing a painting of her.” She pointed toward Lucette the Gull, still sitting on the easel.

“Her parents just purchased the painting, and Lucette was enjoying it.”

She shivered. “She was dancing. Twirling and spinning like she was the gull. The bells rang and then…” She sniffed, rubbing her eyes – now freely flowing with tears.

“The carriage came out of nowhere. Never stopped.” She closed her eyes. “And she was gone.”

The officer wrote notes in his book. “Did you see what caused the mule to bolt?” Simone shook her head.

“No, monsieur,” she said. “Maybe the church bells? They rang about the same time.” He nodded, making a notation.

“Do you paint here regularly?” Simone nodded. “Oui, monsieur,” she said. “Every day.” She pointed toward the metal placard mounted on the fence. A crow took flight, winging away from the oak tree just behind. “I have a permit.”

“I see,” he said, jotting something in his notepad. “And has this mule done this before, mademoiselle? Run when the bells rang?”

Simone blinked and looked toward the corner. Sam always tied his mule to a hitching post while they shared a café au lait. Had he ever bolted? The bells rang all the time, always on the hour – especially the call to Mass. Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening.

“No, monsieur,” she said. “He’s never done that since I’ve been here.”

“And how long is that miss…?”

“Simone,” she said. “Simone Plachette.”

“Ah,” he said, making the notation. “How long have you worked here?”

“Almost a year.”

“I see,” he said. “Might there be anything else that would explain why the mule did what it did? Was its driver negligent?”

“Sam?” she said. “Never. He’s one of the best carriage drivers in the city. That mule is one of the gentlest creatures I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

The officer nodded. “It’s been put down, mademoiselle,” he stated.

“No!” she gasped, covering her mouth. “It was just scared.”

“It destroyed a cart in the market, mademoiselle,” he said. “It was a menace.” He snapped his booklet closed. “Final question. Why do you wear your hair loose? Shouldn’t you be wearing a tignon?” Simone wrinkled her face in confusion.

“Pardon?” she said, trying to understand why this was of importance. “I like my hair down.”

“It’s the law,” the officer said. “That is all for now, mademoiselle Plachette. If I have any additional questions, I will come around again.” He tapped the side of his helmet. “Don’t forget about your tignon, either.”

“Please know,” he continued as she nodded. “You might be called to testify in court. If so, you will receive a summons to appear.” He tore a small piece of paper from his pad and handed it to her.

“That is my name,” he said. “If something else comes to mind, you may contact me at the precinct.” He touched the bill of his helmet.

“Bonsoir, mademoiselle,” he said. “I’m sorry you had to witness such a horrid accident.”

“Merci, monsieur,” she whispered. He turned and walked toward Sam, who was being interviewed by another police officer.

“Witch!” an elderly voice hissed. Simone turned and confronted a hunched, wrinkled woman in a black mourning dress, with lace ruffles up to her chin. She wielded the cross from her rosary like a shield, forcing it toward Simone as it hung from her neck.

“Your devilry killed that little girl!”

Simone stared, tears forming in her eyes once more. It was the same woman Maria had scared off the day before.

“I did no such-“

“Vile Temptress!” the old woman stated, drawing the attention of four other people. “Mary, Mother of God cast this creature back into the depths of hell!”

“That’s enough, mother,” a man said, dressed like he’d just come from Mass. “She’s an artist, not the devil.” Simone smiled at the man, yet he kept his eyes on the old woman.

“Come with me, we’ll get you back to your home.” The woman hissed once more, thrusting the small, silver cross in Simone’s direction.

“Be gone, creature of darkness!” the old woman said, waving her rosary as her son led her away. Others walking by remained silent, yet their looks were those of agreement mixed with apathy; very little sympathy.

“Simone-eh,” Maria’s voice said. Simone lifted her head and turned toward Maria. “Dat no be ya fault.” Simone nodded, then reached for the large priestess – welcoming the woman’s enveloping hug.

“Dere ya be, child,” Maria whispered patting Simone’s back. “Dere ya be.” While it had been less than an hour since the accident, Simone finally let her emotions loose and cried completely for the loss of Lucette.

“You knew, didn’t you,” Simone said, sniffing back tears and daubing her eyes with a linen cloth. “It’s why you wanted me to give her the painting.”

Maria said nothing, instead patted Simone’s back while gazing toward the river.

“How?”

“I see tings,” Maria whispered. “I be tellin ya dis. My eyes, dey always see troots, especially when dey coom from da ‘eart.”

Simone sighed, leaning her head against Maria’s chest. “Like my art,” she said, earning another nod from the priestess.

“Now what do I do?” Simone said, pulling away and sitting up on her stool. Lucette’s parents were still with the priests, but the archbishop had left.

“Everyone I’ve ever cared about ends up dead.”

“Ya go on,” Maria said. “Dat be parta life, Simon-eh.” She motioned toward the painting, still turned for the reveal. “We all be movin on soom time. No one know when dat time be.”

“You do,” Simone said, glancing around to insure no one heard her words other than Maria. “You knew Lucette was going to die.”

“No,” she said. “I only knew dat ya must be givin da paintin to de lit-lun.” She shook her head, the dark blue, checkered tignon wrapped around Maria’s head rattling its beads. “I no see she be dead.”

“You had an idea, though,” Simone said. “I saw your sadness last night.” Maria shrugged.

“Maybe,” Maria said, pointing at the painting. “Ya saw it in dere, Simon-eh. Dat why ya be paintin what ya do.”

Simone followed Maria’s eyes, seeing the swirl of color that was the girl and gull mixed together as one as if for the first time. Had she seen Lucette’s death? Her stomach knotted, clenching her breath as well.

“What if my paintings are of people dying?”

“Doan be gone dere,” Maria said. “Dat no be da way.”

Simone couldn’t help it, she already had.

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Beneath the Willows – Chapter 12

Sunday morning in New Orleans was all about worship, especially in Jackson Square. Cathedral bells sang their song of glory, calling all to hear God’s word from the Archbishop himself. Church-goers, dressed in tails and gowns, gathered in the park to socialize before Mass – planning their afternoon luncheons once church was over.

Simone sang her own songs, ones of love, fun and frolic as she set up her easel for painting. She whistled tunes as if trying to outdo the Grackles perched in the overhanging oak trees. Often, her voice was lost, barely audible against the ratchet-like crackling of the black, iridescent birds. This morning however, the birds were silent, giving space for Simone’s voice to shine.

Most mass-goers ignored her, as if she were a statue in the park for pigeons to perch. Everyone knew Sunday was not for working, and even slaves had Sunday free on the plantations. Servants still had duties to perform, such as driving their masters into New Orleans or the local parish church. But for the most part, Sunday was a day for worship and rest.

So when couples passed her by, they refused her smiles and calls of, “Bonjour.” Instead, they commented about heathenism, moving on without so much a glance at the magic revealed on her easel.

Simone didn’t care. She was an artist, and for her, the window to God was through her soul. There wasn’t a higher form of ‘worship’ than creating something beautiful with brush, paint and canvas. That was true religion.

As she took her stool, daubing a long, wooden brush into a blob of greenish-blue paint, a couple approached from from the market across Levee. Dressed in their Sunday best, and holding the hands of two girls dressed in pink, their faces smiled with joyous kindness.

“Bonjour, Simone!” one of the girls cried, breaking free to run and give the artist a hug – pigtails flinging out behind her head. The roosting grackles in the branches above took flight, cackling their cracking calls as they burst from the limbs and flew into the sky.

“Bonjour, Lucette!” Simone said, hugging the girl while keeping the brush well away from her Sunday dress.

“Careful!” her mother said, still clinging to Alise’s hand. “She’s working, dear.” The girls’ father laughed, brushing his furry, black moustache with two fingers.

“It’s okay, Madame,” Simone said, letting the girl free after a few seconds of embrace. “Bonjour, Alise,” she said, smiling at Lucette’s near twin.

“Bonjour, Simone,” Alise replied. “Did you finish Lucette’s painting?”

Simone nodded. “I certainly did,” she said, leaning forward to smile at the family. Along Levee Street, a mule-drawn carriage pulled to the side of the avenue, just around the corner from Simone’s easel. They normally staged there in preparation for the after-Mass rush.

“Would you care to see it?”

“OUI!” Lucette said, clapping her hands together and bouncing in place. Her eyes sought those of her mother. “Ma-Ma, can we see it?”

“Of course, dear,” she said, smiling up at her husband. Simone didn’t know their names, simply recognized them as Lucette and Alise’s parents. French Creole, Simone figured. And the way they carried themselves reminded her of royalty. Certainly from France, maybe even Versailles.

The man nodded and leaned on his black, wooden cane. “By all means, Mademoiselle” he said in a deep voice, thick with accent. He tipped his lavender top hat and smiled. “I’m curious myself.”

Simone nodded, then turned – lifting the paper-wrapped painting from its place against the fence.

“Now,” she said. “Close your eyes, all of you, and I’ll unveil Lucette’s masterpiece.”

“YAY!” both girls said, squeezing their eyes closed. The parents did as well, giving Simone a nod and smile as they followed her instructions.

Carefully removing the paper, Simone replaced her just begun canvas with the painting titled, ‘Lucette the Gull.’

“C’est prêt,” Simone said, turning the easel around so the family could see. As she did, two passing couples paused to watch, observing quietly from behind Lucette’s family. The carriage mule just around the corner snorted, as if waiting to see the work for itself.

“Voila!” Simone said, throwing her hands out to welcome the painting into their family.

Silence.

Not even the gulls in the sky made noise as the family opened their eyes. Even the river breezes held their breath for the reveal; same with the observing visitors.

All remained still.

“Beautiful,” Lucette’s mother whispered, covering her mouth with her silk-gloved hand. The father nodded slowly, his eyes following the free-flowing form of girl into gull.

Lucette’s eyes filled with tears, as did Alise’s, who clasped her sister’s hand.

“That’s me,” Lucette said with reverence, stepping forward – her fingers outstretched toward the scene. “I’m a seagull!”

“Don’t touch it,” Lucette’s mother said, holding out her hand as if to stop the girl.

“It’s fine, Madame,” Simone said. “She can’t hurt it.”

“Besides, it’s for her.”

“What is the title, Mademoiselle?” her father asked, cocking his head while leaning on the cane. Around the corner, the mule snorted again, louder and with urgency.

“Lucette the Gull,” Simone replied. He nodded, returning his eyes to the painting.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” her mother said. “The way she seems to be gull and girl at the same time.” She met Simone’s eyes.

“Is this how you see our little girl, Mademoiselle?” she whispered.

“I paint from my heart,” Simone said, nodding as Lucette traced her fingers over the figure. “It just comes, and I capture the image I have in my mind.”

“Magnifique,” her mother said. “You are a master, Simone. Nothing I’ve seen in Paris compares to this.” Simone bowed, clasping her hands together as if in prayer.

“Merci, Madame,” she said. “You honor me, though I’m afraid not many would agree with you.”

“They do not know art, mademoiselle,” the father said. “The old ways are stuffy and dark.” He walked forward, placing a hand on Lucette’s shoulder, who was still tracing the painting with her finger.

“You capture light and form in such a mystical manner, mademoiselle,” he said, pointing and twirling his finger. “The way color merges with form to create a wispy image.” He shook his head.

“Magnifique, Simone. Magnifique!”

“How much do we owe you?” the mother said, standing beside her husband. She placed her hand along his back.

Simone considered how much she would charge, knowing they agreed to purchase the painting. Now it was time to sell, she knew the painting was priceless.

“It’s a gift for Lucette,” she said. “I cannot ask a price for this.”

“No, no, no,” the father said, shaking his head. “I cannot accept a gift from a master such as yourself.”

He reached into his jacket pocket, removing his wallet. “Would one hundred suffice?” Simone gasped. She’d never sold a painting for that price before. Ever.

“Monsieur!” she exclaimed. “That’s too much. I cannot accept such a lofty sum.”

“Non-sens,” he said, pushing the note toward her. “I am ashamed to say I cannot offer more at this time.”

She took the note without a word, fearing to do otherwise would insult the man who had now become her best paying customer.

“Merci beaucoup, monsieur,” she said, bowing her head. “I am humbled.”

“It is I that is humbled,” he said. “You have captured the spirit of our daughter in paint.” His wife smiled, nodding.

“No other artist has ever come close to what you have done on this street corner.”

“Simone,” the mother said, glancing up at her husband. “Would you consider painting Alise, as well as each of us?”

Simone stared at the woman a moment, then nodded. “I will,” she said, her words feeling thick and slow in her throat. The woman grinned an elegant smile. Royal blood for certain.

“Merci,” the woman said. “We would want to commission you for four: Alise, Alistar, myself and one with the entire family.”

Simone nodded, internally shaking her head at what was happening. No one had ever commissioned her before. And now, after doing a painting for free, she had gained a patron.

“Of course,” Alistar said. “We would pay you more.” Simone’s eyes widened. One hundred was a king’s sum. How could he want to pay more?

“Would two hundred per piece be fair to retain you on commission?”

Simone nodded. “It would, monsieur,” she said softly. She wanted to say more than enough, but with this amount, she wouldn’t have to sell another painting for at least a year. Metallic clops on stone accompanied another mule snort, briefly drawing her attention away from the family.

“Bien,” he said. “Then you may begin Alise after Mass today.”

“Really?” Alise said. “It’s my turn?”

Simone nodded, her attention returning to the family. “Oui, Mademoiselle. It is your turn.”

Lucette seemed to awaken from her trance, as she turned toward Simone and enveloped her slender waist in a tear-drenched hug.

“I love you,” she whispered, pressing tight into Simone’s stomach. Her eyes closed into the embrace. Warmth flooded Simone’s body and she sighed, pulling the tiny girl close.

“I love you, too,” she whispered. You awoke my soul, little one.

Bells rang, clanging together in the loud, inspiring music of the cathedral. A call to Mass, ringing through Jackson Square and echoing across the river beyond. The mule responded, as did the gulls over head – snorting and crying in cadence to the bell-song.

“I’m a GULL!” Lucette cried, yelling the words while jumping into the air – spinning past her parents. “Look at me! I’m a gull!”

Like a whirlwind, the little girl spun on her toes – hands held high, pigtails twirling. Like the painting, the color of the light seemed to merge with Lucette, mixing into a blur of child-like movement. Simone laughed, thinking she might actually take flight into the sky.

“WATCH OUT!” a deep bass of a voice called from around the corner, as snorts of the mule combined with cries of the gulls, clanging cathedral bells and a twirling, giggling Lucette.

Simone’s smile slowly fell into frown, as she watched the mule and carriage surge forward across St. Ann – right into the path of the laughing little Creole girl.

Slow motion; everyone slowed – Lucette oblivious to the danger. Details popped to life. The carriage driver. Sam was his name, dropping his café au lait as the reigns yanked from his hand.

Alistar and Lucette’s mother, stepping toward their daughter with outstretched hands – reaching for that which they could not grasp. Alise crying out her sister’s name, one syllable at a time.

Seagulls swirling overhead, their eager eyes focused on Lucette as if she were a morsel. The mule, wide-eyed behind leather blinders, crashing into the spinning, pink-dressed girl.

Sails from the masts of docked ships snapping in the river breeze. A grackle calling, and a baby crying. Details.

Time caught up, exploding into speed. Lucette never said a word, not even a painful cry as the mule trampled her to the brick paving, while the iron-shod carriage wheels finished the work.

Sam slid to a stop beside the still, bloodied form of Lucette, while the mule and carriage raced down Levee and out of sight. Screams from church goers witnessing the scene filled the Square, while the sounds of booted feet running toward the little creole girl grew closer.

Simone froze, pulling the wailing Alise tight to her chest, rocking her back and forth – whispering soothing words. Her parents were with Lucette and Sam, crying with one another as the Caribbean carriage driver sobbed his apology.

“I doan know what happen,” Sam said. “He just run off. He never run like dat. Oh, Christ, I be so sorry. He never run like dat!”

“LUCETTE!” her mother wailed. “LUCETTE!”

“Oh my darling girl,” Alistar said, cradling the lifeless form in his arms. Crimson stained his lavender coat, dripping blood onto his white pantaloons. His cane and top hat lay on the ground where he once leaned, a reminder of happier times just a moment ago.

Simone nuzzled Alice’s hair, squeezing the girl and crying. Her warmth of love now replaced with the ice cold horror of death. A crowd gathered as the local police arrived, holding others back as they gathered around Lucette’s broken, lifeless body.

Simone closed her eyes, looking toward the warm sunshine of the morning and searching for an unanswered why.

Lucette the Gull was gone, and the bells of St. Louis Cathedral rang just for her.

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Beneath the Willows – Chapter 11

Tomas trotted toward the Willows, deep in thought and disturbed by the brutal events he witnessed.  Everything Phillipe said made sense, for the most part. The plantation was in debt trouble, and another bad season could not be supported by the profits of the trading company.

Building the Two Seas had taken the majority of his income, so if one more season went bad, both enterprises would fail. It was a difficult decision, but if he followed logic, he’d sell to Phillipe and be done with it. However, after witnessing the scene a few hours earlier, what would happen to those working at the Willows once they were under Phillipe’s control?

Would Zeek be treated like the housemaid? May? Crystal? Images of them cowering in fear, being backhanded and beaten by Phillipe sent shivers through his body. He’d heard of the brutality many slaves faced, seen the whip cracked down at the docks, and vowed never to buy slaves to work for the Two Oceans.

Yet, with his father gone and the plantation under his control, he now faced the horrific truth of plantation life. He owned slaves, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Afternoon faded toward evening and Tomas had three miles to ride. Lengthening shadows created bandsa mix of light and dark across the rutted road, still puddled from the previous week’s rains, while distant echos of a riverboat’s whistle mingled with sounds of mourning doves roosting in the live oaks.

Eight small sugarcane plantations lay between Emerald Oaks and the next major residence. Small slices of land along the river, each one ten arpents wide along the river, then back almost four miles to uncleared cypress swamps. Tomas knew most of the owners, having dealt with them in New Orleans. However, unlike Emerald Oaks or the Willows, these were only fields where the cut cane went across the river to the St. James refinery.

Dozens of field hands, all standing in rows, plowed and hoed in sugarcane stubble in the field owned by Strahan & Company, while further back from the group stands of cane stood near four foot tall – ts leaves waving against a cool, northwest wind.

“Bonjour!” an overseer called out, waving his low crowned straw hat at Tomas. Sitting astride a near-white palomino, the bearded man towered over his charges. Three or four of the men craned their heads his way, but most remained focused on their – the oiled leather whip dangling the overseer’s saddle making certain of that.

Tomas tipped his hat in return. Saying nothing, he pulled his coat tight against the cold, crisp whispers of a white frost morning. If he retained the Willows and remained a planter, he’d need to know all of his neighbors – especially the overseers working adjacent plantations.

Moving on, he rode past another plantation, but the closest field to the road was fallow, typical for crop rotations. Most planted in threes: one ready for harvest, one for planting and one fallow. Once a field was harvested four times, it went fallow for a season to replenish the soil.

He could sell easy enough. Sure, it was his childhood home, but he was an adult now. His place was in New Orleans, where life was fast and furious, not stagnant like the Willows.

Yet, he thought as he led his mount around a deep puddle of muddy water. His mother would never leave. Losing the Willows would kill her, send her to an early grave along with his father. He couldn’t live with himself if that happened.

His horse neighed, tossing its head and snorting – jingling the tack. What had he planned? Keeping both? In that, Phillipe was correct: there was no way he could manage the Willows and the Two Oceans. Focusing on both would ruin both, while focusing on one would put an end to the other.

What about Marguerite? He thought, passing the gate of the Willow’s closest neighbor. Owned by a family originally from Mississippi, Welham Plantation was near the same size as the Willows – the difference being the Willows was wider, while Welham was deeper at almost five miles.

Tomas knew the family well, or had when he was younger. Clarence Whitehead was the planter, and his two sons, Jacob and Jared were near in age to Tomas. They’d been playmates of his when they were kids.

Unfortunately, Jared died of yellow fever, leaving Jacob the only heir to the plantation. He remembered Jake (as Tomas called him) talking constantly of traveling to Europe and seeing the great cathedrals of Paris. With his father aging and his brother dead, he had never gone, and now worked exclusively on the plantation. A recluse, if rumors were true; Tomas couldn’t recall a time he’d ever seen Jake since those early days.

Tomas shook the memory off, sliding his gaze from the large, ancient oak trees dotting the front lawn of Welham and back to the road; back to the task at hand.

Marguerite said they could manage both, and thought it wise they did so. She would run the Willows, while he managed the Two Oceans. It seemed plausible at the time, yet where would they live? She loved the Willows, and wouldn’t want to leave the plantation.

Would she live in New Orleans? He shook his head, causing his horse to toss its own. No, he thought. She wouldn’t. So he’d have to live in two places, splitting time between New Orleans and the Willows. That wouldn’t be so bad, he’d certainly have his freedom. As possessive as she was, however, he doubted that would last very long.

He sighed, noticing the approaching pecan trees marking the property line of the Willows. Behind them would be a rutted, dirt road, following the trees like an arrow from the Mississippi river on his left, to the sugar mill three miles back on his right, where wisps of smoke from the refinery curled over the treetops.

It was a tough decision he would need to make, and prayed it took less than a week.

He could only hope.

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