Sitting in a dark corner of the barn at the David’s plantation, Marguerite held on to her big brother and wouldn’t let go. She understood they had to act as slaves in Natchez until Papa Maurice came for them, but she never wanted to be parted from Josef again. Who was this little lady who caused her to be jailed, and then saved her so heroically, and why had Papa Maurice married her? Marguerite had known gut-wrenching fear years ago in Port-au-Prince, while she and Josef watched as the little gallows was being built outside their cell window. At the time, she was very young and wanted her mother, but Josef assured her God was not going to let them die. Josef had clairvoyant powers like their mother, and Marguerite counted on the powers to save them, but watching the weapon of your death being built by big men and their hate, made her doubt her brother’s promises and bravery. She wanted her mother, but they didn’t know if she was alive or dead in the little hospital where she was taken after the man stabbed her. She could still see and smell the blood and didn’t know a human body held that much. Some of it had to be from the young English Captain, but the rest was from her mother. The man had taken her mother’s knife, and turned it back on her over and over again.
Josef acted first and hit the man with his mother’s big black skillet, but Marguerite grabbed the knife, slippery with blood, and stabbed the man in the leg. She did not know if she killed him or not, but she wanted to. Josef took the knife from her and plunged it into the man’s heart, just as the man was grabbing for Marguerite’s throat. When the man’s friends came to take him back to his ship, they yelled bloody murder and called down the street for help. Now she and her brother were in this stinking cell, covered in their mother’s dried blood, and swallowing their own nauseating fear.
Marguerite’s mother brought angry men home to ‘heal’ them. This was part of Marguerite’s life. The only life she knew and it wasn’t strange to her, just different from what other mothers did. Her friends on the street tried to tell her it was not right, but those friends’ mothers took men to their beds for money. Marguerite knew that was not right. What her mother did was an act of kindness… Josef told her that. She remembered being very small and seeing a small portrait of her sister, Anna Marie and wondering where she was. Her mother couldn’t talk about the little girl without crying.
Papa Maurice sat her on his lap one day while her mother was out, and told her the story of her beautiful sister and the tragedy of her death. He told her how unhappy her mother was until she and Josef came along. He wanted them to know that the two of them had saved her life. Marguerite’s father died before she knew him. Papa Maurice said he was a fine man who loved her and Josef very much, but the only father Marguerite knew was her Papa Maurice. He was a handsome Sea Captain who showed up unannounced three or four times a year, and sometimes stayed for weeks. He brought them big hugs and kisses, with gifts from faraway places, and books with wonderful stories that he taught them to read. There were other men in her mother’s past, who came to visit, but Papa Maurice was different; he belonged in the small house with the little family. It felt like home when he was at home.
Once, he had a terrible row with her mother about the dangers of taking up with bad, angry men, and he left without saying good-bye. She and Josef would not speak to their mother for days for causing Papa Maurice to leave. But when he returned, he was angry with them for not showing their mother the respect she deserved, and gave them stern lectures on how to treat their mother… they never did it again. Sometimes when she and Josef were in trouble they would go to the harbor and watch and pray for his ship, as their mother was never allowed to spank them when he was in port. It would make their mother mad as hell, but Papa Maurice stayed true to his word, as they knew he would.
Her mind went back to the cell in Port-au-Prince, she remembered crying and praying for him to come, and how sad he would be to come home to find his little family dead. She wanted to sit on his big lap, bury her face in the smell of his shirt, and hold the match while he lighted his cigar.
Josef loved to watch him shave and was allowed to fill the shaving brush with the sweet smelling soap their mother made. Those days were gone, and Josef told her she would have to be brave and wait for the miracle he saw coming. She wished with all her being she could feel as calm as Josef, but she heard his tears at night. She knew most of his bravery was for her.
The hammers stopped and she and Josef ran to the window. The horrible thing was finished. The smell of new wood was making her sick. The two children stood entranced by fear, looking out of the window at the two little ropes hanging from the new structure.
Marguerite, these ten years later, could still hear his boots running on the old tile floors of the jail, and smell the cigar in his coat before the door was opened, and Papa Maurice ran into the cell grabbing his children. He picked her up in his arms and bent to let Josef climb onto his back; suddenly they were out of the old jail rushing down the street; his men on either side, swords drawn and ready to kill anyone trying to stop them. These men would follow their Captain to hell if it came to that. Marguerite peaked from his shirt in time to see he was running toward the harbor. Josef jumped down and ran ahead of him. The dingy was dipping and swaying in the water as if calling them to hurry. They reached the boat and jumped in, and the men rowed with all their strength back toward the ship. Even though they were in the little boat, Marguerite wouldn’t let go of his neck, and he didn’t expect her to. Josef was sitting so close to his papa they could have been joined at the hip. Papa Maurice still looked stern and Marguerite buried her face back in his shirt, knowing they weren’t safe yet. She didn’t care now, as long as she could hold onto him, nothing bad would ever happen to her again. She wanted desperately to ask about her mother, but was terrified of the answer. Crying gently into his shirt she listened as Maurice bent his head to their ears and said.
“Your mother is safe and getting well. She’ll be in hospital for a few days, but she loves you and she’ll be fine. The bad man’s dead and she’s not blamed. She tried to take the blame, but they didn’t believe her.” He was staring into their upturned faces to make sure they understood him. He got to the ship and carried her up the ladder. His men were bringing up the children’s belongings and putting them in the bunks they had prepared for them. She never knew how he had known to come and find them, nor how he had found her mother, but that magic was part of him and his store house of powerful gris-gris. That was her Papa Maurice, and she loved him with everything in her young soul.
Marguerite sat close to Josef in the old barn and listened to his comforting words. His sister needed to know, Tanti ‘Tine was doing her best to help them, and was sorry she had caused them grief. Josef explained that it was his fault for not remembering Papa Maurice’s letter, but they were safe and Pierre would never allow them to stay as slaves.
She was trying to relax and lose some of her lingering fear. In the Cabildo in New Orleans, she had no idea where Josef was and Papa Maurice was out to sea for months. She had seen more sorrow and fear in her fifteen years than most people see in forever. She wanted to go with papa on this trip and see her mother, but he had asked that they stay and look after his young wife. Of course they agreed. She still hoped her mother would give up healing young men and move to New Orleans; they could all be a family again, but now that he had married Celestine that would never happen.
Papa asked her to love Celestine and she would try. She would certainly try. She would do anything for him. He was her father and if he wanted her to mend his socks and launder his shirts and smalls, she would do it. Daughters in her world did those things for their papas. But in the Cabildo, she knew he was not coming and never would. Sitting alone in the dank, rat infested place, she had begun to think the God he taught them to love must have a reason for calling her home to heaven. She had seen the Ursulines in their gardens and she wondered what it would be like to be one. She always liked helping people, especially young mothers with their children. She loved children and thought of having many, but first Papa Maurice would have to find her a husband and set them up in a safe place away from the bad laws that kept she and Josef captive. She thought she would never know about having children now, she would have to wait and see if God would let her attend to baby angels in heaven. Heaven was a wonderful place; she could see her sister, Anna Marie and her real father, and wait for her mother and Josef and Papa Maurice to follow. She discovered this heaven on the big ship during rolling storms that wouldn’t stop, and nights passing pirate ships on the horizon waiting to attack.
Papa Maurice always out maneuvered the deadly pirates, and flew flags of all nations to disguise his ship from the enemies that waited to slit a little girl’s throat. He knew each of the dangerous ships, and which would attack which flag. He was not a Captain to take his cargo lightly, and was probably why he was sought by the wealthiest merchants to carry their goods.
She came out of her memories of Papa Maurice as she was leaning against Josef’s big shoulder. She went back in her mind and remembered hearing the soft fluff…fluff…fluff as the heavy, dusty, black hems of two nuns walked up to the cell door. The guards said something to the two nuns and left them alone. One pulled a knife from her habit and slid it into the lock, and after a few twists and turns the big door came open and Celestine held her in her arms, putting a hidden habit from her skirts over her head and down around her slim body. The Reverend Mother placed a wimple over her head and pinned it under her hair. There was a strange veil over her face, and she was being walked, calmly out of the jail and into the sun. She was walked calmly up to the convent and around back. Celestine mounted her horse; reached down for Marguerite and helped her up onto the saddle in front of her.
Celestine rode up rue du Quai and traveled along the curving river until she got to River Road. Marguerite didn’t even ask about leaving the Reverend Mother behind in the jail cell. They rode until Marguerite was feeling sick at her stomach from the fear of being in jail, and the strange escape; plus the rocking of the horse’s big muscles. It seemed like forever, and it was getting dark as she saw a drive up ahead. There were horse’s hooves behind them and Celestine pushed her horse faster until they turned into the drive. Marguerite saw Josef climbing down from a big water tank, and running toward them. She was handed down from the horse into Josef’s arms as Pierre rode up beside them. He rushed them into the house and up to the third floor and ran back down to Celestine.
The very same day she and Josef were shipped off to a place called Natchez. It would be safe, but she had to act as Letty’s nurse, and Josef would work with the horses. She missed her mother and Papa Maurice, but was glad to be safe again… and she had Josef.
They would have to stay until it was safe. Letty was just learning to walk and each day Marguerite took her along the levee, pointing to the different boats and what they were hauling, and how fast they could go. Letty loved the big river, but was afraid of the water. Marguerite was falling in love with Colette. Colette taught her how to do her hair and make the curls that looked like God himself made them. She sure as hell didn’t like being treated like a slave by Pierre’s parents, but she would rather this than the dank rat infested cell in New Orleans.
Colette was worried about Celestine and Pierre; she wanted to go home, but she had to wait for him to come to Natchez. If that didn’t happen, Marguerite had asked Collette if she and Josef would actually become slaves. Colette did not know what would happen to them, they had already stayed longer than planned and she didn’t like the way M. and Mme. David expected things of Maurice’s children.
Marguerite had to take care of Letty as well as do laundry and kitchen work. She was sleeping on a cot in Letty’s room, up at dawn with the baby, and not in bed until late at night. Still, it wasn’t jail, and there was no hangman’s noose waiting for her. She sure wished there was a happy middle ground. In the beginning of the second week, Colette called from the front of the big house and ran down to the levee. Pierre and Maurice stood like bastions of strength on the deck of the keelboat as it pulled into the pier on the big river and the men stepped onto the levee.
Marguerite screamed for Josef, and jumped up and down with Letty. She hadn’t been this glad to see him since he rescued them in Port-au-Prince. She knew he would come; she had wished on it, prayed on it and looked forward to it.
Papa Maurice ran toward her with the biggest smile she had ever seen. She and Letty ran up to him and he picked them both up and swung them around until Letty screamed with joy at seeing her Papa. Josef ran from the stables calling his name.
“Papa Maurice, you’re here.” He stood back looking contrite and a little ashamed.
“What’s wrong, son, what’ve you done?” Maurice knew when Josef had been into mischief, he could never hide his shame.
“I forgot to give Madame your letter. I forgot you gave it to me. I almost got Marguerite hanged.” He was about to tear up.
“Don’t blame yourself, son, I take the blame here.” He reached over, grabbed him to his big chest and gave him a hug so strong Josef thought he was being burped.
Maurice’s strange little family was together and safe. He could leave on the long voyage and only worry himself to death over the health of his wife, and thank God, not the imprisonment of his children. He really should stop calling them children, they were grown… Josef was almost an adult and big as an ox. Marguerite was holding her papa around the waist and trying to walk at the same time, and he wouldn’t dislodge her for anything in the world.
M. and Mme. David were giving him a strange, horrified look from the front gallery, but he could give a rat’s ass. He loved being a papa.