Revenant Eve by Sherwood Smith


  Wow, I thought. This Great Creole seemed to have Hindu thought at its base—at least, what I understood of Hindu as the oldest religious tradition in the world: complete freedom of worship that accepts all forms of belief and regards all humans as one family.

  “How can I be pure in heart?” Aurélie asked. “What does that mean?”

  “It means choosing to do no evil. It is a lifelong struggle,” Nanny said. “There are rules that come with this gift. You must never take a life. And you must not eat of any slaughtered creature.”

  “Creature?”

  “You must not eat meat. This is why my obeah is not begun with a sacrifice, though others practice differently. This is why my walls are hung with red to remind us of the lifeblood all creatures share. But I do not spill it.”

  “Can I eat eggs?”

  “You can eat anything, but you must choose not to eat meat. Eggs are not slaughtered in violence. My grandmother taught me that the hen does not object to the egg being taken, so you may eat of it. You may drink the milk of goat or cow, because she gives it freely.”

  Aurélie looked confused, then said, “Why is the necklace to come to me, your great-granddaughter, and not to my Tante Mimba, who is your granddaughter?”

  “Because it has skipped that generation and chosen you. It is a gift, but it also is a burden, for its protections must stay secret.”

  Aurélie clutched her thin fingers to her skinny chest. “If, if I don’t keep the rules, will it kill me?”

  Nanny Hiasinte let out a breath of a laugh, more sad than humorous. “A necklace cannot kill you. It is how you choose to use the power the charms command that will cause good or evil.”

  “What charms?”

  “I will not teach a child powers she does not understand, for that is to put the carving knife into the hands of a baby who only knows how to grasp and to poke. Your work is to listen, to learn through the teaching of dreams and of the wise, to avoid doing harm. If, in the course of time you learn of powerful things, it is to be hoped you will have learnt the wisdom to wield the power well. Always, always, always you must keep it secret. It is too powerful to be taken from you, but demons who see it will do anything to trick you into giving it, and that must never happen, for they will use it to cause more harm in a world already burdened with woe.”

  A kiss, and Nanny let her go.

  Aurélie departed with slow steps, rejoining her mother and aunt at the top of the path.

  “As well it’s mostly downhill,” Mimba said with a worried look at Anne.

  The clear morning light revealed that Anne’s blotchy face was due less to sunburn than to fever. By the time they reached the cove where the Kittredge plantation’s main building was, Mimba was mostly supporting Anne’s weight. She sent Aurélie on ahead to alert their cook, who I understood to be their medical practitioner as well.

  People gathered around, worrying or offering their own favorite cures as Mimba helped Anne inside and to a bedroom. She flung aside the bed curtains and gently eased Anne onto the lumpy-looking mattress piled high with pillows.

  Anne opened her eyes as Aurélie and the other children gathered around, everyone looking worried.

  “Shall I send to Kingston for a physician?” Mimba asked.

  “What do they know?” Anne said impatiently. “Mumble a lot of Latin over me, then charge a guinea to tell me what anyone but a simpleton should see: It’s my arm causing the fever to fire my blood. I just need a thumping good blooding, then a hero’s dose of calomel to drive the infection out of my body.”

  Calomel? I had read about calomel. Its main ingredient was mercury. “Don’t do that,” I yelled, grabbing frantically at Aurélie, who jumped and looked around wildly.

  “Ma petite?” Mimba said.

  “It is my duppy,” Aurélie declared, looking at them, eyes stark with amazement. “I almost heard her.”

  I tried imagining myself with a tinfoil hat and beamed the thought: No calomel!

  Mimba shook Aurélie gently. “Use the glass.”

  “…and more powder of lead for my arm, to soak up the blood after we clean it—”

  NO! I shouted at the girl.

  “Augh,” Aurélie cried. “You are hurting me, duppy! Go away!”

  “The looking glass, Fiba!” Mimba ordered, holding Aurélie against her. Swift footsteps sounded, and something was thrust into Mimba’s out-held hand. “Look, ma petite. Look into the glass, the way your Papa did.”

  “Mimba,” Anne said wearily. “Remember.”

  Mimba made a quick gesture. “This is too important.” And to the child, “Do you remember your Papa looking into the glass to talk to spirits?”

  “No,” Aurélie said anxiously.

  “You are not at fault if you do not remember. You were only two when he died, hélas! So calm yourself. Look. Listen. Tell me when to cease moving the mirror.” Mimba was tipping a spotted hand mirror, a heavy thing chased with gaudy baroque gilding. She angled it slowly, and if I were breathing, I would have held my breath the same way Aurélie did as she frowned intently into the age-dimmed reflective surface.

  Impatiently I waited as an older woman laid out the things Anne had asked for. Through the open window came the urgent tootling of the Abeng, and again everyone stilled. Then the adults stirred: Not only Mimba but the cluster of people in the doorway.

  “More trouble breaking out,” came a voice from the door. It was the silver-haired African man I’d first seen the night of the attack.

  “There are no slaves on this plantation. Our people know that,” Mimba stated.

  “But the King’s soldiers won’t.” Anne sighed, stirring restlessly on the bed. “What a time for us to come back to Jamaica.”

  “All the world is in uprising, it seems,” said someone else. I didn’t dare look as the old mirror angled closer…closer…

  I gazed into Aurélie’s reflected eyes and watched them widen. “There she is. She is old! Maybe twenty, or even more! Her hair is long, the color of Harry’s. She’s light-skinned, like Maman,” Aurélie said doubtfully.

  “What Nanny says is true, then,” Mimba murmured in a soothing voice. “You are to go to England and be safe. Ayizan sends you an English duppy to watch over you in her land. What does she say?”

  “I cannot hear,” Aurélie fretted.

  How do you speak clearly when you don’t have a voice—or a mouth? No. Calomel. I tried shaping the words. And in French: Pas. Le. Calomel.

  “She speaks, but I don’t hear,” Aurélie said.

  Mimba’s face joined Aurélie’s in the mirror, but her gaze searched, clearly finding nothing besides hers and Aurélie’s reflections. She sighed. “My brother was given the Sight, but it was not given to me.” And to the girl, “Tell your duppy to speak slowly.”

  Aurélie commanded in a hoarse squawk, her fright clear, “Speak slowly, duppy!”

  I shook my head and mouthed the word NO. Another slow shake. CALOMEL.

  And Aurélie looked up in wonder. “I think she says, no medicine?”

  Oh, the joy of first contact!

  People looked at one another the way people do when they’ve just discovered that something they trusted is now suspect.

  Fiba, the dark-skinned girl cousin who’d fetched the mirror, said, “Bad spirits must have got into the calomel. Only another spirit would know.”

  “That is a matter for Nanny. But we must do something now. Aurélie, ask the duppy what we must do.”

  This was no time to cover two hundred years of medical advances. Especially when no one could hear me, and the only one who could see me was a kid.

  And so, with excruciating slowness, I mimed and tried to mouth words. It seemed to take forever, but nobody questioned my instructions once they understood, for they assumed that I had arcane powers, or at least arcane wisdom.

  Finally Anne’s wound was washed with boiled water cooled just long enough to bear. After that came the toughest one: into the raw wound, which had begun to infect in a
sickening way, they poured whiskey. “The soldier’s remedy,” one of the men had said, as soon as they understood when I’d mimed drinking.

  Well, that made sense, if soldiers used it. I could see agreement in the faces.

  Poor Anne endured that without benefit of painkillers but soon lay with the wound open to the air. I then said she needed to drink the boiled water. After some discussion of my surprising prescription (leading everyone to agree that it must purify the evil out of the blood from within), they got Anne to drink. When sweat promptly broke out all over her body, and her fever plummeted, they saw the effect.

  I’d only meant to keep the poor woman from being poisoned by the grim medical tech prevalent in those days—even if she’d been in London or Philadelphia, the treatment would have included blooding, calomel, and powder of lead. The result that I’d not foreseen was immediate belief, of everybody at the Kittredge Plantation, that Aurélie had a benevolent duppy, even if it came from overseas.

  SIX

  SO WHERE DO I COME IN? I kept wondering as the days melted together. No one was trying to communicate with me as they went about their daily lives. I thought longingly about Alec, hoping that time had somehow stopped at the moment I left. I missed him, but that was bearable if I could believe that he wasn’t tearing his hair out and searching every nook and cranny of Dobrenica looking for me.

  Meanwhile, time blurred—it felt like a few minutes later when the news arrived of outbreaks of violence all over the island. It was on a morning so hot that steam rose off the ground outside the windows of Aurélie’s thick-walled Spanish house.

  The household began speculating, some sure that the Jamaican violence was, in part, a response to the erupting troubles in Saint-Domingue to the east. Anne forced herself to rise and dress, with a fresh determination to send her daughter to safety.

  One of Anne and Mimba’s workers entered the house, a stoop-shouldered, grizzled white man who still wore his hair in a long sailor’s queue. He came to the main room where the children sat in a circle on the floor taking turns reading verses from the Psalms, as Mimba coached them. Mimba said, “Is the carriage repaired, Noah?”

  “Repaired, and we even laid on a coat of lacquer. Captain Anne’ll look fine as fivepence in Kingston, Guillaume having found a wig to put on as coachman. We used the powder of lead to make it fresh, as Captain Anne said we cannot use it more for the blotting of wounds.”

  Anne appeared then, walking with care. I almost didn’t recognize her, with her hair pulled up under a straw hat decorated with ribbons and silk flowers. She had stuffed herself into a linen gown of cream-colored fabric, with a blue floral pattern copperplate-printed on it. The style was 1790s, the tight bodice coming to a point in front, a lace fichu tucked into the high neck, the long sleeves edged with lace.

  “Do I look a proper marquesa?” she asked.

  “It is the gown that Grandmère gave you,” Aurélie cried.

  “It is indeed, ma poule. I’m off to Government House and thence the shipyard.”

  She turned around, half-lifting her arms against the pull of the tight sleeves.

  “Blast my eyes, how this binds,” she exclaimed.

  “It looks very fine,” Mimba said.

  Anne grimaced as Mimba straightened the hat then retied the hat’s bow under her chin. Then Anne marched out, the household following to where an old-fashioned open carriage awaited, hitched to a pair of horses, a handsome black man on the box, dressed in a skirted coat with shiny buttons. He wore a George Washington era wig on his head, and on that, a gold-edged tricorne. They looked splendid as they rolled and clattered out.

  Mimba turned to Aurélie, and said sternly, “You see? Your Maman wears a gown. Now you must accustom yourself to gowns again, or should you like to return to Grandmère Marie-Claude instead?”

  “No, no,” Aurélie cried.

  “Then get ready for practice.”

  Aurélie’s thin fingers flew to her skinny middle where, behind her smock, the Navaratna necklace hung. “Practice? But Nanny told me I must never do evil to another.”

  Mimba bit her lip, then took Aurélie aside, under a tamarind tree, where they could speak alone. As always, anywhere Aurélie went, I floated after. “You are learning to defend yourself. This is why your Maman and I teach you the quick strike, and to run to safety.”

  “So I am to use my sword? My pistol?”

  “To defend yourself, yes.” Mimba hunkered down, sighing. Aurélie dropped down next to her with the light, unconscious grace of a child, and waited expectantly. Mimba said, “My grandmother is a great obeah woman. But I have my doubts about that necklace, though she treasures it. Yes, I know you’ve got it, though only your mother knows I know. I think Nanny treasures it because it came from Africa with her grandmother. For I have to ask myself, how good is its protection when your nanny’s nanny was captured and brought here to be a slave, and saw half her family die on the ship without being able to do anything to protect them?”

  Aurélie clutched the necklace through the thin fabric of her boy’s shirt.

  Mimba sifted the rich soil through her callused hand, then looked up. “It could be that it only works in the spirit world, and that I know nothing about. To be fair, one could say that I was not chosen so it is not given to me to understand. Perhaps it is because I had to kill or be killed when pirates first attacked, and perhaps because I learnt to take pleasure in killing pirates. They are evil. I have no qualms.” She rose. “The only gift I can give you is the ability to defend yourself. It takes skill to disable, so you must be nimble indeed if you do not want to kill. As for your gown, you will put it on after drill and practice your etiquette.”

  She gave Aurélie a friendly swat and the girl ran off to join the other children.

  As time blurred past, I figured out that the people working Kittredge Plantation had been the crews and families of the privateers of which Anne and Mimba were the captains—Anne’s inheritance, like the plantation, from her brother Thomas.

  The plantation had been abandoned after an especially bad hurricane, and Thomas Kittredge took to sea. But now Anne and Mimba had brought them back to reestablish the plantation. The ex-slaves among them knew the most about farming, the sailors the least.

  After pistol and sword drill, Aurélie would put on her gown for the children’s tutoring in etiquette. The other kids thought Aurélie much to be pitied for the hot confinement of the gown. But the fact that she was soon to go on a ship caused general envy, even if no one particularly wanted to go to England. I blanked out in the middle of an argument about whether or not it was true that she would freeze to death the moment she set foot on English soil.

  Before supper, Aurélie stitched fresh ribbons to the bonnet she must wear as a young lady. And when everyone in the household gathered after supper, they made music and sang.

  Aurélie played a regal—the bellows pumped by an enthusiastic six-year-old—as others played the lute or various percussive instruments. The regal was much battered, but here and there was evidence of elaborate baroque decoration. Aurélie showed a lot of talent; she was diligent and smart, but she showed no interest in talking to me in the mirror.

  When was I supposed to begin my country-saving? I want Alec, I want to go home, I kept thinking, but Xanpia’s chilling words about Dobrenica kept me from trying to break whatever spell bound me to that kid.

  At last, one day as the sun was setting, Anne walked wearily into the house.

  Aurélie leaped up to greet her mother, who looked tired and sweaty. She smiled and kissed her daughter, as Mimba said, “I told you that you rose from your sickbed too soon.”

  “It was not my wound,” Anne said, touching her forearm, which was hidden by her tight sleeve. “It was wearing this devilish gown. Sitting in Government House—trying not to swear—confined as a Bedlamite. It will take a deal of time to contrive with land agents and Government House if my version of my brother’s will is to be heeded.”

  She dropped her
reticule, a ribbon-tied paper, and her bonnet onto a side table, and sank into the chair next to it. “I could never go to England, Mimba, I’ve no longer the way of it. The child must go while she still retains the manners my mother scolded into her. She will have a chance at a better life, but I am too old to leave off my privateer habits. Devil fly away with these clothes. If I do not get out of these stays I shall burst!”

  “Is the passage arranged, then?”

  “That much is done. I’ve a letter of credit for the child, and the wife of a warrant officer will look out for her. I paid her a thumping high fee, so I’d better hear a good report when Aurélie writes to us.”

  Mimba shook her head slowly. “I know that Nanny said it must be, but she also taught us that we shape our futures, our future does not shape us.”

  Aurélie looked from one to the other, her black eyes so wide that the candle flames reflected in them, points of gold.

  Anne said, “I brought comfits for all you children, ma petite. In my reticule, there. You and Fiba divide them up.”

  Aurélie snatched the little bag from the side table, and she and Fiba began dividing the sugar-candies as a cluster of small kids formed a circle on the floor. Everyone was busy clamoring for the one they liked best, and the kids paid no heed to the adults.

  Mimba said to Anne, “Your father was sent out of England for no good reason. Do you truly wish to send the child there?”

  “The family misliked having a Quaker among them. Aurélie is not a Quaker,” Anne said with a wry grin that faded. “I cannot bear to see another of my children die. And Nanny did tell us that Aurélie’s future lies overseas. If I balk, will I have another dead child to bury?”

  “But England. Why not send her back to your mother on Saint-Domingue?”

 
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