The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel (6 page)

BOOK: The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel
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“Uh-huh.” Skirting a mud puddle, she departs. It’s then I notice something small and rectangular in her back pocket. I lean forward, detecting what I’m pretty sure is one of my missing copies of
Animal Farm.

I’m staring at it when she stops and looks at me over one shoulder. She starts to say something, then shakes her head, then takes two more steps before turning my way again. Her arms drop in resignation before she finally blurts out, “The judge’s big old house is just across the field from that one you rented.” A glance flicks in that general direction. “Got lots of books there. Whole walls full, floor to the ceiling. Books nobody even cares about anymore.”

CHAPTER 5

HANNIE GOSSETT—AUGUSTINE, LOUISIANA, 1875

Sometime, trouble can be like a cut of thread, all tangled up and wrong-twisted from the spinning. Can’t see the why of it or how to get it straight, but can’t hide from it, either. Back in the old bad days, Missus come in the spinnin’ house, find somebody’s work a mess, and go at that girl or woman with a quirt, or a spindle, or broom handle.

That old barn was a good place and a fearful place. The women would bring their children, work and sing together, boil the thread in pots of indigo, hickory bark, and copperas to make the colors. Blue, butternut, red. A pretty delight. But always, there’s the worry over a tangle, or a dropped thread, and the trouble it could bring. Even now that the wheels and the looms sit quiet and dust covered, someplace far up under the benches, where nobody but us and the mice know of it, there’s the old ruined thread and hanks of bad cloth, hiding out of sight like trouble does.

Passing through the spinnin’ house, I think of them old hideaways and I try to figure, how can I follow along on Missy’s trip so’s to find out her secrets? Then, I think,
Hannie, it’d be a heap easier to drive the carriage Missy ordered up, than to try to sneak along after it. You’re already dressed like a boy. Who’d know any different?

I hurry on down to the horse barn and the wagon shed, knowing there won’t be a soul there. Percy hires hisself out, shoeing the stock on other places most days now. With Old Missus chairbound, Missy Lavinia away at school, and Old Mister gone to Texas, there’s no work for a driver.

I wait in the barn for a yard boy to come running barefoot down the lane. Don’t even know the child—house help ain’t here long enough to get known these days—but he’s so little, he’s still in shirttails. The hem catches round his twiggy bare legs while he runs calling ahead that Missy Lavinia wants the cabriolet at the back garden gate, and be quick.

“Already been told,” I bark out real deep. “Scoot on back to the house and say to her it’ll be up directly.”

Before I can blink, there’s nothing left of the boy but a dust curtain hanging where he was.

I get to work, but my fingers shake on the halter and harness buckles. My heart makes the sound of Percy’s smithing hammer, striking
Tonk! Deling-ding, tonk! Deling-ding.
I can barely tack up the stout copper sorrel mare Old Mister named Ginger the year before the war. She’s fretful when I back her twixt the carriage shafts and fasten the straps. Her eye rolls backward to say,
Old Missus catches us at this, what’ll happen, you think?

I gather up my gumption and climb the three iron steps to the box seat that’s high over the splashboard, front of the cab. If I can fool Missy Lavinia long enough to sit her in the coach, we ought to get along all right. I’m shaky on the reins, but the mare don’t seem to mind. She’s a kind old thing and obeys, except she stretches her neck in a long whinny when the stable goes out of view. A horse whinnies back, and that a sound seems ten miles long and loud enough to wake the dead that’s buried under the soil behind the orchard.

A shiver rocks me head to foot. If Tati found out what I’m up to, she’d say I only got one oar in the water. I know that, by now, her and Jason and John are in the field, trying to give off the look of a normal day, but they’re all watching the lane, wondering and fretting about me. They won’t dare come round the Grand House, in case Old Missus and Seddie got suspicions after last night. If Missus sends her houseman out poking around, he won’t see one thing out of normal at our place. Tati’s too smart for that.

I hate that they’ll worry, but there’s no help for it. You can’t trust nobody at Goswood Grove these days. Can’t send a message by anyone.

I catch my breath and rub Grandmama’s three blue beads on that leather cord round my neck, and I pray for luck. Then I turn from the home way, steering the mare toward the old garden. Branches bow down from the oaks, bramble vines tying them together like corset laces. They needle and grab at my hat as the old horse and me push on through the clutter. A deerfly pesters Ginger’s ears, and she shakes her head and snorts, and jingles the harness.

“Sssshhh, there,” I whisper. “Hush up, now.”

She tosses her forelocks, rattling the carriage when I pull up just before the old bridge.

Nobody there. Not a sign.

“Missy Lavinia?” I whisper low and scratchy-like, hoping I sound like John, not quite man yet, but getting close. I lean over, try to see off the side of the bridge. “Anybody down there?”

What if Old Missus caught her making ready to sneak away?

A branch snaps and the mare turns her head, perks toward the trees. We listen, but there’s not another sound except what’s usual. Live oaks shiver, and birds talk, and squirrels argue in the branches. A woodpecker hammers after grub worms. Ginger fusses at that deerfly, and I get down to shoo it off her ears and quieten her.

Missy Lavinia’s almost on me before I hear her coming.

“Boy!” she says, and I jump out of my hide and back in. A whole string of bad memories clamor in my head. Happiest day of my life was when I left the Grand House to live with Tati, and I didn’t have to nursemaid Missy anymore. That girl would pinch, hit, swat me with whatever she could get her hands on soon’s she was big enough. Seem like she knew early on that it made her mama proud.

I duck my head down hard under the hat. I’ll know in a minute if this plan of mine’s workable. Missy Lavinia ain’t stupid. But we ain’t been close up to each other in a long time, either.

“Why haven’t you brought me the chaise?” Her voice has the high shriek that sounds like her mama, but she don’t look like her mama. Young Missy is stouter and rounder, even than I remember. Taller, too, almost tall as me. “I asked for the
cabriolet,
so as to drive
myself.
Why have you come with the calèche? When I get my hands on that yard boy…and where is Percy? Why hasn’t he seen to this himself?”

I don’t think it’s best to say,
Percy’s been hiring out to keep hisself in food enough since Missus cut back his pay.
So, instead, I tell her, “Cabriolet’s broke, ain’t been fixed. Nobody down to the stable, so I got the carriage up and come to drive it.”

She’s enough put out about the idea that she hauls herself into the carriage on her own without waiting for help. That’s best, since I’m trying to keep away.

“We will proceed down the field levee lane, not past the Grand House,” she snaps, settling herself into the seat. “Mother is abed. I’ll not have her disturbed by our passage.” She’s trying to sound sharp and bossy like her mama, but even now that she’s sixteen and in ladies’ skirts, she still sounds like a girl playing at being big.

“Yes’m.”

I climb up and chuck the old mare, and make a tight circle round the caved-in reflecting pond. The calèche’s big wheels bounce over loose cobblestones and ivy gone wild. Once the way is clear, I hurry the mare on. She’s still got a good trot, even though she’s up in years enough to be white-frosted at the muzzle and eyes. Her forelocks bounce, keeping the flies off.

We come three miles down the farm levee, then cut over at the little white church where Old Missus made us go every Sunday back in slavery days. Dressed all us up in same white dresses, tied blue ribbons at our waists so we’d look impressible for all the neighbors. Up in the balcony we’d sit and hear the gospel of the white preacher. I ain’t been in that building since the freedom. We got our own meetings now. Places where a colored man can preach. We move the spot all the time, to keep the Ku Kluxers and the Knights of the White Camellia away, but we all know where to go and when.

“Stop here,” Missy says, and I pull up the mare.
We’re goin’ to the church house?
I can’t ask it, though.

Out from behind comes Juneau Jane, sitting a ladies’ saddle on a big gray horse, her skinny legs hanging from her little-girl dress in long black stockings. Now, in the light, I can see that the stockings are more darns than threads and her button boots are almost wore through at the toe. The blue flower-stripe dress is clean, but strained at the seams. She’s growed some since that dress was bought.

The horse she’s on looks like a handful, tall with a cresty neck that says he was left for stud awhile. The girl’s most likely got a way with animals, though, devil-fired, like her mama and all the rest of her kind, with them strange silver-green eyes. That long hair of hers swirls down her waist to the saddle and into the horse’s black mane, so the two seem like one creature.

Juneau Jane rides up to the calèche with her chin propped up so high her eyes go to thin slits when she looks down into the carriage. Still, they send a shiver over me. Did she see me watch her last night? Does she know? I push my shoulders up toward my hat to fend off any curse she might try to cast on me.

The air hangs so tight between her and Missy Lavinia you could fiddle a tune on it.

“Follow behind,” Missy bites out, like she can’t stand the words in her mouth.

“C’est ce bon.”
The girl’s Frenchy talk rolls like music. Reminds me of the songs the orphan children sung when the nuns traipsed them out in chorales to perform at the white folks’ parties before the war. “Indeed, my intention was thus.”

“I won’t have you sullying my father’s carriage.”

“Why should I have need of it, when he has given me this fine horse to ride?”

“Which is more than you merit. He assured me as much before he departed for Texas. You will soon see.”

“Indeed.” The girl ain’t scared as she should be. “
We
will soon see.”

The leaf springs complain and groan when Missy shifts in her seat, locking her hands together and stuffing them in the folds of a red day skirt Tati sewed up last summer for her to take off to school. Got to keep up appearances, Old Missus said. The red skirt was a remake from one of Old Missus’s dresses. “I am merely being practical, Juneau Jane. Realistic. Were your mother a sensible woman, and not so terribly spoiled, she wouldn’t be in a hardship after only a few months of no aid from Father. So, in a way, you and I both find ourselves victims of parental folly, don’t we? My goodness! We
do
have something in common. We have both been betrayed by those whose duty it was to protect us, haven’t we?”

Juneau Jane don’t answer, except to mutter in French. Maybe she’s casting a spell. I don’t want to know. I hunker forward over the footboard, far away as I can get, so it’ll miss me. I pull my arms in close and stick my tongue to the roof of my mouth and shut my lips tight, so if that curse does pass by, it won’t get inside.

“And, of course, we will follow Papa’s intentions to the letter, once we know them.” Missy Lavinia goes right on talking. She never minded a one-way conversation. “I do intend to hold you to your commitment. Once Papa’s papers are found, and should it, indeed, be confirmed that the
worst
has befallen him in Texas, you will abide by his decrees without causing further trouble or embarrassment to my family.”

I steer the mare over a pothole in the road, see if I can bounce Missy round a bit to quieten her up. That sugar-sweet voice brings back pokes and whacks, and thumps on the head, and a time in Texas when she give me a tea to drink with a pinch of Seddie’s rat powder on top—just wanted to see what’d happen. I was only seven, barely one year past being rescued from Jep Loach’s bad deed, and wishing I wouldn’t live to be eight after I drank that poison. Missy was five mean years old.

Wish I could tell Juneau Jane that story, even if I got no friendliness toward her. Living high all these years down in Tremé, even as the Gossett money dried up. What did this girl think? That’d go on forever? If she and her mama end up out on the street, I ain’t sorry. About time they learn to work. Work or starve. That’s how it is for the rest of us.

I got no reason to care about either one of these two girls, and I don’t. All I am is somebody to tend their field, or wash their clothes, or cook their food. What do I get back for it, even now that the emancipation’s come? Belly that’s hungry more often than not and a roof that leaks over my head and no money to fix it till we can pay off the land contract. Just skin and muscle and bone. No mind. No heart. No dreams.

It’s time I quit looking after what belongs to white people and start looking after what belongs to me.

“Boy,” Missy snaps. “Hurry along.”

“Road mighty rough, Missy,” I drawl out, slow and deep. “Be smoother once we git up to the River Road. That road be smoother.” Old Ginger’s like Goswood Grove itself. Seen better days. This rain-rutted ground is hard on her.

“Do as I say!” Missy Lavinia snaps.

“She steps light in the left front hoof, your mare.” Juneau Jane comes out of her quiet to speak for the horse. “Wise to spare her, if we have a distance to travel yet.”

A distance to travel yet,
I think. How long’s this errand meant to take? Longer it goes, better chance of us getting caught.

A itch starts under my borrowed shirt. The kind of itch that warns of a knowing.

Mile after mile, crop field after crop field, settlement after settlement, river landing after river landing we pass by, that itch gets deeper, burrows right up under my skin and stays there. This is bad business, and now I’m too far in it to get out.

Feels like we come plumb almost to New Orleans by the time we get where Missy Lavinia has in mind. I smell the place and hear its sounds before seeing it. Coal stoves and woodsmoke. The chug and whistle and
slap-slap
of riverboats churning up the water. The
cough-puff, cough-puff
of cotton gins and steam-fired syrup mills. Smoke hangs low, another sky. It’s a dirty place, black soot laying over brick buildings, clapboard houses, and men and horses alike. Mules and workers drag cotton bales, cordwood, hogsheads of sugar, molasses, and whiskey barrels to the paddle wheelers loading to go upriver, north to where folks have money to buy the goods.

Old Ginger’s got a pretty good limp now, so I’m glad to pull her up, even if I don’t like the look of things here. I weave the carriage through men and crates and wagons, mostly work rigs, tended to by colored help and a few white-trash croppers. There’s no fancy outfit like ours anyplace in sight. No ladies, either. We catch notice, coming up the street. White men stop, scratch their chins, and cast glances our way. Coloreds peek from under their hats, shake their heads, and try to catch my eye with warning looks, like I ought to know better.

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