A Million Nightingales
By Susan Straight
Copyright Â© 2006
All right reserved.
In late summer, I collected the moss with the same long poles we
used to knock down the pecans in fall. I waved the pole around in
the gray tangles and pulled them down from the oaks on the land
beside the house, not far from the clearing where we washed and
I couldn't take the moss from the two oaks in front of the house,
where the windows faced the river, because Madame Bordelon liked to
look at that moss. It was a decoration. She watched me from the
window of her bedroom. Everything on the front land at Azure was
Madame's, for decoration. Everything in the backlands was Msieu
Bordelon's, for money.
And me-she stared at me all the time now. She stared at my hair,
though she couldn't see it. My hair was wrapped under the black
tignon my mother had made last year for me, when I turned thirteen.
I hated the weight on my skull. My hair was to be hidden, my mother
said. That was the law.
The cloth at my forehead felt like a bandage. Like it was holding in
my brain. A brain floated in Doctor Tom's jar, in the room where he
always stayed when he came to treat Grandmère Bordelon, for her
fatness, and where he stayed now to treat Céphaline, for her face.
The brain was like a huge, wrinkled, pale pecan. One that didn't
break in half. Swimming in liquid.
When I came for his laundry, he sat at the desk and the brain sat on
the shelf, with the other jars. He said, "You can hold it."
The glass was heavy in my hands, and the brain shivered in the
"I bought that brain in 1808, yes, I did, and it's been two years in
the jar after spending several years inside a skull. You seem
unafraid to hold it or examine it, Moinette," he said in English. He
was from London, and his words made his thin lips rise and twist
differently from Creoles. "Your lack of fear would indicate that
your own brain is working well." Then he returned to his papers, and
I took his dirty clothes away.
How could brains be different? I measured heads the same way Mam?re
had taught me to measure a handful of fat to throw in the pot for
soap, cupping my palm; the heavy handful had to reach the second
bend on my fingers. The other side of knuckles-the little pad of
skin like oval seed pearls when a person held out a hand to get
something. I stared at my palms so long, clenching and straightening
them, that Mam?re frowned and told me to stir the soap.
At the edge of the canefield when the cutters were resting, I hid
myself in the tall stalks and fit my bent fingers over their heads.
The grown people's heads wore hats and tignons, but the skulls were
nearly all the same size under my curved hand. It was not exact,
though. I made a loop of wire from a scrap and measured Michel's
head when he was in the cane. He was a grown man, same as Msieu
The cutters held very still when they rested. Their backs were
against the wagon wheels and the trees.
When I took clean laundry to the house, I stood near the dining room
and quickly measured those heads at the table. The same loop for
Msieu's head, the only time he didn't wear his hat, while he was
All our heads were the same size according to our age and sex: mine
and Céphaline's, Mam?re and Madame's, the men cutting cane and Msieu
Bordelon's. Under their hair, all their skulls were the same, and so
the pecan brains floating inside that bone would be the same size
unless the head was wrong, like Eveline's baby who died. The baby's
head was swollen like a gourd grows in summer when it's watered too
much and then splits.
By September, I pulled down the last moss from the side-land oaks.
They were the most beautiful to me. Their branches lay along the
earth so that I could walk on the bark. The bark was almost black,
damp under my bare feet.
I could hear the field people working in the cane near here, when
someone shouted or laughed, the hoes hitting a rock now and then.
They were weeding the rows. The cane was so tall, everyone was
invisible. I piled the moss on the little wagon we used to take
laundry back and forth from our clearing to the house. I pushed down
the springy gray coils with my palms.
When the bell rang for lunch, I pulled down one more dangling clump,
and then Christophe was behind me.
"Boil it and kill it and then it look like your hair. Then I sleep
He hated me now. He had always pulled my hair when we were small,
but now that he was sixteen, he hated me. His hair was damp and
separated into black pearls on his head, from the heat. His faded
black shirt was white with salt around the neck. We wouldn't get new
clothes until Christmas.
He held up his torn sleeve. "I got a girl on Petit Clair. She sew
it. You useful for nothing."
I shrugged. "We can't sew for you. Only Bordelons."
He imitated me, shrugged much more dramatically. "Cadeau-fille," he
said. Gift girl. He always called me that, adding, "Yellow girl only
good for one thing, for what under your dress. All you are. Don't
work. Don't mean nothing till he give you away."
"Your head looks small," I said, moving back so I could hook my
fingers into a circle, like the wire, and measure.
But he moved forward and pushed my hand down.
"Somebody come for you soon. Just like your mother."
"Close your mouth."
My mother had been a gift for one week, a nighttime present for a
visiting sugar broker from New Orleans. I was what she received. But
Cadeau-fille was not my name.
I pulled the wagon down the path from the side yard toward the
clearing near my mother's house. The moss had to be boiled.
Christophe followed me. He spoke low and constant, like a swarm of
bees hovering near my shoulder. He said he was a horse, at least
pure in blood and a useful animal. He said I was a mule, half-breed,
and even a mule worked hard. He said I was nothing more than a
foolish peacock that les blancs liked to keep in the yard to show
people something pretty. Then he said, "And the men, you are only
there so they can think under your ..."
At the clearing, fire burned low under the pots, but my mother was
not there. I threw a bar of soap at him. I didn't want to hear it
He picked up the soap and threw it from the clearing. "Go in the
cane and get it. Then cadeau-mère can't see you. You have to lift up
your dress when Msieu pick someone for you. Lift it up now. Hurry."
In the heat and my anger, my eyes felt underwater. He'd told some of
the men I went in the cane with him. Just to let him look. The women
had told Mam?re.
"We're all animals," I said. "Hair and skin are like fur." I had
nothing else to throw at him.
He shoved me against the pecan tree where we hung our washline, and
then ran into the cane. The stalks shifted and then stayed still.
I found the soap. The bar was soft and wet from Mam?re's using it
all morning. I worked off the dust with my fingers, underwater.
My mother and I made the soap for Azure, and each bar was measuring
and stirring, to me. Christophe was a man, so he didn't think about
his clothes being clean or the soap washing the cane juice from his
hands. He didn't think anything except cane was work, and he hated
my face and especially my hair.
My hair fell to my waist, in the same tendrils as the moss from the
branches, but black. But now no one ever saw it except my mother. On
Sunday nights, she washed it with soap made from almond oil and
boiled gourd, rinsed it in the washtub, and formed the curls around
her fingers. We sat near the fire. When my hair was dry, she braided
it so tightly my temples stung and covered it with the tignon.
Hair only protected my scalp. The thin cover protecting my skull.
And my brain. My hair was only a covering. Céphaline Bordelon's
hair, too, like every other human.
But hers was thin and brown, her braid only a mousetail down her
back. Her eyes were bright and blue, and I knew inside her brain was
perfect, because she learned everything each of her tutors taught
her and even questioned the lessons. But her pale skin was speckled
with crimson boutons.
Madame had to marry Céphaline to someone with money, and for weeks,
she had cried until her own blue eyes were rimmed as with blood.
None of the men who visited could see Céphaline's brain. Only her
face, and her hair, and her mouth never closed or curved in a smile.
Her mouth always talking, arguing, reading to people from her books.
The moss was soft in my hands, in the basket. I liked to look at
each strand and feel the covering, like the velvet of Céphaline's
brown dress. My mother would be angry if she saw me studying the
moss. She wanted me to boil it and lay it out to dry. It was not a
lesson. It was stuffing. Every fall, we made new bedding-this year,
seventy-two pallets for slaves and five mattresses for the
We lived between. Le quartier was one long street, houses lining the
dirt road to the canefields and sugarhouse, but a grove of pecan
trees separated the street from the Bordelons' house. Tretite, the
cook, lived in the kitchen behind the house, and Nonc Pierre, the
groom, lived in the barn.
But my mother's house was in a clearing near three pecan trees at
the edge of the canefields. A path led from the main road to our
yard. Madame Bordelon could see us from her second-floor gallery,
could see what color clothes we hung, or whether we had washed the
table linens, but she couldn't hear what we said.
Under the trees, my mother spoke to me every day, but only when she
had something to teach me and only when we were alone.
When I was young, I asked her the same thing many times, until I
"Who do I belong to?"
"Me." She never hesitated. "You are mine."
"No one else?"
Then she would pause. I watched her pour another dipper of water
onto the wood ashes held in a wooden trough over the big pot. The
gray sludge dripped into the boiling water.
"No," she said then, stirring the lyewater. I knew to stay away. One
flying drop could burn the skin. Brown to pink. Pink and
shiny-raised as mother-of-pearl buttons on my mother's forearm. Like
she had sewn them to her own skin, as if she had finished mending
the Bordelons' clothes and then decided to decorate herself.
"No!" My mother's voice rushed from her throat, harsh like she was
chewing coffee beans. "Here on earth, you belong to me. If you died,
then you would belong to God. L?-bas." She lifted her chin to the
sky above the pecan trees. "Eh bien, I would die, too, because I
would need to be-gone with you."
"There. Not here. L?-bas-with you."
I wouldn't look up. I didn't want to see that sky, l?-bas. I looked
down, at the fire under the pitted black iron of the washpot, until
I could speak. "God would kill you, too? Because you let me die?" I
"No!" My mother's eyes were fierce and slitted under the tignon
covering her hair and forehead. The cloth had slipped up, so a
stripe of gleaming undusted skin showed above her brows. "God will
not kill you, or me. No. My only work here is to keep you alive."
She spat into the boiling water and stirred; her arm disappeared in
the steam so that I was frightened for a moment. "This is not my
work. This is how I pass the time while I keep you."
When I was small, and she said that, I would fling out my arms and
spin under the fine muslin cloth hanging to dry in the low branches
of the sweet olive. She had patched the torn mosquito netting from
Madame's bed, sewing in newer, whiter muslin, and my mother's work
floated like tiny clouds above me.
My mother's throat would calm again, and she poured more water over
the ashes, her face a mask under the sweat and dust. She took a
turkey feather from her apron pocket and dipped it into the bubbling
lyewater. After a few seconds, she pulled out the quill, like a
stripped white bone.
I watched the blue flame under the pot. "What is my work?" I used to
ask, before I understood that my work would be every moment.
"You wash and sew and be cautious. You do what I say, exactement."
"But I am a mule. I will carry things, no?"
She turned with the feather like a toy sword. "What? A mule!"
"Christophe says I am a mule. And he is a horse. He is better."
"He is orph?e. He is angry that you have a mother."
Christophe was cutting cane already, living with three other men. I
didn't understand the mule yet. I touched the clouds in the muslin
and said idly, "How would you get there? L?-bas? With God? With me?"
My mother stepped away from the pot and wiped the gloss from her
forehead. "The way I do everything else," she said, angry, and I
took my hands from the cloth and backed away. She spat lye steam
from her mouth, fixed her eyes on me, and didn't smile. "Myself. I
would do it myself."
I believed her. I was all she cared about, except for the coffee she
loved so much she hoarded the beans inside a special tin in our
room. She counted the beans during the night, before she came to
sleep, when she thought my eyes were closed.
But before she held them under her nose with her palm flat, her
nostrils almost touching the dark beans, she prayed, and I listened.
She lit two small candles, ones she kept hidden because we weren't
supposed to have them. She made them for herself when we dipped all
the others for the Bordelons. She poured a sip of the day's coffee
into a tiny blue dish on the washstand and laid one bean on a piece
of cloth so blue it was almost black. She put one gold piastre on
the cloth, too, and a circle of my hair braided like a bracelet.
She glanced at me, and my eyes were closed.
She prayed in French, and African words crept in. Words I knew she
had learned from her mother, but words she never said to me. She
prayed to all the gods, of water and earth, and to God above, mon
Dieu, that I would be healthy in the morning, alive all day,
protected until the next night, when she would ask again.
When she was finished, she blew out the candles and laid them on
their sides next to our wooden plates, and they looked cold and
small. Then she put them with the cloth scrap, the bracelet of hair,
and the piastre in a pouch inside the kitchen safe, where we kept
our spoons and cups. If anyone ever came looking, they wouldn't
think that collection of things was special to anyone. They might
take the piastre, but they wouldn't know the rest was her church.
She slept in her chair for much of the night. I would wake to see
her slumped against the rush backing, her right cheek propped on her
bent hand. The night was far gone, the fire lessened to ruby chunks.
Toward morning, she would be beside me in the bed, her breathing
rough like the file rasp the men used to sharpen their cane knives.
She woke me before dawn, when she stirred the fire. She roasted her
coffee beans in the black pan and then ground them in the metal
grinder she clamped to the table's edge. She poured boiling water on
the coffee, in the dented pot, which was one of the first things I
ever remembered seeing as a baby. Then she reached into her basket
of rags for the tin cigar box. From inside, nested in brown paper,
she took out the hard cone of white sugar, which glittered in the
Green cane crushed and boiled and brown molasses drained out and
then the sugar bleached white and formed into a cone hard as a
cowhorn by some magic in some faraway place. Slaves had molasses,
measured out in pails during the week. Tretite, the cook, had stolen
the sugar for my mother weeks ago, in exchange for a white wedding
dress. Only the Bordelons had sugar.
My mother cut two large pinches with the ancient sugar scissors. She
stirred the hardness into her coffee and opened the wooden shutters.
She stared out the window at the pink or gray of day, and her throat
worked as she swallowed the black.
The smell rose like bitter strong dirt. I didn't understand how she
could drink that liquid, how she could chew the beans during the
day. And once when I said that, she told me her own mother used to
chew something that made her teeth orange. A nut or seed.
"Did the nut taste good?"
She shrugged. "Never taste it."
"You were in Africa?"
"I was little child on the boat. Only remember the boat."
"But how did she die? Your mother?"
My mother lifted her chin at me, exactly as she did to Madame and
everyone else, and for a moment, she didn't even see me before her.
Her lips were pressed together so tight they disappeared, and her
face was like something floating in Doctor Tom's room, like the air
was a silvery sharp liquid.
Excerpted from A Million Nightingales
by Susan Straight
Copyright Â© 2006 by Susan Straight.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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