It is lazy and sweet along the Côte Joyeuse and into the piny red-clay hills — a land which for nearly 400 years has been held enthralled by a river. And here among the whites and blacks there dwell in ecstatic squalor a people whom, in the intricate social system of the South, strangers find it a difficult place. For although they maybe bartered with, jested with, enjoyed, despised, made friends and enemies of — yet in the eyes of those born to subtle distinction they are forever beyond pale.
They are a mixture of Spanish, French and Indian, and God only knows what besides; and the long Côte Joyeuse, a region given the phrase and to fable, they are dubbed “redbones” because of their dusky skins so oddly, transparently tinted. They are shiftless and slovenly, childlike and treacherous; and yet from somewhere, like a benediction, they have been touched with something precious.
Of this hybrid and tragic tribe was Baptiste Grabbo, planter, and his the story of a man who desired and obtained a son.
One summer morn at a peep-o-day hour this Baptiste set out for Natchitoches, riding his little red pony. His mission threefold: first, of course, to get drunk; second, to make a thank-offering to his patron saint, whose business it was to look after him and who did it rather well, all things considered; third, in accordance with a custom that still prevails, to purchase in tribute a gift to his wife, who has been delivered of a fine and a lusty son — a man-child born in the crook of a horned moon and destined for great good fortune.
Baptiste rode hard, like a centaur. About him to frail enchantment of budding clematis filled the woods with light and, reflecting on his fortune, he recalled complacently the insults and insinuation with which since his marriage his relatives had deride his childless estate. Bah! He would make ’em swallow their words, the yellow chinquapin-eaters! He accursed of heaven?
The glory of fatherhood gave him a heart a-tune to the tumult of summer. There where flowers purple with adoration praying in the grass; wings brushed his cheek; and Baptiste, his mind still full of the night’s travail, thought of The Birth, and an immense and trouble holiness shook him as with an ague. Why, God was right up in that tree. God — benignant, amused. He could talk to God if he cared too. He spread his hands in a little prayer, like a child that laughs and prays. He was shaken and sent with rapture.
Conceive of Baptiste if you can; an uncouth, oafish little man, thin and pointed and sly; but with something about him grotesque and delightful, for all the world like a clown — something of quant buffoonery that charmed little children, even little boys and girls who lived in the fine old houses along the river front and walk aboard so sweetly with their nurses.
“Hi, Baptiste!” They would squeel when they saw him “Howdy Mister Baptiste!”
And then they would laugh with an elfin delight as if they share some wanton secret with him. And their nurses — respectable, coal-black “mammies” — would pull them away, disgruntled; “Lawd, white chillun, come along. Dat triflin’, low-down redbone — ”
But this heaven-lent quality, whatever it was, that endeared him to children caused the women of his race to stick out their tongues at him. His love tale, how for a fabulous sum he bought from her father the prettiest maid in the Indian pinewoods was the talk of the region already famous far and wide it’s romance. Baptiste — though no effort of his own, of course — was rich. As occasionally redbones get to be with there luscious acres fringe the winding Cane; and the slim and blossomy Clorinda has pleased him mighitly. She was a lovely thing with sea-green eyes and chiseled beauty. Her women posses for a season; and Baptiste thought of babies when he looked at her — he who could pipe to children and trill like a bird in a tree. They would come one right after the other, of course, as was right for babies to come: brown little stair steps of children.
He had even gone so far as to hail old Granny Loon one time as she hobbled passed the courthouse; Granny who brought her babies in baskets (white ones and black ones and yellow and red ones!) and charged a fortune a day.
“Hey, Granny, what you got in there!” he wheedled in a voice that had the drawling music of the sluggish old witch-river. “You give him to me for my wife, old Granny. Yessir, we need us a son.”
But Granny, disdainfully made no reply and shifting her mysterious basket passed with dignity down the shaded street. She could be high-and-mighty when it pleased her and “blue-gummed” African though she was — and proud of her pure descent — she was by virtue of calling above and beyond all race distinction. Granny Loon was dedicated, consecrated, sacred. But the greesy old mulatto women around their coffee stalls, who were shrewdly informed to Granny’s comings and goings, broke out into ribald laughter, shaking their fat gingham sides.
“Huh!” they snorted, “dat chile Granny got ain’t fo’ no ornery redbone. Dat chile is fo’ white folks, yessir. Baptiste, he better go find his se’f one in de briar-patch.”
He had swaggered away, Baptiste, pretending not to hear; but his face had burned and his heart had ached. Ah, but now he would show them….
Baptiste, whose thoughts were prayerful if he but stumped his toe, had that very day taken up the matter with High Heaven. You slipped into the dim cathedral where God was all about you and your bony knees sank richly down into passionate crimson velvet.
“A son, sweet Saint. A lil’ son, Send us a son, sweet Mother — ”
And then to make assurance doubly sure, on emerging he had crossed two sticks to fling at a chance stray cat.
The creed of the redbone is past understanding: things vaguely heard and remembered; things felt and but dimly divined; superstitions drilled into him by the wrinkled old crones on his race. His religion is compounded of Catholic altars where candles burn through the thick dim smoke from the swinging incense bowl; of pinewoods tremulous like a sounding organ; of forest fires and thunders and winds; of fetishes against the power of darkness; of a moon that comes up red fron the swamp; of a wilful river that doles out life and death.
Sometimes when Baptiste lay prone on a hillside things came to him, ancient things, and he knew what the people had known when the earth was young — something stirring in him that had swung a papoos in the treetops. Sometimes the moon was thin and the cotton greening in the fields was beginning to square, something lifted his soul that had strummed a guitar under a lady’s window. Sometimes when the same young moon had grown sullen with orange fire, sometimes when he lay on the hot black earth and heard the negros singing, something ached within him like the curse of a voodoo witch.
His patron saint he had chosen for some reason best known to himself, not the least significant of which was there little saint’s unobtrusiveness; for he was an ecstatic little blue fellow who lived in a niche of the church, in so dim and distant a corner that one might pray to him without exciting comment. The redbone, you must know, is secretive in matters religious; and pagan as he is at heart, is chary of dogma and fixed belief — his erratic worship being tolerated rather than condoned by the priesthood.
To this adopted saint, then, Baptiste told his beads, beseeching intercession: three masses a week, so many “Hail Mary’s,” the Way of the Cross for a baby. Since he always returned from his orisons uplifted and slightly unsteady, Baptist’s mysterious pilgramiges had provoked his relatives to what was to them an obvious and forgone conclusion: Baptiste was drinking and gambling awful! He had better stay home with his wife.
Baptiste, jogging the deep-rutted roads, sudddenly laughed and smacked at his pony. Now that a son had been born to him he would pour the shining dollars into his little saint’s outstretched paws, the little saint who had moved Heaven and earth in his, Baptiste’s behalf. And then across the yound day’s joy a weavering shadow passed, and then another. Bats! From the swamp near by. The creatures came flickering, velvet-black and crazy, with the uncertain, chittering, sweezy sound that their wings make in the air; and when Baptiste struck out to fend them off, one of the gibbity things fell to the earth, stricken. Aghast that he had unwittingly wounded the Devil’s own, Baptiste turned straight about, although fully two miles from home. The sweet havoc in his heart had chilled into dreadful foreboding — for what man in his senses would flaunt such disaster?
Could it mean that his child was ill, perhaps at this moment dead?
When he rode into the backyard he saw his wife’s pink pettycoat a-hanging in the sun. His throat was dry and parched as he opened the kitchen door.
Granny was in the kitchen, crouching over the stove and stirring a viscous substance in a kettle. Her sacred basket hung above her on a nail. Her snowy white head was bound with a red bandanna, and she wore a spotless apron in the pocket of which was a buckeye to ward off the dread swamp fever. From a cord around her neck hung a curious carved African stone that dangled against her breasts. She turned and squinted at him as he entered.
“The Lil’ feller … is he … do he still breathe? Answer me, old woman!”
Granny shrugged her shoulders. Her scorn of men was instinctive, she who assured them into the world and first clothed their nakedness. There was not a midwife in all the neck of the woods who could hold a candle to her. When not “waiting” on a woman she lived alone on the edge of Indian pine-woods in a shack half hidden with splashy sunflowers. There was a rail fence around it and toadstools at the door; and in the backyard an iron pot that looked like cauldron. She was age-old and deathless, and all her movements were soft as if timed to the sleeping of children.
She gave Baptiste a mystic look; and then from above, down a rickety stairs, there sounded a thin little wail. Baptiste listened, woe in his eyes. It sounded so strange and so young.
“Mon Dieu!” He implored, “What was that?”
“ De good Lawd he’p us,” Granny answered, stirring and tasting, tasting and stirring. Fo’ shame, Mister Baptiste Grabbo. Dat up dere’s yo’ son, man, a-cryin’ fo’ his dinner.”
“And her? Is she well? — Clorinda — ”
His agonized eyes searched the old woman’s face, but Granny was muttering incantations over her ill-smelling brew: runes for the newborn babe and his mother; spells against milk-leg and childbed-fever. It was a full minute before she turned to him her sybil face, wrinkled with a thousand tragedies.
“Gawd-a-mighty!” she grumbled, “how many time yo’ come runnin’ back to ask ’bout dat wife an’ chile? How come yo’ don’t go an’ git outer my way? I done brung a many baby, to white folks an’ niggers an’ mixed blood too. But I ain’t nebber seen a daddy take on like dat befo’. Nussir, not since I been bo’n.”
She looked at him and relented. “Heylaw — wait, I go make yo’ a cup — ”
Baptiste sat down, still shaking, and Granny poured for him hot black comforting coffee. Behind her somewhere in the dim old house she heard a door open and close. But her gaze helc Baptiste’s eye.
“Now, go long wid yo’se’f, Mister Grabbo,” she said when he had drained the last drop. “A fine strappin’ son yo’ got, an’ yo’ all a-tremblin’ and shakin’. I oughter brung yo’ a lil’ ole puny gal. Now yo’ go on to town an’ git drunk like a man.”
Baptiste stumbled out into the sunlight, his heart mounting again with the joy-giving warmth of the coffee. Mon Dieu! What a fool he was indeed! Well … It was broad daylight now, and in the brick courtyard he saw Olaf, his overseer, puttering around. Olaf was blond and giantlike, and although he had been but a tramp two years before when Baptiste picked him up in town to help with a big cotton crop, he had gradually taken the reins in his hands; and of late he flaunted a bullying, insolent manner that was like a slap in the face.
To-day, however, although Olaf’s sullen bigness oppressed Baptiste as usual, his heart at the site of the younger man turned over the pride of possession; and Baptiste felt suddenly sorry for Olaf. Olaf had no little son, no pretty wife and child.
“Hey, Olaf boy!” he called with gaiety, “what you think of that baby, huh? You go and you tell that old granny in there to let you look at that child. You kiss him, Olaf — just once, mind. You go and tell ’em I sent you.”
Baptiste passed through the lanes that were dense with Cherokee roses, on down the road through the frenzied bloom of black-eyed Susan and bitterweed. And where the sinuous river begins to work its magic he saw the town, already asleep with summer. On the edge of the commons the breath of sweer-olive rushed at his lips like a kiss; and it is here that the road grows into a street, with quaint little sociable houses that squat on the sidewalk like children. The mourning was lavish of sunlight that looked as if you could peel it up in thick yellow flakes, and as Baptiste jogged on into town his feeling of holiness grew, the feeling of brooding infinity.
He considered: Court was in session; along the narrow streets ox-teams were crawling and creaking, filled with niggers and country people “passing” the time of day; now and then some fine old carriage, drawn by satin bays, would permit him a glimpse of ravishing ladies in gay little flowered bonnets; around the hitching-posts on the river bank, where umbrella-chinas made polls of shde and the flies circled, drunken and sleepy, the planters had left their horses and mules; and bits of blue and orange and red flashed abroad in the streets. Baptiste sighed with a deep satisfaction. It was, indeed, a gala day, in tune with his heart’s own joy.
He left his pony in the shade and started afoot for the courthouse in search of his dear friend, Toni La Salle. For Baptiste had wisely decided that before he could quench his thirst his news must be told; and someone other than himself must be the bearer of it, to give it due weight and importance. Toni who loved to gossip and whose mind was the mind of a child, must go and tell those women around their coffee stalls that Heaven had blessed Baptiste’s marriage and had sent him a little son.
Baptiste, as he had expected, found Toni hanging about the courthouse, grabbing at stray tamales and running every-ones’ business. He enticed the boy to the shade of a magnolia tree and stuck a hand in his pocket.
“Toni, my love, my son,” Baptiste said, “I got great news for you. Out to my house we got us a baby — now what you think about that?”
Toni seemed unimpressed, but his shallow eyes wavered to the money in baptiste’s hand.
“A son, Toni. A man-child, mind, what Granny Loon bring in her basket. Now, listen to me: you go spread the news and I give you this dollar. You tell all those women, and this money is yours. A son, remember, and not no girl. And listen to me: his mamma’s eyes, maybe, but a head like his papa’s, Toni. Yessir, you tell ’em that my baby’s his daddy’s son from his head clear down to his heels.”
Toni departed, enraptured; but he had gone only a few steps when Baptiste ran after him. “Wait, Toni, my boy. Not so fast, not so fast. Now, listen: my son he ain’t no puny child. He’ll make a big strappin’ man. You tell all those meddlesome women my son he weigh ten pound.”
As Toni made his announcements, Baptiste behind the screen of magnolias witnessed the incredulous excitement along the coffee stalls; noted with joy the uplifting arms and rolling eyes of the gossipers. Well, by the time he had a drink or two, he calculated, the news would be abroad and he could saunter forth to receive congratulations and the jests which the occasion demanded. “Papa” his friends would call him. “Papa Grabbo.” How sweet, how delicious, how holy!
Baptiste ambled gaily through a swinging door and had a drink across a slick green counter; and then another and yet another. Like wine in your very soul it was to be a father, the father of a son. He wiped his mouth on a greasy sleeve and smiled. It was the practiced smile of aloof indifference the he’d seen upon the lips of younger papas. He felt waggish and tipsy. Bah — a son? It was two little sons that he had.
He emerged into the sunlight comfortably drunk, so that the world remained a crushed-strawberry pink.
The merchants down the street were laying in wait for him. There was something in the thought of Baptiste’s being a papa that tickled their funny-bones — Baptiste’s being a papa and drunk, with money burning his pocket! A boat had come up the river from New Orleans only the week before, and they had consignments to show him: displays of magnificent solks and shawls and fans and plumes from the East. But although Baptiste’s eyes warmed to the sheen of the cloth, he refrained from buying. Nothin suited his mood. Silks and shawls were dust — Mon Dieu! — for would not moths corrupt them and thieves break through and steal? A jewel, the merchants advised him, A ruby, glowing with passion in the deep rich heart of itself. But Baptiste waved their gleaming trays away. Bah! A jewel he had given Clorinda the time his mare had a colt!
The merchants, shrugging their shoulders, fell in with his mood. A rosary, then, of amethysts, to kiss the holy hours into Heaven. Or a statue — see? — of the Virgin. A pretty gilded thing with the child in blue, such a fat little kissable Christ. Surely this, this out of them all to commemorate Clorida’s motherhood.
But even this did not please Baptiste, although his fingers, tapered like a woman’s, lingered adoringly on the Child’s sweet china curls. Gold and frankincense and myrrh he ould have laid at Clorinda’s feet, mother of his son. He felt uplifted, eternal. A necklace of stars should wear for a halo.
He hunched his shoulders, inarticulate, he who could talk one language with his tongue and fifteen with his hands and eyes.
“Something…not to break,” he besought them. “Something to set up in the parlour, maybe, like a what-you-call-’em. Something what my son can say: ‘Look here, this here my papa he bought one time when I was born.’”
They brought forth glittering prismed lamps and carpets splashed with huge roses. They brought forth a hand-carved “press”; they brought forth imposing family albums of elegant crimson velvet. But Baptiste gestured and shook his head.
“Something nobody ain’t had,” he insisted. “Something big and grand, like a organ, maybe.”
“Huh, go buy her the church, Baptiste,” one if the merchants suggested.
Baptiste’s eyes, wishful and strange, turned to the ivied cathedral. His thoughts were still rapturous. Across the street, two by two, the nuns were pacing to prayers, and Baptiste’s joy was tinged with melancholy for their pale, frustrated womanhood. By all the saints in Heaven, sweet women like that weren’t made to spend their days down on their knees!
And then somebody waved to him from across the way. It was Zuboff, of course, a distant kinsman, his thin little body in slim silhouette against a background of marble.
Baptiste gestured the clamoring merchants away and started across the street, swaying a little.
There had been an epidemic of yellow fever in Natchitoches that spring, a crawling, devastating thing that had licked up the high and low; and for old Zuboff, the monument man, business was thriving and good. Baptiste saw that he was engraving cunning little names and dates on the surface of cold marble: “So and So; Mort such-and-such-a-date: Thy Will Be Done.” To-day Baptiste was oddly aroused. Old Zuboff, his tongue in his cheek, wielded the mallet and chisel adroitly with tender, caressing fingers. He looked up at Baptiste’s approach and nodded hospitably.
“Sit down, Cousin, sit down,” he invited, “right there on Tante Lisa’s tombstone. Ah, Mister Papa Grabbo, well … what about that baby?” His tone changed and a craftiness caught in his hard little eyes. “Ah, Baptiste, sorrow we’ve had … trouble and tribulation. The Catholic graveyard is full.”
Baptiste belched and spat at a date 1852. “My son is a big fine child — “ he began. But Zuboff cut him short, Zuboff the father of ten.
“Two dozen order for tombstone I got,” he imparted, seeking without success to look lugubrious; “and all for the rich folks. A new lot on hand last week, too, Baptiste, what come on the boat from the city. Such beautiful granite, exquisite marble! Come with me, Baptiste, come, come.”
In the rear of his shop, his holy of holies, Zuboff parted a curtain and with an air of solemn pride motioned Baptiste to enter. Within he displayed his masterpieces — two shafts with wreaths of lilies and with beautiful wide-winged angels. Passionately Zuboff ran his fingers over the hard white bodies. “Superb, Baptiste,” he muttered, wetting his lips; “Cherubim, Cousin, and seraphim — “ His voice sank to a whisper. “You hear ’bout them two nun what is sick at the convent? Well, then, who know… ’Tis good to be prepare. And only last night the priest he say — “
Baptiste’s heart had turned over. He breathed heavily and hard into his throat. Cherubim and seraphim … they fell on his soul like music; they sounded like the glad hosannas that children sing at Christmas; they sounded like the holy joy of his little newborn babe. He thought he had the holy joy of his little newborn babe. He thought he had never seen anything so beautiful as those angels. He gulped and aimed tobacco juice at 1852. Those po’ sick nun at the convent — well, he was powerful sorry for them. But no, they could never sleep beneath these majestic wings. Not so long as he, Baptiste, had money in his pocket.
“Zuboff, I want them tombstone,” he declared. He caught at the angels to steady himself, his throat burning, his eyes bloodshot. “I want ’em both, for me and my wife. Yessir, we got to die some day, same as them nun at the convent. ’Tis good to be ready, yessir, just like what you say. And you listen to me, Cousin Zuboff; you put this on one, like a poetry: Clorinda, the wife of Baptiste Grabbo, and Mother of his son.”
Baptiste, having emptied his pockets at the shrine of his patron saint, jogged out of town in the late evening sunlight. His babe’s little cry, thin and strange, still echoed in his heart: and he felt that if he could sing it the sound would be like those young pale leaves on the guivering cottonwood trees. On the edge of the commons the Angelus caught him, dropping the Holy Trinity soft into the waiting stillness. Baptiste bowed his head and crooned a prayer. It was a prayer that was half a lullaby as sick with love as the moon ….
His horse, head down, tail swinging, rocked him home. Sometimes — swaying and riding, riding and swaying — Baptiste would feel again the damp, velvet kiss of the bats. But he was too drowsy to care. When his pony finally nosed down the bars of the gate and wandered into the lot, it was nearly midnight. The moon had set and myriads of stars swam out into the heavens. The sky looked billowy, as if you could catch the corners of it and toss the stars around as in a net. Mosquitos, thin and fierce, whined keen in his ear.
Baptiste slumped down from his horse and did not see the figure that slipped out of the door through the shadows. He felt for the gate and stumbled toward the steps. Old Granny, according to custom, was waiting to receive him and assist him to bed. She loomed before him, a shapeless thing smelling of paregoric. She helped him into the house and up the rickety stairs; and instinctively, her haughtiness gone, this mother of a race began to croon as she pulled off his shoes. A man, bah! They never grew up. They were all helpless babes in cradle, to be comforted, petted, and nursed.
Granny lifted, half-dragged Baptiste to a featherbed in the corner and she paused at the door to look back at him — a little amusing toy of a man like she’d seen in Christmas stockings. He was muttering in his drunken sleep, something concerning angels and stars and cradles high in the treetops.
“De Lawd hab mussy on our souls!” she said as she closed the door. She stood there a moment — motionless, sad, peering before her,
Old Zuboff worked industriously on Baptist’s beautiful gravestones, concealed behind the curtain in the little back room of his shop; only Zuboff was to know, and Zuboff’s sons, until the monuments were erected and he could reveal then to Clorinda. Faithfully, zealously Zuboff worked, for even without the discount in courtesy due a kinsman, they would bring him nine hundred dollars in gold. Late every night old Zuboff worked, sawing and scraping and filing and chiseling until “Clorinda, the Wife of Baptiste Grabbo, and Mother of his son.”
Three weeks it took to engrave them, and during this time Baptiste went back and forth from the house to town like a shuttle, riding his runty red pony. He liked to loaf around Zuboff’s shop and watch the old man at work. “Clorinda, the wife of Baptiste Grabbo, and Mother of his son.” In truth, a poem in marble. He knew every stroke of the mallet, every delicate curve of the chisel. And as their beauty and dignity took hold of his very soul, he hinted to Zuboff, wistfully, that he would like to set the gravestones up as statues in his house. But Zuboff made fun of him:
“Bah! A graveyard Baptiste wants in his parlour! Look what a cousin I got!”
Often as Baptiste sat and watched old Zuboff work he would talk of his son, of the changed and changing ways of his household, of the growing demands of Clorinda. This and the other thing she must have — lace for that infant, yessir, made by the nuns at the convent; a baby-buggy with canopied top, all silk and velvet and tassels, to wheel that child around in the yard same as if he was big-folks. Baptiste would grunt and throw out his hands, but in his heart he was pleased.
“Bah! He complained, “a prince we got. Nothing ain’t good enough. That baby he ruin me, Zuboff. He got to live just like a king.”
The goings-on of Baptiste’s family were, indeed, the talk of the countryside; lining like, big-folks, yessir, just because, with children as common as pig tracks, old Granny Loon had fetched ’em one po’ lil’ baby.
“Well, now, for suppose we do that way whenever we get us a baby!” women said to their husbands, rolling their eyes.
Baptiste’s old adobe house, with its sagging roof and its paved courtyard in the rear, was hilarious night and day with relatives come to take potluck — like a party that would go on for ever. And when at home, four times a day Baptiste made coffee and four times passed it around. Always wine a-flowing too, to pledge the young child's health. His male relatives began to view Baptiste with heightened respect and to ask his advice about corn and cotton and the raising of young pigs. But the female ones, as was the custom, ignored hm pleasantly; and this, too, enchanted Baptiste.
“Howdy, Papa!” they would call, impudently. “Howdy Papa Grabbo!”
And away the would bustle to talk with Granny of broths and brews and teas; of the merits of sassafras root boiled down to make the milk come fast; of this, that, and the other thing that women have always known.
Impossible to work. Out in the fields the darkies sang all day and half the night. And the place, despite its joyousness, was going to wrack and ruin because Olaf, the sullen young fool, was always a-fishing under a tree, seduced by the old witch-river. Time and again Baptiste made up his mind to bring Olaf to task; but himself was filled with exquisite lassitude. And on those rare occasions when there were no petticoats about, the lure of the cradle drew him to sit and gaze at the baby, or sing his queer little lullibies, always about the moon — the great big yellow nigger-moon that rose up out of the swamp….
Three weeks of this while Zuboff worked: and then of a sudden, putting an end to festivity, August had come like a smothering blanket; and all the breath and bloom of summer had rotten to a stench.
On a certain morning during this month a log wagon drawn by three yoke of oxen set out from Natchitoches, tolling painfully over the rutted roadways where the weeds were rank and heavy with dust. Propped upright in the wagon were Baptiste’s beautiful monuments, the lovely spreading angel-wings bulging in fantastic fashion under layers of cotton sacking. There were cloud shadows running far and sweet across the fields that morning, but no rain; and at noon, as the oxen grunted under a blazing sun, buzzards wheeled and floated against a sky that showed through the trees in splotches of hot, hard blue. It was late afternoon when the wagon reached the Grabbo burying-ground.
Here Baptiste and Zuboff and Zuboff’s sons got out and erected the shafts — the one on the left for Clorinda, the one on the right for Baptiste. “Like when you lay in bed,” Baptiste insisted. For this would be their marriage-bed, eternal in the heavens.
The burying-ground of the Grabbos is nearly a mile from the house in a secluded spot that the Negroes shun on the edge of the Indian pinewoods: six bayberry bushes, three cedars; and among the tangled grasses many Spanish cross. When Zuboff and his sons had gone, Baptiste spent an hour gathering branches of leaves and flowers and trailing honeysuckle. He found some old, old roses, too, and masses of golden love-bine; and he made them into garlands and draped them over the stones so that they covered the wreaths and the angels and Zuboff’s so-beautiful verses.
Finally, having looked upon his labor and seen that is was good, he sat down on a stump to make his plans. That night when the moon rode high, he decided, he would put Clorinda on the back of his pony and lead her across the cotton fields and up to the edge of the woods. And there he would unveil his shining tributes, unveil them of leaves and of flowers. It would be her first excursion since the baby came, and she would laugh in the mocking way he loved. And because she could not read, he, who knew them by heart, would recite the verses to her while she traced them with her finger: “Clorinda, the Wife of Baptiste Grabbo, and Mother of his Son.” He knew how her eyes would look, strange eyes that eluded you so that you had to search for them like flowers in the grass…. The moon would spill white magic. Who could tell but that here amid the dead she would give him of her love, she so stingy with kisses! She would be all in white; and as he looked at her he would see her head, Madonna-wise, haloed against the moon….
And later, of course — Baptiste chuckled — in a day or so, perhaps, he would have all the relatives out to a gumbo supper or something; and maybe he’d make ’em a speech!
Baptiste felt the need of coffee, thick and strong and black. He straggled to his feet and trailed along through the fields toward home. The sun had gone, raw and flaming; and already mosquitos were stirring — great, filmy, floating things as they get to be in august. The canebrake looked snaky and bilious breath of cotton blooms hung low like a sickly incense. Baptiste walked slowly, dragging his feet. It was the season of three-day chills. When he reached home it was good dusk.
Old Granny was sitting on the gallery, alone with the baby. She seemed surprised to see him and a little anxious.
“How Come yo’ done come back fum town?” she wanted to know. “How come yo’ don’t stay all night at Zuboff’s like yo’ say?” She squinted at him suspiciously and puffed on her corncob pipe. “How come yo’ ain’t gone an’ git drunk, same as always?”
Baptiste smiled. One corner of his mouth turned up and the other down. “Where is the lil’ mama?” he inquired. “What you got her a-doing now, old woman, with your hoodoo tricks and such?”
Old Granny looked at him, then veiled her eyes. She seemed withdrawn and mystic. Suddenly she spoke out, something indignant and venomous in her drawling, cool old voice. “Hit been mos’ four week since dat baby come,” she recited; “an’ all dat time she a-pesterin’ me to let her take a walk. Jest down by de gate. An’ all in good time, I keep tellin’ her. De ladies in town, dey minds what I say. Six week, an’ den talk a walk. But to-night … out she go. Jest like wild hosses was pullin’ her.”
Baptiste mopped his streaming face. The baby, naked but for a swab of flannel about his belly, lay on a pallet and stared at the moon. Now and then he squirmed, with a quick little wrench as of pain. Baptiste regarded him anxiously. “The lil’ feller…. is he sick?” he asked, the ever-present fear tight at his heart.
“Colic,” old Granny grumbled. “Dey all has de colic. Dem dat is hearty.”
A surge of pride, intense, unreasonable, poured into Baptiste’s heart: a nice healthy baby with colic. Well…. he liked it that his baby was just as other babies. And then a hot resentment flamed within him, a primitive ache to hear his mate a-crooning over a cradle. “The lil’ feller got colic, “ he grunted, “well, why ain’t she a-singing, then? She belong here, where the baby got colic.”
Granny grunted behind the cyprus vines and slapped at the flies with her fan. She looked like one of the fates sitting there, old and tragic one with the shears. She pulled herself up and suggested coffee, and creaked across the floor in her flat bare feet. But Baptiste shook his head. “I b’lieve I go find Clorinda,” he said, dispiritedly. “I go find that baby’s mamma. He need her a-singing.”
Down by the gate he looked. But no mutinous wife was walking in the shadows. The front yard was matted and rank with weeds, and the stench of the cotton blooms hung sickly sweet, head high. A plume of lilac brushed his face as if she had just passed; the pale mist of crêpe-myrtle trees closed languidly about him.
And then, suddenly, Baptiste saw her through some bushes. She was stealing, gliding soundlessly (blood of an Indian squaw!). She wore something bright in her hair, something bright and festive like a star. She had on shoes and stockings….
He opened his mouth to call her, but as he did he saw that she was taking the path which led through the fields to the burying-ground; and a terrible thought came to him: had one of the niggers been spying? Did she know about the gravestones?
She began to run — Granny was right — as if wild horses were pulling her. Baptiste, keeping to the trees along the river, followed draggingly. In places the river was choked with scum and pinkish water-hyacinths, as if — with death in its heart — it had woven a shroud for itself and had strewn it with flowers. Above it hung an evil moon, a yellow witch in a mist that drew the cotton blooms unto itself and spilled them back to the earth. From remote and outlying cabins Baptiste could hear low snatches of song, and he knew that the niggers about the place were sitting in their doorways — half naked, and half asleep, and half crazy with the heat and cotton scent….Now and then there was chanting…. and stealing shapes in the fields; for there is a might life that goes on among Negroes as it does among beasts and insects — creatures that see in the dark and prowl and flit….
Baptiste now saw Clorinda flash through the sugar-cane patch on the edge of the bury-ground. He stole after her. Her slim arms, out strying to the brambles, had soft expectancy about them — Madonna-arms, rocking. There was hidden joy in her swift sure flight.
And now, ten feet away, white against the cedars, white against the bayberry bushes, white against the roses of the dead — Baptiste saw her go into Olaf’s arms. The moon was a lover’s moon by now, beginning to float and run; and in its path they stood with the soft breast of a pine tree pushed against them. They were just in front of the garlanded monuments, standing on the place that would yawn someday to receive unto itself sweet human flesh…. And it seemed to Baptiste’s fevered gaze that one of the terrible angels was holding a flaming sword above their heads….
He sank down presently upon the truck of a fallen cedar, a movement that made a swishing sound like a wood crature stirring. He felt cold under his shirt, benumbed. He didn’t know how long he had been sitting there when Clorinda stole away…. Once he had heard Olaf say, “To-morrow night… if he goes to town, you come to me. Get away from that hag of a granny. I’ll be waiting, girl, same as always.” The sullen insolent voice of Olaf the tramp!
Baptiste got to his feet and straggled back to the house.
The following day Baptiste spent off in the woods and fields, making arrangements, perfecting his plans, a terrible woe in his eyes so that he had to return to the house at intervals and drink coffee, heavy and strong and black. During these intervals he avoided the baby — the little son his saint had sent. And whenever it dried, Baptiste in agony would put his trembling fingers in his ears. ’Cose now, he conceded, the little saint had managed as well as he could; the little blue saint in the grotto whose business it was to look after him and who did it rather well, all things considered. Take those gravestones, for example: they, or one of them, would come in pretty handy; and who but his saint, with forsight rare, had led him to erect them?…. But now, of course, there was business to do. And he alone must do it; a duty inevitable, according to his code.
Clorinda?… He shrugged his shoulders and dismissed her. She was after all a woman and a fool. A few drinks and a few “Hail Marys” and he could in time forgive her. He even felt a certain sorrow for her, so radiant she had been. Well, she would say (she and Granny) that the river had swollowed Oaf — he was always slipping his evil body in its bilious slime. And Granny would remind them of what people have always said: that when a stranger drinks of the waters of the Cane he can never leave the land of Natchitoches. Yes, when they went to look for Olaf they would cross themselves and lament that the river had swallowed him up.
At twighlight the heat was intense; and the big sullen moon, shoved a dusky shoulder over the edge of the swamp, brought with it a booming of bullfrogs. The baby was fretful again, but Clorinda sat at the gallery and held it in her arms, her eyes brooding dark in the gloom.
Baptiste got up presently and yawned, and moved off into the shadows. He slipped through the fields and was first at the tryst. And when he saw Olaf coming he stepped out into the moonlight with something hoofed and horned and forked about him….
The Indian in Baptiste performed the deed with neatness and dispatch, so that Olaf for an instant knew only a face before him — high cheek bones, thin straight lips, and comic eyes that were sad. The Spanish in Baptiste dug the grave and the French in him tossed a rose upon it.
But the something unaccounted for that made him what he was sent him dragging back to the house, his face the color of leaves. Clorinda had gone to bed and had taken the baby with her. But old Granny was waiting for him behind the cypress-vines. She peered at him out of the darkness, “Lawd-a-mighty, man,” she said, “I ‘spec’ I go ake yo’ some coffee.”
Baptiste gave her a faint smile and hs familiar hunch of the shoulders. But his voice when he spoke had lost its music. It was the old flat voice of despair.
“I thank you, Granny Loon,” he said; “but me, I b’lieve not to-night. Not nothing , if you will excuse me. I feel” — He touched his stomach — “I feel…moved inside myself.”
Above him down the rickety stairs there sounded a little wail — thin and strange and very, very young.
It is lazy and sweet along the Côte Joyeuse and on into the piny red-clay hills; for Time has been kind to Natchitoches. At the Resurrection season every year an Art Colony descends upon it with pallet and brush to paint its decaying witchery against the glory of massed crêpe-myrtles. There are little shops along St. Denis Street where you can buy flamboyant postcards, stating in wreaths of roses “This is the land God remembers.”
How beautifully, indeed, He remembers!… A church still reaching its golden domes to the blue, wide summer sky; a river no longer wilful since the Chamber of Commerce, smugly entrentched behind wrought-iron balustrades, hass diverted its meanderings and confined it into a lake. “The Beautiful and Damned,” as the young artists call it.
The town itself looks on at all this pleasant exploitation like a little old high-born exquisite lady laughing up her sleeve…. At certain seasons of the year the breath of sweet-olive still blows delicately.
On a dewy summer morning the great bell in the domed cathederal, having just come back from Rome, began to toll. There were numbers of cars parked along St Dennis Street and in front of the courthouse where, if you be so minded, you can still loaf and invite your soul. And people drawled to one another, “Well, I wonder who’s dead.”
A few of the idly curious about the coffee stalls bagan to count the strokes of the bell: “Thirteen… fourteen… fifteen — ”
Now it is said that for each of these mellow golden dropping balls of sound (you can count up to twenty between them) you must pay one good dollar bill. Take a rich man, now: when he dies, say the wise ones, the tolling is greatly prolonged. Occasionally, if the deceased be poor, a hat will be passed around among his relatives, who contribute to the tolling-fund according to their pockets, the generosity of their hearts, and the amount of family pride they possess.
“Twenty-two … twenty-three … twenty-four — “
The loafers around the stalls were becoming elated now. They began to speculate, “What you bet? I bet you the Mayor’s dead.”
To one side of the courthouse, in the shade of a giant magnolia, there was a little group of boys sitting astride a barrel and being cleverly painted by three young ladies in knickers. They were stunted, tragic-eyed little fellows, and curiously apathetic. But when the bell stopped tolling, they crossed themselves and looked at one another in awe. “Heylaw, well … she’s gone,” they said. “Old lady Grabbo’s dead.”
“Old Baptiste had passed on in the same manner many years before.”
Up in the lazy re-clay hills the relatives had been gathering for hours to the bedside of Madame Clorinda (such was her title among them!). They came, some of them, driving shiny new Fords; others, whole families together, creaked along in wagons behnd undersized scrawny old horses. Out of the Grabbo house everybody kissed everybody else and whispered in mournful eagerness: “She’s sinking. Yessir, the doc he say that she can’t last out the night.”
But the bloated old creature was three days a-dying, a death like that of a princess. And during thise time her soul’s travail she talked incessantly of the monument which, it seemed, had been erected for her long ago in the family bury-ground. Her dim thoughts, fitful and already strange with eternity, were full of it: how that her husband, himself asleep this many year, had bought it with his own in Natchitoches; how handsome it was, so that people used to journey miles to see it; how that every fine Sabbath afternoon she had walked through the fields with bouquets of waxy cape jasamine to lay among the grasses and the blowing buttercups — one for Baptiste and one for herself, in the place that would yawn wide for her.
Three days of this, and then she lay ponderous in death; and according to her dying wish, word was dispatched to town to have the bell tolled sixty times, once for each of her years. Two at her head and two at her feet the tall white candles burned, while outside in the soft air that was languid and sweet with summer the negroes began to sway and rock; and her relatives, standing about in store-bought clothes as if bid to a marriage feast, drank coffe and said among themselves it had been a most beautiful passing.
And then something happened. There came riding a man on horseback. He was a distant cousin and he was one of the gravediggers, it seemed. His clothes were caked with mud, and buttercups stuck weirdly in his hair. He looked frightened (Holy Mother preserve us!) and he said that in digging the grave of the deceased beside that of her husband, in the Grabbo burying-ground, they had come upon a human skeleton cradled in what remained of a hastily constructed old yellow-pine box.
Text prepared by:
- Bruce R. Magee
Carver, Ada Jack. “Redbone.” Harper’s Magazine Dec. 1924: 256-270. Internet Archive. 30 Aug. 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2019. <https:// archive.org/ details/ harpers magazine 150decalde/>.