The yellow Louisiana moon was half-hidden by the clouds scudding low before the wind. In the shadows cast by a grove of tall pine trees a girl huddled against a thick tree-bole, shivering with fright. The whites of her eyes rolled as she stared about her at the dried twigs and branches rustling together as if the spirits of the dead were shaking them.
She moaned, biting on her full lower lip.
She must go on, she must! Only the mama loa could help her and the mama loa lived high on Skeleton Hill in a little hut that held her voodoo objects, the colored sands with which she painted the veve signs, the rada drums and asson gourds, the hunsi-bosal candles. All of these things terrified the girl. Delilah pressed her hands together, forcing calmness into her quivering flesh.
"I just got to,” she whimpered, "if I don't want that Cass man to get me."
She took courage when the moon thrust silver shafts downward through the woods, lighting the narrow pathway which Vergie had told her was to be found to one side of the oak tree that had long ago been blasted by lightning. Her hand pushed away a branch and she ran out onto the path, lifting her cotton skirts to free her shapely legs for the running.
Upward she went, onto Skeleton Hill, until the woods were behind and only low brush and big rocks were all around her. There were more woods up ahead—big red maples and thickly leaved elms—but it would be minutes before she reached them. She tried to put all thoughts out of her head and just let her shivering body take over. If she were to meet a zombie—Vergie had assured her that the mama loa was protected by dead men who could walk around—she would die, but maybe that was better than going naked and defenseless into the arms of Big Cass.
Out of breath, she had to halt. Under the cotton bodice of her cheap dress, her heart was hammering away like a steamboat's paddle-wheel piston. There, this rock, she must sit on it.
She sank down, aware of the cold dampness through the thin skirt. If only the master were back home at Stonehedge plantation! But he was in Europe—wherever that might be; all Delilah knew was that it was on the other side of something called an ocean—and he would not be home for months to come.
In his place his sister Melissa Stone managed Stonehedge, its fields ripe with sugar cane, its buildings neat and spotless, its many stables filled with horses, the houses where the field hands lived. She herself, because she was a house girl, lived in a small room in Stone House itself.
She had a good life for the most part. She was well educated for a slave, she could read and in her less excited moments she spoke as well as the mistress herself. There was white blood in her veins, her skin was the color of café au lait, so that at times she had passed for a white girl. She was a nigra, however, and she was a slave.
Delilah sighed, getting to her feet. She must not put it off any longer, she must be brave, she must approach mama loa and tell her of her needs. She lifted her skirt and ran, hardly daring to breathe.
Something dark, ominous in the moonlit night—
"Ohhh" she cried.
There was a soft chuckle. "Doan be 'fraid, girl. You come see mama loa, mama loa meet you on de way. Come along now, stop dat shiverin."
A hand reached out of the blob of darkness, caught her fingers. Delilah suppressed a cry. She had been expecting a callused hand, and fingers worn thin with toil. To her surprise, the hand was as soft as her own. Again that low chuckle pierced through the night sounds, again the cry of a partridge and the distant barking sounds of a hound in the fields far below.
“What you ’spect? Some old hag?” The hand tightened its fingers on hers, drew her along the path. There was a fire up ahead, revealed through the cracks in the walls of the hut that she could make out dimly in the night blackness. The fire looked warming; she could stand warming, she had never suspected that the wind was so cold this high in the hills. She was shivering steadily.
A hand pushed her inside the hut. A little dazed, she stared around her at the rada drums and the Baron Samedi iron cross thrust in the hard dirt floor, the asson gourds beside the ogans. A circular fire that gleamed red and blue and yellow showed a bunk in the shadows where the mama loa slept and, hanging on ropes from the bare-timbered roof, the hungan candles and the wrought-iron aida uvedo serpents.
"Go ahead, girl. Speak out." The mama loa came into the range of the fire-flame light. Delilah drew in a surprised breath. She was a pretty woman, not so black as Cass or Young Ned; her skin was light, almost the café au lait of her own. She wore a wraparound cotton skirt and a bandanna that held in her large breasts.
Delilah watched her cross the hard-packed dirt floor with a feline grace and sink down onto a stool. Her eyes glistened redly up at her visitor.
"It's Cass," the girl blurted. "Big Cass."
"Who Cass, girl?"
"Big Cass—Casanova is his real name, and he's a stud man on the Stonehedge plantation. A big, heavy man, with a—"
She flushed and looked at her sandals. The mama loa chuckled softly, warmly, saying, "You a virgin? This Big Cass, he really hung, huh?"
Delilah nodded, not looking up. She was sixteen years old and she was still a virgin, a rarity on Southern plantations in the 1830s, where many slave owners mated their strongest males and prettiest females to become the owners, hopefully, of strong boys and pretty girls. It was the accepted practice, Melissa Stone was not the ogress Delilah had made her out in her mind; she accepted that fact, when she thought it over.
She did not want to bed down with Big Cass, however.
The mama loa Smiled, "Ain't so bad, this love business, when you get used to it. A virgin, now—and how old? Sixteen ? Girl, you gettin' old." She reached out a hand, patted the girl. "Sit down, child. Now tell me what you want? A charm to keep Big Cass away?"
"Yes, I don't—want—him. Not—not for the first."
"He big, hey?" The girl flushed, working her fingers together. The mama loa said, "All right, I give you charm. But first I look in the fire, see what you future be."
From a leather sack to one side of the fire stones that ringed the coals, she drew out a pinch of powdered herbs, tossing it into the flames. She sat hunched forward, her knees together and to one side of her torso so she could peer down into the fire.
The flames seemed to sigh, to spurt upward. “Ai, ai, ai,” wailed the woman, staring blindly.
Delilah shrank back, hardly daring to look into those flames herself, for fear of what might be revealed to her. She was aware of the wind sweeping around the hut, of the brushing of dry branches together somewhere out there in the darkness, of the faint baying of the distant hound.
The mama loa sat back, straightening. Her eyes were very bright as she looked across the flames at the frightened girl. She nodded her head, smiling a little.
"You not de ordinary run of nigra, you different," she accused. "You got white blood in you, child."
"My father. Or so my mother said."
"And your mother?"
Delilah whispered, "She was octoroon, she worked for Sanite Dede along Dumaine Street in New Orleans."
The mama loa was well aware of the houses along Dumaine Street and of the strange social customs and curious culture that permitted pretty quadroons and octoroons to own and run fancy houses. The prettiest girls of the Vieux Carre, of Bourbon Street and the Place d’Armes were placed on display for the sons of plantation owners to dance with, to admire and judge with eyes that lusted for their charms.
There were Quadroon Balls, where the richest young men of Louisiana society came to dance the quadrille with the daughters of slaves who, by reason of their physical attractions, were often taken as mistresses by these same young men. Her mother had been such a mistress to Meriwether Stone before he had died and left Stonehedge Plantation to his son Randolph and his daughter Melissa.
"The old master brought me here when my momma died giving me birth," Delilah said. "He treated me pretty good, like his own child. He had no wife then, his wife had died. Now, now. . . ."
"Now the mistress want to breed you."
"Yes. Her Daddy would never have let that happen."
"What he want to do, keep you in a glass cage?”
"I don't know. But please—"
"Oh, I give you charm. You got money?"
The girl fumbled with the purse tied to her belt, lifting it off, opening it, taking out two gold pieces, twin half-eagles that gleamed in the candlelight. The yellow metal was mesmeric to the staring eyes of the mama loa. "Whoooo—eee," chortled the woman. "You rich, girl."
"Take them," Delilah pleaded, holding her hand out. "Daddy Stone gave them to me. I've kept them ever since." She did not add that she had more of them, hidden away in a crystal jar under a loose board in her room, together with some jewels.
"I take them," the older woman nodded, snatching at the half-eagles. "You not need them, from what I read in the Ife flames.”
"Wha—what do you see?”
"Good luck—for a nigra. And not such good luck. No, won't tell you no more, told you nuff. Mama loa gotta keep some secrets, don't she?"
Delilah sat up straighter. Her lips firmed to the streak of stubbornness she had inherited from her mother and to the pride which her white father had bequeathed her.
"For two gold pieces, it seems to me—"
"You want the charm, girl?"
Defeated, she nodded and let the rigidity go out of her body. Breathlessly she watched as the woman rose gracefully to her feet and moved across the hut to where an Agwe boat hung from the rafters not far from a shelf heavy with small leather pouches. Delilah knew vaguely that the goddess Erzulie rode in the boat, and that it was put in the water for a voyage during certain rites.
The woman turned, seeing her interest in the boat, smiling suddenly and nodding her head. "Someday I put boat in water for you, girl. Someday you need my help again. For now, de charm."
She drew a strangely carved bit of wood from the leather pouch she held. It had three sides, each of which was marked with a different sign, also carved into the wood. From where she sat, Delilah was certain one of the signs was that of the sacred serpent. She felt a cold chill run down her spine.
The mama loa delighted in her fright, she saw. Delilah realized suddenly that this woman before her led a very lonely life, up here in the hills. No slaves would dare go near her except to get a charm or a spell, while the white masters let her strictly alone, if she behaved herself. The thought touched Delilah that the mama loa might resent the plantation slaves, well fed and well cared for, sheltered in warm houses that kept out the rain and the cold night air.
The woman halted before the girl, let the amulet on its chain dangle from her fingers. Now that it was up this close, Delilah could see that one of the signs was the Baron Samedi cross carved on the flattened side, another was the govi serpent, the third side was covered with the veve patterns.
"You wear all time,” the mama loa said.
Delilah nodded, holding out her soft palm.
The woman let the amulet down onto her hand slowly, with a faint smile.
"You send Cass,” she whispered, her eyes big.
Delilah whispered, "I don't want him hurt. Just—"
"Mama loa know what you want. You don't know what de mama loa want. This Cass boy big man, ain't he ?”
Delilah nodded. "He's the stud."
"You send him,” the woman nodded.
Delilah was on her feet to her surprise, having no recollection of having risen. The older woman turned away, as if she had forgotten that she had a visitor. The girl turned and stumbled over cooking pots and ceremonial urns, finding her way to the door.
Outside the hut, the wind was even colder.
Delilah ran as if the Erzulie herself were after her.
There was an oil lamp burning when she crept back inside the big house on the Stone plantation where close to a thousand slaves worked and ate and slept. The shadows were long and sinister and Delilah was shivering in her reaction to her ordeal on Skeleton Hill. The words of the mama loa sounded even more mysterious in her mind, for she had forgotten much of them, and remembered them only as something out of a dream.
A shadow moved, stood out in the hall. “Whut you doin, out this yere time o' night, girl”
"Juno," breathed Delilah, sagging against the wall. "Who you spect to find, the mistress?"
"No, I—I'm all of a twitch. Excuse me." Juno was the housekeeper of the plantation building. Of tremendous size, she seemed to the younger boy and girl slaves to have the strength of a man for the clips and blows she meted out to anyone who showed the slightest disobedience to her commands sometimes knocked the rebels down. Her face was a black moon, there was Ashanti blood in her, and under the kerchief of red cotton she wore about her head, her eyes seemed treacherous thoughts of disobedience.
She could be understanding; the old master had said her heart was gold and if he ever needed money he would open her up and sell that golden heart to the New Orleans banking company on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans. Juno knew what he meant, but the other slaves sometimes prayed for this to happen. To Delilah, Juno was a far worse menace than a dozen old masters. On occasion, however, her sudden sympathy showed that she was not the Gorgon the younger slaves seemed to think.
She put a fat arm about Delilah, drawing her close. "Shut yo mind to all them worries, child. Juno let nuthin happen to yo."
"It's Cass. I'm scared of him."
"Juno knows, but that female upstairs in the fancy gold bedroom is a she-devil.” The words poured out before the housekeeper could control them. She rolled her eyes at the dark shadows which the candle in her hand did not dispel.
“I saw the mama loa.”
"Shoyo did. I seen the amulet. You think that help you?"
"What else can?"
"Don't know. Don't hold with voodoo."
Juno was leading the stumbling girl along the hall and toward her bedroom door, in the rear wing of the vast plantation house. A few chosen slaves lived in, so as to be able to attend the master or the mistress during the dark hours of the night, Melissa Stone rang a bell in her room when she wanted a house slave.
The old master had used a tin whistle. Delilah wondered if the young master—she only remembered him as an athletic youth of sixteen to her six years—would blow that whistle to summon a slave if ever he came home again. In her memory, Randolph Stone was a big, muscular boy with hair the color of corn-silk and a habit of riding horses at a breakneck gallop across the broad acres of the plantation grounds.
Juno opened her door. She had lighted a small candle in a wooden sconce on the wall so that the tiny room, neat and clean, was revealed to hold a bureau, a small bed, a straight-back chair. She spent little time in this room, it was only for sleeping at night. Most of her work, waiting on table, was done in the big dining room with the huge chandelier that had come by riverboat from St. Louis and by canal-boat to the Great Lakes from New York.
Being a waitress was not her only duty. There were cleaning chores and silver-polishing chores—Delilah often thought the Stone family owned all the silver in Louisiana—and helping with the linens when there was company staying over. It was not a difficult life she led, compared with that of the field slaves who labored under the hot sun in the cane sugar fields, chopping, chopping, chopping.
As a house slave, Delilah held a certain amount of status. From time to time, when her work had taken her near the rows of cabins that housed the field slaves, she had seen the younger males eyeing her with frank lust in their eyes. To them, she was an untouchable, always had been.
Juno came into her room, closing the door softly. "You git into bed, gal, she murmured kindly. "Come on, strip yoself down an hop inta them sheets."
Delilah smiled, bending to lift her dress over her head. She stood a moment, an ivory figurine in the candlelight, her legs straight and shapely, her buttocks small but plump. When she turned, her breasts swayed gently, as if set on springs.
"Yo muff to give any man a live rabbit," Juno chuckled.
Delilah spat, "I hates men!"
"Sho, sho. You never had one." Delilah switched her behind in sudden petulance. Juno grinned as the girl took a cotton nightgown from a bureau drawer and held it above her head, preparing to lower it over her nudity. The older woman said, "You git Cass in yo, you love it."
"Not me! I'll kill him." Her words were muffled by the cotton nightgown about her head as her hands drew it down, but the angry wriggle of her body revealed her exact feelings. Juno shook her head in pretended dismay.
"You uppity. Cass take yo down a trifle," she observed.
Delilah sniffed, pushing the thin cotton down past her hips. Her eyes smoldered and a stubborn fury tightened her full red lips. On bare feet she stalked proudly to the bed and pulled down the covers.
She turned her head and stared at the fat woman. "I kill him 'fore he gets me. You see."
Juno grunted. "Yo know whut happen to slave that kills? I seen things happen, chile. They not good."
Delilah slipped her slim body between the sheets. Juno stepped to the edge of the bed and drew the blankets up about her neck, smiling down at her almost tenderly. "Yo be good gal, yo be happy. Don't do nuthin foolish. Juno watch over yo."
Delilah began to shiver when the door closed. Her hand fastened on the voodoo amulet convulsively. No matter what Juno said, she would, too, kill that big black buck if he so much as set a hand on her.
Damballah was no help, two nights later.
Delilah stood in a brightly lighted room between Juno and Vergie, one of the other house girls, and faced her mistress sullenly and defiantly. She wore a flounced paisley dress that clung to her figure with almost distressing faithfulness. It was a hand-me-down from Melissa Stone, as were so many of her better dresses. It galled her that except for her secret hoard beneath the floorboards—she owned nothing at all in this world not even her own body. She told herself she should be used to it, she was only a slave.
Big Cass was to take her naked body here with all these bright lights showing everything, on a big round couch set in the middle of this big room. It would have been bad enough if they had been alone and in darkness.
But here! With the mistress and her friends looking on!
Her eyes touched the soft, pretty woman who lounged so regally in an upholstered English chaise-lounge of carved walnut with Crewel embroidery. Melissa Stone was dark where her brother Randolph was fair. Her body was sensually curved, she exposed the upper halves of her somewhat heavy breasts in a low-cut antique bodice with sloping shoulders that showed off her smooth white flesh and bare arms.
Her eyes were black, her hair a glossy ebony. The red lips that smiled indulgently at the shrinking slave girl before her were overfull and pouting.
She said, "Come now, girl. It isn't all that bad. Besides, we might get a whole new strain of handsome boy and girl slaves from you and Big Cass." Her eyes moved sideways to the big Negro standing on spraddled legs, muscled chest bare down to the belt that held up his cotton pants. "Strong, too," she added with a little laugh. A girl of her own age, in her early thirties, said softly, "Why don't you strip him down, Lissa? We'd all admire to see Big Cass before he goes to work on your Delilah."
"Later, Felicia, later." A man leaned to whisper audibly in Melissa Stone's ear. "Why not strip the girl, my dear? She should prove a rare boon for my tired eyes."
"Oh, Damon—honestly! You'd think you never seen a naked slave girl before. I vow, you're vastly devilish!"
Damon Pontremarain laughed softly. "As a banker, I get few opportunities to indulge my worst side. You slave owners are the ones who have the life."
Felicia Brulot leaned forward, her blue eyes impish. "Damon, I heard you have that town house of yours filled to the rafters with pretty little nymphets. Fie! For shame!”
There was a ripple of laughter among the guests. Delilah knew them all by sight, Felicia Brulot and her brother Claude, Damon Pontremarain, the married couples, Edouard and Therese Clarke, Lucy and Benjamin Potter, the Crews, the Abbotts.
She was more familiar with Clay Moultrie and his two sisters, Alice and Beverley, than she was with any of the others; they owned the plantation down-river from Stonehedge, Riveredge. It was rumored that Felicia Brulot was to wed Clay Moultrie within the year, though she wore no ring as yet on her finger.
The mistress clapped a palm with her folded French fan of black silk painted in gray, with mother-of-pearl sticks. The slaves froze at attention, though Big Cass continued to grin and run his eyes over the shrinking Delilah.
"Take her into the storehouse, Vergie,” said Melissa Stone. "See that she comes back to us wearing only a robe." In an aside to Felicia Brulot, she murmured, "There is no sense wasting that paisley dress. And Big Cass would tear it off her if I let him go at her now."
Clay Moultrie shrugged. He was a big man, heavily muscled and handsome, in tight buff riding breeches, flared riding boat, calfskin boots with silver spurs and a shirt collar showing a daintiness of lace at his throat. His face was brown with much sunlight, his dark brown hair was balding slightly at the temples. While he stared at Delilah, he had been switching a riding crop against his knee.
He said softly, "I'll go change her, Melissa dear." Felicia Brulot turned her soft throat to stare up at him. "You're entirely too eager to strip down nigra girls, Clay honey. Time you outgrew that foolishness."
"Man has to be dead to get like that," he grinned. "You and your Nola," breathed Felicia, loud enough so that only Melissa Stone heard her. Melissa smiled knowingly, and touched the man and then the woman with her eyes.
"She'd do better with Vergie, Clay. Hope you don't mind," she said.
Clay Moultrie shrugged. His slave girl Nola was as pretty as Delilah, to his discerning eyes. He knew Felicia hated her because Clay slept with Nola night after night. He reminded himself for the millionth time that he had better sell Nola before he became engaged to Felicia Brulot.
Vergie breathed, "Come along, honey. Every eye in the room watched the two girls move side by side from their post of attention before their mistress. They were both pretty, both slimly curved and very graceful. Three years before, Vergie herself had been fed to Big Cass here in this same room, and had furnished the Stone plantation with a healthy boy slave. They went through the doorway, their sides brushing. With a sigh, Vergie closed the spinning house door. A dozen female slaves labored over spinning wheels and carpet looms during the day in this building, but the big room had been emptied of that furniture for the night and filled with the round couch and chairs for the visiting guests.
"I'll run away," sobbed Delilah, bursting into tears. Vergie put an arm about her. "You'll do no such thing. You goin' stay and take your medicine like the rest of us.”
Delilah walked along the flag-stoned path between the spinning house and the storehouse, rubbing her tear-wet cheeks. "Easy for you to say, you're sweet on Ned."
"Yes, and so's the mistress!"
Delilah halted, shocked speechless for a moment. "What?" she gasped. "The mistress—and young Ned?"
"I don't think nuthin's happened yet," admitted Vergie with painful honesty, "but I seen her starin at him, thinkin her mean thoughts. I a woman, if I is a slave. I know what she has in that dirty mind of hers."
"You're just fancying," declared Delilah with relief. “Maybe. I—hopes—so. Now come on!” Delilah drew back a step. Her eyes welled with tears as she gave a little gasp. "I can't, Vergie. I just can't. I'm scared spitless."
"Ain't all that bad,” Vergie chuckled, catching her by an arm. "Hurt jess a little bit, at first. Then no more pain, jess pleasure. You love it, you try it.”
Delilah threw off her hand, whirled on a heel and fled. Vergie came after her, shouting, "You stupid little thing! You want me to fetch Big Cass or young Mark to run you down? You want your back whipped bloody?"
The girls raced down the pathway and out across the mall, flanked by towering oak trees in front of the mansion. Delilah was fleet of foot, she was fueled with fright, she ran like a young deer.
Vergie saw the uselessness of the chase. She slid to a halt on the grass and screeched, "Mark! Mark Antony! Where are you, boy?"
A husky young black came out of the shadows of the oak trees on the run. He was away like an arrow, running easily, gaining on the frightened girl with every stride. Vergie watched him run with a crooked smile. Young buck, she thought, he as big and strong as Cass, maybe some day he give him a fight for stud rights.
Delilah heard the footfalls overtaking her. She was sobbing and shaking in her terror, the voodoo amulet was no good at all. Her legs felt rubbery and suddenly weak; she staggered and almost fell.
A hand caught her elbow, held her upright. "You stupid!" said a soft voice. She felt herself lifting her head to stare up at a big youth, only two years older than herself. Mark Antony was bigger even than Cass, she reflected dazedly, he was of a different cut from all the others. There was no Ashanti, no Benin, no Matabele blood in his veins. She could not guess from what part of Africa his forefathers had come, nor when.
"I'm sc—scared," she panted. "Won't hurt long," he grinned. "Big Cass, he eager!" Delilah let her head droop. She was beaten, and knew it. She whispered, "You going to tell I run?"
"Whut you think? I got to chase you, not got to talk bout it," Mark Antony protested almost angrily. "Now you skee-daddle. Vergie waitin' to on dress you." He watched her walk away almost wistfully, then said so only she could hear, "Wish I was Big Cass right now, I tell you that, Lilah!"
She did not speak. Her only answer was to put a hand to her breast and catch the voodoo charm in her fingers. In a flush of hot rage, she yanked the chain until it broke. She hurled it away from her, to lose itself somewhere in the mall grass.
The amulet lay abandoned in the moonlight.