Sample Chapter of Amanda's Upcoming Novel
Natchez Trace, Mississippi
Margarite was too drunk to conjure the spirits. She had fallen asleep with her head on her arms at the small table used for divination. Her madras tignon was askew, and she was snoring loudly.
Sydnee looked at the old slave and bit her lip. It was obvious the woman had been drinking in the shed for some time; candle wax was running down onto the altar cloth. She would have to set things up for the reading all by herself and do it quickly.
The fourteen year old girl looked around the shed frantically. In the corner, she found a burlap bag and took out statues and skulls arranging them on the altar in front of a standing crucifix. Next she ladled water from an earthenware jar into a wooden bowl, then scattered fresh flowers everywhere from a basket.
Sydnee Sauveterre looked up. The rain was drumming hard on the shed behind “The Devil’s Backbone” tavern on the Natchez Trace. Her father’s backwoods’ stand was all the girl had ever known. He had started the tavern on this heavily travelled, dark and dangerous thoroughfare almost twenty five years ago. His customers were flatboat men who brought goods down the Mississippi River to sell in New Orleans. When their destination was complete; they would break up their boats, sell them as lumber, then come north on foot to drink and carouse in Natchez. After their revelry at “Natchez Under the Hill”, they would start their four hundred mile overland journey on “The Trace” back up to Nashville. Along the wilderness trail they would patronize stands like “The Devil’s Backbone” for food, drink and whores. Once in Nashville, they would purchase flat boats and goods and start all over again. The journey was dangerous and the men were too.
Sydnee Sauveterre worked frantically to get ready for the customer who was up at the stand drinking. Everything had to be set up in proper Hoodoo fashion before Margarite could begin. The most difficult part would be to shake the whisky from the old woman’s brain so she could divine something. Margarite had been sneaking more and more “white lightning” lately, and she did not want her father to give the slave another beating.
“Margarite,” she said, taking the woman’s shoulders and shaking her. “Margarite, Papa will be angry. You must wake up.” Beads of perspiration broke out on the girl’s forehead, and she brushed back her damp brown hair. Stepping over to the earthenware jar, she took a ladle of water, pulled back the collar of the slave’s threadbare gown and poured water down her back.
Margarite raised her head groggily, slurping her drool. Wiping her mouth with her sleeve, she mumbled an oath in French and looked around with bleary eyes. Her face was lined with wrinkles and ritual scarring from her early days in St. Dominique.
“We must hurry,” warned Sydnee, placing a chamois bag of cat bones on the table. “The man will be here any minute. Here are the bones for the reading.”
The girl reached out and straightened Margarite’s tignon on her head.
Reaching out clumsily, the old woman took Sydnee’s chin and said, “Ma chère. You tire yourself.”
Wind chimes hanging by the altar flooded the room suddenly with an eerie jingling. They looked up at the decoration made out of old keys swaying in the corner. Margarite murmured in French, “The spirits are here. They will protect me. Now go, child.”
Reluctantly, Sydnee nodded. She cast one more look around the dark room. A crucifix was set out and seven candles were guttering on the white alter cloth. Water was in a bowl ready as a medium for the spirits to pass into the room, and floral offerings were strewn for the ancestors.
Sydnee looked up at the chimes. She too felt the presence of the spirits and was comforted by it. The moment she opened the door several cats raced toward the shed trying to get inside out of the rain. Sydnee saw the shadow of a man walking down the path. She slammed the door quickly and dashed for the woods. Squatting down in the wet brush, she watched him enter the shed.
The rain ran down Sydnee’s face and soaked her clothing, but she did not notice. She had grown up outside in the elements and was accustomed to all kinds of weather. Put to work from the moment she could walk, Sydnee had grown slowly. At last, she was the correct height for her age, but she was as thin as a skeleton and as dirty as a street urchin. Her hair had been washed only a few times in her life, and her clothes were nothing more than shreds hanging on thin bones. Quiet and withdrawn, taking to animals rather than people, Sydnee was reclusive and shy. With wispy hair, freckles and high cheek bones, the girl was a mere waif. The only thing remarkable about her was her large brown eyes.
“The eyes of a doe,” Margarite would say affectionately.
Sydnee’s mother died giving birth to her, and Sydnee’s father, needing help running the tavern, had purchased Margarite. It was a convenient arrangement for him in every way. He could use the slave to do the heavy work and satisfy his physical needs with her as well.
From the first day Margarite had arrived at “The Devil’s Backbone”, she had been a mother to Sydnee. She fed her, nurtured her and taught her, but being a slave, their relationship was limited. Sydnee’s father exercised complete authority over the two females and dominated all decision making in the household. He firmly believed women, slave or free born, were his property and did not hesitate to punish them with violence if they took any initiative.
The only source of power for the females was through Hoodoo, and Margarite and Sydnee were proficient at it. Margarite had learned it as a child in St. Dominique and carefully schooled Sydnee in the arts from an early age. Victor Sauveterre was aware of their practice but not threatened by it. In fact, he embraced it because it made him money.
A rush of wind blew into the room as the customer stepped into the shed for his reading. The candle flames blew horizontally and the wind chimes jangled nervously. The moment Margarite laid eyes on the man, she sobered up.
He stepped into the doorway and stopped, scowling at Margarite with his head lowered. His grey eyes glowered at her under a heavy brow. The stranger was tall and lanky with rounded shoulders and sunken cheeks. He wore a long threadbare greatcoat with the collar up, and heavy boots. Although he was bald, he had a ring of long thin hair at the base of his skull.
Margarite met his gaze and swallowed hard. Something did not feel right. The man shut the door, never taking his eyes from her. She felt the hair rise on her arms. Sitting down at the table, he continued to stare at her. Margarite pushed the chamois bag toward him. When he reached out for it, his long bony fingers swept lightly across her wrist. She jerked her hand back.
Still watching her, the stranger shook the bag and threw the cat bones onto the table. He was obviously familiar with Houdou. Margarite looked down at the bones and stared with horror at what she read. Suddenly she felt sick to her stomach, and her eyes rolled back in her head. Like a black veil dropping over her face, darkness enveloped her as she slid into a swoon.
Something felt wrong to Sydnee as she waited in the woods. She could feel it. Squatting like an animal in the brush, she watched the shed, her knees apart and her bare feet on the soggy ground. The spirits were trying to tell her something. She pressed her eyes shut, straining to see into her mind’s eye what was happening. Nothing came to her, nothing but darkness. She closed her eyes again. This time she clutched an amulet around her neck and murmured a prayer. Over and over she chanted, lulling herself into a trance,
“Hail Mary, full of grace--”
A blur of light came to her at last, and gradually it sharpened into the image of a flame. Sydnee could see candles on a white cloth. She heard something scatter on a table. Her breathing quickened. There was danger, but she could not see what it was. She must relax. She must relax or the visions would not come. Sydnee put her head back and opened her mouth to breathe slowly. Over and over she petitioned to the saints for protection for Margarite.
“St. Michael, stay with her,” she murmured. “Our Lady of the Assumption protect her. St. Gertrude watch over her.” Sydnee hesitated a moment, bit her lip then said, “Danbala, I invoke you.”
The mist lifted, and Sydnee saw Margarite sitting with the stranger. Cat bones were scattered on the table. The guttering candles cast dancing shadows across the room. Suddenly, she saw Margarite’s head roll back and her jaw drop open. Like a rag doll, she slumped back into her chair.
Sydnee’s heart jumped. She knew she must run to Margarite, but she could not move. The stranger put his hands on the table and stood up slowly. His body unfolded like that of a mantis, and he took a gutting knife from his belt.
“I must go to her!” Sydnee’s mind screamed, but she was paralyzed, a prisoner of her vision. She saw movement on the floor of the shed. The long body of a snake had slipped under the door and began to glide across the floor toward the stranger. As it stretched out to its full length, Sydnee could see the diamond pattern on its back.
“Cumptico!” she cried. Her head snapped forward, and her eyes opened. “What have I done!”
Sydnee jumped to her feet and bolted toward the shed, her feet splashing in the mud. When she threw the door open she saw the stranger standing over the inert body of Margarite. Between the man and Margarite was the coiled form of Cumptico, poised for attack. The front portion of his body was upright as he challenged the stranger; his tail rattling ominously, and his tongue darting out.
Margarite regained consciousness, raised her head and screamed.
Sydnee stood rigidly in the door and said with strained reserve, “Cumptico, my thanks to you. Your job here is done.”
The snake did not move, nor the man. Panting, Margarite stayed in her chair. The stranger rolled his eyes toward Sydnee. They were filled with hate.
Cupping her hands upward and looking toward the heavens, Sydnee prayed, “Danbala, I beseech you.”
At last, the snake dropped down, moved past the girl’s feet and slithered out the door. The man put the knife back in his belt.
Suddenly, the door crashed open, and Victor Sauveterre stormed into the shed. “What the hell’s going on?”
Sydnee’s father was a massively built man. He was grossly overweight with a shock of red hair and skin the color of a fish’s underbelly. “What happened?”
“It was a snake, Papa,” Sydnee said quietly.
He turned to Margarite and roared, “I told you to keep your God damn creatures out of here.” Then, assuming an obsequious air, he straightened up and said to the stranger, “I apologize for my nigger. She will be punished for this. How can I make this up to you, sir?”
The stranger glared at Sauveterre and pushed past him toward the door.
Victor Sauveterre reached over quickly and grabbed Sydnee, pushing her toward the man. “You may have my daughter for no charge tonight.”
Sydnee stiffened and dropped her eyes to the floor. She was about to perform a service that was expected of her as an employee of “The Devil’s Backbone”. She never thought to object, but tonight she was afraid. Satisfying customers has been her job at the stand since she was twelve. It was her contribution to feeding the family and usually she did not question it, but tonight was different.
Margarite blurted suddenly, “Mais non, Master! The girl is about to give birth.”
As quick as lightning, the innkeeper turned and back handed Margarite across the face. The force of the blow sent her staggering. “Shut your mouth!”
Victor Sauveterre changed his demeanor back again to faux gentility, “Have the girl, with my compliments, sir,” and he put his arm over Sydnee’s shoulder guiding her toward the man. Her belly was not large but it was apparent she was breeding.
Sydnee held her breath and waited. The wind chimes moved slightly, sending a tinkling sound through the room.
The stranger looked at Victor Sauveterre then at Sydnee, then back again. He shook his head and left “The Devil’s Backbone.”