Sydnee was worried. Margarite was too drunk to conjure the spirits. She had fallen asleep in the shed with her head on her arms at the 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 for some time because 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 and then scattered fresh flowers everywhere from a basket, all to prepare for a Hoodoo reading, a blend of Roman Catholicism and Voodoo.
Sydnee Sauveterre looked up. The rain was drumming hard on the shed behind The Devil’s Backbone tavern on the Natchez Trace. Her father had opened the tavern on this heavily traveled, dangerous thoroughfare almost twenty-five years ago. His customers were flatboat men, nicknamed “Kaintucks” who brought goods down the Mississippi River to sell in New Orleans.
Sydnee worked frantically to get ready for the customer who was up at the tavern drinking. Everything had to be set up in proper Hoodoo fashion before Margarite could begin her divination. The most difficult part would be to shake the whiskey from the old woman’s brain. Margarite had been sneaking more and more “white lightning” lately, and Sydnee did not want her father to give the slave another beating.
“Margarite,” Sydnee said, shaking the old woman’s shoulders. “Margarite, Papa will be angry. You must wake up.”
Beads of perspiration broke out on the girl’s forehead. She pushed the damp, brown hair off of her forehead and stepped over to an 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 jerked her head up, 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 Martinique.
“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.
“Ma chère, you tire yourself,” the old woman said, pinching her chin.
Wind chimes by the altar flooded the room 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 altar cloth. Water was in a bowl ready as a medium for the spirits to enter 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 to leave the shed, several cats raced toward the steps trying to get inside out of the rain. She slammed the door quickly behind her and dashed into the woods. Squatting down in the wet brush, she watched the man enter the shed.
The rain ran down Sydnee’s face and soaked her clothing, but she did not notice. She had grown up in the elements and was accustomed to all kinds of weather. Put to work from the moment she could walk, Sydnee grew 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 cheekbones, the girl was a mere waif with large, brown eyes.
“The eyes of a doe,” Margarite would say affectionately.
When Sydnee’s mother died giving birth to her, Victor Sauveterre 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 sexual needs as well.
From the first day Margarite arrived at The Devil’s Backbone, she had been a mother to Sydnee. She fed her, nurtured her, and taught her, but as 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 he did not hesitate to punish them with violence if necessary.
The only source of power for the females was through Hoodoo, and Margarite and Sydnee were proficient at it. Margarite learned it as a child in Martinique and carefully schooled Sydnee in the arts from an early age. Victor Sauveterre encouraged the divination because it made him money at the tavern or “stands” as they were called on The Trace.
For years The Devil’s Backbone thrived. The Kaintuck boatmen traveled downriver in flatboats loaded with goods from Nashville to New Orleans. Once unloaded, the men would break up their boats, sell them as lumber and then come north again on foot to drink and carouse in Natchez. After their revelry in the bordellos and taverns of Natchez Under-the-Hill, they would start their four hundred mile overland journey on the Natchez 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 flatboats and goods and start all over again. The journey was dangerous, and the men were too.
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 for a moment, looking 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. Margarite 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 Hoodoo. Margarite looked down at the bones and stared with horror at what she read.
Suddenly, she felt sick to her stomach and dizzy. She clutched at the table to steady herself, and her eyes rolled back. Like a black veil dropping over her head, darkness enveloped her, and she slipped 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. Nothing came to her, nothing but darkness. She closed her eyes again. This time she clutched a charm around her neck and murmured a prayer. Over and over she chanted, “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 what was it? 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 second sight and 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, feeling the chill of danger. Summoning the greatest of Hoodoo powers, she uttered, “Danbala, I invoke you.”
The mist lifted instantly, and Sydnee saw Margarite sitting in the shed with the stranger. Cat bones were scattered on the table. The guttering candles cast dancing shadows across the room. She saw Margarite’s head roll back, and her jaw drop open. Then 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 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 slipped under the door and began to glide 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.
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 body of Margarite. Between the man and Margarite was the coiled form of Cumptico, ready to strike. The front portion of his body was upright as he challenged the stranger; his tail rattling ominously, and his tongue darting out.
Margarite raised her head and screamed.
From the doorway, Sydnee said with strained reserve, “Cumptico, my thanks to you. Your job here is done.”
The snake did not move, nor the man. The stranger looked at Sydnee with hate in his eyes.
“Danbala, I beseech you,” she said, with her hands upturned.
At last, the snake dropped down and slithered out the door.
With a crash, Victor Sauveterre stormed into the shed. “What the hell’s going on here?” he roared. Grossly overweight with a shock of red hair and skin the color of a fish’s underbelly, Sydnee’s father was massive. “What happened?”
“It was a snake, Papa,” Sydnee said quietly.
He turned to Margarite and roared, “I told you to keep your goddamned creatures out of here!”
Suddenly 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?”
Putting his knife away, the stranger pushed past him toward the door.
Victor Sauveterre grabbed Sydnee. “You may have my daughter at no charge tonight.”
Sydnee dropped her eyes to the floor. This was her job, but tonight she was afraid.
Margarite blurted suddenly, “Mais non, Master! The girl is about to give birth.”
The innkeeper turned and back-handed Margarite across the face. “Shut up!” The force of the blow sent her staggering.
Changing back to faux gentility, he added, “Have the girl, with my compliments, sir. She is a little bigger than normal but I assure you, she will satisfy.”
Sydnee held her breath and waited. The wind chimes moved slightly, sending a tinkling sound through the room.
The stranger looked at Victor Sauveterre and then at Sydnee. He shook his head and left The Devil’s Backbone.