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Queen of swords, p.6
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       Queen of Swords, p.6

           Sara Donati

  Hannah knew better than to respond when Jennet was in a mood like this: unable to voice her fears, and set on distracting herself and everyone else with the combination of wit and impudence that was all her own. She wondered, again, if she should have told Jennet this latest news about Titine.

  She watched for a moment as Jennet turned over a card and considered it. Then she asked a question she had been holding back since the day they had come to the L’Île de Lamantins.

  “You’ve never explained about the cards you left behind at Nut Island.”

  Jennet looked up. “The seven and the Queen of Swords, aye. I missed them. There was no paper on the island except for the navigation maps on the ships, so I had to make replacement cards out of palm fronds that I wove and cut to size.”

  Hannah said, “And who is the Queen of Swords? Is that you, or me?”

  “It will have to be you,” Jennet said. She tilted her head thoughtfully. Her expression said she was looking back to the day Dégre had taken her away, out of her life and into his, and set them on the path that had brought them to New Orleans. Hannah had seen many men talk of battles with the same expression: as closed and unwelcoming as a fist.

  Jennet said, “I knew Luke would come after me, but I wanted you too. I wanted both of you.”

  “I needed no convincing,” Hannah said. “There was no question but that we’d come after you.” She bent over the baby on Jennet’s lap and ran her fingers through the curls, feather soft and slightly damp, that fell over his brow. He looked up at Hannah with perfectly round and trusting eyes, her brother’s son. Her missing brother.

  “We never lost faith that we’d find you,” Hannah said, and she saw a tremor move across Jennet’s face. “We must do the same for Luke.”

  Then she kissed them both and left Jennet to her solitude.

  With the coming of the late fall, New Orleans was filled with a new vigor, due, Hannah had no doubt, to the fact that the terrible draining heat of late summer was truly gone. Here the coming of winter was welcome, because with it came parties and dinners and long walks on the levee without fear of sunstroke. It all reminded Hannah how far she was from home.

  At Lake in the Clouds there would be at least a foot of snow on the ground, and soon the ice on Half Moon Lake would be thick enough to support a man. Partridge would explode out of the underbrush in a shower of snow so white against a pale blue sky that it made the eyes water. But in New Orleans the breeze that came off the Mississippi was warm enough that she might have done without the shawl draped over her shoulders.

  Standing in the courtyard while she waited for Ben Savard, the sun, even low on the sky, touched her face like a blessing. Tomorrow the cold rain would most likely return, but she could be thankful, just now, for this small respite, for the deep red of the damp cobblestones and the shadowy loggia with its arches and pillars. Even now there was a good deal of green about: a red clay pot of chives on a windowsill, fig and date and palm trees around the fountain in the middle of the courtyard, where water fell from the mouth of a mermaid to wash over alabaster breasts and pool around her tail.

  Paul Savard bought this property from a French merchant who had gone bankrupt. Now the kine-pox clinic was on the ground floor with the general clinic immediately above it. The family apartment where Jennet was hidden away was on the topmost floor. From the courtyard Hannah could see the window, but there was no sign of her cousin.

  She caught movement to her right and turned to see Jean-Benoît coming down the stairs from the small apartment over the kitchen, in a building all its own.

  “I didn’t realize you lived here,” she said, and then wished she had not, though he didn’t seem to take offense.

  “The garçonnière is here for me when I’m in the city,” he said. He gestured with his chin. “It’s that passageway we want, beside the stable. Clémentine, bonjour.” He inclined his head and shoulders to the cook, who was watching them from the kitchen doorway, and Hannah did the same.

  She followed him out of the courtyard through a narrow passageway that ended in a heavy wrought-iron gate. Jean-Benoît lifted the latch and it swung open silently into a smaller courtyard, partially cobbled and surrounded on three sides by low, one-story buildings with overhanging eaves. All of them seemed to be empty.

  “When the American troops get here they’ll requisition every square foot of space,” Ben said. “I doubt they’d displace a clinic, though. So there’s no time to lose.”

  Many questions came to mind, but she restricted herself to the problem at hand. “What exactly did you have in mind?”

  He showed her a long building that had once been a carpenter’s shop. It still smelled faintly of wood sap and grease and of men’s labor. It was solidly built, with whitewashed walls and a sturdy plank floor, light-filled and airy, with a large hearth at one end and a Franklin stove at the other. There was plenty of furniture available, Ben told her, cots and tables and cabinets, and she would have full access to the apothecary where she had spent the morning.

  “The space is adequate?”

  Hannah raised her shoulders and let them drop. “I have looked after the sick in much worse places.” She thought of the blood-soaked ground at Tippecanoe, of the garrison gaol where her brother Daniel had almost died, of a dozen different battles, and turned her mind away from those images. Then she turned her mind to the people here who needed care, and asked about them.

  “We’ll go meet some of them,” Ben said.

  Hannah hesitated. She thought of Jennet, hidden away from the Poiterins and waiting for word of her husband. She thought of Rachel, who would be coming soon to tell her daily stories and share the gossip. She felt her fingers twitching with the need to be doing something, anything, and she nodded.

  Ben opened the door, and Hannah stepped out into the city.

  “I hardly remember any of this,” Hannah said a few minutes later. “Though I think I must have come this way, when I first got here.”

  The weather was fine and the breeze was welcome on her face, and Hannah felt truly well for the first time in so many weeks.

  She said, “When I was very little I dreamed of adventures, but this morning I was thinking that I’ve had quite enough of them in my lifetime.”

  Ben glanced down at her. “The first lie you’ve told me.” He grinned to take the sting out of the truth. “You aren’t the kind to sit quiet by the fire, or you wouldn’t be here in the first place.”

  “I could learn to be that kind of woman,” Hannah said, feeling herself flushing a little. “It would be a relief.”

  “You want to sit by the fire and sew?” He shook his head. “I can’t see it.”

  “Maybe you don’t know me as well as you think you do,” Hannah said, irritated now. “Maybe you don’t know me at all.”

  “I know enough,” he said. “Paul told me about that summer. He told me about the riot, and what happened after. What you risked.”

  Hannah felt herself flush with embarrassment, though she couldn’t say exactly what bothered her: that Paul Savard had been telling stories, or that he had told them to Ben.

  She said, “He exaggerates.”

  “My brother?” Ben looked amused. “I know no man less inclined to exaggeration. He is far more likely to err in the other direction.”

  Because Hannah could not argue with that very true statement, she remained silent and was relieved when Ben let the subject go.

  In a short time they had passed out of the neighborhood of large, well-maintained homes and businesses into an area that was populated by artisans and skilled laborers. Most of the houses were two-room cottages that were of a size with the cabins Hannah was familiar with. A space to sleep, and one for the business of living, a small garden. The spell of warmer weather had brought out washtubs and clotheslines, and women called to each other as they worked. It would be easy to imagine herself in some other country, because Hannah saw not a single white face.

  It struck her for the first time how
the community of free people of color made New Orleans into a city unlike any other. Nowhere else, not even in the states where slavery had been outlawed, did so many live, if not in perfect freedom, then at least with a good measure of self-government.

  A ragman, his skin as wrinkled and dark as roasted hickory nuts, came toward them leading a donkey laden down with sagging panniers. He nodded to Ben and didn’t look at Hannah, but at the faded blue cotton tignon she had taken from her pocket to wrap around her head. She was not any shade of black, but neither was she white, and thus the law applied to her as well. And yet she had the impression—fleeting, unsettling—that the old man would have snatched the cloth from her head, if Ben had not been beside her.

  She said, “In Manhattan I only had to be wary of how whites looked at me.”

  Ben made a sound in his throat, one that she thought must be meant as acknowledgment.

  They passed into another part of the city, far more run-down. Fewer of the children on the street were colored, and more of them called to each other in Spanish. The wooden gutters that lined the lanes in the rest of town were missing here or broken, and puddles of dirty water and waste and trash pockmarked the road. A half dozen piglets dug in a pile of refuse, curled tails working furiously and without pause, even when a window opened and a shower of slops rained down on them.

  They passed a butcher and then skirted a great heap of headless, hollowed-out carcasses outside a tannery. The stink in the air was so thick that Hannah’s eyes watered and her gorge rose sharply and it took all her concentration to make her stomach settle. Then Ben turned a corner.

  Hannah stopped, in surprise and unease. It was as if a whole village—any of the Indian villages she had known at different times in her life—had been fit into the short lane of cottages. Women and older girls sat in doorways, grinding corn or tending pots hung over fires made in the open. A grandmother scraped a deer hide stretched on a makeshift frame, an infant with a lesion on its cheek looking over her shoulder. Children ran back and forth with sticks, chasing a ball made of a pig’s bladder. Three old men, their faces folded with wrinkles, sat on a blanket on the ground, their hands open, palm up, in their laps. A water barrel stood just next to them, a tin dipper on a rawhide thong dangling from the rim.

  From across the crowd one of the old men looked at Hannah with milky turquoise eyes, his face as impassive as a sleeping infant’s.

  She said, “These people don’t belong in this city. What are they doing here?”

  “Some of them are slaves,” Ben said. He looked at her with eyes just the same color as the old man’s, but his gaze was sharp and knowing and anything but passive. “Their masters put them into these cottages and hire them out as day labor. They don’t run away because some of the children are kept on the plantation as surety. In the spring they’ll be called back there for the planting.”

  “There are no young men.”

  “They’ve been lent to the planters who have cane fields. The harvest will start soon.”

  “All of them, slaves?” Her voice shook a little. She had understood what Ben told her earlier, but to see the truth of it was something very different. Some day she would be among the Kahnyen’kehàka again and she would tell them about this place, where the Real People were bought and sold and worked like mules.

  Ben was looking at her with something like sympathy in his expression. He said, “Not all. What you see here is some of what Jackson left behind him after Horseshoe Bend.”

  Horseshoe Bend. Hannah shook her head, to rid it of the images.

  Ben took her first to see a man who worked in a hut just large enough for himself and his cobbler’s bench. He was bent over a boot with a loose heel. There were only three fingers on each hand, and one leg was gone below the knee, but otherwise he looked healthy, if not especially well fed. He was dressed in rough work clothes, and his hair had been shorn.

  The dark eyes met Hannah’s first and then moved on to Ben, and he smiled and rose from his work. The language he spoke was completely unfamiliar to Hannah, but she did notice that beside her, Ben had stiffened, ever so slightly.

  “What?” she asked him, when he had replied.

  “Blue-Deer says he is glad to see that I have taken a wife, and that there will be wailing from Mobile to Galveston.”

  Hannah shot Ben a sharp look and got a calm one in return.

  “And you corrected this misconception.”

  “I told him what he needs to know.”

  “What name did he call you?”

  Ben inclined his head and smiled. “He calls me by my Choctaw name, Waking-Bear.”

  Then Ben turned back to the cobbler and took up the conversation again. Hannah watched Blue-Deer’s expression shift and soften, and then he replied.

  “He has a son who is going blind in one eye,” Ben translated. “He would take him home to the healers in his village, but the village is gone.”

  “I will do what I can,” Hannah said. “If he will come to see me at the clinic.”

  That easily her decision was made.

  All the people she met had a few things in common. They were Indian, though many had had at least one African or white parent or grandparent. One in six or seven had eyes the same startling turquoise as Ben Savard. They were all poor, and they were all pleased to see Ben, and eager to talk to him. And once he had introduced Hannah, they were eager to talk to her, too. They told her about fevers and wounds, about cures they had tried, the ones that had worked and the ones that hadn’t; about cousins and sisters and grandfathers who had died suddenly or slowly; about children who wasted away even when food was plentiful; about rashes that came and went without explanation; ulcers and coughs and belly cramps.

  For the next hour they worked their way from one family to another. Sometimes they could speak French, but mostly they spoke the local Creole or their own languages, and then Ben acted as translator.

  An old woman who had the look of a clan mother asked her the question she had been waiting for. Hannah recited her lineage, and Ben translated.

  I am Walks-Ahead, daughter of Sings-from-Books of the Kahnyen’kehàka, called the Mohawk by the O’seronni. We are the People of the Longhouse, Keepers of the Eastern Door, the Kahnyen’kehàka of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee People. We live far to the north of this place, in the Endless Forests. Where it is so cold in the winter that the birds flee to the south, and snow makes a blanket for Brother Bear that lasts until April.

  I am the granddaughter of Falling-Day, who was a great healer. I am the great-granddaughter of Made-of-Bones, who was clan mother of the Wolf for five hundred moons. I am the great-great-granddaughter of Hawk-Woman, who killed an O’seronni chief with her own hands and fed his heart to her sons in the Hunger Moon, in the time when we were still many, and strong.

  She wanted to tell these people about the other women who claimed her as their own, who had taught her well, women who did not look like the people around her now. The stories they wanted to hear had to do with other Indians, the tribes to the west and the battles they had fought.

  And so Walking-Woman told them. As she spoke and Ben translated she noted how his tone shifted, and tensed, and grew strong with the flow of the story.

  She spoke of the days she had been known as Walking-Woman. She told them of her husband, Strikes-the-Sky of the Seneca, of her uncle Strong-Words and the rest of her family. She told them about Tecumseh, also called Panther-in-the-Sky, and his brother, The Prophet, who had been the undoing of all their hopes. She told the story of her years living among the Real People on the Wabash at Tippecanoe and the day Harrison’s troops came and destroyed it all. She told how her uncle Strong-Words and his sons fought and died in that battle; she spoke of her own husband, who had been sent out to recruit other tribes to Tecumseh’s vision of a nation of red-skinned men and women united in their determination to keep some of this continent for themselves. How Strikes-the-Sky had gone out on this sacred mission and never returned.

bsp; She knew as she told this story that she was being judged, and that many found her lacking. Her husband had been a Red Stick from the north. It was men like him who had roused the Upper Creeks to a war. A war that had been lost, once and for all, at Horseshoe Creek, at unimaginable cost not to the whites, but to the rest of the Creek nation, and to every other tribe. It was because of that war that they were here, where they did not belong and did not want to be.

  Hannah, agitated and truly alive for the first time in so many weeks, found she was thankful for the opportunity to tell her own story to people who understood, because their stories were much like her own.

  An older man asked through Ben what she knew about the future, and whether it was true that Jackson was coming to this place to drive the Real People into the sea.

  To Ben Hannah said, “Tell them I know less than they do. You can answer their questions about this war better than I can.”

  “I can’t tell them what they want to hear,” Ben said, but he spoke for a long time anyway, and Hannah saw that the people liked and trusted and respected him. She understood almost nothing of what he said, but she knew, because it was all so familiar. Another O’seronni war, and the Indian tribes had to decide where they stood. Which side they would fight for, or if it might be possible, this time, to come away from another O’seronni war with the little they had intact.

  In the dusk they walked back to the clinic on the rue Dauphine. Glad now of the shawl that she pulled close around her, Hannah walked with her head lowered. The past had come to claim her, and it would not be shaken off so easily.

  “Was I wrong to take you there?”

  Ben spoke French. Hannah wondered if he realized it, or if he meant to say something by that choice of language. You are among my kind now, or You must put aside what you think you know. Or maybe he was only tired, as she was. Tired but content, as she had felt after a day in the cornfield as a girl, cleansed by hard work and sweat, having earned her food and her rest.

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