did i post at least one excerpt from the novel i’m working on during NaNoWriMo? i don’t think so. anyways, i think it’s time for another one.
this plays on a sugar plantation in louisiana in the beginning of the 19th century. mr jones-patterson is the neurotic plantation owner, elise his daughter. joe, the “field negro”, is my main hero, who lives in a complicated relationship with everyone, one of them with mr. jones-patterson (we never find out his first name, everyone calls him by his last name), who, against prudence and common practice, is obsessed with educating joe to the hilt, including the classics.
for elise’s 9th birthday, mr jones patterson arranged a big celebration. he remembered a great event for his 9th birthday; it was during the first of two protracted visits he had paid to england. a band was hired, there were sweets everywhere, people of all ages from all around the county; and he was given his first coach.
elise must have a 9th birthday like that! of course the band would never be as fine as the one commissioned from bristol, the people that could be invited would be – well, most of the spaniards and acadiens were out of the question, of course – and a girl did not need a coach until much later – but still! a grand affair it must be!
“i don’t want to go to that stupid party!”
“it’s your birthday party, miss elise. you’ll enjoy it!” joe was behind the house cutting wood, elise sitting on the fence watching him.
“it’s a stupid party with stupid people and stupid food! with my stupid father and my drunk mother!” each time she said “stupid”, elise slapped the fence, and her voice got louder and more frustrated. by the time she said “drunk”, she was ready to cry.
“now, miss elise …”
“… and don’t you dare call me miss! that’s stupid, stupid, stupid!”
like all men. joe didn’t know what to do with a female close to tears, so he stood there watching her for a while, and then went back at it with his axe.
she looked quite something, with her red-blond curls wild and long against the rising sun, slapping that fence, her eyes fierce and sparkly – and all that in that sweet angelic face and her long body, coltish already, draped in a delicate, lacey beige dress.
“i hate it when you and dora call me miss! i’m no miss! i’m not like elvira, i’m not like my mother, and if you and dora won’t come to the party, i won’t go!”
“oh elise … ”
“i’m going right in and telling my father. you’re coming or i’m not coming!” she jumped off the fence and off she went.
joe winced. elise was a good friend but her impulsive denials of what was real were hard to take often; she never understood the consequences. she couldn’t understand what it was like to be a field negro and yet to spend so much time in the big house, what that cost him. it was a bit easier for dora; she was quieter, less impulsive, she knew how to keep secrets, everyone just saw her pretty, sweet nature; her clear mind and the way she looked at things, animals, plants and people, hardly anyone noticed that. and books. only joe knew how many she had read.
so yes, he knew how to keep secrets, too, had to. but they weighed heavily on him and the smaller ones, he often blurted them out, he let them crash the dam here and there, and it took off the pressure.
it was no secret, however, that he was miss elise’s pet. this tall, strong, muscular young man, he was that little girl’s pet. it was cause for ridicule and envy in most parts of the plantation; fortunately, a good many also approved of it. the girl needed a friend, what with that father who thought she was someone else, some sort of doll, and a mother absent so often, and half of the time she was present, she was chained to a bottle. the choice of betsy as a nurse had been unfortunate, there was just no spark between the two. so it was joe and mama cass who were her true family and later, when dora showed up, her soft and quiet demeanor and her beautiful singing voice added to the strange trio.
dora would know right away how to react to this crazy notion of miss elise’s. “oh, no” she’d say in that soothing voice of hers. not an alarmed “oh, no!!”, not a dismissive one, not a disgusted one, but a sweet, smiling, contented “oh, no” that would end any of elise’s suggestions.
but joe didn’t know how to speak like that. if he would have known, maybe all of this with mr jones-patterson … joe didn’t want to think it to the end.
rumor had it that dora was one of the few girls who had never been touched by a man. so pretty, and still a virgin. she did it with her gentle voice and her friendly way of being elusive, for sure. had done it to him, as a matter of fact.
he was pondering these two girls, elise and dora, when he heard mr jones-patterson’s voice. “joe! kosi!” he quickly stashed away the axe, dusted himself off, and ran into the house.
mr jones-patterson was by the window, arms behind his back. the pose of a man who makes decisions. his riding boots and britches were clean yet, and as often, might remain that way. more and more, he relied on cortez and bradley to inform him of the state of the plantation. they were the practical men – he made decisions.
“my daughter elise just talked to me,” he began. this is how he referred to her, ‘my daughter elise.’
“she wishes that you attend her birthday party. i will have to think of a way of arranging this, but of course you will attend. so will dora.”
joe stood there at the entrance, mr jones-patterson all the way across the room, his back to him. joe erect, strong, young, his face in the shadow but something about the way he held his shoulders showed the mixture of fear, affection, disgust, anticipation and irritation that he almost always felt in the presence of the plantation owner.
“this is not an easy decision. it reminds us of what?” with that, mr jones-patterson swiftly turned around.
“archidamos and sthenelaidas, sir. sparta, sir,” joe mumbled. “the dilemma between old and new.”
“very good, very good, joe. the old and new. what is the old?” he moved a step closer and pointed at joe.
“sparta against athens, sir. sparta decided to give up its old military ways, which allowed it to conquer athens, but it became as hated as athens.”
mr jones patterson looked at joe. “you have an astonishing mind, young man.” his voice quiet and wistful. his hand started to reach out but then fell to his side.
“i will make a decision. you can go now.” with that, he turned back to the window.
image by new orleans lady