by Benjamin Dubroc
“Well, go get Father Domengeaux.”
The boy hesitated for a moment, eyes wide.
Alcee tapped his foot on the porch, “Well …”
The little servant scurried down the front steps of the plantation and through the oak orchard, nearly slipping atop the muddy drive as he went.
This wasn’t the news Alcee Metoyer wanted to get. One, two days of work postponed for God-knows-what heathen festival.
Minus one chattel meant an inventory to be updated. There were always papers to be filed, inventories to edit. He sauntered into the study and rang the bell for service. The slave roster was mint condition, but dusty. His quill ran down the list.
Vieux Demetri, too old from the beginning to really work the fields; a throw-in deal at the auction block. Maybe that’s why he was so memorable: he was the only one not working.
Every morning, mornings when there wasn’t a roster to update, Alcee would enjoy listening to the birds – the plantation’s oaks housed many a cardinal and sparrow, dancing and bobbing on the thick branches of the ancient trees.
The coffee came, black with a pitcher of water.
The crescendo of bird noises stopped abruptly, as if controlled by a switch.
“Sir, there’s a man waitin’ at the gate.”
“Well, Lucretia, send someone to fetch him.”
“Nobody wants to go to that man, Monsieur Metoyer.”
“Uh huh, well let’s go look at this bad, bad man, huh?”
He passed the coat of knight’s armor, shield and sword in hand, shaking it’s head at the empty suit as if in envy.
Alcee watered his coffee and went to the porch, tasse in hand, Lucretia following in attendance. There, out through the oaks that ran aside the chemin, stood a thin frame with a ragged top hat and cloak.
Alcee gazed out over his property at this foreigner, “No telling who that man could be, especially in these parts. Lucretia, go send for the overseer.”
“It’s early, sir, you want me to wake up Messieur Rabalais?”
“Of course, he should be awake.”
“Well, sir, I …” She rubbed her left arm and looked down.
“Ok, ok. You keep an eye on whoever comes to the gate, I’ll go get Clovis. If Pere Domengeaux comes, you can open the gate for him, huh?”
The mud made obscene noises as he trudged through the garden.
“Messieur Rabalais, time to wake up,” Alcee pounded on the cabin’s peeling cypress door. No answer. He turned the handle to find the door unlocked. Pushing it open, he could only make out shapes in the morning darkness. Rum bottles, a chamber pot, and Clovis Rabalais on the floor, naked, lying on his side. Alcee gave the tanned, hairy body a soft kick, turning it on its back.
“Ah, Monsieur. I’m sorry, it’s just I didn’t expect you so early.”
“You should be up by now, Clovis. I’m going to dock an hour of your pay.”
“Yes, sir, it’s just I didn’t think I’d hafta work today, what with Vieux Demetri passing away.”
“Vieux Demetri passed away this morning.”
“No sir, it was last night. You didn’t hear the wailin’?”
Alcee eyed the pot-bellied basse classe, “Fine. Get your clothes on anyway. I need you to greet a visitor at the gate.”
“I don’t get paid as the doorman, Monsieur.”
“You do when slaves won’t be slaves.”
It was as if some revelation hit Clovis. He reached for his trousers.
Alcee tilted his head and squinted, “Quickly, now. And I’m still docking an hour.”
“Only one thing them Dominguans don’t like to meet at the gate …” Alcee caught Clovis murmuring as the door closed.
On the return to the plantation, Alcee noticed a sudden drop in temperature. He called for his hunting jacket as he waited on the porch, studying the motionless stranger waiting at the gate.
Somehow, Clovis had managed to get dressed and saddled in less than ten minutes. Alcee had finished a second cup of coffee by then.
“Clovis, go let that man in, he hasn’t moved for all of ten minutes. Some patience he must have.”
Clovis trotted to the gate, saluted the stranger, dismounted and unlatched the gate. The stranger stepped in a constant rhythm until he arrived before the plantation steps, head down the entire walk.
“Hello and welcome to The Metoyer Plantation. I am the owner and keeper of this estate, Alcee Metoyer. How may we be of service, my dear sir?”
The stranger slowly lifted his head.
“Sorry, sir, I don’t know much of that French.”
“Ah, well, sir,” Alcee tried to contain his excitement. Here, in a backwoods like this, was an opportunity to speak English, “Forgive me, but my English is not so well spoken, no. How can we help you?”
“Aye, well monsieur, I’m here about a passing. I hear one of your slaves has passed away. My condolences.”
“Oh, yes, this is true, sir. Did you know Vieux Demetri?” Alcee took a small planner out of his pocket and jotted down the word ‘condolences’ best as he could spell it out. He smiled to think of the next debutante he might impress with his knowledge of the American language.
“No, monsieur, I did not know him. I’m here to offer me services to the deceased.” He smiled wide, showing the lining of his pasty white cheeks.
“Yes, sir, it’s a custom for me people – I’m from Ireland, sir, ya see- to perform a kinda ceremony when a loved one passes away.”
“Since when do Africans want an Irish ceremony?”
“Well, sir, it’s a story, you see. When my wife and I came to Natchitoches, she fell ill with the Cholera. Passed away,” he crossed himself, “but it’s custom for my people to say a little prayer over the deceased. My maid – she used to be a slave, you see – saw this ceremony and tell her folks about it. So now I be performin’ this ceremony for most who’d be needin’ it.”
“What do you charge for your services?”
“Oh, nuttin’ really. At least not for the poor. I’ve already spoken to the family of the departed about this matter.”
“And where did you say you,” he briefly looked down at his notebook for the right term, “stay?”
“As of now I reside in Nachtoches.”
“Ah? That’s close from here, yes. When you done with your affairs, I would like it good if you’d have some of the coffee with me in my study.”
“Oh, sure, sir. That would be lovely. Now, if you don’t mind, where do they stay?”
“Clovis, show him where the slaves,” he toggled through his notebook, making a mark of the new term, “reside.”
“Monsieur, I don’t speak English.”
“Oh, of course,” Alcee said ‘of course’ with as much intention as he could say any phrase, “this gentleman … oh sorry what did you say your name was?”
“Ha, where are me manners? Ned O’Dughairtay.”
“Thank you,” Alcee switched back to his native French, “Monsieur O’Dughairtay and I were just discussing his business here. He’s of some service to the slaves, a minister of some sort. A most interesting man, he seems to me.”
“And how do I talk with him?”
“You don’t. Just get him to follow you and show him to where Vieux Demetri is.”
Alcee walked briskly back to his study, he had new vocabulary to chart down. The books in the study were not arranged in any particular order, making it a task to find whatever book he needed at the time. Guiding his hand across a few well-preserved farmers almanacs, he got to his worn and marked French-English dictionary; a gift from St. Augustine’s church.
Reaching in his desk drawer, he thumbed through a stack of folders, searching for ‘Les Verbes Anglais’; the one he wanted. He rifled through the papers and began copying down ‘reside’ when there was a knock at the study.
“Monsieur, Pere Domengeaux is here.”
Alcee glanced at his pocket watch. “He’s a little early, isn’t he?”
“Well I’ll be right there, then.”
The priest, sitting at the chess table, had already made himself comfortable.
“Ah! Pere! I see you want to try and best me again?”
“Ho! I won’t be easy on you this time,” they embraced.
“I didn’t think you’d get here so soon, Pere.”
“I got the news yesterday.”
“Hmph, well it seems like everybody seems to know more about my household than me, huh?”
The priest seemed tired; the bottom of his cassock was caked in mud.
“How about some coffee, Father?”
“Oh, none for me.”
Lucretia entered the drawing room holding a silver tray.
“He said he didn’t want any coffee, Lucretia.”
“Yes sir, but Messier Rabelais wanted to see you, he said it’s urgent.”
“Well just send him in, then.”
The sound of rapid stomps and jingles from the porch. Clovis hadn’t even bothered to remove the spurs from his boots.
“Sir, that man, that Americain, I saw him with the slaves …”
“Hello, Clovis. Father Domengeaux has visited us.”
“Oh, yes, sorry. Greetings, Father. So, anyway, I heard him speaking their dialect.”
“Well of course. He is a minister to slaves. What? Do you think he puts on puppet shows for them? Oh course he can speak their pidgin.”
Alcee could see the priest was left out of the conversation.
“Forgive us, Father. We had a visitor today – an Irishman, is that not something? – who says he is a minister to the slaves. Yet Clovis here is upset that a minister to slaves would speak the slave language. I say this is perfectly natural. It would make sense, this Irishman knowing their pidgin, don’t you think Father?’” Alcee gestured towards the priest, satisfied with the consensus of educated men.
“But, father,” said Clovis, not waiting for the priest’s opinion, “this man doesn’t even know any French! I tried to speak to him, he didn’t understand me!”
“Knowing whatever bastard tongue the chattel speak isn’t the same as speaking our French, Clovis,” said Alcee, bobbing his head from side to side, “even parrots can imitate human speech.” He waved his hand as if brushing away a fly.
“Yes, Monsieur,” picking up the cue, Clovis gave an exaggerated bow.
“Well, there’s a superstitious fellow, eh?” Alcee said to Father Domengeaus as if calling after Clovis.
“Your father never had Dominguan slaves, Clovis.”
A pause between the two men as Alcee digested the priest’s pensiveness. He regained himself with a small laugh.
“That was because this whole mess in St. Domingue hadn’t happened, yet. Did you know how cheap they are on the block? People trying to recover some of their losses, and I was there to oblige them. Hell, Papa would’ve been a fool not to.”
“No, the reason your father never bothered with Caribbean slaves is because your mother wouldn’t let him. She knew about what those people practice-“
“But she knew nothing about what men practice. Men practice business, Father.”
“Not all business is good business, Alcee. What good is it to gain the world but lose your soul?”
“Gain the world? Haha. The Louisiana boondocks are hardly the world. Why, I’m a peasant farmer compared to what they have in even in New Orleans. I’m practically a pauper.”
“Well then why don’t you go to New Orleans, eh? What is there for you to stay here?”
Alcee was silent for a moment, he sighed and rapped his fingers against the arm of his chair.
“I’m comfortable, Father. That’s what’s here for me. Now, are you going to go bless the body?”
“I will in good time, Alcee.” The priest’s mouth was agape, as if looking for the right words to say, “You know my family is from that island, Alcee. My Auntie used to tell me about the things the slaves would practice, the festivals, the witchcraft.”
“And what do I care? When my dogs have dreams I don’t chide them. No, I laugh when I see them kick and wiggle.”
“These aren’t dreams.”
“Well then what are they?”
“Let me put this in a way a man of the world can understand. Before the revolution, the slaves would go out into the fields and the jungles and practice their religion. No one thought anything of it, or if they did, they were ignored. What do you think they did at their ceremonies?”
“I haven’t the slightest.”
“They plotted. Now, as I am a man of the Church, I take it that they were conversing with their gods – who are truly devils – about how to best overthrow the Christian civilization we had worked to build on that island.”
Alcee tried to hide his grin.
“Yes, I know you don’t believe all that, but for you, well the result is the same. Their witchcraft led them to revolution. Do you know the bible?”
“I have read it from time to time, yes.”
“Do you know the story of Josiah?”
“The young King of Israel?”
“Yes, that’s the one. You are a better Christian than you think yourself, yes. Well, Josiah’s priests found the Book of The Law in the temple. They read it and found that their kingdom was nothing like what The Good Lord had decreed it should be: there were idolators, whores, usurers profaning The Covenant. So what do you think he did?”
“I remember this story. He slaughtered them all: smashed the statues and killed the whores. More or less every second page of the Old Testament. So what are you saying? You want me to kill my slaves? Then who will pick my cotton? You are not such a business man, Father. I see why you wear that collar.”
“Kill your slaves, no. It hasn’t come to that. But keep them from practicing their religion, yes. Don’t you understand? You wouldn’t let your slaves have their own weapons, would you?
“Ha, of course not.”
“And wouldn’t you agree that ideas are quite powerful, yes? Think about what happened in France, or in America. There are many who would kill for ideas are there not?”
“Yes, I agree ideas are powerful.”
“Powerful like a weapon, no? Like weapons, ideas can kill, yes?”
“They can and they do.”
Alcee looked toward the coat of armor in the foyer, the Fleur de Lis shining on the shield. Emblem of a less boring time.
“And we decided before that you wouldn’t let your slaves have their own guns or swords, yes?”
“Yes, we did agree to that.”
“Well, then if you won’t let them have their own guns, why then would you let them have their own ideas?”
“Ah, I see. Yes, Father, you make a good point.”
“So as it is better that the people follow the religion of their king, it is truly just as binding as slaves follow the religion of their master. It is dangerous to have slaves and masters of the same will, but with different minds, don’t you think?”
“Yes, yes it is. Well this has been enlightening. As soon as the Irishman leaves, I’ll see to it that you say a funeral mass for Demetri, so the slaves know which god is in charge.” Alcee smiled wide.
“No, Alcee, you must act now. You must make it clear to your slaves which God is in charge.”
“I’ll send Clovis out, then. We’ll fetch the Irishman, have a little chat with him in the parlor – he does seem to be a most interesting man- and then see him out. What say you to that?”
“No, you must go now and cast him out into the darkness.”
“Ah, you’re sounding very biblical this morning, yes?” Alcee could see the priest was nowhere near a joking mood, “Very well. It shouldn’t take long, no?”
“No, it shouldn’t take long, but,” Father Domengeaux’s glance darted around the room, “Alcee, I mean to tell you something else. It’s the reason I did not come last night when I got the news about Demetri.”
“Well, of course, please tell me.”
“It’s not about the news so much as it is about who and where I got the news.”
“Well, who did you hear about Demetri from?”
“I got the news from …”
“Well out with it, man.”
“Someone I hadn’t seen in sometime. She was standing at crossroads.”
“Well? That’s it?”
“You don’t understand, you are a worldly man. Crossroads and gates are powerful symbols to these people and their spirits. I know what you do is for worldly gain, but I know that our true battle is with The Prince of Darkness himself.”
“Father Domi, look at you. One for theatric, yes? Are you ready to go? I have some brandy to attend to later, so if you please?”
The priest nodded.
“Good.” Speaking to the help, who had been waiting in attendance, “Lucretia, fetch us two lanterns, and Father a warmer coat.” By now it had gotten around noon, yet it was as dark as twilight. Clearly the unpredictable fall weather.
The two men could see a fire from the slave quarters, the pulse of a beating drum drifting into the air with the dark, incensed smoke.
“Hmmph. Maybe we should get Clovis.”
They stopped at a medium-sized home that was almost as dilapidated as the slaves’ shacks.
“Clovis, I know you’re in there, whoever you’re busy with, finish, and come out with your shotgun.”
Clovis came out of his cabin brandishing a blunderbuss and a scratch on his right cheek.
“Ho, she wasn’t nice to you tonight, huh?”
Clovis stared in the direction of the slave quarters, silent.
Despite the center of the square having a large bonfire, no one seemed to be outside. The sound of the drum continued, yet no drummer could be found. Only one of the cabins had any light being admitted from it. In silent agreement, the three men approached the loan cabin.
Clovis swung open the doors.
Even Alcee could not but help but be shocked. The slaves were swaying, some with their eyes rolling, others with their rosaries out in intense prayer. In one corner, candles were lit before statues – some, like the Virgin Mary, Alcee recognized. Others he could not recognize for his revulsion. In the other corner the drummer beating his drum.
In the center of this ritual was the Irishman, standing behind the open casket of Vieux Demetri, above his head a Eucharistic Host. He broke it in half, devouring one half with much force.
Alcee looked at Father Domengeaux. The priest was too shocked to speak. Clovis had already run back to his cabin.
“Stop this now! I am your master and I say stop!” The drumming halted, “This is blasphemy!”
Everyone ceased their actions but the Irishman, who was about to eat the second half of the Host.
“This is all superstition! Look I will show you what power your gods have!”
Alcee ran to the center of the room and snatched the host. Turning around towards the door he came from, he ate the host in one bite.
“There! Nothing will happen to me, see? This is just bread! You are worshipping nothing! Worship you master’s God!”
“Alcee, no. Pity me,” a familiar voice called out from behind him.
He turned around to see the Irishman passed out on the open casket.
“All of you go back to bed!” He picked up the crumpled, pale Americain and flung him outside. He had managed to drag him all the way to the gate of the plantation, which he opened himself, throwing the raggedy individual out, shouted,
“You’re not welcome for coffee, sir.” He laughed in hysterics. Facing his home, he saw that his slaves had followed him to the gate. Some were staring at him with furrowing brows and tight lips, others with a cocked necks and curious smiles. Alcee cleared a path through them and staggered up the steps. He grabbed a bottle of brandy and brought it with him to the study, where he collapsed in his desk chair.
A knock on the door and a familiar voice, the priest.
“Well, Father Domi, I showed them, eh?” Alcee had ingested a glass of brandy the moment he returned to his study.
“I would like to hear your confession, Alcee. What you have done has offended their gods as well as our own God. I fear that without the protection of our God you will be at the mercy of theirs.”
“To hell with all the gods, everywhere. Have a drink, Domi.”
“No, you don’t understand! This was my fault. They would not have called on such a ritual if I would have given Demetri Last Rites. This is my fault, Alcee, for not coming earlier. I hope you can forgive me. Please, Demetri, just say an Act of Contrition and I will absolve you right now.”
“Absolve yourself, you bastard. You self-righteous zealot. You’re correct, this is all your fault. And guess what? You aren’t going to be the one to fix it!”
Tears welled in the priests’ eyes, “Please, Alcee, I beg of you, repent now or I cannot help you.”
“Go to hell.”
“I’m sorry, Alcee, but I cannot stay. I fear for my safety here. I am so sorry, Alcee.”
After the priest left, Alcee called for Lucretia, as was his habit when he would have too much to drink, but Lucretia was nowhere to be found.
The next day there was a knock at the door of St. Augustine’s rectory. It was Clovis. Clovis knew the priest was the only one in the parish qualified to investigate such matters, as well a party with personal interest.
As his trotted up the plantation, he noticed the birds chirping their unusual song, an improvement from the prior day. What’s more, the mist and twilight had given way to a cloudless, warm Autumn late morning. Turning his head towards the slave quarters, he saw not a soul.
He and Clovis waited sometime in front of the steps of the planation for want of an attendant. They exchanged glances, silently corroborating their solitude. The dreadful independence of the slaveless master.
After dismounting, they led their horses to a Greek statue in the garden, tying them there.
Father Domengeaux entered Alcee’s room. Blood on the sheets, but none on the floor. All that remained of the victim was the lower section of the body: the abdomen from the waste to the feet. Where the body had been cut was cauterized, though there was no proof of any kind of fire within the room.
The priest turned from the sight, “I’m so sorry, Alcee.”
Exiting the plantation, the priest noticed the slaves had returned. They were outside their homes, all of them, smiling peacefully.
Benjamin Dubroc was born in Marksville, Louisiana, and is of French colonial descent. He enjoyed a Catholic education in Alexandria and an arts high school education in Pineville. He has a bachelor’s in philosophy with a minor in linguistics from LSU and finished a two year stint teaching English in South Korea earlier this year. This story takes place in the Cane River/ Nachitoches area.