The American Daughters
Of all the tiresome habits of men, what drove Ady, known here as Antoinette Marianne du Marche, to her wit’s end was their impulse to expand the pettiest of their lives’ moments to epic proportions. Such men exalted minor disagreements to the level of legend, delivering a coup de grâce to the jaw of a Yankee three times their size. Of course, none of these meager men had a good trade. They were all captains of industry, each of them, but the barons of Holland and New York would soon eclipse their fortunes. Such men never encountered a bird pecking for sustenance, no; the creature was always a wolf at the door, its teeth eager to rip the tendons from a man’s throat.
Of course, this was the basement into which Ady’s life had fallen. In the high-ceilinged dining room of her self-proclaimed father John du Marche’s Vieux Carré townhouse, she imagined how recollections of the night might be transformed in the retelling, if any of them survived. It was early still, but the men were already several sheets to the wind. A spittoon lay rolling on its side. There was a scattering of empty brown bottles, and a filthy apron was draped on the kitchen doorknob. Hers or Lenore’s or another’s, Ady wasn’t sure.
In this pulsing night, the men were occupied sharing drunken jokes about their exploits and their half-despised cronies, and so, of course, the bodies of the women present could become the only source material of the Massacre of March 1862. All the better to distract them.
The banner, procured by Lenore, hung beneath the crown molding and proclaimed quadroon ball. Ady stood below the cursed thing, wrestling in the mud of these men’s desires. Ady’s dark thin shoulders shone glorious—like blackberries in moonlight—above the peach fabric of her dress. “Quadroon Ball” evoked visions of grandeur, of wealthy, powerful, refined men engaging in light scandal out of view of their pale, dismissive wives back on their slave labor camps also called plantations. This was no ballroom, though it might countenance a schottische or Viennese waltz. She imagined that these facts wouldn’t matter; that there would be a false version of her in the retelling. By this reliance on mythology and nostalgia, she imagined, the men desired to burnish their self-regard.
After they won the war, this night was meant to become a part of their origin, proof of their mastery of the world. But now, these men—round-bellied, wall-eyed, and gasping—were too distraught for the fiction to hold true.
The redness of du Marche’s face stood out even at twenty paces. He wanted something, wine or bread and cheese, or her. She removed the wooden box from the sleeve of fabric at her waist. She ran her finger along the engraved ivory top—a cameo of Napoleon at battle. She opened it, pinched snuff into the plane between her thumb and forefinger, and inhaled the material into her nose. She watched on as du Marche contorted his face at her.
She, to most observers, was not down amongst the dregs of society. She was comely and tall with her thick hair wrapped in a tignon in the style of her mother. In public, she wore fine silk over crinoline and that night with the boy-men finer silk still, for it was required. Her governess, God rest her, Mrs. Orsone, had taught her penmanship and the appropriate placement of weighty silver utensils, the most grandiloquent French, the deepest curtsy. Ady had played Chopin blindfolded in that very parlor.
New Orleans was at that time at war with itself, as always. It was the core of the South: wealthiest, worldliest, and most in love with its own beauty. A wealth and beauty carried, of course, upon the haunches of people like Ady.
Du Marche glared at her. She withheld the disgust she felt from reaching her face and looked up at the grandfather clock, thinking, one more tick tock of the clock on the last night of her life. Soon she would join her mother.
Ten years earlier, she had been riding in the back of a long cart, lying against her mother’s breast. There were other people, too, whom she had never fully forgotten. A boy with large eyes who played with his toes and poked his tongue out at her. It had been a long trip, days from a place called Constancia that she would never fully remember. The woman next to her mother with skin like riverbank clay craned her head to look past others. Her neck had scars like vines.
“It won’t be long now,” Ady’s mother, Sanite, said.
“Woman, how you know?” a man said. “Not like you from here.” The women and children were tied to each other. But the men’s hands were tied together so tight that the flesh of the downside of the man’s palms was purple.
“Ain’t no stream wide as that,” she said. “I been here before. The last time someone sold me down the river. Before I escaped.”
“You ran away?” the man asked, his eyes wide.
“Can’t nobody hole me less I let ’em.”
He went from disbelief to smiling.
One of the white men on the seat at the front of the cart cracked his whip over their heads.
“You jigs better shut up,” he said. “I hear any plotting, and I’ll tie a stone to yer neck and turf you in.”
“For our mothers,” Sanite said.
“What’s that again?” he said.
“I say, ‘Yes, mister driver.’ ”
Lenore squeezed Ady’s hand roughly and smiled that awkward smile—her unguarded smile—she had worked so hard to own. Ady knew Lenore was trying to soften her mood, knew that Ady was swimming through a swamp lake of emotions. Around Lenore she often felt like a rabbit in a warren, waiting out the farmer above. But the present circumstances made her that much more anxious. Appropriately so.
Lenore cupped Ady’s hand and kissed the knuckles. Ady was disposed to turn and walk away, but as she stepped forward, Lenore spoke, their fingers still grazing.
“Let us do what we’ve come to do.”
Ady nodded. “Let us do it through and through.”
In the dining room, Ady approached her father, who sat at the long table with half a dozen men. After he gave them gifts of cigars, she performed a rendition of Mozart’s “Requiem” that the men politely clapped at. She could tell her father was displeased—she’d spent most of the evening down in the kitchen where Mrs. Beryl refused to allow her to assist instead of up there entertaining, as she was meant to do. You’ll get giblet gravy all over your fancy lace and then Master du Marche will hold it against me, no thank you very much. The men’s table was larded with grapes, soft cheeses, and sauces. She thought Mrs. Beryl had prepared something worthy of Dionysus, although the half-eaten dish of rarebit before her father played against the effect. She could see his teeth marks along the bread crust, the saliva that dotted his lips’ corners. Bile rose in the back of her throat.
“I’d like to make sure that you’re acquainted with my Antoinette,” he said.
“Is this the one?” said a man to their right. He was clean-shaven with the meticulously tailored clothes of a Virginian. Lenore had come around the table and was now sitting on his lap; the bows at the knees of his stockings grazed Lenore’s leg.
“Your own?” said another man, chewing on hazelnuts, a dish of shells at his wrist. Ady couldn’t see John du Marche’s face from behind, but she knew he was smiling.
“She’s a cherry, that one,” a man said from the far end of the table, slamming his wine goblet down. “A dark cherry if ever I saw one.”
John du Marche placed his hand against her lower back. It wasn’t an uncommon gesture from him.
“Enchantée,” she said with a curtsy and exited, closing the parlor door behind her. Ady felt coldness in her head and movement in her stomach. She turned, continued out onto the balcony, and vomited over the railing. A white child, likely a street urchin, was passing by. He stared at her for a moment and ran away, dropping his cap in a puddle.
John du Marche had purchased Ady’s mother and herself at the auction near the foot of Conti Street. Their seller had a servant, a Negro like them, scrub their faces, ears, and teeth with a rag. He then shoved them into a large room where they watched a naked man step off a block and join the four others he was sold with. A man in a white wig pointed at Ady, had the same Negro servant tear her apart from Sanite, who was forced to wait by a column.
Ady had never stood before so many people. Ringed around her were more than two dozen white men. Off to the side stood the unsold, as still others, recently purchased, were either being held near the walls or led away in chains by their buyers.
“As you can see, a likely girl,” the man in the wig said. “A babe. Aged about seven years, wouldn’t you say? Make for a right good scullery maid, don’t you think? And down the line, you get all the little piglets she produces.” Many of the buyers chuckled. Ady was older than five, but small at that time. Her mother would often place her on her shoulders and tell her that one day she would be tall and free. Though she was afraid, she never let her eyes fall from Sanite’s.