Isle of Canes
Excerpt from the book “Isle of Canes“
by Elizabeth Shown Mills
December 2004/January 2005
Part 1, Chapter 12
15–19 April 1758
The laughter of the children tinkled in the breeze as they tumbled across the broad meadow, poking fat fingers into scattered patches of golden daffodils, peering solemnly beneath each leaf that lay moldering where last autumn’s breeze had blown it. A triumphant squeal announced Eleanore’s discovery and a flurry of pudgy legs, some white, some black, descended upon her clump of clover. Then little arms again flailed wildly in search of another egg. Two weeks had passed, almost, since Easter; but the magic of that special day still held the little ones enthralled—not the mystery of the Resurrection but the enchantment of the childish, pagan games to which the Christian world still clung.
“Another hunt, Coincoin! Make us another hunt!” The seven-year-old Eleanore had begged when they found the fallen bird’s nest that morning, with its tiny, speckled eggs intact. And so Coincoin, almost as eagerly as the rest of her little flock, had boiled them, dyed three yellow with ayac wood and the rest red with achechy juice, and hid them in the meadow while twelve sets of fingers pretended to cover six eager faces. Knowingly, Coincoin had rewarded the expected peeks with a dramatic show of hiding those seven eggs behind every generous clump of greenery in the meadow.
At sixteen, Coincoin was a woman now. As she sat amidst the grass, her sculpted arms wrapped around long, lean legs that stretched immodestly beyond her too-short skirt, there came to mind a memory—or was it a dream?—of another hunt years before on this same hill. Fanny was there, just as she had been at every Easter hunt before this year. And there was Ma’mselle Marie and her now-dead sisters, and Dgimby and Choera, too. Only they were younger, a different mix of squeals and giggles, but the same blend of innocence that had just begun to see the differences between castes and classes, black and white.
She was there, too. It had to be her. But this other her could barely walk, and everyone else kept finding all the eggs—until He came, the big man that she remembered so starkly. A shiny coat. A big square jaw and a mahogany mane of hair. And He bent down and took her little hand and led her to the special spot where the biggest egg of all had been tucked away from sight.
That same image came back this April afternoon as Coincoin sat on the lush carpet of St. Denis Hill, freshly mowed by a herd of cows, and watched the children frolic. Instead of Mama hiding the eggs, it is now me, she thought, secretly coveting this new passing of the guard, bittersweet though it was. Instead of Dgimby and Choera giving in when Ma’mselle Marie and Pet claimed an egg as theirs, it is now Mama’s newest babies that give way to Ma’mselle’s little girls. Only He is missing—that big, magnificent man with the light olive face and the tender gray-green eyes that could look right into your heart and read your secret wishes.
Sometimes she had almost asked her mother who He was, but always she stopped herself. Fanny just never talked about the past. Once Coincoin had inquired about the strange red dots that marked the little circle on her mother’s forehead, but Fanny’s eyes had clouded and she just walked away. Then Coincoin had asked François, only to be told that one day, when the time was right, her mother would talk. Until then, she should not ask.
So Coincoin did not pry, yet no day passed that she did not wonder. About many things. About the mark. About the big man who had read her secret longing. About herself, why her skin was the blue-black of a raven and Marie’s was the color of cream. About why her Mama’s children had to give in when Marie’s children claimed the eggs.
That last night before Fanny and François left, for an eerie moment, Coincoin had the feeling that her mother was about to tell her. The moment had both chilled and warmed her, hinting that the door to her past was about to open and then slam shut forever. But Madame had called Fanny, and that had ended that. When her mother returned, she had nothing more to say; and Coincoin had not dared to press her because she knew Fanny’s heart weighed heavily that night. Fanny’s and François’s both.
Neither of them liked going to Los Adaës. Coincoin knew that, though she had no idea why. Fortunately they did not often go. Madame was almost always ill now and rarely felt up to the trip; but whenever her melancholy lifted and she remembered the family of her birth, she had Fanny pack her bags, her medicine, and herself into her little buggy. Then François drove them the fifteen miles down El Camino Real that took them across the border into Spanish Tejas.
This trip would be no different, as far as Emanuela knew. She had awakened Good Friday morning in a mood of gaiety that definitely did not suit the mournfulness of that holy day; and she had announced just after breakfast that they—she, Fanny, and François—would spend their Easter holy days at Los Adaës.
“Yes, Madame,” was all that Fanny murmured, but Coincoin did not miss the flash that shot through her mother’s eyes. What would it matter to Madame, after all, that Jeanne was to make her First Communion this Easter Sunday? Or that François had carved for the occasion a wooden Rosary, just as he had done for Coincoin’s first Communion four Easters past? Or that Fanny had made a new dress for her daughter’s celebration, working by the firelight every night until the embers lost their glow? Coincoin knew the old Madame well enough to know that all this mattered naught.
And so, again, Fanny and François had left without complaint, and they had missed the Easter processional with Jeanne in her new white gown, with the chain of wooden beads so intricately carved, wrapped in prayer around her virginal fingers as she tasted for the first time of the Body and Blood of the Risen Savior.
Lost in her thoughts, Coincoin did not hear at first the wild creaking of wheels, or the frantic pounding of hooves from Emanuela’s matched pair of Spanish pacers, or the cracking of the whip in empty air. It was not until her father’s crisp Ay-yie-yie-iiee! cut through the children’s mirth that she noticed the carriage careening wildly up the hill, with François standing before the driver’s seat, goading Madame’s prized stallions to untried limits. Behind him, in the half-closed buggy, only Fanny’s bent back was visible, as she knelt over the floor. Madame was no where to be seen.
The vehicle screeched to a halt before the front gallery, as Coincoin flew up the hill with her flock scrambling willy-nilly behind her. Fanny jumped into the dust, her bag of medicine in tow, calling for Marie. Then François stepped upon the carriage, bent deep, and gently raised Emanuela in his arms, heedless of the blackness that trickled from her mouth and across his sleeve.
As Coincoin crested the hill, she could hear Marie’s scream, and the anguish in that wail was real. Eight years of bitterness had sat daily at the table between the old Madame and her rebellious daughter, Coincoin thought; but the love was there, just as though it never had been tried.
“No, Ma’mselle! Wait!” Quickly Fanny stepped into Marie’s pathway, as her young mistress flew from the kitchen to the carriage with her newest baby at her breast. “Don’t touch her, Ma’mselle. Not her! Not me!”
With Emanuela in his arms, François crossed the broad gallery in two strides, kicked open the heavy oaken door, and disappeared inside. Slowly, walking backwards, Fanny edged toward the Big House to join him, her arm still outstretched, palm first, in that age-old gesture that plainly says, Come no further.
“The fever,” Fanny croaked. “It’s the fever. Last night, the first man died at Los Adaës, and Madame insisted we had to leave. But we left too late. Your mama’s face was flushed before we loaded her into the buggy. She insisted upon coming home, but she was too weak, and the road too hard.”
Before her, Coincoin watched a miracle happen. The giddy Marie, twenty-two and still an untried child, as frivolous and irresponsible as the infants she had borne, became a woman. “Fanny, the fever must not spread past this hill. We cannot have an epidemic at both posts.” Marie’s voice was calm, her eyes steely, as, for the first time, she tried on the cloak of authority and clearly liked it.
“Coincoin! Take the children to the fort and stay with them. Madame de Blanc will make room for you and for Don Manuel. Don’t let him come until I send for all of you, and do not send the doctor or the priest. They would only spread the plague. If Fanny cannot save Maman, no one can. If she doesn’t, well, Maman has said enough prayers already to buy her way to heaven.”
“Marianne!” Marie turned to her cook, who had followed her from the kitchen. “Go back to the camp. We’ll get our own meals, here. Fanny, you need help, so I’m staying. And François stays. If it’s God’s will, we will survive.”
“Ma’mselle, please!” Fanny’s upraised hand still held off her young mistress. Her voice was as curt as ever, so curt Coincoin feared it would dissolve the sudden mettle in Marie’s backbone.
“Ma’mselle! I need the help of somebody with know-how—that’s Coincoin, not you. Besides, your babies need a mother. Take them on down to your sister’s house and stay there.” For a moment, Fanny paused, then plowed on, no longer bothering to weigh her words. “You might even try praying for a change. Then, if it is God’s will, some of us may survive.”
Marie wavered, and Coincoin’s heart ached for her, for the courage that seemed to wither in the face of Fanny’s verbal lashing. But then Marie stiffened and she nodded. “You’re right, Fanny. As always, I’d be just a hindrance. We will go.”
Quietly, Marie stooped and picked up her little Manuela in her empty arm and started down the hill with Eleanore trailing mutely behind her, bewildered by the speed with which an afternoon of frolic had turned into one of fear. At the crest of the hill, Marie hesitated, then turned, quickly calling back to Fanny, who was disappearing through the front door of the Big House.
“One day, Fanny,” Marie called, her voice choking, as her négresse reappeared upon the gallery. “One day, I will make this up to you, Fanny. I promise.” Then she turned again and trudged on down the hill.
It was not God’s will to spare them, not all of them. Fanny drugged her mistress heavily with flat root, the strongest sudorific that she knew, yet the fever raged. Emanuela sweated until it seemed no moisture could be left within her. Deep folds of flab replaced her puffy cheeks, yet the fever would not break. Her once-obsidian pupils turned gray and crackled like weathered wood, and the lustrous whites of her Spanish eyes yellowed and took on a web of crimson threads. At daybreak, she woke, while Coincoin again was changing her sodden sheets. Feverish arms flailed, as she sought the comfort of her nurse.
“Fanny, where are you!”
“Don’t leave me, Fanny! I cannot live without you. You know that, Fanny!”
“Promise me, Fanny.” Emanuela insisted hoarsely.
Fanny sat down beside the bed and took one of Emanuela’s scalding hands in both her own. “Madame, do you know what day this is?”
“What, Fanny?” It was barely a whisper.
“It is Good Shepherd Sunday. Remember, Madame, how many times you read us today’s Gospel? I can recite it by heart.”
Rhythmically, Fanny began her soft, consoling chant. “I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. But the hireling, who is not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees. The wolf snatches and scatters the sheep, but the hireling flees because he is a hireling and has no concern for the sheep.” Fanny paused, deliberately, and then continued, “Madame, I am no hireling. I will not flee.”
For a moment, Emanuela seemed to rally. Pulling her hand from Fanny’s, she stretched out both her arms, grasping Fanny’s elbow in a deathlike squeeze. It was, surely, a gesture of love and Fanny did not feel the pain. She only heard the words, “You are no shepherd either, Fanny. You are a queen.”
Those were the last words she said. Behind them, there came another spew of blood and Emanuela María Stefania Sanchez-Navarro Juchereau de St. Denis was gone. Again, Fanny and Coincoin bathed her, and François feverishly built another coffin. Not the fine one he had made for his old master those years before, but a rude and hasty box.
For the Widow de St. Denis, there would be no wake. Her contagious corpse could not lie in state, receiving the homage of all at both posts, white, black, and red, as her husband’s remains had done. There could be no ceremonious burial in the church, or even in the sacred earth of the adjacent churchyard. In the spongy valley of the Cane, where water coursed a few feet beneath every footstep, no plague-ridden body could be interred within its bosom to be washed by water that people would drink another day.
For the proud, pious Spanish doña, the funeral procession was a stark one. Her small box, plain and unadorned and almost square in size, was borne into the post astride the broad shoulders of François’s sons. The prayers were few and hasty. The grains of earth Père Eustache spread over her were only the symbolic ones that ritual demanded, and then the sexton heaped upon Emanuela, as she lay in her crude coffin atop the ground, a massive, foreboding mound of stone.
Up on the hill, the fever raged anew. The preventative doses Fanny had prescribed for herself, François, and Coincoin had been small. Heavily dosed they would have been unable to attend their mistress. The medicine came too late now—at least for the older couple in whom the plague had, for days, been germinating.
François was the first to fall. Together, Fanny and Coincoin carried him to his bed. Were he to die, it had to be in his own home, not Madame’s. Dgimby, now fat from birthing her first child and lazier than ever, wailed at the sight of her stricken father, fearing not for him nor for the safety of the children in her care, but for herself. Wearily, Fanny ordered her family to the back chamber and, to Dgimby’s relief, she sternly forbade any of them to approach the sickroom. She neither needed nor wanted any help but Coincoin’s.
By Monday noon, Fanny’s eyes were bloodshot and her lips as parched as François’s, but she ignored Coincoin’s pleas for her to go to bed. The proud African princess, still lithe in spite of her once-more-swollen belly, her face taut and resolute despite her pain, refused to relinquish her control.
While François slipped in and out of consciousness, his fever undulating between Fanny’s doses of flat root and Coincoin’s bowls of gruel laced with sweetgum balm, Fanny’s fever rose. The evening air chilled their mud-walled cabin, but her thin dress clung to her limbs, saturated with the sweat and stench of her own fever. Soon, even François’s skin seemed cool to her heavy touch and she did not notice when his fever rose again, not until Coincoin seated herself beside the bed and quietly began to bathe her father with an astringent of fermented yapon and passion thorn.
“No, child! That is my job!” Fanny tried to protest, but her voice lost its timbre and she reached for the bedpost to brace herself. Only for a moment, she told herself, and the giddiness would pass.
Coincoin did not budge, as she turned aside her mother’s protest. “Right now, Mama, he doesn’t know my touch from yours. Go to bed until he wakes, Mama. I’ll call you then.”
Fanny did not answer. The silence hung there, before the reality of the moment struck Coincoin and she turned to see her mother’s face go ashen. The wide, lustrous, almond eyes bulged apopletically, and Fanny slithered down the bedpost to the floor. A tide of bloody flux spewed from her lips, and Coincoin could not stop it.
The baby that was not yet due, sensing the urgency of its plight, began its fight to come into the world, but Fanny’s breath choked within her, her heart gave up the struggle, and the pulsations of her womb died as well. Dry-eyed and numb, Coincoin turned to her father’s chest, found the slender blade with which he had carved Jeanne’s rosary three weeks before, and with the tenderness of a practiced surgeon she took the child from her mother’s body, there on the rough cypress floor of their cabin.
While François tossed and flailed in his fitful coma, Coincoin bathed her newborn sister in a fresh bowl of the same astringent she had mixed for her father, and called Dgimby from the back room where she still cowered.
Dgimby came, slowly waddling and loudly wailing, but her cries turned to pleas when she realized what her sister had in mind. How could she give suck to this infant from their mother’s plague-ridden body? That creature would kill them all! Coldly, Coincoin plunked the squalling baby into Dgimby’s arms, spun her sister around like a ball on a tether, and kicked her broad backside toward the door from which she had emerged.
As morning dawned, Coincoin washed her mother’s stiffening corpse, called her brothers to make another coffin, and again, for the second time, they descended to the post—two black couriers of death, carrying their grim news upon their shoulders.
The sun rose and brightly lit the hill, but few rays filtered through the still-closed shutters of the death cabin in which François lay. Midmorning, he stirred again, calling in his sleep for his wife, his lover, his friend.
“It’s me, Papa,” Coincoin whispered, as his fingers grasped her own and caressed them slowly, but François did not hear.
“…so soft, and tender, and gentle,” he murmured. “I’ve always loved your hands, Fanny. They always know how to comfort me, no matter where I ache.”
The vice closed tighter around Coincoin’s heart. How could she tell him what had happened while his consciousness had hovered in another world?
“Fanny… Fanny…,” François began again, and Coincoin said the only thing she could. “No, Papa, it’s me.”
That time he heard her. The thick wool of his brows, clumped now with blood and sweat, knitted for a moment and he queried, slowly, struggling to pull words from some distant place. “Where’s Mama, child?”
Coincoin could not force herself to answer. His eyes hazed again, and he answered his own question. “Of course, Madame must have called her and she had to go.”
“Yes, Papa,” Coincoin answered quickly. In his feverishness he had forgotten about Madame’s death, and she was glad. Still, it was not a lie, she reassured herself. In a sense, Madame had called Fanny and she had gone to her, for the last time ever.
Then Coincoin actually laughed, not her usual trill but a sound she barely recognized as her own, a bark undercut with a bitterness she did not know that she could feel. It had become a joke between her mistress and her mother, a macabre jest that had made her shiver every time she heard it. Hardly a week had passed that Madame had not said how she could never manage without Fanny, and then Fanny would retort that Madame would probably take her with her when she died. Was it really sport, Coincoin wondered now, or premonition?
The harshness of her laugh cut through François’s torpor, and he remembered. Madame was gone. It was Coincoin’s face that hovered over him now, not Fanny’s. But it was a face he had not seen his daughter wear and he knew what caused it, even though she could not say. Fanny was gone, and he was about to join her.
“Destiny…,” he mumbled. Coincoin could barely hear him, but then he really had not been talking to her at all.
François did not answer. He could not grasp the thoughts he tried to form. What was it Fanny used to say about destiny? That all of us make our own? He had not believed. He had been complacent, a stalk of wheat, pliant, yielding, never questioning the winds as to why they bent him double or made him bow before their might. Because of him, Fanny had ceased to dream. Because of him, she never found her destiny and died without her birthright! If only he had shared her faith, instead of making her disbelieve, then he would not face death now, knowing that he left nothing to his seed but the hopelessness of bondage.
“Papa? More gruel? We must keep up your strength.”
François barely heard the words. His mouth moved mechanically as the warm mush was injected, but his mind struggled feverishly to find some meaning to his life.
Coincoin. His little goddess. His and Fanny’s gift to a world that had given them so little. Long ago—or was it yesterday?—he had sat out on the edge of a broad hill and watched his little girl grow up. No, she didn’t
grow up, either. She had always been grown. What was it he had thought that night? That Destiny surely had greater things in mind when she created
this woman-child? Yes! Fanny’s destiny was not dead! She had bequeathed it to this daughter, and Coincoin would fulfill it! Only she didn’t know! Fanny had not told her!
A rash of words then spilled from his swollen lips as he gave his second-born daughter answers to all the questions he and Fanny had never let her ask; as he bared to her his soul, his sins, his failings, as though she were a priest administering to him the last holy rites; as he sang for her the praises of his princess that were not sung at her ignominious burial and then lay before Coincoin the key to her past and the door to her future.
As suddenly as it had come, the tempest from François’s soul subsided and he lay still. For hours, or minutes—it could have been either—Coincoin sat in the shadows of the great four-poster that ruled over the little cabin they called home. Death this day had wrenched from her the only meaning her life had known, the very source from which she had sprung. Yet, for what it took, it gave a measure in return. Over and again her mind repeated a single line from the communion prayer that the reverend father chanted at each Sunday’s Mass: Dying, he gave new life. Dying, he gave new life. And in her grief, Coincoin felt no sense of sacrilege at this blurring of the image of her father and her Savior.
She rose, slowly, as tall and graceful as the goddess he thought she was. Bending across the big bed, she kissed her father good-bye. No fear of mortal plague could come between them at this last parting for she, too, shared her father’s knowledge that the hour of her destiny had not yet come. She still lived, because she was meant for something more in life than that which life had given them. The vague ache she had always known deep within her soul had a name now, and she knew its meaning and her mission.
“One day… Papa… Mama!” she cried, thrusting her face toward heaven as she pounded with both hands on the bed post where Fanny had fallen. “One day, Mama’s dream will happen! One day, we shall be free again! Free! And proud! And noble! And men will bow before us, and we will never have to say ‘Yes, Madame’ or ‘No, Madame’ to anyone unless we choose to. We… will… be… free! This, I promise!”
by Elizabeth Shown Mills
“One day, Papa, Mama,”
Coincoin cried, “we shall be free again! Free!
And proud! And noble! We will be free!
This, I promise!”
Her grandfather had been a king; her parents lived as slaves. At her parents’ death, sixteen-year-old Coincoin vowed to restore her family to the grandeur it deserved. One day, her family would rule again.
She kept her vow. Strong-willed, resourceful, and hauntingly beautiful, Coincoin had been trained by her mother in the healing arts. She would use that skill and many others as stepping stones to freedom.
But the path to keeping her vow was not an easy one. Forsaken by her husband when she would not abandon their children to flee slavery, Coincoin was sustained by a faith that she would one day find a better route to freedom for all of them. When her destiny confronted her in the form of a Frenchman seeking wealth and adventure on the Louisiana frontier, she met it boldly and paid the price it demanded.
Wealthy, educated, cultured, and proud, Coincoin’s descendants would rule the Isle of Canes, but they would be pawns in the cultural battle between Louisiana’s Creoles and Anglo newcomers. The Civil War that promised equality took away their identity as a special caste and left them destitute. Then Jim Crow stripped them of the last of their rights.
Yet throughout all indignities, the Isle’s Creoles of color never lost their pride, their respect for their heritage—French, Spanish, African, and Indian—or their belief that they were meant to be a bridge across the great American divide between black and white.
About the Author
Elizabeth Shown Mills is a historical writer who has spent her life studying Southern culture and the relationships between people—emotional as well as genetic. A popular lecturer, author of numerous works on generational history, and past president of the American Society of Genealogists, Elizabeth recently retired as editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly to devote her time to writing. Elizabeth is the author, editor, and translator of a dozen books and over 500 journal and magazine articles in the field of genealogy, and is best known for two books that are now considered essential reference works in the field: Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian and Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers & Librarians. Isle of Canes is her first novel.
From the Author
Cane River stole my heart in 1970. As a young wife and mother, I went there to find my children’s roots, never suspecting that a bout of curiosity would turn into a lifelong love affair.
I found its people to be a puzzle. Cloutiers, Derbannes, Duprés, La Cours and Le Courts, Lecomtes, Prudhommes, and Rachals. They came in many shades. They gave their children the same names. They worshipped in the same churches but, curiously, in different wings—one for whites, one for blacks, and one for those considered to be neither. They shared not only the same river but the same records, challenging modern researchers to sort them out. Among them, like the glue that held them all together, lived the Metoyers, a family that intrigued me although I could find no place for them on our family charts.
Cane River fever spread within our household. My husband, a young historian, was duly cautioned by his department head “not to get involved with genealogy or his career would be ruined”—a warning common to the era but one he proceeded to ignore. My mother-in-law took me back to Cloutierville and taught me the way her people thought—they and the neighbors who shared their lives and some of the same ancestral lines. As I gathered their stories and struggled to chart out their connections on mammoth rolls of newsprint, my three-year-old joined me on the floor to “write Rachals,” as she put it. Her affinity for that family name was not surprising. It was the one we had, perhaps with premonition, given her at birth.
In 1972, my hobby became a profession. The Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches had been gifted with the estate grounds of a plantation steeped in lore and wracked with controversy. If legend could be believed, it dated to the colonial era, during which it had been founded by a freed slave woman variously known as Marie Thérèse or Coincoin. My charge was to document its history. The hope was to earn a slot on the National Register of Historic Places. As often was the case, the legend strayed here and there from the facts of history, like partners in a waltz who touch and twirl together then swing away to tease and flirt with others before coming back into each other’s arms. Yet the story that emerged from thousands of records scattered across six nations, was even more incredible. By the time the project ended, the fabled plantation actually founded by Coincoin’s son Louis—and known now as Melrose on the Cane—was proclaimed a National Historic Landmark.
Even then, Cane River and its Isle still held the Millses in their grip. Bridging the traditional divide between academic and family history, my husband adopted the Isle for his doctoral dissertation. The parish of Natchitoches continued to be our “other home,” and the Metoyers who carved a civilization out of the canebrakes became our “adopted family.” Inevitably, Gary’s career would take him elsewhere, but mine would stay rooted along that mystic river.
Gary’s dissertation, which Louisiana State University Press published in 1977 as The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color, reconstructs the socio-economic history of the Isle from the naked bones of the documentary record. Beyond those bones, however, there was a heart throbbing with family stories left untold, a soul formed by the society that spawned rich traditions, and the flesh of historical context that was colored by all the families with whom the Metoyers lived, worked, loved, and feuded. In Isle of Canes, the heart, soul, flesh, and bones are made one.
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