Libertie Page 2

Mama started to laugh but caught herself. Instead, she said, “How did you get him to be quiet?”

“I soaked that rag in some laudanum and stuffed it in his mouth, and then he fell right still. When we nailed the top on, I swear he was still breathing.”

Mama shook her head. “You always overdo it, Elizabeth,” she said, and then we all heard a great whoosh as Mr. Ben sat up in his coffin and began to cry.

“That black bitch right there promised to get me out. They all said she can get you out. No one ever said it was like this. In a goddamn coffin.” Mr. Ben was upright, and I could see him clearly. The color came back to him—his skin was a dark brown. I liked his face. It was soft and, I thought, handsome, made more so by his cheeks and chin. They rounded in to the pout of a spoiled and much-loved baby. I could not tell how old he was—his skin was smooth, but his hair, what was left of it, was turning gray and clipped close to his skull. He wore a graying shirt and britches and no hat. His hands were enormous and calloused. He was crying, loud, racking sobs that I did not think a grown person could make. He made no move to leave his coffin, and my mother and the woman made no move to comfort him.

The woman said, “Behave yourself, Mr. Ben.”

Mama pursed her lips. “Is this his final destination?”

“We take his sister to Manhattan next month.”

“Then perhaps Mr. Ben can wait for her there. Mr. Ben,” Mama said, “you will have to stay the night here, but I trust we can count on you to be quiet?”

Mr. Ben did not look at her; instead, he gazed up at the ceiling. “As long as I don’t ever have to sleep in any coffin.”

Mama laughed. “Only the good Lord can promise that.”

MAMA HAD LENORE set up a bed for Mr. Ben by the fire, and she and the woman—Madame Elizabeth, she’d said to call her—took Mr. Ben by both elbows and helped him stand for the first time in twelve hours and walk around the room before settling down.

Mr. Ben went easily enough to sleep, and Mama and Madame Elizabeth fell to talking.

I was too cowed to say anything to our visitors. With the other people who came to see Mama at the house—her patients, and the runners from the pharmacy closer to town, and all the women in the committees and societies and church groups Mama headed—I had been trained to make polite conversation and ask, “How do you do?” But Madame Elizabeth was different. She spoke to Mama as if we had not all just seen her raise a man from the dead. As if Mama was the same as she.

“Cathy,” she said when Mama stood over Lenore as she made up Mr. Ben’s cot, “you work this poor woman to death.”

As they talked, I did not dare to interrupt them. I did not want to be sent away to bed. Mama brewed strong sassafras tea for both of them—they had seemed to agree, without ever speaking it aloud, that they would both stay up the night to make sure Mr. Ben made it. I sat very still and close to Mama, and the only way I was sure she had not forgotten me was when, after she finished her mug, she silently handed it to me, because she knew that I believed that the sweetest drink in the world came from the dregs of a cup she had drunk from.

From their talking, I learned that Madame Elizabeth was a childhood friend of Mama’s. She had a husband, whom she called Monsieur Pierre. “A Haitian Negro, so you know he’s unruly,” Madame Elizabeth said, and Mama laughed.

“Oh hush,” she said.

He and Madame Elizabeth owned a storefront down in Philadelphia—Madame Elizabeth ran a dressmaker’s shop on one side of the house, and Monsieur Pierre ran an undertaker’s on the other.

“You are doing well?” Mama asked, and Madame Elizabeth stood up, stamping her feet so her skirt hung down straight.

“Well? Well? Look at this dress, Madame Doctor.” She turned. It was, indeed, a very fine dress. The lilies embroidered on the bodice stretched tendrils down to the skirt—a queer embellishment on a mourning dress that she had clearly worn over many travels.

“You play too much,” Mama said. “A dress like that draws attention, and that’s the last thing any of us need.”

“We’re doing the Lord’s work in a cruel world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it with style,” Madame Elizabeth said.

Mama looked at the fire. “If we are found out because you insist on introducing yourself with an ostrich feather, I don’t know that I, or the Lord, can forgive you.”

“Well, ostrich feathers are déclassé.” Madame Elizabeth took the hem of her dress in her hand and artfully shook it. “Pierre always hated them, and lo and behold, the ladies say they’re no longer in fashion. So nothing to worry about on that account.”

They fell into a practiced quarrel, one that must have been older than me, centered on Mama’s bad dress sense. Mama did not care for beauty; this was true. Like all the women in our town, she dressed for work—in heavy dark-colored gowns that could bear the mark of other people’s sweat and tears and spit and vomit, and never show the stain. But where others took care to tie a scarf at an angle or thread sweetgrass through a shirt cuff, Mama did not care. She was not scraggly. She was always neat, and on Sundays she allowed for the vanity of a hat with a big sweeping brim, which was decorated with the same set of silk flowers she’d won in a church raffle before I was born. But when one of the ladies’ groups she belonged to would occasionally fall into giddy talk about the newest bolt of fabric or a new way of tying a head scarf, she would always quickly steer the conversation back to what was at hand. She would have been mortified to know it, but I had heard some of the women point to those same silk flowers on her hat that had not changed position for many seasons and call them “more reliable than springtime.”

Madame Elizabeth teased Mama about the cramped practicalities of their youth until finally she turned to me, the first she had acknowledged me since she came in.

“Do you think she was always this way?” She glanced sideways at my mother.

“You turn my own daughter against me?” Mama said, but she was laughing, really laughing, in a way I had not heard before.

“When we were girls at the Colored School”—Madame Elizabeth leaned in, her voice low, as if I was as old as she and Mama—“I used to be so terrible at arithmetic. But not her. She was the best at it. Oh, so quick! You’d think the devil was giving her notes.”


“But he wasn’t of course. She was just so smart, your mother. Smarter than the devil, but good. But not all the way good. Can I tell you? Can I tell you a secret, my dear?”

“Don’t listen to her.” Mama went to cover my ears, but Madame Elizabeth drew me to her and held me close to her lap, and mock whispered, loud enough for Mama to hear: “Do you know what your clever mama would do? She’d ask me to dye her ribbons purple for her. Yes, even your good and smart mama wanted a bit of purple ribbon. And me, being her bestest friend, being her kind Elizabeth, mashed up all the blackberries I could find and dyed those ribbons the prettiest purple anyone in Kings County had ever seen.”

“And extorted me and forced me to agree to do your arithmetic for you in exchange,” Mama said.

“But can you blame me?” Madame Elizabeth’s breath was so soft on my ear I shivered. “Your mama has always been the brightest.”

Madame Elizabeth stroked the plaits in my hair and ran her fingers over my brow. “Lord,” she said, “your girl may be dark, Cathy, but isn’t she pretty.”

“Libertie is beautiful,” Mama said, gazing happily at me, and I flushed warm, because Mama did not often comment on anyone’s appearance, unless it was to note that their skin had gone jaundiced or developed a rash.

“It’s a shame she got her father’s color,” Madame Elizabeth said absently, and Mama stopped smiling.

“It’s a blessing,” she said, very distinctly, and Madame Elizabeth’s hand paused.

“You aren’t scared?” she said. She was stroking my face again. I did not want her to stop, but I could see from Mama’s face that she wished that she would. “This work grows more dangerous, you know. You are all right. You’re bright enough they hassle you less, maybe. But she’s too dark.”

Mama stood up abruptly. “It’s less dangerous work if your helpmeets come to you at midnight, as promised, not dusk,” she said. She bent over Mr. Ben’s cot.

Madame Elizabeth let go of my face.

“I told you why we missed our time.”

But Mama didn’t answer. She held her palm over Mr. Ben’s open mouth.

“How is he?” Madame Elizabeth called.

“If he makes it through the next hour without any upset, he should be recovered.”

Madame Elizabeth looked over at her son, who had fallen asleep in Mama’s leather examination chair. Lucien, like Madame Elizabeth, had brassy velvet skin, and it was blushing now, in the last heat of the fire.

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