“Sister Marie Madeleine and I have already spoken of it. I am going to stay out of his sight as much as possible.” She met his gaze. “You do not need to worry about me. I have been avoiding the Bishop and men like him for the past two years.”
“From what I see, there are not many men like the Bishop. I feel something bad follows him. His bakas, I think it turn against him.”
“Bakas? What is that?” Lenobia paused in grooming the gray and leaned against the big horse’s side while Martin explained.
“Think of a bakas like a soul catcher, and it catch two kind of souls—high and low. Balance is best for a bakas. We all have good and bad in us, cherie. But if the wearer is out of balance—if he do evil, then the bakas turn against him and there is darkness set free, terrible to behold.”
“How do you know all of this?”
“My maman, she come from Haiti, along with many of my father’s slaves. It the old religion that they follow. They raised me. I follow it.” He shrugged and smiled at her wide-eyed expression. “I think we all come from the same place—we all go back there someday, too. Just lots of different names for that place because there are so many different kinds of people.”
“But the Bishop is a Catholic priest. How could he know about an old religion from Haiti?”
“Cherie, you don’ have to be told about a thing to feel it—to know it. Bakas are real, and sometimes they find the wearer. That ruby he wear around his neck—that a bakas if I ever see one.”
“The ruby is a cross, Martin.”
“It also a bakas, and one that has turned to bad, cherie.”
Lenobia shivered. “He frightens me, Martin. He always has.”
Martin strode over to her and reached under his shirt, pulling out a long piece of slender leather tied to a small leather pouch that had been dyed a beautiful sapphire blue. He pulled it from around his neck and put it around hers. “This gris-gris protect you, cherie.”
Lenobia fingered the little pouch. “What is in it?”
“I wear it ’most my whole life and I don’ know for certain. I know there thirteen small things in it. Before she die, my maman she make it for me to protect me. It worked for me.” Martin took the pouch from her fingers. Looking deeply in her eyes, he raised it to his lips and kissed it. “Now it work for you.” Then slowly, deliberately, he hooked one finger on the fabric in the front of her bodice and pulled gently so that the shift came away from her skin. He dropped the little bag within, where it lay against her breast, just above her mother’s rosary. “Wear it close to your heart, cherie, and the power of my maman’s people will never be far from you.”
His nearness made it hard for her to breathe and when he released her, Lenobia thought she felt the warmth of his kiss through the little jewel-colored pouch.
“If you give me your mother’s protection, then I have to replace it with my mother’s.” She took the rosary beads from around her neck and held them out to him.
He smiled and bent so she could put them on him. He lifted a bead and studied it. “Carved wooden roses. You know what my maman’s people use rose oil for, cherie?”
“No.” She still felt breathless at his closeness and at the intensity of his gaze.
“Rose oil make potent love spells,” he said, the corners of his lips lifting. “You trying to bespell me, cherie?”
“Maybe,” Lenobia said, their gazes locking and holding.
Then the gelding butted her playfully and stamped one large hoof, impatient that his grooming hadn’t been completed.
Martin’s laugh broke the tension that had been building between them. “I think I have competition for your favors. The grays, they not share you.”
“Jealous boy,” Lenobia murmured, turning to hug the gelding’s wide neck and retrieve the curry brush from the sawdust on the ground.
Still chuckling softly, Martin fetched the wide, wooden comb and got to work on the other gray’s mane and tail.
“What story for you today, cherie?”
“Tell me about the horses on your father’s plantation,” she said. “You started to a few days ago and never finished.”
While Martin talked about Rillieux’s specialty, a new breed of horse that could run a quarter mile with such speed they were being compared to winged Pegasus, Lenobia let her mind wander. We have two more weeks left in the voyage. He already loves me. She pressed her hand against her breast, feeling the warmth of his mother’s gris-gris. If we stand together, we’ll be brave enough to stand against the world.
* * *
Lenobia felt hopeful and so very alive as she climbed the stairs from the cargo hold to the hallway that led to her quarters. Martin had filled her head with stories of his father’s amazing horses, and somewhere in the middle of his tales she’d had a wonderful idea: perhaps she and Martin could stay in New Orleans only as long as it took to earn enough money to purchase a young stallion from Rillieux. Then they could take their wingless Pegasus and go west with him and find a place where they wouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin, and could settle down and breed beautiful, swift horses. And children, her thoughts whispered to her, lots of beautiful brown-skinned children just like Martin.
She would ask Marie Madeleine to help her find employment, maybe even something in the Ursuline nuns’ kitchen. Everyone needed a scullery maid who could bake delicious bread—and Lenobia had learned that skill from the Baron’s host of talented French chefs.
“Your smile makes you even more lovely, Lenobia.”
She hadn’t heard him enter the hallway, but he was suddenly there, blocking her way. Lenobia’s hand went up to touch the leather thong hidden under her chemise. She thought about Martin and the power of his mother’s protection, raised her chin, and met the Bishop’s gaze.
“Excusez moi, Father,” she said coldly. “I must get back to Sister Marie Madeleine. She will be at her morning prayers, and I would very much like to join her.”
“Surely you are not angry with me about yesterday. You must realize what a shock it was to realize your deception.” As the Bishop spoke, he stroked the ruby cross. Lenobia watched him carefully, thinking how odd it was that it seemed to flash and shine even in the dim light of the passageway.
“I would not dare to be angry with you, Father. I only wish to return to our good Sister.”
He stepped closer to her. “I have a proposal for you, and when you hear it you will know that with the great honor I pay you, you can dare much more than anger.”
“I am sorry, Father. I do not know what you could mean,” she said, trying to sidle around him.
“Do you not, ma petite de bas? I look in those eyes of yours and I see many things.”
Lenobia’s anger at what he was calling her overrode her fear. “My name is Lenobia Whitehall. I am not your bastard!” She hurled the words at him.
His smile was terrible. Suddenly his arms snaked out, one hand on either side of Lenobia, pinning her against the wall. The sleeves of his purple robe were like curtains, veiling her from the real world. He was so tall that the ruby crucifix dangled in front of her eyes and for a moment she thought she saw flames within its glistening depths.
Then he spoke, and her world narrowed to the stench of his breath and the heat of his body.
“When I am finished with you, you will be anything I desire you to be—bastard, whore, lover, daughter. Anything. But do not give in too easily, ma petite de bas. I like a struggle.”
“Father, there you are! How fortuitous that I should find you so close to our quarters. Could you please help me? I thought moving the Holy Mother would be simply done, but I either underestimated her weight or overestimated my strength.”
The Bishop stepped back, releasing Lenobia. She sprinted down the hallway to the nun, who was not looking at them at all. Instead she was struggling to drag a large painted stone statue of Mary from the doorway of their room out into the hall. As Lenobia reached her, the nun glanced up and said, “Lenobia, good. Please get the altar candle and the incense brazier. We will be saying the Marian litanies, as well as the Little Office of the Virgin, on deck today and for the next few days until we reach port in New Orleans.”
“Few days? You are mistaken, Sister,” the Bishop said condescendingly. “We have at least two more weeks remaining in our voyage.”
Marie Madeleine straightened from wrestling with the statue and rubbed the small of her back as she gave the Bishop a cold look that completely belied her offhanded manner and the coincidence of interrupting his abuse of Lenobia. “Days,” she said sternly. “I just spoke to the Commodore. The squall put us ahead of schedule. We will be in New Orleans in three or four days. It will be lovely for us all to be on land again, will it not? I will be especially pleased to introduce you to our Mother Superior and tell her what a safe and pleasant voyage we all have had thanks to your protection. You do know how well she is thought of in the city, do you not, Bishop de Beaumont?”
There was a long silence and then the Bishop said, “Oh, yes, Sister. I know that and much, much more.”
Then the priest bent and lifted the heavy statue as if it were made of feathers rather than stone, and carried it above deck.
“Did he harm you?” Marie Madeleine whispered quickly as soon as he was out of sight.
“No,” Lenobia said shakily. “But he wants to.”
The nun nodded grimly. “Get the candle and incense. Wake the other girls and tell them to come up for prayers. Then stay close to me. You will have to forgo your solitary dawn trips. It simply is not safe. Thankfully, we only have a few short days. Then you will be at the convent and beyond his reach.” The nun squeezed her hand before following the Bishop to the upper deck, leaving Lenobia alone and utterly brokenhearted.
Later, when her world had turned dark and painful and filled with despair, Lenobia remembered that morning and the beauty of the sky and the sea—and how everything had changed so suddenly and completely in less than the time it took her heart to beat a dozen times. She remembered it, and vowed that for the rest of her life she would not take anything beautiful and special for granted
It had been early, and the girls had been sluggish and peevish, not wanting to rise. Not wanting to go up on deck to pray. Aveline de Lafayette was especially annoyed, though Simonette’s excitement about something new more than made up for the older girl’s sour disposition.
“I have so wanted to explore the ship,” Simonette confided in Lenobia as they made their way to the little promenade area in the aft of the Minerva.
“It is a very beautiful ship,” Lenobia murmured back, and then smiled as Simonette’s curls bounced and bobbed as she nodded her head in response.
The marble statue of Mary had been placed near the black railing that framed the aft portion of the ship—sitting just above the Commodore’s own quarters. Sister Marie Madeleine was fussing with the statue, scooting it around and placing it just right, until she saw Lenobia, and then she motioned for the girl to come to her.
“Child, I will take the taper and the incense.”
Lenobia gave her the silver incense burner, which was already filled with the precious mixture of frankincense and myrrh the nun used when she was at prayer, as well as the thick beeswax pillar resting in its plain pewter holder. She returned to the statue and placed the candle and the incense burner at Mary’s feet.
“Girls,” the nun addressed her crowd, and then with a slight smile she nodded her head in acknowledgment of the crew members who were beginning to congregate curiously toward them. “And good gentlemen. Let us begin this lovely morning with the Marian litanies as a thanksgiving for the news that we are mere days from our destination of New Orleans.” She motioned for the watching crew to come closer.
As they approached, Lenobia looked for Martin in the group but was disappointed when she did not see his familiar face.
“Oh, my! We need a brand from below to light Mary’s taper. Lenobia, child, could you please—”
“Do not fret, Sister. I will light Mary’s fire.”
The girls parted like fog to sunlight and the Bishop strode through them with a long wooden brand in his hand, the end of which flickered with flame. He offered it to the nun, and she took it with a strained smile.
“Thank you, Father. Would you like to lead the Marian litany this morning?”
“No, Sister. I believe the litanies of Mary are more fully appreciated when led by a woman.” With a bow of his head, the Bishop retreated to the far side of the aft promenade, where the crew members were gathering. He stood in front of them.
Lenobia thought his choice of position made it appear uncomfortably as if he were planning to lead the phalanx of men against them.
Nonplussed, Sister Marie Madeleine lit the candle and the incense. Then she knelt and genuflected. Lenobia and the rest of the girls followed her example. Lenobia was positioned to the nun’s left, facing the statue, but also turned so that she could see the Bishop—so she saw his arrogant hesitation, which made his kneeling appear patronizing rather than obedient. The men around him followed suit.
Marie Madeleine bowed her head and pressed her hands together prayerfully. With closed eyes she began the litany in a clear, strong voice:
“Holy Mary, pray for us.”
“Pray for us,” the girls repeated obediently.
“Holy Mother of God,” Marie Madeleine intoned.
“Pray for us.” This time the crew members took up the litany and added their voices to the prayer.
“Holy Virgin of virgins.”
“Pray for us,” the crowd invoked.