Four Hundred Rings

Evangeline was born beneath a sweet gum tree on Jubilation.

Chattel at birth, sold off at age eight, she has few memories of that place: a white shimmer of fields, the high gloss on Mr. Pike’s boots when his roan mare carried him by, cooking fires and greased sweetness ghosting from the cabins in the morning.

A free woman for the past dozen years—manumitted, the word conjures an image of great mittened hands opening and tiny black men clambering forth—Evangeline lives with her son, Reuben, in the Orleans Street house, and only strangers to Natchez remark on the unblended batter of her skin, red freckles against a mahogany backdrop, African blood set apart from white blood. A griffe? A quadroon? Redbone? They stop her right on the road: garrisoned soldiers, foraging scouts, officers’ wives—no introduction. What are you? Her skin cannot quite decide.

Every Tuesday, Mr. Carroll brings gifts of war-scarce meat and poetry books for Reuben, and around the eating table the three of them hold hands for grace. Mr. Carroll’s white paw is cool and gentle, and her hand sinks into its support. Reuben’s fingers jigsaw into hers, knob of bone where his pencil rubs against his knuckle, nail beds as pink as seashells.

It is Tuesday, and August rain drums the roof. Mr. Carroll, hat on his knee, has just delivered the solemn prayer over the roasted squabs when outside there comes the sound of a hundred taut ropes snapping in unison. Splintering timber. An explosion rattles the china.

In the yard, a pit yawns where once stood an ancient elm. Colossal as a beached whale that fallen tree, crushing the side fence, blocking the road, a waist-high mess of limbs and Spanish moss from which refugee squirrels and blue jays emerge and disperse.

“Just gave out,” Mr. Carroll observes, rain splattering his broadcloth sleeves, clouds of mosquitoes keening from the puddles. “Slipped loose of the soil. That’s a flood year for you.”

From the brush, a snake spills forth: arm-thick, blackish green, shiny as a mallard’s head. A rat snake. Harmless. She’s about to say so when the blade comes down, beheads it; fourteen-year-old Reuben grips the ax handle.

Later, unable to sleep, Evangeline thinks of the forged double-bit whistling through the air, her son’s legs spread into a fighting stance, the limbing edge coming down clean and sure, the movement as reflexive as a sneeze. Killing is a man’s impulse, but her son is just a child. He’s still a boy, isn’t he?

The bed creaks. Mr. Carroll rises in the darkness, as he’s done for the past fifteen years, and he goes on home to his white wife.

Since the occupation, Natchez is unrecognizable. Sandbags and pickets, gunboats clogging the river. Blue-coated federalists drill the streets, confiscate pork and flour from the distant plantations, hoot and brawl in the dram shops, rut with mulatto girls in the dancing halls.

Evangeline does not like them talking to Reuben, but they crowd into Alexander’s, where her son drapes them with a sheet, hones his razor against the leather strop, and dabs their freshly shorn faces with rose-scented toilette water.

They are full of stories, these men. She sees Reuben testing the waters. Reuben with the green eyes he inherited from Mr. Carroll, with his toffee-colored hair and his father’s sharp cheekbones; these strangers look him in the eye, gift him with cigarillos.

Outside of Alexander’s there is a river of slave refugees from the plantations, and Union soldiers prod them toward the Bluffs, down to the swampy contraband camps, the place where citizens historically carted and dumped their privies.

The refugees, newly freed, work as hard as they’ve ever worked. In the camps they fill sandbags and lay riprap on the diminishing riverbanks until dysentery takes them. Yellow fever, cholera. Death carts come back up the Bluffs in a kind of reverse river, always with a new stream of refugee replacements.

Reuben sees these things. Sees the planters’ widows—wraiths drowning in flowery percale—when they beg the army doctors for quinine or calomel for their feverish babies. The Ironclad Oath gets them across the picket lines, where they hock their grandmothers’ earrings for lard and meal. Sees the casualty lists tacked to the door of The Banner; the local pillars, the Natchez nabobs—several of whom were responsible for that Unspeakable Event in ’59—are now categorized as killed, wounded, captured, or missing. Sees that the current is changing.

That night at the eating table, Reuben has something to say. Parchment slides across the wood. A raised seal, loops and whorls. She wonders which of the undecipherable squiggles says what she dreads.

“I’m going,” he says.

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