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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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!”