February 20, 2018
Adelaide Randolph does not meet me at the airport. Instead, she sends the intern, Owen, to fetch me. A scrappy little man-boy who looks as if his mother has just finished scrubbing him up for church waits outside the curb at baggage claim, holding up a sign that reads “Mueller: Belle Rive Plantation.”
He offers his hand and I pretend not to see it. Handshakes are the Devil’s germ-delivery system.
“Hey, I’m Owen. Flight okay?”
I nod as he grabs the handle of my wheelie bag and steers us out to the parking lot, his mouth going the whole time.
“I’ve really been looking forward to meeting you! I don’t know if Ms. Randolph mentioned the glass house and gardens on the property, but I was hoping you could find some time to tour the grounds with me. I’m in my final semester at GSU earning my Master’s in Heritage Preservation with a focus in historic landscape architecture, and I would love to be able to sit down with you at some point to discuss my project.” He pauses for a great inhalation of breath before continuing at warp speed. “But first you should assess the workshop original to the house. Ms. Randolph wants the whole structure removed and sold. She wants to put in a gazebo and dance floor, which if you ask me totally destroys the integrity of the property.”
He doesn’t seem to need any reply to push him along to further revelations, so I tune out, and recline against the car seat, enjoying the scenery. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Isidore, leaving France to come to America knowing that he might never return home. Was he eager for the adventure? Full of trepidation? What must it have been like to step off a wooden ship after weeks at sea and enter an alien culture? I don’t know if I could do it, leave my life behind for so much unknown. Maybe I would go mad, too.
Oddly, I feel connected to them, Isidore and Emilie. All their anxieties about race relations and skin tone, their disgust over their profits from slavery, their guilt, or lack thereof. I sometimes feel little better off than them. Both Black and white, I’m ambiguous enough to pass for a multitude of ethnicities. If not for the quirk of being born in the twenty- first century, I’d be subject to the same scrutiny. And with all the violence I see on the news, the racial tension and political back-pedaling, it’s easy to feel that we’re still stuck in the caste system of the nineteenth century.
Owen has finally ceased talking. I see little of the city on the drive to Belle Rive. Following the curve of the Mississippi River, we wind along a freeway through flat fields empty of slaves, carts, horses, and sugarcane. Instead, there’s an occasional gas station, a fly-harried nag nibbling grass while staring into space, and eventually a few driveways that lead to other restored plantations.
We arrive at Belle Rive at dusk, driving slowly up the two-hundred- year-old oak alley. Enormous tree branches lock fingers over the paved road, drowning it in shadow. Belle Rive sprawls atop the low hill, looking a bit like a wedding cake that’s collapsing in the sun. It vaguely resembles the house in the daguerreotype. There’ve been many changes over the years, but the bones of the original structure are still visible.
Yellow Caterpillars—backhoes, excavators, graders, and a forklift— crowd the front lawn, tracking up the thick, clumpy soil. Dumpsters line the railing beside two stinking blue porta-potties. There is no magic here. It is a work site being razed and paved, repainted, retiled, and dressed up in strangers’ antiques purchased from estate sales and eBay.
My skin prickles. Here walked the ghostly footsteps of Isidore and Emilie Saint-Ange. Here, Albert succumbed to ownership and the proprietary label “field slave” after he’d been bought at auction. Here, Madame Floriane chastised Poupette, berated her daughter, her husband, son, and legions of human chattel for failing to please her. The history of this place hovers like some simmering contagion awaiting the right conditions to breed and spread, and I fear its infection.
I suppose that I imagined the Foundation was run by descendants of the original owners, the Bilodeaus, but I recall reading that it was sold in 1859 to a white family who joined the Confederate side and turned Belle Rive into a field hospital during the Civil War. In fact, on my list of duties (after authenticating the multiple layers of wallpaper uncovered during restoration) is verifying that the wooden floor planks in the parlor were stained by blood soaking through the carpets when the room was used as a surgical suite for amputations.
I follow Owen up the steps onto the veranda. No scents of jasmine or heliotrope fill the clinging, humid air, only the faintly mucky odor of brown river water flowing half a mile distant and the smell of my own perspiration. I am glad for the distraction. I have wanted to cut again and resisted. Logically, I understand that it will be nothing more than a temporary high, a short-lived analgesic to dull a deep, abiding pain. But still, I have yearned for the caress of the blade against my skin, opening a little sliver of flesh like a doorway to usher out the negativity inside me.
Instead, I run a furtive fingernail through the crease of my earlier wound, ripping apart the ardent romance of knitting vessels and cells. The sides of the cut are Romeo and Juliet, lovers who must not meet lest they become one. Without my fingernail inside that wound, gliding like a luge along its sticky, scabbed track, I might be a robot. That red line keeps me grounded. Without it, I doubt my presence on earth. Little red anchors, holding me down.
Adelaide Randolph appears before me. Compact and round, with a cap of steely gray curls, she’s stout, primly proper, and shrewdly staring at me. I’ve lost a bit of time, I suspect. Slid over into dreamtime for a quick coffee break, because I suddenly find myself mid-conversation.
“Mrs. Mueller? What do you think?” Adelaide’s voice a syrupy concoction pouring all over me and clogging up my ears.
“Yes, that’s fine,” I say. I have no idea what I’m agreeing to, but I’ve learned to smile and nod and make the best of my lapses.
Adelaide’s plum-colored mouth curves faintly. “I’m so glad you feel that way. The main house is uninhabitable. Plaster dust everywhere, you see, and the workmen—” She lowers her voice. “They might not give you the respect you deserve. What man could resist watching such a pretty young woman through a wall of plastic sheeting? May as well be washing up out in the yard. We’ll do a full tour in the morning. I presume you’re tired after your travels. Everything you need is in the guest house. They’ve all been remodeled with a full bath. Owen will show you the way.”
She dips her head, austere and tight-lipped. “I wouldn’t advise you to go traipsing about tonight. There are holes on the property where the plumbers and electricians are working. You might stumble into one in the dark and break an ankle. Owen will fetch you come sunup, all right?”
I nod agreeably. Suddenly I am very tired. The heat and humidity are taking a toll. Owen chatters all the way to the “guest house,” one of eight wooden structures mounted on bricks about eight hundred yards from the big house. The weathered wooden slats are silver with age. A rocking chair sits on the porch next to a big milk can stuffed with drooping irises. Gingham curtains flank the small window.
My skin crawls. I imagine blood spray on the slats, a stench of sweat, a sharp ache of futility. It’s like someone putting makeup on a skeleton and making it do a two-step. Adelaide has stabled me like a horse, and I’m going to spend the night in a fucking slave cabin.
“Come on in.” Owen smiles, holding the door wide for me. The walls have been plastered and papered with a cheery floral print. An iron-framed bed with a chenille counterpane and a profusion of decorative pillows fills half the space. There’s a wooden dresser with a washbasin and pitcher, a porcelain chamber pot (stuffed with fake flowers), an electric teakettle, two mugs, and a few teabags and sugar packets in a basket.
Owen shifts nervously, loitering in the doorway like some damned bellhop awaiting a tip. I raise my eyebrows at him.
“I read your dissertation online, you know? ‘Cathedrals of Light’? The one about windows? It shaped my application essay to GSU, so I just wanted to say how much I appreciated it.”
I grunt, abashed. “Thank you. That’s very nice to hear.”
He flushes, pink on pink, and retreats, leaving me alone with my thoughts. Not-so-nice ones. Try as I might, I cannot stop dwelling on Lance and Marcella. Their affair has polluted my brain, spreading out to taint every memory of my marriage. I run through the rosters of our acquaintances, professional peers, and Lance’s friends, asking myself: “Her too? What about her? How many times? How many women?” Eventually, I’ll have to incorporate this new injury into my arsenal of scars, but until I can bear hearing the elaborations he’ll create to avoid responsibility for the betrayal, I will play possum to the truth.
However tired I am, I know I won’t sleep well. Emilie’s sad story is still fresh in mind, and Belle Rive feels haunted. Adelaide warned me to stay put but I’m antsy, constrained by these old walls bandaged up in gingham, paint, and wainscoting. The construction crews are long gone, along with Adelaide Randolph, Owen, and anyone else working on the property. I shudder, realizing just how alone I am here, how vulnerable. But outside my door the deepening twilight sweetens the cooling air, and thin vaporous veils drift overhead. Crickets play mourning songs, drawing bows across their violin strings with a melancholy air. A few lights blink and buzz along the road, but the rest of the plantation lies in darkness.
There is still enough light to navigate by, and I push through an oblique density of air, stepping over hillocks of dirt and rillets of water dribbling from a thick, black garden hose. The cane fields are gone, except for about half an acre planted to set the scene. Sagging uninhabited on its low rise, Belle Rive resembles a demented old granny, dolled up and lipsticked, rolled out to join a party in which she cannot participate. Strings and ground stakes mark off various parcels of earth. In the field behind the house, a stark, neglected patch of rusty-looking weeds juts up through a jumble of dusty glass reflecting flashes of moon and stars. Suddenly I recognize myself to be in a graveyard of sorts—here lies the ruined orchidarium, just as detailed in Emilie’s letters—Isidore, ranting and smashing, terrorizing his own hopes and ambitions. Something crunches underfoot—a litter of discarded snakeskins and skeletons horribly heaped together as if collected by unseen hands.
Am I cold? Why do my limbs quiver so?
Must shake the clanking of chains, the songs and shouts, agonized screams rising from tormented mouths.
No, stop it. Imagining terrible things. Focus instead on the factual details, Belle Rive’s looming bulk. Far fields whispering in the night, tittering trees, river lapping at the bank like a lion licking blood from a carcass. I’m drawn to the house, this feast of history laid out for my savoring. Run my fingers along the wooden veranda railings, feeling the layers of paint and subtle inconsistencies in the hand-hewn pillars. The wide double doors have been removed. Thick, milky plastic flaps in the gap—the fluttering lid in a sleeping eye. Myself a tiny Jonah lost inside the body of this enormous creature. Planks and timbers creak and shift as it breathes, absorbing the irritation of my intrusive presence in its gut.
Gentleman’s parlor, ballroom, sewing room, or library perhaps. An indoor kitchen left over from some twentieth-century occupants with a gas stove and 1950s icebox. I can tell most of this by feel. A thin string of lights hangs in the main hall, and their wan yellow glow settles on various surfaces, deepening the shadows. Two stairs are missing.
Am I in Belle Rive, or a house of dreams? For the staircase seems to sway beneath my tread as I go upstairs and the house stirs from its slumber and widens its throat in a cavernous yawn.
An elusive, teasing whiff of perfume lures me down inky hallways, where I peer into empty bedrooms saturated in cool blue moonlight. One has a bay window set with panes of rippled glass, another opens through a closet into a second bedroom—Isidore and Emilie’s marital suite? Another set of stairs, narrower, steeper, leads to the third floor. Is this Isidore’s private room, this lonely hole tucked under the gables where cobwebs blanket the windowpanes and the cherry tobacco scent of heliotrope lingers in this dusty haven? It’s warmer up here—must’ve been stifling in summer, but I imagine that this is where he came to hide from ranting Floriane or to escape M. Bilodeau’s irritating demands, the sight of slaves toiling in the fields and Albert’s back, flayed raw from a whipping. Where he did “unspeakable violence” to himself.
From the window, I can see the gray streak of river and distant, twinkling lamps. I feel as removed from my own life as I am from those lights. They are glimmers of activity and humanity blinking through a silent, lonely fog. I stand outside of myself, watching me watch me. The emotion I thought would come has not. I feel nothing, but feeling nothing is like being dead. Am I dead? Here in the dark, alone and forgotten, I have no body, no soul. I’m a creature carved from ice, and when the morning sun rises, I shall melt into puddles and evaporate.
Slide my fingernail into the wound, reopening it. Digging deeper, pushing through bands of muscles, veins slippery against the pad of my fingers. Two in. Three. Sweat beads on my skin. Cold waves of nausea break against my shores. I see myself look down at the blood falling to the floor. There—sensation. Pain. I am alive.
KIRSTEN IMANI KASAI is a writer and editor who teaches creative writing and English composition. Her third novel, The House of Erzulie, a Gothic tale set 1850s New Orleans, will be published in February 2018 by Shade Mountain Press. She owns MagicWordEditingCo.com, which helps writers of all stripes reach their goals, and is the publisher and editor of Body Parts Magazine: The Journal of Horror & Erotica. Kirsten has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She lives with her partner and children in San Diego, CA, where she quietly advocates for introvert rights from the privacy of her home. Find her at KirstenImaniKasai.com.
Adapted from The House of Erzulie by Kirsten Imani Kasai, Copyright © 2018 by Kirsten Imani Kasai. With the permission of the publisher, Shade Mountain Press.