(The following is excerpted from a novel-in-progress set in the 18th century on Saint-Louis Island, Senegal)
Crouching to meet the boy at his own height, Augustin Moreau smelt of saltwater and sweat, rum and pipe tobacco. His face was lean and leathery, the beard on his face a different yellow than the hair upon his head. Though he was but a mid-rank supercargo, his island wife flattered him with the title, capitaine.
The boy studied this man’s face, ruddy as if he’d been chased by a hyena. Jacques struggled to unearth any memory of it. He didn’t know how to measure months into years. He only knew that so much time had passed, he didn’t recognize the face of his father. Jacques couldn’t bring himself to address Moreau as “Papa,” so he too called him Captain.
Newly disembarked from the clipper Duc du Maine, Captain had presented Jacques’s mother with three stout barrels. She was now unpacking them in a corner, lifting out bottles of French perfume and wines, iron pots and ladles.
Captain now squatted before Jacques, a wicker basket in the crook of his elbow. “Can you guess what is inside this panier?”
Bursting with excitement, the boy blinked and shook his head. His father lifted the hinged lid to show two sleepy kittens curled together, yawning. Both were European, the captain said, which made them different from island cats.
“Cat is cat, same as everywhere.” Jacques’ mother snorted in her petit-français.
Squatting in her corner, Maman unrolled bolts of fabric. There was French brocade in rose, raw silk in blues, yards of white muslin. She rubbed the material between her fingers, holding it up to the light filtering in through shuttered windows.
“Who knows?” his father continued. “There may be no cats like these in all of French West Africa. Which do you prefer?”
Jacque pointed to one with white fur and a delicate pink nose. Captain lifted it by the scruff of its neck, bringing it close to his son’s face. It stuck out its tongue and licked his forehead. Jacques shivered in delight. Although the cat’s fur was silky, its tongue was spiky. “I like this one.”
“Ah, oui?” Captain smiled then frowned. “This is but a common housecat.”
“But see how pretty, Captain. Look how blue her eyes.”
“He is male,” his father explained. “But yes, tres joli. Very handsome. And what of this one?”
He held up the larger one, a grey-blue with thick, tight fur. “You see his coppery eyes, his dark hair. He reminds me of you, my son.”
“I am not so dark,” Jacques protested. He thought of his friends, a brother and sister. “Not nearly as black as Musa and Rokhaya.”
His mother too was dark but he didn’t like to say it.
“I thought you might like this one,” his father stroked the blue cat’s fur. “He is purebred, a Chartreux. Very rare.”
“Shark Tooth?” his mother scoffed from across the room. “What name is that?”
The captain only laughed, holding the blue cat temptingly before him. Why would his father ask for his choice only to disagree with it? Jacques wanted the cat he liked best, but he didn’t want to offend the father who had brought them all the way from France.
“Captain,” he said carefully. “The blue Shark-Tooth is a very fine cat. But as for me, I prefer the other. He is white as my father with eyes like the ocean.”
“Wife, we have a young poet here.” Captain laughed, placing the tiny white bundle in his son’s arms. “We must seek some kind of schooling for him.”
“As you wish, husband.”
His mother and father never called each other by name. It was always “wife or husband,” “Jacques’ mother or Jacques’ father.” Capitaine or signare.
“This will be for you.” Captain handed the blue to Maman then went to the bathhouse to wash. When he was out of sight, she grimaced and lowered it to the floor, wiping hands against her pagne wrapper.
Jacques knew that his mother would not like the cat. Nor did the blue seem fond of her. He sniffed the air, stretched himself long and sauntered through the door Captain had left ajar.
“Joli blanc,” Jacques murmured, cuddling the warm white kitten. “The prettiest cat on all Ndar.”
“Saint-Louis-du-Fort,” Maman corrected, pretending that she actually spoke real French. She watched him from her corner, a length of fabric draped across her shoulder.
“I love him, Maman.” Jacques clutched the kitten to his chest.
Jacques’ mother believed animals were for eating and working. They should live outside and earn their keep like everyone on Saint-Louis – the European merchants and ship captains, the métis who were their local wives and children, African Catholics and Muslim traders, the Lebous and the Wolof, the Bambara servants and the export slaves.
“Je l'aime,” Jacques repeated. “And he loves me.”
“Je l’aime?” Maman mocked him. Her small-small French exhausted, she switched to her native Wolof. “You love who? If you do not love what resembles you then you do not love you.”
Captain and Maman did not resemble one another in the least. Maybe their union was also not love.
As Jacques struggled to find a name for his precious white cat, his parents began calling them le petit bleu and le petit blanc, “the little blue one” and “the little white one.” Before long those names had taken root.
Petit Blanc never grew big or strong though Jacques fed him chunks of fish, morsels of chicken, shreds of goat meat and bowls of milk.
“Petit Blanc.” Jacques would offer a calabash of scraps. “Come for your dinner.”
Dozing in his basket or sunning in the window, Petit Blanc would ignore him.
“You know,” Maman said one day, “I do not think he hears you.”
“No.” Jacques shook his head. “Only he is not hungry.”
One day Petit Blanc crouched before a blowing leaf, batting it with his paw. Maman called out his name, clapping her hands above his head.
“Deaf,” she said decisively. “Just as I thought.”
Yet still Maman shouted when Petit Blanc was underfoot, though always in petit-français. Maybe French cats couldn’t hear Wolof.
“Va, va, va,” she would shoo Bleu away if he ventured inside. “Blue cat, go away.”
Rarely mewling like other cats, Petit Bleu would only watch her, smiling disdainfully. He quickly outgrew his name, becoming large and lethal. He stalked flying birds and hatchling chicks, hunted mice and rats, biting off the heads, chewing the tails, and leaving mangled carcasses lying about the courtyard. If Blanc wandered outdoors Bleu might even pounce on him. Jacques knew that he must be watchful or his mother’s blue-furred beast might one-day kill his gentle deaf cat.
Bleu drank Blanc’s milk and stole his food. He also set about fighting male cats in the district and mated with the females. His mother reported boastfully that a neighbor’s she-cat had given birth to a litter of six. Four were blue with hair like an African.
Other children mocked Jacques when they saw him walking the sandy lanes. Whether carrying a water jug on his head or a satchel with his slate and marker, he also held a panier. There was enough just space for the Blanc’s head to fit through the basket’s open lid, though not for his body to wriggle out.
“Ah, what is this?” Musa called out. “Jacques has captured a small white wife.”
“No bride price,” Rokhaya laughed. “They are running off to marry.”
“I cannot marry Petit Blanc,” Jacques explained, “because he is a boy. Also, he is a cat.”
He thought of the girls and women of Saint-Louis, those of many tongues and tinges from near-white to midnight black. Many were quite beautiful though he doubted he would marry one. This premonition would one day prove its truth.
The teasing continued unmercifully so he began to run. Petit Blanc gave a weak mewl of protest in the bouncing wicker basket. Jacques slowed to a walk, reminding himself that he was métis, son of a Frenchman and a prosperous signare. Rokhaya and Musa were but Bambara slaves. Yet their taunts still echoed down the sandy lane.
“It is not cat, after all,” one of them shouted. “It is genie in disguise.”
“We must feed him to Mamé Coumba Bang,” the other laughed. “Mermaid of the river loves things that are white.”
Bleu skulked into the courtyard wet as a mermaid, a thread fish clasped in his jaws.
“Please,” Maman ordered, “do not bring that into my house!”
Jacques could tell she was not so annoyed. Her voice had the same edge of careless pride as when she reported to the Captain of Jacques’ progress at his lessons. He was now studying French and learning sums with Abbé Valentin at the Catholic mission.
“Bleu must be a fisherman,” she bragged. “Whoever knew a cat could swim?”
“Maybe he never caught that fish,” Jacques suggested. “Maybe he found it dead on the river bank.”
“And what can the white one find?” Maman scoffed. “Not even his own tail.”
Jacques was as surprised as Maman when Bleu came back from the river. That morning he’d awakened to the sounds of hissing and snarling, and found Blanc outside in the courtyard flattened beneath Bleu’s muscular body. The white one’s neck was bitten bloody, his fur clawed out in patches.
“Petit Bleu,” Jacques shouted. “You are a very bad cat.”
He snatched him up by the scruff, marched him to the east bank of the Senegal and flung him in the water. How the cat survived a five-foot drop and the swim back to shore was a mystery in itself. Mamé Coumba preferred her sacrifices in shades of white, curdled milk and couscous. Did the goddess reject his offering and spit the blue one out?
Jacques did not enjoy the bustle on Saint-Louis island when ocean vessels readied to sail. It seemed that people opened their doors and let the greed spill out into the street.
Hawkers became more desperate and aggressive. Market items were inflated several times their value—poor families could hardly afford to buy rice. European men were preparing to leave their island families behind.
Others would also be disappearing, both the men and women. There were even children darker than Jacques, those who could not call a Frenchman father. They’d all be stripped naked and branded with pips of silver. Moaning and tugging their chains, they were loaded alongside casks of water and barrels of foodstuff, bales of animal hides and gum Arabic and herded into the hold to set off for places he would never know.
The last time Jacques saw his father, Maman was pregnant with the one who would become his sister, Fanta. Resplendent in all her gold, her finest gown and headdress, Maman took ahold of Jacques’ hand. They followed Captain down to the wharves. A group of servants had gone ahead, loaded down with barrels and parcels.
At the south edge of the island a large ship lay anchored in the distance. Jacques heard the rattling of chains and averted his eyes as they passed a gang of export slaves huddled near the wharves. Some were weeping, some shouting, others beseeching their Allah. Jacques thought he heard one cry out his name but didn’t turn to look.
They arrived at the docks where an empty pirogue was being loaded for the journey ahead. Some of it was packed in the same panier that brought Petit Bleu and Petit Blanc to Saint-Louis. Jacques told himself he’d have to find another carrier for his cat.
When the goods were all packed there was no room left for a single bundle, let alone a human being.
“All this waiting in the sun,” Captain fretted. Moreau hushed his wife when she called him Captain and offered him a pocket square. The Alizé’s actual captain might well be within earshot. He took the handkerchief and mopped his reddened brow. “It is meant for the supercargo to first go aboard. I should inspect the goods as they’re loaded.”
Maman went to stand beside him, holding her parasol above the Captain’s head. They waited for the pilot boat to unload and head back before his father returned Maman’s handkerchief.
“Finalement!” Captain muttered. He climbed aboard the pirogue without farewell. Maman reached out to give Jacques a hard pinch. This meant he must not cry.
The pirogue drew up alongside the huge merchant ship like a child approaching its parent. Though Captain Moreau’s back was turned, Maman waved one last au revoir, handkerchief fluttering in the wind. Then she took that handkerchief and gathered sand from Captain’s last footfall. This she would wrap in a parcel and tie to her bedpost.
Yet Maman would not be one of the lucky ones whose husband returned to his island wife and children. She would wait three years before marrying another European à la mode du pays, in the custom of the country that was French West Africa.
“Maman, you are looking tired. Shall we go for your siesta?” The pirogue had started back to collect its cargo of slaves. Jacques did not wish to see it.
Back at home he looked for Blanc, searching the house, the courtyard, even in the low branches of the baobab tree.
“Petit Blanc,” he called in growing panic. “Why are you hiding?”
“You know that cat cannot hear you,” his mother scolded, collapsing onto a divan and flipping open a scarlet fan. Her bulging belly made a tent of her garments.
“It’s that vicious Bleu of yours, Maman. He has fought Blanc and left him somewhere bleeding.”
“He never did.” Maman’s fan stirred the sultry air. “Your father took Petit Bleu aboard the ship with him.”
Jacques ran into the lane, calling for his cat. He went from house to house, down the lane, along the path to the river, across to the market. Jacques finally trudged back home to his mother, wondering how Blanc had disappeared into nowhere.
“It must be those urchins, Musa and Rokhaya,” Jacques grumbled. “They threatened to give Blanc to Mamé Coumba in the river. If they did, I will beat them bloody.”
A look came over Maman’s face that he had not seen there. “You did not know? Those two were carried out on the Alizé.”
Jacques was sure his mother had made a mistake. “No, Maman. This cannot be true. Musa and Rokhaya were slaves for house, not for trade.”
His mother gave an offhanded shrug, but still she looked uneasy. “Alors, your father, he begged and begged. He wanted his own servants for the voyage to Ameriques. One day soon they will return.”
“To America,” Jacques repeated. He knew this was far across the sea, more distant than The Tongue of Barbary beyond the Senegal’s west bank, than mainland Sor to the east, than all of French West Africa beyond it, or even far-off Europe. Unless they were European—and often even then—people who went to America did not return.
The worry stayed there, pinched between Maman’s brows. “I told your father he could carry the blue, but I never said to take the white. That runt was never good for anything but sleeping.”
Now that he was almost nine, Jacques knew he mustn’t cry. His father had caught him weeping at some injury the big cat had inflicted on the smaller one. The Captain said he must master his pain. He must grow to be as strong as Bleu, not weak like Blanc.
“A man who cries is not a man,” his father told him. “Do you wish to be a woman or a goorjigeen?”
Jacques shook his head. No, he wished neither to be a woman nor a man-woman.
He turned away from his mother, blinking back tears. “But Petit Bleu was yours and Petit Blanc was mine. The Captain gave them to us. Why would he take them away?”
“Rats on those ships are zigantique, quel dommasse!” Maman shuddered. “They could even kill a cat.”
From lessons with the Abbé Valentin, Jacques was learning proper French. He realized Saint-Louisians spoke it entirely wrong. He especially disliked the way they mangled certain words, treating the language like decapitated rats with chewed-off tails.
“Gigantique,” Jacques corrected his mother. “Rats on the ships are gigantic. What a pity, quel dommage.”