Excerpt: Once in a Blood Moon by Dorothea Hubble Bonneau
Once Lulu manages to coax Alexandra’s hair into a topknot fastened by an emerald-studded comb, she nods and takes her position in front of the mirror. Smiling behind a fan that matches her dress, Alexandra hums Bach’s minuet. The dress works its magic as she and Lulu spin and dip, giggling when they make the last turn.
“Thank you, Lulu,” Alexandra whispers. Then she executes a perfect curtsey and looks to her servant for praise.
Lulu’s eyes are riveted on the French doors.
“What?” asks Alexandra.
“Someone was watching.”
“Don’t be silly.”
Alexandra turns and sees that an edge of the drape and the embroidered silk over-curtain have caught on the latch, leaving an opening large enough for someone to see inside. It’s a good thing it’s dim in the interior of the room. Day is yielding to night. The large chandelier hasn’t been lit, and half the candles in the smaller one have burnt themselves out.
“Whoever it was probably couldn’t have seen much,” Alexandra says. But she doesn’t sound convincing, even to herself.
One of the hall doors that opens onto the balcony slams. Maybe Jimi’s come home early from visiting Papa. Alexandra can bribe her little brother with a chocolate and make him promise not to tell what he saw. But the footsteps are too heavy to be Jimi’s.
Alexandra helps Lulu pull the house-help dress over the blue silk and plunks herself down on her vanity stool.
Just as Lulu starts working lavender oil into Alexandra’s hair, Mother bursts into the room carrying a lantern bright enough to turn night to day.
“Good evening, Miss Josephine,” Lulu says, dropping a curtsey and staring at the floor.
Mother sets the lamp on the bureau and paralyzes Alexandra with a hateful glare. “You were told not to wear that dress until your debut.”
“I had to put it on so I could decide how Lulu should fix my hair to best show off the dress,” lies Alexandra, proud that she’s looking Mother in the eye and keeping her voice steady.
Mother lifts the hem of Lulu’s calico, revealing the silk dress. She turns to Alexandra, her voice rich with venom. “You know Lulu’s not to wear your clothes anymore.” Mother narrows her eyes. “Do you have any idea what people would say if they knew you’d taught your girl a ballroom dance?”
“I’m sorry, Mother.”
“You will be.” Mother bobs her head toward Lulu. “Go down to the kitchen and tell Old Mary to fill a jar with water and fix a basket of shrimp and rice cakes.”
“Right away, Miss Josephine.”
Cold sweat drenches Alexandra. “I’ll make it up to you,” Alexandra whispers as Lulu rushes to the door.
Lulu dips a curtsey and hurries out.
Mother’s shrill laugh turns into a coughing fit. When she’s caught her breath, she turns to Alexandra. “Make what up to her? She’s your slave, or have you forgotten again?”
“Then why can’t I do with her as I will?” Mother’s eyes narrow. Alexandra wishes she could call her words back.
“She’s yours to train, but she’s on my property ledger until five months from now when you turn seventeen, providing you prove you’re worthy of being called a woman at your debutante celebration.”
“What are you going to do to Lulu?”
Mother plucks the servant’s bell from its holder by the door and rings three times. Sampson’s signal! Alexandra wills herself not to show the fear that courses through her like acid. A loud knock rattles her resolve.
“Come in,” Mother chimes in the tone she reserves for her favorite help.
Sampson, who’s nearly seven feet tall, strides into the room dressed in his midnight-blue waistcoat. His posture is ramrod straight like Mother’s. Unlike Mother, he could never pass for white. Although he’s light-skinned, his black hair, cut short, with sideburns that reach nearly to his chin, is curly and coarse like that of most Africans.
“Sampson, Lulu’s waiting in the kitchen. Lock her in the hog loft with some water and shrimp cakes,” orders Mother.
“No!” Alexandra cries out.
Mother glares at him. “You have cotton in your ears?”
“On my way, Miss Josephine.”
“Oh, and Sampson, in the morning, install the bars on Alexandra’s balcony door. She’s to be confined until I’m satisfied she’s learned to comport herself with the dignity that will bring honor to Heaven Hill.”
“Soon as the rooster crows, Miss Josephine.” Samuel spins on his heel and hurries out.
“Mother, please don’t. Those meat-eating hogs terrify Lulu. It’s too dangerous.”
“You ever see a pig climb the ladder to that loft?”
“Punish me instead. I made her put on the dress.”
Mother gazes into the mid-distance. “Your juvenile actions have convinced me to invite Ichabod Collins to stop by the house.”
“The speculator?” Alexandra struggles to catch her breath.
“You’ve shown me it would be best if I got rid of Lulu and bought you an experienced attendant.”
“You can’t sell Lulu!”
“I’m your mother. You’re telling me what to do?”
Alexandra shakes her head.
“Of course, I wouldn’t want to sell her until January, when the price of number-one girls will triple. You do remember why the price will triple, don’t you?”
Alexandra nods. Mother has told her a hundred times. The price will soar when it becomes illegal to bring in slaves from Africa, starting on January first.
Mother taps the sharpened nail of her pointer finger on the marble-top table, no doubt calculating how much Lulu might bring in a private sale.
“If I sell Lulu for a good enough price, I’ll have enough money to purchase a skilled attendant who can teach you the things you need to know in order to lure a worthy suitor.”
“I don’t want to lure a suitor!”
Mother’s shrill laugh sparks Alexandra’s fury.
“You can’t sell my friend!”
Mother slaps Alexandra. Words fly out of Alexandra’s mind. Mother has never struck her. She wills herself not to cry. At first, she thinks she sees regret soften Mother’s face, but she knows she’s wrong when Mother says, “You better hope spending time in the hog barn will teach that girl the humility that will make her appealing to her new master, or she’ll have the devil to pay.