(Mount Marter, Louisiana, USA. 1899)
Lick Holden was christened Fortis James. His momma Kayenne called him that because he was her eighth child and it was a strong sounding name. Damn! He was going to have to be strong, all right.
There wasn’t much in the way of celebration surrounding Lick’s birth. This was partly because he was Kayenne’s eighth; partly because he was a breech birth and he almost killed his momma; and partly because his papa had bunked six months before. Mostly, though, it was because Fortis James “Lick” Holden was born in the Cooltown district of Mount Marter just as the twentieth century was coming up for air; and a new birth was a blessing to no one, least of all the child.
Some ten years later, when Lick first blew his horn in the funeral parades that snaked their way down Canal Street through Cooltown, he watched the way the sombre mood of such events soon evaporated into a festival of dancing and ragtime or jass (as the music was called back then – or “jasm”, both shortenings of “orgasm”). Lick loved to watch the fine ladies swing their hips and stomp to those African beats. But he couldn’t help but wonder if the whole scenario was somehow disrespectful. He asked Momma Lucy (his grandmother) about this and she told him, “Fortis! You gots to celebrate a life somehow!” But Lick didn’t buy Momma Lucy’s explanation any. The way he saw it, the funeral parades were not celebrating a life so much as its passing. And that was the truth of life and death for a negro in Cooltown.
Momma Lucy was there when Lick was born. She held her daughter’s hands and stuffed her mouth with rags to bite on. She knotted the umbilicus and slapped the life into Lick until he screamed loud enough to make the wooden walls shake.
“The boy sho’ got some lungs, Kayenne,” Momma Lucy said and she held Lick under the armpits and examined his features, wiping the mucus from his nose and eyes.
Black babies are born in a variety of shades from pink to tan. But Lick was born dark with full lips, a spread nose and a proud African forehead.
“The poor boy’s been born a six-out-seven negro!” Momma Lucy exclaimed and she cackled like a witch.
Momma Lucy popped a bottle of dime hooch and swigged deep. Then she poured some down her daughter’s throat until it spilled over her chin. Then she emptied the remainder over Kayenne’s rupture and Kayenne dug her nails into her mother’s arm until she drew blood. So Lick was born to the sound of screaming: his own, Kayenne’s and Momma Lucy’s. But Lick screamed the loudest.
In later years the first sound Lick could remember was not screaming but singing. Kayenne sat him on the outside staircase of their ramshackle apartment when she aired the two rooms, and he looked out over Canal Street as his six older sisters did the laundry in the gutter bowl below. They scrubbed the clothes until their nails bled, with bit soap collected by a neighbour from the white folk she worked for. And they sang away their troubles with voices as sweet as molasses.
“When the devil comes to take me to hell, Make sure you cry to Gabriel, Don’t let the devil take my sister down, She been in hell in old Cooltown.”
Lick loved to hear his sisters sing. Because he knew nothing of the devil or hell or Gabriel and Cooltown was his world.
One time when Lick was around nine months old and he’d just learned the use of his limbs, he crawled to the edge of the staircase and looked down on his sisters at work. He liked the way their picky heads bobbed and their necks dipped as they scrubbed and sang. They reminded him of the scrawny chickens that pecked the dust out back. But the sounds they made were a whole lot prettier. Lick leaned out from the staircase to try and get a better look but his little body wasn’t up to much balancing. With a sudden scared shriek, he fell from the staircase the full four yards to the street below and landed head first in the gutter bowl with a splash.
Kayenne heard the shriek and she came whooping from the apartment like a banshee, two-timing the stairs with her skirt hitched at the waist. But she reached the street to find her second daughter, Tomasina, clutching Lick to her chest. Lick sneezed a couple of times and he certainly caught a little chill but he wasn’t hurt bad. That didn’t stop Kayenne giving all her daughters a wupping like the accident was somehow their fault.
When they heard the commotion, a lot of the Canal Street neighbours gathered round to watch the free entertainment. The men laughed at the thought of little Fortis Holden being an expert diver like the white good-time boys who leaped from the steamers into the depths of the Mississippi and they retold the story to passersby and they nudged each other with their elbows and sucked on their cigarettes like they were scared they might escape. The women pulled their shawls tight around their shoulders and muttered to one another. Some said that it was ‘surely a blessing”. Others looked at Kayenne and whispered that such fortune had the smell of witchcraft. But Big Annie – acknowledged as the expert on all matters of religion and juju by virtue of her husband’s working for the white minister – soon set matters straight.
“T”ain’t no hoodoo,” she said. “An” t”ain’t no religion neider. Jus’ good luck, plain an” simple. Kayenne, that boy of yours sho’ lucky to be alive.”
When Big Annie said this, the other women nodded in agreement and Kayenne nodded too. But she looked at her sniffling son with his rack of ribs and bloated hungry belly and she couldn’t be sure how lucky he really was.
Truth is, Lick would surely have starved before he walked if it hadn’t been for Kayenne’s eldest daughter. She was named Lucy after her grandmother but Lick never knew her as nothing but Cheese.
Cheese was fifteen years old when Lick was born and she’d just become a mother herself, though all too briefly. Cheese had been raped by one of Kayenne’s many sweethearts (though Kayenne never knew it) and she gave birth to a little boy she called Jesus (after the immaculate conception she’d invented in her head). But Jesus never had much desire for life and he breathed for just two days with a rattle in his chest like a purring cat. Then the purring stopped.
Of course Cheese was distraught when she found that Jesus had died next to her while she slept and she clung to the corpse for a further two days. And, since her own time was due, Kayenne didn’t notice the silent little bundle until the smell became unavoidable.
So Kayenne sent for Momma Lucy and Momma Lucy took her granddaughter and the body of her great-grandson to Big Annie for a blessing because there was no point bothering the minister for a baby who’d barely tasted the bitterness of life. Momma Lucy promised Cheese that Jesus would receive a good Christian burial and sent the young girl home to her sisters. Then Momma Lucy and Big Annie weighted the corpse down with two stones and sent it to the bottom of the Mississippi. Because that was best for everyone.
The next day Lick was born.
Of course Cheese couldn’t accept that baby Jesus was dead. And because Cheese couldn’t accept it, her body couldn’t accept it neither. And the young girl’s breasts were swollen fit to bust. Now Kayenne, whose teats were raggedy from years of chewing and her body tired to the point of death, couldn’t see no point in good breast milk going to waste. So Cheese was nursing from day one – not just Lick but her sisters too. And her heavy pubescent breasts produced milk aplenty, so that she could suckle the whole family from dawn till dusk without running dry.
Every time Kayenne received a visitor, they would find Cheese in the corner rocker feeding one child or another. Usually Lick. On one occasion Paddle Jones, a steam man who was sweet on Kayenne, swung by for the first time in months. He saw the way Lick hung on to Cheese’s titty and the look of bored resignation on the young girl’s face.
“Damn!” Paddle Jones said. “That girl got enough milk over for cheese!”
And the name stuck.
Cheese nursed her siblings (and even her mother sometimes, truth be told) for three years. There was never enough food for the family to eat – maybe a pot of red-bean stew that had to last two days – but, when things got desperate and little Lick was crying with the hunger, Cheese would take out a fecund breast and blink her pretty eyes. Over time – though Kayenne never noticed, certainly never acknowledged it – Cheese began to fade away. Her face pinched and her womanly hips contracted and her pretty eyes blinked ever slower like a cow’s. Two days before Lick’s third birthday, Cheese died in her sleep. When Kayenne looked at her daughter’s corpse, she barely recognized her, for there was nothing of little Lucy (named for her grandmother) left to see.
Though Lick Holden was not quite three when his eldest sister died, he never forgot her. Years later, when rich young white men bought him a drink in some Cooltown honkytonk or other and asked him how he hit that top C, Lick would look at them and say: “S’cos I fed on powerful stuff as a shooter. Sho’ made my lungs powerful strong.”
“What were you eating?” the white men asked earnestly.
“Cheese,” Lick said. And he peeled his biggest smile and the white men figured this was some strange kind of nigger humour.
Although there were eight kids in Kayenne’s household (seven after Cheese died, six when Falling Down fell down one too many times) and they called one another brother and sister, only Cheese and Tomasina (Sina for short) were full siblings. Otherwise the relationships were as mix and match as a patchwork quilt.
Cheese and Sina were the daughters of Razor Harry, the two-bit Canal Street pimp with crooked teeth and mastery of the blade. Though she hadn’t seen him since just after Sina was born, Kayenne still called him “my husband” and she always expected him to show up some day with his short temper and his razor blade. Kayenne figured that she loved Harry as much as she knew how to love any man. And she had the scars to prove it.
The next three children were of unknown fathers, the offspring of the tricks Kayenne turned to put food on the table. Though she often tried to figure their background from the depth of their complexion.
With Falling Down, Kayenne’s other son, there was no doubting that his father was pure white. Not that this information narrowed it down any, since white good-time boys were a dime a dozen in Cooltown back then. Sometimes in her darkest moments Kayenne wondered if Falling Down’s mixed parentage was somehow to blame because there was no doubting that the boy was, as Momma Lucy put it, “an egg or two shy for market”.
When Falling Down slept, Momma Lucy said it was like “looking “pon the face of God hisself ” because nobody could deny the little boy was the most beautiful child in the whole of Cooltown. His skin was as lush as toffee, his limbs had the length and grace of a willow sapling and the soft curls on his head twisted upwards as if they were reaching for the heavens. But when Falling Down woke up each morning he broke his mother’s heart. He opened his eyes and they were deep black, as lifeless as a stagnant pond, and his voice, when it came, was the voice of a slurring drunk which nobody but Kayenne could understand.
Worst of all, Falling Down couldn’t walk without falling down. He would stutter a few steps with all the coordination of a newborn foal before lurching violently to the left (always the left) and collapsing on his side. And when Falling Down fell down, there was no way he could right himself without assistance and he would lie thrashing in the dust or on the floor or in the gutter like an upturned stag beetle.
One evening Kayenne sent Falling Down out to buy a piece of coal or two from the cart in Canal Street. Generally she didn’t have to worry because she could rely on a good neighbour to pick her son off the ground. But this time, when Falling Down collapsed, he fell right on a jagged rock that embedded itself in his left temple. At first no one took no notice. They walked by saying, “No mind. It’s jus’ Falling Down and I’ll right him soon’s I bought my scrap of coal.” Then Lil” Annie (Big Annie’s daughter) saw that Falling Down’s legs weren’t thrashing no more and his dead eyes were truly dead. And there was all kind of commotion as the men carried Falling Down’s body back to Kayenne.
There was a good turn-out at the funeral; partly because Cooltown liked nothing better than a funeral and partly because Falling Down was a popular kid whose tragedy let people see the best in themselves and the worst in their situation. But when the minister gave his address and started talking about a boy named “Jacob”, nobody knew who he was talking about except Kayenne.
Jacob was thirteen when he fell down that last time.
Next in line after Falling Down came Sister, who never got a proper naming, and Ruby Lee. These two deep-black girls couldn’t have been more than ten months apart in age and, the way Lick remembered it, they did nothing all day but fight like alley cats. But, despite their mutual loathing, they both went the same way in the end; turning tricks from the age of twelve and addicted to opium and alcohol before they even started the bleeding.
After Ruby Lee, there was a three-year gap to Corissa, a fragile looking little girl who clung to her mother’s ankles like a freshwater mollusc. Sometimes when Kayenne brought a trick back late at night, Corissa would leap from the bed and fasten herself to her mother despite the man’s attentions. Sometimes the trick wouldn’t notice or mind, especially if he was dizzy drunk, and on occasion Corissa even made it into her mother’s bed, weeping into the hard mattress as all manner of gruntings and groanings filled the claustrophobic space beneath the blanket. Sometimes, however, the trick would lose his temper with the clinging little girl and he would smack her with the flat of his hand or throw her across the room and into the wall. White men were the worst for this, like the presence of childhood was a marker of their guilt. But Corissa never cried out because she was a whole lot tougher than she looked.
In later years, when Lick saw a young whore with a fat lip or bloody nose and those tearless, plaintive eyes, he would shake his head and say, “That girl got a touch of Corissa about her.”
Corissa’s father was Squint-Eye Jack, a low-life thug from Storyville in New Orleans. He was also the man who’d raped Cheese (though no one, besides the two of them, knew it). A long time later, Squint got his comeuppance when he was lynched by a mob of good-time boys for unwittingly looking at a white lady in the wrong kind of way. After the birth and death of Jesus, Cheese had prayed for such a revenge so hard that she felt sure she was heading for hell. But, when it came, it was too late for her to see.
Just a year older than Lick, the last sister of Kayenne’s household was Sylvie, though she wasn’t actually Lick’s blood sister at all. Sylvie was the daughter of Marlin, Kayenne’s own stepsister. Marlin had died in childbirth, so Kayenne took little Sylvie into her household because she couldn’t leave her blood on the street and, as Momma Lucy said, ‘seven don’t starve no worse than six.”
Now Marlin was the half-caste daughter of Momma Lucy and a white trader from up North – Chicago or some place. And Sylvie was the offspring of Marlin and some plantation boy who’d headed into Cooltown to lose his virginity on his eighteenth birthday. So that made Sylvie what was known down South as a “quadroon”; a negro girl with no more than one quarter of black inside her.
Some twenty years later, Sylvie looked up the word “quadroon” in a dictionary and the closest word she could find was “quatrain”. And Sylvie couldn’t believe the definition staring back at her: “A stanza of four lines, usually with alternate rhymes.” So Sylvie and Lick penned a song called “Quatrain Blues’ that gave equal weight to Lick’s prowess on the horn and the sentiments of Sylvie’s uncertain status.
‘my grandma was a negro,
My grandpappy, he was white, My pappy was a white man too, No shakes that I’s so light.”
And when Sylvie sang it, she invested the words with such feeling that no one could have doubted her meaning. And when Lick’s horn blew over the top of the chorus, some said that women would be staring at that cornet to try and figure where the wailing baby was hiding. Louis Armstrong heard “Quatrain Blues’, third or fourth hand, down in New Orleans around 1922 and plagiarized the melody long after for one of the jazz standards he composed with his second wife Lil. But no man could remember which song it was and, if Sylvie ever heard it and thought she could, she was never saying. Besides, such “liftin”” was commonplace at that time – from negro spirituals to church songs – and nobody paid it no mind.
To look at Sylvie as a little girl, you would have never known she was a negro at all. With her thick black curls, pretty aquiline nose and hazel eyes, she could easily have passed for an Italian or a Jew. And, as she grew up in Kayenne’s household, Sylvie was soon aware of her difference from her brothers and sisters. A light complexion was a prized commodity in Cooltown, as valuable as near anything but food or a paying job, and Sylvie was proud of her good fortune. When she walked down Canal Street to beg an offcut or a drop of lamp oil, she would raise her chin above the horizontal and swing her arms by her side as she’d seen the white ladies do. She sat demurely on the rough church benches and rested her chin coyly on her shoulder. As her siblings wolfed their food as though they feared it might jump from their bowl, Sylvie nibbled a dough ball like it was an Oriental delicacy and sieved her water through her teeth like fine wine.
In between bouts of impatience, Momma Lucy looked at her granddaughter and couldn’t help but laugh.
‘sylvie!” she exclaimed. “You look down your nose at us po’ negroes like you’s the Queen of Sheba herself!”
After the passing of Cheese and Falling Down, Sina and Sister and Ruby Lee and Corissa found this an excellent image to hang on to. Because Sylvie would tilt her neck and look down the length of her precisely sculpted nose in a way that none of her flat-nosed sisters could hope to do. And they hated her for it.
If Sylvie had little but contempt for her sisters, her relationship with Lick was of an altogether different nature. Sylvie liked nothing better than to boss Lick around and, as she strutted down Canal Street, Lick would toddle behind her like, she thought, ‘my negro servant”. Lick was surely devoted to Sylvie. But, if anything, he was devoted to the blackness he saw inside her. Because, for all her “airin” and gracin”” (as Lick liked to call it), she sometimes couldn’t help but show her nigger heart. During a funeral, more than any of her sisters, Sylvie would lose herself in the insistent rhythms of the jass. When the parade reached the jetty at the end of Canal Street and dusky Old Hannah washed the Mississippi in golden light and the prostitutes got low down and dirty and the men got drunk, there was little Sylvie, eight years old, in the middle of the heaving bodies. She would set her legs a yard apart and bend them at the knee, she would ride her skirt over her thighs and grind her child’s hips with her head thrown back and her eyes tight shut and her curls tossing from side to side until Kayenne caught up with her and dragged her home by the ear. And the next day Sylvie would sit on the steps outside the apartment, resentfully nursing the welts from Kayenne’s strap, and she sang her sorrow for Cooltown to hear and her eight-year-old voice would rise from her groin with the throaty rasp of sexual abandon and the Canal Street prostitutes would come to their balconies and their ribs rose and fell on the tides of Sylvie’s song. And Lick sat unseen on the top step and his breathing came quickly and he crossed his legs and squeezed them together.
So Kayenne’s household was a patchwork quilt, all right. Patches were removed and patches were added but they were stitched together with a strong thread that could mostly stand the strain. Sometimes, when Kayenne lined her kids up for inspection before the Sunday service, she would look them up and down and her tired face would crease into an indefatigable smile.
‘sho’ my kids like every colour of the rainbow,” Kayenne liked to say.
When Kayenne said this, none of the brothers and sisters said a word. But Lick for one knew that his mother had it all wrong, even if he couldn’t express his reasoning at the time. Different shades they may have been – Cheese, Sina, Falling Down, Sister, Ruby Lee, Corissa, Sylvie and Lick – but there was no doubting they were still all black.
©2001 by Patrick Neate. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.