Most days she did nothing but curse, but in the right mood she fed me scraps of hominy straight from the pot, or a slice of one of her corn cakes. When she sat outside the cook-room in the morning picking peas, and tapped her hand beside her in the dirt, it meant she'd set a few there for me, beside the washbasin. I'd creep over and scoop them into my palm, her arm tickling right beside mine. But she'd never turn, never look at me.
Peas snicking into pewter, Phibbah's smell of coal, and the ley ash and aloe she mixed into soap. If I kept quiet, she might tell a story. But she had to work up to it, like a wave you can see coming from far out. First, she said, she had to find her story breath, which wasn't the same as her living one.
My favourites were the ones about the house.
'Only one reason white man ever build pretty-pretty house like this,' Phibbah said. 'You hooks worms to catch fish. After him come from England and finish him house, Massa send him letter to Bristol. We sabi sure as night going come, white woman going come. Sure enough Miss-bella come running—bragadap!—same way guinea fowl come running when corn drop.'
Then Phibbah had a new mistress to learn. And she had to watch her the same way sailors watch the sky. Red sky at morning, sailor's warning; red sky at night, sailor's delight. Miss-bella came riding high on the driver's bench in the mule-cart, as out of place as a white glove on a drying hedge, a teapot clinking on her lap, the blue and white pattern flocking the rim, like birds on a branch. She'd ripped up the cart cushions to make a little throne. Three nights Phibbah had stayed up sewing those cushions, finishing them off with a brocade leaf pattern good enough for the receiving room. Langton had said he wanted it to be like sitting on a god-damn cloud, the day he went down to get his wife. And here was Miss-bella, using them for her teapot instead of her backside! Oh, but she'd soon learn. This was Jamaica. Things were bound to crack.
Believe it or not, Phibbah said, there was a time Miss-bella and Langton used to ride out together, before she knew Jamaica was a thing she was supposed to be frightened of. Wearing her riding skirt that looked like a cut lemon and her straw hat with the blue feather, grey eyes shining with excitement and Langton mounted up beside her showing her everything he owned. Phibbah was supposed to keep watch, run down to swing the door the very minute they returned. She knew she'd pay if that door stayed closed even a minute longer. But there was a way of knowing when they were coming long before she could see them.
'How?' I'd ask her.
'Same way you track him for any reason. Look out into the fields.'
'Watch the bucks?'
'Mm. Them all do the same thing when him draw near.'
'They look up?'
'Cha! Pickney!' She kissed her teeth, air making its music through her gap. 'Them heads go down. Watch. You see it every time, like a wave through grass. Whichever way that wave coming from, is there buckra coming from.'
Miss-bella had to be tended like a rose. She had the palest arms I ever saw. Her whole morning's work was keeping them out of the sun. To top it all, she had a waist as narrow as a ching-ching beak, which she made narrower still with a whalebone corset that hooked around her, like ribs. Her bottom billowed under all manner of bustles and hoops her sister sent from the ladies' catalogues. She said life in the colonies could only be survived by prayer and endured with tea, so Phibbah served it every afternoon on the back porch, grumbling: 'Why we got the lone white in all of Jamaica mad enough to drink tea outside?'
We set out bowls of sugar water and cobalt poison to catch flies, brought out the orange-bough fan and the porcelain footbath. I hated that I had to wear my calico dress instead of my muslin (soft and white with a lace collar that always made Miss-bella's guests look me up and down). But the muslin was for waiting at table, the calico was my foot-washing dress.
Phibbah stood behind her with the fan. I pushed up the hem of her grey skirt. Her toes flared like little eyelashes. I looked out towards the cane-piece. Scraps of osnaburg and muslin flapping, field-hands moving out of line to dip rags in buckets of water, tie them around their brows. The nigger-drivers high on their horses under the tamarind tree, watching. I wiped the washcloth between Miss-bella's toes. Her feet looked like something dug from a fire after it had died down. Dry, scratched. Not pretty like the rest of her. As the afternoon wore on she grew more and more red-faced. The fan turned a breeze, ship-sail slow. Her words sloshed around us, like the water in the tub. She bent forward over the cup, and sighed.
'This whole god-forsaken place was designed for killing Europeans,' she said.
Phibbah let the fan slap against her hip. 'Kiiii! If it killing you, what it doing to us?'
Miss-bella stopped dead with the cup kissing her bottom lip. Then she laughed. 'Well, it's the Europeans I'm worried about, girl. Me in particular.'
This excerpt ends on page 20 of the hardcover edition.