The johnnycake had cooled and the milk was warm. Both must have been sitting out for a long time before she sent for me.
'So,' she said. 'You are Frances.'
I made a curtsy.
'It's the name I gave you myself.'
That startled me. I hadn't known Miss-bella to take any interest in me before that very moment. I lost my curtsy and almost slipped and fell. I didn't know how to answer except to thank her. She shook her arm to remind me of the johnnycake she was holding. By then I'd grabbed myself a hunk in each hand from the table, but I took that piece straight from her own hand with my teeth.
She puffed out her cheeks, then plunged her fingers into her mouth as if to lick them clean. 'You are a little savage.'
I bit my tongue.
'It is my husband who has decided you should live in this house, Frances.'
'Yes, missus,' I mumbled around the bite I was trying to gulp down before she took any of it away.
'What you and I have in common is that neither of us had any say in the matter.'
'I's happy to be here, missus.'
'Well. Seems I must be some sort of mother to you now.'
What to say to that? I never knew my mother but here was the plain fact looking us both in the eye. Miss-bella was white and a very high lady. None such as herself had ever birthed the likes of me in the history of our hot little part of the earth. Brown and thick and strong as a horse I was then, though, being a mulatta, I was paler than any of the other blacks on that estate. With a great frizzled mess on top of my head, not like her own pale hair, which was so feathery the breeze stirred it and lifted it and played with it while it shunned mine.
She said something else, which I fancied was about her own life and therefore not my concern. She was gazing out the window when she said it too. 'I've lived too many years in a place where the snakes lurk in the house as well as the grass.'
Because she had said she was to be my mother, I chanced a question. 'How long am I to stay?'
She had a high colour on her throat, her hands flittered like a frog's legs, and she looked at me and then away, as if I was the sun and gazing at me too long would hurt her eyes. I thought it strange that she should be so overcome when I was the rough creature brought up to her from the swamp and she the great lady of the house who was giving me pity surely as she was giving me johnnycakes. Miss-bella was frightened of me.
But then she said something that turned my attention sharp in another direction, as if a john crow had just flown into the room. 'However long it is will be too long in the end.'
That was 1812. Nobody told me why I'd been brought to the house and I was too busy burying my nose in clean cotton and kitchen scraps to puzzle about it. They said I was seven years old, or thereabouts. No one ever stirred themselves enough to be sure. I never had a birthday, or a mother. When I asked her, all Phibbah would say was my mother had run off. 'You won't magic one up by asking,' she said. 'You going learn. We not the ones ask the questions, we the ones answer them. And the answer always yes.'
When I close my eyes now, I see Phibbah swiping her cloth at the cane settee in the receiving room, tilting it to sweep under. I see the campeachy chairs put right in the middle to catch a breeze, the carpets sent to Miss-bella by her sister in Bristol that curled up in our heat like they were trying to rest. The dining room where the porcelain cups and platters and the blue and white teapot rattled in the sideboard. I hear Phibbah hissing, "Ga-lang, pickney, just get out of my way. Why you can't just leave me be?'
It was my job to polish the brass and put the flowers out on Miss-bella's breakfast table, fan the flies off her food. But mostly I trailed the house, thinking of ways I could stick to Phibbah, like an apron. She grumbled while she worked, complaining that her old bones were rattling like stones in a calabash, that whoever dreamed up the colour white never had to be somebody's laundress, that white people's furniture never did nothing except breed more furniture. I liked the way her every word was birdsong, through the space in her teeth. Four of them missing right where my own new ones had just come in.
She'd been the one to pull mine out, so I asked her, 'Phibbah, who pulled "yours?"' Oh, I worried at her like waves on sand. Children are all blindfolds and hammers. Cruel because of what they don't know.
She told me it was none of my business. 'You don' remember it,' she said.
'It happen before you born. Nobody remember a thing from then.'