All authors have to get to know their characters very well in order to tell their stories. There are lots of ways to do this, but my favourite is the interview. I get them to tell me about themselves in their own voices, and I write down what they say. I find it very useful for establishing the intimacy that I need with them. Sometimes this text will find its way into the book, but often it exists only for me. I decided to share this one from ‘Summertime’/’Under a Dark Summer Sky’ because it wasn’t used. Grace is a minor character, she only appears in a couple of scenes, but she’s mother to two major characters: Selma and Henry. From Selma we learn that her mother was very hard and distant, bordering on cruel, and I did this interview to find out why.
During the early 1900s, oil millionaire Henry Flagler decided to use his vast wealth to fund his dream of a railway stretching from Miami all the way to Key West. South Florida at this time was still undeveloped, with little tourism and barely any amenities. Compared to the great cities of the North, it was a primitive, mosquito-ridden jungle frontier. Between Miami and Key West stretched a vast swamp, a sparsely populated wilderness scattered across miles of open sea. At the far end was Key West, the only outpost that could be described as civilised at this time, thanks to a thriving shipping trade. ‘Flagler’s Folly’, as the railway became known, was second only to the Panama Canal in ambition, cost, and difficulty. No one had ever built a railway across the sea. Yet it was completed in 1912, a year before Flagler’s death, and carried passengers until it was destroyed by the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 depicted in ‘Summertime’.
The project attracted thousands of workers, from as far away as the slums of New York, and from the Caribbean islands, drawn by the promise of work with good pay and living conditions. The photo above depicts the camp at Long Key.
Among them was Grace Roberts, who came to the Keys with her husband, Xavier, and their daughter, Selma. This is Grace’s story.
We came to Florida from Haiti so Xavier could work on the overseas railway. Selma was just little then, but she was fascinated by the men working on the tracks. She worshipped her daddy. And Xavier was a good man, probably the best man I’ve known. And I’ve known a lot…too many to count. When I look back, it seems that was the only time the sun shone on my life. Everything before and after is in darkness. But for a short while, with Selma growing fast, Xavier in a steady job, and me working as a laundress for the workers’ camp, we lived well. Being married meant we got a decent cabin, just a tent raised up on a wooden frame. But it kept us clear of the sand flies, and at least we didn’t have to live in the floating dormitory with the single men. The cabin was the best house I ever lived in. It kept the rain out, and was sheltered by coconut palms. We had plenty to eat, from Xavier’s pay, and our little vegetable garden. There was an orange tree that people said was over 100 years old. It had the sweetest fruit you ever tasted. Selma made a pet of a big iguana who liked to sun himself on the hot sand by the cabin door. She called him Jack. Xavier would take her fishing on his day off. We were happy.
Not long after, I came to realise that this was something that the universe simply could not tolerate.
I brought the old knowledge with me from Haiti. Xavier didn’t like it, said we were in the modern world, and the people would look down on us, or worse, if they knew. But I kept it quiet. Out back, behind our cabin, I stored my tools inside the rotten trunk of a poisonwood tree because I knew no one but a crazy person would stick their hand in there. Every day, I prayed to Jesus and Mary, and made offerings to Dunballah, the father, and Erzulie the moon mother, and Papa Guede, loa of death and resurrection. To keep us safe, and well, and whole. And it worked, or as well as anything can be expected to. With the old ways, there’s always a price for the loas’ favours. Selma did come crying to me one day, her hand all burned by the poisonwood. She had seen me putting my tools away and gone to investigate. Luckily I could get the gumbo limbo tree sap on her quick, or she’d have been scarred worse. It was her first lesson in respect for the old ways.
Pretty soon, word got around and women started coming to me, wanting things, the usual kind of things women want: more babies, less babies, more love, or different love. Less pain for themselves…more pain for someone else. I knew Xavier didn’t approve, but in exchange I got extra food and supplies we needed, so he didn’t complain.
Xavier was killed on a cold Tuesday in February. It had been raining all night. People said the orange groves had ice on them so bad that all the tiny white blossom turned black. Xavier hated the cold. He used to say it was his hot blood. Selma wanted to go with him that day, but Xavier said no, she had to stay home and help me with laundry. I will always be grateful that she was with me, instead of with her father.
They told me that it was no one’s fault. Everything was wet and slippery from the rain. They had to shoo away the gators who were laid on the equipment, trying to get warm. The men’s hands were numb, so when they fired up the big excavator, which hacked its way through the coral with a thousand iron teeth, the operator lost his grip. The machine jerked forward, right over my Xavier and two other men.
They cut the motor as fast as they could, but there was not enough left of him to fill a coffin. I put away my spells that day.
The railway company let me have a wooden cross in the ground for him. But they took the cabin, told us go back to Haiti. Even if I had money for passage, I’d never go back there. They fired me from my job to make us leave, didn’t want lone women around to tempt the workers—even though Miss Hattie Malloy made a good living from her floating cathouse, just off the beach.
So I went to Miss Hattie and offered my services as a laundress. I put on my karabela dress and my head scarf which Xavier always said made me look like a queen. Hattie looked me up and down, said nothing for quite a while. Said she didn’t want Selma around, that she wasn’t running a nursery, but I said I would keep her out of the way, make her invisible. I laundered plenty of filthy linens in my time, but the linens that come out of a whorehouse take some beating.
For a while, we were safe. We had only a little room to share, and there wasn’t much food, but it was enough. Most of the girls stayed drunk on the liquor smuggled in for the workers. They gave Selma little trinkets now and then. Selma didn’t complain, and little as she was, she helped as best she could, even when the hot water and strong soap hurt her hands. She seemed to understand that it was just us now together. And our home kept floating south, always south, keeping pace with the new railroad, and the men who worked on it.
I could barely stand to look at Selma, she so reminded me of Xavier. She wasn’t a pretty girl, but there was something about her, a fierceness that burned in her eyes. She held her head high like she was somebody. I could see Miss Hattie watching her as the months passed, figuring, weighing up Selma’s worth to her in the future.
I had no intention of letting that happen. My plan was to make enough money to leave Malloy’s service, set up my own seamstress business on land. Find somewhere to live, sew and keep chickens and grow vegetables. A safe place where we could start over. I saved all I could, kept it in a hole in my mattress one of the rats had chewed.
One night Hattie’s best customer, a railroad supervisor called Mullins, turned up drunk, when his regular girl was off with the clap again. Miss Hattie said she could not disappoint him, surely even a savage like me from the islands could understand that? She said not to worry about old Jim Crow, he only had a say how things went on land. Out here on the ocean, she said, a man could…indulge his tastes. She gave Selma one of her best smiles, but before she could speak I told her I’d do the job for her. She said to put on that crazy creole dress for him, so I did.
As soon as Mullins came into the room, I recognised him, from his chalk white skin and bright green eyes. Xavier used to talk about him, said both blacks and whites avoided him because of his vicious temper. I knew that the spirit of Congo Savanne was in him…he stank of pure evil, like something left to rot in a hot room. I got to study those green eyes of his real good. Each time I closed mine, he slapped me and said, ‘Look at me, girl.’ His eyes were just like the ones on Selma’s iguana. Savanne grinds people up like they are corn, and so he did to me that night. He tore my beautiful kerabela dress, which upset me more than anything else. I told him I would take it off but he wouldn’t wait.
It was that night I used the spell, for the first time since Xavier’s death. I cleaned myself and then took Selma ashore in the little skiff and we made a mound in the sand, surrounded by palm leaves and a sprinkle of oil, to summon Ayezan, punisher of those who prey on the weak. And it was not just for what he did for me, but for how he treated men like my Xavier. It was the first time I let Selma watch. Her eyes never left me, I could tell she was taking it all in, putting it away somewhere, for later.
The spell took a while to work…a good long while. And in the meantime, Hattie used me more and more. I still did the laundry too. My little pile of money grew, and so did Selma, and I noticed Hattie noticing. I put Selma on her mattress outside the door each time I was with a customer, until it was over. She always looked up at me when I opened the door, with those all-seeing eyes of hers. Never said anything, like she understood.
Ayezan took care of Mr Mullins on a miserable hot day a few months later, when all the girls just sat in their rooms, shades drawn, fanning themselves. None of the other men had the energy to visit us, but Mullins never missed a week. I caught a glimpse of him as he went in with Rosie, because I had my monthlies. He was even whiter than usual, and sweating, but then so was everyone else. A few minutes passed, then Rosie came running out screaming, said his face had turned all purple and blue, and there was foam coming from his mouth and nose. They rowed him over to the camp doc, but it was too late. Turns out there was an infected mosquito bite on his leg that went bad and poisoned his whole body. I gave thanks to Ayezan that night.
Soon after that, my monthlies stopped. Lord knows, I was careful, but my precautions weren’t enough. I tried everything, but neither Ayezan nor any of her sisters or brothers could stop the baby growing inside me. I just knew that I had to hide it as long as I could from Hattie. Any girl with child was hustled back to shore quick as a flash. Hattie only tolerated Selma because she worked with me. I couldn’t say whose it was…not like it was a secret, but because I did not know. At that time, I was working so much that it could have been any of a dozen men.
But it seemed, for once, that two-sided fortune had turned his fair face to me. My money pile inside the mattress had grown along with my belly. I had almost enough for our new life, I had only to work a few more weeks, and keep my secret. Then we would be free, to start again. No more lying under stinking, grunting railroad men, no more scalded hands, with skin like an old woman’s from the carbolic. I told Selma, one of the first things I’d make her was a new dress. The one she wore every day was too small and full of holes.
The fire started in the kitchen late one night, and the flame beast devoured Hattie’s place. Its blistering breath tore it to pieces. All was chaos. Girls ran around the deck screaming. There was no time to grab anything. I had Selma in my arms when the side of our room burned away and we fell into the dark water. Selma and I clung with Rosie to a trunk and were eventually washed ashore a mile or so down the beach, coughing and exhausted in the grey dawn. When we looked out to sea, the familiar silhouette of Hattie’s was gone.
And with it, my money for our new life.