— To market, to market, to buy a plum bun/ Home again, home again, market is done.
Maren walks two steps behind the governor’s wife on their way through the market near Fort Christensen, standing near enough to hear the older woman call her name, but not so near that anyone would assume them to be closer than they were. While she may only have been working for the new governor’s wife for a scattered handful of months, she already feels as if she understands the other woman.
When Regine pauses in front of a stall selling vegetables and fruits from local, small farms that used to be part of bigger plantations, Maren stops at her right elbow, head tilted as she raises the basket holding the woman’s coin purse in case there’s something there that the woman wants to purchase.
After all, it is her job to anticipate Regine’s needs almost before Regine even realizes that she has them.
“We have legs of mutton in the icebox, ma’am,” Maren says, her voice kept purposefully soft as she gestures to the leafy greens and root vegetables in neat bundles laid out in shallow crates that are lined with cheesecloth and banana leaves. “My mother could make a stew for you and the governor since the weather has been a bit cold in the evenings.”
Regine’s tiny mouth purses with a frown.
“A stew,” she repeats.
Maren nods, offering a smile to counteract the pinched expression on Regine’s pale face. “When I was a child, I recall that Governor Feddersen often enjoyed it when we served it for supper,” she says. Pausing, Maren glances back at one of the stalls that they had passed only moments before. “If mutton is not to your liking, perhaps I could see if the butcher has a hen or some medisterpølse that we can use instead.”
Regine is the sort of woman that is rather prone to silent introspection, her quiet coming across like a cloak that feels stifling as it covers them both. When she turns on one smartly booted heel in order to face Maren, there is a sense of curiosity that comes with the weight of her attention.
“Medisterpølse,” Regine says, her voice lifting up at the end in order to make it almost a question about the spicy sausage that has become almost part of St. Thomas tradition in the years since the Dutch took the island for their own.
Underneath the gentle slope of her dark brows, Regine’s eyes widen. “You have medisterpølse here?”
Maren fights back a smile at Regine’s eager earnestness and then dips her head in a shallow nod.
“Carlsen, the butcher we use was born in Denmark,” Maren reveals. “After he finished his apprenticeship in Sint Maarten, he came here to open a store and brought medisterpølse to us. We have other butchers on the island, true, but he is the only one worth buying from.”
Of course, Maren has more than a fair share of bias towards the man who has been quietly courting her mother for much of her adulthood – Maren’s, not her mother’s. That he has a smokehouse of his own and frequently sends food up to the mansion for Maren’s mother and the household she runs with a tight fist doesn’t hurt matters at all either.
Regine inclines her own head in a nod.
“I have found myself missing the taste of traditional food,” she admits, speaking quietly but quickly as if the brown-skinned women at the nearby stall care one whit for their discussion. “Will you handle the orders then?”
“Of course, ma’am,” Maren says. “Only the sausage or…” She lets her sentence trail off delicately, peering at Regine from underneath her eyelashes as her fingers curl across the handle of the basket.
Regine shakes her head. “Get the hen as well as some vegetables and something that can be turned into a dessert,” she says. “My husband did mention that we could be entertaining visitors tonight and I daresay that it is better to have too large an amount of food than too little.”
The moment that Regine finishes speaking, Maren nods to show her understanding and then asks, “Would you like me to do that right now?”
Her fingers curl and uncurl around the handle of the basket in her hand, fingers clenching tight enough around the sun-warmed wicker that she’s sure to have its imprint pressed into her skin. Eagerness makes Maren rock on her sandal covered feet, muscles trembling with the urge to move deeper into the market in order to take in the sights and smells without Regine’s presence at her side.
Regine’s mouth upturns with a brief smile that vanishes almost before Maren has a chance to register it.
“Once you escort me back to the carriage, you may finish up here at the market and take care of your own shopping,” she says. Her voice comes out with a cool imperiousness, “You have permission to send orders ahead to the house on my credit if you run out of money in your purse.”
That is –
Rather more than Maren is expecting.
“Thank you,” Maren says, sincerity steeped into her words. Sweeping one hand out across the front of her dress, cotton clinging to calluses earned from working in the garden or helping the maids clean, Maren dips into a shallow curtsey.
By the time that Maren sees Regine off and returns to the market proper, the paths are filled with people from all over – free Blacks and slaves from other islands walking alongside two Dutch women with their coin purses clutched tight in tense fingers. Maren allows her lip to curl just the once, sneering when a woman actually yelps and then scolds a curly haired boy as he attempts to dart back to his mother.
She pushes past the two women, ignoring their dark looks and the harried notes in their voices in favor of making her way first to the little stall with fruits and vegetables that she and Regine had paused by earlier. Then, once she’s finished placing an order that just about clears the old woman out, she pauses to chat with the Haitian girl who makes her money selling sweet deserts and treats and always greets Maren with a smile even though they don’t know each other’s names.
Soon, the only thing that Maren has left to do is place an order for Regine’s sausage and a hen or two. Carlsen’s butcher shop is near the docks, easy enough to get to from the farthest edge of the market standing in Fort Christiansen’s shadow if you stick to the sides of the road and don’t mind the carriages careening through the streets.
Despite the heat from the sun that stings the skin between where her braids curve down alongside the nape of her neck, Maren actually enjoys the walk down Dronningens Gade until it comes time for her to pass the market square.
Maren walks briskly along the long street, edging around old aunties with trays of fresh baked bread balanced on their shoulders and children racing around with mango juice staining their shirts. As she gets nearer and nearer to the old slave market block, Maren notices the way that many of the people around her start to skirt the edges of the street.
Brown skinned, black skinned, they all move away from the open air market that used to sell people as if they were produce only a few bare years before. Maren doesn’t blame them for scurrying away.
Maren doesn’t have to believe in witchcraft or obeah in order to recognize the evil hanging round the end of the street. She’s seen it in person multiple times, but only two moments stand out –first as a little girl clinging to her mother’s skirts as they both clutched at passes proclaiming their status as ‘Free Blacks’ in no fewer than three different languages and then a few months before the market was closed to slave auctions.
Both times, as she’d walked by, she’d felt pain in her head and heart at the sight of people that looked like her being sold off as if they were livestock. For both of those moments, it didn’t matter that her mother was born free and that she had been as well.
Fear – of harassment, or being pulled onto the auction block, of seeing someone she knew – laced every moment that she could glance up at the market square and see her skinfolk up for sale.
Now, years later, it feels as if that imaginary pain returns to Maren’s chest as she watches a few men and women display their wares – overripe fruit and fish that seem to follow you with their glassy dead eyes.
Without thinking, without looking, Maren takes a step. Her foot lands on something slick, and her body tilts to one side, spilling her towards the main street where carriages and human bodies boil and churn like the sea.
Before she can fall, a strong arm curves around her waist and pulls –
Instead of tumbling into the dirt and ruining her dress, Maren finds herself held aloft for a moment before the world comes back into focus and she finds herself nose to nose with one of the most handsome men that she has ever seen in her life.
Maren’s face warms with a flush that thankfully can’t be seen against the darkness of her skin. The palms of her hands slick with sweat and her stomach twisting up in tight knots. Only some of her anxiety is due to nearly falling into the middle of Dronningens Gade, but the rest –
That has more to do with the young man peering down at her with eyes as golden as the hibiscus honey that her mother has given her every birthday for the past ten years.
“Are you alright, miss,” the man asks in heavily accented English, peering down at her with a worried look on his face and tiny wrinkles tracing across the warm brown skin of his forehead.
Maren almost catches herself swooning. The thought and the feeling are so unnatural to her that they startle her out of her haze. She shifts until the man holding her allows her to stand on her own two feet and then she drops down into a curtsey far deeper than any that she’s given Regine in her time of service.
“Thank you kindly,” Maren says in English, very proud of the way that her voice doesn’t shake as she speaks. Thoughtlessly, almost carelessly, Maren pushes her hand out between their bodies. “And please, call me Maren. Please allow me to reward you for saving my life –” Maren pauses to gesture at the skirt of her dress and then smiles, a little self-deprecating. “And my dress.”
Maren’s hand is encased in a firm grip, a callused thumb scratching over the back of her hand.
“They call me Luis,” he says in a low murmur, his gaze fixed on Maren’s face as if he wants to memorize what he sees before him. “Please, allow me to escort you.”
The whole time that Maren walks beside Luis, she can’t help but glance at him every so often. Everything about Luis is new, different from the men and boys that she’s been introduced to as part of the governor’s household. After all, the men who oversee the Danish West Indies come and go, but their staff rarely changes.
Luis, on the other hand, is all about change to Maren’s hungry eyes. His broad shoulders strain at the seams of his worn shirt when he offers Maren his arm and Maren doesn’t avert her eyes the way that a good Christian girl would. Instead, she glances up at him, fluttering her eyelashes like how she’s seen other women her age do when trying to get their sweetheart to come courting them, and clutches at the offered arm.
“I haven’t seen you around before today, Luis,” Maren says as they walk away from the market square down Gutters Gade. “Where are you from?”
Luis’ nose wrinkles with a frown. “San Juan,” he spits out after a moment that stretches taut between them. “I came from San Juan in Puerto Rico.”
Maren barely manages to stop herself from barking out another barrage of questions, instead taking in the bitter note to his voice and the twist to his face as if she has no home training to speak of.
“San Juan,” Maren says, peering up at Luis. “What brings you to our island?”
Maren feels, more than sees, Luis’ shrug.
“I had little choice,” Luis says, the thread of bitterness in his voice thickening. He pauses before he can tell Maren more, his body turning to shield Maren’s own as a mule-drawn carriage jolts its way along the street at a breakneck pace. Despite the racket caused by the carriage wheels battering against the cobblestone path, the sound of rapid-fire French from the carriage’s inhabitants is still loud enough that it makes Maren’s ears ring.
Maren’s nose wrinkles as she frowns. “You would think that the Frenchies would be more courteous about sharing the streets when they’re nearly empty,” she mutters. Dust in the air clings to the front of her dress and she bats at the off-white fabric until it looks a bit less worn than before.
“Frenchies,” Luis repeats in a questioning tone. “What –”
Maren’s own answering shrug is graceless. “They came from France long before any of my family was ever born,” she says. “They hold themselves apart from the rabble for the most part because they have money.”
The bitterness in Maren’s voice lasts for the barest part of a moment. By the time that she looks up at Luis again, she’s smiling in a rueful way and reaching for his arm.
“You were saying something,” Maren says once they start walking again, “Something about ‘choice’?”
Luis shakes his head. “I have none,” he says.
Maren blinks rapidly. “N-none,” she repeats. “What –”
This time, the twist to Luis’ mouth is tight with clear pain. He gestures at his right forearm with the trembling fingers of his left hand. Underneath the whiteness of his shirtsleeve, something dark presses through.
“Is that –”
“A slave brand,” Luis says, finishing Maren’s question in a subdued tone. “Yes. Puerto Rico, unlike the Danish West Indies, has no intention of freeing their slaves.”
“That is not right,” she insists, shaking her head as she speaks. “You’re – you’re a slave?” Immediately, her mind starts racing towards a solution that remains frustratingly out of reach. “Do you – Is there anything I can do?”
Luis pauses, frowning some more. “You’ve only known me for the space of a few minutes,” he points, his delivery tentative. “Why –”
Maren doesn’t hesitate. “You saved my life,” she points out. “And despite how trite it must sound, I would like to do what I can to save yours.” Maren squeezes Luis’ arm once. “Allow me to help if I can.”
At first, Luis looks as if he’s going to reject Maren’s offer of help, but then he dips his head in a shallow nod as he smiles.
“Thank you,” he murmurs.
Maren catches herself smiling so wide that her cheeks ache from it.
“Come,” she says, rather imperiously. “I know a butcher that has been looking for a new apprentice. He’ll be happy to have you.”
This was my final for my Hemispheric 1850s course this semester. Here’s a little backstory (modified from the original author’s note for my professor):
I was born in what used to be called the Danish West Indies. By the time I was born, the islands “belonged” to the United States. Despite this change in “ownership”, the Virgin Islands still has a unique sort of heritage that combines the different lifestyles and cultures that came together throughout the centuries. Many of our streets still have Dutch names (in fact the streets I mention in this story are all actual streets). The buildings that she walks by (including both markets) still exist today.
I set this story in the Virgin Islands, on my home island of St. Thomas, because I wanted to write about a character who would be able to walk a path that I have before. Maren walks along streets that my mother, my grandmother, and I have walked through. The experience of the market, of being surrounded by people from all over the world bartering and bantering, is one that three generations of my family have had. Even the fear and discomfort that comes from walking by the slave market is one that many black people from the islands have experienced. At the time that this story is set (1855-6), slavery has been abolished in the Danish West Indies since 1848. In Puerto Rico, slavery won’t be abolished for another twenty to thirty years. In Maren’s time, it’s only been about seven years since slavery was abolished and her fellow Black people were enslaved at a whim. So she doesn’t have time to blunt her experiences. When she looks to her immediate past, she is mentally transported to a time less than a decade before where she feared seeing her friends up for auction