"Missy, You Smell Like Alligator Guts"
This is the fourth of a four-part story taken from my unpublished novel called: The Abbey. It was challenging to write because it required crisp dialogue and vivid description. It would have fallen flat, otherwise. It's interesting how some passages are so easy to write and others are more challenging. I hope you like it:
Baby Sister was waiting on the porch of the kitchen, and she took the basket of birds from Charlotte with one hand, and held her nose with the other. “Go ‘round back, child,” she said. “There’s a girl there who’s gonna help you get cleaned up. We’re gonna bury that dress. I hope you ain’t fond of it.” Charlotte shook her head from side to side, and stuck out her bottom lip.
“Don’t you cry. You did good. Your papa’s gonna be real proud of you," Baby Sister said.
“Are you going to make me clean the birds?”
“No, I ain’t. You done enough. Now, skedaddle.”
The girl in the backyard had fashioned a little tent out of bedsheets, and she had Charlotte stripped down in no time. Then she made her stand in a washtub of cold water and scrubbed her down with lye soap. “You close your eyes, good,” she cautioned. “This soap’ll sting like the dickens if you get it in your eyes.”
So Charlotte squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath as the girl nearly scrubbed the hair right off her head. Charlotte had heard about lye soap all her life, but the only soap Cousin Margaret used was French-milled soap made from lavender grown at the Abbaye Notre Dame de Seranque, in Provence.
The homemade lye soap burned her skin, and it smelled a little bit like bacon grease, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as she expected, and she had to admit that it got her as clean as a baby’s butt.
With wet hair and a clean hide, Charlotte was wrapped in one of the bedsheets and the girl walked her back into the house.
“Thank you,” Charlotte said as they walked.
“You’re welcome,” the girl replied. “You smelled terrible.
“You ever smell alligator guts?”
“Fish guts, I’ve smelled fish guts.”
“Well, alligators like to eat rotten stuff, so their guts smell a whole lot worse. That’s what you reminded me of.”
“For true?” Charlotte said impressed.
When Charlotte saw Cousin Margaret upstairs in her morning room with some of her supper guests who were staying over for the night, Charlotte proudly told them the story about the birds and the snake and the alligator guts, and Cousin Margaret’s friends thought it was hilarious. Cousin Margaret, however, saw no humor in the incident.
“Cook sent you into the dovecote?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Charlotte replied, sensing that she had just gotten Baby Sister in a world of trouble. “It wasn’t Baby Sister’s fault, though. Papa told me that I had to do every dirty job that Baby Sister needed doing, and you told her that you wanted squab for supper.
“She had to send someone to get the birds, so she sent me. She trusted me enough to do it, and I did it. I was scared, but I did it anyway, and Papa’s going to be really proud of me. Forced discipline leads to self discipline, you know. It’s in the Bible.”
“You told me that Mama believed that just because you’re a girl doesn’t mean you can’t do something. I trussed a turkey, peeled potatoes and even gutted a fish, a giant fish named Jonah.”
Oh, no. Papa must have kept the details of her punishment to himself, and she’d forked over more information than Cousin Margaret wanted. Charlotte needed to disappear, so she gave everyone a small curtsy in her mummy outfit and said goodbye.
“Charlotte,” Cousin Margaret called out, “I’d like for you to stay in your room the rest of the afternoon.”
Charlotte was certain that Cousin Margaret and Papa must have had words over the extent of her punishment, because Cousin Margaret never brought it up again. Charlotte understood both points of view, but her heart was with Papa on this one.
Her two weeks of kitchen duty gave her a profound appreciation for everything that made it to the supper table, and although she never, ever wanted to gut another fish, she had had a wonderful time and learned some valuable lessons, just like Baby Sister said.
She learned about keeping her word, minding Papa and showing respect for others. She also learned that an apron without a pocket, wasn’t worth the time it took to tie it on.
The following day Papa again called her into his office, but this time to congratulate her. “Thank you, Papa,” Charlotte replied, confident that she had earned his praise. There were three men sitting on the horsehair settees, so she understood that her time with him was limited. So she hurriedly said, “Papa, may I ask you something?”
“Something about your punishment?” “No, sir, it’s about something else.”
“All right. What is it?”
“Remember when I asked you about Edgar, about him feeling sad, and you told me that he was none of my business? You also said that the People were the same as livestock.”
“Well, did you really mean that, Papa?”
“No, Charlotte, I didn’t. I was just trying to make a point. Our slaves certainly aren’t livestock, they’re living, breathing people.”
“Like us, Papa?”
“No, Charlotte, they aren’t like us, but we certainly shouldn’t treat them like livestock.”
“Do you think they’ll ever be free, Papa?”
“If they were, where would they live, and how would they feed their families?”
“I don’t know, Papa, but I’d like to think it will happen someday.”
“Why is that, Charlotte?”
“Because while I was working in the kitchen, I got to calling Baby Sister, ma’am. “Yes, ma’am, No, ma’am. She didn’t tell me to call her that, I just did it automatically.
“On my last day, though, she told me not to call her that anymore.
“Because it ain’t fittin’,” Baby Sister said, waving a spoon in my face. Was she right, Papa?”
“She was, Charlotte, you mustn’t address any of the servants like that again. Do you understand?”
“No, Papa, I don’t.”
“You will when you’re older. You’re a very thoughtful girl, aren’t you, Charlotte?”
“There are just so many things I want to know.
“Well, don’t be in too big a hurry to grow up.”
“Do you wish I had been a boy, Papa?”
“I wouldn’t trade you for all the boys in the world.”