Fiction Fragments: Jeff Carroll

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it’s been a year since my last Fiction Fragments post, which featured black female horror writer, R. J. Joseph. In the time that has past since the last post, a lot has happened. I published my debut novel. I published two short stories in horror anthologies (Terror Politico: A Screaming World in Chaos and The Monstrous Feminine: Dark Tales of Dangerous Women), and wrote a bunch of other blog posts for Girl Meets Monster, Speculative Chic, and Medium. I attended my first Necon and sold all the copies of Invisible Chains my publisher brought to the Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival, and was finally able to answer the question: Am I a Real Horror Writer? Spoiler alert: The answer is yes.

But, that’s enough about me. Today, I am thrilled to share a fragment by Jeff Carroll with you. I met Jeff Carroll a few years ago at StokerCon, but I didn’t have a chance to pick his brain and talk about his writing. So, I’m excited to have him as my first guest in this second season of Fiction Fragments.

Jeff C low res 2018Jeff Carroll is a writer and a filmmaker. He is pioneering what he calls Hip Hop horror, Sci-Fi and fantasy. His stories always have lots of action and a social edge. He has written and produced two films, Holla If I Kill You and Gold Digger Killer which won BEST Picture at the International Hip Hop film festival. His short stories have appeared in both The Black Science Fiction Society’s anthology and their magazine. He is also is the Hip Hop dating coach is a leading voice of Hip Hop reform and his book The Hip Hop Dating Guide is used by public schools and community groups nationwide. Jeff Carroll is also the author of the non-fiction book The Hip Hop Dating Guide. When he is not writing Sci-Fi stories he enjoys speaking on Healthy Dating to college and high school students everywhere and goes by Yo Jeff. He writes out of South Florida where he lives with his wife and youngest son.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jeff. Tell me about Hip Hop horror, Sci-Fi and fantasy. How do you define these genres? What characterizes them as having a Hip Hop element? And, when did you begin developing these genres?

JC: I started calling my works Hip Hop horror in 2003 when I was promoting my movie Holla If I Kill You. The movie had some basic differences from many of the other films. It wasn’t just Black people in a horror film it was a different type of character behavior. Hip Hop Horror and sci-fi are stories that have the energy of hip hop subculture. They are multicultural, urban and young type of stories. Hip hop horror and sci-fi are based in hip hop culture and not the music only. However, I did write a hip hop story. Rasheeda the Zombie Killer is the closet story I have to a Hip Hop music influenced story.

GMM: Why speculative fiction? What draws you to these genres? What stories influenced your writing?

JC: I was drawn to speculative fiction because I am a big dreamer. I am also a futurist at heart. I love thinking about the future and solutions to the problems of the world. I loved “What if” stories like The Spook Who Sat by the Door and Planet of the Apes. Those stories influenced my Harlem Shake series. Stories like L. A. Banks’ (RIP) Vampire Huntress Legend series motivated my first horror book Thug Angel: Rebirth of a Gargoyle. I enjoyed the urban setting and the real world connection. I remember reading Street Lethal by Steven Barnes and was blow away about the freedom of sci-fi.  You could destroy the world and reshape it in any way you want. And finally, my favorite sci-fi book Zuro!: A Tale of Alien Avengers by the late William Simms showed me how revolutionary a Black imagination could be. My book Welcome to Boss Lady’s Planet was more like Star Wars and Serenity than Zuro!: A Tale of Alien Avengers because I thought I needed to lay off the Black story lines to get a publishing deal.

GMM: Do you have any new film projects in the works? Can you tell us about it?

JC: Yes, I have a movie coming out this winter called The Death Pledge. It tells the story of a group of pledgees that have to spend the night excavating an African burial ground. It features my first monster like Jason and Freddy.

Excerpt from The Programmable Man, by Jeff Carroll

Lonely Love

Sometime in the not too distant future a girl waited for a booty call. Stacey Maplewood a single independent woman who is the head pharmacist and the only female in charge of a drug store in the city. In her bedroom the smell of jasmine flavored incense filled her candle lit room as Stacey lay in her bed. Her arm dangled off the side of her bed holding a glass of wine. On a well-decorated table not far from her bed was another wine glass, which was empty and next to that was a bottle of 1978 Merlot. The décor was straight out of a Rick James song. On the same table was a plate of scallops wrapped with prosciutto crudo (raw ham) with small cubes of aged cheddar cheese and wheat crackers. Her bedroom was decorated in a dark red and white matching the wine. Inside the wall opposite from her bed a clock said 12:00 a.m. Dressed in a red silk nightgown with a matching red waist clenching garter belt skirt and red net-laced stockings, which came right above her knees Stacey looked like a French can-can dancer. Not wearing any panties on she let her hand slide between her spread open legs and lightly massage her vaginal hairs to the soft tunes of her classic love music mix with all of the import old school singers and groups. She mixed groups like Journey and Foreigner who song Feels like the first time is her favorite. She had singers like the two Barry’s Barry Manilow and Barry White and of course that British singer Maxwell whose album runs from beginning to end with no interruption. She drifts into a semiconscious slumber. She listens to the words of the love from all of the crooners.

“That’s right love me baby” she says under her breath. After being single for so long she had become a skilled pro at pleasing herself and in fact she had gotten so good at it she was scared she had ruined herself. Maxwell’s music had become her regular stimulant. “Damn they don’t write songs like this anymore” Her hand moves with melody and her back starts to arch. Her eyes close and her body temperature increases. As her natural body fluids start to mix with the jasmine incense, she lets out a soft sigh. Her sigh reminds her that no matter how good she is she can only make up half the feeling that a real bedroom partner can give. I can’t believe I have to do this to myself again and whoever said the hand is mightier than the sword never had a good sword she thought.

Stacey is a child of the early years of music, which she refers to as the second golden age 1980’s and 90s. She feels nothing has changed since then. Men are still dogs and it’s still hard for an independent woman. Even though the 80s was decades ago things haven’t changed. To her it was weird how man had solved so many problems with science but still doesn’t have a clue how to deal with man to woman relations. We could create a man for a cell of another man in something as small as a Petri dish but we can make one who knows how to treat a woman. Bullshit future. People in the 80s use to dream about the future flying cars and stuff but with no man who gives a fuck about a flying car. Stacey would rather go back to riding horses when a man only traveled around in his village. Shit of it weren’t for selfsex she would have surely slipped into a permanent depression. She was so close to marriage with her X two years ago. So, close she could taste it.

Damn she thought Martin was going to be the one who was a break from the norm. He was fine. She met him filling a prescription for Vicodin. He was recovering from knee surgery after a basketball accident. He even came to her spinning class with her. For the life of her she could not figure out why he wouldn’t call her when he was running late. She had been dating him for only two weeks and he had given her just about every excuse for coming late to their dates. He had such interesting conversations. He was her African prince. He talked about how his father had three wives and he never wanted to be like him. He had gained her trust. Maybe he was different than American men. She was still willing to give him a try. Waiting for him always made her mind wander. She would not let her head drift into fully out distrust because once she went there breaking up was the next thing to happen. So, she focused back on her handwork to take herself to a place where her thoughts could not penetrate.

“Excuse me ma’am” the voice made Stacey jump interrupting her magic. It was a mechanical voice. One Stacey had gotten used to but in this moment any voice would have startled her. She quickly moved and sat up so fast she spilled her wine. She looked at the clock and it was 1:00 a.m. She covered herself with her gown. A human like robot stood outside her bedroom door and continued “I have finished washing the dinner dishes and bagging the garbage”. Spike’s metallic finish was clean and sparkling like the day she bought him. “May I stand by the door until your date arrives?” he continued.

Damn these men she thought. Turning the music off she says, “Thank you Spike.” Taking a deep breath, she finishes “Sure stand by the door and let Martin in when he arrives.” She rolls over and takes a sip of her wine finishing it.

“As you wish ma’am” Spike says as he turns and walks down the stairs.

Spike was the treat she bought herself after she heard of her X boyfriends wedding. She ordered the male Z200 home protection model. She named him Spike after the bulldog on her favorite old school cartoon Tom and Jerry. Her personal robot made her feel secure guarding her house at night and charging itself during the day. The Z200 is very life like it looks just like a human. The come in male and female versions for the comfort of the owner. In a short time these robots have become a staple in almost every household. They provide both security and assistance replacing both domestic help and home security systems. Many people like Stacey have gotten so comfortable with their laser red eyes that they have allowed them to replace even pets.

Stacey grabs a small remote and pushes a button labeled Digi screen. The entire wall lights up and a woman standing in Times Square in front of a women next to a male robot.

“That’s right We’ve heard from hundreds of satisfied customers. So, why should you be unhappy and lonely. Let The Ultimate Companion fulfill your needs.”

That’s it I quit. Martin is just like every other man. I should have never given him my number. Why do I keep believing Jennifer when she says he’s nice? Stacey thought.

The picture on the wall changes to a man throwing a Frisbee in a park with a dog running to catch it in the air. Then the picture changes to an old man playing chess in the park with a robot man. “There are limits to what your dog give you.”

Paying no attention to the infomercial Stacey turns the channel to a lifetime movie and slowly falls asleep.

Next week, Girl Meets Monster chats with Lucy A. Snyder. Do you have a fiction fragment you’d like to share? Send it to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Am I a Real Horror Writer?

Last night, I finally sat down to watch Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019). If you’re a horror fan and haven’t watched this amazing documentary, I highly recommend it. Based on Robin R. Means Coleman’s book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011), the film not only discusses the historical lack of representation of black characters in horror films, but also examines the misrepresentations of black people when they appeared in them. As you might expect, the filmmakers and actors discussing the films and their historically important contexts talk about their fears and experiences with racism while trying to create art within a genre that subconsciously depicts monsters as The Other in relation to white people and culture in place of ethnic minorities.

After watching the documentary, I was inspired to watch a film from the Blaxploitation era, Sugar Hill (1974), which is about a woman, Sugar Hill, who uses Voodoo to avenge the death of her fiance. The film opens with what appears to be a Voodoo ritual with black people in traditional Haitian Voodoo garb dancing to a serious drum beat. I couldn’t help thinking of Angel Heart (1987), and expected to see Epiphany Proudfoot show up with her chicken. As the opening credits end, so does the dance and we become aware of the fact that the people dancing aren’t in a secluded location away from prying eyes, they are actually performers at a place called Club Haiti. They are performing Voodoo for a predominantly white audience. They are literally performing an aspect of blackness that is a stereotypical representation of black people in horror films. This also made me think of a similar scene in Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).

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Typically, in horror films, Voodoo is shown as something evil, something to be feared. Depicting Voodoo practitioners as women who use their magic to hurt others, or exact vengeance, is a trope that I worried about perpetuating while writing Invisible Chains. I didn’t want to stick to the common stereotypes associated with black women, especially mambos, in horror narratives.

While Sugar is a strong female lead in a horror film, the film is still riddled with tropes like dangerous black women using magic for revenge. Her fiance, Langston, owns Club Haiti. A white gangster wants to buy it, but Langston refuses. So, he sends his henchmen to kill him. They beat him to death and leave his body in the parking lot of the club for Sugar to find.

Sugar doesn’t just use magic, she calls upon Baron Samedi who raises an army of the undead made up of former slaves who died of disease while still on slave ships. Their bodies were dumped in the water and washed up on the shore near Sugar’s childhood home. So, this movie has a lot going for it in terms of supernatural horror that looks at racism in the United States (in the past and in the present of the 1970s).

Zombies

In exchange for Baron Samedi’s help, Sugar offers up her soul, but he’s more interested in her body. But, Sugar’s final revenge is taken when Baron Samedi takes the racist girlfriend of the gangster back to the Underworld with him in place of Sugar. In my opinion, that gave the film a happy ending.

Black women in roles like Sugar are viewed as frightening and dangerous because they wield power. My protagonist struggles to accept her strengths and often downplays or hides her abilities for fear of being punished for either her knowledge or power. Her strength is a secret and she doesn’t make use of her power until she’s pushed to the limit. She protects herself and others, rather than seeking vengeance.

I worried that by writing her in this way, people wouldn’t accept her as being “authentic,” and I struggled with my decision, which I think says a lot more about me as a writer and how I see myself than it does about my character.

I also struggled with the belief that because this narrative isn’t a traditional horror story — a slave narrative with a black female protagonist — people wouldn’t recognize it as a horror novel. In fact, people challenged the notion that I was writing horror while I was in my MFA program. But, as Tananarive Due puts so succinctly in Horror Noire, ”Black history is black horror.”

I already knew that what I had written is without doubt a horror novel, but having my beliefs confirmed by another writer I respect and admire made me feel a lot better about releasing this novel into the world. Black women have plenty of horror stories to tell, and perhaps, a female slave is the most qualified protagonist for an historical horror story set in America.

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Invisible Chains will be released in a week on July 22, so my anxiety is on the rise. But after watching Horror Noire and Sugar Hill, I feel more confident about how I chose to write my protagonist, Jacqueline, and I may actually be a horror writer.

Invisible Chains: My Debut Novel

Michelle-LaneFor those of you who missed the news, my debut novel, Invisible Chains, will be released into the world July 22, 2019 by Haverhill House Publishing. If you’re as excited about this news as I am, you can pre-order a copy on Amazon, and while you’re there, you can check out my fancy new Amazon Author Page. Even though I’ve had my short fiction published, having my first novel published makes me feel like a bonafide author. See, I even have an author photo.

That’s great, Michelle, but what is your book about?

I’m glad you asked.

Jacqueline is a young Creole slave in antebellum New Orleans.  An unusual stranger who has haunted her dreams since childhood comes to stay as a guest in her master’s house. Soon after his arrival, members of the household die mysteriously, and Jacqueline is suspected of murder.  Despite her fear of the stranger, Jacqueline befriends him and he helps her escape. While running from the slave catchers, they meet conjurers, a loup-garou, and a traveling circus of supernatural freaks.  She relies on ancestral magic to guide her and finds strength to conquer her fears on her journey.

Oh, and here is the beautiful cover art designed by the very talented Errick Nunnally.

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As many of you know, writing can be a difficult and solitary pursuit. And, if your goal is to have your work published, the stages of writing, editing, rewriting, editing again, and submitting can feel like a never-ending climb up a hill while pushing a giant rock covered in your own entrails. Plus, if you submit and get nothing but rejections it sometimes seems like a good idea to just give up and find a different way to torture yourself.

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Can I tell you a secret? I’m glad I didn’t give up.

Believe me, I thought about giving up. I thought about giving up a lot. But this story lived inside me for a long time and it refused to be abandoned. This multi-genre slave narrative began its life as a short story back in the early 2000s and had a very different ending. That short story shared space on a thumb drive, untouched  with other abandoned writing projects, for several years. I mean, I would pull it out from time to time and read it but I never did anything with it until I applied to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (WPF) program at Seton Hill University (SHU).

Attending SHU was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. And, one of the scariest. At 40, I was completely dissatisfied with my life. I had a job I was on the verge of burning out on, I was unhappily married, and I was primarily responsible for raising my son who had begun to show signs of behavioral problems at daycare and school. I was the primary bread winner, I took care of the house, paid the bills, maintained social connections with friends and family, and one day I realized I was living my life for other people instead of living it for myself.

I began making a mental inventory of the things that brought me joy, and at the top of that list was writing. Writing was something I had done all my life. And, when I was writing I was happier. I started unearthing some of my unfinished short stories and realized they weren’t terrible. And then, I wondered what would happen if I took myself seriously as a writer. I made the decision to apply to SHU after asking a friend about the program. Jenda had nothing but good things to say about the program, and honestly, I think SHU should consider sending her a check each month for her excellent marketing skills.

My short story, “Freedom is in the Blood,” became Invisible Chains over the course of six years. Three years writing my thesis novel in the low residency MFA program, and three years of rewriting, editing, pitching, and submitting. In the process of writing the novel, my protagonist evolved into a stronger character who stands up to monsters to make a better life for herself.

In many ways, my protagonist evolved with me as I made changes in my own life. Deciding to write this book was the first step towards reshaping my life on my own terms. I’ve encountered my share of set backs, obstacles, and people who behave like monsters, but like Jacqueline, I keep moving forward.

In the process of moving forward, I’ve made new friends, reconnected with old friends, and built stronger relationships with the people who cheered me on through the highs and lows of writing this book. They’re good people. And I couldn’t have survived the process without their love and support.

I am very fortunate to be included in such diverse and supportive writing communities like the HWA and as an SHU alumna. And, of course, I wouldn’t be able to brag about getting my book published if I had never met the Editor-in-Chief of Haverhill House Publishing, John M. McIlveen.

I met John last year at StokerCon™ 2018 in Providence, RI. I pitched Invisible Chains to him, a book that took close to five years to write, in about ten minutes. And, much to my surprise, after babbling at him in what I believed to be incoherent nonsense, he said he’d be interested in reading it. That was the first spark of hope, and it has been one pleasant experience after the next working with John and Haverhill House Publishing.

Well, now the book is written and available for pre-order. The hardback edition will be available July 22, 2019. In the meantime, I have a stack of proofs that I would very much like to get into the hands of book reviewers and people who would be willing to blurb the book. If you or someone you know might be a good fit for a book like this, let me know and I’ll reach out to them.

What’s next, you may ask? I don’t know, but I suspect I might have to write another book.

Fiction Fragments: R. J. Joseph

Last week, Girl Meets Monster talked with Glenn Rolfe about the challenges of writing Splatterpunk. This week, R. J. Joseph is here to talk about what it means to be a woman of color writing horror.

Author Central PicR. J. Joseph is a Texas based writer and professor who must exorcise the demons of her imagination so they don’t haunt her being. A life-long horror fan and writer of many things, she has finally discovered the joys of writing creatively and academically about two important aspects of her life: horror and black femininity.

When R. J. isn’t writing, teaching, or reading voraciously, she can usually be found wrangling one or six of various sprouts and sproutlings from her blended family of 11…which also includes one husband and two furry babies.

R. J. can be found lurking (and occasionally even peeking out) on social media:
Twitter: @rjacksonjoseph
Facebook: facebook.com/rhonda.jacksonjoseph
Facebook official: fb.me/rhondajacksonjosephwriter
Instagram: @rjacksonjoseph
Blog: https://rjjoseph.wordpress.com/
Email: horrorblackademic@gmail.com
Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/rjjoseph

Three Questions

GMM: As a woman of color writing about black and queer characters, what obstacles have your faced when writing within the horror genre? When did you decide you were a horror writer? What influenced or inspired you to write horror stories about women of color?

RJJ: I’ve been a lifelong horror fan. I was a small child devouring horror comics, Twilight Zone, and Stephen King novels, well before I could understand any of the themes these stories presented. The horror genre appeals to my naturally dark nature, which was apparent and already well entrenched by the time I was 6 or 7 years old. I always questioned why the folks in the genre I loved so much didn’t look like me, from the writers to the actors to the characters in the books. I wanted to be the monster. I figured creating the monsters was the next best thing, so I had to write them. I started then, even though I didn’t always embrace that part of my writing persona. I couldn’t imagine not writing about the world I inhabited and navigated, a black female experiencing life through this lens. I wasn’t seeing these stories and I had to fill the void.

I wanted to be the monster.

I appreciate that you frame this question in a way that shows you know we have obstacles. They aren’t a figment of our imagination or a quest for race-baiting and creating issues. One of the biggest problems I have is in always wondering why stories are accepted or rejected. I know my writing isn’t perfect and I still have so much growth to experience within my craft, but sometimes I get rejections that just don’t offer any clarity, not even the blanket forms where the spaces between the words don’t reek of any additional interpretation. Sometimes, though, what isn’t said speaks volumes. I get that editors don’t have time to give personalized rejections all the time. But I always go back and read the publications I submit to so I can see which stories made the cut. Reading what was ultimately accepted can be excruciating. So many times, I wish the editors would have just said, “We don’t know what to do with you, blackity black woman, or your blackity black characters with their blackity black fears”. That would make me feel so much better.

I once had an editor explain to me at a book launch for an anthology one of my stories appeared in that he didn’t want me to feel as if my story was a token acceptance because I’m a black woman. He made it a point to let me know he had read some of my previous work and thought my story for the anthology was great. I had to be professional and put on my Appreciative Writerly face, but I really wanted to hug him and cry. That meant so much to me, especially coming from a white male professional in the field. Unless the project is strictly for writers of color, I’m always wondering if the acceptance was just a diversity checkmark or really based on my story.

GMM: I wrote a supernatural slave narrative as my thesis novel at Seton Hill University, and I struggled with figuring out where it fit within a genre. The novel is due to be released sometime next year and I still struggle with that idea of where it belongs. What makes it a horror novel? The violence of slavery? The fact that my narrator is a witch and that her companion is a vampire?

How do you define your chosen genre or genres when you begin with characters that may not typically appear in those genres? Is there an absence of women of color in horror?

RJJ: First, I gotta read your novel! I need to know when pre-orders open. I absolutely love historical horror. That it has people of color and witches? Super plus. My answer to what makes this horror really loops back to another obstacle I try to navigate and that is not knowing where our work fits; really, not knowing where we fit. I would say your novel is an all-around horror novel because it’s rooted in the abject terror of slavery and there is a vampire. I don’t think all witches are necessarily monsters, though, so that’s debatable. Even without the supernatural characters, slavery is horror. Yet, there’s a clear hesitance to categorize this experience in this way because that would require owning up to the facts that 1. Slavery really happened; 2. There was nothing good about it; and 3. The repercussions are still felt today. Stuffing these topics into other corners like literary fiction (the way Beloved was first categorized) or creating a whole new category like urban fiction takes some of that responsibility away. If it isn’t called horror, then the events cannot be deemed horrible. So then when serial killer novels fill the horror shelves, I’m left to wonder why lynchings or slavery aren’t considered serial killings, too…

Black women horror writers have always been around, but there hasn’t always been a willingness of the industry to see us. I think we’ve just had our writing either flat out ignored or placed in different genres because we’re women. I’ve seen industry leaders say publicly that readers only want a certain kind of horror, or that every story/book acceptance is based solely on merit. Both of these prevailing responses mean gatekeepers are fine with keeping certain stories and writers out of the genre. The only thing that might help increase visibility is more gatekeepers of color and black female writers continuing to kick the doors in and create anyway. It’s astounding that the first black female horror anthology wasn’t published until 2017. A second followed this year. How is it that both books managed to locate numerous black female horror writers and yet other anthologies/magazines/publishers can hardly ever find any? What is not genuinely sought will never be found.

GMM: When I write about monsters, I have a habit of turning the relationships between monsters and my main female characters into romantic interests even though I write about dark subjects. Is there a connection between horror and romance in your mind? Do your characters fall in love with monsters? Why, or why not?

RJJ: I envy that you can blend romance and horror so effectively! My thesis at Seton Hill was a romance novel, and while I write in both genres, I’ve not yet mastered blending the two. I do think romance and horror exist on the same continuum, in that both genres evoke such extreme feelings in readers. My favorite series ever is the Vampire Huntress series by L. A. Banks. She intertwined horror and romance so expertly that I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. I make attempts. But I tried to submit a romance short story to a major market once and the editor replied that the story was well written but it was too dark. The monsters in my stories tend to be those created through no act of their own, so they are sort of tragic creatures for whom at least one other character has an affection and some sympathy. Full on romance, though…I still aspire to that.

Left Hand Torment (excerpt), by R. J. Joseph

RJJ Book CoverI was on door duty that evening, although we found we did not really need a protector. Most passersby tended not to notice our nondescript entryway in the worn down building. Even those who did notice it were deterred by the dark cloak of misery in our eyes. Despite my queerness and my race, those doorways to my soul that broadcast unspeakable rot allowed me kinship with the men inside. Her eyes held the same blackness, despite their light gray color, and it announced her as kindred, served as her password into the club. I let her in and followed her up the stairs, as my shift was done.

There was more to her life story than her eyes, apparently. The foulness of whatever tortured her spirit bubbled just underneath the surface of her being. Her dusky colored skin shone with determination and…fury. She glided ahead of me up the stairway and into the parlor, removing long white gloves as we walked. Severe burns covered both hands, the puckered skin reflecting in the lantern lights.

Even Whitson, the resident playboy, did not set his flirtations upon her. He simply asked her what she was drinking, the same as he did the rest of us. He often told us that he did not seek companionship with fellow sufferers. He said their beds were already too full with them and their demons.

“Bourbon, please.” The rich tones slid from her throat and escaped into the quiet murmur of the fifteen of us. She accepted her glass gracefully and settled herself into a chair close to the fireplace.

Not forgetting our Texas manners, we quieted down and allowed the lady the floor. I watched her take a sip from her glass.

“Merci.” She accented the appreciation with a brisk nod to the side. When she gazed back at us, the flames from the fire flickered around the shadows resting beneath the smoky orbs of her haunted eyes. She pulled her bonnet off and placed it on the table next to the chair. Kinky curly strands spilled down to her shoulders and the room gave a collective gasp as the flames caught the sandy tresses. This was the only acknowledgement we gave to her beauty that night.

Without preamble, she spoke, in accented tones. “My name is Dominique Aimee Beaulieu and I was born and reared in New Orleans. I had an ordinary childhood, if that as the daughter of a placee` on Rampart street could be called such. Papa and Maman loved me very much and I was a rather spoiled child. They loved each other, as well. I know Papa loved her more than he loved his wife. But he could not stay with us all the time. I once asked Maman why he had to leave and stay away so often and she explained to me that we could not be selfish and keep him all to ourselves. He had another family with whom he had to stay most of the time, but he was always thinking of us.

“Maman had a picture of a beautiful woman with blond hair and she often gazed wistfully at it when she thought Papa and I weren’t looking. I would ask her about the woman, whose features I saw staring back at me in the mirror, albeit through darker skin. Maman would evade the answer until I turned sixteen. When I finally got my answer, I also got the explanation for our way of life.

“‘This is my sister, your aunt. Papa’s other wife. He met me as he courted her and wanted me for his left hand wife. She knows about us but cannot acknowledge us publicly. But she must accept our existence. You are of courting age now. Papa will arrange for you to attend The Quadroon Ball next year, to find you a wealthy, white husband. Do not waste yourself frivolously on any colored man. Even if he has money, he can’t elevate your status or guarantee that your children will be free men.’

“She grabbed my hand. ‘Just take care to always respect your husband and do his bidding. Love and honor him despite the feelings of jealousy that will come when he takes another to wife. We are the wives they choose, when their other will be chosen for them through making familial alliances. These arrangements are our only way to freedom.’

“I didn’t understand why she beseeched me so dramatically on these points. Our system of placage was shocking enough to discover without her telling me I had to accept it, that I had few other choices. I knew nothing of love between a man and woman, but I could see the love between Maman and Papa. If it meant she had to share him with her sister, did that make it of any less value? Did that make me, the product of their left hand union, any less valuable? Of course, I would love my husband, legally bound or not, because of all the things I did not understand, there was one thing I knew and never wanted to change: my freedom.

She paused her story here, seeming to look at us for the first time. She turned her fierce gaze on each of us, one at a time, her fellow beasts of demonic burdens. She settled her gaze finally on me, the lone other woman in the group. I did not know how I understood that she knew my secret. My fellow club members knew and did not care. “You understand when I say fighting for one’s freedom is a frantic battle when losing means losing your personhood and often, your very life.”

I nodded in acquiescence. I did know what a constant fight for freedom to simply exist required. Dying was preferable to giving in to bondage of any kind, hence my membership there. These, my brothers in terror, did not make anything big over my masculine clothes and obviously feminine body. My haunted heart bore witness to more important things to them. The rest of the world did have problems with me, as soon as my “charade” was discovered. Explaining that this was who I am did nothing but result in a trail of bodies. Thus far, my own body did not increase those numbers.

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