West Africa, 1787
Hot, dry harmattan winds swept across the African savanna and awakened the yellow-brown sand, whipping it up with wild gusts that swirled and soared high into the air. The sandy clouds that blew in with the first shards of daybreak to shroud the dawn in grit refused to release their grip, and by late afternoon a thick layer of dust coated the entire landscape. Irritated goats paused in their search for edible blades of grass to stomp and shake themselves, and the children who herded them scratched at the itchy grit in their own eyes and hair. On the road, donkeys turned their heads away from the sandy wind and refused to pull their loads. Impatient masters swiped at their own faces as they whipped at the donkeys’ flanks, but all that accomplished was to send still more billows of dust into the air.
Sand whistled through banana leaves thatched atop clusters of mud huts in villages, and it settled over the decks of ships as they rocked idly at anchor in the harbor. Even at what was mockingly called “the London house,” with its ostentatious glass windows locked tight and European bolts securing its imported doors, gritty wind found a way under and between and beneath and into.
Twenty-year-old Grace Winslow, who had claimed the plumpest of the upholstered parlor chairs for herself, shifted from one uncomfortable position to another and sighed deeply. She reached out slender fingers and brushed a newly settled layer of sand from the intricate lace trim on her new silk taffeta dress and resigned herself to the day.
“The ancestors are angry,” proclaimed Lingongo, Grace’s mother, from her imposing position beside the rattling window shutters. Silky soft kente cloth flowed over her in a kaleidoscope of handwoven color, framing her fierce beauty. Lingongo made a proud point of her refusal to sit on her husband’s English furniture—except when it was to her advantage to do so.
“Ancestors! Sech foolishness!” Joseph Winslow snorted . . . but only under his breath. “Wind jist be wind and nothin’ but wind.”
“Maybe the ancestors don’t want me to marry a snake,” Grace ventured.
No one could argue that the first harmattan of the season had roared through on the very day Jasper Hathaway first came to court her. He had swept through the front door and into the parlor in a blustering whirlwind of sand, his fleshy face streaked with sweat and his starched collar askew. He stayed on and on for the entire afternoon. Only when it became obvious that no one intended to invite him to eat supper with the family did he finally heft himself out of Joseph’s favorite chair and bid a reluctant farewell. When the door finally shut behind him and Grace’s father had thrown the bolt into place, Lingongo had turned to her daughter and warned, “Snake at your feet, a stick at your hand. So the wise men say. Keep a stick in your hand, Grace. You will need it with that snake at your feet.”
Surely, Grace had thought, that will be that. Never again will I have to endure such an agonizing afternoon. And yet, at her parents’ insistence, here she sat.
“Perhaps it angers the ancestors that white men insist on settling in a country where they do not belong,” Lingongo said, her black eyes fixed hard on her husband.
But Joseph was in no mood for arguments. Not this day. So, turning to his daughter, he said, “Ye looks good, darlin’.” And he meant it too. He fairly beamed at Grace, bedecked as she was in the new dress he had personally obtained for just this occasion. The latest fashion from the shops of London, Captain Bass assured him when the captain unwrapped the package and then carefully unfolded and laid out the frock he had secured in London on Winslow’s behalf. Captain Bass said it again when he presented the shop’s bill of goods, with the price marked out and double the amount scribbled in (“To account fer all me trouble,” Bass explained).
In the end, Joseph had been forced to turn over two of his prize breeding slaves to pay for the dress. But, Joseph consoled himself, it would be well worth his investment to get a son-inlaw with extensive landholdings, not to mention endless access to slaves. A son-in-law with enough wealth to flash about, to impress the entire Gold Coast of Africa and no doubt dazzle the company officers in London, too . . . well, such a bloke merited the calculated investment he had made in his daughter.
“Ye looks almost like a true English lass, me darlin’,” Joseph exuded. “Yes, ye very nearly does.”
Grace sighed. In her entire life, she had met only one true English lass. Charlotte Stevens was her name. And if Grace Winslow knew anything, she knew she looked nothing like Charlotte Stevens. Small and dainty, with skin so pale one could almost see through it—that was Charlotte. The she-ghost, the slaves called her. Charlotte’s hair was almost white, like an old woman’s—very thin and straight. In every way, she was the opposite of Grace. Tall and willowy, with black eyes and thick dark hair that glinted auburn in the sunlight, Grace was a silky mocha blend of her African mother and her English father.
Charlotte’s father ran a slave-trading business down the coast. Grace had never been there, although she had seen Mr. Stevens on a number of occasions when he came to see her father on business matters. Charlotte never accompanied him, though. She and her mother mostly lived in England and visited Africa only two months every other year. The few times Grace and Charlotte had occasion to be in each other’s company, Charlotte had treated Grace as though she were one of her father’s slaves. Never once had she even called Grace by her given name.
“Mr. ’Athaway—now there’s as fine an Englishman as ye could ’ope to find, Daughter,” Joseph Winslow continued. “English ’ouse ’e ’as too. Even finer’n ours, if ye kin believe it. An’ ’e ’as ’oldin’s all up and down the coast, ’e ’as—”
“I don’t like Mr. Hathaway,” Grace interrupted.
“You do not have to like him. You only have to marry him,” Lingongo replied. “You are a woman, Grace. Tonight, you will tell the Englishman what he wants to hear. After you are married, take what he has to give and then make your life what you want it to be.”
Grace stole a look at her father. A deep flush scorched his mottled cheeks and burned all the way up to his thinning shock of red hair. Embarrassed for him, she quickly looked away.
Outside, the wind grabbed up the aroma of Mama Muco’s cooking and swept it into the parlor. It was not the usual vegetable porridge, or even frying fish and plantains. No, this was the rich, deep fragrance of roasting meat. Forgetting his humiliation, Joseph blissfully closed his eyes and sucked in the tantalizing fragrance. A smile touched the edges of his thin, pale lips, and he murmured, “Mmmmm . . . good English food. That’s wot it be!”
Lingongo’s flawless cocoa face glistened with impatience and her dark eyes flashed. “Where is Mr. Hathaway?” she demanded. “He keeps us waiting on purpose!”
Grace and her parents had endured one another’s company for almost an hour by the time Jasper Hathaway finally blustered in, full of complaints and self-importance and, of course, a tremendous appetite. He talked all through dinner, not even bothering to pause as he stuffed his mouth with roasted meat, steamed sweet potatoes, and thick slices of mango.
“. . . so I sent detailed instructions by the next ship to London inquiring about my various and sundry holdings,” Hathaway said. Little pieces of sweet potato fell from his mouth and settled onto his blue satin waistcoat. “I should have gone myself. It is the only way to get things done right. But I do so hate the long sea journey. I am not of your kind, Joseph.”
Here he stopped his fork long enough to cast his host a look of pity.
“Aye,” Joseph said. “Sea air. ’Tis wot keeps me lungs clean and me ’ide tough!”
“No, no!” Hathaway said with a dismissive wave of his fork. “That isn’t it at all. I mean, you can be away for a year at a time and no one misses you. That is, your work in Africa does not suffer in the least in your absence. Not so with a true businessman such as myself. Why, if I were to be away so long—”
Grace stopped listening. The truth was, she had absolutely no interest in anything Mr. Hathaway had to say. And as for his demeanor, she found that absolutely disgusting. So she allowed her mind to move her away from the table and nestle her down in the mango grove, to settle her in her favorite spot where the wind rippled through the branches above her and she could lose herself in books. There, Grace could leave Africa and travel to wonderful places around the world. One day, she promised herself, she would see all those places for real—London and Paris and Lisbon and Alicante . . . the mysterious cities of the Orient . . . yes, even the New World. Oh, just to be outside her parents’ walled-in compound!
“. . . a business agreement, of course,” Mr. Hathaway was saying. “And as a husband . . . well, as I am quite sure you know, I have a good deal to offer your daughter. A very good deal, indeed!”
Mr. Hathaway glanced at Grace and flashed a leering smirk. With a start and a shudder, Grace jerked her attention back to the table.
“Now once again I have come to your house—and under miserable conditions, I might add—for the sole purpose of seeing and of permitting myself to be seen,” Mr. Hathaway continued, his voice tinged with pompous irritation. “If there is to be a marriage, as I have been led to believe, I insist that we talk terms immediately. Of course, the business of Zulina will be a necessary part of those terms.”
Outside, the trees groaned in the howling wind. Suddenly, a great jackfruit, scorched hard by the sun, smashed through the shuttered window and crashed onto the table. It shattered the hand-painted English platter and sent roasted meat juices spewing across the linen tablecloth. Grace screamed and jumped to her feet and then stared in horror as a dark stain spread down the front of her new dress.
“This is not the time to discuss such things,” Lingongo pronounced. “The ancestors are much too displeased. We will talk another time.”
“Now see here—” Mr. Hathaway blustered.
“Another time!” Lingongo repeated. Her tone made it clear the discussion was over.
Jasper Hathaway judiciously turned his attention to his waistcoat. The close-fitting satin garment might be the latest fashion in Europe, but Hathaway’s fleshy body proved too much for it, dangerously straining the seams. Sighing deeply, he tossed fashion to the wind. He undid the buttons and freed his ample stomach.
“The ancestors are invisible, Lingongo,” Jasper Hathaway stated as if to a not-too-bright child. “They have already collected what was due them in their own lifetime. Now they have nothing more to say. You need not fear the ancestors.” Shifting his gaze to Joseph, he added, “Fear the living, present threats to your well-being, my dear lady, not powerless shadows from the past.”
Joseph Winslow flinched and paled.
At long last, Mr. Hathaway, jovial and flushed in his flapping waistcoat, and far too familiar toward Grace, sent for his carriage and bid his farewells. Yet even as his carriage clattered down the cobblestone lane toward the front gate, he leaned out the window and called back, “I will not be patient for long, Winslow. Time is running out. And as for Zulina—” The rest of his words swirled away in the harmattan winds.
As soon as the door was closed and bolted, Grace announced, “I refuse to marry Mr. Hathaway!”
Joseph Winslow stopped still. Never in his twenty-one years with Lingongo had he dared speak to her in such a way. Oh, he had wanted to. How many times he had wanted to! But the most he had risked was a mumbled opinion under his breath. Nor had Grace openly contradicted her mother before. But the harmattan winds blew harder than ever. They rattled the shutters and sent jackfruit clattering down onto the roof. And when such a wind blows, anything can happen.
“And just who are you to tell me what you will and will not do?” Lingongo challenged.
“It’s my life, Mother, and I . . . I—”
I will what? Grace thought with a sudden jolt of despair. Undoubtedly, the same question occurred to her mother because a mocking sneer curved Lingongo’s mouth into a twisted grin, and all Grace’s bravery failed her.
“Do you really think I will allow you to stay here forever, playing the part of a useless idler?” Lingongo demanded. “Why should you live like a princess when you bring absolutely nothing to my house? Even a princess must do her part, Grace. Especially a princess.”
Grace opened her mouth to answer, but Lingongo wasn’t finished. Her voice dripped with bitterness as she said, “You, with your washed-out skin and the color of rust in your hair! You, with your English clothes and English ways and English talk. Oh, yes, Grace, you will marry Mr. Hathaway. You will marry the snake. You will because I command it of you!”