It begins in nothingness, an undying shadow in a world of lights. That’s what I am, or at least, what I was. But as time draws out here in the diluted vastness of my prison, my limbo, my mind, just me… I don’t know what I am anymore.
I cannot even trust that I am really here, wherever that is.
I know that at times I almost dream. I have spent life the sages’ way, and tread once more familiar paths. I have been here before; I can feel it deep down in my gut, even as it fills achingly full with bitter torrents of coarse water.
I have faced life, and I have faced death, and I know that it’s all a cycle – a cycle meant to take only a century. But for me, it has no end, even as the water crashes violently against the walls of my burning lungs; I will only falter for a time.
I had lived nearly two centuries before I found myself in his place, in this moment, dying over and over again.
Why do I keep waking up? How have I survived this long? How is it that my heart has stopped beating and yet I am still here in this pseudo reality?
Perchance I perished in an arrogant self-reliance ages ago; and in that act, a prayer went up so earnest, so… instinct with better light let in by death, that life was blotted out not so completely.
I had become immortal; I had become changed; I had passed through death, and come out the other side.
Yes, life had been removed from me long before now, yet I am still here, a ghost haunted by torturous memories while my body succumbs to the all-encompassing ocean. My traitorous heart is still unwilling to let me die even as it fails to beat.
All is black, and all is seamlessly blended together in this place where there is no time or space, or even the frail light of hope.
By some cruel twist of fate, I cannot die. But I can experience the pain of death… over and over again… and I do… oh, how I do.
I hate these lucid moments where I am awake and aware, where it’s bitterly cold, and endlessly dark, and there is no foreseeable end to my suffering.
How many times has this happened? I could not begin to keep count. It’s all so empty, so void; residing only in the fraying remnants of my soul and my mind.
All I can do is grasp; all I can do is hold onto the frail hope that the true death will find me and allow me to be with my beloved; but then again, I do not know if she would be waiting for me there.
The last time that I saw her, she was being dragged away, close to death, but still very much alive. I know because she was screaming my name, clawing at her captors as she was ripped from my embrace and stolen from me.
I saw the fear and longing in her eyes as they broke her neck to shut her up. But then she was gone. She’d awake somewhere alone or not at all, and those same captors came back to shut me up in this tomb and then to drop me in this abyss.
At least they spared me the anguish of watching her suffer.
How I wish to look into her hazel eyes right now. How I wish to feel the soothing embrace of her warm body against mine at this very moment. We had an eternity together; we planned an eternity together, and yet, here I am… without her, my eternity a watery grave and perpetual death far removed from her. There is no life without her – not for me. Or maybe… maybe this is all just the physical manifestation of that loss.
I’m weak and desiccated, but my body thrashes and writhes violently against the inevitable end that is coming, and my soul cries out for her. I still push into the nothingness and hope to find purchase on something real despite the fact that it’s all in vain.
I feel like I’ve been pulling and reaching forever, each time the end is always the same, just as the beginning – nothingness; but at least that nothingness has a moment of respite to the pain.
I gulp one last breath of harsh, salty water into my mouth. Its grainy texture grates across my tongue, down my esophagus, and into my lungs, where they fill and expand, and the small sacs along the lining burst painfully within me.
Tina, my Tina, the radiant visage of her beautiful face fills my vision as my mind and body calm, and I allow the blackness to have me; I embrace the solace of death, the solace of her face, as I find her in that singular place of limbo, and focus on the one thing that I know to be real: the scattered wrecks enough of life that remain dim memories, as now, when once more, seems the goal in sight again.
“Bette, what’cha you doin’ in here? Get on out there, ya’hear? The sun’s comin’ up and you know what happens if the massa finds you missin’.”
I nodded quickly, saying, “Yes, Mama,” and finished tying the too-large, threadbare apron around my waist. I stuck my hands in the pockets, just like I did every morning, to see if there were any new holes from yesterday’s cotton thorns. Laziness was a sin punishable by death, but if I were to be caught stealing the master’s cotton, well, Mama said that there are things worse than death, and I’d agree. The whippings… I hated the whippings. However, they didn’t stop me from taking the cotton and hiding it in my pockets just as Mama had taught me.
She taught me many things… things that my young mind couldn’t fully comprehend until I got older. I had never known a time when I wasn’t living under the master’s whip. I had been born into this life, but Mama knew, and so did the other slaves. And as such, they took it upon themselves to make sure that their children grew up knowing the truth.
What was the truth? I was a slave. I was bought and sold at will. I was used and hated, and it was because of the color of my skin.
My thumb poked through one of the newest holes, and I sighed as Mama crouched down in front of me, pulled a small bit of thread and needle from the bun at the back of her head, and roughly grabbed my worn garment to quickly mend it.
Her voice was stern but loving as she said, “God sakes, child, be more careful.”
She stopped for a moment, her brown eyes serious as they looked into mine. “You can’t be caught, Bette. You gotta be careful, you gotta be… y’understand?”
I nodded again, though I didn’t really understand, and she exhaled heavily before focusing back on her work.
I watched enviously as her hands skillfully worried along the opening with the needle and thread. My Mama was a beautiful woman, dark skin that was smooth and soft, hands strong from kneading dough and pumping water from the well. She was thin, but not gaunt like so many of the other women in the slave houses, and taller than the wheat grass in June.
She was lucky to be a house slave. I would have preferred housework to the fields any day, but the master hated me, especially in comparison with the others around me. He said that I was an abomination, and if the mistress were to see me, she’d snuff me out like a snake under her boot-heel.
I didn’t understand why the mistress would hate me so much more than any of the other slave girls, but she did, and as a result, I found myself working the fields with the boys.
None of the other slaves liked me much either; I was used to being outcast. For a long time I couldn’t figure out why. Why did everyone hate me so much? Why did they whisper to each other and snigger when I’d walk by? I was too young to understand it, but Mama had no qualms about explaining it to me.
I was frightened and angered by what I learned from her over the years, but more so when she wove this particular tale. I learned that life shouldn’t be like this and I learned that I was being used – we all were. She told me everything about life; she taught me everything I’d need to know to survive it as a black woman, as a slave; and she’d started at such a young age, that by the time I had figured out what it all meant, why she was preparing me, I couldn’t help but allow a dark and looming bitterness to seep into my soul and take up root.
I assumed that she was trying to protect me by making sure that I understood things. And I was grateful for the information in retrospect, but knowing that I was little more than an animal for something as wholly involuntary as the color of my skin… I couldn’t help but be changed, especially when she explained my specific coloring – a mixture of white and black – a coupling that was not entirely consensual.
Mama finished with me and I looked down at my own hands to see them sore, calloused, and scraped, small bits of old fabric wrapped around the worst places to offer an inconsequential bit of protection, but few things could withstand the biting nature of the thorns. No, my hands would never be soft like Mama’s were, or my skin as dark as hers. I knew that darker skin wasn’t a blessing, not in this world, but I wasn’t the right color in either world. I was neither fish nor fowl, and I hated the lighter half of myself because it represented my tormentors, and in turn, I represented them. I was half of the very thing I’d been raised to hate.
Mama patted me sharply on the behind, jolting me forward. “G’wan, child! It’s gettin’ late.”
I nodded and took off out the door, rushing up the path and catching my toe on a root. I managed not to fall as the graying light of a new day started to warm the dew on the grass and better illuminate my path.
It would be unbearably hot today.
With a sigh, I dusted off my hands and wiped my brow as I caught up with the last of the other slaves and followed along behind them. We all made our way to the fields, the first chorus of one of the sadder songs picked up by the others around me, and while I knew I was other, I still felt a certain camaraderie with these people.
We were bound together by the fact that we were in the same deplorable predicament, if nothing else.
My eyes snap open and are immediately stung by the grainy water. My lungs are seizing up and the process of drowning has started all over again. This is what Mama must have been talking about when she said that some things are worse than death.
But what can I possibly do? This has happened so many times already. I’ve tried to break out of the metal safe that they trapped me in, but the walls around me are strong and thick, and I have limited moments before I succumb to another death.
I breathe in the cold, heavy water and it burns a path through my torso. Fuck. I’d scream but it would only be swallowed up by the water I’m flailing in, just like it has so many times before. There is no one here to hear me.
My anger gets the best of me and I lash out with my foot, slamming it into the metal wall behind me. I feel the wall give way just a little and start to panic as death draws closer. No matter how many times that I’ve been through this, or how aware I am that the outcome will never actually mean death, the will to panic when you believe you won’t survive is innate.
I’m slow, but I manage to squirm down and run frantic fingers over the area of the wall behind me where my foot made contact. I feel the edge of what I believe to be an impression before my lungs burst and I’m thrown back into my limbo.
“Get up, child!” Mama shook me frantically and my eyes opened groggily.
“Mama… what’s…?” She put her hand to my mouth and stared to the sidewall of the shack.
The distant thunder of horses approaching reached my ears and she stood abruptly, grabbing my arm and pulling me through the door of our chamber.
“Mama… what’s wrong?”
Her voice was harsh, much harsher than I had ever heard her before as she demanded, “Hush now.”
I could barely keep up with her as I was dragged to the back of the shack by her painful grip on my arm. She opened the door and strong, rough hands immediately grabbed me by both arms and began to lift me.
Without thought, I started to kick and scream against them. “MAMA! HEL-!”
One of the dirty hands clamped down hard over my mouth and I watched in despair as my mama stood by the door staring listlessly at the ground, offering nothing, not even a goodbye.
I could hardly wrap my mind around what was happening. She was going to let these men take me away. I kicked out with my feet, pulling and struggling as hard as I could, but I was only sixteen, and these two slaves were far too strong. Even if they hadn’t been, when I saw my mama defeated turn and walk back into the shack to abandon me, I knew that fighting meant nothing.
The disdain that the others felt for me, both white man and black, had finally reached her, and if she didn’t want me, I wouldn’t fight to stay.
Why… how could she hate me?
I went limp in the arms of my captors and barely registered the fact that they had placed me in a cage in the back of a wagon. My mind worked effortlessly to shut down my emotions, and with each jarring bump of the rocky path, it succeeded. All sense of feeling and caring was gone by the time the shack became a tiny dot on the moonlit horizon and disappeared completely.
And I felt, for the first time, nothing.
I was nothing to no one.
I don’t know what’s worse: perpetually reliving these moments or waking up from them. I try to remain calm as I drown, but it’s impossible. That panic is there, like always, but at least I have something to focus on this time. I crouch down as much as I can in the cramped space, and feel again for the depression I had made earlier.
My fingers fumble, but eventually find purchase on the small indent. It’s not much, but it’s something more than the nothing that I’ve been confined in. Maybe the metal is starting to rust and weaken or this is the spot I had been searching for all along but failed to find. I’m just so fucking tired, and what’s worse is I’m going insane.
I don’t know how much more of this torture I can take and retain any sense of self. I never thought to check the area behind me, always lashing out at the front. Death is closing in again, but I have to try.
I start kicking at the spot behind me and only manage to get two kicks in before I go still in the water and the blackness around me swallows up my consciousness.
The setting sunlight was bright as we pulled up to the back of the large, white plantation house much like that of my previous master’s. I wasn’t sure how long we had been travelling, but I was exceedingly stiff, the constant nagging hunger in my stomach more intense, and I was in desperate need of an outhouse.
But ultimately, I would have gladly lain there in that cage until I died.
I was dead already anyway.
One of the slaves hopped down out of the wagon and unlocked the door to my cage. I didn’t flinch or look at him, or even notice anything really. I just felt empty and had no idea how to find the will to at least act like I hated what was happening. I was just too paralyzed.
The taller of my two captors took me from the cage and carried me up to the kitchen door where a plump, older woman met us, drying her hands on her apron skirt. She had that air of undue urgency about her as she started to check me over like a heifer at auction.
She pulled my hair, pinched my bicep, tugged on my ears, and gazed into my unfocused eyes, tittering and clucking her tongue at random things that were undoubtedly disagreeable.
She finally spoke. “What’s wrong with her? She touched in the head or somethin’?”
The giant of a man holding me timidly replied, “She fought, Miss Kit, fought somethin’ fierce… but then she just… it’s like she just done gave up.”
The older woman pursed her lips. “Mm hmm, well, go on and put her downstairs.” She sighed wearily. “I’ll take over.”
The man nodded and carried me down the stairs into the cooler temperature of the basement. It would have been a welcomed relief if I’d had the ability or desire to form thought or words.
It was strange; I was taking everything in but none of it really reached me. It was as if I had been shocked into a state of stunned silence, that place of passively peaceful despair that only numbness can provide, however temporarily.
The man set me on a small makeshift mattress of hay covered with empty potato sacks and left me alone. It was dark except for the small flicker of the lantern light bouncing shadows from the corner, and I lay there still unable or unwilling to move or care.
That is until the light gleamed off of the knife next to the fresh loaf of bread that was lying on the small table in the middle of the room caught my eye. A dark thought crossed my mind and without thinking, without even realizing what I was doing, I rose up from the bed and made my way to the warm glimmer of dull metal, grasped the wooden handle firmly, and lifted it.
“That’s one way to handle your problems, I reckon, but you don’t strike me as a coward, girl.”
I stared at the object in my hands as the old woman put a small bowl of grits on the table. Something in the pit of my stomach sparked to life and I felt compelled to speak.
“You don’t know me, and even if ya did, what would’ya care, old woman?”
Her voice was stern as she replied, “Mind yo’ mouth! I’ll not have you disrespectin’ me, the massa, or the lady of the house.”
A bitter laugh bubbled up on my tongue as venom welled in my mouth, venom that had nowhere to go but back down.
She didn’t soften much though her words were far less biting as she continued. “I know you been through somethin’ awful, girl, but it ain’t my fault any more than it be yours.”
She straightened her apron, her voice softening a little more. “…and you ain’t alone. We gotta stick together, child. Just give it a chance.”
She gestured to the knife. “Or you can let em’ win.”
She seemed to know just what to say to make me angrier. I wasn’t sure who I hated more: my mama, the other slaves, my master, his wife, or just life in general. But I was boiling with fury, a fury that I didn’t think was ever going to go away.
Being sold by my own mother – it was the last straw. It changed me on a level that I didn’t even know existed, let alone knew what to call it. No, I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of causing my death, though I may have already done so unwittingly.
The old woman walked to the end of the stairs, her voice breaking through my thoughts. “Now, get somethin’ in yo stomach, get cleaned up, and meet me in the kitchen. The chamber pot and basin are over yonder.”
She pointed to the far corner before disappearing up the steps. I could hear the muffled calls of her shouted orders followed by the scurry of footsteps above as they were carried out.
The light on the blade caught my attention again and I gazed down at my reflection. The sight of my light skin only further incensed me and I threw the knife at nothing, quickly followed by the bowl of grits. Both slammed hard against the cobblestone wall, one leaving a wonderful mess that I knew I’d be cleaning up shortly.
The old woman had me. She knew just what to say… just the right way to trap me with my own anger. No, I would never give anyone the satisfaction of killing me. I’d live to spite them, at least for as long as I could.
And I’d live to see them pay…
The frighteningly dark expanse of reality floods into my reawakening mind, followed by the harsh water that is slowly asphyxiating me again. At least this time I have a plan and begin to kick at my task from the start.
I am faced again with the same sort of dilemmas, that one thing that all creatures on earth struggle with: why fight? There is no easy answer because it isn’t an easy question, but it all really comes down to that age-old philosophy that I had adopted at just sixteen years of age: live to spite them.
And like then, here and now, I will. I will do as I had done then: I will live; I will get out, and I will have my justice.
Death is creeping in to claim me, my limbs striking against the wall behind me weakly. I run a hand down the slightly dented surface, feeling out my progress. It’s a little bigger, but just as the blackness swallows me up, I know that this is going to take a very, very long time.
I would sigh if I had any breath in me. Well, on the bright side, time is really all that I have at this point.
I awoke to the harsh banging on the ceiling above me. Every day was the same with Kit. She’d bang her broom handle hard on the wooden kitchen floor just before dawn, startling the spiders in the corners of the too-short basement alcove I slept in, and dusting me with the loose earth clinging to the low rafters.
I’d been there six months and each day I’d wake, wash up, eat my meager serving of grits, and meet the men out in the fields just like I did on the plantation where I grew up. The only difference between here and there was that I was no longer able to retain anything remotely innocent or joyful. I had been consumed by hatred and I clung to it like a newborn to its mother’s breast.
I hated everyone and everything, especially myself, and the only way my mind could cling to its sanity was to slip into twisted fantasies of homicide and running away as I’d pull soft tufts from thorny bushes. I’d bury myself so deep in those thoughts that even the prick and sting of the continuous activity didn’t register on my scarred hands and sore muscles. Today would be no different.
I grudgingly rose from my pallet and splashed some water on my face from the basin before running those same fingers through my gnarled hair and pulling it back into a low ponytail. I was stewing in my hatred and it was getting more and more difficult not to burn the house down while the white whores slept.
I snorted indignantly as I dried my hands and face. Yes, whores. All of the whites were. Both male and female had given themselves over to a lavish lifestyle built on the bloodied and broken bodies of the tortured and expendable… and for what? A new dress, soft skin, parties that exploited food to the point of throwing it away – while we would starve – and afforded them the opportunity to parade their daughters before a cavalcade of bloated, rich, and ancient men like pigs at a trough.
And they had the nerve to call us savages…
Yet, I was there being prostituted in just the same fashion, though it was under a different guise.
I’d never known love and I never would.
I’d never known a full belly and never would.
But I would know what it was like to wait and be patient. Until one day, a perfect moment, a perfect opportunity would arrive, and I’d know the feel of a neck snapping in my hands.
I’d know the feel of sprinting away and never looking back.
I’d know some sort of recompense before I died, because to know otherwise would mean dying in vain.
I downed the few sloppy clumps of grits in the wooden bowl on the table and chased it with some water before making my way up the stairs.
I went right to the task of leaving through the back door when Kit stopped me with her loud voice. “Wait, child!”
I turned to her, the need to run and pretend I didn’t have to stop at the furthest field was making me twitch anxiously. Maybe today I’d just keep going.
“The massa’s daughter is comin’ home from boardin’ school and the mistress axed me to have you be tendin’ to her needs.”
I stared at her blankly. She couldn’t be serious. She couldn’t read my thoughts, but she had to know that putting me in close quarters, alone, with some privileged, little white girl wasn’t going to end well.
She narrowed her eyes at me as she continued. “Do as you’re told and be headin’ upstairs. ‘Member yo place, child.”
That was what infuriated me most about Kit: they’d convinced her that she’d never know any better than this. She honestly believed that she was a slave and that it was acceptable. She’d die here without fighting even once.
Not me though. I may never know freedom, but I’d never believe that lie. This wasn’t acceptable, and I wasn’t going to spend my life like this. I had nothing tying me here, to life or otherwise, and therefore, I had nothing to lose, life or otherwise.
I’d know freedom one way or another.
Kit waved her dishtowel at me before turning back to the bread in the stone oven, and I cautiously made my way up the stairs and into the house proper. I hadn’t been up here yet, but it was just like the other house: too large and drafty, noisy floorboards, gaudy and ornate moldings and furnishings, bright brassy fixtures, and obnoxiously printed upholsteries swirling together into a pile of ostentatious vomit.
Did these people lack any and all imagination?
I looked down at my dirty, bare feet and sighed. Yes, they did. It was all about approval, wasn’t it? We’d build for them, and make money for them; we’d cook for them and clean for them; we’d dress them and even bathe them because they couldn’t bother to help themselves. They were lazy and decadent and my hatred for the tainted half of my cursed blood burned brighter.
“Oh, well…” A short, older woman with a paunch, no neck, large graying ringlets at her temples, and a cruel countenance stepped up to me from the room to my right, her pursed face disapproving as she looked me over and sighed.
“…I suppose you’ll have to do. Chrissy needs a young, strong slave to keep up with her.”
Her voice was high, the drawling pronunciation so different from what I’d known my whole life that it was nearly impossible to understand her.
She linked her fingers in front of her and gazed hard at me. “It’s a different world in here than it is out there in the fields, slave. In here, you’ll be expected to look presentable… clean, at the very least. You’ll be expected to speak only when spoken to. You will most definitely stay out of the way and do precisely as you’re told, when you’re told. Chrissy owns you while she’s home, and I’ll own you your entire life. Never forget that.”
I clenched my jaw, wondering how many lashes I’d get for hitting her squarely in face and believing that every one of them might be worth it. However, I didn’t move or speak a word. I had nothing to say to her. I may have gone along to get along while I was biding my time, but I wouldn’t agree and I couldn’t afford to be disagreeable just yet.
It worked out well because she didn’t need an answer.
She clapped her hands loudly and said, “Good… now that that’s settled, you can go get cleaned up in the river…”
Just then the front door opened and a booming male voice called out, “Esther, we’re home!”
The woman smiled and trundled her way to the front of the house through the parlor entrance to greet her husband, calling over to me, “Go on. You’re filthy. And make it quick, girl.”
I watched her waddle up to her husband, a blusteringly old, fat man in his middle fifties. His cheeks were pink as Esther patted them in greeting. The way that they interacted was so strange, so… detached and genial.
One of the male house slaves came in, a medium-sized trunk pulled up over his right arm and slung across his back. He made his way up the grand staircase at the front of the house but didn’t acknowledge me or my presence.
The shrill exclamation startled me and I turned my attention back to the tableau at the front door where a young, blonde girl, not much younger than me, was being attacked in much the same manner as the fat man.
“Mother…” Her smile was more of a polite grimace. “It’s good to see you too…”
For a moment I was a little surprised. She wasn’t obese or hideous as I had expected based on her parentage. Her long, wavy hair shone in the early morning light that was streaming in through the tall front windows.
She wore a plain, but elegant dress in a style that I hadn’t seen before, not that I’d seen many, and there was a small hat situated just slightly off-center atop her hair, showcasing her delicate face.
She was slender, very slender, and she seemed far too quiet and reserved for this family. She endured the worst of her mother good-naturedly, but I could tell that she didn’t like Esther any more than I did.
I felt a pang of irrational sympathy for her before realizing what I was doing. She was white; she owned slaves; the very clothes she was wearing may have been made by people just like me. God knows everything else in this house had been toiled and labored over under a taskmasters whip, and therefore, she was the enemy.
She sighed as her mother released her reddened cheek and her soft voice spoke again. “I’m very happy to see you…”
She touched her father’s arm and he beamed with pride. “…both of you, but I’m very tired. Would you mind terribly if I went up to my room to rest?”
Her father’s bellowing voice boomed out, “Of course not. You must be exhausted from traveling. Go lie down. I know how delicate you are, and I wouldn’t want you to become ill.”
She seemed to breathe a sigh of frustrated relief at him and thanked him before turning to make her way upstairs. Just as she reached the third step she caught my eyes and stopped, cocking her head at me.
I allowed all of my loathing for her to reach my eyes, whipping be damned, and she smiled sadly before continuing up the stairs.
I hadn’t noticed that Esther and her husband were approaching as I continued to watch her, but the pinched and proper voice was very close as Esther yelled in my face to get my attention.
“Slave, I told you to go get cleaned up!”
Startled, I snapped my eyes to Esther just soon enough to see her pudgy hand traveling towards my face to make solid contact. The blow of her hefty extremity sent me hard into the wall behind me where I only just managed to catch myself instead of falling to the floor.
“Now go, before I have you whipped.”
I could feel my chest heave with anger as I pushed up off of the wall. I met Esther’s eyes and she glowered indignantly at my audacity. She reached to hit me again but her husband stepped in. He stopped her, which I suppose was an act of unnecessary kindness, but he didn’t fail to meet my eyes and let me know that another act of this kind would find me laid out with the pig slop the next morning.
I lowered my head, swallowed my anger, and sped away down the stairs to the kitchen, vowing to myself that they’d pay… and soon.
FUCK! I awake in the water and instantly suck in a huge gulp of it, shortening my time to work at the weak point. It burns so badly that I can barely focus, the anger and pain causing me to strike out harder and harder.
I’m losing it, and part of me doesn’t even care anymore. I strike and gag, my lungs involuntarily pulling at air that is nowhere to be found before my body seizes up and I go listless in the steel cabin surrounding me.
I scowled at Chrissy’s cheerful voice and chipper smile, and set about my task of laying out her freshly laundered dress like a good slave. I had been doing her bidding for two weeks now and I had managed during that time to mostly ignore her, though it was difficult.
She was… strange; I wasn’t sure how else to put it. She mostly kept to herself, spending her days with her nose in a book, and for someone with money, slaves, endless resources, and a chance at a meaningful future, she didn’t require much. She had maybe four dresses that she alternated between.
The others, those her mother had given her, sat untouched in the antique armoire in the far corner of the room where it was filled to almost bursting. She didn’t let me help her outside of those things that her mother would notice – things like doing her laundry, fetching hot water for her bath, and helping her tie up her corsets.
I didn’t say a word, as was my determined custom, not even when spoken to, and unlike with her family, I never paid for that insolence. She’d just smile sadly at me and my silence and soldier on, pretending as though we were peers.
She stood up from her vanity, having finished brushing out her hair, and stepped up to me as I laid her dress out at the foot of the bed. I bent to grab the end of her dressing gown and help her change but she stopped me by touching my forearm.
I couldn’t bring myself to meet her face but her voice was kind as she said, “Just help with the corset today. I can take care of myself.”
I huffed in frustration and turned my back to let her fix her own undergarments. Working in the house had been worse than I’d imagined. Don’t misunderstand, it was easier, much easier, at least physically. But emotionally, it was daunting, at least where Chrissy was concerned. I hated her because she deserved it and because I wanted to, but that didn’t change the fact that she was the only person I’d ever met who had shown me any kindness.
Kit was kind in her own way, but that way consisted of making sure that I understood and accepted my place in life. Chrissy… God, even her name was irritating… she treated me kindly when she just didn’t have to, and it was both unwelcomed and infuriating.
I knew that she’d show her true colors soon enough, but it was confusing and I had to fight to keep my walls up around her. For all I knew of her, she could have been the worst of her family, trying to pull me in and bait me before having me hung.
“Okay, I’m ready.”
I turned to see her smile gently before grabbing the high bed post and presenting her back to me. I approached her and she reached back to pull her long hair out of the way as I started to pull at the threads of the corset roughly, hoping they’d choke her.
I grinned at her sharp intake of breath and she gripped the post tighter.
“Easy, please.” Her voice was firm with this request and I felt my face falter.
She requested it… why?
No, I didn’t trust her and there was no reason to.
I finished threading the lacings, wincing as she collapsed against the bed breathing heavily. I’d never understand why anyone would want to bind themselves. I’d been bound before, albeit differently… who was I kidding? I was still bound… to this place, to these people, to my own people, to my life of servitude… to my own anger.
She glanced up at me and smiled again. Her smile seemed to be growing sadder by the day, and I had to admit, if only to myself, that she seemed to be just as trapped as I was.
But that just couldn’t be true. She was white, privileged, and she could escape if she really wanted to. Me, I had few options and running would mean being hunted like an animal to the point of exhaustion and hiding for as long as I could last before death.
I’d seen, first-hand, the price of trying to escape. What’s worse is that I couldn’t show my face to anyone. Light and dark alike would turn me away as ‘other.’ I had to be careful to escape, but she didn’t. If she had really wanted out, she could have left, but she chose to stay and I couldn’t understand her.
I was angry and bitter, and so envious of her that I felt justified in my hatred of her, as if I needed further reason other than just being alive. I was standing in her room, forced to be at her beck and call. What possible reason could there be to not hate her?
“Thank you for helping me.” She let out a heavy breath as her hooded, hazel eyes met mine.
“I know you’re stuck with me, and I’m sorry for that, but let’s make the best of it.”
I stared at her in shocked confusion as she stood and grinned warmly, grabbing the dress and slipping it over her head.
“Let’s go for a walk today…” Her eyes glowed brightly at that thought, but faltered as she looked me over, almost as if realizing who I was and why I was there for the first time.
“I… I’m sorry. Of course, you don’t have to, but… well, it might look strange to mother if you don’t come with me, and I can’t guarantee what she’d do to you while I’m gone.”
It took every ounce of strength I had in me not to snort out an angry laugh in her face.
Who was she kidding, me or herself?
She didn’t care about me, she couldn’t, and she never would.
She seemed to become irritated, and I’ll be honest, it thrilled me. “Look, I don’t like this anymore than you do, but we’re both trapped here. Can you please just make the most of it with me until I’m gone? It’s only three months…”
That was the worst thing about all of this: when she left, I was back to being a field hand. I hated her, but at least she pretended like I was human, a concept even I couldn’t fully believe for myself.
“Look, Miss Chrissy…”
Her eyes hardened and she confirmed that she could and would tell me what to do.
“Don’t call me that… ever…”
I swallowed my anger hard and nearly choked on it. I had been right, and at least I had been treating this situation accordingly.
My bitterness towards her grew a little bit and my eyes narrowed as I continued.
“Sorry, mistress…” I said the last word with so much venom that I’d swear that the pink, gaudy wallpaper on the walls bubbled and warped a little bit.
“…I sure didn’t mean no disrespect.”
I was pushing it and I knew it, but I just didn’t care anymore. She wanted to play games, games that had successfully destroyed my life and my spirit, and I wasn’t going to play them anymore.
“I’ll do your washin’ and keep up after you like a good little slave, but I won’t have ya actin’ like we’re friends. How’s about you just tell me what’cha want, and I’ll do it?”
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that the sheen on her eyes was tears, but they didn’t fall and she didn’t back down.
“What if I want to be friends?”
I bit back another snort and crossed my arms over my chest. “How many friends you got that you own like cattle?”
Those words hurt her and again she seemed to realize the situation. Had her time elsewhere put her in delusion?
“You’re not cattle… not to me.”
I couldn’t fight the indignant huff. “Sho’ could’a fooled me, mistress.”
I bent down to retrieve her night clothes and she stopped me, gathering them up in her own arms.
She seemed to have regained herself, her expression warm as she again addressed me. “I wish it weren’t this way, just as much as you do…”
I scoffed at her and she soldiered on. “…I have different reasons, but my conviction is stalwart. I truly wish that we could be friends; I already consider us equals…”
I snatched the clothes from her arms angrily and held them up. “I’ll keep that in mind when I’m down at the crick doin’ your washin’, or in the kitchen doin’ yo cookin’, or the next time I get whipped for standin’ too close to the table at suppa…”
She sighed in defeat and the corner of my mouth quirked up in smug exaltation. I’m not entirely sure why. I didn’t believe her to be sincere, or at least I couldn’t bring myself to accept it.
No matter how she felt about it, she still ate the meals we made, went to school on the money her father made by beating us in the field, and she wore the clothes that we washed. She was young, sheltered, and foolish, and I wasn’t about to be made a fool like her.
I stepped over to the door and she called out behind me. “What’s your name?”
I turned to look at her, letting her know that to her and others like her, I was nameless and faceless. I’d let her use me until I knew how to successfully escape, but that’s all I would be, just another slave in the house of Kennard.
All of my bluster and bravado caught in my throat as she smiled at me, a full and genuine smile that reached her eyes as she grabbed one of her books, approached me, and opened the door.
“We’ll go for a walk today.” I stared at her for a long moment, her smile growing wider as she gestured to the door and said, “After you…”