Chrissy was walking slightly ahead of me as we took yet another stroll through the magnolia grove on the outskirts of the property. And true to her form, she was rattling on and on… and on.
Lord, she was beyond frustrating.
Everything about her, from how clean she was, her perfect posture, the way she’d tilt her head and smile as she’d say something particularly clever, how I couldn’t help but listen to her instead of tuning her out, how I couldn’t help but study and analyze her, to her very name… it was all so… irritating.
I blew out a breath in frustration and her sentence died off. “I know that I shouldn’t be telling you any of this…”
She had glanced to me as she was speaking and noticed that I was a step or two behind her. She took a step back to make sure we were next to each other and smiled up at me, oblivious or uncaring of my perpetually foul mood as she continued unabashedly.
“…but I’ve decided to help my Aunt Millie. If daddy found out, I’d never see or learn anything outside of how to be a good little wife.”
She said those last three words bitingly and I turned my head away to hide my smirk in the tree line.
She snorted. “Why do women buy into this idea that all they’re good for is marriage and babies? It’s…” She stuttered in her righteous indignation. “…well, what a sad and limited life to lead.”
I bit back a snort. She knew nothing about either of those things.
“It may be a man’s world,” she continued. “But it’s not because they’ve earned it; it’s because we’ve let them have it. Becoming a suffragette doesn’t mean fighting for just women’s rights; we want that for all people.”
I felt her eyes on me, as if she wanted to be sure that she hadn’t offended me with her words. I glanced at her, but quickly faced forward again. I couldn’t argue with her, given my life, but I also couldn’t openly agree with anything that came out of her mouth, either.
I heard the smile in her voice as she took up an entirely different topic and I rolled my eyes.
“I always wanted a dog, but daddy says it’s not ladylike.” She sighed heavily. “I love being a woman. I love being soft, gentle, and caring, but sometimes… I almost wish I had been born a man.”
I was puzzled by this admission and what all it fully entailed. I allowed myself to look over at her and saw a myriad of emotions play across her delicate features, and I was at a loss. I may not have understood all of the connotations that were associated with her rapid speeches, but I could understand the desire to be something, anything but who I was.
For the first time in our then week’s-worth of walks, I felt a point of commonality with her, and it was with bitterness that I experienced that revelation. I’d have given anything to be her, and she wanted to be someone else. I was struck by just how ungrateful the privileged could be and it helped to reaffirm my belief that she was no different than any of the other whites I’d been subjugated to for my entire life.
She had the world laid out at her feet, and she didn’t even know it.
Her voice pulled me from my reverie and it was if she had heard my very thoughts as she continued. “But no matter how unfair life can be, I’m grateful to be alive, and I know that I help to cause change.”
She beamed a white, even smile up at me and I felt my heart pump harder… almost as if I had been inspired, if such a thing were possible.
“Someday…” Her countenance became steely as she spoke flippantly. “…I’ll have a dog; I’ll travel the world; I’ll be seen as an equal; and I’ll do it all on my own.”
My first two months with Tina were spent so foolishly. Hell, most of my time with her had been wasted by my pride.
Who’s Tina, you ask? Well, I couldn’t stomach even thinking the name Chrissy. Christina had many other options, and so I started calling her Tina in my mind, though I was determined to never let the name or any other words pass my lips in her presence.
But Tina… it suited her better. She was bright and cheerful and treated me like her friend even as I made it as difficult as possible for her. But she was nothing if not determined, or maybe stubborn is a better word.
Well, two could play at that game. Truth be known, I couldn’t admit it to myself at the time, but I liked her. She was a bright spot in the tarnished mess that was my life. And out of everything she did to try and connect with me, it was the moments when she’d read aloud, that endeared her to me so fully.
I found myself in a routine. It wasn’t perfect, but it was by far the best one I’d ever had.
Kit would still bang loudly to wake me, but I was almost excited to get up, and I didn’t hesitate when I heard the first hard thump on the ceiling. I gave up on berating myself for finding some pseudo enjoyment in my current predicament after about the first month.
I still hated life on every fundamental level, and Tina as well, or at least I hated what she stood for in my mind. And I still didn’t say a word to her, not since our discussion in her room, but I came to realize that so long as no one knew how I really felt about things, about her, I could just feel whatever came to me, and be safe.
Allowing myself to feel some of my emotions had me confused. I’d rush to eat my grits and get started with my day for entirely different reasons. Instead of twisted fantasies where I’d burn the house down and run until my lungs and legs gave out on me, I was rushing for a different escape, one that Tina provided expertly.
As much as I wanted to leave, I didn’t, and those thoughts were eating away at me. I no longer understood myself, and I blamed Tina… entirely.
Just like I had done for the last month, I was quickly up the grand staircase and tending to my chores. Tina took care of herself for the most part, but there were some things that I just couldn’t get away from, especially when her mother was so bent toward putting me further in my place.
And as was her right to do, the mistress of the house gave me my recompense. I’d start my day by checking the expansive, fifteen room mansion for chamber pots that needed to be emptied. That wasn’t the worst of the chores I’d endured during my life, but it was probably a close second, especially with the white aristocrats.
Their refuse resembled that of what you’d expect to find in a cow pasture – putrid, rank, and far too much for one person. It would take me roughly an hour to quietly retrieve the heavy, reeking pots, get them emptied, clean them, and quietly return them to their rooms.
Heaven forbid the master or his mistress be woken by the sounds of someone retching. There is no indignity like that of being whipped because you nearly vomited at the smell of someone’s shit, and that’s precisely what happened the first day that I had been given the task.
The groggy, old woman rolled herself out of her bed and struck me hard for my insolence. And I had the nagging suspicion that she wanted me to give her reasons to lay into me.
I didn’t fully understand her reasoning. I was a slave. She could do what she wanted with me, but she seemed to want to feel justified. That was perfectly fine with me. I learned to be quiet, very quiet… so quiet that as I became accustomed to my task, it was little risk to my life to make sure some of the less conspicuous portions of her pot were deposited onto her hairbrush, in her French perfumes, and even a little dab in her European lotions on the way out of her room.
Once that was done, I’d head down to the creek to wash and prepare myself for Tina. As much as I’d risk myself finding ways to impute justice, I wouldn’t be obvious in my disobedience. Besides, I enjoyed being clean… well, as clean as I could be when I wore the same hand-me-down clothes every day for the last two years.
Even then, just being allowed to bathe daily was something I was going to miss when I was put back in the fields. As a slave, I worked sunup to sundown. Some months out of the year that would be twelve hours or more, and the taskmasters didn’t care about the smell or the bodies clinging to life by thin threads. It was easier to purchase new slaves than to ensure the health of the ones they had. So finding the time or energy for more than splashing some water on my face was nearly impossible.
The sun was nearly up over the horizon as I finished and headed into the kitchen to help Kit serve breakfast. I wouldn’t be helping Tina dress this morning. She had stated, vehemently, the day prior that she was done with corsets. I couldn’t help but smile at that thought, especially as I hadn’t allowed myself to smile at her when she’d said it.
I had learned that it would be considered brash and slightly risqué for her to make such a declaration during my time with her. I had learned many things in the last two months. Her endless prattle spanned from economics to mathematics to politics, to flowers, and I absorbed everything she said.
I smiled again as I helped Kit move the expansive breakfast to the dining table and she looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I glared at her as we set the final dishes out, and I took my place along the wall.
The food smelled amazing and I felt my stomach gurgle. I’d never had biscuits before, but they were high on my list of things to try when I was free.
Tina and her rotund parents came into the room and all thoughts of anything remotely pleasant went out on the slight breeze circulating through the house. Well, all pleasant thoughts but one.
A deep and abiding anxiousness settled over me as I realized that, after breakfast, I would be with the love of my life… books. I had never known of these incredible creations that could take me away without taking a single step, but Tina did. She had everything, and as such, I could leech off of her good fortune, use her for something the way she and her family constantly used me.
During yesterday’s walk in the magnolia grove, Tina took me to a hidden spot along the river. She had brought a book and she explained it to me for the first time.
I was fascinated and eager to get a taste of this small, innocuous object that she seemed so wonderfully passionate about. It took one page, just one, and I was hooked. It seemed we would share another point of commonality, much to my distaste. But I wouldn’t let my feelings about that ruin the beauty of having something truly incredible to look forward to for the first time in my life.
It was an impossible wait for the aristocrats to finish. They were taking their time to bluster and cavort about the possibility of war over the meal. Tina seemed as impatient for the meal to end as I was. I sighed but I kept my distance and tuned them out for the most part.
However, I couldn’t help listening when the master demonstrated how far reaching his authority truly was.
“So, Chrissy…” He wiped a napkin at the gravy clinging to his graying mustache, missing a clod as he continued. “…I met with young Mr. Wentworth and his father yesterday in town.”
The color drained from Tina’s face as she set her fork on her plate and looked to her father.
“Have you given any thought to his proposal?”
Tina sat rigidly still, her spine straighter than a wrought iron rail as she squeezed and twisted the napkin in her lap.
Her voice was calm, but I could tell it was a lie as she replied coolly, “Actually, father, I’ve given it a great deal of thought, and while I don’t wish to disappoint you…”
Master Kennard slammed a heavy hand on the table and everyone jumped. The harsh bang and tinkling clatter of china echoed throughout the room as he dropped his napkin on his plate and leaned back in the high, upholstered chair. He snapped his fingers for one of the other slaves nearest him to clear it away.
The twelve-year-old that I had learned was called Leah stepped forward and clumsily collected the dishes, nearly knocking over his water. He grabbed one of her arms roughly and jerked her away, causing her to fall and dump the dish on the floor where food scraps and porcelain scattered in a loud crash.
I shut my eyes for a moment, knowing what her punishment would be and considered stepping in to save her, but I was too late. The mistress was already ordering her to be put in the stocks until she could find the time to appropriately whip the girl for ruining one of her best pieces of china.
I squeezed the pitcher of water I was holding in a white-knuckled grip and took deep breaths. Why hadn’t I left by now? The cacophony over, the child banished, two other slaves scurrying over the mess left in her wake, the master again addressed his daughter, this time far more firmly.
“Chrissy, I understand that you’re reluctant, but you’re being unreasonable. I’ve allowed you to study in England with your Aunt for two years now, something I was vehemently against. You promised me that when you graduated, you’d marry, settle down, and start acting like a young lady. You graduate next summer and the Wentworth boy is young, wealthy, and as blue-blooded as they come.”
Tina set her own napkin in her plate, her demeanor defiant. “Daddy, I’m not in love with him…”
This surprised me.
It surprised the master as well, because his voice grew louder. “That’s enough!”
He shook his pudgy finger in her face and it was everything I could do to stay back against the wall, for reasons unknown.
“I’m accepting his offer on your behalf and you’re going to do as you’re told. Do you understand?”
He huffed indignantly and went off on a tirade. “It’s just not right, Chrissy. I knew it was a bad idea to let you study abroad. It’s distasteful for a woman to learn things that only men ought to know. You’re a young, beautiful woman. You need a man to take care of you, not an education.”
Tina’s calm was slipping, but she managed herself well, and the words that left her mouth gave me some respect for her… if nothing else.
“I’m young, educated, and perfectly capable of taking care of myself, daddy.”
Her father stood and braced himself on the table as he leaned into her. His voice was low and almost cold as he spoke with finality.
“You WILL marry Deke. You can do it now, forgoing school, or you can do it next summer when you return. I’ve been as lenient as I am going to be. Those are your only options.”
Tina stood, and while I could see the tears gathering on her lashes and the slight tremble in her posture, she was poised and polite as she said, “I need to be excused.”
She didn’t wait for anyone to agree; she just stepped away from the table without glancing back.
I took a step to go after her before stopping myself. I wasn’t sure why I felt the need to make sure that she was okay, but I was as certain as the scars on my back that I couldn’t come and go as I pleased.
The mistress misunderstood my movement and glared at me shrewdly before relenting, “Go after her, girl.”
I didn’t hesitate to step out of the room and leave my jug in the kitchen as I flew through the back door. Somehow, innately, I knew where she’d go. It was the same place that I would go in a time of need if I had the freedom to make such a choice.
I approached her seated form cautiously, trying to be as unobtrusive and quiet as possible. I stood a few yards behind her and to the right of the tree. I was determined to get there, but when I was, I had no idea what to do.
Her voice startled the calm around us; even the bullfrogs had given up their throaty songs.
“It’s okay. You can come and sit down.” I did as I was told, not because that was what I was supposed to do for fear of life and limb, but because I wanted to. I took my normal place next to her and she heaved a heavy sigh before smiling sadly at me and resuming her vigil over the calm waters in front of us.
I faced forward, releasing a sigh of my own as I stared out at the forest line beyond with intense longing.
Oh, but to just go…
“You’re unusually quiet this morning…” I glanced over at her and berated myself for the snort of laughter that bubbled up in my soul and past my lips. She’d bested me and my ego hated her for it, but she’d won this round fair and square. That didn’t stop me from shutting up and forcing myself back into my angry brooding. She grinned disconcertingly at my behavior and I saw a little bit of the life return to her eyes.
My throat felt very dry all of a sudden.
“You still haven’t told me your name.”
She may have won the last battle fair and square, but I wasn’t going to give her any other ground today. I was, however, inclined to throw her a bone, and regain some of my dignity by gloating in the process.
And so, I said nothing but just gazed at her smugly. I had something that she wanted, though I couldn’t fathom why, and she’d never get it so long as I drew breath.
She breathed out a weary chuckle and again turned to look out at the water. After a long moment, she informed me that she was not giving up yet.
“You will tell me your name one day…”
She turned her face to me and I gazed into her hazel eyes with a feeling of dread-laced hope.
“And not because I forced you to tell me or ordered you to.”
She smiled more genuinely before shaking her head confidently. “No, you’ll tell me because I’m your friend, and you want to.”
I wasn’t sure how to process that information, but I couldn’t look into the sincerity that I found in her eyes any longer. I knew that she meant the things that she said; I just didn’t want to believe in them, in her.
It was a dangerous game that only fools played – to hope – and I just couldn’t bring myself to see the possibilities in any sort of attachment to her. My heart laughed at me in that moment because it knew that it was too late, but it was smart enough not to say a word.
I just wouldn’t hear it.
After another moment, she pulled out the book that we had been reading. My heart leapt. I was exhilarated at the prospect of finding out if Edmond Dantès would finally break free from his prison to get his revenge, and ultimately… be free of the torment of his past.
Tina didn’t hesitate to open the book and pick up right where she’d left off, her voice warm and her words striking a deep chord in me.
“Woman is sacred; the woman one loves is holy…”
I didn’t know if she spoke out loud for my sake or not, but I could sit and listen to the wonderful tales bound up in her books for ages, especially from such a gentle and soothing voice.
We spent the remaining month in much the same fashion. During the day we’d take long walks through the grove before settling under our tree and reading.
At night, I served and she argued with her father, until the night before she was to leave for school, she relented and agreed to marry Deke Wentworth when she returned the next summer.
A terrible quiet had settled over Tina as we took one final walk before her departure. She hadn’t spoken a word, and that was almost more terrifying to me than the fact that she was leaving.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt as if my entire world had been flipped upside down and all of the good had been emptied from it. If this was going to be our last day together, I wanted to at least hear her voice, her tales, something to hold on to.
For all I knew, I’d be sold or dead before she got back.
I knew that I could finally take the leap and speak, but I just couldn’t bring myself to swallow my pride. I had forced myself into this corner, and the ironic thing about it was that it tortured me, not her.
I wanted to speak to her, to consider her my friend, but to do so would mean giving more of myself to her, and I just didn’t have any more to give.
The sun was climbing high in the sky and I felt my stomach fall into my toes as we turned and started to wind our way back to the mansion. As soon as we arrived, she’d be leaving. God help me, I was panicking and I had bound myself to suffering in silence.
Finally, she put me at ease. “I know you won’t believe me, but I’m going to miss you.”
I didn’t know how to feel about that. I knew that I would miss her, but I hadn’t said a word to her for the entire summer. I may as well have been one of the rocks that lined our path. How could she possibly miss that?
She turned and the corner of her mouth quirked into a sad smile. I felt a flush of something strange roll through me and decided to call it anxiety. God, I would miss her… I already did. I wanted to ask her what I should do without her here, but I bloodied my tongue to bite the words back instead.
“I wish I could write you…”
I felt sick with loss. The sheer thought of someone caring enough about me to send me a letter was inconceivable. I would have given anything to be able to read so that she could write me, but all of these fanciful notions were as reachable as the stars for a wretched, useless creature like me.
Did it hurt to think on them anyway?
I wasn’t sure.
The mansion was coming into view beyond the tree line and she stopped at the edge to look at me. The midday sun was streaking through the leaves and casting rays of light around us. It was almost as if God, Himself, had conjured the light from the very heavens to showcase her for me.
She was right, women were the fairer sex.
A choking sensation pulled at my tongue as a heady, buzzing feeling picked up in my skull, like a hive of angry bees were bustling about inside of it. I could barely breathe as I watched tears gather on her lashes and fall over the edge to land on a faintly freckled cheekbone.
The intense urge to reach up and wipe them away was nearly my undoing, and I had no idea how I held back from her as she said, “I love school. I love the feeling that I’m doing something important… that I’m fighting back for what I believe in. But… I just don’t want to leave without you…”
I wanted to grab her shoulders and shout, “TAKE ME WITH YOU!”
But I knew that her mother would never allow it. She’d see it for what it was, and not only would it be distasteful and vulgar to her, but she’d kill me for sure the minute Tina was gone. And by the defeated tears rolling down Tina’s face, it was obvious that she knew it too.
All of my emotions stopped. My mind knew what it needed to do to protect itself. So, I went limp and let the listless hopelessness have me.
Tina wiped at her face angrily and a determined line set onto her jaw as she grabbed my arms almost roughly. “Promise me that you’ll just stay away from the house while I’m gone.”
I felt numb, that feeling that you get when you sleep on your arm the wrong way, only it was my whole body and even my heart… and possibly my soul.
I blinked down on her tear-streaked face and she shook me gently. “Promise me that you’ll be okay.”
I still didn’t answer and her expression turned pleading. “Please… just be okay…”
I couldn’t say anything and I definitely couldn’t promise anything. I wanted to, but there were no assurances to be had. She had to have known that.
She dropped her hands from my arms and turned, walking out of the trees into the tall grass beyond, and out of my life. I felt a fissure crack and spread through me without even realizing why, and fell to my knees to retch violently, knowing that the only thing I could do was what I’d always done – just try to survive.
I regretted not telling her something, just anything, but I had no words. I hadn’t needed them until that moment because I wasn’t meant to speak. No, I was to till the land, feed overgrown bellies, clean up after the lazy and their squalor, and take a beating when one of them felt so inclined; and all the while, I was to be quiet.
I was starting to grow beyond my station, to feel like I deserved better than the hand life had so cruelly dealt me, and it was all because of her.
She gave me so many things that I needed but wasn’t even aware of. I needed the escape her books brought me; I needed the possibility that the world elsewhere wasn’t such a terrible place; I needed her friendship, and I needed her love. But I had nothing to offer her in return, not even a goodbye, and she’d earned at least that much.
I needed her, but she was gone, and I didn’t know how to cope. I only knew one way to feel better.
The thoughts of fleeing were overwhelming. I wanted to run so badly, escape into a life like the ones that she had spent that summer weaving onto the humid air with ease, but I put it off. I was sick of the cruelty. It was swallowing me up, but I was more terrified of leaving.
At least as I slave I knew what to expect. But more than that, I wanted to see Tina again; I wanted to hear more of her stories, and I just… I wanted to feel connected to life again, something that she alone had inspired in me.
I hated myself for feeling that way, and I hated her for being so central to that confusion and grief. She had affected me… so utterly, so irrevocably, and so unintentionally.
And then, she was just gone…
The year of waiting that followed was the worst one of my life, even worse than the walls of water and iron that bind and choke me now. In that year I learned too much about just how deplorable life could be, and for me, a slave, for things to get worse really meant something.
I was on the precipice of leaving with no plan and no hope but that of a quick death, when finally, one day, I was making my way through the kitchen to the fields, and Kit told me to freshen up for house duty…
I pushed my head up above the water in the creek and looked around to be sure that no one was there. I was on sacred ground, the very place that I found something in life to cling to – Tina’s place – our place of reading and forgetting. But I knew all too well what could happen to a woman, much less a slave, should she be discovered.
I had been trained early on that my body was not my own, and therefore I should live in my mind. But there are some things that you can’t prepare for no matter what you think you know.
Mama had been right: my mind and my heart were the only places that I could recede into, and as such, I had no choice but to try and block out the most recent pains and struggles to make it work. It was a barren and angry place to live, but it was at least something.
I stood up out of the water and hastened over to the cloth Kit had given me to use as a towel, one of the only possessions that I owned.
It was small and thin and had undoubtedly seen better days, but I wouldn’t need its assistance much today anyway. It was hot and muggy outside, and my skin was nearly dry by the time I reached the base of our magnolia to dress.
I ran the small towel through my hair, a twinge of anger rolling through me at the excitement I felt. I shouldn’t want to see Tina. I shouldn’t care that she’s arriving. I didn’t want to feel… well, anything, least of all hope, but I couldn’t help myself. I just did.
The towel scraped roughly over the wounds on my shoulders and I winced. No, I needed that hope if I was going to make it through this…
I grimaced through the twinge of anger that those complex notions inspired as I picked up my skirt and oversized blouse. I had scrubbed and hung them before climbing into the water, and while they didn’t look it, they were clean.
Clean clothing was a luxury I was rarely able to afford myself, and I felt better knowing that I would at least look presentable for Tina. I rolled my eyes and angrily started to dress, wondering if I’d be late for her arrival and scolding myself for even considering the notion that she’d care to see me.
She probably hadn’t given me a second thought–
“There you are!”
I turned to see Tina’s smiling face before she stopped, an embarrassed blush flushing her pale cheeks. Her hair was hanging loosely down her back, the sides gathered at her temples and waving attractively across her brow. Not only did she look beautiful, but she had grown and she seemed… confident, sure of herself, and capable, all of the things that I lacked.
I turned away from her, wishing that the ground would open at my feet and swallow me up, feeling ashamed at how I must look in her presence, ashamed of who I was, and heard a small intake of breath to further punctuate my insecurities.
I hastily pulled my skirt up to my waist and fastened the old, frayed cord of rope tight to hold it up. Just as I got my shirt over my arms and dipped my head to lift it over, I felt a tender touch to my back that left a trail of gooseflesh and indignation in its wake.
I flinched. “My God…” Her voice was sweet and gentle at first, but quickly became angry as she continued. “When did this happen… who did this?”
I jerked away from her and covered myself before turning to face her. I had no pride left in me.
My voice was sardonic as I unthinkingly replied, “Who d’ya think?”
I stared into her eyes, hoping that she would finally see just how separate we were, and would always be. It was strange. I hated her because people like her had done this to me, and while I’d wished it on any one of the people in her home a thousand times a day, while I’d spent countless nights hoping and praying that they might one day know the intense pain of a thin reed across the flesh of their backs, I couldn’t bring myself to want that for her.
The thought of this struck me and I felt so lightheaded that I thought I might collapse. I’d have done anything to save her that kind of pain… the very pain that her family perpetuated.
Why couldn’t I just hate her? Why did everything have to be so complex and convoluted?
Why did she have to start crying and wrap her arms around my waist to hold me close?
Why did she have to make me think she cared?
I didn’t want her to care. I wanted to hate her, and I wanted her to hate me like everyone else did.
But she didn’t, and while I knew that, I couldn’t allow myself to realize it. There were too many things at stake. My heart and my mind were all that I had, and I couldn’t bare them to anyone.
As such, I couldn’t bring myself to hug her back, but as empty as I felt in that moment, it felt good to know that even if I couldn’t feel anything substantial, I wasn’t alone, at least not physically.
She stepped away and dried her eyes. She seemed defeated and angry, and again we had a commonality. I could understand those emotions, but I couldn’t understand why she felt them.
I tucked my shirt into my skirt and pulled my hair back out of my eyes, standing next to her in awkward silence. “I – I’m sorry. I was just so happy to see you. I’d been worried all year. I didn’t know you were bathing and I didn’t mean to…”
I put my hand up to stop her. I didn’t want to hear her apologies any more than I had wanted her to see me that way. I felt… exposed, and shameful.
If she only knew…
She took my hand and tried to continue but I couldn’t bear to hear her voice. I didn’t mean to be so harsh, but then, maybe I did.
I pulled my hand away and snapped, “I don’t want’sta talk about it.”
I regretted the words as they came out of my mouth and I realized my place. She could have had me hung for treating her that way, for speaking to her that way, but at that moment, I just didn’t care. I had seen the worst I was going to see in life, her father had made sure of that. At least it would be over.
She nodded in deference… to me… and took a seat under the tree, staring out at the dragonflies that were dancing over the gently flowing waters. I wasn’t sure what to do. I had been assigned to her, but I wanted to flee, now more than ever.
I looked across the creek to the edge of the overgrown forest beyond and considered just making a break for it. I knew better than to think that I’d get very far, what with blood hounds and an endless supply of brainwashed slaves at the enemy’s disposal, but I’d feel the rush of warm wind in my hair and the exhilaration of freedom for just a moment.
A moment could be enough, it would have to be.
I looked back down to Tina to see her pensively playing with the corner of the book she’d brought with her and sighed. She was here and she wasn’t going to leave again, at least not until she was to be wed.
Would I ever want to leave with her here?
I sat down next to her in a dazed state, my mind becoming an unbearable place that no longer offered shelter. I couldn’t help but look to the book in her hands with a sense of longing. I needed that escape, now more than ever. I had no idea what awaited in the pages, but I wanted to know, and I wanted her to tell me.
I wanted her… only her, to help me find release.
She noticed where I was looking and smiled coyly at me. “This is Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë.”
She held the book out to me. “She published it under a man’s name so that it would be better received, and well, I find the lead character and the author inspiring. It’s my favorite…”
I furrowed my brows at her as she offered me the book, and I took it cautiously before running a finger over the title on the cover reverently, trying to distinguish how she’d acquired that information.
Her low voice relaxed me further as she continued. “I could teach you…” I glanced over at her. “…you know, to read.”
My heart leapt in my chest. I’d have given anything to accept her offer and dive right in, but I couldn’t bring myself to allow it. That would mean swallowing my pride, and owing her something. And as much as she owned me, she didn’t have me, and I didn’t want to give myself to her.
I set the book roughly in her lap, not saying a word as I clenched my jaw in frustration. She made me want things… things that were beyond me, but it was too late. The want was there. If I hadn’t met her, I wouldn’t even know about them. This was her fault. It was foolish to stay here and let this continue.
I looked out to the forest, again considering how long I’d last, and again she reeled me back in.
“You still haven’t told me your name.”
I looked over at her in wondered exasperation. She changed the subject so often that I just couldn’t keep up with her. She smiled and I felt my heart lurch, making me swallow hard for no rational reason.
I met her eyes, and they offered so much warmth and comfort that it took everything in me not to crawl right into them. Her mind would be an amazing place to shelter, I had no doubt.
I also had no choice but to look away as I said, “I’s a slave; got no use for a name.”
She released a heavy breath and a pregnant calm settled over us as a warm breeze blew in and cooled our overheated skin. The leaves above us rustled and a few of the magnolia blossoms fluttered down around us.
I watched enthralled as she picked one up and started to pull at its pinkish-white petals absent-mindedly.
“I’ll make a deal with you.”
I groaned and she chuckled at me. “Just hear me out…”
Her face was imploring, her smile persuasive, and her eyes gleaming with mischief. I had no defenses and she knew it.
“I’ll teach you how to write your name, but in order for me to do that, you have to tell me what your name is. It’s an even trade. I get something I want, and I know that you want to learn how to read.”
I scoffed at her. “Don’t got no book to read even if I’s knew how.”
Her eyes brightened and I knew what she was going to say next. I also knew that I couldn’t let her say it. It would be far to enticing to walk away from something that fantastic and again, out of my reach.
I put up a hand to forstall her and let my resolve radiate out. For the first time, she didn’t say a word, and I was oddly put off by it.
Long minutes of awkward silence hung in the muggy air and I heard the huge exhale of breath escape her. I brushed the frizzy curls from my eyes and gazed hard at her until she finally glanced over at me.
“Y’know you could get me strung up for this, somthin’ good. I’s a slave. We ain’t s’posed to know how to read.”
Her own eyes hardened and I had no choice but to believe the conviction in her words as she said, “I swear to you that I would never do anything or say anything to anyone that could get you hurt.” I could tell that she hated her next words as much as I did. “Besides, by law you’re my slave, and I have the right to teach you what I want.”
I shook my head. Her grand ideals about women’s rights were far reaching enough. She just couldn’t seem to grasp that I wasn’t even considered a woman in her circles, in any circles. No, I wasn’t even human.
“You’s gonna’ be gettin’ married soon…”
My words died off and so did a piece of my soul, and I’d have sworn I saw anguished tears trying to escape her eyes. Saying those words and realizing what they meant hurt worse than I had anticipated, for both of us.
I had no idea what I was going to do when she left, when she was married, when she was someone else’s. My voice was low but I managed to finish.
“If yo’ daddy or new husband found out… well, you done seen my back.”
My back… her expression was so sad that somehow, I felt sorry for her. No, I’d never tell her how my back came to look like that. Some of those wounds were fresh, and to tell her might destroy her. What was happening to me? I must have been losing my mind. I glanced back at the tree line, the edge beyond was a freedom I’d either never know or know for too short a time, and I realized that if I was going to die trying to have anything for myself, reading could easily be one of those things.
Tina could be one of those things…
I met her eyes and sighed heavily before saying, “My name’s Bette…”
I’m paralyzed as I start the processing of drowning all over again, my thoughts raging and destroying my will to try, just as they’d done all those years – lifetimes – ago.
I knew what sex was. I had known about it from the time that I had been a child. Mama had explained it to me in detail; and I knew what was happening when Tina’s father had me bound and delivered to the stables one night for his pleasure. It was the most humiliating experience of my life, and I could do nothing but lie there under him, his gin soaked breath filling my nostrils as his sweaty body thrust into me.
He took what little shred of innocence that I had left just a month before Tina had returned, and her arrival was the only thing I had been clinging to. I’d have killed myself if she hadn’t come back when she did. He hadn’t just taken my innocence, he had beaten me, whipped me, and only in places that would normally be covered. Of all of the regrets I’ve had in my life, not telling her isn’t one of them. And to this very day, she doesn’t know.
Kit took care of me expertly, and I can only assume that she knew how because she really knew what I needed, though she never spoke about her own experience. She had outgrown her usefulness in that arena, and she was then left to champion the newcomers, something that I had become.
There was little sympathy in her care so much as resignation to the fact that this was life, our lives, and we should just accept it.
I had spent my healing time thinking of Tina. I, again, didn’t know if I should love her or hate her. Did she know what her father was capable of? And if she did, were all of her kind words, warm smiles, and noble ideals just fluff? Did she knowingly leave me there?
I know now that she knew he could and would be cruel, but not to the extent that he had. At the time though, I was destroying myself from the inside out with those thoughts.
But I needed her… and nothing else could penetrate how deeply engrained that need was.
Even if she had left me knowingly, like all things, I just swept it under a rug and avoided realizing it. How easily I shut it off and clung to the knowledge that this person that I continually and unsuccessfully tried to convince myself that I hated, was coming home. But she did; and this time, I accepted what she was offering me, albeit grudgingly.
“This is what’s called the alphabet.” I looked down at the small pencil and paper that Tina had brought with her this morning to see a long list of strange symbols scrawled along the edge.
I repeated the word to find that it even felt strange to say it. “Alpha – bet.”
I looked up at Tina and waited for some kind of direction only to find her smirking at me. “Right, this is the alpha – bet.”
She chuckled and I felt foolish, as if she was laughing at me, before she went off on one of her quirky bunny trails.
“I hadn’t thought about it until you broke the word in two like that, but it’s a little ironic…”
She chuckled again and I narrowed my eyes at her. What in damnation was she talking about?
She saw my face and hastened to explain. “Well, your name is Bette, and given the time I’ve spent with you, I’d confidently say that you’re decidedly alpha…”
I gazed into her face and frowned as she smiled at me expectantly. This went on for long moments before she waved her hand dismissively and said, “Don’t worry about it; it was a bad joke anyway.”
I continued to stare at her nonplussed, but she settled in next to me and got right down to business.
“Okay…” She pointed at the first symbol and I again stared at it. “…the alphabet contains these symbols that are called letters. There are twenty-six of them…”
I lowered my head and squeezed my eyes shut, feeling completely frustrated and entirely sure that I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t even count that high, and I had no idea how to tell her that.
She touched my forearm and stroked it soothingly, and I took a deep breath before meeting her kind eyes.
“It’s okay, Bette. I’ll teach that to you later. Right now, let’s just focus on these.”
She pointed to the letters again as she continued. “I’m going to tell you what each letter is called and then you can practice drawing it.”
Her smile reached her eyes as she further reassured me. “You can do this. You’re as smart as I am, Bette. Everyone starts by learning this first. I did, and even Charlotte Brontë did.”
I still felt discouraged and she stroked my arm again. Her touch was soft… and distracting. She dipped her head into my field of vision, the smooth texture of her skin pulling me a little closer as if I were tugged by a string, but the conviction in her eyes snapped me back.
“You can do this. You just have to want it bad enough…”
I considered her words, easily determining that I did. I wanted this more than I wanted my freedom. I nodded, still a little flustered at how mixed up she made me feel on the inside and studied the letter that she was pointing to.
“This is the letter, A.”
I repeated her. “A.”
She bumped my shoulder playfully and I felt flustered again. “Right. Now, try to draw one like mine on the paper next to it.”
Holding the pencil felt strange, and it only got worse when she took my hand in hers and began to gently contort my fingers around the thin instrument.
I had almost forgotten what we were doing by the time she pulled her hands back and I finally found my grip.
Then, something incredible happened: I set the dark tip of the stick to the paper and found that, not only could I replicate the letter with ease, but I found an immense amount of irrational pleasure in the smooth friction of pushing it against the paper.
I felt empowered, in control. It may have been small and inconsequential, but it was entirely up to me how it turned out.
I glanced at Tina from the corner of my eye to see her smiling at me with satisfaction. My heart lurched and for all of my ignorance and insecurities that were on display, I felt incredible. I looked down on the letters, the pencil, and the paper with a newfound respect, and even Tina looked different to me.
Hell, even the afternoon sun seemed brighter and less uncomfortably warm, and I was grateful.
I meant it when I said, “Thank you.”
She stroked my arm again and with a sense of greedy urgency I looked back to the paper and drew the second symbol with graceful ease before looking to Tina for its name.
She grinned and said, “B.”
I nodded and repeated what she said, and while my voice wasn’t nearly as beautiful, it was my own, and I was learning how to control it.
I curl in on myself as much as I can in my prison, the bittersweet emotions and salty water rolling in my stomach and causing me to heave. I can’t unfurl myself, the agony of it is incapacitating. So instead, I sink into my memories.
After the initial information was carefully learned, I spent the next several weeks soaking up any and all knowledge she could offer. With the time we spent together during the day, and my own secret studies in the alcove by candlelight, I was absorbing information at an alarming pace.
Tina was a gracious teacher, an immense friend, and an encouraging smuggler of pencils and paper. I hid them above one of the loose rafters in the ceiling, and I’d spend hours practicing, writing… me, Bette… a half-bred abomination… a slave…
Some nights, I’d do something that gave me more joy than I ever thought possible: I would draw. I never knew such a thing existed, but once I did, well, I may have enjoyed it more than reading. I had quite the collection of portraits by the time I was reading books to her under our tree. My tongue wasn’t nearly as eloquent, but I was getting there, and for the first time in my life, I felt alive.
I was reading from The Scarlet Letter, and I turned to ask Tina a question. “Adult-ery… adultery… T… um, I mean, mistress… what’s the definition of adultery?” I had been gazing at the strange word, completely absorbed in the book. I may have never looked over at her if she hadn’t failed to answer me.
I turned to see her tearing up a magnolia blossom in an almost savage way. She hummed disinterestedly and I checked the page number before closing the book and studying her for the source of her discomfort.
It was unbearably hot, so hot that I could see invisible waves anywhere the sun touched the earth, and while our tree afforded us a small measure of relief, there was just nothing to be done about the heavy moisture that hung in the air like a fog and shrunk our clothes against our slightly pruned skin.
But even with the heat, I could tell by the slump in Tina’s normally straight shoulders and the weary sigh that puffed past her full, slightly parted lips, that her discomfort was markedly other.
I had no idea how to help her, but I felt compelled to try. She had done so much for me. And while I owed her so much more than mere friendship, I found myself wanting to make it, whatever it was, better for her.
I sighed in heavy thought as I leaned back against the tree trunk and gazed out at the woods beyond the river shore. Maybe she just felt trapped too. I didn’t hear the content of her latest fight with her father, but I knew what it was ultimately about. She didn’t want to be Mrs. Deke Wentworth. She already was who she wanted to be, and anyone with any compunction to change one single thing about her was daft in the extreme.
She sighed and I found myself longing to reach out to her with my arms, but chose words instead.
“You gonna’ marry him?”
She scoffed indignantly, pausing a moment to allow the anger from her thoughts to respond with her hands and destroy the remnants of the blossom gripped there.
Her voice was despondent as she replied, “I don’t have a choice, do I? I’m just a woman…”
I smiled ruefully and reached over to brush the slightly sweaty waves of hair over her shoulder so that I could see her face better. I don’t know what moved me to do it, but I was confounded by my actions.
Tina turned her face to mine and the stark terror and pain that I saw in the hazel orbs tore my heart from my ribs, but it was her next words that sent a rush of anger through my disembodied heart like a railroad spike.
“If I don’t figure something out soon, I won’t have a choice but to marry him.”
I knew what it meant to feel hopeless and trapped by the involuntary predicament that is birth, and the only way I knew how to cope was to forget.
How could I help her forget?
She exhaled wearily as she swiped a hand across her sweat-sheened forehead and I considered the water and foliage and trees beyond yet again.
I glanced back over to Tina. It would mean opening myself up to her, letting her into my most privately guarded desires, and while I knew with stark conviction that I shouldn’t do it, I did it anyway. It seemed to be a common occurrence for me.
I stood and held my hand out to her and she looked up at me curiously. She’d need to trust me too, and she did. She took my hand and I helped her up before leading her to the shaded thatch of green grass by the water’s edge.
We each took a seat on the soft earthen blanket. She still seemed confused as she sat next to me, but a genuine smile lit her face as I lifted the end of my skirt and put my feet over the edge into the coolly rushing water. It took a minute for her to unlace her tall boots, and I grimaced as she peeled her under stockings off with a sigh of relief.
She put her feet in the water, and while this was much better on a physical level, I could tell that the emotions were just as thick on the breeze as the incessant moisture.
I looked out at the trees and released a heavy breath, knowing that I could die for this, but choosing to trust her anyway.
“If you’s could run away, right now, would’ya?”
She looked over at me with a raised eyebrow and nodded almost as if she couldn’t believe her own answer and I wanted to know more.
“Where would’ya go?”
She gazed out at my tree-line and her eyes took on a far-away look as she breathed out simply, “Home…”
I gazed at her like she was touched in the mind. Her home was precisely the place she needed to run from, and she wanted to go back?
She watched my face as I considered her incredulously and began to laugh. I loved the sound of it and worried that I may never hear it again.
She calmed down with a satisfied sigh as she gazed out at the trees and explained. “Home isn’t what people think it is, at least not by my estimation.”
She smiled again, almost sadly. “No, when you’ve been around, when you’ve travelled and learned and become who you’re supposed to be, who you want to be… well, one day you just won’t need to look any further. That place is home…”
I couldn’t help but grin at her and her fanciful notions. Home could be anywhere… I gazed out at the furthest distance my eyes could find with intense longing.
I’d never had a home, not like that. And again, like she always did, she made me want something that I was certain that I could never have.
Her voice was gentle as it stole me away from my thoughts. “What about you?”
The corner of my mouth curled up and I shook my head a little to clear the negativity away. We both needed this, to sit and wonder idly at what we’d never have, and in order to do that, reality had to be suspended, for me at least.
I kept my gaze forward and replied simply, “I’s wanna…” She scowled at me and I grinned. “I want… to go home, too.”
It’s hard to compartmentalize the disparity between the cleansing effect of that moment in time, one lazy summer day in July of 1860, with the choking torment of the water that is currently eroding my lungs.
We spent roughly five months beneath the shade of that tree building the foundation of a relationship that neither of us could have anticipated. I didn’t realize it as it was happening, but we were learning from each other.
Some of the lessons were emotional, others physical, and still others… sexual, but all of them were a dichotomy of kindness and cruelty, and I don’t just mean slavery.
I hadn’t known what it meant at the time, but war was coming, and it would abolish slavery. If I had known, things might not have been so desperate for me. But for Tina, war or not, her situation was becoming more and more dire.
In retrospect, it’s a good thing that I didn’t know that the war was one that would free me, because if I had, I might not have made the choice to stay with her.
Even choices that feel bad when they’re made can be the best ones of your life later. And these were the hardest, but ultimately the best, choices I could have made. They led me down some of the most terrible paths my life could have taken, but now I know what I didn’t then: I needed to take the hard road, because it would lead me to Tina.
“A day of grace is yet held out to us. Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian church has a heavy account to answer. Not by combining together, to protect injustice and cruelty, and making a common capital of sin, is this Union to be saved,—but by repentance, justice and mercy; for, not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks in the ocean, than that stronger law, by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God!”
It pained me to do it, but I shut the book with an eerie sense of finality, stroking the cover reverently. I had read it from cover to cover, aloud, to Tina.
For the first time in my life, I felt emboldened, capable, like maybe those things that I had wanted weren’t so far out of reach. And for the first time in my life, I knew that I wasn’t alone in my pain. I just wasn’t sure what to do with that information.
We were both quiet as I set the book next to her and leant back against our magnolia, the bark behind us and the ground at its base permanently worn in from our time together there.
My mind was lost in a dense fog of possibilities that inspired hope as I gazed out at the expanse of forest beyond the creek, knowing that I could do it now. I could escape if I was determined enough, and I was. I knew what to do, and it was all because of the woman sitting next to me.
I tilted my head to gaze upon her, wondering if she’d come with me. Both of us could break free, be free, and be together. I would take care of her – I owed her that much. I owed her everything, even my very life.
I smiled to myself. My life had never been my own, and there I was wishing that it were so that I could give it away… give it to her.
Tina shifted next to me and picked up the book. I looked over at her, my soul more at ease than I had ever known as I watched her turn to face me. I furrowed my brows at her. Something was off. Her head was down and the set of her shoulders seemed tense. Come to think of it, she’d been pensive and just… off, the entire day.
I wondered at her and felt a pang of deep fear strike through me as her gentle voice filled my ears. “I want you to have this…”
She held the book out to me but I wasn’t sure if I should take it. It felt like she was saying goodbye. I wouldn’t think it and I wouldn’t survive it. No, she had given me enough already, and I wasn’t going to let her do this.
She hesitated for a moment more before picking up my hand and placing the book in it.
“Come on, just take it. It’s a gift. You don’t owe me anything, not even friendship.”
Her words were biting, but I knew what she was dealing with. She was scared, and I couldn’t blame her. The warmth of her hand, the lilt of her voice, the kindness she had shown me… it all mingled together in the cooling air of the gloomy fall day, banishing darker thoughts and replacing them with those that had never occurred to me before – thoughts that weren’t supposed to correlate to another woman.
Of all the things that she had shown me and made me want, of all the possibilities that she inspired in my small and limited world, all I wanted was to kiss her in that moment.
It was ridiculous, and I felt scandalous, and I pushed the thought back quickly. I had been striving to learn to read and find the right words for months, to give myself a voice. How strange it was that when I had it, I didn’t know how to use it.
“You are my friend, Tina.”
She looked up at me almost startled and puzzled at the name.
The corner of her cupid’s bow mouth curled attractively and my wits scattered away with the dead magnolia petals in the breeze as she smiled and breathed out, “I like that.”
I smiled back, unashamed. I hadn’t meant to say it, it just slipped. But that’s just who she was. She had never been Chrissy and she had never really been “mistress.”
She was just… Tina, and she had earned my friendship.
I just hoped that she was aware of the fact that once she had it, she could never give it back.
She gazed up at me, her hazel eyes calling out to me for something, but I had no idea what it was or how to give it to her. All I knew was that I’d take any number of lashes to find it. It was then, when she saw my face, when she read me like the book in my hand, that she began to sob.
The notion of comfort was not something that I was familiar with. The act of comforting was something that I had even less experience with.
How was it, then, that I reached out to her without thought or analysis and took her in my arms, and the act felt as natural as the deep breath that followed and locked us together?
Who was comforting whom?
Something sweet washed over me, vying for attention with my worry and my comfort, and I closed my eyes as I took in another breath, this one with my nose buried in the waves of corn-silk hair that crowned her head.
I had never smelled anything like it. It was light, sweet, and understatedly rich, and the smell was only punctuated by the warmth and feel of her in my arms.
She sobbed harder and clung to me tighter, and I took a small amount of perverse pleasure in the bittersweet intimacy of this moment. It was wrong, but I just couldn’t help myself. But I also wasn’t going to stop myself. I was avoiding the problems that were staring me in the face because somewhere in the deepest part of me, I knew that I was going to lose her.
I held her for a long while, the sky darkening and the frogs in the creek growing louder in tribute to the changing of the seasons. I could have stayed there with her that way forever, but for all of my disillusionment, I wasn’t deluded. She was not mine; she never would be mine; and no matter where I ended up, I’d never be free… not without her. She was quiet and she didn’t move for a long time, and I was so thankful to her.
Her voice was low as she broke the calm and gave life to my fears.
“I am to be married this week’s end.”
It was quiet as that declaration hung in the air.
“I’ve put daddy off for as long as I can. I don’t have a choice…”
I don’t know what came over me. I didn’t allow myself time to consider my actions or my words as I pulled away from her, held her shoulders at arm’s length, and met her eyes.
“Run away with me…,” I implored desperately.
It was almost a demand, not a request, and to my shocked surprise, she seemed to consider it. Even more than that, she smiled at me and I felt my heart soar up high in my chest.
She cocked her head and raised an incredulous eyebrow at me, seeming to surprise herself as she hesitantly stuttered, “O-okay…”
There was a long, awkward pause before I confirmed that I wasn’t dreaming.
More tears fell from her eyes and she nodded before laughing almost hysterically. I couldn’t help but join her in it as the hope of not only being free filled me to bursting, but the hope that I wouldn’t have to endure it alone…