To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening...
A tall, slim tree...
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.
Dream Variations. Langston Hughes
I don’t know why I got such a sharp presentiment of danger from the woman – no, girl – leaning against the lamppost ahead of me, but I did and it was strong.
I’ve had warnings like that before. For example, I knew my grandmother was going to die months beforehand, even down to the exact time and date. And when I first laid eyes on my ex Carl, I’d had a warning which I ignored, something I bitterly regretted months later when I found out what a lying, cheating dog he was.
The strongest one by far happened a few years ago when I left my parents’ apartment on New York’s Upper East Side and heard a voice, or something I perceived as a voice, in my head saying gently but insistently: Not that way.
It stopped me cold in my tracks and I stood on the sidewalk taking in quick startled breaths as snow, light and ethereal, fell all around me. Realising that the doorman was looking at me quizzically, I began walking away, treading carefully through the snow, having to stop and turn around when I realised I was going the wrong way. That was when I heard a loud screech of tyres, what sounded like an explosion and the awful gut-wrenching sound of twisting metal.
Knowing somehow that I needed to see whatever had made that noise, I hurried down the street and around the corner where the sight of a green car wrapped around a lamppost met my horrified gaze. I don’t know if that car would have hit me if I hadn’t been spooked by the warning and gone the other way, but it scared me nonetheless and feeling like a criminal, I ran away from the awful sight to slip and stumble my way back home.
This one was a lot more intense than the one I’d had that day in the snow. It was like a vibration in my mind, getting stronger with every step I took toward the girl and had my whole body tingling in response to the perceived danger. She may as well have had a neon sign above her head flashing ‘Warning!! Danger!!’ and I couldn’t understand why because the woman – no, girl – leaning against the lamppost didn’t appear to be much older than sixteen and couldn’t possibly be of any threat to me.
It was dark, yes. But there were lampposts casting little oases of light along the street and I was only a couple of doors away from my aunt’s home. The street was deserted, yes. But I was in a nice middle-class area of Atlanta and there were plenty of lights on in the two- and three-storey townhouses on either side of us. And she was tiny, no more than five foot tall and very slight, making me feel like a giant at five foot eight. I couldn’t see her expression as her long braids had been parted down the middle and hung like a curtain over her face, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have seen anything sinister even if I could. She looked like a normal teenager in her spaghetti strap yellow summer dress and sandals.
Yet the scent of danger was strong, like thick smoke in the air and as I got closer, I knew somehow that she was waiting for someone to prey on. She may have appeared completely oblivious to my presence, but I knew, I just knew that her thoughts, along with her heightened senses, were attuned to my every movement as she waited with an air of heavy anticipation.
When I was a few feet away from her she looked up and smiled.
“Hey. You got a light?” she asked.
Her voice was soft and breezy. She was still smiling but there was something sly and furtive around her eyes and in the curve of her lips.
“Sorry, no,” I said, not breaking my stride.
“Sure you do,” she said, falling into place beside me.
It seemed she wasn’t going to take no for an answer, which wasn’t a surprise as there seemed to be something about me that gave most people the impression that I was a bit of a pushover. It must have been something about my small delicate face, soft sleepy-looking brown eyes and generous mouth that had them fooled. Perhaps that was why this girl was following me, smiling slyly as if she knew something I didn’t. Well, she was about to find out that Dallas Marshall was no pushover. So I faced her, ready to deliver a cutting remark, but then stopped and simply stared.
I was looking at her but I was no longer seeing a young girl. Instead I saw a much older woman of around forty-five. What I was seeing was bizarre and yet I knew that this was the same person. I was seeing her as she really was or as she would have been. This made absolutely no sense but it was exactly what my sixth sense was trying to show me.
I blinked and the impression was gone. All I saw now was the same young girl, but instead of that sly smile she now wore the same shocked expression that was no doubt on my face and I had the horrifying sense that she could read my thoughts and had seen what I saw a moment ago. I also knew that she was angry and frightened by the fact that I somehow knew she wasn’t what she appeared to be. Her eyes narrowed to thin slits and that is when I knew with one hundred per cent certainty that the warning had been right. She was dangerous. Very dangerous and she had no intention of letting me live to see another day.
“What...?” she began and then went rigid and her head slowly veered to the right to look down the dark street from which I had just come.
Her face contorted with fear and she started to tremble. I followed her gaze and thought I saw something in the dark for a moment, someone standing in the shadows watching us. But it must have been my imagination because there was no one there. And yet she was terrified. She still looked like a cat that had cornered something but now her expression betrayed the fact that the defenceless mouse she had been toying with earlier had turned into something much deadlier.
“Okay, cool. S-sorry I bothered you.”
She walked away and quickly crossed the road before I had time to respond, looking back over her shoulder at me and then down the street as if she expected something to pounce on her at any second. I turned in that direction but there was no one there.
I felt silly now for thinking she meant me harm. She was just a kid and she had only been asking for a light.
I was about to call her back and offer her the lighter I had in my purse but when I turned around, she was gone and I could only stand there wondering where she had disappeared to so quickly.
I continued on my way and tried to forget that girl but there was something about the whole thing that had left me deeply uneasy. Worse, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was lucky to be alive.
Later that night, I wandered into the garden at the back of my aunt’s small but homely two-storey town house with a glass of rum and Coke. It was past midnight but insomnia, my faithful friend, was once more keeping sleep at a distance, so I sat down on the back step hoping that the balmy night air would help draw it near.
As I sipped my drink, the scent of the gardenias drifted by on a light breeze and I felt loneliness clamp down on me like a tight fist. My grandmother had loved gardenias so we had planted them in her memory when my aunt bought this house two years ago. God, how I missed my grandmother. She had been a refined, stately woman with a beautiful rosewood complexion and had been more of a mother to me than my own distant, superficial mother would ever want to be. With Grandma gone, I felt desperately alone and found no respite from the emptiness that had been with me for as long as I could remember. It also meant that there was no one to act as a buffer between me and my parents and the arguments at home had gotten worse, reaching a new level of viciousness when I dropped out of college at the beginning of the year and spent the following months partying.
I hated my parents at times. The rest of the family were no better. They were a haughty, driven bunch who seemed to care only about increasing their millions. Aunt Rose, a humble, caring artist was the only one who was any different. She had chosen to make her own way in the world on her small income as a sculptor. But then again she didn’t want anything to do with the Marshall family millions as she thought the money was cursed. And I suppose she had good reason for thinking that.
For as long as I can remember, my relatives have joked about the Marshall family luck or our guardian angel. And from the stories I’ve heard over the years, it would seem that we have been very lucky. Even during slavery our family had been fortunate enough to escape some of the hardships that blacks suffered during that particular point in history, and in some cases, we’d even managed to prosper. There were also stories of ancestors who had ended up in some dire life-threatening situations only to somehow come away unscathed. The one told most often was the story of Jonas, a free black living in the eighteen hundreds whose life almost came to a premature end when he fell down a well. He spent most of the night in that well treading water and was sure he would die there. He eventually lost consciousness and awoke to find himself lying at his front door with no knowledge of how he had escaped the well.
Another such story was about Lina, Jonas’s mother. Her parents and siblings had been runaways living in the north who were captured by their Master and were about to be taken back to the south when a mysterious benefactor had bought their freedom. Despite their attempts, the family had never been able to find out who this man or woman was or how they had been able to persuade their Master, who had said many a time that he would rather die than let any of his slaves taste freedom, to sell them.
There were many stories like that right up to the present day and I thought they were all just that, stories. Tall tales that my relatives had invented to keep from thinking about the proverbial pink elephant in the room. And that pink elephant was why so many family members had met gruesome deaths under mysterious and often bizarre circumstances. Sometimes it was suicide but most of the time it was murder, the details of which were horrific enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. And the really odd thing was that in each and every circumstance, the assailants were never found. The police could expend large amounts of resources trying to find the murderers but they never ever found so much as a stray hair to help them in their investigations.
At least three such deaths occurred in every generation and that sure as hell wasn’t the norm for the average family.
Even so, I didn’t share my aunt’s view about the money being cursed. Every family had their demons, ours just happened to be a little bit stranger than others. To me, the family millions were a blessing and when I received my inheritance on my twenty-first birthday in a few months’ time, I would enjoy spending every last penny. And if the money did turn out to be cursed then I would make sure that when I met my end, it would be at a bar with one hand on a fine-looking man and a tequila in the other. Yep, there was nothing like endless nights of drinking and dancing to keep the yawning emptiness that was forever snapping at my heels in check.
Knowing that this would be one of those nights when sleep would fail to arrive, I thought about bringing my sketchpad down so I could spend the next few hours drawing. But in the end, the memories of my grandmother were so hard to bear that I left the balmy warmth of the night air and stepped inside, making my way to the basement where I knew my aunt kept some of my grandmother’s things.
Interestingly, the basement was the only room in the house that was kept in order and I made straight for a large wooden trunk, grandma’s trunk, and opened it. It contained books, photo albums and the quilt I had come in search of. As I scooped up the quilt, my fingers brushed against something at the bottom of the trunk, and as sometimes happened whenever I touched an object, I received a vibe or a psychic impression.
I jerked my hand back in alarm, as whenever something like that had happened in the past, the impression I received was usually vague and indistinctive like a hazy dream. Besides, alcohol had the effect of dulling these psychic vibes down to nothing, and yet what I got this time was so strong it took my breath away. Letting my curiosity get the better of me, I carefully reached under the quilt and picked up a battered leather-bound notebook.
And there it was again. It wasn’t so much an image but a strong emotional vibe of a woman in love. A fierce – if I can’t have him I’ll die – kind of love.
It was starting to fade, which was a relief because the force of the emotion was debilitating, and I felt a little bit disturbed by the intensity of it.
Had this belonged to Grandma? Was this how she had felt about my grandfather?
I would have liked to believe it was, but I had been around them long enough to know that it wasn’t. Theirs had been a slowly unfolding kind of love, like a warm languid sunlit afternoon filled with joy and laughter. This was something else altogether and I couldn’t imagine how someone could function with that degree of emotional attachment to another human being. How did it not drive her insane?
I was one hundred per cent sure that this journal wasn’t written by Grandma. But I felt a familiarity, or a connection with the unknown woman who had written it so there was no way I was going to put it back inside the trunk and just walk away. So, completely forgetting about the quilt, I closed the trunk and left the basement with the journal held to my chest.
As I mounted the steps to the spare bedroom, I could feel excitement building and by the time I finally settled into bed and opened the journal, my hands were shaking.
I didn’t need my sixth sense to tell me that this book was important. But what I didn’t know was that it would end up being the single most exciting discovery of my life and that everything was about to change.
My name is Luna and my tale begins on a dry summer evening in 1807.
I was walking quickly along a dusty country road, my shoes stirring up a small cloud of dust that turned the hem of my faded violet dress a muddy brown. The trail of dust I left in my wake soon settled. But the pressing need that had me make this two-hour journey in beaten shoes and a broken spirit, in the midst of a particularly merciless Mississippi summer, would not be settled as easily. Wiping the sweat from my brow and waving away the flying insects that droned lazily near my face, I wished for some respite from the relentless heat but found none. Although the sun hung low in the topaz blue sky, it felt as if I were walking through warm soup and it was likely to stay like this long after the sun went down.
I would have found some relief from the pitiless sun if I had chosen to walk through the woods that rose up on either side of the road like a green and brown wall. But green woody spaces such as those have been a deep source of fear for me since I was a child and I imagined that they would continue to be so long past what I guessed was my twenty-second or twenty-third year on this earth. So I clutched my lantern and small cloth bundle and walked on in the heat, listening to the birdcalls punctuate the otherwise still air.
I was lucky to be able to make this journey during the summer months as the previous two trips had been made in the dead of winter when night gathered up the day long before I could finish serving the family’s supper and slip away, leaving the other house slaves to do my share of work and conceal my absence. That small mercy meant that I didn’t have to walk alone in the dark, afraid to light my lamp in case the solitary glow brought unwanted attention my way, or have to dive into the trees every time the sound of a horse’s hooves disturbed the sweet melody of the crickets. It also meant that when I turned the corner and saw the woodland give way to cotton fields, marking the beginning of the Marshall plantation, there was still roughly two hours of daylight left, which meant I would be able to finish my business and be back before dark, hopefully before I was missed by my hawk-eyed mistress.
I stopped for a second to gaze at the rows of cotton up ahead. I have always thought that there was something heavenly about cotton fields, which looked like row upon row of fleecy white clouds caught up in brown nets. But I’m sure that the brown-skinned figures bent double between those rows would have disagreed. For them, there was nothing even remotely celestial about the cotton fields in which they had been toiling since sunrise. And they were likely to still be working in them when the sun set. Even from this distance I could see that most of them were wretchedly thin, their few flimsy items of clothing in tatters. And although I wasn’t close enough to see their faces, I was sure that they all wore uniform expressions of misery and fatigue.
I left that unhappy sight and ducked into the trees on my left, a necessary shortcut to the slave quarters. Although many slaves have used this shortcut on their way to see the African woman, I’m sure I’m the only one who ran all the way through the trees looking back over my shoulder even though I knew I wasn’t being followed. Only when I saw a flash of white through the trees did I slow down so my breathing could return to normal by the time I exited the screen of trees.
The slave quarters were little white cabins made of wood, which lay in two long rows some distance from the Master’s mansion. Only a few children were around at this hour, some of whom recognised me and stopped what they were doing to stare with a quiet reverence that made me uncomfortable. It was the same reverence I had received from the grownups the last two times I had come here under the cover of darkness and they had not only stopped what they were doing to watch me pass by, but nodded or offered some sort of greeting, which I returned before hurrying on by. I didn’t have to endure that kind of scrutiny today, but I still hurried down to the lone cabin at the back of the clearing, which was nestled under the shadow of the trees some distance away from the rest of the slave quarters.
Many slaves came to visit Mama Akosua for her medicines, and her skills were known far and wide. It was also rumoured that she dealt in more than just herbs and was actually a witch. Whether that was true or not, she was feared by many, even some of the whites, and few dared incur her wrath.
As I got nearer to the cabin, I saw that the door had been left open and a light was burning inside even though the sun had yet to go down. I approached gingerly. Already feeling the unease that always possessed me in the presence of the African woman, I walked up to the door, and stopped.
There was a short spell of silence and then her voice floated out to me.
“I have been expecting you.” The voice was low and dry like the sound of rustling leaves.
She probably said that every time someone came to her door, no doubt to help foster the belief that she was a powerful all-seeing, all-knowing witch. But the words still sent icy fingers trailing down my spine and I swallowed before taking her words as permission to enter.
The cabin, which consisted of only one room, was rich with the slightly bitter, but not unpleasant, smell of dried herbs. Most of the room was taken up by a long wooden table, which held bottles, bowls and an assortment of other instruments that were used to prepare her concoctions. Every wall in the room was lined with shelves holding bottles, jars and baskets of fresh and dried herbs. The only evidence that someone lived in the cabin was the pallet in the corner. This was the most furniture I had seen in any slave cabin, but as her Master profited from the sale of her herbs, it was in his interest to make sure she had everything she needed. There was another smaller table in the centre of the room and that is where she sat, peering at me by the light of an oil lamp.
She was a small lithe woman with delicate features like mine. Her head was cleanly shaven and she would have been considered beautiful were it not for the scars, rows of lines about an inch long, marking her forehead and cheeks. It was rumoured that those scars had been self-inflicted when she was first brought to America as a slave. Some people whispered that she had done it to honour the customs of her people, others, that the journey, the horrors of the middle passage, had driven her to scar her face in madness and despair. Although I would never dare to ask her, I didn’t believe she had been driven insane. The shrewd dark eyes that met mine belonged to a strong, sharp mind and I doubted that anything could, or ever would, be able to break it.
“Evening, Mama Akosua,” I said as I walked into the circle of light.
There was still daylight outside but it didn’t seem to reach the small window in Mama Akosua’s cabin and so it was always dark in here no matter what the time of day.
She gestured to the chair opposite hers, her eyes never leaving my face. I moved to the chair and when I sat down, she pushed a small cup toward me.
“Drink,” she said.
I picked up the cup and sipped the cool concoction, which tasted vaguely of mint leaves. Whatever it was, it seemed to have an immediate effect because I no longer felt as hot and the fatigue, which had been pulling on me like lead weights, seemed to evaporate.
Feeling slightly better, I was able to meet the force of her gaze fully. She seemed to have aged a great deal since I last saw her, nearly four years ago. The lines around her eyes and the ones running from her nose to the corners of her mouth had deepened and although she was not yet forty years old, she looked much older.
She studied me for a few moments and a soft sigh escaped her when she finally shifted her gaze away from my face.
“It is as I feared,” she said and stood up, wincing from the small movement.
“It is a small price to pay,” she mumbled, more to herself it seemed.
She reached into a basket on one of the shelves and pulled out a small black cloth bundle. Moving back to the table she placed the bundle before her and when she sat down again she closed her eyes for a few seconds. She was clearly in a lot of pain.
“I have prepared what you need,” she said pulling open the cloth bundle to reveal six paper sachets of herbs.
There was no need for her to ask me why I was here. I would only risk making this dangerous journey for one reason.
“Take this tonight.” She pointed to the larger of the bundles. “The rest is to be taken for five nights after, to stop the bleeding.”
She tied up the bundle and pushed it across the table toward me.
“Thank you, Mama Akosua.”
“Is it the son this time?”
I looked up and met her intimidating gaze, but on this occasion, I couldn’t hold it. She knew how much these things shamed me yet it didn’t stop her from asking about them. When I answered, my voice was barely a whisper.
“He... he be at my cabin near about three times a week now since Easter.”
“He is worse than his father, no?” It wasn’t a question; it was a statement.
I fought back tears as an image came to me from a few weeks before. I was standing in my tiny cabin and Master John was behind me gazing at our reflections in a small handheld mirror. I don’t know if making me look at myself was one of the many ways he had of tormenting me or if he really was oblivious to the fact that I despised my face. Either way, he would make me stare at my piercing dark brown eyes framed by long sooty eyelashes, deep mahogany skin, small delicate features and large sensuous lips. My springy, unruly hair was pulled away from my face, something he insisted on, as my hair was the one thing a man like him could find no beauty in. It was always the same ordeal with the mirror whenever he came to my cabin. And I honestly don’t know which face I hated more, that of the blond-haired, blue-eyed man I had come to despise even more than his old, decrepit father, or my own. The face he was enamoured with. He eventually pulled the mirror out of my hand, and placing it on the bed, held his arms out.
“Dance with me,” he had said in a soft, silky voice.
I remained where I was, my face a blank mask but rage no doubt burning behind my eyes. I may not have had a say over his nocturnal visits, but I would not play these little games or pretend that I wanted him in my wretched little cabin.
Fast, so fast that I didn’t have time to protect myself, he raised his hand and slapped me, sending me crashing to the floor. Pain bloomed along my temple and the left side of my face. I had also bitten my lip when I hit my head. His foot came down on my neck and I felt the dirt on the sole of his boot rubbing into my skin as he pressed down, cutting off my air supply. I struggled in vain to breathe and was close to losing consciousness when he slowly removed his foot and hauled me back onto my feet as if he were picking up a sack of potatoes. Then he held out his arms again, that smile, which never seemed to leave his face, swimming before my eyes as I struggled to clear my vision.
I was bristling with anger and yet fear won out because he could do anything he wanted to me and there was nothing I would be able to do to stop him. No one I could go to for protection. I had been born and bred purely for men like him, not only to do with as they pleased, but to increase their riches by breeding more slaves for them to own.
“Dance with me,” he said again.
Tasting blood in my mouth, I did as I was ordered to do.
“Massa Henry used to please hisself and leave,” I told Mama Akosua. “But Massa John... he like to play.”
I sensed rather than saw her rage.
I had led a relatively painless existence, for a slave, up until around the age of eight or nine when Master Henry had sent me on an errand to one of the neighbouring farms, an errand which would take me through the woods. I had run eagerly out of the house, hardly believing the good fortune that meant I could spend most of the morning walking through the woods instead of working. And it was the perfect day for a long walk, a beautiful spring day. The air was crisp and cool and the sun filtering through the fresh green leaves created patches of golden haze for me to walk through. I skipped along carefree and untouched at that time by the burdens of a female slave, deviating from my path only once to chase a squirrel, losing it moments later when it darted up a tree and out of sight.
It wasn’t long before I came to a stream winding its way through the trees directly in my path and saw Master Henry on his horse. I froze straight away but wasn’t immediately frightened as it seemed his face lit up with the kind of excitement you would expect to see on the face of a man on a long quest for buried treasure at the moment he finally finds it.
“Massa Henry!” I cried, dropping the parcel he had given me to deliver. I stooped to pick it up and when I straightened, he had already dismounted and was walking quickly toward me.
Master Henry, who was in his fifties, was tall and thin, had brown hair that was peppered with grey, a beak of a nose and thin, pink lips. I felt immediately uneasy about being on my own with him so far from the house, especially since it seemed as if he had gone to the trouble of saddling up his horse and riding out of the plantation with the sole intention of overtaking me.
But I tried to allay my fears by telling myself that he had never actually given me reason to fear him. The only unnerving thing about him was that he had a habit of turning up wherever I was working and would watch me intently for far too long as if he were looking to find fault with my work. He had never actually reprimanded me for anything, but something about his manner, his long wrinkled neck, bony elbows and knees, reminded me of a vulture waiting patiently. Mary, the cook, seemed uneasy about his apparent interest in my work. Perhaps she was worried that if he found fault with anything I did it would be blamed on her. So whenever Master Henry was at home she was always beside me, helping me with my chores even though I was more than capable of doing them on my own, a light sheen of anger marking her every action, the quick furtive glances she cast in Master Henry’s direction always fearful. Sometimes she would find an excuse to call me away if Master Henry made his way into whatever room I was in. I noticed that the other house slaves did the same.
I was too young at that time to know why his greedy eyes had become my shadow or why he showed such an overt interest in everything I did. I was also too young to understand the acid rage I saw in his young wife Mistress Emily’s eyes whenever she saw him watching me, or why she had tried on more than one occasion to send me to work in the fields. And the other slaves obviously thought it was kinder not to explain it to me.
So when I saw him waiting for me that day, I knew I was in a lot of trouble but I didn’t know what I had done.
When he got to me I saw a feverish light in his eyes as they moved over my tiny body. It was as if he couldn’t see or hear anything but me. Then his hand shot out abruptly and he pushed me to the ground. When he began to wrestle with his belt I tried to crawl away, knowing now that something awful was about to happen. But he was already on top of me, ripping my dress off whilst he moaned and reached for my chest to paw at what had not yet begun to form there. The pain had been horrific and my screams seemed to heighten his pleasure as he rode me as if I were the stallion he had obviously ridden furiously in order to catch me here alone in the woods. I lost consciousness at some point, and when I came to it was to the sight of him pulling up his trousers. He had mounted his horse and then turned to look at me with what I now know to be lust and it was clear that he was considering getting off his horse to repeat what he had done. Thankfully he gently urged his horse on through the trees to make his way back to the road.
Once he was gone I rolled onto my side and sobbed. I didn’t fully understand what had happened, but I knew it was something to be ashamed of and that I couldn’t go back to the house and face Mary. There was a faintly metallic smell mingling with that of the cold dry earth and I realised that it was the smell of my own blood, which was seeping through my legs. I tried to cover myself but my dress was torn in two so I wrapped my arms around what was left of the garment and lay there crying.
After a while, when the sun had reached the highest point in the sky, the sound of a twig snapping under the weight of a person’s foot told me I was no longer alone.
I sat up with a start to see one of the slaves, Jupiter, standing about three metres away from me. He was a tall, handsome African of around eighteen years old and had coal black skin and big beautiful brown eyes. I used to find excuses to go to the fields along with some of the other slave girls so that we could catch a glimpse of him toiling under the relentless heat of the Mississippi sun and we would run away giggling whenever he saw us watching him. Those days seemed like a lifetime away from where we were now, watching each other under the emerald leaves. And I noticed that the haunting quality that had been in his eyes since he had arrived at the plantation a few months ago had been replaced with a mixture of rage and despair.
He abruptly lowered his eyes and removed his shirt as he strode toward me. Fear shot through me. I screamed in terror and made a feeble attempt to try and scurry away, thinking that he meant to do what Master Henry had done. My reaction made him jump and he looked at me in bewilderment before taking in his own naked chest. Making the connection between his actions and my apparent fear, he shook his head in alarm and then threw the shirt on the ground before taking a few steps back.
Breathing harshly, I watched him point to his shirt, then to me, and he mimicked wrapping something around himself.
He hadn’t spoken a word since arriving at the plantation and all efforts to teach him English had failed. Master Henry had come to the conclusion that he was dumb, but some of the other slaves thought it was only an act.
I tried to rise, and when the pain between my legs reared up, I froze and remained on my knees crying until Jupiter slowly moved toward me. I eyed him warily through my tears as he picked up his shirt. When it became apparent to him that I was in too much pain to try and move away, he gently laid the shirt over my shoulders and pulled me to my feet, grimacing at my cry of pain. I let him button the large shirt around me, and when it was done, he took a few steps forward and gestured for me to follow.
I ground my teeth together and tried to walk without letting a scream escape my lips and he let me take a few steps like that before he abruptly closed the space between us and swiftly picked me up.
“Naw!” I screamed. “Naw!”
I tried to slap at his chest and face as he began to run through the trees with me in his arms.
“Please. Please. We hurry,” he panted in a gruff, heavily accented voice as he tried to dodge my tiny hands. “Your pain. Please.”
I stopped my feeble attempts, surprised to hear that the other slaves had been right. He could speak. He carried me back to the plantation, his coal black skin glistening with my blood by the time we got there to the quiet anger and dismay of the other slaves.
What I will never forget about that day was Mistress Emily walking into Mary’s quarters where I lay sobbing whilst a distraught Mary tried to clean me and tend to the damage that had been done. A small, pale redhead, she stood over me, her eyes gleaming with unshed tears and her anger so pure and intense that I was sure she would find a way to make Master Henry pay for what he had done. But I saw my error with the next words she spoke.
“I want you back in the kitchen now!” she said to Mary.
“But... but Mistress...” Mary had stuttered but she was soon silenced.
“I said I want you back in the kitchen, and if dinner is even one minute late, I’ll whip you myself.”
Mary had gotten to her feet slowly, her hands balled into fists at her side and her hazel brown eyes a cauldron of barely concealed hatred. For a moment, unease passed over Mistress Emily’s face and it seemed like an unbearably long moment before Mary spoke again.
“Y... yes, Miss Emily,” she mumbled.
Shaking with anger, she quickly wiped away her tears and glancing helplessly at me, bowed her head and left the cabin.
Left alone with Mistress Emily, I lay as still as I could, trying to ignore the pain down below as I choked back my tears. The look she gave me in those few seconds before she left the cabin was one of such hatred that I was chilled to the bone. I will never forget it.
Jupiter never spoke to me or even looked me in the eye again after that day. Whenever I saw him he would drop his gaze and nod politely but he never stayed in my presence for long. Of all the things I had to endure during the years that followed, having Jupiter never look me in the eye was no doubt the worst. I never forgot his kindness that day, but I knew that seeing me soiled had changed his view of me in a fundamental way, and even though it was painful for me to accept, I understood it and so kept my distance from him. He was sold a few years later and although I missed his presence on the plantation, it was a relief not to have him avert his gaze or find a reason to get away from me whenever our paths crossed.
The wounds I sustained that day healed, but the mental scars never left me alone.
Neither did Master Henry.
He found every opportunity to accost me again and again. Three years passed and his weekly visits only stopped when my breasts and stomach began to grow. I hadn’t known why I was sometimes sick in the morning and why my appetite had increased, until Mary, who was the closest thing that I had to a mother, explained that I would soon have a child of my own.
The child came on a devilishly cold winter night under the fury of a raging storm, the worst that anyone could remember ever being unleashed on Mississippi. I screamed out in pain as a contraction rippled through my stomach with almost as much force as the wind and rain lashing against my tiny cabin. It was a Sunday so my mind was still crowded with the sermon I had heard at church during the day, the story of Noah and the Great Flood taking on greater meaning in my panic-stricken mind. It felt like the end of days for me, and as hour after hour passed, the pain and the storm began to take on biblical proportions until I was sure that morning would never come.
Mary was equally anxious. She had come to my cabin thinking that this was another false labour, the third one that week. But it soon became clear, not only that this was the real thing, but that there was something seriously wrong. She was about to leave to go and get help when Mama Akosua, knowing somehow that she was needed, entered the cabin. Mama Akosua had been sold when I was about three, so I only recognised her because of the scars on her face. I had been screaming at the time as another contraction ripped through me and yet in the midst of the pain, the panic and sense of doom left me the moment I laid eyes on her. When she came closer, I stifled another cry when I saw the look of black thunder on her face.
“I will kill him,” she had spat and I guessed that she was talking about Master Henry. “I will cut out his heart with my bare hands. I will kill him.”
Her face hadn’t lost that rage even as she set to work, ordering Mary to boil water or get more rags. It was an extremely difficult birth, complicated by the fact that my womb had only dilated a few centimetres. If Mama Akosua hadn’t been there with her herbal medicines to help me fully dilate, both I and the child she delivered a few hours later would be dead.
When I first heard the baby scream, a sound not unlike the squeal of a pig being slaughtered, I immediately turned my head away, repulsed by this thing that would always remind me of that day in the woods and the years of torment that followed.
For a few moments there was only the sound of the rain lashing the cabin and the awful sound of the baby’s screams. Then at last Mary spoke, the relief and excitement in her voice unable to completely mask the clenching sorrow I could hear flitting around her words.
“You a mama now, Luna. You got you a baby girl.” Her voice wavered on the word “girl”.
“Take it away,” I heard myself say.
“Hush now, Luna. You...” Mary began but I didn’t let her finish.
“Take it away! I don’t care what you does with it. Just take it away!”
I secretly hoped that she would kill that thing and for a moment I thought Mama Akosua had heard my thoughts because she was glaring at me. As frightened as I was by her expression, I kept my eyes on her and pleaded silently with her to take the baby away. The cold fury left her after a few moments and I knew then that she would do as I asked.
I never saw the child again and I don’t know what became of it. It was often on the tip of my tongue to ask Mama Akosua and I’m sure she expected to hear the question every time I saw her. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask because I still hated that thing and I didn’t want to know whether it lived or had died.
I was whipped when they discovered the baby was gone, the first time Master Henry ever took a whip to me. I accepted each stroke of the lash with dead eyes and barely a murmur, feeling far removed from the shocking pain and the warm rivers of blood running from the open wounds on my back and down my legs to lie in a glistening red pool on the ground. The weeks that followed were a pain-tinged blur in which I repeatedly begged death to wrap its tender arms around me. During those weeks I walked a tightrope between life and death, but two faces kept drawing me back toward the barb-tipped snare of life: Mary’s during the day, and Mama Akosua’s at night. She was there every night forcing me to drink some foul-tasting mixture or rubbing something into the open wounds on my back. I would often wake from a restless sleep to hear her singing to me softly in her native tongue. I didn’t understand the words but there was so much sorrow in her voice that it was hard for me turn my back on life and slip into the arms of death. The anger I had seen the night I gave birth was slowly smoothed down by exhaustion but it was still there as, night after night, she made the long walk from the Marshall plantation to nurse me back to health. I also recall the frequent but fleeting spectre of Master Henry’s tall, stooping figure as he stood in the doorway of my cabin blotting out the sunlight. If it had been any other slave, they would have paid with their lives. But Master Henry wanted me too much to ever consider killing me and he fretted that he had perhaps been too hasty in taking the whip to me so soon after I had given birth. But I recovered and nothing was the same after that.
I told everyone that I couldn’t remember what had happened during the birth. I told them that I went to sleep alone and the next thing I remembered was waking up in the morning to the sight of blood everywhere and the knowledge that I had somehow delivered the baby during the night but had no idea what had happened to it.
Nobody believed my story, especially since I kept referring to the child as “it” and didn’t bother to hide my hatred and revulsion every time she was mentioned. From that moment on, the other slaves began to keep their distance from me, probably believing that I had killed the child with my bare hands. I can’t say that I cared either way what they believed as I knew that if I hadn’t been given another option, that is exactly what I would have done rather than let Master Henry have her.
Only Mary knew the truth and she couldn’t tell anyone because if Master Henry ever found out that she was involved in any way, he wouldn’t have hesitated to kill her. So she kept quiet, even though I saw how painful it was for her to hear what was said about me and not be able to defend me with the truth. She also refused to let me push her away. No matter what I said or did, she kept finding ways past the wall I erected until I eventually stopped trying to shut her out. And I believe that even if she hadn’t known what had really happened that night, she would never have forsaken me, because Mary was loyal and the closest thing that I had to a mother.
The visits from Master Henry continued for years until he suffered a stroke. Then they became less frequent until another stroke put an end to them altogether. I was left alone for a year until Master John, Master Henry’s son from a previous marriage, came to take over the daily running of the plantation. That’s when the nightmare began all over again.