One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read? …Other signs need more time to understand. Often there are too many signs, or a bright omen clouds up too fast. I sort them and try to recall, yet I know I am missing much, like not reading the garden snake crawling up the door saddle to die.
A woman comes to me and says stand up. I do and she takes my cloak from my shoulders. Then my wooden shoes. She walks away. Reverend Father turns a pale red color when he returns and learns what happens…Finally he takes rags, strips of sailcloth lying about and wraps my feet. Now I am knowing that unlike with Senhor, priests are unlove here. A sailor spits into the sea when Reverend Father asks him for help. Reverend Father is the only kind man I ever see.
By eliminating manumission, gatherings, travel and bearing arms for black people only; by granting license to any white to kill any black for any reason; by compensating owners for a slave’s maiming or death, they separated and protected all whites from all others forever.
Disaster had struck…D’Ortega’s ship had been anchored a nautical mile from shore for a month waiting for a vessel, due any day, to replenish what he had lost. A third of his cargo had died of ship fever. Fined five thousand pounds of tobacco…for throwing their bodies too close to the bay; forced to scoop up the corpses…they used pikes and nets…a purchase which itself cost two pounds, six. He’d had to pile them in two drays (six shillings), cart them out to low land where saltweed and alligators would finish the work.
They both spoke of the gravity, the unique responsibility, this untamed world offered them; its unbreakable connection to God’s work and the difficulties they endured on His behalf. Caring for ill or recalcitrant labor was enough, they said, for canonization.
They are certain their years of debt are over but the master says no. He sends them away, north, to another place, a tannery, for more years. I don’t understand why they are sad. Everyone has to work. I ask are you leaving someone dear behind?...Daft, a man says. A woman across from me says, young.
Afraid of once more losing shelter, terrified of being alone in the world without family, Lina acknowledged her status as heathen and let herself be purified by these worthies. She learned that bathing naked in the river was a sin; that plucking cherries from a tree burdened with them was theft…That God hated idleness most of all, so staring off into space to weep for a mother or a playmate was to court damnation.
They would forever fence land, ship whole trees to faraway countries, take any woman for quick pleasure, ruin soil, befoul sacred places and worship a dull, unimaginative god…Cut loose from the earth’s soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable…Lina was not so sure. Based on the way Sir and Mistress tried to run their farm, she knew there were exceptions to the sachem’s revised prophecy.
The traveler laughs at the beauty saying, “This is perfect. This is mine.” And the word swells, booming like thunder into the valleys, over acres of primrose and mallow…Mine. Mine. Mine. The shells of the eagle’s eggs quiver and one even cracks…Spotting the traveler, [the eagle] swoops down to claw away his laugh…the traveler…raises his stick and strikes her…screaming she falls and falls.
…”Where is she now?”
“And the eggs…do they live?”
I don’t know the feeling of or what it means, free and not free. But I have a memory…I walk sometimes to search you… I hear something behind me and turn to see a stag… Standing there…I wonder what else the world may show me. It is as though I am loose to do what I choose, the stag, the wall of flowers. I am a little scare of this looseness. Is that how free feels? I don’t like it. I don’t want to be free of you because I am live only with you.
Sir steps out. Mistress stands up and rushes to him. Her naked skin is aslide with wintergreen. Lina and I looked at each other. What is she fearing, I ask. Nothing, says Lina. Why then does she run to Sir? Because she can, Lina answers. We never shape the world she says. The world shapes us.
Wretched as was the space they crouched in, it was nevertheless blank where a past did not haunt nor a future beckon. Women of and for men, in those few moments they were neither…For them, unable to see the sky, time became simply the running sea, unmarked, eternal and of no matter.
Wife beating was common, she knew, but the restrictions— not after nine at night, with cause and not anger— were for wives and only wives.
They frown at the candle burn on my palm, the one you kissed to cool. They look under my arms, between my legs. They circle me, lean down to inspect my feet. Naked under their examination I watch for what is in their eyes. No hate is there or scare or disgust but they are looking at me my body across distances without recognition. Swine look at me with more connection.
Are you a demon I ask her. Her wayward eye is steady. She smiles. Yes, she says. Oh, yes.
The blacksmith and Florens were rocking and, unlike female farm animals in heat, she was not standing quietly under the weight and thrust of the male. What Sorrow saw yonder in the grass…was not the silent submission…that Sorrow knew…It was a dancing…It all ended when the blacksmith grabbed Florens’ hair, yanked her head back to put his mouth on hers…It amazed her to see that. In all of the goings she knew, no one had ever kissed her mouth. Ever.
Although all her life she had been saved by men— Captain, the sawyers’ sons, Sir and now Will and Scully— she was convinced that this time she had done something, something important, by herself.
Right away I take fright when I see my face is not there. Where my face should be is nothing…I put my mouth close enough to drink or kiss but I am not even a shadow there. Where is it hiding? Why is it? Soon Daughter Jane is kneeling next to me…Oh, Precious, don’t fret, she is saying, you will find it. Where I ask, where is my face…When I wake a minha mãe is standing by your cot and this time her baby boy is Malaik. He is holding her hand.
I want you to go…because you are a slave…
What is your meaning? I am a slave because Sir trades for me.
No. You have become one.
Your head is empty and your body is wild.
I am adoring you.
And a slave to that too.
You alone own me.
Own yourself, woman, and leave us be. You could have killed this child…You are nothing but wilderness. No constraint. No mind.
You shout the word—mind, mind, mind—over and over and then you laugh, saying as I live and breathe, a slave by choice.
Thus her change from “have me always” to “don’t touch me ever” seemed to him as predictable as it was marked.
They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they had become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought or escaped, their futures were separate and anyone’s guess.
You say you see slaves freer than free men. One is a lion in the skin of an ass. The other is an ass in the skin of a lion. That it is the withering inside that enslaves and opens the door for what is wild. I know my withering is born in the Widow’s closet…I cannot stop…wanting to tear you open the way you tear me. Still, there is another thing. A lion who thinks his mane is all. A she-lion who does not. I learn this from Daughter Jane…She risks. Risks all to save the slave you throw out.
I will keep one sadness. That all this time I cannot know what my mother is telling me. Nor can she know what I am wanting to tell her. Mãe, you can have pleasure now because the soles of my feet are hard as cypress.
To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, the festering is ever below.
It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human. I stayed on my knees. In the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you: to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.