I was shrewd like mauma. Even at ten I knew this story about people flying was pure malarkey. We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren't going anywhere. It was later I saw what she meant. We could fly all right, but it wasn't any magic to it.
Don't let her fall anymore. That's the prayer I said. Missus told us God listened to everybody, even a slave got a piece of God's ear. I carried a picture of God in my head, a white man, bearing a stick like missus or going round dodging slaves the way master Grimké did, acting like he'd sired a world where they don’t exist. I couldn’t see him lifting a finger to help.
People say love gets fouled by a difference big as ours. I didn’t know for sure whether Miss Sarah’s feelings came from love or guilt. I didn’t know whether mine came from love or a need to be safe. She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her. It never was a simple thing. That day, our hearts were Pure as they ever would get.
…I remembered the oath I’d made to help Hetty become free, a promise impossible to fulfill and one that continued to cause me no end of guilt, but it suddenly rang clear in me for the first time: Charlotte said I should help Hetty get free any way I could. Turning, I watched her carry the lantern to my dressing table, light swilling about her feet. When she set it down, I said, “Hetty, shall I teach you to read?”
Every girl comes into the world with varying degrees of ambition," she said, "even if it’s only the hope of not belonging body and soul to her husband. I was a girl once, believe it or not."
She seemed a stranger, a woman without all the wounds and armature the years bring... "The truth," she said, "is that every girl must have ambition knocked out of her for her own good. You are unusual only in your determination to fight what is inevitable. You resisted and so it came to this, to being broken like a horse."
Night after night, I endured these grand affairs alone, revolted by what objets d’art we were and contemptuous of how hollow society had turned out to be, and yet inexplicably, I was filled with a yearning to be one of them.
The slaves moved among us... without being seen, and I thought how odd it was that no one ever spoke of them, how the word slavery was not suitable in polite company, but referred to as the peculiar institution.
Goods and chattel… We were like the gold leaf mirror and the horse saddle. Not full-fledge people. I didn’t believe this, never had believed it a day of my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough, some sad, beat-down part of you starts to wonder. All that pride about what we were worth left me then. For the first time, I felt the hurt and shame of just being who I was.
… When mauma saw my raw eyes, she said, “Ain’t nobody can write down in a book what you worth."
She'd immersed herself in forbidden privileges, yes, but mostly in the belief she was worthy of those privileges. What she'd done was not a revolt, it was a baptism.
I saw then what I hadn’t seen before, that I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I'd lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I'd grown comfortable with the particulars of evil.
With the reverend praying a long, earnest prayer for our souls, I took my leap. I vowed I would not return to society. I would not marry, I would never marry. Let them say what they would, I would give myself to God.
There were ten good-size squares. I spread them out cross the frame. The colors she'd used outdid God and the rainbow. Reds, purples, oranges, pinks, yellows, blacks, and browns. They hit my ears more than my eyes. They sounded like she was laughing and crying in the same breath. It was the finest work ever to come from mauma’s hands.
"Forgive you for what, Sarah? For following your conscience? Do you think I don’t abhor slavery as you do? Do you think I don’t know it was greed that kept me from following my conscience as you have? The plantation, the house, our entire way of life depended on the slaves." His face contorted and he clutched at his side a moment before going on. "Or should I forgive you for wanting to give natural expression to your intellect? You were smarter than even Thomas or John, but you’re female, another cruelty I was helpless to change."
The axe didn’t fall on me. Didn't my Lord deliver Handful? The axe didn’t fall on Goodis either, and I felt surprise over the relief this caused me. But there was no God in any of it. Nothing but the four of them standing there, and Mariah, still on her knees. I couldn't bear to look at Tomfry with the hat squashed under his arm. Prince and Eli, studying the ground. Binah, holding her paper fan, staring at Phoebe. A daughter she'd never see again.
How does one know the voice is God's? I believed the voice bidding me to go north belonged to him, though perhaps what I really heard that day was my own impulse to freedom. Perhaps it was my own voice. Does it matter?
"The Lord has spoken to me," he cried out. "He said, set my people free. When your name is written in the Book, you’re one of us and you’re one of God’s, and we'll take our freedom when God says, Let not your heart be troubled. Neither let it be afraid. You believe in God, believe also in me…” …My name wasn’t in the book, just the men’s, but I would’ve put it in there if I could. I would’ve written it in blood.
I drew myself up, glaring at their angry faces. “…What would you have the slaves do?” I cried. “… If we don’t free them, they will free themselves by whatever means.”
The edict from the judges said we couldn't cry, or say his name, or do anything to mark him, but I took a little piece of red thread from my neck pouch and tied it round one of the twigs on a low, dipping branch to mark the spot. Then I cried my tears and said his name.
Mauma's back… She has scars and a full head of white hair and looks old as Methusal, but she's the same inside. I nurse her day and night. She brought my sister with her named Sky. I know that's some name. It comes from mauma and her longings. She always said one day we'd fly like blackbirds.
"Life is arranged against us, Sarah. And it’s brutally worse for Handful and her mother and sister. We're all yearning for a wedge of sky, aren't we? I suspect God plants these yearnings in us so we'll at least try and change the course of things. We must try, that’s all."
When autumn came, Lucretia and I attended the women’s meeting at Arch Street where we found ourselves standing in a crowded vestibule beside Jane Bettleman, who glared pointedly at the fleur de lis button I'd sewed at the throat of my gray dress. Granted, the button was ornate and expensive, and it was large, the size of a brooch. I'd freshly polished the silver, so there in the bright-lit atrium, it was shining like a small sun.
“Course, you’re tired. You worked hard your whole life. That’s all you did was work.”
“Don’t you remember me for that. Don’t you remember I’m a slave and work hard. When you think of me, you say, she never did belong to those people. She never belong to nobody but herself.”
She was braver than I, she always had been. I cared too much for the opinion of others, she cared not a whit. I was cautious, she was brash. I was a thinker, she was a doer. I kindled fires, she spread them. And right then and ever after, I saw how cunning the Fates had been. Nina was one wing, I was the other.
We'd set down every argument the South made for slavery and refuted them all. I didn’t stutter on the page. It was an ecstasy to write without hesitation, to write everything hidden inside of me, to write with the sort of audacity I wouldn’t have found in person.
"How can you ask us to go back to our parlors?" I said, rising to my feet. "To turn our backs on ourselves and on our own sex? We don't wish the movement to split…but we can do little for the slave as long as we’re under the feet of men. Do what you have to do, censure us, withdraw your support, we 'll press on anyway. Now, sirs, kindly take your feet off our necks."
Small red wafers splotched along Mary's neck. "God has ordained that we take care of them," she said, flustered now, spluttering.
I took a step toward her, my outrage breaking open. "You speak as if God was white and Southern! As if we somehow owned his image. You speak like a fool. The Negro is not some other kind of creature than we are. Whiteness is not sacred, Mary! It can’t go on defining everything."
I watched her fold her few belongings on top of the quilt and thought, This ain't the same Sarah who left here. She had a firm look in her eye and her voice didn’t dither and hesitate like it used to. She'd been boiled down to a good, strong broth.
Her hair was loose, dangling along the sides of her neck like silk vines, like the red threads I used to tie round the spirit tree, and I saw it then, the strange thing between us. Not love, is it? What is it? It was always there, a roundness in my chest, a pin cushion. It pricked and fastened.
Sarah put her hand on my arm and left it there while the city heaved away. It was the last square on the quilt… I thought of mauma then, how her bones would always be here. People say don’t look back, the past is past, but I would always look back… When we left the mouth of the harbor, the wind swelled and the veils round us flapped, and I heard the blackbird wings. We rode onto the shining water onto the far distance.