Authors: Sue Monk Kidd
First time I saw it, my feet hopped in place and I lifted my hand over my head and danced. That’s when I got true religion. I didn’t know to call it religion back then, didn’t know Amen from what-when, I just knew something came into me that made me feel the water belonged to me. I would say, that’s my water out there.
I saw it turn every color. It was green one day, then brown, next day yellow as cider. Purple, black, blue. It stayed restless, never ceasing. Boats coming and going on top, fishes underneath.
I would sing these little verses to it:
Cross the water, cross the sea
Let them fishes carry me
If that water take too long
Carry me on, Carry me on
After a month or two, I was doing more things right in the house, but even Miss Sarah didn’t know some nights I left my post by her door and watched the water all night long, the way it broke silver from the moon. The stars shining big as platters. I could see clean to Sullivan’s Island. I pined for mauma when it was dark. I missed our bed. I missed the quilt frame guarding over us. I pictured mauma sewing quilts by herself. I would think about the gunny sack stuffed with feathers, the red pouch with our pins and needles, my pure brass thimble. Nights like that, I hightailed it back to the stable room.
Every time mauma woke and found me in bed with her, she had a fit, saying all the trouble there would be if I got caught, how I already lived too far out on missus’ bad side.
“Ain’t nothin’ good gon come from you wandering off like this,” she said. “You got to stay put on your quilt. You do that for me, you hear me?”
And I’d do it for her. Least for a few days. I’d lay on the floor in the hall, trying to stay warm in the draft, twisting round in search of the softest floorboard. I could make do with that misery and take my solace from the water.
n a bleary morning in March, four months after the calamity of my eleventh birthday, I woke to find Hetty missing, her pallet on the floor outside my room crumpled with the outline of her small body. By now, she would’ve been filling my basin with water and telling me some story or other. It surprised me that I felt her absence personally. I missed her as I would a fond companion, but I fretted for her, too. Mother had already taken her cane to Hetty once.
Finding no trace of her in the house, I stood on the top step by the back door, scanning the work yard. A thin haze had drifted in from the harbor, and overhead the sun glinted through it with the dull gold of a pocket watch. Snow was in the door of the carriage house, repairing one of the breeching straps. Aunt-Sister straddled a stool by the vegetable garden, scaling fish. Not wishing to rouse her suspicions, I ambled to the porch of the kitchen house where Tomfry was handing out supplies. Soap to Eli for washing the marble steps, two Osnaburg towels to Phoebe for cleaning crystal, a coal scoop to Sabe for re-supplying the scuttles.
As I waited for him to finish, I let my eyes drift to the oak in the back left corner. Its branches were adorned with tight buds, and though the tree bore little resemblance to its summer visage, the memory of that long-ago day returned: sitting straddle-legged on the ground, the hot stillness, the green-skinned shade, arranging my words with marbles,
I looked away to the opposite side of the yard, and it was there I saw Hetty’s mother, Charlotte, walking beside the woodpile, bending now and then to pick up something from the ground.
Arriving behind her unseen, I noticed the tidbits she scavenged were small, downy feathers. “… … Charlotte—”
She jumped and the feather between her fingers fluttered off on the sea wind. It flitted to the top of the high brick wall that enclosed the yard, snagging in the creeping fig.
“Miss Sarah!” she said. “You scared the jimminies out of me.” Her laugh was high-pitched and fragile with nerves. Her eyes darted toward the stable.
“… … I didn’t mean to startle you … I only wondered, do you know where—”
She cut me off, and pointed into the woodpile. “Look way down ’n there.”
Peering into a berth between two pieces of wood, I came face to face with a pointy-eared brown creature covered with fuzz. Only slightly bigger than a hen’s chick, it was an owl of some sort. I drew back as its yellow eyes blinked and bore into me.
Charlotte laughed again, this time more naturally. “It ain’t gon bite.”
“… … It’s a baby.”
“I came on it a few nights back. Poor thing on the ground, crying.”
“… … Was it … hurt?”
“Naw, just left behind is all. Its mauma’s a barn owl. Took up in a crow’s nest in the shed, but she left. I’m ’fraid something got her. I been feeding the baby scraps.”
My only liaisons with Charlotte had been dress fittings, but I’d always detected a keenness in her. Of all the slaves Father owned, she struck me as the most intelligent, and perhaps the most dangerous, which would turn out to be true enough.
“… … I’ll be kind to Hetty,” I said abruptly. The words—remorseful and lordly—came out as if some pustule of guilt had disgorged.
Her eyes flashed open, then narrowed into small burrs. They were honey colored, the same as Hetty’s.
“… … I never meant to own her … I tried to free her, but … I wasn’t allowed.” I couldn’t seem to stop myself.
Charlotte slid her hand into her apron pocket, and silence welled unbearably. She’d seen my guilt and she used it with cunning. “That’s awright,” she said. “Cause I know you gon make that up to her one these days.”
The letter M clamped on to my tongue with its little jaws. “… … … M-m-make it up?”
“I mean, I know you gon hep her any way you can to get free.”
“… … Yes, I’ll try,” I said.
“What I need is you swearing to it.”
I nodded, hardly understanding that I’d been deftly guided into a covenant.
“You keep your word,” she said. “I know you will.”
Remembering why I’d approached her in the first place, I said, “… I’ve been unable to find—”
“Handful gon be at your door ’fore you know it.”
Walking back to the house, I felt the noose of that strange and intimate exchange pull into a knot.
Hetty appeared in my room ten minutes later, her eyes dominating her small face, fierce as the little owl’s. Seated at my desk, I’d only just opened a book I’d borrowed from Father’s library,
The Adventures of Telemachus.
Telemachus, the son of Penelope and Odysseus, was setting out to Troy to find his father. Without questioning her earlier whereabouts, I began to read aloud. Hetty plopped onto the bed-steps that led to the mattress, rested her chin in the cup of her hands, and listened through the morning as Telemachus took on the hostilities of the ancient world.
Wily Charlotte. As March passed, I thought obsessively about the promise she’d wrung from me. Why hadn’t I told her Hetty’s freedom was impossible? That the most I could ever offer her was kindness?
When it came time to sew my Easter dress, I cringed to think of seeing her again, petrified she would bring up our conversation by the woodpile. I would rather have impaled myself with a needle than endured more of her scrutiny.
“I don’t need a new dress this Easter,” I told Mother.
A week later, I stood on the fitting box, wearing a half-sewn satin dress. On entering my room, Charlotte had hastened Hetty off on some contrived mission before I could think of a way to override her. The dress was a light shade of cinnamon, remarkably similar to the tone of Charlotte’s skin, a likeness I noted as she stood before me with three straight pins wedged between her lips. When she spoke, I smelled coffee beans, and knew she’d been chewing them. Her words squeezed out around the pins in twisted curls of sounds. “You gon keep that word you gave me?”
To my disgrace, I used my impediment to my advantage, struggling more than necessary to answer her, pretending the words fell back into the dark chute of my throat and disappeared.
n the first good Saturday, when it looked like spring was staying put this time, missus took Miss Sarah, Miss Mary, and Miss Anna off in the carriage with the lanterns on it. Aunt-Sister said they were going to White Point to promenade, said all the women and girls would be out with their parasols.
When Snow drove the carriage out the back gate, Miss Sarah waved, and Sabe, who was dandied up in a green frock coat and livery vest, was hanging off the back, grinning.
Aunt-Sister said to us, “What yawl looking at? Get to work cleaning, a full spit and shine on their rooms. Make hay while the mice away.”
Up in Miss Sarah’s room, I spread the bed and scrubbed the gloom on the looking glass that wouldn’t come off with any kind of ash-water. I swept up dead moths fat from gnawing on the curtains, wiped down the privy pot, and threw in a pinch of soda. I scrubbed the floors with lime soap from the demijohn.
Wore out from all that, I did what we call shilly-shally. Poking round up to no good. First, I looked to see was any slave in the passage way—some of them would as soon tell on you as blink. I shut the door and opened Miss Sarah’s books. I sat at her desk and turned one page after another, staring at what looked like bits and pieces of black lace laid cross the paper. The marks had a beauty to them, but I didn’t see how they could do anything but confuddle a person.
I pulled out the desk drawer and rooted all through her things. I found a piece of unfinished cross stitch with clumsy stitches, looked like a three-year-old had done it. There was some fine, glossy threads in the drawer wrapped on wood spools. Sealing wax. Tan paper. Little drawings with ink smudges. A long brass key with a tassel on it.
I went through the wardrobe, touching the frocks mauma’d made. I nosed through the dressing table drawer, pulling out jewelry, hair ribbons, paper fans, bottles and brushes, and finally, a little box. It glistened dark like my skin when it was wet. I pushed up the latch. Inside was a big silver button. I touched it, then closed the lid the same slow way I’d closed her wardrobe, her drawers, and her books—with my chest filling up. There was so much in the world to be had and not had.
I went back and opened up the desk drawer one more time and stared at the threads. What I did next was wrong, but I didn’t much care. I took the plump spool of scarlet thread and dropped it in my dress pocket.
The Saturday before Easter we all got sent to the dining room. Tomfry said things had gone missing in the house. I went in there thinking,
Lord, help me.
There wasn’t nothing worse for us than some little old piece of nonsense disappearing. One dent-up tin cup in the pantry or a toast crumb off missus’ plate and the feathers flew. But this time it wasn’t a piece of nonsense, and it wasn’t scarlet thread. It was missus’ brand new bolt of green silk cloth.
There we were, fourteen of us, lined up while missus carried on about it. She said the silk was special, how it traveled from the other side of the world, how these worms in China had spun the threads. Back then, I’d never heard such craziness in my life.
Every one of us was sweating and twitching, running our hands in our britches pockets or up under our aprons. I could smell the odors off our bodies, which was nothing but fear.
Mauma knew everything happening out there over the wall—missus gave her passes to travel to the market by herself. She tried to keep the bad parts from me, but I knew about the torture house on Magazine Street. The white folks called it the
House. Like the slaves were in there sewing clothes and making bricks and hammering horseshoes. I knew about it before I was eight, the dark hole they put you in and left you by yourself for weeks. I knew about the whippings. Twenty lashes was the limit you could get. A white man could buy a bout of floggings for half a dollar and use them whenever he needed to put some slave in the right frame of mind.
Far as I knew, not one Grimké slave had gone to the Work House, but that morning, every one of us in the dining room was wondering is this the day.
“One of you is guilty of thieving. If you return the bolt of cloth, which is what God would have you do, then I will be forgiving.”