Authors: Sue Monk Kidd
On this evening, though, the kitchen house was wrapped in a pall. Heat and smoke from the oven glugged out the window, reddening my face and neck. I caught glimpses of Aunt-Sister, Binah, Cindie, Mariah, Phoebe, and Lucy in their calico dresses, but heard only the clunk of cast iron pots.
Finally, Binah’s voice carried to me. “You mean to say she ain’t eat all day?”
“Not one thing,” Aunt-Sister said.
“Well, I ain’t eating neither if they strap
up like they done her,” Phoebe said.
A cold swell began in my stomach.
Strapped her up? Who? Not Hetty, surely.
“What she think would happen if she pilfer like that?” I believed that voice to be Cindie’s. “What’d she say for herself?”
Aunt-Sister spoke again. “She won’t talk. Handful up there in bed with her, talking for both of ’em.”
“Poor Charlotte,” said Binah.
Charlotte! They’d strapped her up. What did that mean?
Rosetta’s melodic keening rose in my memory. I saw them bind her hands. I saw the cowhide split her back and the blood-flowers open and die on her skin.
I don’t remember returning to the house, only that I was suddenly in the warming kitchen, ransacking the locked cupboard where Mother kept her curatives. Having unlocked it often to retrieve a bromide for Father, I easily found the key and removed the blue bottle of liniment oil and a jar of sweet balm tea. Into the tea, I dropped two grains of laudanum.
As I stuffed them into a basket, Mother entered the corridor. “What, pray tell, are you doing?”
I threw the question back at her. “… … What did
“Young lady, hold your tongue!”
Hold my tongue? I’d held the poor, tortured thing the near whole of my life.
“… … What did you do?” I said again, almost shouting.
She drew her lips tight and yanked the basket from my arm.
An unknown ferocity took me over. I wrenched the basket back from her and strode toward the door.
“You will not set foot from this house!” she ordered. “I forbid it.”
I stepped through the back door into the soft gloom, into the terror and thrill of defiance. The sky had gone cobalt. Wind was coursing in hard from the harbor.
Mother followed me, shrieking, “I forbid it.” Her words flapped off on the breezes, past the oak branches, over the brick fence.
Behind us, shoes scraped on the kitchen house porch, and turning, we saw Aunt-Sister, Binah, Cindie, all of them shadowed in the billowy dark, looking at us.
Mother stood white-faced on the porch steps.
“I’m going to see about Charlotte.” I said. The words slid effortlessly over my lips like a cascade of water, and I knew instantly the nervous affliction in my voice had gone back into hibernation, for that was how it had happened in the past, the debility gradually weakening, until one day I opened my mouth and there was no trace of it.
Mother noticed, too. She said nothing more, and I trod toward the carriage house without looking back.
hen dark fell, mauma started to shake. Her head lolled and her teeth clattered. It wasn’t like Rosetta and her fits, where all her limbs jerked, it was like mauma was cold inside her bones. I didn’t know what to do but pat her arms and legs. After a while, she grew still. Her breathing drew heavy, and before I knew it, I drifted off myself.
I started dreaming and in that dream I was sleeping. I slept under an arbor of thick green. It was bent perfect over me. Vines hung round my arms. Scuppernongs fell alongside my face. I was the girl sleeping, but at the same time I could see myself, like I was part of the clouds floating by, and then I looked down and saw the arbor wasn’t really an arbor, it was our quilt frame covered in vines and leaves. I went on sleeping, watching myself sleeping, and the clouds went on floating, and I saw inside the thick green again. This time, it was mauma herself inside there.
I don’t know what woke me. The room was quiet, the light gone.
Mauma said, “You wake?” Those were the first words she’d said since Tomfry strapped her.
“Awright. I gon tell you a story. You listening, Handful?”
My eyes had got used to the dark, and I saw the door still propped wide to the hallway, and mauma beside me, frowning. She said, “Your granny-mauma come from Africa when she was a girl. ’Bout same as you now.”
My heart started to beat hard. It filled up my ears.
“Soon as she got here, her mauma and daddy was taken from her, and that same night the stars fell out the sky. You think stars don’t fall, but your granny-mauma swore it.”
Mauma tarried, letting us picture how the sky might’ve looked.
“She say everything over here sound like jibber jabber to her. The food taste like monkey meat. She ain’t got nothin’ but this little old scrap of quilt her mauma made. In Africa, her mauma was a quilter, best there is. They was Fon people and sewed appliqué, same like I do. They cut out fishes, birds, lions, elephants, every beast they had, and sewed ’em on, but the quilt your granny-mauma brought with her didn’t have no animals on it, just little three-side-shapes, what you call a triangle. Same like I put on my quilts. My mauma say they was blackbird wings.”
The floor creaked in the hallway and I heard somebody out there breathing high and fast, the way Miss Sarah breathed. I eased up on my elbow and craned my neck, and there she was—her shadow blotted on the hall window. I lowered myself back to the mattress and mauma went on telling her story with Miss Sarah listening in.
“Your granny-mauma got sold to some man for twenty dollars, and he put her in the fields near Georgetown. They eat boiled black-eye peas in the morning, and if you ain’t done eating in ten minutes time, you don’t get no more that day. Your granny-mauma say she always eat too slow.
“I never did know my daddy. He was a white man named John Paul, not the massa, but his brother. After I come, we got sold off. Mauma say I be the fair side of brown, and everybody know what that mean.
“We got bought by a man near Camden. He kept mauma in the fields and I stay out there with her, but nights she teach me everything she knows ’bout quilts. I tore up old pant legs and dress tails and pieced ’em. Mauma say in Africa they sew charms in their quilts. I put pieces of my hair down inside mine. When I got twelve, mauma start braggin’ to the Camden missus, how I could sew anything, and the missus took me to the house to learn from their seamstress. I got better ’n she was in a hurry.”
She broke off and shifted her legs on the bed. I was afraid that was all she had to say. I never had heard this story. Listening to it was like watching myself sleep, clouds floating, mauma bent over me. I forgot Miss Sarah was out there.
I waited, and finally she started back telling. “Mauma birthed my brother while I was sewing in the house. She never say who his daddy was. My brother didn’t live out the year.
“After he die, your granny-mauma found us a spirit tree. It’s just a oak tree, but she call it a Baybob like they have in Africa. She say Fon people keep a spirit tree and it always be a Baybob. Your granny-mauma wrapped the trunk with thread she begged and stole. She took me out there and say, ‘We gon put our spirits in the tree so they safe from harm.’ We kneel on her quilt from Africa, nothing but a shred now, and we give our spirits to the tree. She say our spirits live in the tree with the birds, learning to fly. She told me, ‘If you leave this place, go get your spirit and take it with you.’ We used to gather up leaves and twigs from round the tree and stick ’em in pouches to wear at our necks.”
Her hand went to her throat like she was feeling for it.
She said, “Mauma died of a croup one winter. I was sixteen. I could sew anything there was. ’Bout that time the massa got in money-debt and sold off every one of us. I got bought by massa Grimké for his place in Union. Night ’fore I left, I went and got my spirit from the tree and took it with me.
“I want you to know, your daddy was good as gold. His name was Shanney. He work in massa Grimké’s fields. One day missus say I got to come sew for her in Charleston. I say awright, but bring Shanney, he my husband. She say Shanney a field slave, and maybe I see him sometime when I back for a visit. You was already inside me, and nobody knew. Shanney die from a cut on his leg ’fore you a year old. He never saw your face.”
Mauma stopped talking. She was done. She went to sleep then and left the story bent perfect over me.
Next morning when I eased out of bed headed for the privy, I bumped into a basket sitting by the door. Inside it was a big bottle of liniment and some medicine-tea.
That day I went back to tending Miss Sarah. I slipped into her room while she was reading one of her books. She was shy to bring up what happened to mauma, so I said, “We got your basket.”
Her face eased. “Tell your mother I’m sorry for her treatment, and I hope she’ll feel better soon,” and it wasn’t any toil in her words.
“That mean a lot to us,” I said.
She laid the book down and came where I was standing by the chimney place and put her arms round me. It was hard to know where things stood. 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.
pring turned to summer, and when Madame Ruffin suspended classes until the fall, I asked Thomas to expand our private lessons on the piazza.
“I’m afraid we have to stop them altogether,” he said. “I have my own studies to consider. Father has ordered me to undertake a systematic study of his law books in preparation for Yale.”
“I could help you!” I cried.
“Sarah, Sarah, quite contra-rah.” It was the phrase he used when his refusal was foregone and final.
He had no idea the extent I’d enmeshed him in my plans. There was a string of barrister firms on Broad Street, from the Exchange to St. Michael’s, and I pictured the two of us partnered in one of them with a signboard out front,
Grimké and Grimké
. Of course, there would be an out-and-out skirmish with the rank and file, but with Thomas at my side and Father at my back, nothing would prevent it.
I bore down on Father’s law books every afternoon myself.
In the mornings, I read aloud to Hetty in my room with the door bolted. When the air cooked to unbearable degrees, we escaped to the piazza, and there, sitting side by side in the swing, we sang songs that Hetty composed, most of them about traveling across water by boat or whale. Her legs swung back and forth like little batons. Sometimes we sat before the windows in the second-floor alcove and played Lace the String. Hetty always seemed to have a stash of red thread in her dress pocket and we spent hours passing it through our upstretched fingers, creating intricate, bloodshot mazes in the air.
Such occupations are what girls do together, but it was the first occasion for either of us, and we carried them out as covertly as possible to avoid Mother putting an end to them. We were crossing a dangerous line, Hetty and I.
One morning while Charleston turned miserably on the brazier of summer, Hetty and I lay flat on our stomachs on the rug in my room while I read aloud from
The week before, Mother had ordered the mosquito nettings out of storage and affixed above the beds in anticipation of the bloodsucking season, but having no such protection, the slaves were already scratching and clawing at their skin. They rubbed themselves with lard and molasses to draw out the itch and trailed its
eau de cologne
through the house.
Hetty dug at an inflamed mosquito bite on her forearm and frowned at the book pages as if they were some kind of irresolvable code. I wanted her to listen to the exploits of the knight and Sancho Panza, but she interrupted me repeatedly, placing her finger on some word or other, asking, “What does that one say?” and I would have to break off the story to tell her. She’d done the same thing recently as we read
The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York,
and I wondered if, perhaps, she was merely bored with the antics of men, from the shipwrecked to the chivalrous.