Based on True Events
(Illustrations Not Included)
We had a good slave life. Massa give us ‘nough fo’ a mule o’ our own. And fencin’ boards. But not all those men did kindness like Massa did. We had our own gardens. Corn fo’ feedin’ a few chickens. Oats fo’ the mule.
I tried all kinds o’ ways. We needed Ma’am to see. She been comin’ ‘round lookin’ out on where we stayed but couldn’ hear us.
She always in and out her own self when she write words.
We floated ‘round in some pictures she made so she knew we was there. Man she live wit’ heared us too when we be knockin’ on windows and doors. But wasn’ ‘til we open that door and got her so scared she be wantin’ to call somebody to help see wha’s goin’ on in that house. That be when she call Miss Georgia to help talk wit’ us.
Course, now, we done knew Miss Georgia from way back. She know how to hear us and what she goin’ tell people be the words most cain’ hear.
That first time Ma’am talk wit’ Miss Georgia, she tell Ma’am they’s a big black man there needin’ to be talkin’.
I told ‘em I be tryin’ to help her wit’ that book ‘bout where we stayed. Told her we comin’ talk wit’ her ‘cause she know our place and she been prayin’ for some help ‘cause she cain’ find no more words to write.
I tell her it be hard for her to hear me like a voice in her ear but when she write she get in a little bit o’ a trance anyway, so it’s real easy for me to just come on in. I could tell her my story and I could show her how it looked. Tha’s all I could do.
George stepped aside at the front door of the big house. A faint gasp barely reached his ears.
A lady in an immense hoop skirt hesitated before brushing past. That was three days ago.
Today’s was the first daylight George had seen since then. Alone in the dark confines of his cabin, he writhed in pain far from the dancing eyes of guests who had sighed so deeply when they saw him exit through the front door. He had brought the cook a bushel of potatoes from the cool earth in the space below the house and was on his way back to work. He knew better.
“You just about gave the ladies a faintin’ spell,” his master had told him, right before he called for Little Jack.
George had rested on his stomach those three days, his red-back bare and crisscrossed with long lines of drawing salve thick and black as tar. A mouthful of the elixir one of the old swamp dwellers brought helped him sleep, but then George dreamt of Old Man Fryoux crossing The Great Mississippi River in his weathered old pirogue, then trudging back to slave row without being asked but rather because he had come to trade okra for Lyddy’s sugar. He saw George’s condition and made a second trip to bring the potion. The slave still wore the blood-encrusted overalls that had been stripped down to the waist, the ones with a strap long ago busted open by the mass of muscles that made this soft-spoken slave the most intimidating presence on The Houmas land, save for Little Jack.
Whereas George’s overalls reached only to mid-shin, Little Jack’s were cuffed, but overall size wasn’t why they called him Little Jack. He got his name from how he looked with his coiled whip. When Little Jack was mounted on Fire Ball, his nearly black, gangly old horse, the coil reached from the saddle horn halfway up Fire Ball’s neck, up to Little Jack’s waist, and down to his knee. How it appeared in Jack’s hands when he stood five paces behind a naked black back, no one stuck around to see.
Little Jack had a fine way of popping that old whip.
He had long ago cut off its tattered tail and unbraided the last few inches of thick leather. So when George returned to his cabin after his thrashing and lay on his moss mattress in the corner of the only room in the dwelling, and his wife returned from the big house and the children from the fields, they rushed to George’s side only to gawk at the yawning tears from the part of a whip never intended to lash man nor animal. Its thick fringe now a makeshift cat-o-nine-tails.
Massa had often told Little Jack that such brutality was unwarranted, but Little Jack figured the old white man just wanted others to believe he was a kind old Southern gent, leaving Nigger Jack to carry on his tortures in the shadows.
Living in the shadows. A common enough place, where George’s natural male instincts battled with his core instinct for survival.
George reached for pleasant memories while he lay face down on the rough-hewn cotton sheet. Bygone images of Lyddy floated, danced through foggy ethers. When we was down by the crick, and I told you I be plannin’ on askin’ Massa if’n we could jump the broom, he be fine. Massa, he a good man.
George slapped his face to stop the recollection.
That memory had to end there. That day down by the creek had come before his promised virgin was forced to give herself to Massa, and the couple’s first-born son came out fair-haired. How could Lyddy stand it. How could she still be so gentle. It was Lyddy’s own fine line that made it so. Knowing that what Lyddy did with that child and how she comforted George in his rage, and how determined she was to not be broken…belief in the wonders of his wife always helped George regain his sanity. Most times.
Lyddy had long ago mastered the art of repression. Why lose her privileges at the big house? She never told George about the other price she paid for those privileges, all the images and feelings she could stifle at times even to herself.
Maybe George knew all along, those days his wife came back to their cabin so quiet. George let her be. That fine line sometimes felt like a circle around their lives. Inside was warm and safe. Outside was to deal with Little Jack and face Massa. Lines…lines…lines…can’t cross so many lines.
Not crossing lines was a lesson learned early in George’s life. He had seen his father’s scars. Oko had experimented with lines too many times, and George hadn’t seen him since the man stood naked but tall on a slave block, and an auctioneer called him a prime buck who, though he bore the scars of an unruly nigger, had come to know his place. A fine buck. Fine, fine buck.
But that was before George’s family lived in Louisiana under the protection of Code Noir and a nice massa.
George’s mammy had raised him and three siblings, all living together in one of the older cabins with divided rooms. George’s mother still lived in that old cabin, still put in a hard day’s work. She too had mastered the art of repression. She had lost two children to the fever and one after a fall into a giant sugar mountain in the refinery.
George thought of them every morning when he greeted some of his neighbors. When he heard, “G’mornin’, George,” after he stepped out his front door each morning, he’d greet, “Mornin’ JoJo, mornin’ Rob’t, mornin’ Wil’m,” his friends’ African names long ago replaced with more white sounding ones, the same names as his lost brothers.
Mornings started bright and fresh and clean anyway, no matter the old names he no longer remembered and the brothers always to be remembered.
But by mid-morning, especially on Sundays, George’s mind started twisting into slipknots that coiled and struck his insides like a cobra.
Where it be I stand? Locked here b’twix bein’ a man and bein’ a thing, like a mule or a cart or a shovel. How I teach my sons how to be men. Am I a man if’n my wife ain’ my own, all my own. How I teach my fam’ly and set a ‘xample for my friends and neighbors when I cain’ be a man myself. How that be?
And what do God think ‘bout all this?
George had heard the stories of the old African and Jamaican rituals, but nearly all were long gone. Now, all most slaves knew was a Christian god. Massa even give a free man of color, one they call Preacher, a silver dollar Sunday when he come ‘round and spill out his song and teachin’ and stories, sometimes wit’ a finger pointed at the sky. George always wondered why he did that.
It was Sunday again when George heard the rattle of a carriage. Nobody knew this morning would end any differently from the day before, or any days before.