To Be A Slave
Author's note: This was actually a school project, a five page paper, that turned into so much more.
Virginia, 1786I left my Mama the day I turned fourteen. “Left” bein’ my chosen word seein’ as I don’t particularly like the way “taken” sounds in my mouth, all mean and strange, like. Now my Mama, she was beautiful. Strong and kind and beautiful. Our Daddy done got his self shot tryin’ to steal a chicken. Nobody liked my Daddy. I’m glad he died. He was mean as the Virginia sun as it poured over you’s back on the hottest day of the year. He hit my Mama. He really did. Made me so angry I ‘bout went up and hit him myself. I tried to, actually. But you see, I’m not very quick. He caught my hand ‘fore it even made contact with that evil man’s yellow hide. He just give me a good swat on the behind with that switch a his and send me howlin’ away.
My Mama was a free woman, free and black. Her old master liked her lots and he just let her go. Mama raised me, my brother Bala, and my sister Mandiki all by herself after Daddy died, and she did a better job than most white women at it. She says her grandmamma always used to tell her stories ‘bout when they was in Africa, how the sun never shined unkindly and the water was always pure and there was never a white face to be seen, ‘til that day they took her away from her home and to a new world. Bala was the most feared and handsome hunter in Old Grandmamma’s tribe, he was fierce and noble. Bala means “like the moon”, which my brother certainly is. Stealthy and quiet as a cat he slinks ‘round pouncin’ on me and Mandiki when we’s least expectin’ it. He’s a kinder version of Daddy, but more handsome and definitely more playful. Old Grandmamma’s mama’s name was Mandiki. My Mama named my lil’ sister that after her. The name means “sweet”, like the flowers we grow in our garden. Mandiki looks like a flower, all rosy cheeked and dark eyed and lookin’ so much like our Mama it hurts if you look at her too long, she’s so beautiful. She’s only just over eight years old but already she’s prettier than me. Sometimes I cry at night wonderin’ why she got to look like Mama while I was stuck with boring old Daddy: straight nose, straight teeth, light, boring eyes, dark, boring hair that won’t never stay right, and comin’ out lookin’ just too boyish to be really likable. My name means whishes, or aspiration. Amanita. It’s pretty enough, when you’s just sitting there sayin’ it, but then you get a good long look at me and it ain’t too pretty no more. Mama said when she had me in her belly she went out walkin’ one night and she looked up at the stars. She wished with all her heart that her baby would be a girl, so that Bala would have someone to play with and tease. And her wish done come true! She had me, then a little while later Mandiki. I’m the only one in this family who hasn’t lived up to their name. I make plenty of wishes; but none ever come true. I used to believe I would aspire to somethin’, but after fourteen years of waitin’, it just don’t seem likely no more. I get frustrated at that, too. That the others get to be so perfect while I’m so… not. But Mama loves me just the same.
She loves all of us more than she loves her very self. Every year when our birthdays come ‘round she stays up all the night before workin’ and bakin’ and singin’ softly to herself as she skitters ‘round our small house. The next mornin’ we all rise up much earlier than usual to see what she done for us.
So the morning I turned fourteen, I wake up early like normal and Mama’s settin’ in her chair by the winda. All us kids squeal when we see what she done for us. Every one of our sweet desires is there on the table, just waiting for us to come and devour ‘em. We’s just settin’ down to our feast when our door slams open and two white men step on in, not even botherin’ to knock. I take one look at them and shrink away. Somethin’ ‘bout them makes my skin crawl, like I’m looking at the devil’s helpers they selves. Turns out I warn’t far wrong.
They’s got a bad look ‘bout them, like they’s been on the road a long time, and not a heavenly one at that. They’s coats and boots is coated in a fine dust from the road and dried mud clings to them. They’s both got funny mustaches, almost French, like, but the short and muscled one also hasn’t shaved in a long while by the looks of his nicely fillin’ in beard. The taller one’s lean and lanky and dressed like a gentleman regardless of the dirt. He’s the one Mama addresses.
“Can I help you?” she asks, her voice carefully collected, but I can see her eyes change from their usual warm coffee to a much colder, darker color.
“Excusin’ us, miss,” he says smilin’ a smile that don’t resemble no smile I’s ever seen, more like a sort a twisted grimace. It warn’t warmin’ at all, ‘fact it sent a chill to your bones. “We’ve just come to pick up a few things.”
Mama looked at him long and cold. “I warn’t told of someone pickin’ somethin’ up here,” she says, chewin’ her cheek.
His grimace grows wider. “Likely you weren’t,” he says. Then quick as lightinin’ he reaches out and grabs my arm. For a second we all just stand there, not really sure what this is all ‘bout. Then Mandiki screams. The world jumps to life then, with me realizin’ this is a darn grave situation I got here and start thrashin’ ‘bout, with Mandiki screamin’ her little lungs full, with Mama runnin’ for her pan and trying to hit the short man over the head with it, with the short man comin’ up with his own sort of defense: his bare arms, with Bala comin’ up from the table with his knife, and with the tall man pullin’ at me. I’m kickin’ and clawin’ at anything I can find on the man, workin’ myself into a real froth and listenin’ to his grunts for where I should hit next.
Bala goes after the man who’s got me, slashin’ his knife while still tryin’ not to hurt me. The man’s quick though, he dodges most of the blows or jumps away, me in tow. He starts gettin’ the idea to use me as sort of a shield, placin’ me in front of him while Bala slashes at nothin’. I can see Mandiki hidin’ under the table, still screamin’ her blessed little lungs out. Then Mama screams. The short man’s got her pan and is aimin’ for her head. I bite down hard on the man’s hand. I taste his blood, salty and right near nauseatin’, but I don’t let go. He howls and tries to shake me off and Bala takes a swipe at him, good and clean, runnin’ from ear to chin.
“You blasted-” but his curse is cut short seein' as Mama's screamin' again. He throws me off him and my head hits the table. Stars appear in my eyes and my vision is fuzzy for a second. Bala’s watchin’ me so he don’t see the man’s fist come flyin’ towards his face. He hits him square in the temple and Bala falls to the floor. He don’t get up. We’s all screamin’ now, Mandiki, Mama, even me.
The evil man’s watchin’ Bala, waitin’ for him to start movin’ again. I slide over quiet as I can to my sister who’s cowerin’ on the floor.
“Run!” I whisper in her ear. “Run far and run fast. Run for help. Get out a here NOW!” She looks at me for a second then throws her arms around me. I feel the tears shake her body but I don’t let any of mine spill. Not just yet. Quick as you please she’s out the door and gone from sight. And I know right then that I just saw my sister for the last time.
Mama’s wailin’ somethin’ to the men. It’s hard to understand her through the tears and blubberin’.
“Not my babies! Please, no don’t take my babies! Take me, me instead, I’m strong as any of ‘em!” Her words make me realize these men ain’t just evil; they’s the worst kind of evil God ever made. They’s slave traders.
“Shut up,” the man growls, and just like that hits her over the head with her own pan. Mama falls right straight to the ground, graceful and beautiful as always. I don’t choke on my tears this time.
“Mama!” I cry, the salty tears runnin’ down my face and cloggin’ my eyes. “Mama come back! Come back to me!” I choke and stumble on my words, drowin’ in my own miserable tears. I’m shakin’ so hard and sobbin’ so loudly I almost don’t hear that evil man’s knees pop as he bends down next to me, or feel his sickly breathe on my face when he whispers “Goodnight precious”, or even when that same pan what was used on my Mama comes down on my own sorry head. I almost don’t notice it. Almost.