A gray braid falling over each shoulder, Tía Josefa stuck her head out of the window of Las Agujas, the embroiderers’ cabin located just behind the main plantation house. The wagon returning from town swung around the main house and came to a final halt in the batey of Hacienda Las Mercedes, a sugar plantation near the northern coast of Puerto Rico.
She recognized Romero, the mulatto mayoral, sitting high next to the driver. His shadow crawled over the supplies that filled the wagon behind him. The man wore all black, even under the scorching sun. The brim of his black hat, tilted forward, hid his eyes, leaving only his pointy chin and beak of a nose visible. The bony shoulders under his black cape looked nailed to the blue sky beyond. He gripped his whip, handy, ready.
In her day, Tía had seen many black people come and go, but there had been no new ones in a long time. She knew Don Tomás had recently acquired a new parcela and needed more hands to work it into cane fields. One thing Tía knew for sure, where there was more work to be done, it would be black hands that would do it. So she stretched her skinny neck to take a good look at the men hoisting the monthly supplies— sacks of flour and rice, bolts of cloth, sides of smoked beef— out of the wagons.
Then came the rest of the cargo, frightened young boys, stone-faced men, and hesitant women. Almost as an afterthought, they poured out into the courtyard, brown and slow, like molasses, the human purchases of the day. Tía searched for Fela, the tall woman she’d heard about and couldn’t put out of her mind. She was the last to descend, a young woman in her early twenties. There was something familiar about the girl. But Tía couldn’t place it and was too drawn to the scene to think about it for very long.
There was much activity in the yard—m en unhitching horses, curious children scurrying about, Romero assigning quarters to the new slaves. The young woman eyed her surroundings from her height of over six feet. The others were herded into the cabins that stretched out beyond the wagons. Fela began to follow when Romero, the overseer, blocked her way and pointed his whip to Las Agujas, where she would be living. The woman just stared at him.
"Vamos, muévete," Tía Josefa heard Romero command. "¿Qué? ¿No me oyes? Are you deaf as well as dumb, or just another stupid negra sucia?"
Fela examined him as though he were an unreliable animal. She didn’t move. Romero stood directly in front of her and shouted his command into her face. But the woman Fela held her ground.
Never known for patience, Romero snatched his whip and swung it overhead. But his hand froze in midair, the whip swinging impotently in the morning breeze.
"¡Maldita sea!" he growled.
Fela still hadn’t moved. She showed no sign of fear or even apprehension. Romero’s arm remained frozen in position. He looked from his arm to the whip and back to his arm. Confusion and then rage twisted his face.
Finally, Fela turned and walked in the direction he had indicated. As soon as she moved away, his arm dropped. By the time the mayoral recovered from his moment of confusion, Fela was making her way up the slope that led to the main house.
Romero gathered himself to his full height. Adjusting his hold on the whip, he was about to advance on her retreating figure when a commotion suddenly filled the batey.
The horses had spooked and reared, toppling supplies that were still being unloaded. Bags of beans exploded under the trampling hooves. Sacks of flour burst into clouds of white, covering the yard in a layer of ghostly powder. Children ran. Men cursed. Drivers struggled to get the teams of horses under control. Frantic voices filled the air.
Men ran to help.
"¡Mira, nena . . . !"
Women pulled children out of the way.
Warnings rang out as huge containers toppled over and spilled corn meal, olives, and oil on those standing nearby.
"¡Ay, Dios mío . . . !"
A man was pinned under the weight of several huge sacks of rice.
Romero glared at the pandemonium and then back at the woman who was now beyond the whip’s reach. "¡Carajo!" he yelled.
He wound his whip and hooked it onto his belt. Before turning to the commotion, he propelled a long stream of spittle in the direction of Fela’s retreating figure.
As Tía watched this scene, her breath caught at the audacity of the young girl. She could almost feel Fela’s and Romero’s wills clashing in the air overhead and had braced herself for the outcome.
Fela approached Tía’s window and stopped just on the far side. For a moment, the old woman got a glimpse of the sadness that collected in the outer corners of Fela’s eyes and weighed them down. But immediately the girl’s face shut tight against the old woman. Her eyes, shiny as steel doors, were dressed in armor. Such stubbornness was familiar to Tía, like a long- forgotten melody of her youth. A finger of cold fear crept into Tía’s heart. She knew that a slave, any slave, would have to yield or be broken.
Tía wondered how long this young woman had been a slave and how much longer she would be able to stand so tall and distant. For black people, pride was a sin punishable by death.
The two women stood at opposite sides of the window as each examined the other. Tía went around to the door and motioned Fela inside, holding out her hand in welcome as the girl entered the room.
"Entra, entra m’hija."
Fela walked in, squeezing by the older woman and avoiding her welcoming arms.
. . .
Don Tomás, son of Don Aurelio and master of Hacienda Las Mercedes, stood at his second- floor rear window and watched the action below. The tip of his cigarro burned orange as he watched. He inhaled the acrid smoke, having noted the palpable tension between his overseer and the new woman. He’d heard the neighing horses and screaming women and Romero’s curses. He took note of all the activity, but the tall black woman who walked away from it all with not as much as a halting step or a backward glance captured his attention. She never broke her stride, ignoring the danger coiled and growing inside Romero, moving on as if she lived on another plane altogether.
He had bought this woman because of her hands. The auctioneer said she had magic fingers, and his wife, Filomena, insisted she needed another woman in her taller. He had granted his wife’s wish, barely glancing at the woman before paying the man and moving on with the rest of his more important purchases. But now, now he watched her as she towered over everyone, her back stiff and shoulders pushed back, breasts held aloft. She looked straight ahead as she made her way up the incline toward him, to Las Agujas, her torn rags barely covering her body. Despite her position, she carried herself with no less dignity than his wife in her silk and lace gowns.
Don Tomás drew on his cigar and let out a satisfying stream of smoke. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, slipped his hand down the front of his breeches, and let it linger there. He heard footsteps in the hallway and quickly adjusted himself before turning to face his approaching wife.
Excerpted from Daughters of the Stone by Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa.
Copyright © 2009 by Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa.
Published in September 2009 by Thomas Dunne Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.