Two Crowns Plantation, Jamaica—September 30, 1729, by the old reckoning
Never step over a lighted candle. If you do, the flame she rise and the Shush-shush come and take you. Gumboo. I used to laugh when my favorite person on this earth, Old Poe, furrowed her brow and whispered that like a singsong rhyme, then put her finger against her lips, saying, “Hush, now, child. Don’ tease de devil, now, child.” When I heard Ma say it just now across the supper table, all fine and glowing with porcelain and crystal, and me nowhere near a candle other than those high above in the chandelier, it made me run cold, deep in my bones. There were few things in the life of a young girl wearing her first long skirts more treacherous than a candle on the floor. I held a picture I had drawn in India ink on heavy paper. A drip had formed at the bottom edge, pulling the shoe on one of the figures to unnatural length. My eyes went from my drawing to Ma, to Uncle Rafe. He had just invited me to sit upon his knee and show it to him.
My sister Patience had called me to dinner many minutes earlier and I had ignored her summons to put some finishing touches on it that were now ruining the picture. It depicted two little girls, one white, one black, holding hands and running across the white-sand beach. Their faces smiled quite cunningly, I thought. The figure of my dear Allsy in the picture held up an apple, precious fruit shipped here from far away, the last apple we shared, the danger of it so like one of my favorite stories in which a princess sleeps for a thousand years after a single bite. I had drawn crowns over Allsy’s and my heads, as if she and I were princesses.
Uncle Rafe slammed his tankard of rum on the table boards, and said, “Aye. A girl’s petticoats catch fire soon enough. Tender as tinder.” He laughed and winked at Ma, his face all bright and sweating in a way that made me push his cup and plate over into his lap. I stuck out my chin, thinking old Rafe did not know aught about a fiery petticoat. Uncle Rafe roared and hollered, “God’s balls!”
I may have been ten years old but I knew Rafe was not my real uncle, and that Pa’s voice got thin and Ma’s hands trembled when he was in the house. I stood and stuck out my tongue just as Pa came into the dining room, buttoning his vest, with Patience and our brother, August, following him. He looked from Uncle Rafe to Ma and to the mess on Rafe’s pants and me standing there with hellfire in my eyes.
I am old, now, wizened, some might say. I will tell you how I came to this place from that potent evening so long ago and so far across the oceans. The day after I was born my parents named me Resolute. Pa said it gave me an aspect of solemnity and perseverance, which are pretty things for a child with a sanguine humor. It was a good name for a girl, Ma always added, and there was nothing wrong with a girl being confident and ruddy. A boy could grow to “make a name for himself,” but a girl needed a special one from birth.
I knew all about fire. I had been playing with Allsy when we were both but six years old and my family had been on the West Indies island of Jamaica for the same six years. Allsy and I had been hiding in the priest’s hole, up the steps behind the fireplace. I brought two cakes and an apple for us to share and she carried a burning candle, placing it on the floor. I jumped over it. As I did, my petticoats made the flame bob and nearly go out. The edge of my skirt got a brown place and we held it between us, curious, as the spot grew and grew. A yellow tongue of flame suddenly burst from it, licked at us and burned my fingers. Allsy slapped her hands upon it and crushed out the flame. She winced, but made no sound; putting her hands over her mouth, she made the sign of the cross as long black shadows of us spun around in the stair tower like ghosts dancing.
We held our breaths. We laughed. Hand in hand, we climbed up to the widow’s walk on the highest part of the house, where we could see far and wide across the ocean. In the distance, storms sometimes carried on all day, lightning dancing upon the water against a backdrop of gray roiling clouds like a silent mummer’s play, never a stray wind ruffling our hair. We watched, hoping for the rise of a mast that might mean cloth or shoes or more of Ma’s precious goblets made of real glass. After we got tired of mocking seagulls squealing at each other, we shared a cake and took turns eating the apple.
I had stepped over a candle and nothing had happened. I thought we were safe. But five days later, I took fever. The sixth day, Allsy did, too. The Shush-shush, Old Poe’s name for the devil or death or something that you must not say out loud, something bad and haunted, he came whilst I lay afevered. I retched and I itched, covered with smallpox. I cried and Ma brought cold rags for my head, and after two weeks I got up. Allsy must have been too close to me in that stairway. As I jumped over that lit candle, the old devil reached for me and caught Allsy. While I was too sick to know, Pa and Old Poe wrapped her in white gauze and laid my heart’s friend in a grave.
Old Poe caught it and died, too, after two days of sickness. Cost Pa £15 to replace her. That meant nothing to me. Talk of pounds and crowns and sixpence went on all the time in Pa’s office at the side of the good parlor. What mattered to me was that Old Poe knew how to make a lap for me to sit upon, knew more stories than I could ever remember—some of them including two fine wee girls just like Allsy and me—and knew how to wrap a sore finger with potash and brown paper and kisses.
I never told Ma or Pa that it was my fault Allsy died. I had escaped Old Scratch’s claws. Ma said it is because I have something special to do. What is a girl going to do? Embroidery and arithmetic, that’s what I get. I wondered someday if the devil might wake up and see he got the wrong girl, what will happen then?
All my days I had heard things about England where Pa was born. Even more about Scotland, Ma’s homeland, the two of them united into one country by that time. I knew about how my brother, August, used to wait with Pa until a dark night and watch the farmers light gorse when the village had a festival. How Patience, my only sister and ten years older than I, had loved the son of a lord, a lord who faithfully waited on Anne the Queen’s favor. Anne was a Stuart and a Tory through and through, and our father, being of both Tudor and Plantagenet lines with Radclyffe blood thrown in, made Patience a politically unsuitable bride for his son. So, on recommendation of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, Her Highness and His Lordship found that the Crown was in great need of Pa to mind a plantation in the Indies.
This is where I was born and all around us is all I have ever known, fields of sugarcane and coffee, slaves to tend the cane fields, and then, wearing starched white linen, to bring in the roast chicken at dinner, the smell of the sea and the soil and the perfume of flowers. Throughout the night, breezes off the mountains brought the rhythm of drums from the slave quarters. Sometimes if I kept quite still I heard singing. I imagined their happy world filled with music. I wished I could join them.
By day I did my lessons in the schoolroom on the top floor where the window blinds were all that kept a girl from dreaming of a home she had never known beyond the sea, for the wind off the ocean seemed to pine for England, to mourn her like a lost promise, the way Patience weeps at night for her lost love and lost future marriage. I pressed her to tell me how she could have threatened the son of a lord with marriage if she herself had been but ten years old. She told me that the path between our house and his was a common one, but a hedge had grown at a certain shady secluded point where they had used to meet together and play. He was two years older—a vision of manliness, she said—though I pictured a boy of twelve being spindle-legged and having great flopping feet. Such keen friends they had become that they spoke to each other of promises and everlasting love, and when he told his father, that was that. She kept a lock of his hair, near black as pitch, in a box along with a little paper he had written upon with their names entwined by something rather like a crow carrying a twig although Patience says it is a dove holding a ribbon.
For me a land called England was but a magical tale of far away and long ago. My own ma and pa would tell me fancy tales they must have fashioned in their own minds about some kingdom of gold and crowns and cold such as I could never imagine, a land without mountains, without snakes or cane fields. I did not believe in those things. To me, it was make-believe just like the fairy folk, brownies, and selkies. For myself, I believe in God and a few saints and of course duppies, the sprites that live here. Pa would laugh and say treacle ran in my veins.
Uncle Rafe stood, his back to the hearth and hellfire as big as mine in his eyes. Pa looked to Patience and said, “Daughter, fetch Uncle a new plate. Son,” he said to August, “bring the tobacco box.”
“But, sir,” August said, and Pa raised his hand. He sat and opened his hands toward Rafe. Rough, broad hands that knew work. As if that were his only apology for a wayward bairn like me. After that Pa offered Rafe his new pipe and filled it himself with his best tobacco. Pa sent me to bed. As I left the room I made note that Uncle’s wig was askew and smelled bad. Pa wore no periwig, just tied his hair in a lock at the back of his neck. Boiling-sugarcane odors clung to Pa like a coat. I had thought I loathed the smell of cane, but any horse in the barn smelled better than Uncle Rafe and I knew I loved the smell of Pa.
“Pa?” I whispered.
Pa made a squint sidelong at me. A string of thought came unspoken from his face, saying, “Try to obey this time,” and, “I will explain later,” mixed with, “You are two shakes away from getting a well-deserved walloping, girl.” So I climbed the stairs to my room and listened from the doorway.
Rafe’s voice grew loud as if he meant me to hear, saying, “Cocky little oyster. That’n needs to feel a boot. I’d give her a taste of Rafe MacAlister’s hobnails.”
“She is not grown. We will discipline her, sir,” Ma said.
The air grew tight with silence and their voices lowered so I could not hear as well. I tiptoed down five steps. The sixth one always had a squeak so I stayed five from the top. I heard Rafe laughing and he said, “So, maybe you won’t have to. I’ve waited all I’m about to wait. You’ve sworn a bargain. Be she ready?”
I stretched one leg as far as I could, stepping over the noisy stair to the one below.
“By no means,” Pa’s voice said. “Patience is still a child. And she’s recently had smallpox and quinsy. You should have sent word you were coming.”
“A delicate child,” Ma added.
“I sent word before and you’d sent her on an errand to the parish convent. Our deal was your safekeeping on this island in return for a wife. You’ve no dowry for her, no legacy except for the boy, there. Two wenches who’ll be nothing but a drain on Her Majesty’s profits for the length of their lives. You’ve put me off long enough. I’ll see her home.”
“Mistress Talbot,” said Pa, in a voice he used during their most formal balls when something more needed saying, “will you speak to Miss Patience? Explain the situation.”
I knew then that more danger was afoot. When slaves had come from Benderidge Plantation, carrying forks and fence posts and wanting food, Pa had said we had a “situation.” When two boys waylaid August in Kingston, that was a situation, too, and it took him two weeks to get up from his bed. Ma nearly bumped me over in the stairway, rushing with her hand on Patience’s arm, their faces dreadful, their eyes gleaming, even in the darkness of the staircase.
I heard Rafe saying, “I’ll take the two of them off your hands. There’s room enough for the second one and you’ll be freed of both.”
“Where is August?” I began, but I said no more. Ma grabbed my shoulder so tightly it hurt, and bustled me along with them. In Patience’s room, Ma let go of me and took Patey by both shoulders, frowning.
“Move the armoire,” she said. “Help me, lasses.” Ma pushed the heavy furniture from its nook. Patience took hold, too.
I started to ask why we were moving it, but the moving cabinet came toward me as if Ma had grown the strength of five men. Instead, I asked, “Ma, why do you let that awful Uncle into our parlor if all he wants is to steal Patey?”
“Sometimes you have to befriend those you do not like, my bairny, to keep away others you like even less. Rafe is a powerful man.”
“He hates Pa,” I said. “I can see it in his eyes. I think he loves you.”
“It’s not love you see in him, lass, but something else not so grand. Now, help us push. You’ll be safe in here.”
Patience’s room overlooked the bay. From my windows I could see only cane fields. There had been work done in Patience’s room, part of fixing the house for a new waterwheel system besides the one that crushed cane all day. We had kept out of the way for nine long weeks as men tore through the wall to add the wheel and its gears, pounding, banging from morning until night. I remember because Patience slept in my bed with me and the nights had passed intolerably crowded. She tossed around, she smelled like a grown-up, and she constantly put my counterpane off the end of the bed though I asked for it. She said girls should not sleep so warm at night but did not tell me why. After they restored her room and Ma put back the bedding there seemed not a speck of difference except that the stones in the niche were a newly cut color and the armoire stood taller.
The armoire rolled on cannonball legs away from the wall where they had bolted the side of it with a door hinge of worked iron. A passageway as narrow as one stone opened behind it. Patience and I looked at each other, astonished that it was there, and I was doubly puzzled that she had not inspected her own room. From the dark opening we heard a soft whistling like a garden bird. “Go,” Ma said, and pushed Patience to the opening. “Down the stairs inside, and when you get to the bottom, hide.”
To my horror I was next, pressed through the slot in the wall by hands from which I had never felt pain, shoved in like a sack. The armoire swung into place, crushing my protest in the thump of the tight-fitting frame. My hand lay at the corner. If one finger had lain in the spot where the hinge slammed, that finger could have been crushed and Ma would not have known. I whimpered, not from pain but from the possibility of it. “Oh, la, Patience. What are we to do? It is so dark.”
“Shush,” whispered Patience. “You had n’a cry out now. Reach for my hand. I am below you on the steps.” The bird called again. “That is August,” Patience said. “My hand is before you. Take it and feel the side for the rope.”
A palpable, clinging blackness enveloped me and for a moment it cut out all sounds, too. I found my sister’s hand as I touched the walls, wet as if rain had fallen upon them, and felt with my feet for the steep stairs. “If Rafe MacAlister is pretending to be our uncle, why would he want to marry you?”
“He doesn’t. Not really. His family fought against our pa though they were but yeomen on our estate back in England. They were devious to the last, stealing, poaching. He thinks Ma and Pa owe him a woman, for his wife died. It was none of our doing, but she died. He pretends to court me, but I’d not have him if I had to hang myself first.”
“Patey! But if they were only farmers, why have we aught to do with him now?”
“He sallies with every picaroon in the Carribbean Sea, and keeps them from our door. Stop talking and come this way.” The stairway of short, narrow stone took us down into night that grew ever darker with air so damp it pushed against our every movement. A ship’s mooring rope, latched to the wall on one side, hung loose in its channel bolts. Slipping off a stair I fell upon Patience. The rope gave with my weight like a loose stitch in a fabric of stone. I hung from it by one hand, flailing for her lost grip until I found her hands. She whispered, “Be caresome, Ressie.”
Each step took us closer to the noise of the new waterwheel. At one point the wall opened and there was nothing to hold to but the rope. Patience dropped my hand as we passed the open hub. Though we could not see it, the vibration and the splatter of the waterwheel made a wall of sound where stone had been. Where the stone wall shielded us from the danger of the open gears, I felt the pattern of the steps, the breadth of them being more equal than not. We were lost in a clock ticking; each step, every drop of water adding up to hours. “Patience?” I called softly. I felt I must hold on to her just as a baby creature holds its mother’s hair. I called again, this time with a whine, “Patey?”
Her voice came muffled, as if her shadow spoke to me. “The bird you hear is August.”
August opened the window on a tin candleholder he carried. The light that came from the little light house seemed not to go beyond his sleeve but I knew his sleeve and the sight of it calmed my heart. “Come with me, lassies,” he whispered.
We came to the bottom landing and there was no door, just the open side of the house hidden by drooping vines and a fat, scratchy tree trunk. “Where shall we hide?” I asked. I also wanted to ask why I had not known this place. I loved a good hidey-hole, a place to haunt, for there was little to do and no one to play with in this great stone house since Allsy died. I used to spend hours in the attic amongst the old chests and dusty trunks, pretending I had found treasures from a kingdom far away. Now that we stood at the foot of the steps, they did not seem near so black and menacing. When the sun was up, I wagered it would be a sight to see.
“To the kitchen,” August said, and took one of my hands and Patience took the other, to run down the sandy path toward the kitchen, which was separate from the house. The path actually wound past the kitchen and went to the sugar mill. A puckish wind caught my clothes and hair. Only then did I realize how the mist in the passageway had soaked me to the skin. As we reached the coral outcropping where the path widened, he stopped short. He dropped my hand and closed the door on the candlelight. We had little need of it now, for the moon overhead had just risen over the hump of land on the far side of Meager Bay and glimmered across the quiet water.
A galleon under full sheets left a clear wake coming this way. From where I stood the still-golden moon glinted off something on the port bow as the ship swung its side toward us. “Black sails,” I said. “She looks a phantom a-crossing under the moonlight.” No sooner had the words escaped my lips than the top- and mainsails collapsed, rolled by men we could not see. The shine that I had seen before now became clear. Someone watched our shore with a long glass. Six ports on the side opened and the unmistakable rounds of a cannon’s mouth filled each of them. We saw longboats. Three of them already lay aground on the sand and men moved upland toward the house with one left beside each boat.
“Saint Agnes, save us,” said Patience. “We have to warn Ma and Pa.”
“Five, nine, now sixteen, maybe twenty, or twenty-two men,” August said. “And six cannon on the port bow. I shall go back to the house. You girls stay in the kitchen.”
I pictured myself running up the loft steps to the cribs over the kitchen to hide, and August charging home, when Patience said, “I am coming with you, too. Ressie—you—you run to the well house. Tell Joseph to warn the slaves to hide in the fields. You stay there.”
“I cannot,” I said. I wanted to hide in the kitchen. “They always turn the pigs out when there is a situation.” I had seen pigs kill a man little more than a year before. My worst dreams held no suspense, no surprise, just the horror of being eaten alive by pigs.
August was but fifteen and taller than Patience, though his voice had not yet a man’s depth. It slipped fully back to boyhood as he stomped and waved his fists in the air. “No arguing! I am the man, here. Both of you go to the fields and I shall tell Pa,” he shouted. He pushed the tin light into my hands and took off at a run down the path straight toward the front door. For a moment I marveled at the moonlight, and how I could see his satin coat gleaming as it had not in the passageway.
Patience and I made our way to the well house, the white rock pathway lit by the moon. It was MacPherson’s lantern tonight, a full moon so bright and close and gleaming that the notorious highwayman Jamie MacPherson could have had his way with travelers as well as in broad day. The crashing of an ocean wave and soft voices that I knew made the whole scene seem tranquil and for just a moment I felt safe there.
Our man Joseph was supposed to sleep in the well house. Lucy, a kitchen helper, must have come for water after dark. They murmured to each other, low, laughing, not aware of our coming until we stepped through the open door.
“Pirates!” I said, bursting the cushion of night air with the word. Their two faces, one round, one narrow, looked toward me and smiled with puzzlement.
Joseph said, “Missy Talbot? What you doing tonight? What you say?”
Patience said, “Tell everyone they best hide in the fields. We saw a ship in the bay that looks to be—” but her words dropped off the end of the world as a cannon boomed from close by.
The bum-bum sounds repeated thrice more. Something splashed in the bay, a larger noise than a dolphin. Joseph’s and Lucy’s eyes looked the same, bright white and shining in their dark skin. I hoped they would take hold of our hands and help us get to a safe place in the fields, and keep us from the pigs, but they ran away, leaving us in the well house! As they ran their voices rang across the clearing, echoing against the circled wooden shacks, and people poured from every door. Dogs, naked children, partly clothed and even naked full-grown men and women slaves emerged and ran to the cane. The pigs squealed somewhere distant. All of life in the huts vanished into the black and rustling cane fields except two dogs. The dogs danced and barked as if they had been waiting for this night: a full moon and a frolic.
“Let us hide,” Patience said. “Come, now.”
“I am going home. I am not scared o’ Rafe MacAlister,” I said.
“Resolute! I said no.”
I started toward home. Over my shoulder I shouted, “You had best hide here with Lucy. You are not marrying Rafe and pirates do not want a little girl.”
Out of the shadows Patience screamed with a shriek of terror and it caught my feet sure as any trap. She stood at the edge of the wagon road cut between two fields. One crop brake stood almost four feet tall, the other over five feet. Slave men stood at the edge of the field, a quivering naked army of plant men waving their great sugarcane knives, threatening to hack anyone who came nearer.
A woman’s voice with a strong Dutch-African accent said, “You gone back to the big house and tarry, Missy Talbot. Gone, now. You be safess’ dere. Don’ be laying out here with us. Summa dese folks don’ speak English. Don’ knows what could happen.”
Patience ran from them and followed me. She cried as we ran, and I wondered if they had hurt her feelings, or did she cry from fear of having Rafe for a husband, or from pirates coming, or from the rocks under our thin parlor shoes? I heard a new cannon report, and this time close enough to hear the concussion of the ball against the stone walls of our house. Another cannonball crashed through part of the roof near one of the fireplaces and a great splintering of glowing cinders shot into the air.
Through a shout of men’s voices I heard Ma calling our names, and I saw her silhouetted against fire, standing alone in the front carriageway. “Daughters!” Ma said. “Go! Go, run.” For a moment Ma ran toward us then back to the house, then turned around and came at us again as if she could not make out which way portended better. “I thought you were safely away! Come. I will give you something. Come quickly.” She pulled us inside, where furniture lay tossed about. The curtains at the far wall waved in flames. Wind blew through the gap where the fireplace had stood. Pa came through the room, his arms loaded with two boxes where he kept the pistols. August followed, holding three swords. Rafe had drawn a sword and carried it aloft, and I saw two pistols pushed through the sash at his waist.
We followed Ma through a hallway to her sleeping room. There she flung open a chest and pulled out two blankets with ties fast at each top. I had seen her a-working at them and asked after them but she had not said what the purpose was, for never would we have needed such heavy covers. She shook one and set it in a ring on the floor. The sound of pistols and a crash of metal on metal seemed far away. Were Pa and August holding off twenty-two men? Might Uncle Rafe be fighting, too? If he were to save my pa, I should have to think on him much more kindly in the future.
Ma pushed Patience’s skirts up and said, “Step in this petticoat,” pointing. In less than a moment Ma had pulled it up and fixed it by the ties around Patey’s waist. “Take everything from this,” she said, pulling her fine worked-silver jewelry casket from its shelf. “Put them all in the folds here.” She plied the quilted petticoat and, as if by magic, opened pockets and duckets, pushing in rings and brooches, and in one, a string of fine pearls long as an ell, which she lifted from her own neck. In the shortest order I had ever seen, she pushed at the seams and squeezed forth threaded needles at the waiting, whipping the openings closed. She tied on Patey’s pocket, a small bag that hung at her waist, and in it put the silver-and-jeweled casket itself. It was no bigger than an egg, and disappeared into the folds.
“There. If they be found, produce that and there remains a gold ring in it. Say your mother gave it ye as a wedding ring that had been her grandmother’s and it will buy you freedom. Let no one find any other of these.” We heard shouts. “Bar the door, Patience. Resolute, come here.”
Ma did the same to me as she had done to my sister, dressing me with a second quilted skirt, procuring yet another casket, smaller still than Patey’s, upon which I had never laid eyes ere now. “Quickly, wait still!” she said when I squirmed a bit. Another cannonball landed so closely that dust and rubble fell from the ceiling. “Wear this petticoat and never, never take it off, understand?”
“It is so warm,” I said. “Makes me drain sweat.”
She did not answer but opened the second casket. Though it was merely wood laid about in gold, it held eight gold rings, eleven silver coins, and a ruby necklace. These she pressed into slits in this new heavy skirt. Then, on her knees, she stitched up the folds and tucked the needle back into the seam. “You take care and you will have a needle. Thread can be found but a needle is a treasure. Keep it close by and oft oiled. If you get a chance to move it to a safer spot, do that, but until then, keep it there.”
“I am sorry we did not stay in the kitchen, as you told us,” I whispered. “Uncle Rafe—”
Ma’s face flushed dark. “There’s no fault in ye, bairny,” she said as she laid coins into the casket. She put two new pieces of eight and six shillings in it and closed the lid, fastening the hasp. She tied a brand-new pocket to my waist with the wooden casket in it. That was to buy my safety, too, I expect. That last, the name she had called me as a wee child, brought tears to my eyes. “Rafe MacAlister is no’ the threat what’s comin’ up the beach. Your pa’d have talked him doon like he done before. Now girls, go. Up the priest’s hole by the fireplace.”
Hiding holes and tunnels threaded through our house. Escape was always in our sights. The sounds of battle grew closer, and shouts followed the pistol fire. I heard glass breaking as Patience and I reached the fireplace. We nestled into the shadows. Fallen stones blocked the way up. I turned to see what had happened behind us. The leaded window lay in shards on the floor and from Ma’s raised hands a thundering bang deafened me. A man dressed in short breeches and a torn vest fell to the floor without uttering a sound. Ma turned to stone, her eyes locked on the blunderbuss in her hands. At that moment two men who had been kicking at the door with hard boots accomplished their task and the wooden door hung loose on its hinges.
Two more men clambered through the window opening and reached Ma. She had drawn a dagger, one I had seen lying in the shelf of books she kept in this room. One of the men smiled, his mouth a toothless cavern, his long cutlass waving in front of her. I would have screamed had not Patience’s hand covered my mouth and nose so that I could hardly breathe. Ma stepped backward, rotating the dagger from pointing at the intruder to pointing it at her own chest. I bellowed into Patey’s hand. I fainted, I suppose, for I knew nothing more but Patey crushing me to her bosom.
“Back to the new stairway,” she hissed, “behind the waterwheel.”
The bedroom seemed empty, and we stood in the open fireplace in perfect silence for the span of several heartbeats. “Where’s Ma?” I asked.
“Do not talk. Run.” We hid at the doorway until we were certain no one saw, and then pounded up the stairs. At the landing I looked down to see Uncle Rafe, Pa, and August, all fighting beside each other, holding four men back with their swords. Pa had blood on his shirt but he moved so boldly that I was sure it was not his. Patience pulled my arm nearly out of its roots as she forced me away from that spectacle and toward the armoire. Heavy steps came up the stairs behind us. She tugged the great chest forward and put me into the opening first, climbed through, and pulled at it with the handle.
Again, blackness enveloped us. I stood by my sister, motionless. I leaned toward her and whispered, “Where did Ma go?”
“Out the door.”
“Did she get away from them, then?”
She let out a tiny sob and said, “Be quiet. Shush.”
At first I thought a mouse had whimpered, then I heard the voices, speaking some foreign tongue—I knew not what—and the armoire rattled as its door opened and the drawers were pulled from their frames. Light came through the place where the slats in the back did not meet, and Patience leaned back so far she nearly fell on me. She tapped my shoulder and, when I did not move, tapped again harder. I took three steps down. This was more clumsy and frightful because I was leading. There was no one there to catch me. August was not waiting at the bottom.
When I had gone down a dozen steps or more, the wall opened up to the place that the water splashed in and there I stopped. “Stop,” I said aloud, lest she tumble us both to our deaths. I spoke over the water. “If we go down all the way, we shall be in the midst of ’em.”
“Let me think. We’ll tarry here a while.” Patience put her hands on my shoulders, but since I stood two steps below her, when I tried to return the embrace I could only hug her knees. I felt the heavy quilted petticoat she now wore, and the funny lump of the pocket with the casket in it against my face. She held my back and we each held the rope on the wall. We both began to weep.
We had seen pirates before, and thieves or renegade slaves, and all manner of situations. But never with such force. Never with cannon. Another cannonball shook the house, yet though it sounded far from us on the steps, people might be in danger in other homes, too, and that was a powerfully troubling thought. I would not mind a great deal if Uncle Rafe were blown to bits, but I wondered where Pa and August were.
With a mighty crashing, splintering sound, the wall where the waterwheel gears threatened and sprayed us fell away. We screamed with all our might and water gushed across the opening from the pipes, which had fed the wheel and now swayed overhead. I would have fallen through had not Patience clutched my clothes, for I felt as if the gears pulled at me. From somewhere in the dark below us, a three-pronged metal claw on the end of a rope came up like the hand of the devil. It reached for me again, closer, and closer yet the third time. It slashed at my skirt, taking a bit of the hem down, and it flew up a fourth time, arching far above our heads, hanging itself on the wall above us. A man scrambled up that rope as if he were a ship’s rat, clutched me around the waist, and tore me from Patey’s arms, swinging him and me down into the spray. We landed with a hard bang and hands pushed me about, wrapped me up with rope, and in a few minutes, Patience stood by me, tied the same as I. I stopped crying, too afeared to make noise.
The men about us wore brushy beards and turbans, some no more than a torn rag about their heads; they smelled of filth and fusty old rum and something far nastier than Uncle Rafe’s wig. Betwixt these ugly fellows, meant to guard us, we stood long enough that my feet began to burn though I chilled from being soaking wet. The men spoke to each other in their strange tongue. Soon, along came a train of our slaves, tied with their hands bound to the neck of the person in front of them, and still naked. They brought children and adults, all tied. At least Patience and I were not tied in a chain, I thought. At least that.
“Where’s Ma?” I asked Patience. I got a cuff across the back of my head for it.
I saw Pa and August and Rafe coming, tied hands to neck just as were the African slaves. Surely, Ma would appear similarly bound. No one dared speak. So, if Ma had been there, mixed in, and tied, and afraid, she could not speak. I told myself she was there. Doing just that. Staying shushed. She would find me in a while.
It seemed as if we waited hours on the beach. I shivered, sometimes almost faint, my teeth chattering. I looked for Ma as much as I dared. At last they allowed us to sit, though the sand wet our skirts through to the skin. Fingers of pale washed-silk green sky moved through the smoke that rose over our plantation. Slivers of light gold reflected in the misty air. They had lit the cane fields and they had burned the house and kitchen and all the slave houses. If I had hid in the cribs in the kitchen loft I might have had no other fate than to roast there like a goose.
Men came from the smoke, blackened with soot and carrying crates and sacks filled with our household goods. I felt the small casket in my pocket and the jewelry sewn into my clothing. Ma always sat with sewing. I never looked at nor cared what she made in recent days, as I was always laboring over my own embroidery stand, wishing for my carefree days before I was expected to learn it. When had Ma done these things? Why had she created such a cloth for me, like nothing I had laid eyes upon? I had never before had such a garment. It was heavy and thick as if I had been clad in mud. I whispered to Patience, “My embroidery. What is to become of it?”
Patience’s face reddened and puckered with sorrow and she began to cry.
“I will make another,” I said, to comfort her.
“Are you blind?” she asked.
I studied her eyes for a moment then turned my face from her to our burning house. No, I was not blind. I only meant that we had lost all. Down to the smallest things. My things. And here I sat tied like a pig held for slaughter. I had been stolen; we had all been stolen, as if we were gilt furniture or a chest full of linen and purple-dyed cloth. I pulled myself into my clothes, shrinking from her chastisement. I received a shove from a foot behind me, pushing Patience and me as if we were indeed a pile of goods that must be kept aright.
I turned to see who had kicked me. I said, “We are being held by hideous, pitiless gargoyles that are not decent enough to speak the queen’s English.” The man felt nothing of my reproof, though, and kept on watching over our heads toward the ship in the bay.
Copyright © 2014 by Nancy E. Turner