This chronicle commences with the monarchs of my heart: my mother, the woman who gave me light, and my sister, to whom I clung in dire times. Both were beautiful, with delicate features and dark skin. I, however, am big-boned and, as the Alabama newspapers described me, yellowish. Except for her yellow hair and blue eyes, I look more like my other sister, to whom I was given when she married, Clarissa Allen, the daughter of the master of the plantation and his wife, Theodora. Like Clarissa, and the man who fathered us, I am tall, have dimples, a pointy nose, and meager lips. I do not know precisely how old I was when I realized that I was a slave, but I think that I was six, the year I began helping with cooking, cleaning, and all that we had to do in the Allen household.
One morning, when we were still sleeping, someone knocked on the door of our cabin. My mother rose and wrapped herself in a shawl, telling us to do the same and to sit at the table. When she opened the door, two men were standing outside, holding lanterns and guns. I trembled, and Belle firmly held my hand.
Why they here, Mama?
Shush, baby. Dont say nothing.
Your key, one man said.
Yes, sir, my mother said.
My eyes were sensitive to the light from their lanterns. I heard them walk everywhere, near the beds, cabinets, and in the kitchen area. One of the men had a persistent cough. Their rancid smell permeated the cabin. The lock clicked and the lid creaked when they opened the chest where my mother kept some of the money that she earned from trading baked goods, quilts, and dried cooking herbs in town.
When they were gone, my mother sat at the table and put her arm around me. She was shaking.
Why those men come here, Mama?
Mr. Allen tell them to.
But why, Mama, why?
Stop asking questions, Sarah. He tell them to and nobody got to tell us why or nothing else.
One afternoon, I filled two pails at the well behind the kitchen. Two boys, about my age, were there playing with clay marbles, when an overseer approached.
What you little niggers doing?
They did not answer him.
You hear me, you black bastards?
The boys continued to ignore him.
You fucking niggers say something when I talk to you.
He used his whip to strike one boy in the arm and the other on the leg and then kicked each one, knocking him to the ground, and the boys and I screamed. I dropped my buckets, spilling water. I heard people running and my mothers voice rising above the clamor saying that she was coming to me.
She told someone to take the boys to our cabin. She kissed me and carried me home, but when she tried to put me on our bed, I grasped the sleeve of her dress.
Sarah, baby, you going to be all right. Stay here. Let me go look after the children.
The boys were crying.
Your mamas going to be here soon. Now let me see how bad you is hurt, she said to them. Im going to clean and put something on your cuts so they can heal. Its going to sting a bit, but you all is big boys and I know you going to be strong.
When the boys mother arrived, I recognized her voice. She was one of the washerwomen for Allen Hall.
Miss Emmeline, thank you for looking after my boys. Thank God you was there and that man didnt do no worse to them.
Youre welcome, but thats what we got to do. We got to look after each others children, and I know you do the same for my girls. You let me know if they aint better soon.
The washerwoman took her boys home. I felt calmer by that time, but my sight was blurred. My mother said that I should stay in bed and rest.
Sarah, I got to get back to the kitchen so I can finish making supper. Let me wash you up first. All right, baby?
No, Mama. Dont leave me here by myself. What if that man is out there? And why he hit those boys?
Mr. Allen aint going to like it when he hear what he did. But Sarah, listen, you always got to do what the overseers tell you. You got to obey them the same way we obey Mr. and Mrs. Allen. You understand me?
Yes, maam. But Im scared of that man. What if he come back?
Im going to be looking out for you, baby, and aint letting you go no place by yourself until you is older. Baby, you know I can see our cabin from the kitchen, and Ill watch to make sure nobody come inside. And Belle and me going to come here to see you every so often.
That year, I began listening to the pastor who had a service in the kitchen for the Hall slaves and their families on Sunday mornings. We did not attend church with the Allens in town because we had to prepare dinner. The field hands and tradespeople had their own house of worship on the plantation. After his sermon, the preacher spoke to us about the slave laws and our activities off the plantation.
One afternoon in the wintertime, after the Allens and their guests had their dinner, my mother took Belle and me into town to purchase goods for the Hall. An overseer met us at the gate before we left and gave the wagon driver a traveling pass.
As I had noticed when we were walking in town on prior occasions, men stopped to stare at my mother. She did not pause and looked straight ahead. That day, we went to different shops to retrieve items that the merchants had ordered from abroad for the Allens and dried cooking herbs from the Indies for my mother. At six oclock, the driver met us at the last shop to help us with the packages.
Johnny, I got something else to do. Please wait for us here.
Johnny gave my mother a lantern, and as we were walking toward a side road, I heard people yelling and saw them running to the square in the center of town. My mother held my hand and steered us back to the wagon. I heard someone scream, and she told me to move faster.
Mister, please, let us go. We wasnt doing nothing wrong. We was just talking. Please dont whip us, one man said.
Shut your mouths and take your turns on the post. You keep arguing, and you going to get more lashes.
Please, mister, dont. I wont do it again. We was just talking.
I hear one more thing from any of you, and youre each getting the full thirty lashes.
Sarah, stop. Not one word. Ill tell you what thats about later. Now we just got to get out of here.
We were silent all the way to Allen Estates. When we arrived at our cabin, my mother told me that the people I saw about to be whipped in town were being punished because they had done something that the preacher warned us about on Sundays.
Sarah, some people in town was talking in a group. Im only telling you this so you know not to do the same thing when youre older. If the patrollers see a group of slaves without a overseer to watch them, the patrollers can whip every one of them.
Around this time, I observed other aspects of my life and the people at Allen Hall that troubled my young head. Clarissa, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Allen, had a sixth year birthday celebration that began on a Thursday and ended Sunday night. There were about thirty guests, including her paternal family from Montgomery and Macon counties and neighboring planters and their families. My mother cooked all the meals and made Clarissas cake.
When we were alone, I asked my mother about my birthday.
You remember when I made that cake for you a little while back, and we and the others had it after supper in the kitchen, dont you?
But you didnt sing to me, and you didnt say it was my birthday.
I know, baby, but it was. Mr. Allen said he wrote it down in his book where he write all the babies birthdays.
When is my birthday?
Mr. Allen said its June 25. But you keep that just between us, all right, baby? And dont tell the other children. Not everybody know their birthdays. I know mines and Belles because Mr. Allens father wrote them down and Mr. Allen told me.
When the Allen relatives visited the plantation, I was not Clarissas playmate, as I was when no one else was around, but her maid; and when she spoke to me, it was to give me orders. During one of these visits, while we were in our cabin one night and I was sitting on my mothers lap, I asked her about her family, who they were and where they might be.
Baby, it aint something I like to talk about, no, but I know everybody want to know where they come from. Only God know where all my kin is, if they is living or is not. They get sold, Mommy tell me, and she say its because our people was the kind that was always making trouble for the overseers and trying to run away, and Master Allens father sell them off, a long time ago. Mommy tell me right before she die that it aint no use trying to make things right on this earth. She was right, it really aint no use. Sarah, thats why Im always telling you that you got to obey Master and Mrs. Allen and all the overseers. If anybody make trouble and dont work or try to run, they get sold off and dont nobody got to tell us where they go and we sure aint never going to see them again. Girl, you know I aint got a single sister, brother, cousin, aunt, or uncle that I know where they is, nobody, nobody but you and Belle. Thats all I got left on earth.
She held me closer. Belle was silent, sitting across from us at the table. I asked Mama if she knew what happened to her parents and brothers and sisters.
Dont know about my pa, where he at, because he got sold. I remember when I was little, at night in our cabin, and Mommy and Pa think me and my brothers and sisters was sleeping, many times Mommy and Pa used to talk real soft, and Pa told Mommy he was going to run. Mommy cry and say no, because she was scared, but Pa say he was going to do it and find a way to get all of us out, he say there was people that can help him run and can help get the rest of the family out, too. Mommy, oh, my poor mother, we bury her after the overseer beat her so bad after she step in to try to keep him from beating Pa when they catch him after he ran. We bury Mommy at the graves by the fields.
My mother poured us water from the pitcher and cut us each a slice of cake. We were silent as we ate, and when we finished the cake my mother resumed telling us about our family.
After Mommy die, Master Allens father sold my three sisters and two brothers, who know where to, and left me to live with one of the granny women who take care of the little children of the mothers that work in the Hall. I was only about ten years old then and old Master Allen told the cook to teach me how to cook. The granny woman, Miss Thomasina, she always took good care of me, even after I was grown, but she died a few months after Belle was born.
She kissed me on the top of my head before she continued.
If you want, on Sunday, Ill take the two of you to the graves where they bury us. I aint been there in many years, its hard because the last time I went was when I was pregnant with Belle and all I did was cry the rest of the day.
Later that week, my mother, assuming that the wooden cross on my grandmothers grave had disintegrated over the years, asked a carpenter to make her a cross, and she borrowed a large shovel from a gardener. That next Sunday, after the preacher read us the Bible and we made dinner, Mama, carrying the cross, took Belle, who carried the shovel, and me to the area where, I learned, the Allen slaves were buried. This was my first time at the graves for the slaves, but I was familiar with the cemetery where some of the Allens were buried, in an area enclosed with wrought-iron fences, because we passed it on our way to the fields. Their graves were marked with ornate crosses carved from stone. I was eager to know about the graves where the slaves were buried, but my curiosity was tempered by Mamas sadness. She was holding my hand tightly, and as we approached the graves, she released my hand to remove a handkerchief from her apron pocket and wipe tears from her face. I was comforted that Belle was with us because she joined me in consoling our mother, Belle by putting her arm around Mamas shoulder and I by kissing Mamas hand.
The slaves burial ground was not a cemetery such as those one sees nowadays; it was simply open, rough land where nothing but weeds grew. We could only tell where the graves were located by the wooden crosses atop mounds of soil. We were the only ones there that day, and we dug in different places trying to find my grandmothers coffin, which, my mother said, had a carved rose, my grandmothers favorite flower. We never found a coffin with a rose. Belle and I did not cry until we found a clump of hair, which we reburied, because my mother said if that was all that remained of a person, even if we did not know whose hair it was, the Lord would want us to honor it as if it were the persons body. We said a prayer and thanked the Lord for our lives after we placed the wooden cross on top of the soil over where we buried that clump of hair.
My mother held Belle and me as we returned to Allen Hall. The sadness I felt after I learned how Mr. Allens father treated my grandparents and our other kin in life and death made me fearful whenever our mother left Belle and me in our cabin at night. It also made me believe, for the first time, that if I asked my mother, she would agree we should leave the Allen plantation.
That year, when I was about six years old, I watched Mrs. Allen and Clarissa when they were together. When Clarissa sat on her mothers lap or embraced her, I was envious because my mother worked the entire day and most nights she was away from our cabin. I missed her when she was not with us and could not sleep until she returned, always before dawn. The mornings after she left, when her eyes met mine, she seemed ashamed, and that made me miserable.
Once, when we were having our breakfast, she seemed preoccupied. I tickled her under her chin, which normally made her laugh. This time, however, she barely smiled. I asked her why she was so sad.
Im just tired, is all, baby. Just tired.
I asked her why we could not go where she would not have to work so hard, and she spoke to me in a fierce voice.
Dont you ever, ever talk about that again, and you listen to me good. Just talking like that can get us sold. You know what it mean to be sold? It mean they send us to different places, and we aint never going to see each other again. Maybe you think just because Mrs. Allen let you play with Miss Clarissa all the time that youre just like her, but you aint nothing like Miss Clarissa. She can say what she want. You got to watch every thing you say. And dont you forget, we is all we got.
I wanted my mother to stop going away; I was afraid that she would not come back. One night, I held on to her.
Dont go, Mama, dont go.
She smoothed my hair.
Say you wont go, Mama. Say you wont go.
Sarah, I got to, baby.
I do not remember how many weeks elapsed before she finally tired of my attempts to prevent her from leaving.
Belles right here with you. Come on, Sarah, stop it.
She handed me over to Belle, who folded me in her long arms. I gave my mother a foul look. I hate you, I hate you. Go, and I dont care if you never come back.
She sat on the bed and cried. I buried my face in the pillow. After some time, I heard her walk across the cabin floor and close the door behind her.
The battle between us continued, but I learned to wound her with silent reproach. One evening, after our prayers, I asked her why she had to leave us. She spoke in a gentle voice.
Sarah, you too young for me to say what Im about to tell you, but you need to hear it. You and Belle is smart girls. I been blessed that way. I was hoping to have this talk with you when you was grown. But in this life, we got to be older than our real years.
Im going to tell you something that you cant repeat to nobody, not even Miss Clarissa. Youre going to have to promise me before I tell you.
I promise. Ill be a big girl and I wont tell.
Sarah, I go to I go to Mr. Allen. Thats where I go at night.
Because he say I got to.
Why do you have to?
I already told you. We got to do everything him and Mrs. Allen, the overseers, and even Miss Clarissa say.
We we belong to Mr. and Mrs. Allen.
What do you mean?
You know how when the preacher read us the Bible he told us stories about what happened to the Israelites, how they was in bondage and they had to do everything Pharaoh say? How when they was too tired to work, they got whipped? You remember the story about how Moses prayed to God to set the people of Israel free? And at first, Pharaoh wont let the Israelites go but then, after God put him through many trials, he had to or God was going to keep making bad things happen to him and his family and the Egyptians?
But why were they in bond bondage?
Because most of the people aint want to worship God. The people of Israel was in slavery for four hundred thirty years, but God told them that, if they believe in him, they was going to be free when they died. We got to believe the same thing, because if we dont, we aint going to get through this life on earth. Whatever happen to us, Sarah, if we is ever separated, were going to see each other again when we get to heaven. You see what Im telling you?
Yes, Mama, everything, but why Mr. Allen want you to be with him?
Girl humph. Baby, you really is too young to know that. But were going to have that talk. Well have that talk when youre older.
She caressed my cheek for a bit before she went to our owner. I did not tell my mother the entire truth. I did not understand most of what she told me or how we could belong to Mr. and Mrs. Allen. I did comprehend what she said about having to believe that God would reunite us after we died, and that belief helped to calm my fear every time she left us to see our master.
As I was a child, I remained resentful and provoked quarrel after quarrel. One late night, she sat, took off her shoes, and rubbed her feet. She did not change into her nightdress.
Why you have to go to him? Stay with us, Mama.
Sarah, stop it. I got to do everything they tell me.
I got out of bed and stamped my foot and yelled. Why cant we go someplace else?
She slapped me. I wiped the tears from my eyes.
How many times do I have to tell you? Are you deaf? Maybe you aint as smart as I think you is. Im going to tell you one last time. If I ever hear you say that again, or if I ever hear that you say that to somebody else, Im going to take a switch to you and beat you so bad you is every color but yellow. You hear me? Do you hear me?
Yes, Mama. I wont ever say that again.
Yall go to sleep. She pointed at me. Get back in bed. And Sarah, you aint putting me through this mess again.
Yes, maam, I mean no, maam.
Belle later told me why it frightened Mama when I spoke about running away. Sarah, you need to know what Mama said happen to people who try to run. They hunt and bring them back. Then they beat them. Them that run away more than one time, they get a foot or toes cut off. The beatings always happen in front of all the slaves, even small children. They gather the slaves around so they all see. They strip the person who ran and put them in the stock with their hands screwed down and their feet tied together. Some they just sell to nigger traders. It better for us here than someplace else because we with each other and we dont work no fields.
Belle was the daughter of a blacksmith who was born in Africa and was sold when she was about a year old. When I think about Belle today, I try to remember her only when she was happy, because otherwise I am overtaken by a pain that makes me feel weak and disinterested in my daily, monotonous life. That Belle would have suffered as she did still leads me to question our Lord, and I do so because Belle was a good person who was mindful of others, especially those whose kin had been sold, as her father was, never to be seen again.
Some of my earliest memories of Belle were of how she cared for me when our mother was gone at night, and how she taught me and the little girls who lived near us and whose parents also worked at Allen Hall how to sew, knit, embroider, jump rope, and plait each others hair. Belle would apply a poultice to the bruised skin of a child who had fallen. If Belle saw an elder who was having difficulty walking, she lent her arm to lean on. If the kin of a neighbor or friend passed away, Belle helped Mama prepare meals for the family while they were grieving.
Belle did so much for me, and for that reason I am grateful to her. When I could not sleep at night because Mama was not there, Belle would stay awake with me until Mama returned or until I could not keep my eyes open, telling me stories, some of which Mama learned from Belles father. When I cried because I missed Mama or I was afraid that the overseers would come to our cabin with their guns and search our belongings, Belle would sit me on her lap and embrace me. When I was older, it was Belle, not my mother, who would assist me when I had a question of great consequence. As many sisters do, I suppose, Belle and I told each other about incidents in our lives that we never told our mother, not because we were afraid of what she would say, but to protect her from additional pain or suffering.
Once when our mother was away at night, Belle told me how her father and other children from his village were taken as slaves from distant lands across the ocean. Belle did not remember her father, whom she called Papa, but she frequently repeated what our mother told her about him.
When he was a boy, Papa live in a village by a great river called the Senegal, where many birds, of all sizes and colors, fly through every year. In the dry season, the little boys always finish their chores fast so they can play by the river.
One afternoon, the men is fishing on the other side of the village. The ladies and girls is at the market, trading. The old people and the babies is in their huts because its too hot for them to be outside. About fifteen boys is playing by the river when they see strange men in a big boat. The men wave at the boys and sail right up to them.
One of the men ask the boys if they want to go in the boat. A boy say no, were too little to go fishing. The man laugh. We aint fishing. We just want to show you what it be like in the ocean. Come with us. The ocean is bigger than your little river. Well, that is the wrong thing to say to little boys because theyre proud of their river, even though theyre also very scared.
The men get out the boat. A boy yell to the others and they run. Just then, some of the old people come out their huts and scream that strangers is in the village. By the time the old people reach the riverbank, the strangers have some of the boys and is chasing after others. They have guns that nobody in the village ever seen before. The old people try to stop the strangers from taking their boys, but a man point the gun and shoot. When one old man fall down with blood all over him, the village folk all stop to stare, and the strangers grab most the boys and put them in chains.
They take the boys to the boat and start sailing away. The villagers is saying, Stop, stop, please, dont take our little boys. But it aint too long after theyre sailing that Papa cant hear the people no more.
That night, because a full moon is shining, the black ocean is made of glass. Its so cold that the boys sit close to each other to keep warm. Every now and then, they see a big fish jump up, fly through the air, and go back in the water.
The stars is so big and bright that you think you can take one down. Papa tell one of the boys who cant stop crying to look up. He tell him theyre the same stars they got back home so they cant be too far from the village.
The next morning, they get to a island where the houses is all in pink, peach, yellow, or blue. The men take the boys off the boat. Theres people walking on the sand. A boy say to them, Dont you see what they is doing to us? Help us. But the people just keep looking ahead.
Then, for the first time in their life, the boys see a man with pink skin on his face and hands. They stare at him. The men who took them pull on the chains. Keep moving, keep moving, you country boys, they say.
They get to a pink house and put them in a room thats crowded with other boys. The room stink because they dont let them wash and they only let them use the outhouse but one time a day. One thing they aint expecting, the men who took them give them a lot of food and water. The pink house have a hole where they put you if you try to run. You have to stay in there for two days with nothing to eat or drink.
When they been there about three weeks, they take a bunch of boys out the room. Then they take more. None of them boys come back. They take a group with Papa in it to another part of the house. Papa smell something nasty.
When they get to another room, they tell the boys to wait outside a close door. The stink is worse. The boys outside dont hear nothing. They keep taking the boys in one at a time and none of them ever come out.
They take Papa in the room and close the door and tell him to take his shirt off. One man is kneeling in front of a fireplace with his back to everybody. Two men put Papa on a table, face up, one man on each side of him, holding him down. One man cover Papas mouth. Even though its hot, Papa is shaking, like its cold. The man who was kneeling in front of the fire get up and turn around. Hes holding a steaming iron like the field hands use on sheep and cows.
Papa try to get the men off him, but they dont let him go and they keep his mouth covered. The man holding the iron press it into his chest and Papa faint. When he come out of it, he forget where he is and look for his mama. But just the men is there. Papa look down at his chest and it look like meat that just start to cook.
They get him up and walk him through a different door to another room where they have all the boys. All of the boys is staring at the wall looking at something that aint there. When all the boys is branded, they take them back to the room where they put them when they first get to the island. There, the men look at the boys from time to time to see if their wounds is healing.
After about a month since they get there, they take everybody back to the water and put them on a bigger boat than the one they bring them in. When the boat is sailing, Papa look back and stare at the island until there is no more spots of pink peach yellow or blue.
Copyright 2013 by Marlen Suyapa Bodden
MARLEN SUYAPA BODDEN is a lawyer at The Legal Aid Society, the nation’s oldest and largest law firm for the poor, in New York City. She drew on her knowledge of modern and historical slavery, human trafficking, and human rights abuses to write The Wedding Gift, her first novel.