Here’s the first thing you need to know about Miss Cathy Williams: I am the daughter of a daughter of a queen and my mama never let me forget it. That’s right. Royal blood runs purple through my veins. And I am talking real Africa blood. Not that tea-water queens over in England have to make do with. My royal blood comes from my grandmother, my Iyaiya, as we called her in Fon, our secret Africa language. And don’t go picturing one of them sweet old grannies like you got nowadays with linty lemon drops tucked into her apron pocket for the grandkids. No, she had possum teeth, filed to points so, if need be, she could rip an enemy’s throat out, for my grandmother was one of the Leopard King’s six thousand warrior-wives, what the French called les Amazones.
The second thing you better get straight about Miss Cathy Williams is that, even though I had the misfortune to be born in Missouri nearly fifty years ago, somewhere in the vicinity of 1840 to 1844, depending on how Old Miss told the tale that day, I am not a Southerner. Only two things in this world the South is good for. Hookworm and misery. I’ve lived here in Trinidad, Colorado, for over twenty years and it’d take chloroform and a gun to ever get me back to the South. What I’m trying to say is I am a Western woman and that is what that dandified reporter from the St. Louis Daily Times never understood about me. Just because I was from the South, that pinch-nosed weasel expected me to be a grinning old auntie, calling him “suh,” shuffling her feet, and talking about dem ole days back home. When I didn’t turn out to be some green country gal fresh off the plantation never knew the touch of shoe leather and was, instead, a person who could talk just as proper as him when she was of a mind to, here’s what that skunk dump wrote in the January 2, 1876, edition of the St. Louis Daily Times. He wrote that I received him “with an assumed formality that had a touch of the ridiculous.”
“Assumed”? Because I knew when to say “ain’t” and when not to?
How do you answer back to a newspaper? With just a few words, that bowler-hatted jasper made me out to be a fraud and every word out of my mouth a lie. No wonder folks don’t believe me when I tell them I was a Buffalo Soldier. Having both my feet amputated last year has not strengthened my case either. The way I’m being whittled down, I reckon I might have another year, two at the most, to set the record straight before they fit me out for a pine box. So, with Miss Olivia Hathcock, teacher at the Trinidad, Colorado, Free School for the Children of Colored Miners, taking down my words that is what I intend to do.
No point in starting off with whatever date Old Miss wrote in her book to record the births of the slaves born onto their miserable tobacco farm off on the far west side of Missouri in a region so Confederate it was called Little Dixie. No, my real life, the one I was meant to have, did not start until an August night in 1864, three years into the war, when I watched the only world I’d ever known burn to the ground and met the man who was to be my deliverance and my damnation, the Yankee general Philip Henry Sheridan.
The first time I laid eyes on Philip Sheridan, the man might of been Satan himself. He was mounted up high on a black horse must of been sixteen hands tall set smack in the middle of fires roaring so loud that Sheridan had to yell orders down to his blue-jacketed demons in a voice that thundered like Judgment Day. The Yank soldiers swarmed through the farm, torches held aloft, kerchiefs tied over their noses against the smoke. Tears washed white streaks down their soot-blackened faces. They were burning Old Mister’s tobacco crop and the smell, like ten thousand men smoking stogies, could of harelipped a bull ox.
My little sister Clemmie, a wisp of a girl subject to many a nervous complaint, trembled in terror against me, for the white preacher had warned us that Yankees were minions of Lucifer. “They’ll slice you open,” he promised whenever the occasion had presented itself. And many times when it had not. “And let their dogs drag your guts out so you can die watching your entrails being devoured.”
Sheridan might of been Satan himself, still I could not take my eyes off of the man. When I separated him from his mount, though, I found I was looking at a squatty little fellow with black hair so short it looked painted on, a long body, strong, broad chest, short legs, not enough neck to hang him with, and arms so long that if his ankles itched he could scratch them without stooping. He had a head like a bulldog, big and round, with a hard set to the jaws that signaled once he sunk his teeth into a thing, either him or that thing’d be dead before he turned it loose. It was a head molded by the Creator to do one thing on this earth. And that one thing was fight.
There wasn’t but one Yankee fit such a description, the dreaded General Philip “Little Phil” Henry Sheridan. Even the Feds called him “Smash ’em Up” as that’s what the young general was given to yelling as he rode, laughing and cursing up a blue streak, into battle.
Old Mister and his Secesh friends despised all Yankees, but they hated Sheridan worse than any other Federal. They called Sheridan’s habit of burning everything in his path “despicable and unspeakable savagery and against every rule of civilized behavior.” Unlike, say, shackling up humans and working, flogging, or starving them to death. All in all, I was inclined to like the man.
“Burn it all, lads!” Sheridan bellowed over the sound of the flames crackling and roaring. “Burn the Rebels’ food and burn what they’d sell to buy food! Burn every grain of Rebel wheat and every kernel of Rebel corn! Burn it to the ground! I want the crows flying overhead to have to carry their own rations!”
Before that moment, I had never heard this exact brand of Yankee being spoke, and though it hit my ear like a handful of pebbles hurled against a window, I had to admit that the General, as I came to think of him then and forever after, could preach him some damnation.
Out beyond the dirt yard where the soldiers had gathered us up at bayonet point, flames flowed over the fields like a river of blazing orange spreading into an everlasting lake of fire. It roared so loud it took me a minute to make out the caterwauling of Old Miss.
“You are the devil, Phil Sheridan!” Old Miss wailed, gathering her three wormy offspring to her side. “The very devil himself, for only a demon of the lowest order would burn out a poor woman with a husband lying fresh dead in her parlor and leave her and these poor innocent children with nothing to eat!”
“Don’t be calling me a devil, woman,” Sheridan said, his queer accent turning “devil” into “divvel.”
“The Union Army has burned your crops, madam, we have not slaughtered your sons. And we shall not be laying a hand upon your daughter.”
He pointed a righteous finger toward the pasty-faced Little Miss, trembling in her pinafore worn now to a gray rag beside the two Young Sirs, both bowlegged with rickets.
“You traitorous Secessionists brought this miserable war on yourselves. Insisted upon it. Sought to sunder our country in two with it. War is brutal, my good woman. I do not make it any more so than I must.”
The three gray curls that hung down either side of Old Miss’s long face hopped around like fleas as she’d had no tonic to calm her nerves for the three long years the Rebellion had been grinding on. “We’ll starve!” Old Miss cried, so pitiful you’d of never guessed at the blackness of her heart.
Never of imagined her looking bored and peevish when my grandmother, my Iyaiya, was led away, naked but for a rag twixt her legs, in a coffle of other wore-out slaves, all chained together like fish on a trotline. Old Mister had sold her for ten dollars to a turpentine camp down in Alabama, where they’d squeeze the last bit of work and life out of the captured queen in a dank pine forest. Bored and peevish was also how Old Miss had looked when my mama’s other babies were sold away from her. It was how she looked when Old Mister took my beautiful baby sister, Clemmie, up to the house to use like a man uses a wife.
“You have left us nothing,” Old Miss shrieked. “Nothing!”
Looking at Old Miss then, with all three of her children alive and clinging to her, their fine house standing proud, I thought, Nothing? Why, that stupid woman hasn’t touched even the least little hem of “nothing.” But she was starting to, and for that I was glad.
“How will we feed ourselves?” Old Miss whined.
Sheridan roared down at her, “Rebel, don’t be adding lying to the crime of high treason against the United States of America. Feed yourselves with the silver you’ve buried.”
That shut her up right quick. We all knew that Old Miss had buried her precious silver even before the war started.
“Or would you prefer that I hogtie your youngest son?” Sheridan asked. “And hold him over a fire until the fat and the truth is rendered out of him?”
We had all heard about how bushwhackers had done just that over to Glen Eden plantation where they had strung Mister Pennebaker up over a low fire until they cooked the truth out of him, and he directed them to the fork above Perkins Creek where he’d buried his valuables in a barrel.
“Might that not encourage you to reveal where you’ve hidden the spoils which, by all rights, belong now to the Union Army?” Sheridan prodded.
Old Miss’s jaw worked as she bit at the inside of her mouth. Her eyes twitched about in the rabbity way she had, but she didn’t answer.
“Speak no more of the hardships you’ve endured,” Sheridan said. “Not with more than half a million souls, yours and ours, lying in their graves because, for the most selfish of reasons, you willful, prideful, ignorant, arrogant, traitorous Rebels would destroy the finest country our Almighty Lord ever set upon His benighted earth.”
I could see from the start that Phil Sheridan was a serious man.
With Old Miss shut up good and proper then, Sheridan demanded of one of his officers, “Have all the contrabands been accounted for?”
For the first time, the soldiers shone the torchlight upon our faces.
Mama, who was standing to my right, and Clemmie, to my left, huddled up closer against me. Fear was making my sweet little sister vibrate like a hive humming with bees. Old Mister’s nasty doings had taken all the starch out of her. And that is why I had been forced to slip a brown recluse spider into his pocket to bite the hand that had interfered with my baby sister. His blood had gone bad and, with all the fit men carried off and no one else left to run the place, he’d had to make Mama overseer. After the bitten hand turned black, Old Miss took her nasty husband into town to have it cut off. But he died anyway. I thought that was the happiest day of my life. This one, however, was showing fair to beat it out.
I wanted to tell Clemmie not to be afraid. That no one’s guts’d be getting dragged out by dogs. My little sister had never been able to fully understand that white folks generally preferred the more economically satisfactory practice of working us to death over outright killing.
Me? I was more excited than scared for, no matter how bad the Federals were, I saw no way they could be worse than what we had here.
“Madam,” Sheridan boomed down at Old Miss, “are these all your Negroes?”
“All that your cowardly marauders and scavengers have left us,” Old Miss sniffed, as though it wasn’t the Rebs and general riffraff bushwhackers who’d carried off, first the strong men, then the weak, and, finally, the boys.
A Yankee with silver oak leaves on his shoulder straps stepped up and asked, “Sir, should I confiscate the contrabands?” The officer had the toadying manner of the worst kind of overseer sucking up to the master. I figured him to be either the General’s overseer or he was angling for the job.
The General had what you might call a salty vocabulary and he roared, “Colonel Terrill, need I remind you that we are on a ______ foraging mission? And it’s been a damn ______ miserable one so far? We’ve barely liberated provisions enough to keep our own ______ bellies full and you’re proposing we add a pack of ______ Negroes to the quartermaster’s load? No, Colonel, I’ll send a detachment later to take them to a freedman’s camp. I’ve no intention of feeding every ______ pickaninny between here and Washington, D.C.”
“Begging the general’s pardon, sir,” the colonel went on. “I hate to mention it, sir, but your staff’s head cook did requisition a helper, sir.”
“Solomon needs a helper?”
“Yessir. Cook’s helper, General. For the officers’ mess, sir.”
“What happened to…? You know.” The General circled his hand in the air, urging the name to come forth. “Fat wench. Front teeth knocked out. You know.”
“Betsy?” the colonel supplied. “Betsy died of the bloody flux.”
The General shook his head and sighed with annoyed regret. “It’s what I have always maintained, the Almighty did not fashion woman for the life of a warrior. All right, Terrill, requisition a cook’s helper. But I will have no more ______ females serving my staff, do you hear me?”
“Yessir, sir, General, sir. Couldn’t agree more, sir. No females, sir.”
“Don’t want to ______ see them. Won’t ______ have them dying around me. The rigors of battle require a man’s strong constitution. What is needed is a darkie buck. Stout, husky one with the constitution of a ______ mule.”
From atop his fine steed, Sheridan appraised us, his finger twitching back and forth as he passed over first one slumped specimen quivering before him then the next: Auntie Cherry, who was too blind and crippled up to do anything except stick a finger in a baby’s mouth when she cried from hunger. Hettie, who, though still strong and able, was eliminated since she was not only female, but also convinced that she was still back in Georgie eating crowder peas, the result of Old Mister laying into her with a singletree yoke several years back. Old Amos, though technically a man, still didn’t make the cut as his fingers were knotted up like a corkscrew willow to where he couldn’t hold a chopping knife right. Even Maynard, a near-grown man-boy, who believed he should have been made overseer instead of Mama, did not capture the General’s fancy.
Then Sheridan’s eye fastened on me for, as had become our habit since Old Mister’s blood went bad from the spider bite and Mama was made overseer, I was wearing britches and in no wise gave off the look of a female. I felt Mama stiffen at seeing me being included in all this mule talk and her fury jumped into me like a spark off a fuse.
Being treated like beasts at auction didn’t bother the rest of them. They were all slouched over and beat-down-looking, trying not to attract attention. They didn’t know whether these white Yankee men wanted to free us so they could roast us on spits like the preacher and our masters told us they planned on doing, or if liberation really was at hand. It hardly mattered, though, for we all knew that, one way or the other, long as whites were running the show, it’d be bad for us. So I couldn’t fault them for keeping their heads down and waiting for this latest misfortune to blow over.
But in the months Mama had been running the show, me and her had lost the habit of being sized up like broodmares and we both bristled. Iyaiya had drilled it into Mama never to show weakness before your enemy and Mama had passed that rule on to me. Since any and every white man, no matter what color uniform he wore, was Mama’s enemy, she drew herself up tall and proud and locked eyes with this general.
In the gaze that passed between them it was clear that Sheridan saw who was before him because puzzlement clouded his expression as two things he had never put together before collided in his head: warrior and woman. He shook his head and moved on to the last candidate, me.
“That one!” He pointed at me. “The tall one there! Splendid specimen.”
I brightened. It was hard to hate someone who called you “splendid.”
“He’ll do,” he pronounced. Then General Philip Sheridan spoke directly to me for the first time. “You there,” he said. “You won’t die on me, will you, boy?”
Whether I was about to be liberated or roasted up, I was hard set on the one thing I’d always cared most about: making Mama proud of me. As I gathered myself up, I thought about Daddy telling me how he’d made his way amongst a certain sort of white gentleman who enjoyed a bit of sass. I judged the General to be of that sort and shot back, “No, sir, I be singing at your funeral, sir. You can count on that.”
Everyone except my mother sucked in his breath and stepped away from me. Even Clemmie put some air between us. Sheridan’s dark eyes ceased reflecting the least little bit of light and narrowed down to draw a bead on me. If he could of shot bullets from those black eyes, I’d of come down in a pile right then and there. Yankee or Rebel, a white man was a white man, and I had taken a fatal step over the line. Slaves were lashed to death for imagined slights. Who knew what my bald-face sass would get me?
Old Miss’s face pruned up with the fear that the Yanks would take out my impudence on her and she went to babbling and wagging her finger at me. “That one. That one is incorrigible. Ever since the bucks were taken and her mother was made overseer after Mr. Johnson fell ill, she has run wild. Lord knows we tried to beat the devil out of her, but he would not come.”
“The devil, you say,” Sheridan repeated and I knew I was done for. With strong hands to do the job, Old Miss could now order the hide to be whipped off me.
Instead, Sheridan just studied me as he scrunched his face around so that the tips of his black mustache twitched to one side of his mouth then the other. At last, he let out a bark of a laugh and told the colonel beside him, “They told me at West Point that I had the devil in me, didn’t they, Terrill?”
Terrill mumbled some mealy-mouthed answer I couldn’t hear, but the way Sheridan’s question had caused the prissy colonel to tighten his lips told me that the West Point comment had been a pointed jab.
“Devil’s just another name for spirit. Lad’s got ______ spirit!” Then Sheridan mused, “His is a comical race of japes and buffoonery. Wouldn’t hurt to season Solomon with a wee bit of levity, now would it, Terrill?”
“Indeed not, sir!” the colonel agreed before the question was all the way out of Sheridan’s mouth. “Although, if I might add, sir. Your head cook did specifically request, if not a female, at least a house servant who knows a bit about cooking.”
Well, that was it for me. Any skink slithering past knew more about cooking than me. But instead of asking what I knew, the General bellowed, “This is the United States Army, Colonel Terrill! Not ______ Delmonico’s! Solomon will get the best of a bad ______ lot and make ______ do as we all make ______ do.” He wiggled around in the saddle, settling his rump in good and solid, as if the colonel’s comment had unseated him. Then he proclaimed my destiny. “It is decided then. You”—he pointed at me—“shall come with us and be my cook’s helper.”
Mama wailed, “No, massuh, please, not my child! My child is my heart, massuh. I gon die without my heart.”
I had not heard the word “massuh” slip from between my mother’s prideful lips since all the men had been carried off and Old Mister had made her overseer. She’d say “sir” and “mister,” “ma’am” and “miss,” but never “massuh” and would of switched me if I had ever uttered it. And she never spoke in such a pitiful, mush-mouthed way.
Her begging, though, had no effect on Sheridan who answered, “Then send him with your blessings, Mammy. Your blessings and prayers to our Lord Jesus and his Holy Mother that the Union Army shall smite the Rebels and you shall be the last mother whose son is ever taken from her.”
Mama’s protests that I wasn’t no mother’s son were lost in Sheridan booming out the order, “Colonel! Liberate the boy! He is now, officially, Union contraband!”
Terrill leaped forward, grabbed me roughly, and promised, “I shall personally ensure that he is delivered to headquarters, sir.” Then he shoved me in the direction of a bunch of soldiers, yet still I would not turn loose of Mama.
I was immediately swallowed up by a sea of blue coats. Hands popped out every sleeve and they all took to shoving me along, every soldier jockeying to see who could show off how tough he was by pushing me the hardest. They tried to yank me out of Mama’s arms, but she clung so tight my bones popped. And I was clinging right back for though it was my dream to answer the call of my blood and be a warrior as Iyaiya had been, I never figured Mama and Clemmie wouldn’t be fighting alongside me.
The white soldier boys hoisted me up into the air. The instant they ripped Mama’s hands from mine, my mother shed the first tears I had ever seen fall from her eyes. Seeing that Mama loved me in the regular, American way made love gush so hot and hard through me that I, too, might of cried had I not been within the General’s sight.
I reached out for Mama, but the soldiers pulled us apart and floated me over to Old Mister’s buckboard. The wagon bed was crammed full with three miserable baskets of sweet potatoes, a couple of hogsheads of parched corn, our last scrawny pullet, and a few other sundry items left after three years of foragers stripping us like a plague of locusts from Revelations.
When they let down the back gate, a bushel of sweet corn tumped over, and the ears went rolling everywhere. The soldiers mashed me in next to a hogshead of cured tobacco held back from last year for Old Miss’s personal use, and tried to slam the gate closed, but it banged hard against my knees. I had to tuck my long legs up until I was squatting like a bullfrog, knees beside my ears, before they could get the gate latched. Soldiers gathered up the runaway corn, threw it in, and seemed to be aiming specifically for me, since every ear knocked me in the head.
The buckboard bounced around when the driver, a tall white soldier with shoulders hunched up like a vulture, climbed onto the foretop and took the reins. He went to harring up the mules and the wagon creaked and started rolling away down the trail. As I was parted from them, Mama and Clemmie broke away from the soldiers. They had about reached me when a big iron X dropped down and stopped them in their tracks. Two soldiers marching behind the wagon had crossed the bayonets on their rifles and wouldn’t allow my sister and my mother to come any closer.
Mama yelled to me in Fon, a language that she had never before spoken when whites were around as she would have been flogged for doing so. “Remember who you are,” she said. “You are N’Nonmiton. You are the daughter of a daughter of a queen who was one of the six thousand virgin warrior-wives of King Ghezo, the greatest of the twelve kings of Dahomey!” The words rang with the strange music of the tongue we shared.
The sweat that glazed Mama’s dark skin shone in the firelight. She tugged down the neck of her bodice to expose the five neat rows of scars that glistened there like black pearls between her collarbone and her heart. Holding my gaze, she touched the scar beads.
In answer, I touched my own set of identical scars and cried out to her in the language of my cradle, “Ma’ami! Ma’ami!”
Clemmie bleated out my name, “Cathy! Cathy! Cathy!”
As they fell farther and farther behind, Mama reached her arms out to me. I tried to yank mine loose, but they were mashed in tight next to my knees. All I could set free was my voice, and I yelled, “I’ll come back, Ma’ami, I promise! I’ll come back for you and Clemmie!”
I finally managed to work my arms loose and hold them out, leaning so far over the gate that I touched the bayonets. When I hit iron, the soldier turned his weapon and poked at me like he was transporting a bear. He kept on poking until I squatted back down.
We rolled on and the dark night closed in around the wagon. I stared so hard that my eyeballs ached trying to hang on to the sight of my mother. But Mama shrunk away until the rock that had always anchored my world was whittled down to a frail silhouette swaying in front of the flames.
And Clemmie? I couldn’t see Clemmie anywhere. My sweet, sad little sister had vanished altogether.
Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Bird