I had to leave Miss Clarissa in her sick room. I was sent to the smokehouse to get meats for the cook. When I arrived, I gave the overseer the list and waited as he told a slave the quantities of each meat to load on the wagon. The slave then told me to follow him into the smokehouse, where there was a low fire burning on the dirt floor and meats dangling from the rafters. He gave me a ham to carry, and he put the rest of the meats on a wheelbarrow. We were alone at the wagon as we loaded the goods.
“Miss, you’re Sarah, right?”
“Yes, I am. How do you know about me?”
He looked quickly around the wagon before he answered. “Daniel, the cobbler in town. He need to talk to you.”
“We ain’t got much time, Miss Sarah. Daniel sent word that you was in his shop last month. He was expecting you to go back to see him.”
“I can’t. My mistress is sick, and I can only go to town if I go with her or if Mrs. Cromwell send me.”
“All right. I’ll get word to him. He’ll find another way to talk to you.”
I continued to care for Clarissa in the morning and at night. Her health deteriorated again because, contrary to Mrs. Allen’s orders, Dr. Walker visited her two times a week to bleed her and give her laudanum. Clarissa’s forearms were blue and swollen again and her skin jaundiced. Her belly stuck out of her thin frame. When she was lucid, I tried to get Clarissa to write her mother, asking her to come back and see her. But Clarissa said that there was no purpose in doing so. It was clear that no one was actually sending her letters. During the day, I worked in the kitchen and in Clarissa and Mr. Cromwell’s quarters. Her husband was gone most of the time, and when he was home, he slept in his own room. I did not see my Isaac much because he drove Mr. Cromwell’s coach, and I had to stay with Clarissa at night and tend to her.
I was washing clothes one afternoon when Mrs. Cromwell’s maid came to see me. Grace was carrying a basket of her mistress’s garments. Her eyes darted around the washroom and to the door. “We can talk,” she said. “Ain’t nobody else around. But we got to talk fast. My husband belong to the Wilkes Plantation. He’s a blacksmith in town and he know Daniel, the cobbler.”
Grace put the basket down and stepped outside the washroom to see if anybody had come around. She came back a minute later. “Daniel sent word that he need your help. Master Wilkes is taking slaves to auction next week, and two of them want to run.”
“Why does he think I can help?”
“I really don’t know. But, Sarah, I think one of the slaves Master Wilkes going to sell is my husband. He’s worth a lot of money because he’s a blacksmith.”
“I’m so sorry, Grace. If there’s any way that I can help, I will. But really, they don’t let me go anywhere and they watch me all the time. Now that Miss Clarissa is sick, I can’t go to town at all.”
Clara picked up the basket. “I don’t know how they think you can help, but my husband said Daniel wants you to ask for permission to go to the fields this Saturday night. When you get there, somebody’s going to give you a package that only you can open. Open it when you is alone. You don’t have to ask for nobody. They’ll find you.”
I found Clarissa alert that evening because Dr. Walker had not been to see her in three days.
“Miss Clarissa, do you think you can give me permission to go down to the fields Saturday evening? You know, back home, Saturday and Sundays were our nights when we didn’t have to work. I haven’t had any rest since we’ve been here.”
“Yes, Sarah, of course. Dr. Walker is coming Saturday afternoon. I’m sure that I’ll be asleep from the laudanum all night anyway.”
“Would you speak to Mrs. Cromwell?”
“Yes. Make sure you ask her to come see me today.”
Mrs. Cromwell consented to the request. That Saturday evening, my Isaac was gone with Mr. Cromwell, and I went to the fields in a wagon with seven other slaves. As we neared the quarters, I heard singing and clapping. When we arrived, the area was transformed from its normal appearance, much like the Allen Estates slave quarters on a Saturday, but on a smaller scale. The slaves had created a festive marketplace where they sold or traded goods that they had made or grown. I regretted that I did not take money because one woman was selling colorful quilts, while others were selling baskets, eggs, preserved fruit, honey, pies, cakes, hats, flowers, and even shoes.
Kate, one of the house servants, stayed with me as we walked. Before it got dark, she took me to meet her family. They were gathered at her grandmother’s cabin. The children were playing, and the sight of them caused me to miss my family even more than usual. Kate’s mother gave me food and sweet tea which made me think of my Isaac.
“What’s wrong, darling? You don’t like tea?”
“Yes, ma’am, I like tea just fine. It’s just that, the first time I met Isaac, that’s what I gave him, sweet tea and peach cobbler.”
Kate’s mother smiled. “I bet you did.”
We all laughed together. I realized in that moment that I had not laughed since we arrived at the Cromwell plantation. When it was dark, they lit lanterns, and we gathered in a circle around Miss Patience, Kate’s grandmother. She told us stories, most of which I had heard from my mother and other women at Allen Estates. It was late when the man who worked at the smokehouse arrived. He was holding a package.
“Miss Sarah, my wife met you at the market. She said you was admiring some of her fruit. Here’s a jar of her strawberry jam.”
“Oh, but, I didn’t bring.…”
“No, this is a gift. Maybe next time you come you can buy something.”
“Please thank her for me, and the next time I will bring money for the market.”
We stayed until about midnight. When I arrived at my cabin near the stables, I locked the door and opened the package. It was wrapped in brown paper and tied at the top with a string. An unsigned letter in a blank envelope was wrapped around the jar of jam. There were stones instead of jam in the jar. The letter read:
You are asked to prepare a traveling pass in the names and descriptions of slaves which you will obtain from the slave in the washroom. Use a pen and ink from the house. Make the pass tomorrow, put it in the envelope, wrap it around the same bottle, and then cover the bottle. Someone will retrieve the package the next evening.
The blank envelope also enclosed a sheet of Mr. Wilkes’ letterhead. I was afraid, but also excited.
I rose before dawn Sunday morning and went to the kitchen to start the fire. When the cook arrived, I had already drawn water from the well and made tea.
“Why you up so early?”
“Miss Georgianna, I was at the fields last night, and I want to see Miss Clarissa to make sure that she’s all right.”
I went to the house, and the night watchman let me enter. I put the tea service on a table next to Clarissa’s bed. She was asleep. There were two pens on the desk in her room and bottles of ink in the drawer. It was not likely that anyone would know if these items were missing because I was the only one who polished and dusted the desk. It was not difficult to fit the pen in my pocket, but the ink was visible. I went to the broom cabinet and took my pail to Clarissa’s room. I put the pen and ink under my cleaning rags and took my bucket to my cabin. On the way, the only people I saw were two children going to the well. Once I was inside, I hid the pen and ink in the rice that I kept in a jar. Then I returned to Clarissa, who was still sleeping. I went to the kitchen, and started preparing the ham. Grace entered and greeted everyone. She stood next to me to speak, but there were too many people within hearing distance.
“Miss Georgianna, Grace’s stomach is sick,” I said. “Could someone else finish the ham while we go to my cabin to get her something?”
“Sure, sure. Go ahead,” the cook said.
When we were in the cabin, Grace told me the names and descriptions of the two men.
“Grace, I need to ask you something. If your husband runs, won’t it be the same as if he’s sold? You’ll never see him again.”
“I know, I know, and it’s killing me, but if they sell him, it could be to a worse place. They’re selling a lot of people for new plantations out west. But if he runs and makes it, he’ll be free. He’s a good man. He said he’s going to put money away, and that the same people who is helping him could help me and the children to try to get out when the children is older. I know it’s just a dream, Sarah. I know.”
“I will help in any way I can.”
“Thank you, Sarah. I know I’m not supposed to ask, and I won’t, but whatever it is you’re doing for us, I know that you’re taking a chance.”
“You’re welcome. I hope one day someone will do the same for me.”
That evening, after we finished making supper and I helped Clarissa to eat, the cook gave me permission to go to my cabin. I wrote the pass, using the language that I had memorized years before, and signed it as Mr. Wilkes. My only concern was that all of Mr. Allen’s passes had wax seals and this one would not. I put the pass under the bed to let it dry while I had my meal, and I put the pen and ink under the rags in the bucket. I completed the instructions for wrapping the pass in the package and sat down to rest. I fell asleep with my head on the table and awoke when there was a knock on the door. It was Kate. I let her in.
“How was the jam?”
“It was delicious.”
“The wagon driver is taking me to the quarters tonight. I’ll sleep there and come back early in the morning with meat from the smokehouse for tomorrow’s meals. If you want, I can take the empty bottle back and bring you more jam.”
Two days later, I was in the kitchen when two patrollers arrived. One asked the cook which one of us was Sarah. She pointed at me.
“You, come with us.”
“Are you Sarah?”
“Then come with us. Now.”
I followed them, keeping my hands in my pockets so that they could not see them shake. We stopped next to their wagon.
“Why was Grace in your cabin?”
“Don’t play dumb. Somebody seen you talking to her in the washroom and whispering to her in the kitchen, and then the two of you went to your cabin. What was you talking about and why did you go to your cabin?”
“Sir, she, well, my mother taught me about remedies for women’s troubles and Grace asked me if I had any. I gave her some when we went to my cabin.”
“Why you talk so good?”
“Sir, my mistress and I are the same age. We played together when we were children and I have been her maid since I was eight years old.”
“Did Grace ever ask you to do anything for her husband?”
“Sir? No, I don’t even know her husband. Who is he?”
“We ain’t here to answer your questions. Now go back to the kitchen. If we ever hear that you been in any trouble again, it’s off to the whipping post and jail for you. We’ll let Mr. Cromwell decide what to do with you after that. You’re going to learn how we handle niggers, even yellow ones, here. You understand?”
“Yes, sir, I do. Thank you, sir.”
When I returned, no one spoke to me. That evening, I told Clarissa what happened.
“I don’t like the idea of patrollers speaking to you without my permission. I’ll ask that decayed strumpet why they questioned you. Tell her maid that I request an audience with her mistress.”
Mrs. Cromwell arrived after supper, and Clarissa dismissed me. I stood outside the room until she departed, and then I reentered.
“She said that her maid’s abroad husband who lived on the Wilkes Plantation escaped. They think that Grace, with help from slaves here, helped him escape.”
“Did he escape?”
“Well, that’s why I don’t know why there is a fuss. Mr. Wilkes retained slave catchers, and they brought him and another slave who ran with him back within a day.”
“What makes them think that someone from here helped them?”
“This is the interesting part. The crone said that every year about six slaves escape from here, and they think that someone here helps them write passes. Sarah? You were not involved, were you?”
“Miss Clarissa, how could you think that? I don’t know most of the people here or in any other plantation in Talladega. I don’t leave this place. And why would I risk my life for people I don’t even know?”
“Sarah, if anyone ever asks you to help them in something like that, you must be certain that you do not. Papa told me about these things, including about fraudulent passes, and this is not the first time it has been tried. Whenever a slave escapes, the owner hires slave catchers immediately and places advertisements in the newspapers, and if a slave presents a pass, the slave catchers know it was not written by the slave’s master. And don’t tell anyone that you know how to read and write because you could implicate my mother and me.”
“No, ma’am. I would never tell anyone that. I know it’s against the law.”
I saw Isaac the following evening. I did not have to be with Clarissa for several hours because she said she was well enough to have supper with the Cromwells.
“Somebody told me that patrollers was here today, and they talked to you about those slaves who tried to run. Why did they talk to you? You didn’t have nothing to do with it, did you?”
“No, of course not. Why did you think I did?”
“Because you like to talk about running away. If you had a hand in this, stop it. You could get us both in trouble. And don’t listen to these fools around here. You got to be a idiot to think you can escape. Ain’t they never heard of patrollers and militias?”
“Maybe some people think it’s worth the risk. Not every single slave is caught, you know.”
“Every slave that runs thinks he the one that’s going to get away.”
“But some do escape, don’t you know that?”
“Name one that you know.”
“My mother told me that when she went to New York there were freedmen there who had escaped.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Well, before I was born.”
“That’s your answer, right there. The laws keep getting harder and harder against us, making it tougher to escape. Now how many people do you know bought themselves and their families out of slavery? That’s right, a lot more than those who escaped.”
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. Visit her Web site at www.marlenbodden.com.