“You been to the woods with Rove yet?” I asked.
Joy put on like she ain’t heard me. We was cleaning a seed bed a field over from the others. Working alone with anybody else woulda been fine. Not with her.
“You been to the woods with Rove?” I asked again, and this time she stop and look me over like a white woman will, like she studying if you clean enough to walk the floor you just scrubbed.
“I’m not going to the woods with Rove, Esther.”
She come to the field that first day with nothing on your head. She must got sun addled. Some addle quick. I said, “You going.”
“You’ve been,” she said. Not a question, so even though I started the fight, it felt like a sneak punch.
“You going too.”
“I won’t. I’ll fight.”
Like none of us, wives, mamas, aunts, daughters and sisters thought a that. Like we didn’t have to piece up our clothes and snuff up our tears, and walk into our cabins pretending whatever Rove done ain’t bruised flesh or broke spirit. Because whatever he done, there was worse he could do. And it might not be done to you who could take it.
“Worse if he have to chase or fight you.”
“You think I’ll just stand there?”
“No,” I said, and even to my own ears, my laugh sounded crazy. “I think you’ll be on your knees.”
I put down my hoe. I stepped over a row and got right up on her. I could see sweat on the bell of her nose.
She drawed back. I grabbed for a fist full of her hair. She knocked my hand away. She weren’t quite scared of me. I weren’t quite sure of her.
“Come down here with your airs! You no better then me. Then none’ a us. You’ll go. You gone find out what he like. You gone act like you like it.” I felt the prick of tears, heard my big bad voice quiver. “He gon’ make you say you like it.”
“I might not be better than you. But I’m not you. I’m not going to the woods or anywhere else with Rove.” She picked up her things, little biscuits, gourd of water, hoe, and started further down the seed bed.
“You don’t know yet,” I hollered behind her, “but you gone find out. Rove gon’ make you say you like it!”
She didn’t turn around. Didn’t stutter-step or stumble. But I know she heard me.
Hard as I tried to teach her, pointing out airs like dabbing her mouth with a kerchief like it was a linen napkin and sticking out her pinky finger when she drunk from the ladle, Joy seemed not to know she’d been brought low as the rest of us. When the time came for her to know it, I didn’t feel like I thought I would.
I seen Rove riding up on us. I thought he was coming for me. I clamped my toes in the dirt, put a hard rein on the urge to run.
He tied that horse of his to sapling and came right at me. I was opening my mouth to beg mercy, to remind him I weren’t long from child-bed, but I didn’t get a chance to.
“Esther,” he said, “gone up front’n help chop.”
Her turn. I was so used to him coming for me, I’d forgotten ‘bout Joy. She had stepped in the woods ‘fore he come riding up. Now she came back, smoothing her skirt where she had heisted it up to pee. She looked from me to Rove.
It must have been on my face or in his. She knew I was leaving him to it.
“Es-ther,” she said. “Esther!”
“You don’t mind Esther,” Rove said to her, then to me, “Get!”
“Yes, sir,” I said. Still holding my hoe, I hurried up front to join the others. Staying wouldn’ta stopped what was coming, and I didn’t want to be within earshot. Couldn’t count how many times I’d run from them sounds, coming from the smokehouse or behind a stand of trees, pretending not to hear. I had been on the other side too. Rove’s arm on my throat, pressing the pig-slaughter noises back in me, I’d heard footsteps hurry by. And lucky for Joy he didn’t come first thing in the morning when she woulda had to go all day wearing his smell and slime. Lucky if she could slip off to wash, though she’d hate to touch her own self, at least she could get the dirt and cockleburs out of her hair before anybody had to pretend ‘long with her that she “Jus’ fell.”
I walked fast, all the time making peace with myself. She’ll be all right. Ain’t a woman in these quarters ain’t been through it. And some of the mens. I didn’t know I was tear-blind until I tripped over a fieldstone. I came up empty-handed and running. By the time I reached Jeremiah, I swear I was ‘bout the choke on my own snot and grief.
We knowed what Rove did to our mothers, our baby sisters and wives. He was careful not to do it in front of us. The women was careful to hide their wounds. We men was careful not to let on we knew. So, we all went on. Rove not punished, women not protected, or pitied, and us men pretending living was more important then how we lived. But sometimes, a man get tired. Small vengeance – fences knocked down, tools broke – don’t always satisfy. Sometime, the only way to calm a killing rage is to kill.
Esther come ‘cross that field like a black bear chasing her.
“Rove got Joy!” she shouted. And I was running, a pickax still in my hand.
I heard the swish of the bay horse’s tail, the long rough hairs falling into place, and the soft landings of birds, and the creeping back of what all lived in the undergrowth.
The horse chewed grass and twitched her sides and haunches under the weight of the saddle and blood-greedy flies. The tobacco seedlings was scattered and withering out of the wet moss. In the spot where they struggled, small branches was torn down and the earth gouged up.
From the grove, I heard one human sound, hard breathing, like grating against a washboard.
Rove lay face down, his pants shucked down past his gray ass to the raw skin of his thighs; his skull broke open like a thick-hulled melon.
Joy stood over him, bloody foam on her face, the hoe still locked in her hands, the pulp of Rove’s brain sliding down the whetted blade. She made the sound again. My legs went out from under me.
“He turned his back to piss, to piss-” she said.
She stood locked in a killing stand, feet apart and shoulders pressed down in a chopping motion. Her hair stood every which way, dirt under the spray on her face, blouse ripped from neck to breast. Her skirt rode wrong, twisted and heisted, flank where I carved the map uncovered.
Her eyes were big, round like the bowl of a banjo, voice thin as the strings. “He told me get back to work.”
I pushed myself to stand, then come up on her like you do a mare that’s known to kick.
“I got to bury him,” I said, easing my hand over hers. I pried her fingers off the handle. “Let me bury him.” I turned her ‘way from Rove’s body, pushed her in the direction of the creek. “Wash off. Don’t come back ‘til I call you.”
When she was gone, I set to work. When the hole was deep enough, I rolled Rove’s body with a kick of my foot. I didn’t even shut that bastard’s eyes.
When she come back to me, what Rove done had settled over her like a shroud. It was in the creases of her, stiffening the way she held her head and the way she bent her arms and legs, muffling the shuffle of her feet. It deadened her eyes.
I wanted to say ‘I know,’ ‘cause that was the truest thing I could tell her. I knowed how it felt to be pinned down, my neck staked to the ground, the iron of the bit tearing my mouth – what I’d rather die then take forced in. But she wouldn’t thank me, just like I wouldn’t thank her for taking my shame out and turning it in the sun. Some way or ‘nother, we all got a tale of rape. We don’t tell’ em. So I said, “He can’t hurt you no more.” I wasn’t sure she heard me, ‘cause her stare was fixed on the plot, though I’d smoothed the mound flat and drug branches and vines for cover; she knowed right where I laid him. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m sorry I didn’t get here in time.”
“How did you know?”
“She left me.”
“She run to me.”
“I thought she was glad.”
“She weren’t glad.”
“They’re going to kill me,” she said.
“They are going to hang me,” Joy said, but we both knowed that was only if they was merciful. Any nigga killed a white wouldn’t die easy. We’d all heard of one roasted alive with bellows, another dragged ‘hind a horse ’til anything human was scourged away.
“No. They ain’t gone know you done it.”
She had the hurt look of a bewildered child. “Who else would-”
“You gone say it was me.”
“Then they’ll kill you.”
“They got to catch me first.”
“What I give you since we been married? No kind of protection. This the onliest way I can be a husband.”
“I’ll tell them what he did-”
“Don’t be the fool you was when you come back here. A white man is dead. Don’t matter that he were low and mean. Don’t matter what he done. This the only chance we both got to live.”
“They always bring you back.”
“Then I better not get caught this time.”
“You don’t have anything. No food. No water.”
“I been getting ready for this since the day I was sold from my ma.”
“Let me go with you.”
“That don’t serve no purpose but to break Miss Cassie heart. They catch us, they kill us both.”
She grabbed me by the arms. In her grip, I felt the strength that opened Rove’s head like a shucked oyster. If I took the blame, if I kept her safe, she could live past this.
I took her hands off me and kissed one then the other.
“Don’t you rather it be like this?” I asked. “This way, we decide. Just like when we married. We ain’t ask nobody. No man said yeah or nay.”
“I’ll find you,” she promised.
He sadly smiled. “I expect so. It’s marked on you.”
She said, “Take his horse.”
I said, “Go to Cassie.”
We kissed. Not kisses like in the barn or when her mama was out of the cabin. These kisses was not meant to quench but to fill us up with the little joys we’d brung each other and the hope, no matter how slim, we’d live to love each other again.
“I had to hate you,” I told her, “just a little bit. Only way to not die from it.”
We sat at the table, Joy on the split log bench. Me on the woven cane chair. A shriveled corn cob doll lay between us, its skirt edges curled like parchment, the hair breaking. I stroked it.
We never had talked about how Joy was took from me. What for? They wanted her, so they took her, and I can’t say I didn’t know that day was coming. They law say you can’t owe a slave nothing, not even your word.
It hurt, just like I knowed it would, when I let myself fall in love with that last baby of mine. I seen other mothers turn they face to the wall and refuse to hold a newborn babe, refuse to count the toes and wonder over who she look most like. They hand’em over to a old woman. When they well enough, the mamas go on back to the fields. At dinner, don’t come in to nurse. Let the milk swell’ em shut. That suffering easier to bear than loving a child you can’t keep. But I stood on a promise from the Master, “Yes, Cassie, you can keep this last one.” So, I loved my baby. I raised her. But what were my choice? If I hadn’t, I’da been no more then they imagined: a sow, a heifer.
Joy touched the doll gently, but still a piece of the skirt crumbled.
“I saw you take hold of the Mistress,” I explained, “the way you used to latch onto my tit. Something moved me against you, my own child.”
At first, ‘slave’ meant moving out of the way or coming when called, bowing, yes ma’am, no ma’am, picking up, putting down where and when told, rising according to somebody else’s notion of time, but that didn’t seem much different than being a child - fed after grown folks, washed in cloudy bathwater when the grown folks were done - habit, not power, not something I wouldn’t get old enough or big enough to get beyond.
When did I understand ‘slave’? When my innards were snatched into knots for aching love. Me, Cassie, the lot of us, we were never enslaved to what white folks thought. It was never fear; it was heart-binding. We were slaves to the one thing they denied we had in us: lasting, binding, unloosing love. So, when Mistress ordered, “Come!” and held out a hand still strung with hair she’d ripped from my Mama’s head, I threw down my doll and ran to her. Anything, anything to get mama off her knees, anything to stand in the way of the whip, even my own small body.
‘Slave’ means stand in the corner until called. Kneel, fetch, carry. ‘Slave’ means a bitten tongue, a slapped cheek. It means you live among folks who think you are a toy - come to life when they pick you up to play. It means you stand it for the sake of that unbearable, un-laceable love.
Miss Olivia and Mr. Jason used me. Esther mocked me. Cassie begrudged me. Jeremiah accused me. All for being a slave. And I parsed in my heart everyday: What else to be? Who else to love?
Master knowed me well enough to know I wouldn’t act a fool. He let me say goodbye. It were one of the few times I had her in my arms since they first took her.
Here is all the comfort I had: The rest of my children gone so young, I might not know’ em, but this child’s face I could never forget.
“If there is any way to come back-” Joy said.
“Don’t never come back -” I told her.
“I will – I will. We’ll go -”
I touched her face all over. When Joy’s eyes begun to well, I grabbed her close.
“We gon’ let’em see how hurt we is?” I asked.
“Then go on. Wear them shackles light.”
“Like gold bangles,” my child said.
Front hall chairs, pier glass, table silver, barrels of herring, nets, quilted petticoats and night caps, horse collars, and irons, fire shovels and tongs, brass pans and bedsteads, two pails and brewing vessels, chests of linens, malt and a malt mill, kegs of beer and kegs of rum, looking glasses and a spice press, pounds of lead, pestles, trenchers, earthenware bowls, feather beds, leather, lumber, pease, bees, scales and weights, tea. Broad hoes, hilling hoes, dibbles, baskets, butcher knives, hemp, flax, straw hats, vests, a whetstone, a bastard file, rakes, a shovel plow, a hoe plow, flax breaks and pitsaws: Everything bartered and bought with my one body and soul.
I passed through the hands of three traders. I slept on dirt floors, in filthy rooms without windows, and outside, dog-chained. I stood on blocks of stone, on stools and small hills, bared, prodded and cuffed, ordered to turn, to jump, to squat.
Those times, I shut my eyes and felt the warm weight of Cassie close around me, mother-breasts pressed to my back, heavy arms shielding me from their view. I imagined Jeremiah free among bears and bobcats, any creatures too dangerous for capture. I imagined him sleeping soft upon peat, curled into the roots of cypress and cedar, waking to the sounds of warblers and woodpeckers, and sharing wild grapes with Indians and Maroons.
I rested my hand on the map Jeremiah etched in my flesh. The gavel struck. Sold.
Princess Joy L. Perry is a senior lecturer of composition, American literature, and creative writing at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. A 2010 Pushcart Prize nominee, her fiction has appeared in Kweli Journal, Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly, and twice in African American Review. In 2011 she was a Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction finalist and garnered an honorable mention from the Common Review’s first annual Short Story Prize in the summer of 2010. She is a past recipient of a Virginia Commission for the Arts Fellowship and a winner of the Zora Neale Hurston / Richard Wright Award.