"My own business bores me to death; I prefer other people's" – Oscar Wilde
She was kneeling down, barely visible to me above the tall harvest. I knew it was her though as I’d caught a glimpse of the blue in her headscarf before sitting down to rest on the porch deck. I lifted my arm to shield myself from the blazing sun that burned into my eyes and delicate skin, and from it a bead of sweat dropped, followed by another, and another, splashing into a salty pool that had settled in one of the folds of the tablecloth. I was stretching for a pitcher of icy water when I saw Maddy rushing over, her round form thundering along the decking to reach it before me.
‘No, Miss Hart, ya’ll knows how I does these things for you’ she fussed, clamping her fat fist around the handle, showering both the tablecloth and I with water in her scramble to beat me. I shot up out of my seat with a shriek and shook the water from my skirt. I remember noticing Maddy glancing around anxiously to see if my father had been watching, and would mistake her clumsiness for incompetence. I pitied Maddy. Standing, looking out across the acres that stretched before me, I pitied them all. I saw them labouring in amongst the plants, trudging along, bending down, picking the cotton seeds, putting them in the basket; pick and put, pick and put. Never throw. All under the oppressive watch of the torrid sun, father. I could feel the sweat dripping down me now, and as I turned to go back inside to the shade, I gazed back across the plantation hoping to catch another glimpse of her. She was standing now, tall, erect and proud, as if she had never been subjected to a day’s work in her life. Yet here she was. She bent to pick up her full basket and gracefully swung it to balance above her head as she walked toward father, sat high upon his horse, for product inspection.
Charlotte. That was her name; it means ‘free man’. We were born the same spring and shared our youth together. We used to skip hand in hand through the fields, the touch of her hand soft, like the silk of rose petals, or cotton. We would explore the acres finding hidden worlds, with adventurous Charlotte always leading the way, I being far too timid. We ran races, played games, sang songs and on our way back always gathered wild flowers for mama to fragrance her nightstand. Hide-and-go-seek was one of our favourite games; she always managed to outwit me with her imagination as she found the most creative spaces to hide. I once found her crouching underneath an upturned pile of collection baskets – it was her incessant giggling which gave her away. My father found us laughing blissfully in the storage room and was furious; raging and fierce he sent me back to the house. I could hear her terrified screams resound across the plantation as he beat her. I skulked passed her mother in the field as she stood stiff facing the cries, helpless, before being whipped back to work herself. I did nothing, just like I did nothing for years.
Our friendship soon slipped away after that, and Charlotte, my sister, was taken out to the fields to face her fate. As I looked at her across the plantation that day, I could see the same brave spirit inside her, resisting the oppression of father, offering to him a basket of perfectly hand picked cotton seeds, looking him defiantly in the eye in a way I could never do. I turned my back to them and felt the relief and safety of the cool shade within the house comfort my troubled thoughts. There’s nothing I can do. The hot sun could make my skin prickle, and my sweat could make it sticky, but my skin would never be like theirs.
That was almost thirty five years ago, before Teddy, before New York, before I left everything behind. Over the last few years I’ve found myself unable to repress my guilt any longer, and much to Teddy’s protestation I caught the train early this morning from New York to Virginia, to see what had become of my old home. I remember the house, the great white pillars which framed the front and stretched right up to the roof of the mansion, and the huge American flag which sat the top of the flagpole, waving lazily in the breeze, greeting all who came and went with liberty and scorning those who couldn’t. Mama used to tell me they had built temples just like our house in ancient times, and when I was younger I had thought that it did look like a place of worship, it was so grand and powerful looking. I can remember walking towards the house, father would be stood on the balcony above the entrance looking out across the fields, and mama would be through the back, either reading in the shaded living room or lounging on the sun soaked porch. My rooms were on the first floor, I had three, my reception room, my sleep quarters and my closest. I loved those rooms, the rich mahogany furniture been hand carved for me, and rugs specially woven with the finest material by only the most delicate of hands. I had two crystal chandeliers hanging in the reception and two in my bedroom that would throw diamonds of shimmering light across the surfaces, teasing away the shadows.
I remember leaving those rooms, and the house. I was engaged to Teddy, with whom I was madly in love, and after our wedding I was to live with him. Maddy was helping me to pack up the rooms as I was taking everything with me, everything except for the handcrafted furniture, rugs and chandeliers, of course. I remember this so vividly, not for the feelings of remorse or gladness, or sadness, at leaving but because I was finally brought face to face with Charlotte after fourteen years. I had been in the closest selecting a few dresses to pack, talking out to Maddy in the bedroom who was folding sheets,
“Actually, Maddy, I just remembered, father told me I can’t take that copy with me – he wants me to take the one I had when I was little, so that when Teddy and I have ki…”
I stopped short, because when I came out into the main room, I saw Charlotte not Maddy. Panic. That was all I felt. Maybe guilt. Definitely guilt.
“You’re in my room.” I said. To this day I do not know why those were the first words to come out of my mouth.
“Mister Hart sent this.” She held up a children’s illustrated bible, before lightly placing it on the dresser. Delicate, just like she used to be.
“I was just looking for that. Thank you.”
“Well, I’ve saved you the work then, m’am.”
“Please…Charlotte, please don’t call me m’am.”
“It’s Mister Hart’s law, m’am.”
“Well – while he’s not around, it’s my law.” Then realising what I’d just said, “I didn’t mean…”
The silence seemed to last for a lifetime. I can’t remember anything that I looked at, or heard, or thought of. Those next few moments are utter silence, completely numb in my memory. I think I thanked her for bringing it to me, and she called me m’am again. I winced, but dared not correct her.
“You’re to marry Master Anderson?” She asked, breaking the silence. I told her I was, and that we were to be married the following Tuesday which was why I was packing up all of my things. “That’ll be very nice for you, m’am.” She said, and I thanked her. “My George has been to his home many times – always taking Mister Hart for business. Always said it seems an awful nice place.”
“My husband, George”
“Oh…I apologise, I didn’t realise you were married?”
“Three years, he’s a good man – strong heart. Got myself a son too, Jacob”
“That’s a beautiful name”
“He’s gon be a free man one day, I know it”
We didn’t speak much longer, I had wanted to apologise for abandoning her, to say sorry for letting my father treat her like all the rest of them. But we both knew there was nothing I could have done, and our eyes reached a silent understanding. We were able to keep in contact through George, who continued to bring father to my new home to do business with Teddy, until we met one last time.
I’d been married to Teddy for almost two years, and we were very happy. We were expecting our first child together. It was spring, and you could feel it in the air – the sweet scents of pollen and fresh grass, the humming of the bees, and the crackling of ice as it slowly melted in your glass. The warmth from the sun coloured the landscape with a golden glow, and it was beautiful. The trees swayed playfully in the warm breeze, releasing pink blossoms that danced with the air before settling down to decorate the garden. I walked down to the stables to find George there, and I apologised for keeping him waiting. He was early, he said. The ride back to my parent’s estate wasn’t far, about twenty minutes, and I was going to visit mama. That was when she was starting to get weaker, I remember. I wondered if she could smell the spring, doubtful. I’m sure she was familiar with the crackling of melting ice though, and the twist of the bottle cap. George helped me up into the carriage, and I saw Charlotte was sitting there waiting for me.
“Charlotte, what’re you doing? You can’t be here. What if father were to find out?”
“Miss Sadie, I know, I know. He’s with the Sheriff in the town, we got time”
I wasn’t satisfied but I settled down, if only to hurry things up. On the journey back Charlotte told me that she had been brought into the house to take care of mama since Maddy had passed away, and how she was getting worse, how she rarely left her room and rarely drew back the blinds. Upon arriving, Charlotte hurried back to her, and feigned surprise when she saw me standing in the doorway of mama’s room. Nothing I’d been told could have prepared me for what I saw. The room was dark. The blinds were drawn so tight that any fragments of light that had managed to get through were exhausted and dim. She lay in the sombre bed, and with her eyes closed she called me over to her in a tiny voice. I climbed onto the bed and lay next to her for hours, listening to her breathing. Thinking.
My thoughts were pierced by father’s heavy voice coming from outside on the porch, and the bellowing encouragement of a male accomplice. Before thinking what I was doing, I had flung myself from the bed, and my footsteps echoed through the corridors of the huge, hollow house. I stopped just before reaching the French doors to gather myself, and softly stepped outside. Father was sat with the sheriff, a half empty bottle of whisky sat opened before them on the table, with two glasses. As I came out they stopped talking and father rose to give me a kiss, I dipped my head to the sheriff, and asked to speak about mama.
“What’re you going to do about her?”
“I don’t know what you mean, pumpkin.”
“What’re you going to do to help her?”
“Help her? To what cause? She’s a grown woman, I can’t control her. If your mother chooses to sit in the dark, in her room all day, that’s her choice.”
“But she needs help…”
“She needs nothing, pumpkin.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and I could feel the rage bubbling up inside of me, rising and rising. I can’t recall exactly what was said, or who the first to raise their voice was, but I do remember arguing, shouting at father like I had never done before. Telling him that he had no compassion or care for anyone but himself. His wife was dying and he turned a blind eye, allowing her to dissolve into the darkness of her bedroom. He was a bad husband, a bad father and a bad Christian. The way he treat his slaves was inhumane, they shouldn’t even be enslaved anymore the Proclamation was passed over three years ago. He should be paying for their service. What he was doing was illegal. I turned to the sheriff for assistance, and he was looking idly into his glass, observing the remnants of the drink that he shouldn’t be having while working, ignoring the laws he didn’t want enforcing. I was furious. My father and I were standing, arguing and gesticulating but not communicating. He refused to acknowledge the rights of those he had enslaved to him; the slaves, my mama, and me. He cursed me for being overdramatic, and hit me. I don’t know if he intended to do it so strongly, but he struck me so hard across the face that I lost my balance and fell onto the table, knocking the glasses onto the floor where they shattered, a hundred thousand pieces of crystal scattered across the porch, and I landed on top of them. They stuck into my skin like sharp needles, drawing thin beads of blood. I wiped my hands on my dress, but the shards of glass sliced across the palms, burying themselves deeper into the skin. I tried to get up, but my stomach hurt. The baby was kicking, wondering what was happening. I told myself I would never forgive my father if anything happened to the baby.
I left without a backwards glance, the rage and terror I felt for my father clouded my empathy for the others who I had left behind to remain under his tyranny. Once home I called our maid, Bella, to bring Teddy to me, seeing my distress she helped me into a chair and ran out of the room to find him. I sat hunched forward, trying to gather my thoughts, they were spinning around the room, or was the room spinning around them? I began to feel faint, and clasped my hands around the seat to steady myself. My stomach was cramping, and I was panicking. I closed my eyes and called out for Teddy, and finally heard his hurried steps approaching and then break into a run. I opened my eyes as he sat down in front of me, embracing me, tracing his fingers across my back, and I told him everything. He spread his hands across my baby bump and kissed it, promising never to let anything happen to me. A few days later a job opportunity opened up for him in the North, and we migrated to New York, a Northern city where everyone was free and everyone was prosperous, so that we could be too. It was all very quick, and we were there within a week.
However I didn’t find the streets of New York paved with gold, more scratched and scarred by painful regrets of what I’d left behind. I don’t know what I expect to find in Virginia. I don’t know if I expect, like my memories, it to exist only within the capsule of time, and for this train to just take me straight back to New York. Or whether everything will be the same, or if there will be nothing left there at all. Listening to the chugging of train as it pulls out of each station, each stop getting closer to my destination, I’m beginning to doubt myself. The journey between stops seems shorter, the whistle seems sharper and the white smoke seems more dense and relentless as it pours past the window. Can you really chase the past? I’m on my way to find out. Thirty years too late.