All my life, I’ve been passed around from master to master. Food is nothing but a fantasy, and I, unlike you, do not welcome the sunrise. I am nothing but a blur among the masses of others who were captured and taken to labour for nothing for the rest of our lives. I am a slave. I am just a number, but one with a story to tell.
I am a slave, but do not intend on dying one.
The cart shakes up and down on the bumpy road; chains rattling with it in a merciless tune. The air is hot and dry from an unbearable July day, leaving a sticky taste on my parched tongue. My body has given up reminding me of my hunger, choosing to save what energy is left to survive through another day. Days have passed by this way; but it feels like years. The crying has long ceased; but that only makes it worse; for hope has gone with it. With no one to protest, a grim, desolate silence fills the air. The people around me are blank and unreadable. Though their features vary, despair is written across each of them. I know the face well. It is the face of a man who was born a slave; who gave up the moment he was born.
But mine is different.
I wasn’t always in chains. I had a home. I had the taste of my own freedom—and it was taken away from me. Mark my words; I intend to take it back.
I look on longingly at the driver of the cart as he drains the last of his water skin. He takes notice of me and licks his lips, letting out a happy sigh and turning back around. Finally, the cart comes to a stop, and we’re let out from one hell hole into the next. I look angrily down at the chains grinding at my ankles, thoughts of home only a distant and unreachable memory.
Jackson Plantation is its name, every syllable sounding out the unspeakable horror that accompanies it. People of all ages and sizes live here; but to the white devils who claim us as their own, we are livestock. We are used until we have no more purpose, then killed and replaced as easily as a wash rag. We pick cotton from dawn till dusk every day under the scorching heat of the blazing sun. Around four in the morning, we wake up to a clanging bell; followed by yells from the slave trader Mr. Frederick (but we just call him Dick, and for good reason too). He’s a ruthless and miserable man. Filthy, too. His greasy black locks hang over his face like a curtain, perhaps to hide the horror within. He’s short and chubby, and his breath makes me want to vomit the little amount of food I have in me. He has a small moustache full of crumbs that he twiddles with his fingers. Even the masters hate him, but he’s cheap and a sadist. Says the job gives him pleasure, so he’ll do it better than anybody else. Lord, is he right. In his eyes, black and endless, I see only the devil.
Funny how I’ve introduced him so well, and yet forgotten to do so myself.
I spend too much hating on him, I guess.
But can you blame me?
My name is Alice, by the way.
Welcome to hell.
Humming to myself, I run my hands through my thick, tousled hair, unsuccessfully trying to untangle the strands without a brush. My hands, calloused and sore, attempt to navigate the labyrinth that is my hair. I sigh in defeat, throwing it up into a bun and heading out to face another day. The morning is crisp, the sun’s rays barely flooding over the hills and still fighting back the darkness of night.
The field is unusually empty, and I scan the area looking for the other workers. After a few moments, I hear faint cries coming from the manor. Instantly, I know what it means.
A crowd has already gathered around the whipping post. I push through to the front, the mutters of the slaves around me informing me of what’s happened.
“A loaf a’ bread is all he wanted—”
“Feed his child, Lord knows any of us woulda done it--”
“You can’t steal from da kitchens and get away with it. Serves him right. We starve, he can too.”
My heart plummets when I reach the front. Dick stands proudly, whip in hand, sadistic smirk plastered on face in his characteristic way. My nose is flooded with the stench of distilled spirits, and I know this lashing will be worse than most. The only thing worse than an angry, pitiful man is an angry, pitiful drunk man. Opposite him, thick, hot blood pours down a man’s back, deep gashes penetrating his dark skin. His head hangs high and proud, only earning him more of the lashes that tear away at him. With each crack of the whip I flinch. I hate the feeling of helplessness, watching the man bleed and being able to do nothing. Angrily, I look at my fellow slaves, who can only watch with mixed reactions. It’s nothing they haven’t seen before.
We can take him. He’s just one man with a whip, but his skin dictates a silent power all of its own.
They’re too afraid, even together.
I’m too afraid alone.
Do something I plead to them silently.
Crack, the whip sings, piercing the air like a knife.
But the man will not show weakness, only cursing at Dick and making him angrier.
“You son of a bitch,” the man screams, “you’re a swine and a rotten excuse for a man.”
Blood flows freely down his back; the whip leaving deep and permanent gashes. My stomach churns at the sight.
The sound is sickening.
“May you rot in hell with all your brethren; you disgusting piece of sh—”
Finally, I can’t take it any longer. Something inside me snaps. The single, fragile thread that has kept me obligingly in line all these years breaks. I push through the crowd and just as the whip is going to fall I divert it with my arm.
“Move aside, slave," sneers Dick.
“No, Frederick," I emphasise every syllable as if it burns my lips to utter his name.
He scans my face for a moment, looking for any sign of weakness. But he won’t find one. He lets out one final lash at the man lying on the ground. I look at his back, flies already buzzing around the sickening smell in delight. But the man does not protest this time. He is dead. He is dead, and I will never know his name, only that he could swear like the best of us. But I have yet to pay for what I’ve done. Dick ties my hands around the post, none too gently, and smirks viciously in triumph. I close my eyes and wait for the all-too-familiar sting. But it never comes.
“Anyone who attempts to untie this pig, or even give it food or water will see the same fate,” he cackles. “Oh, and leave this man’s body.”
He laughs humourlessly, biting his tongue in a sick glee.
“I want the smell of defeat to delight your senses, you know.”
He sighs and smiles crookedly (I want you to vividly imagine if a pig tried to smile at you with half a set of teeth and really buggy eyes).
“Now, get your asses back to work before I change my mind about whipping ye any longer!”
With that, he strolls away whistling. My fellow slaves look at me sadly but turn away. I shouldn’t blame them for saving their own skins; but I do.
I lean against the wooden post all night, humming to myself. I remember my proud father, who was left behind at the Hensley Plantation. My only brother; who died working in the endless rows of cotton. I think of my beautiful mother; being bought to work in the kitchens somewhere far away. I look up into the night sky. Its delicate patchwork of stars reminds me of stories my mother once told me of Canada. She said if I followed the North Star; I would find freedom once more.
But isn’t that what they all say?
I sit in this way for two nights. During the day, Dick makes me work in the fields, but I’m starving and thirsty. He’s angry and entirely blames me for the death of his slave (who he killed drunkenly, might I add, but no one’s asking for my opinion anyway). I have to pick cotton, a daunting enough task on its own, but without my ration of food or water it’s becoming borderline impossible. I watch the people around me nourished with little hope for myself getting the same treatment. At night, he comes and ties me back to the post. He’s trying to break me.
By the fourth day, the saliva has stopped coming to my lips. I watch as a few white men pass me; stuffing their faces in food and chugging beers. I spit at them; but they only laugh.
“Don’t waste that water on us, dear, I’d wager there isn’t much left in you,” one mocks. And he’s right. I’m dying; and the smell from the man has become unbearable. For the first time, I study him more closely. He is slender but muscular. He has short, shaggy hair and a long, lean face. His eyes are brown and full of determination. They were still open when he died. I hope he saw what I did for him.
He has big, rough hands scarred from work, and his pants are dirty and covered in stich works where they were torn. A faint glint catches my eye, and I turn back curiously, tuning my attention more closely. In his pocket sits...a knife. An idea sparks into my mind, as fully and brightly as the fires lit every night. He is about half a metre away. I shuffle my feet in his direction and lay them over his leg pocket. Slowly, I move the hilt in my direction, and then kick the blade towards me. I am so close; I feel freedom like adrenaline coursing through my entire body. I drag the blade with my right foot as close as I can to my body, then gently nudge it back so it lies beside my hands. They may be tied, but I can still move them. I prop the blade up with my thumb so it lays parallel to the post. I wedge the rope between the two, and begin to move my hands up and down; sawing the rope. It is slow; but finally the rope snaps.
I sit there for a moment; contemplating my next move. No one knows I am free. I look to my left; where the slave houses are. Candles are lit and I can hear hushed voices. Night has just fallen, but in 6 hours the slaves will awaken to face a day the same as any other. But to the right...lies nothing but fields. And behind those fields are forests...forests that could lead me to Canada. Can I make it?
I will never find out. My ears prick up as a faint whistling can be heard, coming closer. Instinctively, I throw the knife as far from me as I can, and put my hands back behind the post. Perhaps whoever it is won’t see the rope cut. Perhaps I still have a chance, however slim and distant. I dare not turn my head, but bite my lip nervously, a habit I picked up from my brother.
“Ah, if it isn’t my favourite slave. Enjoying the evening air?”
His sickly sweet voice brings a chill down my spine. I don’t respond, only looking at him bitterly. My body is too paralyzed to run.
“That’s a strong arm you’ve got there. A good fifteen feet, I think it flew.” He crouches down in front of me, his horrid breath making me gag how close it is.
“And yet, here it is again.” He twiddles the knife between his fingers, watching it in vague amusement like a child with a new toy. I shudder.
“I should think you know better than to try and run away.”
His voice drops down to below a whisper, as if this is some exciting news that can only be shared with me. He grabs both my arms and grips them with one hand, my frail and weak bones thin enough to fit in his chubby grasp. And then it hits me--an unimaginable, searing pain as Frederick slashes a thin line into my cheek. I bite my tongue hard, desperately trying not to scream. To scream means to give up.
He only smiles and says, “You gave me the knife.”
I look into his cold, snake-like eyes, and realize that this is the end of my life. And at least I should try and fight for it. I can’t move my arms, but I kick him with what energy I have left and he topples over. Before I know what’s happened, I’m tearing into the forest, eyes blurred and a trail of blood going down my cheek.
The last thing I remember is looking up and finding the North Star.