The familiar bell tongs the next morning, and the slaves all prepare for another long day. Isaac helps me to the kitchen, where I’ll be working for the next three or four weeks while my ankle heals.
“I’ll check on you in the evening, alright?”
“Thanks,” I say gloomily. I find myself saying that a lot lately, and it irritates me. I just want to do things myself. To be strong enough to survive on my own.
But I’m not.
“Look at me, Alice” says Isaac.
I lift my chin slightly.
“You are not weak. Far from that. You’ve been sulking around, acting like you have no reason to live lately. And it’s not true.”
Slightly surprised he read my thoughts, I look up at him.
“It’s this place. It’s breaking you. The Alice I used to know was fiery, hotheaded, and brave. She didn’t let people step on her. She’s in there. You need to get her back.”
“Yeah? Well, the Isaac I used to know was a pain in my ass. Can I get him back?” I tease half-heartedly.
“There she is.”
He smiles and leaves.
I take a seat, propping my leg up on a stool. Ava walks in moments later, carrying a bucket of carrots and a knife.
“The usual batch if you please,” she says, and I accept it.
I sit by the window most days, to watch the sunrise. Sometimes I’ll even get a glimpse of Isaac, which I like to make sure he’s okay. I hum to myself for entertainment, since Ava’s too busy to talk.
I wonder what it’s like, waking up and just doing nothing. Sundays we get half the day off, and that’s usually when Isaac and me wash our clothes by the stream, and relax for a bit. They’re really all I look forward to.
“It really is beautiful, huh?”
Startled by the voice, I flinch and cut my finger on the knife.
Jarrah chuckles. “You’ve got to be the clumsiest slave in the country, love.” He grabs a towel and hands it to me, which I meekly accept.
“You caught me by surprise,” I reply dumbly.
“I do have that effect on people,” he grins.
“You’re lucky, you know.”
I snort, but bite my tongue. I can’t talk back to him the way I want to.
“What? You are.”
“Yeah, time of my life stuck with you in here,” I mutter.
“I have a name, you know. I know it’s something you lot easily forget,” I say icily, turning my back to him.
“Woah, woah. Why so bitter?”
I’m unable to come up with a response that wouldn’t earn me a lashing, so I bite my tongue again. Why won’t he just go away? I can’t get in trouble for talking to him.
“You think I’m one of them, don’t you?” he asks quietly after a few moments of silence.
“I have eyes, don’t I?”
“Have ya got ears, too? Since when does my skin tell ya who I am?”
I laugh humourlessly. “There’s a reason I’m the one cuttin’ the carrots and you’re the one eatin’ ’em, ya know.”
He clicks his tongue. “Well--Alice, is it? There’s more to me than that. I promise you.”
I nod, reaching for another carrot.
“You don’t talk much, do you?”
“Not to you folk,” I say, “I’m not allowed.”
“Well, I’m allowed to talk to you and I reckon a one way conversation won’t do much to entertain me.”
“I am not here for your entertainment,” I say bitterly, my mind wandering to the times when we used to have to dance for the Massa’s pleasure.
“Hey, hey, easy there love. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that everyone else is so dull around here. Reckon I could just stay and talk?”
“Well,” I say hesitantly, “alright. But only for a little while. I’m lucky enough to be in the house as it is, what with my ankle hurt and all.”
“My father is away, you know. He won’t be back for another month.”
“And...it means I’m in charge. You have time to heal your ankle. Usually you’d get maybe a week.”
“Well, thanks...I guess.”
“But in return,” he begins.
“Don’t even think about it,” I warn cautiously.
He lets out another one of his barky laughs.
“Jarrah darling, where are you?” I hear Miss Whitley say from the porch.
“In the kitchen, mum.”
She walks in, and her face falls when she sees me.
“Miss,” I respond, nodding my head.
“You’ve been talking to the niggers again, haven’t you Jarrah? Darling, don’t waste your time with them. It’s a miracle the apes even understand us.”
She lets out a girlish giggle and I clench my fists furiously, avoiding her gaze.
“Shouldn’t you be outside, girl?”
“She’s injured and working inside till she heals,” he defends.
“This isn’t a bloody hospital, Jarrah. I don’t need her dirtying the food with some nigger disease. Imagine the scandal! Get her outside and make her do something useful. Oh, and darling, Mister and Missus Bowtrough and their lovely daughters will be arriving this eve. Do something about that hair of yours or they won’t be interested.”
Jarrah’s cheeks burn bright red. “Mum, we talked about this.”
“Now now dear. You can’t be a bachelor forever with looks like that. You’d oughta be going to the ladies, and they’re being brought right to you. Well, you certainly didn’t get your looks from your father--you’ve got me to thank for that. Girl--why are you still standing here?” she snaps at me, her tone laced with venom.
“My apologies, Missus,” I say.
Jarrah helps me up, to the Missus’ great disapproval, and we make our way out, him restraining me from spitting on her shoes. I feel Miss Whitley’s eyes trailing on me the whole time.
“Don’t you be hanging around that slave girl too oft. People will start thinking you’re one of them nigger lovers,” she says to him.
“What a fine, nice woman that Missus Whitley is,” Jarrah whispers in my ear.
I whip my head around to make sure we’re out of earshot, and he laughs.
“Just take me to the children’s quarters, I’ll help Ava take care of the kids,” I say.
“I thought us white folk gave the orders,” he says scoldingly as my face drops, “don’t you forget your place, girl. Imagine what the neighbours would think!”
My eyes meet his in shock for a moment, but I see his lips twitching and the amusement in his eyes. I laugh instead.
“Doesn’t suit me much, I guess,” he agrees with a smile, “but if I am allowed to give you any order I want...”
“The children’s quarters, please,” I interrupt.
“Nope,” he says.
“Mister Whitley, I really don’t think--”
“Calm your horses, love, that’s not what I meant. And please, call me Jarrah. None of that mister nonsense. I sure as hell ain’t my dad, and Lord knows I don’t want to be.”
“Where are we going, then?” I ask.
He looks both ways, and when he sees no one is watching us, he smiles eagerly.
“I know a place.”
We walk to the stream that borders the edge of the plantation, where we usually wash our clothes. I’m surprised when Jarrah takes an extra turn down a forest path. I’ve never been this far, but it’s peaceful.
We lie on the grass, and he lets out a happy sigh.
I’m immediately restless.
“You know I could be whipped any moment for not working, right?”
“and if anyone catches me--”
“But what if--”
“Love, calm down. I used to hide here from dad, when he’d be mad at me. That was quite often, you can imagine. No need to worry about anyone finding us. Besides, the last thing I want to do is have afternoon tea with the Bowtroughs.”
“Okay,” I say reluctantly, and fall silent.
“So Alice...how long has that Isaac fellow fancied you?”
My jaw drops at his bluntness.
“Well, it’s pretty obvious, he cares a lot about you.”
“I care about him too,” I defend.
“I suppose. But you don’t look at him the way he looks at you. I know the look a girl gives to a man she loves, and that just ain’t it.”
“You don’t know me, or him. You just sit on your ass and get fed by mommy everyday,” I growl in response.
I try to get up and storm away angrily Alice-style, but a searing pain runs through my leg and I yell out and fall back to the ground.
“Curse this stupid foot,” I grumble.
He smiles slightly as he reaches out to help me up. “You don’t need to be offended. It’s nice that someone’s actually concerned for you.”
I raise my eyebrows, waiting for him to elaborate.
“It’s true. You think my dad actually gives a rat’s ass about what happens to me? He sent me away and it was good for both of us. And my mom just...”
“Don’t you have friends?”
“It’s all about money when you’re at my status, Lis.”
An image of Tom flashes into my mind. “You take care of yourself, alright Lis?”
I shake my head. “Don’t call me that.”
He turns to face me, quirking an eyebrow.
“Sorry,” I mumble, “you just remind me...of someone.”
“Was he handsome like me?”
“Careful,” I say, nudging him and offering a small smile.
We talk for what feels like forever, anything from our past to our favourite time of year, until I realize the sun is setting and I need to be getting back.
He walks me to the quarters, just in time to see Isaac approaching.
“I’ll take her from here, sir,” he says quickly, nodding to Jarrah.
“See you around, Alice,” he says and strolls away whistling.
I watch him leave for a few seconds, when Isaac clears his throat uncomfortably.
“So where were you today? I came to check on you in the kitchen at lunch, but no one could find you. I thought you’d ran away without me,” he laughs awkwardly.
“Isaac, my foot?” I grin, pointing to the swollen mess on my leg and happy to avoid the question.
I ignore the guilty feeling that has settled in my stomach, allowing Isaac to embrace me and burying Jarrah’s words deeper in my mind.
* * *
I spend the next few weeks cleaning around the house, and helping out as much as my foot allows. Isaac found a sturdy stick near the forest, and he gave it to me for support to help me walk around.
Jarrah comes in to talk occasionally, but his mum is watching us both closely so he stays outside.
Ava comes up to me one morning, and asks me to clean the upstairs bedrooms.
“I’ve never been there before,” I say nervously, “what if I run into Miss Whitley?”
“I’ll clean her room. You take Jarrah’s.”
I quickly look out the window, to make sure Jarrah is outside and I won’t run into him.
“Alright,” I agree.
She helps me up the stairs, going rather slowly. My foot isn’t swollen anymore, but it still hurts.
Ava pulls out a key to open the door. I enter the bedroom, and my eyes fall upon the most beautiful thing in the world.
*chuckles evilly and ends chapter*
No, I’m teasing. Let’s keep going.
What? I’m curious too :3
Paintings. Everywhere. Hanging off the walls, peaking out from under the bed. A beautiful blue sky, with two eagles soaring over a mountain lies next to his dresser. There’s a father and a little boy, holding hands and standing on a crossroad. An old lady with a fancy peacock feather hat has her eyes downcast, and a small smile tugs at her lips. The room itself appears to be alive.
I realize why the curtains have been closed all these years. My eyes fall next to the window. There’s an easel with a canvas sitting on it. The outline of a young woman is forming on it, with high cheek bones and a strong look in her eyes. His newest project.
She looks familiar.
“They’re amazing” I say breathlessly, “why does he hide them?”
Ava laughs at my reaction. “His family would never allow it. The son of the great Whitleys, an artist? No. So he hides them when his dad comes home, and his mum isn’t even allowed in here. He keeps it locked when he’s gone. Trusts only me with the key,” she says proudly.
“I’ll be in the other room if you need me”.
Clutching onto my stick for support, I limp over to get a better look at the painting. Her eyes are magnificent. They look strong, but sad. Streaks of dark brown and amber shoot out from her irises. Her brows are furrowed downward, only slightly.
She is beautiful, but dangerous. I stand there, mesmerized.
“I’ll take it you like it then?” says a voice into my ear.
I yell and turn around, to see Jarrah smiling happily at me.
“Why would you scare me like that?” I yell, clutching on my stick for support.
“Well, I had to make sure it was accurate. I had to see you when you weren’t pissed at me. That doesn’t happen very often.”
“The painting. It’s you. Didn’t you realize?”
“But I don’t look like that.”
“I’ll assume you don’t look into mirrors too often.”
He’s right. I don’t even own one. He walks over to the dresser and grabs one, handing it to me.
I gaze into the mirror, and yet cannot believe it is me looking back. I’ve grown since the little girl who almost drowned in the river. I’m almost unrecognizable. I look hardened and dangerous. There’s a small scar on my cheek that I got from Briggs last year. My girlish face has been chiselled and now features high cheek bones and a defiant jawline. But what I wonder the most--why do I look so angry?
“You have a good face to paint,” he shrugs, his face flushing red.
“Jarrah...you have a talent.”
He smiles. “My parents don’t get it. But I’ve decided something. I’m going to be an artist. I’m going to be free.”
“You are free. I’m the slave, remember?” I roll my eyes and remind him.
“No, Alice. I envy you.”
“Why? I’ve been in chains my whole life.”
“Your bondages are real. You can break them. You can fight back, and sure they’ll pull you down, but you’ve escaped before and you’ll do it again. But my chains? They’re invisible. I mean, me? A measly street painter? My family would never allow it.”
He sighs. “I’m tied too.”
* * *
“Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains”
The Social Contract, 1972