SIMPLE COURAGE: the little acts that define who we are. Our strength. It’s the bravery to get up every morning and face the world head on, remembering that you’ll lose against it but giving it the finger anyway.
Okay, maybe that’s not quite the tone I’m aiming for, but you know what I mean.
* * *
“Rise and shine ladies, we’ve got a long day ahead” calls Ruth. I stir from my stiff bed, and stretch uncomfortably. Today’s the day I go back to the fields.
I step out into the clearing for breakfast, blinded for a moment by the sun’s rays. It’s a beautiful morning, with a slight breeze. The wind dances across my face happily. If I only had the time to enjoy its company. I imagine Jarrah up in his room, painting the sky already, then I shake my head to remove the thought. Vacation’s over, and working in the manor is a luxury I no longer have.
I grab my sack and make my way to the field, Isaac soon joining me. He doesn’t greet me, which is unusual, and he’s scowling.
I observe him from the corner of my eye, unable to understand what could’ve upset him so early.
“Alright then, Isaac?” I nod to him.
I shake my head confused, then return to my work.
I seperate the cotton from the plant, and place it in my sack. My hands are calloused and rough from years of experience, handling the cream-coloured fluff surrounding the cottonseeds.
When I need to be, I go fast. I drown out my thoughts, working only on the task at hand and focusing on the beating of my heart. However, you learn that it’s best not to go too fast. If you show them you can do more, they’ll make you do more. So you do what you can without having too little and being whipped for it, or too much to show them your real capability.
It really is a game of colours.
What I thought was a beautiful day soon turns into a nightmare. The sun is strong with not a cloud in sight to block it out, and I’m sweating profusely. The heat seems to be moving into my very core, threatening to knock me over. I lick my lips thirstily. I look over to my side to see how Isaac is faring.
He’s still got that hard look on his face. His brows are furrowed, and he’s muttering something.
I’m about to ask him what’s wrong, but break is called. I run over to a nearby tree for shade. We only get five minutes, but I’ll take it gladly.
I realize Isaac didn’t come back with me. He’s still on the field working.
On break time. I sigh and make my way back.
“Isaac, come on! Break time.”
His hands tug at the cotton roughly, practically ripping out the plant.
I grab his wrist roughly, pulling it away.
He glares at me.
“What’s wrong with you?”
He’s silent for a moment. “You really don’t know?”
“What?” I ask sincerely.
“What today is?”
I shrug. “If it’s your birthday, I distinctly remember that being last year.”
He laughs bitterly. “Nevermind.”
“Well, don’t be such a girl about it Zac! Tell me.” I prod.
“Tom” he hisses.
“It’s the day we were seperated from Tom, alright?”
My heart instantly sinks. How could I have forgotten?
He’s shaking slightly. “Almost three years. I’m sick of this shit. Three years. I said I’d get us all to Canada. I said we’d be free. I said I’d never let you be--be a slave again. I broke my promise.”
“You rotten liar.” I tease, shaking my head like a scolding mother.
He frowns at me, and I look at him hard. “I don’t blame you for anything, alright? And I’m not asking you to be some...some kind of saviour to me. Just shut up and pick your cotton and we’ll figure it out...′
’One day,” he finishes.
“One day,” I echo.
“You will, will you?” says a gravelly voice.
I freeze at the voice. Plans like these are dangerous to speak of.
“Now till me little lady, why can’t that day be today?”
I turn my head to face the person, and am relieved.
A frail old man stands before me. I’ve seen him before. Often times he can’t keep up. He’s whipped almost every day.
“The name’s Ernest. And earnest to leave this place is all I have to say to you, missy.”
I smile despite myself at the man’s play on words.
“I was a proud man in my day, you know. Fastest picker out there, worked these fields more than any of you ever could, but they won’t retire me. They’ll whip me to an inch of my life, but even that isn’t close enough to finish me. Leeches, the whole lot of them, can’t just end me now.”
“No one should want death,” growls Isaac.
“No one should have to live through this either, boy. Just you wait, a strong lad like you--they’ve barely gotten the cotton out of you yet. And you?” he nods to me, “you’re lucky you’ve got this boy protecting you. Wait till he’s sold, you’ll have more than one use around here then.”
Isaac glowers at him. “Don’t you talk about her like that.”
Ernest leans in real close to me, enough that his hot breath is on my neck, and whispers, “All I’m saying is, there’s a way out of this place... People have escaped before. Can’t do it alone, sure, but with--”
“Oi!” yells the overseer, and the crack of the whip is enough to make us return to our work.
I can’t help but ponder where Ernest was going with that sentence.
* * *
I return to my quarters tired that night, but restless. I keep replaying his words. People have escaped here before.
I find it hard to believe. It’s one of the toughest plantations in the South--we’re practically on lock down. No one leaves in or out without a pass, even the white folks. All crates and wagons are inspected, and nothing goes unseen. People guard the main gates, and fences line the forest boundary. Many of the plantations around us are small, only around thirty slaves. But this place has got atleast a hundred. It’s respected. Massa Whitley’s got an impeccable reputation, and up until today I’ve never heard of anyone leaving this place unless for auction.
I lie in my bed uncomfortably, staring at the ceiling.
How could anyone get out?
And if they could, can I?
* * *
Hours later, I’m still awake. I know the sun will rise soon, but the piece of news and the opportunity to question Ernest come morning is fuel enough.
For the first time in almost three years, there’s hope.
Finally, the wake up call is sound. I jump out of bed, alarmingly fast, and run out for breakfast. Scarfing my food down as quick as I can, I jog over to the fields, even greeting the overseer who looks at me suspiciously.
I’m already a pound into my cotton picking when Isaac joins me, the most peculiar look on his face.
“What?” I ask.
“Nothing,” he says, shaking his head.
“Did you see Ernest this morning? Is he on the fields yet?” I scan the faces, unable to find him.
“Why the sudden interest?” he asks.
I realize Isaac didn’t hear the bit about the escape.
“I dunno. Got bored of talking to you I guess.”
He rolls his eyes and nudges me playfully, but drops the subject.
Something inside me tells me I should mention the escape to him, but I shove it away. I’m not sure why. Maybe I don’t want him excited until I know the story.
By noontime, I’m really frustrated. Where has he been all day? I need to ask him so many things! During break, I scan the length of the plantation, looking for him.
I run into Ava by the kitchens. “Have you seen Ernest? Is he alright?” I ask
She looks at me gravely, and grabs me by the ear. “Where did you hear it, girl? Where?” she spits.
“Hear what?” I ask, alarmed.
Confusion lines her wrinkled forehead, and her jaw drops slightly. “So no one knows yet. And so it must stay this way.” She mutters to herself absentmindedly, and I have to grab her wrist to get her attention back.
“What’s happened to him?”
She turns her head, looking for listeners. “Find me at midnight. By the fences. I dinnae wish to speak of it here.”
And with that, she turns away.
* * *
I get out of my bed that night, trying to be quiet. The wooden planks give me away quickly, and I cringe under every squeak.
Ruth stirs next to me.
“Alice? Everything alright? Shall I get Isaac?” she whispers.
“No, just a bad dream. Don’t call him,” I say quickly, “I’ll... uh...I’ll go for a walk.”
She nods and turns back around.
I am surprised at how easily the lie slips from my tongue.
I grab my satchel and step into the cool night air, looking up to be greeted by hundreds of beautiful stars. I always look for the Big Dipper, or the Drinking Gourd as we call it. It’s a comforting sight, sort of like how you look for a friend in a crowd of faces.
I find myself walking the boundary of the forest where the fences are, hoping that Ava will show up.
While I wait, I start inspecting the fence. Looking for weak points. Maybe a hole, or a loose plank. Missing pieces to the once-thought uncrackable puzzle. I don’t know how people escaped, but there’s only two ways out. And one of them is through here.
A low whistle pierces the thick evening air.
“What brings you out here this time of night?”
I freeze on the spot, my fists clenched tightly. “Going for a walk”.
“With your satchel? I think not.”
I mentally curse myself for taking it with me.
I shake on the spot, my lower lip trembling. The voice is familiar, but I can’t place it.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“You mean you don’t recognize me?”
* * *
Heehee, just working on my cliffhangers. No biggy.