You're just another story I can't tell anymore. ~ Iain S. Thomas
I soon became aware of a hand gently stroking my hair. I lifted my head and found myself looking up at another dark-skinned woman. She was much older than Elsie. Her hair, gathered up in a tight bun, was completely grey, and her eyes were filled with hurt and sadness. The hand that stroked my golden head was wrinkled and rough from years of hard work. I stared up at her, wondering where she had come from.
The lady, in the mean, time reached out with her second hand and wiped the tears from my face.
"There, there, Miss Sarah," she spoke in a soothing voice. "Don't cry, Honey Child. Everything's alright."
But I was in no mood to be comforted. Quite the opposite, now that I had a sympathetic ear I cried all the more. "My mother is gone," I sobbed out. "Gone forever! She died. We buried her in the cold, damp earth. She is so far away and will never come back. Alone, I am all alone in the world."
"She's not gone forever." The woman gently persuaded. "She's gone to live with the Good Lord in heaven. One day, Honey Child, you'll go there too. When it is your time. And while you live on earth, you is not alone either. Why, you've got your aunt."
"She...doesn't...want...me. If you had seen...her...face...you would...know."
There was no reply to my words, possibly because the woman knew them to be true. Instead she reached over and pulled me into a tight, motherly embrace.
"You must be strong, Honey Child," she whispered in my ear. "Your Mama would have wanted you to be strong. Dry those tears, be a brave soul. Others have gone through worse and survived."
I allowed myself to cry a bit more, but at last I hearkened to her words and gulped my sobs down.
"Who are you?"I asked.
Glad that I was no longer weeping, the lady flasheda sad smile. "I'm Em. I's the slave in charge of the kitchen."
It wasn't a word I was exactly familiar with. "Slave? My uncle keeps slaves in the house?"
Em let out a sigh. "Not only in the house, my girl. Yous uncle has an entire plantation of them."
"An entire what?"
She knit her eyebrows together and tiled her head a bit. "Honey child, don't you know nothing about your Uncle and Aunt?"
I shook my head. "Mama never told me about them. I didn't know I had relatives until the night before she died. Mama was very secretive about her past."
For some reason hurt flashed all over Em's face. "Honey Child," she implored, gripping both my hands, "how did she die?"
"Mrs. Maguire said it was the factory. She didn't come down with any disease, rather just worked herself into the grave. Care killed her, those were the very words Mrs. Maguire used." I paused and turned towards the window, where the beautiful afternoon sunlight was streaming through. "Everyone dies in those slums," I softly added.
Turning back to Em, I saw my words had affected her badly. Slowly she released her grip on my hands and wiped a tear.
"Did you know my Mama?" I asked.
She nodded her head. "I knew your Mama as she was growin' up. An angel Miss Sarah, she was an angel. Don't let anyone make you believe anything else about her." Taking a deep breath, Em forced another sad smile. "Well, we should unpack your things. Is this your little bag? Can't say you brought a whole lot of worldly possessions with you."
"It's all I have," I replied, reaching out to open the carpet bag. I pulled out my little nightgown and Em tucked it under my pillow.
Next came out Mama's old dress. It was an ugly, grey, threadbare piece of clothing, but it was life's greatest treasure to me. Em didn't seem quite sure what to do with it and at last she hung it in the closet. Besides that I had only a handful of papers and my mother's locket that had a lock of her hair pressed inside. Em began arranging all this in the bedside cabinet.
"Who's this?" She asked, picking up a drawing that had fallen to the floor.
"Oh, that." I had to smile. "That's Mrs. Maguire her son Robert. Robert drew this picture for me himself, so I wouldn't ever forget them. Onlt he's no good at art and they came out real funny."
"Are they related to you?"
"Goodness no! They were the wife and son of our landlord."
"Ah, I see." Em let out a chuckle at the irregular drawings of two humans and placed it with all my other papers.
"Em, what is a slave exactly? Is it kind of like a servant? Mama would sometimes say they treated them like slaves at the factory."
Em hesitated, wondering how much she could tell the niece of her master. "A slave is someone who is owned by another person." She quietly explained at last. "Like you own that dress of yers, yous Uncle owns me."
I narrowed my eyes in confusion. "Can people really be owned?"
There was another pause before she mumbled, "They can be if you own a plantation."
"What is a plantation, Em?"
"Well, Honey child, it's sort of like a really big farm. Massa Greensten grows cotton on it, which is later sent to the mills to be turned into thread and then woven into cloth."
"How come my uncle needs slaves?"
"To work the fields."
"But can't he just have workers do that?"
"Ah, but you have to pay workers, while slaves will work for free."
We were both silent for a few seconds. I don't know what Em was pondering, but my young mind was trying to make sense of what she had just told me. Mama had been paid by the factory, but Em was telling me that Uncle Andrew didn't pay her. Rather he owned her and made her work because of that.
"But Em," I spoke out at last. "Is it right?"
Em shifted her position, obviously uncomfortable with the question. Turmoil shown in her eyes.
"This whole slave owning thing, is it right, Em?" I persisted, taking a step closer to her. "Is it really right?"
A soft sigh escaped from her lips. "Ah Honey Child, Honey Child," she whispered, reaching over to stroke my hair in an almost desperate fashion. "It is not for me to say."
"Then who can?"
"Sarah, there are some questions in this life that will never have an answer so long as evil men rule this world. Remember that, my dear."
I was about to question this logic when a knock sounded on the door.
Em went over to open it. There were a few hushed voices then the door was shut and Em turned to me.
"Supper will be on the table in a few minutes, but Massa Greensten asked me to bring you to his study before you go to eat."
I took a step back, my eyes growing wide and my breathing irregular.
"Did he say what he wanted?"
"No, he didn't. Ah, Honey Child, why have you become so afraid? You have no reason to fear your uncle. Come along now." She took my hand and led be out the door and back down the stairs, down a corridor, and up to a shut door. Looking me up and down, she straightened my dress, and pushed back the blonde curls out of my face, muttering all the while how they weren't brushed. Once she was satisfied with my appearance she knocked on the door.
"Come in." I heard my uncle's voice.
Em led me inside a room with only one large window. There were bookcases on two sides of the walls and a large desk in the center, behind which sat my uncle. He was pouring over some papers but looked up when we entered.
"Thank you, Em," he said in a firm voice. "That will be all. Return to the kitchen. For the future, Elsie is in charge of Sarah. You know your duties, I suggest you stick with them."
"Yes, Massa." Em gave a small bow and hurried out of the study.
"Have a seat, Sarah." My uncle motioned to the chair that was on the opposite his end of the table. I climbed onto it and for a few seconds let my feet, which were far too short to reach the floor, swing back and forth merrily. Then I remembered about my tattered shoes and instantly tried to keep my feet pointed downwards.
Uncle Andrew in the meantime got straight to the point of why he had called me.
"Sarah, I need to talk to you a bit about your mother and father."
I glanced up from my shoes to gaze at him. "I told you all I know about them."
He had folded his hands together and rested them on the table. "I know, I know. But you see, we can't quite have it going around that you are born out of wedlock."
"I understand sir," I replied. "Even when Mama was alive we kept that fact a secret. No one was supposed to know. It is a disgrace for a child such as myself to be born."
I saw sympathy flash in his eyes. "Is that what your mother told you?"
"No, Mama would never say such things to me. Mr. Maguire told me. He and his wife knew the sad truth, but they kept the secret with us. Everyone around thought Mama was my aunt who was looking after her brother's child."
"Her brother's child?"
"Well, yes. Our name is Beverly so of course everyone assumed she was my father's sister. Mama came up with that story when she went to work at the factory. She was afraid they wouldn't take her if they knew the full truth. Nobody wants an unmarried mother. They are a disgrace. When around people I always called her Miss Beverly."
The whole story seemed strange to Uncle Andrew. I could tell because he had a sort of scowl on his face.
"It must have been very confusing for you." He said at last. "Calling her one name in private and something so different in public."
I shrugged. "It was just the way it was. I never let it slip. I know how to keep a secret."
"I see." He was silent for a few seconds. "I'm glad to know you can keep a secret, but I'm afraid that story will not work here."
"Why not, sir?"
"Come, Sarah." My uncle rose and motioned for me to follow him. We went out of the study and down the corridor and at last stopped at the portrait of a man. I looked at it and took an instant disliking.
In the portrait the man stood proud and tall, but there was a cruelty about him. The artist had certainly captured something in him that made you want to shrink away.
"This is your grandfather." Uncle Andrew stated. "James Stanton Beverly."
A chill went down my spine as I stared at the man who turned out to be my grandfather. His blue eyes peered down on me with dislike, it was almost as though the spirit of the man was starying at me and hating me. I turned me gaze to the floor. I didn't want to look at him. I was glad I wasnted meeting the real James Stanton Beverly. I would have died from fright.
"This plantation is called Beverly Fields. Beverly is your mother's maiden name. This is the house she was born and raised in. Everyone in the area knew her. So if you are to come here as Sarah Beverly, your illegitimacy would come out straight away."
I pondered what he said as we walked back to the study. He was right, if everyone here had knew my mother by her maiden name then the fact that I was a bastard was going to come out real quick.
"So, what are we going to do?" I asked once we sat down in our respective chairs again.
"Well idealy we would have to change your name. Tell me, child, did you bring your birth certificate with you?"
I blinked at him. "My what?"
Uncle Andrew's eyes grew wide. "You don't have a birth certificate?"
I shook my head. "No."
The clouds in his eyes parted and the sunshine broke through. "Really? Well, then this is all going to be a simple as it gets. No proof no crime as they say. We just change your name and the whole thing is done and over with. It's all in the name, you see, and awhat is in a name? After all that which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet."
His last sentence didn't make any sense to me.
"I'm speaking of your last name of course," Uncle Andrew explained. "Sarah you will remain."
I nodded to show I understood that much. "So what will my new name be?"
"Your new name?" He looked me up and down. "That which we call a rose," he said those strange words again and smiled. "Your name will be Rose."
"Sarah Maybelle Rose. Yes, it sounds very nice, don't you think?"
"I guess," I sputtered, inwardly trying to cope with it all.
"Excellent. Here is what we will say to society. Your mother married a working man, he died early in life, and so she had to struggle to raise you on her own. He died while you were still too young to remember him. It's a simply story, can you remember it, Sarah?"
"And you have to promise me never, ever, ever to tell anyone that you are born out of wedlock, or any of the details of your real past. It's gone, it never was. Can you do that, Sarah? Can you keep it a secret for as long as you live?"
"I can sir," I replied. "When Mama was alive we had one story to keep it all a secret, now we have to come up with another one. That is just my lot in life as an illegitimate child."
Again that sympathetic look came to his face. He rested his elbow on the table and rubbed the back of his neck, just by the hairline, uneasily. "Well, with that all settled, let us go down to supper. I can imagine how hungry you must be."
He had a point there. I was hungry. I was starving hungry. I hadn't quite paid attention to it though because it was a feeling that I was quite used too. Many a night I had gone to bed hungry because there just wasn't any food in the house. But of course food was not a problem here.
He rose and motioned for me to follow him. I got up and went to the door, but paused before leaving.
"Goodbye, Sarah Beverly," I whispered. "You'll have to disappear forever. From now own you are Sarah Rose. There is no disgrace, there is no scandal, there is no shame. There is just a lie."
With that conclusion I went to eat dinner, leaving Beverly and the story connected to it in the dark past I was never supposed to speak of again.