“A face without a name is intangible, as a name without a face.”
Knowing a loved one’s face is knowing their physical appearance, their flaws—everything you admire. Their name, equally significant, is the history you carry. What does that person mean? The time spent—was it the best years? Why were they your hero? So what happens when you don’t remember either? What do you make of it?
Those are the words I remember. I cannot remember her. Her name gone, her face nothing but a blur. She escapes my thoughts like sand grazing through your fingertips; she is a figment of my past. Who was she?
Pa has gone for firewood near the creek. My sister is sleeping and Mama is washing our clothes outside. It is beautiful weather. When I step out, the wind makes a rough acquaintance. My blouse waves at Mama. The grass and garden are fresh with dew, like glass shards laid across the field of grass and dirt ground. The tomatoes are still sour but growing ripe. Mama is hanging the wet clothes. Papa’s head is bouncing as he carries wood up the small hill.
“Pa, let me help.”
He stops chopping wood to glance at me. “Abel.” I already knew he wouldn’t accept my help. Mama smiled. I walk over to a tree. I climb on a thick branch then slowly lean backwards. The leaves rustle and two fall into my hair.
Mama waves me inside. Her hair is wrapped in white cloth
I draw myself a warm bath, filled to the top, and dip my head in as you would during your baptism. If only for a moment, I rinse off my troublesome stains in my life. It felt nice to lie back. The water caresses me like I belong. However, it’s cold.
By the time I get out, the tribe is up. The smell of tea catches my attention. The kettle screams with steam.
“You look alive. Your sister wanted your gray dress,” Pa said. Ina is wearing my dress now. We want to share whatever we can with her until she can wear her own outfits. Although, that dress may rip at any time. Mama and I share one outfit too.
Pa holds her high then starts picking at her like an apple tree. I sit on the sofa, watching. He munches at her toes, then her pushed out belly button. Ina’s eyes half open from giggling. He squeezes her nose then spins her around. Ina claps, or better yet touches, her hands together as she is well amused. Mama wipes her hands dry using a small towel with a rip in the center.
The day is great, but of course, Bell was right—there is an emptiness in this home.
Mama prepares supper as it been too long since we enjoyed a good cooked meal as a family.
A fragrance of carrots and potatoes swells from the pot. We have greens, corn, and some fruits, peas perhaps. Corn is mixed in the soup with beans on the side doused in salt and red pepper. I like salty food, but not too much just the right amount. I pass out potatoes that I helped peel. The scratches on the wood table appear deeper than before. I get up and grab the cinnamon, all her spices, and seasoning in old jars. Potatoes and cinnamon go well together.
Ina is making a huge mess, her squishy hands playing in Mama’s dish. I wonder if that is how I acted as a child.
“Looks like someone will have to wash her and the table,” I say, pointing to Pa.
“Not me.” His eyes jerk at Mama. She’s a mess as well.
I enjoy every last bite and go for more. Our tribe’s stomachs are full. After I eat. It might be a good idea to read to Ina as Bell often did for me. I point at each word as I read Margo’s book.
“Pa, did she ever read to you when you were with them?”
“All the time, of course in secret, she even tried to teach me.” He laughs. “Mistress tried to teach me, but I lived a different life, hated the world. I didn’t care for books. Books are what cast the rooks aside.”
“Then I ought to read to you, Pa!” I flip the pages and he picked up the tea bag, lifting it in the air, and looks like he is remembering Margo.
His nostrils twitch. “I remember this. It’d be in every book she had.”
The candles are dying out, leaving a wax scent but a good kind. I only replace the one sitting on a small barrel next to the sofa.
I’m on the floor. Ina is on my lap wearing clothes three times her size, making me laugh. Mama and Pa sit on the lime sofa and Mama combs my hair. Mama always covers her hair.
“Pa, how was it living with them? Ouch! Mama, softer.”
His hands rub his beard, shaking loose a bread crumb. “I’d trade it any other day just to hold my brother once more if only for a short time. Work on a cotton plantation or rice, long as we ain’t apart.” He points to the book and I continued. The bottom half of the book’s cover is ripped and the pages inside folded in shapes of triangles.
“Mama, when Ina grows up, I’ll take care of her. I’ll do her hair.” When I tilt my head up, I see the darkness of her nose. She just nods like usual. My lap is wet with drool. My skin jumps when it seeps to my skin.
In the early morning, I wake up from a knock on the door. My left arm is over my eyes to shade from the sun.
“Pardon me, girl. Can I trouble you for a glass of water? My horses and I are parched. Apologies, another for my friend here.”
Two elderly white men stand on the stoop, dressed impressively. The man standing on my right has dark hair, on my left bald with a black splotch, his top shining like the moon. The one that spoke had a scruffy tone and has wrinkles on his face.
I back up, almost ramming the wall. I grab a glass and fill it. I brush off a green bowl immersed in webs from spiders big enough for his horses. My hands are sticky with web and dirt.
“Much obliged, miss.” The younger but stronger man said and left.
The other one introduces himself. “Well, how you doing on this fine morning? My name is Braxton.” He walks in as if he owns the place, touching everything that sparks his interest and value. The stench of his cigar fills the room.
“Sir, can I help you with anything else?” I said.
“Yes, sorry. May I speak to one of your parents for directions out of town?” He said, friendly like.
“I’ll go get Pa.”
Braxton pulls a chair from the corner and waited, his gaze fixing on the small cloth window in Margo’s tiny kitchen.
I walk to their bedroom right past the wash area and wake up Pa. I shake his elbow and whisper, “Pa. Some old white man here? I gave him water but now he asking for a way out-of-town.”
He sits up. Mama rolls on her side, folding the blanket in front of her face. I see the scars on her back and shoulders just before she unknowingly conceals them. Pa gets up groaning. Ina is in the middle. She cried all night, but now she’s content with sleep.
“Well hello, son!” The well-dressed man said as Pa entered the room.
Pa is barely awake, his shirt coming down his face. When he sees the white man, his expression spikes with utter horror.
Papa grabs me and pulls me back to his side. “What you doing here?”
My arms begin shaking as Pa’s whole body is doing the same.
“Please have a seat, my boy. Is that any way to greet your old man?”
Pa tightened his grip on me and stared at the man in stony silence.
“How old are you now son! Flint’s twenty-eight, so you are at least, what, thirty-nine? I remember the day the wife brought you. Trying to pass you off as an offspring. The flies that hovered above your head, boy, you reeked like my shits. Glad I took good care of you.” He belches out an awful laugh. His heavy stomach rolls.
“The way your hand stuck out, begging for more food. Did you think you were better than or had some type of privilege over the other darkies?”
The other man steps back into the house. His expression pure cold.
“And how can I forget those nigger lips and eyes? Thick with dirt and blood. I thought she wasted my hard earned coins purchasing a dead nigger. Ha-”
His friend shouted, “Braxton, don’t you dare say my name. I am a white male superior to these negroes.”
“Well, I only came for business son. The market demanding more um, how can I say this delicately, workers.” His grin is rich with slime.
I just stare at him, wondering what he is talking about.
Braxton sits down with a cane between his legs, glaring around the place. His head rotates to the table, then the faucet, and then his partner. “Boy, I see you made yourself a home. Flint told me a lot.”
Pa lets go of my wrist and lunges at Braxton, pulling him to his feet. “Out!” he screams into his ruddy face.
“Pa, who is he? What are you doing?”
Pa’s face burns with anger. “This man a nightmare, Abel. He is Margo’s husband and a slave trader.”
Braxton slaps Pa’s arms off him, then fixes his own collar and tie.
“We prefer to be called rook handlers, Boy!” Braxton pushes Pa back and taps on his hip. “Now that I have your undivided attention let’s get down to it. I’m on a tight schedule—auction’s any day now. See you were never meant to run off with that woman who I once loved.”
His friend steps closer, the sound of his boots singing against the floor. “Braxton, I I received a letter stating some slaves are hiding thereabouts.”
Braxton turns around and says, “Give me some time. I’m talking to my son and his daughter. What an awful act my wife committed. You were never meant to taste freedom. It took me years to find you but Flint contacted me. She gave you the ever long-lasting mirage of a free man. Don’t you agree? And for that, I am sorry for her and myself.”
“To tell you the truth I told her to go out and buy some more slaves. Why she chose you is beyond my comprehension. I decided I would raise you to make you feel somewhat wanted then when you were grown, sell you. Cannot trade a dying mule, now can we.” He laughs with his partner.
The sound of Ina crying drifts in from the next room. Both strangers did not wince at the distraction.
The younger man steps up. “This is not how I like to handle things. You asked me to come here now let me do what I do best!”
Braxton puts up his hands, I notice a silver ring on his pinky and gold on his pointer. “I’m almost done. The floor will be all yours any second. Even I find your methods repulsive, but then again your reputation precedes you. After all these years working together you’d think my immunity would be stronger.” Braxton laughs again. “You’re a foul man.” Braxton said looking at his partner.
Mama enters, Ina cradled in her chest looking like a crescent moon. Her face was creased in a question. What is all this ruckus?
“Don’t come close! Abel go to your mother.” Pa said.
Braxton spoke, “Oh, the family assembled I presume. If I had it done my way you all would be...well never mind. My colleague is an impatient man as you can tell.”
“Good morning all” he tips his gray, narrow brim hat. His boots still clack like coins dropping on wood.“Most white men wave their guns or whips to instill fear to folks as yourselves but me, I am fear!” He walks slowly, taking off his coat and folding it on his arm like a towel. He wears black-strapped overalls underneath and plain shirt. The man sparks a cigar, takes a long inhale, then smoke rush through his nose.
“What do you want?” Papa asked nervously.
“Braxton can you wait outside.” Bell step out. I want to give you people hell.
The man asks, “you think I’ve been a slave trader and never wrestled with a nigger? I’ve wrestled down with the best of em.” He walks over to a pole with wooden arms coming from it and drops off his jacket. “Tell you what, just to confirm my point. I’m a gentleman of my word, Simple right? You win we forget about this whole incident. I win...well, I ’m not a spoiler.”
The man asks, “You think I’ve been a slave trader and never wrestled with a nigger? That’s absurd. I’ve wrestled down with the best of ’em.” He walks over to a pole with wooden arms coming from it and drops his jacket onto it. “Tell you what, today you will lost your daughter, but more importantly yourself
Just before the unknown stranger makes his move, he looks at me, Ina, and Mama and says, “William was one smart cracka. A physical and psychological breakdown proposal is genius. You see here boy, when a nigger woman observes the dominant male beaten down for what he stands for, it muddles with her.” He looks up at us. His body is covered with bumps and scrapes. He has dark hair and black eyes. “This is a lesson for the family. Listen up now, as I’ll only teach this once.
“If I should make you give into me, I’ve already won the game. Your daughter will think to herself if what I’m about to say will come true. Knowing this, it’s a gateway to feeling attached to you. I wonder which one of the three will have it the hardest?” He looks at Ina. “Well, I guess four. I’ve destroyed many negroes lives, but I can’t say this will be my last. It’s always been my humble pleasure to tame y’all folks. Wild as a horse but useful after properly broken down and trained. You agree?” He grins. Then he squats down and stretches his legs then arms.
“If I beat your Pa, he’ll no longer be able to recognize himself, realizing he couldn’t save the family he loves by the same hands that built him! He’ll always wonder what he did wrong, but he knows it’ll haunt him.
“Now you see, your Ma here, she’s the queen: a beautiful slender woman. Will she ever be able to look at him again? Will she hold resentment in her eyes? Or maybe your Ma will be the wrath of your father. Every time they talk... he’ll be infected by hateful truths eating at him, gradually harvesting his soul. Will your love decay like a descending shadow? I’m quite curious.
“They’ll grow apart without you in their presence. They’ll embody shame, guilt, and most importantly, no closure. Now, if I’m right, one of you won’t live for long. So, being the kind spirit I am, I’ve brought a present.” He points at a long extended rope, coiled like a snake. The stranger flexes his palms, squeezing and releasing. He smiles at Papa as if to say he is ready.
He hits Papa twice on his nose and blood rushes out. Pa cocks his head, leaving the stranger with a bruise. Then they shove into each other. The stranger gets Pa off and spits out blood. They toss around everywhere together and fresh firewood rolls across the floor. They grunt and moan, Papa more so. Papa holds his breath. Both men rest, but the stranger does not seem exhausted. “Come here boy, we aren’t through.” His fingers taunt Papa. Mama is still holding onto Ina and I am frozen behind her.
Papa begins the next engage, his brown trousers now ripped even more. Ma covers Ina’s eyes and attempts to cover both her ears too. But she is exposed to the chaos, like myself. I pray Papa stays strong. Mama’s face is engrossed in wrinkles. Her mouth and eyes are open wide. My body jumps when I hear the small round table collapse with Pa underneath.
My fear quenches when Papa gets up first. They both catch their breaths, beads of sweat rolling. There is blood on the man’s shirt and Papa’s right cheek. Their knuckles are torn, exposing flesh.
Pa lands a strong shot on his ribs but he does not go down and only retaliates even harder. Pa starts to huff and puff but his strength does not waver. The stranger grabs Pa’s face then drives his fingers into Pa’s eyes. A strong kick to the stomach takes Pa’s breath.
The taste of fear swells in my throat. The smell of blood smears in my head. He is winning and his words approach me with a thud, drying my mouth. I jump in after Pa. I land a good kick but smack down to the floor in pain. I hear Ina and Ma shrieking but Pa is broken, in tears. I feel like I am about to vomit. Ma rushes over next to me. Her warm hands touch my cheeks. Her hair covered in her white cloth.
The events happen quicker than I can perceive. Lying on the floor, she keeps trying to get my attention, but my mind is elsewhere. Mama is crying and crying. All I can think about is hiding all four of us away in the small hidden space away from this madness. Both Ma’s and Pa’s faces are painted in my head. Ma is terrified, and as for Pa, I don’t even know a word that can describe him.
Pa is crawling towards us in torment, a broken table leg behind him. The unknown figure grabs his jacket and puts it back on. “You see, boy, Lynch came up with this appalling idea, but it makes sense. Here’s another free lesson. The word that scares all African-American derived from him. Lynching.” He squats where mama, Ina, and myself are laid, my head resting on Mama’s lap.
“My prediction is, you boy, won’t survive, and I’m almost never wrong. Make sure you use that tree out back, you hear! Look in your daughter’s eyes cause it’s the last time you’ll ever see her. Then again, this baby looks like it was only just born. How long have you had the pleasure to hold your child, ma’am? Weeks? A month? You’ll see them both ripped from your clutches. Maybe the child will have it the hardest, always wondering what happened to her parents. Will you tell her this awful truth or will you lie? I’m quite curious, Uhm, Abel right? Well anyways, I best be off. You folks should try to enjoy the morning. It’s nice today.” He hollers for Braxton and his voice echoes around the house.
Braxton walks back inside and snatches Ina. I hear his boots click with the floor, and then he hauls me up. The stranger tosses me over his shoulder and I see Ma and Pa’s expressions. I scream and kick my feet. Every step he takes to the door feels heavy. “Mama! Papa!”
Mama jumps up and scratches the stranger carrying me. I have never seen her so savage-like. Her neck is thick and her eyes red. “Madam, we came to an understanding.”
“Mama ,help me.” Her eyes jolt at me and she continues attacking him. Braxton shoots his gun on the floor. “Keep it up and I won’t miss next time.” She keeps going without an ounce of fear until the gun is pointed at my sister. She freezes, I freeze, then Mama drops to the floor. Ma can’t even yell her children’s names.
My tale is not one I wanted to tell, but several years after my captivity and freedom I wrote Rooks of the Raven. But before I continue, there is something you need to know about my family. The choices I made in captivity felt like they were not of my own accord.