Trials & Tribulations of Modesty Greene

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Chapter 10: Araminta Ross

1826 – Dorchester County, Maryland, America

Ouma taught me almost everything I know, from how to break a fever to which herbs and roots work for what ailments. She told me my fingers have eyes in the tips, as I could always find the best bulbs and plants for her medicines. She’s shown me how lemongrass heals a skin boil and how basil can calm bug bites. It was my ouma who taught me songs about the old world called Afrika and traditions that were left there when she was brought here.

Some days, she told us all stories of the middle passage. Her mumbling old voice evoked noises of chains, the smell of death, and the horror of thirst. Those were the most shocking tales, the ones I barely could believe ’cause of the awfulness.

Once, I recall bringin’ in a load of wood for our fireplace. I had stacked the wood as high as I was tall in my stick-like arms then balanced it in, settin’ on the hearth, proud as Punch. I turned grinnin’ at Ouma who just shook her head and clucked her tongue on her gums as she turned away from me.

“Overseer gonna set you to task he sees that behavior.”

I wasn’t sure what that meant, but her tone suggested it wasn’t good. I done figured out all us black folk were the slaves, but I still didn’t know what we were supposed to do until someone told me. I’d just stay by my ouma’s side and learn whatever I could.

Sure enough, it wasn’t a week or so after I turned six I found myself runnin’ water to the field hands. It wasn’t so bad for me, I delivered their drink then sat in the shade and watched them work in rhythm, like a machine. They sung together and created even more an illusion of unity.

Later that year, in the fall, my oldest sister came husslin’ in the cabin and whispered to my ma there was a white woman named Mrs. James Cook meetin’ with the massa. She was lookin’ for a child slave and preferably a girl. Linah said the woman wasn’t quality and was barely above poor white trash. Mama’s eyes rolled in that way that I know she’s a worryin’ about us kids.

Next thing I know, I found myself sittin’ next to Mrs. Cook on a buckboard wagon movin’ away from my home. I was scared and confused. The last thing I wanted to do was leave the Brodess plantation and each clop, clop of the horse hooves took me farther and farther away. Was this what it was like to be set to task? The woman was drivin’ the horse that pulled the cart. I ain’t never seen a woman with the reins. I ain’t never seen a white woman without a passel of slaves. To be fair, I only met a couple white women in my whole life. The missus, and once her sister came to call. That’s it. I know the massa and the overseer, plus Mr. Thompson on the plantation just north of us and to be frank, those are the only white men I’d met so far.

Missus Cook’s face was the color of oatmeal and was drawn and long, a bit like Brodess’ old mule. Expressionless. Dull. Her clothes weren’t much better than Mama’s and her hat wasn’t nothin’ special, just an old bonnet. Nonetheless, I knew my manners and I knew to speak when spoken to and address the missus proper.

“Yes, ma’am,” or “No missus.”

We drove through the woods and over Rolling Road. It was named that ‘cause the men folk used to roll hogshead sized bundles of tobacco down to the wharfs. Rollin’ ‘em was easier than haulin’ them. Clop, clop, clop. I looked over my shoulder again and wondered if I could find my way home if I had to, if things didn’t work out here, if maybe I should have been payin’ better attention to the turns we took.

Once we got to the Cook house I must admit, I was a wee bit disappointed. It wasn’t much bigger than the little cabin I shared with ten people. The ways it was different had me in awe. It had windows with glass panes in them and cloth curtains. There was a big porch with two wooden rockin’ chairs and the best part was it was near a river.

Missus Cook showed me where I was to be sleepin’, next to the hearth in the kitchen. I ain’t never been in a house that had more than just one room. This house had a upstairs with a sleepin’ room for the missus and her husband. Once inside, I realized it was much bigger than our little shack. It was full of furniture and crates stacked along one wall. Since I ain’t never been in Masssa Brodess’ big house, I couldn’t say if it were the same or better. Past the kitchen there was a stuffy room with a huge loom and boxes of all kinds and colors of yarn. Missus was a weaver.

My first night I couldn’t sleep. I sat by the fireplace until the wood burned all up. Missus didn’t give me a blanket to lay with and I was cold by morning. Massa Cook came down just before dawn and lit the fire ablaze. He told me he’d get me a wood pallet to sleep on and a blanket. My throat seemed to be closed-up, so I nodded and kept my eyes averted.

When Missus came down she told me to follow her into the weaver room. My job was to hold the ball of yarn and unspool it as she needed it. It kept gettin’ caught on the rough skin of my hands or my torn thumb nail. Plus, the noise of the loom made me think of the thump-chunk-whir of a cage closin’ then lockin’ and over and over again. There were little bits of lint that floated around me and caused me to sneeze which caused my eyes and nose to run. If I rubbed my nose, Missus would tell me to wipe my hands. If I wiped my hands, then she’d yell at me to grab the yarn ball and unravel it. It was a miserable first day away.

Bein’ confined like that began to make me go a little mad after a few days. I dropped the ball of yarn and the missus yelled at me and told me I was clumsy. My nose was still runnin’. Day in and day out I started dreadin’ the task of workin’ with the missus and each morning I asked the mister if there were something I could do outside. I would be a better slave if I could see the sky.

The mister said he’d talk to his wife about it and she readily agreed, tellin’ him I wasn’t much help anyway. In the mornin’ I went with Mister Cook and he showed me the trail for his trap lines. He trapped muskrats and skinned their hides for hats and gloves. They were a little cute if you liked swimmin’ rats, but they had an odor that made me breathe through my mouth.

Most times I hoped the traps were empty. I didn’t like the flat stare of their dead eyes. Made me ponder if the ones that got trapped, you know, if their mamas wondered where they went.

Each mornin’ I walked the trail and pulled up the traps to see if they done their job. Mister showed me how to reset and rebait the ones that had been sprung without actually gettin’ a critter in them. One mornin’, I didn’t feel so well. Most times by the time the mister came down, I was already up and waitin’, but that morning, I heard him makin’ coffee and stokin’ the fire. I was slow to wake that day, when I looked at Massa Cook, it seemed he was swayin’ back and forth.

“I’m sick,” I said just as the missus came down the steps.

“Nigger folks are taught quite young to lie to get out of work,” she tsked and started to pull out the pans for their morning meal. “Lazy, lazy,” she clucked and rolled her eyes at her husband. Mister Cook made a motion for me to head out the door. It was cold out so I wrapped the blanket Massa had gotten me tight around my shoulders. “Don’t get that blanket dirty, you hear me!” Missus shouted as the door closed.

The cold of the mornin’ stung my eyes and they watered. My nose was runnin’ and I felt cold to my bones. As I walked the trap trail, my teeth started chattering. Only one muskrat was caught up in the cage and for that, I was grateful. It seemed so heavy, I couldn’t have managed more than one. The damp, pungent odor filled my nostrils as I trudged back to the Cook’s house. Once I deposited the dead rodent in the guttin’ basket, I went back to the kitchen. Mister and Missus were eatin’ their breakfast. I wasn’t ever invited to join them, but was always grateful for the scraps they didn’t eat and left me to scrounge off their plates when I cleaned up after them. Mister told me the first day, if it was left on the plates I could eat it. Sometimes it were just bread crusts, but other times, I had a little gravy or corn. Lookin’ back, they fed me more like a stray pup than a growin’ gal.

When I walked in, the warm of the kitchen and the smells of the food was overwhelming. My head swam and the room tilted this way and that.

“She looks sick,” I heard Mister say, then all I remember is them lookin’ at me when I came in. I opened my mouth to tell Mister about the muskrat and everything went black.

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