Trials & Tribulations of Modesty Greene

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Chapter 11: Araminta Ross

1829 – Dorchester County, Maryland, America

When I opened my eyes, I just knew I had to be dreamin’. My mama’s round face was peering over me and I could hear the prattle of Benji and Rachel goin’ on about a song Ouma had taught them. It was the smell of our little cabin that jolted me into reality. Wet, burned wood, a combination of the humidity and smoke that had filled our room for years.

“—well she ain’t nothin’ but skin and bones,” Mama was saying. “What kind of human being takes a child of only six to work a trap line?”

“I liked workin’ the trap line,” I mumbled. “Beats rollin’ yarn.”

“What kind of human being takes a child of only six from her mama to roll yarn?” Mama’s voice was getting worked up.

“Poor white trash, I tell you.” It was Linah’s voice. I could feel a smile spread from inside my guts to my face as the realization that I was really home washed over me like a spring rain. “Benji, take the littles outside and stay away from Minty, she’s got the measles.”

“What’s the measles?” I asked, but no one took any interest in my question.

“If we’re lucky, we can contain this to just Minty,” Mama said.

“The other littles might as well get it over with,” Linah stated.

“Get what over with?” I managed to ask, but no one paid me no never mind.

Mama took a cold damp rag and laid it on my forehead. “Get some rest,” she said. “Glad you’re home.” She leaned down and kissed my cheek. Her lips felt cool on my skin, yet her breath felt warm, even after she had left.

The second time I got hired out was to sit a white woman’s nursery. It was before my seventh birthday. In fact, as soon as I recovered from the measles, Massa Brodess had a new mistress for me. We found out through the gossip vine two whole days before I had to leave.

“I’m so worried about Minta,” I heard my mother say after we had all settled in for the night.

“Now Rit, you know and I know—” my pa began, but my mama interrupted.

“Minta’s special, Ben. I’m going to worry myself sick about her. Massa don’t seem to give a lick about her or he wouldn’t be hiring her out for pittance.”

“She is indeed special,” I heard my pa say. “We’re just going to have to trust in the Lord, Rit. Trust he’ll see her through.”

“She’s good with the children,” I heard Ma say as I started to doze off. “Maybe you’re right and it will all be well for her this time.”

“It’s going to be just fine, Rit.” I heard them snuggle down and my pa kiss my mama.

“But what if—”

“Now you hush, woman. Get some sleep.”

My new life didn’t sound so bad as Mama explained it to me. All I’d have to do is rock Miss Susan’s baby and keep him quiet. I’d been takin’ care of littles my whole life, so this was doable. That was the biggest baby I’d ever seen. He had rolls of baby fat on his arms and under his chin. I ain’t ever seen such a fat baby. He probably weighed as much as I did. I couldn’t lift him from the cradle, so I had to sit on the floor and his mama handed him down to me.

Never on this planet was there such a miserable baby. Maybe he was so ornery because his mama was so mean. Anytime there was one little squawk from that boy, Miss Susan would grab a little whip she kept on a shelf behind the headboard and flog me with it. Usually, I would get so upset and start to cry that it made the baby cry harder, which made his mama wield that whip all the more.

I would rock, rock, rock the cradle until he was asleep. As soon as I would start to nod off, he would wake and scream. I’d start rocking as soon as he would budge but usually it was too late and the hateful whip would find its way across the back of my neck.

Miss Susan also had me cleanin’ house which I ain’t never done. She’d come in and run her finger over a mantle or piece of furniture. If there was any dirt that came up, she’d launch into a tirade and beat me. Sometimes with that whip, sometimes with her walking cane or her fists.

Once during one of these beatings Miss Susan’s sister was visiting. I started screaming as soon as Miss Susan started wielding the walking stick. Her sister came running in and grabbed the weapon.

“Why do you torment this child?” she asked.

“She’s worthless! Can’t keep the baby quiet and don’t know the first thing about keeping up the house.”

“My dear sister, she’s no more than a child. Teach her.” Their eyes met and Miss Susan’s sister shook her head. “Leave her with me, I’ll teach her the proper way to sweep and dust, you’ll see.”

“Good luck, she’s as dull as a door nail,” Susan snapped as she marched out of the parlor.

Ms. Susan’s sister showed me how to oil the wood and sweep the corners of the room. She taught me how to beat the rugs and made a little game out of it, she even gave me some advice about how to handle the little master of the house. With that instruction, my life became a little more bearable.

When the massa and missus was out, I let that baby cry. That was the secret Miss Susan’s sister had told me and she was right. After a few days of letting him scream until his face was purple with exertion and not picking him up, he toned his fits down somewhat so we all could get some sleep.

It was my curiosity about the finer things in life that was my demise with Miss Susan and the fat pink baby. Miss Susan, like Missus Cook, was the one that ran the family. It was almost uncomfortable to see the women-folk talk to the men-folk like that, as if they was superior. So, on that mornin’, the Missus was givin’ an earful to her mister. She was holdin’ the baby and usin’ him like a prop in a dramatic presentation. I think she did this on purpose to make the massa feel a twang of love and lower his defenses.

“—but Susan, darling,” I heard him say. Next to the table where they all ate was a little tea tray. It had on it sugar cubes as well as the tea and some cinnamon sticks. I kept lookin’ at those sugar cubes. They were the whitest, purest thing I’d ever seen and I ain’t never tasted sugar. Keepin’ my eye on the missus I inched my hand up slow until it was level with the sugar bowl.

My hand looked so dark next to the white linen on the cart, the porcelain bowl, and the sugar cubes. I looked away for only a moment, down at my fingers plucking a bit of sugar from the dish. When I looked up, my eyes met the massa’s. His eyes flicked to mine and the missus turned around to see what he was lookin’ at just as I popped the cube into my mouth.

The saliva in my mouth started to melt the sugar which made my mouth water all the more. The missus’ eyes grew wide and her pinched face twisted into an ugly grimace. The baby looked at me and, sensing the tension, he opened his mouth and let out a loud wail. Miss Susan flung the baby into her husband’s arms and spun back at me. I knew there was gonna be a whuppin’ so I darted out the back door. My heart was pounding so hard it didn’t seem normal and I had this rush, this adrenaline that pulsed in my temples. I managed to get the sugar cube down but my mouth tasted sweet and wet, it caused me to lick my lips as I ran. I didn’t know where I was goin’ or what I was gonna do, all I knew was I had to get away from Miss Susan before she pulled out that little whip on the shelf behind her bed.

I ran until I was sure no one was chasing me. It was obvious I had left the little plantation where Miss Susan lived and found myself on more of a farm. There was a pig pen and the latch on the gate was bent so it hung a bit lop-sided. Gave me just enough room to squeeze through the opening.

The little piglets came runnin’ thinkin’ I had some kind of food for them. The big ole sow mama just laid in the shade. She lifted her head and eyed me before dozing back into a pig dream. Every year, we raise a piglet for Christmas supper, so I was used to their little curiosities. I plunked down in the shade of the fence to catch my breath.

“Lord,” I said, “I’m gonna hold steady onto You and You’ve got to see me through.” I glanced up to the sky and pictured the Almighty himself lookin’ down at me and smilin’. Then I saw my mama and pa in my mind, even though they wouldn’t probably say it, I bet they were proud of me for runnin’ and gettin’ away.

In the pen was a trough for water and a trough for food. I looked into the bin and it was picked clean. There was a bit of water in the other one. The shell my ouma gave me was still tied around my wrist so I dunked it in the water. It was green in color and smelled real bad so I just dumped it on the ground and sat back down. Before I knew it, I was sound asleep.

The movement of the piglets runnin’ to the feed trough woke me. The big sow rocked to get up and mosey over to the trough. I moved my body into the shadows more since the sun had moved and it was shady and getting’ dark. At that point I was so dirty, I probably just blended in with the ground. Once the farmer had moved on and started to scatter hay for the horse, I started to inch forward to the slop trough. I had my shell in hand was prepared to scoop up whatever those piglets were eatin’.

It was like that mama pig could read my mind. If I moved one way, her big behind went that way. When I tried the other direction, she moved to block me that way, too. I circled wide and came in on the end, pushin’ my way between two fat piglets. Their snorting, huffing, and chewing was intimidating me, and I knew the sow still had her eye on me. I reached my shell in and scooped up some slop. One baby pig moved sideways to block me from gettin’ any more.

I brought the shell to my lips because I was hungry. Hadn’t had nothin’ but that sugar cube since the night before at supper time, and even then, what the missus gave me was nothin’ more than the scraps the pigs were eating. It tasted awful, but like I said, I was hungry.

This went on for three days until I was so hungry I could hardly see straight. I had managed one or two shell full scoops of slop each morning and night plus some of that dirty mossy water. I knew whenever I went back there was a beatin’ for me, so I had to wait it out until the thought of a decent meal outweighed the thought of the beatin’.

On the fifth mornin’, I wandered back to Miss Susan’s house. I was a sight, filthy and half starved. That didn’t deter the whippin’ though. Miss Susan screamed at me about stealin’ from her sugar bowl, she screamed at me about how I was lazy and good for nothin’. Eventually I passed out from the pain and lack of food. When I woke, I could see the blanket of stars above. I was layin’ in the back of the buckboard. Massa had the reins and I could hear them banter back and forth.

Mister says, “Next time the slave trader comes to down we’ll get us an adult slave, the smaller ones don’t seem to work out so good.”

“Well not this one,” Miss Susan huffs. “She ain’t worth a six-pence.” The sway of the cart left me feelin’ sleepy and I drifted back off to be woke when we came up the Brodess plantation. I heard Miss Susan say to Massa Brodess, “I hope all your slave folk aren’t this incompetent or you’ll be bankrupt by the new year.”

I heard Massa Brodess stumble on his words, “Yes ma’am, I mean, no ma’am. My slaves are quite capable.”

“Well this little nigger girl ain’t worth nothin’ and I would kindly appreciate you refunding my money.”

“Miss Susan,” he began, then he saw me and I heard him suck in his breath. “The agreement was you were to feed and care for this slave-girl and she has clearly not been—”

Ms. Susan interrupted, “She ran away, she’s damn lucky I didn’t brand her face with the R. She’s trouble, and I want nothin’ to do with her. Mister Brodess, in all due respect, I believe you owe me the fees I’ve paid for this good-for-nothing girl.”

“Have your people send my accountant an itemized bill, ma’am, and we’ll reimburse you for your trouble,” he said as Linah came up on the cart.

“Oh Minta,” she sighed and scooped my body from the back of the cart. I felt safe in her strong arms as she carried me back to our cabin. I could hear Miss Susan and Massa Brodess bid their farewells as we ducked into the cabin. “Look who’s back,” Linah said without emotion.

“Minty!” my little brother Benji exclaimed, dumping his nephew Calvin onto the floor to approach and greet me. Ouma motioned for me to sit up by the fire as Linah moved to go back to the big house. Calvin wanted her and reached up as she passed. He began to cry.

“Don’t start that little man,” she said and kissed him on his forehead before gliding out the door.

Ouma motioned for me to take off my dirty shift. She assessed the lash marks that were on my back but mostly on my neck. Within an hour she had wiped me down with a damp, hot rag she wrung from the kettle over the fire and got me a cleaner shift. She made a poultice with herbs and roots and wrapped the oozing wounds then got me a biscuit and piece of fatback. I felt a pang of guilt when Benji, Rachel, and Calvin watched me eat. Ouma saw it too and broke a second biscuit into thirds and offered it to the other children.

The door popped open and bounced on its hinges when Mama came in. “Araminta?” she cooed then saw me and cradled me in her thick arms. All this time and I ain’t shed one tear until then. When she kissed my head and started lookin’ at my whippin’ wounds I started cryin’ and she smothered me with her love.

That night when we were supposed to be asleep I could hear my parents talk about my return.

“No one sees how precious that child is, Ben.”

“I see it. You see it. Your mama sees it. The good Lord sees it, Rit.”

“She can’t keep gettin’ beat like that. She’s just a small girl, smaller than most. We’ve got to do somethin’, Ben,” my mama said. “She’s distinct, there’s something about her that ain’t like the rest.”

“We gotta trust God—” my pa began.

“No, we got to make sure she don’t get hired out no more,” Ma interrupted. Her voice had taken on an edge that suggested she meant business. “We gotta do a whole lot more than pray.”

“Rit, my sweet wife, I’ll see what I can do,” my pa reassured my mother.

“She’s special,” my mama said.

“I know, I know,” my pa answered. “She sure is.”

That night I laid and listened to my family snore and sleep. The air and smells of our little shack seemed to wrap me up like a baby bein’ swaddled. For that fleetin’ moment, I felt loved and safe.

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