Trials & Tribulations of Modesty Greene

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Chapter 13: Benji Ross

1833 – Dorchester County, Maryland, America

Yesterday was the shuckin’ jubilee. It happens every year at harvest. In the slave world, the calendar is divided into four times a year. You may think it’s spring, summer, autumn, and winter and I guess in a way it is. In the slave world, the year is broken into seedin’ time, blossom time, harvest time, and Christmas. Up here in the north, we’re lucky ‘cause we’re seasonal slaves. Brodess makes most his money on tobacco, and it only grows in the summertime. Down south, cotton needs year-round tendin’.

We remember our years by the events, like last year was the year Calvin was born, this year will be the year Moses or Harry or whatever his name will be was born. The year of the big storm was the year after I was born, and the grown-ups still talk about the year of the flood where all the crops failed. That had to have been about the year Mariah was born.

When we are born, we get recorded like if we were part of the cattle or other livestock. There’s an entry somewhere in Massa’s ledger, “Harriet – boy two” or “girl four”, that’s what Minty is and Rachel is “girl five.” Boys are more desirable ‘cause the massa can get more money fo’ the males. I heard my mama talkin’ with another slave woman that Massa Brodess is gettin’ rich off of breedin’ and sellin’ us negroes. Nowadays, I want to believe that freedom is just around the next bend. Gotta keep the faith. From one of those newspapers I brought Ouma, she read that over half the black folk in the country are free already and that each state gets to vote whether or not they want to keep slavery or get rid of it.

One day, I overheard Linah and Mariah talkin’ while they were doin’ the mendin’ and Linah said the white folk that come and stay at the Brodess place wouldn’t even be able to wipe their own bottoms if it weren’t for us slave folk. So why would they want to get rid of slavery? Pa says there are some real nice white folk, most of them are Quakers. He thinks where the Declaration of Independence says, “All men are created equal” that it’s talkin’ about us and it’s just a matter of time before we’re all free. Mama shakes her head and tells Pa to quit tellin’ tall tales, but I still have this little spark of hope that he’s right.

Anyway, harvest time is the only time we don’t hire anyone out, but hire extra hands from the Thompson plantation. It’s my favorite day, partly because I know the Christmas season is right around the corner, but partly because it’s like a little party. Everyone does the same work and we’re all together. Picture over a hundred slaves, old and young, all shuckin’ corn, all happy ‘cause the season’s almost through. We have races to see who can shuck an ear of corn the fastest and everyone sings happy songs that lift us up. Sometimes the songs go faster and faster and we all see if we can keep up the shucking paced to the rhythm. I’m fast at getting the corn husk off, I can do it faster than Minty and for sure faster than Robert, my older brother. He thinks he’s quicker than I am, but he leaves all the fine silky stuff and that don’t count as bein’ done.

So, yesterday, one of the Thompson slaves weren’t singin’. That’s always a bad sign when folks don’t join in the song, it means their mind’s a wanderin’ if they ain’t liftin’ their voices to God. Wanderin’ minds ain’t never a good thing for a slave, it’s just not. Keep your mind on yo’ task at hand, that’s what mama says.

We’re all shuckin’ corn and I can see Minty is watching the hired hand watchin’ the overseer.

“Make a noise,” the overseer says, directing his tone towards the Thompson slave. He looked like he started singin’ with the rest, but I didn’t hear no song come from his lips. When the overseer turned away and ain’t lookin’, that big dummy bolts for the road. The overseer, he shakes his head and jogs off after the runner and we all couldn’t believe it, but Minty started runnin’ after the overseer.

Mama started hollering, “Araminta Ross, you get your tail back here!” Now we all know, if Mama uses our full names like that, she means business and you best just mind her, but Minty didn’t. The chase was on.

Did I mention to you that hired hand was stupid? He ran right into the general store just a half mile down the road thinkin’ the store clerk’d help him out. All it really did was slow him down so the overseer and Minty done catch up with him. Now the overseer has him trapped in the store. That dumb ole hand is duckin’ down by the dry goods and tryin’ to make a break for the door but Minty is standing right in the way. The shop owner and overseer thinks Minty is there to help them, little do they know she just wouldn’t do that.

Minty and that Thompson slave’s eyes met and she gave him a nod then he sprung up like a feral cat and scurried past my sister. The overseer is hollerin’, “Grab him, grab him!” but Minty puts her hands on her hips and faces him with her expression set tight and defiant.

“He’s getting away!” the overseer yells and in desperation grabs a two-pound lead weight off the counter scale and throws it towards the runnin’ slave man, ’cept a heavy weight like that don’t throw like a ball. It went in a little arc and plunked right down on Minty’s head. BAM!

When they brought her back to our shack she was covered in blood, most had dried up and was stinkin’ and brown. I didn’t even know it was her ‘cause her face was kinda caved-in but I heard Mama tellin’ Soph to run and get my pa ’cause Minty’s hurt.

Ouma got her herb sack out and mixed up some awful smellin’ stuff and put it all over Minty’s head. She told Ma they were some kinda root to ease her pain. It was hard to see she was in pain ‘cause she just laid there with her eyes closed. I thought she was dead a couple times. Every now and then I’d see Ouma watchin’ closely to see if her chest rose with her breaths, so even she thought Minty died.

Couple times, Minty would start shaking all over and little pink foamy stuff would come out her mouth and nose. Mama and Ouma would calm her and wrap their four arms around her. Ouma would give her more of the ground up stuff from her medicine sack and whisper love songs to her. That first night none of us got much sleep. You see, our shack is pretty small, ‘specially for ten people and when one’s sick and stinkin’ like blood and wakin’ up every other hour, well… like I said, none of us slept all that much.

Next day, everyone’s got stuff to do but me, so my mama asks me if I’ll sit with Minty all day. She leaves me with a rag and a little bucket of water and I’m supposed to keep the rag a little wet and on Minty’s head. It don’t seem too hard of a job for me. But Minty isn’t awake and there’s no one else there. I was startin’ to get real bored, maybe it would have been better if I could take care of the littles and Ouma could take care of Minty.

While I was lost in thought about how bad I was wishin’ to be anywhere but here, Minty’s body snapped alive. It started to shake so bad I could hear her head hittin’ the dirt floor and her teeth were clackin’ together. I reached for the rag from her head so I could dip it in the water when her eyes flew open and she gulped air like a fish outta water. Her face was so swollen that I couldn’t see much of her eyes, but I could see the staggered look over her whole being.

She grabbed my wrist as I reached for her forehead. “Did he get away?”

Of course, she was talkin’ about the Thompson slave. I hesitated, not knowin’ right away how to answer. “Yea,” I managed to get out, even though I wasn’t totally sure. I suspected he didn’t. My guess and gut feeling was he was caught, branded, then whipped and who knows, maybe hanged. No need to tell her that, I just want her to think he did, that would make her happy.

“Good,” she said and closed her eyes. I wrung out the rag and put it back on the bloodied indentation on my sister’s forehead and gave her a little smile.

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