Trials & Tribulations of Modesty Greene

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Chapter 14: Benji Ross

1833 – Dorchester County, Maryland, America

It was gettin’ hot in our little hovel and the heat made the smells more distinct. Blood and fire smoke were overpowering. My main job now was to keep the flies off Minty’s wound. I wanted to open the door, but then more flies came in and it didn’t make it all that much cooler anyhow.

Minty kept sleepin’ most the day. She rolled away from me with a loud moan, her arms over her face and head, like she was dreamin’ of bein’ whipped. The lines on her back stared at me, white, pink, and somewhere in between, they crisscrossed from the top of her butt to the place where her hair starts to grow on the back of her neck. I knew the neck lines were put there by a horrible woman who hired out Minty to rock her baby. Poor ole Minty was younger than I am now and that roly-poly lard baby was just near as big as her. If that toad made a peep, the missus would whip Minty with a little whip that she kept on a little shelf just behind the headboard. Minty told me she learned real quick how to rock that cradle in her sleep. She also confessed to me that the little whip was just as painful as the big whip.

The lines that ran across her back were thick. One of my first memories of her was when she got her first whuppin’ at the Brodess place by the overseer. I don’t know what happened or why, but all I remember is she come in a howlin’ to our mama. Her face was covered in snot and her back was bleedin’ somethin’ fierce.

“Aww… Minta honey.” Our mama didn’t even have to ask what happened. She just scooped up Minty in her strong arms, careful not to touch the bloody streaks across her back. Still holding Minty, she made a poultice to cover the open, weeping wounds, then wrapped her up. She gave her an extra piece of potato with her breakfast and then shooed her off to finish her chores. Minty musta been only a few years younger than me when that happened, so… five or six.

Oh, and mean-old-bad-mommy-missus with the little whip wasn’t the first time Minty got hired out. The first time was with a weaver woman. I barely remember her bein’ gone but I remember her comin’ back. That was the first time I thought she was gonna die. She was nothin’ but skin and bones and there were little sores that finally oozed clear pus before they went away. The weaver was hollerin’ at Master Brodess that Minty wasn’t worth a six-pence. I’ve never seen a white man go whiter, but he sure did. He blanched when he saw Minty and raised a kerchief over his nose and mouth as she went by him. Her back looked bad then, too, if it weren’t bad enough she had the measles!

I love hearin’ her voice. It’s different, low and raspy ’cause of a throat sickness she had one time before I was born. Maybe that was the first time she got hired out. My memory about those years is a little unclear. I’mma three years younger than her. This is my tenth year, so she’s darn near a woman now, but you wouldn’t know it ’cause she’s so small like our Ouma.

Those were the best days of my life with Minty when we were little. I remember Ouma scared me a little back then. She ain’t got no teeth and is always chewin’ on this clay pipe. She keeps her hair shorn short and has a little bone stabbed through each of her earlobes. Before we all got our work, we got taken care of by Ouma. She told us stories about Afrika! Grass huts and red and grey monkeys, plus about the bad men that kidnapped the whole entire village. Those stories are the sad ones. She’s taught us some of the old ways, the dances she used to do when she was a girl, the difference between the tribes and some of the songs of Afrikan people before they became slaves.

Missus Mary, the one that married Massa Brodess, her mama was Ouma’s owner until they got too old. Now Ouma’s owned by Brodess just like me. She says they were friends and not just slave and owner. I tried to picture having a white friend, or any friend I ain’t related to. It’s like we’re all one big family, the Thompsons, the Brodesses, the slaves up there, us slaves, you know?

Calvin, Linah’s son, is light skinned. We heard that Massa Edwards listed him in the books with the Brodess last name which makes me wonder who the daddy to that baby is; I mean, Linah couldn’t be doing the sex thing with the masssa. Mama and Ouma shake their heads and say they know who it is but no one has ever said out loud.

Minty just looks and me and says, “Benny, you’re just bein’ dumb.”

Cal’s hair is the softest I’ve ever felt and he has a dimple on one cheek. He’s the only black baby I ever saw a dimple on. Rachel and Cal are about the same age. Ouma tied a pork rind around their necks when they started teethin’. She told me she did that to every one of us kids.

Like I was sayin’, that time when Cal and Rachel were babies, that were the happiest time of my life. Minty was getting better, and ‘cause she was healin’ up she didn’t have to work and was able to stay with Ouma and us children. Rachel, Calvin, me, and Minty plus a couple others from the other slave folk. I think Ouma liked it when us older ones were around. Seems the littles didn’t act up so much when we were.

I enjoyed gettin’ lost in that memory. It made me start thinkin’ if I was just supposed to watch Minty, no one would know if I laid down for a nap. If I snuggled up close to her, I’d know it if she needed anythin’. I pulled one of the lightest blankets over the top of us, covering our heads and faces. That way, if flies landed on us, we wouldn’t wake up. Before I got comfortable, I put the damp cloth over Minty’s forehead. I touched her scars laid crisscrossed across her back and thanked God I was a house slave. Almost ten years old and never been whupped. I was so thankful that tears welled in my eyes as I pressed my body to hers and wrapped my arm around her. My big sister who was about the same size as me. I slept there spooned with Minty until dusk when Ouma came in to start supper.

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