Chapter 15: Araminta Ross
1833 – Dorchester County, Maryland, America
Smells of the shack fill my nose: burnt wood, blankets that need washin’, sweat sleep, and dirt.
Ouma’s voice, “Food’s almost done, go get your brothers.”
Then Rachel, “All right, Ouma.” The scrape of the front door, “Benny! Harry! Supper!”
It’s gettin’ dark. I don’t see it, but I can feel it. The wind whips into the small room and I’m gone. No longer can I hear what’s going on around me, I’m flyin’ above the plantation. There’s our pig and patch of vegetables, the big house, the stables. The leaves on the trees are turned orange and yella’, it’s a beautiful sight. I’m so high I can see the Thompson plantation, too. Dad and Robert are starting the long walk back to our place as the suns starts to dip down.
Golden light showers down on me and I raise my face into it. So much love encompasses me, so much love that unwelcome tears come to my eyes. They burn, the light is so bright, I’m humbled. “God?” I hear my voice, timid, unsure, pained. “Are you white?”
“I am light.” The answer came before my question was fully formed, it was bubbled in a laugh. “Close your eyes and see me as you are.” I did what I was told. Closed my eyes tight and before me, where the light used to be was dark, black. Where it was dark before, now glowed framing the black figure. “Behind your eyes, inside your heart, I look like you, I am dark.”
“I love you, Lord,” my heart swelled as I thought this, said it, screamed it in my mind. “Life is good, lead me, Lord. Direct me and have me do Your work.” A feeling of hope and purpose washed over me. I felt as if I was falling, drifting back to earth like one of those colored leaves.
I heard men’s voices, deep and serious.
“You’d have to pay me to take her, ole boy,” one said. I cracked one eye open and saw the massa and another man standin’ over me. Since the door was open, I could see the blue sky. It beckoned me and my eyes rolled away from the men. I could see Linah just outside the door wringin’ her apron in her hands. The children were just beyond her. The man I didn’t recognize turned and in two steps was out the door. Linah gave him a little curtsey. Massa Brodess sighed and my eyes wandered back to his. He shook his head and made a tsk-tsk noise and turned to leave.
As the door shut, a prayer formed on my lips. “Oh Lord, convert old Master. Change that man’s heart and make him a Christian.” I felt my eye lids grow heavy again, I heard the door shut, and fell into a deep sleep.
Ouma’s loud sleeping snort was the next noise I heard. Maybe it was the next day or maybe it was the next week, couldn’t be sure. I rolled over and opened my eyes to see her on her back sound asleep. The lighted crack under the door said it was day time. She snuffled and wheezed and rolled over to face me. Her eyes popped open and she wore an expression that said she didn’t know where she was.
“I met God, Ouma.” My voice came out in a raspy whisper.
“And I’mma gonna be meetin’ Him soon,” she replied. “Minty girl, I’m ready to head home.”
“This is your home, Ouma,” I said and reached out to take her hand. “Or do you mean Afrika?”
She shook her head. “No, child, I’m ready to be in the Creator’s arms. I’m done with this earth.”
As I healed, she weakened. Each day, it was my responsibility to get the littles their mornin’ meal and make sure Ouma was comfortable. If I was too weak, Benji took over, but by and by, I got stronger and stronger.
“Sit with me, Minty,” Ouma crooned to me one day. “Those young ’uns will be fine for a bit.”
I came to her and squatted down, makin’ myself comfortable in the small space. “Benji can tend to them if they need somethin’” I said. She nodded and reached out for my hand. In the last week, it was as if the life slowly dripped from my ouma’s soul. The color was leachin’ out of her eyes, the skin on her frame startin’ to sluff off her bones as her body melted in to itself.
“I’m glad you met God,” Ouma stated as she stared up at the ceiling. “You’re a special child, Minty. He knew you was and that’s why you got to meet Him.” I nodded because I knew she was right. “I want the person who God chose to meet to sit with me while I move to the next world.”
“Don’t talk like that, Ouma.”
She shook her head. “It’s a time-honored tradition to sit with the dyin’.” I felt a little uncomfortable but had nothin’ to add. “Don’t let them bury me, Minty.” Our eyes met. “It will be bad luck for everyone, the rains won’t come, the crops won’t yield, you gotta tell them. Put my body under the Baobab tree.”
“Okay, Ouma,” I pacified her and gave her hand a little squeeze.
“Be free, Minty,” she started. “A lot of us folk are fleein’ to the free states. You do that, you hear me? When there’s a will there’s a—” she wasn’t able to finish, the door opened a crack. Slowly it moved inward as Ouma and I watched.
Massa’s grandmother stood proper in the doorway. I jumped up and indicated for her to come in. Nothin’ to make me more nervous than a colt about to be broke than a proper white woman appearin’ in our cabin.
There wasn’t no place to sit so I took some of the bedtime blankets and made her a little stool to sit on. I had to help her sit but once she got comfortable and her skirt settled around her, she leaned over and took Ouma’s hand.
“I heard you were ill.” Ouma stared straight up and didn’t meet her eye. Her body language stiffened. “Thought I’d come and pay my respects.” She turned her attention to me, “How are you, Lil’ Rit?” I nodded and gave her a little grin. It was fine she thought I was my mother. I sat crossed legged on the other side of Ouma and took her other hand. “I should have Edward bring you up to the big house and get you settled in a bed, my friend.”
Ouma’s face winced a little at the last remark. “I ain’t never slept a night in a bed, don’t mean I should die in one.”
“Oh, I know you’ve slept in a bed before.” Her face broadened in a sharp grimace and there was a soft, loving tone to her words. “We spent plenty of nights in a bed.”
Ouma shook her head. I could feel my face twisted in confusion and I moved my eyes from the massa’s grandmother to my ouma.
“It was never you,” the missus began. “My father, he, um… he knew the way I felt about men.” She paused a second too long. “And women.” Her chest sighed and her eyes rolled upward before they settled back on Ouma. “He put you out in the field to punish me. It was never you.” Ouma nodded just a little and the missus continued. “Since he knew my, um, feelings, he insisted I have a male assistant. Just about the whole time since you’ve been gone my man servant has been Jerry B. We never knew what the B stood for, but that’s what we called him, Jerry B.” She smiled in my direction. “I sure have missed you all these years, Modesty. You know, Harriet, your mother is quite an amazing woman.”
“That’s Minty,” Ouma muttered. She was getting tired, I could see it in her face.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said politely, careful not to look her directly in the eye.
“It’s a shame you’re passin’ before me, Modesty. There’s provisions in my will, you know?” Ouma’s eyes flicked between Missus Ethel and me, a question formin’ over her face. “When I pass it says you’ll be a free woman, and your children, too.” She looked at me. “You be sure to remember that, Harriet, when I’m gone, have Edward read my will and let you all go free.” I nodded.
“How ‘bout you let them all go free now?” Ouma said, clearer than anythin’ else she’d said all week.
Missus Ethel shook her head and a sadness washed over her face. “This place would fall apart without you people,” she stated flatly. “Edward needs you, even though he’d never say it, Mary too. What would they do without you niggers? Fix their own meals? Harvest their own crops?” At this, she seemed genuinely amused. Bringing an embroidered handkerchief to her mouth, I heard her let out a little giggle. Ouma’s face had grown hard, her mouth pinchin’, I could almost picture her bittin’ her own tongue not to respond.
We all sat in silence for a moment, then Ouma said, “Ethel, don’t be a coward.”
“Well, it was good to see you.” The missus jerked up and started for the door. Ouma’s comment obviously was makin’ her uncomfortable. “I suspect you’ll send word when she passes?” She said to me and avoided Ouma’s eyes.
“Yes, ma’am,” I repeated and opened the door for her. Her exit was on a cloud of perfumed white face powder. I sat back down by Ouma. “What was that all about?” I asked.
“She’s nothin’ but a coward, freein’ us when she passes.” Ouma’s face looked mad now, but she didn’t have the energy to be angry. “I didn’t know what to say so I stayed silent,” she continued. “The good die young, that bitty will live forever.”
The silence between us started feelin’ awkward.
“What was all that about the bed, Ouma?” I questioned.
“She loved me like a man loves a woman.” Ouma’s whole face was turned into a smile, her eyes seemed distant, not in this place or time anymore.
“How?” I asked, completely confused.
Ouma chuckled and shook her head just slightly then motioned for the extra blanket. I tucked it around her as if she were a child. “Ethel loves the women, but I only loved the men.” Her voice seemed distant.
“Ouma, you’re talking nonsense now.”
She shook her head again. The smile that spread across her face seemed to erase the lines on her dark skin. The years seemed to fall off her as I watched. “I loved Rit’s father, I did.”
“Uh, huh,” I agreed and finished tuckin’ her in. “An’ who else, Ouma? You said you loved men, as in more than one.” I suppressed the grin that was beginnin’ to crack my face, the thought of my grandmother in a relationship.
“It wasn’t Jerry B, either.” She was so tired now, her voice was barely above a whisper.
“No?” I asked. “You know better than Missus what her own man servant’s name was?”
“Jabari,” she said with her eyes closed, a smile covering her entire face. “Had to have been Jabari.” My best guess is that was her last word as she never woke the next morning.
The blanket I had tucked around her was the one she was to be buried in. I told my ma what she said, that she didn’t want to be buried, that she wanted to be put under the Baobab tree.
“There ain’t no Baobab tree in Maryland,” my mom said, a bit sharp. “She’s gonna be buried over by the negro church, now that’s not open for discussion, Minty.”
“She said it’s bad luck if she’s buried,” I could feel a headache starting behind my eyes. “Please Mama, don’t bring bad luck to us.”