Chapter 16: Benji Ross
1833 – Dorchester County, Maryland, America
I get it now, Calvin was sired by Massa Edwards. I shudder to think about Linah and him doin’ the deed. Now I’m older, I see what goes on. In fact, some of the children look like the overseer too. It’s not just the massa that’s havin’ his way with the slave women. The idea of freedom warps the edges of my mind. Massa promised to free Pa when he turns thirty-five, but not Ma, and that means not any of us kids either. That’s the way it works, if the mother is still a slave, her children are, too.
One afternoon, Linah gives me a paper and tells me to hide it in my clothes so we can take it back to the cabin. It’s got the little image of a black man runnin’ with a stick and pouch over his shoulder. It ain’t a missin’ slave notice but I can tell it’s from the slave trader. I see the printed words and even though I don’t know exactly what it says, I feel its weight.
There’s a black folk communication line that runs up and down the county line. The slaves at each plantation knows who they pass their information to. My job was to get the word to my older brother, Robert. He takes care of the Brodess horses. Then he gets the word to the Thompson plantation groom. Not sure how it goes from there, but the lines of communication go for miles. Slaves whisper and gossip in clipped words that fly with the wind. This news of the slave trader traveled like lightin’.
’Bout a week later, me ‘n Minty heard a woman scream. It was an anguished sound, like an animal trapped. We hadn’t heard any hoof beats so it weren’t no run-away. We strained to hear what was goin’ on.
“No, no, no, please Massa, please.”
Minty’s eyes grew big as saucers and she bolted up, “That’s mama.”
She sprinted towards the commotion with me right on her heels. We stopped short like we rammed right into an invisible wall. Mama looked over at us and motioned for us to stay where we were. Her eyes were wide, darting around with panic like a cow on the way to slaughter, knowin’ something terrible was about to happen and havin’ no way of stoppin’ it.
“No, no, no.” The horrified sound chugged out her mouth like a train clatterin’. We noticed the slave trader chucklin’ to himself. Our eyes focused beyond the mealy man. There were a group of negroes in two long lines. Right at the end was Mariah and Soph. They done been tied to a chain gang. When I started countin’ I seen more than a dozen slaves were handcuffed to that chain. Once you sold down river, no one ever sees you again. We’ve all heard the rumors about the slaves that get bought up in bulk. I just stared, my mouth hangin’ open some.
The slave buyer was countin’ his money as Massa Brodess made his way back to the big house. Mama kept moving in front of him, pleadin’, cryin’, beggin’.
“Why Massa? Why? Please, don’t. Send me instead, Massa please!”
“Rit,” he says. “You don’t need to make this any more difficult than it has to be.” He pushed her out of his way and kept his eyes to the ground as he stomped up to the big house. “Not like you’re not havin’ another one any day now,” he mumbled as he moved past her.
Mariah was cryin’ but Soph looked so angry that if she hadn’t been shackled she could have ripped that slave buyer to shreds. Some of the men folk chained up had that same hateful look on their faces; angry, like violence that’s gettin’ bottled-up.
When the slave buyer starts to move the chain gang, Mama moves towards it. The overseer cracks the whip in the air as a warnin’ to Mama. We all sucked in our breath. That noise, it makes the hair on my neck stand up. Mama yields and crumples to the ground as if she just couldn’t hold herself up anymore. We just look at each other not really knowin’ what to do. Linah comes runnin’ from the big house once Massa Brodess went in. She lays on Mama and gives her as much comfort as she can. Mama’s screams now are piercing the air, splittin’ it into two halves, one there with us, the other half bein’ drug away with the other slaves that were bought up. When Mama finally puts her arms around Linah, she sees us and motions for us to come. We all do and fall together in a storm of tears and agony.
Mama was so sad after Mariah and Sophie were gone. She curled up as much as her large belly would let her an’ stayed near the fire. When she sat up she started to rock back and forth, moanin’. Pa didn’t do no cryin’ like Mama but he didn’t do much talkin’, either. The extra food and blankets that first night were bittersweet.
It was only a matter of one full night before Mama’s laborin’ started for the new one to come. Word got whispered around that it was time and me and Minty were instructed to watch the littles while Linah was going to be with Mama deliverin’ the baby. Everyone else had a business-as-usual day. Linah came to check on all us kids and told us she was able to get word to Pa the baby would be here when he got home that night. She snuck us two soft carrots as a treat for helpin’ with the young ‘uns before headin’ back to Mama. We watched the littles eat their lunch from the pail like tubby pups.
Watchin’ them made me remember, Minty had taught me how to crowd in and get the most food. She told me it was survival of the fittest and like with dogs or crocodiles, the most aggressive animal had the most to eat. I was enjoying the carrot from Linah; I ate it all. Started with the greens from the top. They’re bitter. Then I ate the sweet purple vegetable, tasting the dirt from the garden still on it. Minty had finished her carrot and was watching the children lap up leftover slop from the pan.
“You feelin’ okay?” I asked her. She just shrugged, a far-away look in her eye. The look in her eyes made me want to snap my fingers in front of her face. I needed to get her to talk to me. Ever since she got knocked in the head with that weight, she’s not been the same sister. Sometimes I wonder if her brain works the same anymore, it’s like I became the big brother, takin’ care of her and such. “You think Mama’s havin’ a boy or girl?”
“It don’t much matter,” she sighed. “It’d be nice if they were free, boy or girl.” I nodded without anything to say. We kept watchin’ the littles finish their lunch.
Linah came and fetched us all just before supper. We all had our nightly chores to do. I knew the baby was close to bein’ here when I seen Mistress Pattison pickin’ her way towards our shack. She’s Massa’s mama and is as old as our ouma was. Somethin’ about her though, she looks twice as old as Ouma ever was. She coulda been Ouma’s ouma she looks so old. Maybe it’s the cake make-up she puts on her face or the stinking powder she does up her hair with, I don’t know, but she’s old, like death itself. Last time she was down to our quarters was when Ouma died; births and deaths seem to be the only time she’s interested in us black folk.
“Go on in,” Linah says as she averts her eyes. Ouma always taught us it ain’t polite to look an old person in the eyes, so none of us do. Missus gives a little nod to her and walks past us and into our shack. For a minute, I wonder what she must think of our little shanty compared to the big house. Now Minty, she’s never even been IN the big house so she don’t know it has a room for every guest and there’s beds and tables and chairs. And glass vases with flowers. A shiny lookin’ glass, plus rugs on the floor that ain’t even dirt. Not in our house. I try and picture the Missus in our shack. Would she squat on down beside Mama? Or would she just stand all proper by the door?
Missus finally comes out with Linah right behind her. Linah looks right at Pa and says, “Another boy,” and gives him a little wink. He moves quickly to go in and meet his new son.
Missus clears her throat. Her voice comes out crumpled like the newspapers I bring. “I’d like to formally announce the birth of Harriet’s boy, number three. He shall be named Harry Moses Greene, born on this day, the twenty-second of August, 1835.” With that, she walks off, straight to the big house without even lookin’ back. I could picture her sittin’ at her big desk and documenting my little brother’s birth in the same ledger she would if a bull cow was born.
“How’s Rit?” Charlotte, our neighbor who lives on the north side of us, asks.
“Did Missus sit on the floor?” I ask. “What she even come down here for?” Linah brings the knuckle of her second finger down to rap on my head, just like Ouma would have done. “Ow! That hurt!”
“Not as much as it’ll hurt if I cut your tongue out for interruptin’.” She turned to Charlotte and spoke to her, “Ma’s doin’ fine. She’s birthed eight children as of today. With all that practice…” The women laughed together and I moved closer to the door, thinkin’ I would slip in when I got the chance, but Linah snagged me up and put me to work peelin’ potatoes.
Finally, at bedtime we got to go in and see Mama and the new baby. Mama held him out for Minty to take and we sat on the floor nearest the fire and passed him back and forth. Even little Rachel got a chance to hold him. When he started fussin’ Linah took him and passed him back to Mama to nurse.
After us kids were supposed to be asleep, the door swung in and in come Charlotte and her husband, Isadore. Without much noise, Charlotte slipped next to Mama and Mama slid that baby right into her arms. Isadore squatted next to the door and picked his teeth with a wood splinter. I glanced over at Minty who was just as awake as I was. We listened in on the latest gossip.
Charlotte’s holdin’ the baby and jigglin’ him, tryin’ to get him to wake up. “Aren’t they so precious when they’re first born?” she cooed.
“Babies are always precious,” Mama answered back, her eyes on her new infant.
“Best teach him a skill, like weather watchin’ or tree choppin’,” Charlotte said. “Don’t want him turnin’ out like Minty.”
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with Minty.” On that note, Mama took Harry back from Charlotte.
“Minty’s strong,” Pa says. “And smart.”
“She’s got a dazzling soul,” Isadore piped in from her corner. I glanced at Minty who was grinnin’, that’s a rare expression for her.
“I’m just saying keep him outta the fields, or maybe you can hope he ends up in the big house with Linah and lil’ Ben.” Charlotte’s voice and eyebrows rose with hope.
“Word on the street is slaves are disappearin’, underground.” Isadore’s voice was deep, soothing. I wondered if I’d ever heard him speak before tonight.
“Underground, what does that even mean?” Mama asked, a note of irritation crossed with curiosity.
“Freedom’s what it means, Rit.” His eyes went to Pa’s, “I want to believe Massa’s gonna set us all free when he dies, but you know like I know, only the good die young. That man will out-live us all.”
Pa gave a little nod. “What’cha thinkin’ Issy?”
Isadore shrugged. “Ain’t thinkin’ nothin’ other than gettin’ free.”
Freedom lies only in death. It’s as if we all heard Ouma’s musky voice comin’ up from the grave. I could see the whites of the adult’s eyes movin’ from one person to the other.
“Somethin’ you’re willin’ to die for?” Pa asked in a whisper.
“Well, we all hear them stories of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey—” Isadore said. I felt my eyes grow wide and I gulped, then Minty’s elbow stuck in my ribs. My eyes darted to hers and she had one of those keep-quiet looks on her face.
“Bet it didn’t take no time at all to string their black asses up either,” Mama spat.
“Now Rit,” Charlotte soothed and put her arm around Ma. “Issy’s just sayin’ for some, maybe it’s best to go down swingin’.”
“Swingin’ from a tree limb with a noose around yo’ neck,” Ma shuddered.
“Violence ain’t the answer,” Pa said.
“Eye for eye,” Isadore replied from the darkness.
Pa kept talkin’, “I heard there’s a way to get north, to Canada, without the padda-rollers seein’ ya’.”
Minty’s eyes were wide now and I knew she was takin’ in every word.
“I heard that too,” Isadore was quick to agree. “It’s like the way folk get word from plantation to plantation, secret like, but with folks.” A heavy sigh floated from Ma as she adjusted the baby to her other breast.
“The hawser,” Charlotte smiled. “So it’s like when we had to get word the slave trader was comin’.” Mama’s back stiffened, but Charlotte didn’t seem to notice. “So, your boy Robert got word to the groom over at the Thompson place when he delivered a harvest notice. Then that groom told the livery stable hand who told the house girl when he went to fetch the massa.” Charlotte was getting more excited as she unspooled the information she knew. Pa made a motion for her to keep her voice down and she started to loud whisper the rest. “Once the information gets down to the dry-goods, it spreads like wild fire. Their girl who stocks and cleans the storage room, her name is Wanda. So then when folks come in with their slaves, Wanda makes some reason to talk to them, usually about the weather but she gets the chinwag one way or another.”
Pa nodded slowly, “That’s what I’ve heard. Point to point, at night.”
“Half the black folk already freed in America. More state politicians changin’ laws every day, don’t even gotta make it to Canada, just across to Pennsylvania,” Isadore added.
Charlotte’s eyes were twitchin’ between the men folk, “You think it’s possible?”
“Oh, I know it is.” Pa looked over at Ma, who was nursin’ the baby, and when he spoke it was more to her than anyone else in the room. “We’ll be free soon enough. Massa gonna free us, couple more years and then we’re free. The childrens too.”
“Oh, I never believe what them white men say, they’re all just too full of themselves, lyin’ rascals,” Charlotte answered and stood up. “C’mon husband. Rit, that little baby’s just a cutie, congratulations.” Isadore stood and opened the door. They slipped out into the night.
“You really think Massa Brodess is gonna free you? You a fool,” Ma said to Pa and looked down at baby Harry.
“Gotta believe,” Pa answered with a smile and scooted close to Ma. “What else a man got if he ain’t got hope, Rit?” He bent down and kissed her on the mouth and then put his big hand on the back of Harry’s little head. “Damn, woman, we sure do make pretty babies.”
When he looked back at ma, she was cryin’, “I miss Soph and Mariah.” A sob escaped her mouth and Pa’s eyes moistened up too,“And what about Minta?”
“What about her?” Pa looked confused.
“Massa ain’t hired her out in a while, what if he’s plannin’ on sellin’ her down river?”
“Well we just gotta make Massa Edwards see her worth. She’s as strong as a man and she ain’t even fourteen. That’s one great deal he’s getting with Minty, men’s work from a woman.” He put his arms around Mama and the baby both. I could hear Ma’s little whimper noises of pain as I faded into sleep.
Next mornin’ is a day like any other but with one more mouth to feed. Ma nurses Harry and hands him on over to Linah, who ties him on her back with a big yellow scarf. Made me think when I was first born if I got bundled like that. It looked comfortable and safe. Linah tells Rachel and Calvin to follow her out and she heads to the big house. Out of the corner of my eye, I seen Minty going with Pa to the woods to cut lumber. She’s got her skirts tied up between her legs and around her waist so they look like puffy pantaloons and she’s wearin’ a head rag. It’s bright blue. I’ve never seen her wear one before, ain’t never figured she was old enough.
Pa had his ax slung over his shoulder, walking with an easy stride. That ax sometimes seems to be an extension of him, like a part of his body. For the first time in my life, I wished I was going with them. For the first time in my life, I wished I wasn’t a house slave. I wished I wasn’t a slave.
That night after supper and night chores, Minty and I were sittin’ behind the shack lookin’ up at the stars.
“How was the tree business with Pa?” I asked her.
“It was more than trees,” she answered, a rare flicker of a grin passed through her eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“Pa showed me how to track little animals and how to recognize their footprints and poo.”
I hung on her every word, “Their poo? What else?”
“It’s really called scat, not poo. And he told me how to tell which way north is by the stars.” She started to scan the sky, “See it, up there?” She pointed but there were so many stars I didn’t know which she was pointing at. “Pa didn’t come out and say it, but I think he wants me to go north, to Canada.”
“Canada? Ain’t it cold?”
“I’d rather be cold and free than warm and a slave.”
What could I say to that? Weren’t nothin’ to say, so we sat in silence and kept gazin’ upward.
Pa was right about showin’ Massa Minty’s worth. She’s so strong it’s like she’s a little man in a dress sometimes. Massa watched n’ seen how good she was with the horses. After a few weeks, he put her in the stables with Robert. Eventually, Robert went into the woods to help with the lumber, so I got put with Minty and Calvin took over my spot in the big house with Linah.
Minty’s good with the horses, it’s like they obey her with just a look. All her life, she prefers to be outdoors. Not me, I miss the big house.