Trials & Tribulations of Modesty Greene

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Chapter 17: Benji Ross

1839 – Dorchester County, Maryland, America

Nowadays, it’s Cal that brings us the newspaper. Him and Linah still work up at the big house. Rachel and Harry need watchin’ and I get stuck with them every day. I’d rather be polishin’ the silver than takin’ care of two pick-a-ninnies, but I don’t say nuthin’. It’s woman’s work, but what am I to do?

Before Ouma died, she started teaching me the letters and how to put them together to read. When the kids are entertainin’ themselves, I pull the wadded papers from out the cracks of our shanty and smooth them out, tryin’ to read the news stories. Linah knows some of the words too. She practices with the Bible at night. Between us, we can stumble through.

One afternoon, Cal brings us the Sunday paper and the front page is hardly wrinkled. With some excitement he says, “Look Benji, a ship!” He points to the big headlines and I see the picture he’s talkin’ about.

“It’s a slave ship,” I say before I know it to be true. Just lookin’ at it gave my spine a shiver.

“There ain’t no more slave ships,” Cal says in confusion. Linah appears behind him with the vittles for dinner that night.

“It sure is,” she says almost reverently. “I wonder if that’s the ship that brought Ouma here.”

I start to put the words together and realize the ship indeed was an illegal slave ship from a place called Portugal and it was heading to another place called Cuba but the black folks got out of their bondage somehow and killed the captain, the cook, and the first mate.

By the grace of God, it lands in New London, Connecticut, which Linah tells me is a free state. “Lordy, imagine if it had moored just a bit south in Virginia or North Carolina, would have been from the fry pan into the fire,” she said, cluckin’ her tongue and startin’ our nighttime meal.

When Minty and Ma comes for dinner all we can talk about is the slave ship in Connecticut and the turmoil it’s causin’. The men were bein’ charged with murder and piracy, which didn’t seem too fair since they were kidnaped against their will, whipped, and almost starved to death. We pass the paper between us and give our opinions of what should be done. Ma says they should just be sent back to Afrika, but Linah says that costs too much money and they should just be allowed to live free in America. I could see Minty’s eyes movin’ from person to person.

“What’cha thinkin’, sista?” I ask.

“I think they did right,” she said. “I’m not sayin’ I’d murder for my freedom but…” She didn’t finish her sentence, her eyes got a far-away look in them and I wondered if one of her sleepin’ spells were upon her, but she didn’t doze off, she shook her head and took the paper from Calvin. Her eyes watered over and sadness settled on her, “I don’t think they shoulda been taken in the first place.”

“Amen,” Mama says from her place near the fire.

“Amen,” Linah chimes in and we all finish our meal in silence, our own thoughts wanderin’ about the ship called Amistad.

*****

The slave hands are always a singin’. The overseer likes it that way, keeps their minds occupied while they pick the tobacco and corn. Our plantation is little and a bit too far north for cotton, so our massa’s main crop is the big leaves of the tobacco plant and corn for pigs. The pork brings a fair price. Last few years, Massa Brodess ain’t done as good as he had in past years. I could tell by the way the fences started to lean and the way the weeds grew around the manicured garden. Besides my two sisters, Massa had sold several other slaves in our quarter. Their absence was noted in the up-keep of the place.

Anthony Thompson freed Pa when he turned fifty, even though it was supposed to be when he was thirty-five. Funny, each year Pa got younger and younger since there was an age that was too old to be freed. Massa made sure he got every day from our daddy. Ma too, she was to be freed, but Massa says he needs her and us kids too much. O’er the years, she’s grown bitter about it. It’s put grey hair around her ears. Since Pa’s a free man, he’s got his own place down on the black lane where the other free negroes live. He got a little money from his time with the Thompsons and bought himself a smart-looking suit. Then he had a white-woman dress made for Ma. She only wears it to church, but I must say, they make a fine lookin’ couple on Sunday mornings.

So, one mornin’ about a month before harvest, we hear the field hands singin’ low and mournful like.

“The Lord said unto Moses, ‘Go unto Pharaoh now, for I have hardened Pharaohs heart, for me he will not bow.’” Then the chorus started and many more voices lifted up. “Didn’t old Pharaoh get los’, get los’, get los’. Didn’t old Pharaoh get los’ in the Red Sea.” I knew the mournful melody. It meant the massa died. The Pharaoh in the lyrics is always the massa.

Minty looks at me and turns green. Never have I seen a human being turn as green as she did, like rotten moss under a discarded board. I gave her a questioning look and she fell to her knees and started heavin’ like she was gonna lose her breakfast.

“Oh Lord, oh Lord,” Minty started chanting and rocking back and forth.

“What?” I kneeled next to her. “It sounds like the death song. Massa Brodess musta died.” The words felt thick in my mouth. My stomach knotted up involuntarily and I watched agony wash over my sister, “Why that got you so upset, Minty?”

“I killed him,” she moaned and put her hands over her face.

“You what?” I jumped up, horrified, “When? How?”

“Ever since my injury, when he wanted to sell me when I was sick and then we got that notice that the slave trader was comin’… well, I started praying for Massa’s heart to soften, for him to change his ways.” Now she was crying. I hadn’t seen her cry since we were littles. “Then, when he sold our sisters—” she choked on her own tears and snot. None of the words she was sayin’ were makin’ any sense to me.

“What’d you do?” I asked.

The field hands were still singing, the words confirming the death of Edward Brodess.

“I… I…” she stammered. “I changed my prayer. I said, ‘Dear Lord if you can’t change his ways then kill him. Kill him, Lord!’ I prayed and begged God to kill him, every night and every day, I prayed and now,” she had fallen into complete sobs and I kneeled back down by her.

“Minty, I don’t know really how God works, but I don’t think a slave girl’s prayers are—” I put my arm around her and she cried into my shoulder.

“I met Him!” she choked. “God.”

I nodded, the look she gave me told me she DID think her pittance prayer was what did away with old Massa Brodess. Could it have been that simple all along?

“Maybe Ma will be free now, and us too. There’s that.” I was tryin’ to be comfortin’. I felt her head bob in the crook of my neck.

“Yes, there’s that,” she sobbed wet in my ear.

*****

When it came time for the will to be read, we all gathered on the front lawn of the big house. The solicitor told us since we was Brodess property, we had to line up and be accounted for. He separated us out, boys and girl sides.

When it came to Minty, Massa Thompson said, “We should probably list that one over there as a male. She’s a fine hand.” I could see Ma burst with pride, then her face fell ’cause I knew she was thinking of Soph and Mariah. On one side, there was me, Robert, Harry, and Calvin and on the other, Ma, Linah, Minty, and Rachel.

The solicitor started reading the will and listing the properties that was to be divided up between Edward’s missus, Eliza, and the two Thompson boys, Anthony, who we call “Doc” since he is one, and his younger brother. Doc took over old Massa Thompson’s spread when he died a few years back.

He read, we all listened with our breath held. Not one of our names came up and when he was all done, he signed the will and had Doc Thompson sign it. We all just stood there, shiftin’ around and lookin’ uncomfortable.

Finally, Minty asks, “What about Mama?” She knows our status is Ma’s status.

The solicitor picks up the paper and re-reads over it to himself then says, “It appears I may have missed a directive.” I could feel Ma’s excitement as he continued. “Calvin Brodess shall be declared a free man upon my death. He is to be willed my horse, Vittorio, and the tack that accompanies him. Furthermore, Calvin may forever more use the Brodess surname when it may advantage and further his education and profession.”

“What?” Linah cried.

“What about us?” Ma demanded.

The solicitor flipped the pages and seemed to be studying the words. “It appears you stay with the farm to assist widow Brodess and her children and ensure the place continues to run smoothly. You’re part of the bigger picture operation.”

“No, sir, that’s not what Massa Brodess told me, he told me…” Ma started to argue.

“Free,” Linah’s eyes glistened with tears. Calvin stood rod straight and didn’t look at her or any of us. “My boy’s a free man. Oh Lord, did you hear that?” She began to cry and fell into her son. With hesitation, he put his arm around her and held her up.

Ma was starting to cry too and shout, “—not only was I told by Massa Edward that I was to be freed, but my children as well. Now don’t tell me he simply forgot to write that down and—”

Doc Thompson and the solicitor began to move away and motioned for Robert to get their horses. Robert didn’t miss a beat and turned to go, Minty right on his heels. Our little crowd begins to disperse and the overseer he hollers, “We all got somethin’ else to be doin’, let’s get a move on.”

Ma was inconsolable, and I wasn’t entirely sure Linah’s tears were all from joy, either. Calvin just stood there, his shoulders began to relax and it looked like he just might burst into tears himself. Linah still stood near him. He towered over her, seemin’ twice her height. She put her arms around him and laid her head against his chest and again he wrapped his arms around her.

“What are you going to do now, son?” Linah asked.

“Mama,” he answered. “I’m in love. I want to get married. If I work hard and save my money, I’ll be able to buy Shante from the Anderton plantation and—”

Linah’s sobs became audible, loud and choking. She was nodding her head and crying into his chest. “Yes, yes, then your children, my grandchildren, will be born free, yes son, yes.” They hugged again and I heard the heavy snap of the overseer’s whip.

“That’s enough of that, Lin. You should head on back to the big house and finish up your chores,” he said, low and serious. Linah nodded and followed me up to the house. I glanced over my shoulder just in time to see Calvin shake the overseer’s hand.

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