Trials & Tribulations of Modesty Greene

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Chapter 22: Benji Ross

1850 – Dorchester County, Maryland, America

Right after harvest, Massa brought a farmer by to take a look at my little brother, Harry. Mama could tell what he was up to and when the man came back the next day with money to purchase him, Harry was nowhere to be found. Massa asked Ma if she knew where he was, and she wouldn’t answer, just walked back into our cabin. My folks were big on honesty and I knew she couldn’t, wouldn’t, lie to Thompson.

Thompson rapped on the door. “Rit, now come on out here and tell me where your boy has gone.” My mama didn’t say nothin’. He knocked again, harder. “C’mon now, don’t be this way.” His voice was losin’ its patience. The man that had come to buy Harry was startin’ to shuffle his feet and looked like he was ready to bolt. Massa Thompson didn’t give up too easily and he grabbed the handle of the door and swung it open.

My mama stood just inside the door, holdin’ a butcher knife in her hand. “You come one step into this cabin, I’ll cut you!” my ma roared. Her eyes were wild; I could see the whites of them. She pointed the knife at Thompson.

“Rit, don’t do this, I’ll—”

“You’ll bleed out is what you gonna do if you step inside.” I ain’t never seen my mama like this. It reminded me of Ouma. There musta been somethin’ in her voice that made the massa step back too.

He grinned over at the man that had come with money. “I’ll gather the boy and bring him to you—”

Before he could finish his sentence, my mama screamed, “You won’t! I’m sayin’ you will not take my son! You’ve taken enough from me. I won’t give you Harry, no sir, I will not!”

At this point, the massa was clearly embarrassed and wanted to get him and the slave buyer away from Mama. “I’ll be back in the mornin’ Rit, don’t fight me on this,” he said as they walked away, pattin’ the old boy with him on the back.

“Come back in the mornin’ if you want, but my boy won’t be here.” She sounded resolute.

This went on for a whole moon cycle. The massa showin’ up for Harry and Harry bein’ nowhere around. Thompson threatened Rit, told her he’d whip her good if she didn’t hand over Harry.

She said, “You do what you have to do, but you won’t be takin’ any more of my children. That’s final.”

Harry stayed hid for weeks and eventually, Massa gave up.

*****

The flyer posted at the general store said the trader wouldn’t be comin’ until the day after Christmas. Seemed only fair he would take a few days off during the blessed time. Each day I wondered if my child would arrive before I was sold south, or if my big sister would come through and get me before.

Things for us were same ole, same ole. Plantin’, harvest, work, and more work. Minty got word through the hauser that she’d be comin’ on Christmas Eve. Never did understand how she knew when the traders were comin’ but she sure did. There were code words for her and some folks started calling her Moses, just like the Bible stories, settin’ her people free. Rumor was she snuck into Dorchester a couple times between plantin’ and harvest and took more negroes north.

Kesha still hadn’t had our baby come winter solstice. She sure seemed ready though, her skin was stretched so tight across her belly it seemed it would rip.

“Old Moses gettin’ ready to set sail,” Robert told me.

“I ain’t ready,” I told him back and he chuckled some. “I’m bein’ serious,” I said.

“Not sure it’s somethin’ we can delay brother,” Robert said to me. I could see in his eyes he were right.

“But what about Kesha?”

“You ain’t no good to her sold south.” Again, I knew my brother was right.

Two days before Christmas day, Kesha started havin’ labor pains. I was grateful we were off-season in the fields so she didn’t have many duties to fill. She was pained, cryin’ out for me. I went to her and held her as her body tightened and shook; she was in a world full of pain.

“Don’t leave me,” she panted. “I love you, Benji, don’t go.”

I didn’t even want to bring up the idea of me gettin’ sold, there were no reason to remind her of the time slippin’ through our fingers. Twenty-four hours of laborin’ and she didn’t seem any closer to havin’ the baby.

Christmas Eve came and I knew my mama was cookin’ up the pig she’d been raisin’ all year. Every year, the same and most years, we all gathered at Pa’s place. I had a headful of great memories of us all eatin’ pork and carrots and was sore we wouldn’t be gatherin’ together this year. Don’t know why Minty gotta come on this day instead of any other. Robert explained to me it was because we’d have two full days before the printin’ press could make up the wanted posters. He said no one would ’spect us to run on this holy night. I guess, in a lot of ways, he was right.

Kesha was still laborin’. Her whole body was covered in sweat and when I told her I was just goin’ to pop in on my folk and wish them a Merry Christmas, she flew into a tizzy. “Don’t you dare go and leave me, Benji, don’t you dare.” Tears were streamin’ down her face, she gripped my hand so hard I thought it broke.

“I’ll be back,” I told her, then felt bad for lyin’. “I’m not leavin’ you. You’re my woman forever.” I sat on the ground and she sat between my legs breathin’ hard. When the pains seemed to slow I told her again, “I’ll be back, just goin’ and sayin’ hello to my family and tellin’ the baby’s almost here, this ain’t for men folk anyway.”

“Benji, you best come back now, you hear me?” She was wearin’ out, didn’t have the fight in her she had before. I was able to slip down to the horse stables ’cross the road from Pa’s place. Robert and Harry were supposed to be there, too. That’s where we were told to meet Moses, I mean Minty.

She was there, peekin’ though a slat where the mud had worn through, watchin’ Mama. I squinted my eye through the crack and could see her, too. She was lookin’ down the road from where we should have been comin’ from. It gave me a pang of guilt in my gut we would be lettin’ her down. Then even more guilt when I realized I may never see my child or Kesha again.

Once we all showed up, Minty smiled. Besides me, Robert, and Harry, there were Robert’s woman, Sarah plus their two children and Sarah’s sister, Jane. Harriet was wearin’ men’s pants but otherwise, she didn’t seem no different than last time I’d seen her. We looked at each other with a mix of longin’ for stayin’ plus anticipation for leavin’. She explained she was going to give the baby a bit of opium to make her sleep. “Don’t worry though, she’ll be fine, more comfortable than the rest of us,” Harriet joked.

Pa’s voice startled us all. “Robert?” We all spun on our heels and saw Pa standing holdin’ a bundle of cloth in one hand, the other stretched out in front of him. A bandana was tied over his eyes. “Minty? Benji? Harry?”

“Yes, Pa, we’re all here,” Minty answered and moved to him. She wrapped her arms around him in a one-sided hug. Even though one arm was full and he couldn’t properly hug her back, I could see his shoulders sag and he may of started cryin’. “Now what’s this you got tied around your head?” Minty asked and placed her hand on either side of our father’s face.

“Once you all is gone Massa Thompson gonna come around and ask if I seen you and well,” Minty gave a little laugh and looked at us, Robert was grinnin’ down at his shoes and Harry was shakin’ his head even though he had a little smile on his face, too.

“Well, you ain’t seen us, Pa,” she laughed.

He held out the cloth pouch. “Took as much of the Christmas dinner as I dared without your Mama noticin’” he said and Minty took it.

“Thank you kindly,” she said and took him by the arm.

“No one will be out tonight, you’s smart to go now,” Pa said.

Minty nodded and then realized Pa couldn’t see her. “Sho does seems the perfect time,” she said as we all shuffled out into the darkness.

“I’ve got to run home for a minute,” I said and saw my sister and father’s posture change in the same manner. It made me think of Kesha and my own child, gave me even more urgency to go.

“What you mean?” Minty said to me, her expression set hard.

“I mean I’ll catch up,” I said and made my move. I started back towards my place at a jog. I could hear Minty behind me,

“I won’t wait, brother. I love you, but I won’t wait.” I waved without looking back.

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