Chapter 5: Mo’destee Vert
1790 – Maryland, U.S.A.
Sometime during the night, the ship docked. The group of blacks were brought to a penned off area, still naked. They were separated by size and sex. Mo’destee found herself in a pen with other girls about her age. Each was tied by their right wrist to the girl in front of them so they couldn’t move very far from the horde. Since she was so much smaller than the other, her hand was suspended, slightly raised to stay in line with the others.
She had never seen so many white people. Mostly men moved among the groups of frightened blacks. There was a stage of sorts where one to three blacks were standing while the whites raised their numbered bid cards as the auctioneer called out.
“We’ve got twenty, who’ll go twenty-five, twenty-five, now thirty, sturdy negro man with all his teeth intact, thirty? He’s a fine specimen. Thirty-five? Who’ll go thirty-five-”
Mo’destee watched as different white men approached the man on display and looked into his mouth, looked at his naked body, pinched his thighs, and talked among themselves. She noticed the shape of the head; could it be Jabari? She squinted and tried to make out the man’s features. He was too old to be Jabari. It looked like this man had been badly beaten. One side of this face was so swollen he could only see out of one eye. His lips were cracked and one side of his body was covered with bruises. With horror, Mo realized it was her father, GB. The panic rose in her chest. She looked between the two women she was lashed to with urgency, trying to get their attention without making too much noise and drawing attention to herself.
“Sold, for fifty-five dollars to Mr. Banks.” Mo’destee’s father was being removed by the auction employees. She became panicked, frantically searching for a way out. Her eyes settled on a white girl about her age who was staring at her. She looked to be the only white woman present.
“Father,” she said as she sauntered toward a man dressed in a finely tailored suit and a felt hat, “I want a slave girl, I’m old enough.”
“Ethel,” her father began, “we’ve got several darkies that can wait on you hand and foot. Now, I’m not sure you need a personal girl to assist you.”
“I do father, I do.” She moved closer to the auctioneer. “How much for that little whip of a thing there?” she boldly asked, indicating Mo’destee.
“Young lady, you’ll have to wait until the women are brought forth. We have order, a system that enables us—”
Ethel cut him off, “You should probably just throw her in as a thank you gift to my father for spending so much money at your dreadful auction. You probably won’t even get a six-pence for her, just look at her. I’m really doing you a favor.” She looked back to Mo’destee, who was still staring at her wide-eyed.
The auctioneer was so taken aback from the young woman talking to him in that manner that he did look at Mo and then turned to Ethel. “The little one in the middle, that’s the one you want?” He chuckled and motioned for an employee to fetch Mo from the pack. “You’ve got a bright, bold business woman on your hands, Robert,” he said to her father and then to her, “May we proceed now, young lady?” She gave him a little curtsey and bounded down the auction steps to take hold of her new charge.
GB began to sob when he saw Mo’destee. He couldn’t speak, nor could she so they stole glances at each other when they could as they were led away from the hordes of people.
Robert Banks had bought three men and Mo’destee. She was placed in the back of the buckboard wagon, the men were strapped together and tied to the back.
“Where are we going?” Mo’destee asked in Wolof.
With a flip of the reigns, they started forward.
“Wait, where are you taking us? What about my father?” Mo’destee prattled even though it was clear their captors couldn’t understand them. GB walked solemnly behind the cart with the other men, tears streaming down his battered face.
Ethel’s father had been hiring out many of his regular workers and, now that the new crop was going in, it was time to pick up another couple hands. As they rode in the horse drawn cart, he explained to her that hiring out the slaves had been working out to his advantage. He felt it was smart making money on them even though he didn’t have to feed and clothe them regularly. He continued, “Regardless of what the Brits say, there’s money in human trafficking.”
“So, they are humans?” Ethel asked, glancing back towards Mo’destee, who had stopped talking and was now listening to their every word.
“Since their skin is black, they have the mark of Cain. You remember that lesson from the Bible, don’t you?” Ethel nodded. “Since they were rejected by God, they don’t have souls therefore there’s no need to feel bad when they cry for their young or when they’ve got to be whipped into compliance. You understand, Ethel?” She nodded again. “Like with any other working animal, you’ve got to keep the herd thick and strong, breed to maximize the good qualities, and keep them dependent on you enough that they don’t have an inkling to run.”
“Why do they want to run, Papa?”
“Well, just like when dogs get the idea there is a better place for them and a better master, it’s animal instinct. As the master, it’s up to us to shape them, teach them their place.”
Ethel turned to look at the new people her father had just acquired. Her eyes met Mo’destee’s. Tears shone on her cheeks and her eyes pleaded with the young woman. “Pa, perhaps the men could ride in the wagon, too.
“Oh Ethel, my dear.” Robert roared with laughter. “You are such an innocent. Did you not pay attention to a thing I just said? You’ve got to make sure they know who is the boss, who is the master. I wouldn’t give a bull or buck a place to sit, nor will I with these niggers.”
They continued to the small plantation. Once they pulled to a stop, a tall black man came out and took the reins of the horses. He proficiently unhitched the team and moved them towards the barn.
Robert took the three men and Mo and locked them in a cattle stall. They collapsed from exhaustion. “I’ll have Simon bring you some supper. Rest now, tomorrow at dawn we’ll get you set to task. C’mon now.” He motioned to Mo. She turned to her father, who looked from Robert to his daughter. “C’mon now,” Robert said firmly and took Mo by the arm, leading her to the house.
Half-jokingly, Robert said to his wife, Kathryn, “Since it doesn’t look like were having a boy, I guess I’ll teach Ethel the ways of the world, pass on my business sense to my first born regardless if she was born the weaker sex.”
“Yes dear,” was the only answer from his wife. She didn’t even look up from her embroidery.
“We got this little ninny for free because of Ethel’s moxy.” Robert was beaming with pride as he got down his large leather ledger. He got the quill and tapped it into the ink well and began to write an entry into the big book. Mo’destee stood stock still, taking in her new environment.
“Does this little ninny smell or is it my imagination?” Kathryn looked up. Her eyes moved from her husband to her daughter. “Can we do something about that offensive odor?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ethel replied and moved towards Mo’destee. “Let’s go out back, get you cleaned up.”
Ethel pumped the water into the bathing bucket. “I’ll be right back, you stay here,” she said and darted back into the house. Mo’destee hesitantly put her foot into the bucket. It was much colder than she had expected. She stepped both feet in.
Within a minute, her teeth started to chatter. The back door opened, and Ethel came out carrying a kettle. She had a white garment folded over one arm.
“Let me warm it up for you,” she said. Ethel poured the steaming water into the vessel. The warmth crept up Mo’s body as if to invite her to sit.
“I’m Ethel Banks,” Ethel said as she handed a cake of soap to Mo’destee.
Mo cocked one eyebrow at Ethel and began to wash herself.
“You don’t understand me, do you?” she sighed. “I’m Ethel Banks,” she motioned to herself, then motioned towards Mo’destee. “What is your name?”
“Mo’destee Vert,” Mo spoke softly and pointed to herself.
She motioned towards Ethel and handed her the soap. Ethel motioned for her to stand. When she did, Ethel washed her back side then poured the rest of the warm water over her to rinse the soap. She then offered her a long, thick cotton wrap.
“Did you say Modesty? Vert? As in green?” Ethel looked puzzled then asked, “Parlez-vous francais?”
Mo’destee’s eyes lit up, “Oui, un peu.”
Ethel began to talk fast in French. “You speak French! We can converse and be friends.” She got her wits about her then asked, “Where did you come from? Is that man your father?” Mo nodded, tears welling in her eyes. “Oh, I’ve upset you. My manners are poor I’m afraid.” Ethel turned away from Mo. “There’s a night gown there for you to wear, I’ve out grown that one. You’re so little, I’m sure it will fit fine.” She demurely kept her back to Mo while she dressed. “Come with me,” Ethel instructed, and led the way to her bedroom. “Can you at least tell me about where you came from?”
“Baila.” Mo’destee’s voice was tender with memory. “Senegambia.” She saw Ethel’s face was still twisted with puzzlement. “West Afrika.”
“Oh!” There was an awkward silence between them
“I want to go home,” Mo’destee said slowly.
Ethel’s forehead rumpled, “Um… this is your new home now,” she tried.
“No,” Mo’destee said. “I want to go home, to West Afrika, please.”
Ethel shook her head. “My dad won’t let that happen.” Mo’destee sunk to the ground and put her head in her hands. “Don’t be upset, you’ll like Maryland. It’s very pretty, especially in the fall.” Mo’destee looked up at Ethel with confusion. “So, um… What do you know how to do?”
Mo’s confusion deepened. “I’m fifteen, what do you know how to do?”
“Touché, my friend, touché.” Ethel appeared amused with the conversation.
The door of the bedroom swung open and Kathryn stood in the doorway. “What’s going on here?” she asked.
“We were just talking,” Ethel replied. There was a nervousness in her voice that hadn’t been there before.
“What is she wearing, Ethel?” Kathryn’s voice was sharp, scolding.
“It’s an old nightshirt of mine, Mama. I don’t wear it anymore.”
“She’s a servant, not a friend,” her mother stated, then motioned for Mo to follow her. “She’ll sleep downstairs with the other house servants.”
“Slaves you mean?” Ethel spoke more to herself. She didn’t miss the narrow-eyed look Kathryn shot her direction. “Mother?” She turned and looked at her daughter, contempt oozing from her expression. “Be sure to give her a blanket, she might be cold otherwise.” Ethel’s eyes met Mo’s. “Bonne nuit mon ami,” she said.
Mo averted her eyes. “Merci,” she said under her breath.
“A lesson for ladies everywhere,” Kathryn snapped over her shoulder as she moved out of the room. “Do not get attached to your negroes.”
The house servants were a mother, Neema, and her daughter, Ada, cramped tightly into a small room under the stairs.
Neema was hospitable and friendly to Kathryn. “Yes, Missus. No problem with another helper,” she beamed until the door was closed and she turned on Mo and spoke in Wolof. “There is no extra room in here,” she hissed. “You go on and sleep in the kitchen, I’ll wake you when I start mornin’ chores.” Ada stared straight ahead and didn’t move.
Mo looked from one to the other, surprised to hear her native tongue and more shocked by the way she was being treated. “I need a blanket, at least.”
“Do I look like I have extra blankets?” Neema rolled her eyes. “You’ll need help getting my foot out your behind if you sass me like that again, now go on, get.”
Resigned, Mo moved into the hallway and found the cramped kitchen. There was a stone cook oven on one side, chopping tables and storage bins on the other. She crouched down and noticed a glowing ember in the oven. There was wood stacked near the opening. Mo peeled off some bark and put it to the embers and blew softly. In no time, she had the fire going and curled in front of it. When the kitchen started to cool down, she would re-stock it with more wood.
Just before dawn, Neema appeared in the doorway. “Now what in tarnation is going on in here?” Modestee blinked away the sleep and sat up; Neema switched to Wolof,.“Oh no you didn’t use all that wood, girlie!” Neema’s voice had taken on a hard edge. “You best get your black ass outside and fetch me some more wood, I can’t believe you—”
“It was cold.” Mo was standing now, her hands on her hips, defiant.
Neema snatched up a large wooden spoon from a work table and motioned it towards Mo’destee in a threatening manner. “You best learn right now who’s in charge. I’ll knock your lights right out if you keep sassin’ me like that. Now go get me some wood like I just told you to do, you understand me?” Mo marched past Neema and out the back door. She was furious and went to slam the door, but at the last minute she thought better of it and caught the door just in time, so the noise was minimal.
Mo’destee stood in the front yard and let her eyes adjust to the early morning light. There was movement by the barn and she recognized the stable hand, Simon, from the day before. She also saw another man moving towards the stall that her father had been left in. She started to follow him. As they approached she noticed her father and the other two standing by the gate, awake and alert.
“Little Mo,” her father said as a half-smile creeped across his face. The man approaching the pen was confused and looked around spotting Mo.
“What you doin’ out here?” he asked her in Wolof.
“I was getting wood,” she replied, “but I want to see my father.”
“This your daddy?” he asked, smiling, and turned to GB. “Well then, I’ve got good news an’ bad news for you.” GB’s face grew solemn. “Oh, it’s not that bad,” the man chuckled. “It’s just I’m not sure how much you two’ll be seein’ each other ‘til the harvest season over. GB, you an’ your two buddies here are comin’ with me. Little missy, you need to fetch that wood and get back to Neema ‘fore she sets Ada after you. That’s one woman you just don’ wanna to mess with, you hear me?” He moved to unlock the men. “You boys gotta promise me you ain’t gonna run.”
“Where would we run to?” GB asked without expression.
“Exactly,” the man answered. “Now say by-dee bye to your girl over there. We got work waitin’ on us.”
GB approached Mo and they embraced. Mo’destee began to cry. “I’m sorry papa, I’m so sorry.”
“Hush now, you don’t have nothin’ to be sorry for, daughter.”
Her sobbing grew harder and she nodded her head into his chest. “Emeka,” she wept. “He… he… he died,” she felt him sway, his knees going momentarily weak. “I’m sorry, I tried. I had Tamala’s sons too, but they—” She couldn’t finish, her father was weeping with her, his tears dropping like rain onto her head.
“This has been real touching, but we really gotta be gettin’” the tall black man said. “The overseer’ll be along on his horse any minute now. He sees that carryin’ on you two are doin’ there, he’ll whup your ass, beat ya’ bloody.”
Mo and GB turned to him. “Is that the truth?” she asked.
“Could I make something like that up?” he laughed. “No, little missy, I wish that weren’t the truth, but it sure is. Now you need to run back up to the big house with wood in hand or you’ll meet the business end of Mrs. Banks’ whip, you hear me? C’mon now,” he motioned to GB.
“I love you, little Mo,” GB said as he moved away from her, wiping his tear-stained face.
“I love you too, Papa.”
“We’ll get through this together,” he said. She nodded and moved towards the large wood pile near the house.
Mo hustled to stoke the fire once she was back inside. Two more trips to the wood pile and she filled the wood box up. Ethel appeared in the doorway with her pajamas and robe on.
“Excuse me, but I need my…” She stumbled on her words. “My, um… girl,” she choked out. With a puzzled look on her face, Neema’s eyes flitted from Ethel to Mo and back to Ethel. “Modesty, she’s mine.”
“Is that so?” Neema said and then jerked her head towards the door. “You’re bein’ summonsed.”
Mo’destee followed Ethel back to her room. “We’ve got to get you some clothes,” Ethel said. “Help me get dressed and then let’s see what we can find for you to wear.”
“You can’t get dressed by yourself?” Mo asked timidly.
“Well sure I could, but then what would I need you for?” Ethel giggled then shrugged. “You’re right, I don’t need you. I’ll get dressed myself. For future reference though, don’t let my mother catch you not helping me. She’s got a bunch of old-fashioned ideas still. I think you people are just that, people. Human beings, you know?”
“Niggers. Negroes. Blacks. You people.” Ethel had shed her dressing gown and stood in her flimsy night gown, the two of them now dressed almost identical. “I’ve been fascinated by your kind for years.”
“I can’t really say the same,” Mo’destee mumbled.
“Oh, I don’t blame you, beyond the church, we aren’t very interesting. Bland, white, boring. I would love to travel to Afrika and meet your people and learn your culture.”
“My village was destroyed.” Mo’destee’s face fell as she continued. “My mother was killed, my brother died en route, my best friend killed herself, and I’m homesick like there is no tomorrow. I just want to go home, Ethel. Can you help me?”
Ethel shook her head, “No, I’m sorry, I really, really am, but no, I’m afraid the slave ships only go one direction.”
“That can’t be right though.” The desperation in Mo rose like a hungry dog frantic for anything, even the smallest of scraps. “There’s got to be a way.”
Ethel shook her head. Mo searched her face for empathy.
“Don’t despair, things aren’t that bad.”
“Really? Did you hear what I told you just a minute ago? My village and my family have been destroyed. The people I love are lost. I’m in a strange country and have woken up to find myself an indentured servant. It seems pretty horrible.” Mo’destee crossed her arms across her chest and felt defiant.
“Actually, an indentured servant can work off their passage. You’re a slave. Property my dad purchased with actual money. There’s ownership papers. It’s not right, I agree with you. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, slavery is wrong. It’s immoral.”
Tears welled in Mo’destee’s eyes. “This nightmare my life has turned into just keeps getting worse and worse.”
“Actually, you have it better than most,” Ethel stated without emotion. “And I have to say, if I was taken to Afrika and found myself in a new environment with new people around me, I think I would find a way to make the most of it. Embrace the new cultural experience.”
Mo’destee started shaking her head, fighting emotion. “No you wouldn’t, not if you lost everything. Not if your new life wasn’t even your own. You’re just saying that because there isn’t anything else to say.” She began to cry. “You just said it yourself, I’m a slave. You’d be in despair too if you woke up a slave, you would.”
“Maybe, but…” She moved towards Mo and took her by the elbow, steering her to the full length framed mirror near the closet. “Let’s be friends. Keep an open mind. Seriously, things aren’t so bad.” Mo’destee rolled her eyes at the comment. Ethel continued. “Look at how beautiful you are,” she said and moved behind Mo so she could get a good look at herself.
Mo’destee studied her reflection, eyeing the pure white nightgown, then she touched her face and moved her hand to her hair, which was standing on end. Ethel was still standing behind her and placed her hands on Mo’s shoulders. Mo’destee stiffened at the unexpected touch.
“Welcome to America, Modesty Greene,” Ethel said, then bent her head slightly and kissed Mo’s exposed shoulder. When their eyes met in the reflection, Mo’s face was full of confusion, but Ethel’s had the distinct expression of desire.
Each morning, Modesty woke at dawn and kneeled and prayed facing east. She missed her prayer rug she had made when she was a child and first learning the Islamic practices. She missed her house and the easy lifestyle of farming with her family. Her new life was difficult, but not as bad as some, and she reminded herself to be grateful.
“From the depths of darkness into the light,” she prayed from the Quran, “do not lose hope, nor be sad.” The prayers were like a scrap of bright cloth from her motherland, held close to her heart, offering her a little comfort.
Ethel had been adamant with her father that Modesty was her personal assistant. She didn’t like using the word slave, “servant” was as close as she ever got. Since Mr. Banks was the master of the house, he made certain provisions for Modesty. She was to be Ethel’s assistant from the hours of eight to ten-thirty in the morning and again from seven at night to bedtime, but the rest of the time she would do the work expected of her.
“When I suggested you come to the slave auction with me, Ethel, I wasn’t expecting to buy you a friend,” Banks chided.
“But Papa, you didn’t buy her. I negotiated her as a bonus so technically she belongs to me.”
“Well when you have a husband to pay the bills for you—” He stopped abruptly and their eyes met.
“I’ll pay my own bills, thank you very much,” Ethel replied and turned on her heels and marched from her father’s personal study, Mo following like a loyal dog.
Neema and Ada fell quickly into the new arrangement, assigning the tasks they didn’t care for to Modesty. Her first order of the day was to get the firewood for the kitchen stove. This was a task she didn’t mind doing since, if she was up early enough, she could get a glimpse of her father as he was led to the fields for his workday. From a distance, if they saw each other, they would give the Afrikan sign that meant “Love you, safe travels.” The early morning solitude also gave her the opportunity to pray in private. Those moments alone between her and her god were the most comfort she had.
The few hours a day she had with Ethel were a reprieve. The morning hours were the ones that felt the most normal. Once she loaded the firewood boxes up, Neema would have a tray with a small tea pot and Ethel’s breakfast, which usually consisted of a hardboiled egg, toast, apple cider, and, occasionally, a slice of ham. Both girls would appear proper until the bedroom door was shut, then it was as if they were friends. Ethel would never eat all her food so that Modesty would have a little food in her stomach to start the day, swearing her to secrecy that she wouldn’t tell.
“Why would I?” Modesty giggled.
Ethel advised Neema one morning that her appetite was growing, and she would need two slices of bread each morning. When Modesty took the tray up the next morning and there was only one piece. Neema said sharply, “That girl don’t play me the fool. You tell her you got plenty to eat.” Modesty gave her a hard stare but kept her words to herself.
Modesty would give Ethel her opinion on what to wear for the activities that were planned and help her dress and lace up her shoes. Once that was completed, Modesty would comb and pin up Ethel’s long hair, then gather the dishes and go back to the kitchen to continue her work day.
After supper, Modesty would join Ethel in her room again and help her take off her shoes and clothes and make up the bed for sleeping. Then she would take her hair down and Modesty would brush it until it shone.
Ethel would then read the Bible and Modesty would teach herself English with children’s picture books. By that time of day, she was exhausted. Sometimes she would doze off for a moment and Ethel would let her sleep. Once the rest of the house had settled in for the night, Modesty would return to her sleeping pallet in the kitchen.
On a morning when Ethel had a headache, Modesty slipped out the front door as to not notify Neema she was not needed upstairs. She moved between the long sunrise shadows away from the farm, knowing her time was short. The road wound away from any place she could have been seen and for a moment she wondered what would happen if she just kept walking. Images of her father bounced into her mind and she realized she would only leave if he was with her.
When she came to a split in the road she realized it was as far away from the house as she had ever been since arriving. She looked at each option and realized one road led to town and one away. She chose to go away from the possibility of running into anyone and moved to into the shadows that ran away from the Banks’ plantation.
Modesty found large, tree-like plants growing wild by the river banks. The deep green leaves and long stems somehow reminded her of the palms they made their fabrics from in Afrika. She pulled one up and began to bend it, working it back and forth until she saw the fibers that could be spun. The leaves were worthless so she began to strip the tall stem. It bent easily and, with a bit of work, she removed the entire plant from the ground and all the leaves from the stems. She dragged it back to the farm and moved in a large circle around to the far side of the Banks’ plantation.
She moved the stripped tree into the sun and arranged it so it was mostly facing south and mostly obscured from view from others. After a few days, she mentioned it to Ethel.
“Would you like to walk with me a bit?” Modesty asked.
“Walk where? Why?”
“I think I found a plant that can be used for cloth,” Modesty said nonchalantly.
“Like cotton?” Ethel asked.
Modesty shrugged, “I don’t know if it will be like cotton, probably not as soft, but durable.” It was Ethel’s turn to shrug. “C’mon, the retting should be done by now,” Modesty encouraged, her tone enthusiastic and carefree. The two of them walked out into the sunshine and to the south side of the cattle barn like a couple of friends.
“This is hemp,” Ethel declared when she saw the remains of the dried, crisp mini-tree. “They make rope with it.”
“It grows down by the river.”
“What were you doing down by the river?” Ethel’s tone was conspiratorial.
“Dreaming of going back to Afrika,” Modesty replied without skipping a beat.
“Touché,” Ethel mumbled.
Modesty had retrieved the stem and began working it back and forth, decorticating the fiber from the woody stem. “See,” she said holding the fine fibers up so Ethel could get a good view. “Now we need a spinning wheel.”
Ethel fingered the fine fibers, nodding. “I think we have one.” It was clear she was intrigued now and began to help Modesty work the fibers off the woody stem. Once they had a medium sized ball of fibers, they went back to the big house and began to look for the spinning wheel. It was being stored with other equipment that wasn’t used but seasonally. Between the two of them, they were able to move it where they could use it amid the other stored items. Modesty went to the big house and took one of Neema’s cleaning towels, explaining she’d return it when she was done. She wet it in the pump water and then cleaned the spinning wheel. The enthusiasm ricocheted between them, growing with every act. As Ethel got the fibers started and Modesty worked the spindle, she slowly released the fiber from the distaff causing the spinning motion. The weight dropped, causing the fibers to be tightly wound into threads.
“It’s working!” Ethel cried. Pride radiated from Modesty.
For days, the two of them would rush out of the house once Ethel was dressed and groomed. They made spools of the hemp thread. They dyed the threads using a cast iron kettle over an open fire. Deep red root vegetables for one batch and the green leaves of a second plant they harvested for the second.
Ethel retrieved a small loom, also in storage, that had been her grandmother’s and together they cleaned it and wove the threads into the loom. The final product was a strip of maroon red fabric six by twenty-four inches and a deep green piece approximately the same size. From an old dress, Ethel cut off white shiny beads made from shell that had accentuated the neckline. With a tiny tin needle, Modesty sewed the beads on the corners of their creation using the finest hemp thread left over.
“This is the prettiest scarf I’ve ever seen,” Ethel cried, roping the green one around her neck. “Oh, you should have the red one, it sets off your lovely skin color.” She handed it to Modesty, who wrapped it around her head, the white beads coming together in the front. “Stunning,” Ethel murmured.
The girls made plans to recruit Simon from the stables to let them use a little cart and a mule to fetch a dozen of the large hemp plants.
“How long is it going to take?” Simon asked.
“I don’t know, a half hour or so, maybe an hour,” Ethel responded confidently. “Tell Papa, I needed it because I twisted my ankle and can’t walk that far.”
“Where should I tell him you went?” Simon asked.
“To get hemp,” Ethel replied full of vexation. Simon chuckled to himself but brought the mule around and hitched it to the smallest cart. The girls climbed up and Ethel took hold of the reins. Modesty started laughing as the bumps in the road caused the cart to bounce.
They reached the banks where they took a small saw Ethel had taken from the wood shack and began to saw down the three-inch thick stalks. The saw was serrated and the fibrous stalk caught and pulled, making the progress much slower than they had expected. Two and a half hours later they had secured nine of the plants in the back of the cart, with most of the leaves stripped off.
Once they had put them on the south side of the property, fanned out for best sun exposure, they went back into the big house.
Neema caught them as they came in. “Where you girls been?”
“We’re working on a special project,” Ethel replied moving past her towards the stairs. “Come on, Mo.”
“Modesty, I require your assistance here, in the kitchen. You ain’t even got your mornin’ chores done and the sun’s startin’ to set.” Neema caught Mo’s arm as she tried to pass.
“Sorry Neema, but she’s my assistant today, I can’t complete my project without her.” She took Modesty’s other arm and for a moment Modesty thought they would play tug-o-war with her.
“You’ll finish your chores if you have to stay up all night.” Neema glared at Modesty, releasing her. Ethel stomped up the stairs to her room. Mo moved hesitantly behind her. She glanced back over her shoulder to see Neema giving her a hard stare. When their eyes met, Neema pursed her lips together and shook her head then retreated back to the kitchen.
“Ethel!” Banks roared from his study at the end of the hall.
“Daddy!” Ethel shouted back and headed towards his voice. “I’ve got the best news to tell you.” Breathlessly she appeared in his doorway, Modesty could hear her gush. “We made cloth from hemp plants, look.” Without a breath she continued, “Modesty knew how to dry it out and take the long stringy stuff off the stalk. Then we boiled it with beets, well not this one, this one we used the hemp leaves. It’s thick and very durable, a whole new textile product, probably even better than cotton—” A high pitched yelp finished her sentence, then it sounded like furniture tipping over. “Daddy, don’t!” Ethel screamed. Modesty was rooted to the spot where she stood at the top of the stairs.
Banks’ voice thundered, “You stupid girl!” Modesty could hear Ethel’s sobs start. “They’re niggers, not business associates, how dare you think for one minute they are anywhere close to equal to us. Dammit Ethel, where is your head!? Opposable thumbs above animals, do you hear me? Nothing more than animals. Stop this nonsense. You must learn your place is at the top of the food chain, you are part of a superior race, by God, start acting it!” Heavy stomps preceded Banks; he appeared from the study, moving towards his bedroom when he saw Modesty. Her blood ran cold with the look he gave her. Fear spurred her haste. She turned on her heel and dashed down the stairs to get her daily tasks caught up.
The day had turned bitter cold and wet. Modesty’s shoes were nothing more than house slippers. Stabs of pain seared her feet until they had grown so cold they became numb. The wood had gotten wet and it smoked, leaving Neema in a foul mood which she took out verbally on Modesty.
“Massa’s right, you ain’t nothin’ but a stupid girl. So stupid, you don’t even know your place.”
That evening, Modesty took up a glass of warm milk to Ethel and a plate with one sugar cookie on it. It was well past dinner. Neema, Ada, and the field hands had retired more than two hours before. The house was quiet. Ethel broke the cookie in half and offered one piece to Modesty; she shook her head. Ethel bit the cookie and stirred sugar into her tea.
“Why don’t you lay down on my bed, Modesty?” Ethel whispered. “I’ll lock the door so mama doesn’t see you.” Without an answer, she got up and bolted the door.
Modesty stood. “I should just go lay in the kitchen,” she mumbled but moved towards the inviting bed.
“It’s too cold down there, the fire didn’t take. I don’t want you to get sick.” Ethel steered Modesty to the bed and she plopped down without resistance. Once she was prone, Ethel slipped off Modesty’s thin shoes. Cold water dripped from them and made soft plop sounds on the hardwood floor. Then she pulled the blanket up to Modesty’s chin as if she were tucking in a child. Then she laid next to Modesty and slept.
Well before dawn, Modesty woke and felt Ethel’s back snugged up to hers. She listened to the soft snores of her friend and realized that she had the best night’s sleep since she was taken from Baila. Sleeping in a bed, such a small act of kindness, left Modesty feeling grateful and her attitude was renewed. She moved to get up and Ethel reached out to her and took her hand, then pulled at it just a bit.
“Stay,” Ethel mumbled sleepily.
“I should go downstairs and pretend I slept there,” Modesty replied.
Ethel gave a nod with half-open eyes and pulled Modesty’s hand to her cheek before releasing it. She smiled and rolled over. Modesty silently moved to the door. It didn’t open on the first pull but made a loud snap. Ethel sat straight up, eyes wide. Modesty froze with her hand still on the doorknob, heart racing. They listened for several seconds and Modesty slowly disengaged the lock and slipped down the stairs.
At eight, Modesty brought up the tray of tea. Ethel was still in bed and motioned for her to close the door and sit.
“It was nice to get real sleep,” Modesty said as she sunk down onto the bed. “Thanks.”
Ethel rolled over and put her head on Modesty’s lap. “You can sleep here tonight and tomorrow night and every night we can get away with it if you want. It’s a risk. You’ve got to remember to unlock the door before you open it though. That was close. As long as my parents don’t find out, I don’t mind.” She smiled up at Modesty. “I’m so glad we found each other,” she said in a sleepy voice.
“If you can call it that,” Modesty said and moved towards the table with the tea. She poured the cup and took a sip, then handed it to Ethel, who was then sitting up in bed.
“If I had my way, you’d have your own room with your own bed.”
Modesty smiled and nodded. “I guess I should just hope you get your way soon.” She sat at the table and began to peel the egg. “If I had my way, I’d be on the next ship back to Senegambia.”
Ethel ignored the last comment and looked at the egg. “Mmm, that looks good.” She opened her mouth and Modesty laughed a little then moved towards her, holding the egg to Ethel’s lips. She bit the egg in half and grabbed Mo’s slender wrist, turning it and pushing the remaining egg to Mo’s lips. Modesty happily popped the egg into her mouth.
Ethel pushed her way up to a kneeling position. She moved Modesty’s arm so it folded around her waist and moved her arms around Modesty’s then leaned in and kissed her on the mouth. Modesty’s stiffened and she pulled back, but Ethel held her firm. “Have you ever been in love?”
Modesty looked confused and shrugged. “Yea, I guess.”
“I think I love you,” Ethel whispered.
“What? Wait, no,” Modesty answered.
“Women can love women, it’s been that way since the beginning of time.” Ethel’s eyes danced with enthusiasm. She kissed her again, sliding her lips down Modesty’s neck, pulling her closer.
Modesty pulled away with more force. “I’m not sure about this,” she said, honestly.
Ethel smiled. “It’s fine, one day you will be.” She got up, took the slice of bread, and tore it in half, offering it to Modesty.
She hesitated but hunger got the best of her. “Merci.”
“Tell Neema I’m not feeling well and I’ll need to you bring me my supper a bit early this evening.” Modesty nodded and ate the bread. “Since it’s been so cold, maybe she could make some soup for tonight. Will you suggest that to her, please?”
“I will, but Neema don’t give no never mind about what I say.”
“See you at suppertime.” Ethel smiled and laid back down. “I don’t need your assistance this morning, I’m tired, you’re dismissed.” She rolled over and pulled the blanket over her head.
Modesty was caught off guard, the energy of the room awkward. She stood motionless for a heartbeat then gathered the tea service and breakfast dishes and went back to the kitchen.
That evening when Modesty took up the supper tray, Ethel was still lying in bed in her night gown.
“You really sick?” Modesty asked.
Ethel shook her head. “No, but it’s too cold to want to go anywhere but here.” She patted the bed beside her. Modesty looked uncomfortably from the door to Ethel. “No one’s coming in, just come sit with me.” Modesty sat. “I like the way you smell.”
“The way I smell?”
“Blacks are the most beautiful,” Ethel said, then placed her hand on Modesty’s back and began rubbing. “Seriously, your hair, your lips, the way your skin is pulled over your frame, the tiny pores and tight—” She stopped speaking but kept moving her hand up and down Modesty’s back. Modesty could see Ethel’s face flush pink. She took Modesty’s hand and raised it to her lips and softly kissed her palm. Her eyes beheld Modesty’s face. “Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?”
Modesty’s eyes grew moist as thoughts of Jabari flooded her heart. She closed her eyes, picturing his face, his eyes, his broad shoulders. Ethel leaned in and kissed her mouth. Lost in thoughts of Jabari, Modesty yielded and made a small noise of pleasure which encouraged Ethel. She moved one hand to the inside of Modesty’s thigh and the other hand on the back of her neck then kissed her deep, with passion. Modesty felt her breath quicken, her heart flutter, and then she felt Ethel’s hand on her breast.
“It’s true, women can love women—”
“Ah huh,” Ethel purred into Modesty’s ear. “Let me show you just how wonderful a woman can love you.”
Modesty laid back on the bed and Ethel straddled her, kissing her neck then moving down towards her breasts, her hands finding their way. Modesty’s nipples hardened under the tender touch, her breath quickened.
“Beautiful,” Ethel mumbled and began to suckle.
The doorknob shook back and forth, then a loud knock sounded. Modesty gave a little shout and Ethel clamped her hand down over Modesty’s full lips. “One minute, please,” Ethel answered breathless and moved off of Modesty, releasing her mouth. She motioned with her head and eyes for Modesty to open the door. When it swung open, Master Banks stood, filling the door with his mass. His eyes flitted to the table where dinner was still on the plate, untouched, then to his daughter who was sitting in a rumbled night shift, her hair spilling down around her shoulders. Modesty made her way towards the door. Banks stepped aside and let her pass.
“I’m not sure what this is about, young lady…” Modesty heard Banks’ voice boom as she hurried down the stairs.