Chapter 6: Modesty Greene
1790 – Maryland, U.S.A.
It seemed Neema or Master Banks always had something else for Modesty to do other than assist Ethel. When they were together, Ethel leaned in too close or wanted to move somewhere more private. Trying to please Ethel, stay out of Neema’s way, and get all the chores the master expected created a deeper challenge to her days.
One morning before dawn, Modesty was knelt in prayer when she heard Banks behind her. “What do you think you’re doing?” he snarled.
“Giving thanks,” Modesty said, and moved to stand. Banks grabbed her from behind, “What are you—” The shock of the sudden violence was frightening.
Banks pulled Modesty out of the house. He half carried, half dragged her towards the barn. Her eyes rolled wild and she got a glimpse of Simon, the groomsman. She saw he moved back into the shadows once he took in the scene. She saw another group of men. Was her father among them? She tried to call out but in her fright, her throat didn’t seem to work.
“I’ve had it with you,” Banks boomed. He forced Modesty into the barn and then pushed her roughly to the ground. “At the center of every conflict in this house, there’s you,” he continued, his voice hard. With horror, she felt her skirts being pulled up around her waist and her bloomers being pulled down.
She fought him, clawed at him. He slapped her with an open hand hard across her face. “Don’t!” she continued. He ripped the beet red cloth covering her head and tried to stuff it in her mouth. She held her mouth closed, but Banks dug his fingers into the sides of Modesty’s face until her jaws opened. “No!” she screamed. He stuffed the hemp swath into her mouth. He grabbed her wrists and wrenched her arms up. Pain shot through her shoulders. A slip knot loop was fastened around her wrists. The more she struggled, the deeper the cord dug into the flesh around her wrists. “NO!” With adrenaline coursing through her veins she kicked back like a mule, hoping to land a heel in his groin. He forced her to bend over a feed barrel, her feet barely touching the ground. Terror gripped her gut when she heard her bloomers being torn away to expose her most private parts. She started to shake her head. Banks placed a huge hand on her neck and held her in place. Memories of Baila and the men that took them from their village flooded her mind. Bile made her gag as he entered her from behind, tears flowing down her cheeks.
He continued his rant. “I am the master of this house, you will respect me or I will beat you down until you do.” His lecture was building in force as he drove into her so hard her feet were lifted off the ground with every thrust. “You will not pray to a savage God in my house, you will not disgrace this family with Ethel’s sinful notions, you will obey.”
Power or passion or both caused Banks to climax. He held Modesty’s head down with force, his fingers dug into her skull, his other hand pressed firmly between her shoulder blades. She choked on the rag in her mouth. He moaned and emptied himself into her. “Don’t forget who’s the master,” he said as he adjusted himself back into his pants. He pulled the cord from her wrists with roughness, the pain sharp. She jerked the hair rag from her mouth and drew a deep breath, then fell to the ground. Banks left her crying and shamed. Every inch of her hurt. She curled into a fetal position as her body shook.
It seemed like half the day was gone before she crept back to the main house on the plantation. Simon saw her and came up next to her as she limped towards the house. “Everythin’ alright?” She shook her head and tears sprung to her newly dried eyes. He sighed and a sadness washed over his expression. “We’re in this together, all us folk,” she nodded. “If I can do anything for you, you just let me know.”
She continued her head nodding as she walked. “Thanks, Simon,” she whispered, her shame burning in her cheeks.
“It’s Salih,” he said grinning. “Simon is my slave name. White man thinks they can name you whatever they want, like a dog. I ain’t no dog.” She nodded.
When the moon had grown full and disappeared again without her getting her flow, Modesty began to worry she may be with child. Even though she and Ethel didn’t spend as much time together as they once had, they still had shared moments. When Modesty was in Ethel’s room, she made a point of keeping the door open even if Ethel suggested she close it. That seemed the perfect way to keep the energy between them on neutral ground. Once Modesty placed the tea tray on the little table, she sat in the furthest chair from Ethel. After a moment of petty conversation about the weather, Modesty asked with nonchalance, “Do you know where to get any cotton root bark?”
“Cotton root bark?” Ethel replied. “We don’t have cotton in the Providence of Maryland, oh silly me, we’re a full-fledged state now. The cotton root bark, I’m not sure you can get it this far north, I think it grows more down south.”
Ada’s head slowly appeared around the corner of the doorway. “Ain’t meanin’ to listen in, but what’ya lookin’ for the root fer?” Her eyes flicked from one woman to the other.
“I don’t know,” Ethel appeared flustered. “My guess is you can—”
“Get rid of a baby?” Ada sneered at Modesty. “Best root in these parts is the Queen’s Anne Lace over by the duckin’ blind, but don’t eat too much, it’ll kill more than the pea in the pod.”
“Get rid of a baby?” Ethel was more than flustered, she was confused and embarrassed of the subject matter.
“Ada, much obliged,” Modesty said with genuine gratitude.
“Ain’t no thing,” Ada added. “Massa get ya?”
“Ada!” Modesty croaked.
Ethel’s head snapped towards Modesty. “What did she say? Who?”
Ada’s smile was malicious and matched her hard-set eyes. It gave Modesty a shiver and she lowered her gaze. “Good day, ma’am,” Ada added as she exited the bedroom.
“A baby is a gift from God,” Ethel stated flatly.
“Excuse me?” Modesty could feel the flush of her cheeks.
“Babies are from heaven, they are gifts from God. You can’t just decide to end a pregnancy.”
Modesty’s face twisted into a gruesome expression. She snapped, “I didn’t ask for this, Ethel! I was robbed! A moment stolen. One that was supposed be saved for my wedding night, for Jabari! A moment I was lucky enough to preserve on a damned slave ship for months. It was taken from me, forced!” Her voice was sharp and sounded angry, tears rolled down her face, snot glistened at her flared nostrils, and her hands shook. “A gift from…” she blanched. “No, not from my god.” Modesty gathered her skirts and stormed out, slamming the door behind her.
By the time she reached the back door, she could hear Ethel bellowing her name. “Modesty, please, I’m sorry, please come back.” Modesty didn’t slow down. She stomped down the back-porch steps and headed towards the horse stables. She couldn’t go back to the stock barn, ever. Just the thought caused panic in her groin.
Salih gave her a sad smile when she entered the structure. “Hello, miss. What can I help you with today?” His eyes were warm and his smile held genuine concern.
She was shaking, angry and offended, hurt and scared. “Where do I start?” She began to cry, he put his arm around her shoulders and reflexively she turned into his body and allowed him to hold her. He rubbed her back and soothed her as if she were a child.
“I want to go home,” she cried.
“Mmm mmm, me too,” Salih answered.
“I’m being serious.”
“Me too, miss, me too.” For a moment they stood silent and happy to have someone touch them, to feel human.
“I think I need Queen Anne’s lace,” she finally said into his chest.
“Who?” he asked and looked down at her, pulling away.
She managed a little smile. “Queen Anne’s lace, it’s a root used for medicine.”
“Yes, no, yes.” She wasn’t sure of the answer. Their eyes held for a moment and she realized he was much younger than she originally thought, maybe her age or a little older. “I’m not sure but I may be in the family way.” She lowered her gaze and felt her face grow flush.
“Oh no, that’s too bad.” His answer held no judgment, it was edged with empathy and concern. “You talk to Neema ’bout it?”
She shook her head. “No, she doesn’t like me, she wouldn’t care, and besides, it would be too hard to…” He could see the terror reflect in her eyes at the memory.
“SShhh…” He took her in his arms again. “Does the Queen’s lace, um… do the trick?”
Lost in the physical comfort of his arms, she shrugged and held him closer. “I don’t know.” Tears were threatening to spill down her cheeks, again.
He pulled away from her and put his hand under her chin, forcing her to look at him. “You’ll be alright, I know it don’t feel like it now, but you’re strong, you’re a tough woman.” Their eyes met and she nodded a little. “We’ll figure this out together, you and me, alright?”
“What will we figure out?” Ethel’s voice came from the doorway and the two turned to face her. Modesty shook her head and turned away.
“Good day, Miss Ethel, how can I be of service to you today?” He smiled; his tone was warm, normal.
“Modesty?” Ethel moved into the horse stable. Salih protectively stepped in between her and Modesty. “Please, don’t push me away.”
Modesty wiped her face and turned towards Ethel and Salih.
“Ethel?” Banks’ voice boomed from the open doorway. “What are you doing out here?” His face held curiosity as he stepped into the structure. Once he assessed the scene, his face turned hard. “Doesn’t everyone have something productive to be doing besides sitting in here and clacking like a bunch of hens?”
“Yas’sir.” Salih moved towards the penned horses and began to muck out an empty stall. Ethel gave Modesty a worried look and quickly moved out and headed towards the big house. Modesty’s knees began to shake, she couldn’t look at Master Banks; she twisted her fingers together expelling a bit of nervous energy.
“You,” he said and moved two steps towards her. An involuntary yip escaped her mouth and she moved quickly away from him. He struck like a snake, grabbing her by her throat and pushing her into the wall.
“No,” she whimpered.
“Why is it always you?” he raged and pressed his body against hers. She could feel him growing hard against her stomach.
“Please, no.” She began to sob and shake uncontrollably. She scanned the room for Salih. Finally, she saw him peeking around the corner of the tack closet. Knowing he was close gave her courage and she began to fight Banks. “No!” she screamed and clawed at his hands that were pulling at her bodice. “Stop!” Her eyes met Salih’s, who was now standing directly behind the master with a muck shovel in his hand. Banks saw her eyes dart behind his back and he turned like a rabid bear, arms up ready to fight. Salih bent his knees and held the shovel out in defense. Banks grabbed it and they pushed and pulled for a moment before Salih lost hold of it. Once Banks had it, he swung it at the younger man’s head. Salih saw it coming and ducked, but not quick enough. The shovel caught him on his shoulder then deflected up and cracked the side of his head. Salih went down and covered his head as the master began to kick at him.
“Stop! Stop!” Modesty cried. Banks turned on her and grabbed her wrist, pulling her with him out into the yard. She saw where he was taking her: the whipping post. With terror, she began to dig in her heels. She made her body heavy, flopping down, a trick Emeka used to do with her. Those memories were too much to think about, but the present moment was looking grim. Banks jerked her back onto her feet and dragged her to the wooden pole where he lashed her wrists to it and took a deep breath, trying to maintain a bit of control. He adjusted his shirt and rebuttoned his sleeve that had come loose during their fray.
She looked over her shoulder and saw Salih standing in the doorway of the stables, blood caked the side of his head and his shirt crimson. Her eyes continued to the big house where she thought she saw Neema peering out the window, then past the back porch to the garden where she could see Ada, also watching. She tried to turn her head to see if her father was down by the stock barn. CRACK, the first strike of the whip hit her back and caused her to cry out in pain.
The second strike caused her to pass out but the straps she was bound with held her standing as Banks continued to whip her.
The next few hours came to her in snippets. Ada untying her hands and her body collapsing into someone strong. The pain from being lifted up the steps into the big house, feeling her dress stuck to her back with blood. Neema helping her to the kitchen floor and peeling her dress from her. Waking in the night on her stomach, topless. When she tried to rise she felt the stiffness of a dried poultice on her back, the pain searing. She settled back onto the pallet and closed her eyes.
When she woke the next time, Modesty gave a little start. A man sat cross legged before her. It was a quick moment before she realized it was her father. He had been crying, that was clear. When he saw she was awake he dipped his head and mumbled a prayer of thanks to Allah.
“Papa, please,” Modesty cried. “I want to go back to Baila, please Papa, please.”
Tears streamed down GB’s face. “Allah is with us wherever we are, daughter. Keep Allah in your heart, He does not give us anything we can’t handle.”
Modesty sobbed. “Really? Allah thinks we can handle this… this… this situation? Is that what I call my life now, a situation? I can’t handle it, please tell Allah, I can’t do this.” Her body trembled, racked with pain, physical and emotional.
The back door opened. “The boys are headin’ down,” Neema’s voice resonated into the kitchen.
GB placed his hand on Modesty’s head. “I’m so sorry,” he said in Wolof, looking into her swollen eyes. Tears. Modesty’s eyes moved away from her fathers. “I love you, daughter,” he said. “Stay strong, keep Allah in your heart.” With that, he was gone. Neema came in and began her morning work. Modesty gingerly lowered herself back to her makeshift bed.
“Just fo’ today, you can stay put but plan on tomorrow bein’ back at it, ya’ hear me?” Modesty nodded and turned her head away. She was in so much pain, it was incomprehensible to think of work. “You did this to her,” Neema’s voice was hard, and for a moment Modesty thought it was Banks she was talking to until she heard the high-pitched gasp.
“Oh no!” Ethel inhaled and rushed to Modesty’s side. “I didn’t do this, I never would—”
“Oh, Miss Ethel,” Neema began. “In all due respect, you need to teach your gal here how to work proper. She’s not a play thing, you too old for that.”
“I’m so sorry, I’m so so sorry,” Ethel repeated and stroked Modesty’s hair. “I would never hurt you, I would never do this to you.” Tears glistened on Ethel’s blonde lashes.
“Massa will sell her south if you ain’t careful,” Neema said and began bustling about the kitchen.
“I won’t let him,” Ethel said. “Was Simon able to find the root for you?” Modesty shook her head and began to cry softly. “Oh no, please don’t cry. I feel so bad already.”
“What root?” Neema asked.
Modesty’s crying amplified. “Queen Anne’s lace,” she managed to choke out.
“What you need that for?” Neema blurted out and continued preparing the morning meal. After a long moment she said, “Oh no. Oh hell no, we don’t have the time or energy for a babe.”
“I don’t want it,” Modesty cried. They exchanged a look and Modesty could see a wash of understanding come over Neema’s face.
“You shoulda come to me first. We may’ve avoided this whole sad scene.” Neema clucked her tongue and shook her head. “Leave it to me, we’ll get you some of the black tea.”
Ethel stayed with Modesty for the majority of the day. She helped Neema where she could. Ada was in and out doing both her chores and Modesty’s. After the noon hour meal, Salih appeared in the doorway. One side of his face was swollen. His upper lip was split and his cheek below the engorged eye was bruised. Neema saw him and motioned for him to sit on the small stool. She bustled around him and applied a compress to his eye and carefully cleaned the cut on this lip.
Modesty could feel his stare on her. She turned and watched Neema tend to his wounds. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“I shouda kept to my own business.” She nodded. “It’s just hard to watch somethin’ like—”
Neema interrupted him. “Shouda kept to yo’ own business,” she sighed. “Sal, gonna need you to go on o’er to the duckin’ blind. On the north side there’s gonna be some roots growin’ like carrots but you’ve gotta look for the bloom with the pink edges. Find me the pinkest bloom and pull up the whole root. I don’t need much, but find me one that’s as dark as you can.”
Sal nodded. “Hope you heal up quick,” he said as he left. He returned before sunset with the root. He gave it to Neema without conversation, then slipped back out casting a sorrowful look through the eye that wasn’t swollen.
GB came by after supper. He asked Neema if he could stay through the night there. She glanced around, the nervousness flashing in her face like a trapped animal before she nodded. She continued to prepare the Queen Anne’s lace tea. The rank, sharp smell snaked around the usually aromatic room. Modesty’s stomach curled before it was completely steeped.
“You may have a hard time keepin’ it down,” Neema said, handing Modesty a deep pot with an inch of water in the bottom. GB’s face was confused. Once Neema said her goodnights, GB asked his daughter what the tea was for.
She shrugged, “It’s a woman thing.” Shame washed through her body and she avoided his eye. Sometime in the night, she woke and began to vomit with such force it bent her body in half. Heave after heave, long after her stomach was empty. As she puked, the scabs on her back pulled and broke free, causing blood to soak through her sleep smock. GB sat helpless watching his daughter convulse with sickness, his eyes darting back and forth between her moans to the dark doorway.
Modesty laid on her side, knees hugged to her chest. Her body shook and small gagging noises continued intermittently. They started in her gut and rumbled to her throat and then seemed to be trapped there with nothing else to eject. GB retrieved a kitchen towel, dampened it, and laid it across the back of his daughter’s neck. He smoothed her unruly hair; it sprung back, pitching at odd angles when he removed his hand.
“I want to go home,” Modesty mumbled in Wolof. Her father clicked his tongue and nodded. After a heartbeat, he realized her eyes were cinched shut and croaked out an affirmative. They fell asleep curled around each other, GB ever conscious of not touching Modesty’s raw back.
In the morning, GB woke to find his daughter covered in blood. The back of her shift was matted on her back with dried blood, it had pooled around her hips and down one leg. GB tried to wake her and with growing panic, realized she was unconscious. Neema appeared in the doorway and surveyed the scene. With a look part satisfaction and part disgust, she instructed GB to take her to the barn where he usually slept with the other field hands. It was when he picked her up that GB realized where the majority of the blood had come from.
Modesty’s head bobbed as he carried her, her feet swaying with his gait. He laid her on a pallet of straw, wishing he had a blanket to wrap around her. She opened her eyes into little slits as he rose to leave.
“Don’t go,” she said with parched lips.
“Daughter, dearest,” he began in Wolof, tears seeping into his eyes. “If I don’t, I’ll be lying next to you, broken and bloody. If I could take your hurt away, if I could heap the pain on me, I certainly would.” He sighed composing himself. “But it would not help you at all, so I’ll go do what I’m supposed to and see you this afternoon. Little Mo, I love you.” With that he turned and left.
But it would help me, she thought. She was peeling back the layers of sickness and pain when she saw her blood-stained body. A moment of relief washed over her, then she realized where she was. The barn. Her hands began to sweat and shake as she held her eyes closed. The smells and sounds; her body convulsed again and she rolled onto her hands and knees and began to dry-heave. Snot and tears mixed on her face, spittle drawing at the corners of her mouth.
“Miss Mo? You alright?” The voice was warm, friendly, laced with empathy. Her eyes rolled upward and she saw Salih holding a small box. He set it on the ground and knelt next to her. “Let me help you,” he said. He turned to the box and pulled out a dark gray, clean smock and handed it to her. She stood, turned away from him, and pulled the blood-soaked garment over her head. A sharp wince of pain escaped her lips and she felt one of the wounds tear open.
“Hold up,” Salih said and moved behind her. With gentleness, he took a bandage and wrapped the bloody tangle of ragged flesh. He moved the bandage around her chest, careful not to touch her skin in the front or back. She held her arms away from her body to make the process a bit easier. He helped her with the smock, dressing her as if she were a small child, then sat her back down and presented her with a meal. Fresh biscuit, small hunk of ham, and a half an apple.
“Neema said to take little bites and if you’re feelin’ nauseous to stop for a spell.” She nodded and nibbled the bread then held out half for him. He smiled and shook his head. She offered him the ham instead and he laughed. “That’s for you. Don’t you worry though, Neema made sure we all kept our stomachs busy this mornin’.” Mo nodded. They sat in silence for a moment while she ate.
“You know what I’m cravin’?” she asked. Salih shook his head. “Wild bush yams baked in the charcoal with naan and a fig spread.”
Salih smiled. “Oh, that does sound good, and maybe a sweet orange for dessert.” They smiled at each other, both lost in the thoughts of Afrika.
“Jabari’s mother made the best fig spread.” Modesty’s voice seemed distant as if trapped in a dream.
“Your husband?” Salih asked.
“Woulda been,” Modesty nodded. “If—”
“I was married,” he interrupted. “Her name was Khadija. Most beautiful woman you ever laid eyes on.” Now it was his voice sounding lost in a dream. “We had two sons.” His voice took on an edge of pride. “A beautiful life it was with my wife and children.” A dark cloud passed over his eyes. “They didn’t survive the ship. Came up to the top deck on the chain with four other men just in time to see them throw Khadija overboard with the others that hadn’t lasted the night. Tossed them in the ocean like they weren’t nothin’ more’n fish food.” Neither spoke for a long moment, then he continued. “For days, I prayed that I saw wrong, that my mind was playin’ tricks on me.”
“Maybe it was a blessin’ they didn’t make it, maybe their spirts returned and found their place in the Baobab tree.” Modesty’s mind flickered to Emeka, the way the cruel sailor had just discarded his body as if it were trash. Often, while awake in the night, she pictured Emeka back in Senagambia, happy, whole, alive. In her mind’s eye, she could see him playing around their mother as she thrashed and pounded the reeds into fabric for their tunics. That life seemed impossibly forever ago.
When Salih looked at Modesty again, silent tears were streaking down her face. He put his arm gingerly around her and pulled her close. Exhaustion from the prior forty-eight hours combined with the heaviness of the loss of her family led her to lean into him. For a moment, she felt safe.
“Sorry you’re hurtin’ so bad,” he began. “It’s clear, you is special Mo’destee. You gotta understand your lot, though. This is it.” She shook her head. “Now hear me out.” He turned so they could look at each other. “I don’t like this any more than you do, and I promise you, your daddy ain’t too happy about the current situation and I know Neema and Ada ain’t either, but you gotta understand, there ain’t a thing you can do about this, you hear me? Not one thing.”
“Amina killed herself,” Modesty said, gazing past Salih.
“Oh, that’s too bad, but missy, we all have suffered loss. Every one of us negroes have lost somethin’. You gotta understand, this is your life now, you can endure or don’t, choice is still yours.”
Her eyes were focused so far on the horizon they looked clouded. Her brain was processing what Salih had told her. “I could kill myself.” Her voice seemed detached, far away, not her own.
“Yes’um, you could, but,” he placed his hand on her cheek and moved her face slightly so she was looking at him, “don’t, please. You’re an intelligent woman. Talented with your weavin’, strong and fine lookin’ to boot. Do me a favor, try not to die.” She just stared at him, wordless. “You’re special, girl. Stay strong. Your beauty shines from within, the world would be dark if you weren’t around.”
“The world is dark,” she answered glumly.
“Then look for the light,” he said and leaned in, letting his lips brush across hers.