Chapter 7: Modesty Greene
1791-1794 – Maryland, U.S.A.
As much as she could adjust her work load to avoid Banks, she did. Her stomach to her bowels weakened when she heard his voice; the sight of him made her want to vomit. Something inside Mo had surrendered. Over the next months, she became obedient and submissive. When Ethel announced one morning during their tea time she was going away to school for a year, Modesty didn’t flinch. As much as she enjoyed the moments of normalcy the split meals with Ethel created, there was part of her that was relieved she would not have to lie and make excuses to not spend time alone with her.
Modesty had taken to sharing the field hand’s cabin, that way she could see her father and Salih each night. She was the only woman with six men sharing the quarter but she felt safer there than on the floor of Neema’s kitchen in the big house.
Weeks faded to months and then suddenly a year in her new life. When she realized the moon had cycled eleven times and the men folk were getting ready to plant the new crop, she wept. She cried for her mother, her brother, and most of all for the life with Jabari that was stolen from her.
She pictured her village, the fire pit in the center where they had gathered for meals. The rice paddy that led from the river to the vegetable garden and livestock. As her breath returned and the tears began to subside, she looked around at the tobacco fields, the rows where corn would be planted, the pens for livestock, and an imaginary weight lifted from her heart. She thought of her father and what he’d had to endure since they had come here. The tears sprang back into her eyes at the gratitude she felt that she was able to share a sliver of his life with him. No other slave she knew was still connected in the flesh to their Afrikan blood. She said her thanks to Allah under her breath.
The familiar whistling of Salih filled her ears and she heard the horse whinny. There were abundant blessings if she could look past the hurt and the sorrow. Salih had been right all along, she had plenty to be grateful for. Committed to creating her own happiness, she stood and walked towards the stables. Salih saw her approaching and a broad grin broke out on his face, bright white teeth contrasting to his dark and handsome face. A crease of concern wiped out the cheerfulness as Modesty continued towards him, almost in a run. Confusion chased away concern when she stood inches in front of him and took in a deep breath. As she let it out slowly, time seemed to follow the tempo, slowing, the air getting thick. She took fistfuls of his shirt and pulled him into her, kissing him on his mouth, pressing her body into his.
Salih faltered only for a heartbeat before he had his arms around Modesty, their lips and tongues hungry for each other. The leather of the horse halter still in his hands pulling the animal towards them. The old mare gave a huff and a snort, splattering them with her saliva. Modesty threw her head back and began to laugh.
“Marry me, woman,” Salih said, refusing to let her go.
“Wait, what?” she stammered, her eyes returning to his.
“Be my wife,” he said, his stare hopeful. She started nodding, the laughter returning to her eyes and heart.
After the harvest, the slaves were in charge of finding the yule log for the Christmas season. It was a day they looked forward to, a little joy in their otherwise mundane world. As long as the yule log burned, they were allowed a reprieve from most of their daily chores. Most everything had been done by that point anyway, the only things that kept on were the daily running of the house.
GB accompanied the men to find the yule log and explained to Modesty that they showed him how they found the thickest, densest wood they could and once they cut it, they dragged it up the stream back to the plantation, ensuring it got nice and wet.
“Salih says we’ll get an extra week off ’cause of the creek water,” GB said with a grin.
“That’s great news,” Modesty answered, leaning in and kissing her father on his cheek. She was busy preparing jarred cabbage with vinegar and salt, a recipe Neema had taught her. The jars were left over from a food ration they had gotten earlier in the year. They saved all their food containers to refill. Nothing was wasted.
Modesty had taken on the role of feeding the men in the quarter and they were each appreciative, as their diets had taken on much more variety now she was cooking. One night after Christmas and before New Years, all nine Banks slaves were gathered around while the yule log burned slow and steady.
“GB my fine man,” Salih said to the room in a voice that boomed. GB was suddenly coated with a nervousness, his eyes darting from Modesty to the others that were gathered. They had just finished a fine meal that was only that plentiful during that time of year. It was nice to relax as the quasi family they had become. “I think it’s time you give me your daughter’s hand in marriage,” Salih continued, and clapped GB on the shoulder. GB was staring at his daughter; her eyes glistened with tears.
He stood and slung a loose arm around Salih. “Years ago, before…” he stammered and motioned around him. “Before, this, my best friend and I arranged for my oldest and his youngest to be joined during the summer solstice.” Modesty could no longer maintain eye contact with her father, tears flowed down her face. “Since our destiny is in Allah’s hands and not our own, we find ourselves here. We find ourselves with new best friends,” his eyes darted to Samuel, “new commitments, and new lives.” He took one of Salih’s hands and reached for one of Modesty’s. “Look at me daughter.” She did, and saw tears glistening in both men’s eyes, “This is America, not Senegambia. Women have a say in who they marry, right?” He looked around the room as laughter peeled from every corner. Neema was nodding and Ada looked delighted. Modesty smiled, as GB placed her hand in Salih’s.
Salih stared into Modesty’s eyes. “Famul is the Latin word for family,” he began. “Translated directly, it means, ‘those that feed together.’ Wherever we came from, we’re now feeding together.” A smile lightened up his face. “Modesty, my love, will you be my family?”
She looked around to those who had become the most important in her life. Neema was dabbing at her eyes and GB was standing proud, inflated at the idea of being the father of the bride; everyone was smiling. Love radiated around her.
“Yes,” she exclaimed. “Yes!”
The spring began to yield for summer and Modesty could feel she was again with child. Banks had come for her twice, slipping a dog collar over her neck and leading her to the dreadful barn where he took her with violence. She learned if she struggled, it was worse. If she didn’t fight him, he wouldn’t hit her. For her, it became the most horrible duty of her captive life.
On the other hand, she and Salih had become husband and wife. He had been gentle with her in their marriage bed, tender. Thoughts of Jabari were never far from her mind and she knew with certainty that Khadija was never too far from Salih’s mind. This thought made the union bearable for them both. They sought comfort from each other where no other solace could compete.
Ethel returned from school during the lull in farming, after the planting and before the harvesting.
As soon as she returned, she rushed to Neema. “I’ll be needing Mo’s assistance the rest of the week,” she said. Modesty heard her voice and stepped into the hallway, trying to hear the conversation.
“Miss Ethel,” Neema began. “Certainly that be yo’ choice but you need to understand, Modesty has her own chores and anything you need will be heaped on her other duties.”
Neema clucked her tongue. “She’s not the flower you left behind, she’s…” Modesty’s stomach tightened knowing what was coming. “She’s in a delicate way.” Silence. It seemed the house itself was holding its breath waiting for Ethel’s reply.
Neema grunted a neutral noise. “Ain’t my business.”
Modesty slipped back into the parlor where she was polishing the pewter candelabra. After a moment, the dull click of Ethel’s boots in the hall made the hair on Modesty’s neck stand up. Ethel appeared in the doorway; her presence seemed to block the air from the room. Even though Modesty felt nauseous, she stood and adverted her eyes as she was trained to do.
“I’m back,” the words hung like weights. “I’ll need you,” Ethel said, her eyes traveling down Modesty’s body.
With a heavy sigh, Ethel turned and stomped towards her room. “This is ridiculous,” Modesty heard her mumble.
That evening, after supper had been served and cleaned up, Neema asked Modesty, “you takin’ up tea? She’ll be ‘spectin’ ya’.” Modesty drew in a long breath and let it out slowly as she put on the kettle to boil.
“Why didn’t you take the Queen Anne’s lace again, like last time?” Ethel asked as Modesty put the tray on the table. Modesty shrugged. “Is it my father’s child?” Modesty stayed silent. “I think if you’re birthing my sibling, I have the right to know.”
Modesty shrugged again and deflected the question. “Simon and I got married while you were gone.”
Ethel gave a snort, “Good for you,” she said, the tone laced with sarcasm. “My father is arranging for my marriage come summer’s solstice.” Emotion was missing in her tone as she continued. “It is difficult for me to think about.”
“To a man?” Modesty asked, emotion springing in her chest. She and Jabari would have been joined during the summer’s solstice.
“Of course, to a man,” Ethel’s tone had found its edge. “Atthow Pattison, I have no choice. As a woman, as a daughter,” she sighed and stood. “The decision has been made for me.” She began to pace. “Ethel, Atthow, can you believe it? I wouldn’t have chosen to marry him based on his name alone. I am no more my own person than you are. At least you were able to marry who you wanted.”
“Not exactly,” Modesty said quietly.
“Oh yes, I forgot, your childhood love, as if…” Ethel rolled her eyes and returned to the chair across from Modesty. “At least you were able to marry a man. You’re attracted to men, right?” Modesty nodded. “Well, imagine if you weren’t. Imagine if my father were to force you to marry…” She stumbled, at a loss for words. “Imagine if my father were to force you to marry, ME!” She let the statement hang between them for a moment. “Just imagine the way you feel when I touch you, when I look at you with longing, then take that queasiness and turn it into a successful marriage.” She sipped her tea and Modesty noticed she was struggling to keep her eyes dry. “It’s almost the 1800s for crying out loud. Women should be allowed to choose who they marry or… or… to NOT marry.” The tears began to slip down Ethel’s face.
“It’s like we’re the same, you and me.” Her voice was taking on momentum. “White or black, young or old, it’s like we’re all slaves. Our lives are forced by the men that surround us. I might as well be black, with as little control as I have over my own life.” She stood again, and began the back and forth pacing. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
“If I’d rather be white or black?”
“No, if you’d rather be a man or woman?” Ethel returned to her chair.
They stared at each other, then Modesty realized it was a question Ethel was expecting an answer to. “Well, um, if I had to live here, I’d want to be a white man. If I could go back to Baila, I don’t much mind bein’ a black woman.” She fidgeted and avoided Ethel’s stare.
“You make a good point.” Ethel sighed. “It all boils down to politics.”
“You’ll be fine,” Modesty said, raising her eyes to meet Ethel’s.
The return look was one of confusion. “What do you mean?”
“The husband your daddy’s makin’ you marry,” Modesty said with a hint of exasperation.
“Oh, yes, that.” Ethel rolled her eyes to the ceiling and sighed. “I suppose I’ll be takin’ you with me. I’m sure Daddy will let me keep you as a weddin’ gift.”
“Simon,” Modesty clarified.
“Oh yes, your husband. Of course.” She sighed again. “This marrying business is just that, a business. You’re right, absolutely right, I’m going to ask for you, Simon, the baby, it IS Simon’s baby, right?”
Their eyes met. “I hope so,” Modesty mumbled.
“Me too,” Ethel said. “I’ll tell him I want that old mule and cart we used for our hemp adventure. He’ll give me those. And what else, maybe Ada? I mean, he’ll never give up Neema or Samuel. Your dad! I’ll ask for him too, that’s a decent dowry. Two men slaves, a woman slave, a baby slave.”
Baby slave? Modesty mouthed the words. Sound seemed to have eluded her.
“Well, it won’t be a baby forever.” Ethel’s face had grown pale. “Four negroes. There, that sounds better, and—”
“Does it?” Modesty felt the bile in her throat and a fluttering in her stomach. Baby slave rang in her ears.
“Yes, it does.” Ethel became proper and Modesty could see the mixture of Kathryn and Robert in the way the young woman set her jaw and narrowed her eyes. “Four negroes, a mule, and a horse. It’s a decent dowry.”
Modesty noticed Ethel said it as if to convince herself. “Sure is,” she agreed. “Can’t help but notice, in all due respect, you sure have changed since I’ve known ya’.”
“It’s called life.” Ethel stood, suddenly agitated. “We’ve all changed.”
Modesty nodded silently and felt the room close in around her.