Chapter 8: Modesty Greene
1795-1808 – Maryland, U.S.A.
As Modesty’s stomach grew, her duties shifted more and more to accommodate Ethel’s whims and wedding planning.
Banks had agreed to Ethel’s dowry request and improved it. “I’ll even throw in Ada’s boy, he’s what, eight, nine now? Here’s a lesson for you, daughter, that’s how you keep nigger slaves loyal, keep their offspring close. They won’t run that way.”
He also added two pigs, male and female, and the tack for the horse. Kathryn had her own items to add, a thick patchwork quilt plus a fine set of china with silver utensils and a flower vase that had been imported from France.
They moved from the Banks’ plantation to the Pattison’s by the time Modesty’s stomach had stretched to the bursting point. Pattison had a large spread with mostly tobacco. The biggest difference from the Banks’ place were two large drying barns that stood on the south side to accommodate the aging process for the tobacco leaves. The only other vegetable crops grown were for personal consumption.
Hog’s Head Road was where the slaves would take large rolls of tobacco and roll them to the river wharf where they were sold. The river was used to move these large baled crop as well as a quicker and more convenient way to travel between their plantation and the others that sat up and down the coast. The plot north was Anthony Thompson’s place and the plot south was owned by John Stewart. The slaves were often hired out between them based on what was needed in which season. The Thompsons had a diverse vegetable crop and livestock commodities. Seemed he dabbled in a bit of everything. Stewart, on the other hand, made his money solely on lumber.
The Pattison plantation that sat in between had a dozen slaves and a quarter with small cabins for each family. A new shack had been built for Ethel’s slaves, and Modesty loved the way the new wood smelled. As her pregnancy progressed she remembered her mother, the two infants that didn’t survive, and Emeka. She wondered if her father was having the same thoughts. She assured him her pregnancy was healthy and she believed it. Everything about being pregnant felt normal this time. She put behind her the Queen Anne’s lace and the experience before. Because it felt so right, she was convinced the child was Salih’s. Strange as it sounded, she thought she knew the very night the child was conceived. Late at night when they lay in each other’s arms Salih assured her he would be the baby’s father even if it was born blonde haired and blue eyed.
“Blood don’t make famulus,” he whispered to her. “Love does.”
Modesty’s baby came in the night during harvest season. The moon had sat big and full on the horizon when her pains began. Sometime when the moon reached its zenith, a tiny baby girl was delivered by Neema. Ethel had been there, too, squeezing Modesty’s hand and dabbing her sweaty forehead with a small towel. Ada had also been allowed to accompany Neema for the birth. She was their run around if something was needed. Her and her boy sat near the front door, spending treasured time together. The men folk came and went as well, stopping to get the updates from Ada. Salih paced a long line between their cabin and the one next to it. He stopped each time he heard Modesty scream. His fists would clench and his knees dip as if he were going through his own pains or trying to take hers.
The baby was swaddled and suckled immediately when Modesty placed her up to her breast. “She’s so tiny,” Ethel commented.
“It runs in my family.” Modesty’s mind flashed to her mother.
Salih stepped into the cabin. “Are you alright?” he asked as he knelt next to his new family. Modesty nodded and moved the baby so her father could see her.
“I’ll never be the same again,” Modesty answered. “She’s a beauty.”
“What we gonna call her?” Salih asked.
“I thought, Harriet.” Modesty watched her husband’s face.
“After my mother,” he said, his voice cracking. “Harriet, yes, I love it.”
“I knew you would,” Modesty said smugly and smiled at Ethel.
Ethel winked back. “I’ll stop by tomorrow,” she said as she stood and readied herself to leave. Neema followed her out and left the new little family together to enjoy a moment of normal family life.
“I love you, woman,” Salih whispered in Wolof.
“I love you, too,” Modesty said and felt it. Her heart was so full of love it leaked from her eyes.
Before little Harriet began walking, Ethel gave birth to a girl, Mary. She was her father’s daughter through and through, in mannerisms and looks. Ethel avoided the child at every opportunity, as well as her husband and any duties related to them. By becoming involved in the new-fangled idea of feminism, she was able to surround herself with other ladies and avoided her family, “for a good cause.” The women of the Revolutionary War had made progress for women’s rights and it seemed like the right thing for Ethel to do.
Modesty found herself with both girls most every day from the beginning. She thought of them as twins sired from the two men, Salih and Banks. In doing that, she realized she would have loved her baby even if she hadn’t grown darker after she was born. As Little Rit got older, it became more and more obvious she was sired by Salih. Her face looked just like the man with the exception of when she pouted, then it was all Modesty in the child’s features. Mary looked like Atthow, long and lanky, body and face. She also had a pleasant nature like her father’s and laughed often.
The Pattison plantation operated day to day like any other in that area. The additions settled in, finding their place; the slave families all helped each other with all the children. Relationships formed families.
One afternoon while Modesty and Little Rit were minding the laundry out on the lines, the field hands were stacking the large rolls of tobacco on a flat-bed cart. There was a shot that rang out and Modesty felt her back stiffen, the squeal of panicked horses sent shivers down her spine.
She heard Samuel start to yell and then someone screamed. “C’mon Mama,” Rit said and headed towards the maylay. Modesty could clearly see what had happened as they approached.
The noise of the gun had spooked the horses and the tobacco had toppled off the side. She could see Samuel and some of the other field hands moving the bales of tobacco in a furry of rattled motions. There was a body under the heavy pile. Modesty could see a boot and a trouser leg poking out. She reached in front of her and grabbed Rit.
“Hold up, girl,” she said. Her eyes scanned nervously for Salih when she heard Samuel moan.
“Oh, no, oh, lordy, no.”
Modesty could feel her legs go weak under her and Rit’s arms wrapped a little tighter around her waist. Tears stung her eyes.
“What happened here?” Salih’s voice sounded next to her. He put his arms around her and his daughter. “You all aright?” Modesty watched his warm brown eyes scan the scene and felt so relieved she began to sob. “What’s happened, my wife?”
“It’s Massa Pattison,” Samuel called up.
“What’s happened?” Salih asked, looking between a confused Rit and a sobbing Modesty.
Samuel walked up them. “Don’t know what he was shootin’ at,” he said, shaking his head. “Downright spooked the horses and the load wasn’t balanced, it slipped.”
Understanding washed over them and they all turned to look at the body laying among the tobacco bales. The next morning all the slaves gathered at dawn and did the Afrikan death dance.
Most of the youngsters were learning for the first time. Modesty pictured the day her little brother died, the lot of them, standing on the upper deck of the ship, flipping their fingers, swaying their arms, and singing the death song. They’d had no idea of what the future had in store for them.
Modesty watched as Salih taught Rit the movements and corresponding tones. She could only hope wherever Jabari ended up, he had a wife and child and was as blessed as she was. Little Rit wasn’t so little anymore, she was turning into a woman. There was another negro family on the plantation with two sons about Rit’s age. She’d seen Rit and the youngest one give each other the look. Not only that but she’d seen her daughter get flirty and downright goofy when the boys were around. Jerry and Benjamin Ross were their names, if she remembered right. Their daddy was a lumber man and their mama was a straight up field hand.
Rumor on the hawser was that Mary was going to take it upon herself and marry a man named Edward Brodess. He was a spoiled play-boy type. His step-father, Anthony Thompson, had a grip of land and an army of slave-folk and the merge seemed to be more to settle him down than to fill any void Mary may have been experiencing. Edward himself did not have much but a fat bank account and a love for travel. The biggest concern Modesty had with her new master was the way he leered at her daughter.
Benjamin’s folks didn’t mind him starting to court Little Rit any more than Modesty did. It seemed to be a great fit. Early one morning Modesty could hear someone getting sick outside the back kitchen door. She poked her head around to see Little Rit dry heaving herself almost inside out.
“What’s gotten into you, child?” Rit shook her head. “You been foolin’ around with Ben?” Again, Rit shook her head. “Jerry?”
“Ew, no Mama.”
Modesty could see tears welling in her daughter’s eyes. She put her arms around her. Little Rit crumbled and began to sob and shake.
“How far along are you?” she asked, rubbing her daughter’s back.
Rit shrugged and cried harder. “Ben won’t ever want to marry me now.”
“You hush now,” Modesty soothed. “We’ll see, baby girl, we’ll see.”