Zahra sighed and wrung her fingers pacing about the room. Her mother had long given up trying to ask her to sit down and be calm. Her siblings played with her younger cousins in a corner of the hut they now shared oblivious to the turmoil that could even that moment be taking place. Oh to be a child again and not have so many worries about…
A sudden crack similar to the sound of distant thunder made her stop and look towards the open door. A hush fell over the entire room. Even the children stopped their noise turning fearful eyes to the adults. One of Zahra’s younger sisters held onto the skirt of her dress but stood very still. The second crack was what caused something of a panic. The children began running to the adults for comfort and the adults, as scared as they were, put a brave face on it. This was war.
By the time the third and fourth crack rang out, the children had been herded to the safety of a back room with an adult watching over them. They were all given something to drink that would put them straight to sleep and that way, they would make no noise. It was an ingenious plan and Zahra could already hear some of them yawning. She wished she could share in such oblivion, she thought as she crouched behind some bags of grain in the corner with her mother.
Someone snuffed out the light and all was silent for a long time. The cracks were gunfire, Zahra knew. She’d heard the stories from the reverend at the church. He had seen a lot of destruction in his life – he’d been a soldier in the army not too long before he found the Lord, he had told her.
What a fearsome noise it was. As more reports were heard, Zahra’s heart continued to sink. There was every chance that the bullets missed – it was dark, yes, and that cover provided some protection for the men who had gone to fight but would it be enough? She made a quick prayer to the gods as she sat in the darkness surrounded by her equally frightened family praying for a small miracle.
Then, suddenly, the last shot rang out and there was silence – heavy and deafening after all the noise. There was no way of knowing what had happened. They would have to sit still and wait for news. Zahra bit her nails as she watched the doorway. The moon came out from behind the clouds lighting up the ground around the homestead.
That was when she saw them. Four dark figures coming out of the inky blackness of the bushes beyond, partially obscured by the shadow of the giant tree right outside the homestead. She could not clearly make them out but they may as well have been the jinn that haunted the stories used to scare children into good behaviour. They brought death with them, she knew, and they would spare nobody.
Zahra looked back into the darkness and spotted her aunt and an older cousin looking at her with as much fear as she was sure showed on her face. If the fighting had stopped and these four figures were not their men, then the worst could as well have happened. This was, however, not the time to think of that. They were about to be found and they would be shown no mercy. The children, especially, would suffer the most if they were found.
She needed to do something. That was the only thought that ran through her mind and her body moved before she could be stopped. While the hut had two entrances, the homestead only had one. There were only four of them and they could easily be avoided. If all four could be lured into the hut, the others could get a chance to escape. The children would have to stay put and be gotten in the morning but everyone else would have to leave as soon as possible.
She moved to step into the open doorway and her mother held her arm back.
“I have to do this mama. Take Auntie and the others and get out of here. If there is one of us to distract them, they will follow us in here and we can go around them.”
“But Zahra, these men…”
“I know mama,” she said kissing her mother’s forehead, “I know.”
“Then know this. You are going nowhere,” said her mother pulling Zahra to her and forcing something in her mouth before she could protest.
Zahra clutched her head suddenly feeling very groggy. Her head swam and she could only just make out the figures drawing closer. She felt her mother kiss her head before whispering hurried instructions to the others to leave quickly out the back. They needed no more encouragement and left as quickly as they could. Zahra watched her mother’s frame fill the doorway and gave a half-hearted plea for her not to do this.
Her words wouldn’t work however and her eyes were growing very heavy. She must have been drugged, she thought as she tried to at least get up and found she couldn’t. The first man grabbed her mother’s hand and she made some show of protest before he smacked her hard across her face causing her to cry out as she fell in the dust. But that was the last thing Zahra saw before the world completely faded into nothing.
The world was moving – rumbling beneath her. Somewhere nearby was the clip-clop of horses and the creak of wood… an unfamiliar sound to her ears. Zahra tried moving her fingers experimentally. She still felt some numbness but then… She hissed and squeezed her eyes shut as she felt a pain in her temples. Clearly it was daytime. She was conscious of the bright light behind her eyelids. She groaned as she tried to get up and felt a pair of hands push her back down.
She cracked one eye open to look around. An unfamiliar face came into view followed by three or four more. She shut her eye again, still unused to the bright daylight.
“Where am I?”
“Do not speak. We are not safe,” whispered one of the people around her. That was strange. Why on earth wouldn’t she be safe? She should, essentially be in their village and if only she could figure out why…
And then came the memories flooding her still sleepy mind. The kiss under the tree in the dark… the shots ringing in the darkness… a desperate escape attempt… her mother at the mercy of the foreign invaders…
She sat up abruptly, her head swaying with the swift movement, at which she squeezed her eyes shut once more and pressed fists to her temples. When she could finally look around without her vision swimming, the fear she had felt before only grew as she realised where she was. She was in a wooden cage surrounded by her fellow slaves, some of whom were weeping silently and scowling out at the passing scenery.
Only the few young women beside her seemed inclined to pay attention to her. They seemed young – her age if not younger – and from the markings on their arms, they were not from her village. From further inland, she would guess. There were a few other women in the cage but no elders. The men were tied to the back of the cage and being led by a rope about their necks, forced to walk behind it as they went. She recognised a few faces but none was from her family and she begun to wonder at their fate.
“Where are we going?” she whispered to the girl who had pushed her back down to rest before. She only shook her head.
The air was warmer, much more than it had been in her village. This could only mean one thing – they were heading towards the coast. The ground must have been scorching the men's feet - some of which were bleeding, she noticed - but it didn’t seem that their captors cared. Not that she really expected they would. She looked through the line of men behind the carriage. They were all strong and lean and muscled. No doubt they were kidnapped for their strength and their relative youth.
She had heard all the stories of what these foreigners came to do. They needed slaves to work on their farms and plantations. The people who went away with them on the ocean never returned. Zahra swallowed as she realised that this was to be her fate.
There was suddenly a commotion at the back of the line of men. It seemed that one of the men in the line had managed to break free of his bonds and he sped off in the direction of the brush. Zahra watched him with bated breath. The shot rang out before she knew it and the man went down heavily, blood pouring out of a wound in the back of his head. For a moment, everyone was silent – fearful.
Zahra turned slowly to see the man outside the cage looking pleased with himself as he hefted his shotgun onto his shoulder. He caught her gaze and gave her an evil smile.
“And that’s for the rest of you lot. Keep still and no funny business and we won’t have any more trouble on our hands.”
She only caught snippets of what he said, not being very fluent in the language. Once, she had thought to use that language to be able to bridge a gap between her people and the foreigners. If they understood each other, perhaps the fighting and pillaging would stop. While the foreigners were curious creatures, she had to admit, they were people just like her in the end.
Now, looking back at the body of the unfortunate runaway, she had to force herself to accept the fact that maybe they were very different after all.
One Year Later
It was three in the morning and all was fairly quiet when a piercing scream rent the night air. Those who heard it looked at one another reading the recognition and fear in each other’s eyes. The master had taken another girl – most likely the one that had come in the week previous. Another scream followed and then another… and then there was silence. Zahra clenched her hand into a fist as the silence ensued – one that spoke volumes above what any words could express.
The master had wittingly had her tied down and gagged. He knew she would have fought – knew she would have gone on to protect that girl from him and fought him in the process. She remembered the last time and fought against her bonds as the other servants looked on sadly. They knew what she would do if she was free and they would not let her leave their presence.
They were cowards, all of them.
“Don’t worry too much Rose. You know how the master is,” said Maude, one of the other servants using the name she had been given upon arrival on the plantation. Zahra had spoken her name in her own tongue, but it seemed there were some of her tribesmen here who translated for the masters. Thus, she was given the name Rose – not the worst name she could think of, but not one she would rather have. She was still Zahra, her parents’ flower and a child of her homeland.
In retaliation to the attempted placation, Zahra fought against her bonds again, the ropes chafing at her wrists. This was cruel and inhuman. The master had gotten what he needed from her all that time ago, to her disgust, but he’d had the self-preservation to not fall asleep in the same room as she. She would have slit his throat or strangled him with his belt – and he knew it. The scratches she’d left on his face and arms were testament to that fact. Only the feel of cold steel against her forehead had changed her mind against fighting any longer for her innocence.
And she had loathed him with every fibre of her being since. He had taken her virginity in the most callous way and then tossed her aside. Still he kept her on. He liked a girl with fire in her blood, he’d said in his own tongue – a language she was understanding more and more every day, something she never told anyone besides Maude who would sometimes help her to learn it. The old woman knew the language better than any of the others even though she couldn’t read or write. That wasn’t as important as speaking and understanding the language though so it didn’t matter.
Slaves with such skills were rare and always hid their talents. If not, they would be killed - a clever slave was a dangerous slave.
The master had never bedded her again save for one other time and it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. She was a hell-cat, far removed from his demure wife and more than once, he had come to her drunk and begging favours. She had always turned him down or fought him off – she would not be his whore more than once – and even that was because he had been armed and she had not.
The servant girl who had been screaming hobbled into the small servant’s room clutching her bloodied clothes to her frame, sniffling quietly. The men busied themselves with other matters outside and the women went to her aid. It was an unspoken ritual. It happened more than once and to more than one woman. Some of them had even borne children from the ordeal – children who were sold, put to work or killed.
That was the way of the world they now lived in, thought Zahra bitterly as she fought against her bonds again.
Maude came up to Zahra and undid her bindings carefully. She had chaffed her skin – like she always did when she was tied up – but a bit of salve would clear that right up. It would not do to rile the master. It would only get her killed and she was still young with many years ahead of her.
Who knew, perhaps if she pleased the master (and he seemed to like her), she may gain her freedom far sooner than any of the others? But Rose was a proud one. She fought against the master and spurned him fearlessly more than once. He too, seemed reluctant to get rid of her even though he seemed to have no qualms about feeding servants to his dogs or beating them to death. Many had died at his hands, but after that first night with Rose, he became enamoured of her.
The only time he had raised his hand against her was when she had run to save one of the new servant girls, one who seemed too young and from a village that was close to hers. She had run to the screaming girl and defended her against him. The girl had run off into the night and had never been seen again. Rose herself was not so lucky and the next morning, she had limped back to the servant’s quarters she shared with Maude bruised, beaten and bloody but triumphant, even though he had managed to take from her what he couldn’t from the escaped servant girl. It was a wonder she had made it out alive.
But that was the way she was. She fought against everyone if she had to and stood up for all. She seemed to have no instinct of self-preservation and instead rushed headlong into whatever danger came her way.
Now, as Maude tended this servant girl’s wounds, Rose rushed about getting the necessary salves and materials for her, disregarding her own injuries.
“We should slit his throat one day,” she said as she gently pried the woman’s clothes from her body to examine her back. Maude said nothing and applied some salve to the weeping woman’s skin. She sobbed quietly – most of them did. Some outright refused to speak or move, numbed by the ordeal. Maude had been one of those and she had been here since the master’s grandfather was alive. Only Rose had kept hurling insults and angrily plotting her revenge against the one who took from her what was most precious.
However, Rose had also been one of the less fortunate ones - she had lost two precious things at their master's hands.
A few weeks after their master had forced himself on her the first time, and much to her horror, Rose had discovered that she was to bear a child. She had gone into a fit of rage, one that had taken Maude and her patience of Job to quell. Maude understood, two of her children being some of the few who were sold to another farm and were never heard from again.
It was hard, living with the fact that one would bear something so precious from something so ugly and awful. The ordeals that women had to go through were many and then never very pleasant. Some gave birth in the middle of the fields while they harvested. Others died out in the hot sun, not being allowed to stay in their quarters and birth their children in peace. Others still, could not get the help they needed and died birthing their children who, without proper care, also died.
There was never a professional midwife, like there would be for the mistress. There was no celebration either. This was not a life one could really bring a child into and celebrate – even though every mother was happy to receive such a special gift.
It would have been the same for Rose, if she had not rushed headlong to interrupt the master and been beaten black and blue. The scars from that beating had mostly faded, except for a few jagged ones on her arms and back. There was one scar however that, even though she would never admit it, had stayed with Rose from that time.
She had lost her baby a few short hours later.
The master was never informed and life went on. In some small way, Rose may have been grateful for losing the child, but it was never that simple. A first child was precious to its mother no matter how they had come into being.
Now Maude had taken to tying Rose up whenever the master would call for a girl, especially a new one and not one of the servants who was more or less resigned to her fate. It may have been the master's idea to tie her up but Maude complied anyway. It would keep her out of harm's way.
She knew the eventual consequences and what Rose would do. Even if he liked her, his patience could only last so long. She would not survive the next time and so, Maude elected to keep her safe, even if she had no regard for her own life. She was far too young to carry such heavy scars anyway.
Aside from that, Rose seemed to adjust somewhat to her status. She was no longer a free woman in her village. She was not going to wed – at least not any time soon and she showed no interest in any of the men on the farm, even if her beauty had drawn them in.
She remained faithful to one who she could not see, one she had left behind in her home village, even after all this time, confident in the fact that she would and could one day meet him again. It was a vain hope, Maude knew, but she let her have at least this. If that was what kept her alive and fighting, if it was the only hope she had, she would let her have it.
Rose drew aside the blankets of her own bed for the girl to sleep in, ever willing to give what she had for those in need, and set herself down on the floor beside it once the girl was safely tucked in. Maude smiled. For all her misgivings, in the end, Rose was a kind soul. She may have gone about it wrong as far as the master was concerned, but she did what she knew in her heart was right.
Maybe, thought Maude as she put out the light and settled in bed, maybe something would still come of her yet.