I dipped into the trees, and as always, broke into a run. The woods seemed to hold an extra degree of menace today with the green canopy above broken by splashes of red from the setting sun. My thoughts kept returning to images of Mama Akosua with Ebenezer and my last glimpse of Mr Walker and his son. I felt an intense loneliness course through me and without even thinking about where I was headed, I found myself running away from the main house and toward the abandoned chapel.
As I ran I fancied that I heard Mama Akosua’s voice in my head saying, Turn back. Turn back!
Upset even more by my silly imaginings, I pushed that voice away and ran faster. It was no wonder I thought I could hear her. Mama Akosua and Ebenezer. Mr Walker and his son. They were all I could think about. Their close bonds and all the things I was missing out on sat heavily on my heart as I raced through the woods.
I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge the fact that although she was virtually a stranger to me, I cared deeply about Mama Akosua, my mother, a woman I had seen only a handful of times since she’d been taken from me. I cared about her. But what good did this do me? What good did it do her? I was jealous of the closeness I saw between her and Ebenezer but I had no right to that jealousy because she didn’t belong to me. She didn’t even belong to herself. She belonged to Master Marshall. So I ran on.
The chapel was a hulking, brooding structure set in a clearing at the farthest reaches of the plantation. Its exterior was a yellowed white and large sections of the stucco had fallen away to reveal the brick beneath. The windows on either side of the wooden door were broken and looked like empty eye sockets staring blindly out on the clearing. A large black cross above the front door gazed down upon me as I entered.
The damage caused by the fire couldn’t be seen from the front of the building but inside were the charred remains of pews and a large hole in the roof at the back of the building where the flames had eaten through to the sky. No one ever came to this place as most people thought it was haunted, but I liked it here as it was the only place I could be completely alone.
I inhaled the familiar smell of burnt wood that still hung in the air as I walked up to the remains of the altar and knelt down. It was the only area of the building that had been swept away and cleaned, something I had done years ago when I’d first found my little hiding place. Pulling up a loose floorboard, I retrieved a small, green Bible that was worn with age. It was one of Mistress Emily’s bibles. I had stolen it a few years ago. She had never used it and I’m sure that she didn’t even know it was missing, but if I were ever caught with it I would be whipped within an inch of my life.
This Bible was my most treasured possession but every time I held it in my hands I was filled with pain because I had never been taught how to read, and so would never have the pleasure of reading the Lord’s words with my own eyes.
I opened the Bible anyway and stared at the rows of printed words that were locked to me and instead said the bits of prayer I had memorised from the church sermons we had to attend every Sunday.
Then I prayed out loud. I poured out all my grief. I told God that I loved Him and that although I couldn’t read the words in the Bible I held, I cherished it anyway. I told Him that although I hadn’t been able to hold onto my virtue, my body still belonged to Him and that I was pure in my heart. I prayed for forgiveness for the sin I was about to commit in killing the life that was growing within me and told Him that although it was a sin I would never be able to forgive myself for, it would be a greater sin to bring an innocent being into the hell of slavery.
I prayed with tears streaming down my face, letting them fall on the charred floor until words left me.
Then I placed the Bible back in its hiding place, left the chapel, and walked to the stream at the back of the building. It was nearly dark now and the sky was a dark red blotted by smoky grey clouds. Kneeling on the ground, I splashed water from the stream onto my face and then gazed at the water. There was enough light to see my reflection in the shallow stream and it filled me with rage and hopelessness.
There were rare moments when the full horror of a female slave’s life fell on me and I felt that now when I glanced up at the woods and the path I would take back to the house. An all-encompassing despair rocked me from head to toe. I didn’t want to go back to a life of bondage. I didn’t want to go back to my quarters and drink the evil concoction which would hunt down and kill the innocent in my womb. I didn’t want to go back to a life where I saw evil practiced with ease and nonchalance, a life in which even my body was not mine to own.
Master John had been away for the past week but when I got back to my cabin tonight and fell asleep, would I find myself jolted awake by him, his form looming over me in the pale light of the moon streaming through the open window, his male tool already awake and straining against the cotton of his trousers?
The mere thought caused me to double over with my arms wrapped around my waist, my face close to the water and the rocks beneath its surface.
The cause of most of my problems lay in the face that was almost lost in the watery surface now that the light was gone. I reached my hand into the stream and pulled out a large black rock. It looked as if it had split in two and the split end was as sharp as the blade of a knife. I held that rock up above my face and thought about Mama Akosua being brought to a strange land against her will at the age of fifteen. I thought about how lost and frightened she must have felt being so far from everything she knew and loved, and the strength and fearlessness she displayed when she took a blade to her own face and cut those marks into her skin. In doing so, she had honoured and held onto the customs of her people, people she would never see again. Those scars that I had previously been repulsed by and seen as part of the savage ways of her past, had given her strength. They had been a way to take ownership of at least one part of her body and keep it forever hers.
I would do the same thing. I would take control of at least one aspect of my life and destroy the face that drew men like Master John to me like predators to the scent of fresh blood. I would use this rock to take away the pleasure he found in looking at this face and keep him out of my bed forever.
I brought the sharpest point of the rock down to rest in the middle of my forehead and closed my eyes. I began to apply pressure until I felt it break the skin, a point no bigger than the tip of my fingernail, and felt a warm release of blood. Strangely, I felt no pain, only exhilaration that I could finally do something to stop the terror inflicted on me by my Master.
I was about to bring the rock down my forehead, across my nose and down my cheek, when something, some force, stayed my hand. All at once I grew cold and it felt as if the air around my wrist was alive and humming softly in tune to some sinister beat, making goose bumps spring up along my forearm.
I pushed down with all my might but miraculously this force increased and when I felt my hand begin to move away from my face, I opened my eyes.
I was still facing the woods and for a moment I thought I saw something amongst the trees, a sliver of something that was an almost translucent white. At the same moment I experienced a wave of dizziness that made me feel as if my mind and body had turned to water. I quickly shut my eyes but the dizziness increased and I felt myself swaying, my thoughts and emotions a confusing melee, and I heard a voice in my head. Or was it my own voice?
That will not stop him, it said.
My eyes snapped open when I heard a sharp crack to my right. I whirled around to trace the sound, a sharp streak of fear leaping and twisting within me. It was only when I noticed that my hand was now empty and clenched into a fist that I realised that what I had heard was the sound of the rock I had just been holding hitting one of the trees on my right. The distance to that tree was a good seven or eight metres away. Had I really thrown it that far?
I got to my feet uneasily, knowing that I needed to get away from the chapel immediately. Something was very wrong here. The light was nearly gone now and there was something here with me. I could feel it now, an immense power unfolding and drawing strength as the last of the light seeped out of the sky.
Terror beat furiously within me, radiating to my very core. Mama Akosua had been right. I shouldn’t have come here. I was in danger, I...
Intoxicating dizziness washed over me again and although I tried to fight against its pull it drew me in, causing me to close my eyes and sway in time to its suffocating rhythm...
And then I was standing at the kitchen door of the main house, having walked through the woods from the chapel and back to the house with no memory of the journey.
But no. That is not what happened. I didn’t go to the chapel today, my mind insisted. Mr Walker dropped me off and I walked back to the house through the woods.
I never walked through the woods. I always ran, and when I parted company with the farmer the sky had blazed red as the sun set but it was dark now. The sun couldn’t have fully set within the five minutes it would have taken me to reach the house. But that is what had happened, wasn’t it?
I tried to probe deeper and remember but my mind resisted and, almost as if someone had pushed me forward, I found myself stumbling toward the kitchen door. I opened it and stepped inside.
Mary the cook, a short, thin copper-coloured woman with hazel eyes and a kind-looking face, had been cleaning the last of the dishes from the evening meal. When she turned and saw me standing in the doorway she smiled and relief melted over her features.
“Luna! Thank the Lord. Mistress Emily was just asking ’bout you.” She frowned. “What happened to your head?”
I reached up and touched my forehead. When my hand came away, my fingertips were sticky with blood.
“Well?” she demanded.
The image of a sleek black rock glistening with water came to mind and was swiftly pushed aside.
“I’s running and I guess I...I...”
I stopped because I couldn’t remember what had happened to my forehead, and although I reached for the memory, there was something about it that made my insides curl and twist in horror.
Mary’s frown deepened.
She had been looking after me since I was about three. She used to tell me that when Mama Akosua was sold I had been inconsolable and used to stand outside the slave quarters at sunset calling for her. When it slowly dawned on me that she wasn’t amongst those returning to their cabins and I grew more and more distressed, thirteen-year-old Mary was the only one able to stop me from trying to go out into the night to find her. Even then I spent most of the night crying and Mary would stay with me in what used to be my and Mama’s cabin so that my wails did not keep the rest of her family awake. She did this every night and would go off to work exhausted, only to return and spend the next night trying to comfort me as I stood at the window crying whilst I watched and waited for my lost mother to return to me.
After about two weeks I resigned myself to the fact that Mama Akosua was not coming back and I started to scream and cry every time Mary tried to leave me in the mornings. So she had no choice but to take me with her whenever she went to work in the house, warning me that if I got her into trouble she would give me the biggest beating of my life, something I doubt the soft-hearted Mary would have done. I didn’t remember any of this. But I could imagine the wide-eyed, sullen child I was as I followed Mary around. And I suppose Mary would always see me as that inconsolable three-year-old clinging to her skirts because she had never stopped mothering me.
“You gots to be careful now, Luna.” Zila, one of the other house slaves, had come into the kitchen.
She was a reed-thin, high yellow mulatto who had birdlike features and a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. She regarded me icily, looking over every inch of me, and finding nothing wanting, there was undisguised agony in her eyes when they met mine. “You don’t wants nothing to ruin that pretty face of yours.”
It occurred to me that she would have been delirious with joy if I had come back with my face ripped to shreds by that rock.
I frowned. Face ripped apart by a rock? What rock? What an odd thing to think.
“Why you acting so strange? And what that be on your dress?” Mary asked, pulling me from my thoughts.
I looked down at my dress and brushed away bits of earth from around my waist. How had that gotten there?
“There be some on your face too.” Mary was nothing if not relentless. “What is wrong with you, girl?”
“I’s fine,” I mumbled. But the truth is I wasn’t fine. I felt sort of dazed. “You go on upstairs. I’s gonna finish up down here,” I said, taking a large tray out of her hands.
She gave me one last questioning look then shook her head and left the kitchen.
I finished off the rest of my work and went back to my quarters, a small soulless one-room cabin with only a bed, a wooden barrel that held a lonely beeswax candle, a basket for my few items of clothing, and some bowls for water.
I mixed up the herbs Mama Akosua had given me, drank the bitter mixture and lay down on my pallet. I closed my eyes, expecting the pain to start biting as it always did almost immediately after I drank it. But tonight, the moment I felt the first stabbing pains in my womb, I felt everything waver and then the pain disappeared and a warm mellow joy filled me. I drifted toward sleep with a smile, and before I succumbed to its blissful depths, I thought I heard a voice whisper in my mind.
I was asleep before I could finish saying the words.
The following day would turn out to be the strangest day of my life.
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