Authors: Yvie Towers
By Yvie Towers
© 2013 by Yvie Towers
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons or actual events is purely coincidental.
“Stop it, Lily! Give it back to me!”
“It’s mine, Mercy. I’m the one who found it!”
“You have no use for it – you’re still a girl! Mama, tell Lily to give me back the comb. I’m older than she is, so it
My sister was getting desperate to have her way. She’d wanted the bejeweled barrette I’d found in the grass ever since she’d first seen it sparkling in the sunlight. Its brilliance amazed me, and there wasn’t a chance of me letting it go without a fight. Always, Mercy had won out over me in our quarrels. But I’d drawn the line that time – and it ended right at the comb.
Most of the time, Mama didn’t involve herself in our petty disputes. I suppose she understood them to be just a part of the difficulties associated with raising two girls. Only when the situation escalated into a physical altercation did she intercede. That night, her intervention was quickly becoming a necessity.
Mercy lunged forward and snatched the barrette from my hand, cutting it open in the process. I screamed first in pain, then in anger as I lunged back at her with my hands positioned to wrap around her neck. I tackled my sister - who was eight years my senior - to the dirt and sat firmly in the middle of her chest. Our hands and arms slapped against each other’s faces until Mama grabbed my shoulders and hoisted me off of my sister’s body.
“Lily it’s late, and you know we’ve got to be up before the sun if you want to go with me to the schoolhouse. Now the both of you stop it. Lily, that barrette is
ornate for a girl your age. Mercy, you put that comb in your head and go to sleep.” Just like that, I’d lost - once again.
“Okay Mama, goodnight… You too, Lily.”
Mercy was smirking at me as she laid her head down on her pallet and closed her eyes. I sat down and watched her pretend to go to sleep. I imagined snatching my barrette out of her hair while she slept. If I ripped enough of her hair out, she’d have no use for the comb. Mama caught me giving Mercy the evil eye and gave me a stern look in warning.
I sighed and laid down on my own burlap pallet with my corncob doll. I watched Mama finish sweeping the dirt floor and marveled at her strength – both physical and that of her character. I’d been in awe of my mother’s fortitude ever since I’d first heard the story of the night I was born. I would often retell it to myself before I fell asleep. I felt like it kept the bad dreams away.
Eight years prior, down off in the back of the rice fields, my mama created a little pond with her bare hands. She’d dig up some mud and pile it to the side, and once it dried it became hardened enough to make a nice little sitting place. Eventually, the pond was deep enough to collect and hold rainwater. It took her six months to dig out. Once she’d finished it, lilies sprouted up out of nowhere.
She never was really able to explain it. There weren’t any lilies anywhere else on the entire property. Yet, the little pond she’d spent six months sneaking and risking life and limb to scoop out, one handful at a time, was surrounded by them. It was a little haven for her to go to when the storms inside her raged and threatened to overwhelm her.
On the night I was born, a big thunderhead dropped buckets of rain on the earth. The wind all but carried my mama and sister away with it, with me still tucked away in the safety of Mama’s belly. She clung to life with all of her might, and I came into the world right after the storm passed, leaving everything peaceful again. I never tired of that story, and it comforted me into a restful sleep that night.
When I awoke the next morning, the sky was still black and Mama was carrying me to the schoolhouse. She’d opted to tote me so I’d be able to sleep just a little while longer. I woke up before we reached the schoolhouse though, which made it easier for me to hurry and hide away without being seen by anyone. Only when we were inside and out of the cold did she set me down on my feet.
I scurried right off to the broom closet, shut myself in, and tucked away in the corner furthest from the closet door. Mama turned back to close the main door of the school and then set a fire to warm the room. It took about two hours for the heat to seep into my little hiding place, but once it did I was relatively comfortable.
For five days out of the week, I’d be with Mercy and the other nurses, tending to children. I hated having to work alongside Mercy. Hauling water back and forth from the well was my job when I was with her, and I’d have given most anything to be where Mama was. I was given that opportunity twice a week, when Mercy’s overseer went into town for the day.
I liked spending those days in the closet, secretly listening and absorbing the wealth of knowledge provided to the white children. The summer days often got so hot that I’d have to strip down to nothing just to avoid passing out. Most of the winter days weren’t so unbearable with the fire warming the room. On some of the really cold days, however, I couldn’t stop a sneeze or two from squeezing its way out of me. That’s exactly what happened the morning after Mercy and I quarreled. That was the day my mama died.
The lesson the kids were learning that day was about something I already knew backwards and front. So, there I was – alone, bored, and cold in the broom closet - while Mama was off somewhere doing, or fixing, or cleaning something around the schoolhouse. I fell asleep without wrapping my blanket around me and caught a chill. By the time I felt the burn of the sneeze in my nose, it was already too late.
The room went silent for me; I only heard my heart pounding in my ears. Kind of like in slow motion, I brought my hand up to my mouth to cover and stifle the sound that my sneeze would produce. I wasn’t fast enough though, and it burst forth from my nose and mouth with explosive force. Then, the door of the broom closet was slowly pulled open. Little streams of golden light shone in and onto the tiny spit droplets spraying out of my mouth. They slowly made their way to my palm, wetting it with a thin layer of moisture.
My eyes reflexively squeezed shut as a result of the powerful sneeze. I opened them to find that life had returned to normal speed, and then Mr. Graves jerked me up and out of the closet by my plaited hair. My dress and left shoulder were ripped open by a hanging nail on the doorframe. I wrapped my wee fingers around the schoolteacher’s wide, hairy wrist to try to pull his fist out of my hair. But he was far too big, strong, and angry to be affected; he just dragged my body behind him like a rag doll.
He pulled me all the way outside and down the steps before throwing me onto the ground. Then, he tore up all of my papers he’d taken from my closet. Letters, numbers, maps and charts, lists of presidents; all of it, ripped to shreds and sprinkled down on me in a papery storm.
“Get her mammy out here!” shouted the schoolteacher.
“I’ll get her!” shouted two boys in unison right before they ran off together to fetch my mama. A few minutes later they came back with both my mama and my sister in tow.
My mama was struggling against the two boys who’d brought her. She shook her shoulders back and forth in a show of defiance – that is, until she saw me huddled down on the ground with my school papers scattered all around me.
She looked at me with tears in her eyes, and I knew everything she’d want to say to me but couldn’t. She was sorry; sorry she’d left me alone in the schoolhouse closet, sorry they’d found me, and sorry that she was about to leave me – forever.
I nodded my head in understanding and bit the inside of my cheeks, hoping it would steel me enough so I wouldn’t cry. I didn’t want the last thing my mama ever saw to be me, needing her when she was so helpless. Right then, I understood how deep her love for me was because mine was just as strong for her.
Mercy was thrown on the ground next to me while several of the bigger schoolboys tied Mama to a tree. They ripped her dress off down to her waist, put a metal bit between her teeth, and fastened the leather securely behind her head.
Someone came and stood behind me, pulled back on my shoulders, and put their knee in my spine so I’d have to kneel up straight. By the sounds of struggle and whimpering going on next to me, I knew someone else had done the same to Mercy. Rough, dirty fingers locked together under my chin, and the knee pressed against my spine dug in hard.
Mercy and I were forced to watch my mama get whipped - to death. It took Mr. Graves about half an hour of lashing before Mama finally stopped breathing, drowned in her own blood. By that time, both of his arms were long past exhausted, and his clothes were soaked with sweat and Mama’s blood. He’d worked himself so hard that he had to rest on his hands and knees for a while to catch his breath.
Mercy cried during the entire whipping. She begged him to stop after every lash of the whip across my mama’s back. When it was over, Mercy was too distraught to even walk. She fell out from grief, and a couple of field slaves had to carry her limp body back to our shack. I, however, wasn’t so lucky.
The schoolteacher turned his attention to me and went into a tirade befitting of a madman.
“As for you, gal,” Mr. Graves began, “I should tie
to that tree, but I’ve already got plans for you. You little uppity nigger! You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you? Well then, let’s see you figure your way out of this!”
He started walking toward me, one hand unfastening his belt and pants while he licked the other, coating it in a thick film of saliva. Once he’d stepped close enough to me, the knee was taken away from my spine and the fingers left my chin. He pushed my face into the dirt and threw my ruffled dress up over my back, exposing my rear. His knees hit the dirt on either side of me. The resulting cloud of dust sent me into a coughing fit, and he pushed down firmly on the dip of my back to keep me still.
Mr. Graves used the hand he’d licked to rub around my private parts. I squeezed my eyes closed to prepare for the pain of him trying to enter my body. My innocence was as good as gone – lost forever to a man at least five times my age
weight. I squeezed my eyes even tighter and I dug my fingernails into the dirt for purchase.
I recoiled away from Mr. Graves; it wasn’t on account of his violation of my body, but because a loud ‘BOOM’ filled the air, followed closely by the smell of gunpowder. Bloody pieces of brain and skull slid down the nape of my neck, into my hair, and all down the sides of my arms. Mr. Graves’ fat, hairy body fell in a crumpled heap to the left side of me. A pair of black boots appeared to the right.
“Get on up and go on back to your shack, gal,” said Master Bowden. Then he spit on what remained of the schoolteacher’s face. Even though Mr. Graves was dead, Master Bowden still chastised him, calling him an animal and kicking dust into his gaping mouth.
I rose up onto my knees and glanced over at my mama’s lifeless body, the taut ropes the only things holding her up anymore. It was the last time I was going to see her, and I wasn’t even able to say a proper goodbye. Instead, I ran back to the shack, crying all the way.
Upon my arrival at our quarters, I saw that Mercy still hadn’t fully come back around, and a few of the other nurses were fanning her and stripping off some of her layers of clothes. She was moaning and wailing out for Mama, and she wouldn’t stop saying “NO!”
Everyone had always said that Mercy and I should have been twins. We did look a lot like each other, I guess. We were both tall for our age, had smooth, dark skin and long, kinky hair. Yeah - we looked alike, but I didn’t recognize that girl rolling all over the floor of our hut, overcome by her grief. Mercy was a full eight years older than I was, and she was supposed to have been the strong one. She should’ve been able to hold me the way that Mama would’ve, telling me everything was going to be alright.
But she couldn’t do either of those things. She’d completely lost control of herself. It pained me to think it, but I was disgusted with my only sister right then. I went to sleep that night so angry with her that I didn’t even dream about Mama. I barely slept at all, so I was wide awake to hear Master Bowden coming out to the shack village before the sun peeked up over the horizon.
By mid-morning, sixteen slaves had been bound and shackled together in two groups. There was one group of all men – big, strong, black-skinned men, reduced to lowly prey. The six of them were led away on foot by three horsemen with rifles. Mercy and I were standing with the other group. The ten of us were loaded onto a cart and taken to Charleston for auction.
In Charleston, one could expect to find a Negro auction on any day of the week. Almost every block had a slave pen on the corner, and the ones that didn’t usually had at least an auction block. Our cart stopped in the middle of a block of taverns and hotels. Mercy and two of the other older girls were unloaded and put in a pen on that corner.
I was put in a pen two blocks down the road with the rest of the girls in the cart. We were all about the same age – too young to breed or nurse, but too old to not have some kind of work to do.
There were so many white folks wandering all around. The men all wore fancy clothes and hats, and laughed amongst each other while waiting for an auction to begin on a corner. The women walked around carrying dainty umbrellas and looking into the slave pens, picking out the slaves they wanted their husbands to purchase. A group of them came over to where I was being held, all pointing and plotting on which of us would be their next victim. They stayed there for a few minutes before dispersing when a large bell was rung from atop a church.