Freedom is often a matter of perspective. A story set in the Old South. Pre-US Civil War.
Freedom is often a matter of perspective.
Hearing a cock crow, I turn over, face forced into a feather-pillow. The urge to sleep is almost overpowering. I feel my years, getting up there and going on seventy. Years of rising before sunup to fix the master's breakfast, finishing after supper -- and after sundown.
My mate Peter, lying next to me, can sleep until well after the sun rises. He's a blacksmith at the plantation. Even the field slaves have another hour or two of slumber after I gotta rise.
I cook for the master and his family. At least I'm thankful Master James lets me feed my own family from his leftovers, and I purely make sure there's plenty of leftovers.
Nothing for it. I have to rise and get ready for another day. Master lets me have two extra quarts of lamp oil a month for myself, cause of getting up early. I hate to use it, though, since Ethel, my friend, needs it more for her six kids. I dress in the dark. Gotta hurry. It's a bit lighter outside as I tromp over toward the big house.
My young assistant, Mary, is usually late. I have to stop in at the girls' shack to wake her, then hurry over to heat up the cook-stove. Nobody done bothered to fill the wood box last night. I banked the fire a'fore I left. There's enough wood chips and small bits to at least get it going while I go out back and carry enough wood in to last for breakfast.
Throwing a few of the driest chunks in first, I stir it with a poker then throw in a half-cup of bacon grease to produce a roaring blaze. I notice Mary isn't here yet, and have to go out to wake her again.
On my way, I detour to the chicken coop to collect eggs, something Mary should have done on her way in. Once the biscuits are mixed and in the oven and hotcake batter made, I go down to the root-cellar to cut us some smoked-ham slices. Bringing them back upstairs, I put them on to fry.
About that time Mary comes in, wiping sleep out of her eyes with the back of a hand, yawns, says hello, and gets the common silver out to set the master's table. Master James keeps the good stuff locked up for special occasions.
Mary's job is to serve the family and help me out. Maybe I'll have a break after breakfast while she cleans up by herself? After all, I am getting up in years and she was late.
I stand in the doorway to the kitchen, looking out at the dining room, waiting. Mary stands beside me. I notice her apron. How she gets it dirty setting the table, I have no idea -- but she does.
"You done gets you'self back in that kitchen, girl, and change that rag. I mean now, girl," I order her.
She pouts, as though that'll work on me, and goes back inside.
The master's family is also waiting, fidgeting at the breakfast table while waiting for Master James to give his signal. The last one to get to the table is usually little Mistress Ann. She's got a clubfoot. Both slow moving because of that, and by nature, the little girl likes to take her time getting dressed and using the chamber pot.
Master James has almost finished his first cigar of the morning. When it gets down to the last inch -- and he puts it down in the ashtray -- I'll have Mary bring in the meal. It's a morning ritual, one I've performed for most of fifty years.
Oh no, I think, seeing Mistress Ann's unclad feet. The little girl has come down without her slippers again. Of course her mother notices right away, probably from the sound on the bare wood floor.
"Brenda, go up and get Ann's slippers." The dreaded words that send me across the house and up two flights of stairs.
"Yes'm. Right away, ma'am." I hurry upstairs to retrieve Mistress Ann her slippers, puffing all the way. The girl will be chastised by her mother, Mistress Janis, but it's the slave who has to get the slippers and put them on her feet when I get back. All that running and kneeling will ruin me yet. But, no meal and no chance of rest until I get back down there to shod those little toes.
Thankfully, the rest of the meal goes without trouble. My rest period seems to go by in moments and I'm, all too soon, starting on the next meal.
I have to go out to the little shed to get fresh wine for the master. They trust me with the key because they know I don't drink, myself. What they don't know is that I hide a half-jug behind an unused horse-trough outside to take to Peter later. On the way, I can see the master and his wife taking it easy on the front porch, being fanned by two of the house-slaves. Damn, But I'm tired and envy them their leisure.
Finally, after I help serve and clean up after supper, I bank the fire on the cook stove and plod wearily back to my shack.
Peter is still busy. One of the work wagons has busted an axle. Luckily for me, that'll probably mean he'll be too tired to pester me tonight.
Gratefully, I sit in my very-own armchair, a discard from the big house. There is small perks from working there. For a slave, I have it comfortable. Besides discarded furniture, the mistress has the people doctor take care of my aches and pains. Most slaves get a veterinarian, him being cheaper. Peter and myself get to eat the finest foods, and the master often gives me real whiskey for Peter.
We're valuable to him. While he doesn't take a lot of notice of the welfare of the field workers, we and the house servants are well took care of. The mistress often buys new furniture and clothing and we privileged slaves get the pick of the old stuff before it filters down to the others.
Also, in a few more years both Peter and myself can look forward to a comfortable retirement. The master never sells worn-out house-slaves, simply letting us live out our last years in peace.
Taking care of older hard-working slaves is a family tradition in my master's family, even common laborers as an incentive to work hard. Retired house slaves are considered, in many ways, as a part of his family. Yes, sir, two or three more years and I can also sit on my porch and take it easy, Peter by my side.
I sit outside to avoid heat inside the shack, resting from a day's work and listening to distant cannon fire. In the summer, it's a tossup. Stay inside and sweat to avoid the skeeters, or go outside for the breeze and get eaten to the quick.
The noise and fighting does seem to be getting closer, up near Appomattox it sounds like. On our plantation, we give little thought to the war. I consider it none of my business what those white folks do. Let them kill each other, I think. It don't matter to me none.
A month or so later, I'm in the kitchen. The mistress and children are away -- visiting for a while, is what I was told. With only the master to take care of, the work is easier. I have to constantly shoo houseboys out of the kitchen where they come to pester Mary. When the entire family is here, they wouldn't dare.
And now I gotta keep the pantry door locked. One afternoon, I found Mary and that noxious Elmer in there, making like rabbits.
The master seems worried about the war. He didn't even come down to breakfast this morning, just having a ham sandwich sent up to his quarters. He's been going through a lot of whiskey since the rest of his family left to visit somewheres.
A few days later, there's a lot of excitement when a whole bunch of soldiers come visiting. They're wearing the funniest blue coats and take much of the livestock when they leave. I'm surprised when the overseers don't even try to stop them. In fact, I suddenly realize, I haven't seen an overseer for days. They're not around the big house much anyway, but at least one of them usually shows up every day or so to see Master James about something.
After the Lincolns leave, little Jethro comes barging into the kitchen a yelling.
"We's free, Miss Brenda. We's free! We can do anythin' we wants cause we's free. Gimme a sanwich'?"
"You ain't free till the master says you is. And you ain't gettin' a sanwich' til I says you is." I run him out of the kitchen.
That afternoon, Mary just up an leaves before the day's even done.
"I ain't doing any more work, Miss Brenda. I'm free, and I'm a'goin'," she tells me. Despite my protests, she just ups and leaves me to do all the work myself.
A little while later, I'm in the kitchen fixing dinner when I hear arguing in the house. And then, scaring the be-Jesus out of me, the master's shotgun goes off -- twice. In the house, yet. A bunch'a the menfolk run past the kitchen door, back to the slave quarters.
Carefully looking into the house to see what's wrong, I see Master James standing there with a smoking gun. Three of the men slaves are lying dead on the floor. I admit, I'm scared and run back to the kitchen before he can see me.
From the back door, I can see folks simply walking off and leaving, bags and bundles on their shoulders. They seem to be in good spirits.
Lordy, I think, what's going on here? The white slave patrol'll kill them all.
Some of them are even taking the master's property when they leave. I see the Johnson's driving one of the master's wagons loaded with their household furniture and stolen property, like it was their own. Some are leading Master James's livestock. That thieving Oscar is even stealing a milk cow. I run outside.
"Oscar. You bring Bessie right back here. You crazy, or what? Where am I going to get milk for breakfast tomorrow?" I yell at the scoundrel.
"Ain't a'gonna need it tomorrow, Miss Brenda," He yells back. "I's gonna sell Bessie. Mass'a can go ta hell."
Again, I figure it's none of my business. I feel sorry for Master James, but one old lady can't begin to stop them. The master must be able to see it himself, I think, and it's the housekeeper's duty to tell him, not mine.
As for Master James, he doesn't even send down for a sandwich for lunch. I stay late just to make sure, hoping he's in good health and thinking he'll get hungry. I can imagine him upstairs, guns at hand, drinking himself senseless. The master has always treated me right and my Peter can take care of himself, I'm thinking.
About nine, I hear another gunshot from inside the house and, not having nerve nor inclination to check on it, bank the fire again and leave for my own shack, locking the kitchen door behind me. It's been a very strange day.
Tired and shaking with emotion, I climb the three steps and go inside. I find Peter already there. He says we're now free, no longer slaves to anybody. That the Lincolns won the war. Him being about a half-dozen years older than me, neither one of us want to take off on our own. More power to the ones who do, I think, but we're too old and tired. We'll just have to take our chances right here at the plantation.
Out of habit, I go to the big house in the morning, but find nobody to feed. Even the houseboys are gone. The master doesn't even come downstairs for more whiskey, though I go out and bring a jug into the parlor for him.
Although I figured it a'ready, it ain't until about noon that another of the older slaves tells me for sure. The shot I heard last night was the master shooting himself. When I hear that, I pack up 'nough food and other vittles to last for a good while, not really wanting to steal, to tote home with me. Ain't a'gonna be none around ta'morrow and better I have it than some'a the others.
I guess that's what the few remaining slaves are waiting for -- me to leave the house. Even without the master, I'm a symbol of authority. Apparently the very last one.
As I walk home, heavily laden and feeling guilty with a full basket over my own shoulder, I look back and see a dozen or so a them running in the back door to loot the big house.
Funny thing, though. It seems that as long as I was there, even with the master dead, they feared to go in. As though the last vestige of the old life left with me.
For the next week, there's nobody at the plantation but us old people. Nobody bothers us and we don't bother nobody else -- not even looters that come in from the road.
When Negroes and poor whites crowding the road see there ain't anybody around, they come into the plantation and loot the house and outbuildings. Figuring we might well need it, us oldsters have already stripped and hidden most of the food and valuables. Though we never used none, we also take the house guns, feeling safer us having them than those thieves.
The one place we don't go is the master's bedroom, afraid of what we know is in there. By now, you can tell by the smell.
Soon the plantation is stripped. I can tell by the way thieves creep past my home with empty arms. Some of the youngsters from other places have no respect for age, and even steal from us.
We think, hopefully, that all we have to do is hold out until the master's family comes back to claim the place. It never happens.
One night, I wake to yelling outside my shack. The sky is bright with a reddish light. Someone's set fire to the big house.
Nobody comes to fight the fire and, of course, us old people can't do it ourselves.
Finally, one day the sheriff comes and chases us all off the property. It has been sold, he tells us, and the new Yankee owner doesn't want us old and useless Negroes to take care of.
So much for freedom.