By Reading This, You Are Stating That You Are 18 Years Of Age. If You Are Under The Age Of 18, It Is Necessary To Exit This Site.
Georgetown, South Carolina, December 1828
Rice boiled in the cook-yard. Children played and climbed in the live oak trees. Mosquitos thrived in the thick humid air. The sun had just risen, and all along the rows of slave quarters stood men and women alike beating the rice from their hulls.
Giant mortars made from hollowed out logs were filled with whole grain rice. The pestles stood four and a half feet tall, weighing ten pounds. The rhythmic pounding of rice reverberated through the plantation for hours every morning. Pestles were raised and driven into the rice with care not to break the grain.
Woods shielded the big house from the slave quarters. The overseer emerged from a path through the woods and a hush fell over the milling line. This quiet spread to the children. All conversation died away as the overseer strolled down the line of mortars. The eyes of the men and women wielding the pestles were cast downward. No one spoke, except when prompted by the overseer. Responses were kept brief, just a yes sir or a no sir.
The overseer wore a long-sleeved shirt that had once been white but was now stained yellow with sweat. He kept a full beard even in the unrelenting heat of the South. At seven thirty in the morning, he reeked of whiskey from the night before. He was not still drunk, just hung-over, which was much worse. This always made him angry. Nearing the end of the row of slaves, he looked up into the trees and focused on one boy in particular. A skinny but tall slave child met his gaze.
“Ain’t you a little old to be playing in the trees?” spat the overseer.
“Yes, sa,” said Amos, only then remembering to cast his eyes downward.
“Then why don’t you come down here and start to milling,” said the overseer.
“Yes, sa,” said Amos, and he began his descent.
The tension was palpable. The slave men and women of the Chapin Plantation did not know what would happen next, but they did not dare look up from their milling. They continued to pound the rice. The cruelty that had freely come from this overseer was unmatched by any before him.
Amos descended from the tree and took up a pestle. He looked much smaller with his feet on the ground.
"Get this negro some rice,” said the overseer much too calmly as his eyes scanned the milling line.
One man put down his pestle and clamored as quickly as he could to fill the child’s mortar with unmilled rice from the mound in the center yard.
“Who told you to stop working?” said the overseer, staring at the man, after he had returned to his place in the milling line.
The slave man stood there in his torn long pants and worn leather shoes. Sweat glistened on his naked torso that was the color of dark mahogany. He said nothing as he took up his pestle once again.
The overseer crept closer to the man. “I think this one’s a little slow,” he said as he reached for the whip that hung at his right hip. He took the molded leather grip in his hand and snapped the whip to its full length. The crack echoed in the yard.
If this elicited fear in the slave man, it was not evident. He stood there unflinching. He stared into nothingness, readying himself for what they all knew was coming next.
Pure evil shown on the face of the overseer as he positioned himself next to this man who had filled the boy’s mortar with rice. “Ain’t nobody better ever question me,” said the overseer with a demonic smile.
He tightened his grasp on his weapon of choice, squeezing the blood from his knuckles. All humanity absent from his eyes, he abruptly turned to the young boy from the tree and lashed the whip, striking him on the shoulder. The fabric of the boy’s tattered shirt split and blood erupted from the site of the strike. Only six years old, he fell to the ground crying uncontrollably, holding his shoulder and writhing in pain.
Tears welled in the slave man’s eyes as he continued to pound the rice. He was the boy’s father, and powerless to help his child. The rhythmic thumping of the grain and the child’s cries for help resounded in the cook-yard.
Satisfied with his morning’s work, the overseer wound up the whip and fastened it back to its rightful place on his hip. He sniffed and wiped his nose on his shirt sleeve, then took his leave back through the narrow wood, past the plantation house, and out to the rice fields.
Georgetown, South Carolina, January 2020
Saturday, late evening
A skeleton key turned over the lock and the door stuck in the frame. Cheryl had her arms full and leaned on the heavy wooden door. It came free and the kids ran past into the kitchen. It had been six months since they had lost their father to an accident on the family ranch in Mexico. He had been struck by lightning while building a wire fence on a hilltop. Cheryl had seen it happen. Her whole world had shattered before her eyes and it had left her with an empty feeling inside. This hollow stole her breath every time she thought of Rigo.
“Mom,” said Madison, running up to her with her younger brother Jackson in tow.
“Yes,” Cheryl answered, laying her bags down on the counter and bending down to meet her gaze.
“Jackson and I went around the whole downstairs, but the lights won’t come on. Can you help us? We’re too scared to go upstairs in the dark.”
“Are you scared, baby?” she asked Jackson. He was three now and would be starting preschool this coming week.
She pulled Jackson up into her arms. “Follow me, guys.”
Cheryl entered the living room from the kitchen and felt along the wall for the light switch. She flipped the switch but nothing happened. It was an older plantation home, built in the early 1800s. The real estate agent had described it as updated. Cheryl wasn’t too sure if that was an accurate description, but it was the only rental home available in their price range with a large yard for the kids. So, she had signed the rental agreement before having seen the property.
Madison ran over to the lamp on an end table next to a couch draped with a white sheet. “Look, Mom. Can I turn it on?”
“Please,” said Cheryl, nodding her head in approval.
Madison turned the knob, and pale light fell across the living room. The power was intact, but the light bulbs probably needed to be changed throughout the house. Dust caked the sheets covering most of the furniture and cobwebs hung from the corners of the rooms. Even the spiders had moved out long ago, their webs weighed down with years of dust.
“I’m scared,” said Jackson, burying his face into her neck and squeezing her tightly.
“You don’t have to be afraid, sweetie,” she reassured him. “This is just a big old house. No one has lived in it for a long time and it just needs a good cleaning. After we move all of this dirt out and get your toys set up, I think you’re really going to like it here.”
She squeezed him back. “Tonight though, we can all sleep together in my room. It’s too late to start cleaning.”
Darkness had fallen before they had pulled up to the house that evening, but the days would soon be getting longer. It was January. The holidays had passed and Cheryl was glad they were over. The kids had had a wonderful Christmas with cookies, parties, and family, but the hollow feeling in her stomach had been ever present. It was a black hole that nothing could satiate, hidden by her smile.
“Let’s all go out to the car together and get our overnight bags from the front seat. They have everything we need for tonight,” said Cheryl.
“Okay, Mom,” said Madison. She was mommy’s little helper. She would be starting kindergarten this week.
They made their way back into the kitchen through the swinging door that connected the two rooms. It hung on double hinges that groaned in need of some WD-40.
“It’s too dark out there,” said Jackson, peering out of the window above the kitchen sink as Cheryl carried him to the back door. The window was black and all that could be seen was the reflection from inside the kitchen.
“Don’t worry,” said Cheryl. “We’ll get a better look at the yard tomorrow morning. “The real estate agent said that there are acres upon acres where you could play. She also said that there were huge live oak trees on the property that we could use for swings, and an old garden where we could plant vegetables and flowers if we wanted.”
“Mommy, I can see the big trees for the swings,” said Madison, as they descended the cracked concrete steps from the kitchen door. “Look.”
She pointed beyond the driveway. A cluster of trees silhouetted by a waxing moon stood sentinel. Hundreds of years old, these trees had seen everything.
Jackson picked his head up from her shoulder and craned his neck to see the trees. “I see them too,” he said.
“Can we go over there, Mom?” asked Maddie.
“No, not tonight. It’s too dark.” Cheryl leaned into the van and grabbed the overnight bags. “Madison, can you hold these pillows?” Cheryl asked.
“Yes, I can,” said Maddie. She took the pillows under her arm and followed Cheryl back into the house and up the second staircase in the kitchen.
Clean sheets on the mattress and pillows arranged, they all piled into the master bed. Jackson and Madison snuggled into her arms on either side. In Mom’s protective embrace their worlds were right. Cheryl could feel their love and felt love for them, but this was all she could feel. The numbness that comes with losing your one true love so quickly is all consuming. The only remedy she had found was time with her children. It wasn’t taking care of the children on her own that she feared. It was the time that they spent apart. Time alone allowed the blackness to creep out of her stomach and into her mind. She could not let the sadness into her mind. She had a job to do. She had children to raise.
Red Sage Publishing, Inc. © 2019 All Rights Reserved