My feets are wet with morning dew as I walk into the kitchen where Mama already been for an hour. She wearing her hair tied up in a rag and her light brown skin shine with sweat. Sometime I think she look like the hot cocoa we make for the chil'ren at Christmas time. I's light like Mama, but Opal and Pearl be dark like our daddy. But I's the only one with green eyes, 'cause everone else gots brown. Mama say they be special. She say her Mama had a little bit a green in her eyes, too, and ain't it lucky I get to carry a little a my grandmama with me ever day?
I wipe my shoes on the rag rug Mama done made last summer, then hang my shawl on a peg by the door. The coffee already be made. The tea set be ready to serve Massa and Missus. Mama even polish up the silver forks and knives and spoons.
Who coming to visit today? I wonder.
Then I remember -- it be Mister Rotten's day to deliver the flour and oats and cornmeal from the general store. That make my stomach tie up in knots and want to stay close to Mama all the time. But he need to come 'cause we low on everthing with the war raging on and spring not coming on real good yet. Massa be one a the few plantation owners still left in our corner a Lincoln County 'cause he done lost the hearing in one a his ears when we was a boy. The Rebs told him, "The heck with you," and Massa go back to farming.
Earle say when they was in town, he heard them Yanks done whupped up on the Rebs in Alabama and all over Virginia, 'cept I don't know where them places is. How can people I ain't never met be willing to give they lives for folks like me? I's always thinking on something and today that what I's wondering as I take down an apron from the peg by the stove. Then I remember Mama's story 'bout Jesus and how He done give up His life for all a us poor folks here on earth. But Jesus done come back three days after He been hung on a cross, and I know as sure as the sun be shining that none a them Yanks gone rise up out they graves any time soon.
"Morning, Sapphire," Mama say, giving me a little peck on the cheek. "You sleep good last night?"
I shake my head. "No, ma'am."
Mama know I ain't sleeping good 'cause I lie in bed with her now that Daddy gone. Mama and I keep our shack neat as a pin. We even has some old chipped up china Missus say ain't no good to keep in the big house.
Mama's bed has a quilt my grandmama done made and a pillow and even a hay mattress, but that don't do no good to help me sleep. I lie there and hold my token -- a little chunk a stone on a leather strap that I got to wear 'round my neck. It has my letters on it. It say, S.S. for Sapphire Settler so in case I get it into my head to up and run off, anyone who catch me know who I belong to. That be so dumb! Even I know all I got to do is take it off and bury it in the forest somewheres and no one gone know who I is.
Mama give me the token that Earle stole when Mister Rotten made him bury my daddy, and I wears that, too. I rub Daddy's little chunk a stone and feel them letters. J.S. they say 'cause his name be Juniper Settler. One day when I big enough to use an awl, I gone scratch that dern "S" right off a both our tokens. Then we jest be Sapphire and Juniper...the way it oughta be.
I rub them tokens like Missus be rubbing her rosary. Ever time I see Missus fingering them beads, I think on when she say it stop her from worrying so much. It don't do nothing for me though. I still worry 'bout Mama and Opal and Pearl, how they might get taken away, 'cause no matter how much I rub Daddy's stone, I know I ain't never gone see him again.
"Baby girl, will you please get me some butter from the cooler?" Mama ask. She busy slicing bread for toast. Massa like it thick. Missus like it thin. And I like the end piece, which Mama always save for me even though Missus say give it to the sparrows and crows who be pecking at her little garden all the live long day.
Mama toast the end 'til it nice and crunchy, then coat it up with warm butter and sprinkle it with cinnamon, sugar, and a pinch a clove. "Here you go, little bird," she sing, giving me a wink.
"Tweet, tweet," I chirp.
That be the best thing I et all day long! Plus I get to set at the table in the kitchen and plop my behind on a real chair, not like how Mama and I has to sit on the bed or on an old stump when we eats at our place. Sometime I pretend I's not a slave, but a little girl setting in her own kitchen. And I pretend Mama ain't no slave neither, but jest my mama, making me breakfast like any other white chile in Lincoln County.
Now I go to the cooler and pull out the box a butter. "You want it all, Mama?"
"One little slice do jest fine," she say, stoking the fire. "I be making Massa's eggs early today. We's going into town later this morning to get the dry goods."
"That true, Mama?" I ask, lifting my brows.
I's so excited! First 'cause I ain't gone have to see Mister Rotten. Plus whenever Massa take me and Mama into town, I get to set and watch the chil'ren play outside in the school yard. And I get to go with Mama while she barter with Missus Snow, the lady who run the store. Mama sell her lace and quilts and even some a the vegetables from our own garden when we has too many, which ain't often.
Missus Snow be nice, but not too nice. She give Mama yarn ain't nobody want and old scraps a material, then say, "Let's see what miracles you can work with that, Ruby."
Mama always surprise Missus Snow. No matter how uneven the yarn be, no matter how nasty the material, my mama can always make something beautiful outta something ugly. Then she sell it for money that belong only to her...not to Massa.
She saving to buy our freedom. Her'n mine both. Mama once tell me, "I know they's some folks who be running off and such, but I ain't in they shoes, so I cain't fault 'em. But I want to be free legal. I ain't gone take the chance somebody snatch you away from me like they done your daddy if we got caught."
I ain't know how much Mama got saved so far, but I do know where she keep it and I ain't telling nobody no how. I's excited we get to go to town so Mama can earn more nickels and dimes and maybe even a dollar if she can sell Missus Snow that pretty baby quilt she done sewed with all a the clothes Little Sam and Marybelle growed out a this year.
"I gets to come, too." I say, handing her the butter. It not be a question. Mama know I do almost anything to get out the house for the day.
"Yes, chile," Mama chuckle. "That why I get the silver done now. Missus says she gone have company tomorrow and I's not sure I be able to get it done and put supper on the table tonight."
"You need me to make something for Missus and Little Sam and Marybelle for supper?" I ask.
"No, baby," Mama say. "But you can go pick some peas from the garden and start shelling 'em."
Mama crack Massa's eggs into the hot butter as I take a wooden bowl from the shelf. I wrap my shawl 'round my shoulders, then step outside to the small garden Missus and Mama tend nearly all year long. The spring peas be popping and in no time, I got enough for more than Missus and the chil'ren. Maybe Mama will let me has some for my supper, too. I love peas more than anything, and we don't get 'em much. Mostly we jest has hot cornbread and pork rind and whatever we can grow in our little patch by the shack. Massa done give us a bunch a seeds, but they never seem to grow as good as Missus' garden do.
Even so, my onions be the best on the plantation, but I don't know why. Whenever they be coming in strong, I always take a handful a 'em to Massa's kitchen 'cause Missus don't know how to tend 'em. Maybe she don't like to touch stuff that make her cry. I cry enough over my daddy so a little onion juice ain't gone hurt me none.
When I bring the peas into the kitchen, Mama already has another dish on the table ready for me. It be my favorite one 'cause it has Queen Anne's Lace painted on it with silver ink. It nearly match the lace Mama done stitch into the collar a my shirt she made for me last Christmas.
When I put it on, she told me, "Sapphire, I's gone teach you how to make different laces, but that be the most perfect kind on earth."
"How come?" I asked, running my fingers over the little knobs and bumps in the flowers.
Mama fixed my collar so it set jest right. "'Cause that be God's lace, honey...and ain't nobody nowhere can make lace like that. It bloom and die and bloom and die...over and over."
"That be a miracle, huh?"
"Yes, baby," Mama said, hugging me.
Now I set on the stool and, one by one, I shell them peas, feeling the hard little balls slide off a my finger as they go plink, plink, plink onto the little china dish. Some days I feel like dropping it on the hard, wooden floor so it might chip and Missus will say Mama can tote it home to our shack.
But what if it break into pieces? I wonder.
I decide to jest let it be. Maybe sometime it get chipped when Mama or Missus or even Marybelle be using it and I don't have to worry 'bout destroying something that be a picture a what God done made.
Mama clear her throat. I look up to see her gazing out the window. Then she look back at Massa's eggs in the pan. Jest like always, they be a mess a yellow and white, all mixed up together. Mama give 'em a little flip, then press hard with the spatula so they get nice and cooked on that side, too.
"Why you do that, Mama?" I ask, taking the peas to the sink where I gone rinse 'em good.
"Why you always break Massa's eggs like that?" I pump the handle a the faucet as hard as I can. It be cold and stiff in the morning chill, but soon I get a trickle going.
Mama don't say nothing for a moment. I think she don't hear me, so I ask one more time.
As she slide them eggs on a plate, she say real quiet-like, "When I break Massa's eggs, I ain't no slave. I do it to send him a message."
Mama give me a gentle smile. "Sapphire, you need to listen with different ears."
I frown as I rinse the peas. "These be the only ears I got! I cain't be changing 'em like Marybelle change her hair ribbons."
"Don't sass me, baby girl," Mama snap. She mad 'cause I got a sharp tongue, but who she think I got it from if it weren't her?
"I ain't sassing," I say. "I's jest wondering how you send a message to Massa by messing with his eggs."
Mama sigh. "Sapphire...you may be a slave in your body, but you only a slave in your mind if you wants to be." She say it like it be fact. I know what that mean 'cause Missus done teach me fact from fiction jest last week.
Still, I don't understand 'bout wanting to be a slave in my mind. "What that mean?" I ask her.
"All them Yanks and folks up north be fighting for our freedom, but I done figured out long ago that I's already free...and you is too...you jest don't know it yet." She set Massa's plate on a tray with the toast and jam and the big, silver coffee pot. "Ever time I break Massa's eggs, I feel a little more free. I choose to do it, see? He ain't never said nothing 'bout it and I don't do it malicious-like."
"It mean to be nasty on purpose," she say. "I don't hate Massa no more. I hate what he done to your daddy, but he ain't never lay a finger on me or one a you girls. Still, I do it to show him I's a person who can do what she want sometime."
"See, baby, I used to play with Massa Sam when I was a chile, jest like you play with Little Sam and Marybelle. My mama's milk be both his and mine. Mama say we held hands when we was nursing, and when we got bigger, we played together like we's kin. I know him like I knew my own sister, you 'member her?"
But I don't really 'cause Auntie Jasmine died when I was jest a bitty thing. She got kicked in the head by a horse when she working in the field and never got up.
Mama put her hands on her hips. "When I break Massa's eggs, it be like saying to him, 'I's still the same Ruby you played with when you was a boy. I's still the same person who seen your daddy whip your hide. I's still the same person your mama done hate like the devil. I's still the same even though you the massa now.'" Mama put a fork and knife by Massa's plate, then look at me directly. "It like I's telling him I be a whole person...and that how I be free."
I hear ever word she say, trying to listen with different ears. I wonder what it gone feel like when Little Sam be the massa and I be like mama. I's learned my place in the order a things 'round here. I know I ain't never gone have no say in what go on in the big house. I know I got to do whatever the white folks say.
But when Mama talk like she do right now, I feel like I ain't no slave neither.
I be a whole person, too.
I jest be Sapphire.
While Mama feed Massa and the chil'ren they breakfast, I take some cornbread and a pail a fresh water to the folks in the field. They's been up since 'fore dawn milking the cow, toting hay, scooping poop and such.
In the fresh morning breeze, I smell the spruce and pine trees growing tall and proud near the edge a the plantation. The green leaves jest be popping on the maple trees, but they ain't no whirlygigs coming on 'em yet. I like evergreens the best 'cause they be jest that - ever green all year long. I smell them clean, sharp spruce needles and it make me long for Christmas when we ain't got nothing to do but set on our behinds and gobble up the holiday cake Mama done made and think 'bout what old Santy Claus would bring us if we had a stocking to hang by the fireplace. If we even had a fireplace and not jest a fire pit outside our shack.
I see Opal in the henhouse poking 'round the nests, careful not to get pecked to death. She say she ain't never seen a bunch a chickens as feisty as the ones Massa got this year. But they lays a heap a eggs ever morning, and Opal always tell me to sneak a few into our shack so Mama can scramble up some for my supper.
"Missus ain't gone miss a few eggs now and again," she say real sassy-like.
Opal always be trying to pull the wool over Massa and Missus' eyes. Lies pour from her lips like milk from a pitcher and land like thick cream no matter what she be saying. I think it funny how Massa and any a the menfolk 'round here lap it up jest like little kittens. Opal has big, dark eyes that shine and snap when she telling a tall one. She got long legs and roundish breasts and hips, and I guess the mens jest hear what they wants to when she start spinning her web a lies.
Everyone working while they singing "Follow the Drinking Gourd" and I long for Mama to teach me the harmony part. She already done teached me how to sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel." "Swing Low" be my favorite, 'specially when we sing the part 'bout angels coming after me. I wonder if them angels be wearing lace wings like Mama say. Jest in case, ever time I sit down to knit, I start a humming and weave the words a the song into the stitches.
When I get to singing out loud, Mama say, "With that pretty little voice, someday you gone get to heaven riding on them angels' wings."
Now Opal stop singing and motion for me. "Sapphire, get your behind over here and tote these to the big house. She pop two small eggs into my apron pockets, then hand me a straw basket. "Old Bessie done outdid herself this morning. I counted five under her rump!"
"How 'bout Gertie?" I ask. That be my favorite hen 'cause she be brown and black and red, not all white and plain like the others.
"She still ain't got a one," Opal say, standing up and stretching her long arms over her head. "Someday soon she gone be stewing in the soup pot."
I frown and tears come to my eyes.
Opal chuck my shoulder. "I's kidding with you, Sapphire. She lay them two little bitty things in your pockets. I figure you want to have Gertie's 'cause she your favorite and all...'cept I don't know why. She ornery as sin."
I smile, fingering them little warm, brown eggs that come straight from Gertie's nest.
"What you got for our breakfast?" Opal ask.
Like she don't know.
"I brought you some fancy pancakes and maple syrup," I sass.
Opal roll her eyes. "Oh, what a feast! We's lucky today!"
"Mama and me's going to town with Massa," I tell her. "We gone get the dry goods and such. Maybe Mama make you oatmeal for supper."
Opal nod. "I has some leftover honey from last summer. That be a nice treat after working hard all day long."
I know how lucky I is to work in the big house with Mama, 'cause they ain't a day go by that I not with her morning, noon, and night. The only time I has to get outside is when I tend Missus' little garden. Opal and Pearl and they husbands all gots to tend to the animals and the fields. Now that she be big, Pearl doing more a the hoeing and less a the toting. When the baby come, I guess she gone strap it to her back and keep on working. Keen done take over as the blacksmith when Mister Rotten take my daddy, and sometime he work with Massa, planning where to plant the crops and how to rotate 'em and such.
Old Albert come to our place jest last winter when his Massa done die and he give Albert to Massa Settler in his will. He ain't too happy to be here, no suh. Old Albert say he too feeble to hoe and rake and pick cotton. Said he was jest getting used to overseeing and now look where he be. The mens say he do the best he can, but Old Albert be stiff and slow. He cain't do half the work Hale and Issac can. Maybe Massa take pity on Old Albert someday and let him come be a butler or something in the big house. Then Mama and me can has someone else to talk to 'sides ourselves.
I like Old Albert. He tell funny stories 'bout Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox and how they always be getting into some kind a fix. I like the one 'bout how Brer Rabbit be stuck in some tar and beg Brer Fox to throw him in a brier patch to put him out a his misery. That mean old Brer Fox think it be some kind a punishment, so he do jest that. But sly Brer Rabbit done been born and live his whole life in them prickly bushes and he be free in no time, laughing 'bout how he done fool Brer Fox for good measure.
I beg to hear Old Albert tell that tale over and over while we warms ourselves by the fire at night. Mama say I like it 'cause I need to learn how to stay away from sticky things that cause a heap a trouble.
But I say I like it 'cause what look like the end for that clever Brer Rabbit turn out to be only the beginning.
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