The dirt road done kick up a heap a dust on my best red jumper. I set by Mama on the wooden seat and keep brushing it off as we round the corner toward the town. When we gets real close, I fuss with the little rag ribbons I done tied to the ends a my braids, making sure they still tight. Mama say soap be cheap and water be free, so she ain't gone take no dirty girl to town. She know she ain't got to tell me. I like to get dirty, but more'n that, I like to get clean, 'specially when I get to dress up and go to the store.
Massa gently tap the horse's flank with the reigns and say, "Giddy-up, Pete!"
I think that be funny, him calling a horse a man's name, but that be Massa's way. He got a cow called Sue, a mule called Nat, a goat called Timothy, and two sheeps called Joan and Joanna. Make me wonder who named my great, great, great, great granddaddy who come over on a boat from Africa. I's sure as sugar he weren't called Homer where he come from.
By the time we gets to town, the sun be shining warm-like and I don't need my shawl no more. They's white folks milling all over the place like ants crawling all over the sugar bowl. Some a 'em has they slaves with them, toting this and that. I see the kids playing in the schoolyard. Must be what Marybelle call morning recess. I cain't see Little Sam, but they's a bunch a boys playing baseball and I hear the loud "crack" the wooden bat make when it hit the little white ball.
I also hear old Mister Hawkins, the white folks' preacher, yelling at his man to "tie up them horses right quick!" His voice sound like an old creaky barn door and I's glad Massa's voice be soft and low, 'cept when he been drinking. But even then, I only hear him yelling at Missus through they bedroom door. He don't yell like he mad, he yell like he got so much grief inside a him, it be pouring out from his mouth in words 'stead a tears from his eyes.
I cain't understand him, but Missus do. Even though she can get madder'n a wet hen at Massa, she always say stuff like, "It's alright, Sam...I understand. It won't be long now. Your father would understand, too."
But I don't know what Old Massa Settler be understanding when he dead. And from what I hear, he weren't the understanding type. Mama say he'd yell an order and whoever in his line a fire best jump quick or risk a whipping. And that include his son. Mama say Massa get beat twice as hard as a slave sometime.
Now I watch Old Mister Hawkins bark some more at his man, then I look at Massa. I ain't happy to be no slave, but I don't know no different neither. I know what it like to be called tar baby. I know what it like to be asked when I go to town with Mama, "Whose nigger you be?" like I ain't got no name, like I ain't a person. I know that some white folks gone hate us all they lives 'cause they don't know no different...jest like I don't know no different than living like I do.
Even so, I know the difference 'tween belonging to a nice man and a nasty one. Massa may tell Mama to do this and that. He tell Pearl and Ruby and Hale and all a them slaves in the field how long to work and what they gots to do all day long. But he ain't mean. Sometime in the summer he even let 'em have the afternoon off if it be so hot they gone melt like brown butter in the boiling sun. They nap in they shacks 'til twilight, then heads back to the fields 'til it get real dark with Massa toiling right next to 'em.
I think sometime Massa feel guilty 'bout a lot a things. Guilty 'bout my daddy. Guilty 'bout his daddy. Guilty 'bout being who he be. Mama say Massa Sam ain't a lick like Old Massa...and that be both a blessing and a curse.
"Ruby, take all the time you need with Mrs. Snow," Massa say as he steer the horse toward a hitching post by the store. "I need to go to the telegraph office and the bank, so I'll ask Mr. Snow to help me load the staples into wagon if you're still inside."
Mama nod as she tie the ends a her shawl so it don't fall off. "Thank you, Massa Sam," she say, making sure his good ear be facing her. I keep forgetting which one it be, but Mama always know. She say nice and clear, "You think there gone be any news 'bout the war?"
"I hope so," Massa nod. "But you know what the preacher says about those darn reporters who hear a scrap of rumor and print it like it's the gospel truth."
"What he say?" Mama ask, shielding her eyes from the rising sun.
Massa smile. "He said that all of the reporters could be killed in the crossfire one day and dispatches from hell would arrive by sunrise the next morning."
"Oh, Lord!" Mama laugh. "He ain't got no use for them newpapermens."
"Well, let's hope for some good news anyway," Massa say. He get down from the wagon. "Have you made a lot of things to sell?"
Mama shrug. "I ain't had time to make but a few things, but Missus Snow say last time she gone look 'round for some more wool yarn. I's gone make you some new socks to wear to church."
"That's fine," Massa nod. I can tell he not really listening. His mind elsewhere, but that where it be most days since folks 'round here be talking 'bout how the war gone be ending soon.
"Can I learn how to make socks, too?" I ask Mama when I see Massa ain't gone say no more.
She nod. "Yes...jest as soon as you learn how to use them double-pointy needles I done give you last week."
"Them's hard to figure, Mama," I frown. "They flip and flop all over the place."
"Practice, baby girl," Mama smile. "You gots to practice."
"I'd rather practice my reading," I whisper. I know I ain't s'posed talk 'bout such things when we away from Massa's plantation, but ain't no one looking at us, so I figure I can sneak it in.
"Hush it, Sapphire," Mama hiss and squeeze my leg hard with her strong fingers. She don't want to get nobody in trouble, 'specially Missus.
So I hush it.
Massa hobble Pete, then reach up and help Mama down. He hold out his arms and grab me 'round my ribs, then set me on the ground. "There you go, Miss Sapphire," he wink. "Have fun with your mama at the store." He slip a shiny penny into my hand. "Why don't you get some stick candy...if Ruby doesn't mind."
Mama give Massa a look that say, You spoil my chile, but that be jest fine with me. "What you say, Sapphire?" Mama chide.
"Thank you, Massa," I say, staring at the penny in my palm. "I know jest what kind I's gone get."
"What's that?" he ask.
"Peppermint," I smile. "Like at Christmas time when Santy Claus done brung Little Sam and Marybelle a mess a candy."
"Well, you can pretend it's Christmas today if you want," Massa say, pulling a satchel from the wagon. "I expect that'll buy you a couple a pieces at least." Then he look at Mama. "Tell Mrs. Snow to give you the best calico they have...enough for new Easter dresses for you and your girls. She can put it on my monthly bill."
Mama wrinkle her brow. "Why you do that?"
Massa look at my shabby jumper and shake his head. "I can't believe how much Sapphire is growing like a weed."
I nod. "Yes, sir, I is."
It embarrassing to wear this old thing both Opal and Pearl done had when they was little. It be held together by threads and the seams be popping open where my arm pits be stretching 'em. Plus it got stains from where they spilt all kind a things on it.
"Want me to get some for Missus and the chil'ren?" Mama ask.
Massa shake his head. "No, they're going to visit her mother in Cleveland soon and I'm sure Mrs. Hamilton will take them to her tailor."
Missus be from a rich family up north and I think that why she teach me how to read and write. She don't like keeping slaves, but she love Massa a whole bunch or so I hear her tell him when he be so sad sometime. She say she ain't gone leave him, no matter how poorly the farm be producing. No matter how mean he treat her. She say she gone be with him 'til death do they part and she mean to keep her promise.
Missus don't make us work on Sunday 'cause that be the Lord's day. Mama and I does all our work on Saturday, and then we gets to spend the whole next day praying and singing hymns and knitting on our lace. Opal and Pearl come over to our shack and we get to talking sometime 'til I nearly bust a gut with them funny things they say 'bout they husbands...how they be farting and burping and scratching they behinds all the time. Last week Opal pretend she be Hale and rub her hind end while she sniff and snort and walk 'round the shack like she got a stick up her butt.
"The shine already done worn offa him," Mama smile, looking up from her lace. "That cain't be the same boy you done fell in love with last summer."
"He be the same boy," Opal say, wrinkling her nose. "He jest be more a hisself now that we be married."
It a wonder I even think 'bout jumping the broom someday.
Now Mama take my hand and we walk to the store. It be Monday, so Massa stop at the post office to mail some letters. I see him over my shoulder and notice he walking funny, like he ain't got no bones in his legs. Mister Toomey work the telegraph at the post office and I know Massa gone ask him if they's news 'bout the war. He worry 'bout that all the time, 'specially when Mister Rotten come over and rant and rave 'bout what gone happen "when all the niggers get freed." They all know the Rebs is gone get they behinds whipped and then what they gone do? Make me wonder what me and Mama and everone who work Massa's farm gone do, too.
Where we gone live? Will I get to be with Mama always?
It make my mind spin to think a such things, so I watch the kids running in the school yard. Marybelle be swinging on a tire and her dress be flyin' up so I can see her underthings. Her mama would have a fit to know she be showing her business, but I won't tell. Marybelle and me is friends, even though I know I ain't s'posed to talk to her when we in town.
"Sapphire, you want to set on the porch and watch the kids while I talk to Missus Snow?" Mama ask.
"Fine...I come get you when I's done so you can spend that pretty penny."
I rub it 'tween my fingers and think a all the hours Mama done spent knitting and sewing and making things Missus Snow want to sell at the store. I know Mama only make a little bit a money and Missus Snow raise the price a heap so she can make what Missus teach me called a profit.
That don't make no sense, I think. Why cain't Mama jest make all the money herself? But ain't nobody gone buy nothing from no slave, so Missus Snow doing her a favor passing her pennies and nickels and dimes if Mama be lucky.
"You want my penny?" I ask her, holding it out. "You can put it with the money you saving for our freedom."
Mama pat my hand, then curl my fingers 'round the copper coin. "We gone be free soon enough. You ain't never had no money 'fore and today's a very special day. It be time you learn how to use it."
"Thank you, Mama," I say, thankful she let me keep it. I was thinking the same thing...that I ain't never had no penny. I ain't never had nothing that weren't somebody else's 'fore me...'cept my pretty shirt with the Queen Anne's Lace.
I set on a barrel near the door a the store and watch the kids while Mama go inside. I hear Missus Snow say, "Be right with you, Ruby. Lord, it's been a busy morning!" My legs itch and my feet hurt 'cause my toes be poking out the holes in my shoes. The socks I's wearing has holes, too, and the soles a my shoes be flap, flap, flapping all the time. Mama say she gone get Hale to tar 'em up sometime when he ain't too busy scratching his behind and burping and farting and such.
My mama a card or so Old Albert say. I think that mean she be pretty funny.
Now I look at all a them clean white kids and know how truly dirty I be. My hands. My feets. Even my being colored don't hide the filth I live in ever day. Mama done give me a bath ever Sunday, but still, I see them kids and I know what they is.
And I know what I is.
Still, I get to set out here and listen to songbirds singing while all a them kids soon gone be back setting on they behinds in that schoolroom doing all kind a work. But that not be work to me. It be more like playing. I see a boy who got a McGuffey Reader...the very same one I done read last night. I think 'bout that story a the little boy who like to play and when he done, then he like to work. To help me remember all them words in order, I take little steps 'round the wooden porch, one word for each step.
He used to say, "One thing at a time."
When he had done with work, he would play;
but he did not try to play and to work at the same time.
Over and over 'gain I whisper them words, but pretty soon that story 'bout mixing work and play get all mixed up in my head. It seem like them birds twittering in the trees and the horses clomping on the street and the folks walking by all be singing that story to me even though they ain't paying no mind to a little colored girl waiting on her Mama.
The birds be tweeting, "Work can be play, Sapphire...you know it can."
"I sure do," I sing to the birds. "'Cause knitting ain't no work, 'cept when Mama put them double-pointy needles in my hands."
"Oh, Sapphire," one a them red birds chirp. "You is a card!"
All the sudden I see the teacher, Miss Vincent, come to the door a the schoolhouse and ring a big, gold bell. Clang, clang, clang! Them kids stop what they doing right quick and hightail it to they teacher. I think they be like little slaves, too. Miss Vincent be they massa with her bell and when she ring it like she doing now, they all come running. 'Cept I know at the end a the day, they get the freedom a going home to they mamas and daddies.
Miss Vincent be strict, too. One time when Mama brung me to town, I seen her grab a boy by the ear and drag him into the school all the while screeching, "Don't you let me catch you doing that ever again, Douglas Pritchard!"
Later that day when I was washing dishes in the big house, Marybelle come in for a glass a milk. I ask her what Douglas done to get in trouble and she say he peed in the bushes in front a all the girls.
"That ain't no big thing," I shrug. "All the slaves in the fields do they business wherever they is 'cause they ain't no privy when you got to go."
"But there's an outhouse behind the school," Marybelle tell me. "And Miss Vincent says we're never, ever go to the bathroom outside because it's unsanitary."
"What that mean?" I ask, wiping a bowl free a mashed potato bits.
"I think it means not private."
"Private mean you does your business all by yourself?"
"Uh huh," Marybelle nod.
Now I think on all them times Mama say to jest piddle behind a bush at night 'stead a hightailing it to the privy. She say it keep raccoons and skunks and such away from our shack and that make me giggle jest to think on it.
"What you got to laugh 'bout, Sapphire Settler?" I hear a nasty voice say. It be coming from the mouth a the loudest woman I know. Whenever Queeny come near me, I want to run the other way. Fast. But I cain't now 'cause she right on top a me, her shadow covering me from the top a my rag ribbons to the tips a my ratty shoes.
"Morning Miss Queeny," I say real polite.
Mama say I got to be nice to all a the mayor's slaves, even a big, old witch like Queeny. She live in a little room the mayor's wife had built right next to they kitchen so Queeny can be at her beck and call day and night. All Missus Mayor got to do is ring a little bell and up Queeny jump to fetch a cup a tea or empty her bedpan or bring a little more honey for her biscuits.
Earle, Mister Rotten's man, say Queeny don't live in no tar-paper shack. When he bring dry goods to they house, he see that she sleep on a little feather bed and has her very own sink and privy. Plus Queeny get to eat a bit a whatever she making for the Mayor no matter what it be.
One time Earle say, "Even when that girl eat the fancy teacakes from her Massa's dinner parties, she still find a way to make it sound like she's made to lick a slop jar."
Queeny got nothing nice to say 'bout nothing. Ever time Mama and I see her in town, she be complaing like she Job. Maybe Queeny need to see what it feel like to have to do her business outside and sleep in a drafty shack and eat nothing but cornbread and pork rind. I ain't got no boils like Job, but I know what it feel like to never be warm enough or full enough...not like I wants to be.
"What you got to be laughing 'bout?" Queeny ask one more time. Her sourpuss face be like the prunes Mama put on Little Sam's oatmeal.
"I's jest watching the kids," I tell her. I ain't gone tell her I's thinking 'bout piddling by the shack to ward off varmints. She jest say I's being fresh and threaten to tell my mama.
"Ain't you lucky to set there and do nothing," Queeny sigh. "I got so many things to get done today and Missus want me to come all the way across town to go to the store!"
I roll my eyes 'cause "all the way across town" for Queeny mean she got to walk past three houses and the bank 'fore she get to the store. She don't know nothing 'bout walking...not like poor old Earle do. He walk everwhere for Mister Rotten. I bet he done walked enough to go halfway 'round the world by now.
"How you?" I ask. As if I really want to know. I ain't got nothing nice to say 'bout Queeny, so most a the time I do like Mama tell me and don't say nothing at all.
"Missus gots me hopping today," Queeny sigh.
Mama poke her head out the door. "You wants to come in now, Sapphire?" She see Queeny and smile. "'Morning."
Queeny nod. "Ruby."
Mama pull on my sleeve. "Come on, baby girl."
Thank you, Jesus, I think. Thank You for sending my mama to rescue me from that nasty woman. "'Bye, Miss Queeny," I say, grinning. But in my mind I's thinking, And good riddance.
When we inside the store, Missus Snow be rolling out a big bolt a calico. Mama say I get to choose the color for our new dresses. Now it really be like Christmas! There be red and purple and blue. The one Missus Snow show me be green with little white flowers all over the place. They looks like the ones Missus and Mama done planted last year near the back door by the garden...the ones that smell sweet and clean.
I point to the bolt. "I like that one, Mama...if it be alright with you."
"That be fine, Sapphire," Mama nod. "A good choice, too. Don't you think that look jest like the sweet alyssum from our garden?"
"Yes'm." I love how we both think the same things sometime, like Mama and I be one person.
"Massa Settler say to put the calico on his monthly bill," Mama tell Missus Snow.
She fold it into a nice pile, then, jest like she do for the white folks, Missus Snow wrap it in brown paper.
"Thank you kindly, Missus," Mama say.
"I know how dusty the roads can be when we don't get much rain," Missus Snow say. "Now, Sapphire, your mama says you want to do some business with me."
I swallow hard and don't say nothing, jest nod at the floor and hold out my penny.
Missus Snow act like she do business with a little colored girl ever day. She not like her husband who yell at us to hurry up and be on our way. Mister Snow say we's bad for business and if white folks see us malingering, they won't come into the store. I wonder what malingering mean and plan to look up that big old word in Missus Settler's dictionary when I learn how to spell better.
"What would you like?" Missus Snow asks me. "Your mama says you might want some candy."
I steal a look up at her and when I do, I see a little corn cob doll on the shelf over her head. It be a little bitty thing, maybe only as big as my hand, but I think I want to see if I can use my penny to trade for her. I bite my lip and look at Mama.
"What you want, Sapphire?" she ask. "C'mon...we gots to meet Massa at the wagon."
I point to the doll on the shelf. She got curly paper hair and a dress that come down to her little knobby feet.
"You want that doll?" Missus Snow ask me.
"Yes'm," I whisper. "Can I trade my penny for it?"
Missus Snow pull it from the shelf and look at the little white tag 'round its neck. "It's three cents."
"I only got one penny," I tell her.
Mama open her coin purse and give me two more pennies. "Sapphire, you done helped me knit some a them doilies," she say. "I's happy to give you a little a the money we earn'd. You go on and get that dolly. It'll last longer than peppermint candy, won't it?"
My smile stretches big. "Yes'm." Carefully I put the three pennies on the counter and Missus Snow hand me the doll. The husk crackle when I stroke the dress and touch her hair. Her black dot eyes shine up at me like she know she be mine now.
Mama tell me to thank Missus Snow and I do, then we heads out the door to where the wagon still be hitched. They ain't no sign a Massa, so we take our time. I cradle my doll in my arms and wonder what I gone name her.
We see Queeny hurrying up the street toward the Mayor's house and Mama shake her head. "That girl gone be a victim all her life," she say. "When we's set free, Queeny still gone be stuck in them invisible chains."
I know what invisible is...that mean you cain't see it. It be like a ghost or a spook or something. Missus read me a book called A Christmas Carol last year and it have a ghost man who has to drag a heap a heavy chains 'round in the afterlife 'cause he been stingy when he was alive. Queeny ain't wearing no chains that I can see, but she drag 'round her complaints like she toting a heavy pail a water, spilling a little a her bellyaching on everone she meet. And she always seem to be able to go back to the well to pull up some more.
But Mama done seen Queeny's mama die in childbirth. She spoke to Massa, who be friends with the Mayor, and made sure Queeny was brought up by the house slaves so she'd never have to work on the Mayor's farm or get sold to a plantation. Jest like Mama made sure I work in Massa and Missus' house cleaning and helping with the cooking, knitting and such. She say everone done been born for some purpose and right now that be mine...to be her helper and to knit up pretty things for the white folks.
I wonder what my purpose gone be when I ain't a slave no more.
But I do know I ain't a victim a nothing. Like Mama say, I only a slave by what you see on the outside. I ain't got no invisible chains 'cause I got my freedom with Mama at night when she sing to me and tell me she love me. Queeny ain't never know her mama, and she probably ain't got nobody to say they loves her. Maybe that why she so mean all the time, and I got to find it in my heart to pray for her poor soul, not wanting to run like a jackrabbit whenever she cross my path.
Mama help me climb up on the wagon seat, then she get up right next to me. I hold my doll in my lap so I can see her little black eyes and a dot for a nose. The curve a her mouth be red and her cheeks be painted with tiny circles a pink.
"That be a pretty dolly," Mama say. "I think she need a calico shawl to match the jumper I be making you soon."
"Then we all match, Mama!"
I look up and see Massa coming from the bank. His face be drawn and white. Look like he want to cry, but I know he ain't. He carrying a little bundle a papers under his arm and it be tied up with a piece a string all neat and tidy. When he get to the wagon, he slide 'em into his brown satchel and put it under the seat.
Massa don't say nothing as he unhitch the horse, but when he climb into the wagon, he ask Mama, "Did you get everything you need?"
"Yes, Massa Sam," she say.
'Fore he pull on Pete's reigns, Massa look 'round. He real quiet for a moment, then he say, "The next time you come to town, make sure to tell Mrs. Snow I said, 'thank you' for her kindness."
Mama jest nod.
As we head back to the big house, I watch Massa from the corner a my eye. I know something ain't right 'cause I listened to what he done said with them different ears Mama told me 'bout. Now I figure maybe my ears need to perk up when they ain't no words to be heard.
It then I notice Massa ain't got the dry goods from the store. I wonder when he gone notice, too. Maybe not 'til we get home. Then Massa might send Hale to fetch Mister Rotten to tote the load to the big house.
I ain't liking that prospect...no suh...'cause that insight Mama say I has is jest starting to kick in.