Thursday, February 22, 2018

Chapter Three from The Lace Makers


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.
"Do what?"
"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."
"What 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.  " 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 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."
"What malicious?"
"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."
I nod. 
"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?"
"Uh huh."
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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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Chapter Two from The Lace Makers


At four o'clock in the morning Aufseherin Grese kicks my bunk.  I struggle to get up quickly because when I don't wake fast enough, she hits the bottoms of my feet with her baton so bruises won't show on my body.  Kapitan Dieter would beat her if she left a mark that he could see, but he doesn't seem to take notice when I hobble around for days with swollen feet. 
"Number 811993, get up!" Grese growls.  "Kapitan Dieter wants you!  NOW!"  She sharply pokes me in the ribs and shines a flashlight in my eyes.  I hate her...everyone does...and not only because she smiles when she thrashes one of us for not moving faster.  For not washing thoroughly. 
For still being alive.
Kapitan Dieter always calls for me before Appellplatz where I must stand and be counted, sometimes waiting for hours to make sure all of the calculations are correct.  The dead must be accounted for, the bodies hauled from the barracks by unlucky prisoners while I wait in agony.  But this morning I'm not sure what will happen, if we will have to meet for roll call or not.  There's been gunfire in the distance, and everything is different since the S.S. ordered most of the prisoners to be evacuated, since the officers started packing their belongings, rushing around the camp yelling, "Schnell!  Schnell!"
Faster, faster. 
Even the executions are done hastily, then the bodies piled up near open pits or stacked in wagons.  For weeks the unholy flames of the crematorium never seem to stop and cannot keep up with the countless corpses littering the camp. 
When Grese pokes me once more, I rub my eyes and rise to my feet, careful not to wake Simka, my friend who traveled with Mutti and me from Buchenwald a few months ago.  We share the bunk, one of the better ones that's lined with straw, yet filled with bugs.  Mutti says I'm lucky to have it.  Lucky to be near the door where I can breathe better air, unlike so many others crammed into their bunks where the air is dank and rotten and heavy. 
I don't sleep well anymore as I dream of steam whistles screaming in the distance that startle me awake.  I dream of boxcars crammed with too many men, women, and children all crying out for water, for bread, for air.  I have nightmares in which spruce and pine trees are set afire, their elongated branches bursting into flames so the endless piles of corpses can keep burning.  I used to love the scent of the forest, but now the sweet smell of evergreen will be forever tangled with the odor of death.
Before Grese can stomp on my feet, I quickly shove them into a pair of worn-out wooden shoes and follow her out of the barracks.  I don't say a word, don't make a sound as we pass the piles of corpses, left to rot in the open air.  I pretend I'm walking past vegetables harvested from Mutti's vegetable garden, that the corpses rotting on the earth are piles of corn she will soon grind into flour. 
The stench is unbearable.  The sight, even more so.  I no longer remember the smell of clean air as the cloying odor of burning flesh remains lodged in my throat, smothering me with a relentless warning.  I know that with one swift decision, my life could also be snuffed out.  Every night, I close my eyes and say to myself, If God wills it, I will wake again tomorrow.  But I don't know what is the real nightmare...what I see in my dreams or what I experience upon waking. 
As we pass the Appellplatz, corpses still hang in the gallows - a warning to us all about the dangers of escape.  Leah's body swings from the rope and I remember what she had told me last week...that she would rather die trying to escape than die waiting for the war to end.  But death is an every day occurrence here and my mind has become as tough as shoe leather so I can bear it.
When we reach the disinfection building, I strip, then stand in the scalding shower, my raw skin all but numb to the the hot water which feels like sharp pins and needles.  I gag as Grese throws a cup of delousing powder on my head which stings my eyes and mouth.
Frantically, I rinse my legs and arms, scrubbing harder at the tattoo on my left arm.  It should have been six numbers long, but the S.S. officer took pity on me when my mother shouted,  "Wir sind Deutsch Christen!  Deutsch Frauen!  Meine Schwester is Deutsch!""
We are German Christians...German women.  My sister is German!
Mutti lied when we arrived at Auschwitz.  She knew we would be separated if the S.S. thought she was my mother, so she told the guard we were sisters and he let her live, let her walk with me to a room where we were ordered to strip naked and shower, let her watch as a guard laughed while shaving my head and body, then endured the same humiliation herself before we were taken to be tattooed. 
The S.S. who had a death grip on my arm put down the needle, then shoved me out the door, but I was left with 811 inked in bluish gray over the triangle of freckles near my wrist.  Now I will never again be simply Karin Vogel, my mother's oldest child.  Even if I do survive this war, there will always be a truncated number to remind me of what I've become.
There's no towel to dry myself, so I quickly throw a thin dress over my head, then tie a kerchief around my head, thankful for even that bit of warmth.  The wooden shoes rub layers of blisters on my heels and toes.  I can't walk properly in them, so trying to get from the barrack to the workhouse or the Appellplatz or Kapitan Dieter's room is hell on earth.  It's been an uncommonly frigid winter, and even though I work making lace near a cast iron stove, I'm never warm enough.  I'm never full enough, though I eat more than most because Kapitan Dieter is an important man and always gets what he wants.  He doesn't want me to be skinny and dirty like so many of the poor girls in the camp left to rot and die in their own filth. 
I don't speak in his presence, but I know his name - Herman.  And I know I'm nothing more than his prostitute because he tells me, "Your payment is you get to live."
I'm supposed to feel grateful, but I don't know why I've survived for years while so many others have died.  Perhaps now I won't live that much longer either.
Mutti says I have to.  She says I have to do whatever the guards want.  Whatever Kapitan Dieter wants.  Whatever Kommandant Kramer wants.  Whatever Grese wants.  I have to do what they say in order to stay alive so I can bring more food to Simka. 
"You're young and pretty, and that's what they all want," Mutti once told me. 
So I lie in Herman's bed, a hollow shell, all the while staring at the wall or the ceiling or the knobs on the small glass cupboard that's filled with cans of evaporated milk and chocolates and creamy caramels...the one Herman said I must never touch.  I know he wouldn't hesitate to shoot me with the pistol he keeps strapped to his leg.  I've seen him use it more than once, and he's deadly when he's angry and drunk. 
"You can take bread and cheese from the trunk," Herman told me the first time I was ordered to his room.  "But if you touch that cabinet, you'll be dead before you can turn around." 
Herman digusts me, yet I owe him for saving Mutti's life and my own.  Often in the middle of what he does to me I think, How can a man be both a sadist and a savior?

This morning, Herman is quick about it, his tight, angry body all at once on top of me and then not.  He doesn't make me sing before or after, neither does he mock me by calling me his little songbird.  I stare at the calendar on the wall while Herman gets dressed and wonder why the compound is so busy at this hour.  The living are made to carry corpses for burial or burning while the S.S. rush here and there, yelling at each other to be prepared for the end.
The end of what?  I think.  The war?  This camp?  The end of our misery or the end of our lives?
“I’ve been good to you, 811993...Karin,” Herman says as he buttons his coat.  “You will say how good I’ve been to you, yes?”
I frown.  He's never called me by my name and I'm surprised he even knows it...or cares to.
“I’ve never beat you or hurt you,” Herman insists.  “I let you take extra food whenever you wanted it.  I protected you from the other prisoners.  I saved you and your sister from the gas.”
I nod, my eyes swollen with shameful tears.
He knots his tie.  “So if anyone asks, you will tell them I am a good man, won't you?”
Why is he asking this? I wonder.  No one in power asks me anything.  Not who I am.  Not what I want. 
When I say nothing, Herman comes to the bed where I sit pulling my dress over my head.  He kneels, then gently strokes my face.  “I’ve always been good to you.”  He kisses my forehead, then whispers my name.
I cringe and curl away from him, but Herman presses his warm, damp lips to my ear.  “Remember what I said," he says.  "If you tell anyone about what happens in this room, I can't be responsible for what happens to you.”
I look at the floor and nod my head in compliance.
“Good girl,” Herman says, rising.  Then he struts out the door as if he has won the silent war between us. 

A gray light gradually fills the room where I've been making lace for more than three hours...waiting for orders from the guards.  For almost four months I've spent eight hours a day, six days a week knitting hats and mittens and scarves.  I knit cable-knit sweaters and woolen socks.  I knit yards and yards of lace that are sewn into curtains and sent to all corners of Germany where the S.S. live in luxury while those of us slaving in the camps can barely remember what our parents' faces look like.
I shiver in my threadbare dress and wonder, How many girls wore this rag before me?  Are they all dead?  Will I be soon?  My shawl slips to the back of chair, and as I pull it up over my shoulders, I study the other women's faces as we endure the harsh silence of this cold, dank room, our knitting needles clicking and clacking while we do our duty for the Fuhrer.  They've all become shadows of their former selves...and I know I have as well.
Simka sniffs and wipes her nose.  Dark circles shadow her eyes as she pushes a curl behind her ear.  Kapitan Dieter let all of us grow our hair back so we would look more presentable.  He says women in his service are to look like women, and yet my breasts and curves aren't like Simka's.  We've only been here since January, but the food her friend, Vitya, steals from the kitchen and the bread I bring from Kapitan Dieter's room keep her healthier than the rest of us.  Even though I long to taste the sweet yams and mashed potatoes Vitya smuggles to her in little tin cans, I cannot ask Simka for even one bite.   
The baby hidden inside of her needs it more than I do.
Still, my gnawing hunger never goes away.  When we were in Auschwitz, my mother used to slip me her bread before the guards could see.  Before any one else could grab it out of my hands and shove into their eager mouth.  If there were a stray pea at the bottom of her soup bowl, Mutti would press it into my palm and beg me to swallow it.  "Eat, Karin.  Survive, Karin.  Live one more day.  Then live another.  One day when we are liberated, we will remember what we saw here and tell others so that this madness will never happen again."
Now Simka winces, holding her stomach, and I'm afraid of what will happen when the pain gets worse.  I've seen what the S.S. do to people who can't work, who show any type of weakness.  I try to forget as I mindlessly work the yarn back and forth.  My hands ache, but the bony knuckles and tissue-paper skin toil until I can no longer feel my joints.  Instinctively, I work the needles back and forth in a rhythm that still has the power to calm me, even now when everything is so uncertain.
I think back to more than ten years ago when Mutti taught me how to knit.  At that time, everyone was worried about the uprising of the Nazi Party.  In 1935, work was scarce.  Money even more so.  It was cheaper to light the stove with the paper money my father had hidden in his fishing tackle box than to use it to buy kindling.  Vati worked hard at the theater he owned with his friend, Herr Zweig, whom he had known since the Great War.
Herr and Frau Zweig had three boys of their own, Heinrich, who was my age, Georg, who was seven, and Fritz, who was only three.  They usually visited on Sundays after we came home from church.  The Zweigs went to Temple on Saturdays, so they arrived with a nice brisket or a basket of freshly baked apple dumplings while we were changing out of our good clothes.
My parents visted with Herr  and Frau Zweig while I played tag in our backyard with Heinrich and Georg.  Fritz preferred to hunt for worms, bugs, and other dirty things in Mutti's garden.  She gave him a small trowel and a metal pail, saying, "Just make sure you don't harm my vegetables."
In the evening all of us went to the theater for an evening of Volkslieder...folk songs.  Vati invited a host of people from the neighborhood and welcomed them warmly at the door.  Mutti played the piano, Frau Zweig the violin, and I would lead everyone in song. 
Vati especially loved to hear me sing "In stiller Nacht" to end the evening.  Tears filled his eyes, and like Mutti who loves twilight, he was carried away into the imminent darkness of the words, the sorrow in the lyrics that foretold what our lives would soon become.

In the quiet night, at the first watch,
a voice began to lament; sweetly, gently,
the night wind carried to me its sound.
And from such bitter sorrow and grief
my heart has melted.
The little flowers - with my pure tears -
I have watered them all.

Back then, Mutti was expecting a baby.  My brother, Jurgen, was tucked inside her belly and I loved to feel his little hands and feet kick and punch through Mutti's dress.  I sang Guten Abend, Gute Nacht to him, leaning against our mother's side, rubbing the little knobs and bumps of his elbows and knees.
When Mutti saw how much I loved Jurgen, even before he was born, she gave me a ball of yarn and a pair of knitting needles, saying, "Karin, let's make something for our baby." 
For years I had sat by Mutti, watching her create intricate pieces of lace which filled our modest home with lovely tablecloths, placemats, and doilies.  Several delicate shawls hung on a peg near the door so Mutti and I could wrap one around our shoulders when we walked into the garden at sunset.  My favorite was a Queen Anne's Lace pattern interwoven with open stitching that Mutti had created all by herself. 
So I was overjoyed when she placed the polished rosewood needles in my hands.  First she taught me how to cast on, then how to knit and purl.  After that I learned how to make little hats and booties.  Next came a simple sweater for Vati.  Then a pair of socks for my baby brother.  By the time Jurgen was two, I asked Mutti to teach me how to make lace.  Under her gentle guidance, I learned how to yarn over and knit two together.  To pick up stitches and create tiny hearts and leaves and shells. 
Mutti marveled at how quickly I garnered the skill.  "Wie deine Gesangstalent, deines Stricken ist auch ein Geschenk," she said proudly. 
Like your singing talent, your knitting is also a gift.
Now this gift is saving my life...and Mutti's as well...such as it is.  But I know that without her, I won't survive either.
So I make lace like my mother taught me, and with every stitch, with every row, I weave in the memory of those who are gone forever.  A stitch for Olga.  One for Anne and Mary and Elisabet.  A stitch for the woman who died of typhus in the bunk above me two days ago.  A whole row for Frau Daiga and her daughter.  Rows and rows for the Zweig family who perished long before I came to this place.
Countless stitches for my father and Jurgen.
And always...every stitch for Bruno.

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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Chapter One from The Lace Makers

Chapter One 


The sun be peeping over the old barn where I hear the cow moaning to get milked.  The air sharp like little pins and needles where my arms be peeking out from my shawl.  I watch the sky turning the color a egg yolks Mama like to break jest to watch 'em get runny.  She do that sometimes.  Break them egg yolks for Massa and keep on frying 'em 'til they be hard as shoe leather. 
He don't say nothing.  Jest gobble 'em up like they be the best thing he ever et.  Sometime Massa even say, "Lord, Ruby...these eggs are truly delicious." 
He know to keep his mouth shut 'round Mama 'bout eggs and such.  He be the Massa and all, but he owe my mama a lot.  He owe her a husband.  He owe me my daddy.
Massa done gambled Daddy away in a poker game two year ago.  He told a mean old man that 'stead a paying him money, that man could take any one a his slaves.  My sisters and me was scared out our minds...'fraid one a us gone be chained to his wagon and made to stumble 'hind like a dern mule as Mister Rotten drove back to his plantation. 
They be older than sisters, Pearl and Opal.  When my daddy got taken away, I was only six.  They was fourteen and twelve back then.  Big girls.  Now they has husbands and Pearl be having a baby a her own come summertime.  Opal say a baby be coming over her dead body, but I don't know what that mean.  She gone kill herself when the baby come?  Or she not want any babies at all?  I hear some slaves kill they own babies, but I cain't imagine my mama doing such a thing 'cause she loves me like a bird loves to fly.
I know I don't want no babies a my own 'cause I know they ain't gone be mine anyway.  They be Massa's.  Anything we gots, it be his first.
When I tell Opal that, she say, "Sapphire, you is smart!  I be chewing my cotton root ever day since Hale and me jumped the broom and you ain't gone find no baby in my belly, no suh.  Hale and me say that when we be free, we can has babies then."
I has no idea 'bout what it mean to be free 'cause I been a slave ever since I took my first breath.  Since Mama put knitting needles in my hands when I was only three and say, "Play with 'em, Sapphire, and soon you be making hats for Massa's chil'ren."  Mama say she done teach me how to sew and make lace and all them fancy things so I can stay with her in the big house, not like my sisters who gots to work in the fields and such.  I's lucky 'cause I get to be with Mama always...and that jest the way I like it.
My sisters be called Pearl and Opal and I called Sapphire 'cause Daddy say he got him a bunch a precious jewels living under his roof, such as it be.  I's born on a night when the sky be as blue as a sapphire.  That how I got my name, even though my eyes be green. 
Green jest like Massa's. 
I figure I gone be his slave 'til the day I die...or 'til he do.  But Opal say the war that be raging all over the country be 'bout setting us all free, that one day, they ain't gone be no more slaves.
What gone happen then?  Will I get taken from Mama...or she from me?  What from I already done seen, they ain't no telling.

Two year ago, Pearl and Opal was standing near the barn when that mean man, Mister Rotten, stumble toward the place where my daddy do his work.  Mister Rotten not be his real name, but I's naughty and call him that under my breath whenever he come on Massa's land.  His real name be Mister Birch like them trees growing in the back a our shack.  But the only thing white 'bout Mister Rotten be his skin 'cause his words be black as tar and his soul be dark as the bottom of the well where I pull up buckets a water to tote to the big house. 
 When Mister Rotten went past the folks in the yard, I heard him yelling, "You niggers get back to work!"  He and Massa was drunk as skunks.  I could tell by the way they was walking, and ain't nothing good ever come when Massa be drinking.
Daddy look up from the anvil where he been banging on a piece a iron.  He be the best horseshoe maker in the county.  Or least he was.  Now he dead, so I 'magine him in heaven doing God's bidding. 
Mama was in the house with me on that horrible day.  She been cooking supper while I sat knitting at the table near the open window so I could hear what was going on outside.  Mama always say I has a gift from the Father God Almighty.  She tell me I make lace an angel be proud to wear.  When she say that, I feel my chest puff up and my heart grow wings.
But not on the day Daddy got taken away from me. 
Mister Rotten pointed his shaky finger toward the barn.  "That buck's uglier than sin," he snarled.  "But he'll do just fine."
Mama knew something bad gone happen, and she always been right 'bout things like that. "You has the gift a lace-making, Sapphire," she told me one time.  "But you also has the gift a insight, jest like I has it and my mama and her mama 'fore her."
"What insight?" I asked.
"Knowing when things gone happen," Mama said.  "Like a prophecy."
I looked at her like I still confuse. 
"Don't worry, baby girl," Mama told me.  "You gone learn how it feel soon enough."
And ain't it the truth if I do. 
When Mama ran to the barn after Massa and Mister Rotten, I felt a little cornbread I jest et start to curl up in my stomach and fix to pop right back out.  It didn't though,  jest ride up my throat a little, but I swallowed it back down. 
"Massa Sam!" Mama cried, running like her feet on fire.  "Please Massa Sam...please don't let him take my babies!" 
By the time she reached Massa, she was shaking 'cause she so upset.  Angry and scared both, and I ain't never seen her like that 'fore.  I stood in the doorway a the kitchen, my heart banging in my chest, but I couldn't move 'cause my feets felt like they was nailed to the floor.
Mama pulled on Massa's sleeve, crying, "Please Sam...don't give him my Pearl or Opal!  I begging you!  I do anything you want.  Please!"
Massa looked at Mama and a strange look crossed his face.  He ain't never hit none a us.  Run a clean plantation where the slaves be happy to work -- or at least that how he tell it.  He be the boss, the overseer, and the owner all in one.  Not like some a them plantations we hear 'bout from Earle, the slave who sometime ride along with Mister Rotten when they make deliveries to the big house.  Earle say some slaves get whipped.  Some get hung 'til they nearly dead.  Some get sold to places far away from Lincoln County, Tennessee.
But Massa ain't never been mean to none a us...least not that I seen.  When he been drinking, it always be Missus he take his anger out on and I feel right sorry for her.  But when Mama beg Massa, I knowed she done embarrass him in front a Mister Rotten. 
Maybe he gone hit her now, I thought. 
But I ain't never seen no whipping on Settler's Plantation.  No hanging neither.  There been slaves living here since Massa Settler's daddy built this place fifty year ago.  Long 'fore I was born, and ain't nobody ever tell Massa what to do. 
'Til now.
When Mama thought Pearl and Opal gone be taken away, she screeched like the devil and pulled on Massa's sleeve.  She screamed.  She cried.  She begged something fierce.
"You got yerself one righteous nigger, Samuel," Mister Rotten said, his voice all mean-like.  "But I do like a spitfire...maybe I'll change my mind about that buck."
It then I think Mister Rotton gone take my Mama, so I ran to her side and grabbed her skirt, holding on tight.  "Mama," I cried.  "Don't let them take you away!"
Massa looked at Mama and his eyes be wet with tears.  "You and your girls aren't going anywhere, Ruby.  You have my word."
Mama fell at his feet, taking me right on with her.  "Thank You, Jesus," she wailed.  "Thank you, Sam!"
But when she dried her eyes enough to look up, she see my daddy be talking to Massa and Mister Rotten.  Daddy's eyes was filling up.  He bit his lip.  His shoulders shook. 
"Mas-sa," I heard him say, the word sticking in his throat.  "Massa...please don't do this...I do anything you want.  I do anything.  Work like a dog all winter long.  You can hire me out to Massa Birch here...I go to his place to work and then come back and be with Ruby and my chil'ren."
Massa Settler shook his head, and I knowed this be the end, and I ain't never gone see my Daddy again.  By the way Massa looked at Mama, I knowed he feel he gone owe us plenty for what he jest done.
Daddy didn't fight.  He didn't do nothing but hug Mama.  Hug Pearl.  Hug Opal.  Hug me.
He whispered in my ear, "Baby girl, you and I gone see each other 'gain.  We is...I promise.  I gone get free and we all going up north once this war be done.  I gone come back for all ya."
I didn't say nothing, jest let my tears fall while I hugged my daddy like I was trying to memorize the way he feel.  His face was covered in stubbly hair.  His muscles was tight.  His skin soaked in sweat.  He been working hard, but I know this sweat was from fear.  Back then, I was too young to know what of, but I learned right quick.
Daddy tried to get free too soon.
He run off once and get his back whipped something awful. 
He run off again and get hung from a rope 'til his tongue turned black. 
The third time he tried to run and come back to us, Mister Rotten said he done had enough a my daddy and hang him 'til he dead.  Ever day since then, I's scared he gone come back and take Mama, too.
But Earle say now Daddy in heaven watching over us every day.  "Him and Jesus both," he told me while he be drying my eyes.  "They ain't gone let nothing bad happen to you or your sweet mama."
Poor Earle got whipped for crying when Mister Rotten kilt my daddy.  I heard it right from the dern horse's mouth 'cause Mister Rotten brag 'bout it to Massa.  He say any slave who spill a tear for another one deserve to suffer a little, too.
I know Mister Rotten be the devil right here on earth and he gone suffer plenty on the other side when hell be the only place wicked enough to hold him.

Now the sun rise higher over the barn and I hear a shrill train whistle in the distance.  Shivering in my shawl, I head to the big house where Mama be waiting on me to help cook breakfast.  It be early April, or so Missus Settler say.  She oughta know.  Got her nose stuck in books and calendars all day long. 
Missus teach me all kinds a things.  Like I know it be the day after Palm Sunday, and that be the celebration of Lord Jesus when He come to Jerusalem and all a them folks be waving palm branches and yelling stuff like, "Hosanna!" and "Blessed is He who come in the name of the Lord." 
I read all 'bout that in Massa's big Bible.
I can read and write good as his kids, even though that against the law.  Missus Settler could in get a heap a trouble if anyone find out, so I keep my mouth shut and my eyes busy whenever she hand me a book. Massa and Missus' kids, Little Sam and Marybelle, be 'round the same age as me, and we all learn together.  Marybelle be better at learning figures, but Little Sam and me be quick as lightning with new words.
Missus nice to me and all, but I know my place in the order a things 'round here.  Ever time I finish my lessons, Missus say, "Now Sapphire, please go fetch me a cup of tea." 
She ain't never ask her kids to do nothing but put they books back on the shelf 'fore they go outside to play.  It be then I come back to what Mama call reality.  She say I may be Missus Settler's student, but I always gone be her slave first.  No matter how smart I is, I still gone be colored 'til the day I die. 
But then Mama say not to worry 'bout such things.  "You cain't change nobody's mind but your own," she tell me.  "So keep reading and learning so you can keep on changing for the better."
So I do.
Jest last night I finish the second McGuffey Reader. I read all 'bout Jimmy getting up in the morning.  The sun is just peeping up over the hills in the east, it say.  I memorize them words so I can repeat 'em back to myself while I knit or sew or dust or sweep.  Never forget, before you leave your room, to thank God for His kindness.  He is indeed kinder to us than any earthy parent.
This morning as the sun be rising, I say my prayers and thank the Lord for all the things I love.  Mama and my sisters.  My lace making and reading and all the things I be learning.  And like always, I thank Him for it being one day closer to when I gone see my daddy.
Then I walk to the kitchen where I know Mama gone be breaking Massa's egg yolks and he gone be eating 'em like they fit for God Hisself.