It's hard to believe that this time next week, "The Lace Makers" will be released! I'm working day and night on the last draft so it can be ready to go to the printers on Monday. Digital copies will be available on May 15th for NOOK and KINDLE with free apps on each page, so you can download the novel to your computer or mobile device.
Are you old school like me and love to hold a real book in your hands? Contact me at email@example.com and I'll make sure to add a copy to the order list.
For those of you who have asked, "Are you going to tease us with more chapters from this book?" the answer is "yes." Here are the first three chapters, edited and rewritten for the final copy. Miss Sapphire gets to share a little more of her story and reveal to you why her voice has become an endearing part of this project.
Please enjoy and share a little bit of "The Lace Makers."
The sun be peepin' over the ol' barn where I hear the cows be moanin' to get milked. The air sharp like little pins and needles where my arms be peekin' out from my shawl. I watch the sky turnin' the color a egg yolks my mama like to break jest to watch 'em get runny. She do that sometimes. Break them egg yolks for Massa and keep on fryin' 'em 'til they be hard as shoe leather.
He don't say nothin'. Jest gobble 'em up like they be the bes' thing he ever et. Sometime Massa even say, "Lord, Ruby...these eggs are truly delicious."
He know to keep his mouth shut 'round my mama 'bout eggs and such. He be the Massa and all, but he owe my mama. He owe her a lot. He owe her a husband. He owe me my daddy.
Massa done gambl'd Daddy 'way in a poker game two year ago. He tole a mean ol' man that 'stead a payin' him money, that man could take any one a his slaves. My sisters was done scar'd out they minds...'fraid one a them gone be chain'd to his wagon and made to stumble 'hind like a dern mule as Mister Rotten drive back to his plantation.
They be older than me...my sisters, Pearl and Opal. When my daddy got taken 'way, I was only six. They was fourteen and twelve back then. Big girls. Now they has husbands and Pearl be havin' a baby a her own come summertime. Opal say a baby be comin' 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 tell some slaves kill they own babies, but I cain't 'magine such a thing.
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. Anythin' we gots, it be his firs'.
When I tell Opal that, she say, "Sapphire, you is smart! I be chewin' my cotton root ever single day since Hale and me jump'd the broom and you ain't gone find no baby in my belly, no suh. Nuh-huh. Hale and me say that one day, 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 firs' breath. Since Mama put knittin' needles in my hands when I was only three year ol' and say, "Play with 'em, Sapphire, and soon you be makin' 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.
My sisters be call'd Pearl and Opal and I call'd Sapphire 'cause Daddy say he got him a bunch a precious jewels livin' 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 ragin' all over the country be 'bout settin' us all free. That one day, they ain't gone be no more slavery.
I seen both Pearl and Opal standin' 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 call him that under my breath whenever he come on Massa's land. His real name be Mister Birch like them trees growin' 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 go pas' Opal and Pearl, I hear him yellin', "You niggers get back to work!"
Daddy look up from the anvil where he been bangin' on a piece a iron. He be the bes' horseshoe maker in the county. Or leas' he was. Now he dead, so I 'magine him in heaven doin' God's biddin'. I wonder if the Lord Almighty got horses and oxes and such that need shoein'. If He do, then I know my daddy gone take care a them like they be his own. I know 'cause he done took good care a me and my sisters. One day I gone see him 'gain...maybe that how I can finally be free.
Mama was in the house with me on that horrible day. She been cookin' supper while I sat at the wood table near the open window so's I could hear what be goin' on outside. I was pullin' a mistake from a lace cap I been workin' on for near a month. Mama always say I has a gift from the Father God Almighty. She say 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 'way from me.
Mister Rotten point his shaky finger at my daddy. "That buck's uglier than sin," he snarl. "But he'll do just fine."
Mama come stand next to me and we seen Mister Rotten and Massa head toward the barn. She know somethin' bad gone happen, and she always right 'bout things like that.
"You has the gift a lace-makin,' Sapphire," she tole me one time. "But you also has the gift a insight, jest like I has it and my mama and her mama 'fore her. All us women-folk has it."
"What insight?" I ask, twistin' one a my braids 'til it like to cut the blood from my finger.
"Knowin' when things gone happen," Mama say. "Like a prophecy."
I look at her like I still confuse. I know 'bout prophets from the Bible, but I ain't sure people nowadays be makin' miracles and such.
"Don't worry, baby girl," Mama say. "You gone learn how it feel soon 'nuf."
And ain't it the truth if I do.
That day when Mama ran to the barn after Massa and Mister Rotten, I feel a little cornbread I jest et start to curl up in my stomach and fix to pop right back out. It don't though, jest ride up my throat a little, but I swallow it back down. I seen them two mens walkin' to the barn and know they gots too much whiskey in 'em. When Massa drink too much a that stuff, bad things always be happenin'.
"Massa Sam!" I hear Mama cry. "Please Massa Sam...please don't let him take my babies!" She run like her feet on fire. By the time she reach Massa, she shakin' 'cause she so upset. Angry and scared both. I ain't never seen her like that.
She pull on his sleeve, cryin', "Please Sam...don't give him my Pearl or Opal! I beggin' you! I do anything you want. Please!"
Massa look at Mama and a strange look cross his face. He ain't never hit none a us. Run a clean plantation where the slaves be happy to work -- or at leas' 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 delivery a dry goods to the big house. Earle say some slaves get whipp'd. Get hung 'til they nearly dead. Get raped, 'cept I don't know what that mean. When I ask Mama, she say I be too young to understand and to hush up about it.
Massa ain't never been mean to none a us. Leas' not that I seen. When he been drinkin', it always be Missus he take his anger out on and I feel right sorry for her. But when Mama beg Massa, I know she done embarrass him in front a Mister Rotten.
Maybe he gone hit her now, I think.
I ain't never seen no whippin' on Settler's Plantation. No hangin' neither. There been slaves livin' here since Massa Settler's daddy built this place fifty year ago. Long 'fore I was born. Long 'fore my daddy's daddy got sold at an auction in Fayetteville and was brought here along with six other mens to work the farm. We been livin' in the heart a Lincoln County, Tennessee for more'n three gen'rations to hear my daddy tell it, but ain't a one a us ever be tellin' Massa what to do.
When Mama think Pearl and Opal gone be taken 'way, she screech like the devil and pull on Massa's sleeve. She scream. She cry. She beg somethin' fierce.
"You got yerself one righteous nigger, Samuel," Mister Rotten say, his voice all mean-like. "You goin' to let her tell you what's what?"
Massa look at Mama and take her hand from his sleeve real gentle-like. "I'm not going to give Pearl and Opal away, Ruby. You have my word."
Mama fall at his feet and start to cry. "Thank You, Jesus," she wail. "Thank you, Sam!"
But when she dry her eyes 'nuf to look up, she see my daddy be talkin' to Massa and Mister Rotten. Daddy's eyes be fillin' up. He bite his lip. His shoulders shake.
"Mas-sa," I hear him say, the word stickin' 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 shake his head, and I know this be the end. And by the way he look at Mama, I know Massa feel he gone owe her plenty for what he jest done.
Daddy don't fight. He don't do nothin' but hug Mama. Hug Pearl. Hug Opal. Hug me.
He whisper in my ear, "Baby girl, you and I gone see each other 'gain. We is...I promise. I gone get free and we all goin' up north once this war be done. I gone come back for all ya."
I hug my daddy like I tryin' to mem'rize the way he feel. His face be cover'd in stubbly hair. His muscles be tight. His skin soak'd in sweat. He been workin' hard, but I know this sweat be from fear. I's too young to know what of, but I learn right quick.
Daddy try to get free too soon.
He run off once and get his back whipp'd somethin' awful.
He run off 'gain and get hung from a rope 'til his tongue turn black.
The third time he try to run and come back to us, Mister Rotten say he done had 'nuf a my daddy and hang him 'til he dead.
Earle say now Daddy in heaven watchin' over us ever day. "Him and Jesus both," he tell me while he dryin' my eyes.
I hear Earle done got whipp'd for cryin' when Mister Rotten kilt my daddy. I hear 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 'nother one done deserve to suffer a little, too.
I think 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 'nuf to hold him.
Now the sun rise higher over the barn and I hear a shrill train whistle in the distance. Shiverin' in my shawl, I head to the big house where Mama be waitin' on me to help cook breakfas'. It be early April, 1865 - 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 Jerus'lem and all a them folks be wavin' palm branches and yellin' 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 'gainst 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 learnin' figures, but Little Sam and me be quick as lightnin' with new words.
Missus nice to me and all, but I know my place in the order a things 'round here. Ever time after my lessons be done, Missus say, "Now Sapphire, please go fetch me a cup of tea."
I notice she ain't never ask her kids to do nothin' 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. I may be Missus Settler's student, but I always gone be her slave firs'. No matter how smart I is, I still gone be colored 'til the day I die.
But Mama say not to worry 'bout such things. "You cain't change nobody's mind but your own," she tell me. "So keep readin' and learnin' so you can keep on changin' for the better."
So I do.
Jest last night I finish the second McGuffey Reader. I read all 'bout Jimmy gettin' up in the mornin'. "The sun is just peeping up over the hills in the east," it say. I mem'rize 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 mornin' as the sun be risin', I say my prayers and thank the Lord for all the things I done love. My mama and my sisters. My lace makin' and my readin' and all the things I be learnin', And like always, I thank Him for it bein' one day closer to when I gone see my daddy.
Then I walk to the kitchen where I know Mama gone be breakin' Massa's egg yolks and he gone be eatin' 'em like they fit for God Hisself.
It's four o'clock in the morning when Aufseherin Grese, the notorious guard known as "The Beautiful Beast," repeatedly 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!" The Beast growls. "Kapitan Dieter wants you! NOW!" She sharply pokes me in the ribs and shines a flashlight in my eyes. I can see the outline of her angry face frowning down at me. I hate The Beast...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 calls for me before Appellplatz where we must stand and be counted, sometimes waiting for hours to make sure the calculations are correct. The dead must be accounted for, the bodies hauled from the barracks by unfortunate prisoners while the rest of us 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 intermittant gunfire in the distance and sometimes a loud explosion. I'm not sure if the war has come to our decrepit doorstep, but everything feels different since the S.S. ordered most of the prisoners to be evacuated last week, since the officers started packing their belongings and rushing around the camp yelling, "Schnell! Schnell!"
Even the executions have been 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. Still, the smoke that continually rises from the chimney scatters the ashes of the prisoners who longed for freedom and finally found it in death.
When The Beast 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 such as it is, lined with straw and filled with bugs. Mutti always 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, and even when I do nod off, 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 earthy sweet smell of evergreen will be forever tangled with the putrid odor of death.
Before The Beast can stomp on my feet for her own sadistic pleasure, I quickly shove them into a pair of worn-out wooden shoes and silently 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. An uncontrolled typhus epidemic claims hundreds of lives every day, and the S.S. have taken to burning bodies on grids of timber to make up for what the crematorium cannot accomplish.
Like always, I pretend I'm walking past stalks of corn, harvested from Mutti's vegetable garden. Every autumn Vati would stack them in his wheelbarrow and bring them to the back door for shucking. I imagine that the corpses rotting on the earth are piles of corn my mother will soon grind into flour. But in truth I know these bodies will soon be turned into ashes, that never-ending human smoke will rise from the chimneys and dust the camp with the souls of so many people, I cannot count them all.
The stench is unbearable. The sight, even more so. Yet the barbed wire and filth have become as commonplace as my mother's garden, and it still shocks me how much I have grown accustomed to seeing the walking carcasses the prisoners have become, their eyes glazed, their will to live all but extinguished.
I no longer remember the smell of clean air as the cloying stench of burning flesh remains lodged in my throat and presses on my chest as a relentless warning. For I know that with one swift decision, my life could also be snuffed out. Yet every night, I close my eyes and say to myself, If God wills it, I will wake again tomorrow. I often cannot distinguish what is the real nightmare...what I see in my dreams or what I experience upon waking.
As we pass the Appellplatz, I see corpses still hanging in the gallows - a warning to us all about the dangers of escape. I watch Leah's body swing from the rope and remember what she had told me last week...that her name means to be tired. She was tired of living in this hell on earth, this hideous place called Bergen Belsen. Leah said 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, even though my heart still cries out every night for the ones who have died.
When we reach the disinfection building, I strip, then stand in the scalding shower I'm ordered to take whenever Kapitan Dieter sends for me. There's been no fresh water for the prisoners for over a week, but somehow Deiter manages to find a way for me to wash. I gag as The Beast throws a cup of delousing powder on my head. It stings my eyes and mouth, but kills any bugs which might have invaded my skin and hair since the last time I had the treatment.
"WASCH DU! SCHNELLER! SCHNELLER!" she shrieks.
I rinse my legs and arms, scrubbing harder at the number tattooed on my left arm, pretending the disinfectant will wash it away. It should have been six numbers long, but the S.S. man with the needle was interrupted 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 to the S.S. 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 that she was my sister and he let her live. He let her walk with me to a room where we were ordered to strip naked and shower. He let her watch as a guard laughed while shaving my head and body, then endured the same humiliation herself.
The S.S. officer in charge of tattooing also believed Mutti when she told him we were German citizens. Our identification papers had disappeared during the transport, so there was no way to prove this. But Mutti had heard that they didn't mark German prisoners and she tried to save me from one more degradation. The man who had a death grip on my arm put down the needle, then shoved me out the door. Still, I was left with 811 inked in bluish gray over the triangle of freckles near my wrist, and no matter how hard I scrub, the number never goes away.
I will never again be simply Karin Vogel. Even if I survive this war, there will always be a truncated number to remind me of what I've become.
There's no towel with which 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 with temperatures well below zero, and even though I work inside 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. And 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 told me once, "Your payment is you get to live."
I'm supposed to feel grateful, but I don't. And I don't know why I've lived this long while so many others have perished. I'm only nineteen years old, but I've endured years in Auschwitz and Buchenwald and this horrible place. Now I don't even know if I want to survive anymore.
But Mutti says I have to. She says I have to do whatever the guards want. Whatever Kapitan Dieter wants. Whatever Kommandant Kramer wants. Whatever The Beast 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 follow Herman's orders, all the while staring at the wall or the ceiling or the knobs on the small glass cupboard in the corner 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."
I despise Herman and 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.
Usually activity doesn’t begin until after Appellplatz; however, the past few days have been unlike any I have survived here at Bergen Belsen. There has been no roll call. Anyone who is living is made to carry corpses for burial. Those of us who are able to work continue our labors while the S.S. rush here and there, burning papers and yelling at each other to be prepared for the end.
The end of what? I wonder. The war? This camp? The end of our misery or the end of our lives?
The calendar says it's Saturday, April 14, 1945. Days ago when thousands of inmates were ordered on a forced march with most of the guards, Mutti insisted that I hide, that I not leave the camp. She knew what would happen to the prisoners who were herded like cattle and prodded like pigs as they made their way southeast toward Theresienstadt. They were the weakest of the men, the frailest of the women. Why waste a bullet when the S.S. know that starvation and the elements will do the job quickly?
“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.”
He knots his tie. “So if anyone asks, you will tell them I am a good man. Alright?”
I wonder why he's saying this. No one in power asks me anything. Not who I am. Not what I want. Whenever I'm yelled at it’s because someone is giving an order as if they are the supreme power of the universe.
“Get back to your barrack!”
“Stand up straight and sing louder!”
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. “I love you.”
I cringe and curl away from him, but Herman presses his warm, damp lips to my ear. “Remember what I said," he whispers. "I have always been a good man 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 sitting for more than three hours...waiting for orders from the guards. After I dressed, made the bed, and hid some food for Simka in my kerchief, The Beast deposited me and the other lace makers in a small room next to the children's compound. 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, more womanly. 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 steals from the kitchen and the additional bread I bring from Kapitan Dieter's room keep her healthier than the rest of us. She needs it more than we do. 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 of her extra nourishment.
My gnawing hunger never goes away. The camp has had no food or fresh water for almost six days and the meager rations I take from Kapitan Dieter's cupboard are for others, not for me. There are women here who have killed for any scrap of sustenance, only to die themselves in a few day's time. 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, saying, "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."
But I know the world of men. I know of their brutality and their lust for power and domination. I know of their insatiable hunger for vicious cruelty. I know that as long as there are men in this world, there will be madness also.
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.
As my hands toil, I think back to when Mutti taught me how to knit. Her sister, my Tante Sabine, lived with us in Baden Baden back then while her husband, Onkel Erik, traveled extensively for his work. She was having her first baby, and as a nine-year-old girl, I was excited for its imminent arrival. During the last few months of her pregnancy it was decided that Tante Sabine would stay with us until the baby came. Then she would move to Stuttgart with Onkel Erik and live with his parents where she and the baby would be well cared for.
At that time, everyone was worried about Hitler and 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. They had known each other since before the Big War when they were just Junge, boys in short pants who kicked a tattered ball back and forth through the schoolyard.
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 would often visit 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.
Vati, Mutti, and Tante Sabine would visit with Herr Zweig and his wife while I played tag in our backyard with Heinrich and Georg. Fritz preferred to hunt for worms and bugs and other dirty things in Mutti's garden. She would give him a small trowel and a metal pail, saying, "Just make sure you don't harm my vegetables."
In the evening all of us would go back 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 would play the piano, Frau Zweig the violin, and I would lead everyone in song.
Vati especially loved to hear me sing "In stiller Nacht" all by myself to end the evening. Tears would fill his eyes, and like Mutti who loves twilight, he seemed to be 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, like Tante Sabine, Mutti was expecting as well. 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 would sing "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 watched Mutti create her own intricate patterns and our modest home was filled with lace tablecloths, placemats, and doilies. Several delicate shawls hung on a peg near the door so Mutti could wrap one around her shoulders when she walked into the garden for some fresh air. My favorite was a Queen Anne's Lace pattern interwoven with open stitching. Mutti carefully hand-stitched the delicate stems to accent the gentle blossoms and I could almost smell their spicy, sweet fragrance every time she wore it.
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, such as it is.
Now, 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 all perished long before I came to this place.
Countless stitches for Vati and Mutti and Jurgen.
And always...every stitch for Bruno.
My feet be wet with mornin' dew as I walk into the kitchen where Mama already been for an hour. She wearin' 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 Christmastime. I's light like Mama, but Opal and Pearl be dark like our daddy. I's the only one with green eyes though, '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 las' 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 comin' to visit today? I wonder.
Then I 'member -- it be Mister Rotten's day to deliver the flour and oats and cornmeal from the general store. We low on everthing with the war ragin' on and spring not comin' on real good yet. Prices be sky high, or so Massa say. He be one a the few plantation owners still lef' in our corner a Lincoln County 'cause he ain't able to fight. He done lost the hearin' in one a his ears when we was a boy, so the Rebs say, "The heck with you," and Massa go back to farmin'. Missus say she wantin' the south to set all a us slaves free, so I don't know if she would even let Massa fight a war that mean to keep us jest where we is.
Sometime it a wonder why Missus don't make Massa set us free right now. I hear some white folks up north be doin' jest that since 'fore I was born. I ain't understandin' why Missus so 'gainst slavery when she happy to have Mama and me 'round the house cookin' and cleanin' and ever such thing. Maybe she bidin' her time, like Mama is, waitin' for the war to set things right.
Earle say when they was in town las' month, he heard them Yanks done whupp'd up on the Rebs in Alabama and all over Virginia, 'cept I don't know where them places is. I need to ask Missus to show me the book with all a them states color'd in blue, green, and yellow. I know we live in Tennessee, and that state be green. I wonder how far it be to Alabama. And is they slaves all over the place? Is that why folks be screamin' and fightin' and dyin'?
How can people I ain't never met be willin' to give they lives for folks like me?
I's always thinkin' on somethin' and today that what I's wonderin' as I take down an apron from the peg by the stove. Then I 'members 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 sho as the sun be shinin' that none a them Yanks gone rise up out they graves any time soon.
"Mornin', Sapphire," Mama say, givin' me a little peck on the cheek. "You sleep good las' night?"
I shake my head. "No, ma'am."
Mama know I ain't sleepin' good ever night. I lay in bed with her now that Daddy gone and it be better than the dirt floor that always seem cold and damp, even in the summer. The walls a our shack be made a thin slats and Daddy done his bes' to tar up the chinks where cold, whistly wind used to sneak through ever winter. Mama and I keep our place neat as a pin, or so she say. With its rotten ol' roof, it don't look a thing like the big house, but we takes care a it 'cause it be our home. We even has some ol' chipp'd up china Missus say we can have now that it not be any good to her no more.
When I be really little, I always had a cold 'til Mama say I can get on up in her bed. Now I don't get sick as much, but I don't sleep neither. Mama's bed has a quilt my grandmama made and a pillow and even a hay mattress, but that don't do no good. 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's gone know who I is, no suh.
But Mama also done 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 so Hale can teach me how 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 and rub and rub them tokens like Missus be rubbin' her ros'ry. Ever time I see Missus fingerin' them beads, I think on when she say it stop her from worryin' so much. It don't do nothin' for me though. I still worry 'bout Mama and Opal and Pearl. And no matter how much I rub Daddy's stone, I ain't never gone see him again...not 'til the day I get to heaven.
"Baby girl, will you please get me some butter from the cooler?" Mama ask. She busy slicin' 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 peckin' 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, givin' me a wink.
"Tweet, tweet," I chirp.
That be the bes' 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 ol' stump when we eats at our place. Sometime I pretend I's not a slave, but a little girl settin' in her own kitchen. And I pretend Mama ain't no slave neither, but jest my mama, makin' me breakfas' 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, stokin' the fire. "I be makin' Massa's eggs early today. We's goin' into town later this mornin' to get the dry goods."
"That true, Mama?" I ask, liftin' my brows.
I's so excited! Firs' '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 mercantile. 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 ol' 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 somethin' beautiful outta somethin' ugly. Then she sell it for money that belong only to her...not to Massa.
She savin' to buy our freedom. Her'n mine both. Mama once tell me, "I know they's some folks who be runnin' 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 'way from me like they done your daddy if'n 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 tellin' 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 sew'd 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 anythin' 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 comp'ny 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 somethin' 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 shellin' 'em."
I hears 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 poppin' and in no time, I got 'nuf for more'n Missus and the chil'ren. Maybe Mama will let me has some for my supper, too. I love peas more'n 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. Maybe that 'cause it be closer to the pump, so it be easier to keep 'em watered, 'specially when it be so hot in July and August.
Even so, my onions be the bes' on the plantation, but I don't know why. Whenever they be comin' 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 'nuf 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 las' Christmas.
When I put it on, she tole me, "Sapphire, I's gone teach you how to make diff'rent laces, but that be the most perfec' kind on earth."
"How come?" I ask'd, runnin' my fingers over the little knobs and bumps in the flowers.
Mama fix 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, it be," Mama say, huggin' me.
Now I sit on the stool and, one by one, I shell them peas, feelin' 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 droppin' 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 chipp'd when Mama or Missus or even Marybelle be usin' it and I don't have to worry 'bout destroyin' somethin' that be a picture a what God done made.
Mama clear her throat. I look up to see her gazin' 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, takin' 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 mornin' chill, but soon I get a trickle goin'.
Mama don't say nothin' 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 that be?"
Mama give me a gentle smile. "Sapphire, you need to listen with diff'rent ears."
I frown as I rinse the peas. "These be the only ears I got! I cain't be changin' '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'n it weren't her?
"I ain't sassin'," I say. "I's jest wonderin' how you send a message to Massa by messin' 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 wantin' to be a slave in my mind. "What that mean?" I ask her.
"All them Yanks and folks up north be fightin' for our freedom, but I done figur'd 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 nothin' 'bout it and I don't do it malicious-like."
"It mean to be nasty on purpose," she 'splain. "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 be nursin' and when we got bigger, we play'd together like we's kin. I know him like I knew my own sister, you 'member her?"
Auntie Jasmine died when I was just a bitty thing 'cause she got kick'd in the head by a horse in the field. She fell down in the cornstalks and never got up.
Mama put her hands on her hips. "When I break Massa's eggs, it be like sayin' to him, 'I's still be the same Ruby you play'd with when you was a boy. I's still the same person who see'd your daddy whip your hide. I's still the same person your mama done hate like the devil. I's still the same Ruby who shot marbles with you in the dirt and climb'd trees and skipp'd stones in the lake. I's still the same even though you's the massa now.'" Mama put a fork and knife by Massa's plate, then look at me directly. "It like I's tellin' him I be a whole person...that I ain't no three-fifth like that dern law say...and that how I be free."
I hear ever word she say, tryin' to listen with diff'rent ears. I wonder what it gone feel like when Little Sam be the massa and I be like mama. I's learnt 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 breakfas', I take some cornbread and a pail a fresh water to the folks in the field. They's been up since 'fore dawn milkin' cows, totin' hay, scoopin' poop and such.
In the fresh mornin' breeze, I smell the spruce and pine trees growin' tall and proud near the edge a the plantation. The green leaves jest be poppin' on the maple trees, but they ain't no whirlygigs comin' on 'em yet. I like evergreens the bes' '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 nothin' to do but set on our behinds and gobble up the holiday cake Mama done made and think 'bout what ol' Santy Claus would bring us if'n we had a stockin' to hang by the fireplace. If'n we even had a fireplace and not jest a fire pit outside our shack.
I see Opal in the henhouse pokin' 'round the nests, careful not to get peck'd 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 mornin,' and Opal always tell me to sneak a few into our shack so's Mama can scramble up some for my supper.
"Missus ain't gone miss a few eggs now and 'gain," she say real sassy-like.
Opal always be tryin' 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 sayin'. 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 tellin' 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 spinnin' her web a lies.
Now I hear everone singin' "Follow the Drinking Gourd" and long for Mama to teach me the harmony part. She already done teach'd me how to sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel." "Swing Low" be my fav'rite, 'specially when we sing the part 'bout angels comin' after me. I wonder if them angels be wearin' lace wings like Mama say. Jest in case, ever time I sit down to knit, I start a hummin' and weave the words a the song into the stitches.
When I get to singin' out loud, Mama say, "With that pretty little voice, someday you gone get to heaven ridin' on them angels' wings."
Now Opal stop singin' and motion for me. "Sapphire, get your behind over here and tote these to Mama's place. She pop two small eggs into my apron pockets, then hand me a straw basket. "Ol' Bessie done outdid herself this mornin'. I counted five under her rump!"
"How 'bout Gertie?" I ask. That be my fav'rite 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, standin' up and stretchin' her long arms over her head. "Someday soon she gone be stewin' in the soup pot."
I frown and tears come to my eyes.
Opal chuck my shoulder. "I's kiddin' with you, Sapphire. She lay them two little bitty things in your pockets. I figure you want to have Gertie's 'cause she be your fav'rite and all...'cept I don't know why. She be ornery as sin."
I smile and finger them little warm, brown eggs that come straight from Gertie's nest.
"What you got for our breakfas'?" Opal ask.
Like she don't know.
"I's 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 goin' to town with Massa," I tell her. "We's gone get the dry goods and such. Maybe Mama make you oatmeal for supper."
Opal nod. "I has some lef'over honey from las' summer. That be a nice treat after workin' hard all day long."
I know how lucky I is to work in the big house with Mama. 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 all the animals and the fields. Now that she be big, Pearl doin' more a the hoein' and less a the totin'. When the baby come, I guess she gone strap it to her back and keep on a workin'. Keen done take over as the blacksmith when Mister Rotten take my daddy, and sometime he work with Massa, plannin' where to plant the crops and how to rotate 'em and such.
Ol' 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. Ol' Albert say he too feeble to hoe and rake and pick cotton. Said he was jest gettin' used to overseein' and now look where he be. The mens say he do the bes' he can, but Ol' Albert be stiff and slow. He cain't do half the work Hale and Issac can. Maybe Massa take pity on Ol' Albert someday and let him come be a butler or somethin' in the big house. Then Mama and me can has someone else to talk to 'sides ourselves.
I like Ol' Albert. He tell funny stories 'bout Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox and how they always be gettin' 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 mis'ry. That mean ol' 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, laughin' 'bout how he done fool Brer Fox for good measure.
I beg to hear Ol' Albert tell that tale over and over 'gain while we warms ourselves by the fire at night. Mama say I like it 'cause I need to learn how to stay 'way 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 beginnin'.
|"The Lace Makers" will be released on Friday, May 15, 2015|