Mama said I was a dreamer. She always said this with a cutting edge to the words. I saw things in a pretty way. Fancy is what my best friend, Emmaline, called it. She never saw anything in a fancy way, but we still loved each other. Sometimes we pretended we was sisters. Of course, Emmaline was the bossy older sister, even though we was the same age. But seeing pretty was the worst thing a slave girl could do. My love for beauty opened the door for ugly to come walking right in. I learned that from Emmaline too.
My first recollection of Sapelo Island was a big oak tree with limbs like a giantâ€™s arms and long, gray moss that looked like hair that swung wild in the wind. Mama said the trees was as alive as any person and heard our talks. Mama slung the hoe over her head and let it fall with a thud in the dirt of the cotton field. Sweat ran down her dark face, dripping off her jawbones. Mosquitoes buzzed around my ears and stung my bare arms and legs. Emmaline was off at another tree â€™cause her mama and grandmama was working away from us on that day. I missed her something crazy â€™cause we always played in the quiet way slave children too young to work did. The clang of a bell sounded so loud, I pressed my hands over my ears.
Mama looked up from her place in the row. â€œWhat you doing, child?â€ I think she missed Emmaline too â€™cause she always kept me from trouble.
â€œA bell is ringing, Mama.â€ I ran to stand beside her.
Mama never stopped swinging that hoe â€™cause it could cost her a meal at the end of the day or worse. Beatings happened on that island all the time. â€œGo back over there under that tree and keep quiet.â€ Her voice was rough with the hot afternoon sun.
The next day my older brother, Snugâ€”he be twelveâ€”was hit by a tall pine he was felling. He died right there on the spot. The other slaves was ordered to leave him be and keep working, like Snug was no better than some old mule. No telling how long he stayed under that tree until Mama heard and came after him. We buried him close to the cabin in the soft marsh mud. We was lucky. Slaves didnâ€™t always get to bury their folks. We tended Snugâ€™s grave, Mama and me. She said it was the only way she could still show her great love for him. She kept a bit of life on the hill of mud, even after it wore down flat. In the spring she might bring a sprig of honeysuckle vine. June brought fresh blackberries. Even in the dead of winter she placed the gray moss over him like a blanket. Pure love was in them simple gifts. But mostly she sat by his grave and talked to him every evening, no matter the weather. Me, I refused to speak to him. He ran off and left me. If he had something that was all-fire important, he would have to come talk to me first. But I thought maybe he had more sense than to stay on some old island when he was finally free.
I heard the bell that nobody else on the island heard. The death bell tolled for only those with a special understanding, a sight into the future. My job was to let it be known when the bell rang, to warn. I learned all this from Emmaline, who had thoughts like a grown-up woman. Had she been with me that day, maybe we could have saved Snug. But I never told Mama that idea. Anyway, my job of warning wasnâ€™t always the easiest thing to do, seeing how nobody wanted to hear about the death bell. I collected a lot of stubborn people along the way.
When I put my feet on the dirt floor of the cabin each morning, I shot outside, headed for the salt marsh, to see a bird, a blue heron that picked me as best to watch over. The top of my head would tingle, and musicâ€”more than the sounds of birds and bugs, no words, only a melody, a soft sweet hummingâ€”moved on the wind. The heron stood straight and still. The song twisted and turned, pulling me closer to the bird. In that rhythm was a story, I could almost see, surrounded by a soft blue light. The beat worked through my small body, keeping time with my heart, my rushing blood. The marsh was me, and I was the marsh. Something be wrong with a little girl that loved a salt marsh more than real people, but I did. Iâ€™d sneak out just as the sun became a pink ribbon in the tall, skinny pines. On some days the salt would be so thick in the air, I could have used it in my cup of morning rice to make it tastier. If the tide was in, I might see dragonflies race close to the water, and birds of all kinds fishing for breakfast. But always I heard the music and saw the blue heron standing in the marsh grass. Mama said that particular blue heron was not to be messed with, that it was bad mojo. But I always giggled â€™cause the blue heron was beautiful and calm. No bad in that. Its white feathers ruffled in the breeze, in the old tune. Mama said there was a hidden story that no one liked to tell except when the need to save a life was strong. A tale about a blue heron and a girl, a slave girl. One day she might end up having to tell me if I didnâ€™t stop hunting out the bird. There was wisdom to be had from her warning. But a girl had to listen in order to learn, and I was too busy dancing to a song no one else could hear.
In my dreams, I was the heron, flying to the mainland or anywhere I cottoned, for as long as I pleased.
â€œNot so,â€ fussed Emmaline. â€œA blue heron has to live near water because of the fish. It ainâ€™t free.â€
That didnâ€™t stop me from thinking on being a bird, â€™cause I was plenty happy to stay on the island. I didnâ€™t have no better sense, because salt water ran in my veins.
By the time I was ten, I stood by Mama in the cotton fields, sun beating on us, sacks slung around our necks, learning the best way to ease a ball of soft cotton, Sea Island cotton, from its thorny hull. Wasnâ€™t nothing fun about cotton picking, but I was born to work the crops. Mama believed our lives was written before babies came into the world and that mine was right hard, no sugarcoating. All those stories told about masters caring and looking after their slaves like they be part of some big old happy family was just purely whimsy. Slaves told them made-up tales â€™cause it gave the white folks what they wanted to hear, cleared away their guilt that must have sat on their shoulders sometimes. How could it not when they owned human beings like they might own a hog. Sometimes slaves told such things â€™cause it made them feel better about their shackled plantation lives, property listed on a tax bill, a means to pick that special cotton. At the end of the season, when it was all said and done for another year, we was allowed a celebration. And Lord have mercy, we had us one. Singing, dancing, and beating on homemade drums. It was at this time I heard the stories brought from the homeland. I learned to love the language and the way we spoke different from others on the mainland. We was thankful for our lives â€™cause it seemed we had no other choice anyway. But that never did set well with me. But mostly I just stayed quiet about the whole thing, too scared to get any kind of unwanted attention.
Master took a special notice of Mamaâ€™s work, and this won us extra rice, a real bed, and sometimes fishing privileges on Saturday when all the others was picking. Mama seined better than any man, made her own seining net along with the sweetgrass baskets that lined our cabin. Watching her made me smile. Sheâ€™d take one of the bullets on the foot line of the net and put it between her teeth, pull her arm back, hold the swivel rope in the other hand, and let go. The net flew open like a fine skirt belonging to Mistress and landed on the water. The bullets pulled it to the bottom. Mama would tuck the net with two jerks. â€œWhatever we pull up we eat.â€
This always made me laugh â€™cause weâ€™d have a little of everythingâ€”oysters, shrimp, crawfish, crab, and once in a while a sea trout that we cooked in the fire and shared. You had to share something like a sea trout. That was a treasure. What a time those nights was.
So a person could see I trusted my mama, and I guess that was the worst thing to do. Not â€™cause she be bad and a liar, only â€™cause she wanted to protect me from the hurt in life as long as possible. Who wouldnâ€™t do that for her girl? No, trust was a slippery thing to grab hold of on that island.
When Mama went lost, the death bell was quiet. The day had turned hot and the sun hung in the middle of the sky, staring down on our heads and shoulders. My copper skin changed to a deep reddish brown. Not a bit of wind, and gnats swarmed in clusters moving up and down the rows in our ears, eyes, and noses. My fingers was bleeding and sore, still not used to picking fast and hard like Mama. Her fingers was so thick they didnâ€™t bleed no more. She said she couldnâ€™t feel nothing with them. I put me a handful of cotton in my sack, and there stood Master at the end of our row with some fancy-dressed white man.
â€œHarbin, Joe, and Mary come down here.â€ He ticked off them names and waved his hand like they didnâ€™t have decent hearing.
Mama looked at me with the cotton sack slap-full hanging on her shoulder. Her back was still straight when others had bent backbones. Not one word. Not one cry for her only girl to be brought along too. â€™Cause it wouldnâ€™t have done no good. I was puny and not half-worth the time I spent picking. But still I thought she would have tried. The look on her face was enough to make a girl lose her mind.
Weâ€™d talked about what could happen at any time. It was something all us slaves got themselves ready for sometime or another. Mama always said, â€œPut that sadness out of your mind, baby, and take care of yourself for me.â€ Mama kept three pieces of gold in a hole in the dirt floor of our cabin. I knew right where to dig. Never in my whole life did I ask how that gold came to be there. I only knew that I was to get it and the black cat bone to give to Emmalineâ€™s mama, Tarry, for payment. Black cat bones was the most valuable â€™cause it protected its owner from bad haints and conjures. Thatâ€™s how I knew things would turn out okay for Mama. That bone was worth more than the gold. But I knew she would miss her talks with Snug most of all and there wasnâ€™t a dern thing I could do about it. I watched her walk away with Master and felt Emmalineâ€™s stare on my back. She was way down the field, but there.
So thatâ€™s when my pretending to be Emmalineâ€™s sister came true in the saddest of ways. We was like day and night, me and her. By ten she had done got good at conjuring, but mostly she was a storycatcher. That be someone who untangles the wrongs choking others. â€™Cept we didnâ€™t know all that back then. Neither of us had a daddy. I didnâ€™t know a dern thing about mine. Mama never mentioned him, and I didnâ€™t ask. Emmalineâ€™s daddy was forced to work so long in the hot sun, he died in the field of a fever that took over his brain.
Emmaline and me shared the dirt floor in the one-room cabin with her mama, Tarry. The gold coins was dropped in a sack and taken by Tarry with a frown. â€œThis is bad mojo.â€ She held up the sack like it held sickness. At night I cried until all the tears was gone. Mostly for Mama and some for the blue heron that never showed itself to me after the day Mama left.
By the time I was sixteen, I couldnâ€™t see Mamaâ€™s face in my mind no more. She was like a dream that hides in the fog when you wake up, but her voice always rang out, â€œBe strong, Celestia. Be strong.â€ This was the one true thing my mama gave me. But it was hard to be strong carrying around a bad attitude on my shoulders the size of the island. Even when word came from the talking chainâ€”that be a way for slaves to know what was taking place off the islandâ€”some six years after Mama was sold that she had settled on a plantation in North Carolina, I still carried that angry, sad streak in my heart.
Days stayed the same as they was before Mama left. I worked from sunup to sundown, except on Sundays, when we had to go to the church Master had set up on the island. Now, Emmaline dearly hated going and caused a stink each Sunday.
â€œEmmaline, donâ€™t mess with me,â€ Tarry always said.
â€œWhy I got to go? I donâ€™t believe in any God that has us as slaves. Why should I?â€ Emmaline could be ornery. But I secretly thought the same thing until the Sunday the preacher talked about Joseph and his coat of many colors. It seems his brothers got so sick of him and they threw him in a hole. He became a slave in a place called Egypt. From there he became a great ruler. A ruler, mind you. Thatâ€™s when I had to start believing. Maybe God, Masterâ€™s God, had something big planned for these slaves. Maybe. But I sure didnâ€™t say a word of this. After the service ended, the whole afternoon was mine. Every Sunday I went looking for the blue heron and never found it. Not in the six years from the time Mama was sold. Once I saw its shadow move across the path, but when I looked up, the sky was empty.
I was breeding age; a time when I could get sold myself. One thing Iâ€™d learned from Mama was a girl didnâ€™t want to be too good at anything lest Master noticed. So I picked his Sea Island cotton, but only enough to please the overseer. Mama should have thought on this herself, and she might have been picking right beside me.
The first time Emmaline and me saw Liza it was a hot summer day, and Young Mistress was readying the sleeping porch for company. Well, Young Mistress wasnâ€™t turning her hand. The house slaves was doing the work like always. Three girls plus Liza, who was new, and all the field slaves had been jawing about her since the day she stepped foot on the island. First of all, her coming brought a storm that rained hail for one hour. Then the frogs was everywhere, getting into our shoes, cornmeal bins, and beds just like in the Bible during Mosesâ€™ time. See, I did listen in church. So Liza had plenty of strikes against her. Young Mistressâ€™s own mama had Liza sent all the way from Savannah as a birthday gift. Never had a birthday gift all my childhood. Mama said it was bad luck to even think about the day a slave girl was born. It was like asking for some bad mojo to rain on us.
Liza was supposed to be some kind of special cook, the best cook on the coast of Georgia. The girl wasnâ€™t but seventeen, a year older than me and Emmaline. She was skinny. Lord help, she wasnâ€™t nothing but bones with chicken legs. Cooks was fat from tasting their own food all day. So just how good could she be?
Now, it was a everyday thing for field slaves to talk on house slaves like they be dirt, and of course the house slaves returned the favor with some extra words of their own. A natural divide opened between them two groups. But house slaves had all the fine things in lifeâ€”good cabins, better food, and all the hand-me-downs from the main house. Their skin was smooth and fingernails clean. My hands was cracked and callused. There wasnâ€™t nothing pretty about my ways.
Emmaline and me stood under that big oak, trying to stay out of the sun while we ate our cups of rice. It was tasting better than it ever had been with onions and black-eyed peas added. I figured Liza had something to do with that, but I didnâ€™t want to say it out loud. She snapped clean sheets in the air and folded perfect creases under them fresh straw mattresses. Lord, I would have given my right hand to sleep in the night air that time of year, not to mention a real bed.
Liza looked right at me and Emmaline. â€œWhat you two staring at so hard?â€
The other house girls turned their uppity noses in the air.
My voice just left but that was okay because Emmaline always had something to say.
â€œJust watching some old mule,â€ she laughed.
â€œMule. You calling me a mule?â€ A sassy tone filled Lizaâ€™s words. The other girls giggled.
Emmaline gave me a look. â€œYou always be afraid of everything,â€ she whispered to me as she gave them house slaves her meanest stare. Her face went hard and her mouth made a straight line. She didnâ€™t even swat at the bee buzzing around her head. â€œWe watching some old mule that probably canâ€™t cook a lick â€™cause mules donâ€™t know nothing about such things.â€
I pinched Emmaline. All we needed was that girl to come out with us and start a fight.
Liza scowled. â€œYou better hush up and get on back to your field before I call Young Mistress.â€
â€œCome on,â€ I whispered. â€œWe donâ€™t need to be around the likes of her.â€ But something about Lizaâ€™s straight back, long nose, and light-brown skin made me want to talk to her, to know what a place was like off the island. Was the sky the same? Did the birds sing as loud?
â€œWe ainâ€™t scared of you. You come on down here with yourself and see who is left standing on their feet.â€ Emmaline wasnâ€™t much to look at. This was just a fact, but she had the best heart in the world. She just wasnâ€™t showing that side.
â€œYou going to get us whipped,â€ I whispered soft-like in her ear. Then I touched her arm.
Emmaline went loose and turned her back on the sleeping porch.
I couldnâ€™t help but look backwards as we walked off. A shadow stood right by the porch of the main house. It was the blue heron, standing in a wet place.