I lived as a slave on the Corinthian
Plantation my whole life up to the time that Tall John ran out of the
back woods and into my life. I have no idea exactly how long the time
before Tall John might have been, but I was most likely about fourteen
years old at that time. Slaves didn't have birthday parties like the
white children of Master or the white folk that either worked for Master
or lived on the larder of his home.
Slaves didn't have birthday parties and so they didn't have ages like the white people did. Big Mama Flore always said that "White peoples gots as many ages as you can count but slaves on'y gots four ages. That's babychile, boy or girl, old boy or old girl, an' dead."
I loved Big Mama Flore. She was round and soft and always gave me a big hug in the morning. She was one of the only ones who ever showed me kindness when I was little. My mother died when I was too young to remember her face. Big Mama told me that my mother, her name was Psalma, had a boyfriend over at the Williams Plantation but she would never tell anybody who he was because she didn't want him getting into trouble for sneaking out to see her in the big house at night.
Flore also told me that that man nobody knew was my father.
"She didn't even tell you his name, Big Mama?" I asked when she would tell me the sad story of Psalma Turner when I was still too little to have to work in the cotton fields.
"No, babychile," Big Mama said. "Master Tobias would'a give a Christmas ham to the nigger tole who had fathered his wife's favorite maid's baby. He'd walk through the slave quarters at night sayin' that he would give the man who looked like Psalma's baby to Mr. Stewart for punishment. So if some slave knew who it was that yo' mama was seein' he would'a done hisself a big favor by tellin' Master Tobias his name. An' onceit Tobias knowed who that slave was he was sure to end up in Mr. Stewart's shack."
Tobias Turner was Master's name and Mr. Stewart was his overseer. The overseer made sure that all us slaves worked hard and didn't cause any ruckus or break the Rules. The Rules were that you did as you were told, didn't talk back, never complained, and stayed in your place.
Mr. Stewart had a shack that stood out in the middle of a stand of live oaks behind the slave quarters. And if you were ever unlucky enough to get sent back there then you were in serious trouble. Many a slave never returned from Mr. Stewart's killin' shack. And those that did come back were never the same.
I hadn't seen Mr. Stewart's torture chamber at that time but I knew about it because I had heard stories from those few souls that survived his torments. They said that he had a pine table that was twice as long as a tall man is tall and that there were leather straps on both ends that he would tie to a slave's wrists and ankles. The straps were attached to baskets filled with heavy stones that would stretch a poor soul's legs and arms out so far from their sockets that afterward the slave could hardly even lift his feet off the ground to walk and he would have to use both of his hands just to get the food to his mouth to eat.
"Yes, sir," Big Mama Flore would say in the backyard under the big magnolia tree that Una Turner's great grandfather planted when he settled the land back before any living slave, even Mud Albert, could remember. "Yes indeedy. If Master Tobias knowed who your father was that man wouldn'ta stood a nigger's chance on the main road at midday."
From 47 by Walter Mosley. Copyright © 2005 by Walter Mosley. All rights reserved.
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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