Ella was awake when she heard the first timid knock at the cabin door. Her husband, who lay beside her on the corn-shuck mattress, snored undisturbed. She kept still as well, not wanting to wake the newborn that slept in the crook of her arm. The baby had cried most of the night and had only just settled into a fitful sleep. Ella couldn't blame the girl for being miserable. The room was intolerably hot.
Like everybody else in the quarter, Ella believed the cholera was carried by foul nocturnal vapors arising from the surrounding swamp, so she and Thomas kept their shutters and doors closed tight against the night air, doing their best to protect their daughter from the killing disease that had already taken so many.
The rapping on the door became more insistent. Ella pushed against Thomas with her foot. On the second shove he awoke with a snort.
"Thomas! See to the door," she whispered, "and mind Yewande."
Wearing only a pair of cotton trousers, Thomas eased himself from the bed and crossed the room. He lifted the bar and pulled open the door, but his broad muscled back blocked the visitors' faces. From the flickering glare cast around her husband, Ella could tell one of the callers held a lantern.
"Thomas," came the familiar voice, "get Ella up."
Ella started at the words. It was Sylvie, the master's cook. The woman lived all the way up at the mansion and would have no good reason to be out this time of night unless it was something bad.
"Now?" Thomas whispered. "She's sleeping."
"She needs to carry her baby up to the master's house," Sylvie said. "Ella got to make haste on it. Mistress Amanda is waiting on her."
"What she wanting with my woman and child in the dead of night?" Ella heard the alarm rising in her husband's voice.
"Thomas, you know it ain't neither night nor day for Mistress Amanda. She ain't slept a wink since the funeral. And she's grieving particular bad tonight. Her medicine don't calm her down no more. She ain't in no mood to be trifled with."
"Old Silas," Thomas pled to another unseen caller, "you tell the mistress that Ella will come by tomorrow, early in the morning." Then he dropped his voice to a hush. "You know the mistress ain't right in her head."
Old Silas had more pull than anybody with the master, but from the lack of response, Ella imagined Silas's gray head, weathered skin stretched tight over his skull, shaking solemnly.
Thomas let go a deep breath and then turned back to his wife. Behind him, Ella could hear the talk as it continued between the couple outside.
"You know good and well she didn't say to fetch Ella," Old Silas whispered harshly to his wife. "Just the baby, she said. What's in your head?"
"Shush!" Aunt Sylvie fussed. "You didn't see what I seen. I know what I'm doing."
Ella met them at the door holding the swaddled infant. Not yet fourteen, Ella wore a ripped cotton shift cut low for nursing, and even in the heat of the cabin, she trembled. The yellow light lit the faces of the cook and her husband.
"What she want with Yewande?" Ella whimpered. "What she going to do to my baby?"
"Ella, she ain't going to hurt your baby," Sylvie assured. "Mistress wouldn't do that for the world."
"But why - "
Old Silas reached out and laid a gentle hand on Ella's shoulder. "I expect she wants to name your girl, is all." His voice was firm but comforting. He spoke more like the master than any slave. "That right, Sylvie?"
"Of course!" Sylvie said, as if hearing the explanation for the first time. "I expect that's all it is. Mistress Amanda wants to name your girl."
"But Master Ben names the children," Ella argued.
"You heard what the master said," Sylvie fussed. "Things got to change. We all got to mind her wishes until she comes through this thing. No use fighting it."
Silas's tone was kinder. "Mistress has taken an interest in your child from the start," he explained. "Her Becky passed the very hour your girl was born. I suppose their souls might have touched, one coming and the other leaving. No doubt that's why the mistress thinks your child so special. Every time the mistress hears your baby cry, she asks after Yewande's health."
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