Mama was always so busy. Busy tending to Old Master Van
Lew and Mistress Van Lew, Young Master John, Miss Bet. But she
was never too busy to riddle me. She said it was the first kind of
learning she could give me, and the most important, too. Be alert,
Mama meant. See the world around you. Find what you seek, because
it's already there.
"I spy with my little eye, where the bird goes when he doesn't fly," Mama said one mid-day, her words floating on the Richmond heat as we carried empty cookpots through the yard to the kitchen. I sing-songed the riddle to myself, eyes half closed against the bright Virginia sun. What could she mean, with no birds in sight? Then I spotted it, set in the crook of the big dogwood.
"Oh, Mama, a bird's nest!"
But Mama frowned. "I made a rhyme to riddle you, Mary El. You're old enough to rhyme me back your answer."
Whenever Mama said you're old enough, it meant something new was coming. Something hard I had to do, no matter what - cleaning all those fireplaces, polishing the silver, helping her serve and clear the Van Lews' meals. Old enough was never good news yet. And now old enough was ruining our favorite game. I pouted for a bit, until Mama said, "No new riddle, until you answer that one proper."
I wanted the next riddle so bad, the words burst out of me. "Up in the tree, that little nest, is where birdie goes when he wants a rest."
Mama smiled her biggest smile. "A child of five, rhyming so well." She set her armload of iron pots down, scooped me up, and looked to the sky. "Jesus, I know my child ain't meant for slavery. She should be doing Your work, not Marse V's or Mistress V's." She kissed me, set me back on the ground, and picked up the cookpots again. "But meanwhile, I got to do their work for sure." Mama's gone now. Though she worked as a slave all her life, she saw me free. She even put me onto the train to Philadelphia so I could go to school.
But a decade up North taught me about being bound in a different way than all my years in slavery ever did. Living free confounded me more than any of Mama's riddles, until I puzzled out the fact that I could never truly savor my liberty unless I turned it into something more than just my own.
Once I realized that, I knew I had to come back to Virginia. Knew I was ready to take up the mantle of bondage I was supposed to have left behind. Except instead of some slave-owning master or mistress, it's Mr. Lincoln I'm working for now.
Mama, your little girl is all grown up, and still playing our best game. I am a spy.
Mama and I woke early, put on our Sunday dresses, and stole
down all three sets of stairs from the garret to the cellar, slipping
out the servants' entrance before the Van Lews were even
out of bed. We walked west down Grace Street, turning south
past the tobacco factories to head toward Shockoe Bottom. The
Bottom was nothing like Church Hill, where the Van Lew mansion
sat above the city. Buildings in the Bottom were small and
weather-worn, the lots crowded with all manner of manufactories
and businesses. I held tight to Mama's hand as we ducked into a
narrow passageway between two storefronts along Main Street.
Papa stood tall on the other side of the passage, same as every
Sunday, waiting for us in his scraggly patch of yard. As soon as
he caught sight of me and Mama, a smile broke across his face like
sunshine streaming through the clouds. He hugged and kissed us
and then hugged us some more, looking me over like I'd changed
so much since the week before that he feared he might not recognize
I may have changed, but he never did. My papa was so lean and strong, his muscles showed even through his Sunday shirt. His rich skin shone with the color and sheen of the South American coffee beans that made Richmond importers wealthy. Large brown eyes dominated his narrow face, the same eyes I found staring back at me whenever I passed the looking glass in Mistress Van Lew's dressing room. What a strange and wonderful thing, to see a bit of Papa in my own reflection. All the more delightful when I pestered Mama with some peevish five-year-old's demand and she chided, "Don't look at me with your papa's eyes." Mama's complaint told me that I was his child as much as hers, even during the six days a week we spent apart from him.
Excerpted from The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen. Copyright © 2012 by Lois Leveen. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow Paperbacks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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