I was brokenhearted when Big Mama would tell the story about my mother and her sad end. When Psalma died giving birth to me, Una Turner told Master Tobias that I was to remain on her family's plantation for as long as I lived as a remembrance to my mother.
Una loved my mother because of her voice. It was said that Psalma Turner had the most beautiful voice that anyone on Corinthian Plantation had ever heard. Miss Una had a weak constitution and bad nerves and when she would have an attack it was only my mother's singing that would keep her from despair.
Miss Una loved my mother so much, Big Mama Flore said, that she would have been sure to keep me up in the big house with her if she had lived. But three years after my mother died Miss Una had one of her attacks and without Psalma's singing she succumbed to the malady and passed over to the Upper Level and back to the place that all life comes from.
Some time after Miss Una died Master Tobias named me Forty-seven and told Big Mama that when I was big enough I was meant to live out in the slave quarters and work in the cotton fields with all the other slaves. Master Tobias didn't like me because he blamed my mother for getting pregnant and stealing herself from his property by dying. But he didn't want to sell me off because it was Miss Una's dying wish to keep me on her plantation near my mother's grave.
Until I grew Master Tobias made me live in the barn, feeding and grooming the horses and running any errands that the house slaves had for me. I made myself pretty scarce out there because whenever Master saw me he'd remember my mother and then he'd get mad and look to see if I'd done something wrong. And if there was one straw out of place he would tell Big Mama Flore to get her razor strap and whip my backside. Big Mama didn't want to beat me but she did anyway because Tobias was watching.
After these beatings, when Master was gone, Big Mama would fold me in her arms and apologize.
"I sorry, babychile, but if'n I didn't make you cry he would'a took the strap," she'd say, "and whip you hard enough to draw blood."
"Why he hate me so much, Big Mama?" I'd whine.
"He blame you for his wife dyin'," she'd say. "He just hurt so much inside an' you the on'y one left alive that he could blame."
"But I din't do nuthin'."
"Shhh, baby. You just stay outta Tobias's way. Don't look up when he's around an' always do all your work an' more than that so you don't give him no reason to have me beat you."
We both knew that when I got big enough to work in the fields he'd give me over to Mr. Stewart when he got mad. And Mr. Stewart would use a bullwhip on my bare back. He might even stretch my bones until I was dead.
We both knew that I was safe from Mr. Stewart until I grew big enough to pick cotton, so Mama Flore didn't feed me meat or milk so that I'd stay small and not have to go to work in the cotton fields.
I wasn't allowed in the big house. The only times I was ever there was when Big Mama sneaked me in so I could see how grand the white peoples' lives were.
So I lived in the barn my whole life until just before Tall John came to the plantation. In that time Big Mama Flore made my acquaintance with Mud Albert and Champ Noland. Mud Albert was the oldest slave on the plantation and Champ was the strongest. Champ once carried a fullgrown mule across the yard in front of the mansion. Albert and Champ loved Big Mama and so they told her that they would take me under their wings when I had to go out in the slave quarters and live with the rough element out there.
From 47 by Walter Mosley. Copyright © 2005 by Walter Mosley. All rights reserved.
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