A dark figure took shape behind Tom and my mouth hinged open, knocking my chin against my neck. It was as though the very shadows in the gallery had taken on solid form. There, seated behind my brothers, was a child, a very lumpen and deformed- looking child, who was as black as the inside of a cauldron. I had heard of black slaves but had never before seen one. His eyes seemed to bulge out and his head twitched as though chasing away some stinging insect. I stared until he felt me looking. He made faces at me, sticking out his tongue, until I thought I might laugh out loud. But Mother elbowed me sharply so I would once again sit facing the Reverend.
When the service was over, after much rising and sitting and singing psalms, and rising and sitting again, we made our way soberly out into the snow. The day was brilliant with the noonday sun, and I waited for my brothers to come down with the odd little shadow-boy. When Andrew walked out, he lurched about, unsteady on his feet, and Tom had to help him to the cart. Seeing the black boy, I rushed to Richard and tugged on his sleeve until he stopped and spoke to me. He told me that the boy was a slave who belonged to Lieutenant Osgood, one of the selectmen. I stood and stared at the child who seemed miserably dressed for such weather, even though he held a good heavy cloak for his master. We made faces at each other until the lieutenant came out, put on his cloak, and mounted his horse. The boy followed along on foot, his overly large shoes slipping in the snow. I strained to watch him until both the boy and rider passed beyond Haverhill Way.
BY THE TIME we had arrived home, Andrew's illness could no longer be hidden. Father carried him to the hearth and laid him down on the cot. Andrew was insensible, grasping at the covers and then throwing them off again as he was set upon by chills and fevers. Grandmother felt his face and knelt beside him, gently opening his shirt to reveal the first flush of a rash across his chest and belly. Mother came to stand next to the cot, her hand hovering just over the crimson patches.
"It could be any number of ailments," she said, her voice sounding defiant, even angry. But she wiped her palms against her apron and I smelled fear among the folds of her skirt.
"We will know soon . . . perhaps tomorrow," Grandmother said quietly as she laced up my brother's shirt. She carefully inspected each of us for fever or crimson patches and then, without another word, began to prepare food for us and a posset to ease Andrew's fever.
We ate our dinner in silence, broken only by the sound of the fire and the soft moaning coming from the corner where Andrew lay on his cot. Grandmother and Mother bathed his forehead and tried to force him to swallow what ever they could pour down his throat. Father sat as close to the fire as he could without climbing under the roasting spit and stared into the flames. The sweat poured from his face and he worked his hands together as though kneading beeswax between his palms.
Soon after, Tom and I were sent to bed, but neither of us could sleep. Sometime during the night I heard Andrew cry out as though in pain. I crept swiftly down the stairs in time to see him standing in the middle of the room, his arms outstretched, lit from behind by the fire that had burned low to embers. He had wet himself and seemed confused and wandering in his mind. Mother was trying to move him back onto the cot and he fought her as though drowning. Moving swiftly into the room, I took a rag and bent to clean up Andrew's mess. Grandmother grabbed my arm and pulled me harshly away.
"Sarah, you must not touch any part of Andrew now," she said urgently. She softened her grasp and stroked my face. "By touching him you may become ill as well." She moved me to a chair close to the fire and threw her shawl around my shoulders. She wrapped the rag on a broom handle and cleaned up the clouded water on the floor, then threw the rag into the fire. I fell asleep watching the dark shapes of the two women hovering above my brother's grasping, restless form.
Copyright © 2008 by Kathleen Kent
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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