‘Be quiet, be quiet, I tell you!’ he squealed before commanding Rose, ‘Stop up her mouth!’
Rose gazed upon this man in puzzlement. ‘Stuff up her mouth with rags, come on, come on,’ he insisted once more. Rose took a rag, dipping it in the water from the pail and brushed it against Kitty’s lips. But Tam Dewar, exhaling with annoyance, commanded, ‘Not like that!’ He snatched at the rag that Rose held, then forced the damp cloth down into Kitty’s mouth. ‘Like this, you fool, like this.’
Rose protested, ‘Massa, she birthin’, she birthin’!’ as Kitty choked to accommodate the bulk of cloth in her mouth. Soon Kitty bit down hard to catch the overseer’s finger within her teeth, for this white man’s fist was blocking her throat.
‘Damn you,’ he wailed. He wrenched his finger from her bite, then whipped back his hand to slap Kitty around the head.
Rose hastened to stand between Kitty and this white man saying, ‘She birthin’, massa, she birthin’, massa . . .’ for she could see this man was preparing to strike Kitty again. ‘Pity, massa, pity, no lash her, she birthin’, massa,’ Rose pleaded.
Tam Dewar threw the tiny figure of Rose aside and was ready to strike Kitty once more, for the impertinence that still throbbed at his fingertips. While Kitty, cowering from the coming blow, wrapped one arm around her massive belly and thrust out a splayed hand at this man to keep him far from her. And in that moment, Tam Dewar was stilled. He stared at her then dropped his raised hand. He knelt down next to Kitty, palms raised, saying, ‘Shhhh, shhhh,’ to calm her as he spoke softly to her. ‘My sister has sent me some strawberry conserve from Scotland. It’s very fine. Delicious. I was just eating it, but then the noise you were making . . . I cannot stand the noise. I have a pain in my head, you see, that I cannot remove. So you must be quiet.’ He lifted up the lamp so Kitty might behold his earnest face. She saw a dollop of strawberry jam upon his cheek and smelled the sweet confection upon his breath. He turned, as if to leave, but then, leaning over again said, ‘Hush, Kitty or I’ll take a whip to you, so help me, God, I will, because I cannot stand the noise.’
Kitty made no reply to this man, but bit down hard upon the cloth that was still within her mouth so she would make no sound that could cause his mood to change. For Kitty had managed to live without feeling the lash from his whip for four years. But this white man had fathered the child she was birthing and if he was not gone soon, she thought to rise from the mattress, grab this ugly bakkra by the leg, swing him above her head and hurl him like a piece of cane so far-far that he would land head first in a heap of trash upon some other talked of island. But she just bit harder upon the rags, as he, pressing his handkerchief once more to his nose, stood up as if to take his leave. He made two steps before remembering a thought. Heedful to point at both his slaves in turn he said, ‘And be careful with that wee baby—it will be worth a great deal of money.’
When the pickney was finally released from within Kitty she yelled with so mighty an exhalation that the trees bent as if a hurricane had just passed. Tam Dewar, startled by that immense cry, banged his fist hard upon his supper table and his precious strawberry conserve did topple down to spill upon the floor.
Excerpted from The Long Song by Andrea Levy. Copyright © 2010 by Andrea Levy. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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