The Nights (part 3)

“Stephanie, where have you been? Momma has been looking for you. If you have been in the quarters again momma is going to be upset. You know she has been feeling faint, tires easily and according to the doctor should not put a strain on her heart. Why can’t you be a lady and stop running around Divine Mercy like a savage? Look at your clothes. You’ve surely ruined your dress.” 

Even though her name means crown, I say crown of thorns. She often says, “I just want to be free!” Free? Being a lady is freedom. Being the middle daughter is freedom. Being the child of a wealthy businessman is freedom. Momma doesn’t require her to do the same things as I. That’s freedom. I would love to ride my horse or hangout in the quarters or sit in the barn loft thinking of our recent trip to Paris. As the oldest child the expectation is for me to keep an eye on Stephanie. 

Momma wanted her to be a boy so much that she named her Stephen. Poppa said no girl of his would have a boy name. Who would marry a woman named Stephen? She says she plans to runaway one day and explore the world. I have no time for such foolishness. 

I do as momma says and I try to watch her and Sally. Sally is a sweet quiet girl. She is always reading a book or sewing something for her hope chest. She filled mine with the most delicate doilies with beautiful details. I like to open the chest and look at them and run my fingers over the edges. They are a thing of beauty. I pretend I’m the mistress of the house and lay these out for our guests. One day, after I’m married, Divine Mercy will belong to my husband. I look forward to those days. Running a home will be easier than keeping up with Stephanie. 

“Poppa”, Stephanie yelled. Mattie, one of the house slaves, told her to hush because it’s not proper to yell in the house. Stephanie kept walking and yelling. When he rounded the corner he looked at her with amusement at first then quickly changed his expression to one of concern mixed with slight disapproval. “What is it daughter?” Poppa asked. “Will you please come down to the slave quarter and tell Moses to jump a broom with me?” Poppa’s expression changed to irritation with a bit of anger. Jumping a broom was what the slaves did to signify a marriage union. Our slaves were not allowed to marry. When they married they had children and the males became protective and therefore a nuisance. We kept our males and females separated. No need in creating a problem unnecessarily. 

Moses was one of the slaves that had grown up here on the plantation. He was learning to play the fiddle and was a natural. Due to his caramel skin color and slight build he would be easy to hire out for parties and other occasions. 

Stephanie said, “I love him and want to marry him.” To which father replied, “I will sell him if you go near him again.” Stephanie’s hands clenched together by her side. Poppa’s jawline was tense as he squinted his eyes. They both stood their  ground staring at each other until momma, who had been listening and watching, walked up and shook Stephanie. Momma promised to lock her in the cellar if she said another word. Stephanie never challenged momma. She knew momma would keep her word and lock her up in the root cellar. Stephanie let out a stiffled scream of frustration and stomped off. 

This scene had become a regular occurrence since Stephanie turned thirteen. She was becoming more belligerent by the day. She seemed to pick fights and willfully disobey. 

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The Nights (part 2)

Momma loved to tell the family history after supper. As little girls we would gather in the drawing room and listen. If we had guests over, as we often did, the stories were more animated and even boisterous at times. 

“Isn’t that devine! Have mercy! My eyes have never see anything as beautiful as this before!” My great grandfather Hubert and great grandmother Willowmene exclaimed these words when they first saw the land they had purchased and planned to farm. This land represented their hopes and dreams to become landowners, raise a family and serve our Lord. “Devine Mercy has been in our family for generations and will continue to be forever more. One day one of your husbands will inherit all of those hopes and dreams and continue to make them a reality.” 

“It’s time for bed my little doves.” I had become the storyteller after mother’s illness left her unable to speak above a whisper. I had become many things during her illness. I now realize it was preparation to become the mistress of Divine Mercy. 

By the time daddy and momma died I understood how to run the home, the house slaves, create menus and host parties which were talked about in neighboring states. The governor and his wife were regular attendees. Our slaves played the best music and our food was the most coveted. Poppa use to always say, “A man who beats his slaves is no man at all.” Because we didn’t beat them, they produced the finest of everything for us. They were loyal to us. Well, at least most of them were. I do not believe I will ever understand why any of them would want to run away from here. It was the best plantation around. The ones who ran were immediately sold upon capture. We would not allow them to come back and poison the minds of the others. We posted the paperwork in the quarters for several nights. Although they couldn’t read they understood the meaning. The runaway had been captured. Because we didn’t beat or mistreat our slaves they were sold at the highest prices. 

Momma had taught me to use my head when making decisions regarding how I ran the house. She would often say to us, “Never allow jealously to rule your emotions. The good books says a man who is unable to control his emotions is like a city without walls.” I stopped going to the slave quarters after seeing the children born from the slaves we bought from a few counties over. My heart broke each time I saw another brown, male version of my husband. I prayed faithfully to God for a son. During the nights when John left our bed for the quarters I would silently cry out to God. “Please allow me to birth just one healthy boy, an heir like Isaac.”

My cries were often drowned out by their cries. 

The Nights

I hated the summer nights more than anything. It had nothing to do with the long, hot and humid nights. Growing up in the Deep South I was as accustomed to the heat as anybody could get. 

In the winters all of the shutters were pulled to and latched. The windows were closed. The heavy curtains were drawn at night to keep out the draft. Three layers of wood, glass and the best material this side of the Mississippi kept the house silent at night. But in the summers, sometimes in the late springs, curtains were pulled back and windows were open and the shutters no longer blocked the night sounds. This was the beginning of my sleepless nights each year. 

The land we lived on and the house we lived in was my granddaddy’s and his daddy’s before him. My mother was the only surviving child of six. When she married the land went to my daddy. Since my mother only birthed girls this beautiful land went to my husband when poppa died. It helped that I had married well and he proved to be a good business man. Poppa loved John like a son and better than his own daughters. 

I never paid much attention to the sounds until I was older. It was after John and I married that realized what was going on. I went to momma. I cried tears of despair in her lap. She stroked my hair and told me it was not my place to ask John any questions. This was business and the best way to keep a plantation thriving was through the labor of the negros working the land. The way we kept cost down was by creating our own laborers. That’s one of the reasons we had huge profits. She tilted my chin up until I was looking her in the eyes and she said, “Never mention this conversation or cry another tear. This is our way and has been for generations. Now get up and make yourself presentable to your husband when he walks through the door.”

I did as I was told. In all the years of marriage I never said another word. But the night cries kept me awake. The seasons held me hostage. No amount of singing, cotton in my ears or strong drink could drown out the night.

It was not love, she told me. It was business. It was how we as a family continued to thrive. It was necessary. 

I believed every word until I saw a mulatto baby boy toddling around the quarters. He was an exact replica of John. Only with brown skin and curly hair. I had yet to give him an heir. Much like my mother I was cursed with girls. Three beautiful girls who adored their father as much as he adored them. But still, only girls.