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[3 of 5] Kindred, pp. 121-178, by Octavia E. Butler (1979)

Author: Octavia E Butler

"The Fight.” Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, Beacon Press, 1988, pp. 121–178.



I knelt down beside Rufus and rolled him over onto his back. His nose was bleeding. His split lip was bleeding. I thought he had probably lost a few teeth, but I didn’t look closely enough to be sure. His face was a lumpy mess, and he would be looking out of a couple of black eyes for a while. All in all, though, he probably looked worse off than he was. No doubt he had some bruises that I couldn’t see without undressing him, but I didn’t think he was badly hurt. He would be in some pain when he came to, but he had earned that.

I sat on my knees, watching him, first wishing he would hurry and regain consciousness, then wanting him to stay unconscious so that Alice and her husband could get a good start. I looked at the stream, thinking that a little cold water might bring him around faster. But I stayed where I was. Isaac’s life was at stake. If Rufus was vindictive enough, he could surely have the man killed. A slave had no rights, and certainly no excuse for striking a white man.

If it was possible, if Rufus was in any way still the boy I had known, I would try to keep him from going after Isaac at all. He looked about eighteen or nineteen now. I would be able to bluff and bully him a little. It shouldn’t take him long to realize that he and I needed each other. We would be taking turns helping each other now. Neither of us would want the other to hesitate. We would have to learn to co-operate with each other—to make compromises.

“Who’s there?” said Rufus suddenly. His voice was weak, barely audible.

“It’s Dana, Rufe.”

“Dana?” He opened his swollen eyes a little wider. “You came back!”

“You keep trying to get yourself killed. I keep coming back.”

“Where’s Alice?”

“I don’t know. I don’t even know where we are. I’ll help you get home, though, if you’ll point the way.”

“Where did she go?”

“I don’t know, Rufe.”

He tried to sit up, managed to raise himself about six inches be-

fore he fell back, groaning. “Where’s Isaac?” he muttered. “That’s the son-of-a-bitch I want to catch up with.”

“Rest awhile,” I said. “Get your strength back. You couldn’t catch him now if he was standing next to you.”

He moaned and felt his side gingerly. “He’s going to pay!”

I got up and walked toward the stream.

“Where are you going?” he called.

I didn’t answer.

“Dana? Come back here! Dana!”

I could hear his increasing desperation. He was hurt and alone except for me. He couldn’t even get up, and I seemed to be abandoning him. I wanted him to experience a little of that fear.


I dug the washcloth out of my denim bag, wet it, and took it back to him. Kneeling beside him, I began wiping blood from his face.

“Why didn’t you tell me that’s where you were going?” he said petulantly. He was panting and holding his side.

I watched him, wondering how much he had really grown up.

“Dana, say something!”

“I want you to say something.”

He squinted at me. “What?” I was leaning close to him, and I caught a whiff of his breath when he spoke. He had been drinking. He didn’t seem drunk, but he had definitely been drinking. That worried me, but there was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t dare wait until he was completely sober.

“I want you to tell n^e about the men who attacked you,” I said.

“What men? Isaac . . .”

“The men you were drinking with,” I improvised. “They were strangers—white men. They got you drinking, then tried to rob you.” Kevin’s old story was coming in handy.

“What in hell are you talking about? You know Isaac Jackson did this to me!” The words came out in a harsh whisper.

“All right, Isaac beat you up,” I agreed. “Why?”

He glared at me without answering.

“You raped a woman—or tried to—and her husband beat you up,” I said. “You’re lucky he didn’t kill you. He would have if Alice and I hadn’t talked him out of it. Now what are you going to do to repay us for saving your life?”

The bewilderment and anger left his face, and he stared at me blankly. After a while, he closed his eyes and I went over to rinse my washcloth. When I got back to him, he was trying—and failing—to stand up. Finally, he collapsed back panting and holding his side. I wondered whether he was hurt more than he appeared to be—hurt inside. His ribs, perhaps.

I knelt beside him again and wiped the rest of the blood and dirt from his face. “Rufe, did you manage to rape that girl?”

He looked away guiltily.

“Why would you do such a thing? She used to be your friend.”

“When we were little, we were friends,” he said softly. “We grew up. She got so she’d rather have a buck nigger than me!”

“Do you mean her husband?” I asked. I managed to keep my voice even.

“Who in hell else would I mean!”

“Yes.” I gazed down at him bitterly. Kevin had been right. I’d been foolish to hope to influence him. “Yes,” I repeated. “How dare she choose her own husband. She must have thought she was a free woman or something.”

“What’s that got to do with it?” he demanded. Then his voice dropped to almost a whisper. “I would have taken better care of her than any field hand could. I wouldn’t have hurt her if she hadn’t just kept saying no.”

“She had the right to say no.”

“We’ll see about her rights!”

“Oh? Are you planning to hurt her more? She just helped me save your life, remember?”

“She’ll get what’s coming to her. She’ll get it whether I give it to her or not.” He smiled. “If she ran off with Isaac, she’ll get plenty.”

“Why? What do you mean?”

“She did run off with Isaac, then?”

“I don’t know. Isaac figured I was on your side so he didn’t trust me enough to tell me what they were going to do.”

“He didn’t have to. Isaac just attacked a white man. He’s not going back to Judge Holman after doing that. Some other nigger might, but not Isaac. He’s run away, and Alice is with him, helping him to escape. Or at least, that’s the way the Judge will see it.”

“What will happen to her?”

“Jail. A good whipping. Then they’ll sell her.”

“She’ll be a slave?”

“Her own fault.”

I stared at him. Heaven help Alice and Isaac. Heaven help me. If

Rufus could turn so quickly on a life-long friend, how long would it take him to turn on me?

“I don’t want her being sold South, though,” he whispered. “Her fault or not, I don’t want her dying in some rice swamp.”

“Why not?” I asked bitterly. “Why should it matter to you?”

“I wish it didn’t.”

I frowned down at him. His tone had changed suddenly. Was he going to show a little humanity then? Did he have any left to show?

“I told her about you,” he said.

“I know. She recognized me.”

“I told her everything. Even about you and Kevin being married. Especially about that.”

“What will you do, Rufe, if they bring her back?”

“Buy her. I’ve got some money.”

“What about Isaac?”

“To hell with Isaac!” He said it too vehemently and hurt his side. His face twisted in pain.

“So you’ll be rid of the man and have possession of the woman just as you wanted,” I said with disgust. “Rape rewarded.”

He turned his head toward me and peered at me through swollen eyes. “I begged her not to go with him,” he said quietly. “Do you hear me, I begged her!”

I said nothing. I was beginning to realize that he loved the woman —to her misfortune. There was no shame in raping a black woman, but there could be shame in loving one.

“I didn’t want to just drag her off into the bushes,” said Rufus. “I never wanted it to be like that. But she kept saying no. I could have had her in the bushes years ago if that was all I wanted.”

“I know,” I said.

“If I lived in your time, I would have married her. Or tried to.” He began trying to get up again. He seemed stronger now, but in pain. I sat watching him, but not helping. I was not eager for him to recover and go home—not until I was sure what story he would tell when he got there.

Finally, the pain seemed to overwhelm him and he lay down again. “What did that bastard do to me?” he whispered.

“I could go and get help for you,” I said. “If you tell me which way to go.”

“Wait.” He caught his breath and coughed and the coughing hurt him badly. “Oh God,” he moaned.

“I think you’ve got broken ribs,” I said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised. I guess you’d better go.”

“All right. But, Rufe. . . white men attacked you. You hear?”

He said nothing.

“You said people would be going after Isaac anyway. All right then, so be it. But let him—and Alice-have a chance. They’ve given you one.”

“It won’t make any difference whether I tell or not. Isaac’s a runaway. They’ll have to answer for that, no matter what.”

“Then your silence won’t matter.”

“Except to give them the start you want them to have.”

I nodded. “I do want them to have it.”

“You’ll trust me, then?” He was watching me very closely. “If I say I won’t tell, you’ll believe me?”

“Yes.” I paused for a moment. “We should never lie to each other, you and I. It wouldn’t be worthwhile. We both have too much opportunity for retaliation.”

He turned his face away from me. “You talk like a damn book.”

“Then I hope Kevin did a good job of teaching you to read.”

“You . . . !” He caught my arm in a grip I could have broken, but I let him hold on. “You threaten me, I’ll threaten you. Without me, you’ll never find Kevin.”

“I know that.”

“Then don’t threaten me!”

“I said we were dangerous to each other. That’s more a reminder than a threat.” Actually, it was more a bluff.

“I don’t need reminders or threats from you.”

I said nothing.

“Well? Are you going to go get some help for me?”

Still I said nothing. I didn’t move.

“You go through those trees,” he said pointing. “There’s a road out there, not too far away. Go left on the road and then just follow it until you come to our place.”

I listened to his directions knowing that I would use them sooner or later. But we had to have an understanding first, he and I. He didn’t have to admit that we had one. He could keep his pride if that was what he thought was at stake. But he did have to behave as though he understood me. If he refused, he was going to get a lot more pain now. And maybe later when Kevin was safe and Hagar had at least had a chance to be born—I might never find out about that—I would walk away from Rufus and leave him to get out of his own trouble.


I looked at him. I had let my attention wander.

“I said she’ll . . . they’ll get their time. White men attacked me.”

“Good, Rufe.” I laid a hand on his shoulder. “Look, your father will listen to me, won’t he? I don’t know what he saw last time I went home.”

“He doesn’t know what he saw either. Whatever it was, he’s seen it before—that time at the river—and he didn’t believe it then, either. But he’ll listen to you. He might even be a little afraid of you.”

“That’s better than the other way around. I’ll get back as quickly as I can.”


The road was farther away than I had expected. As it got darker— the sun was setting, not rising—I tore pages from my scratch pad and stuck them on trees now and then to mark my trail. Even then I worried that I might not be able to find my way back to Rufus.

When I reached the road, I pulled up some bushes and made a kind of barricade speckled with bits of white paper. That would stop me at the right place when I came back—if no one moved it meanwhile.

I followed the road until it was dark, followed it through woods, through fields, past a large house much finer than Weylin’s. No one bothered me. I hid behind a tree once when two white men rode past. They might not have paid any attention to me, but I didn’t want to take the chance. And there were three black women walking with large bundles balanced on their heads.

“ ’Evenin’,” they said as I passed them.

I nodded and wished them a good evening. And I walked faster, wondering suddenly what the years had done to Luke and Sarah, to Nigel and Carrie. The children who had played at selling each other might already be working in the fields now. And what would time have done to Margaret Weylin? I doubted that it had made her any easier to five with.

Finally, after more woods and fields, the plain square house was before me, its downstairs windows full of yellow light. I was startled to catch myself saying wearily, “Home at last.”

I stood still for a moment between the fields and the house and reminded myself that I was in a hostile place. It didn’t look alien any longer, but that only made it more dangerous, made me more likely to relax and make a mistake.

I rubbed my back, touched the several long scabs to remind myself that I could not afford to make mistakes. And the scabs forced me to remember that I had been away from this place for only a few days. Not that I had forgotten—exactly. But it was as though during my walk I had been getting used to the idea that years had passed for these people since I had seen them last. I had begun to feel—feel, not think—that a great deal of time had passed for me too. It was a vague feeling, but it seemed right and comfortable. More comfortable than trying to keep in mind what was really happening. Some part of me had apparently given up on time-distorted reality and smoothed things out. Well, that was all right, as long as it didn’t go too far.

I continued on toward the house, mentally prepared now, I hoped, to meet Tom Weylin. But as I approached, a tall thin shadow of a white man came toward me from the direction of the quarter.

“Hey there,” he called. “What are you doing out here?” His long steps closed the distance between us quickly, and in a moment, he stood peering down at me. “You don’t belong here,” he said. “Who’s your master?”

“I’ve come to get help for Mister Rufus,” I said. And then, feeling suddenly doubtful because he was a stranger, I asked, “This is still where he lives, isn’t it?”

The man did not answer. He continued to peer at me. I wondered whether it was my sex or my accent that he was trying to figure out. Or maybe it was the fact that I hadn’t called him sir or master. I’d have to begin that degrading nonsense again. But who was this man, anyway?

“He lives here.” An answer, finally. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Some men beat him. He can’t walk.”

“Is he drunk?”

“Uh . . .no, sir, not quite.”

“Worthless bastard.”

I jumped a little. The man had spoken softly, but there was no mistaking what he had said. I said nothing.

“Come on,” he ordered, and led me into the house. He left me standing in the entrance hall and went to the library where I supposed Weylin was. I looked at the wooden bench a few steps from me, the settee, but although I was tired, I didn’t sit down. Margaret Weylin had once caught me sitting there tying my shoe. She had screamed and raged as though she’d caught me stealing her jewelry. I didn’t want to renew my acquaintance with her in another scene like that. I didn’t want to renew my acquaintance with her at all, but it seemed inevitable.

There was a sound behind me and I turned in quick apprehension. A young slave woman stood staring at me. She was light-skinned, blue-kerchiefed, and very pregnant.

“Carrie?” I asked.

She ran to me, caught me by the shoulders for a moment, and looked into my face. Then she hugged me.

The white stranger chose that moment to come out of the library with Tom Weylin.

“What’s going on here?” demanded the stranger.

Carrie moved away from me quickly, head down, and I said, “We’re old friends, sir.”

Tom Weylin, grayer, thinner, grimmer-looking than ever, came over to me. He stared at me for a moment, then turned to face the stranger. “When did you say his horse came in, Jake?”

“About an hour ago.”

“That long . . . you should have told me.”

“He’s taken that long and longer before.”

Weylin sighed, glanced at me. “Yes. But I think it might be more serious this time. Carrie!”

The mute woman had been walking away toward the back door. Now, she turned to look at Weylin.

“Have Nigel bring the wagon around front.”

She gave the half-nod, half-curtsey that she reserved for whites and hurried away.

Something occurred to me as she was going and I spoke to Weylin. “I think Mister Rufus might have broken ribs. He wasn’t coughing blood so his lungs are probably all right, but it might be a good idea for me to bandage him a little before you move him.” I had never bandaged anything worse than a cut finger in my life, but I did remember a little of the first aid I had learned in school. I hadn’t thought to act when Rufus broke his leg, but I might be able to help now.

“You can bandage him when we get him here,” said Weylin. And to the stranger, “Jake, you send somebody for the doctor.”

Jake took a last disapproving look at me and went out the back door after Carrie.

Weylin went out the front door without another word to me and I followed, trying to remember how important it was to bandage broken ribs—that is, whether it was worth “talking back” to Weylin about. I didn’t want Rufus badly injured, even though he deserved to be. Any injury could be dangerous. But from what I could remember, bandaging the ribs was done mostly to relieve pain. I wasn’t sure whether I remembered that because it was true or because I wanted to avoid any kind of confrontation with Weylin. I didn’t have to touch the scabs on my back to be conscious of them.

A tall stocky slave drove a wagon around to us and I got on the back while Weylin took the seat beside the driver. The driver glanced back at me and said softly, “How are you, Dana?”


“It’s me,” he said grinning. “Grown some since you seen me last, I guess.”

He had grown into another Luke—a big handsome man bearing little resemblance to the boy I remembered.

“You keep your mouth shut and watch the road,” said Weylin. Then to me, “You’ve got to tell us where to go.”

It would have been a pleasure to tell him where to go, but I spoke civilly. “It’s a long way from here,” I said. “I had to pass someone else’s house and fields on my way to you.”

“The judge’s place. You could have got help there.”

“I didn’t know.” And wouldn’t have tried if I had known. I wondered, though, whether this was the Judge Holman who would soon be sending men out to chase Isaac. It seemed likely.

“Did you leave Rufus by the side of the road?” Weylin asked.

“No, sir. He’s in the woods.”

“You sure you know where in the woods?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’d better.”

He said nothing else.

I found Rufus with no particular difficulty and Nigel lifted him as gently and as easily as Luke once had. On the wagon, he held his side, then he held my hand. Once, he said, “I’ll keep my word.”

I nodded and touched his forehead in case he couldn’t see me nodding. His forehead was hot and dry.

“He’ll keep his word about what?” asked Weylin.

He was looking back at me, so I frowned and looked perplexed and said, “I think he has a fever as well as broken ribs, sir.”

Weylin made a sound of disgust. “He was sick yesterday, puking all over. But he would get up and go out today. Damn fool!”

And he fell silent again until we reached his house. Then, as Nigel carried Rufus inside and up the stairs, Weylin steered me into his forbidden library. He pushed me close to a whale-oil lamp, and there, in the bright yellow light, he stared at me silently, critically until I looked toward the door.

“You’re the same one, all right,” he said finally. “I didn’t want to believe it.”

I said nothing.

“Who are you?” he demanded. “What are you?”

I hesitated not knowing what to answer because I didn’t know how much he knew. The truth might make him decide I was out of my mind, but I didn’t want to be caught in a lie.


“I don’t know what you want me to say,” I told him. “I’m Dana. You know me.”

“Don’t tell me what I know!”

I stood silent, confused, frightened. Kevin wasn’t here now. There was no one for me to call if I needed help.

“I’m someone who may have just saved your son’s life,” I said softly. “He might have died out there sick and injured and alone.”

“And you think I ought to be grateful?”

Why did he sound angry? And why shouldn’t he be grateful? “I can’t tell you how you ought to feel, Mr. Weylin.”

“That’s right. You can’t.”

There was a moment of silence that he seemed to expect me to fill. Eagerly, I changed the subject. “Mr. Weylin, do you know where Mr. Franklin went?”

Oddly, that seemed to reach him. His expression softened a little. “Him,” he said. “Damn fool.”

“Where did he go?”

“Somewhere North. I don’t know. Rufus has some letters from him.” He gave me another long stare. “I guess you want to stay here.”

He sounded as though he was giving me a choice, which was surprising because he didn’t have to. Maybe gratitude meant something to him after all.

“I’d like to stay for a while,” I said. Better to try to reach Kevin from here than go wandering around some Northern city trying to find him . Especially since I had no money, and since I was still so ignorant of this time.

“You got to work for your keep,” said Weylin. “Like you did before.”

“Yes, sir.”

“That Franklin comes back, he’ll stop here. He came back once- hoping to find you, I think.”


“Last year sometime. You go up and stay with Rufus until the doctor comes. Take care of him.”

“Yes, sir.” I turned to go.

“That seems to be what you’re for, anyway,” he muttered.

I kept going, glad to get away from him. He had known more about me than he wanted to talk about. That was clear from the questions he hadn’t asked. He had seen me vanish twice now. And Kevin and Rufus had probably told him at least something about me. I wondered how much. And I wondered what Kevin had said or done that made him a “damn fool.”

Whatever it was, I’d learn about it from Rufus. Weylin was too dangerous to question.


I sponged Rufus off as best I could and bandaged his ribs with pieces of cloth that Nigel brought me. The ribs were very tender on the left side. Rufus said the bandage made breathing a little less painful, though, and I was glad of that. But he was still sick. His fever was still with him. And the doctor didn’t come. Rufus had fits of coughing now and then, and that seemed to be agonizing to him because of his ribs. Sarah came in to see him —and to hug me—and she was more alarmed at the marks of his beating than at his ribs or his fever. His face was black and blue and deformed-looking with its lumpy swellings.

“He will fight,” she said angrily. Rufus opened his puffy slits of eyes and looked at her, but she went on anyway. “I’ve seen him pick a fight just out of meanness,” she said. “He’s out to get himself killed!”

She could have been his mother, caught between anger and concern and not knowing which to express. She took away the basin Nigel had brought me and returned it full of clean cool water.

“Where’s his mother?” I asked her softly as she was leaving.

She drew back from me a little. “Gone.”


“Not yet.” She glanced at Rufus to see whether he was listening. His face was turned away from us. “Gone to Baltimore,” she whispered. “I’ll tell you ’bout it tomorrow.”

I let her go without questioning her further. It was enough to know that I would not be suddenly attacked. For once, there would be no Margaret to protect Rufus from me.

He was thrashing about weakly when I went back to him . He cursed the pain, cursed me, then remembered himself enough to say he didn’t mean it. He was burning up.


He moved his head from side to side and did not seem to hear me. I dug into my denim bag and found the plastic bottle of aspirin—a big bottle nearly full. There was enough to share.


He squinted at me.

“Listen, I have medicine from my own time.” I poured him a glass of water from the pitcher beside his bed, and shook out two aspirin tablets. “These could lower your fever,” I said. “They might ease your pain too. Will you take them?”

“What are they?”

“They’re called aspirin. In my time, people use them against headache, fever, other kinds of pain.”

He looked at the two tablets in my hand, then at me. “Give them to me.”

He had trouble swallowing them and had to chew them up a little.

“My Lord,” he muttered. “Anything tastes that bad must be good for you.”

I laughed and wet a cloth in the basin to bathe his face. Nigel came in with a blanket and told me the doctor was held up at a difficult childbirth. I was to stay the night with Rufus.

I didn’t mind. Rufus was in no condition to take an interest in me. I would have thought it would be more natural, though, for Nigel to stay. I asked him about it.

“Marse Tom knows about you,” said Nigel softly. “Marse Rufe and Mister Kevin both told him. He figures you know enough to do some doctoring. More than doctoring, maybe. He saw you go home.”

“I know.”

“I saw it too.”

I looked up at him—he was a head taller than me now—and saw nothing but curiosity in his eyes. If my vanishing had frightened him, the fear was long dead. I was glad of that. I wanted his friendship.

“Marse Tom says you s’pose to take care of him and you better do a good job. Aunt Sarah says you call her if you need help.”

“Thanks. Thank her for me.”

He nodded, smiled a little. “Good thing for me you showed up. I want to be with Carrie now. It’s so close to her time.”

I grinned. “Your baby, Nigel? I thought it might be.”

“Better be mine. She’s my wife.”


“Marse Rufe paid a free preacher from town to come and say the same words they say for white folks and free niggers. Didn’t have to jump no broomstick.”

I nodded, remembering what I’d read about the slaves’ marriage ceremonies. They jumped broomsticks, sometimes backward, sometimes forward, depending on local custom; or they stood before their master and were pronounced husband and wife; or they followed any number of other practices even to hiring a minister and having things done as Nigel had. None of it made any difference legally, though. No slave marriage was legally binding. Even Alice’s marriage to Isaac was merely an informal agreement since Isaac was a slave, or had been a slave. I hoped now that he was a free man well on his way to Pennsylvania.


I looked up at Nigel. He had whispered my name so softly I had hardly heard him.

“Dana, was it white men?”

Startled, I put a finger to my lips, cautioning, and waved him away. “Tomorrow,” I promised.

But he wasn’t as co-operative as I had been with Sarah. “Was it Isaac?”

I nodded, hoping he would be satisfied and let the subject drop.

“Did he get away?”

Another nod.

He left me, looking relieved.

I stayed up with Rufus until he managed to fall asleep. The aspirins did seem to help. Then I wrapped myself in the blanket, pulled the room’s two chairs together in front of the fireplace, and settled in as comfortably as I could. It wasn’t bad.

The doctor arrived late the next morning to find Rufus’s fever gone. The rest of his body was still bruised and sore, and his ribs still kept him breathing shallowly and struggling not to cough, but even with that, he was much less miserable. I had gotten him a breakfast tray from Sarah, and he had invited me to share the large meal she had prepared. I ate hot biscuits with butter and peach preserve, drank some of his coffee, and had a little cold ham. It was good and filling. He had the eggs, the rest of the ham, the com cakes. There was too much of everything, and he didn’t feel like eating very much. Instead, he sat back and watched me with amusement.

“Daddy’d do some cussin’ if he came in here and found us eating together,” he said.

I put down my biscuit and reined in whatever part of my mind I’d left in 1976. He was right.

“What are you doing then? Trying to make trouble?”

“No. He won’t bother us. Eat.”

“The last time someone told me he wouldn’t bother me, he walked in and beat the skin off my back.”

“Yeah. I know about that. But I’m not Nigel. If I tell you to do something, and he doesn’t like it, he’ll come to me about it. He won’t whip you for following my orders. He’s a fair man.”

I looked at him, startled.

“I said fair,” he repeated. “Not likable.”

I kept quiet. His father wasn’t the monster he could have been with the power he held over his slaves. He wasn’t a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper. But I had seen no particular fairness in him. He did as he pleased. If you told him he wasn’t being fair, he would whip you for talking back. At least the Tom Weylin I had known would have. Maybe he had mellowed.

“Stay,” said Rufus. “No matter what you think of him, I won’t let him hurt you. And it’s good to eat with someone I can talk to for a change.”

That was nice. I began to eat again, wondering why he was in such a good mood this morning. He had come a long way from his anger the night before—from threatening not to tell me where Kevin was.

“You know,” said Rufus thoughtfully, “you still look mighty young. You pulled me out of that river thirteen or fourteen years ago, but you look like you would have been just a kid back then.”

Uh-oh. “Kevin didn’t explain that part, I guess.”

“Explain what?”

I shook my head. “Just… let me tell you how it’s been for me. I can’t tell you why things are happening as they are, but I can tell you the order of their happening.” I hesitated, gathering my thoughts. “When I came to you at the river, it was June ninth, nineteen seventy-six for me. When I got home, it was still the same day. Kevin told me I had only been gone a few seconds.”

“Seconds . . . ?”

“Wait. Let me tell it all to you at once. Then you can have all the time you need to digest it and ask questions. Later, on that same day, I came to you again. You were three or four years older and busy trying to set the house afire. When I went home, Kevin told me only a few minutes had passed. The next morning, June tenth, I came to you because you’d fallen out of a tree. . . . Kevin and I came to you. I was here nearly two months. But when I went home, I found that I had lost only a few minutes or hours of June tenth.”

“You mean after two months, you . . .”

“I arrived home on the same day I had left. Don’t ask me how. I don’t know. After eight days at home, I came back here.” I faced him silently for a moment. “And, Rufe, now that I’m here, now that you’re safe, I want to find my husband.”

He absorbed this slowly, frowning as though he was translating it from another language. Then he waved vaguely toward his desk—a new larger desk than he had had on my last visit. The old one had been nothing more than a little table. This one had a roll-top and plenty of drawer space both above and below the work surface.

“His letters are in the middle drawer there. You can have them if you want them. They have his addresses . . . But Dana, you’re saying while I’ve been growing up, somehow, time has been almost standing still for you.”

I was at the desk hunting through the cluttered drawer for the letters. “It hasn’t stood still,” I said. “I’m sure my last two visits here have aged me quite a bit, no matter what my calendar at home says.” I found the letters. Three of them—short notes on large pieces of paper that had been folded, sealed with sealing wax, and mailed without an envelope. “Here’s my Philadelphia address,” Kevin said in one. “If I can get a decent job, I’ll be here for a while.” That was all, except for the address. Kevin wrote books, but he’d never cared much for writing letters. At home he tried to catch me in a good mood and get me to take care of his correspondence for him.

“I’ll be an old man,” said Rufus, “and you’ll still come to me looking just like you do now.”

I shook my head. “Rufe, if you don’t start being more careful, you’ll never live to be an old man. Now that you’re grown up, I might not be able to help you much. The kind of trouble you get into as a man might be as overwhelming to me as it is to you.”

“Yes. But this time thing . . .”

I shrugged.

“Damnit, there must be something mighty crazy about both of us, Dana. I never heard of anything like this happening to anybody else.”

“Neither have I.” I looked at the other two letters. One from New York, and one from Boston. In the Boston one, he was talking about going to Maine. I wondered what was driving him farther and farther north. He had been interested in the West, but Maine. . . ?

“I’ll write to him,” said Rufus. “I’ll tell him you’re here. He’ll come running back.”

“I’ll write him, Rufe.”

“I’ll have to mail the letter.”

“All right.”

“I just hope he hasn’t already taken off for Maine.”

Weylin opened the door before I could answer. He brought in another man who turned out to be the doctor, and my leisure time was over. I put Kevin’s letters back into Rufus’s desk—that seemed the best place to keep them—took away the breakfast tray, brought the doctor the empty basin he asked for, stood by while the doctor asked Weylin whether I had any sense or not and whether I could be trusted to answer simple questions accurately.

Weylin said yes twice without looking at me, and the doctor asked his questions. Was I sure Rufus had had a fever? How did I know? Had he been delirious? Did I know what delirious meant? Smart nigger, wasn’t I?

I hated the man. He was short and slight, black-haired and black- eyed, pompous, condescending, and almost as ignorant medically as I was. He guessed he wouldn’t bleed Rufus since the fever seemed to be gone—bleed him ! He guessed a couple of ribs were broken, yes. He rebandaged them sloppily. He guessed I could go now; he had no more use for me.

I escaped to the cookhouse.

“What’s the matter with you?” asked Sarah when she saw me.

I shook my head. “Nothing important. Just a stupid little man who may be one step up from spells and good luck charms.”


“Don’t pay any attention to me, Sarah. Do you have anything for me to do out here? I’d like to stay out of the house for a while.”

“Always something to do out here. You have anything to eat?”

I nodded.

She lifted her head and gave me one of her down-the-nose looks. “Well, I put enough on his tray. Here. Knead this dough.”

She gave me a bowl of bread dough that had risen and was ready to be kneaded down. “He all right?” she asked.

“He’s healing.”

“Was Isaac all right?”

I glanced at her. “Yes.”

“Nigel said he didn’t think Marse Rufe told what happened.”

“He didn’t. I managed to talk him out of it.”

She laid a hand on my shoulder for a moment. “I hope you stay around for a while, girl. Even his daddy can’t talk him out of much these days.”

“Well, I’m glad I was able to. But look, you promised to tell me about his mother.”

“Not much to tell. She had two more babies—twins. Sickly little things. They lingered awhile, then died one after the other. She almost died too. She went kind of crazy. The birth had left her pretty bad off anyhow—sick, hurt inside. She fought with Marse Tom, got so she’d scream at him every time she saw him—cussin’ and goin’ on. She was hurtin’ most of the time, couldn’t get out of bed. Finally, her sister came and got her, took her to Baltimore.”

“And she’s still there?”

“Still there, still sick. Still crazy, for all I know. I just hope she stays there. That overseer, Jake Edwards, he’s a cousin of hers, and he’s all the mean low white trash we need around here.”

Jake Edwards was the overseer then. Weylin had begun hiring overseers. I wondered why. But before I could ask, two house servants came in and Sarah deliberately turned her back to me, ending the conversation. I began to understand what had happened later, though, when I asked Nigel where Luke was.

“Sold,” said Nigel quietly. And he wouldn’t say anything more. Rufus told me the rest.

“You shouldn’t have asked Nigel about that,” he told me when I mentioned the incident.

“I wouldn’t have, if I’d known.” Rufus was still in bed. The doctor had given him a purgative and left. Rufus had poured the purgative into his chamber pot and ordered me to tell his father he’d taken it. He had had his father send me back to him so that I could write my letter to Kevin. “Luke did his work,” I said. “How could your father sell him?”

“He worked all right. And the hands would work hard for him— mostly without the cowhide. But sometimes he didn’t show much sense.” Rufus stopped, began a deep breath, caught himself and grimaced in pain. “You’re like Luke in some ways,” he continued. “So you’d better show some sense yourself, Dana. You’re on your own this time.”

“But what did he do wrong? What am I doing wrong?”

“Luke … he would just go ahead and do what he wanted to no matter what Daddy said. Daddy always said he thought he was white. One day maybe two years after you left, Daddy got tired of it. New Orleans trader came through and Daddy said it would be better to sell Luke than to whip him until he ran away.”

I closed my eyes remembering the big man, hearing again his advice to Nigel on how to defy the whites. It had caught up with him. “Do you think the trader took him all the way to New Orleans?” I asked.

“Yeah. He was getting a load together to ship them down there.”

I shook my head. “Poor Luke. Are there cane fields in Louisiana now?”

“Cane, cotton, rice, they grow plenty down there.”

“My father’s parents worked in the cane fields there before they went to California. Luke could be a relative of mine.”

“Just make sure you don’t wind up like him.”

“I haven’t done anything.”

“Don’t go teaching nobody else to read.”


“Yes, oh. I might not be able to stop Daddy if he decided to sell you.”

“Sell me! He doesn’t own me. Not even by the law here. He doesn’t have any papers saying he owns me.”

“Dana, don’t talk stupid!”

“But. .

“In town, once, I heard a man brag how he and his friends had caught a free black, tore up his papers, and sold him to a trader.”

I said nothing. He was right, of course. I had no rights-not even any papers to be tom up.

“Just be careful,” he said quietly.

I nodded. I thought I could escape from Maryland if I had to. I didn’t think it would be easy, but I thought I could do it. On the other hand, I didn’t see how even someone much wiser than I was in the ways of the time could escape from Louisiana, surrounded as they would be by water and slave states. I would have to be careful, all right, and be ready to run if I seemed to be in any danger of being sold.

“I’m surprised Nigel is still here,” I said. Then I realized that might not be a very bright thing to say even to Rufus. I would have to learn to keep more of my thoughts to myself.

“Oh, Nigel ran away,” said Rufus. “Patrollers brought him back, though, hungry and sick. They had whipped him, and Daddy whipped him some more. Then Aunt Sarah doctored him and I talked Daddy into letting me keep him. I think my job was harder. I don’t think Daddy relaxed until Nigel married Carrie. Man marries, has children, he’s more likely to stay where he is.”

“You sound like a slaveholder already.”

He shrugged.

“Would you have sold Luke?”

“No! I liked him.”

“Would you sell anyone?”

He hesitated. “I don’t know. I don’t t hink so.”

“I hope not,” I said watching him. “You don’t have to do that kind of thing. Not all slaveholders do it.”

I took my denim bag from where I had hidden it under his bed, and sat down at his desk to write the letter, using one of his large sheets of paper with my pen. I didn’t want to bother dipping the quill and steel pen on his desk into ink.

“Dear Kevin, I’m back. And I want to go North too . .

“Let me see your pen when you’re finished,” said Rufus.

“All right.”

I went on writing, feeling myself strangely near tears. It was as though I was really talking to Kevin. I began to believe I would see him again.

“Let me see the other things you brought with you,” said Rufus.

I swung the bag onto his bed. “You can look,” I said, and continued writing. Not until I was finished with the letter did I look up to see what he was doing.

He was reading my book.

“Here’s the pen,” I said casually, and I waited to grab the book the moment he put it down. But instead of putting it down, he ignored the pen and looked up at me.

“This is the biggest lot of abolitionist trash I ever saw.”

“No it isn’t,” I said. “That book wasn’t even written until a century after slavery was abolished.”

“Then why the hell are they still complaining about it?”

I pulled the book down so that I could see the page he had been reading. A photograph of Sojourner Truth stared back at me solemneyed. Beneath the picture was part of the text of one of her speeches.

“You’re reading history, Rufe. Turn a few pages and you’ll find a white man named J. D. B. DeBow claiming that slavery is good because, among other things, it gives poor whites someone to look down on. Tha t’s history. It happened whether it offen ds you or no t. Quite a bit of it offends me, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” And there was other history that he must not read. Too much of it hadn’t happened yet. Sojourner Truth, for instance, was still a slave. If someone bought her from her New York owners and brought her South before the Northern laws could free her, she might spend the rest of her life picking cotton. And there were two important slave children right here in Maryland. The older one, living here in Talbot County, would be called Frederick Douglass after a name change or two. The second, growing up a few miles south in Dorchester County was Harriet Ross, eventually to be Harriet Tubman. Someday, she was going to cost Eastern Shore plantation owners a huge amount of money by guiding three hundred of their runaway slaves to freedom. And farther down in Southampton, Virginia, a man named Nat Turner was biding his time. There were more. I had said I couldn’t do anything to change history. Yet, if history could be changed, this book in the hands of a white man—even a sympathetic white man- might be the thing to change it.

“History like this could send you down to join Luke,” said Rufus. “Didn’t I tell you to be careful!”

“I wouldn’t have let anyone else see it.” I took it from his hand, spoke more softly. “Or are you telling me I shouldn’t trust you either?”

He looked startled. “Hell, Dana, we have to trust each other. You said that yourself. But what if my daddy went through that bag of yours. He could if he wanted to. You couldn’t stop him.”

I said nothing.

“You’ve never had a whipping like he’d give you if he found that book. Some of that reading . . . He’d take you to be another Denmark Vesey. You know who Vesey was?”

“Yes.” A freedman who had plotted to free others violently.

“You know what they did to him?”


“Then put that book in the fire.”

I held the book for a moment, then opened it to the map of Maryland. I tore the map out.

“Let me see,” said Rufus.

I handed him the map. He looked at it and turned it over. Since there was nothing on the back but a map of Virginia, he handed it back to me. “That will be easier to hide,” he said. “But you know if a white man sees it, he’ll figure you mean to use it to escape.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

He shook his head in disgust.

I tore the book into several pieces and threw it onto the hot coals in his fireplace. The fire flared up and swallowed the dry paper, and I found my thoughts shifting to Nazi book burnings. Repressive societies always seemed to understand the danger of “wrong” ideas.

“Seal your letter,” said Rufus. “There’s wax and a candle on the desk there. I’ll send the letter as soon as I can get to town.”

I obeyed inexpertly, dripping hot wax on my fingers.

“Dana . . . ?”

I glanced at him, caught him watching me with unexpected intensity. “Yes?”

His eyes seemed to slide away from mine. “That map is still bothering me. Listen, if you want me to get that letter to town soon, you put the map in the fire too.”

I turned to face him, dismayed. More blackmail. I had thought that was over between us. I had hoped it was over; I needed so much to trust him. I didn’t dare stay with him if I couldn’t trust him.

“I wish you hadn’t said that, Rufe,” I told him quietly. I went over to him, fighting down anger and disappointment and began putting the things that he had scattered back into my bag.

“Wait a minute.” He caught my hand. “You get so damned cold when you’re mad. Wait!”

“For what?”

“Tell me what you’re mad about.”

What, indeed? Could I make him see why I thought his blackmail was worse than my own? It was. He threatened to keep me from my husband if I did not submit to his whim and destroy a paper that might help me get free. I acted out of desperation. He acted out of whimsy or anger. Or so it seemed.

“Rufe, there are things we just can’t bargain on. This is one of them.”

“You’re going to tell me what we can’t bargain on?” He sounded more surprised than indignant.

“You’re damn right I am.” I spoke very softly. “I won’t bargain away my husband or my freedom!”

“You don’t have either to bargain.”

“Neither do you.”

He stared at me with at least as much confusion as anger, and that was encouraging. He could have let his temper flare, could have driven me from the plantation very quickly. “Look,” he said through his teeth, “I’m trying to help you!”

“Are you?”

“What do you think I’m doing? Listen, I know Kevin tried to help you. He made things easier for you by keeping you with him. But he couldn’t really protect you. He didn’t know how. He couldn’t even protect himself. Daddy almost had to shoot him when you disappeared. He was fighting and cursing … at first Daddy didn’t even know why. I’m the one who helped Kevin get back on the place.”


“I talked Daddy into seeing him again—and it wasn’t easy. I may not be able to talk him into anything for you if he sees that map.”

“I see.”

He waited, watching me. I wanted to ask him what he would do with my letter if I didn’t bum the map. I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to hear an answer that might send me out to face another patrol or earn another whipping. I wanted to do things the easy way if I could. I wanted to stay here and let a letter go to Boston and bring Kevin back to me.

So I told myself the map was more a symbol than a necessity anyway. If I had to go, I knew how to follow the North Star at night. I had made a point of learning. And by day, I knew how to keep the rising sun to my right and the setting sun to my left.

I took the map from Rufus’s desk and dropped it into the fireplace. It darkened, then burst into flame.

“I can manage without it, you know,” I said quietly.

“No need for you to,” said Rufus. “You’ll be all right here. You’re home.”


Isaac and Alice had four days of freedom together. On the fifth day, they were caught. On the seventh day, I found out about it. That was the day Rufus and Nigel took the wagon into town to mail my letter and take care of some business of their own. I had heard nothing of the runaways and Rufus seemed to have forgotten about them. He was feeling better, looking better. That seemed to be enough for him. He came to me just before he left and said, “Let me have some of your aspirins. I might need them the way Nigel drives.”

Nigel heard and called out, “Marse Rufe, you can drive. I’ll just sit back and relax while you show me how to go smooth over a bumpy road.”

Rufus threw a clod of dirt at him, and he caught it, laughing, and threw it back just missing Rufus. “See there?” Rufus told me. “Here I am all crippled up and he’s taking advantage.”

I laughed and got the aspirins. Rufus never took anything from my bag without asking—though he could have easily done so.

“You sure you feel well enough to go to town?” I asked as I gave them to him.

“No,” he said, “but I’m going.” I didn’t find out until later that a visitor had brought him word of Alice and Isaac’s capture. He was going to get Alice.

And I went to the laundry yard to help a young slave named Tess to beat and boil the dirt out of a lot of heavy smelly clothes. She had been sick, and I had promised her I would help. My work was still pretty much whatever I wanted it to be. I felt a little guilty about that. No other slave—house or field—had that much freedom. I worked where I pleased, or where I saw that others needed help. Sarah sent me to do one job or another sometimes, but I didn’t mind that. In Margaret’s absence, Sarah ran the house—and the house servants. She spread the work fairly and managed the house as efficiently as Margaret had, but without much of the tension and strife Margaret generated. She was resented, of course, by slaves who made every effort to avoid jobs they didn’t like. But she was also obeyed.

“Lazy niggers!” she would mutter when she had to get after someone.

I stared at her in surprise when I first heard her say it. “Why should they work hard?” I asked. “What’s it going to get them?”

“It’ll get them the cowhide if they don’t,” she snapped. “I ain’t goin’ to take the blame for what they don’t do. Are you?”

“Well, no, but. . .”

“I work. You work. Don’t need somebody behind us all the time to make us work.”

“When the time comes for me to stop working and get out of here, I’ll do it.”

She jumped, looked around quickly. “You got no sense sometimes! Just talk all over your mouth!”

“We’re alone.”

“Might not be alone as we look. People listen around here. And they talk too.”

I said nothing.

“You do what you want to do—or think you want to do. But you keep it to yourself.”

I nodded. “I hear.”

She lowered her voice to a whisper. “You need to look at some of the niggers they catch and bring back,” she said. “You need to see them—starving, ’bout naked, whipped, dragged, bit by dogs. . . . You need to see them.”

“I’d rather see the others.”

“What others?”

“The ones who make it. The ones living in freedom now.”

“If any do.”

“They do.”

“Some say they do. It’s like dying, though, and going to heaven. Nobody ever comes back to tell you about it.”

“Come back and be enslaved again?”

“Yeah. But still . . . This is dangerous talk! No point to it anyway.”

“Sarah, I’ve seen books written by slaves who’ve run away and lived in the North.”

“Books!” She tried to sound contemptuous but sounded uncertain instead. She couldn’t read. Books could be awesome mysteries to her, or they could be dangerous time-wasting nonsense. It depended on her mood. Now her mood seemed to flicker between curiosity and fear. Fear won. “Foolishness!” she said. “Niggers writing books!”

“But it’s true. I’ve seen . . .”

“Don’t want to hear no more ’bout it!” She had raised her voice sharply. That was unusual, and it seemed to surprise her as much as it surprised me. “Don’t want to hear no more,” she repeated softly. “Things ain’t bad here. I can get along.”

She had done the safe thing—had accepted a life of slavery because she was afraid. She was the kind of woman who might have been called “mammy” in some other household. She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. The house-nigger, the handkerchief-head, the female Uncle Tom—the frightened powerless woman who had already lost all she could stand to lose, and who knew as little about the freedom of the North as she knew about the hereafter.

I looked down on her myself for a while. Moral superiority. Here was someone even less courageous than I was. That comforted me somehow. Or it did until Rufus and Nigel drove into town and came back with what was left of Alice.

It was late when they got home—almost dark. Rufus ran into the

house shouting for me before I realized he was back. “Dana! Dana, get down here!”

I came out of his room—my new refuge when he wasn’t in it—and hurried down the stairs.

“Come on, come on!” he urged.

I said nothing, followed him out the front door not knowing what to expect. He led me to the wagon where Alice lay bloody, filthy, and barely alive.

“Oh my God,” I whispered.

“Help her!” demanded Rufus.

I looked at him, remembering why Alice needed help. I didn’t say anything, and I don’t know what expression I was wearing, but he took a step back from me.

“Just help her!” he said. “Blame me if you want to, but help her!”

I turned to her, straightened her body gently, feeling for broken bones. Miraculously, there didn’t seem to be any. Alice moaned and cried out weakly. Her eyes were open, but she didn’t seem to see me.

“Where will you put her?” I asked Rufus. “In the attic?”

He lifted her gently, carefully, and carried her up to his bedroom.

Nigel and I followed him up, saw him place the girl on his bed. Then he looked up at me questioningly.

“Tell Sarah to boil some water,” I told Nigel. “And tell her to send some clean cloth for bandages. Clean cloth.” How clean would it be? Not sterile, of course, but I had just spent the day cooking clothes in lye soap and water. That surely got them clean.

“Rufe, get me something to cut these rags off her.”

Rufus hurried out, came back with a pair of his mother’s scissors.

Most of Alice’s wounds were new, and the cloth came away from them easily. Those that had dried and stuck to the cloth, I left alone. Warm water would soften them.

“Rufe, have you got any kind of antiseptic?”


I looked at him. “You’ve never heard of it?”

“No. What is it?”

“Never mind. I could use a salt solution, I guess.”

“Brine? You want to use that on her back?”

“I want to use it wherever she’s hurt.”

“Don’t you have anything in your bag better than that?”

“Just soap, which I intend to use. Find it for me, will you? Then. . . hell, I shouldn’t be doing this. Why didn’t you take her to the doctor?”

He shook his head. “The judge wanted her sold South—for spite, I guess. I had to pay near twice what she’s worth to get her. That’s all the money I had, and Daddy won’t pay for a doctor to fix niggers. Doc knows that.”

“You mean your father just lets people die when maybe they could be helped?”

“Die or get well. Aunt Mary—you know, the one who watches the kids?”

“Yes.” Aunt Mary didn’t watch the kids. Old and crippled, she sat in the shade with a switch and threatened them with gory murder if they happened to misbehave right in front of her. Otherwise, she ignored them and spent her time sewing and mumbling to herself, contentedly senile. The children cared for each other.

“Aunt Mary does some doctoring,” said Rufus. “She knows herbs. But I thought you’d know more.”

I turned to look at him in disbelief. Sometimes the poor woman barely knew her name. Finally I shrugged. “Get me some brine.”

“But . . . that’s what Daddy uses on field hands,” he said. “It hurts them worse than the beating sometimes.”

“It won’t hurt her as badly as an infection would later.”

He frowned, came to stand protectively close to the girl. “Who fixed up your back?”

“I did. No one else was around.”

“What did you do?”

“I washed it with plenty of soap and water, and I put medicine on it. Here, brine will have to be my medicine. It should be just as good.” Please, heaven, let it be as good. I only half knew what I was doing. Maybe old Mary and her herbs weren’t such a bad idea after all—if I could be sure of catching her in one of her saner moments. But no. Ignorant as I knew I was, I trusted myself more than I trusted her. Even if I couldn’t do any more good than she could, I was at least less likely to do harm.

“Let me see your back,” said Rufus.

I hesitated, swallowed a few indignant words. He spoke out of love for the girl—a destructive love, but a love, nevertheless. He needed to know that it was necessary to hurt her more and that I had some idea what I was doing. I turned my back to him and raised my shirt a little. My cuts were healed or nearly healed.

He didn’t speak or touch me. After a moment, I put my shirt down.

“You didn’t get the big thick scars some of the hands get,” he observed.

“Keloids. No, thank God, I’m not subject to them. What I’ve got is bad enough.”

“Not as bad as she’ll have.”

“Get the salt, Rufe.”

He nodded and went away.


I did my best for Alice, hurt her as little as possible, got her clean and bandaged the worst of her injuries—the dog bites.

“Looks like they just let the dogs chew on her,” said Rufus angrily. He had to hold her for me while I cleaned the bites, gave them special attention. She struggled and wept and called for Isaac, until I was almost sick at having to cause her more pain. I swallowed and clenched my teeth against threatening nausea. When I spoke to Rufus, it was more to calm myself than to get information.

“What did they do with Isaac, Rufe? Give him back to the judge?”

“Sold him to a trader—fellow taking slaves overland to Mississippi.”

“Oh God.”

“He’d be dead if I’d spoken up.”

I shook my head, located another bite. I wanted Kevin. I wanted desperately to go home and be out of this. “Did you mail my letter, Rufe?”


Good. Now if only Kevin would come quickly.

I finished with Alice and gave her, not aspirins, but sleeping pills. She needed rest after days of running, after the dogs and the whipping. After Isaac.

Rufus left her in his bed. He simply climbed in beside her.

“Rufe, for Godsake!”

He looked at me, then at her. “Don’t talk foolishness. I’m not going to put her on the floor.”

“But . .

“And I’m sure not going to bother her while she’s hurt like this.”

“Good,” I said relieved, believing him. “Don’t even touch her if you can help it.”

“All right.”

I cleaned up the mess I had made and left them. Finally, I made my way to my pallet in the attic, and lay down wearily.

But tired as I was, I couldn’t sleep. I thought of Alice, and then of Rufus, and I realized that Rufus had done exactly what I had said he would do: Gotten possession of the woman without having to bother with her husband. Now, somehow, Alice would have to accept not only the loss of her husband, but her own enslavement. Rufus had caused her trouble, and now he had been rewarded for it. It made no sense. No matter how kindly he treated her now that he had destroyed her, it made no sense.

I lay turning, twisting, holding my eyes closed and trying first to think, then not to think. I was tempted to squander two more of my sleeping pills to buy myself relief.

Then Sarah came in. I could see her vaguely outlined in the moonlight that came through the window. I whispered her name, trying not to awaken anyone.

She stepped over the two children who slept nearest to me and made her way over to my comer. “How’s Alice?” she asked softly.

“I don’t know. She’ll probably be all right. Her body will anyway.”

Sarah sat down on/the end of my pallet. “I’d have come in to see her,” she said, “but then I’d have to see Marse Rufe too. Don’t want to see him for a while.”


“They cut off the boy’s ears.”

I jumped. “Isaac?”

“Yeah. Cut them both off. He fought. Strong boy, even if he didn’t show much sense. The judge’s son hit him, and he struck back. And he said some things he shouldn’t have said.”

“Rufus said they sold him to a Mississippi trader.”

“Did. After they got through with him. Nigel told me ’bout it—how they cut him, beat him. He’ll have to do some healing ’fore he can go to Mississippi or anywhere else.”

“Oh God. All because our little jackass here drank too much and decided to rape somebody!”

She hushed me with a sharp hiss. “You got to learn to watch what you say! Don’t you know there’s folks in this house who love to carry tales?”

I sighed. “Yes.”

“You ain’t no field nigger, but you still a nigger. Marse Rufe can get mad and make things mighty hard for you.”

“I know. All right.” Luke’s being sold must have frightened her badly. He used to be the one who hushed her.

“Marse Rufe keeping Alice in his room?”


“Lord, I hope he’ll let her ’lone. Tonight, anyway.”

“I think he will. Hell, I think he’ll be gentle and patient with her now that he’s got her.”

“Huh!” A sound of disgust. “What’ll you do now?”

“Me? Try to keep the girl clean and comfortable until she gets well.”

“I don’t mean that.”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

“She’ll be in. You’ll be out.”

I stared at her, tried to see her expression. I couldn’t, but I decided she was serious. “It’s not like that, Sarah. She’s the only one he seems to want. And me, I’m content with my husband.”

There was a long silence. “Your husband . . . was that Mister Kevin?”


“Nigel said you and him was married. I didn’t believe it.”

“We kept quiet about it because it’s not legal here.”

“Legal!” Another sound of disgust. “I guess what Marse Rufe done to that girl is legal.”

I shrugged.

“Your husband . . . he’d get in trouble every now and then ’cause he couldn’t tell the difference ’tween black and white. Guess now I know why.”

I grinned. “I’m not why. He was like that when I married him—or I wouldn’t have married him. Rufus just sent him a letter telling him to come back and get me.”

She hesitated. “You sure Marse Rufe sent it?”

“He said he did.”

“Ask Nigel.” She lowered her voice. “Sometimes Marse Rufe says what will make you feel good—not what’s true.”

“But. . . he’d have no reason to lie about it.”

“Didn’t say he was lyin’. Just said ask Nigel.”

“All right.”

She was silent for a moment, then, “You think he’ll come back for you, Dana, your… husband?”

“I know he will.” He would. Surely he would.

“He ever beat you?”

“No! Of course not!”

“My man used to. He’d tell me I was the only one he cared about. Then, next thing I knew, he’d say I was looking at some other man, and he’d go to hittin’.”

“Carrie’s father?”

“No … my oldest boy’s father. Miss Hannah, her father. He always said he’d free me in his will, but he didn’t. It was just another lie.” She stood up, joints creaking. “Got to get some rest.” She started away. “Don’t you forget now, Dana. Ask Nigel.”



I asked Nigel the next day, but he didn’t know. Rufus had sent him on an errand. When Nigel saw Rufus again, it was at the jail where Rufus had just bought Alice.

“She was standing up then,” he said remembering. “I don’t know how. When Marse Rufe was ready to go, he took her by the arm, and she fell over and everybody around laughed. He had paid way too much for her and anybody could see she was more dead than alive. Folks figured he didn’t have much sense.”

“Nigel, do you know how long it would take a letter to reach Boston?” I asked.

He looked up from the silver he was polishing. “How would I know that?” He began rubbing again. “Like to find out though— follow it and see.” He spoke very softly.

He said things like that now and then when Weylin gave him a hard time, or when the overseer, Edwards, tried to order him around. This time, I thought it was Edwards. The man had stomped out of the cookhouse as I was going in. He would have knocked me down if

I hadn’t jumped out of his way. Nigel was a house servant and Edwards wasn’t supposed to bother him, but he did.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Old bastard swears he’ll have me out in the field. Says I think too much of myself.”

I thought of Luke and shuddered. “Maybe you’d better take off some time soon.”



“Tried to run once. Followed the Star. If not for Marse Rufe, I would have been sold South when they caught me.” He shook his head. “I’d probably be dead by now.”

I went away from him not wanting to hear any more about running away—and being caught. It was pouring rain outside, but before I reached the house I saw that the hands were still in the fields, still hoeing corn.

I found Rufus in the library going over some papers with his father. I swept the hall until his father left the room. Then I went in to see Rufus.

Before I could open my mouth, he said, “Have you been up to check on Alice?”

“I’ll go in a moment. Rufe, how long does it take for a letter to go from here to Boston?”

He lifted an eyebrow. “Someday, you’re going to call me Rufe down here and Daddy is going to be standing right behind you.”

I looked back in sudden apprehension and Rufus laughed. “Not today,” he said. “But someday, if you don’t remember.”

“Hell,” I muttered. “How long?”

He laughed again. “I don’t know, Dana. A few days, a week, two weeks, three . . .” He shrugged.

“His letters were dated,” I said. “Can you remember when you received the one from Boston?”

He thought about it, finally shook his head. “No, Dana, I just didn’t pay any attention. You better go look in on Alice.”

I went, annoyed, but silent. I thought he could have given me a decent estimate if he had wanted to. But it didn’t really matter. Kevin would receive the letter and he could come to get me. I couldn’t really doubt that Rufus had sent it. He didn’t want to lose my good will anymore than I wanted to lose his. And this was such a small thing.

Alice became a part of my work—an important part. Rufus had Nigel and a young field hand move another bed into Rufus’s room—a small low bed that could be pushed under Rufus’s bed. We had to move Alice from Rufus’s bed for his comfort as well as hers, because for a while, Alice was a very young child again, incontinent, barely aware of us unless we hurt her or fed her. And she did have to be fed —spoonful by spoonful.

Weylin came in to look at her once, while I was feeding her.

“Damn!” he said to Rufus. “Kindest thing you could do for her would be to shoot her.”

I think the look Rufus gave him scared him a little. He went away without saying anything else.

I changed Alice’s bandages, always checking for signs of infection, always hoping not to find any. I wondered what the incubation period was for tetanus or—or for rabies. Then I tried to make myself stop wondering. The girl’s body seemed to be healing slowly, but cleanly. I felt superstitious about even thinking about diseases that would surely kill her. Besides, I had enough real worries just keeping her clean and helping her grow up all over again. She called me Mama for a while.

“Mama, it hurts.”

She knew Rufus, though. Mister Rufus. Her friend. He said she crawled into his bed at night.

In one way, that was all right. She was using the pot again. But in another . . .

“Don’t look at me like that,” said Rufus when he told me. “I wouldn’t bother her. It would be like hurting a baby.”

Later it would be like hurting a woman. I suspected that wouldn’t bother him at all.

As Alice progressed, she became a little more reserved with him. He was still her friend, but she slept in her trundle bed all night. And I ceased to be “Mama.”

One morning when I brought her breakfast, she looked at me and said, “Who are you?”

“I’m Dana,” I said. “Remember?” I always answered her questions.


“How do you feel?”

“Kind of stiff and sore.” She put a hand down to her thigh where a dog had literally torn away a mouthful. “My leg hurts.”

I looked at the wound. She would have a big ugly scar there for the rest of her life, but the wound still seemed to be healing all right —no unusual darkening or swelling. It was as though she had just noticed this specific pain in the same way she had just noticed me.

“Where is this?” she asked.

The way she was just really noticing a lot of things. “This is the Weylin house,” I said. “Mister Rufus’s room.”

“Oh.” She seemed to relax, content, no longer curious. I didn’t push her. I had already decided I wouldn’t. I thought she would return to reality when she was strong enough to face it. Tom Weylin in his loud silence, clearly thought she was hopeless. Rufus never said what he thought. But like me, he didn’t push her.

“I almost don’t want her to remember,” he said once. “She could be like she was before Isaac. Then maybe . . .” He shrugged.

“She remembers more every day,” I said. “And she asks questions.”

“Don’t answer her!”

“If I don’t, someone else will. She’ll be up and around soon.”

He swallowed. “All this time, it’s been so good . . .”


“She hasn’t hated me!”


Alice continued to heal and to grow. She came down to the cookhouse with me for the first time on the day Carrie had her baby.

Alice had been with us for three weeks. She might have been twelve or thirteen mentally now. That morning, she had told Rufus she wanted to sleep in the attic with me. To my surprise, Rufus had agreed. He hadn’t wanted to, but he had done it. I thought, not for the first time, that if Alice could manage to go on not hating him, there would be very little she couldn’t ask of him. If.

Now, slowly, cautiously, she followed me down the stairs. She was weak and thinner than ever, looking like a child in one of Margaret Weylin’s old dresses. But boredom had driven her from her bed.

“I’ll be glad when I get well,” she muttered as she paused on a step. “I hate to be like this.”

“You’re getting well,” I said. I was a little ahead of her, watching to see that she did not stumble. I had taken her arm at the top of the stairs, but she had tried to pull away.

“I can walk.”

I let her walk.

We got to the cookhouse just as Nigel did, but he was in a bigger hurry. We stood aside and let him rush through the door ahead of us.

“Huh!” said Alice as he went by. “ ’Scuse me!”

He ignored her. “Aunt Sarah,” he called, “Aunt Sarah, Carrie’s having pains!”

Old Mary had been the midwife of the plantation before her age caught up with her. Now, the Weylins may have expected her to go on doctoring the slaves, but the slaves knew better. They helped each other as best they could. I hadn’t seen Sarah called to help with a birth before, but it was natural that she should be called to this one. She dropped a pan of corn meal and started to follow Nigel out.

“Can I help?” I asked.

She looked at me as though she’d just noticed me. “See to the supper,” she said. “I was going to send somebody in to finish cooking, but you can, can’t you?”


“Good.” She and Nigel hurried away. Nigel had a cabin away from the quarter, not far from the cookhouse. A neat wood-floored brick-chimneyed cabin that he had built for himself and Carrie. He had shown it to me. “Don’t have to sleep on rags up in the attic no more,” he’d said. He’d built a bed and two chairs. Rufus had let him hire his time, work for other whites in the area, until he had money enough to buy the things he couldn’t make. It had been a good investment for Rufus. Not only did he get part of Nigel’s earnings, but he got the assurance that Nigel, his only valuable piece of property, was not likely to run away again soon.

“Can I go see?” Alice asked me.

“No,” I said reluctantly. I wanted to go myself, but Sarah didn’t need either of us getting in her way. “No, you and I have work to do here. Can you peel potatoes?”


I sat her down at the table and gave her a knife and some potatoes to peel. The scene reminded me of my own first time in the cookhouse when I had sat peeling potatoes until Kevin called me away.

Kevin might have my letter by now. He almost surely did. He might already be on his way here.

I shook my head and began cutting up a chicken. No sense tormenting myself.

“Mama used to make me cook,” said Alice. She frowned as though trying to remember. “She said I’d have to be cooking for my husband.” She frowned again, and I almost cut myself trying to watch her. What was she remembering?



“Don’t you have a husband? I remember once . . . something about you having a husband.”

“I do. He’s up North now.”

“He free?”


“Good to marry a freeman. Mama always said I should.”

Mama was right, I thought. But I said nothing.

“My father was a slave, and they sold him away from her. She said marrying a slave is almost bad as being a slave.” She looked at me. “What’s it like to be a slave?”

I managed not to look surprised. It hadn’t occurred to me that she didn’t realize she was a slave. I wondered how she had explained her presence here to herself.


I looked at her.

“I said what’s it like to be a slave?”

“I don’t know.” I took a deep breath. “I wonder how Carrie is doing—in all that pain, and not even able to scream.”

“How could you not know what it’s like to be a slave. You are one.”

“I haven’t been one for very long.”

“You were free?”


“And you let yourself be made a slave? You should run away.”

I glanced at the door. “Be careful how you say things like that. You could get into trouble.” I felt like Sarah, cautioning.

“Well it’s true.”

“Sometimes it’s better to keep the truth to yourself.”

She stared at me with concern. “What will happen to you?”

“Don’t worry about me, Alice. My husband will help me get free.”

I went to the door to look out toward Carrie’s cabin. Not that I expected to see anything. I just wanted to distract Alice. She was getting too close, “growing” too fast. Her life would change so much for the worse when she remembered. She would be hurt more, and Rufus would do much of the hurting. And I would have to watch and do nothing.

“Mama said she’d rather be dead than be a slave,” she said.

“Better to stay alive,” I said. “At least while there’s a chance to get free.” I thought of the sleeping pills in my bag and wondered just how great a hypocrite I was. It was so easy to advise other people to live with their pain.

Suddenly, she threw the potato she had been peeling into the fire.

I jumped, looked at her. “Why’d you do that?”

“There’s things you ain’t saying.”

I sighed.

“I’m here too,” she said. “Been here a long time.” She narrowed her eyes. “Am I a slave too?”

I didn’t answer.

“I said am I a slave?”


She had risen half off the bench, her whole body demanding that I answer her. Now that I had, she sat down again heavily, her back and shoulders rounded, her arms crossed over her stomach hugging herself. “But I’m supposed to be free. I was free. Born free!”


“Dana, tell me what I don’t remember. Tell me!”

“It will come back to you.”

“No, you tell-”

“Oh, hush, will you!”

She drew back a little in surprise. I had shouted at her. She probably thought I was angry—and I was. But not at her. I wanted to pull her back from the edge of a cliff. It was too late though. She would have to take her fall.

“HI tell you whatever you want to know,” I said wearily. “But believe me, you don’t want to know as much as you think you do.”

“Yes I do!”

I sighed. “All right. What do you want to know?”

She opened her mouth, then frowned and closed it again. Finally, “There’s so much … I want to know everything, but I don’t know where to start. Why am I a slave?”

“You committed a crime.”

“A crime? What’d I do?”

“You helped a slave to escape.” I paused. “Do you realize that in all the time you’ve been here, you never asked me how you were hurt?”

That seemed to touch something in her. She sat blank-faced for several seconds, then frowned and stood up. I watched her carefully. If she was going to have hysterics, I wanted her to have them where she was, out of sight of the Weylins. There were too many things she could say that Tom Weylin in particular would resent.

“They beat me,” she whispered. “I remember. The dogs, the rope . . . They tied me behind a horse and I had to run, but I couldn’t . . . Then they beat me . . . But. . . but. . .”

I walked over to her, stood in front of her, but she seemed to look through me. She had that same look of pain and confusion she’d had when Rufus brought her from town.


She seemed not to hear me. “Isaac?” she whispered. But it was more a soundless moving of her lips than a whisper. Then,

“Isaac!” An explosion of sound. She bolted for the door. I let her take about three steps before I grabbed her.

“Let go of me! Isaac! Isaac!”

“Alice, stop. You’ll make me hurt you.” She was struggling against me with all her feeble strength.

“They cut him! They cut off his ears!”

I had been hoping she hadn’t seen that. “Alice!” I held her by the shoulders and shook her.

“I’ve got to get away,” she wept. “Find Isaac.”

“Maybe. When you can walk more than ten steps without getting tired.”

She stopped her struggles, stared at me through streaming tears. “Where’d they send him?”


“Oh Jesus. . .” She collapsed against me, crying. She would have fallen if I hadn’t held her and half-dragged and half-carried her back to the bench. She sat slumped where I put her, crying, praying, cursing. I sat with her for a while, but she didn’t tire, or at least, she didn’t stop. I had to leave her to finish preparing supper. I was afraid I would anger Weylin and get Sarah into trouble if I didn’t. There would be trouble enough in the house now that Alice had her memory back, and somehow, it had become my job to ease troubles—first Rufus’s, now Alice’s—as best I could.

I finished the meal somehow, though my mind wasn’t on it. There was the soup that Sarah had left simmering; fish to fry; ham that had been rock-hard before Sarah soaked it, then boiled it; chicken to fry and corn bread and gravy to make; Alice’s forgotten potatoes to finish; bread to bake in the little brick oven alongside the fireplace; vegetables, including salad; a sugary peach dessert—Weylin raised peaches; a cake that Sarah had already made, thank God; and both coffee and tea. There would be company to help eat it all. There usually was. And they would all eat too much. It was no wonder the main medicines of this era were laxatives.

I got the food ready, almost on time, then had to hunt down the two little boys whose job it was to ferry it from cookhouse to table and then serve it. When I found them, they wasted some time staring at the now silent Alice, then they grumbled because I made them wash. Finally, my washhouse friend Tess, who also worked in the main house, ran out and said, “Marse Tom say get food on the table!”

“Is the table set?”

“Been set! Even though you didn’t say nothin’.”

Oops. “I’m sorry, Tess. Here, help me out.” I thrust a covered dish of soup into her hands. “Carrie is having her baby now and Sarah’s gone to help her. Take that in, would you?”

“And come back for more?”


She hurried away. I had helped her with the washing several times —had done as much of it as I could myself recently because Weylin had casually begun taking her to bed, and had hurt her. Apparently, she paid her debts.

I went out to the well and got the boys just as they were starting a water fight.

“If you two don’t get yourselves into the house with that food . . . !”

“ You sound just like Sarah.”

“foo I don’t. You know what she’d be saying. You know what she’d be doing too. Now move! Or I’ll get a switch and really be like her.”

Dinner was served. Somehow. And it was all edible. There may have been more of it if Sarah had been cooking, but it wouldn’t have tasted any better. Sarah had managed to overcome my uncertainty, my ignorance of cooking on an open hearth and teach me quite a bit.

As the meal progressed and the leftovers began to come back, I tried to get Alice to eat. I fixed her a plate but she pushed it away, turned her back to me.

She had sat either staring into space or resting her head on the table for hours. Now, finally, she spoke.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked bitterly. “You could have said something, got me out of his room, his bed … Oh Lord, his bed! And he may as well have cut my Isaac’s ears off with his own hand.”

“He never told anyone Isaac beat him.”


“It’s true. He never did because he didn’t want you to get hurt. I know because I was with him until he got back on his feet. I took care of him.”

“If you had any sense, you would have let him die!”

“If I had, it wouldn’t have kept you and Isaac from being caught. It might have gotten you both killed though if anyone guessed what Isaac had done.”

“Doctor-nigger,” she said with contempt. “Think you know so much. Reading-nigger. White-nigger! Why didn’t you know enough to let me die?”

I said nothing. She was getting angrier and angrier, shouting at me. I turned away from her sadly, telling myself it was better, safer for her to vent her feelings on me than on anyone else.

Along with her shouting now, I could hear the thin faint cries of a baby.


Carrie and Nigel named their thin, wrinkled, brown son, Jude. Nigel did a lot of strutting and happy babbling until Weylin told him to shut up and get back to work on the covered passageway he was supposed to be building to connect the house and the cookhouse. A few days after the baby’s birth, though, Weylin called him into the library and gave him a new dress for Carrie, a new blanket, and a new suit of clothes for himself.

“See,” Nigel told me later with some bitterness. “ ’Cause of Carrie and me, he’s one nigger richer.” But before the Weylins, he was properly grateful.

“Thank you, Marse Tom. Yes, sir. Sure do thank you. Fine clothes, yes, sir. . .”

Finally he escaped back to the covered passageway.

Meanwhile, in the library, I heard Weylin tell Rufus, “You should have been the one to give him something—instead of wasting all your money on that worthless girl.”

“She’s well!” Rufus answered. “Dana got her well. Why do you say she’s worthless?”

“Because you’re going to have to whip her sick again to get what you want from her!”


“Dana should have been enough for you. She’s got some sense.” He paused. “Too much sense for her own good, I’d say, but at least she wouldn’t give you trouble. She’s had that Franklin fellow to teach her a few things.”

Rufus walked away from him without answering. I had to get away from the library door where I had been eavesdropping very quickly as I heard him approach. I ducked into the dining room and came out again just as he was passing by.


He gave me a look that said he didn’t want to be bothered, but he stopped anyway.

“I want to write another letter.”

He frowned. “You’ve got to be patient, Dana. It hasn’t been that long.”

“It’s been over a month.”

“Well … I don’t know. Kevin could have moved again, could have done anything. I think you should give him a little more time to answer.”

“Answer what?” asked Weylin. He’d done what Rufus had predicted—come up behind us so silently that I hadn’t noticed him .

Rufus glanced at his father sourly. “Letter to Kevin Franklin telling him she’s here.”

“She wrote a letter?”

“I told her to write it. Why should I do it when she can?”

“Boy, you don’t have the sense you—” He cut off abruptly. “Dana, go do your work!”

I left wondering whether Rufus had shown lack of sense by letting me write the letter—instead of writing it himself—or by sending it. After all, if Kevin never came back for me, Weylin’s property was increased by one more slave. Even if I proved not to be very useful, he could always sell me.

I shuddered. I had to talk Rufus into letting me write another letter. The first one could have been lost or destroyed or sent to the wrong place. Things like that were still happening in 1976. How much worse might they be in this horse-and-buggy era? And surely Kevin would give up on me if I went home without him again—left him here for more long years. If he hadn’t already given up on me.

I tried to put that thought out of my mind. It came to me now and then even though everything people told me seemed to indicate that he was waiting. Still waiting.

I went out to the laundry yard to help Tess. I had come to almost welcome the hard work. It kept me from thinking. White people thought I was industrious. Most blacks thought I was either stupid or too intent on pleasing the whites. I thought I was keeping my fears and doubts at bay as best I could, and managing to stay relatively sane.

I caught Rufus alone again the next day—in his room this time where we weren’t likely to be interrupted. But he wouldn’t listen when I brought up the letter. His mind was on Alice. She was stronger now, and his patience with her was gone. I had thought that eventually, he would just rape her again—and again. In fact, I was surprised that he hadn’t already done it. I didn’t realize that he was planning to involve me in that rape. He was, and he did.

“Talk to her, Dana,” he said once he’d brushed aside the matter of my letter. “You’re older than she is. She thinks you know a lot. Talk to her!”

He was sitting on his bed staring into the cold fireplace. I sat at his desk looking at the clear plastic pen I had loaned him. He’d used half its ink already. “What the hell have you been writing with this?” I asked.

“Dana, listen to me!”

I turned to face him. “I heard you.”


“I can’t stop you from raping the woman, Rufe, but I’m not going to help you do it either.”

“You want her to get hurt?”

“Of course not. But you’ve already decided to hurt her, haven’t you?”

He didn’t answer.

“Let her go, Rufe. Hasn’t she suffered enough because of you?” He wouldn’t. I knew he wouldn’t.

His green eyes glittered. “She’ll never get away from me again. Never!” He drew a deep breath, let it out slowly. “You know, Daddy wants me to send her to the fields and take you.”

“Does he?”

“He thinks all I want is a woman. Any woman. So you, then. He says you’d be less likely to give me trouble.”

“Do you believe him?”

He hesitated, managed to smile a little. “No.”

I nodded. “Good.”

“I know you, Dana. You want Kevin the way I want Alice. And you had more luck than I did because no matter what happens now, for a while he wanted you too. Maybe I can’t ever have that—both wanting, both loving. But I’m not going to give up what I can have.”

“What do you mean, ‘no matter what happens now?’

“What in hell do you think I mean? It’s been five years! You want to write another letter. Did you ever think maybe he threw the first letter out? Maybe he got like Alice—wanted to be with one of his own kind.”

I said nothing. I knew what he was doing—trying to share his pain, hurt me as he was hurting. And of course, he knew just where I was vulnerable. I tried to keep a neutral expression, but he went on.

“He told me once that you two had been married for four years. That means he’s been here away from you even longer than you’ve been together. I doubt if he’d have waited as long as he did if you weren’t the only one who could get him back to his home time. But now . . . who knows. The right woman could make this time mighty sweet to him.”

“Rufe, nothing you say to me is going to ease your way with Alice.”

“No? How about this: You talk to her—talk some sense into her— or you’re going to watch while Jake Edwards beats some sense into her!”

I stared at him in revulsion. “Is that what you call love?”

He was on his feet and across the room to me before I could take another breath. I sat where I was, watching him, feeling frightened, and suddenly very much aware of my knife, of how quickly I could reach it. He wasn’t going to beat me. Not him, not ever.

“Get up!” he ordered. He didn’t order me around much, and he’d never done it in that tone. “Get up, I said!”

I didn’t move.

“I’ve been too easy on you,” he said. His voice was suddenly low and ugly. “I treated you like you were better than the ordinary niggers. I see I made a mistake!”

“That’s possible,” I said. “I’m waiting for you to show me I made a mistake.”

For several seconds, he stood frozen, towering over me, glaring down as though he meant to hit me. Finally, though, he relaxed, leaned against his desk. “You think you’re white!” he muttered. “You don’t know your place any better than a wild animal.”

I said nothing.

“You think you own me because you saved my life!”

And I relaxed, glad not to have to take the life I had saved—glad not to have to risk other lives, including my own.

“If I ever caught myself wanting you like I want her, I’d cut my throat,” he said.

I hoped that problem would never arise. If it did, one of us would do some cutting all right.

“Help me, Dana.”

“I can’t.”

“You can! You and nobody else. Go to her. Send her to me. I’ll have her whether you help or not. All I want you to do is fix it so I don’t have to beat her. You’re no friend of hers if you won’t do that much!”

Of hers! He had all the low cunning of his class. No, I couldn’t refuse to help the girl—help her avoid at least some pain. But she wouldn’t think much of me for helping her this way. I didn’t think much of myself.

“Do it!” hissed Rufus.

I got up and went out to find her.

She was strange now, erratic, sometimes needing my friendship, trusting me with her dangerous longings for freedom, her wild plans to run away again; and sometimes hating me, blaming me for her trouble.

One night in the attic, she was crying softly and telling me something about Isaac. She stopped suddenly and asked, “Have you heard from your husband yet, Dana?”

“Not yet.”

“Write another letter. Even if you have to do it in secret.”

“I’m working on it.”

“No sense in you losing your man too.”

Yet moments later for no reason that I could see, she attacked me, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, whining and crying after some poor white trash of a man, black as you are. You always try to act so white. White nigger, turning against your own people!”

I never really got used to her sudden switches, her attacks, but I put up with them. I had taken her through all the other stages of healing, and somehow, I couldn’t abandon her now. Most of the time, I couldn’t even get angry. She was like Rufus. When she hurt, she struck out to hurt others. But she had been hurting less as the days passed, and striking out less. She was healing emotionally as well as physically. I had helped her to heal. Now I had to help Rufus tear her wounds open again.

She was at Carrie’s cabin watching Jude and two other older babies someone had left with her. She had no regular duties yet, but like me, she had found her own work. She liked children, and she liked sewing. She would take the coarse blue cloth Weylin bought for the slaves and make neat sturdy clothing of it while small children played around her feet. Weylin complained that she was like old Mary with the children and the sewing, but he brought her his clothing to be mended. She worked better and faster than the slave woman who had taken over much of old Mary’s sewing—and if she had an enemy on the plantation, it was that woman, Liza, who was now in danger of being sent to more onerous work.

I went into the cabin and sat down with Alice before the cold fireplace. Jude slept beside her in the crib Nigel had made for him. The other two babies were awake lying naked on blankets on the floor quietly playing with their feet.

Alice looked up at me, then held up a long blue dress. “This is for you,” she said. “I’m sick of seeing you in them pants.”

I looked down at my jeans. “I’m so used to dressing like this, I forget sometimes. At least it keeps me from having to serve at the table.”

“Serving ain’t bad.” She’d done it a few times. “And if Mister Tom wasn’t so stingy, you’d have had a dress a long time ago. Man loves a dollar more than he loves Jesus.”

That, I believed literally. Weylin had dealings with banks. I knew because he complained about them. But I had never known him to have any dealings with churches or hold any kind of prayer meeting in his home. The slaves had to sneak away in the night and take their chances with the patrollers if they wanted to have any kind of religious meeting.

“Least you can look like a woman when your man comes for you,” Alice said.

I drew a deep breath. “Thanks.”

“Yeah. Now tell me what you come here to say . . . that you don’t want to say.”

I looked at her, startled.

“You think I don’t know you after all this time? You got a look that says you don’t want to be here.”

“Yes. Rufus sent me to talk to you.” I hesitated. “He wants you tonight.”

Her expression hardened. “He sent you to tell me that?”


She waited, glaring at me, silently demanding that I tell her more.

I said nothing.

“Well! What did he send you for then?”

“To talk you into going to him quietly, and to tell you you’d be whipped this time if you resist.”

“Shit! Well, all right, you told me. Now get out of here before I throw this dress in the fireplace and light it.”

“I don’t give a damn what you do with that dress.”

Now it was her turn to be startled. I didn’t usually talk to her that way, even when she deserved it.

I leaned back comfortably in Nigel’s homemade chair. “Message delivered,” I said. “Do what you want.”

“I mean to.”

“You might look ahead a little though. Ahead and in all three directions.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, it looks as though you have three choices. You can go to him as he orders; you can refuse, be whipped, and then have him take you by force; or you can run away again.”

She said nothing, bent to her sewing and drew the needle in quick neat tiny stitches even though her hands were shaking. I bent down to play with one of the babies—one who had forgotten his own feet and crawled over to investigate my shoe. He was a fat curious little boy of several months who began trying to pull the buttons off my blouse as soon as I picked him up.

“He go’ pee all over you in a minute,” said Alice. “He likes to let go just when somebody’s holding him.”

I put the baby down quickly—just in time, as it turned out.


I looked at her.

“What am I going to do?”

I hesitated, shook my head. “I can’t advise you. It’s your body.”

“Not mine.” Her voice had dropped to a whisper. “Not mine, his. He paid for it, didn’t he?”

“Paid who? You?”

“You know he didn’t pay me! Oh, what’s the difference? Whether it’s right or wrong, the law says he owns me now. I don’t know why he hasn’t already whipped the skin off me. The things I’ve said to him . . .”

“You know why.”

She began to cry. “I ought to take a knife in there with me and cut his damn throat.” She glared at me. “Now go tell him that! Tell him I’m talking ’bout killing him!”

“Tell him yourself.”

“Do your job! Go tell him! That’s what you for—to help white folks keep niggers down. That’s why he sent you to me. They be calling you mammy in a few years. You be running the whole house when the old man dies.”

I shrugged and stopped the curious baby from sucking on my shoe string.

“Go tell on me, Dana. Show him you the kind of woman he needs, not me.”

I said nothing.

“One white man, two white men, what difference do it make?”

“One black man, two black men, what difference does that make?”

“I could have ten black men without turning against my own.”

I shrugged again, refusing to argue with her. What could I win?

She made a wordless sound and covered her face with her hands. “What’s the matter with you?” she said wearily. “Why you let me run you down like that? You done everything you could for me, maybe even saved my life. I seen people get lockjaw and die from way less than I had wrong with me. Why you let me talk about you so bad?”

“Why do you do it?”

She sighed, bent her body into a “c” as she crouched in the chair. “Because I get so mad . . . I get so mad I can taste it in my mouth. And you’re the only one I can take it out on—the only one I can hurt and not be hurt back.”

“Don’t keep doing it,” I said. “I have feelings just like you do.”

“Do you want me to go to him?”

“I can’t tell you that. You have to decide.”

“Would you go to him?”

I glanced at the floor. “We’re in different situations. What I’d do doesn’t matter.”

“ Would you go to him?”


“Even though he’s just like your husband?”

“He isn’t.”

“But . . . All right, even though you don’t . . . don’t hate him like I do?”

“Even so.”

“Then I won’t go either.”

“What will you do?”

“I don’t know. Run away?”

I got up to leave.

“Where you going?” she asked quickly.

“To stall Rufus. If I really work at it, I think I can get him to let you off tonight. That will give you a start.”

She dropped the dress to the floor and came out of her chair to grab me. “No, Dana! Don’t go.” She drew a deep breath, then seemed to sag. “I’m lying. I can’t run again. I can’t. You be hungry and cold and sick out there, and so tired you can’t walk. Then they find you and set dogs on you . . . My Lord, the dogs . . .” She was silent for a moment. “I’m going to him. He knew I would sooner or later. But he don’t know how I wish I had the nerve to just kill him!”


She went to him. She adjusted, became a quieter more subdued person. She didn’t kill, but she seemed to die a little.

Kevin didn’t come to me, didn’t write. Rufus finally let me write another letter—payment for services rendered, I supposed—and he mailed it for me. Yet another month went by, and Kevin didn’t reply.

“Don’t worry about it,” Rufus told me. “He probably did move again. We’ll be getting a letter from him in Maine any day now.”

I didn’t say anything. Rufus had become talkative and happy, openly affectionate to a quietly tolerant Alice. He drank more than he should have sometimes, and one morning after he’d really overdone it, Alice came downstairs with her whole face swollen and bruised.

That was the morning I stopped wondering whether I should ask him to help me go North to find Kevin. I wouldn’t have expected him to give me money, but he could have gotten me some damned official-looking free papers. He could even have gone with me, at least to the Pennsylvania State Line. Or he could have stopped me cold.

He had already found the way to control me—by threatening others. That was safer than threatening me directly, and it worked. It was a lesson he had no doubt learned from his father. Weylin, for instance, had known just how far to push Sarah. He had sold only three of her children—left her one to live for and protect. I didn’t doubt now that he could have found a buyer for Carrie, afflicted as she was. But Carrie was a useful young woman. Not only did she work hard and well herself, not only had she produced a healthy new slave, but she had kept first her mother, and now her husband in line with no effort at all on Weylin’s part. I didn’t want to find out how much Rufus had learned from his father’s handling of her.

I longed for my map now. It contained names of towns I could write myself passes to. No doubt some of the towns on it didn’t exist yet, but at least it would have given me a better idea of what was ahead. I would have to take my chances without it.

Well, at least I knew that Easton was a few miles to the north, and

that the road that ran past the Weylin house would take me to it. Unfortunately, it would also take me through a lot of open fields—places where it would be nearly impossible to hide. And pass or no pass, I would hide from whites if I could.

I would have to carry food—johnnycake, smoked meat, dried fruit, a bottle of water. I had access to what I needed. I had heard of runaway slaves starving before they reached freedom, or poisoning themselves because they were as ignorant as I was about which wild plants were edible.

In fact, I had read and heard enough scare stories about the fate of runaways to keep me with the Weylins for several days longer than I meant to stay. I might not have believed them, but I had the example of Isaac and Alice before me. Fittingly, then, it was Alice who gave me the push I needed.

I was helping Tess with the wash—sweating and stirring dirty clothes as they boiled in their big iron pot—when Alice came to me, crept to me, looking back over her shoulder, her eyes wide with what I read as fear.

“You look at this,” she said to me, not even glancing at Tess who had stopped pounding a pair of Weylin’s pants to watch us. She trusted Tess. “See,” she said. “I been looking where I wasn’t s’pose to look—in Mister Rufe’s bed chest. But what I found don’t look like it ought to be there.”

She took two letters from her apron pocket. Two letters, their seals broken, their faces covered with my handwriting.

“Oh my God,” I whispered.



“Thought so. I can read some words. Got to take these back now.”


She turned to go.



“Thanks. Be careful when you put them back.”

“You be careful too,” she said. Our eyes met and we both knew what she was talking about.

I left that night.

I collected the food and “borrowed” one of Nigel’s old hats, to pull down over my hair—which wasn’t very long, luckily. When I asked Nigel for the hat, he just looked at me for a long moment, then got it for me. No questions. I didn’t think he expected to see it again.

I stole a pair of Rufus’s old trousers and a worn shirt. My jeans and shirts were too well known to Rufus’s neighbors, and the dress Alice had made me looked too much like the dresses every other slave woman on the place wore. Besides, I had decided to become a boy. In the loose shabby, but definitely male clothing I had chosen, my height and my contralto voice would get me by. I hoped.

I packed everything I could into my denim bag and left it in its place on my pallet where I normally used it as a pillow. My freedom of movement was more useful to me now than it had ever been. I could go where I wanted to and no one said, “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you working?” Everyone assumed I was working. Wasn’t I the industrious stupid one who always worked?

So I was left alone, allowed to make my preparations. I even got a chance to prowl through Weylin’s library. Finally, at day’s end, I went to the attic with the other house servants and lay down to wait until they were asleep. That was my mistake.

I wanted the others to be able to say they saw me go to bed. I wanted Rufus and Tom Weylin to waste time looking around the plantation for me tomorrow when they realized they hadn’t seen me for a while. They wouldn’t do that if some house servant—one of the children, perhaps—said, “She never went to bed last night.”


I got up when the others had been quiet for some time. It was about midnight, and I knew I could be past Easton before morning. I had talked to others who had walked the distance. Before the sun rose, though, I’d have to find a place to hide and sleep. Then I could write myself a pass to one of the other places whose names and general locations I had learned in Weylin’s library. There was a place near the county line called Wye Mills. Beyond that, I would veer northeast, slanting toward the plantation of a cousin of Weylin’s and toward Delaware to travel up the highest part of the peninsula. In that way, I hoped to avoid many of the rivers. I had a feeling they were what would make my trip long and difficult.

I crept away from the Weylin house, moving through the darkness with even less confidence than I had felt when I fled to Alice’s house months before. Years before. I hadn’t known quite as well then what there was to fear. I had never seen a captured runaway like Alice. I had never felt the whip across my own back. I had never felt a man’s fists.

I felt almost sick to my stomach with fear, but I kept walking. I stumbled over a stick that lay in the road and first cursed it, then picked it up. It felt good in my hand, solid..A stick like this had saved me once. Now, it quenched a little of my fear, gave me confidence. I walked faster, moving into the woods alongside the road as soon as I passed Weylin’s fields.

The way was north toward Alice’s old cabin, toward the Holman plantation, toward Easton which I would have to skirt. The walking was easy, at least. This was flat country with only a few barely noticeable rolling hills to break the monotony. The road ran through thick dark woods that were probably full of good places to hide. And the only water I saw flowed in streams so tiny they barely wet my feet. That wouldn’t last, though. There would be rivers.

I hid from an old black man who drove a wagon pulled by a mule. He went by humming tunelessly, apparently fearing neither patrollers nor any other dangers of the night. I envied his calmness.

I hid from three white men who rode by on horseback. They had a dog with them, and I was afraid it would smell me and give me away. Luckily, the wind was in my favor, and it went on its way. Another dog found me later, though. It came racing toward me through a field and over a rail fence, barking and growling. I turned to meet it almost without thinking, and clubbed it down as it lunged at me.

I wasn’t really afraid. Dogs with white men frightened me, or dogs in packs—Sarah had told me of runaways who had been tom to pieces by the packs of dogs used to hunt them. But one lone dog didn’t seem to be much of a threat.

As it turned out, the dog was no threat at all. I hit it, it fell, then got up and limped away yelping. I let it go, glad I hadn’t had to hurt it worse. I liked dogs normally.

I hurried on, wanting to be out of sight if the dog’s noise brought people out to investigate. The experience did make me a little more confident of my ability to defend myself, though, and the natural night noises disturbed me less.

I reached the town and avoided what I could see of it—a few shadowy buildings. I walked on, beginning to tire, beginning to worry that dawn was not far away. I couldn’t tell whether my worrying was legitimate or came from my desire to rest. Not for the first time, I wished I had been wearing a watch when Rufus called me.

I pushed myself on until I could see that the sky really was growing light. Then, as I looked around wondering where I could find shelter for the day, I heard horses. I moved farther from the road and crouched in a thick growth of bushes, grasses, and young trees. I was used to hiding now, and no more afraid than I had been when I’d hidden before. No one had spotted me yet.

There were two horsemen moving slowly up the road toward me. Very slowly. They were looking around, peering through the dimness into the trees. I could see that one of them was riding a light colored horse. A gray horse, I saw as it drew closer, a. . .

I jumped. I managed not to gasp, but I did make that one small involuntary movement. And a twig that I hadn’t noticed snapped under me.

The horsemen stopped almost in front of me, Rufus on the gray he usually rode, and Tom Weylin on a darker animal. I could see them clearly now. They were looking for me—already! They shouldn’t even have known yet that I was gone. They couldn’t have known—unless someone told them. Someone must have seen me leaving, someone other than Rufus or Tom Weylin. They would simply have stopped me. It must have been one of the slaves. Someone had betrayed me. And now, I had betrayed myself.

“I heard something,” said Tom Weylin.

And Rufus, “So did I. She’s around here somewhere.”

I shrank down, tried to make myself smaller without moving enough to make more noise.

“Damn that Franklin,” I heard Rufus say.

“You’re damning the wrong man,” said Weylin.

Rufus let that go unanswered.

“Look over there!” Weylin was pointing away from me, pointing into the woods ahead of me. He headed his horse over to investigate what he had seen—and frightened out a large bird.

Rufus’s eyes were better. He ignored his father and headed straight for me. He couldn’t have seen me, couldn’t have seen anything other than a possible hiding place. He plunged his horse into the bushes that hid me, plunged it in to either trample me or drive me out.

He drove me out. I threw myself to one side away from the horse’s hooves.

Rufus let out a whoop and swung down literally on top of me. I fell under his weight, and the fall twisted my club out of my hand, set it in just the right position for me to fall on.

I heard my stolen shirt tear, felt the splintered wood scrape my side . . .

“She’s here!” called Rufus. “I’ve got her!”

He would get something else too if I could reach my knife. I twisted downward toward the ankle sheath with him still on top of me. My side was suddenly aflame with pain.

“Come help me hold her,” he called.

His father strode over and kicked me in the face.

That held me, all right. From far away, I could hear Rufus shout— strangely soft shouting—“You didn’t have to do that!”

Weylin’s reply was lost to me as I drifted into unconsciousness.


I awoke tied hand and foot, my side throbbing rhythmically, my jaw not throbbing at all. The pain there was a steady scream. I probed with my tongue and found that two teeth on the right side were gone.

I had been thrown over Rufus’s horse like a grain sack, head and feet hanging, blood dripping from my mouth onto the familiar boot that let me know it was Rufus I rode with.

I made a noise, a kind of choked moan, and the horse stopped. I felt Rufus move, then I was lifted down, placed in the tall grass beside the road. Rufus looked down at me.

“You damn fool,” he said softly. He took his handkerchief and wiped blood from my face. I winced away, tears suddenly filling my eyes at the startlingly increased pain.

“Fool!” repeated Rufus.

I closed my eyes and felt the tears run back into my hair.

“You give me your word you won’t fight me, and I’ll untie you.”

After a while, I nodded. I felt his hands at my wrists, at my ankles.

“What’s this?”

He had found my knife, I thought. Now he would tie me again. That’s what I would have done in his place. I looked at him.

He was untying the empty sheath from my ankle. Just a piece of rough-cut, poorly sewn leather. I had apparently lost the knife in my struggle with him. No doubt, though, the shape of the sheath told him what it had held. He looked at it, then at me. Finally, he nodded grimly and, with a sharp motion, threw the sheath away.

“Get up.”

I tried. In the end, he had to help me. My feet were numb from being tied, and were just coming back to painful life. If Rufus decided to make me run behind his horse, I would be dragged to death.

He noticed that I was holding my side as he half-carried me back to his horse, and he stopped to move my hand and look at the wound.

“Scratch,” he pronounced. “You were lucky. Going to hit me with a stick, were you? And what else were you going to do?”

I said nothing, thought of him sending his horse charging over the spot I had barely leaped from in time.

As I leaned against his horse, he wiped more blood from my face, one hand firmly holding the top of my head so that I couldn’t wince away. I bore it somehow.

“Now you’ve got a gap in your teeth,” he observed. “Well, if you don’t laugh big, nobody’ll notice. They weren’t the teeth right in front.”

I spat blood and he never realized that I had made my comment on such good luck.

“All right,” he said, “let’s go.”

I waited for him to tie me behind the horse or throw me over it grain-sack fashion again. Instead, he put me in front of him in the saddle. Not until then did I see Weylin waiting for us a few paces down the road.

“See there,” the old man said. “Educated nigger don’t mean smart nigger, do it?” He turned away as though he didn’t expect an answer. He didn’t get one.

I sat stiffly erect, holding my body straight somehow until Rufus said, “Will you lean back on me before you fall off! You got more pride than sense.”

He was wrong. At that moment, I couldn’t manage any pride at all. I leaned back against him, desperate for any support I could find, and closed my eyes.

He didn’t say anything more for a long while-not until we were nearing the house. Then,

“You awake, Dana?”

I sat straight. “Yes.”

“You’re going to get the cowhide,” he said. “You know that.”

Somehow, I hadn’t known. His gentleness had lulled me. Now the thought of being hurt even more terrified me. The whip, again. “No!”

Without thinking about it or intending to do it, I threw one leg over and slid from the horse. My side hurt, my mouth hurt, my face was still bleeding, but none of that was as bad as the whip. I ran toward the distant trees.

Rufus caught me easily and held me, cursing me, hurting me. “You take your whipping!” he hissed. “The more you fight, the more he’ll hurt you.”

He? Was Weylin to whip me, then, or the overseer, Edwards?

“Act like you’ve got some sense!” demanded Rufus as I struggled.

What I acted like was a wild woman. If I’d had my knife, I would surely have killed someone. As it was, I managed to leave scratches and bruises on Rufus, his father, and Edwards who was called over to help. I was totally beyond reasoning. I had never in my life wanted so desperately to kill another human being.

They took me to the bam and tied my hands and raised whatever they had tied them to high over my head. When I was barely able to touch the floor with my toes, Weylin ripped my clothes off and began to beat me.

He beat me until I swung back and forth by my wrists, half-crazy with pain, unable to find my footing, unable to stand the pressure of hanging, unable to get away from the steady slashing blows . . .

He beat me until I tried to make myself believe he was going to kill me. I said it aloud, screamed it, and the blows seemed to emphasize my words. He would kill me. Surely, he would kill me if I didn’t get away, save myself, go home!

It didn’t work. This was only punishment, and I knew it. Nigel had borne it. Alice had borne worse. Both were alive and healthy. I wasn’t going to die—though as the beating went on, I wanted to. Anything to stop the pain! But there was nothing. Weylin had ample time to finish whipping me.

I was not aware of Rufus untying me, carrying me out of the barn and into Carrie’s and Nigel’s cabin. I was not aware of him directing Alice and Carrie to wash me and care for me as I had cared for Alice. That, Alice told me about later—how he demanded that everything used on me be clean, how he insisted on the deep ugly wound in my side—the scratch—being carefully cleaned and bandaged.

DMU Timestamp: September 03, 2020 08:33