Exclusive Book Excerpt from Stephanie Freeman’s latest book, Midnight Son.
The Dirty Business of Men and Slaves
There’s a silence to him whenever he returns from there. An absence of sound I notice whenever he goes down to The Quarters. Oh Mamma told me they all do it, but I couldn’t believe her. My Thomas was different. He was good and kind and so sincere when he dropped to one knee and asked me for my hand. There were tears in his eyes and his bristle lip quivered. He looked so grave then, so serious, as if my answer would somehow change the course of his life, and maybe it did. I’m not pretty like the girls he used to go courting with. My dresses were plain and my hair mousy. Mamma says it was my heart that mattered and how well I took care of a house, but I see now that she was mistaken or lyin’ or maybe both.
Mituba is beautiful, as if God hisself painted her; fashioned her out of some rich sweet darkness, some secret only He knew. Her voice is low and intoxicating where mine is thin and reedy. Her clothes are rags where mine come from the finest shops in town. You should see the way she carries herself all regal like. It don’t matter what her chores are. It’s in the way she carries her head, the arc of her neck and her arm as she carries the baskets out to the fields, the easy smile she shares with her niggra friends. Even after the foreman had his way with her that first and only time… her stumbling toward the water pumps, her smile a red smear. Even then she cleaned herself with a grace I’ve never known. Thomas liked to have beaten that man like one of the defiant ones.
“I’ve seen the way the children snuggle down deep against her. They like to hang on her skirts as she cooks. She has none of her own as far as I can tell, but even that will change now that my Thomas done found her. I’d just die if anyone knew, but I wonder sometimes what it would be like to snuggle down against her. To hear her heart the way the children and Thomas do. I wonder if hers makes a sound that mine under this corset will never make. Does it sing of home or of her day? Does it speak a language few understand? Even the other slaves seem enchanted by her, brushing her hands away from any hard labor to tend to the children or sit under the Maples to knit or crochet things no human hand could make. I think her a witch and I envy her. I wonder in my looking glass if I paint my skin the color of night and arrange what little God blessed me with in a turban and forgo the slip… will he notice me. Will his gaze follow the sway of my hip….the touch of my hand calloused and rough as if it were from a day in the field? If I am her, will he bask under my touch….marvel over the scars on my back, press his lips to the ones that still hum with pain. If I was her, If only I was her….
Followed him one night… needed to know. Watched from behind a tree the way children do. Was Christmas and the air was blue with cold. Dusted his feet of snow before he crossed her threshold. She was making bread for the next day, working the pale white loaf the way I would have worked his shoulder had he been home. Stoked the fire in the hearth. Added the logs he carried with him. Checked the windows for cracks and even pulled a blanket from under his coat, same blanket that arrived that day from Serenity. Ermine but not mine. Little joke I made up makes me cry though so I don’t say it much. Rested his face against the back of her neck… breathed her in never bothering to say hello… but then some things don’t need sayin. I guess.
Thomas who never so much as ventured toward the kitchen in our home for a nip of something smelling extra nice stilled her hands on the dough and eased her aside and taking over. Gestured with his head for her to have a seat closer to the fire. Walking around him the way she did, relieving him of his coat with an ease that made my backache. Whatever cares… whatever worries consuming him during that day gathered under her hand, and with a wave, was washed away gone.
Almost wanted to go inside. Not to fight, but to join in their easy silence, bottle it for home, but just as she wasn’t welcome in my home… I knew I wasn’t welcome in hers. I may have married him first, may bear his name and his acceptable children, but where I live in a house on a hill, she lives in a home in his heart… no whipping can change that.
Thought of taking to my bed, of telling my Pa, but killing her would only drive her deeper within him. Selling her would make her immortal. Killing myself or having me someone from the Quarters crossed my mind, but why? A kiss on the cheek at my wedding and a wedding night spent with a man who had to be drunk to touch me made it pretty clear that I wouldn’t be missed. Made me wonder though with his seed drying on my thigh and the alcohol he drank staining my gown and my skin. If he loved me, why didn’t he take off his britches? If he loved me, why was he warming her home instead of mine?
Saw Mituba as she ran a hand over her belly, as a secret smile curled her full lips. Wouldn’t be long now…children born of love serving children of convenience. My Mamma used to say, “The dirty business of men and slaves is to rationalize the unthinkable.” I have to wonder now my own belly longing to be filled with child and my hands and feet more than a little cold due to a long dead fire and a crack in the window.
Who is the slave?
Hush now… he returns. I’ll fluff my hair and wait for him to return to a bed he hates to a woman he pities. His house is clean, his meals are cooked, and my arms are open. Maybe tonight he will touch me the way he does her. If I’m lucky maybe he’ll mistake the hint of her still on his skin for me.
The bed sinks under his familiar weight as one shoe and then the other falls to the floor. The musk of her comes off of him like heat. He removes his shirt and I can almost see where her hands have been…. where her mouth has been. I quake at the prospect the sounds he made. How her name must have sounded just before… just after…He’s never even spoken my name aloud. I reached out to touch him and his back stiffened as if he were bracing himself, willing himself not to cringe. He turned his head off in the direction of the quarters… to her.