I was in the pumpkin patch, counting the ones that were good enough for Old Pepper Apron, our cook, to make into bread. I recollect that Pa was happy that he’d gotten one or two cents more on the pound from the cotton Granville had shipped out of Bagdad. And that the fields were being sown with winter oats and rye.
I looked up and saw Sis Goose standing by the gate, a frown on her lovely face. It was all like some Dutch still life I was learning about from my tutor. Sis twisted her apron in her hands. She always wore a snow-white apron, like I did, even though we had no real household chores.
“Luli, there’s an old negro man in our barn,” she said.
For a moment I did not understand. The place was full of negro men: field hands, household help. But the look on her face told me something was amiss.
“Who is he?”
“Says he comes from Virginny. Says . . .” and her voice broke.
“Says the negroes are free. That Abraham Lincoln freed them in January of ’63.”
That rumor again. But with the war there was a different rumor every week. I swallowed. Something on Sis Goose’s face bespoke her distress.
“Go and get Gabe,” I told her. “He’ll know what
Gabe was in the house, helping Mama decide whether the one hundred bushels of corn she wanted to trade for three pounds of sugar was worth it.
I went to the horse barn, but I didn’t go in until Gabe and Sis Goose came back. “Where’d you come from, Uncle?” Gabe asked the man, who looked old enough to be somebody’s grandfather.
“Virginny. I comes from Virginny,” came the answer. “From Applegate I come. On the advice of Miz Heather.”
Applegate was my Virginia grandmother’s plantation.
Gabe scowled and ran his hands over the back of the man’s mule. It had usa branded on its back. “This is a fine-looking animal. Where’d you get it?”
“Miz Heather give it to me. And say to come here. She give me a message for y’all.”
“What message?” from Gabe.
“She say that no matter what, I shud tell y’all that Mister Linkum done freed the slaves nigh over a year ago now.”
“Did she now?” Gabe’s voice was tight, forced in its casualness. “Well, to my knowledge my grandmother never had a mule with usa branded on its back. This mule is government property,” Gabe told him.
“I came from Virginny,” the old man insisted. “Miz Heather, she tell me . . .”
“Yes, yes, I know, that Mr. Lincoln freed the slaves. I’ll tell you what, Uncle—” Then Gabe stopped and looked at us. “Go on into the house,” he directed us. “Tell no one about this. I’ll handle it.”
We obeyed. I said nothing to Sis Goose about it. But she did to me. “Do you think he’s right?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I mean, we would have heard. If not us, then Gabe or Granville. I’m sure we would have heard.”
And so I lied to my best friend, my sister, who trusted me. Because I had heard of this before. But both Gabe and Granville had ordered me not to speak of it.
ont-family: 'Times New Roman'" The slaves free! I could not think on it all at once. It assaulted my spirit. It gave lie to everything I knew in my life.
All Pa’s people in the fields could put down their hoes and walk off if they wanted to. We’d never have another corn or cotton crop. The sweet potatoes and white potatoes and vegetables needing dirt banks to keep them safe from the winter would all be ruined. No more corn shuckings with banjo playing and cider. No one to repair the fences, see to the livestock. In the house, no one to keep Mama’s Chippendale furniture free of dust or polish the silver or make the beds. Who would do the laundry?
My mind gave way to hopelessness. And then I remembered what Granville had said the last time a man came to the barn like this. In June of ’63, it had been, right before Gettysburg.
“You breathe a word of this and you’ll start bloodshed in Texas,” he warned me.
Granville liked to make dramatic statements like that.
“I could be free.” Sis Goose stopped walking and looked at me. The news had come over her the same way.
“And what would you do?” I asked casually.
She lowered her eyes. Then looked at me almost flirtatiously. “I’d marry Gabe.”
No, I couldn’t take this, too. I drew in my breath. I’d noticed of late the way he served her at the table before he served himself. How he gave her the best cuts of meat. How he held out her chair. Was he just being a Southern gentleman?
He didn’t do all that for me. With me he was brusque, moody. Gentle but sealed off. Fool, I told myself. You should have seen it.
“Has he asked you?” I pushed.
“Yes. But I can’t, unless I’m free. I told him yes, at the end of the war. He wants to marry now. Because he says then Aunt Sophie can’t sell me. I’d be his wife. But I don’t want to be like my mama, the colored wench of a white man.”
She spoke fast. And I thought fast. I entered into a covenant with myself then, a promise to lie, even if it killed me. “Well, it’s just a rumor. I’m sorry, Sis Goose. My brothers and my pa would know if it were true.”
She accepted that. “You’d never lie to me,” she said. “Remember, we’re sisters.”
Copyright © 2007 by Ann Rinaldi
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