Part One November
My eleventh birthday began with Mother promoting me from the nursery. For a year I’d longed to escape the porcelain dolls, tops, and tiny tea sets strewn across the floor, the small beds lined up in a row, the whole glut and bedlam of the place, but now that the day had come, I balked at the threshold of my new room. It was paneled with darkness and emanated the smell of my brother—all things smoky and leather. The oak canopy and red velvet valance of the bedstead was so towering it seemed closer to the ceiling than the floor. I couldn’t move for dread of living alone in such an enormous, overweening space.
Drawing a breath, I flung myself across the door sill. That was the artless way I navigated the hurdles of girlhood. Everyone thought I was a plucky girl, but in truth, I wasn’t as fearless as everyone assumed. I had the temperament of a tortoise. Whatever dread, fright, or bump appeared in my path, I wanted nothing more than to drop in my tracks and hide. If you must err, do so on the side of audacity. That was the little slogan I’d devised for myself. For some time now, it had helped me to hurl myself over door sills.
That morning was full of cold, bright wind pouring off the Atlantic and clouds blowing like windsocks. For a moment, I stood just inside the room listening to the saber-fronds on the palmettos clatter around the house. The eaves of the piazza hissed. The porch swing groaned on its chains. Downstairs in the warming kitchen, Mother had the slaves pulling out Chinese tureens and Wedgwood cups, preparing for my birthday party. Her maid Cindie had spent hours wetting and fastening Mother’s wig with paper and curlers and the sour smell of it baking had nosed all the way up the stairs. I watched as Binah, the nursery mauma, tucked my clothes into the heavy old wardrobe, recalling how she used a fire poke to rock Charles’ cradle, her cowrie shell bracelets rattling along her arms while she terrified us with tales of the Booga Hag—an old woman who rode about on a broom and sucked the breath from bad children. I would miss Binah. And sweet Anna, who slept with her thumb in her mouth. Ben and Henry, who jumped like banshees until their mattresses erupted with geysers of goose feathers, and little Eliza, who had a habit of slipping into my bed to hide from the Booga’s nightly reign of terror.
Of course, I should’ve graduated from the nursery long ago, but I’d been forced to wait for John to go away to college. Our three-storied house was one of the grandest in Charleston, but it lacked enough bedrooms, considering how . . . well, fruitful Mother was. There were ten of us: John, Thomas, Mary, Frederick, and myself, followed by the nursery dwellers—Anna, Eliza, Ben, Henry, and baby Charles. I was the middle one, the one Mother called different and Father called remarkable, the one with the carroty hair and the freckles, whole constellations of them. My brothers had once traced Orion, the Dipper, and Ursa Major on my cheeks and forehead with charcoal, connecting the bright red specks, and I hadn’t minded—I’d been their whole sky for hours.
Everyone said I was Father’s favorite. I don’t know whether he preferred me or pitied me, but he was certainly my favorite. He was a judge on South Carolina’s highest court and at the top of the planter class, the group Charleston claimed as its elite. He’d fought with General Washington and been taken prisoner by the British. He was too modest to speak of these things— for that, he had Mother.
Her name was Mary, and there ends any resemblance to the mother of our Lord. She was descended from the first families of Charleston, that little company of Lords that King Charles had sent over to establish the city. She worked this into conversations so tirelessly we no longer made the time or effort to roll our eyes. Besides governing the house, a host of children, and fourteen slaves, she kept up a round of social and religious duties that would’ve worn out the queens and saints of Europe.
When I was being forgiving, I said that my mother was simply exhausted. I suspected, though, she was simply mean. When Binah finished arranging my hair combs and ribbons on the lavish Hepplewhite atop my new dressing table, she turned to me, and I must have looked forsaken standing there because she clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and said, “Poor Miss Sarah.”
I did so despise the attachment of Poor to my name. Binah had been muttering Poor Miss Sarah like an incantation since I was four. "
It’s my earliest memory: arranging my brother’s marbles into words. It is summer, and I am beneath the oak that stands in the back corner of the work yard. Thomas, ten, whom I love above all the others, has taught me nine words: SARAH, GIRL, BOY, GO, STOP, JUMP, RUN, UP, DOWN. He has written them on a parchment and given me a pouch of forty-eight glass marbles with which to spell them out, enough to shape two words at a time. I arrange the marbles in the dirt, copying Thomas’ inked words. Sarah Go. Boy Run. Girl Jump. I work as fast as I can. Binah will come soon looking for me.
It’s Mother, however, who descends the back steps into the yard. Binah and the other house slaves are clumped behind her, moving with cautious, synchronized steps as if they’re a single creature, a centipede crossing an unprotected space. I sense the shadow that hovers over them in the air, some devouring dread, and I crawl back into the green-black gloom of the tree.
The slaves stare at Mother’s back, which is straight and without give. She turns and admonishes them. “You are lagging. Quickly now, let us be done with this.”
As she speaks, an older slave, Rosetta, is dragged from the cow house, dragged by a man, a yard slave. She fights, clawing at his face. Mother watches, impassive.
He ties Rosetta’s hands to the corner column of the kitchen house porch. She looks over her shoulder and begs. Missus, please. Missus. Missus. Please. She begs even as the man lashes her with his whip.
Her dress is cotton, a pale yellow color. I stare transfixed as the back of it sprouts blood, blooms of red that open like petals. I cannot reconcile the savagery of the blows with the mellifluous way she keens or the beauty of the roses coiling along the trellis of her spine. Someone counts the lashes—is it Mother? Six, seven.
The scourging continues, but Rosetta stops wailing and sinks against the porch rail. Nine, ten. My eyes look away. They follow a black ant traveling the far reaches beneath the tree—the mountainous roots and forested mosses, the endless perils—and in my head I say the words I fashioned earlier. Boy Run. Girl Jump. Sarah Go.
Thirteen. Fourteen . . . I bolt from the shadows, past the man who now coils his whip, job well done, past Rosetta hanging by her hands in a heap. As I bound up the back steps into the house, Mother calls to me, and Binah reaches to scoop me up, but I escape them, thrashing along the main passage, out the front door, where I break blindly for the wharves.
I don’t remember the rest with clarity, only that I find myself wandering across the gangplank of a sailing vessel, sobbing, stumbling over a turban of rope. A kind man with a beard and a dark cap asks what I want. I plead with him, Sarah Go.
Binah chases me, though I’m unaware of her until she pulls me into her arms and coos, “Poor Miss Sarah, poor Miss Sarah.” Like a decree, a proclamation, a prophecy.
When I arrive home, I am a muss of snot, tears, yard dirt, and harbor filth. Mother holds me against her, rears back and gives me an incensed shake, then clasps me again. “You must promise never to run away again. Promise me.”
I want to. I try to. The words are on my tongue—the rounded lumps of them, shining like the marbles beneath the tree.
“Sarah!” she demands.
Nothing comes. Not a sound.
I remained mute for a week. My words seemed sucked into the cleft between my collar bones. I rescued them by degrees, by praying, bullying and wooing. I came to speak again, but with an odd and mercurial form of stammer. I’d never been a fluid speaker, even my first spoken words had possessed a certain belligerent quality, but now there were ugly, halting gaps between my sentences, endless seconds when the words cowered against my lips and people averted their eyes. Eventually, these horrid pauses began to come and go according to their own mysterious whims. They might plague me for weeks and then remain away months, only to return again as abruptly as they left. "
The day I moved from the nursery to commence a life of maturity in John’s staid old room, I wasn’t thinking of the cruelty that had taken place in the work yard when I was four or of the thin filaments that had kept me tethered to my voice ever since. Those concerns were the farthest thing from my mind. My speech impediment had been absent for some time now—four months and six days. I’d almost imagined myself cured.
So when Mother swept into the room all of a sudden—me, in a paroxysm of adjustment to my surroundings, and Binah, tucking my possessions here and there—and asked if my new quarters were to my liking, I was stunned by my inability to answer her. The door slammed in my throat, and the silence hung there. Mother looked at me and sighed.
When she left, I willed my eyes to remain dry and turned away from Binah. I couldn’t bear to hear one more Poor Miss Sarah.