The fields of the Elias estate were rich with cotton, the sun at its highest peak and sending down rays of heat to darken the backs of workers who were wading through the sea of white. The estate house itself sat perched at the top of a hill, with an apple orchard growing to the right and stretching back for acres until it reached a little fishing pond that was regularly visited by my younger brother, Daniel Elias.
The carriage I was riding in bounced and rattled along the dirt road as it was pulled along by a pair of horses, and I myself was leaning back against the seat, staring out the window beside me and holding the soft curtain to the side so I could stare out over the plantation, and at the dozens of slaves who were hunched over the cotton plants.
Their dark backs seemed to glisten from the sweat and the sun above, and somewhere in the back of my mind I felt relieved I didn’t have to work like that alongside them. Why should I break my back doing things like harvesting cotton when I have so much more to do? I was just returning home after months of studying my father’s trade, dressed in a clean pressed, newly tailored suit I’d purchased just before leaving the city, and just at my feet was a velvet suitcase filled with stocks that were sure to put a gleaming smile on my father’s face.
Yes, I had far more important things to do with my time, best leave the harder work to the slaves. My eye recognized nearly every dark-skinned face I saw that turned to watch the carriage, and I noticed a few new slaves my father must have acquired while I was gone, but when my gaze fell on a head of honey blonde I nearly fell out of the carriage by pushing myself up and leaning out the window to get a better look.
“Daniel!” I yelled as loud as I could manage, and my younger brother stood up where he’d been bent over, a satchel filled with cotton hanging on his shoulder and his arm lifting to shade his eyes so he could find who had called to him.
Even from the distance I was at I could see his face light up, a smile taking to his lips as I sighed and dropped my head, leaning back into the carriage and yelling at the driver to stop before pushing the door open and climbing down the steps to meet Daniel, who was now climbing up the levy on his hands and knees.
A groan was in my throat as I lifted a hand to my face, because his good clothes were crusty from mud, and God knows I was the one who would be yelled at for it, “Henry!” he threw himself at me for a hug, but I held my hand out to stop him, holding him away by his head as I held my other hand up.
“What on this earth do you think you’re doing down there?” I demanded, and his arms fell to his sides as he frowned, and I grabbed his hands, sighing.
There was dirt under his nails, his hands were a mess, with callouses and cuts that were still bleeding, “Father will not be happy about this, Daniel. Look at your clothes!” I went to dust his shirt off and he had the audacity to roll his eyes at me.
“I was just helping out a little,” he argued with me, pushing my hands down, “One of the workers sprained his ankle, so I helped him back home and offered to do his share of the work. It’s only right.”
I didn’t understand his reasoning, “Do you realize how angry father will be seeing you like this? Who do you expect is going to be punished for letting you get this dirty?”
Daniel simply let out a sigh, “I’m sorry, I don’t want to get you in trouble, I just wanted to help,” he smiled up at me, “I’m happy you’re home, though! Did you have a good semester at school?”
“Before anything, I’m taking you to the house,” I decided, pushing Daniel towards the carriage and yanking the satchel over his head, “I want you to wash up and change before father or mother see you, I don’t want to get yelled at my first night home.”
“I understand, I’m sorry,” Daniel mumbled the words to me, climbing into the carriage as I turned and prepared to toss the satchel into the field for one of the workers to pick up, but Daniel grabbed it before I could and sat back down, hugging it to his chest, “I spent hours collecting this, you’re not just going to dump it out,” he snapped, and I sighed with a slow roll of my eyes and closed the carriage.
“Go on driver, bring us to the back before looping around to the front,” I looked over at Daniel, “You can wash off outside and sneak into the house through the kitchen. When you have clean clothes on, then you can hug me.”
He grinned at me, “Thank you.”
A hum of response slipped from my lips and I leaned against the door of the carriage, my elbow propped against the window and my head in my hand. As the eldest, it had always been my job to look after my brother, make sure he was studying, eating, sleeping, and bathing. If there was one hair out of place, one smudge on his shoes, I was the one who got yelled at.
In that aspect, I suppose I held a sense of bitterness towards him, but I could never hate him. He was my brother after all, my flesh and blood, I felt it an honor that I could watch him grow and help him learn. Daniel was a good kid, always happy to help whoever needed it, even if they were a slave on the plantation. Unfortunately, that was one of the reasons he was always getting into trouble. My father didn’t like it when his sons showed leniency to slaves.
I did my best to get that fact through Daniel’s head, but whenever I was lecturing him, he just appeared confused, so all I could do was keep my father from noticing. Daniel had a kind heart, and that was a good thing, I was glad he got along with people, it was just a little infuriating when I was the one who was constantly punished for it.
It was my duty as his brother to protect him, so I felt it only right to cover for him, letting him slip out of the carriage before me so he could clean himself off. I only hoped he was quick about it.
I thanked the driver of the carriage before heading up the walk towards the front door of my childhood home, a smile taking to my lips due to nostalgia as I pushed the door open and called out for my parents.
There were a few slaves in the entry who brightened when the door open, smiling at the door but frowning in surprise when they seemed to recognize me, before turning their heads down and hurrying from the room as if I was a hunter. The frown on my lips stayed only a moment in my confusion before being replaced with a smile as my mother came out, hurrying up to me and taking my face in her hands.
“Welcome home, darling,” she greeted, kissing my cheek, I had to lean down a little so she could reach me.
When she released me and I stood straighter, I was met by my father, who gripped my upper arm firmly and grabbed my hand to shake it, beaming. Seeing him so proud of me made my heart warm, and I was even more excited to show him the stocks I’d brought home with me.
“A full year since you’ve been gone, I’m glad to have you back,” my father said, and I shook his hand back with a nod.
“It’s good to finally be home, father. I’ve missed this house, you and mother, Daniel of course,” I laughed, glancing towards the hallway expecting my brother to show up in clean clothes, but he didn’t, and I began to feel mildly frustrated with him.
“We’ve all missed you as well,” my mother said, looping her arm through mine and patting my hand, “Though I’m surprised, Daniel has been waiting with bated breath for your homecoming, I’m astonished he hasn’t rushed in,” she made a noise of realization and turned to me, “He must still be studying. I’ll go call for him.”
“No!” I pulled her back when she started forward, wincing before giving her a smile, “I’ll get him. It’s been a year since I saw him, so he’ll probably be excited to see me, yes?” I rushed out in a hurried voice, silently cursing my brother for taking so long.
“Well if you insist,” mother agreed, taking my father’s arm instead, “We’ll be waiting for you in the drawing room with tea, hurry in as soon as you’ve found your brother, darling, we want to hear all about your studies,” she put a hand on her cheek and chuckled, looking at her husband in excitement, “We have news of our own to tell you!”
“I won’t be long,” I promised, setting my case down and pulling my coat from my shoulders as I watched my parents leave the room before quickly turning back, snapping my fingers when I saw a young slave girl cleaning the window near the door, “You, hang my coat up, but do not touch this case, understood?”
“Yes sir,” she agreed, putting the rag she’d been using down and taking my coat from me.
When I was sure she understood her orders, I turned and hurried from the room, wondering what on earth was keeping Daniel so long. What was he doing, taking a bath? All I told him to do was wash his hands and face, maybe comb his hair, change out of the dirty clothes and into something that suited him. My feet took my swiftly down the back hall and through the kitchen where a few slaves were preparing dinner, and left through the screen door that lead to the back of the house.
I let the screen slam closed as I started towards the barn, following the perimeter to the right where the water pump was located just beyond the stables. I was walking so quickly I nearly fell when I jerked back, dodging back around the side of the barn and placing my back against it as my eyes widened in a sense of utter confusion, before narrowing.
I inched back to peer around the corner of the building, staring over to where Daniel was standing next to the water pump, holding his hands out with the palms up, in front of a slave I found somewhat familiar. His skin was a dark, rich umber, with a copper undertone at his cheeks, taller than my brother and wearing ragged blue jeans with tears in the knees, feet bare, and sirty white shirt stuffed into his back pocket.
Daniel was standing plenty close to the man, a slight pout on his lips as he watched the slave carefully clean his cut up hands with a sponge soaked in the cool water from the pump, dabbing at a few of the deeper cuts before sliding the sponge over his wrist, pushing Daniel’s sleeve back to wash more of the dirt away.
“Thank you,” Daniel said after a moment, tearing his gaze from watching the slave work to instead lift his head and smile.
The slave lifted his own dark eyes from cleaning the cuts to meet Daniel’s blue gaze, and I felt a shiver of shock run down my spine as one hand left Daniel’s to instead reach out, taking my brother’s chin in his grasp with his thumb against Daniel’s bottom lip, “Your hands aren’t meant for labor.”
“Neither are yours,” Daniel quickly responded, lifting one of his hands to curl his fingers around the slave’s wrist, “Someone needed help, I was only doing the right thing. Scratches will heal in no time.”
“You’ll only get grief from your family for helping us,” the slave warned, and Daniel rolled his eyes as he held his hands out again, letting the man wash the cuts.
“I don’t care about that.”
I took that time to step away from the barn, clearing my throat and feeling it close as Daniel jumped, as if he’d been caught doing something wrong, his head snapping to the side to gape at me in surprise.
“Henry! I’m sorry, have I been too long?” he cringed, “Josiah insisted he clean the cuts so there wouldn’t be infection.”
“Josiah, you remember?” Daniel smiled at the slave, “Father brought him home almost ten years ago now.”
I did remember him. He used to be smaller. When father brought him home I remembered the confusion I felt, because Josiah was nothing but black skin and bones, his clothes hung on his frame, skin sagging on his cheeks from malnourishment. I couldn’t recall his age at the time, but I remember he was close to Daniel.
Due to his frail appearance, I figured he was a joke my father was playing, or perhaps the trader was the one playing a joke on my father; I didn’t think he’d be able to do the hard work that was required, but my father didn’t seem to care about what he was capable of, and Daniel didn’t seem to care about anything at all besides the fact it was a little boy his age.
Thinking back, I remembered we were just returning from church, Daniel was still in his good clothes, shiny black shoes and a vest. The new slave boy was sitting on a broken bench out of the way shucking corn, his dry hands red from the work, and instead of walking right to the front door, Daniel instead made a beeline for the slave, hands on his knees as he leaned down a little and smiled to be eyelevel with the boy.
“Are you new here?”
The slave looked fearful almost at the question, looking over Daniel’s head as if making sure my father wasn’t looking before responding, “Yes, sir.”
“What’s your name?”
“Have none, sir.”
“No? Then what do I call you?” Daniel stood straighter, smiling, “I like the name Josiah!” he held his hand out, “Then that will be your name. Josiah! My name is Daniel, it’s good to meet you.”
The slave, Josiah, didn’t take Daniel’s hand, which caused my brother to frown a little, his head tilting to the side.
“Why aren’t you shaking my hand?”
“Not supposed to touch you, sir,” Josiah explained, bowing his head, “My hands are dirty, I’ll get you dirty, sir.”
Daniel took him by his wrist, then slipped his hand into Josiah’s, squeezing his fingers and shaking his whole arm, “I don’t mind, I like playing in the dirt!” he squeezed the hand of a slave back then, giving him the widest of smiles, “Let’s be friend here on out!”
I ended up getting yelled at by our father that day, “Henry! What are you doing? Get your brother and bring him inside! Don’t let him mingle with a slave! You should know better!”
At the time, he had been eight. I didn’t expect them to truly grow up friends, but I suppose I hadn’t been paying attention. Josiah was no longer scrawny skin on bones. His shoulders were broad, muscle layered under his dark skin, telling a story of years of hard work. It was a little intimidating, but I brushed it aside as I held an arm out.
“Come on, Daniel, mother and father want us in the drawing room. Go change.”
“Alright,” Daniel sighed, turning towards me and waving back at Josiah, “I’ll see you again.”
He walked past me but I stayed in place, staring at Josiah, who tensed under my gaze, “Sir, do you need me for something?”
“No,” I responded quickly, adding, “Get back to work,” before turning away and following after my brother.