My nerves kept me awake, and my work kept my distracted, as the sun faded in the distance and left a dark sky ripe with stars in its place. My desk sat just beside the window, allowing me the option to stare outside over the dark silhouettes of the Elias plantation, the barn, and the row of cabins where the slaves resided.
The moon was full, the light just enough that I could make out certain details of the buildings and trees outside, but still dark enough that everything I saw held the possibility of being nothing more than bizarre hallucinations brought on by the unsettling atmosphere of the dead of night.
A lantern was burning low in front of me, and paper was spread under my hands, including the stocks, which I was carefully cataloging before filing them away as they should be. As was my nature, I was burying my uncertainty and frustrations with my work, showing emotion like that was unbecoming of a man, and for the past few hours that’s what I’d been doing.
It was inevitable that my mind would wander, however, constantly returning to Daniel and what he’d said to me. Wasn’t it only natural for me to strive to please my father? To make him proud of me? I was his eldest son, his heir, Daniel could never understand that what I do for our father, the struggle to make him proud, was necessary, and something I had been working towards from the moment he told me that one day this company would pass to me.
I never had the freedom that Daniel did, when I wasn’t studying I was looking after him to keep him out of trouble, I suppose I was essentially the one who raised him, and when I wasn’t around, he ended up spending far too much time with the slaves. That was why he was this way, too lenient with those… people, things, slaves.
I was always so busy when I was here that I could never keep my attention on him every hour of the day, and moving to the city for my studies simply gave him even more opportunities to spend time with… them. Since our parents were busy with themselves, the only thing Daniel could do to stave off loneliness.
Somewhere in the very back of my mind I remembered a time from my childhood, before Daniel came along, and even a little after he’d been born. Our parents never had much time for me then either, so mostly I was left to my own devices, studying and playing in the yard. I remembered a time when I was like Daniel, getting mud on my clothes because I hadn’t a care in the world for my image. I was simply a child having fun.
While father and mother worked with their own lives, my care was left to an elderly woman, a slave tasked with keeping me out of trouble, keeping me fed and bathed. I didn’t think much on her, but her image occasionally filtered into my head, when I was alone I would remember her, and I always felt guilty for it.
She was a rather stout, middle aged woman who wore a patterned dress of tiny white flowers on a dark backdrop of fabric. There were course square patches stitched onto certain areas of the skirt, cut from potato sacks and worn curtains, and a somewhat worn and dirtied apron tied around her waist.
One of my clearest memories of her was the little patched pocket on the front of her apron, where she kept pieces of horehound and lemon rocks that she would sneak to me whenever we were alone, or when my parents were looking away.
“Best not rot your teeth on these, or I be blamed,” she would whisper, and I would hide the candy in an empty tin box that had the words “Little Tom Cigars” in red on the very top. Every time she gave me a piece of candy, I would hide it in my box and slip it between the mattress and frame of my bed, so that my father and mother never caught me with the treat.
She had a stunningly dark complexion, like pure Columbian coffee, but her full cheeks always had a rosy undertone, with wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, brought on by years of smiles. Her hair was beginning to lighten with age, into a powdery silver, pulled into a bun with a bandana wrapped around her head, her hands were leathery and tough from working all her life, eyes like amber against a backdrop of dark chocolate.
I didn’t remember her name, I doubt she had one, she always insisted I call her “mama”, and I remember I did. She was the one to tuck me into bed at night, pulling al my covers up to my chin and patting my chest as she sat on the edge of my bed.
“Now mama can’t read, but mama don’t need to read to tell her boy a story,” and she would tell me her stories, mostly legends and fairy tales she must have made up on the spot, though she would always hold my hand when she was done, “My mama told me those stories, and her mama before told those stories, all back till when my people lived away from this country.”
I didn’t believe her, and I told her so, and she just laughed. She had a wonderful laugh.
I remember I called her mama in front of my parents, and my mother got angry at me, and I vaguely remembered my father yelling at me, but the memory turned foggy after that. The next I remembered was my hands burning, bleeding, gashes along the backs of my hands and cut into the palms, a slave who wasn’t mama was helping me, holding my hands in a tub of water as the physician from town stood nearby, taking out a silver needle and thick stitching to close the dangerously deep wounds.
My memory wouldn’t tell me what happened to me hands, but I never saw mama after that, and my father began to spend quite a bit of time with me. He and mother both kept an eye on me, they would take my shoulder and squeeze tight enough to hurt, teach the same lesson several times a day, trying restlessly to make me understand the truth of our family’s superiority over the slaves that work beneath us.
“Their skin is proof of their inferiority,” my father would tell me, “Brown like the dirt we tread on, they belong under boot, licking the mud from our shoes.”
It was all I knew, the Elias family’s superiority over slaves, I quickly learned how to treat them, saved from that woman’s brainwashing before she could turn me into a slave empathizer. I was grateful to my parents, because they’d caught me in time, but Daniel hadn’t been given the supervision I got. He didn’t understand the things I did, that those things were nothing but dirt.
As his brother, it was up to me to teach him, but Lord would it be a task. He was such a softhearted boy, I had my work cut out for me. My elbows were propped against my desk, and I rubbed my hands over my face, raking my fingers through my hair and staring at the flame flickering in the lantern.
My hands fell away from my hair and onto the desk, and I glanced over my shoulder. There was a platter of food sitting on my wardrobe that the slave girl from before had brought me, untouched, I hadn’t even moved from my seat to see what meal had been prepared. I wasn’t certain what time it was, but I was confident in my assumption that the entire house, as well as the rest of the estate, was fast asleep.
For a while I was sure I was the only one asleep, until a dim golden light bobbed into my peripheral vision, just outside. My head turned on instinct, for a moment it looked like a firefly, until I decided it was far too big to be a mere bug. It was a lantern, I realized, slowly pushing to my feet and leaning towards the glass, a soft gasp on my lips as the figure stopped at the barn and turned to look back at the house, lifting the lantern so I could make out Daniel’s features.
What on earth was he doing? Awake at night and wandering around the estate? He certainly looked rather suspect as he glanced around the area a bit more before disappearing into the barn. My curiosity quickly drew me away from the window, grabbing my lantern as I headed for the door and making my way down the stairs, tip toeing so I wouldn’t rouse the rest of the house.
Whatever Daniel was doing, judging by the fact he was sneaking out, he was likely doing something he definitely should not be doing, and before going to my father, it was only right I try to fix the problem myself. Daniel was my brother, my responsibility, if he was doing something wrong then it was my duty to rehabilitate him. Not to mention the striking fact I would likely be the one in the most trouble because I wasn’t keeping a clear enough eye on him.
The night air was crisp, a slight summer wind gusted past leaving pinpricks of ice cold behind to raise the goosebumps along my arms, and I wrapped one arm around myself to fight the chill as I kept my lantern held in front of me, watching the ground as I walked to keep from tripping. When I reached the barn, I found the door was slightly ajar, just enough for me to slip inside, turning and straightening up expecting to see Daniel, but the barn appeared to be empty.
My eyes panned around the interior of the building, searching for my brother and frowning when I couldn’t spot him. I began to walk forward to see if he was somewhere further inside, perhaps behind the hay, but froze when I heard a sudden thud coming from the left.
The hand not holding the lantern reached for a pitchfork propped against the wall, zoning in on a closed door that lead to the storage room in the barn. If I recalled correctly, there were gardening tools in there, a few chairs, a table, and even a cot for ranch hands, but I was currently thinking perhaps there was an animal there, maybe my brother was harboring a bear, I wouldn’t put it past him, that seemed like something he would do.
The lantern was heavy in my hand as I crept closer to the door, choosing my steps carefully and moving slowly so as not to make any noise, my fingers tightening around the pitchfork in my hand which made the splintering wood bite into my skin. When I finally reached the door I slowly set the lantern on the floor, before reaching out and pushing at the wood carefully to test it, nudging it a little more when I found it was open.
I held the pitchfork closer and leaned towards the door as I cracked it open just enough to peer inside, and my heart jumped, lodging in my throat and stopping my breath as my eyes widened. I certainly would have dropped the lantern and started a barn fire if it had still been in my hands.
There was a single candle burning on the table inside the room, but it cast enough light to let me see. As I thought, there were a few spare tools, brooms and rakes, and the table was pushed against the far wall just under the tiny window, with a cot sitting to the right, but my full attention was on my brother.
He was standing with his back pressed against the wall, his arms stretched above his head and his hands pinned in place, his trousers hanging far too suspiciously low on his hips. Holding him effortlessly to the wall with one hand wrapped around Daniel’s wrists was that slave, Josiah. His shirt had been pulled off and dropped to the floor, so I could see light scarring along his shoulder blades, but what made me tighten my grip on the pitch fork was how he was holding my brother.
His knee was situated right between Daniel’s legs, lifted up to press exclusively between his thighs and against a very intimate area. His broad chest was pressing against Daniel’s, and with his free hand he held his chin between his thumb and forefinger, both their eyes closed, both locked in a deep kiss.
I don’t know what happened, but I heard a loud bang, and Josiah jumped away from Daniel, who snapped his head towards the door. His arms dropped and he held the back of his hand against his lips as his eyes met mine and widened in fear.