Daniel refused to meet my eye the next morning at breakfast, though it’s to note he didn’t look afraid that I may tell father what I’d seen. In fact, his expression was one of irritation and dislike, offering me his shoulder when I tried to ask him about his plans for the day. Perhaps he was still upset with me for interrupting him the previous night, though I couldn’t imagine why.
I’d saved him from being violated by a cur, my brother should be thanking me for protecting him, not bird pecking at his meal like a child who’d been scolded for scuffing his shoes. How did he not realize the severity of the situation? I could only blame myself for letting him grow so comfortable and at ease around the slaves, truthfully it was my fault for not being there for him like I should have been.
For the briefest moment, I thought to blame our parents for their absence in his life, perhaps if they’d paid as much attention to him as they had with me when they caught me so comfortable with mama, then Daniel would not be in the dangerous position, but that thought quickly passed.
How dare I try to blame the people who gave us life? They deserved our obedience and respect, and I understood that, but Daniel was never taught the same lessons as me. Why? Because that had been my job. Father and mother taught me the truth of our superiority, they taught me humility beneath those of higher standing, such as they themselves, and taught me the right way to see the slaves under our hand, but I never had the chance myself to teach Daniel those same lessons.
I was always so busy trying to please my father that I never had extra time to really teach Daniel how to treat the slaves, and now it seemed too late. He was in danger now, who knew what that thing would do to Daniel, or what had already been done? Not only was Josiah a slave, but he was a male. He’d surely done something to my brother, brainwashed him in some way, hurt him physically, forced him into submission. He was threatening Daniel, telling him not to say a word to myself or our parents. Just the idea of Daniel sobbing while that son of a bitch pinned him down made me furious.
Yet I couldn’t tell our parents. Not yet at least. No, his safety was in my hands. I was the one who slacked on Daniel’s lessons, therefore it was on my shoulders that he was acting so friendly with those slaves, my fault he was being used by them. My poor brother, dirtied by those hands, I couldn’t stand it.
It was true I had my own work to tend to, papers to file, items to sign off and approve, yet when I realized there would be no way I could concentrate, I decided to instead find my brother. If I could not focus on paperwork, maybe I could at least take a day to spend with Daniel, begin his rehabilitation against slave empathy.
Both father and mother would be in town all day to prepare for the Taylor’s arrival, so I had all the time I needed to sneak away from my work, but evidently Daniel had the same ideas, because he was already out of the house and down by the slave’s cabins that were built behind the barn and against the edge of the cotton fields.
Placing myself behind a shed, I leaned close to the edge so I could peer around it, catching sight of Josiah and clenching my teeth to keep myself from vocally yelling or making any noise that would give away my position. The slave was standing with an axe in hand, placing pieces of wood upright before bringing the tool down, effortlessly splitting the wood before tossing the smaller pieces into a growing pile behind him.
Yet again he was without a shirt, the useless white cloth was hanging in his back pocket, occasionally pulling it out to wipe the sweat from his dark brow before tucking it back and returning to his task. I wrote a mental note to myself to discuss the issue of slaves not wearing their clothes later with my father, wincing as Josiah again brought down the axe with a splintering thud.
His muscles rolled beneath his skin, and I looked at my own arms, a frown on my lips. Compared to this slave, who was built with muscle and callouses, I looked rather… mediocre and undesirable. My hands were smooth, save the long white scars that marred the palms, and my body was somewhat lean and boney, but no, why would I be comparing myself to dirt? What an amusing thought!
“Josiah,” my head lifted and I turned back to looking around the edge of the shed when I heard my brother call for the slave, nails biting into the rotted wood when I found him treading towards us.
The slave paused with the axe lifted above his head, eyes shifting to Daniel before he let his arms fall to his sides, axe hanging loosely in one hand as he turned to meet my brother. Some kind of muffled snarl was stopped by my clenched teeth as Josiah lifted his hand to Daniel, fingers slipping across his cheek when he was close enough, and Daniel gave him a smile I’d never seen before, different from how he would smile at our parents, or me. This seemed… deeper.
“Are you mad at me for last night?” Daniel asked, and Josiah shook his head.
“I’m never mad at you. Your father-.”
“He doesn’t know,” Daniel quickly assured, “Henry didn’t say anything,” his head bowed, “I’m… not certain why, he’s always been the good son, so him keeping this from our father is unusual and unexpected,” he smiled again and looked back up at Josiah, “Not entirely disappointing of course.”
“No,” Josiah agreed, looking over towards the house, “Should you be out here?”
“No,” I whispered, though they didn’t hear me, and Daniel hummed, spinning round and hugging a book to his chest.
“Father and mother are out and Henry is busy with work, as usual. Who’s there to keep me from doing what I love?” he turned back to Josiah, a glowing smile on his face, “I brought something new, put that thing down and sit with me.”
“I should finish this before the master returns,” Josiah said, looking down at the axe, and Daniel stepped closer to him, putting a hand on his face and urging the slave to look at him instead.
“Don’t call him that,” he ordered, and Josiah tensed, “My father is no one’s master, certainly not yours.”
“I’ll help you with your work later,” Daniel decided, taking the axe and flailing as the weight of the tool made him keel to the side, dropping the book and huffing as he took the handle with both hands and grunted as he struggled to lift it off the ground, “This is easy.”
Josiah chuckled and stepped closer to Daniel, taking the axe back and bending down to grab the book as well, laying the tool down on the table he’d been using and dusting off the cover of the novel, smiling at it before offering the same smile to my brother.
“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to take a few hours to myself; time to spend with you,” he held his hand out, and Daniel cheerfully took it with his, stepping closer so he was leaning against Josiah’s bare chest, his other hand settled on the slave’s shoulder.
I looked away for a moment, taking a breath before turning back and cringing, holding my hand to my mouth, because Josiah was holding Daniel’s face with one hand, bowing his head low enough to brush his brim lips against the coral color of Daniel’s. They didn’t pull away from one another soon enough for my liking, but when they did I sighed, nails clawing down the wood of the shed, jumping as the splinters lodged into the tender flesh beneath my nails.
My attention was drawn to that as Daniel took Josiah’s hand and pulled him over to a few larger and un-axed pieces of wood, sitting together. Josiah leaned forward to watch Daniel open the book, but instead of reading himself, my brother then handed the novel to the slave, and I had to stifle the snort of amusement as Josiah drew back.
“Here, you read,” Daniel said, and Josiah gave him an unsteady look.
“I’m not good, Daniel.”
“You want to be a teacher, remember?” Daniel patted his hand against the page, then sat back, “Go ahead, I’ll help when you get stuck.”
Josiah nodded, his fingers slipping across the delicate edges of the book before he set his hand against the first page, giving Daniel one last uneasy look before he started to read, “It is a truth…,” almost immediately he trailed off, before quickly continuing, I could visibly see the way he was working the letters of each word together before fitting them onto his tongue to speak them, “… universally acknowledged that a single man in… possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
“See?” Daniel pointed, “You don’t even need my help anymore!”
“What book is this?” Josiah asked, closing it to see the cover, “Pride and…”
“Prejudice,” Daniel finished, pointing to the word, “Mother brought it back for me after her last trip into town, and I really enjoyed it, so I thought you might too.”
“Prejudice,” Josiah repeated, “What does it mean?”
“It’s a preconceived notion not based on reality or experience,” Daniel answered, “For example… my father is prejudice towards you and the other workers, because he himself has never been in your position. He’s never had to work a day in his life beneath the sun, his hands are weak and paper thin, nearly as weak and paper thin as his ego.”
I was staring down at my own hands as Daniel spoke, my lips twisted into a half pout half scowl, fingers curling against my palms as I looked back towards my brother, who was staring at his hands much like I had done, his lips in a heavy frown. Josiah had reopened the book, and was staring at the pages, eyes panning across them before visibly hesitating, shoulders tensing.
“Daniel, do you ever plan to get married?”
Daniel looked over at Josiah, appearing startled by the question, “What?”
Josiah pointed at the first page of the book, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife,” he read, “You’re a man in possession of good fortune, aren’t you? Do you want to get married?”
“Do I want to get married,” Daniel repeated, looking down, “Yes, in the future I do want to get married.”
Josiah bowed his head more, closing his book, “So this book is right, that single men in possession of good fortune are indeed in want of a wife.”
“I don’t want a wife,” Daniel denied, smiling, “I want you.”
Just by watching the way Josiah’s eyes widened, I knew he felt as shocked and speechless at Daniel confession as I did. He expected to marry a slave? A man? Had he gone mad?!
“Your family would never allow something like that,” Josiah said softly, and Daniel turned to him, reaching over and taking the slave’s hands in his own.
“I don’t care what they allow or not,” Daniel decided, “My father has already set an arranged marriage for Henry, and he seems entirely indifferent towards it, but I’ve been lucky as the youngest. So far father hasn’t shown interest in my future, so I’ve been allowed freedom to dream,” he rose to his feet and took a step forward, holding his arms out and motioning to the field of cotton that stretched on for acres before the forest cut it off, “We can run away together! We’ll travel all around the world, you’ll become a teacher like you always wanted, and we can return to Africa where your grandmother and grandfather were born!”
“Could we really?” Josiah asked, and Daniel turned back to him.
He gave a short nod as he stepped forward and took a seat in Josiah’s lap, wrapping an arm around his neck and setting his forehead against the slave’s forehead, “All we can do is dream,” he whispered, “I have faith that one day we can be what we want, without anyone trying to get between us. No interruptions, we could both be free.”
“Free,” Josiah whispered back, his eyes growing glassy with tears, and Daniel pulled his face against the side of his neck, holding the slave like he was trying to comfort him, though I couldn’t imagine why.
If he should be upset about anything, it was how angry my father would be to discover he’d been wasting time and not doing any of his work. What was it they were conspiring, running away together, and Daniel’s words, wanting to get married yet wanting to be with that slave? My back was flat against the side of the shed, head tipped back as I stared up at the sky.
Nothing was making sense to me. The slave had obviously brainwashed Daniel somehow, enough to make him think about betraying the family and running away with something that didn’t even have rights. Did Josiah really thing he could become a teacher? The man could barely read as it is! All he was good for was chopping wood and collecting cotton from the fields, doing the heavy lifting around the plantation and following orders.
Even if Daniel could get away with running off, he would never get far with Josiah as extra baggage. It seemed I didn’t have much time to rehabilitate my brother, if he was talking about things like this. I had to show him the truth our father showed me, pushing myself from the shed and slinking away from the wood pile where Daniel and Josiah were to sneak my way back towards the house, hands in the pockets of my trousers and head bowed as my mind raced.
How was I going to change his mind about that slave? How was I supposed to show Daniel that those people were dirt on the soles of our shoes, that he was meant to be inferior to them? I truly had my work cut out for me, but I would do my best. It was my job after all as his brother, to lead him down the right path, to keep him safe and protect him from what threatened him.
Josiah was threatening him, his relationship with those slaves threatened him, so I had to protect him from them, with everything I had, and God as my witness I would not fail Daniel again.