I couldn’t seem to piece together everything that had happened, even though it should have been easy to come to terms with. I’d seen slaves whipped before, I had been the one holding the whip a few times myself, and I never normally felt anything from it. They were simply property, things that needed to be beaten to get them to obey our orders, because the entire reason they were alive was to serve us.
The Elias family gave these slaves homes, food, and work, we gave their lives meaning. Without us, they wouldn’t be able to provide for their families, they should have been grateful enough to know not to cross us. That was always what my father said, and for my entire life that was all I knew, it was a simple and easily understood way of life, we were above the roaches because of our color and wealth, and I never questioned it.
Now, things weren’t black and white anymore, there was so much more to the separation of the classes than I realized; why did Daniel have to be the one to make me realize that fact? Why did it make me physically sick whenever I thought that maybe the punishments were unethical? It had to be done! Josiah attacked Agatha! He must have! If he was willing to force himself onto my brother, then what was stopping him from attacking everyone?
The punishment was necessary, it was a lesson Josiah needed to learn, I could easily and without a care settle for that, but Daniel… Daniel shouldn’t have been forced to be the one to enact the punishment. That was the one thing I knew without question was wrong about the situation. He was too kindhearted, too simple, and naïve to come out of this with anything less than permanent trauma. The more I thought about it, the angrier and more frustrated I became, in myself, in my father, in everything I’d ever known.
My brother had long since locked himself in his room. For a while Temperance was with him, attempting to get him to talk so she could help him calm down, but he kicked her out and demanded privacy hours ago, and didn’t even give me a chance to talk to him or explain myself. Temperance wouldn’t even look in my direction, when we passed each other she stuck her nose up and stomped her feet, and it made me sigh in exasperation.
This was not my fault, I wasn’t the one who told Daniel to punish Josiah, I did nothing wrong. I… I didn’t stop it either, but she just didn’t understand. Maybe if I explained the unholy relationship Daniel had with that slave then she would realize that I was just trying to protect my brother and keep him safe, but I didn’t have the energy to even bother.
Daniel didn’t join us for supper that night, I wasn’t surprised, and I wasn’t surprised when our mother scolded me for his absence. At the end of the meal Mister Taylor pulled me aside and set a box into my hands, squeezing my shoulder and looking me in the eye.
“To protect my niece with,” he said, and I felt bile in my throat as I carried the box into my room, opening it before snapping it closed and throwing it onto the bed.
A handgun. What did that man expect me to do with a handgun? I didn’t care for guns, and I didn’t care for his niece, my frustrations simply continued to inflate until I tore a page from Daniel’s book and locked the door to my room to keep the rest of the world out.
I was sitting in a chair beside my bed, rubbing the palms of my hands against my knees as I stared at the two open boxes in front of me. One held the gun from Mister Taylor, the other held old photographs and old pieces of lemon rocks and horehound. My hands rubbed up over my face, and I pulled them down to stare at the scars.
Why? Why were they there? Why could I not remember how they’d happened? Did I trip? Did mama do this to me? Did… did father do this to me? My head ached, and I dropped my face into my hands, fingers tangling into my blond hair as I begged the screams in my mind to stop, to leave me be. I didn’t want to be so confused, to sit here wondering what I was supposed to believe.
In one hand, the gun. My hands pushed through my hair and my eyes lifted to the weapon, shining silver with a pearl handle and bullets tucked into the casing. That was my father’s world, a world of privilege and power, money, and the self-given right to command over another race of people. Everything was white, blinding, but I was starting to understand that it was all a false image of purity.
In the other hand was the rusted tin box that used to hold my father’s cigars, filled with black and white pictures of Daniel and mama, with old pieces of candy, rocks, twigs, dead leaves, and flowers that Daniel had given me as gifts when he was much younger. That was Daniel’s world, a world where nothing was white, everything was rustic and genuine, where everything was honest but soaked with sweat and mud.
I didn’t feel as if I belonged in either of these worlds, and the more I thought about it, the worse I felt, until I heard the click of my brother’s door opening. I knew where he was going, and I reached out, my hand hovering over both boxes and flickering between them, torn between what life I would choose, which box I would take influence from when I went to confront him.
The house was dark and quiet, I waited until I saw Daniel’s lantern outside the barn before following him. He didn’t bother to shut the door to the storage room, so all I had to do was stand outside and just to the side so they wouldn’t see me, peering in and fighting the tightness of my throat when I saw Josiah lying on the cot on his stomach, white bandages wrapped around his back and his head turned on the pillow so I could see how uncomfortable he was from the tight grimace on his face.
“Josiah?” Daniel whispered as he sat down on the edge of the cot, hushing the slave gently when he flinched away as his eyes snapped open, “It’s me.”
“Daniel,” Josiah settled back against the bed, his eyes heavy as he winced, “Are you alright?”
“Don’t ask me that,” Daniel asked weakly, his hand hovering over Josiah’s back like he couldn’t bring himself to touch the bandages, before leaning over the edge of the bed and picking up a leather satchel at his feet that I only now noticed he’d carried with him from the house, “I brought you medicinal tea, it should help with the pain,” he said, pulling out a steel canteen and matching tin cup.
Josiah nodded slowly and winced as he rolled onto his side, tensing as Daniel placed the lip of the cup to his mouth, his hand running over the slave’s scalp and neck to comfort him as he carefully and slowly poured the medicine into his mouth, waiting for him to swallow before feeding him more.
The scent of the herbs in the tea were instantly familiar, I knew Daniel had stolen the medicine from mother, sighing a little and rubbing my forehead but deciding to let it pass. It was just a little medicine, I suppose there was no harm in Daniel letting a slave have some. It wasn’t like mother would notice.
When the cup was empty, Daniel leaned away and hooked it to his satchel, returning the canteen into the bag as Josiah coughed against his fist, then reached over and carefully took one of Daniel’s hands into his own, fitting their fingers together and tugging Daniel’s hand closer to kiss the back of it, eyes closed.
“Don’t hate yourself, Daniel,” he insisted, “You did nothing wrong.”
I agreed with him silently as Daniel hesitated and shook his head, “I hurt you,” he said weakly, his free hand smoothing over the bandages, “That is wrong. I’m so sorry, Josiah, I didn’t want to.”
“I know,” Josiah pulled on Daniel’s hand again, prompting him to lean over Josiah to kiss the slave’s fevered temple, “I don’t blame you for anything, I consider myself lucky.”
“That’s the problem. This,” Daniel shook his head and stared at the bandages, “This shouldn’t be lucky! This shouldn’t even be a possibility!” he paused, “I’m not staying here any longer. My father wants me to marry for his own pleasure, he wants to attack the people I love… he made me do this,” tears poured from his eyes and he quickly swept them away before his face set into a determined expression, “Can you stand?”
Josiah cringed as he pushed himself to sit, “I can.”
“Can you walk?”
“Do you trust me?” Josiah nodded, and Daniel squeezed his hand, “Then let’s leave,” my eyes widened, “Now. While everyone is asleep. I have money, I have everything we’ll need, all that’s left is for us to make the decision and start walking.”
Josiah looked exhausted, but thrilled at the idea, and it was somewhat shocking to me. He really thought about running away? Why? Weren’t the slaves happy here? We gave them roofs over their head, food, work, we gave their lives meaning, why would they want to leave?
Was it because… because they wanted to be free of us?
“Won’t they catch us?” Josiah asked, looking out the window anxiously, and Daniel smiled, picking his satchel from the ground and hanging it on his shoulder.
“I’ve been planning this for years,” he promised, “I know exactly where to go.”
“Then yes,” Josiah turned back to Daniel, leaning towards him with his hands lifted to his face, his touch making my brother smile brightly, “I have no other family besides you. Where you go, I go.”
Daniel nodded in understanding and stood up, pulling the strap of the satchel over his head to settle on the opposite shoulder as he took Josiah’s arms and helped him to his feet, aiding him as he struggled to pull his shirt on and locking their hands together before turning towards the open doorway.
I pushed away from the door and pressed my back flat against the wall, my eyes wide as I stared into the darkness, and I held my breath as Daniel and Josiah left the room. It was so dark in the barn they didn’t notice me standing there, passing me completely and heading for the doors without even a step of hesitation. They knew what they were doing and they wanted to do it. They both wanted to leave.
After what happened to Josiah, I could understand how he could desire to run away, I could only imagine the pain he’d been through under the whip, but Daniel… I suppose considering he was the one forced to whip Josiah then it made sense, he never seemed to fit with this family anyway, running away to search for a different, better life, it must have been such an attractive prospect. No more sugar coated lies to myself, I did understand. Josiah had no rights here, not even to his own life, he wanted to run away for freedom, and Daniel… Daniel wanted the same thing. He was as much a slave to our father’s morals as Josiah was to this family. They both simply wanted the freedom to live.
What about me?
When they were gone I took several deep breaths to try and calm myself, but those breaths were rapidly increasing into hyperventilation, and the already difficult to see interior of the barn was blurring in my eyes. Daniel wanted to run away, he was acting on that, he was running, with Josiah he was running, I couldn’t let him go, he was my brother, he couldn’t leave, he couldn’t!
The sound of a gunshot went off, ringing in my ears before I comprehended that I was outside. The moon was full, sending light casting over us, and the pearl handled gun from Mister Taylor was in my hand, steam curling from the end of the barrel. The cold wind was messing up my hair, blowing it into my face, but by some miracle I hadn’t hit anyone with the bullet. Likely because I had literally never shot a gun before. It had ricocheted off the tin cup hanging from Daniel’s satchel, leaving a deep indent, and both spun to face me with wide eyes.
“H-Henry?” Daniel tested in disbelief, and I breathed in the cold air through clenched teeth.