For the longest time, I wouldn’t let anyone get close to me, I refused to let go of Daniel, and every minute I spent staring at his dead eyes and shaking him to try and wake him up, I grew increasingly inconsolable. Men didn’t cry, they didn’t show emotion, but the death of a beloved brother should be considered one of the exceptions.
I cried, I sobbed, until I couldn’t see through my tears and I sounded like I was dying. When mother tried to comfort me I screamed at her, I told her to just leave, to do what she did best and ignore her children like she normally did, and I think I offended, her, because she slapped me. After that she left me, went back into the house, and I buried my face against Daniel’s chest.
Temperance was the one who finally managed to calm me down, kneeling in the dirt beside me and pulling my head away from Daniel and against her chest, arms wrapped around my shoulders and her hand in my hair, whispering soothing words into my ear as the weight of Daniel’s body disappeared from my arms.
Father asked me what happened, and I told the truth, explaining that when Agatha called for me it startled me, making me jump and pull the trigger of the gun that Mister Taylor had given me.
“You mean the slave pulled the trigger,” father said, crouched down in front of where I was still kneeling, hands in my lap with the palms up, covered in blood, “The slave got the gun and killed your brother, Henry.”
I lifted my head and met his eye, “No,” I denied, “I killed him. I pulled the trigger. Josiah did nothing. He’s innocent.”
He lashed out at me, tangled his fingers through my hair and pulled my closer, “Innocent? He is a slave, Henry, you know this! They are not innocent.”
“Josiah is,” I fought, and he let go of me, snarling.
“Why would you and Daniel be outside at night with a slave?” he demanded, and I answered truthfully.
“They were running away,” I explained, and his head reeled, “I tried to stop them,” I paused, then added, “They were going to stay, but Agatha startled me and I shot Daniel.”
“Why would they run?” he asked me slowly, and a crooked grin pulled the corner of my lips.
“Because they were in love.”
Both my parents struck me that night, but I felt the pain was well deserved punishment for killing my own brother. I couldn’t collect my thoughts at all, washing my hands at the water pump and scratching at my skin in a desperate attempt to clean myself of my brother’s blood, long after the red was gone and the freezing water had numbed my fingers I continued to scrub at them, until Temperance pulled me away and forced me back into the house.
Sitting at the foot of my bed, dirtied shirt tossed to the side, Temperance sat in a chair in front of me with a rag, washing the smears of blood from my chest and cheeks as I stared down at the scars on my hands. I felt as if I was out of my body, my mind wavering as my fingers curled against my palms.
“Father used a belt on me,” I said suddenly, and Temperance pulled the rag away.
“My hands,” I stretched my fingers out to show off the scars, “When I was younger, before Daniel was born, a slave took care of me. She was like a mother to me, more so than my own, and I called her mama, but when father caught me addressing a slave as my mother, he got angry. He used his belt, scarred my hands, lynched the slave so I could never see her again… I’d forgotten until now.”
Temperance set her hand in one of mine, squeezing my fingers and smiling softly at me, “Henry… this wasn’t your fault. I know you didn’t mean to hurt him, you’re a good man,” her eyes grew glassy, her lips quivering, still in a smile, “It was an accident.”
“It was punishment,” I stated, and her lips fell into a scowl as she pulled her hand away, pausing when I continued, “My punishment. I was supposed to keep him safe, but I couldn’t, so I was forced to watch him die by my hands. These hands,” I looked down, “Scarred by my father, forced to conform to society… I was taught to be cruel, and for that sin, I lost my brother,” I smiled, “I deserve this guilt.”
“I’m here for you,” Temperance promised me, but I shook my head.
“You deserve so much more.”
She laughed weakly, “But I want you!”
I turned away from her, leaning forward with my elbows folded on my knees, “I need to be alone right now, please forgive me.”
“I understand,” she whispered, and I waited for the door to shut behind her before sitting up and falling onto my back on the mattress, my legs still hanging off the edge of the bed.
I cursed when something sharp bit into my back, sitting up and reaching behind me, dragging the tin box out from under me and slowly sitting up. I carried the box over to my desk and lit the lantern sitting there, pulling out the pictures and setting them out, letting the tears fill my raw eyes as I covered my face with my hands.
Josiah was scheduled to be lynched the same day as Daniel’s funeral. It didn’t matter to my father that the slave was innocent, all he cared about was his amoral injustice, and the attention he would get from a public execution followed by the funeral of his youngest son. It was disgusting, and I knew asking him to let Josiah live would be a futile effort, so I didn’t bother.
Instead, I filled Daniel’s satchel with supplies, waited for night, and made my way out to the windowless shed where they were holding Josiah. I could only imagine his anxiety at hearing the key in the padlock, clicking open before I removed it and tossed it aside, pulling the door open and holding my lantern in front of me as I stepped into the shed, closing the door behind me.
The only thing in the tiny room was a cot, where Josiah was sitting up, hunched forward with his elbows propped against his knees and his hands folded. Daniel’s blood was dry on those hands, I felt sick at the realization that they hadn’t even let him clean off, they likely hadn’t changed the bandages on his back either.
“I expected you might come,” he said, lifting his head to me, “Are you going to shoot me next?”
I dropped Daniel’s satchel from my shoulder and dropped it onto the ground in front of him, and his eyes filled with confusion as his brow drew down, “Run,” I said, and his eyes widened in surprise, “The last thing Daniel asked was for you to be safe, he asked me to save you because he knew our father wouldn’t care about what had happened, he would lynch you regardless because you’re a slave,” I paused, then nodded to the satchel, “I’m honoring his last wish. I won’t tell anyone anything, I’ll send them the wrong direction to give you more time. Daniel wanted you safe, so run.”
Josiah continued to stare at me, dumbstruck, for a long moment, before dropping his head down again and staring at the satchel. I turned to leave, staying any longer would risk me being caught by someone, but Josiah stopped me.
“Do you believe him finally?” he asked me, and I turned back to him.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you believe Daniel was in love with me? Or do you still think I was manipulating him?”
“I don’t know what to believe,” I answered, and he sighed.
“I did love him, Henry. He gave me a name when I never had one before, he taught me to read, showed me the world in a different light. I loved him from the moment I met him, sir.”
“Don’t call me sir,” I found myself saying, and Josiah gave me a calm, rather flat look, so I turned away, “At this point in time, I’m not sure if I even know what love is, or if I ever knew. My father abused me, beat me until I believed what he wanted me to believe. Daniel was never subjected to that, he never succumbed to our father’s morals like I did, and for that he was independent, defiant, he was his own man, genuine and honest, he was a good man.”
“And you raised him that way,” Josiah stated, and my eyes widened, “He would discuss it often, how he was so grateful to you for protecting him from your parents, how he could never thank you enough for everything you sacrificed to keep him safe and give him a good childhood. The man he was, it was thanks to you. Even though you yourself have twisted views from abuse, you were still able to influence your brother in a positive light.”
I scoffed, my arms folding tightly across my chest and my eyes closing against the darkness, lantern hanging from my fingers, “If I did such a wonderful job raising him, then why is he dead?”
“He did what he was meant to do,” Josiah whispered, “He changed your mind. He passed his goodness to you… at least I would like to think so. This world is cruel, Henry, but kindness can change any dark heart. Love is colorblind; the white man is not,” he paused, “So follow in Daniel’s steps. Disregard white and black, generalize the world by spreading love.”
I found myself nodding slowly, staring down before turning back to Josiah, “You should go now.”
“Why?” he asked, sitting back, and staring up, “I have no life out there. I have never been free, Henry. My entire life I have spent working under the tyranny of your family, but Daniel was a light in a dark world. He was something I never thought I could have for myself, and I was right, but for the short time I did have him, when I could call him mine, I felt free,” his eyes fell to me, “I only ask that you let me live in my memories until tomorrow. I don’t mind dying,” his smile was crooked, “I’ll see him again.”
“You can’t be serious,” I stated, “I’m offering you a chance to get away, to be free, and you want to throw that away?!”
“Something you need to understand,” Josiah stated, “In this age, I will never be free; not really, but death… death is freedom. I have nothing more to live for, the person I love is already gone, and I’ve made him wait for me long enough.”
“He asked me to save you,” I said harshly, growing frustrated, “This is the only thing I can do for him, Josiah. Are you really going to throw your life away like that?!”
“I’m not throwing anything away,” he argued easily, “Letting this happen, you will be saving me. Do this one thing for me, Henry. Look away.”
I shook my head, closing my eyes and running a hand over my face before looking at him, “I’ll leave, but I’m leaving the door unlocked, and I’m leaving the supplies. Run, don’t run, it’s out of my hands now.”
“Yes, it is.”
Josiah died on a Sunday. There were clouds in the sky, a promise of rain, and the entire town had gathered to watch like it was a spectacle. Like he wanted, I looked away when it happened. The townspeople left him hanging in the tree, and I stayed where I was with my head bowed in respect as everyone left.
It started to rain when I was digging the grave beneath the dogwood tree, drops of water hit the delicate pink petals and knocked the flowers from the branches one by one. I buried Josiah there, mud on my good church clothes, tears in my eyes that I called rain drops as I set a photograph of Daniel on his chest and folded his hands over it, so he had something to take with him into the afterlife.
I stood there beside the grave for a long time when I was finished shoveling dirt over Josiah’s body, wiping my hand across my cheek to wipe away the rain and smearing mud across my face. There were no words I could say, no prayers to lead Josiah to heaven, I felt I didn’t deserve to speak them. Surely God would never listen to me anyway, not after I’d killed my own brother and buried the man he loved.
The guilt that made my chest tight, it was a well-deserved guilt, I basked in it, let it consume me, walking as if I was on a cloud of lead. Whenever I saw that little slave girl after that, I smiled at her, and after a few weeks, she began to smile back. I would go into the fields when my father was distracted and help the workers collect cotton, Daniel’s satchel hanging on my shoulder, his tin cup still dangling from the strap.
My hands became rough and cut up from the work, my father hit me often as I was going against all his morals, and after several months of disobedience, it was decided I would be sent abroad for studying in England.
I didn’t mind getting away, but I would be leaving my brother and Josiah. Who would bring flowers to their graves with me gone?
The day I was scheduled to leave, Temperance was there, taking my hands in hers and sliding her soft fingers over the scars and callouses, “Please, while you’re gone, forgive yourself,” she smiled at me, tears on her cheeks, “I’ll wait for you?”
“I’m sorry, Temperance,” I apologized softly, “At this point… I can’t feel anything at all. I would rather you marry a man who can love you, because I… I won’t ever forgive myself.”
She continued to smile, though it was broken and pained, and she nodded, whispering to me, “I understand. Then… I at least hope you have a wonderful life, Henry. I love you.”
The fields of the Elias estate were rich with cotton, and the sun was at its highest peak, sending down rays of heat to darken the backs of workers who were wading through the sea of white.
The carriage I was riding in bounced and rattled along the dirt road as it was pulled along by a pair of horses while I leaned back against my seat, staring out the window so I could stare out over the plantation, and at the dozens of slaves who were hunched over the cotton plants.
I was leaving for who knew how long, dressed in worn shirt and trousers covered in a layer of dust and hastily patched, as I couldn’t care less about my appearance now. Sitting at my feet was a velvet case, and in my hands, was a little tin cup, my fingers continuously slipping into the dent in the side.
No one would have known, by as my eyes swept over the dark backs glistening from the sweat and sun, somewhere in the back of my mind, I was searching for a head of honey blond hair, skin tanned from the hot sun and cheeks layered with dust, cuts on his fingers and mud on his jeans, but a smile on his face nonetheless.
I knew I wouldn’t see him out there, but when I shut my eyes, I could imagine him, and though I was being consumed with my self-hate and guilt, that was enough for me. His memory, his love, his understanding, I would live for that, and I would live like he would have, loving regardless of color, generalizing the world in my own eyes as a place where everyone could be free and able to love as they wished.
A world where Daniel never would have died.
A world of equality that I never would have known I yearned for if my brother had not opened my eyes for me.