Escaping the Chains of Freedom
Written & Created by
Dedicated to My Family
SLAVE: The Trilogy
© April 2011, Jacqueline Malcolm (Story created in Play form)
© December 2011, Jacqueline Malcolm (Novel)
1738 – 1804
Winter - 1755
I have a Beast.
He resides inside me; living, breathing - waiting.
He was present at my birth. A birth that by all accounts wasn’t easy. Nature’s sign of what was to come; my life, as my birth, has never been easy.
This isn’t easy!
I can hear crying; no, more than that! I hear screaming, wailing. A boy, no, a man wailing; he cries out, it sounds strange, a man’s voice crying out for his mother.
“Mother, don’t leave me, don’t go.”
More tears, more cries. It’s never ending.
A hard pain grips at my chest, cutting off my breath. I can’t breath. I’m not breathing. My screams have stopped. No one’s making a sound, now just a heaviness in the room crushing me. My legs give way, I fall to the ground, my hands grabbing out; save me, save myself. I clutch the lifeless body of my mother, already turning cold. Cold already? It’s too quick. It’s all happening too fast.
I can’t breath.
I look around the dark room for air, I see him then, hidden in the shadows. And I remember. She had called his name last. Not mine. His!
Jamie, she said.
That was her name for him. He hated it. Stomped his foot, demanded she call him James or better still, Mr. Thomas. But she loved him, told him it was her breast he had weaned from; so that’s what she called my brother; she called him Jamie.
And with her last breath she had said, Jamie, I forgive you.
I’m on my hands and knees, the pain growing, my breath disappearing. I look at James, visible as the lone candle catches the whiteness of his skin.
I see you, James!
I find my voice, hoarse from the screams;
“What did you do?”
He doesn’t answer. His head just bows lower. He makes a sound, a shudder, a gasp. But he doesn’t answer.
Why doesn’t he answer me?
From nowhere, hands hold me from behind. Strong hands, white hands lifting me to my feet. Has death come for me too? I turn, ready to fight. I look into the green eyes of my father. Green eyes filled with water. Tears. He’s crying. My father, the General, the man who never cries, cries now for my dead mother.
“She’s gone, Zeke.”
His voice is gentle. He called me Zeke. She calls me Zeke, not him. My father only ever calls me Hezekiah, sometimes ‘boy’; often Nigger. Never son! Mama called me Zeke, but now she’s gone. But father’s here, calling me Zeke.
I ask him, “What did he do?”
“The doctor did everything he could…”
“Not the doctor; him! Him!” My finger points at James, my father’s son. “Him!”
“You’re in shock, you’re not thinking straight.”
“She said his name. She called him Jamie. Told him she forgave him. It was the last thing she said, that she forgave him.”
And for the first time I release the Beast.
I feel him growing inside me, coming to the surface, taking control. I’m disappearing in his fury.
The Beast is here.
My hands clench, they’re now fists. I’m flying across the room. I knock the bed of my dead mother as I rush past, it doesn’t wake her. The Beast smashes the face of my brother; growling, snarling, he smashes again. It takes more than the General to control the Beast. I hear his voice calling the servants for help but they’ll come too late; the Beast must have his day, his time is now. He’s been too quiet for too long.
The Beast roars his freedom. He smashes and roars; bites, tears, claws and roars.
My brother’s blood covers me. His nose broken, blood gushing. He cries out, but not for help. The pain’s too much for him yet he does nothing to defend himself, nothing to stop the Beast. I steady the Beast so I may look my brother in the eye for myself.
And that’s when I see it!
An awareness; his own acknowledgement that he deserves this. He deserves the Beast.
“What did you do, Jamie? What did you do?”
We both cry then. We cry for our lost childhood, our lost friendship, our lost love. We cry for the dead woman on the bed, the corpse we had both called, Mama.
We hold each other and we cry.
“What did you do?”
Why doesn’t he answer me?
God save Great George our King,
Long live our Noble King,
God save the King!
Send him victorious,
Happy and Glorious,
Long to reign o’er us.
God save the King!
His Majesty King George III
Crowned King of Great Britain and Ireland
September 22nd 1761
December - 1761
I awake a slave!
As I have every day of the twenty two years of my life and I remember; I must tell father my news. My eyes open in that most quiet moment; when it’s neither day nor night, today nor tomorrow. It’s simply now, where it seems even demons find peace. In the stillness I listen and for the briefest of moments the streets of New York are silenced but soon they will be awake and filled with the sounds of life; of horse drawn carriages; the voices of a million unnecessary conversations; and the hurried footsteps of servants running back and forth completing their last minute errands. A deep sigh escapes me. Every year it grows harder to hear the pure voice of nature. Harder to hear the birds, the goats, the river. The greatest sound now is just noise itself.
I turn my head and the woman lying next to me is beautiful. She sleeps, her mouth slightly open, her breath coming and going, the perfect rhythm of life. I stroke the smoothness of her black skin, careful not to disturb her rest. I could make love to her right now but there’s too much to do and soon we’ll both be running around until our legs ache and our backs hurt. I should wake her, but I decide no, I shall let her sleep for a moment longer. That will be my gift to my Betsy today; sleep.
I ease gently out of the bed, making certain I have not roused my queen, my sleeping breath of life and in moments I’m dressed and quietly slipping through the door to the dark and empty hallway. The old house is cold and I shiver at its command. Though we try, it’s hard to bring warmth to four towering stories of brick, especially in the midst of a cold New York winter.
As I walk, a long list of duties flood my mind; I try to compartmentalize each item by priority; collect more fire wood, empty the burnt ash from the large brick oven, reinforce the dining room chairs, polish the silver trays for the goose. It’s Christmas and the General has guests. They’ll be with us early, by noon. There’s much to be done before then.
But above all, at the first possible moment, I must speak privately with father, tell him my news. Our news!
I enter the kitchen and with no time to waste, set about cleaning out the oven. Within minutes the task leaves me covered in the grey black soot meaning I’ll need to change again before the guests arrive. I fight frustration that another duty has so easily been added to my already overcrowded list;
I mustn’t forget the firewood.
I must tell father…
I spin toward her voice and without prompting my lips smile;
I say, “I wanted you to sleep.”
“There’s too much to do.”
“You should take it easy.”
“It’s Christmas, Zeke. They’ll want breakfast early.”
We fall into our natural flow, working side by side. My eyes follow my wife as she pours water in the heavy pot for boiling, humming low under her breath as she sets about her chores with no complaint. She was born a slave, as was I; a product of the City of New York, as was I. In all her years she’s known nothing but hard work and long hours, but still, as her husband, her provider and protector, I long to deliver her from this life of slavery.
Our first meeting flashes before me and I can‘t resist the swell of love. It was the same year my mother had passed away in 1755. I was out running errands; I remember it was a particularly hot summer so I had built up a sweat and regardless of social manners, had removed my shirt. What I carried is a blur, but I recall it was heavy, the weight weighing hard on my muscles. I was tired, walking with my head down, hurrying for some obscure reason, maybe for no other reason than this is what we slaves do, we hurry. So in my hurried haste I had walked straight into her, not only dropping my burdensome load but also causing her to slam hard onto the cobbled ground. I was mortified and she was shocked. I knelt beside her, grabbing her into my arms and carefully lifted her to her feet. At first she was unsteady so I held on to her. She looked up at me, saying nothing, yet somehow saying everything. She gazed at me with her large brown eyes, her full lips slightly parted and I knew, we both knew, we were meant for each other; born to be together, to raise a family, to build a life. My destiny had literally fallen at my feet before me! Or had I tripped it over as it tried to pass me by?
Embarrassed by the attention we had started to attract, she had run off, abruptly breaking our shared moment of knowing. Without hesitation I had followed, watched as she entered the Gilberts’ home, learnt she was their property from birth. I wanted to know more but as a slave, I had no business knocking on their door without a cause so in desperation I had enlisted the help of James, my brother, who had trumped up some fake message for me to deliver to the Gilberts giving me reason to get inside their house.
Our love blossomed quickly and it was her I turned to when the pain of losing my mother became too much to bear. Within a year we had married and not just by jumping the broom as we had witnessed other slaves do. In fact, there was no broom in sight at our wedding, not even to wave about above our heads as the African tradition commanded. Instead, father had spoken to the Gilberts and together they had permitted a priest and we were allowed to make our vows before none other than God himself. A few months later Betsy was purchased and became the property of my father so we could live together under the same roof and we counted ourselves blessed when he moved us into one of the smaller guest rooms on the lower floor rather than the designated slave quarters in the basement.
He did this not for love nor kindness, but so he could observe us and we found his scrutiny intense. He constantly watched us, waiting for any sign of a baby; another generation, albeit black, to carry on the family name. A task both James and I had failed to achieve.
Betsy feels my eyes stroking her and turns to me; “You’ll tell the General today?”
“I’ll catch him before they sit for breakfast.”
“Good. I think he’ll be pleased.”
“Him but not Gloria.”
“No, not her.”
As if on cue, the servant’s bell rings at the mention of her name, the chimes killing the morning peace.
Betsy tells me, “An hour early. I’ll go! She’ll want hot water.”
“No, I’ll go; the pails too heavy for you.”
“I’ve carried this and heavier all my life.”
“Yes, but never like this. I’ll go.”
She bites her tongue against further debate and lets me take the pail of water from her.
“You’re covered in dirt. You’ll need to change…”
“…Before the guests arrive, I know. It’s on my list.”
I exit the kitchen, hot water slopping onto the hem of my soiled linen shirt as I walk briskly to the call of my brother’s wife, already stealing myself for the unprovoked assault that is bound to come.
Gloria! Justice was indeed served the day James married that woman and the fact that the decision was in direct opposition to the advice of our father leaving him without even the luxury of blame, added greatly to my sense of holy payback. I couldn’t have prayed for a more troublesome burden to be hung about his neck. Their surprise marriage had come just a few months after our own, so fast that at first it was assumed he had managed to impregnate her and was saving her from both shame and the asylum. But after months it was clear there was no baby and equally clear there was no love. Both had married for other reasons seemingly unknown to even themselves and had willingly vowed themselves to a life-long battlefield.
Even now, on Christmas morning when everyone else radiates gratitude and joy I can hear strained voices long before I reach their door; his and hers, full of whispered hate and dispute. Everything between them is debated, everything an argument. Everything!
Arriving at her door, I set my face to smile, knock firmly and enter at her muffled command;
“Good morning, Gloria. I’ve brought you your hot water.”
The door leading to James’ adjacent bedroom stands wide open and he sits sulking by the window longing for an escape. His half-grown beard and wayward tousled blond hair makes him look a shaggy mess. I bid him good morning but get no response. Gloria scowls at me, drawing her thick air-tight house robe closer to her body, as if anything under there could ever entice me;
“Hezekiah, where’s Betsy? She brings the water in the mornings not you! Or at the very least it should be Lilly.”
Lilly is the chubby scullery maid who assists in the day to day domestic chores. Though she looks and speaks as though she is no older than a child, she has actually been with the family longer than I’ve lived and I can’t think that I’ve ever seen her leave the house except for chores and errands. She came to New York from Ireland as an indentured worker when she was just a young girl and nothing has ever been mentioned of any family members so I have always supposed that we are all the family she knows.
I keep my voice cheerful as I answer, “Betsy is busy with breakfast and Lilly has not risen yet. Shall I pour it for you?”
Gloria glowers at me through suspicious eyes, “No, your shirt’s filthy! Just leave it there. James will pour it.”
James, resentful of being asked to do any type of chore, finds his voice and his attitude; “He can pour it.”
“I didn’t say he was unable to pour it, James. I said I didn’t want him to pour it.”
“But why shouldn’t he pour it? He’s the slave, not me!”
“Yes, I’m fully aware you’re not the slave, James. I was aware of that the day I foolishly agreed to become your wife and soon realized how bone-idle lazy you actually are!”
I leave the water and exit quickly before the laughter bursts out of me. I couldn’t have hoped for a darker curse on his life.
Across the corridor and a few doors down I stop outside my father’s bedroom. I can hear him coughing, deep rumbles coming from his chest. Maybe now would be the most opportune time to speak with him? Maybe this will raise his spirits, sooth his illness. I take a deep breath and raise my hand ready to knock but before I do the door swings open and the tall frame of my father stands before me, staring at my raised hand, I at him, we at each other;
“Hezekiah.” He coughs hard; “There’s a chill in my room. Can you bring more wood and light the fire?”
“Of course, Sir.”
“And tell Betsy to bring breakfast to me here. God be damned if I’ll eat with that woman all day long. She has me for dinner, that’s more than enough for today.”
“Did you hear them this morning? Her voice carries all around the city. I don’t know how he can bare it day after day. I warned him not to marry her and now he is stuck with it. Well, serves him right. He has only himself to blame.”
“Yes, Sir.” I quickly speak before he can close the door, “General, I was wondering if I might have a word with you?”
“Of course you can. Oh and tell Betsy to bring me a slice of ham and eggs would you? And some bread. I’m hungry.”
The door closes in my face and I realize my hand is unmoved, still raised and poised to knock. Sometimes, though he will not confess it, my father treats me like a most loved son with his own blood running through my veins. But on mornings like this I am never more aware of my true status of slave.
Nothing more, nothing less. Just his slave.
By the time I return the kitchen is heaving with activity. Breakfast is served whilst the Christmas goose is prepared. Dishes are cleaned, silver polished and steaming pots boil, spewing out a mélange of delicious intoxicating smells. I set about my duties, working harder than anyone, leaving my mark of excellence on everything I touch so there can be no doubt that it is my hands that have done this, my skills that have achieved this. And all this for my father, that he might be proud. Even on my slave days my desire is singular; to make him proud! Anything so that one day he might openly acknowledge me as his son.
His brown skinned, brown haired, green eyed son!
Guests arrive, consuming the already full house with their presence. As always, I turn on my most slavish charm; smiling, polite, meeting every request with an eager readiness. They graciously smile back, amused by my candor and I resent them for it. Gifts are distributed and shared around, each person receiving one. Whilst they gawk and guffaw at gifts purchased with no thought or meaning, I stand obediently to the side, mentally running through my list;
I must get more firewood.
I must tell father my news.
At every opportunity I try to whisper in his ear; Sir, may I have a moment of your time? Sir, I have something I would very much like to share with you, if you have a moment? But he waves me on, tells me soon, later, anytime but now.
“Come on Hezekiah,” he says, finally, “It’s Christmas and we’re about to eat Betsy’s goose. What can be more important than that?”
I tell him nothing but know I’m lying.
By one o’clock the dinner is placed and served and I watch the dance for power and attention spread around the obscenely large solid mahogany dining table. The General sits at the head, his back straight, rarely smiling, always in control. Gloria has manipulated her way to the other end of the table, sitting opposite the General. This used to be where Maria, my father’s wife sat when she was still alive. Gloria declared it only right that the lady of the house should fill this chair and so she had claimed the title and filled the seat and there she sits in a gold and purple dress that does not in any way compliment her pale coloring but still she manages to look hideously regal. Or, for clarity, should I say she looks regal and hideous?
James obediently sits to her right, his face becoming flushed; his voice louder and more raucous as he consumes alcohol as a sick man would consume medicine. I note his waistcoat is the exact same print as his wife’s dress and combined with the gold trimmed ruffles at his neck he looks like a walking pansy. I have no doubt Gloria made him dress like this out of spite. She’s always finding ways to humiliate him. I think he must hate his wife just as much as I do.
Timothy Hendrix sits next to my father. They are old friends, born the same year. They are the type of friends that can amuse each other with just a look or a poignant glance. The rest of the guests appear to be either widowed or very polished, but nonetheless, shelved spinsters, all friends of Gloria’s and part of the ‘Society’. Betsy thinks the plan is for any one of these ladies to catch the attention of either the General or Mr. Hendrix, both of whom are unmarried and even in this their latter years, are still considered a good catch, mainly due to the weight of their purse and the security it offers.
I myself am seated at the head of the servants’ table. A tradition started by my mother as both head slave and the General‘s mistress; that on Christmas day, rather than postponing our own celebrations until late in the night or the following day, every one of the household eats together in the same room at the same time; including the servants; including we the slaves.
And so today, prayers are said, the goose is carved and in no time the magnificent meal presented as six courses with no less than forty separate dishes of beef, turkey, various shelled fishes, potatoes and other roasted vegetables, plum pudding and an overwhelming assortment of sweet dishes is expeditiously consumed with much praise showered on Betsy as head cook. In the midst of this and a little intoxicated from too much rich sweet wine imported from France - mixed with several visits to the rum-based punch bowl - Sam jumps to his feet and picks up his fiddle.
Sam is a new slave, not much older than I, who joined us less than a month now. Gloria thought I needed help around the house. It was meant as an insult to me, of course, trying to make out I was somehow not keeping up with my duties, being lazy. But no one was more shocked than both Gloria and I when father actually agreed with her. Said it was a wonderful idea and announced he had been planning to get in another slave for the longest time now, just in case.
I still wonder ‘just in case’ of what? I’m not going anywhere…
But Sam came with a wonderful gift beyond being a skilled and hard worker. Apparently self-taught, we soon found he could create magic on the fiddle and when he really got going even stone-cold Gloria couldn’t resist joining in, tapping her foot, clapping along.
The General and Mr. Hendrix abruptly stand, and with no apology or explanation, take their leave to the adjacent drawing room, closing the door firmly behind them. My eyes flick to James whose smile broadens as he is no longer under the shadow of his father. He sits up straighter, pumping out his chest, laughing at nothing funny. The women laugh with him, at him; maybe both. The plates are cleared and tables and chairs are quickly pushed aside so James has space to jump around, ruffling his peacock feathers. He grabs the hands of each woman in turn and spins them around the room until they’re giddy with laughter. Sam plays faster, louder; Betsy joins in the fun, grabbing Lilly by the hand and skips with her around the room. She throws her head back in laughter and my heart skips a beat. I love her now more than ever.
I must speak to father.
James cuts in, sending Lilly back to the sidelines he grabs Betsy by the hand, placing his own hand firmly on her back, pressing her to him. She tries to push backwards, to create an honorable distance between them but he only holds on tighter, squeezing until she’s still and submissive in his arms.
I stand to my feet, immediately agitated. He’s holding her too close and he knows it. He does it on purpose to get my temper raised, hoping I’ll lose control and cause a scene. He glares at me above the top of her head and nuzzles his chin close to her cheek. I take a step but Lilly places her hand on my arm, warning me to hold still. Gloria’s eyes fall on me and so do a number of her female friends. I want to scream at him to release her, but to do so would be unseemly. He’s the master’s son dancing with his slave during the Christmas festivities. This would be a good thing in any home.
Except he is also my brother, dancing with my wife.
I stretch my arms, a vain attempt to release the tension growing inside me. I’m young and muscular, a good head taller than James. Betsy says that with my green eyes, I’m very dashing, but she’s my wife, what else would she say? I feel my muscles flexing, my jaw involuntarily clenching and releasing. James sees my discomfort and smirks, continuing to spin around the room, my Betsy pressed to his chest. I take another step but this time it is Gloria who appears by my side;
“Well, if we must dance with the slaves then I suppose I should dance with you!”
She holds out her hand, daring me to reject her. Across the room, James throws Betsy back into a clumsy dip causing her small cap to fly off her head. He places his head close to her bosom before sweeping her back up into a messy twirl. I hear a deep growl coming from my throat and swallow hard to keep my Beast in check. I need a distraction and Gloria has offered me the perfect one. She stares up at me, waiting. I close my hand around her fingers and she, almost triumphantly, attempts to pull me to the center of the room but I hold back, making her give pause. Gloria turns to me wondering if I would ever dare to shame her but instead I smile and taking my place as the man, lead her onto the dance floor and roll her perfectly into position in front of me, my hands holding her firm but not too tightly whilst making sure the gap between us is sufficient, respectful, enough.
And I begin.
Even though it’s nothing much more than a common jig, I dance with grace and elegance. I waltz her smoothly around the room, letting her feel my lead, my strength. She’s secure in my arms and for once Gloria is silenced. I marvel that in all these years she didn’t know I could dance. Didn’t she see I had grace? Hadn’t I learnt to dance the same time James had learnt? Father had insisted on it. He said ‘if the boy must be black then let him at least be educated’ and so it was both James and I that attended school and it was both of us who eventually attended and graduated college. I learnt to read with him, to write with him; I studied mathematics, the sciences and Latin with him.
And on all counts I made sure I was better than him.
I swing pass James and give him a side-wards glance, noting how he’s grown sulky and is no longer dancing. The ladies are now all ignoring him and have fallen to whispers behind their fingers or lace handkerchiefs, their attention solely on me. I have stolen the show; even with someone as awkward and unbecoming as Gloria in my arms, I have still out shone him. I feel happy but my happiness is closely followed by a sense of guilt that I should rejoice over something so vain. I catch Betsy staring at me, knowing she sees right through to my heart, and in that one look I feel ashamed.
Not baring to come second and especially not to me, James stomps off to the drawing room, following the steps of his father. He doesn’t knock, just bursts the door open, loudly declaring; Father, here you two old goats are. I might’ve known you’d be at the drinks cabinet.
The door closes behind him with a loud bang and my agitation returns causing me to miss my step. Though still clutched in my arms, Gloria is near forgotten as I watch the closed door. They are in there; the three men all together to smoke cigars, drink whiskey, talk business and belch out their excessive gasses without the disapproving ears of the genteel women anywhere near. And here I am, left to the amusement of the women like I am nothing more than a local street urchin.
Like I am no better than Sam!
I catch my reflection in the large gilded mirror suspended on the far wall.
Am I not a man? Am I not a son also?
My lips have grown stiff but I find my smile and release the still silenced Gloria. A number of the women step forward, glinting at me with their eyes. They want me to dance with them, perform for them. Make them feel alive and female. Let them feel desirable. Or maybe they simply wish to feel desire? I don’t wish to appease any of them but Betsy urges me to it with a simple nod of her head and I know she’s right. To deny them would only cause unnecessary offense and undoubtedly change the mood of the whole day, which up until now has been relatively joyous and festive. I take the hands of the first woman standing close to me and I begin to twirl her around the room. It doesn’t matter who she is and I really can’t tell whether she’s pretty or not. She’s just another ‘Gloria’ to me. I wonder that all the Society ladies seem to look alike: Their pale skin glows with a hint of blue; hair kept hidden away under large hats or frazzled wigs; thin, straight bodies more suited to a twelve year old boy than to the mother of your children. I wonder this and can only conclude they are all a very flawed design.
Deep in thought I hear my name called. Automatically I turn to Gloria but see she’s engrossed in a deep whispered conversation with two goggle-eyed ladies who grab hold onto every word that comes from her mouth, not caring whether they be truth or lies.
Betsy calls to me, confirming, you were called and I still my feet;
“Was it father?”
“I think it was James.”
I smile nonetheless, my dance partner already released and cross the room to the closed double doors. Automatically my hand goes to knock but then I think of James, how he hadn’t knocked; how he had just pushed the doors wide open and entered. I find myself fighting my inner conscience; fighting against my good slave training to always knock, never assume; never take liberties.
I know father will not be pleased but am I not a son also?
My mind made up, I steady my breath, grab the handles and, without the customary knock, I boldly push my entrance.