Monday, December 12, 2005

Beautiful...Tangled Roots - Ch. 12

Chapter 12
Although Abigail was too busy with her social calendar to see that her husband was changing right under her very nose, everyone else could see Dr. Wainwright’s transformation clearly, including the slaves. This knowledge came about all without Georgina ever having to say a word. The upstairs maid was very relieved about that, seeing as she never wanted to be the one to disclose Dr. Wainwright’s secret anyhow. Yet one look at him stealing longing glances Eve’s way was enough for every slave on the plantation to know that something was going on between them.

Whereas Georgina was relieved to be exempt from bearing the master’s secret any longer, the other slaves were relieved to know that he’d fallen for an unselfish woman that could help bring about positive changes for them all. Because of Eve’s relationship with Dr. Wainwright, they had better working conditions, better sleeping quarters, and more weekly food rations which meant less stealing occurred and slave fathers didn’t have to hunt so much wild game after hours in order to sustain their families. And on rainy days when the slave women would normally shuck or shell corn or perform some other indoor labor, they were now given that time off for their own personal tasks.

Because all of the slaves knew that Eve was somehow responsible for most of these positive changes, many of them looked up to her and held her in great esteem. They didn’t even mind that her speech had changed so drastically over the last few months. The majority of Eve’s peers just wanted her to keep satisfying Dr. Wainwright in areas that his wife had long since neglected in order to prolong the good times for all of them. The only one who had anything contrary to say about the whole ordeal was Georgina and she was only trying to be helpful.

The upstairs maid admonished Eve not to rest too easily in the bosom of another woman’s husband. Especially a white woman’s husband at that. Georgina had been alive for almost fifty years and she’d seen all kinds of travesties in the lives of slaves who mixed readily with their white masters. She’d seen jealous white women order offending slave women to be beaten until they bled or died. And she’d seen white men hang black slave men for even looking at a white woman the wrong way.

Georgina didn’t want the same thing to happen to Eve and she told her so. To that, Eve simply asked the older woman to pray for her protection since she truly couldn’t see herself living without Edric.

******

Approaching the fifth month of his involvement with Eve, Edric began to notice a definite rounding of her belly. At first he thought she was gaining weight because of her increase in food supply and decrease in hard physical labor. Yet when he thought about how active she was with the kids on the plantation, how often she tended her garden, and how long and hard she sewed for his wife, Edric knew that the most likely cause of Eve’s recent weight gain was pregnancy. Especially since he’d spent as many nights with her as he could over the last five months and was never turned away because she was having her special female days.

Deciding to broach the subject gingerly on that cool September night, Edric waited for just the right moment. That moment came after Eve recited her speech lessons for the day and they were both lounging in her new queen-sized high-post bed, wearing new sleepwear from India called pyjamas. These pajamas, as they were called in America, were made of silk and came in various striped patterns. They were so comfortable that Edric debated about ever returning to his regular flannel nightshirts.

To further ease into the moment, Edric presented Eve with a box of imported chocolates. He was always showering her with imported treats - those she could eat and those she could enjoy in other ways like her new bed and pajamas.

“That was very good, Eve. Your speech is much improved. Even patrons to the dress shop are remarking about how well-spoken you are. In fact, some of them have said that it makes them comfortable to hear you speak so articulately in their presence. And the fact that you have remained humble during your transformation is an added asset.”

Eve paused from popping another chocolate in her mouth in order to answer him. “Servants should be humble. But I do not wish to be a servant for the rest of my life,” she replied, bringing up a sensitive topic between them.

Eve had been inserting the freedom issue into their discussions periodically ever since she discovered she was pregnant three months ago. Like all the other slaves, she knew that a child’s status was inherited from its mother, regardless of the status of the father. This meant that any child Eve had would be a slave, too, and as such, that child could be sold off to the highest bidder. She felt certain that she would not be able to bear such a thing happening to her child.

Edric stared at Eve intently for a moment. His forehead creased in deep thought. Everything in him indicated that he was finally going to have to face the slavery issue that stood between them. He’d deliberately avoided discussing this topic at length for months. Now there was no getting around it.

“Why do you wish to be free from me, Eve? Do I not treat you well?” His voice was unexpectedly hoarse with emotion at the thought of her ever leaving him. In fact, it pained Edric clear to his heart. For the moment, he forgot all about the pregnancy issue.

“I do not wish to be free from you, Edric. Just slavery. I want to own myself.” For our baby’s sake, she added silently. Eve hadn’t forgotten about the pregnancy issue at all. In fact, it was the driving force behind this current discussion.

“But if I set you free, you will have to go far away from me. No one will allow a Negro woman in the south to come and go as she pleases without trouble. Despite any papers I give you or any amount of money I pay for your manumission, someone would surely try to enslave you again at some point and I just could not bear that. Neither can I allow it,” Edric said, speaking common sense in light of the laws of his state of residency. He was also speaking out of his fear of losing her.

Eve’s shoulders sagged with disappointment. A sigh of frustration and exasperation escaped her lips. When she spoke, her voice was low, barely above a whisper. “But what about my baby? I don’t want my baby to be a slave. I don’t want my baby to be sold.” Tears spilled from her eyes and upon her cheeks. She had no appetite for chocolate now.

Edric got his answer to the pregnancy question all right. He also got answers to a few other things. Things like why Eve had withheld information about the baby and why she’d pushed so hard for her freedom over the last few months.

Our baby will never be sold. You have my word on that, Eve. And although it will appear that you and our baby are slaves to the world, you will actually be free in my sight. I will also draw up papers so that our child will be legally free when he or she reaches twenty-one.” At that point Edric drew Eve into his arms. “Does that ease your woes, dear Eve?”

“Somewhat.” Eve nodded. She knew that Edric was definitely a man of his word. Although Eve still had a desire to be free like most slaves did, she also knew that her lover had spoken truth about the difficulties she’d face as a free woman in the south. She’d heard many tales of freed southern blacks who were arrested and sold back into slavery just on hearsay alone.

Eve also knew that it was her love for Edric that would keep her in the south long after freedom occurred and possibly endanger both of their lives. In fact, the wonderful way he was behaving right now was one of the main reasons she would always find herself hesitant to leave him.

Edric lifted the top to Eve’s pajamas and began to kiss her belly slowly, meticulously from top to bottom, side to side. He spoke kind words to her and whispered even kinder words to the growing child in her womb. Then when he finally lifted glossy eyes for her to see, Eve thought her heart would burst with love.

“I love you very much, Eve,” Edric declared to the woman that would bear his seed. He cared nothing about the fact that she was a slave. He cared even less that she was black.

More tears spilled from Eve’s eyes at his sincere declaration. “I love you, too, Edric.” Suddenly the things between them didn’t seem so insurmountable now.

******

“Eve, I do believe you are getting fat,” Abigail observed as she eyed the talented slave’s widening girth one brisk Saturday afternoon in October. She’d been too busy with her appointment books, dress orders, and social engagements to notice before. Now she couldn’t help but notice Eve’s budding belly in the decorative gray shift dress she wore.

“I hope you are not with child, because that would be highly inconvenient for all these orders we have to fill,” Abigail continued, feeling an unexpected surge of jealousy flow through her. Although she’d been jealous of pregnant women before, none of them had ever been slaves.

Then realizing where that jealousy was about to take her, Mrs. Wainwright quickly sought to regain control of her emotions. If not, then she would be depressed for the rest of the day as her mind traveled to the year she was forced to get rid of her child. Abigail couldn’t afford to be down today with such a big social event occurring in the Wainwright family tonight.

You mean orders ‘I’ have to fill, Eve mused insubordinately. Ordinarily her negative feelings would not show up in her behavior or her thoughts since Eve was a firm believer in keeping one’s thoughts just as clean as one’s body. Yet today she was feeling particularly hormonal as she was now in her sixth month of pregnancy.

After taking a deep, calming breath, Eve said, “My child won’t get in the way of my work, Miss Abigail. I will only take time out to nurse and I can even take some of the stitching back home with me.” In fact, Eve had already arranged for Hester to personally see after her child in the plantation’s nursery.

As custom on the plantation, young, healthy new mothers had to go back to work as soon as they were able. The older, often feeble, and former field mothers with some age on them cared for the children in an outbuilding that they called the ‘nursery’. The children were looked after there until they were old enough to work in the fields or do other chores about the plantation like sweep the yard, drive cows to the pasture, mind the horses or other menial chores around the big house.

So she is with child. I am going to have to keep her in the back from now on, Abigail mused. Inwardly she cringed as she usually did whenever Eve spoke correct English. Although her clients preferred it, it made Abigail sick to think that a Negro woman was using the same vernacular, the same anything as her.

“No!” Abigail answered sharply. “None of my dresses will ever be sewn in a dirty slave cabin. All of the stitching will be done here in this house. However, since you have gone out and gave yourself to some negra boy without even allowing the preacher to marry you first, I am going to have to put you out of sight until after the baby is born.”

In an effort to feel superior again by asserting her authority, Abigail completely forgot that she was actually the pot calling the kettle black. After all, it wasn’t that many years ago that she was also pregnant out of wedlock.

Eve bit her bottom lip to keep from speaking out of turn. Not only was she growing weary of receiving none of the credit for her work, she was also growing tired of constantly being put down for no reason at all. Eve’s cabin wasn’t dirty and neither was she. She took regular baths, used her own special lye soap and armpit salve to stop odors, and even scrubbed her teeth with baking soda until they shined.

If Eve was behaving insubordinate, she would understand better why Miss Abigail saw the need to constantly berate her. Sometimes she was verbally abused even more than the rest of the slaves based on who happened to be around at the time. But Eve wasn’t behaving insubordinate, considering the fact that she certainly had enough incentive to be that way. After all, not only were all the dresses her designs, she was pregnant by the woman’s husband. Yet instead, Eve tried to doing everything in her power to cater to the needs of her lover’s wife.

Suddenly it dawned on Eve that perhaps Miss Abigail was behaving this way towards her because she finally figured out what everyone else on the plantation already knew. If that was the case, then Eve was now more determined than ever to keep her mouth shut and her words as few as possible.

If it was just herself to think about, Eve would have handled things quite differently with Miss Abigail. She did not fear the whip, nor even death since it represented complete freedom for the slave. But since Eve had another to consider now, she wasn’t about to do something that might cause trouble for her unborn child. After all, the current laws of the land would not only favor the rights of a wife over her husband’s mistress, the laws of the land would also protect the rights of a white person over any slave since slaves basically had no rights. And that’s what Eve ultimately was right now – a slave.

As a result, Eve’s only response to Miss Abigail’s current tirade, which had continued even after she tuned the white woman out, was, “Yes, Miss Abigail.”

Feeling much better and much more superior now that she’d scorned Eve for being so promiscuous, Abigail left the room and went about the business of getting ready for the Wainwright’s annual October social. Everyone who was anyone would be at her mother-in-law’s house tonight.

© 2005 Suprina Frazier

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